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You have to judge

Janet Heimlich would like to get Richard Dawkins to withdraw a comment he made about how we should view people who abused children a few generations ago. She explains in a post at her blog at Religious Child Mistreatment.

Dr. Dawkins made the comment after he was asked about his downplaying of having been fondled by a teacher at his boarding school in Salisbury, England. Calling the molestation “mild pedophilia,” Dr. Dawkins said that he didn’t think that he, nor other boys who experienced the same molestation by the teacher, suffered “lasting harm.” Then Dr. Dawkins stated,

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 eighteenth and nineteenth 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.

I am surprised that Dr. Dawkins holds this view, especially as someone who often chides religious people for being nonsensical, irrational, and sometimes, unethical. The Bible talks about such crimes against children as mass killings, cannibalism, incest, starvation, rape, and sacrifice with little condemnation of those actions. Are we to look back on those abuses and not condemn them, simply because they happened a long time ago? Can we not even say that what happened to those children was wrong?

It’s tricky. I think I know what he’s getting at. There can be too much of a “gotcha” game about pointing out how wicked people were in the past, combined with a smug feeling of self-cuddling for being so much better than that. It can be too quick, too glib, too unaware of what people could or couldn’t know, and the like.

But at the same time…there’s a problem with avoiding all that and charging off too far in the opposite direction, too. Think of the way the Irish church ran the industrial “schools” for example. I was re-reading a bit of the Ryan report this morning, the part about the punishments, with the long cold frightening waits on the landing for the nun to come up the stairs and beat them; the part about the punishments for bed-wetting; the prevarications of the nuns testifying. Reading it gives you such a sense of duration. Years and years, decades and decades, children isolated, miserable, frightened – made to stand on a landing for hours awaiting a beating, forbidden to sit, freezing cold, the urine running down their legs from fear.

You can’t just not see that as immoral. You can’t – that is, you mustn’t – let yourself be callous about all that needless misery inflicted on children for the crime of being poor or born to an unmarried mother or some other accident. You have to judge. You can say “maybe I would have done the same thing in that situation” if you want to, but you have to judge. If you don’t know that’s wrong, how will you prevent yourself from doing something similar if chance puts you in a situation where you’re expected to?

Janet puts it this way:

Ethically speaking, we are a more evolved people than those who came before us. It would be a travesty not to apply the standards of today in judging abusers of the past. Sure, we can give reasons why people have acted unethically, yet we should not hold back on clearly stating that child abuse, as well as racism, homophobia, and other such actions are—regardless of the era—immoral. And the same holds true to what happened to Dr. Dawkins as a boy. I’m glad that he was not adversely affected by having been molested. Yet, regardless of the fact that, back in his day, sexual abuse was not discussed as a violation of children’s rights, I have no problem saying that the teacher who molested those boys (among other things) acted immorally.

To underline the point, and to persuade Dawkins, she cites and quotes from a lecture by Nicholas Humphrey.

The lecture dealt with the immorality of indoctrinating children with religious teachings and failing to criticize cultures that abuse children. To illustrate his point, Dr. Humphrey talked about a American television program that featured the discovery of the body of a young Inca girl who had been sacrificed about 500 years ago.

Dr. Humphrey was infuriated by the way the individuals interviewed on the program discussed the ritualistic killing:

No one expressed any reservation, whatsoever. Instead, viewers were simply invited to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the TV programme was, in effect, that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention—another jewel  in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

Dr. Humphrey found the program’s glorification of the sacrifice of the Inca girl to be unconscionable, even though the killing took place hundreds of years ago: “How dare they invite us—in our sitting rooms, watching television—to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder?” said Dr. Humphrey. “How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?”

Indeed.

Comments

  1. Andrew B. says

    It’s a tricky mess, isn’t it. If someone is conditioned to believe it’s acceptable or even desirable to deliberately inflict misery on someone and then proceed to do just that, I can recognize their actions as unethical without fully holding them responsible for them. Empathy is a skill, and if it is intentionally suppressed left trained by powerful institutions in the culture, I have difficulty faulting someone for behaving injuriously towards others because of it. Kind of like the way I can’t blame Hasidic men for lacking the basically skills and knowledge a non-hasidic Jew might have. They were raised in a culture that forbids that knowledge. Can we hold them accountable for their ignorance? Not really. But that doesn’t mean we have to honor their ignorance or see it as some desirable trait deserving of respect.

    “Are we to look back on those abuses and not condemn them, simply because they happened a long time ago? Can we not even say that what happened to those children was wrong?”

    We can condemn their treatment, but understand why their oppressors felt entitled to behave the way they did. I look at people that behave sadistically basically as being malfunctioning humans. They might be malfunctioning because of psychopathy, but it’s more likely that they were trained to treat others outside their group with contempt.

    I hope I’m expressing myself clearly. My ideas always sound great in my head and considerably worse when typed out.

  2. RJW says

    “..to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of
    being sacrificed”. Sheer, gut-wrenching terror is most likely the only emotion this girl and other victims of human sacrifice have ever experienced. If it was such an honour the priests should have sacrificed themselves.

    Apparently human sacrifice has been belatedly included in the rich tapestry of other quaint multicultural customs such as FGM, lethal misogyny and death for apostasy.

    Absolute wankers!

  3. says

    Just as we don’t look back at the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism

    We don’t do it the same way as we would have, because now we can safely assume we don’t need to explain to them how wrong they were. If you were explaining slavery to a slaver, in the 1700s, you’d have to start with a lower default understanding of ethics, and introduce the fact that racism is inaccurate and that racist theories are inaccurate, then work from there. Nowadays if we are talking to someone educated and civilized we don’t consider that necessary. And, hopefully, someday humans will look back at our actions and find similar room for improvement. And, hopefully, those areas will not be the same ones.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    So how will we be judged in a hundred years by our descendants? What will they judge to be our moral blindesses? For instance, if they’re all vegetarians, will they wonder why we ate meat when we didn’t have to?

  5. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    If you were explaining slavery to a slaver, in the 1700s, you’d have to start with a lower default understanding of ethics, and introduce the fact that racism is inaccurate and that racist theories are inaccurate, then work from there.

    Except that you wouldn’t. For most of history most people saw nothing wrong with slavery and didn’t justify slavery on racial grounds or feel any need to. Racism still existed, but that was a separate thing. Even after slavery was justified by racist arguments people could still both oppose slavery and have racist beliefs.

  6. Ysanne says

    The part with culturally/historically shifting ethical standards is tricky, yes. But did I miss the memo about child molestation being something that seemed fine and dandy in former times? Yes, church and other authorities had more power to cover it up, but fondling kids for sexual gratification wasn’t acceptable behaviour for teachers and priests.

  7. ismenia says

    Caning kids in school was generally accepted when Dawkins was a boy. It was even viewed as a duty otherwise a naughty child might grow into a criminal adult. So it would be unfair to judge a teacher in those days for using the cane unless they were especially brutal or the type who would find any pretext. However, paedophilia, mild or otherwise, was a criminal offence. People turned a blind eye or just got rid of teachers rather than reporting the offence to the police but that was partly because all sexual matters were more taboo and nobody wanted the scandal.

  8. Charles Sullivan says

    It was clearly wrong. I guess it just didn’t bother him too much psychologically or emotionally, because he’s from that time period.

  9. Silentbob says

    To underline the point, and to persuade Dawkins, she cites and quotes from a lecture by Nicholas Humphrey.

    How ironic! If that is supposed to persuade Dawkins, I’m afraid Heimlich is going to be disappointed. He wrote about the very same lecture seven years ago in The God Delusion:

    Humphrey suggests that, as long as children are young, vulnerable and in need of protection, truly moral guardianship shows itself in an honest attempt to second-guess what they would choose for themselves if they were old enough to do so. He movingly quotes the example of a young Inca girl whose 500-year-old remains were found frozen in the mountains of Peru in 1995. The anthropologist who discovered her wrote that she had been the victim of a ritual sacrifice. By Humphrey’s account, a documentary film about this young ‘ice maiden’ was shown on American television. Viewers were invited

    to marvel at the spiritual commitment of the Inca priests and to share with the girl on her last journey her pride and excitement at having been selected for the signal honour of being sacrificed. The message of the television programme was in effect that the practice of human sacrifice was in its own way a glorious cultural invention – another jewel in the crown of multiculturalism, if you like.

    Humphrey is scandalized, and so am I.

    Yet, how dare anyone even suggest this? How dare they invite us – in our sitting rooms, watching television – to feel uplifted by contemplating an act of ritual murder: the murder of a dependent child by a group of stupid, puffed up, superstitious, ignorant old men? How dare they invite us to find good for ourselves in contemplating an immoral action against someone else?

    Again, the decent liberal reader may feel a twinge of unease. Immoral by our standards, certainly, and stupid, but what about Inca standards? Surely, to the Incas, the sacrifice was a moral act and far from stupid, sanctioned by all that they held sacred? The little girl was, no doubt, a loyal believer in the religion in which she was brought up. Who are we to use a word like ‘murder’, judging Inca priests by our own standards rather than theirs? Perhaps this girl was rapturously happy with her fate: perhaps she really believed she was going straight to everlasting paradise, warmed by the radiant company of the Sun God. Or perhaps – as seems far more likely – she screamed in terror.

    (I copy & pasted the God Delusion extract from a post by PZ.)

  10. cjcjc says

    It’s quite a step from “mild fondling” or even caning to savage beating though, isn’t it?
    I’m sure Dawkins would draw the line somewhere.

    There is “mild fondling” of his pupils by Hector in The History Boys – supposedly Britain’s all-time favourite play.
    In the play the boys see it as a necessary chore!

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ethically speaking, we are a more evolved people than those who came before us.

    Ms. Heimlich, if you really want to persuade Richard Dawkins, may I suggest you not use “evolved” in such a scientifically illiterate way. A word such as “advanced” would make your Pinkeresque case without provoking the irritation that your phrasing would, rather justifiably, lead Dr. D. to discount everything else you try to say.

    As a reader of history, I think that the making of moral judgments mostly gets in the way of understanding. In describing the acts of, say, Tamerlane, Hitler, Nixon, or Elizabeth Bathory, adjectives such as “cruel”, “merciless”, or “bloody” describe what happened with accuracy; “immoral”, “evil”, and “wrong” may belong in the author’s conclusions, but otherwise serve little purpose in any case not involving exhortation to action.

  12. deepak shetty says

    It’s tricky. I think I know what he’s getting at.
    Yes. For e.g. Child marriage was common in India (and still practiced in many places). I would think most people would not call my ancestors pedophiles. But its a fine line to walk and I don’t think Dawkins did it well enough.

  13. says

    I would like to extend a hearty thank you to Silentbob for pointing us to Dawkins’ quote in The God Delusion. i have located my copy and plan to revise my blog. I also have appreciated reading the other thoughtfully written comments by Ophelia’s readers.

    Janet Heimlich

  14. says

    Pierce…well it depends. For some kinds of history you’re probably right, but I’m not sure you’re right for all kinds. And then, there are other kinds of discursive writing. There’s Eichmann in Jerusalem for instance – which is all about morality and the Nazis.

    It’s the core question, really – to what extent did they see what they were doing as wrong; what story did they tell themselves; how did it all work?

    I certainly don’t mean the subject should never be discussed without pointless rhetoric of shock-horror; more the opposite – it should be discussed with enough careful thinking that pointless rhetoric is replaced with precision.

  15. says

    in revising my blog, I read the passage pointed out by the reader. I see that Dawkins omits the quote from Humphrey that contradicts Dawkins’ viewpoint. That is, in contemplating the morality of what was done to the girl, Humphrey writes:

    “Immoral? By Inca standards? No, that not what matters. Immoral by ours.”

    Instead, Dawkins focuses on another point on which the two agree and states that “The Inca priests cannot be blamed for their ignorance.”

    Janet

  16. says

    Interesting.

    One thing people so easily forget (I’m sure I’m not exempt) is the fact – which is so obvious once you’re reminded of it – that there is such a thing as dissent within cultures, time periods, religions, etc. We can’t possibly be sure there weren’t rebels within Incan culture who thought human sacrifice was an abomination.

    The conversation about slavery in the US is often simplified in this way – people claim that Jefferson was a man of his time, we can’t judge him by our standards, etc, forgetting or not knowing that there were opponents of slavery at the time. John and Abigail Adams were all up in his face about it.

  17. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    On moral relativism:
    Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight,
    But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
    -Hilaire Belloc

    There’s a fine and interesting play, The King’s Horseman, by Wole Soyinka, set in colonial Nigeria, where the central- adult character- is determined to be buried alive at the king’s funeral.

  18. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ophelia Benson @ # 15: For some kinds of history you’re probably right, … there are other kinds of discursive writing.

    Well, when the point of writing is moral analysis, one probably should not eschew moral analysis.

    For most other purposes, it gets in the way. A dispassionate description of harm done, and to whom, seems to me more ethical, by not attempting to steer the reader/listener to a given point of view.

    The different meanings of, e.g., “wrong” can also lead to confusion. Leaving a live witness to a crime can be simultaneously ethically right and tactically disastrous…

  19. says

    No, I don’t think that’s right. “Moral analysis” isn’t the only kind of writing in which moral analysis can be relevant and/or useful, which is why I said “other kinds of discursive writing” instead of limiting it to moral analysis.

  20. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    The conversation about slavery in the US is often simplified in this way – people claim that Jefferson was a man of his time, we can’t judge him by our standards, etc, forgetting or not knowing that there were opponents of slavery at the time. John and Abigail Adams were all up in his face about it.

    OK, Jefferson was a man of his time and place.
    All the same, opponents of slavery thought in the same way as supporters and had the same basic assumptions. They emphasised different aspects of common beliefs. The conservative and superstitious Samuel Johnson proclaimed the equality of men and opposed slavery while the radical Hume thought blacks too stupid to be fit for freedom.

  21. Pierce R. Butler says

    Ophelia Benson @ # 20 – When you put it that way, I have no choice but to roll on my back and wave my paws in the air.

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