So Dawkins produces a rather intelligent and nuanced statement in an interview for The Times Magazine and, yet again, makes the mistake of thinking that people reading it will approach it with the same level of intelligence and nuance. That, along with a propensity for bluntness, are simultaneously his most frustrating and his most admirable qualities. What he said is being misrepresented as ‘OMFG DAWKINS IS EXCUSING PAEDOPHILIA!’ which isn’t remotely accurate, as can be seen by actually bothering to read the quotes that his detractors are using.
Let’s look at the extract, and I’ll add some emphasis in bold:
In an interview in The Times magazine on Saturday (Sept. 7), Dawkins, 72, he said he was unable to condemn what he called “the mild pedophilia” he experienced at an English school when he was a child in the 1950s.
Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”
He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.
He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
Firstly, we don’t have the whole interview and the context of the comment. If this is anything like the normal state of affairs the journalist involved is looking for things that make good copy and, much like quote-mining from creationists, the outcome is rarely representative of the actual conversation or point.
Secondly, we have to contend with the fact that a lot of people are just out for Dawkins and whatever he says will be taken the worst way possible. This includes Christians, Muslims, political ‘moderates’ who think criticising Islam is racism and the internet commissars of social justice to be found in Atheismplus and the ironically named Freethought Blogs.
Taking the salient points from what he said.
: Dawkins identifies himself as a victim. Normally, amongst many of his regular critics, this would mean he would have to be listened to and not criticised in any way. Whatever he said would have to be taken on board no matter how crazy. That this hasn’t happened here is encouraging, in that perhaps we can learn not to shield victims from examination, but also (further) demonstrates the hypocrisy of many of his critics. Note that sexual abuse in boarding schools was (is?) so common as to be a joke – much like prison rape – in the UK and given the background of most Tory MPs either explains or makes very strange their propensity to condemn homosexuality.
: Saying it caused no ‘lasting harm’ is not the same as excusing it or saying it caused ‘no harm’. As a victim himself and now being successful and relatively unbothered by what happened to him he stands as evidential support for this thesis. If we are to believe that abuse etc of all forms is as widespread as some claim (rape, sexual assault) then there are millions upon millions of people who do cope in much the same way Dawkins has.
: Much like technology, culture seems to be changing at a faster and faster rate. Morality changes with it. There are things we accept today that our ancestors would thoroughly condemn and vice versa. As skeptics and atheists many of us are condemned for our ‘moral relativism’ under the mistaken belief that it renders us incapable of making moral judgements rather than it simply being an acknowledgement that morality is a construct (much more so than gender, which is readily accepted as being a social construct in many quarters). Darwin is frequently criticised (ironically) by creationists for being a racist. This is in part due to a change in terminology (race and species) that confuses the poor dears, but also because – by modern standards – he was. That was, however, the conventional wisdom of the day and – for the day – Darwin was mightily progressive. He was an abolitionist, at least believed non-whites to be the same species as whites and worked with charities and missions to improve the lot of people in less salubrious circumstances. You don’t need to go back that far to see racism as accepted. The Black and White Minstrel Show didn’t end until 1978 and Bernard Manning was still getting work up into the 2000s in a postmodern and ironic way. Dawkins is simply acknowledging that morality shifts over time and that it can be unfair to judge people by modern standards when looking into the past. Even the relatively recent past.
: Importantly, Dawkins here states that he condemns it today and in the moral context of today. Something that everyone seems to be missing in their rush to retweet their outrage to the world.
: Black and white thinking is a scourge. Surely we can all accept that ‘bad stuff’ happens along a continuum and while everything along that continuum is bad there are things that are less bad and things that are more bad. Lest we forget, this is the same couple of days in which an eight year old child bride was fucked to death by her husband on her wedding night. Death is irrecoverable. Is that not worse than what Dawkins and his schoolmates suffered?
Morality is something I think a lot of us struggle with. The issue in Yemen is cultural in space as Dawkins issue is cultural in time. We can do better today, surely, than we did in the past and we can improve things in Yemen, can we not? Can we build a relatively objective moral framework based on sound reasoning and science and in doing so can we forgive the past and the actions of the ignorant and ‘holy’ or not?
This is complicated stuff and not suited to Twitter’s outrage mobs.