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.

Commenters, please see this request.

Richard Dawkins won’t condemn ‘mild’ child molestation

NB: contains personal accounts of adult-child molestation, graphic reference to domestic violence and corporal punishment.

Imagine a senior Catholic official – a British archbishop, say, or a cardinal in Rome – spoke to the Times about his childhood church. Imagine he described a village priest who ‘pulled me on to his knee and put his hand inside my shorts’, claiming this priest molested other boys regularly. Imagine that, while calling this ‘extremely disagreeable’, the Catholic official then said ‘I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.’ Imagine he stressed this happened in the 1940s, arguing ‘you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours’, cautioned ‘we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket’, and suggested according to the newspaper ‘that recent child sex abuse scandals have been overblown’.

How would atheists online react? Not well, I’m sure.

The Catholic official could count, in John Berryman’s words, on being nearly crucified. Twitter’s atheists would pour vitriol on him; blogging atheists would spell out, painstakingly and once again, why That was another time! is a terrible argument, as terrible here as when used to justify biblical atrocities, and some forms of molestation being worse than others (or some victims’ lack of major trauma) no reason to deny its categorical abusiveness and unacceptability; the forums at RDFRS would, collectively, hold a feeding frenzy.

Except it wasn’t a Catholic who said this. It was Richard Dawkins.

The interview itself is paywalled, but the Times story on the ensuing backlash has been shared at Dawkins.net, as has the interview itself. There are several things I want to say.

Dawkins has drawn a lot of criticism recently. I criticised his tweets about Islam this August, then many others did, and he doubled down with a response that overlooked all relevant points and made things worse; more recently, Sarah Moglia criticised him for trying to block Rebecca Watson’s invitation to 2012′s Reason Rally as a speaker. (The year before, he infamously mocked Watson’s discomfort when propositioned in a lift, and was duly criticised for that.)

All this, and still I can’t quite comprehend his comments here. It’s one thing being reckless, unguarded or imprecise, as all of us occasionally are; it’s another thought entirely, and frankly skull-jangling, that someone paid for years as a communicator with the public, since then a bestselling global author and media fixture, could put their foot so absolutely firmly in their mouth. No doubt this too will end in an extensive, hyperdefensive explanatory blog post [Edit 12/09/13: oh look.] – but how could anyone make these remarks and not foresee a PR storm?

One notable defence of Dawkins recently, fisked on this blog, came from Nick Cohen at the Spectator, who called the criticisms at hand pathetic, discreditable and a distraction from combating Islamism – imploring readers in particular to shut up about Dawkins and protect Nahla Mahmoud, a UK ex-Muslim threatened with violence. (He signed the relevant petition the day his article went out, three and a half weeks after I had. Make of this what you will.)

I don’t accept we need choose between critiquing Islamists or Dawkins, but anyway: if now isn’t a good time, Nick, then when? If we can’t take him to task for calling sex abuse ‘mild’, insisting not all child molesters be ‘lumped together’, when can we chastise Richard Dawkins? (Molestation, and not ‘paedophilia’, being the operative term.)

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.)

We’ve seen these double standards from him before: Dawkins lays gleefully into religious sexism, but shows little interest – or outright contempt – when atheist women cry secular misogyny; he pales at domestic violence (and ‘pales’ is instructive) so long as it’s religiously inspired, bolstering his antitheist case, but won’t fully condemn the caning of 1940s schoolchildren. When girls in Sharia states are beaten till they bleed by parents, as Marwa Berro was, it’s because Islam is planet Earth’s greatest evil; when eight-year-olds in British-run prep schools were hit with wooden sticks till welts and bruises formed, it was just another era. (Note that in Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, a culture of systemic abuse is special cause for condemnation; in 1940s British-colonial Rhodesia, it’s an excuse.)

When I criticised their idol last for demonising Muslims and enabling far right racism, the Dickheads – some of them at least – called me a moral relativist. (This meant, apparently, that I was unwilling to criticise religion/soft on Islam/racist/PC/a freedom-hating commie.) If someone willing to raise these double standards, and explicitly to make the ‘earlier era’ argument, remains their hero, perhaps they shouldn’t make that accusation.

Commenters, please see this request.