‘What’s truth got to do with it?’ On Bennett’s History Boys and contrarianism

‘So,’ asks antagonistic teacher Irwin in The History Boys, ‘our overall conclusion is that the origins of the Second War lie in the unsatisfactory outcome of the First?’ Yes say his students, hearts set on a place at Oxbridge. ‘First class. Bristol welcomes you with open arms. Manchester longs to have you. You can walk into Leeds. But I am a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and I’ve just read seventy papers all saying the same thing – and I’m asleep.’

‘But it’s all true’, Anglican, piano-playing Scripps insists.

‘What’s truth got to do with it? What’s truth got to do with anything?’

Irwin (Stephen Campbell Moore in the 2006 film) has been hired by the school’s headmaster to teach strategy and flair. Where Richard Griffiths’ Hector teaches literature and general studies, cultivating cultural know-how, Irwin’s field is scholastic élan – the gameplaying cunning, style and nerve for academic triumph. To this end he prizes the unorthodox, slating the boys’ first essays as competent-but-dull, lauding originality above all else, less fond of lofty truism than contentious pith.

‘Happy to opine the esoteric point of view’, as an English teacher wrote when I was twelve, my natural inclination is to break consensus, dogged sometimes among peers with the repute of always having to be different – I confess I carry something of a torch, then, for Irwin’s style.

For fellow teacher Hector, though – older, tweedier, more humane, for whom the Holocaust can never be discussed in theory, only condemned ‘as an unprecedented horror’ – this is anathema. That Irwin has no forename where Hector has two (his real first name Douglas, his surname never uttered) is not coincidental: Irwin is the coolly rational querdenker, his teaching style distanced and sanuine, Hector the amicable schoolmaster of old, vocationally invested in his students’ lives and passions, as personal as his colleague isn’t. While Irwin’s pedagogy is strategic and goal-oriented, Hector is through and through a humanist, beloved of the Renaissance, deeming knowledge for its own sake precious, aiming for ’rounded individuals’ regardless of Oxbridge success.

Hector’s feelings toward his students are unsurprisingly just as romantic as his view of teaching. ‘The transmission of knowledge is itself an erotic act’, he pleads to the headmaster when it comes to light he touches the boys (18 or 19) sexually while giving motorcycle lifts, and isn’t without a point, at least in Bennett’s universe. Inasmuch as Hector receives no outright consent, his actions are unethical, but nor would it quite be true to call them one-sided, predatory acts of abuse. Earlier scenes show the boys collectively recognise the bike rides’ erotic function, taking turns quite voluntarily on Hector’s saddle in this knowledge, subtly negotiating the touching’s extent, viewing it almost at times as a rite of passage: Posner, 17, is refused a ride because underage, classmates explain to him, and Hector’s offering rides home seems to work less deceptively than as a coded invitation, understood by all involved.

The homoerotic is the default sexual mode in Bennett’s classroom, where Posner wants rakish, charismatic Dakin (communicating this in song form at one point), Dakin wants Irwin, Irwin wants Dakin and Scripps expresses mild enthusiasm for this pair. Beyond Dakin’s rather perfunctory pursuit of secretary Fiona, the only heterosexual moments in the play are simulated, as Posner, Scripps and others roleplay as Bette Davis and Paul Henreid in Now Voyager, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter and the occupants of an imaginary French-speaking brothel. Straightness here if nowhere else is enacted, artificial, false; gay attractions, an unvarnished truth the boys discuss matter-of-factly. Perhaps for this reason, Irwin finds himself ‘scared shitless’ at the play’s end when offered sex explicitly by Dakin – by far more closeted than Hector, by far more diffident in sex and life than in his teaching, Irwin has no aptitude for plain or non-strategic truths.

The two’s mutual attraction on the other hand, formed largely around classroom brinkmanship and Dakin’s urge to please his tutor, reveals Irwin shares privately some of Hector’s romanticism – that cynicism notwithstanding, the scholastic passing on of truth is erotic for him too. His teaching, though savvy, sanguine and unsentimental, does turn out to be about the truth: moments after admonishing Scripps on the First World War’s significance, he gives the following much-quoted speech, which no doubt I’ll reach for again come Remembrance Day:

‘The truth was in 1914, Germany doesn’t want war. Yeah, there’s an arms race, but it’s Britain who’s leading it. So why does no one admit this? [Pointing to a monument] That’s why. The dead – the body count. We don’t like to admit the war even partly our fault, ’cause so many of our people died, and all the mourning’s veiled the truth: it’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.’

Where Hector deals in subjective abstractions about knowledge, love and the best moments in reading, Bennett’s most convincingly incisive lines belong all to Irwin. ‘Our perspective on the past alters’, he says defending dispassionate dissection of the Holocaust, ‘and looking back immediately in front of us is dead ground. We don’t see it, and because we don’t see it this means there is no period so remote as the recent past.’ ‘While they had no artistic merit’, he says, the Carry On films deserve attention since ‘they achieve some of the permanence of art simply by persisting, and acquire incremental significance if only as social history’. ‘If you want to learn about Mrs. Thatcher’, he says, ‘study Henry VIII.’ His contrarianism isn’t empty or inauthentic, it’s a means of happening on astute deductions.

In my second year at university, producing passable but uninspired papers, I had a tutor very much like Irwin – twentysomething, filled with sarcasm and benign derision, tactical to the point of artistry in essay-writing guidance. Despite his megalomanic tendencies, or perhaps because of them, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t (like Dakin) mildly besotted, and as it turned out he came very close to being my single most effective tutor. Obeying expectation either in choice of text, citation or argument was emphatically discouraged, his entire discursive praxis one of counter-valence. This became, as it is for Bennett’s character, epistemology more than just strategy: find every theory’s flaws, dissent from it however possible and build a new approach inside the cracks. Cracks in established thinking are where progress forms, and no academy could advance without them being scanned for constantly.

Contrarianism isn’t lazy, it’s instructive: no better way exists of finding out an ivory tower’s weak spots than by banging one’s head incessantly against its walls. We crucify facile reactionaries – Melanie Phillips, Katie Hopkins, Brendan O’Neill – and are right to do so, but the c-word is a title they’ve yet to earn, aspiring to it perhaps as Bennett’s head does to move up the league table. The best contrarians (Goldman, Orwell, Huxley, Hitchens) have shone argument in all directions, emerging all the more effective for it. Conceived in the first instance as a villain, I wonder nonetheless if Irwin’s name deserves the same esteem – though, naturally, I would say that.

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Sexual orientation is not sexual identity: celebrating Bisexual Visibility Day

In the strict ranks of Gay and Straight
What is my status? Stray? Or great?
~Vikram Seth

Yesterday, I found out on waking up this morning, was Bisexual Visibility Day. A swathe of other FTBullies, from whose various posts and tweets I discovered this, have this topic covered from a range of angles: Ashley, Jen, Miri, Greta, Kate, Yemisi, Zinnia, perhaps others I’ve missed. The queer Freethought Blogs contingent (whose only male constituent I seem to be – oh, the oppression) tends strongly, it appears, toward bisexuality.

In common with Ashley, I don’t foremost call myself bisexual (adjective), though I might mention bisexuality (noun) being part of me. It’s not my view that sexuality in essential terms is what we are, but moreover I’m suspicious of the unstraight being made a positive value: queer is my term of preference since it names only exception, deviation, departure from a set of norms, and opposing those norms – the only reason I need name my sexuality at all – requires I acknowledge them. A choice between ‘gay’ and ‘bisexual’, in any case, is one I’m hesitant to make. Both could conceivably apply, but why the need to quantify my queerness? Would a less predominant interest in men, if ‘bisexual’ denoted that, be more acceptable than little or none in women? On the other hand, might gay identity be more straightforward, in the truest and most troubling sense? More problematically at ease with the idea folk who aren’t straight are all the same, a perverse undifferentiated mass?

I don’t know which identifier, should I adopt it, would play to a more heterosexist gallery. My own orientation’s details – I’m blasé in principle vis partners’ gender, but have cause to favour men in practice – provide me more choice here than many have, but we need to note, I think, the distinctness of the two. Sexual orientation is not sexual identity, and the latter often is in some sense chosen.

Picture for instance seven imaginary men, all of whom describe around 90 percent of their sexual attractions being to other men, and have in the past had sexual encounters with women they found to be somewhat satisfying if not to their preference.

  • Adam identifies as gay. Although he’s occasionally attracted to women, he considers these attractions trivial and unimportant. He strongly prefers sex and relationships with men, to the extent that while he might find a woman attractive, he has no real-world desire to act on it in any way.
  • Brendan identifies as bisexual. He feels that although he isn’t interested primarily in women, his attractions to them are still significant, and not to be swept under the rug. He’s found sex with women somewhat less enjoyable than sex with men to date, but doesn’t consider this a dealbreaker or see sex as central to his relationships, remaining open to seeing women.
  • Connor identities as straight. Strongly religious, he views same gender attractions and encounters as immoral, wishing to ‘maximise his heterosexual potential‘. Although he found his previous experiences with men significantly more enjoyable than those with women, he wishes only to pursue the latter currently and in the future.
  • Daniel identifies as pansexual. Like Brendan, he’s open to sex or relationships with both men and women, and feels past experience needn’t inform his current attitude or sexual and romantic decision-making. Daniel, however, has also been with partners neither male nor female, and while in practice most often interested in men, feels on the whole indifferent gender.
  • Ewan identifies as asexual. He experiences sexual attraction in an abstract way, principally toward men, and has participated previously in sex and relationships due to expectation and social convention, but (while not adversely affected by the experience) didn’t gain enjoyment or fulfilment from this, and feels no desire for sex or romance in future.
  • Fraser identifies as queer. He feels similarly to Daniel, and has some things in common with most members of the group, having had partners with a range of identities. At the same time, he feels suspicious of any perceived need to identify himself positively. He tends to view all sexual and gender identities as somewhat artificial, and views himself simply as non-straight.
  • Graham spurns identifiers altogether, going one step further: he feels a strong sense of what he wants both sexually and romantically, but considers all labels outmoded and irrelevant, pursuing whichever partners he finds attractive without regard to identifying himself in any pre-existing terms.

One basic orientation here, shared by all those listed, finds expression in various distinct sexual identities: there is no categorical sexual ‘difference’ between Adam, Brendan and Chris, except that their attitude to their own desire, how they conceptualise it and how it’s made explicit.

The opposite happens just as much, of course, as single identifiers mean a multitude of things. Adam no doubt knows gay men with somewhat different orientations from his – Adrian, for example, might have more than trivial interest in women but identify as gay rather than bi; Andrew might find seeing a woman inconceivable. Likewise, straight people in Connor’s life might be a mixture of those with zero interest in their own gender and heteroflexible ‘mostly straights’ with a certain, small amount.. Ewan’s asexual best friend Eric, moreover, might not experience sexual attraction, while mutual friend Elliott might be ‘grey A‘, desiring sex only in particular, exceptional circumstances, perhaps primarily with women and not men.

As taxonomising, empirical classifications these identities work far less well, then, than they do as social signifiers. Terms like MSM have been devised to circumvent sexual labels’ ambiguity, but that ambiguity only gets more severe in light of wider factors. How does the relative historic broadness of the term ‘lesbian’ affect identities’ unclearness in female contexts, corresponding to the ones above? How might more complex genders, under the trans* umbrella specifically, muddy the waters? How do historical terms in general play into this scheme – what equivalencies do we draw (if any), for example, between identifiers like those above and now-defunct ones like Uranian or Sodomite? Between them, alternately, and ones outside white-Western conceptions of gender or desire – hijra, Two-spirit, bissu? How do we negotiate identifiers’ different valences today, as they alter across lines of politics, location, age? There comes a point when not much stock can be put in what people call themselves.

This isn’t to say, as the case for universal bisexuality has at times, that what labels people choose to use don’t matter, or aren’t to be acknowledged and respected. (We in polysexual circles ought to know better, identities we don being routinely delegitimised. Sexual identifiers need, I think, the deference we give chosen pronouns.) It is to say, however, that they don’t tell us as much as we might think. Numbers of self-identified bisexuals now are limited in the same way numbers of self-described trans men were limited in 1430 – identities which have no social currency aren’t commonly assumed – but that someone might denote themselves gay, straight or variations thereupon is no assurance, certainly no guarantee, they lack broader potential of any kind. Bisexuals’ visibility matters a lot; bisexuality’s as such matters still more, and this is one way to unearth it.

Extendable tethers: skeptidrama and a lesson from Project Runway

If you haven’t read Greta Christina’s thoughtful, extrapolative recaps of Project Runway, the U.S. fashion-based reality series, you should – whether or not you’re a follower of fashion, talent shows or trash culture at large. Rifling through someone’s rubbish bins, as the tabloid press’s urban foxes will confirm, can be the fastest means of learning sordid truths about them; likewise, our culture’s attitudes to sex work, womanhood and cutthroatism show up most clearly crawling through its trash, and Greta’s posts dissect them. At present she’s in ‘writer hibernation’ working on her upcoming book, but since this week’s Runway offered a powerful lesson in conflict-response – one which brought various Deep Rifts and in-fights to mind – I thought I’d salute an absent friend.

Sitting comfortably? Let’s recite the parable of Ken Laurence, Runway‘s latest eliminee.

Placing last in a task where outfits had to be made for series fans rather than models, Ken went home in the tenth and last episode of the current series. The dress he gave the woman paired with him, an olive green above-the-knee affair, might feasibly have worked but was crammed with problems: its neckline was neither here nor there, caught as judges noted between plunging and scooping, its shoulders either side discordantly broad, faced with gunge-green leather; this same leather formed branching accent lines of inconsistent length on the dress’s front, which cut awkwardly across the wearer’s chest without continuing onto the back half; the garment’s length seemed slightly off, hem hovering in an odd place, its colour a touch-and-go choice. (Ken claimed his client insisted on the olive while he hated it, something both footage and her recap of the episode dispute; he now claims to have thrown the challenge so as to go home. Nor do I buy this: his dress seemed less than good, but not bad by design.)

By the time he left, Ken had placed quite consistently at the competition’s lower end. Barring a sudden, great leap forward, he probably couldn’t have won – but it wasn’t just due to his work that I’d spent weeks awaiting his departure. Throughout the series, Ken showed a disturbing, threatening attitude to those around him.

When another designer early on was angry, aggressive and abusive toward a colleague, Ken responded in kind; irrespective of how justified this was, and I wasn’t at the time unsympathetic, this inflamed an already heated, potentially dangerous situation. Teamed with two fellow contestants, one of whose technical skills seemed limited, Ken spent the challenge broadcasting his views of her uselessness – including to the series’ host and at length to its judges, covering his back when the group’s designs were slated – instead of working to keep the team afloat. When his individual work was criticised, he was often silent and contemptuous; when judge Heidi Klum disliked a dress of his, in particular, he fixed an intense, menacing stare on her which made her ask uncomfortably if he was ‘giving [her] a look’. (He didn’t respond.) When he made unpleasant comments to Helen, another designer, and she told him he was crazy, he replied she’d be crazy ‘if I come the fuck over there’ – a statement she very reasonably took as a threat, telling production staff she felt unsafe and prompting them to say they’d keep an eye on him. (Soon after he apologised to Helen. While she stated she felt it was genuine, his tone struck me as insincere, unremorseful and rehearsed.)

Finally, during the episode of his eventual elimination when fellow designer Alexander was moved into his room, attempting abrasively, presumptuously and insensitively to enter, Ken stood ironing in the doorway, intentionally obstructing him; once allowed in, Alexander shoved his ironing board aside and threw the iron across the room, at which Ken launched an extended, intense, threatening tirade against him and all nearby. Told by a production assistant to sit down, ‘take a breath’ and stay calm, he refused, continuing to swear aggressively at her, causing Alexander and another person to ‘run to [another] room, shut the door and lock it’. All other designers were shown next morning in the set’s green room, variously wearing sunglasses and under blankets, suggesting they hadn’t slept, where Ken flatly replied ‘I guess so’ when asked to discuss the night’s events with them. People moved previously into his room, Alexander among them, were separately accommodated, giving Ken his own multi-bed room, their placement together being deemed ‘too incendiary'; told he had ‘some anger management issues’, Ken seemed silent and contemptuous again, saying only that he ‘woke up fine’. Another contestant replied he didn’t, and that the group was ‘very shaken’, looking it himself. Helen worried about ‘another eruption’ and further ‘chaos’ when work resumed, but it nonetheless did, no further action being taken.

Ken’s elimination, so far as was shown, was due entirely to his lacklustre design. Despite his making others fear for their physical safety more than once, despite his apparently costing them sleep (and sleeplessness around sharp, hot, generally dangerous equipment is to be avoided) beside leaving them stressed and clearly nervous, despite his frequently lighting a match under heated situations in a stressful, strenuous environment, despite his absolute refusal to be calmed or learn from prior conflicts, no measures were taken against Ken, or for anyone else’s protection – had he managed a better outfit on the catwalk, he would still be in the competition. The biggest scandal here isn’t his conduct, it’s the failure of Project Runway‘s producers to address it.

Why did this happen? What made them fail to deal, in any clear way, with someone who was obviously, inarguably a danger to himself and others, as well as the competition’s smooth procedure? I’m fairly sure desire to manufacture drama played some part – less talented but provocative contestants being saved over proficient-but-demure competitors is a recognised phenomenon on series like this – but I can’t believe, even in mercenary U.S. TV producers, this would overpower all duties of care. Ken’s outburst this week should have been the final straw, but clearly wasn’t. However much he acted up, whatever the results, another chance was always given. People in charge, instinct tells me, never asked themselves what they’d penalise if not the actions at hand: they never counted their straws, not reaching the end of their tether, to switch metaphors, because they didn’t know where it was – or worse, because their tether had no end.

I’ve seen my past self doing much the same, and here skeptidrama 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 obsessively, finding any excuse to do so. In many cases, mine among them, this couldn’t be more distant from the truth: while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I ever heroised or idolised him, Dawkins was for a long time someone I admired strongly. His writing, however I might now appraise it, played a clear part in my leaving religion, lending me confidence I needed about living godlessly; my breath still catches when I read the extract on mortality from Unweaving the Rainbow, arguably his best book. My experience of work with his foundation was, though brief, broadly extremely positive, and its funds have gone to causes like QEDcon, Camp Quest UK and British Council of Ex-Muslims. I never wanted to knock Richard Dawkins’ views or conduct. Only in recent months have I become prepared to do so publicly, something which when I first did it spurred earnest fears of legal action in two colleagues. (Not, I should clarify, at Freethought Blogs.) As a consequence, like Project Runway’s makers and Ken Laurence, I gave him far too many breaks.

I let ‘Dear Muslima‘ go, when Dawkins trivialised and dismissed a woman’s discomfort at an unwelcome proposition. I let his statement ‘I’m not saying anything about her‘ go when asked this June if, two years later, he stood by his comments – refusing even to acknowledge or condemn the violent threats directed at her after her complaint, many of them from fans of his. Before that, I let his part in setting up a private, £18,000-a-year university with A.C. Grayling go. (This came a time of higher education’s stepped-up privatisation and marketisation. New College of the Humanities, the resultant university, belongs to only a handful of private ones in the UK.) I let his stated contempt for sociology go, despite the college’s name, along with his epistemological dismissal of philosophy and animus, based seemingly on very little knowledge, for anything he deemed ‘postmodernist’ – the latter especially ironic in the face of meme theory. (What is the notion social topoi self-perpetuate with no prior logic, if not fundamentally postmodern? Certainly not groundbreaking or new when Dawkins stated it.) I let his blind spot for the Church of England’s failings go, in particular its and Rowan Williams’ collusion with reprehensible Anglicans outside of Britain, and his strange affection for its schools; I let it go when I heard him say in 2011 that, should numbers ticking ‘Christian’ in that year’s census drop, the country’s Muslims might outnumber them, a fear as racist as it was ludicrously paranoid. I let his well-meant but unhelpful comments on non-monogamy go; I let his mocking anti-harassment policies go; I let his minimising sex abuse, years prior to this month’s controversy, go – in fact, I let his habitual use of child abuse, homophobia and violence against women as sticks with which to bash religion go, caring seemingly all too little for feminism, sexual politics or child protection on their own terms. I let his description of Atheism Plus (and certainly there are fair criticisms of it) as non-believers’ clearest mistake go, while saying nothing of the problems in our circles it aims to solve.

All this I tolerated. Each single grimace I saw as trivial, a minor misstep from a figure I admired, a caveat to my high regard for Dawkins which still didn’t outweigh it. In hindsight, that high regard blinkered me. How, I ask myself, did reaching the end of my tether take quite so long? That tether was, I answer, extendable: the admiration tying me to him stretched endlessly, mark of a Dickhead, whatever Dawkins did. However flawed, unwieldy or appalling his behaviour, however far he strayed from my core standards, tension never tugged at me. The tether of limitless patience, by which I clung to a figure I respected however far he went, whatever territory he entered, gave and gave.

This surfeit of tolerance wasn’t skeptical. It certainly wasn’t rational. In the cold light of day, I’m embarrassed to have erred so colossally. I’m not convinced, though, that it stemmed solely from hero-worship – I never thought of Dawkins as a hero to begin with, and I’ve seen the phenomenon elsewhere (not just Project Runway, either). On one basis or another, several friends this summer considered leaving secular bodies they had links to; some did, others didn’t, but in each case the deciding question was whether the end of their tether had been reached. Some had stayed put up to that point, and felt unsure, since they hadn’t asked themselves that question; not having had cause to ask themselves before what would be too much, they lacked a clear sense of whether the issues to hand were.

We don’t, in general, like asking this of ourselves – burning bridges of important personal or social value is a form of conflict to which most of us feel reasonably averse, so contemplating it is less than comfortable. Defining boundaries of foundational relationships, asking what would end ones we rely on for stable environs or identities, means thinking of them ending, and that thought means psychic dissonance – craving by instinct their preservation while rehearsing their demise. We need to do so, though: need to ask, when those we admire disappoint us, what would bring our admiration to an end; need to ask, dissatisfied by organisations, when we’d leave them, just as Runway‘s producers should have asked when they’d axe Ken. The option, otherwise, may never be available.

If you won’t consider when to sever ties, there’s a strong chance you never will. When we value an association, but the associates at hand don’t meet our standards, cognitive instinct can at times prefer the former: we opt not to dwell emotionally on their transgressions, tolerating them in practice if condemning them in theory, as was true both of me and Dawkins and of Ken on Runway – making our standards, almost axiomatically, stretchier, more flexible, less taut or rigid. There has to be a limit here of which we’re conscious: our tether must have an end and we must know where it is, because if not, we’ll never reach it. Our tethers of tolerant, patient approval will become extendable and limitless, our standards so flexible they hold no shape or form. If Project Runway‘s taught us anything, it’s that shapelessness seldom looks good.

Stray thoughts on niqab-related tussles

I don’t care for ‘Islamophobia': it names a multitude of sins, but more than the odd virtue too, and politics seldom gains from too-broad terms. That said, Daniel Trilling’s latest column at the Rationalist Association site (he’s New Humanist‘s new editor) says excellent things on the recent media storm over niqab-clad women.

A defendant currently on trial in London, if you hadn’t heard about it, has been permitted to wear hers in court while removing it to give evidence, face shielded from public view by a screen but visible to judge, jury and lawyers. (‘The defendant, who cannot be identified,’ BBC News reports mischievously, ‘was present for the hearing.’) A Birmingham Sixth Form college, meanwhile, has revised its dress code after pressure to allow niqab.

Writes Trilling, among other things:

The National Secular Society opposes “a general ban on the wearing of the burka and niqab”, but states that “religious freedom is not absolute” and supports certain requirements to remove a face veil in situations where people need to be identified. Precisely which situations, how these are negotiated, and whether people are being treated fairly and without being stigmatised, seem to me to be the real areas for debate.

It seems on the face of it a sensible line to take. Discussions like this always call for degrees of nuance, so like him, I’ll avoid skindeep demands and outline some instincts that shape my thinking.

  • I’m don’t believe in ‘religious freedom’ as a category unto itself, the ‘right to manifest religion’ being one example. There are no religious rights or freedoms, as such: there are secular rights and freedoms (of thought, speech and assembly, say) which at times find religious expression. One such right, it seems to me, is not having one’s clothing unduly policed.
  • Demands ‘face coverings’ be banned in public, Tory MP Philip Hollobone’s among them, seem clear products of the so-called War on Terror’s Hobbesian domestic politics, obsessed with fatuous ‘security’ concerns. Could you tell a friend in detail, if asked, about the faces of passers-by when last you went to buy milk or strolled to work? Did you even eye them that closely, or feel a burning need to view them? If not, what does this say about the widespread urge to view niqab-wearers’ faces?
  • My general presumption thus would be not to proscribe items of clothing. Certain specific contexts do exist, however, where we justifiably require faces’ visibility – in passport photographs, banks or while taking exams, for instance. (During my university finals, student cards were placed on desks to be compared with owners’ faces by invigilators.) The question then, as Trilling states, is which contexts qualify.
  • Incidentally: should we assume any woman in a niqab considers its removal an unthinkable sacrilege? Many no doubt do; there are also those, I’d imagine, who find it viable enough if unpreferable, or else not a matter of huge importance. Veiled women: not homogenous or undifferentiated.
  • Relatedly: niqabs are not burqas. Here are the former, predominantly Middle Eastern; here are the latter, predominantly South Asian. So-called Muslim cultures from all around the world: not interchangeable.
  • Also: why the media’s constant reference to ‘the niqab’/’the burqa’, as if only one exists? Veils, and women wearing them, are plural.
  • Also: a little over three million Muslims, half of them presumably female, live in France where veils have been publicly banned since 2011. Around 2000 women according to the Independent‘s coverage of the Sixth Form college story, and certainly a very small minority, wear this version of hijab. Why have veil-wearing Muslim women, making up only a tiny, highly conservative fraction of the populace at large, been used so emblematically of Muslims in the West by media there?
  • The question of whether or to what extent niqab (or hijab more broadly) is a ‘choice’ is not binary. ‘Choice’ is complex and has degrees and counter-valances; if you want to read about that, see Marwa Berro’s guest post here on Lady Gaga and veils.
  • This whole discussion is complex, in fact, and needs to involve who are Muslims, ex-Muslims and who’ve worn hijab – as Zakia Uddin argues persuasively here.
  • France’s anti-veil laws have, it seems to me, had penetratingly dire results.
  • All sides in the current British controversy appear to want a ‘definitive answer’ from government on the status of niqab ‘bans’, one way or the other, which seems to hint at legislation on the issue. I am unconvinced, especially in the courtroom and college contexts, that this is a good idea, as I’m often unconvinced demands for new legislation are worthwhile.
  • In educational settings, it seems to me niqab-related issues might best be dealt with case-by-case. It’s conceivable potential risks of students covering their faces might vary strongly between schools (are ‘security’ concerns over covered faces more valid, perhaps, at Birmingham’s inner-city colleges than small-sized grammar schools in leafy Buckinghamshire?), and different teachers might feel differently about veils’ impact on lessons. (Could staff legitimately ask, for example, to see students’ faces for while teaching them? Probably, yes – on the other hand, individuals’ discomfort on being made to remove veils or tense group dynamics as a result might stop that being worth it, or cause teachers to think carefully about whether, or how uncompromisingly, to set down that rule.)
  • In court, as in the classroom if not more so, facial expressions matter greatly. Though we don’t bar the blind or partially sighted from jury service, those who do serve are presumably told as objectively as possible of testifiers’ expressions – certainly, we wouldn’t hold court with the lights out. In the current case, of course, jurors and court officials can still see the defendant’s face, so perhaps the point is moot. While we do let individuals give evidence in silhouette, this presumably requires special circumstances: religious faith alone, as far as I can see, shouldn’t qualify. There may perhaps be issues of comfort here too, since insisting garments held sacred be removed could quite conceivably place witnesses under added stress, thus biasing proceedings – this seems, though, like a reason for the kind of reasonable accommodation currently on offer. (Do members of the public have the same right as the jury to see all participants’ faces? I would say not.)
  • In either case above, existing laws allow over-draconian rulings to be challenged quite sufficiently. My sense is that any case for niqabs’ allowance based specifically on legislation to that effect, and not on any broader principle of human rights or personal autonomy, would deserve dismissal, as does UK Christian groups’ demand for a specific, legally enshrined right to wear crosses.

Those are my thoughts. I might have missed no end of things of course, and my stance here isn’t set in stone, so what are you yours?

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011’s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

A shaggy dog (s)tory: MP responds to right-of-protest letter with ‘dangerous dogs’ concern

Some weeks ago I signal-boosted Jonathan Lindsell’s excellent, incisive commentary on media rape culture.

He’s written on a range of other topics at Haywire Thought, Liberal Conspiracy and other places – including, the day before that, the further erosion of Britons’ right to protest in a post which ought to have made more waves than it did.

After writing it, Jonathan in his own words ‘calmed down and wrote a measured, balanced, meticulously-researched open letter‘ to his Member of Parliament, Conservative Jeremy Wright – also Minister for Prisons and a lawyer by training – which set out at length the horrifying details of the forthcoming Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill.

On being sent this letter, Wright sent back the following.

Dear Mr Lindsell,

Thank you for contacting me about the recent consultation on maximum prison Sentences for Dog Attacks Causing Injury or Death.

Dog attacks can be terrifying and I believe that we should have appropriate penalties to punish those who allow their dog to injure people while out of control. Ministers recently announced changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act as partof the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. Those measures including extending the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 to private property and providing protection from prosecution for householders whose dogs attack intruders in the home.

I believe that the measures that the Government is introducing are a proportionate, measured response that will improve the way in which irresponsible dog ownership is addressed and help to prevent further attacks. In particular, the provisions in the Bill already deal with exactly the type of problems that would be dealt with by dog control notices.

I am pleased that the Government undertook a conseultation before the next Parliamentary stage of the Bill, on a change to the maximum sentence for allowing an aggravated dog attack, namely where a person or an assistance dog is injured or killed by a dog. The Government will consider all responses and issue a response taking in to account the points raised. I do not wish to prejudge the outcome of the consultation as I believe this process is the best avenue to allow interested parties to raise their concerns regarding the specific policy.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Yours sincerely, Jeremy Wright MP

To quote Jonathan’s post about this:

My criticisms of the ASBCP bill [prizes for anyone who can make a catchy acronym] were:

  • the bill made it near-impossible to get compensation for miscarriage of justice
  • the bill’s IPNAs [super-ASBOs] gave police too much power with too much subjective discretion
  • the bill’s  PSPOs [dispersal orders] threatened legal protest and freedom of assembly
  • the bill contributed to a general lurch towards heavy-handed state supervision

My criticisms did not include:

  • unicorn horn shape and size safety regulations’ cross-compliance with EU Directive 1998/238A.
  • the war in Syria.
  • oliphaunts rampaging around Harad.
  • dogs.

I had taken quite a lot of time to verify these criticisms, I didn’t just complain to make a good blog. My blogs don’t get the hits or income to justify that. I had read the minutes of committee meetings and the wording of the draft bill itself, which is bloody tedious. I had talked to lawyers and read human rights groups’ scrutiny of the bill. I linked to all of these, which is part of the reason I sent a companion email (and I explained as much in the letter). All of my criticisms were at least valid enough to deserve an actual response.

Yes, quite: it’s rather uninspiring, if also unsurprising, that writing to one’s MP might garner a reply like this. (At least it got a reply at all.) What kind of world are we living in where parliamentarians neglect even properly to read constituents’ concerns – the kind perhaps in which a good many, dare I say it, aren’t interested in representing us?

Read Jonathan’s blog post for more. The whole thing’s barking.

Rowling’s Potter spin-off could be better than the previous films

[Warning: spoilers!]

Yesterday it emerged the Harry Potter franchise isn’t done. JK Rowling’s wizarding world, following her announcement of a spin-off film series, clearly has still to give up the ghost. (Or the dragon. Or the hippogriff.)

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, due for release presumably within the next two years, will be inspired by the fictive textbook of that name, mentioned peripherally in the Potter series, and perhaps the real-world version marketed for charity in 2001. The textbook’s author Newt Scamander, a kind of magical David Attenborough, will be the film’s lead figure, and the story will apparently take place in twenties New York, 70 years before Harry and Hogwarts.

I’m excited about this. As someone who grew up with Rowling’s books, in fact, I’m very excited by it.

The project’s attracted critics already, of course – nestled between rejoicing Potterheads, users on Twitter have labelled it a cash-in, Warner Bros’ attempt to milk a sacred cow for never-ending profit. They’re right, of course: film studios seldom let a moneymaking series die (hence this century’s ceaseless appetite for reboots), and why should Potter be an exception? Like Imogen McSmith at the Independent though, I don’t actually mind.

Plenty of films well liked by critics and by me have been cash-ins. Before its 2008 release, Iron Man was viewed as a barrel-scraping shot at siphoning the last financial dregs of a superhero genre past its prime, more camera-friendly names like Batman, Superman and Spiderman having been exhausted; in fact, it met with acclaim and helped revitalise comic book film. It spawned two sequels, themselves quite definite money-spinners, the first admittedly perfunctory but the second (earlier this year) the series highlight. X-Men: First Class was anticipated much the same way, but tends now to be viewed by fans – in competition with X2, another cash-raker – as the best X-Men to date. Most sequels are, in the end, pursued for profit, but plenty are seen widely as eclipsing their precursors: Terminator IISpider-Man 2, Superman II, Batman Returns, The Dark KnightAliens, A Shot in the Dark, The Bourne Supremacy, Mad Max 2Star Trek II (the actually-second one), Godfather Part II; for my money, Scream 2. Beloved franchises exist, Star Trek and Bond among them, due in large part to studios’ cashing in.

Many a worthy film, of course, has been dragged through the dirt by mercenary trade-drumming. (Highlander producers, I’m looking at you: there really should have been only one.) It needn’t be so, though. Sans Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, conceived to keep a flagship show in business, it wouldn’t now be toasting its fiftieth year – and what did JK Rowling’s publishers want anyway from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, another sequel better than its predecessor, if not profit? Fantastic Beasts could be something quite special, an exemplary cash-in-done-right – if so, in fact, it may be better far and away than the Potter films preceding it. A devotee for my sins of Rowling’s books, I never cared for Warner Bros’ adaptations; actually, I loathed them. Entering production with the books not yet half-published, they form a case study in how in how not to cash in on something – and, more specifically, how not to film a literary series.

Made much too soon, they had no chance to kit out their narrative with moments of prefiguration, as a film series made now would surely do  – exploring the Chamber of Secrets Horcrux more for instance as Rowling’s novel almost did, to avoid an expodump down the line which works in print but not celluloid, or weaving the Deathly Hallows’ symbol into scenes from earlier books – but in the end, they’re just bad adaptations. Steve Kloves’ scripts don’t just leave out key details and explanations, they make needless changes for their own sake, often (especially late in the series) showing disregard and disrespect for Rowling’s source material. It means something that Harry’s mother’s eyes were the same colour his are, i.e. not brown; that Wormtail exits via redemptive, self-sacrificing hero’s death, not getting knocked out by an elf; that Snape dies where he would have years before without a man he hated, Harry’s father, not in a random fucking boathouse. Characters’ names are indiscriminately mispronounced (the ‘t’ in Voldemort is silent), and they themselves are near universally miscast. The series as a whole feels horribly disjointed, directors, sets, composers, costumes and effects changing as frequently as Hogwarts’ staircases, and aesthetically plain wrong – there’s little to no sense here of a world detached for centuries from our own.

The single biggest problem with the Harry Potter films, in all these respects, is Harry Potter – more specifically, their being adaptations of a pre-existing narrative from Rowling’s books, against which they were bound to be assessed and failed in my view to measure up. In Fantastic Beasts she offers us what is at base a Potter film sans Potter – an independent story, written straight for film, in the same universe. Gone will be Kloves’ unfaithful scripts, with them unflattering comparisons with prior texts and convoluted plots. Newt Scamander is little more than named in the Potter novels; his character and history will be new to us, accepted on their own terms, not weighed against a prior version, and he’ll be twentysomething, played by a full-grown actor from the off. (Daniel Radcliffe, never a natural talent, deserves applause for working at his craft. Ironically, the more he blossoms in indie flicks like Horns and the forthcoming Kill Your Darlings – gasp at his note-perfect Ginsberg in its trailer – the more clearly wrong he was as a blockbusting action lead.)

That this project stands alone is what makes it, and why I hope established people and plots will be avoided. Forget the previous films, however satisfactory or not you found them: JK Rowling has carte blanche here, and she’s giving us her own fantasy film, with monsters and magicians roaming Jazz Age New York. On its own strengths, that’s a mouth-watering prospect – already, I’m hoping Guillermo del Toro directs – and facts to date show that given carte blanche, Rowling impresses.

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.

‘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.

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