Richard Dawkins in a recent interview:
‘Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.’
Let us ignore comparing cultural attitudes to race nearly four hundred years ago with attitudes to child abuse that has happened within the lifetime of Richard Dawkins. An odd comparison by timeline and subject matter.
I would still condemn such people in the past whilst appreciating the moral zeitgeist has moved on. Anyone with an appreciation of history would see this judgment comes to pass with future generations. For example I may admire Hume’s part in the Scottish Enlightenment and contribution to humanism. Yet I can still be appalled and critical of him writing in the 18th century:
I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was any civilized nation of any other complection than white, nor even any individual eminent in action or speculation.
More on Enlightenment thinking and race can be read here by Kenan Malik who quotes a lecture he gave on the subject:
What we see here are the first intimations of a contradiction that was to become a key motor of nineteenth century social and political thinking – a contradiction between the intellectual categories thrown up Enlightenment philosophy and the social relations of the emerging capitalist society, between an abstract belief in equality, on the one hand, and the concrete reality of an unequal society. It was out of this contradiction, as we shall see, that the idea of race emerges.
The point which Dawkins loses sight of is we should not judge the past solely by our own values, but that we should understand what the thinking, custom and culture was then; the meaning of words at the time. Malik goes into this in some detail, and his book Strange Fruit is on my reading list for more.
Going back fifty years I am conscious that both my parents as children witnessed such abuse happening. The culture at the time was that my Grandmother warned a teacher not to to try that with her daughter.
A different era entirely – yet the revulsion and outrage at the harm such abuse causes makes it difficult to just accept what Dawkins says. His own abuse, which he and other children experienced by a teacher in Salisbury, he reckons did no lasting harm on others.
Bully for him – but can he be so sure for others?
Peter Watt, director of child protection at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, called Dawkins’ remarks “a terrible slight” on those who have been abused and suffered the effects for decades.
“Mr. Dawkins seems to think that because a crime was committed a long time ago we should judge it in a different way,” Watt said. “But we know that the victims of sexual abuse suffer the same effects whether it was 50 years ago or yesterday.”
Peter Saunders, founder of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood and himself a victim of abuse, told The Times that Dawkins’ comments were worrying and unhelpful, adding: “Abuse in all its forms has always been wrong. Evil is evil and we have to challenge it whenever and wherever it occurs.” [Huffington Post]
Dawkins used the example of reports in Yemen of a child bride being killed via sexual injuries to highlight differences in child abuse and deflecting moral relativism.
I fear this was probably the worst straw man argument being made by him. The criticism of his view is not that all forms of abuse are equal. Rather that if it happened to you as a child in the past decades ago it is different than if it happens to a child today.
Dawkins view is worse if the perpetrators of child abuse in the past are still alive and not brought to justice. Further, victims of child abuse may themselves take decades before eventually coming forward. What is Dawkins thinking towards Operation Yewtree – which in the wake of Jimmy Savile scandal is charging public figures with child abuse (and other sexual offences) going back to 1960s and 1970s? Is that a different era or can we rightly condemn that too with 21st century attitudes.
On a side note Dawkins autobiography is on sale today. So if the above was not controversial enough, then why not push gleefully when baited the Islam red button one more time to be noticed:
Yes that will do it. No such thing as bad publicity when you have a book to sale.
Follow Up Post: Dawkins Clarification On Child Abuse Comments
Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog