Christopher Anderson of Male Survivor examines Richard Dawkins’ apology and asserts that Dawkins should have acknowledged that relying on anecdotal evidence to draw conclusions about the experiences of others is sloppy thinking
Richard Dawkins, the eminent and controversial evolutionary biologist has a long history of sparking outrage. Yet Dawkins’ unwillingness to step back from his recent comments minimizing “mild pedophilia” have given him a new level of notoriety, one that shows his character to be uncomfortably similar to that of many of the figures he has famously attacked in public.
In a recent interview, Dawkins (not for the first time) speaks about his experience being touched inappropriately by a schoolteacher during his youth. The experience, by his admission is not one that he felt led to significant distress in his life. However, instead of stopping there, he chooses to venture forth with his characteristic bravura and make sweeping statements about the ways society overreacts to milder forms of abuse:
“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 paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today….
Had he stopped here, it might have been a poorly framed, but not especially egregious statement. However, sweeping aside reams of research that indicate that even what he would consider “mild touching up” can lead to significant long term trauma for some victims, Dawkins chooses to arrogantly dismiss society’s attempts to come to grips with staggeringly large levels of sexual abuse:
“But the other point is that because the most notorious cases of paedophilia involve rape and even murder, and because we attach the label ‘paedophilia’ to the same things when they’re just mild touching up, we must beware of lumping all paedophiles into the same bracket.”
After fielding an extraordinary amount of public backlash, Dawkins then took to his website to clarify and issue a sort of “apology”:
“Now, given the terrible, persistent and recurrent traumas suffered by other people when abused as children, week after week, year after year, what should I have said about my own thirty seconds of nastiness back in the 1950s? Should I have lied and said it was the worst thing that ever happened to me? Should I have mendaciously sought the sympathy due to a victim who had truly been damaged for the rest of his life? Should I have named the offending teacher and called down posthumous disgrace upon his head?”
What Dawkins should have done was to step back and to acknowledge that relying on anecdotal evidence to draw conclusions about the experiences of others is sloppy thinking. What he should have done was to recognize that, as smart as he is, he is not an expert in the field of child development, the neurobiology of trauma and perhaps agreed to defer to those with expertise in those topics. Instead, what Dawkins chose to do was mount his pulpit a second time and lash out at those who had serious and valid criticism of his statements.
The fact that he has a very loud megaphone with which he can opine to the masses makes his views potentially very harmful. There are millions of people who allow their intellectual perspective to be shaped by Dawkins, either because they agree or disagree with him. To say that he encourages people to think for themselves does not release him from the ethical responsibility incumbent upon a figure of his stature to consider the consequences of his action.
He was not being asked to lie, nor to loudly declaim that what he suffered was the worst thing that happened in his life. Setting up his counter-argument that way was both disingenuous and beneath a person of his education and erudition. Further, it mischaracterizes the position of many advocates, who take issue with the things that he has said on multiple occasions that have served to send a message that sexual abuse is not as significant issue an issue as other kinds of abuse.
The outrage that has been directed at Dawkins is not entirely based on the culture’s reflective distaste for sexual abuse. It’s also a backlash against him for his arrogant insensitivity on this issue (and others in the past). He has placed himself on a pretty high pedestal, raised higher by the piles of honorary degrees, prizes and awards heaped about his feet. Perhaps one needs a certain degree of intellectual arrogance and self-righteous certainty to blaze a trail, but that doesn’t justify making statements that fly in the face of established research and can, and in all likelihood will, be used to justify, excuse, and condone abusive behavior.
Riding high on all the wealth, influence, and fame that he has earned by attacking the hypocrisy of religion, he is blind to the truth that he himself has become a pope of the new science. The man has become subsumed by the mantra, the actor become the role. And just as is the case with anyone who cloaks himself in the air of infallibility, his reputation and persona have become more important than the truth.
It’s unlikely that he will acknowledge the crushing irony that he has become. It’s even less likely that he will be willing to recognize that he has become a force for the promulgation of a harmful ideology. The rigid orthodoxy he now preaches is converting the unwashed masses of his world to a way of being that is less empathic. And by all appearances he is too trapped in the need to guard his reputation to be capable of acknowledging that some of those who disagree with him may have access to a truth that he has lost sight of, or perhaps never held in view.
All it would takes to mitigate the harm he has done would be to acknowledge that he might be wrong. Sadly, these acts of contrition come from men, never from their gods.