Yes, there should be rivalry in victimhood

Andreas Rekdal at NonProphet Status considers Dawkins’s revelation the other day that he is a passionate feminist.

Dawkins has been criticized by many, including fellow atheists, for trivializing Western women’s experiences of sexual harassment. According to Dawkins, his apparent insensitivity is really borne out of his deep commitment to feminism. And as a feminist, he believes we need to focus more on the threat of Islam to women everywhere:

I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial.

This statement casts doubt on the sincerity of Dawkins’ apology for his “Dear Muslima” letter earlier this year. Back then, Dawkins wrote of comparing abuses:

There should be no rivalry in victimhood, and I’m sorry I once said something similar to American women complaining of harassment, inviting them to contemplate the suffering of Muslim women by comparison.

In a way, that’s one good thing about the interview: Dawkins finally admits that he was indeed saying that we should shut up about unwanted sexual demands or contact because there are worse things happening to women living in Islamist countries. I don’t think he’s admitted that before, except by implication in the (now nullifed) apology. That’s what we always said he was saying, so in a way it’s good that he admits it. On the other hand it’s hard to reconcile with the tweets about “if you think saying ‘violent rape is worse than date rape’ equals saying date rape is not bad, go away and learn how to think.” There’s a tension between the two. On the one hand, yes, saying “women who aren’t allowed to drive have it worse than women sexually assaulted at work” was indeed intended to say that women being sexually assaulted at work is trivial. Is trivial. On the other hand, no, to say “one kind of rape is worse than another kind” is not to say that the second kind is trivial.

So which is it? Well, clearly, the first. He stood by it. He told Kimberly Winston he stood by it. He’s made up his mind. So he’s saying there should be rivalry in victimhood, and that he is a good judge of who wins the contest.

It’s a good thing that he’s spelled it out for us. It’s a bad thing that that’s what he’s spelled out. It would be better if he did not believe and say and insist on such a horrible stance. It would be better if he could grasp that it’s not good for men to declare rules for which bad things done to women are worse than other bad things done to women. The things are not done to him, so he shouldn’t pronounce on them.



  1. Callinectes says

    Shall we suggest that because atheism is a capital crime in some countries, the rest of us should shut up about our less egregious concerns? Or that because some children are explicitly denied an education, the rest of the world should not complain about slipping science standards closer to home? Might these analogies get through to him?

  2. capricaisburning says

    Do apply this to PZ Myers’ deliberate mockery of male genital mutilation survivors without any concern for men or trans women with severe complications. He knows it’s wrong and still insists on triggering survivors with FGM as his excuse.

  3. says

    This is sad. When he made the apology, I was among those who said that we should take him at his word and accept it, because I feel that when people truly reconsider and step back from an ill-advised position, we should not be small and hold a grudge, but rather we should embrace it in the spirit of kinship and reconciliation.

    So now that it’s obvious that he never meant a word of it and just wanted to silence his critics, I wash my hands of him. Not that I ever did much to support Dawkins (outside of buying one of his books, long ago), but I certainly will never do anything in the future, and I will consider his endorsement of any organization or person to be a black mark against them.

  4. says

    capricaisburning @3,
    Shouldn’t you be asking that question of Professor Myers himself? We’re not sure if you are aware of this but he actually can be found on this very blog network and it’s possible to leave comments on his blog.

  5. yazikus says

    Dear Plethora, I can’t tell you all how much I enjoy you consistent use of plural personal pronouns. And your comments.

  6. capricaisburning says

    He’s not going to listen to anything anyone says about human rights or rape culture unless it comes from a member of his own faith (feminism). All my values are feminist but I’ll never call myself a feminist until feminism means calling out mutilation apologists (even those who are opposed to it but gaslight survivors).

  7. yazikus says

    You think he won’t listen to you there, so you are commenting about it here? To what end?

  8. Blanche Quizno says

    Hmmm…I *am* starting to feel rather a bit plethorastic, myself!

    But back to Ophelia’s post. The last sentence, in particular. That one goes WAY beyond this topic and deserves to be writ large across several accommodating satellites for a few weeks, to orbit and remind everyone. We can only truly understand our own experiences. If someone else has experienced something foreign to us, and declared it really nice or horrifically traumatic, we should take her/him at her/his word. Even if we have experienced the identical event, it is entirely likely that each of us who experienced it will come away with different reactions, perhaps markedly different.

    It would be wise for everyone who is in the public eye, and everyone who is not, that it is no one’s place to judge another’s experience, to rank others’ pain, regardless of whether or not they have themselves experienced what they are referring to, but especially when they haven’t. Adults should realize by the time they reach adulthood that individuals’ experiences are individual to them, and (hopefully) the best way to treat others kindly is to take them at their word, and offer appropriately supportive reactions.

    For example, that time Richard Dawkins said that stranger rape was definitely worse and more traumatic than date/acquaintance rape. Ay yi yi Was he speaking from personal experience? Even if he found his stranger-rape more traumatic than the time his friend raped him, that still doesn’t mean that generalizing to everyone else is a rational, logical thing to do. Remember – Vulcan O_O

  9. Anthony K says

    Do apply this to PZ Myers’ deliberate mockery of male genital mutilation survivors without any concern for men or trans women with severe complications. He knows it’s wrong and still insists on triggering survivors with FGM as his excuse.

    I’ve only ever seen PZ minimize male circumcision* in the context of trying to have a conversation about FGM without it being swamped by “but what about teh menz?”-type derails. I’ve also seen him follow-up by dedicating whole threads to the issue of male circumcision. Note that this is substantially different than what Dawkins did. When Rebecca Watson mentioned the elevator in her video, she did not do so by taking conversational space away from issues women face elsewhere. Further, Dawkins wrote Dear Muslima on a thread dedicated to Rebecca’s video, evidently displeased with the fact that any conversation was devoted to it. (If that were really his concern, he would have saved his ‘impatience’ for the three-plus year campaign to talk about what a terrible woman Rebecca Watson was for talking about it in a 10-second bit. It’s clear he has only a certain group of people in mind who should keep silent.)

    In contrast to the Dear Muslima central to this OP, I’ve never seen PZ say that men should not talk about circumcision. As I’ve said, he’s dedicated at least one thread that I can recall for certain specifically to male circumcision. (You should read it. It’s a great example of the horde at each other’s throats over whether or not circumcision should be imposed on children when it appears to confer some resistance to HIV-infection.)

    I may be wrong though: I of course haven’t seen all that PZ has written, and I don’t think it’s completely unlikely for him to have used mockery that was triggering in talking about male circumcision. (To be clear, the time period I’m referring to predates trigger warnings or content notes as concepts being discussed on PZ’s blog.) If you’ve seen such though, and recently, especially, you should provide a link. And preferably on his blog, as others have suggested. Whether or not he listens, members of the horde will, and you won’t (or shouldn’t) even get flamed for derailing if you post it in the appropriate place: the Thunderdome.

    *I’m assuming here you’re talking about ritual male circumcision when you say male genital mutilation. I’m not particularly adverse to referring to that as male genital mutilation, but I’m using ‘male circumcision’ here to be consistent with the context of the terminology and procedures I’ve read PZ discussing.

  10. says

    You know, I’ve made several posts explicitly Condemning circumcision…but all the wackaloons remember is that I’ve also shut down their inappropriate and pathetic whining of “what about the mens?” when they attempt to derail discussions of FGM.

  11. Blanche Quizno says

    “whether or not circumcision should be imposed on children when it appears to confer some resistance to HIV-infection”

    For the record, that “resistance to HIV-infection” amounted to men catching HIV from their female partners, which accounts for only 4% of the infections. And the number of women infected with HIV from their HIV-positive circumcised partners increased dramatically. So let’s not go there, ‘kay?

  12. Anthony K says


    Sorry Blanche, I wasn’t bringing it up to discuss. I only brought it up as an example of a heated discussion among the supposedly hive-minded horde. That’s the last I’ll say about it here.

  13. Hj Hornbeck says

    [Trigger Warning: Domestic and Sexual Assault. Also, BIG comment with many a footnote.]

    Here’s an angle I haven’t seen mentioned yet: there’s more than some hidden racism in Dawkin’s focus on Islam, which he exploits to distract from real global problems. The quoted portion in the OP is my starting point:

    The greatest threats to women, in his view, are Islamism and jihadism — and his concern over that sometimes leads him to speak off-the-cuff.

    “I concentrate my attention on that menace and I confess I occasionally get a little impatient with American women who complain of being inappropriately touched by the water cooler or invited for coffee or something which I think is, by comparison, relatively trivial,” he said.[1]

    That’s demonstrably false. Consider, for instance, a 2006 WHO study on domestic violence.[2] It surveyed fifteen sites worldwide, and found that the highest lifetime rate of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner was 71% in the Ethiopian countryside and 69% in the Peruvian… both of which are Catholic-majority states. Third place is rural Muslim Bangladesh (62%), fourth is rural half Christian, half Muslim Tanzania (56%), fifth was urban Muslim Bangladesh (53%), and so on.

    The percentage of women who think being beaten is an acceptable punishment for not completing their housework? About 65% in rural Ethiopia, 45% in rural Peru, 30% in rural Tanzania, 25% in urban Tanzania, and so on. Interestingly, urban Bangladesh women are in the middle of the pack when it comes to saying they should not be beaten (rural Bangladesh… not so much).

    How about sexual violence against women that aren’t intimate partners? A staggering 55% of assaulted women in Samoa were attacked by non-partners… and Samoa is majority Christian. In Brazil (majority Christian) that’s 40%, in urban Tanzania it’s 34%, urban Peru it’s 31%, and so on.

    The prevalence of injury among ever-abused women ranged from 19% in Ethiopia to 55% in provincial Peru. Injuries were associated with severe physical violence. In Brazil, provincial Peru, Samoa, Serbia [Christian] and Montenegro [Christian], and Thailand [Buddhist] over 20% of ever-injured women reported that they had been injured more than five times.

    Although the majority of injuries were classed as minor (bruises, abrasions, cuts, punctures, and bites), in some settings, more serious injuries (broken bones, injuries to ears and eyes) were relatively common. At least 20% of ever-injured women in Namibia [Christian], provincial Peru, Samoa, urban Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania reported injuries to the eyes and ears. In Bangladesh, Ethiopia, provincial Peru, and Samoa, over a quarter of ever-injured women reported that they had lost consciousness as a result of partner violence.

    It’s obvious that intimate partner violence is a global issue, affecting a huge percentage of women worldwide. However, it isn’t obvious this is tied to religion; Christianity seems to dominate the stats, but that could be because it’s still the dominant global religion, or the researchers couldn’t get into certain Muslim states.

    Worse still for Dawkins, Islam is not a monolith. According to a Pew Forum study,[3] while 99% of Afghan Muslims support Sharia law, 8% of Azerbaijanis do. The biggest predictor of support is secularism, not religion; Turkey is 99.8% Muslim, but only 12% of their Muslims support sharia law.

    Things get weirder when you look at specific beliefs: 50% of Bangladeshis that support Sharia say that family planning is morally acceptable, while among those that oppose Sharia law… only 28% think it’s acceptable. On the flip side, 28% of pro-Sharia Kazakhs think it’s acceptable, yet 52% of anti-Sharia Kazakhs think it’s fine.

    The veil? In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 40% of Muslims agree that women have the right to choose, while in South-East Europe that sits at 88%. How about the ever-popular topic of suicide bombings? 96% of Bosnian Muslims do not think it is justified, or think it’s only fine in rare circumstances, while in Pakistan, the spot with the greatest support, that number sits at 49%. Yes, more Muslims in Pakistan think that suicide bombing is poorly justified than that it sometimes or often is. At least 85% of Muslims endorse non-Muslims practicing their religion freely, with some areas hitting 97%. In South Asia, 76% would be OK with executing apostates; in Central Asia, only 16% are.

    And yet, Dawkins is opposed to Islam, full stop. No shades of gray.[4] Every Muslim is an olive-skinned Middle Eastern person that wants every woman stuffed in a burqa. Never-mind the existence of Black Muslims in Nigeria or Caucasian Muslims in the Caucasus, they’re all the same to him. While he loves to toss out the phrase “Islam is not a race,” he certainly treats them as one[5,6] and is happy to exploit xenophobia to distract from more important issues.

    You might argue Dawkins wasn’t talking about domestic violence, though, but mild sexual assault and sexism. But that supposes those issues are specific to North America and Europe, and absent everywhere else. Again, that’s just not true; as Hans Rosling loves to point out, there really isn’t much difference between developed and developing countries nowadays, with urban areas of some “developing” countries on par with developed nations.[7]

    Just looking at cell phone and internet usage, 45% of Lebanese own a smart phone, 39% of Chileans, and 33% of South Africans; in contrast, 23% of Russians and 21% of Mexicans do.[8] By 2018, it’s forecast that 67% of cell phone users in all of Africa will have a data plan.[9] The fastest internet in the world is in South Korea, the fifth is in Latvia, and the Czech Republic comfortably edges out the United States to take seventh place.[10]

    This means that the problems of American Women are fast becoming the problem of Global Women. And as the world becomes more connected, the campaigns and experience of the former can be easily modified and exploited by the latter to improve their lot. The same isn’t true for combating Islam, however; as I pointed out above, that religion is quite heterogeneous and thus you’d have a tough time spreading one area’s fix to another place.

    This leaves Dawkins as little more than a wailing, short-sighted bigot.

  14. Hj Hornbeck says

    [1] “Richard Dawkins Stands by Remarks on Sexism, Pedophilia, Down Syndrome.” Religion News Service. Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [2] García-Moreno, Claudia., London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine., Program for Appropriate Technology in Health., World Health Organization., and Women and Health. Department of Gender. WHO Multi-Country Study on Women’s Health and Domestic Violence against Women: Initial Results on Prevalence, Health Outcomes and Women’s Responses. [Geneva, Switzerland]: World Health Organization, 2005.

    [3] “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [4] Well OK, I was a bit shocked when I cracked open my copy of The God Delusion and rediscovered that he endorsed teaching the Qur’an as a source of literary heratige. That bit’s on pages 386 to 387 on my copy, or just look for the last two paragraphs in Chapter 9.

    [5] Malik, Nesrine. “Message to Richard Dawkins: ‘Islam Is Not a Race’ Is a Cop out.” The Guardian, September 20, 2013, sec. Comment is free.

    [6] Chituc, Vlad. “Islam Isn’t a Race, and so What?” NonProphet Status. Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [7] The River of Myths by Hans Rosling | #BillsLetter, 2013.

    [8] “Emerging Nations Embrace Internet, Mobile Technology.” Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project. Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [9] “Africa Telecoms Outlook 2014: Maximizing Digital Service Opportunities » Informa Telecoms & Media.” Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [10] “South Korea’s Internet Is About to Be 50 Times Faster Than Yours.” Motherboard. Accessed November 22, 2014.

    [BONUS] Hans Rosling: Religions and Babies, 2012.

  15. aziraphale says

    I don’t wish to defend Dawkins here, but “The things are not done to him, so he shouldn’t pronounce on them” makes me uneasy. It seems to license a divided world in which no-one is allowed to have an opinion about crimes that don’t affect them directly.

    How far shall we take this? Shall we say that only a Jewish judge or juror can state an opinion on anti-Semitic crimes? That only a ship-owner or crew can state an opinion on piracy?

  16. sonofrojblake says

    Good thing no one has said it then, apart from Ophelia, who said precisely that, in those exact words, in the last sentence of the post at the top of this thread.

    Fixed it for you.

    @We Are Plethora, 5:

    it’s possible to leave comments on [PZ’s] blog

    Sure it is, as long as you stick to the line. Criticise – by, for instance, pointing out the hypocrisy inherent in writing a post titled “Amazon’s inhumanity” while on the same page shilling for them to his own financial advantage with a direct link to Amazon’s site – and you’ll be met with, in order:
    1. weasel self-justification (“I have a responsibility to promote my book”)
    2. an invitation to, quote, “fuck off” and
    3. mysteriously finding that no, in fact it is NOT possible to leave comments on that blog.

    Not saying that’s why capricaisburning is commenting here instead of there, but the use of the word “wackaloon” to decribe a genital mutilation survivor suggests that may be the case.

  17. opposablethumbs says

    Hj Hornbeck, thank you for the info. The footnotes don’t work, though?

    aziraphale, nobody has suggested that Dawkins (or anybody else) should never discuss/give an opinion on things outside their personal direct experience; it has been suggested that he (and everyone else) should not attempt to tell people how they feel about their own experiences. If I have had an abortion and a lumpectomy, for example, of course this does not affect your right to talk about the technicalities of these procedures all you like, discuss the pros and cons of different methods, etc. and indeed have a useful and productive conversation about it. However you don’t get to tell me – ignoring my own knowledge of the matter – which one of the two was the more joyful occasion! (and conversely, if I have been sexually assaulted by a stranger in public or by a domestic partner in private, you don’t get to tell me which was worse.)
    That’s what people have been telling Dawkins. Not what you suggested at all.

  18. Al Dente says

    Hj Hornbeck @16

    …the highest lifetime rate of physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner was 71% in the Ethiopian countryside and 69% in the Peruvian… both of which are Catholic-majority states.

    According to wikipedia’s Religion in Ethiopia article:

    According to the government’s 1994 census (which the CIA World Factbook follows), 61.6% of the Ethiopian population was Christian: 50.6% of the total were Ethiopian Orthodox, 10.1% were various Protestant denominations (such as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tehadeso Church, and the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus), and Ethiopian Catholics constituted 0.9% of the population).

    The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, being a non-chalcedonian church, is not in communion with the Catholic Church, a chalcedonian church. The chalcedonian controversy has to do with the divine and physical natures of Jesus. The details aren’t important other than the point that the Catholics and Ethiopian Orthodox each consider the other church to be heretical.

    tldr: Ethiopia isn’t a Catholic majority country.

  19. says

    I said specifically “pronounce upon” – which, I now realize, has overtones that may be exclusive to me, or to the moment in which I typed it. I meant something like “issue encyclicals upon.” Something like “use one’s authority and clout in one area to belittle other people’s experiences in another.”

    Still, it remains over-general. I agree. It should be something more like “if you feel tempted to belittle objections to a kind of thing that can’t happen to you because you have immunity from that particular kind of thing [aka privilege], then pause and think hard.”

  20. Eric MacDonald says

    “The things are not done to him, so he shouldn’t pronounce on them.” Thus Ophelia. I hope that’s not quite what Ophelia means. What Dawkins should not do is to pontificate upon matters that (i) don’t concern him, and (ii) about which he has made no effort to discern what those affected by those matters feel. I once issued a post on (now quiescent) that opposed the objectification of women, and was quickly told by a number of feminists that that was women’s business, and that I should keep my thoughts to myself. But I thought my original post was measured, sensitive to women, and addressed something that men as well as women should be concerned about. I still think so.

    The problem with Dawkins is that he makes no effort to empathise with women. In other words, unlike a rational person he doesn’t bother looking for evidence before he speaks about things which are not done to him, and about which, therefore, the knows next to nothing, and it is his failure to seek out evidence that is his most egregious fault. So, getting harassed in the street is not as bad as getting a clitoridectomy! Possibly true. But is it true? Is it true that women have to walk with their eyes down, lest they attract attention to themselves, and who are nonetheless subject to catcalls and other forms of sexual harassment as they walk down the street, every time they walk down the street, or go to the water cooler at work, etc.. for years and years, are not subject to even greater harm than women who have been subject to FGM? Of course, along with FGM go other harms that may last a lifetime too, and as Ophelia says, it is pointless to scale abuse, and set up rivalries between abuses. Abuse is a abuse, and harassment is harassment.

    When Matt Taylor of the European Space Agency Rosetta programme wore a shirt covered with women in sexually suggestive poses to address the TV audience about the achievements of the Philae project of landing a probe on a comet, he should have known that it would detract from the Space Agency’s achievement. That he didn’t know this is a measure of his ignorance of sexual harassment, and what it is, and how it affects women. It was inappropriate for men (and some women) to suggest that it was wrong to draw attention to Taylor’s “gaffe”. Because it was more than a gaffe. It implicitly said that science is for men, and so are women. That’s what women are really for. And by doing so he showed (and so did the critics of the feminist response) that he has no idea what sexual harassment is, and how it affects women. He insulted the women at the European Space Agency, and minimised their achievements.

    Why didn’t he know this? Because he’s a man, and men are deeply indoctrinated with the idea of male superiority. Perhaps that’s not what Taylor thinks consciously, but his choice of shirt that day indicated that he is still deeply embedded in cultural assumptions that second list women. Dawkins is worse. He calls himself a feminist, and yet condemns feminists for pointing out what his unconscious male chauvinism despises: women who speak about their experience with reason and evidence. For someone who claims to be uber rational, this is something of a drawback. Matt Taylor apologised, and cried as he did so. He felt humiliated, and seemed to know that he deserved it. Dawkins gives ground to no one. That’s why he should be ignored. He is not rational. He’s a selfish, rich, white man in all the worst ways.

  21. Eric MacDonald says

    Our posts crossed, Ophelia. That’s basically what I took you to say and mean. You couldn’t have meant it otherwise.

  22. says

    This is exactly how I reacted to Dawkins’s latest misogynyspew: Make Up Your F’n Mind. He is effectively endorsing sexual harassment by dismissing it as trivial. WTF does he think “inappropriate touching” means, anyway? An avuncular arm around the shoulder? Well guess what, Dickie, that’s still inappropriate in the workplace, most of all when it’s unwanted.

    But given his apparent indifference to his own sexual assault, I guess it’s far too much to ask that he should stop to think about what is inflicted on women every day in these “trivial” situations.

    God’s bowels, he is a disgusting human being.

  23. John Horstman says

    @Callinectes #1:

    Might these analogies get through to him?

    The exact thing you suggest has been tried, every single time. The answer to your question is, “No.”

    @Al Dente #22:

    The details aren’t important other than the point that the Catholics and Ethiopian Orthodox each consider the other church to be heretical.

    Don’t they both also consider themselves The One True Catholic Church? Granted, when we say “Catholic”, we usually mean “Roman Catholic” and not “Orthodox Catholic”, but I think Hj Hornbeck is technically correct (the best kind of correct).

    @capricaisburning: You’re just straight-up lying. While there is certainly debate about various forms of non-consensual genital cutting (of assigned-female, assigned-male, and intersex infants and juveniles, including genital surgeries or other medical interventions performed on intersex persons below the age of majority in order to bring their genitals in line with normative ranges for “male” or “female” genitals) in many, many feminist circles, there are million of feminists who oppose any non-consensual genital cutting, including PZ, as is pointed out upthread. Knock it off, especially if you actually care about males subjected to genital cutting and aren’t just throwing us, trans people, intersex people, and women generally all under the bus at once to try to defame PZ.


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