One of the most depressing things about online discussion — or any discussion, really — is that it’s the people who shout loudest who tend to get heard. Since the sort of people who tend to scream their opinions over the top of others’ tend also to be obnoxious and not particularly interested in anyone else’s ideas, the presence of such assholes tends to result in the discussion devolving into a shit-slinging match that achieves precisely nothing. In other news, hey, look, Richard Dawkins said something stupid again! Apparently unsatisfied with being obnoxious about religion, everyone’s least favorite atheist proselytizer has now weighed in on a discussion of sexual assault, with predictably disastrous results.
It’s all awfully depressing, because there was a time — no, really — when Dawkins wasn’t secular science’s answer to Germaine Greer, wheeled out in front of the press every time someone needs a “controversial” opinion about a topic of which he has little to no understanding. I read The Selfish Gene in my teens and found it a fascinating and well-presented take on Darwin’s theories of evolution. Well-written and engaging popular science is something the world needs more of, and Dawkins did it well. Quite why he didn’t stick to it, instead of devolving from respected author into intolerable demagogue, is a question best answered by those who actually know the man, but it’s been a depressing spectacle that’s played out over the course of the last decade or so.
The thing with people like Dawkins is that they’re ultimately a detriment to their own cause. I’m an atheist, for whatever it’s worth — but I don’t think that the way to convince others that a view of the cosmos based in scientific observation is more sensible than believing it was created by a giant omnipotent dude with a beard is to tell them, sneeringly and repeatedly, how stupid they are. All that does is further polarize the debate. And apart from anything else, science is and has always been a process of discussion, not a process of Intelligent Men Who Know All standing up and lecturing the rest of us plebs on how shit works. If anything, the history of science has proven over and over again that such people are often wrong.
Dawkins is obnoxious enough when he’s right, but he’s even worse when he’s wrong. Which brings us to his tweets yesterday:
Let’s all take a moment to fill our lungs and sigh deeply. Apart from anything, there’s the question of why Dawkins felt the need to make these distinctions in the first case. Dawkins took to his blog yesterday to “clarify” his position, arguing that his tweets were a thought experiment to demonstrate the following principle:
Which, sure. Third-degree burns are worse than second-degree burns, and saying so isn’t endorsing second-degree burns. Great. Quite why Dawkins felt the need to take to Twitter to bless the world with this landmark piece of logic is unclear, but in any case, the point is this: he chose the wrong examples.
Dawkins is an abuse survivor himself, so you’d think he might know better here. I’m only raising that point because he raised it himself on his blog: “I presume most victims would agree that being touched by an adult hand (though very unpleasant, as I know from my own childhood experience) is RELATIVELY speaking not SO unpleasant as being violently penetrated by an adult penis.”
That may well be the case, but if such a distinction is to be made, it needs to be done on a case-by-case basis. Taking the above statement as objective fact creates all the consequences that have undermined our justice system of so long: that survivors don’t get taken seriously, that their trauma is questioned, that they’re told it was only a little grope, that your uncle was drunk, that you’re lucky it wasn’t anything worse.
Dawkins sets out the position that he thinks people who were upset by his comments are taking:
“Rape is rape is rape.” You cannot discuss whether one kind of rape (say by a ‘friend”) is worse than another kind of rape (say by a stranger). Rape is rape and you are not allowed even to contemplate the question of whether some rape is bad but other rape is worse… If that were really right, judges shouldn’t be allowed to impose harsher sentences for some rapes than for others. Do we really want our courts to impose a single mandatory sentence – a life sentence, perhaps – for all rapes regardless? To all rapes, from getting a woman drunk and taking advantage at one end of the spectrum, to holding a knife to her throat in a dark alley at the other? Do we really want our judges to ignore such distinctions when they pass sentence? I don’t, and I don’t think any reasonable person would if they thought it through.
Appealing to a hypothetical “reasonable person” is a risky business, because what it usually means is “someone who thinks like I do.” One might indeed agree that there are variations of severity, but if there are, they can’t be boiled down into neat little compartments of the type Dawkins proposes. Dawkins’ argument, such as it is, is rooted in a common preconception: the idea that a nasty man holding up a woman with a knife in a back alley is real rape, whereas someone who takes you on a date and pays for dinner, then demands sex and won’t take no for an answer, is just a bit naughty, nudge nudge, wink wink. It’s not a great intuitive leap from there to Todd Akin.
Since the great scientist is fond of allegory, let’s think about how his arguments might work for literally any other crime. If someone you knew shot you, you wouldn’t lie there in hospital thinking, “Well, shit, at least it wasn’t a stranger who blew a hole in me! That would have been even worse!” Why should it be any different for rape? The answer, of course, is that it shouldn’t.
It’s the same with child molestation, which is essentially a subset of sexual assault. Most of the kids that Jimmy Saville abused, for instance, knew him to some extent, and there’s rarely any report of violence being involved in his abuse. Does that make his victims’ trauma any less valid or profound? Similarly, the exact nature of the abuse varied from victim to victim. Does that invariably mean that some victims are necessarily less damaged than others? No.
And here’s the most important point: you cannot discuss sexual assault without taking into account a whole host of context. We’re talking about crimes that for millennia, in virtually every society on earth, have been covered up, have been used as tools of oppression, and have been treated with a marked lack of seriousness by courts. We’re talking about crimes where victims’ testimony is constantly undermined and disparaged, where under-reporting and victim-blaming are rife.
“That, then, is why I chose rape and pedophilia for my hypothetical examples. I think rationalists should be free to discuss spectrums of nastiness, even if only to reject them. I had noticed indications that rape and pedophilia had moved out of the discussion zone into a no-go taboo area. I wanted to challenge the taboo, just as I want to challenge all taboos against free discussion.”
Good for you, Richard. Fight the power. But if you’re going to choose hypothetical examples, make sure you understand them. These aren’t two innocent examples — they’re two examples where the “spectrum” argument has been used for millennia to excuse all sorts of awful crimes. You can’t discuss this stuff in a vacuum. And as far as concerns about the application of law to rape go, deciding what is and isn’t really bad is pretty close to the bottom of the list.
Dawkins’ all-caps tweets about “LOGIC” don’t change that one little bit — all they do is betray a misunderstanding of people’s objections to his argument. No one is saying that Richard Dawkins is explicitly endorsing date rape. They’re arguing that the whole concept of drawing broad gradations of these crimes is a historically vexed one, and has frequently been used to delegitimize the experiences of survivors (as well as undermining the chance of future victims to be taken seriously). That‘s why people are mad when people like Dawkins say shit like this, not because they think that every rapist should a priori be hung, drawn and quartered.
But Dawkins isn’t listening, because he never listens. And as various others have observed, the richest irony of all is that, in 2014, Richard Dawkins’ modus operandi is largely indistinguishable from that of the people he professes to loathe. Presenting opinions (especially the sort of asinine ones he wheeled out on Twitter yesterday) as undisputed fact, and then haranguing people who refuse to accept those arguments as intellectual and/or moral inferiors, is the worst sort of intolerant dogmatism. And intolerant dogmatism is the hallmark of, yes, religious extremism. We’ve got quite enough of such things already, Richard. The world needs less assholes who are 100 percent convinced that they are always right, not more.