It happens every day. In fact, it is pretty hard to avoid it. There are some things that can only be understood with a slap on the forehead. Things so mind-boggling that one wonders how humans managed to evolve thumbs while being this mentally inept. Case in point:
The word defend means:
- a: to drive danger or attack away from
b: (1) to maintain or support in the face of argument or hostile criticism (2) : to prove (as a doctoral thesis) valid by answering questions in an oral exam
c: to attempt to prevent an opponent from scoring at
- archaic : prevent, forbid
- to act as attorney for
- to deny or oppose the right of a plaintiff in regard to (a suit or a wrong charged) : contest
- to retain or seek to retain (as a title or position) against a challenge in a contest
None of those definitions fits Abby Ohlheiser’s accusation against Dawkins. Ohlheiser states in her article:
Richard Dawkins defended “mild pedophilia” in an interview this weekend. And while the quote itself is quite jarring, especially to those who look to Dawkins for his influential writings on atheism (but haven’t noticed some of his other strange stances), it’s far from the first time that the scientist has launched a defense of the behavior — or talked about his own abuse at the hands of boarding school teachers.
She quotes from The Times magazine interview with Dawkins to prove her point:
Referring to his early days at a boarding school in Salisbury, he recalled how one of the (unnamed) masters “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts.”
He said other children in his school peer group had been molested by the same teacher but concluded: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting harm.”
“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today,” he said.
He said the most notorious cases of pedophilia involve rape and even murder and should not be bracketed with what he called “just mild touching up.”
I fail to see the defense of pedophilia. At best, Dawkins downplays the emotional trauma a child would suffer from being fondled. However, he never states that fondling the child is acceptable, nor does he state that it was okay for his teacher to abuse him.
Dawkins argues that we ought not judge those acts by modern standards. I understand Dawkins logic. If an act were considered acceptable in the past, applying a modern standard may cloud our understanding of the actual affect of the act. For example, men in Ancient Greece had sexual relationships with boys. Our modern standards find that reprehensible. Yet the boys raised in that culture may not have seen anything wrong with older men’s interest. That cultural norm may have mitigated some of the harm the relationship could have caused.
That does not mean I agree with Dawkins’ assertion that we should consider fondling a separate type of sexual violence. Some child abusers and pedophiles only fondle children, yet that does not make their behavior any less predatory. The trauma caused by sexual abuse often has less to do with the sex and more to do with the betrayal of trust. Fondling a child is as much a violation of that child’s trust as having sex with them.
However, that still does not mean Dawkins defends pedophilia. He never condones the sexual abuse at all. He only argues that some types of sexual abuse are not as bad as others. Yet Ohlheiser ignores that pesky fact:
His reasons for defending the behavior seem to focus on three points. First, that “hysteria” over a fear of pedophilia is overblown by society; second, that instilling a child with fundamentalist religious beliefs is actually a worse way to abuse a child; and third, that he personally overcame childhood sexual abuse, meaning it must not be that big of a deal for anyone else who was subjected to similar behavior.
The first point is solid. People have overblown the threat of pedophilia. Only a small portion of the population are pedophiles. This fear of the lurking predator, the online predator, the perverted teacher, and the dangerous neighbor only makes people overreact to usually benign situations. It is also prompts a great deal of distrust towards men.
The second is an ideological point. Dawkins believes that religion is dangerous and delusional, not only because of religious beliefs themselves, but also because of how the followers enforce those beliefs. If one agrees with that position, then one can fairly argue that religion is far more abusive than sexual violence. One is a harmful act against a person’s body, whereas the other brainwashes the person, often demonizing the person’s normal desires and interests.
The third point is illogical. I know many men who were only fondled and those who were only raped once who suffer more emotional trauma than men who were violently assaulted for years. One cannot know how people will react to trauma, and the physical severity of the trauma will not tell you how much emotional harm was caused.
Yet none of these positions argue that sexually abusing a child is acceptable. None of them condone sexual violence in any way. None of them even excuse it. Ohlheiser lists other quotes from Dawkins to prove her point, but fails to provide a single quote in which the noted atheist actually defends pedophiles.
I understand the visceral negative reaction to Dawkins’ comments. However, as problematic as those comments are, they do not condone, support, or excuse pedophilia. Dawkins may occasionally put his foot in his mouth, but this is not an example of it.
The real issue seems to be that Dawkins did not define his abuse as Ohlheiser wanted. Dawkins does not view the abuse as a life-changing act. He does not see its impact in every facet of his life. He feels he was able to move past whatever damage the abuse did to him.
And who are we to disagree? Who are we to say how much the abuse harmed him? Who are we to define his life experiences for him?
This strikes me as little more than expecting Dawkins to play to type and prove his victimhood. It ignores the possibility that Dawkins is legitimately not as harmed by the abuse as people think he should have been. There is nothing wrong with that. It is possible, and likely, that Dawkins has gotten over whatever issues the abuse caused him.
Instead of second-guessing Dawkins feelings in order to turn him into the “right” kind of abuse victim, and instead of giving some condescending message of about Dawkins being in denial, we ought to accept Dawkins’ statements about his experiences. He knows better than any of us what he feels and what impact his experiences had on him. It is not our place to decide that for him.