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How… Nice… of Richard Dawkins to Provide This Opportunity So Quickly

Ever since the Benson-Dawkins joint letter explaining that of course we can disagree, we just shouldn’t abuse the people we disagree with, I’ve been getting occasional attempted comments snidely wanting to know if this means the folks at Freethought Blogs will shut up. You see, they don’t understand the difference between harassment and criticism.*

Some folks seem to have imagined a cease-fire situation in which one side (theirs) gets to go on saying and doing awful things, while the other side (ours) is supposed to completely shut up.

They’re so precious.

Anyway, because Dawkins has a habit of tweeting his most problematic thoughts and then getting huffy and uncomprehending when advised the tweets are problematic, rather than listening to criticism and doing a bit of investigation to find out why he’s badly misstepping, we nearly instantly have an example of what Ophelia and Richard meant with that joint letter when they said this:

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.

So Dawkins decided to play the “I’m just using logic!” game with rape victims (and having been the lucky recipient of a rapist who was both an acquaintance and armed with a knife, I straddle both categories. They are both astoundingly awful, FYI, and I honestly can’t tell you which aspect was worse). Guess what? We agree that just because you say X is bad, Y is worse, you’re not approving of Y! Guess what? We also think the rhetorical power of saying Y is worse than X for things like stranger vs. “date” rape is important to take into consideration! And we disagree sharply with Dawkins on that last point, because he can’t seem to move past the “But logic!” phase of the conversation.

Image shows a cat looking into the camera with its ears flattened. Caption says, Uh oh.

What have we done? We’ve disagreed in public! Look, here’s how it’s done:

It’s true that “X is less bad” ≠ “X is good” or “I approve of X.” I think Richard had in mind the passage about the molestation he experienced at school compared with other, less tolerable forms. I don’t think he had in mind “Dear Muslima” – which of course is a mere comment on a blog, not a passage in a best-selling much-translated much-discussed book. But “Dear Muslima” does a good job of illustrating what I mean about rhetoric and implication. The whole point of “Dear Muslima” was very plainly to say that women face horrendous forms of abuse and denial of rights in places where Islamic laws and/or customs have authority, and therefore women who face much milder forms of abuse in secular democracies should…talk less about it, or talk about it more temperately, or something along those lines. It’s hard to spell out the implication exactly, because it is an implication, but it’s something along those lines. That much is not ambiguous. You’d have to be a very primitive bit of AI to miss that.

Note what is missing from this post: calling Richard Dawkins awful slurs, threatening to rape him, photoshopping his head onto crass pictures, and otherwise personally attacking him rather than criticizing his problematic words.

Here’s another:

If you want to make a difference in social attitudes, you can say “Date rape is bad”…full stop. You don’t go on and say that some other form of rape is worse, because that’s all the date-rapers see: “Richard Dawkins says I’m not as bad as a rapist”. The first part is ignored.

And this from someone who explains that Richard Dawkins’s clumsy stomping all over already trodden people hurts worse because he likes the man both personally and professionally! Absent is any declaration that since Dawkins said disagreeable things, he is all manner of slurs, completely worthless, and additionally, deserves violence done to him. Could this be how disagreement and criticism work? Wow.

Here is someone who isn’t even on this network, and so can’t possibly be construed as being part of any “agreement,” and who is less enamored of Dawkins both personally and professionally, who still somehow manages to deconstruct the ideas without resorting to gendered epithets, threats of violence, attacks on his appearance, or nasty photoshop jobs. She didn’t even choose an unflattering picture of Dawkins to illustrate her post:

It’s a bit of passive-aggressive weirdness, for sure. I don’t think anyone objects to the initial statement, of course. He’s right that it is logical! Pearl Jam is bad. Dave Matthews Band is worse. That is not an endorsement of Pearl Jam. Stubbing your toe is bad. Getting it cut off is worse. That is not an endorsement of stubbing your toe. Wine coolers are bad. Mad Dog is worse. That is not an endorsement of wine coolers.

See, I could do this all day, using only examples that are much clearer than invoking touchy issues that are touchy precisely because a lot of people actually deny—and spend a whole of time and effort denying—that the bad things are actually all that bad. Indeed, it’s particularly weird to pull on date rape in an environment where a prominent Washington Post columnist is on the record pulling exactly this trick of implying that date rape shouldn’t “count” as rape because it’s supposedly not as bad as “real” rape. We live in a world where the terms “rape-rape” and “legitimate rape” have actually been used to suggest that only the worst of the worst rapes should even be considered criminal offenses at all.

My gosh, she even seems to understand what he was getting at. Amazing.

Let’s see, what else… Stephanie reposted the post she wrote after Dawkins’s initial comments on “mild” pedophilia, which explains, without attacking the person rather than the arguments, what he’s getting wrong and why he’s upsetting so many people. Still.

I don’t usually do reposts so soon after the original publication. This was originally posted last fall, when Dawkins was talking about “mild pedophilia. He’s ranking rape again. It’s worth pointing out that Dawkins isn’t doing this because no one provided him with any better information. He’s been told this is inappropriate and why, in great detail.

Ashley Miller was even kind enough to give him a freebie on the “mild” pedophilia thing, which is more grace than I feel inclined to offer. She then tries to explain for him why Twitter folks may be a scosh upset:

The main reason that this blew up in his face is that the majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes, so the majority of rape victims seeing this post see it as delegitimizing.  This is happening in a society that already says that date rapes don’t count the same way that stranger rapes do.  As it turns out, acquaintance rape is just a pre-meditated and intentional as acts of stranger rape.  Even if his assertion was true, it would be perpetuating the stigma that surrounds date rape survivors and paints them, inaccurately, as overreactors or people who changed their mind about sex.

And Martin Wagner continues the education:

It isn’t that anyone thinks that, by saying Y is worse in severity than X, you’re endorsing X. It’s that you’re still, whether you mean to or not, minimizing and diminishing X.

This is what people who attacked him for his “mild pedophilia” remarks, and for “Dear Muslima,” were pointing out. Not that he was endorsing “milder” crimes (and “milder” by whose standards?), but that such reductionism was dismissive of subjective experience. It’s just an intellectualized way of saying “Stop being such a whiner.”

Strange that even though he thinks Dawkins should shut the fuck up and stop energetically enlarging the hole he’s been digging, Martin doesn’t take the opportunity to call him names.

Even one of the few people I’ve seen call him names hasn’t made it vicious:

Apparently Richard Dawkins was worried that people might have forgotten what an asshat [applicable to all people] he is. So, helpful fellow that he is, he decided to give us all a demonstration of why he’s one of the atheist movement’s biggest liabilities, a “humanist” who has trouble remembering to act human [not saying he isn't human, mind - just has trouble acting like we'd like to see caring humans act].

This is the most acerbic of all the posts I have so far read on this side of the divide. And it somehow manages to avoid gendered slurs, threats, harassment, and other such specialties of the Slyme Pit and friends. You know, the kind of tactics Richard Dawkins himself says are beyond the pale. Yes, there’s a photoshop at the top of that post, showing a young Dawkins gazing in wonder at himself. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of photoshopping people into pornography, or splashing their images with “rape cum,” now, does it? There’s a difference between using a photoshop job to comment on a directly relevant aspect of an argument in a way that isn’t vicious or spiteful, and a photoshop job meant to harm and degrade.

So. What have we learned today, kids? That we will have disagreements, sometimes heated, sometimes quite sharp, in this community. That was never in doubt. Refer back to the opening phrases of the joint letter, and you will see it was never meant to stifle disagreement or dissent. What it was meant to do was tell those who think that attacking people on intensely personal levels, that threatening them, stalking them, harassing them, is the way to disagree, that they are wrong. That is not disagreement. That’s being horrible for the sake of being horrible. And we don’t need that in atheism.

Now, for those who may still be unclear on the concepts, allow me to direct you to Alex’s excellent post:

This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.

And those in this community who deliberately refuse to understand that, and who take sharp disagreement amongst those of us who either signed or agreed with that joint statement as carte blanche to go back to being outrageous assholes, are not now and have never been arguing in good faith.

We’re going to argue. We’re even going to argue heatedly, and intensely, and sometimes impolitely. We may sometimes overstep, and have to apologize, and learn from our mistakes. We may not even like each other.

But we won’t resort to the sort of abuse heaped on people by members of the Slyme Pit and 4Chan and the MRAs in order to argue. That’s the difference. And it’s an important one.

Now, all that having been said…. For fuck’s sake, Richard, please use some of your not inconsequential wealth to bloody educate yourself on these topics. I know you’re smart enough to learn why you keep getting yourself into trouble on Twitter. Try to do better.

Image shows Richard Dawkins at a lectern. The screen above his head says, "Oh, Richard Dawkins, no."

*They also don’t know how to read comment policies. Mine says, among other things, that if you’ve engaged in bad behavior elsewhere, you don’t get to comment here. That rules out the people who think sharp criticism of a person’s behavior or ideas is equal to stalking, threatening physical harm, photoshopping nasty images of people, and cheering such behavior on. Byeee!

Comments

    • ceesays says

      I listen to pearl Jam’s first album on occasion.

      hey, it can’t all be Beethoven.

  1. rq says

    Yes, I did not appreciate the digs at DMB, either. *hrmpf* Pearl Jam is definitely not as good (DMB has a violinist, for heavens’ sakes!).
    But as for bridging gaps and rifts and the like, well, RD is free to disagree. But statements like this last one of his, plus his super-logical rational defence of himself, does not an ally make.
    So that rope that got throwed across that rift? Looks a bit frayed to me.

  2. says

    Yes, there’s a photoshop at the top of that post, showing a young Dawkins gazing in wonder at himself.

    I haven’t seen it, but that actually sounds kinda clever.

  3. rorschach says

    I mean, at this stage, what is one even meant to say?
    Good post as always Dana.

  4. Donnie says

    ….a “humanist” who has trouble remembering to act human [not saying he isn't human, mind - just has trouble acting like we'd like to see caring humans act].

    ……. to act human with empathy

    It is not that Dawkins is not human, but he just cannot seem to put his experiences aside and look at a situation from another person’s perspective.

    Though, maybe empathy is just a bad as human for you would also need a disclaimer that Dawkins does have empathy but is unable to see how his tweets can impact and minimize other people’s experiences with the issue at hand.

  5. aziraphale says

    Excellent post.

    I have been defending Dawkins in various places, because I value his books and also because I see something of myself in his love of logic. Unfortunately this can lead to prioritizing logic over care for other peoples’ feelings. This can make people like me, and possibly him, seem unfeeling even when we are not.

    Be that as it may, I see that he is doing more harm than good by these tweets, and I shall stop defending them.

  6. Johnny Vector says

    Spot on! I confess that even though I have always loved your posts, I haven’t thought of you as the kind of writer who could clarify a complex issue like this. But this column gives me the same sort of “Ah-ha, that’s what I was thinking!” moment of clarity that I thought I could only get from Greta Christina. Beautifully written, thank you.

  7. says

    …I see something of myself in his love of logic.

    Are you saying you’re invisible? ‘Cause his “love of logic” has so far been invisible to me.

  8. Onamission5 says

    More enraging to me than RFD’s feigned Vulcan-ness is the fact that his supporters (and oh yes they are entirely of the man variety) have taken his claims of witch hunts bad logic so emotional et al as permission to go into comment threads and personally grade types of rape with an attitude of “of course different rapes are worse let me try and trigger you by describing them to you.” Pretty much just because some wimmenz told their hero what a terrible thing that was to do and how dare we, as far as I can tell.

    See: the comment thread at Hemant’s blog for starters.