Aug 9, 2014

Dawkins Keeps Digging

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Does someone maybe want to take the shovel away from Richard Dawkins? 

His recent Twitter battle, discussed here, is having a ripple effect I don't think he expected or intended. It's rather interesting to see Richard Dawkins so completely on the defensive. He did, after all, set out to do what he does best -- use logic and reason to make sure everyone who disagrees with his world view knows how stupid they are. But it backfired and brought him a lot of negative feedback, even from some atheists. I think he may be learning the hard way that it's not as easy to get away with belittling women as it used to be.

His latest post on the issue shows him to be in full damage control mode and you know what they say: If you're explaining, you're losing.

I have briefly explained (it’s in An Appetite for Wonder) that, as a small boy, I was the victim of a pedophile teacher in the school squash court. He pulled me on his knee, put his hand inside my shorts and fiddled for about half a minute. It was very unpleasant, but it didn’t ruin my life and I had the temerity to say so in my memoir and elsewhere. I had the effrontery to downplay my experience and imply that it could have been worse. The teacher could, for example, have . . . well, I didn’t specify details, but anyone can fill in some of the appalling things that have happened to other children of both sexes.

Pandemonium in the Pigeon-lofts. Freethought Feeding Frenzy. “Dawkins actually said – I kid you not – that his experience in the squash court wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened. Wow, just wow. Where has he been these past few years? Doesn’t everyone nowadays know there are NO gradations? All cases are exactly equally bad. How dare Dawkins BELITTLE the horrors of pedophiliac assault?”

Mr. Dawkins is being disingenuous. Worse, the man who so prides himself on his logical acumen is kicking at a straw man. People weren't upset with him for for not having the proper reaction to being molested. They were upset with him for deciding what the proper reaction should be for everybody else. He blithely announced that the other boys who were molested by the same schoolmaster suffered no "lasting damage," as if it were his place to speak for them and about things he could not possibly know. And then he extrapolated his personal experience into tortured apologia for the Catholic Church's monstrous failures in protecting children from pedophile priests. Who cares if the many survivors of various forms of abuse at the hands of clergy say they were permanently harmed by it. Dawkins had a similar experience and he knows better than they what the appropriate and proportionate effects should be on one's life.

That he would undertake such drastic revisionism of his previous commentary also provides mens rea. It's obvious that he knows full well what he said about sex abuse was bad or he wouldn't feel the need to so thoroughly rescript it.

In this post he also, ever so slightly, walked back the "Dear Muslima" commentary that came to be known as "Elevatorgate." He seems here to be acknowledging that his recent X and Y comparisons are at odds with his total dismissal of Rebecca Watson's concerns about being propositioned at 4:00 in the morning on a lonely elevator.

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. But maybe you get the point? If we wish to insist (in the face of judicial practice everywhere) that all examples of a sexual crime are exactly equally bad, perhaps we need to look more carefully at exactly who is belittling what.

But he did not simply invite American women "to contemplate" the suffering of Muslim women. He was grotesquely insulting and demonstrated his own continuing ignorance of the realities of female genital mutilation and feminist activism on the issue.  In her response to Dawkins's trivialization of the elevator incident, Skepchick Rebecca Watson, underscored the absurdity by posting a screenshot of a rape threat she received specifically because of her outspokenness on female genital mutilation.

That comment and many like it were sent to me in response to a video I did about the horrors of female genital mutilation, which, by the way, is a cultural practice and not relegated to Muslim women. I’ve spoken about the topic a lot, and the worst of my hate mail from atheists is about that.

So to have my concerns – and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault – dismissed thanks to a rich white man comparing them to the plight of women who are mutilated, is insulting to all of us. Feminists in the west have been staunch allies of the women being brutalized elsewhere, and they’ve done a hell of a lot more than Richard Dawkins when it comes to making a difference in their lives.

No, Mr. Dawkins, female genital mutilation is not a "Muslim" practice. It's an ancient tribal practice that merged into and was spread by some Muslim cultures. And no, Mr. Dawkins, Western feminists aren't a bunch of navel-gazers, so absorbed in our own ongoing battles with misogyny and sexual violence that we're ignorant of the brutal oppression of women elsewhere.

A more full-throated apology is required for what it is that he actually said. So is some genuine concern for all forms of misogyny, not just the ones that can be exploited to justify an anti-religion and virulently anti-Muslim agenda.

The sad and obvious truth is that the Twitter comments that touched off this recent firestorm were not simply an exercise in logical deduction. They were a shot across the bow against feminist detractors who have become a thorn in Dawkins's side. It appears that his tantrum rather abruptly ended a detente in the gender wars that are tearing at the fabric of the modern atheist movement.

The full comments of Skepchick writer Amy Roth can be found here as she addresses this rift in her community and the possibly detrimental role Dawkins plays within it at this point.

In this case Dawkins has gone so far as to insinuate that his particular emotional reaction to an often emotionally destructive topic, trumps anyone who may feel differently. You can not rate rape on a scale. Full stop. No one can say what type of rape is more damaging to another person. His attitude towards these sensitive topics is extremely dismissive and outright damaging to any community that hopes to be inclusive and understanding of women’s issues or any other issues affecting oppressed groups. If a person wanted to teach a lesson in logic, they certainly did not not need to reach for the example of rape when they are aware that harassment of women is currently a problem within their community. Dawkins’ recent statements at worst highlight his refusal to acknowledge his role in promoting misogyny, sexism and racism in the atheist community and at best show me an extremely privileged man who cares more about being seen as “right” than he cares about any of the victims of violent sexual assault.

As I alluded to in my previous post on this, there is something deeply hideous about invoking the very charged and emotionally wrenching issues of rape and sexual abuse and then berating people for getting all emotional. A must-read post by Amanda Marcotte thoroughly elucidates how gendered and how juvenile was his verbal assault on people for feeling stuff.

Dawkins is being particularly disappointing this round because he’s hiding behind a gambit so transparent that every shitty 18-year-old boy who wants to win an argument with his girlfriend resorts to it: Telling you that you’re too emotional to be reasonable and he alone possesses access to objective reality above emotion. That this tactic is highly gendered should not be treated as a coincidence. Claiming to simply be more reasonable and declaring victory is possibly the most common way men on the losing side of an argument with women try to regain the upper hand.

. . .

So this is an obvious attempt to stifle discourse by shaming people that Dawkins decides have too many emotions, which is synonymous with disagreeing with him, and that you can tell someone has the “correct” amount of emotions because they agree with him, which is actually kind of funny if you saw any of the rage-filled bile that was aimed at me from the pro-misogyny troops for daring to criticize him at all. Stephanie Zvan dealt with this:

I’m disgusted. How is it that a scientist is still entertaining this idea that people being emotional is a bad thing or that it is somehow universally detrimental to thinking when we have studies that show emotion is critical for good decision-making? How is it that people who purport to be good at thinking still promote arguments that rely on this outdated idea?

How indeed. Could it be that Dawkins is less about science these days and more about being a ruthless and intemperate ideologue?

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