If you pay any attention to internet atheist sites, or to reporting about atheist brouhahas by the likes of the Independent and the Guardian (for whom Dawkins is a favorite whipping boy), you can hardly be unaware about the fracas surrounding Dawkins’s latest tweets.
I suppose he was fed up by a segment of the atheist blogosphere whose ideology is so rigid that not only is dissent from its views prohibited, but mere discussion of some issues, particularly around gender, is also prohibited. To engage in such discussion immediately brands one as a sister-punisher, a misogynist, a rape-enabler, and various other nasty creatures. Richard, always an advocate of free speech, made several comments on Twitter which seem related to that. The first involved simple logic: if you think two acts are bad, saying that one is worse than the other doesn’t justify the lesser evil:
Unfortunately, he chose as an example one of the most hot-button issues around: Well, that last tweet is not quite accurate, I think, because the trauma of being raped by a stranger, even at knife-point, may be less than of being raped by someone you knew and trusted. And some people feel that, unlike murder, all rape is equally bad. It would have been better had Richard, say, mentioned consensual statutory rape, in which both partners assented but one was six months below the legal age of consent, and then compared that to more violent forms of rape.
But his point was that, among bad acts, there are degrees of badness, and this is recognized by the courts (“first” vs “second-degree” murder, for instance). He hastened to clarify this with other tweets and with a piece on his website. But it was too late. Using the rape example, for which there do seem to be degrees of badness (I’ve just given one) instead of, say, slapping someone versus beating them within an inch of their life, was not a tweet that, in the present climate, would inspire cool-headed and rational discussion.
But, in a new piece at HuffPo UK, “Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?“, Dawkins explains that he used those issues precisely to demonstrate his point about emotion overcoming reason. And his tweets about rape (and pedophilia) were also based on his personal experience, since he’s been accused in the past of trying to soft-pedal both (he was a childhood victim of pedophilia). Unfortunately, the reaction he got demonstrated his point about taboos, and in the HuffPo piece he admits it:
I didn’t know quite how deeply those two sensitive issues had infiltrated the taboo zone. I know now, with a vengeance.
I could have told him! But nevertheless, the firestorm had begun. He was accused of saying that some rapes aren’t too bad (prompting further “X and Y” tweets), and was accused again of misogyny.
While he could have used a better example, I was still disturbed by some of the reaction. To me, it seemed, there was a lot of intellectually dishonest pretend-misunderstanding of what Richard (and Sam Harris and others) were actually saying, for there are some people who constantly play a word-parsing game to try to find offense. Such offense is what some bloggers thrive on: it drives traffic, the lifeblood of the Internet.
Richard is clearly not condoning any form of rape or pedophilia, and as his friend I can assure you that I’ve never detected a scintilla of that attitude in him. Nor have I detected misogyny: the overweening hatred of women. I’ve spent a lot of time in his company, and if he’s a woman-hater or rape-enabler, I can assure you that he keeps it completely hidden from his friends.
Perhaps Richard’s a bit ham-handed on Twitter, but let’s remember what point he was making, even if less aptly than I’d prefer: asking people to think about a question is not the same as asking people to come to a specific conclusion about it. It’s the difference between sharpening a knife and stabbing someone with it. Sam Harris, I think, has, among prominent atheists, suffered the most from this confusion, and in his piece Richard discusses the opprobrium that Sam has experienced.
I’ll be in the air most of today, and so am leaving this piece as an open thread for discussion. Please be civil, and don’t level insults at fellow commenters. And try to avoid insulting Richard, even if you aren’t keen on him, for he’s my friend. What I’d really like is a demonstration of our ability to discuss calmly and thoughtfully the issues raised by Dawkins in this piece. Taboos are pervasive in US and UK society, and, as Steve Pinker has repeatedly argued, should not be part of intellectual discourse. To discuss a taboo subject is not the same as condoning invidious sentiments. One of the academically taboo subjects I’ve encountered is “human race”: no matter what I say about genetic differences between human groups, I’m sure to be excoriated for not only bringing up the subject (and thus supposedly enabling racism), but not recognizing that race is clearly a “social construct.”
So discuss, and I’ll ask someone with keys to the website to moderate the discussion. Here are some relevant quotes from Richard’s piece, but you should really read the whole thing before commenting. See you in the U.S.!
I believe that, as non-religious rationalists, we should be prepared to discuss such questions using logic and reason. We shouldn’t compel people to enter into painful hypothetical discussions, but nor should we conduct witch-hunts against people who are prepared to do so. I fear that some of us may be erecting taboo zones, where emotion is king and where reason is not admitted; where reason, in some cases, is actively intimidated and dare not show its face. And I regret this. We get enough of that from the religious faithful. Wouldn’t it be a pity if we became seduced by a different sort of sacred, the sacred of the emotional taboo zone?
. . . I hope I have said enough above to justify my belief that rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical. I’ve listed cannibalism, trapped miners, transplant donors, aborted poets, circumcision, Israel and Palestine, all examples of no-go zones, taboo areas where reason may fear to tread because emotion is king. Broken noses are not in that taboo zone. Rape is. So is pedophilia. They should not be, in my opinion. Nor should anything else.
I didn’t know quite how deeply those two sensitive issues had infiltrated the taboo zone. I know now, with a vengeance. I really do care passionately about reason and logic. I think dispassionate logic and reason should not be banned from entering into discussion of cannibalism or trapped miners. And I was distressed to see that rape and pedophilia were also becoming taboo zones; no-go areas, off limits to reason and logic.
. . . Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself. Let’s not just insult each other and cut off all discussion because we rationalists have somehow wandered into a land where emotion is king. It is utterly deplorable that there are people, including in our atheist community, who suffer rape threats because of things they have said. And it is also deplorable that there are many people in the same atheist community who are literally afraid to think and speak freely, afraid to raise even hypothetical questions such as those I have mentioned in this article. They are afraid – and I promise you I am not exaggerating – of witch-hunts: hunts for latter day blasphemers by latter day Inquisitions and latter day incarnations of Orwell’s Thought Police.
By the way, I am one of those who has been afraid to discuss certain issues, cowed into silence for fear of being pilloried. I am ashamed of that, and the sole reason for my hesitation is that I am a bit of a coward: afraid that what happened to Richard could happen to me, and that my epidermis is not thick enough to take it. (Of course, I’m not nearly as prominent as he, so I shouldn’t worry so much.) And that’s all I’ll say about that.