Dawkins, rape, and paedophilia

Richard Dawkins has inflamed the twitterverse with some recent comments intended to illustrate the structure of certain arguments. The two tweets that create the firestorm were:

"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."

"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."

It seems that by grading rape and paedophilia in degrees of moral badness some people took Dawkins to be undermining the case that all instances of rape and paedophilia are morally bad. Or perhaps that while it is all bad, some is not worth getting all that worked up about.

Dawkins did not help himself here by speaking of "mild paedophilia".

These two issues are both highly inflammatory and Dawkins was less than sensitive to the feelings of those who have been victims of date rape and "mild paedophilia." To him, this was a simple matter of logic.

What he failed to adequately appreciate was the social context in which his comments were thrown out. Take rape. Western societies have not taken rape with the seriousness that it demands, and in particular, rape by one's partner or someone with whom one is on a date have been treated as relatively trivial. So campaigners have been working hard to drive home the message that such rape IS wrong and ought to be treated seriously. To this end, Dawkins' comments could be taken as trivializing the issue.

However, I want to say that I think that the basic point that Dawkins was making is surely correct. We do not want to say that all crimes that fall into a particular category must be ranked as equally bad. That is clearly nonsense, and we do not apply such thinking to other instances of sinful behaviour. It may be that in certain contexts, in order to drive home that all crimes in the category are bad, we will speak with equal ferocity about them all. That is appropriate in some contexts. However, to suggest that the only way to get people to take the horror of rape or paedophilia seriously is to treat all cases as maximally and equivalently evil is simply mistaken. And Dawkins is correct to say that pointing out that some evil acts are even worse than other evil acts is NOT a recommendation or excuse for any evil acts. Society is right to express its disgust at rapists and paedophiles, but society is wrong if in so doing it fails to distinguish degrees of evil in those categories. What we need is to find ways to do so that do not trivialize any particular instances.


Margaret B. Adam said…
One of the problems here is that Dawkins does not have a track record for the sort of nuance that would encourage a sympathetic reading of his observations on these topics. Another is that ranking sin (individual and systemic--they really can't be separated, and we are all complicit in some way or another) necessarily downplays and diminishes someone's suffering. Comparison does that. I wonder if it's possible to emphasise particularity, rather than lesser and greater. Date rape is hurtful because of betrayal of trust and damaged intimacy, as well as the range of harm caused by rape. When we consider any one date rape, we have to consider who and how and history and vulnerabilities and all sorts of contexts that constitute the specific sin and wounds. Sexual assault by a stranger is hurtful because of other particulars. Sexual abuse by a family member involves another set of specifics, as well as some common attributes. The legal system as it is set out categorises these offences by the severity of punishment meted out to the perpetrator. That leaves lots of room for additional narratives and responses to all parties involved. I'm not sure how more comparisons will help. Listening and attending to details, feelings, and impacts on lives might help some in a non-Dawkinsian way.
Margaret B. Adam said…
Put another way: The effects of sexual assault vary, depending on a number of factors, including the previous experiences of the one assaulted, the setting, the presence or absence of assistance, the post-event responses of those the victim encounters next, the social context and ideological possibilities for narrations. The biggest variable is the vast range of factors we simply cannot know. Thus, someone who is 'merely' fondled by a fellow passenger on a train might struggle ever to ride on public transportation again; whereas someone who is raped by a serial rapist/murderer (but escapes before the murder part), might recover and (mostly) pick up life as it was before the event. I'm not arguing that the better/worse categorisation of sexual assault should be determined after a long term study of the effects. Rather, I'm noting some of the challenges of focusing on comparisons.

Another problematic comparison is that of the perpetrator's intentions and the effect on the victim. Intention does not determine effect. If one wants to critique a charge of rape as too harsh for what the rapist thought was happening, one must still accept and respond to the experience of the one raped. Comparing the experiences of the two parties does not help.
Robin Parry said…

Thanks so much for these helpful and insightful comments

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