Richard Dawkins is ignorant of some very basic facts about communication
Richard Dawkins is smart, but only half as smart as he needs to be. Twitter got upset when he tried the following:
“Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.”
“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that’s an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.”
Even though everyone got mad, I have yet to find anyone who articulates what precisely is wrong about these statements. Even the better takes like that of Tim Teeman seem off to me. In Teeman’s eyes, the problem is that different kinds of pedophilia and rape are not worse than other kinds. Even if that is true, it wouldn’t explain why people are so upset. I don’t believe that is everyone’s true objection to the statements by Dawkins.
My objection is that Dawkins (incorrectly) thinks he is justified in saying something simply because it is true. Further, he fails to realize that any statement is imbued with meanings well beyond their literal, surface readings and that he ought be held responsible for those implied meanings rather than just the surface meaning.
“It’s 47 degrees” never just means that it’s 47 degrees. It means “we should go inside,” “I’m cold,” “I wish I had dressed warmer,” “Lend me your jacket,” etc. If you say it as a clown is passing by, it also means “this clown bores me.”
This is the Problem of Cascading Meaning. You never get to just say what you say. You say what you say and you also say all the things a reasonable listener is likely to infer from what you said.
Some black people steal.
Note, I didn’t say “all black people steal.” Don’t be silly; that would be racist.
“Some black people steal” is a true statement, but if you find it problematic anyway, you’re not wrong. If you don’t find it problematic, then you are probably either racist or some sort of computer that is too stupid to compute cascading meanings.
“Some black people steal” communicates to the listener not only that non-black theft isn’t worth addressing, but also that the shortcomings of black people as a group factors heavily into the speaker’s world view. Hearing someone say “some black people steal” tells you a whole bunch of things about the speaker. Only in the mind of someone like Dawkins, does it communicate only something about black people and nothing about the speaker.
I’m sure this state of affairs would upset Dawkins. I can hear him now saying “saying something true isn’t sufficient to make you a racist!” For him, the truth should have a privileged position and confer a type of immunity from criticism. He wants to be held responsible only for the first-level, surface meaning of his statements and not the subsequent inferences that would be made by the average reasonable listener. But that isn’t how language works. If a majority of your audience thinks you are saying something different from what you think you are saying, you probably should reconsider how to communicate what you are trying to say rather than insist that your audience are illogical idiots. You’re the comedian who thinks people don’t laugh at your jokes because they don’t have a sense of humor.
There are ways to mitigate the cascading meaning problem. Here is one:
“Date rape is bad. [Reasons date rape is bad.] Even while acknowledging that date rape is horrible, being raped by a stranger at knifepoint would probably be a worse experience for most people. [Reasons] Do not take this in any way as an endorsement or minimization of date rape, which is awful.”
Yes, I know that is more than 140 characters, but it shouldn’t surprise you that some ideas require more than 140 characters and shouldn’t be attempted when such limits exist.