At the risk of being just another person who’s adding a few droplets to the so-called “tsunami of hate” directed at Richard Dawkins for his rape-tweet two days ago … I couldn’t resist. Dawkins is a respected scientist, and while he’s had his run-ins with feminists in the past, he’s basically a smart person, right? In this case, he was wrong, stubborn, needlessly defensive (although I understand how one might get that way when the ire of Twitter is focused on them) and surprisingly illogical.
Here’s what happened. On July 29, Dawkins tweeted the following:
Then, Twitter got really angry with him, and he wrote a response/explanation, which can be found here. I wasn’t so upset by his initial tweets as I was frustrated by the non-explanation that followed. And so, here I am, writing about it, much like I did about the Emily Yoffe incident of a few months ago.
Let’s start with the tweets. I get the point about logic that he was trying to make. Nobody actually misunderstands the “x is bad, y is worse, that is not an endorsement of x” concept. It is an obvious and easy logical concept to comprehend and we all get it.
What’s unfortunate is the example Dawkins chose. Not because rape is a taboo subject that should never be touched, but because the X and Y of his rape example are totally subjective statements. They’re not facts, or even the next best thing to facts – non-factual opinions that we can all agree on, like “Gigli is bad, but Showgirls is worse”. Just kidding, Showgirls is actually brilliant (even though it’s pretty rape-y). See how tough this is?!
My point is this: Dawkins chose a bad example to prove his point about logic, and then refused to back down.
If your goal is to enlighten the layman on Twitter about logic, use an example that is clear and will not be misunderstood or derail the conversation into something totally unrelated to your original point, such as the relative badness of rape. If the example you chose for your “x is bad, y is worse” statement could just as easily be flipped to “y is bad, x is worse”, then you’ve chosen poorly.
It’s not a poor example because it’s logically impossible for it to work both ways (which do you think is worse, really, being raped by a stranger or a trusted friend? Ok, but what if the stranger had a knife? Wait, what are we talking about? Oh yeah … logic). Nor is it poor because people are simply too dumb and emotional to understand the point. It’s poor because it took the conversation in a different direction than Dawkins intended, and he (for all his later insistence that he chose the example of rape intentionally), was not adequately prepared to respond.
Dawkins could have chosen a fact as his example. Instead, he chose a contentious opinion that was offensive to many. Everyone forgot it was supposed to be about logic. Then it turned out to maybe not be about logic after all. More on that in a moment.
People weren’t angry with Dawkins because he used rape as an example, but because by saying “one type of rape is worse than another” he was, intentionally or not, implying that the suffering of some victims is not as big a deal as the suffering of other victims. In his subsequent longer response article, Dawkins claims that he “didn’t care whether we chose to say date rape was worse than dark alley stranger rape, or vice versa” and that he “deliberately wanted to challenge the taboo against rational discussion of sensitive issues”.
Aha! Okay, so it was not just about logic. He chose a contentious opinion on purpose, in order to challenge taboos. I’m all for that! But if that’s the case, then what was his hoped-for outcome? Did he want to invite intelligent discussion on this subject – something about the way our society actually views rape, perhaps? Or was he just trying to say something taboo-bustingly controversial (which, frankly, is a bit like kids yelling swear-words because they know they’re not supposed to)?
If the whole point was to use rape as his example in order to make a larger point about a “sensitive issue”, then what was that larger point? That we should be allowed to say whatever we want without everyone getting sniffy about it on the internet? I was hoping for a smarter point from someone like Dawkins, but it does not come across clearly in his article.
My even bigger problem is with the leap Dawkins takes next:
“Rape is rape is rape.” You cannot discuss whether one kind of rape (say by a ‘friend’) is worse than another kind of rape (say by a stranger). Rape is rape and you are not allowed even to contemplate the question of whether some rape is bad but other rape is worse … There is no allowable distinction between one kind of rape and another. If that were really right, judges shouldn’t be allowed to impose harsher sentences for some rapes than for others.
For a man who started this whole storm because he was making a simple point about logic, this statement seems really illogical. Sure, you should be “allowed to contemplate” what kind of rape is worse. Personally, I think that kind of contemplation is a mug’s game, and serves no purpose – either in un-tabooing the topic or in somehow improving the discourse around it – but that’s beside the point. What I really don’t understand is why the subjective opinion that “all rapes are equally bad” should mean that courts can’t take individual circumstances into account while meting out totally different sentences for different rapists? For the record, courts don’t distinguish between assaults by a “friend” or “stranger” but since every assault is different, countless questions go into piecing together what happened and delivering a just punishment.
None of these questions affect my emotion-based opinion that all rapes are “equally bad”. “Equally bad” does not mean “equally punishable by the law” and I’m not sure how or why Dawkins justifies that leap – especially when he himself leaves the definition of “bad” vague (I assume, intentionally). There are lots of different kinds of “bad” – moral, emotional, and so on. They coexist without compromising our legal system’s ability to function.
Dawkins concludes his rebuttal to the “tsunami of hate” by saying this:
Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself. Let’s not just insult each other and cut off all discussion because we rationalists have somehow wandered into a land where emotion is king.
I agree. But in this case, I don’t think the problem is actually that rape is too taboo a subject to discuss, or that we are too emotional to do so. The problem is that Dawkins chose a poor example for his logic statement, refused to back down when the Twittersphere responded emotionally, got defensive and said he did it on purpose, all without ever actually trying to start the kind of rational discussion he claims he wants. I’d love an intelligent, controversial article from Richard Dawkins on rape, and rape culture and why we should not be afraid to talk about it. But this sure wasn’t it.