I saw a discussion of a video of Dawkins talking to someone on a stage in front of an audience, which is an extract from the full video posted by the RDF. It’s an event at Kennesaw State University in Georgia last November 21. I watched the first four minutes of the extract because it’s interesting. I transcribed most of it for the purpose of saying what’s wrong with it.
The guy asking the questions, Dr. Michael L. Sanseviro, Dean of Student Success at Kennesaw State, asks about the controversy about feminism and why Dawkins has been comparing degrees of badness when one could say the same thing about atheism. Yes, Dawkins says. “I want to be clear about this.” Then he pauses to think and then proceeds:
When I say something like, “This kind of maltreatment of women in America is bad but the treatment of women in Islam is worse,” I’m not saying treatment of women in America is good. I’m just saying it’s not asbad. I get the feeling there are some people who can’t tell the difference between saying that this is bad but that’s worse. They seem to think I’m saying this must be good because that’s worse and of course I’m not saying that at all.
No, no, no, no.
People have told him no over and over again. I know he’s seen some of that telling because it was in comments on his website and he replied to comments there. I know he’s had it explained to him repeatedly that that’s not the right description. I also have a hard time believing he can’t figure it out for himself, but if he can’t, he’s doing a pretty decent performance of not being able to.
So I’ll say my version again, because I’m stubborn that way.
Yes, logically he’s right, saying this is worse is not saying that is good, it’s just saying that is not as bad. We all know that. We all know what “worse” means. It doesn’t help to talk to us as if we were 2.
The logic is not all there is to it.
He himself has not been making a solely logical point all this time. “Dear Muslima” was not about logic.
Doing that “other people have it much worse than you do” thing is a well-worn, familiar, classic way of dismissing other people’s complaints. There are times when it’s justified, and also times when if not quite justified it’s at least understandable. But it can also just be an assholish way of telling people to shut up.
Richard is a grown man. He lives in the world. He’s acquainted with some human beings. He can’t possibly be completely unaware of this particular rhetorical move as a rhetorical move. A friend of mine has a funny story about how her mother liked to greet her every moan and whine with the old “I was sad that I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet” line, to the point that my friend would interrupt her mother with “I know I know, shoes, feet.”
So, no. That bullshit is bullshit. We know he’s not literally saying “maltreatment of women in America is good” but that’s not the issue. What he is rhetorically saying is “maltreatment of women in America is trivial and you’re a spoiled bitch and I want you to stop talking.”
And he should cop to that. He should stop getting all innocently indignant when people ask him about it, and pretending all he ever meant was to point out that things are worse in some places than they are in others, as if anyone thought otherwise.
Why would he do that in the first place? Why would he bother announcing that stoning is worse than harassment? Nobody says it’s not, so why bother to say it?
As Sanseviro hints, one could say exactly the same thing to Dawkins about atheism. Atheists in Bangladesh are being chopped to death with machetes, which is worse than what happens to atheists in the UK and the US. That’s just [wide-eyed innocence] a logical point. I’m not saying what happens to atheists in the UK and the US is good. [blink blink]
But why say it at all? If you’re not implying that talking about less-bad thing X is self-indulgent, then why say it at all?
He goes on to expand on the point. Harassment is bad, harassment on the job is bad, harassment on the job by a boss is very bad. He’s had friends in that situation who’ve been fired for not submitting. Bad. Appalling. He’s never said otherwise.
What I have said is that, however appalling that may be, having your clitoris cut off is worse.
Why? Why why why? Why say that? Why has he said that?
Who asked him? What makes him think it needs to be said? Who asked him to pronounce on which abuses of women are worse than other abuses of women? Why is it his job to grade abuses of women?
But he doesn’t care about that. He cares about getting us to understand that saying X is worse than Y ≠ Y is good.
But it’s terribly important to understand that because something is worse that doesn’t mean the first thing is good. [gesturing] That’s bad too. And I’m deeply disturbed that some of the remarks that I’ve made on Twitter have apparently, to my horror, been used to assault women in America with threats of rape and goodness knows what else. Because of a misunderstanding of something that I’ve said. That is truly appalling and I’ve spoken out against that. But isn’t it sort of obvious, this logical point that is bad [gesturing, pointing here then there] and that’s worse, is not saying that that’s good? [faint murmur from audience] [Dawkins louder] Isn’t that bloody obvious? [tiny amount of laughter, applause]
Yes, it is, it is bloody obvious, and no one is confused about it. What’s also bloody obvious is that that is not and never has been the issue.