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Sep 13 2013

Dawkins has made the wrong apology – admirable, it still suggests he’s missed the point

Remember what I said about the Dawkins molestation controversy? ‘No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post’? Well… ahem.

In actual fact, Dawkins’ response to critics here isn’t all that extensive or hyperdefensive; it’s certainly better than what he churned out after ‘Dear Muslima‘ and the Islam debacle, and says some good things.

To excuse pedophiliac assaults in general, or to make light of the horrific experiences of others, was a thousand miles from my intention.

I should have hoped that much was obvious. But I was perhaps presumptuous in the last sentence of the paragraph quoted above. I cannot know for certain that my companions’ experiences with the same teacher were are brief as mine, and theirs may have been recurrent where mine was not. That’s why I said only “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. We discussed it among ourselves on many occasions, especially after his suicide, and there was indeed general agreement that his gassing himself was far more upsetting than his sexual depredations had been. If I am wrong about any particular individual; if any of my companions really was traumatised by the abuse long after it happened; if, perhaps it happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that I endured, I apologise.

That’s a sincere, convincing mea culpa. I was glad to read it.

I’m not in love with his indignation at being, as he would have it, misread at every juncture – as I’ve written before, making himself understood is his job. Nor do I buy the notion, festooned across his Twitter feed, that those objecting to his statements – several anti-abuse organisations, slews of commenters at press outlets that covered this, hundreds of signatories petitioning for his comments’ retraction – must be chasing blog hits, attention-seeking or feel desperate to be offended. All bloggers want traffic, but why shouldn’t we take household names to task who say things we dislike, and what makes that dislike so difficult to find sincere?

This isn’t a notpology, all the same. It’s sensitive, shows tentativeness in an emotional-discursive minefield and takes responsibility: in other words, Greta’s to be precise, it’s the reason we speak out on things like this. I’m glad it was written; I’m glad to have read it; it’s an excellent step.

Still though, I’m not satisfied – because while I think this was a genuine, serious apology, I also think it was the wrong apology.

Saying this will, I realise, piss people off. I don’t wish to flog a dead horse or seem, moreover, like there’s no pleasing me, but as Dawkins’ post acknowledges, these issues matter. In Jason Thibeault’s excellent anatomy of an apology, he holds step one to be ‘Identify the problem’. While very admirably pitched, the passage above and its statement fail to note, as Dawkins tends to when under fire, the thrust of those critiques they’re meant to address.

Three main problems, by my count, were drawn out from his statements on abuse.

1. He said he doesn’t, and we can’t, ‘condemn [molesters] of an earlier era by the standards of ours’.
2. He presumed to know how much harm other victims’ abuse did them, or how harmful any given act of abuse might be.
3. He suggested harm done by abuse correlates directly with how much we should condemn it.

The latter two objections in particular are, for me, the major ones – and charitable as I want to be, I can’t say Dawkins’ statement addresses any of these issues. Parts of it, in fact, make matters worse.

Before the apology I quote, he says (emphasis mine):

Now, given the terrible, persistent and recurrent traumas suffered by other people when abused as children, week after week, year after year, what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? Should I have lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and called down posthumous disgrace upon his head?

No, no and no. To have done so 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. To have done so would have invited the justifiably indignant response: “How dare you make a fuss about the mere half minute of gagging unpleasantness that happened to you only once, and where the perpetrator was not your own father but a teacher who meant nothing special to you in your life. Stop playing the victim. Stop trying to upstage those who really were tragic victims in their own situations. Don’t cry wolf about your own bad experience, because it undermines those whose experience was – and remains – so much worse.”

Consider what he’s actually telling us here: that if someone assaulted just the same way he was did call it the worst thing that had happened to them, if they did name and shame the teacher, they’d have no right to, because this lasted only 30 seconds in the 1950s; that telling them not to ‘fuss’ about it due to that, and because the teacher wasn’t a loved one, would be ‘justifiably indignant’; that telling them to ‘stop playing the victim’, and not to ‘upstage those who really tragic victims’ (in other words, telling them they weren’t really a victim) would be ‘justifiably indignant’; that saying their expression of grievance undermined ‘those whose experience was… much worse’ would be ‘justifiably indignant’.

In other words, that if a given sexual assault is committed against you, there’s only a set amount of harm it might do – only, consequently, a set amount of pain that can permissibly be felt; only a set amount it can be voiced. This is fucked up.

Emotional trauma isn’t like physical trauma, where certain incidents inflict certain amounts. We can’t describe one assault empirically as more injurious in psychological terms than another, the way a traffic collision does more damage than a paper cut. Feelings aren’t facts: not every woman who experiences rape, as The New Inquiry‘s Charlotte Shane writes in a column everyone should read, considers it the worst moment of her life; some people who’ve been groped, by the same token, very much do view it that way – and both these responses to abuse are valid. How I feel about my sexual assault, and I’m afraid I don’t speak hypothetically, has no bearing on how others need feel about theirs, nor should it. A set transgression doesn’t cause, by definition, a fixed amount of emotional harm, nor deserve a fixed amount amount of sympathy.

If any of Dawkins’ classmates ‘really was traumatised by the abuse’, he writes, he apologises – only to then imply this would require it ‘happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that [he] endured’. It wouldn’t – it would only require different people, subject to the same abuse, to feel differently about it. The paragraph in which he chides his parallel self for naming the teacher, ‘making a fuss’, ‘playing the victim’ and ‘crying wolf’, as well as trying to ‘upstage’ other survivors, reminds me strongly of ‘Dear Muslima‘, his note to Rebecca Watson that since women elsewhere were stoned to death or mutilated, she had no right to complain of being followed into a lift and propositioned. It’s not a competition, and that it wouldn’t bother him need not suggest it shouldn’t bother her. Dawkins apologises for presuming to know the details of other people’s abuse – physical acts, their frequency, their duration – but not for presuming to know the harm it caused, because he draws no distinction.

The reason we condemn things like rape, abuse, harassment and assault isn’t that they necessarily traumatise people – they don’t, necessarily – it’s that they cross lines of consent however the victim feels. Not everyone minds being touched by strangers, shouted at in the street or subject to uninvited sexual comments; sometimes people enjoy sex to which they didn’t consent. This doesn’t make it acceptable: it’s still abusive to assume someone’s consent, even if correctly; to treat them as an object sans personhood, to view their body by entitlement as yours rather than theirs. Elevator Guy assumed the right to follow Watson into an enclosed space hard to escape and proposition her, with no reason to think she’d be comfortable with that and reason to think otherwise; Dawkins’ teacher assumed the right to touch his students sexually, with no reason to think they consented and reason to think otherwise. These actions would still cross ethical lines if Dawkins and Watson had been fine with them – what counts is that the perpetrators had no grounds to assume so.

I’m glad Dawkins made this statement. I’m glad that, for once, he took his critics seriously and replied to them in earnest. I’m glad he offered an apology – not something I’d expected, frankly refreshing and a definite positive step. I don’t say for a moment that it’s worth nothing. But nor, while I don’t it want it to seem he can do nothing good in my eyes, was it the right apology: admirable and well intentioned, it still suggests he’s missed the point.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Ace of Sevens

    THat, plus he seems to think his critics were criticizing him for not being more traumatized.

  2. 2
    Ichthyic

    this was well thought out and presented. Hopefully, those reading it who objected vehemently to the critique of Dawkins original words on the matter will consider it.

  3. 3
    Jafafa Hots

    I took it as pretty much a notpology… explained my reasoning on Greta Christina’s blog.
    I do think that if anything it’s a tiny step because he deigned to acknowledge criticism at all and attempt to explain himself, but it read to me as simply a restatement of what he’d said, as if we simply didn’t understand him – whereas it’s he who doesn’t understand the criticism.

  4. 4
    Delft

    if any of my companions really was traumatised by the abuse long after it happened; if, perhaps it happened many times and amounted to more than the single disagreeable but brief fondling that I endured, I apologise.

    I took this to mean both that someone could have been traumatised by the same experience, or they could have different experiences with the same abuser. I would have liked this to be clearer, but I think it’s a start on 2 which is the main issue for me.
    I don’t think condemning people is a good idea, as explained on first post.
    And while I’m with you on 3 philosophically, it’s only human to judge actions by their consequences. If you drive tipsy twice and once you get home without incident, once you kill someone – although it’s the same offense, you will feel different about the second, and so will others.

    I’m glad he saw the need to apologise. And as we all have slightly different positions, perhaps nothing is going to satisfy everyone.

  5. 5
    sailor1031

    I’m sorry if you were offended by Professor Dawkins’ apology.

  6. 6
    khms

    3. He suggested harm done by abuse correlates directly with how much we should condemn it.

    It’s fairly uncontroversial, on several levels.

    * We assign different sentences to different crimes, mainly on the basis that some tend to do more harm than others.

    * We often assign more or less severe sentences to the same kind of crime based on the amount of harm the specific example did.

    Both of these are routinely applied in courts, for all kinds of crimes.

    Emotional trauma isn’t like physical trauma, where certain incidents inflict certain amounts.

    I don’t think so, as long as you compare apples to apples.

    The main problem is that you can’t actually see the emotional trauma. So you need to compare it to a situation where you can’t see the physical trauma.

    For example, a specific kind of car accident. Some drivers will need to go straight to the ICU, others will just walk away. Some heal up and are done with it, but even some who walked away may later have long-lasting consequences that just weren’t obvious immediately. Sounds to me pretty close to how you describe emotional trauma.

    The important difference isn’t that it doesn’t follow similar rules, it’s that it is hard to see what is going on. We have no X-ray or MRI for emotional trauma. We’re essentially at the level of the doctor poking you and asking if that hurts.

    Which is one of Dawkins’ important mistakes: he assumes that he can know what is going on in those other’s minds, just based on talking to them, as a complete layperson.

    Not that that isn’t an assumption many people make, starting with the fact that we need this assumption to be able to handle social contact. And in the standard situations, it usually is at least fairly close.

    Unfortunately, for the exact same reason we’re bad at diagnosing trauma, we’re also bad at recognizing the situations where we’re not competent enough to figure things out. Sort of endemic Dunning-Kruger.

  7. 7
    carlie

    The reason we condemn things like rape, abuse, harassment and assault isn’t that they necessarily traumatise people – they don’t, necessarily – it’s that they cross lines of consent however the victim feels.

    And we have that codified in law. In violent crimes, the state can prosecute even if the victim does not want to press charges, because there is an understanding that it’s a bad thing to let people hurt others even if an individual victim doesn’t care about being hurt. It’s interesting that the people who display legalese fetishes about accusations and innocence and evidence and whatnot don’t pick up on that.

  8. 8
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    So, his main concern is still not to “disgrace” the teacher? That teacher should be disgraced. He should have been disgraced back in the 1950′s, he didn’t deserve to be a teacher. Dawkins is still actively protecting the perpetrator and putting the non-existent needs of a dead man above the needs of victims od abuse in the 1950′s. It’s not like nobody knew that fondling kids was wrong in the 1950′s.

    +++
    khma

    * We assign different sentences to different crimes, mainly on the basis that some tend to do more harm than others.

    That’s not true. The main difference between murder and manslaughter isn’t the harm done. And whether you’re stealing a purse with 50 bucks or 500 bucks hardly matters at all

  9. 9
    B-Lar

    I admire your charitable reading. I was unable to do the same.

    The whole thing smacked of: Let me explain one more time why you shouldn’t be offended when I say things that are offensive to you, a la “I should have hoped that much was obvious”, “that’s why I said only…”. I also suspect that this apology came about under pressure from people who Dawkins does actually care about offending… His publishers and direct donors.

    Dawkins really is very good with science. Organising his thoughts elegantly and making compelling arguments based on facts. If only he realised that to make statements about anything else, the same level of research and care must be taken to avoid looking like an old irrelevant ignoramus.

  10. 10
    Pitchguest

    Give it a rest, Alex. Dawkins doesn’t need to conform to your standards. Just accept that he did apologise and be content with that.

  11. 11
    Al Dente

    For once Dawkins attempted to apologize for saying something harmful to others. His attempt was close but missed for the reasons Alex explained above. Maybe, just maybe, Dawkins is beginning to realize his opinions are not facts and other people can hold different opinions for valid reasons.

  12. 12
    infiniteartsupplies

    You seem to have an obsession with Richard Dawkins, Alex. He was groped as a schoolboy and got over it. And so should you. You are young and smart and I look forward to better, more incisive posts from you which say something meaningful to the wider atheist/skeptic community. So, please, stop pc-attention-whoring as a newbie on ftb. You don’t need it. Sorry. Ban me if you want.

    We already have PZ.

  13. 13
    Alex Gabriel

    @infiniteartsupplies (#9)

    Read this blog, or don’t. I don’t mind. But you don’t get to tell me what (not) to write about.

    You don’t get to tell me (or any victim of assault) to ‘get over it’, if that’s what you meant; or to get over Dawkins’ comments.

    You don’t get to tell me I’m obsessed with him because I’ve criticised him in several blog posts.

    You don’t get to tell me my posts aren’t meaningful; if that’s what you think, you’re welcome to it, but I don’t give a fuck.

    You don’t accuse me of mere attention-seeking (particularly when I address that in this very post), especially in misogynistic language.

    So yes: I want.

  14. 14
    Edward Gemmer

    I think the issue is the way you present on this. It kind of comes out as obsessing about Richard Dawkins character, instead of tackling the actual issues presented. It is perfectly fine to use his comments as a jumping off point for substantive discussion, but this attempt to make it all about his psyche just seems kind of weird.

  15. 15
    steve oberski

    I don’t think that it necessarily follows from Dawkins comment what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? that he implies that no one else can claim they suffered more damage than Dawkins did from 30 seconds of molestation.

    I think he is referring to his own specific case and is not generalizing to other cases.

    I agree that it is indeed his job to make himself understood but I think we are reaching the point where it would take super human literary powers to craft a response that would pass unscathed through the gauntlet of eagle eyed reviewers.

  16. 16
    Alex Gabriel

    @steve oberski (#12)

    Note, as I say, the reaction he says would be justified if he had claimed to be seriously upset by the incident. It follows that he thinks that would be justified for anyone else who said that about such an incident.

  17. 17
    frankb

    think the issue is the way you present on this. It kind of comes out as obsessing about Richard Dawkins

    I believe this is called tone trolling. The usual answer for this, “Your concern has been noted.”

    I should also point out that Dawkins has made a number of statements about this over the years and in different venues. Alex has writen one short blog entry and he is the one obsessed?

  18. 18
    Alex Gabriel

    Three medium ones, actually – but nonetheless.

  19. 19
    Edward Gemmer

    I should also point out that Dawkins has made a number of statements about this over the years and in different venues. Alex has writen one short blog entry and he is the one obsessed?

    A better way to put it is that the articles suggest that the real problem isn’t child abuse, but rather how Richard Dawkins feels about child abuse. Which is silly.

  20. 20
    scimaths

    Jafafa Hots

    but it read to me as simply a restatement of what he’d said, as if we simply didn’t understand him – whereas it’s he who doesn’t understand the criticism.

    This is exactly it. He misunderstands – and misrepresents the criticism. He is still not listening or genuinely engaging with those who know what they’re talking about here.

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    […] becomes relevant. In recent bouts of antipathy toward him, those of us who criticised Richard Dawkins were described at times as nobodies seeking attention, trying to manufacture drama or rebuking him […]

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    Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful » Godlessness in Theory

    […] pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse’, he’d tweeted, an idea I blogged about last year. ‘Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse’, he added, which Ashley Miller has […]

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