Yesterday’s smears against Richard Dawkins go beyond the usual pattern, in which some people place the most uncharitable meaning they can on a comment by Richard, and continue to do so even after he clarifies what he meant.
In this instance, the uncharitable meaning that some people are placing on his comments seems almost the exact opposite of what he actually said. Indeed, he was robustly criticising the very thinking that some people seem to be accusing him of.
He was forcefully saying that it is NOT an endorsement of bad behaviour to say that another behaviour is worse. And yet some people seem to have interpreted it as if he was justifying some bad behaviour, rather than criticising the justification of such behaviour.
Here is what Richard tweeted yesterday, in three tweets posted together:
X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2014
Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2014
Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2014
As a suggestion, whenever I tweet a sequence of three tweets, I start them with 1/3, 2/3 and 3/3. That way it is clear that they are not standalone tweets.
But even taken taken individually, the most charitable interpretation that can be put on these tweets is also the most literal one.
What Richard is saying in these tweets is that it is NOT an endorsement of bad behaviour to say that another behaviour is worse.
The first example that Richard gave
The first example he gave is no doubt influenced by his own experience of being sexually abused as a child, and writing about it in his memoir.
That led to a series of unjust smears against him, ranging from suggestions that he was indifferent to the sexual abuse of children to suggestions that he was defending pedophilia.
He responded then to that misrepresentation, with similar arguments to those which he made yesterday.
He said that his own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s did not deserve the sympathy due to a victim who had been truly damaged for the rest of their life.
He said that to frame it in such a way would have been to belittle and insult those many people whose lives really were blighted and cursed, perhaps by year-upon-year of abuse by a father or other person who was deeply important in their life.
He said that to excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from his intention.
The second example that Richard gave
I disagree with the second example he gave, because some date rapes can be worse than some stranger rapes at knifepoint. I understand that many people mistakenly think that stranger rape must be worse, but that is not the case.
Some people made this point to Richard on Twitter, and he acknowledged that they were correct.
Yes, I can imagine circumstances where rape by a friend is worse than by a stranger. The logic remains. It doesn’t imply approval of either. — Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2014
Surely that is how reasonable discourse should take place? Somebody expresses an opinion, somebody else gives them information that they had not considered, and they accommodate that new information within their thinking.
Richard then further clarified what he meant in this post on his website.
The joint statement with Ophelia Benson
It would be helpful if people read these comments in the context of the joint statement between Richard and Ophelia Benson a few days ago.
It’s not news that allies can’t always agree on everything. People who rely on reason rather than dogma to think about the world are bound to disagree about some things. 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.
Richard adds: I’m told that some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.
Given that Richard, like any ethically functioning adult, has just publicly condemned rape threats, it seems reasonable to assume that he also opposes actual pedophilia and rape, of whatever kind. Indeed, it is absurd to have to even write that sentence.
But it is also absurd that there are some people who thought that Richard tacitly endorsed the behaviours mentioned in the joint statement with Ophelia. In fact, he has been a repeated victim of threats, vulgar epithets, and attacks on his age, race and sex.
Some atheists expressed disagreement with Richard yesterday in considered terms, as should be expected and encouraged in any freethinking community.
For example, the issue is being discussed reasonably in this post on Ophelia’s blog, where she has asked her commenters to keep the agreed statement in mind.
But yesterday has also shown yet again how some people can use online media to unfairly harm the reputation of a good person.