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.