Richard Dawkins is ignorant of some very basic facts about communication

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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159 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I agree. This reminds me of when Tod had a post a year or so ago about the value in being judicious because a president of a fundie college in Idaho said somethings about slavery as being permissible in the bible.

    I’ve never liked Dawkins. He always seemed to be the kind of person that thinks because he is an expert in one field, he has the right to comment about all other fields and the stereotypical science person who thinks science is the only way to think logically or well. This is not the first time he has gotten in trouble for ignorant statements and it will probably not be the last.

    The problem of course is that Dawkins has a hugely loyal fanbase (for lack of a better word) who seem to really think he is the be all and end all of all argumentation. I have several friends who are huge admirers of Dawkins and they all came from extremely strict and borderline kooky Christian fundamentalist upbringings. We are talking Jesus Camp/Mars Hill levels of religiousity. Dawkins is equally as strident in his atheist as their family and former pastors were in praising Jesus.

    I am probably as close to atheist as anything though I officially refer to my theology as apathetic agnosticism. I don’t think I’ve ever had what could be described as a spiritual thought and my general experience of religious ceremony is one of mild boredom with a few touches that I find nice. I like when the Torah is paraded around the shul for some reason. Though my religious upbringing was in reform Judaism which I find immensely reasonable. Go to services a few times a year, keeping Kosher is a personal choice, get a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, etc and I generally like religiousity at the reform Judaism or mainline Protestant (think Quaker Meeting House) level. Though people usually think of that as weak tea and encourage abandonment if atheist or going more Orthodox if religious.Report

    • Kim in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      Quakers aren’t mainline protestants, are they? I rather had the impression that most mainline Protestants didn’t like “hippie christians”Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to Kim says:

        I’m sure that there are Protestant groups that think Quakers are “hippie Christians”. But you’re taking a particular view of what “mainline” is that is, in my opinion, very subjective.

        Quakers, and other pacifistic sects, have a long history dating back to the Reformation. The view that they are not mainline is very much the view that the other groups that think they are “hippie Christians” would like you to have. They (the non-hippies, if you will) are very noisy, while most of the pacifistic groups I know of practice modesty (as in, keeping your mouth shut and going about your business).Report

  2. zic says:

    Problem is, the truth (or truthiness) of these statements vary by victim. It’s pretty easy to imagine that overt violence is worse; and for some, that may be.

    But betrayal of trust, for some people, may be worse. It was for me.

    And anyone who’d make this subjective statements without ever considering that the right of valuing which is worse probably should keep his or her mouth shut.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      That he chose to use his extra characters to scold readers rather than to hedge his statement in any way to acknowledge the experiences of victims factoring in at all annoys me.Report

    • Michael Drew in reply to zic says:

      I agree with zic. The problem here is not true statements with cascading meaning. The problem is statements that Dawkins really has no good basis for believing are generally true*. There probably really are some (a lot?) of date rapes (a term I’ve always hated for some reason) that are worse than some knifepoint rapes for some victims/ Why should anyone feel comfortable making such generalizations?

      It might be true (likely is) that in certain contexts saying “Some black people steal” wouldn’t be a good idea for a host of reasons, largely tracking the reasons Vikram gives. But I don’t think it’s a bad thing to say for the same reasons as or provides a good analogy for understanding why Dawnkins’ statements on rape and pedophilia are ill-advised.

      * I just saw Brandon’s comment about Dawkins’ experiences below. I don’t know what this refers to, but potentially it changes the calculus a bit. I.e., if(!) Dawkins has been the victim of both violent pedophilia and mild pedophilia, it may be legitimate for him to say which is worse. It wouldn’t be legitimate to antagonize others who have experienced both who disagree, but that’s not what he did with his antagonism in the tweets. The antagonism was to tell people saying he was endorsing pedophilia to go away and learn to think. I actually don’t have much of a problem with that, if indeed he was being told that. I’d probably prefer he had foregone the antagonism, but I don’ think I can have a huge problem with it if he was being accused of endorsing pedophilia. Lastly, all this still leaves the rape tweet, and I find it unlikely Dawkins has the experiential basis to compare date rape and stranger rape.Report

    • Doctor Jay in reply to zic says:

      I don’t think it’s just the betrayal of trust that’s at issue, but the compounded difficulty that a victim is going to have in talking about what happened to her (or him, in those rare cases).

      I think that victims of date rape are much more likely to experience (unjustified!) feelings of shame after a date rape than after a knife point rape. In the latter, one has the knife as a very concrete witness to one’s lack of complicity.Report

      • zic in reply to Doctor Jay says:

        @doctor-jay I’d say shame and the impact on other relationships are part of trust; you trust someone to treat you well, and that’s both a reflection of the things that happen between you and the ways those things reflect out into your larger community. You’re trusting that the reputation the person has as safe and reliable in your external circle is some guarantee that you will be safe with them in private.Report

    • j r in reply to zic says:

      I agree with @zic and @michael-drew. For a statement to be true in any meaningful sense, it needs to be both accurate and precise. On some level, what Dawkins is saying is accurate. A crime committed by brute force is in many cases worse for the victim than a crime committed by stealth or by fraud. In many cases, however, it is not. And in that sense, Dawkins comment is so lacking in precision that it becomes meaningless.

      What Dawkins doesn’t consider is that there is often a limit to what strangers can do to you that is not there when dealing with people that you know and trust. If pressed, I would admit that being beaten and mugged for $20 in my wallet is worse than having a hacker take a $20 from my bank account, but how often is is the case that someone is going to get access to my bank account and only take $20?Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to j r says:

        Just to be upfront, those (my) comments were made not in full understanding of how this episode unfolded, nor of the sense in which Dawkins meant those tweets. I.e., the problems with the statements quoted in the OP remain when taken in isolation, but as it turns out Dawkins isn’t committed to those statements as true statements. Their function actually was as essentially hypothetical statements – things people could say (though I think things that Dawkins also unreflectively believed when he said them, but then retreated from when pressed on them) – posed in order to consider what are and aren’t necessary implications for the beliefs of people who state them as real beliefs.

        In that sense, I think the issue with them, to the extent there is one and I think there is an issue, actually is more along the lines of what Vikram lays out in the OP, though I’m not sure really where I stand on how much of an issue it is. Certainly I think the the rape example was egregiously unnecessary. I’m not sure what I think beyond that.

        As I’ve done repeatedly, I do encourage people to read the links Brandon provided, and also to review Dawkins’ twitter feed. I understand some people just have no use for the guy and are happy to walk away from this not having done that but still having gained another reason to dislike Richard Dawkins. I can’t really say as I blame them. But I do encourage folks to acquaint themselves with how this went down if they can see clear to doing it.Report

      • j r in reply to j r says:

        I’ve read it and I’m not sure I see anything that changes my mind. In fact, I think that what I said about precision is quite relevant. I don’t think that his statement works, even as an analogy.

        It is also unclear why he decided to use an example that tried to take his own personal experiences and turn them into some sort of universal statement. It is hubris.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to j r says:

        He does speak for his classmates who experienced similar abuse in the article, saying, “I don’t think it did last harm to any of us.” He shouldn’t speak for them, and it’s wrong of him to do so. Nevertheless, based on context, I take his statements in the tweets to be essentially hypotheticals, and in that sense they’re meaningless in the sense that all hypotheticals are meaningless. But I don’t think they’re more so.Report

      • j r in reply to j r says:

        That is my whole point. What he said is just plain meaningless. And I generally have little patience for people saying meaningless things in service of pure provocation.Report

  3. Mike Schilling says:

    Was there some context for those tweets? They sound like the kind of thing someone says when they’re trying to justify some previous faux pas, like “OK, maybe I shouldn’t have said you need to start dieting, but saying you’re on the path to morbid obesity would have been much worse..”Report

    • They were concrete examples of a previous tweet: “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.”

      Of course, I’m not sure why you would choose as examples that have content that distract from the point he is trying to illustrate. He could have said “Robbery is bad. Armed robbery is worse.” But that wouldn’t have gotten people upset and would have thus robbed him the opportunity to scold others for not thinking logically.

      The point was never to illustrate a logical problem. The point was to make others upset and then scold them for being upset.Report

      • Chas M in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Oh my. This makes it so much worse. He not only spent effort crafting offensive statements that he could parse responsibility for, he gamed it out ahead of time and specifically created the X/Y construct so he could talk about rape. Again.Report

      • Upon reviewing his feed (which I really should have done more of in preparation for this post–you all have my apologies), he posted this before the X and Y business:

        “It is reasonable to deplore both the original founding of the Jewish State of Israel & aspirations now to destroy it

        I’m not sure which is supposed to be the X and which the Y here. Also, he has the following follow-ups to address some of the criticism about which is worse:

        “If you prefer to think date rape is worse than knifepoint, simply reverse my syllogism. To say Y is worse than X is not an endorsement of Y.”

        And he addresses it most directly here:

        “”Stealing £1 is bad. Stealing an old lady’s life savings is worse.” How DARE you rank them? Stealing is stealing. You’re vile, appalling.”Report

    • veronica d in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Well, one of the “extra meanings” that I am quite certain Dawkins meant to include in these statements is “fuck you, feminists.”

      No, really. Dawkins has a long history here, and the “go away and learn how to think” part was targeting a very specific audience, largely on Twitter, with whom Dawkins has been sparring for a few years now. (Mostly since “elevatorgate.” Google it if you need to.)

      Of course, this is all par for the course within the whole nerdbros-versus-feminists discourse that plays out online, which at its heart is men saying, “I’m so smart I don’t need to listen to women to know how they should feel about things,” and women saying, “Nope!”

      About which, to Richard Dawkins: Nope.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to veronica d says:

        Somehow I managed to write this whole thing without considering the history Dawkins has in this area. I think it says something that even without taking this history into account, he still is wrong about how people should read these sentences.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @vikram-bath — Well, the thing about the history, if someone like me said this (minus the “learn to think” part), no one would blink an eye. (Okay, partly because I’m a relative nobody online, but let’s pretend.) Now, this does not mean I would not get pushback. Surely @zic might feel inclined to say, “No, veronica, you’re wrong. Here’s why…” But then, she could say this knowing I would likely listen. Dawkins on the other hand has a habit of not listening.

        Furthermore, the “learn to think” bit was an essential part of the message. It implies that those offended by his comments are stupid, that his big man-brain is better at logic than our girlish minds. It was meant as a challenge, as an in your face. Which is to say, this was intended to offend people.

        Of course, I think the proper response to Dawkins is no longer offense. Instead, it is contempt. The man is a turd.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to veronica d says:

        Well, one of the “extra meanings” that I am quite certain Dawkins meant to include in these statements is “fuck you, feminists.”

        Turns out if was “Fuck you, NSPCC.”Report

      • Kim in reply to veronica d says:

        So he was just trolling?Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @kim — This feels different from trolling, but I’m not sure if I can explain why.Report

      • Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d says:

        Don’t take what I’m about to say as an endorsement of Dawkins. I can’t stand the guy, I spend as little time as I can thinking about him.

        But I think the characterization of Dawkins as “I’m so smart I don’t need to listen to women to know how they should feel about things” doesn’t quite reach an understanding of people like Dawkins. Though I expect it reaches a perfectly adequate understanding of how you experience him. I know a lot of these people, and most, but not all, of them are, in fact, men.

        But the full expression of what’s going on for them is “Feelings are irrational. I must not have them. Anyone who has them is being irrational and weak. Feelings are shameful.”

        So people like Dawkins are going to be rude and contemptuous of anyone who talks about, or bases behavior on, emotions, regardless of gender. This happens all the time, in fact. But of course, in our traditional gender system, Man==Logic and Women==Emotion. It’s bullshit, of course, but that’s the assigned meaning.

        I’ll admit to having a streak of that in myself, once upon a time. I do not regret discovering this about myself, and easing out of that mindset. But of course, since I’ve done that, I sometimes find myself in the way of the sort of contempt that people like Dawkins like to dump on expressions of emotion.

        So when we get to rape, it seems to me that the worst consequence of it is psychological/emotional. I think you can see for yourself how badly this interacts with the worldview I’ve given above.Report

      • veronica d in reply to veronica d says:

        @doctor-jay – I think you are probably right that Dawkins doesn’t see this as gendered behavior. And it is easy as pie to find him being just as horrible to men. However, I still think we are right to center the gendered nature of this. The reason is simple: Dawkins on his own is just some cranky guy on Twitter. However, his position in secular spaces is important, at least to those who wish to operate in those spaces. And elevatorgate revealed a very ugly part of that community that is in fact driving away women. (At root I think this is precisely the same cultural dynamic faced by women in tech, women in gaming, women in “geek” spaces in general. By and large these are the same dudes.) Dawkins is a force in these spaces and his rampant unchecked misogyny hurts women.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      (I wonder what part of my comment triggered moderation?)Report

  4. Guy says:

    I think your thesis is incomplete. It is true that Dawkins fails to consider the implied meanings of the statements he made, but those implied meanings are not inherent to the statement. They come from context. For example, the context of your “some black people steal” statement implied the following to me (and nothing else): “this statement will be discussed in subsequent paragraphs.” This is because (1) I am fairly sure you are not racist and (2) the statement was a fairly transparent rhetorical device.

    The context for Dawkins’ statements makes the response quite understandable, of course. Dawkins has a reputation for being rather dismissive of people who disagree with him, the Atheist community with which he is associated has a history of trouble with rape, and acquaintance/date rape has a history of being dismissed, generally as not-as-bad-as knifepoint stranger rape. The real problem with Dawkins’ statements, I think, is that he misses the point. The example statements he gives are not treated (or should not be treated) as endorsements of, respectively, mild pedophelia and date rape. They are, however, very easily read as dismissals of those (quite real) problems. And of course, Dawkins means to dismiss here, not endorse.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Guy says:

      “implied meanings are not inherent to the statement. They come from context.”

      Good point. And that was an excellent example to use as illustration.

      Somehow I forgot about the issues the capital-A Atheist community has had with rape. That’s another good example of how context matters. The statement probably would have different implications if it were said in a context where people were talking about what kinds of help to offer each group.

      And I think it’s a third good point that Dawkins is preemptively straw-manning his opposition by saying “they are accusing me of endorsing date rape!” when really they only think he is dismissing date rape.Report

  5. Chris Andersen says:

    Perhaps a better way to explain the problem would be to reverse the logic.

    A > B is logically equivalent to saying B < A.

    Therefore, saying "violent rape is worse than date rape" is equivalent to saying "date rape is better than violent rape".

    Would anyone who wasn't a massive dick actually say something like "date rape is better than violent rape?" Of course not. But, if a statement should be judged only on its logical truth value, then it should be perfectly fine to say "date rape is better than violent rape" and people shouldn't get upset about it.Report

    • Some people get very upset when they find that English doesn’t work the way their math textbooks made them imagine English should work.Report

      • Guy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Speak the English you want to be in the world!

        More seriously, as @brandon-berg suggests bellow, it is possible to speak precisely in English. This is something that everyone should do.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Chris Andersen says:

      Even though “better” is logically equivalent to “less awful,” it carries positive connotations. So even though those two statements are logically equivalent, what makes the version with “better” sound worse is the connotations specific to the word “better.” Changing the phrasing to include the word “better” does not bring out some hidden meaning—it changes the meaning.

      For example:

      1. Mao’s crimes were worse than Mussolini’s.
      2. Mussolini’s crimes were better than Mao’s.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        If we stick with the actual verbal language of , lesser than and greater than, we sometimes get even weirder results.

        While “Mussolini’s crimes were greater than Mao’s,” makes sense (although I’d argue it’s incorrect), we get something quite disturbing if we use greater than in the context of rape:

        – “Violent rape is greater than date rape.”

        It makes me shudder just to write it as a language example.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        “Mussolini’s crimes were greater than Mao’s” is likely to convey the exact opposite of the meaning you intended, i.e., of greater magnitude.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        That is the meaning I intended, which is why I don’t think it’s an accurate claim, just one that a sane person could make.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Ah, yes, you’re right. Sorry. I need to learn to think logically.Report

      • I think in that case, James, “greater” has two different meanings. One is “better and more magnificent” and the other is “of bigger magnitude or severity.” In that sense, it’s almost two different words. They just happen to sound alike. (Well, they’re not two different words, but I hope you can see what I’m saying?)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Right. Maybe I was unclear but I was playing on that ambiguity. I think in the Mussolini/Mao case, people would most likely read that as “greater in magnitude” (as Brandon did), whereas in the rape case it’s likely to be read as “better than.”

        Maybe next I write about a word that can be read in multiple ways, I ought to actually specify that I’m thinking about it in multiple ways, rather than just one of them. 😉Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        I’m not disagreeing with your basic point here, but the example you provide (“Violent rape is greater than date rape.”) is a really non-standard construction, so deviant in fact that we’d be inclined to stop way before our judgments are solidified (reflexively, no doubt) to wonder what the semantic value of “greater” is in this case.

        Context does a lot of work to disambiguate meanings and intentions, but it also provides a basis for even determining whether a statement has a conventionally understood meaning.

        Maybe one criticism of Dawkins is that his use of terms is so wildly outside the norm that some folks can’t help but attribute to him nefarious intent. I dunno. I’m pretty down on proactively policing language myself, as well as making snap judgments based on limite evidence.

        Don’t laugh.Report

      • The rape:rape::Mao:Mussolini thing is not really that curious when we realize that Professor Hanley used greater to modify the word crime amongst the dictators, while omitting that word when considering the kinds of rapes, even though they too are crimes.

        So when looked at this way:

        Mao’s crimes were greater than Mussolini’s.
        Stranger rape is a greater crime than date rape. (Sic.)

        …There’s really nothing linguistically amiss. It’s just the same somewhat ironic meaning of the same adjective doing the same basic work on the same noun.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Yes, it is non-standard. But I’m responding to Chris Andersen’s comment. He uses the formulation, and attempts to put it into words. But using the actual words used in a math class for those signs really highlights, I think, why the formulation doesn’t strictly work. You have to use words other than those normally used to get away from the absurdity, and then there’s no necessary reason to use the words he chose, and a different set of words can convey a very different meaning than his did.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Professor Hanley used greater to modify the word crime amongst the dictators, while omitting that word when considering the kinds of rapes

        I did not omit it.Report

      • “Violent rape is greater than date rape.”Report

      • …Obviously, my “that word” is completely indeterminate, which is my fault. The omitted word is “crime.” It becomes completely comparable and not weird in either case when you include the word crime and have “greater” modify it – as was done in the statement given by Brandon about the dictators – in both statements. So when you make it an apples-to-apples comparison, modifying crime with greater in each, it sounds the same and has the same meaning. The rape example sounds weird because you omitted the word greater had been modifying in the first example. “Murder is a greater crime than theft” sounds pretty normal; “Murder is greater than theft” sounds weird for just the reason that your example did: the word that makes sense of “greater” is omitted.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        Got you. Yes, that does change the sound of the sentence in an important way. I regret the error.Report

    • That’s why I often use the phrase “less bad.”Report

    • Morat20 in reply to Chris Andersen says:

      I always view “violent rape” as two crimes — rape and assault. Date rape is rape, but not always assault. (Although I think there are crimes wherein you coerce behavior without assault, and date rape can have that too).

      Rape is pretty awful, with or without other crimes on top of it. Frankly, I don’t think date rape is better than violent rape. It’s just, you know, less violent. Still rape, you know. It’s not less rape-y because there’s not a knife or a fist.

      As for Dawkins: He’s an egotistical jerk. His only redeeming feature was his willingness to be forthright about being an atheist (and few atheists really want the hassle, relatively speaking). Even speaking on his topic of expertise, he’s still an egotistical jerk. Sometimes you need one, but they’re always pretty crappy tools.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Morat20 says:

        Date rape is manifestly assault. What the hell does that word mean if “sticking your penis in a woman who does not want your penis in her” isn’t it? Just because she was too drunk to properly struggle does not make it any less an assault.

        Good god please think carefully about what you write before you write something about rape.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Morat20 says:

        (I hope I don’t come across as overreacting here, but this topic.)Report

      • Road Scholar in reply to Morat20 says:

        @veronica-d, If someone uses a weapon or beats the crap out of a woman while committing a rape isn’t that worse than “just” forcing himself on her? Isn’t the reason about the fact that two separate crimes are being committed simultaneously? I’m pretty certain that’s what @morat20 was saying. How is he wrong? Didn’t use precisely the exact wording you would prefer?

        This whole business about date-rape reminds me of the post Will T. put up a while back second and third-hand smoke. How in their zeal, anti-smoking advocates will claim that second-hand smoking is “just as bad” as first-hand smoking, which implies logically that first-hand smoking is really no worse than second-hand, which is just stupid. Same deal here. If date rape is “just as bad” as violent stranger rape then apparently being beaten and/or threatened with a weapon don’t make the crime worse. And that’s just stupid.Report

      • Kim in reply to Morat20 says:

        The problem with rape is the loss of autonomy, the ability to control your own body.

        I might argue (based on a friend of mine’s personal experience) that date rape is actually worse than stranger rape. You didn’t trust the stranger to the same extent. You weren’t as vulnerable.

        And you don’t lose your best friend when a stranger rapes you.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Morat20 says:

        I dunno, @road-scholar , if he beats her up at least people will believe she got raped.

        And please do not use the word “stupid” in relation to women struggling with the topic of rape. Acquaintance rape is pervasive and hurtful in ways men simply refuse to consider or acknowledge. The discourse on the topic is difficult. Men like you are part of the problem.

        And note most rapes involve no violence, are committed by men who know the victim, know her friends, is her “friend,” and he gets away with it, multiple times, because women are afraid to speak up. The reason they are afraid to speak up is they will not be believed. The other men (and some women) in her social circle will defend the man. This happens a lot. This is most rapes.

        The men who rape violently are rare. They get caught and go to jail.

        So when discussing the crime of rape in broad social terms (for women in western society not in a war zone), acquainting rape is literally worse, not that the instance of the crime is worse, but it is worse because of the impunity with which rapists can operate and the fact the women must choose between her workplace/friends/family/social scene, where her rapist will walk at large, or stepping out of her life to preserve her last shreds of dignity.

        You have no fucking clue, dude.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Morat20 says:

        The idea of a non-violent sex crime is an oxy moron. Such a thing might be legally possible but the actual activity of forcibly having sex or touching a person in sexual manner without their consent is a violent act in itself by the pain it causes. Even if the act doesn’t leave a physical injury, its a violent act.Report

      • zic in reply to Morat20 says:

        +1 @leeesq

        All rape is forcible rape. That’s why it’s ‘rape’ and not just ‘sex.’Report

      • johanna in reply to Morat20 says:

        @road-scholar If date rape is “just as bad” as violent stranger rape then apparently being beaten and/or threatened with a weapon don’t make the crime worse. And that’s just stupid.

        No not stupid. Having dealt with being assaulted in both scenarios, I will say that while at the moment, having a stranger pinning me to an alley wall with knife at my throat was a terrifying and horrible experience. On the other hand, knowing the perp and having to spend weeks hiding at school and dramatically changing my walking route to and from home and classes, having no one to talk to about it because he was popular and well-loved at school was far more damaging emotionally. They were both horrible experiences. Which crime was worse to me? The latter. You’re a nice guy but way off base here.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        Date rape is manifestly assault. What the hell does that word mean if “sticking your penis in a woman who does not want your penis in her” isn’t it

        I was didn’t speak clearly. As in “in addition to rape” (which yes, is a form assault) I mean the standard form of assault as a crime, you know, violence, threats of violence? Beatings?

        The sort of assault you can get in a mugging. As in “multiple crimes”. If I rob you, I have committed theft. If I rob you after beating you to the ground, I have committed assault AND theft. Theft is theft, any way you cut it. Beating you up THEN stealing your money is two crimes.

        So I suppose better would be to say that ‘violent rape’ is both sexual and physical assault (two separate crimes, two forms of assault) whereas ‘date rape’ may only be one form (sexual assault) depending on the details.

        So again, violent rape is only worse than ‘rape’ in the sense that multiple crimes may be committed. The actual crime of ‘rape’ is identical. (To use the analogy — however you stole my money, you have stolen it. If you beat me up too, it doesn’t mean I didn’t lose exactly as much money. You can’t really claim my theft was ‘lesser’)Report

      • DavidTC in reply to Morat20 says:

        I think it would all be clearer here if, instead of trying to say it’s *additionally* assault, to instead say it’s *more* assault. And actually the crime morat20 is thinking of is battery, not assault. Assault is merely deliberately causing people to worry about battery.

        Punching someone in the face is battery. Beating someone to within an inch of their life is also battery, but it’s *worse* battery. (Or, in much the same linguistic ambiguity people are talking about above, it’s ‘better’ battery. It’s *more* battery-ish.)

        Rape is, pretty much by definition, a form of battery. (1) It’s unlawful and unwanted physical contact, ergo, it’s battery. It’s even *legally* battery, it’s just not charged as battery because there’s a more specific crime.

        But sometimes there’s *additional* battery besides the specific act of sex. And morat20 is trying to say that’s worse. That being raped and beaten is worse than being raped.

        The problem there is…not really. That’s one of those sentences that seem obvious to people without any experience there, but just isn’t true.

        As others have pointed out, at least additional battery makes rape *obvious*. Women who show up at the police station with bruises and black eyes are more likely to be believed than someone who was only assaulted with a penis. And date rape, which is probably the most common form of rape that does not involve physically threatening someone, can have huge problems in other non-obvious ways, and it is indeed possible that violent stranger rape would have been ‘preferred’.

        1) And often assault is in there also, but doesn’t have to be. In fact, the fact that not all rape involves threats of physical violence is something people are trying to get others to realize.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        Offhand, just trying to wrap my mind around it — if it’s a choice between getting beaten up and getting raped, I’d probably chose beaten up.

        If it was a choice between “being raped” and “being raped AND beaten up” I’d chose the former. So in a sense you can say one is not as bad as the other, but only in the sense that you get extra violations on top of the first.

        Again, I wouldn’t call one type of rape worse or better than the other. it’s still, you know, rape. Sexual assault. I think the only reason to call one type of rape better than another is because you’re basing it on the likelihood of additional, bonus crimes.

        So, I guess I’d phrase it as “Rape plus more crimes is worse than just rape alone, but not because the rape isn’t as bad. It’s because of those extra, non-rape crimes.” Which is just a really way of saying “Crime A + extra crime > Crime A alone” which is pretty obvious.

        Now if you’re saying Crime A > Crime A, well — I really can’t see the difference between date rape and ‘violent rape’ except for the ‘violent’ part which is entirely separate from the ‘rape’ part.Report

      • Chris in reply to Morat20 says:

        You’re thinking of rape without context, which it never is: it carries with it the context of place (think of victims of rape who are terrified to go to the place where they were raped, or places like it, or even out of their home altogether), the context of relationships with the attackers (and, when the attacker is known, a violation of trust and perhaps the ending of relationships, which can upturn one’s entire life if the perpetrator is central to one’s life, or if one’s friends side with the perpetrator, etc.). Making absolute claims about how some de-contextualized versions of a highly contextualized experience are worse than other de-contextualized versions of that highly contextualized experience is inane at best.Report

      • Chris in reply to Morat20 says:

        Or put more succinctly: my response to Dawkins would be, “Dude, learn how to think.” Because his oversimplification and dismissal of any nuance (a characteristic of his writing for the last 20 years or so) suggests a fundamental inability to think well.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Morat20 says:

        @morat20 — I would call this thread an object lesson in privilege and how it functions in relation to knowledge and perception. Which is to say, things that are obvious to women are not obvious to men. (Likewise things obvious to blacks are not obvious to whites, things obvious to trans people are not obvious to cis people, etc.) This is not because men(/whites/cissies) are bad people. Instead, it is because they lack the relevant lived experience.

        Now, you can gain this knowledge, but to do so you must be willing to first listen, and to be suspicious of things that “seem obvious” or are “simply logical”. This can be a lot of work.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        Making absolute claims about how some de-contextualized versions of a highly contextualized experience are worse than other de-contextualized versions of that highly contextualized experience is inane at best.

        Was that directed at me? Because in specific, I can easily imagine how one form of rape might be more traumatic to a given person than another. But it’s very context driven, as you note. Date rape might be ‘worse’, in terms of trauma, than ‘violent rape’ depending on all those factors — but that’s very specific and individual.

        Just speaking generally, I tend to be you can’t claim rape X wasn’t as bad as Rape y, the most you can claim is the rape victim might have been the victim of additional crimes in addition to rape, which isn’t really a statement of trauma or ‘how bad it was’ just a statement of, well, how many crimes they were the victim of.

        Speaking of — is sexual assault in the US broken up into separate crimes? Like “Second degree sexual assault” versus “rape” and such?Report

      • veronica d in reply to Morat20 says:

        @morat20 – I’m not calling you out here, like not personally. It is clear you mean well. That said, can you understand why these conversations make women feel very uncomfortable, when the crime of rape becomes a cool logic puzzle for men on the Internet?Report

      • Chris in reply to Morat20 says:

        The badness a complex crime is not the sum, product, or any other universal or even widely generalizable function of the various types of simple crimes that make it up. That is, you can’t simply say “rape + stabbing > rape, because you’ve added stabbing to rape.” It doesn’t work that way. I mean, if we remove all differences save the words we’re using, then cool, two bad things is worse than one, but we’ve divorced ourselves entirely from reality. In reality, there are stabbling-less rapes that are worse than many rapes + stabbings, because the crime is an individual thing, and the victim an individual person, of whom it is impossible to create a fully encapsulating abstraction that can be then included as the valuable of a variable in a simple calculus.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Morat20 says:

        I’m not calling you out here, like not personally. It is clear you mean well. That said, can you understand why these conversations make women feel very uncomfortable, when the crime of rape becomes a cool logic puzzle for men on the Internet?

        The only way I can twist Dawkin’s statement to be coherent is to assume he’s making a pointless statement that “rape plus another crime” > “just rape” which is…true, if only legally. Because obviously if you have two crimes treated identically under the law, but then add ANOTHER crime to one of them, the two-crime person is facing more jail time, fines, or whatever. And the victim was, in fact, victim of two crimes.

        It’s not a “cool logic puzzle” — it’s more that the only way to even PARSE his point is in the context of the law alone. How traumatic an actual rape is depends entirely on the details and context of the rape. When speaking in generics or universals, about all you have is the law.

        So how do I think rape victims feel about people talking about rape in this sense? Probably the same way any victim feels when people discuss what they suffered in abstract — how assault victims feel when lawyers argue what grade of assault it is in front of a judge, reducing their suffering to some bland, generic category. Or when politicians alter the legal code, arguing over whether or not situation X should be murder one or manslaughter or whatnot.

        It’s not a “cool logic puzzle” — it’s just the law, which is written in the general and judged in the specific.

        Me? I think rape is rape, that “violent rape” just means you add charges for physical battery or whatever– not treat the sexual assault as somehow ‘more severe’ because it was violent. It was rape, whether it was violent or not. I think the only way you can say greater/lesser is just to count up the number of crimes, and that’s only useful if you’re trying to determine if rape is more or less likely during the commission of other crimes.

        The whole thing has basically made me wonder if date rape and ‘violent’ rape are, in fact, treated equally. (That is no difference in degree between the rapes, just additional charges for any other crimes committed).

        I had simply assumed it was. That date rape and stranger with a knife in your house rape were, at least theoretically, equivalent crimes under the law — the only difference being the guy with the knife would be facing additional charges for threats with a deadly weapon or something.Report

    • Mo in reply to Chris Andersen says:

      Chris, one is always going to be either “better that” the other or else they would be equal. So while your phrasing sounds bad, the only alternative is “date rape is just as good* as violent rape.”

      * Good chosen intentionally instead of badReport

      • Chris in reply to Mo says:

        No, that’s not the only alternative! It’s not a case of “either they are equally bad or one is worse than the other,” because we are talking about abstract concepts that, when used in this way, have little connection to the concrete realities they are supposed to denote. The only real alternative, the only one that touches on reality, is to say, “It is impossible to say, in the abstract, which is worse because these concepts refer to such highly particular, such deeply contextual experiences that can vary in their severity, and in the severity of the emotional and physical trauma, a great deal!”

        But that doesn’t fit on Twitter, and requires actually thinking about this shit.Report

  6. Brandon Berg says:

    The problem is that there are contexts in which it’s perfectly valid—important, even—to say things like this, and no amount of hedging or clarifying is going to make it not offensive in the minds of people who need to learn how to think logically. Moreover, the hedging and clarifying needed even to somewhat mitigate the inevitable outrage is awkward and cumbersome.

    Certainly, Dawkins would better be able to achieve his communicative goals if he worked around his audience’s limitations, and he would be well advised to do that. But he’s the lesser part of the problem here.Report

    • I included and then deleted a paragraph in the original post about how I understand that Dawkins works in an area in people say things that are false and a lot of his allies feel social encumbrances to saying the truth. But when people get mad at him for good reason, he isn’t exactly making it more likely that others will follow his lead.

      I do acknowledge that there are some things that need to be said and “no amount of hedging or clarifying is going to make it not offensive in the minds of people who need to learn how to think logically”, but here we have a case wherein Dawkins makes *no* attempt at hedging. He makes no concession that victims’ experiences factor into whether something is worse than another thing. He picked phraseology that is as terse and unyielding as possible. Maybe he would have had the same problem if he hedged or clarified, but he certainly robbed us of the opportunity to find out.

      I don’t know know how to judge whether he is the lesser part of the problem, but I do think that it isn’t too much to ask that he says things that are both true as well as not syntactically engineered so as to create misunderstanding.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        “Dawkins works in an area in people say things that are false and a lot of his allies feel social encumbrances to saying the truth. But when people get mad at him for good reason, he isn’t exactly making it more likely that others will follow his lead.”

        I never get this kind of argumentation. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, he should understand that social encumbrances and taboos exist for a reason. Sometimes those reasons are bad and often social encumbrances can be very subjective depending on tribe but they help keep us from wallowing in despair and killing each other and being mad all the time.Report

      • Guy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @saul-degraw Just-so stories and any associated moralizing are precisely what (good) evolutionary biology is NOT about. Dawkins’ problem is not that he doesn’t understand why taboos or encumbrances exist and it’s not that he’s ignoring them. His problem is that he is arguing in bad faith and refusing to consider that his interlocutors might have a point, as he consistently does.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I suspect partly Dawkins has become entirely accustomed to endless, pointless debates with people with whom he shares no common ground that he has become unable to communicate in any other way. Which is to say, he has debated so long with people not worth listening to (creationists) that he cannot listen.

        Also it is because the online Atheist community is a nest of shitty misogynists. That too.Report

      • Morat20 in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        Yeah, I’d say years of arguing with people who are professional liars and charlatans has probably trained him to the point where he just expects everyone is lying, distorting, or trying to smear him. From the get-go.

        I’ve had little to do with the online atheist community, so I can’t comment on their misogyny or lack thereof. Wouldn’t really surprise me, though. Tiny, angry, self-reinforcing community would tend towards all sorts of mental toxicity. Add in a besieged mentality to that….yuck.

        Sad thing is, while many atheists wander through a very angry period (that is, if they were formerly religious) although most aren’t moved to find like-minded communities and vent at length. Those who were never religious don’t tend to care, unless the local evangelicals are playing games with the laws again) and it’s very visible. All the rest of the atheists continue on with their lives, invisible.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        That is sort of what amazes me. Why do so many new atheists like Dawknins, Hitchens, and their fans get into drawn out debates with the Christian Right? I wonder how they would view people who are moderately or liberally religious? Are the liberally or moderately religious just perplexing?

        My brother would know more but he once told me about reading or hearing an interview with one of the New Atheists guys and the Atheist guy said that his hardest debate was with a rabbi (possibly Reform Jewish) because the theology/belief system was so different than that of the Christian Right especially in the lacking of a personal God.

        As I understand Reform Judaism, we believe that the Torah was written by people and not by God (if a divine figure exists) and the Torah is to be treated as philosophy. Some things make sense now, much of it is not meant to be taken literally, and other things might have made sense at the time but have been proven to be incorrect.

        As such, I see Reform Judaism as a highly reasonable way to continue a religious tradition.

        Most of the New Atheists probably ignore Judaism because there are only 14 or so million of us around the world and we largely don’t exert control or power over cultural and educational issues with our religion. Yet every now and then I meet a New Atheist who is perplexed by how reform Judaism operates and it makes them hoping mad because he or she sees Reform Judaism as a half-step of wanting it both ways.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        It might have been Sam Harris:

        “I’ve debated rabbis who, when I have assumed that they believe in a God that can hear our prayers, they stop me mid-sentence and say, “Why would you think that I believe in a God who can hear prayers?” So there are rabbis—conservative rabbis—who believe in a God so elastic as to exclude every concrete claim about Him—and therefore, nearly every concrete demand upon human behavior. And there are millions of Jews, literally millions among the few million who exist, for whom Judaism is very important, and yet they are atheists. They don’t believe in God at all. This is actually a position you can hold in Judaism, but it’s a total non sequitur in Islam or Christianity.”

        I’d link to where I got the quote but it is about the current situation in the Mideast and would possibly derail the conversation. I guess if you come from a Christian background all of this seems damned odd.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I once worked with an orthodox jew who loved to have lunch with me, where we would debate philosophy and religion. I was a hardcore atheist. He was a observant jew. There was much respect between us.

        To me it felt totally different from dealing with Christians.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. It wasn’t his job to show you the error of your ways.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        even among the evangelical Christians… It often seems African Americans of that faith are pretty damn nice about not shoving Jesus in your face — I think they follow the general principle that “Jesus saves. If you’re doin’ alright, that’s fine. There’s always someone who needs help, badly.”Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        @mike-schilling is not completely correct. Orthodox and Ultra Orthodox Jews would care about me because I am Jewish and they would want me to achieve more Orthodoxy. I’ve had ultra Orthodox Jews ask me “Are you being Jewish today?” when they have seen me do things like use money or public transport on the Sabbath.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        That’s not proselytizing, though: they’re encouraging you to fulfill your existing religious obligations, not convert you. Veronica is not (as far as I know) Jewish, so the same wouldn’t apply to her.Report

    • Guy in reply to Brandon Berg says:

      As I said above, the problem with his statements is that he misses the important point to be made criticizing the examples he gives: dismissal is not endorsement, but it remains bad nevertheless. That people are accusing him of endorsement (rather than dismissal) is bad, in the sense that they are being rhetorically lazy in such a way as to weaken their valid arguments. That Dawkins responds with further dismissal, rather than taking a moment to consider whether his opponents may actually have some sort of valid point as a measure of good faith, is worse.* Dawkins, in fact, has a pretty strong reputation for arguing in bad faith, which he only reinforces here.

      *Do not construe this as an endorsement of rhetorical laziness.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Guy says:

        *Do not construe this as an endorsement of rhetorical laziness.

        Too late for that, Mo. Sorry, dude.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Guy says:

        Oops. My rhetorical laziness made me write in the wrong name. Sorry bout that Guy. Both my laziness and that you’re forever branded as being OK with it. I mean, you advocated for it right upthread.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Guy says:

        On a more substantive note, I’m not aware of Dawkins being branded as a bad-faith arguer, but I do think his arguments are nearly as strong as he thinks they are. And his insistence that his arguments are bulletproof makes me wonder about either his intellectual abilities and/or his motivations.Report

      • Guy in reply to Guy says:

        I suppose I may be guilty of some rhetorical laziness here; Dawkins does, as far as I know, have a reputation for being fairly dismissive (or at least he frequently reads that way to me). And to baldly dismiss one’s opponents arguments as the babbling of fools is very much a poor faith practice of argumentation.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Guy says:

        Guy, when you say it like that I agree. In practice, he appears to be more inclined to dismiss a legitimate criticism than he is to ridicule are really bad one. They all seem to get limped together, in his view, under the general heading of “wrong”.

        I remember going thru one of his books with some grad school friends who were hanging around the lounge and in about half an hour we identified some pretty basic counterexamples/circularities/factual inaccuracies/logical problems in all the arguments he presented in (I think) two chapters of one of his books.

        Maybe he’s just not a very subtle thinker. Maybe he needs a bit of humility.Report

      • Murali in reply to Guy says:


        I think this can all be summarised as part of the problem philosophers have with public intellectuals. Philosophers (ideally) try to make arguments with subtlety and care. Success in adhering to such standards tends to get you published in good journals and ultimately puts you in a good position for a tenure track job. The public intellectual’s success is about popularity. Unfortunately, since appreciating subtlety requires much training and effort, few in the public would appreciate such and simplistic (and bad arguments) become the staple of the public intellectual.Report

  7. Mike Schilling says:

    Saying “I am going to use natural language as if it were mathematics, and ignore that connotation is as valid a part of the meaning of a sentence as denotation, and call anyone who objects stupid.” is not being smart; it’s being a dick.

    Though if he’s going to be a dick, at least he chose the right medium for it.Report

  8. Brandon Berg says:

    Here’s the context, apparently. That’s…not what I expected. To be fair, that’s not the full interview, and even the full interview might not be the entirety of what he said.

    He does have a point: Sodomizing a young boy is a lot worse than touching his penis. Though I’m not sure I understand his point about judging by different standards than he would today. It wasn’t an accepted practice in mid-century England either, was it?

    Nice preemption of the “privilege” card, though.Report

  9. Stillwater says:

    I think your “some black people steal” comment captures my thoughts on all this. The problem isn’t statements like this, it’s the quick judgment regarding statements like which separate the words from the context they were uttered in as well as attribute either ignorance or evility to the person uttering them. If some were to say to me “some black people steal” and that’s all I have to go on, I wouldn’t make any judgment about either those words or the speaker. Same with Dawkins, actually. I know what he’s trying to convey in those tweets (or at least I get a glimmer of it) but I can’t conclude that his words are insensitive or constitute a communication breakdown without more stuff to go on.

    I also think that judging him is part and parcel of the problem is here, and you seem to be pretty keen to do just that.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Stillwater says:

      Yes, the context does matter, and I neglected to address that in the OP (other than the clown example). That said, there are relatively few contexts (I think) in which a person who says “some black people steal” doesn’t hold some fairly strong negative stereotypes about blacks. There are possible contexts in which that isn’t the case, and this post was one of them, but those cases are exceptional (I think).Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        That said, there are relatively few contexts (I think) in which a person who says “some black people steal” doesn’t hold some fairly strong negative stereotypes about blacks.

        I guess that’s where we disagree about this stuff. I don’t (or try not to) come into a discussion with any preconceived notions about what a person “means” when they say a phrase (unless I know them). That’s a bunch of meta-based bullshit that actually runs counter to getting passed all the political/metapolitical bullshit and de-escalating the rhetoric so we can actually talk about the issues. Which is a view I thought you held, given some of your past posts.Report

      • Guy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Actually, almost the first use I think of with that phrase is its use as a counter to the more racist “black people steal”. That may be because, if used in an argument in support of some racist point, I would be inclined to respond to “Some black people steal,” with “Yes, and?”

        The thing that gets me about the Dawkins tweets is the “go away and learn how to think.” As I’ve said above, he’s making his meaning clear, and his meaning is to dismiss, which is precisely the problem with his other statements and statements like them.Report

      • I have to admit that maybe I do need to rethink some of this. I think there needs to be some level at which we can just say what needs to be said and drop the bullshit that people assume has to come prepackaged with that statement. I think Stillwater is right to note that I heavily rely readers to do just that. I have said more or less said “Relative poverty is bad, but absolute poverty is worse” several times, and felt indignant about getting pushback for dismissing relative poverty.

        At the same time, I think when you say things that strongly resemble things usually said by others you disagree with, it’s going to be your responsibility to clarify that you aren’t making the same argument as them.

        …I would be inclined to respond to “Some black people steal,” with “Yes, and?”

        This would certainly be a better response than just assuming the person is racist. I have admit the two of you have me second-guessing my putting the entire burden on the speaker, which is actually the same as saying you’ve convinced me. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what it means to talk about what the likely contexts are for any particular statement. It’s not like there is a computable average context that we could all agree on.Report

      • veronica d in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Well, I come at this conversation having once (long ago) read this, which likely makes me a tedious conversationalist on the subject. But short version: no statement has any meaning at all when devoid of context. Instead, it has what the authors of the book call a “pre-construal” (or maybe not that exact term; it’s been ages since I read it), which are the set of potential meanings a phrase might take in some context or another, which relates to the whole host of complex meanings those terms might take on when combined with other terms and phrases in all kinds of ways, which cannot be separated from your entire life experience of language and society.

        Which is really complicated and (to my view) undermines like almost everything ever said about language on the Internet by anyone ever but especially by “Internet debate” nerds.

        (As I said, I’m a tedious conversationalist on the topic.)

        Now, in practice most people can invent a likely default context for any statement. For example, “Honey, have you seen the cat?”

        There are obvious contexts for that statement with obvious construals.

        (For me the context is simple: it is something my wife and I say all the time. We have a particularly stealthy cat.)

        But here is the thing, we on this forum will not come of up with the default ur-context for “Some black people steal.” To start with, we each come to the statement with our own preconceptions and politics. Likewise we have all encountered the statement as an example in a blog post, which is it’s own kind of zeitgeist. And then we turn it over in our mind, read comments about it, go down rabbit holes of discourse, and likely forget our initial reaction anyway.

        Which is its own discourse pattern that has nothing to do with black people or how they behave.

        Language is weird.Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I’m not sure about “some black people steal,” but a similar statement is “black people commit crimes at a higher rate than members of other races.” It would be in bad taste and vaguely suggestive to say this out of the blue, but it’s totally legitimate to say this as a rebuttal to the claim that the overrepresentation of black people in prison is purely due to racism.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @brandon-berg I am not sure that it *is* an established fact, though. I think the only thing that is an established fact is that African Americans are arrested for crimes at a greater rate.

        (See: statistics about illegal drug usage, arrests, and sentencing for different races in the US.)Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Am I a monster if I think the “Some black people…” Statement can be uttered in a number of contexts without being awful? Important to note that most of thosr involve an immediate “but”.Report

      • Tod Kelly in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @kazzy I think a great deal of weight is placed on what was said prior.

        For example, here are two “some black people” statements….

        Person A: I can’t figure out why our sales department is all white.

        Person B: I know, some black people in the neighborhood are our most loyal customers.


        Person A: Damn, my car was broken into last night! It’s the second time this has happened in the past few years.

        Person B: I hear ya. You know, some black people break into cars.

        As always, context is everything.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        I agree but want to clarify my statement…

        When I referred to “Some black people…” comments, I meant specifically the “Some black people steal” type comments. I just shortened it because I was on my phone at the time. That said, context still matters greatly.

        Here are a few situations.

        “Black people are just a bunch of thieves.”
        “Sure, some black people steal. But so do some white people and some Asian people and some Hispanic people. And when you look at the numbers and the context in which those numbers arise, you’ll realize just how ridiculous you sound.”


        “Sure, some black people steal, but it is racist to infer anything about the propensity of any individual black person to steal or about black people as a whole from that fact. Which, by the way, is true for any subgroup of the population provided their defining characteristic is not “people who don’t steal”.

        Now, were to someone just walk up to me out of the blue and say, “Some black people steal,” I’d find the comment off-putting but would ask a whole slew of questions before attempting to say anything definitive about the person. Then again, I’m not on Twitter, so what do I know about human interaction and discourse?Report

      • @kazzy

        I had pretty much the same thoughts.Report

    • Road Scholar in reply to Stillwater says:

      @stillwater , the “some black people steal” thing reminds me of a go-around I had with Hanley some time back where he was defending a post on the 538 blog site by Roger Pielke. In that post Pielke made the argument that the increase in casualty payouts were due to increasing development rather than climate change. Many people objected to his post feeling that it was a denialist hit-piece. Hanley objected to that characterization and referenced other articles by Pielke where he explicitly confirmed AGW. (Pielke appears to be one of those “it’s real but not an emergency” tight-rope walkers.) My counter was that his appearance at 538 was a big jump in visibility and most people simply are not going to take the time and effort to Google his past work and discern whatever nuance exists. Therefore his critics were correct to worry that his piece would be construed by many as a refutation of AGW theory writ large rather than the more modest claim that Hanley is correct in viewing it as.

      Context matters. The problem with “some black people steal” isn’t that it’s false but that it’s trivially true and seems like the kind of statement that would be leading into a scurrilous, racist screed.Report

      • The difference is that the discussion here is about what Dawkins did with his own fully self-controlled communication platform. Basically, just what he said or didn’t say. The issue with Pielke and 538 wasn’t that he shouldn’t express the opinions he has in whatever forums he controls access to (like the floor at a dinner party or Twitter – and some might argue that wrt Pielke (or Dawkins) and where they do the analogy to this Dawkins episode is better – but in the discussion at OT that was not what was being argued), but rather whether people who control access to high-profile platforms considering whether to give him (or anyone) featured and scarce real estate on their platform should elevate someone with the views of Pielke to that position in the publication. (There was only going to be one lead contributor on climate change for 538 as I understand it, and as I understand it, it looked like it was going to be Pielke – at least that’s I think how people reacting the story understood the situation.) Still very debatable, but a different question from just whether a free-floating person in society should say that some black people steal, or whether a professor should tweet this or that.

        Of course, no one knew then that 538 was going to be the flop that it is. But regardless, very different issues: who occupies scarce and high-profile featured media positions versus what might be proper to tweet or saying public and what not so much.Report

      • Kim in reply to Road Scholar says:

        ha. krugman (and chamber of commerce) raised the point that it might be both an emergency, and relatively cheap to fix.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Road Scholar says:

        his critics were correct to worry that his piece would be construed by many as a refutation of AGW theory writ large rather than the more modest claim

        And did their best to make that worry a self-fulfilling prophecy! 😉Report

  10. ScarletNumbers says:

    If you don’t find it problematic, then you are … some sort of computer that is too stupid to compute cascading meanings.

    Referring to the neuro-divergent as “stupid” is insensitive.

    [Trigger disclaimer]

    Are you making fun of trigger disclaimers, or are you sincerely giving one?Report

  11. Mike Schilling says:

    In most of the world, “It’s 47 degrees” mean “Get out of the sun before you die of heat stroke.”Report

  12. Tod Kelly says:

    “There are ways to mitigate the cascading meaning problem. Here is one:”

    I think more than anything you wrote in this excellent post, it’s actually in this line here where the truth about Dawkins (and others who say similar things) can be most richly mined.

    The fact that it didn’t have have any [reasons] is important, I think.

    To my knowledge, even though he is quite famous and talks a lot about whatever happens to run through his head, I am not aware that Richard Dawkins is someone who has devoted much or any time to battling the social scourge of violent rape. I can’t think of a single other occasion where I’ve read him talking about violent rape, except in the specific context of the tweets you quoted.

    All of which says to me that the tweets themselves are not actually a way to talk about the horror of violent rape, so much as they are the ability to publicly talk in an “edgy” way about date rape in a way designed to upset people — and women in particular. In other words, when I read those tweets I don’t think that there *is* a cascading meaning failure. I think the tweets delivered exactly the emotional response that they were intended to communicate.

    Which is really kind of mind-blowingly awful.Report

    • veronica d in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      @tod-kelly — Yep. +1Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I think the tweets delivered exactly the emotional response that they were intended to communicate.

      Huh. So you not only know what Dawkins was in general trying to accomplish by these tweets but have narrowed it down specifically to a willful desire to provocate women and antagonize victims of pedophelia.

      Man, I wish I had those skillz!Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Did anybody read the links I posted? The context here is that Dawkins is responding to criticism of an interview in which he said he doesn’t think the molestation that he himself suffered was that bad because it caused no lasting harm, and he doesn’t feel inclined to judge his molester as harshly as he would someone who did the same thing today because things were different back then (which, again, I find perplexing because as far as I know child molestation wasn’t regarded as any more acceptable in mid-century England than it is today).

      He’s not trying to be “edgy” or tweak feminists. He’s responding with annoyance to what he perceives as unfair criticism of a statement he made about his own experience as a victim.Report

  13. ScarletNumbers says:

    Well sometimes people phrase things to elicit a certain response.

    Example: When Lara Logan told the world that she had been raped in Egypt.Report

  14. Rose Woodhouse says:

    I agree with @guy . I mean, the first part of this phrase is awful, but also awful and less discussed is: “go away and learn how to think.” It is the laziest kind of a**hat pseudo-intellectualizing to assume that anyone who disagrees with you is not even worth addressing. And note that he plays on the stereotype of women being unable to use logic.

    This reminds me a bit of the recent brou-ha-ha with Diane Ravitch, who said about Campbell Brown’s education-reform positions: “She is a good media figure because of her looks, but she doesn’t seem to know or understand anything about teaching and why tenure matters … I know it sounds sexist to say that she is pretty, but that makes her telegenic, even if what she has to say is total nonsense.” When someone called her on the fact that maybe this was, indeed, sexist, Ravitch simply said, “Campbell Brown has no arguments or logic.” A) Logic is not something you have. It’s something you use, well or badly. B) Brown clearly has arguments. Whether they are good or bad arguments is not within my expertise. But you know. She’s saying stuff.

    I find this hand-waving on the part of people who purport to be public intellectuals infuriating.

    Dawkins has long been an a**hat who gives atheism a bad name. Partly because of his smug dismissal of interlocutors. I remember one radio interview where he explained the tendency for religions to endure because evolutionary psychology demonstrates that kids believe whatever their parents tell them. I’d like to see the data on that one. At my house, parental-assertion-denialism begins at around age 2.Report

    • I’m not going to defend the tactic he employed or the specific examples he used that seemed targeted at women. (The ones mentioned here here being only some of the ones used to illustrate the general point, which was his point, that saying X is bad but Y is worse isn’t an endorsement of X. Also among the examples, though to be clear, given in response to the uproar, being the inverse of his comparison of date versus stranger rape. Meaning, he has since clarified that his purpose was not to assert that stranger rape is worse than date rape, but only to say that if you think either one is worse than the other (even if perhaps only sometimes?), to say so is not to endorse or defend the less-bad one.)

      But I do think it’s wrong to say that what he was doing was simply dismissing anyone who disagrees with him. He was dismissing the form of the argument of those who said (or whom he took to be saying) that to say that Y is worse than X is to endorse X – specifically by saying that he, Dawkins, because he said Y was worse than X, was endorsing, or at least defending, X. WHERE X was what he termed “mild pedophilia,” something he takes himself to have experienced as the object of child sexual abuse (albeit in what he feels is a mild form), and Y is more violent child sexual abuse. Which view (that violent sexual abuse is worse than “mild” sexual abuse) he expressed when asked about it in a general interview about his life. To which the response was, in part, the claim that he had “defended” sexual abuse. See Brandon’s links for the interview article and the Salon piece saying that he had defended child sexual abuse in it.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michael Drew says:

        Read the pieces, and am unconvinced. If you mean X is an invalid form of argument, then you point out why. If you can’t fit it on twitter, don’t say it on twitter. You don’t say to proponents of X that they should “go away and think.” I don’t think he was being consciously sexist, but so many people aren’t.Report

      • I’m not clear what you’re not convinced of. My contention was not that that formulation is not sexist. (OTOH, I don’t accept that you just never tell anyone to go away and think. You’re not on Twitter, but you don’t explain that further. Is it just the sexism that is the reason for that? Can that be said to a man? Dawkins was not addressing particular interlocutors. Or is the issue more one of civility?) In any case, I was not defending that statement. My contention was that he wasn’t dismissing just anyone who disagrees with him, which you did claim, but instead only people who made the specific argument that was being turned into an accusation of defending child molestation against him, of the form, “Saying that X is bad but Y is worse is or can be an endorsement of X.” Frankly, I think it’s clear simply from stating that it’s a fallacy why that’s a fallacy. It’s self-evident; he did enough. He went further to tell people to go away and think, and I’m not defending that (though, see above parenthesis).Report

      • Guy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        He misses the point, though, by making claims about endorsement. Statements like “stranger rape is worse than date rape” (or more commonly “but stranger rape is worse!”) are used to dismiss date rape as an issue worthy of attention. Even if we concede that an individual stranger rape is worse than an individual date rape (as discussed above, we need not), date rape is in fact the larger societal problem simply by volume. In making these tweets, Dawkins contributes (bad) dismissal arguments to people who oppose efforts to prosecute and/or reduce the incidence of date rape.Report

      • For example, one scenario in which I would probably not get on a guy too much for telling unnamed people to go away and think, if they believe in fallacious abstract argument “F,” or in any case mitigate my condemnation, is if he’s being falsely accused of defending child molestation, and the people he’s telling to do go away and think are the people who are doing the false accusing, and they’re using fallacious argument of abstract form “F” to do it.

        Regardless, all I’m trying to convince you of is that, here, Dawkins is not dismissing anyone who disagrees with him. He’s dismissing only people who hold that particular fallacious abstract belief, currently being used to paint him as a defender of child molestation (of which he is a victim).Report

      • And he has since clarified that he did not mean to assert that the one was absolutely worse than the other, and that he doesn’t believe that’s generally true. It was an example, and his only interest was in showing whether saying one is worse says that the other is okay. It was a poorly chosen example, I concede. And he has since conceded your point and clarified.

        I do think, “In making these tweets, Dawkins contributes (bad) dismissal arguments to people who oppose efforts to prosecute and/or reduce the incidence of date rape” overstates what occurred here by quite a bit.Report

      • …To be clear, on the mitigating the condemnation thing, I absolutely recognize that one’s MMV on that in any given situation, including this one.Report

      • Guy in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @michael-drew I certainly have much more of an issue with the rape tweet than with with the pedophilia tweet. The only problem with the pedophilia tweet is Dawkins’ over-generalization of his own experiences; the people who claim that he is endorsing something quite negative that he experienced are, in my view, more at fault. On the rape tweet, though, while it is true that the claim that a person endorses X is a claim about their beliefs that is not justified by their prior statement that Y is worse than X, the particular claim for the case that (Y = knifepoint stranger rape) and (X = date rape) is generally used to dismiss claims that date rape is a problem at all, and by making that example, I think Dawkins is missing the dismissal forest for the endorsement tree.Report

      • Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michael Drew says:

        @michael-drew, I should have been clearer. What bothers me is the tone.

        Now, to be fair, the dude is being accused of condoning child molestation, which might make one defensive. However, he does seem to think that the permissibility of pedophilia is (a) culturally relative, and (b) a crime only if the victim experiences harm. There is a long line of very clear thinkers who disagree with him on both these counts of which he seems unaware.

        Let’s set that aside.

        I think it’s basically never appropriate to say, “Go away and learn to think.” It implies the person does not already know how to think. It implies that the person is not only committing a fallacy, but committing a fallacy that a person who knew how to think would never commit. It’s basically the same to me as saying that the person is stupid.

        There are two groups of of people from whom that type of remark particularly rankles. One is when a man is dismissing a position most often held by women. The second is when somebody is held up as especially smart or gifted. Certain “stars” within academia, “public intellectuals” like Dawkins. It shuts up people who are afraid of saying stupid things in front of such a person – sadly, even when those people might be correct to say so. Also, smart people give themselves far too much credit and consider their own views much more worthwhile than they really are.

        It’s ad hominem. Address the argument, not the person.

        Part of my prickliness has to do with being in philosophy business. I think the cult of “who’s smart” has been hugely damaging to the field — both in terms of alienating people with good ideas and in terms of alienating women.Report

  15. Chris says:

    Even though everyone got mad, I have yet to find anyone who articulates what precisely is wrong about these statements.

    It seems to me that the people who’ve pointed out a.) that how bad these things are is largely an individual, subjective thing, and b.) “date rape” and “violent stranger rape” are both broad categories that encompass many different types of horrible things, and the same is true of his other example, such that making general evaluations of one relative to the other is probably not the best way to “think logically, have done a pretty good job of articulating what’s wrong with those statements.Report

  16. LeeEsq says:

    This is somewhat OT but I’m troubled by the logo on the bus. Assuming that we live in an atheistic, materialist universe, there are still plenty of non-religious reasons why a person shouldn’t “enjoy their life” if we assume that “enjoying their life” means engaging in pleasurable activities, which admitedly covers a wide and diverse ground, that religions typically disaprove of if not forbid outright. The issue of consent is one of them. Lots of sexual abusers of various sorts justify their actions as enjoying their life even though their victims clearly do not. If you remind sexual abusers of this than they just accuse you of being a moral scold beholden to typical bourgeoisie morality.

    Other forms of pleasure typically forbidden by religion like the use of intoxicating or narcotic substances or gambling can take physical, mental, or financial toll on a person and also cause at very least great inconvenienc to other people in your life if not worse. Those are some good reasons not to induldge to heavily in drinking, drug use, or gambling that aren’t religious at all.

    You can make similar arguments about many other types of pleasure but its a logical fallacy to assume that the absence of God means that people should be free to enjoy their life.Report

    • Guy in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Sir, you have missed the point. First of all, the ad has nothing to do with sexual abuse. It is an ad posted by some atheist groups, analogous to “Jesus saves” type ads. The ad is saying that the absence of any sort of god(s) does not require one to become an angry, depressed nihilist. For that matter, there are a large number of perfectly valid arguments against various self-destructive behaviors that don’t involve appeals to religion. For example, such behaviors tend to result in the destruction of the self. It is easily possible to reason, ethically or otherwise, about what actions one should and should not take without making appeals to religion. And frankly, implying the opposite is annoying and kind of offensive.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I agree that it was poor word selection. I don’t think it was accidental though. I think they wanted to portray religious folk as wanting to stop enjoyment regardless of whether that seems to be truly their aim or not.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I agree thats what they were going for and like all stereotypes, there is a kernal of truth in it. They still could have phrased it better like “stop worrying about sin or hell”Report

    • Chris in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Yeah, that misses the point of the add by an extremely wide mark, but given the way a lot of theists think about atheists, it misses it in a predictable direction.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        I’m a not very religious sort of fellow but see what Vikram wrote above. The ad wanted to portray theists as a bunch of moral scolds but its kind out of out of sinc with current secular morality and ethics about consent and everything.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Perhaps because I’m an atheist, I don’t see it that way at all. Religious people (at least most religious people), spend their lives worrying about another life. Once you realize that there is no other life, you can let that go and just enjoy this one. That’s the point. It’s not making fun of anyone.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Chris says:

        I agree with Chris on what the intended message is. I grew up in one of those conservative evangelical environments where we were more or less constantly afraid that we might sin, and then DIE BEFORE WE HAD A CHANCE TO REPENT AND SPEND ETERNITY BURNING IN HELL!!

        Ahem. Sorry.

        The irony is that there are studies showing that religious people tend to be happier than non-religious people, and less subject to depression. (That may vary depending on types of religion, I would guess.) So the sign may be targeted more towards a perception, or a superficial aspect of religion, than towards a reality.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I object to the slogan because it makes no sense. I would worry a lot less if I knew that there were a God and that I had an immortal soul. I don’t understand how religious people ever worry about anything. When you have an eternity of paradise waiting for you, who cares what happens to you today?

      If I believed in God and someone convinced me that I was wrong about that, my immediate reaction would be to start worrying about the fact that I only had a few measly decades left to enjoy existence.Report

  17. Katie S says:

    Dawkins should not do twitter. The books of his that I’ve read and the debates I’ve listened to have come across better because he can spend more time explaining his thought process.
    I do agree with the thought that he may not really realize how loaded some words can be. Just because you know something is true doesn’t mean your words will come across exactly as you said. I think his white male privilege is not something he’s thought about much.Report

  18. Patrick says:

    An idle thought that may turn into a post later:

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years…

    BBSes and Usenet Newsgroups slowly morphed into the IRC channel which then morphed into the AOL chatroom which then morphed into MySpace circles which then morphed into the blogosphere which then forked into Twitter and Facebook.

    Over those years, over and over, I’ve noticed a pattern of common language adoption. If you’re in a group of any sort, you start to adopt the language patterns of the group. (It’s present in offline communications, too… In college, I acquired “plush” as a common adjective from friends.)

    The reasons *why* any particular phrasing becomes common language are really complex. Oftentimes, folks outside the group attribute reasons behind the adoption that don’t exist.

    On the other hand, particular phrasings are useful to more than one group of folks.

    On the gripping hand, if you choose to present your thoughts to the world in published form, learning how your audience parses your language is kinda on you (remember, it’s ‘the world’ now, not ‘other geeks interested in H Beam Piper books or some obscure RPG or some other member of a very small group).

    When I see someone who has been writing for years writing in ways that are going to be interpreted in a very predictable way by a large contingent of folks, I can only assume that at least one of four things is true:

    (a) the predicable way is a desired outcome;
    (b) the predictable way is regarded as acceptable as collateral damage to some other goal that can only be met by writing in this particular fashion;
    (c) the predictable way is regarded as acceptable as collateral damage to some other goal that is most easily met by writing in this particular fashion, and the writer is lazy; or…
    (d) the person doesn’t know how to fucking write.

    In the OP’s case, I’m okay with saying that I’m pretty sure that Dawkins falls into (a) or (b), because of his pattern of behavior.Report

  19. zic says:

    On some level, I think Dawkins is pushing back agains the commonly-expressed notion that a victim of child-hood sexual abuse or rape is ‘ruined.’ I hear/read that a lot; and as a survivor of both, it’s always rather offensive. But if that was what he was pushing on, he put he force in the wrong place.Report