I had written about PZ that:
“In the last year or so, he has publicly accused Richard Dawkins of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children…”
And Ophelia responded:
“On the basis of things RD wrote, no?”
Actually, it was on the basis of unfair and hurtful misrepresentations of what Richard wrote.
This is a pattern that I have also noticed in some criticisms of me in recent days. Some people do not respond to what I have written, but instead paraphrase what I have written into something else, and then respond to that paraphrasing, sometimes with a personal smear.
That is what PZ did last year when he accused Richard of seeming to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children. I’ve written about this before and I will summarise the relevant misrepresentations again here.
The relevant section of Richard’s memoir
In Richard’s memoir he compares his schooldays in England with some aspects of the movie ‘If’. He writes of a headmaster who caned boys with such severity that the bruises took several weeks to fade, turning from purple to blue to yellow on the way. Yet he does not believe that this man was guilty of cruelty or sadism, but sees this as an example of the speed with which customs and values change. He recalls that the same man was also capable of great kindness. He read stories to the boys, comforted frightened boys during severe thunderstorms and, on Sundays when parents took their children out for a day, he and his wife would take boys whose parents were absent for a picnic with their own children.
Richard writes of the cruel bullying that took place between boys at school, and declines to name one boy who was badly bullied in case he happens to read it and the memory is still painful. He recalls being empathetic towards boys who were in trouble with the school authorities, and thanks to reading Doctor Dolittle he was empathetic with nonhuman animals, but he expresses retrospective guilt that he did not have the empathy to try to stop the bullying between boys at the school. He compares the dynamic of this school bullying with the verbal cruelty and bullying in some internet forums today.
Because academic ability was not admired among his peers, Richard would sometimes pretend to know less than he did. Also, he disliked saying out loud when he got ten out of ten, because he had a stammer that made the word ten hard to say. He tells of a teacher who once put his hand down his pants, and when he told his friends, he discovered that many of them had the same experience. He writes that he doesn’t think that this teacher did any of them any lasting damage, but that some years later he killed himself. He also tells of his extracurricular immersion in beekeeping, poetry and music.
Smears about Richard on publication of his memoir
In September 2013, the publication of Richard’s memoir led to a new wave of personal smears. This time it was a disproportionate controversy about attitudes to pedophilia, built on uncharitable interpretations of one recollection in his memoir and of unscripted comments made to an interviewer in The Times.
This is the quote, from the interview in The Times, that triggered much of the subsequent criticism:
“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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”
Several online publications, including Huffington Post and Salon, misrepresented what Richard said in this interview. Typically, they reported that Richard “could not condemn” what happened to him at school, without adding his qualification “by the same standards as I or anyone would today.”
The misrepresentations continued on Twitter. Several atheist commentators joined in with these unjustified smears.
What PZ wrote about Richard’s comments
PZ published a blog post that was melodramatically titled “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, please stop”.
- PZ wrote that Richard “seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children.” This was an unjustified extrapolation to make from Richard’s comments, particularly when PZ was aware that Richard has actively campaigned against the sexual abuse of children and its cover-up by religious institutions.
- PZ asked: “Should I have raised my children with such a lack of self-respect that they should allow dirty old men to play with their genitals?” This suggested that Richard as a child lacked self-respect because he allowed himself to be abused, and also implied that Richard’s parents were responsible for his lack of self-respect. It also suggested the same about other victims of child sexual abuse and their parents.
- PZ asked: “Just when did it stop being okay for acquaintances to put their hands inside Richard Dawkin’s shorts?” But Richard had never said that it was okay for anybody to put their hands inside his shorts. What he had said was: “It was extremely disagreeable (the cremasteric reflex is not painful, but in a skin-crawling, creepy way it is almost worse than painful) as well as embarrassing.”
- PZ wrote: “Should we be giving pedophiles the idea that a ‘mild touching up’ is reasonable behaviour? It’s just a little diddling…. It does no ‘lasting harm’. Christ, that sounds like something out of NAMBLA.” Well, that may well sound like something out of NAMBLA, but it was not what Richard said. It was what PZ made up as his interpretation of what he chose to convey Richard as saying.
- PZ wrote: “We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm.” But Richard did not excuse harm to others. He said that he would not condemn what happened 50 years ago “by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” A reasonable inference is that he would condemn it by a different standard, not that he would not condemn it.
Richard responded on Twitter to some of the misrepresentations. He wrote:
- “Non-consensual sex is always bad. But raping an 8-year-old to death is quantitatively worse than “touching inappropriately”. Shades of grey.”
- “There seem to be people here who seriously deny that some degrees of crime are worse than others.”
- “Is anyone seriously denying that raping an 8-year-old to death is worse than putting a hand inside a child’s clothes? Are you that absolute?”
He said that the criticism of his comments, that he would not judge that teacher by the standards of today, represent a misunderstanding which he would like to clear up. He said that the standards of today are conditioned by our increasing familiarity with the traumatising effect that pedophile abuse can have on children, sometimes scarring them psychologically for life. He said that only slightly less culpable than the abusers themselves are the institutions that protected them.
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.
He said that he was perhaps presumptuous when he said that he did not think that the teacher’s fondling had caused lasting damage to his school companions. He said that he could not know that for certain, which is why he said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. They had discussed it on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was general agreement that his suicide was more traumatic than his sexual depredations. He said that if he was wrong about the effect that it had had on any of his companions, he apologized.
He also tweeted a link to this clarification, saying:
- “If anybody seriously believed that I ‘defended pedophiles’ please read this.”
In my opinion, Richard was correct to acknowledge that he may have been mistaken about the impact on his companions. If so, that is a matter between him and them, not between him and other people on the Internet who do not know any of them. While I am not asking anybody to apologize for anything, I believe that if there are any further apologies to be made arising from this controversy, they should be made to Richard and not by him.
Ophelia’s other concerns about my original post
I will respond over time to the other concerns that Ophelia has raised about my original post.