A little while ago, I got this email from a reporter.
My editors and I feel that in the wake of Dawkins’ series of tweets last week about what rapes are worse than others it is time to ask the question:
Is Richard Dawkins an asset or a liability to movement atheism?
Would you care to weigh in on this? Would anyone else you know care to? I know this is more than touchy and am open to allowing anonymity – with a discussion first.
You may have seen the final article. You might have noticed that there was nothing from me in it. There’s a reason for that: I thought the whole concept was odious, and did not dignify it with a reply. I also knew what would happen — that the result would be a set of statements in which some decide that he’s a bad witch, some that say he’s a good witch, and some that struggle to straddle the middle ground and express some of the complexity of the question, and on the whole it was going to be a meaningless mess. It’s an attempt to place a person on a simple linear scale, and to make it worse, get diverse people with diverse views to produce a hodge-podge of assessments that would be impossible to reduce. It was an invitation to play Numberwang, and the only way to win is not to play.
It also struck me as a very Abrahamic exercise. Are you on the side of the angels or the devils? When the Lord weighs you on the scale, will you be found wanting? Let’s stand in judgment of your whole life, and decided whether you deserve heaven or hell.
This is not to say you can’t criticize forcefully. Richard Dawkins has demonstrated a lack of empathy for women’s issues; give him hell. But he’s also a brilliant storyteller who has been a driving force for atheism; send him roses. Brian Dunning is a convicted con artist, but he’s also…well, I’m sure his family loves him. PZ Myers was a petty little shit last Tuesday, but on Wednesday he was a sweetheart.
This is the way humans are. It tempts our minds to find cognitive shortcuts and place a simple label on everything — good guy, bad guy, idiot, genius, villain, hero — and try to reduce everyone to a number in a ledger, but people aren’t reducible.
Try it yourself. What number are you? On a linear scale from -10 to +10 (oh, look, I’m providing an opportunity for more nuance than that article, which only asked plus or minus), where are you? Do you think the number changes from day to day, or minute to minute? Would everyone you know agree with your number? Do you think a public poll on what number you deserve would be more useful than assigning it with a random number generator? (I just tried one; it turns out I’m a 5.)
You’d think that people would recognize that trying to rank human beings is rather like trying to rank rape. No good can come of it.