Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dawkins Go Home: The Hypothesising

I guess it wouldn't feel like a proper week if Richard Dawkins hadn't said something obnoxiously unpleasant. Unlike his earlier comment (which, now I think about it, was also this week) that Muslim scholars should be called "scholars" because actual scholars read more than one book, though, this one is at least worth tearing down, rather than noting that when Christian people are horrible Islamophobes they at least get to drink communion wine whilst they're doing it.

Trigger warning here, though; Dawkins thinks he's making some noble stand against those who don't want to discuss rape, which rather means I'll have to essentially discuss it as well, in the most general and I hope least affecting terms I can.

Let's start by sketching out the battleground. Dawkins point, at its most basic, is actually entirely reasonable: there should be no topic so unpleasant it should literally never be discussed by anyone ever.  And the reason for this is exactly as Dawkins argues; if we can't compare horrific crimes in terms of relative damage, we couldn't have a coherent justice system (not that we do, but our failure to achieve that doesn't mean we shouldn't try for it).

Where the problem comes in then isn't that people object to anyone ever discussing whether one example of sexual assault is worse than another example of sexual assault, it's that people object to Dawkins doing it on Twitter.

For all that Dawkins is prepared to be magnanimous and accept that this is not the sort of discussion any person should be forced to participate in, it's clear just from mentioning it that he's perfectly happy with forcing people to be faced with it unawares.  That is what Twitter does.  It shows you individual thoughts from people you've agreed to follow, or from people the people you follow follow, but the actual content from tweet to tweet is hard to censor without a good deal of effort. It would be insane to argue that anyone who follows Richard Dawkins, famous evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist, should be preparing themselves for the day he suddenly stouts spewing forth on the subject of rape.

The decision to discuss such things, in other words, carries a real cost. People will be upset. People will be triggered.  Not because they believe in anti-logic zones or are gearing up to join up with the Thought Police or any other hysterical framing Dawkins can come up with (you'd think a man so obsessed with writing long pieces about how people are mean to him all the time would have the self-awareness to not accuse others of being unreasonably touchy, but apparently not).  What's required here isn't an explanation of why the comparative evils of different forms of rape need to be discussed, but why they need to be discussed online by a man clearly unqualified to discuss them.

And unqualified is what he clearly is.  Not because he's a man, but because he's a man who thinks you can sensibly determine a "worse" rape purely by the nature of the assailant. Dawkins wants the option to take what is a subjective viewpoint of victims who've suffered horrible trauma, and argue the toss with them.  No, not even with them, because doubtless their response would be filed in Dawkins "worthless emotional nonsense" drawer.

Actually, Dawkins earlier example is instructive here. What if, he says, it could genuinely be proven that certain races are less intelligent than others. How should hiring practises reflect that? Dawkins is insistent that we should be allowed to bat that around as a hypothetical, rather than instantly shutting it down.  And I agree, we absolutely should be allowed to discuss that idea.  That way, someone can point out that the only thing more ridiculous to suggest has a scientific definition than "intelligence" is "race".  Anyone who actually knew what the hell they were talking about would never dream of offering that hypothetical, because it's so riddled with false premises as to be worse than useless. Wanting to debate it is proof that you're more interested in flirting with controversy than with considering what you're actually saying.

It's the same with his rape example. Which sexual assault is worse? I don't know. I don't want to know.  I'm fucking delighted I am not one of those people who write the law for whom this is the kind of thing you might have to rule on.  How can we define "worse" here?  How can we reduce so deeply and unpleasantly transformative an experience to a simple scale? I've absolutely no idea, though I'm damn sure I wouldn't try to figure it out by asking Twitter.

Dawkins tries to back off from this position ultimately by arguing he has no actual interest in the correct answer, or whether indeed a correct answer exists.  He just thinks it's critically important that people be allowed to try to find that answer.  But again, asking the question even rhetorically has a cost.  That Dawkins completely ignores that is deeply telling. It shows that he has a greater concern for limitations on useful discussions he doesn't even want to have and knows of no-one who needs to discuss it who's so limited over the feelings of those who have suffered unspeakable trauma.

What makes all this worse is the direction of the argument. Given the appalling refusal of so many men to accept they have raped or can rape a woman because she's passed out drunk at a party after giving them the time of day, why the fuck would Dawkins be worried that we're in danger of treating that as indistinguishable from a sexual assault at knife point? Given the degree to which paedophiles have become over the last few decades our country's foremost domestic bogeyman, there's precisely zero chance any convicted paedophile is going to be treated leniently, which means arguments over gradations in severity of child abuse can only result in certain forms of it being judged less horrific. What do we gain from that? In a country where child abuse was covered up by those in power for decades, written off as not being worth risking an election or the collection of the license fee, what are we adding to life in this country by saying "Hold on; he didn't go nearly so far as some".

This is typical of Dawkins, of course, and not just because as previous events have shown he's far happy calling religion a form of child abuse than he is calling forms of child abuse forms of child abuse. That's indicative of what's going on here, though. Dawkins doesn't consider what happened to him at school constitutes child abuse, so he assumes everyone else who went through it felt the same way.  Dawkins thinks being allowed to discuss sliding scales of severity for rape and paedophilia whenever he damn well wants is of fundamental importance, so he assumes the only logical position is to agree with him.  When we strip away the wounded tone and insistence of his purity of motive, all we're left with is the sad sight of one more straight white guy insisting that every imaginable discussion should be allowed to include him or it is Simply Not Fair.

Which, fittingly enough, is most certainly not something we should allow as a hypothesis any more.

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