Richard Dawkins was right when he recently said that ‘Nothing should be off limits to discussion.’ It was a point he made in a recent blog post following the fallout that happened after he tweeted comments comparing different types of rape and paedophilia.
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.
— Richard Dawkins (@RichardDawkins) July 29, 2014
Yet it is also true that no comment made can ever be made away from the context it is made in and without the historic behaviour of the commenter being added to it. The hypothetical questions above would have touched many nerves regardless of who the author of it was- why use rape or child abuse as examples at all -the fact that it was Richard Dawkins saying it made all the difference here.
Dawkins has previously belittled the problems faced by Western women. He once wrote a fictional letter called Dear Muslima in which he compared one particular experience that Rebecca Watson had with the plight of Muslim women. ‘I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with ‘ he wrote. You can read it in full on the Skepchick website here but you get the idea from that quote.
Leaving aside the obvious issues with referring to ‘Muslim Women’ and ‘American Women’ as mutually exclusive groups that can be compared to one another, and the downplaying of the abuse that women in the Western world face (like being killed by abusive partners, being blamed for their rape or having their reproductive rights taken away by men in authority and more), these comments from Dawkins (unintentionally, I’m sure) gave other men and women the green light to further harass Rebecca Watson and other women within the skeptic and atheist communities for simply daring to speak out about experiences that had made them feel scared, unsafe or uncomfortable. In fact, the harassment that came as a result of what has been named “elevatorgate” is still ongoing and has seen many men and women who supported Rebecca Watson being harassed themselves.
This is why I find the joint statement by Ophelia Benson and Richard Dawkins condemning such abuse difficult to swallow, and it is why I felt really annoyed at QEDcon when Dawkins was interviewed on stage and was not questioned once about such comments and the impact they have had on the very community he was on stage in front of.
Are we supposed to just forget that this man has said terrible things just because he’s written some great books and speaks well about Evolution? How many evils can one get away with just by being a hero figure in the atheist or skeptic communities? Lots, it seems…
So, when I read the tweets from Richard Dawkins rating different types of rape and paedophilia in comparison to one another my instant reaction was ‘not again…’ and my mind went instantly to Dear Muslima. Dawkins may not have been saying that compared to those who have been violently raped those who have been raped by friends have nothing to complain about nor may he have been saying that those who have suffered ‘mild paedophilia’ have nothing to complain about compared to those who have suffered ‘violent paedophilia’ but it still made it difficult to not be annoyed by his audacity to assume that he has any authority on the experiences of other people.
In summary, although nothing should be off limits to discussion if you’ve a track record of being a bit of an insensitive ass about the traumatic experiences of others you’re probably going to be treated like an ass when you speak about a subject with an authority you do not have. Especially when the data shows that your presumptions are wrong.