A guest post from my friend, theatremaker, writer (and cook) Sarah Chew. Sarah wrote a version of this on her facebook page and many of us thought it was so well put and so well argued that it needed a wider hearing. So here it is.
Professor Richard Dawkins is a world-renowned evolutionary biologist; he also writes extensively about his atheism, most famously in his book “The God Delusion”. A few days ago, he tweeted “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think”, and “Mild paedophilia is bad. Violent paedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild paedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”
In effect, Prof. Dawkins told me to “go away and learn how to think”.
So I did.
And what I think is that Dawkins’ choice of subject matter with which to explore his “abstract” moral relativism was hugely irresponsible, and also something of a logical own goal. To explore this, I am going to try two other thought experiments that explore the same point in different language.
Let’s imagine that Dawkins had said a really simple and innocuous thing: say, “Stealing someone’s Mars Bar is bad. Stealing £10000 is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of Mars Bar stealing, go away and learn how to think”. I still assert that the third sentence is ill-phrased, but let’s look at the other two. At a very first glance, yes, of course they are true. But, supposing, say, the Mars Bar belonged to a diabetic, who kept it for emergencies, and its loss meant that they had a blood sugar anomaly and died. It sounds pedantic – but it reveals a logical flaw in the structure of his point. Even if the statement is true 99% of the time, these “bads” and “worses” are not the absolutes they appear to be.
So now a more extreme hypothetical statement: let’s imagine that Dawkins had said, “Shouting “nigger” in the street is bad. Tarring and feathering is worse. If you think that is an endorsement of shouting “nigger”, go away and learn how to think”. Despite his shock-jock attention grabbing tactics, he would never have said that, because a white academic suggesting, even vaguely, that he is telling black people that they do not know how to think, is an utterly unacceptable thing. Thankfully, we live in a society that has moved on sufficiently that even the most blustery of academics are sensitive to this. But in other respects we have not moved on. Dawkins is an intellectual authority figure, evaluating, in a 140 character epithet, precisely how much oppression and pain victims of sexual violence can be entitled to have experienced. He is taking on the authority to decide whether or not readers are entitled to feel anguish when they experience sexual violence.
“Bad” and “worse”, in these cases, are messily subjective terms. You take two abuse survivors to a triage nurse: one is bleeding and bruised, needing immediate stitches, the other appears OK. You take the same two survivors for an x-ray: the bleeding one has flesh wounds, the unscratched one has terrible internal injuries. You take the same two to a psychoanalyst, a PTSD specialist, to the Crown Prosecution Service, to a jury, to their partners, to their mothers, to their employers… what counts as “bad” and “worse” entirely depends on what each viewer’s terms of evaluation may be. The very idea that “bad” and “worse”, in these situations, could be concrete concepts, is an idea posed by a grossly irresponsible writer.
I am angry and despairing at Dawkins’ assumption that he is entitled to define an empirical definition of “bad” and “worse” in this context, and indeed that that might be a responsible entitlement for any individual to take. I am angry and despairing that he has decided to choose subjects that bring up such already painful emotions in so many people. I am angry and despairing that he appears not to have factored in that he is not arguing on a level playing field of intellectual “impartiality”: that people who are motivated to disagree with him are often people who have experienced abuse, or who have loved ones who have experienced abuse, so for them this discussion is not an intellectual cat-toy to be batted about until the game becomes boring. For many survivors of any aggressively-delivered trauma, finding a functional way to tell the story of their abuse, and an effective system by which to evaluate grief and shame and blame, are ongoing and active projects of sanity and survival. This neat, pat little bon mot is an act of aggression towards that project of survival.
I discuss issues around sexual violence quite a lot on social media, and what surprises, saddens and inspires me is that people want to talk. I am astounded by how many people, be they close friends, acquaintances or total strangers, message me after posts like this, wanting to share or discuss their own experiences of sexual abuse. Women and men. Old and young. People lacking apparent social privilege, and people who seem to have it all. It always comes as a surprise. It always comes with deep sadness for a person who has had to put themselves back together again, and deep admiration that they have managed to do so. It always comes as a bleak bit of astonishment that the list of stories could be so very long.
Today, someone talked to me about their experience of “date rape”, and while what they described sounded pretty horrific, the person still stated that they were grateful that it wasn’t worse, that they weren’t scared for their life. And I admired their stoicism, but it also made me sad. “It could have been worse” is a survival tactic we all learn at times of trauma, because “it should have been better” is too bitter to contemplate.
Professor Dawkins, I would like to go away and learn how to think. I would like to go away and learn how to think of ways to express effectively and calmly why your sadly common colonisation of the territory of moral relativism is cheap, lazy and an active contributor to the silent tragedy of sexual violence that still seems to loom large over our culture. I would like go away to learn how to think, “it should have been better”, without despairing. I would like to go away and learn how to support others to think “it should have been better”, without despairing. I would like to go away and learn how to think about a better society where genuine respect for the individual means that these conversations have been rendered unnecessary.
One last question, though, Professor Dawkins – in order to do this, where is it, precisely, that you propose I should “go away” to?