Dawkins on “mild paedophilia”

RDRichard Dawkins has – again – demonstrated that he doesn’t know or doesn’t care about public relations. As I’ve argued before, the fact that you might be speaking the truth isn’t always the only relevant thing. Messages can get lost in their delivery, and in the perceptions of their audience – and we can therefore have a debate about the efficacy of a message that is, to some extent, separate from its truth-value.

The outrage on this occasion is his reference to “mild paedophilia” in an interview for The Times (paywalled), that was written up on Religion News Service and then (to my mind, at least) mischaracterised on Pharyngula (commenters, this is not a blog on which to rant about PZ, please – I think he’s being uncharitable in his interpretation of Dawkins, but Dawkins nevertheless said something very ill-advised and insensitive). [EDIT: here’s the full text, from the RDFS site.]

First, an important clarification: what Dawkins reports is not paedophilia, but child abuse. Paedophilia does not necessarily entail any physical contact, but simply the attraction – and many paedophiles hate the fact that they have this attraction at all. We all make it more difficult for them to get help through demonising paedophiles as child abusers.

Second, this is not a new story. At least, the fact that Dawkins was abused is not a new story. He’s referred to it in interviews, as well as in The God Delusion. His comment that “it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical abuse” has previously been the subject of willful misinterpretation by the physicist Peter Higgs, and others.

In this new interview, Dawkins repeats his claim that he doesn’t think he has suffered lasting harm, and suggests that neither would his peers have. That’s a problem already, of course, in that while he’s free to speak for himself, it’s rather risky – not to mention grossly insensitive, and likely harmful to some who do feel harmed – to assert that other victims of child abuse haven’t suffered harm. Then he says:

I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. 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 pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today.

This is the key passage, in which Dawkins again says something which is arguably true, yet an utterly stupid – and pointless – thing to say. To my mind, what he’s trying to say is:

  • That child abusers were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of their actions wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • That the victims of child abuse were living in a culture and time where the wrongness of what was being done to them wasn’t as obvious to them as it would be now.
  • Our understanding of what actors did and felt within a particular historical time and context must be informed by the norms applicable at the time.

The fact that child abuse (and racism, and sexism, etc.) were always wrong is a separate issue to how people felt about those things, and their awareness of the wrongfulness of those things. And, how people felt about things (in fact, how they perceive things today) will obviously have an effect on whether people feel harmed, abused or whatever the case might be. That’s all that Dawkins seems to be saying. And the fact that it will appear to be an insensitive thing to say doesn’t make him wrong on those facts. What makes him wrong is arguably that it’s an excessively, and unproductively, insensitive thing to say.

So it’s not fair, or accurate, to say (as PZ Myers does), that he “can think of some lasting harm [to Dawkins]: [Dawkins] seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children”. Not at all – this is a completely needless, and unfair, swipe at Dawkins, in that it asserts that he’s persistently, and currently, indifferent to the sexual abuse of children in general.

As discussed above, Dawkins thinks that some abuse, at a particular time, was not regarded as seriously (regardless of its actual seriousness) as it would be today. These are very different claims, and PZ Myers is simply picking the most uncharitable interpretation possible in order to discredit Dawkins.

Later in the post, PZ Myers says

We do not excuse harm to others because some prior barbaric age was indifferent to that harm. Furthermore, the excuse doesn’t even work: are we supposed to believe that a child-fondling teacher would have been permissible in the 1950s? Seriously? Was that ever socially acceptable? And even if it was, in some weird version of British history, it does not excuse it. It means British schools were vile nests of child abuse, just like Catholic churches.

Again, to call it an “excuse” creates the impression that Dawkins condones child abuse. And the use of the word “permissible” implies a binary state, where either all teachers are going around abusing children, then sharing tales over tea, or one where all abusers are caught and punished to the full extent of the law. It was never permissible, not even in the 1950s. Yet, it’s still possible that people didn’t report it as often, or follow up on it as often, or perceive it in the same ways then, as they do now.

This doesn’t alter the fact that it was wrong then, as it’s wrong now. It doesn’t “excuse” it, as per Myers’ words above. All that it does is explain that people might respond to it differently then than they do now.