‘Mild paedophilia’: Richard Dawkins’ molestation comments in depth

NB: contains personal reference to molestation/abuse, statements trivialising them.

Camp Dawkins have been after me since this morning, claiming that post misrepresented him, took what he said out of context or misunderstood his point.

I don’t think any of this holds, and I’m conscious too that I’ve heard clarifications from him before. When he told Rebecca Watson to shut up since FGM and stoning exist, people replied that didn’t mean nothing should upset her; he clarified – actually arguing something quite different – that he meant since Elevator Guy didn’t physically assault her, she had no reason to think ‘coffee’ meant ‘sex’. When he tweeted ‘All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though’, the tweet (and his general commentary about Islam) were criticised; he clarified, in a lengthy, wilfully ignorant, defensive screed, what he actually meant.

This isn’t fair play. Dawkins is a professional communicator and globally read writer: his job is to say to things clearly, from the off. For a long time, in fact, he was paid specifically to teach ‘the Public Understanding of Science’: when many in the press, the public and his own community read his comments on sensitive matters (ones far less complex or mysterious than science facts he’s explained with ease) and reach certain conclusions, he and his acolytes don’t get to write them off simply as mass misapprehensions. Being apprehended right the first time round is well within his skill set; the onus should not be on the rest of us correctly to divine his intent.

This being said, I do want to be fair, and it’s true my prior post makes only so much reference to the context of his comments. With that in mind, I’m going to scour through the interview in which he makes them to the Times, published by RDFRS, and give my thoughts precisely on what he says.

The following is the passage from the article which deals with the issues at hand. I’ve cut the introductory paragraphs and extract from his book which follows, since I don’t think they’re relevant, but you can view them at the source.

Let’s begin.

Dawkins is fascinated by the way today’s transgressions might have been viewed differently not long ago. For instance, as a junior academic he went to the University of California at Berkeley for two years in the late Sixties, which gave him a ringside seat at the Summer of Love. He relates one vivid memory in his new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder:

“I was walking along Telegraph Avenue, axis of Berkeley’s beads-incense-and-marijuana culture. A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

Which side is Dawkins coming down on here? On the face of it, the one which says deems this unacceptable: ‘impossible to believe’ has a distinct ring of outraged shock, and the next sentence (below) claims – while paraphrased from unknown comments – that he’s glad this wouldn’t now be allowed. (So he presumes, at any rate: five minutes browsing @EverydaySexism‘s feed might stop it seeming such a clear thing of the past.)

On the other hand, isn’t there a subtle romanticism to this account? In the heady days of incense, flower power and marijuana, ‘tweak[ing] one of her breasts’ sounds rather harmless, almost sweet – is that how the women in question would describe it? Instead of ‘tweaking’, as in a consensual sexual setting, might we not refer to ‘groping’, ‘assaulting’, ‘uninvited touching’? Something about ‘crying, “Harassment!”‘, too, feels hyperbolic, conjuring imagery of hysterical, overemotional women exaggerating infractions against them. This could just be my imagination – I’m not totally sure it isn’t – and it’s possible his comments in the past are biasing my reading here – but one could also say ‘informing’. Dawkins is talking here about a teacher’s assaults not being all that bad, notoriously told Rebecca Watson what happened to her wasn’t all that bad, and has a record of pointed innuendo toward anti-harassment rules. This colours my reading, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t.

He says he’s pleased how things have changed on the harassment front in the past 40 years. But on other occasions when that shifting moral zeitgeist rears its head – as boys, including him, are molested or beaten at his various boarding schools, for instance – he fails to be outraged. One master at his public school, Oundle, he writes, “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

‘Nowadays’ – here, again, a flavour of reactionary nostalgia which typifies the red top press as much as pitchfork-wielding fears of paedophilia. (British tabloids, for readers overseas, have certain ever-present bogeymen: political correctness, one; standards of health and safety, another; child protection measures, likewise.) Never mind police: intimate touching and sexualised remarks from teachers in positions of trust do constitute harassment and abuse, just as they would among adults. What of it if this teacher ‘never went any further’? Children’s bodies are their own, just like anyone else’s, whether or not further infractions followed. Consequences for the man involved would have been fair and appropriate, not ‘terrible’ – that word describes his conduct, in my view, much more than any repercussions from police.

Is he guilty of rationalising bad stuff just because it’s past? “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.”

My earlier comments on this passage stand:

That he insists the past not be assessed by present standards – a line we’ve all heard once too often, I’m quite sure, in religion’s defence – seems incongruous, since he’s carved out an atheist career doing just that. The God Delusion, damning of Yahweh, calls him a homophobic, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; the book, and Dawkins’ commentary since writing it, attack religious morals as out of step with modern secular ethics; his condemning William Lane Craig’s defence of scriptural genocide, for instance, would never yield to a ‘That was then, this is now’ defence. Why does he then mount just such a defence of child abuse, his own included, when secular? (I for one – and, I think, most people in this corner of the net – do absolutely hold 18th and 19th century characters guilty of racism.)

One further question, though: if 18th century racism, 1940s child abuse or 1960s street harassment took place each in ‘another era’, what brought those eras to an end? It wasn’t some naturalistic progression of human ethics on its own, it was that people present objected. Slaves who revolted in the 1800s objected to racism; policymakers in the 20th century objected to corporal punishment in schools; women’s liberation objected to assault and harassment. These movements weren’t ahead of their time, they were of their time: clearly we can judge these transgressions by modern standards, since in part we inherit those standards from those who fought them in the past.

The mention of paedophilia inevitably brings us to the recent run of arrests of old white men accused of child sex abuse, starting with Jimmy Savile. Has the moral zeitgeist been shifting at their expense? “I think we should acknowledge it. That’s one point… But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”

Let’s not talk, for a start, about paedophiles; let’s talk about molestation. Actions, not desires, have ethical value, and discussion here needs to be about consent (or absence thereof), exploitation and abuse – not sexual feelings stigmatised as sick and evil just because.

It’s certainly true some kinds of molestation and abuse are worse than others. There’s an ethical spectrum, sure – but we can still draw discreet lines to mark out parts of a spectrum; even with infinite shades of grey, we can still mark the range between ’80% grey’ and black. Any sexual contact with anyone lacking consent, and any exploitation of anyone who can’t consent, means assault and abuse. This is the bracket that counts: that some within it are worse than others matters not at all in ruling who abuses and who doesn’t, who deserves our condemnation (however much of it) and who doesn’t.

So is there a risk of a metaphorical lynching of well-known people as soon as they’re accused? “I think there is a risk of that.”

Lynchings were when white people hanged and/or burned black people to death. Let’s not make this a metaphor for talking about sex abuse.

With regard to content, see my most on rape, reputations and reasonable suspicion. Although not written about adults and children, much of its commentary – on our response to accusations, specifically, and the fear of smearing those accused – applies here too. Importantly however, Dawkins’ concern is not based solely on allegations being unproven: even if someone is a molester, he seems to say, we shouldn’t tar them too heavily, since some are far worse than others. That is not the point: the point is that consent and autonomy matter, be their violation benign or sadistic.

What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

There’s little to be said here that I haven’t said above – except one thing. No, Richard: priests who rape, assault and abuse and church bodies that protect them are not victims – of shifting standards or anything else. The only victims here are their victims. But if they were the victims of those standards, they would be your victims – casualties of everyone who holds (like me, most atheists and previously you) that churches’ standards are their truest relics. Be consistent.

In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”. The Oundle incidents don’t seem to have bothered him. The prep school one did, but he still can’t bring himself to condemn it, partly because the kind of comparison his adult mind deploys is with the mass murders carried out by Genghis Khan in the 12th century. “Without condoning what was done, at least try to put on the goggles of the period and see it through those eyes,” he says. “I find it much harder to put on those goggles where we’re talking about the monstrous cruelty that went on in past times. It’s hard to think of that and to forgive using modern standards in the same way as it might be for the schoolmaster who touched me up but didn’t actually do me any physical violence.”

I’ve seen recourse to non-violence like this elsewhere from Dawkins, when he insisted Elevator Guy did nothing wrong because his conduct involved ‘just words’ and not a physical attack. The relevant ‘nocturnal visits’, while we don’t know details, sound for one thing very much like attempted rapes (or else assaults which might easily have led to rape) – that, and in any case the fact they needed ‘fending off’, makes them violent. Regardless, though: boundaries of consent and bodily autonomy exist, and matter, whether or not violence is carried out.

None of this is to say Dawkins must feel traumatised by what was done to him – people can feel how they want about what happens to them, dealing with it how they want, and this is more true of serious transgressions rather than less. But what he’s said isn’t just that.

Calling molestation ‘mild’, proffering only tepid condemnation, asking abusers not be lumped together – as if not raping or killing, and not doing ‘lasting damage’ made some of them excusable – is not a personal statement of feeling, it’s a generalised prescription about how we treat assault. The extent of emotional harm done doesn’t affect whether something, groping specifically, constitutes assault and abuse. Personal feeling doesn’t matter here: standards of consent and autonomy do.

These, through his statements on molestation, are what Dawkins threatens – what, ultimately, he surrenders. Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog, has called on him via petition to retract them. I recommend you sign.

See also: Greta’s round-up of posts on this.

Commenters, please see this request.

Comments

  1. says

    So is it cool to ignore everything you said and say you don’t get to tell Dawkins how to feel about getting molested?

    You don’t have to read between the lines much to get the idea that he’s saying that you shouldn’t molest kids, but we have more important problems, so let’s not make a big deal about it.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    There’s one other point against the argument that “there are many forms of molestation, so we shouldn’t worry too much about the milder forms because the worst forms are so bad”: that’s the pedophiles logic. “I won’t deal with actual kids, just look at pictures” becomes “I’ll just take pictures, I won’t touch,” which becomes “I’ll touch while they’re sleeping,” becomes “I’ll bribe them to do things for me” and on and on by gradual degrees until you reach the bottom, with self-justification shielding you every step of the way.

    If you want to keep people from going to the bottom of a canyon, what’s the best method? Do you make great big signs and danger tape and barbed wire at the very top that says “DO NOT CROSS THIS LINE”? Or do you make a nice, gradual, easy staircase down to the bottom, and put signs on every step that say, “You might think about turning around now,” and then a sign at the very bottom that says “Abandon all hope”?

  3. says

    Bruce: please follow my invitation in the post and refer, at least in this comment section, to molesters and molestation, not ‘paedophiles’.

    This is, I think, an area where we should stick especially strictly to principles like harm, consent and consequence, not let popular stigma guide us. Personally, if someone gets sexual pleasure from (non-explicit) pictures of children, I don’t have an ethical problem with that. I have problems with things like touching or sexual exploitation where consent hasn’t or can’t meaningfully be given.

  4. Edward Gemmer says

    It’s still almost impossible to figure out what the point of this is. Clearly, Dawkins is talking about his own experiences in the context of talking about his new book, an autobiography. This passion to criticize what he has to say about himself just seems so desperate and callous that I have a hard time understanding the point. Dawkins doesn’t somehow approve of pedophilia, and the only general statement we might find is that he thinks the hysteria over some forms of pedophilia is overblown. In any event, I’m struggling to find any meaning at all in this article other than to criticize Dawkins for some imagined slight against something.

  5. says

    Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

    Right….Richard….and then the women’s movement (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) exploded as we compared notes about the abusive crappy behavior of the men in our personal and public lives and on the streets where we walked day in day out. You seem to presume women were A-OK with groping before that? How can he refer to that time – without referring to the explosion of consciousness which came out of the experience of the male dominated anti-war movement being just as blinkered as the 1950s father knows best world they were trying to leave behind?

    What a colossal asshat.

    We decided to establish some fucking BOUNDARIES where male privilege ruled even our bodies…

    It seems boundaries are a foreign concept you would do well to meditate on.

  6. says

    I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours.

    Well, except that contemporaries of slavers… like John Brown did just that.

  7. says

    Commenters, your attention please:

    I’ve yet to publish a formal comments policy – it’s on my near future to-do list – so won’t hold people to retroactive account, but I’d like to lay down a ground rule at this point, specific to this thread (and whatever related discussions ensue):

    Please don’t let’s speculate about Richard Dawkins’ motives or psyche.

    The messages he’s sending here, and the ideas he’s promoting, are harmful and deserve sharp criticism. This being said, he’s entitled to feel how he wants about what happened to him, and not to be questioned/face conjecture about why. His emotions regarding what was done specifically to him are valid, and they’re his business.

    Let’s keep our discussion to what he’s saying and its impact, not try to (armchair) psychologise him by speculating about how molestation/experiences around it may or may not prompt his statements.

  8. prodegtion says

    Richard Dawkins is a biologist, advocate and author. I know many people who are atheists simply because of Richard Dawkins. He has done immense good to society, and he is an very honest individual.

    You, on the other hand, are an absolutely nobody. You have never achieved anything; you are a worthless human being. How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins.

  9. ysoldeangelique says

    but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes

    He says that as if it is a Bad thing. But, it isn’t not at all. This person ought to be in trouble with the police and with so called “tabloid inflamed vigilantes”

    Sarcasm Mode ON Clearly only Tabloids are so Gauche as to print the details of someones pedopehlia. “real” news papers keep such things quiet and never ever report on it. We wouldn’t want people to think that such behaiviors are bad would we? That poor man his life is horribly ruined in the press . . .

    Personally, if someone gets sexual pleasure from (non-explicit) pictures of children, I don’t have an ethical problem with that.

    Uhm . . . okay . . . but I disagree. I have an ethical problem with it especially if they aren’t seeing a therapist. That sort of thing is very definately harmful to them and others.

  10. says

    It’s still almost impossible to figure out what the point of this is.

    So, Gemmer, you’re admitting you can’t even comprehend what you’re reading here? If that’s the case, maybe you should just shut up and read/listen. You’ve certainly given us no reason to listen to anything you have to say.

  11. says

    His emotions regarding what was done specifically to him are valid, and they’re his business.

    The fact that he’s published them for all to see makes it our business too. As does the strong likelihood that his high public profile will give his words more impact than they would otherwise have. If he doesn’t want the public talking about his psyche or motives, then he shouldn’t have “clarified” them in all their shabby, hypocritical, self-serving-authoritarian, Stockholmolicious glory.

    When someone says things that are irrational, dishonest, hypocritical, and potentially harmful, some speculation about that person’s psyche, motives or mindset is a perfectly appropriate response.

  12. says

    “…A young man was walking ahead of me, dressed in the insignia of the flower-power generation. Every time a young woman passed him, walking in the opposite direction, he would reach out and tweak one of her breasts. Far from slapping him, or crying, ‘Harassment!’, she would simply walk on by as if nothing had happened… Today I find this almost impossible to believe.”

    I find it TOTALLY impossible to believe — especially when I see it in an article so full of excluded-middle fallacies and flat-out falsehoods about present vs. past moral standards. If such a thing really happened, it was probably very rare, and was most likely a case of a particular guy touching women who already knew him and were at least a little friendly with him beforehand. Or, perhaps, he was a teacher or graduate TA who had some position of power and/or trust that made him relatively immune to criticism.

    Also, I”m equally sure that women who objected to such touching would not have “cried ‘harassment’” or called the cops; but they would most likely have batted his hand away, called him a creep or an asshole, and steered out of his reach as they passed him. Dawkins’ failure to even mention such relatively mild responses raises serious doubts about his onesty, his common sense, and his ability to understand how ordinary people really function in their everyday lives.

  13. says

    @Raging Bee (#12): that may be so, but the point here is how he extrapolates from his own feelings how other people ought to feel, ignoring issues of consent and autonomy regardless of feelings. Please stick to that discussion.

  14. Edward Gemmer says

    So, Gemmer, you’re admitting you can’t even comprehend what you’re reading here? If that’s the case, maybe you should just shut up and read/listen. You’ve certainly given us no reason to listen to anything you have to say.

    Well, IMO when someone is talking about their personal experiences and feelings about those personal experiences, one must analyze what is said in that context. Here, Dawkins is indisputably talking about his feelings and experiences, and to criticize him for that seems quite callous. There is no one proper response to abuse, and his is perfectly valid. I think Gabriel is trying to hard to divorce the words from the context and ends up sounding a bit cruel.

  15. shockwaver says

    Let me preface this by saying that I’m a victim of childhood sexual abuse. So you know where I’m coming from when I say it.

    I think Richard Dawkins has done a great deal of good in the world. He’s helped (with others) bring Atheism front and center and made it a talking point with people who would have never considered that such people exist. His books are accessible and well written without being soft on religion. I have admired the man for a long time.

    With these comments though, I can’t support him anymore. I don’t even know where to start with this. We have been rightly outraged when the scandals involving the church moving child raping priests around instead of allowing them to be punished have come to light. And to have Dawkins say something like:

    What about the child sex abuse scandals that have led to anguished soul-searching and multibillion-dollar payouts in various outposts of Christianity? “Same thing,” he says. “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

    is just disgusting – and it’s the same logic the church has used to bury this sort of thing. The reason these things take decades to surface is because it’s the word of one child against the word of the Holy Church. That’s an incredible power differential.

    Adults are responsible the safety and well being of a child. They have always been. It is not the childs responsiblity to ensure that they are not being abused. And anyone that says:

    “was prone to fall in love with the prettier boys. He never, as far as we knew, went any further than to put an arm around them in class and make suggestive remarks, but nowadays that would probably be enough to land him in terrible trouble with the police – and tabloid-inflamed vigilantes.”

    is someone that I can’t agree with. He may not have a problem with it, but it is still a problem. It is still the sexual exploitation of someone WHO CAN NOT CONSENT to such sexual interactions.

    I have zero tolerance for people who say things “aren’t that bad” and use that as an excuse to do nothing. I watched it for years during my own abuse. And yes, it took me (to my great shame) a decade and other younger victims coming forward before I finally went to the police about it as an adult. It has always been wrong – and I don’t think it’s wrong to look back at the past and go “holy shit that was incredibly wrong and they should have known to not do that”. It was never my responsibility to prevent what happened to me – nor was it his or his friends responsibility to stop their head master from doing what they did. It was the responsibility of the adults who were in a position of power over the students to stop it. And that has never changed.

  16. ysoldeangelique says

    @ysoldeangelique (#9) Why? Who (else) has been harmed here?

    The person with the illness and their potential future victims.

  17. says

    Here, Dawkins is indisputably talking about his feelings and experiences…

    No, that is “indisputably” NOT all he’s talking about. Your failure to grasp this perfectly obvious fact shows how stupid you are. Go back and read the whole thing again (if the words aren’t too big for you), and stop trying to tell us how to discuss something when you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.

  18. says

    @ysoldeangelique (#18)

    ‘Their potential future victims’ – so, in other words, what they’re actually doing doesn’t have any victims? It’s a pretty odd legal principle, I feel, to criminalise something because something else the same person might do is illegal.

    I don’t really think the question of whether attraction to children is an illness is the relevant one here – if no one is actually doing anything for which consent is required, it seems a lot to me like policing thoughts which in themselves aren’t harmful.

  19. says

    “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

    Seriously?! We need HISTORIANS to deal with sex-crime cases? This is so fucking ridiculous it’s drifting into “not even wrong” territory. Because what every victim of sexual abuse needs most is a history lesson (*eyeroll*). And maybe a historian to help judges out in sentencing hearings?

    I can’t believe anyone can still take this clueless dork seriously.

  20. A Hermit says

    Re: The suggestion from some commenters that RD is only talking about his own experiences and that we shouldn’t be telling him how to feel about them:

    I certainly agree that we can’t tell others how they should feel about such an experience themselves, but that is precisely what Dawkins is doing when he makes comments like this one:

    He did no more than have a little feel, but 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. As soon as I could wriggle off his lap, I ran to tell my friends, many of whom had had the same experience with him. I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage…

    Dawkins, in that bit I’ve emphasized in bold, is presuming to speak for every other victim of this man who, even by Dawkins own account, caused extreme discomfort and embarrassment. This is the problem, he is declaring that none of those other victims should be any more bothered by this violation than he is. he;’s entitled to his own experience but he shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility that others were harmed by THEIR similar experiences.

  21. Beth says

    @ Raging Bee #14

    I find it TOTALLY impossible to believe

    I can testify that such things do happen as I have experienced something quite similar. Back in 1980 in a midwestern city, I was walking down the sidewalk one warm sunny do when a young man walking the opposite direction just reached out and tweaked my breast. I was too startled to do anything about it at the time. I stopped and gasped and looked back at him and his friend, who had continued to walk down the street without any alteration of their pace. I didn’t think that hollering at him would do any good, so I ended up just continuing on my way as if nothing had happened. I don’t doubt this was something the young man did on a regular basis as he was quite quick and practiced with his movement.

  22. says

    @A Hermit (#22)

    He’s also implying the presence of trauma/psychological damage in victims determines to whether (or how strongly) we should condemn the teacher’s actions. This is a non-sequitur.

  23. brucegee1962 says

    “Although I’m no friend of the Church, I think they have become victims of our shifting standards and we do need to apply the conventions of the good historian in dealing with cases which are many decades old.”

    Yes, this is quite the howler. If he wants to try to excuse the behavior of Julius Ceasar by using “the conventions of a good historian,” he can be my guest. But if he’s seriously suggesting that, because these things weren’t publicly discussed in the forties and fifties and sixties, that somehow made them ok — thus totally dismissing the claims of trauma put forward by the many, many victims — that’s just messed up.

    I mean, I was never molested, but I can certainly use my imagination to figure out that, if something like what he describes had happened to me when I was a kid, it would have messed me up in all kinds of ways. Obviously everyone is going to respond differently, but still…sheesh.

  24. says

    I can testify that such things do happen as I have experienced something quite similar…

    Your experience pretty much supports my story: reactions to the random groping were not on the order of “crying ‘harassment’” or calling the cops, but they weren’t positive or welcoming either.

  25. says

    Dawkins, in that bit I’ve emphasized in bold, is presuming to speak for every other victim of this man who, even by Dawkins own account, caused extreme discomfort and embarrassment. This is the problem, he is declaring that none of those other victims should be any more bothered by this violation than he is.

    What makes this more disgusting is that the “extreme discomfort and embarrassment” in question here included this bit:

    In the book, Dawkins mentions one occasion when a teacher put a hand down his trousers at a prep school in Salisbury, and four others at Oundle, when he “had to fend off nocturnal visits to my bed from senior boys much larger and stronger than I was”.

    This isn’t just a few harmless gropes we’re talking about here — this looks more like forceful bullying, possibly gang-rape. That’s a lot for Dawkins to brush off.

  26. brucegee1962 says

    The best spin I can put on this is that he’s saying that this sort of behavior was very widely common in the British Public School system that he apparently grew up in. And I’ve heard elsewhere that perhaps this was true. But even if that truly was more or less the norm in that enclosed ecosystem, he needs to step outside his circle of — not privilege, I don’t know what to call it — but step outside and realize that to everybody else in the world, that’s just beyond appalling.

    What must have kept it going was the hazer’s logic: “I survived it, and I turned out ok, therefore it’s justifiable to inflict it on others.” Which, of course, is no kind of logic at all.

  27. John Horstman says

    Wow, the expanded context is so much worse. Do Dawkins’s apologists need any additional shovels to help with digging that hole deeper?

    As for lasting harm… it’s irrelevant. If you punch me in the face and don’t break any bones, the soft tissue damage will heal. You will have caused me no lasting harm. That doesn’t make it okay to punch people in the face. Harm doesn’t have to last forever to be harm, hence the necessity of the qualifier “lasting” in the first place. Don’t rape/assault people, irrespective of age, and don’t deploy apologetics for those who do. This is not a difficult concept – or, it shouldn’t be.

  28. ysoldeangelique says

    ‘Their potential future victims’ – so, in other words, what they’re actually doing doesn’t have any victims?

    1. Themselves
    2. Their likely victims

    Maybe you need to read for clarity?

    It’s a pretty odd legal principle, I feel, to criminalise something because something else the same person might do is illegal.

    I was talking about ETHICS maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s not illegal to cheat on your science tests either.

    I don’t really think the question of whether attraction to children is an illness is the relevant one here

    Why not?

    Is an attraction for setting fires to buildings also out of the question?

    if no one is actually doing anything for which consent is required, it seems a lot to me like policing thoughts which in themselves aren’t harmful.

    Some thoughts are vastly harmful such as: Appreciating setting fires to buildings, appreciating the idea of eating human flesh, and an attraction to small chilren.

    All of those things are indeed quite harful to the thinker and to the larger society.

    Pretending that an illness does not exist and that we shouldn’t do anything to prevent it is foolish and Mental illnesses are just a real and just as dangerous the the person who has them as physical ones.

    What you are basically saying here is “ignore mental illnesses” and that’s not okay not at all.

  29. says

    @ysoldeangelique (#30)

    No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying finding non-sexual pictures of children sexually appealing isn’t, on its own, in the same ethical category as nonconsensual touching or sexual coercion, and whether or not that sexual response on its own constitutes mental illness doesn’t affect that.

    If someone found the thought of cheating on tests or setting fire to buildings erotic, I equally wouldn’t have a problem with that. We can find all the thought of all sorts of things erotic that we wouldn’t actually do for ethical reasons (Greta for example writes erotic fiction about fantasies of nonconsensual/quasiconsensual sex, with a disclaimer that this would never be ethically acceptable if actually enacted in the real world.)

    By ‘likely victims’, I assume you mean children someone might molest or assault who sought sexual pleasure in non-abusive images of children – but they wouldn’t be victimised purely by that pleasure-seeking, would they? No one needs anyone’s consent to fantasise about them sexually in private, and I don’t see how children are a different case in this regard from anyone else who can’t meaningfully consent to actual sex. (Drunk or drugged people for instance, adults with developmental issues or people with whom sex would be coercive due to power imbalance.) I’ll assign ethical value to acts, but not to fantasies or feelings.

  30. says

    Dawkins whole point in even bringing his abuse up is to make a rhetorical point… No one seems willing to address this point he is making.

    He is argueing that rape of a child (he uses one woman’s anecdote) and his molestation are far less damaging than the Sunday School teaching that “hell is real.”

    Do WE really believe that? Does anyone here really believe that?

    I was taught all about hell. I didn’t believe it from jump…. even as a kid.
    I would not trade those lessons for a bit of “mild” molestation….would ANY of you?

    Why is everyone in this discussion – across all the places it’s happening…ignoring the point Dawkins was making?

    It’s not about his feelings about what happened to him. He is making a massive claim….which everyone seems to have no problem with…

    I feel like I am surrounded by asylum inmates.

    It does not take me anywhere near a second to decide whether I would rather be molested or taught some silly ideas….

  31. says

    By the way…it’s not a verbal slip or an understandable gaff in the moment..it’s an argument he’s been making publically since the God Delusion…

    Is it possible that we deal with that instead of trying to parse the scale of obscene things which are done to children bodies without consent?

    And can we stop psychoanalyzing the whole thing and deal with the argument itself?

  32. says

    All that insultingly-dead-wrong BS was just a “rhetorical point?” If so, it was a LOUSY attempt to make a point, based on an apples-to-wombats comparison that most reasonable adults would reject out of hand, full of diversions, and practically begging to be misinterpreted. I certainly don’t see any actual victims of sexual abuse saying the abuse was less harmful than being taught about Hell.

    Seriously, I’m against teaching kids about Hell, but Dawkins doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. We don’t need ham-fisted stumbletongued twits like him debunking theism — there’s plenty of less-embarrassing scholars who can do the job a lot better.

  33. says

    Here’s a clip where he is making this argument.

    I think it’s appalling. About a third of the audience agrees with him… which is also appalling.
    I am an anti-theist atheist like most here… but, this argument is just so stupid and damaging it makes me want to stick a fork in my hand to distract me from the pain I experience upon thinking of his framing…

    He also cherry picks the reporting of ONE female survivor to make his point… which is also appalling.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eVYGhLqHqXQ

    It starts at 19.20 or so.

  34. says

    <blockquote.How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins.

    Because he’s wrong?
    Or doesn’t that count anymore?

    (Hope I’m not excommunicated for saying that…)

  35. says

    How dare you criticize Richard Dawkins.

    How dare anyone criticise anyone? Every public figure is “sacred”, their work important, their contributions valuable, to someone. Would you say “how dare you criticise the Pope?” because he’s so highly regarded, even if he said something reprehensible? I presume not, because you would likely criticise the content of the Pope’s words on their own merits without disproportionate regard to his relative fame or importance – in fact, you might criticise the Pope more harshly than you would anyone else precisely because of his fame and the attendant large audience and potential for greater harm.

    The day we avoid criticism of someone’s words or actions because of that person’s apparent “importance” is the day we resemble our enemies. In fact, I’d say – especially given the revelations of the last two or so years – that it’s as important to criticise the failures of our own “heroes” as it is to rail against someone like the Pope.

    If we can’t hold “our” people accountable for problematic things they say or do, we become hypocrites.

  36. A Hermit says

    prodegtion says:

    Richard Dawkins is a biologist, advocate and author. I know many people who are atheists simply because of Richard Dawkins.

    Well I became an atheist the old fashioned way…by thinking for myself. I did have some help from folks like Sponville and Flew and Russell and a Huxley or two but I still haven’t read any of Dawkins books and I’m less inclined to do so now than I was a year ago. I don’t think I need any advice from him or you.

  37. says

    Oh, and here’s a little protip about rhetorical points: they’re supposed to CLARIFY, not obscure or distract from, what you’re trying to say. If you have to write at least one whole fucking article just to explain what you meant by your rhetorical point, then you need to step back and realize that you’re not really as good at either rhetoric or explanations as you need to be.

  38. says

    cityzenjane, you are correct. The whole exercise is morally repulsive through and through. If it’s true that Dawkin found being indoctrinated about Hell to be more traumatic than being sexually assaulted as a child, then it’s also clear that he’s an outlier in this respect. Dawkins is using the trauma of childhood sexual abuse as a rhetorical cudgel against religion, and he doesn’t seem to care who he hurts in the process.

    It’s disgusting.

  39. ysoldeangelique says

    @Alex Gabriel

    Yes, I completely get it. You like to pretend Mental illness doesn’t exist . . .

    I suppose it’s perfectly okay to ignore cancerous tumors too. Because if you ignore them they just go away . . .

    Oh wait that’s not the real world

  40. says

    @ysoldeangelique (#44)

    I have suffered from mental illness. Please do not suggest I don’t care about it. (Moreover, I haven’t commented on whether sexual attraction constitutes mental illness – or not – just that it isn’t in itself any more unethical than having a tumour, even if so.)

    Please stop making accusations about my motives, or leave this thread.

  41. says

    Thanks Sally, yes – That’s it exactly. Not only does it splatter people dealing with both… who do not need Dawkins help in sorting their taxonomies of harm..(ludicrous to begin with) – it harms the movement in general – which becomes clear when you take time to see how this is playing out outside of the atheosphere…

    The other thing that occurs to me – sexual abuse in some very powerful circles is a way to “jump” people into the gang… frats, boys toney public schools in the EU…. some of these assholes talk about it as a right of passage. To be abused and to support abuse of others is the key to admission. Committing crimes for which you are culpable together keeps everyone in line.

    Dawkins may be part of a bigger problem which trancends the churches and the schools…

  42. says

    Dawkins may be part of a bigger problem which trancends the churches and the schools…

    May be? I think Haifisch Geweint made a really good case for him DEFINITELY being a part of that bigger problem in their essay, where they drew connections between the near universality of abuse in schools for the privileged, like where Dawkins went, and the systemic, institutionalized abuse of indigenous children in North America and Australia:

    http://haifischgeweint.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/richard-dawkins-child-rape-cultural-relativism-trigger-warning-rape-culture-310/

  43. ysoldeangelique says

    My original comment – Uhm . . . okay . . . but I disagree. I have an ethical problem with it especially if they aren’t seeing a therapist. That sort of thing is very definately harmful to them and others.

    I have suffered from mental illness. Please do not suggest I don’t care about it

    Yet somehow you don’t see how it might be harmful to the person who has one? That certain illnesses can indeed be harmful to others if left untreated?

    Sounds like you really don’t have much of a clue there.

    just that it isn’t in itself any more unethical than having a tumour, even if so

    Ignoring mental illness is just as unethical as ignoring a tumor period. You seem to have quite a bit to learn about mental illnesses for someone who supposedly suffered from one.

  44. says

    @ysoldeangelique (#49)

    I asked you stop speculating about my motives or leave the discussion; you continued and implied I’m being insincere. You are now being banned from this blog.

  45. Edward Gemmer says

    At this point there is no doubt that many owe Richard Dawkins a HUGE apology. PZ Myers, Greta Christina, please show you have some sort of decency that you can apologize for your miserable attacks on a victim of abuse.

  46. says

    @Edward Gemmer: I don’t see how it’s their fault if it sounds like Dawkins is saying things he doesn’t mean. The issue seems to partially be the Times writer who wrote that Dawkins was suggesting that recent scandals are overblown and partially with Dawkins himself. His clarification seemed to mainly be aimed at a straw man version fo what PZ and Greta and Alex said. It’s great to know what he meant, but he had to make it all about how it’s everyone else’s fault that he can’t communicate clearly.

  47. says

    @shockwaver (#17):

    From one survivor to another, you did the right thing. Though it took some time, you went to the authorities. Plenty of people never do.

    @Alex Gabriel (#20):

    With all the fancy footwork you’re doing trying to play devil’s advocate around the idea of a pedophile wanking to “nonsexual” pictures of a child, I’m surprised you have time to publish comments like that at all.

    @cityzenjane (#32):

    I’ve actually addressed that very point, explicitly, twice now.

  48. says

    @HaifischGeweint (#54)

    I’m not playing devil’s advocate, I’m making a straightforward point that private sexual fantasies don’t have the ethical status of sexual acts involving others. (And I don’t know why you put non-sexual in quotation marks. Non-sexually explicit photographs – y’know, like most photographs – should not be a difficult concept.) This isn’t fancy footwork, it’s a simple, consistent argument.

  49. Edward Gemmer says

    Since when do you care about decency, Gemmer?

    Not too much but even I get a little squeamish when I see people attacking someone for talking about abuse they received as a kid.

  50. says

    Fuck off, Gemmer, you’ve done nothing but misstate and misrepresent the substance of what we’ve been saying here from day one, so you don’t get to lecture us about manners or conduct. Take your “squeamishness” bullshit and puke it somewhere else.

    Also, your rock-star idol Dawkins has explicitly apologized for some of the asinine remarks that you still seem intent on excusing. And his apology is further proof that you have not been honest about what he has said.

  51. says

    Alex Gabriel (#55):

    Perhaps you are unaware of just how much the psychology and sexuality of a pedophile is distorted from what would be considered an average perspective.

    I can tell you from first hand experience as an incest survivor that literally every thing I did while still in that household became a sexual act in my perpetrator’s eyes. A pedophile’s concept of what constitutes a “non-sexual” photograph of a child is far narrower than that of anyone else.

    Perhaps you are also unfamiliar with how parents who post nude or partially nude photos of their own children on social media sites in the continent of North America can actually be investigated for child pornography as a result. Perhaps you’ve never known a minor who posted their own nude photos on alternative social media platforms, but I have (and when it hit me that this constitutes child pornography, I reported it so it would be removed from the site along with the young woman’s access). Perhaps you’ve also never known a minor who sought another person’s assistance for nude photography, either, but guess what? That was me at one time too, and nothing makes my skin crawl like hearing men old enough to be my father declaring “what I wouldn’t give to have seen those photos”.

    So yes, actually, you are doing a lot of playing around with an issue that has fairly serious consequences. That you can’t figure them out because you don’t have enough experience or expertise in the subject does not mean that they don’t exist.

  52. says

    @HaifischGeweint (#58)

    I’m aware of all those things. ‘Non-sexual (images)’ wasn’t a reference to images that weren’t viewed sexually, it was a reference to images where sex acts aren’t being performed/people aren’t being coerced/exploited/abused. If for example someone privately finds a poster for an upcoming children’s film erotic… I don’t particularly care. Whatever mental issues that might involve, I don’t think they’re issues of sexual ethics.

  53. Edward Gemmer says

    It’s pretty interesting to look at pedophilia. Someone attracted to children can’t really do much about it – so how much do you punish someone’s thoughts verses someone’s actions. It’s a difficult issue. I work with a lot of kids who have been abused and who have abused (with a lot of overlap there). People being attracted to this kind of stuff does make skins crawl, but that in and of itself isn’t something that seems worthy of judgment.

  54. says

    @HaifischGeweint (61)

    I think that was a perfectly solid, substantive response. If you don’t, you’re welcome to say why or leave the discussion – but if you can’t resist casting aspersions on how honestly I argue, please do the latter.

  55. says

    I’ve already made my thorough, well-reasoned argument. That you’re blatantly ignoring it in favour of your own framework doesn’t mean that I’m merely “casting aspersions”. Frankly, I find this entire interaction incredibly patronizing and distasteful at this point. Thanks for a giant waste of my time.

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