Monday, August 4, 2014

Richard Dawkins is Illogical and Insensitive

There's been a bit of a to-do recently in the skeptical community. Usually when something like that occurs, it has to do with women's rights, harassment, sexual abuse, or some combination of those. This time is no different, and it involves an individual who has gotten in trouble on these topics before. He apparently just is incapable of learning. It's like there is some sort of psychological block that comes down, a subconscious censor in his brain sticking its fingers in its ears, going "Lalalala! I can't hear you!", preventing him from really understanding what is explained to him.

Trigger warning: this post is going to discuss rape.

I hadn't planned on writing anything about this, but then I read something by the aforementioned individual that I felt I just had to say something. The person we are talking about is Richard Dawkins. He is a very big name in the skeptical community, and an even bigger name in the atheist community. Certainly, he's done a lot to get people thinking and asking hard questions when it comes to religion, creationism, intelligent design, and the like. But, and here's where skepticism comes in, we need to judge his words for what they are, not because of who said them. And when it comes to rape, he has been found wanting.

In the latest dust up, he tried to argue that there are categories of rape and that some are worse than others. His example was that being raped by a stranger with a knife is worse than date rape. You can read a bit more about it here. The criticism Dawkins is receiving generally boils down to this: rape is bad, no matter if it is a stranger or someone you know, whether it is with a knife or accomplished with lots of booze. Categorizing rape by the circumstances under which it occurs minimizes the suffering and harm experienced by rape victims.

Others have already covered that issue of Dawkins' comments, so I won't dwell on it. Instead, there was something he wrote in his response to all of the criticism that jumped out at me, particularly because his whole premise in all of this is that we should apply cold, emotionless logic and rationality to the subject. He writes (emphasis mine):
“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. I don’t want to listen to this horrible discussion. The very idea of classifying some rapes as worse than others, whether it’s date rape or stranger rape, is unconscionable, unbearable, intolerable, beyond the pale, taboo. 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. Do we really want our courts to impose a single mandatory sentence – a life sentence, perhaps – for all rapes regardless? To all rapes, from getting a woman drunk and taking advantage at one end of the spectrum, to holding a knife to her throat in a dark alley at the other? Do we really want our judges to ignore such distinctions when they pass sentence? I don’t, and I don’t think any reasonable person would if they thought it through. And yet that would seem to be the message of the agonisingly passionate tweets that I have been reading. The message seems to be, no, there is no spectrum, you are wicked, evil, a monster, to even ask whether there might be a spectrum.
To answer Dawkins' question: yes, we do want judges to apply the same penalty for all rapes, but we also do not want them to ignore the additional circumstances of the rape. Rape is rape. It is the forcible, unwanted sexual assault of another person. The penalty for that action should be the same across the board, whether it was a friend, relative or a stranger. Where Dawkins gives himself a pass at applying logic is that all of those other things, getting a woman (or, I should add, man) drunk, holding a knife to the throat, etc., are additional acts. Those should carry their own penalties as assault or battery as appropriate. The penalties for those actions should be in addition to the penalty for the rape itself.

But of course, the other thing that Dawkins seems not to get is that judging whether one type of rape is worse than another is a subjective call. There is no objective criteria by which to judge. You can take two completely different people who experience the same "type" of rape. One will experience it differently than the other. Similarly, look at two different people that were victims of "date rape" and two that were victims of "stranger rape with a knife". Each person suffers in their own way and there is no objective way to say that any one of them had a "worse" experience than the other three. The only way to even come close to saying that one rape is worse than the others is to evaluate the overall effects, both physical and psychological, on the individuals. That's still inadequate, but it's the closest one can come to any sort of "hierarchy" of rape.

And that's where Dawkins' logic breaks down. Since each person experiences rape in a different way, since the overall impact on each person is different, we cannot use the circumstances as an objective measure of the "badness" of the rape. His persistence in arguing that there is an objective difference and that emotion cannot play any role in that judgment just shows that he does not understand what people are telling him, nor is he as logical as he claims to be.

Mr. Dawkins, rape is rape is rape, and to argue otherwise is not only illogical, but incredibly thick-headed and insensitive to those have been victims of rape.

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