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Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Philosophy | 11 comments

Dawkins on “mild paedophilia”

Richard Dawkins has – again – demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about public relations. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you might be speaking the truth isn’t always the only relevant thing. Messages can get lost in their delivery, and in the perceptions of their audience – and we can therefore have a debate about the efficacy of a message that is, to some extent, separate from its truth-value.

The outrage on this occasion is his reference to “mild paedophilia” in an interview for The Times (paywalled), that was written up on Religion News Service and then (to my mind, at least) mischaracterised on Pharyngula (commenters, this is not a blog on which to rant about PZ, please – I think he’s being uncharitable in his interpretation of Dawkins, but Dawkins nevertheless said something very ill-advised and insensitive). [EDIT: here’s the full text, from the RDFS site.]

First, an important clarification: what Dawkins reports is not paedophilia, but child abuse. Paedophilia does not necessarily entail any physical contact, but simply the attraction – and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all. We all make it more difficult for them to get help through demonising paedophiles as child abusers.

Second, this is not a new story. At least, the fact that Dawkins was abused is not a new story. He’s referred to it in interviews, as well as in The God Delusion. His comment that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical abuse” has previously been the subject of willful misinterpretation by the physicist Peter Higgs, and others.

In this new interview, Dawkins repeats his claim that he doesn’t think he has suffered lasting harm, and suggests that neither would his peers have. That’s a problem already, of course, in that while he’s free to speak for himself, it’s rather risky – not to mention grossly insensitive, and likely harmful to some who do feel harmed – to assert that other victims of child abuse haven’t suffered harm. Then he says:

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.

This is the key passage, in which Dawkins again says something which is arguably true, yet an utterly stupid – and pointless – thing to say. To my mind, what he’s trying to say is:

  • That child abusers were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of their actions wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • That the victims of child abuse were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of what was being done to them wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • Our understanding of what actors did and felt within a particular historical time and context must be informed by the norms applicable at the time.

The fact that child abuse (and racism, and sexism, etc.) were always wrong is a separate issue to how people felt about those things, and their awareness of the wrongfulness of those things. And, how people felt about things (in fact, how they perceive things today) will obviously have an effect on whether people feel harmed, abused or whatever the case might be. That’s all that Dawkins seems to be saying. And the fact that it will appear to be an insensitive thing to say doesn’t make him wrong on those facts. What makes him wrong is arguably that it’s an excessively, and unproductively, insensitive thing to say.

So it’s not fair, or accurate, to say (as PZ Myers does), that he “can think of some lasting harm [to Dawkins]: [Dawkins] seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Not at all – this is a completely needless, and unfair, swipe at Dawkins, in that it asserts that he’s persistently, and currently, indifferent to the sexual abuse of children in general.

As discussed above, Dawkins thinks that some abuse, at a particular time, was not regarded as seriously (regardless of its actual seriousness) as it would be today. These are very different claims, and PZ Myers is simply picking the most uncharitable interpretation possible in order to discredit Dawkins.

Later in the post, PZ Myers says

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Again, to call it an “excuse” creates the impression that Dawkins condones child abuse. And the use of the word “permissible” implies a binary state, where either all teachers are going around abusing children, then sharing tales over tea, or one where all abusers are caught and punished to the full extent of the law. It was never permissible, not even in the 1950s. Yet, it’s still possible that people didn’t report it as often, or follow up on it as often, or perceive it in the same ways then, as they do now.

This doesn’t alter the fact that it was wrong then, as it’s wrong now. It doesn’t “excuse” it, as per Myers’ words above. All that it does is explain that people might respond to it differently then than they do now.

  • Skepsheik

    The article from which the Religion News Service based their own article (and which in term was used by PZ Myers) is the following:

    I agree with your point about the difference between pedophelia and abuse. Dawkins can also be criticised for failing to recognize that even “mild” abuse like that can have serious psychological consequences for individual victims – particularly in situations like boarding schools where the abuser may be seen as a kind of parent figure by the child.

    But reading the original article there is little new from his remarks in ‘The God Delusion’ and yet it gets compared in that Pharyngula article to statements from NAMBLA – a pro-pedophelia organization from the US!

    Dawkins, I think, seems to regard his points as emphasizing different scales of abuse, rather than suggesting that touching children is permissible.
    He tweeted the following today:
    “”Mild touching up” is bad. Raping 8-year-old wife to death is worse.
    Worse? That’s putting it mildly. Quantitative judgment vs black/white.”

    I don’t think that particular emphasis came across in the article but it is sad to see the kind of interpetation that PZ has chosen to go with.

  • jg29a

    Myers, besides engaging in his typical brand of cheap demagoguery, is showing a remarkable blindness to our own place in history.

    It’s not all that inconceivable, given ethical trends in the developed world, that in a hundred years veganism will be a mainstream social and legal expectation, much as non-racism is today. Those among us today who eat vegan 80% of the time and otherwise eat meat sparingly would then sound like someone in 1800 who was proud of not beating their slaves or not separating slave families.

    It’s indispensable to actual moral progress to realize that morals fall along a continuum. Dawkins has every right to point out that in many cases our categorical concepts (“sexual abuse” vs. “religious indoctrination”, for example) belie a reality in which the continua that they represent show large overlap in terms of the harm they cause.

  • This reminds me of a meta-analysis some researchers did in the late 90’s which concluded that the notion of child sexual abuse as leading directly to long-term psychological harm was unfounded. People were pretty horrified that this was an attempt to justify or legitimize CSA (and certainly, pro-pedo groups actually cited the study in just that context). The US Congress censured the paper. I’ve never read it or the follow-up criticism and replication, but according to the wiki, some of the basic findings have withstood replication (though with some important distinctions added).

  • An Ardent Skeptic

    I may very well get verbally spit on by some for what I am about to say but I’m going to say it anyway. Why is it OK to say that child sexual abuse is a horrible thing, but it’s not OK to state that verbal abuse can be just as horrible or perhaps an even more horrible thing? It’s all bad but there are, in fact, degrees of bad. And, the long-term negative impact from abuse will depend on many different factors including whose done the abusing and the severity of the abuse.

    My own personal experience of both types of abuse does not make me an expert in these matters, but I do know how much damage was done to me as a victim of both verbal and sexual abuse. If we insist that one type of abuse is more harmful than another, than we can reach the wrong conclusion about the underlying problem which is the cause of suffering in victims of abuse, and these victim’s will not be able to get the help they need. My sister’s boyfriend could have been convicted of a crime and sent to prison for sexually abusing me. My mother, who was relentless in her verbal abuse, was doing no wrong in society’s eyes at the time. I have been told countless times through the years that my sister’s boyfriend is the worst possible scumbag, but that I need to forgive my mother. Really? I should forgive the woman who destroyed any sense of self-worth I might have had, and has been the cause of my bouts of clinical depression and my attempts at suicide?

    Over the long-term, it’s the verbal abuse that has caused me the most harm, but when I have sought professional help in dealing with this issue, those professionals assumed that it’s the sexual abuse, and not the verbal abuse, that is the reason for my difficulties. I have not been able to get any real help overcoming the severe psychological damage that was caused by the viciousness of my mother’s verbal tirades.

    Dawkins might be tone-deaf in his discussion of these matters, but reactions like P.Z. Myers’s are just as bad, if not worse, IMO. We need to have a nuanced discussion of these issues so that children who are abused, by whatever means, are not ignored by society. It’s skeptics and humanists who should be most capable of having that nuanced discussion and working towards making a positive change in society about these issues. Dawkins is correct that our attitude about sexual abuse has changed over time, and now we treat the issue of sexual abuse with the seriousness it deserves. But, verbal abuse is also a serious issue, and we need to make a change in society’s attitude about this issue. We need to stop telling people that they should forgive the childhood verbal abuse they endured. We need to provide protection for children who are the victims of verbal abuse. We need to change the way we deal with the treatment of psychological issues, and take a big picture view not just focus on what society tells us is the worst thing based on what is considered criminal behavior. And, the only way we are going to do this is if we are willing to have that nuanced discussion not just dismiss people who are trying to have the discussion by mischaracterizing what they have said.

  • Drew Vogel

    I disagree with your interpretation of what you call the the key passage. He’s not talking about past attitudes about present (that is, then-present) abuse. He’s talking about present attitudes about past abuse. By way of analogy, slavery wasn’t any less wrong in the 18th century than it is in the 21st century, but we in the 21st century do not condemn 18th century slaveholders in anything like the same terms in which we would condemn a 21st century slaveholder. Perhaps that difference has something to do with past attitudes about slavery, but it’s not clear to me that this is so, and in any event that isn’t the point Dawkins made.

    Despite that disagreement, I appreciate your thoughtful take on the matter.

    • Not sure there’s a disagreement here – see my 3rd bullet after that passage, for example. I agree that he’s talking about present attitudes towards past abuse, so apologies if I made that insufficiently clear ( I suspect I might have!). But thanks – these are emotive topics, so it’s good, and rare, to have a civil conversation about them.

  • obamaiscarter

    – “…and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all…”
    Aaaaw, those poor babies(I am referring to pedophiles, not their victims)..

    • Mocking people with a mental illness? Not surprised you’re using a ‘nym.

  • obamaiscarter

    When it comes to “assholeishness” , Dawkins is at least an 8 on the Myers scale(named after PZ Myers). He isn’t an iconoclast like Hitchens was; he’s a dick for the sake of being one.

    • You’re in violation of comment policy here. Please make an attempt to be civil, or go away.

  • devent

    Talking about overblowning everything. Dawkins only states that a) he does not like to condemn people of an earlier time on the current modern moral standards and that is all. He is talking about his personal opinion, on his personal believe to not condemn people.

    He is not talking about the wrongfulness, or the evil of child abuse, or anything else. What is “ill-advised and insensitive” to talk for not condemn people because they lived in a time when different moral standards were applied? And in the 50s there were different moral standards; just look at woman rights or black rights, for example.