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Richard Dawkins explains a principle he himself refuses to adhere to

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, July 29, 2014 11:36 EDT
Richard Dawkins


Richard Dawkins got some accolades from the atheist-bloggers-who-don’t-hate-women circles for issuing a joint statement with Ophelia Benson denouncing harassment and abuse in the atheist movement.

Disagreement is inevitable, but bullying and harassment are not. If we want secularism and atheism to gain respect, we have to be able to disagree with each other without trying to destroy each other.

In other words we have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults, as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap. It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

Luckily for Dawkins, straw manning people with snooty tweets was not on the list of forbidden behaviors, so at least he can’t be called a hypocrite for this little string of tweets yesterday:




It’s a bit of passive-aggressive weirdness, for sure. I don’t think anyone objects to the initial statement, of course. He’s right that it is logical! Pearl Jam is bad. Dave Matthews Band is worse. That is not an endorsement of Pearl Jam. Stubbing your toe is bad. Getting it cut off is worse. That is not an endorsement of stubbing your toe. Wine coolers are bad. Mad Dog is worse. That is not an endorsement of wine coolers.

See, I could do this all day, using only examples that are much clearer than invoking touchy issues that are touchy precisely because a lot of people actually deny—and spend a whole of time and effort denying—that the bad things are actually all that bad. Indeed, it’s particularly weird to pull on date rape in an environment where a prominent Washington Post columnist is on the record pulling exactly this trick of implying that date rape shouldn’t “count” as rape because it’s supposedly not as bad as “real” rape. We live in a world where the terms “rape-rape” and “legitimate rape” have actually been used to suggest that only the worst of the worst rapes should even be considered criminal offenses at all.

This is bad writing, if Dawkins was setting out to create clear-cut examples of the principle he’s trying to illustrate. When explaining a principle, it’s unwise to go straight for examples that the public is legitimately confused about because other people are trying to muddy the waters. A concise, clear writer would do what I did, which is use clear examples to illuminate, instead of clawing at something that is actually contentious in our culture.

Of course, Dawkins is not actually a bad writer. This was not a mistake. Dawkins picked rape and pedophilia not because he’s trying to clarify a principle, but because he is needling his feminist critics who were angry with him for statements where he seemed to imply that there’s a “correct” amount of hurt to suffer from a specific incident of sexual abuse, which could easily be read as the suggestion that people who had serious trauma reactions to what he considers “mild” incidents are somehow wrong to feel how they feel. Here’s the comment, which was part of a larger argument for judging people by the standards of their own time instead of by ours:

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.

Plus, he added, though his other classmates also experienced abuse at the hands of this teacher, “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”

He made a pretty serious logical error in this, regardless of your feelings of his argument about historical context: He assumed that the amount of pain that a victim of injustice suffers is directly proportional to the contemporary social norms surrounding it, i.e. if a form of abuse was considered no big deal to most people in a society, the people directly victimized would also feel that way. There’s strong reason to be skeptical of this idea, if only because we have historical record of people who spoke out about their own victimization and they seemed to find it pretty awful even when the society around them was indifferent. His assumption also carried with it the unsavory implication that we can minimize the damage of abuse by simply pretending it’s no big deal, which is what I think is what really set people off.

He also made the mistake of thinking his own reaction is typical—or should be, anyway. It’s not like people are going to be open about how much they suffered, especially if others are standing around ready to accuse you of being weak because of it.

So that’s the context, which David Futrelle has more thoughts on, if you want to read. So it’s clear that he’s needling feminists here. But it’s worth pointing out that, in doing so, he’s attacking pure straw. I’ve been writing on this topic for a long time and I have never seen a feminist argue against the idea that there are different degrees of sexual abuse and that the criminal penalties should be doled out accordingly. As with murder or theft, feminists understand perfectly well that the severity of the charge and of the punishment should vary according to circumstances. I don’t know any feminist who would disagree with the bland contention that one should probably do more time for beating someone up and raping them at knifepoint than for drunk date rape, just as we all understand that one does more time for premeditated murder than for manslaughter.

No, the real debate is whether or not to treat these “lesser” forms of sexual assault as crimes at all. Feminists aren’t demanding higher sentences. We’re demanding that there be sentences at all. The real issue here is that there’s huge numbers of people who seem to think that there should be no penalty whatsoever for getting someone drunk and then fucking her while she’s passed out.

The irony here is the only people who come close to doing what Dawkins implicitly accuses feminists of doing—taking “Y is worse than X” to be an endorsement of X—are anti-feminists. For instance, George Will holding it out as self-evident that it shouldn’t be criminal to have sex with a woman who tells you no if you are friends and/or you’ve had sex before. That argument relies on the notion that because date rape is not raping someone at knifepoint, then date rape isn’t rape at all. In other words, because Y is worse, X isn’t a crime at all.

In fact, Dawkins himself is pretty guilty on this front with his infamous “Dear Muslima” bullshit, where he basically said women shouldn’t complain about sexual harassment because hey, at least you aren’t being forced to wear a burqua. It wasn’t an endorsement of sexual harassment per se. But it was saying sexual harassment is not a thing that should concern anyone, because as long as something worse is going on, then you should shut up about whatever.

So yes, because Y is worse than X doesn’t make X okay. That is true. Dawkins, learn that lesson yourself before appointing yourself the educator of people who always understood this.

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By Amanda Marcotte
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