Friday, August 1, 2014

Richard Dawkins is a Vulcan

Richard Dawkins posted a series of tweets that set off a firestorm.
X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of X, go away and don’t come back until you’ve learned how to think logically.

Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think anybody who said that would thereby be endorsing date rape, go away and learn how to think.
Twitter is such a terrible format, I'd rather not even engage with it.  Instead, I will respond to Richard Dawkins' longer post on the subject, "Are there emotional no-go areas where logic dare not show its face?"  In effect, I am being charitable to Dawkins by considering his fuller justification, regardless of whether he actually deserves such charity.
Some people angrily failed to understand that it was a point of logic using a hypothetical quotation about rape. They thought it was an active judgment about which kind of rape was worse than which. Other people got the point of logic but attacked me, equally furiously, for choosing the emotionally loaded example of rape to illustrate it.  To quote one blogger, prominent in the atheist movement, ‘What would have been wrong with, “Slapping someone’s face is bad, breaking their nose is worse”? Why need to use rape?’
I hope I have said enough above to justify my belief that rationalists like us should be free to follow moral philosophic questions without emotion swooping in to cut off all discussion, however hypothetical. I’ve listed cannibalism, trapped miners, transplant donors, aborted poets, circumcision, Israel and Palestine, all examples of no-go zones, taboo areas where reason may fear to tread because emotion is king. Broken noses are not in that taboo zone. Rape is. So is pedophilia. They should not be, in my opinion. Nor should anything else.
In short, Dawkins was trying to make a point about logic.  But he wasn't really trying to make a point about logic, he was trying to make a point about how certain subjects are so taboo that we fail to apply logic.  According to Dawkins, people angrily failed to understand that he was just trying to make a point about logic.  How can they disagree with logic?  Except, apparently he wasn't just making a point just about logic.

I appreciate that there are taboos that block rational discussion of important topics.  Perhaps the one most important to Dawkins is the taboo against criticizing religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Dawkins is being that guy.  The guy who dumbly pretends that they only understand literal meanings, and who act shocked when people interpret their statements in any sense other than the literal one.  I'm not sure what the cool kids call it these days, but when I was a kid, we called this being a "smart alec".  Smart alecs were assholes.  Even smart alecs themselves knew they were being assholes.

I know Richard Dawkins has a science popularizer background, and not a Skeptical background (and I mean capital S Skepticism, as in the community of people actively interested in the subject).  And in some ways, capital S Skepticism is dying, or it is to me, because of dissatisfaction with the community.  But there was at least one advantage to the community, which was that it made us think about our collective image as skeptics.  We knew that we were perceived of as smart alecs, as Vulcans, as people who only cared about logic.  We knew the stereotype that skeptics don't care about feelings, neither our own nor other people's.  We made sure to counter this stereotype whenever possible.

But Dawkins.  Dawkins is trying to be that guy.  He's trying to be the Vulcan.

Sorry, but being a Vulcan is neither endearing, nor is it the correct approach to critical thinking.

As for the fallacy that Dawkins mentioned, is it ironic that the politically-correct witch-hunting feminazis actually discuss this particular fallacy in greater depth than Dawkins ever could?  This fallacy is commonly discussed under the heading of "oppression olympics".

"Oppression olympics" is when people disingenuously compare how bad X and Y are, in order to just shut people up about X.  For instance, if people are talking about sexism in the UK, someone might dismiss the whole discussion by referring to sexism in the Middle East.*  But that's stupid.  Just because Y is worse than X doesn't mean we should ignore X.  X may still be pretty bad.

*I use this particular example because it's something Dawkins himself has infamously done.

At this point, the person who invoked the comparison gets defensive.  "I wasn't trying to say that X isn't bad.  I wasn't endorsing X."  But if what they said has no implications on X, why did they bring it up in a conversation about X?  Probably they subconsciously believe it has implications on X, even though they won't admit it.  In other words, people can still believe in the fallacy even when they say they don't.

Case in point, Dawkins says he doesn't believe in the fallacy, but people still remember his comments from last year when he said he "can’t find it in [him] to condemn" the "mild pedophilia" he experienced in his youth.  Just because it was "milder" than other people's experiences doesn't mean it wasn't bad, and doesn't mean we can't condemn it.  Does Dawkins himself understand the lesson of his own tweet?

Again, I appreciate the value of breaking taboos.  It's actually a pet peeve of mine when, because of taboos, people don't understand that different cases of sexual assault or rape may result in different degrees of trauma. But it's not so simple as dividing rape and assault into different "kinds", it's not so deterministic.  There are a lot more factors involved than just whether it was "date rape" or "violent rape".  The important message here is that people can react in different ways, and their feelings are valid.  And I will say that regardless of how taboo it is.


miller said...

I used to be a skeptic, which led to radical skepticism; that, in turn, forced me to become skeptical of my skepticism; or else, alas, I would have become no true Scotsman; no true skeptic. I am now Catholic, unfortunately. I wish I were not.

Dr.Dawkins needs to focus his efforts on scientific pursuits and further advancements in evolutionary theory. His silly squabbles with religion and morality are distractions preventing him from scientific discovery and reaching his full potential as a gifted person.

When he comments on science, it's brilliant.

When he comments on religion and philosophy, it sounds brilliant to idiots. The truth is it's embarrassing.

He acquired a soapbox from his scientific achievements and then decided to preach about topics he knows nothing about. He could just be a shrewd nihilist with good business sense. There's a huge market for selling books about atheism. If that's the case, I salute him. I admire courageous entrepreneurs. :)

Sent from my iPhone

miller said...

That's something a lot of people have been saying lately. "Is Dawkins a liability?" Not because talking about evolutionary theory is necessarily more worthwhile, but because Dawkins does not seem to be especially skilled at talking about social issues.

I don't have any strong opinions on the subject.

miller said...

Dunno. I see Dawkins as having some stupid, bad opinions, and having a lot of insightful analysis. I don't think his stupid, bad opinions jointly or severally make him a truly bad person, in the sense that some people (e.g. Ronald Reagan, Donald Rumsfeld, Fred Phelps) are/were truly bad people. I think it's sufficient to respond to Dawkins' bad opinions, even if Dawkins himself never changes his mind, without going much farther than simply noting that for all his prestige, Dawkins is hardly a prophet or has any kind of moral authority.