When a Twitter-storm erupts, we are apt to say indulgently, “Craz-ee Twitter,” as pitchforks are raised, fires lit, and scorn and condemnation fall like acid rain.
Of course, what’s really crazy is not Twitter’s mob mentality but the initial intention of whoever later finds themselves in the eye of the gyre, professing shock at the brouhaha they have caused. Did they really think that laying out in 140 characters a difficult argument or what they hope was a nuanced, philosophical point was ever a good idea? That it would sit there and bob calmly like a sailboat on a millpond-calm sea? There is only one certain result when controversy is laced into 140 characters: Subtlety will be trampled, and the world will lose its shit.
And so, freshly released from the stocks, Professor Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist and famed atheist, is today wiping off the rotten tomatoes from his lapel. He will be doing so unapologetically.
To much consternation, Dawkins, who makes even committed atheists look inadequate at rejecting any and all theology, decided to indulge in a stern lecture on relativism on Twitter. The tone to his 990,000 followers was: “I know best, you fools.” Dawkins is an adept cultural fire-conductor; the title of his bestselling book The God Delusion gives a clear indicator why.
On Twitter, he wrote: “X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically.”
One’s immediate reaction is: Calm down, dear, why would I think that? They both sound bad. Of course, we don’t denote that from your formula. Why don’t you “go away” and come back with something more convincing?
Then, storm waters not sufficiently roiled, Dawkins added: “Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”
And then, pedophilia being yesterday’s old hat, he had to one-up himself with, “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.”
At this point, the beehive sufficiently beaten with an electric prod, Twitter predictably went into convulsions, the central criticism made of Dawkins being that all rape and all pedophilia are bad, and seeking to draw distinctions in the way he had made Dawkins an ill-informed, insensitive bonehead.
But Dawkins’ distinctions were also fallacious in a much more basic way. “Mild pedophilia” (whatever the hell that is: a little light groping and nuzzling; what do you mean, Dawkins?) could be just as awful to the sufferer as “violent pedophilia.” It could be done in an exceptionally menacing way, for example, or over a long, sustained period of time, crippling the victim’s emotional life or sabotaging future relationships. The velocity of the physical act isn’t the point, but rather the impact and devastation that it brings to the victim’s life.
One supposes Dawkins’ definition of “mild” is personal. In the past, according to The Daily Telegraph, he has spoken of the “mild pedophilia” he suffered at the hands of a schoolteacher: “I don’t think he did any of us any lasting damage.”
Could it be that Dawkins’ own experience is intruding here? That because whatever groping he endured years ago didn’t do “any lasting damage,” everything he imagines bracketed with that endured by others must be experienced similarly?
Dawkins is wrong not because by contrasting X and Y we poor morons think he is endorsing X as somehow better, but more simply because he doesn’t acknowledge the complex, utterly individual experiences of rape and pedophilia, and that makes his X and Y formulae flawed. X and Y could be terrible on their own, unknowable terms, and therefore incomparable.
When I read, “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse,” I didn’t think Dawkins was endorsing date rape over stranger rape—I just thought he had an insufficient concept of all rape.
In his formulation, Dawkins immediately sets “date rape” up as inherently less violent than what he calls “stranger rape at knifepoint,” when date rape can indeed be violent. Even if it isn’t, the sense of violation can be just as pronounced as in a physically violent rape. Indeed, isn’t all rape a sexual assault against one’s consent, a violation—unwanted, uninvited—and therefore an act of violence?
Dawkins cannot, I cannot, none of us can know enough about every incident of rape and pedophilia to define any incident as “mild” or “violent” or “bad” or “worse” than any other. The effects of both those kinds of experiences are only known to their sufferers.
The central flaw of Dawkins’ argument, then, is surely one of relativism; the notion that one kind of rape or pedophilia is “worse” than another. Indeed, Dawkins later accused his critics in another tweet of practicing absolutism: “What I have learned today is that there are people on Twitter who think in absolutist terms, to an extent I wouldn’t have believed possible.”
But if he judges these critics’ absolutism as misplaced, the assumptions contained in what he considers to be a “mild” case of pedophilia versus a “violent” one, or “bad” date rape versus “stranger rape” at knifepoint, are just as flawed.
Rape and pedophilia cannot be described in relative terms because they are experienced so individually; the physical velocity of both acts may make them experienced physically differently in the moment, but not in a way that enables one to make a “better or worse” judgment about their ultimate effects. Dawkins’ chiding sneer to readers that he wasn’t “endorsing” one act over another conceals the deeper canard of his argument.
On Wednesday, Dawkins opened a blog post in response to the furor with the martyrish “Are there kingdoms of emotion where logic is taboo, dare not show its face, zones where reason is too intimidated to speak?”
The simple answer, as the demented circus of Twitter and the Internet demonstrate every day, is: durr, no.
Dawkins then riffed on various ethical quagmires, such as the rightness of killing a healthy man for his organs, with variables like that dying man being homeless, and the men he could save being Beethoven, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr.
To which one would say: Hmm, the homeless man with perfect organs would have had to have been over 500 years old. Or if we assumed that all these men were indeed living in the same era, that there were no other healthy people whose organs they could have received.
Or, Dawkins writes, how about facing the dilemma of saving the lives of two miners for $1 million, when that money also could be spent saving the lives of thousands of starving people? Could eugenics ever be justified? he asks. Torture?
“I believe that, as non-religious rationalists, we should be prepared to discuss such questions using logic and reason,” says Dawkins—and he is right. “We shouldn’t compel people to enter into painful hypothetical discussions, but nor should we conduct witch-hunts against people who are prepared to do so.” Here, Dawkins may as well be trolling himself. If he says something overtly contentious on Twitter about rape and pedophilia, what does he expect? Thousands of replies of polite Kantian chin-scratching? There was an almighty scrap, and he was defended and criticized. There is something disingenuous about his playing both instigator and victim.
On the rape controversy particularly, Dawkins writes: “I wasn’t making a point about which of the two was worse. I was merely asserting that to express an opinion one way or the other is not tantamount to approving the lesser evil.” Really? Have I missed something? Dawkins did write: “Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse.” That is saying one kind of rape is worse than another. It isn’t mischievous misinterpretation on the part of his critics, just Dawkins’s own words—and thanks to Twitter’s 140 character-maximum, neatly and precisely distilled with very little room for misunderstanding.
But for Dawkins the “rape is rape is rape” believers are the deluded absolutists. He is merely raising hypotheticals as any good moral philosopher should, seemingly unaware of the absolutist underpinnings of his own argument.
It is “deplorable,” he writes, that there are many people in the atheist community “who are literally afraid to think and speak freely, afraid to raise even hypothetical questions such as those I have mentioned in this article. They are afraid—and I promise you I am not exaggerating—of witch-hunts: hunts for latter day blasphemers by latter day Inquisitions and latter day incarnations of Orwell’s Thought Police.”
At this point, we might want to offer the Prof a cold compress, along with an eye roll. He is a pugnacious writer and speaker himself, well used to picking intellectual fights. He revels in them. As much as he feels under attack, so “the other side” of absolutists and Christian believers do, too.
Everybody feels attacked now: the right, the left, the middle, the minorities, the majority, white and black, young and old, boomers and millennials, gays, homophobes, the 99 percent and the 1 percent. And every side, as Dawkins does, professes to find themselves muffled and bullied by the other. The victim’s position, the most ignoble to fight from when you hold obvious power of any kind, is now taken up by all.
The Internet, and the Twitter-storms therein, are the ideal vectors for all these parties’ hot words, all the offense-takens and all the offense-givens. Dawkins is nobody’s victim, and if he professes scarred bafflement at the fuss his words caused on social media, he really must be as deluded as the absolutists he criticizes.
“Go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically” is not the command of a besieged victim but a lofty, imperious professor who believes—whatever you say in response to him—that he is right. Dawkins is his own, most self-affirming absolutist.
Anyway, thank goodness, he was back on much less controversial territory by Wednesday night, retweeting the vivid and wonderful image of a flying frog. We shall eagerly await Dawkins’ X/Y formulation of whether that flying frog can be seen as better or worse than a simply hopping one.