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Last week renowned atheist and shrill-voiced bag lady Richard Dawkins kicked off yet another internet controversy. Surprisingly however, this controversy had nothing to do with his views on religion but was instead related to the touchy subjects of feminism, paedophilia and, well… rape.
Specifically, Dawkins tweeted the following:
Needless to say these comments caused a great degree of flapping amongst women’s rights organisations, internet feminists, and news commentators on both the left and right of the media. As a result, Dawkins was lambasted across Facebook, Twitter and the UK’s newspapers. Having seen the 73-year-old atheist dragged over the hot coals, I’d like to imagine that the Good Lord was laughing his ass off …if he wasn’t too busy killing innocent people with his latest Ebola outbreak.
While it’s understandable how the internet managed to get its knickers in a twist over Dawkins’ remarks, I found it far harder to explain why people were making such a fuss. In fact, so did they.
The biggest problem with this type of internet outrage is that nobody seems to quite agree on what exactly it was that had offended them. From a review of the tweets, the sources of indignation seemed to fall into four separate camps, none of which – as far as I can see – really justified the aggressive response Dawkins received. These camps included:
Unlike the other groups, these people seemed to have just missed the point entirely. All Dawkins was attempting to do was explain the concept of a syllogism (admittedly in an incredible unsubtle way). In that goal he succeeded. If you think Y is worse than X that’s not an endorsement of X. No problems here then.
The statement that riled up the majority of people, not to mention the Guardian, was “Mild date rape is bad. Violent date rape is worse”. The key argument behind this response was that all forms of rape are equally horrific, and that organising rape into a hierarchy of “bad” and “worse” downplays the suffering of the “bad rape” victims. While it’s understandable that there’s no such thing as “mild rape”, the problem with claiming that crimes can’t be organised by severity is that… well… they can. In fact, we organise them by severity every single day… that’s how the justice system works! Some rapes/murders/thefts receive far longer and harsher sentences than others. Why? Because they are more severe. As Dawkins himself put it:
As is to be expected, outrage was also induced by various individuals who simply didn’t like Richard Dawkins, either due to his atheism or his affiliation to the Left. A key example of this was Damian Thompson’s article in The Spectator, which claimed that the Guardian turning on Dawkins was a symbol of the conflicting views and frail infrastructure behind Left Wing politics. While it could be argued that this lack of consensus is due to an intellectual appreciation for the fact that most issues are extremely complex and don’t deserve the black and white answers provided by The Spectator, that’s a discussion for another blog post.
The real issue with this type of argument is that it has very little to do with what Richard Dawkins actually said. It’s simply a pre-determined stance that would have reared its head no matter how the events played out, and for that reason it’s hardly worth considering.
Out of all the groups mentioned here, this is the one that I’d come the closest to agreeing with. While Dawkins’ logic was correct, the examples he used were unnecessarily provocative for a simple explanation of syllogism. Having said that however, should we really be surprised? Richard Dawkins has spent the best part of his life arguing with people that respond not to logic or scientific reasoning but to emotional appeals. When debating with people who believe Adam and Eve rode on the backs of dinosaurs, is it any wonder that Dawkins has abandoned his formerly subtle argumentative style?
It’s also worth mentioning that Twitter as a medium rarely lends itself to the careful drawn out discussion of such complex and sensitive topics. Had Dawkins written those comments in a book or an article, the outrage could be justifiable – but he didn’t, he wrote them on twitter. A 73-year-old biologist attempted to compress his views into 140 characters and failed to provide adequate context. That’s all that happened. So maybe it’s time we all just leave Richard Dawkins alone.