Twitter and Taboos: The Land Where Logic and Objective Discussion Dare Not Tread

I’m sure many of you by now might have heard about the most recent flare-up, a twitter controversy no less, regarding comments made by the ever-controversial Richard Dawkins – comments which, depending on who you ask either a) suggested violent rape or abuse is worse than “milder” versions, or that b) making such an distinction (for example) does not automatically mean that the comment is tacitly endorsing the “less bad” of the two. I’m of the opinion that this was more an example of an unfortunate misunderstanding of the point Dawkins was trying to make rather than him trying to make any particularly controversial statement about either rape or child abuse, but I certainly think that this debate has raised the serious issue of whether certain subjects should be so taboo that they should not be objectively analysed or discussed.

For those who haven’t already seen them (and sadly this seems to be a large proportion of the twitterverse who nonetheless chimed in on both sides of the debate), the offending tweets were a series of three which were uploaded early on Tuesday the 29th of July and read thus:

After the posting of the last tweet the reaction on twitter and even several blogs and news sites was swift and brutal. Dawkins was accused of making little of the suffering of victims of sexual abuse or rape by suggesting that these very personal, emotional and subjective experiences could or should be categorised or ranked, and more specifically people took issue with his suggestion that date rape was the “milder” form and therefore objectively less delplorable.

One particularly popular article, by Erin Gloria Ryan of Jezebel, entitled “Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape” particularly drew my attention. This piece seemed very much to sum up the primary arguments of those who were outraged by Dawkins’ comments, and I recommend it for anyone curious about the negative reaction. The key issue the piece has with Dawkins’ comments are that he seemed to be attempting to arbitrarily appoint himself qualified to deem which instances of rape or child abuse were “worse”;

Dawkins, who himself suffered sexual abuse when he was fondled by a school staffer as a child, believes he has the right to quantify and describe the experiences of others who have also suffered sexual abuse. Which most people would consider ridiculous. But not Dawkins!

However, the article (whilst much more reasoned and nuanced than much of the vitriolic response to the comments) itself contains some worrying implications, the first and most obvious of which is “mansplaining” being part of the headline. The term itself has inherently sexist connotations, even if it was not meant in that way. I normally expect better from Jezebel. It seems to suggest that because Dawkins is an old white man, he’s automatically not qualified to discuss the subject of rape or sexual abuse. This is in many ways and understandable reaction to the over-prevalence of ill-informed old white men making ill-informed comments on such subjects, as well as for the most part being the ones in charge of creating and directing laws and public policy in this area; but the reaction is not to fight fire with fire and in a similarly bigoted manner exclude certain demographics from discussion on these topics.

The author later comments on “Richard Dawkins Railing About Something He Has No Business Railing About “, further suggesting that she doesn’t really believe Dawkins has any right to discuss these matters. This debate has involved a lot of emotive arguments, especially from those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault, but it is a dangerous fallacy to suggest that only those directly affected by a certain issue are qualified to discuss it. They are, of course, the most qualified in many ways to discuss the subjective aspects of their own experience, and I don’t think anyone (certainly not Dawkins) would attempt to tell them how they ought to feel about their experience, but that does not make them the only (or even the best for that matter, as emotion can cloud judgement) people qualified to objective discuss such subjects. Irregardless of this, Dawkins does indeed point out his own experience of being “mildly” abused as a child, as he has before in discussion of whether the commonly accepted practice of telling children about divine justice and hell isn’t perhaps crueller than many instances of non-violent abuse. Even so, Dawkins has outright apologised before when his comments about how his experience didn’t seem to harm him much seemed to belittle the suffering of others.

The Jezebel article points out that;

… the experience of rape is so subjective and personal to people — women and men — who experience it that speaking in absolutes about it is, to use an academic phrase, fucking asinine.

However, the point could similarly be made, that suggesting “rape is rape is rape” and that there should be no discussion of categories or degrees of wrongness similarly presupposes authority to define rape as a subject so sensitive that little or no objective analysis is allowed. Such experiences being very personal and subjective actually speaks against the idea that “rape is rape is rape” or “paedophilia is paedophilia is paedophilia” and that they are both so 100% evil that no two cases can be compared or graded or put on a spectrum.  I find the idea that rape or sexual abuse is so taboo that we’re not even allowed to talk about it objectively or rationally is similarly insulting to many people. Especially people who do not fit into the standard victim set for abuse or rape. The dangers of deeming certain subjects as taboo and therefore not up for discussion will be discussed in more depth below.

Mary Elizabeth Williams, writing for Salon, puts forward a similarly disapproving, if less erudite take on this matter, entitled “Richard Dawkins Gets It Wrong About Rape – Again!“, which is somewhat less eloquent  and even more fraught with reactionary comments about Dawkins’ arrogance or suitability to talk on this subject, rather than dealing with the point he was in fact trying to make.

But it’s also not surprising that the response has not been entirely approving. One tweeter asked on Tuesday, “You don’t think the betrayal of trust in a ‘date rape’ could be worse than a stranger with a knife?” while another noted, “I’m glad @RichardDawkins is here to tell us objectively & comparatively how bad our rapes were. Go away and learn compassion.”

Williams tells one side of the story, that of the angry reaction to Dawkins’ comments, without putting them into context or acknowledging that he does in fact address several of the questions and comments posed by those who were angered. Some of which are discussed further below.

Despite the fact that much of the reaction on both sides – from fans of Dawkins defending him automatically, to opponents dismissing his comments out of hand – has been reactionary and ill-thought-through, the main point of contention amongst the more reasonable parties to this debate seems to revolve around exactly what point Dawkins was attempting to make. Throughout a long day of defending his actions and clarifying his statements, Dawkins attempts to finally hammer home, in a blog post entitled “Response to a Bizarre Twitter Storm“, that the point he was making (even if he admittedly didn’t chose his phrasing brilliantly, and purposely chose sensitive subjects as examples) was not one about what kind of rape or abuse is worse, in fact he clarified that he did not mean to seem to be making light of anyone’s personal experience.

I was only talking logic, with no desire to make light of the seriousness of any kind of rape or any kind of pedophilia. And the hypothetical comparisons that illustrated my logical point could, in all cases, be reversed without in any way changing the validity of the logic.

He clarified that the point he was attempting to make was about how logical arguments work, and that categorising one thing as worse than another thing does not imply tacit approval of the less bad thing. He goes on to point out that he was not attempting to make a definitive judgement about which of the many examples of rape or abuse should or could be considered worse, and that his thought experiment works even if you reverse the two statements. He does lament that it was unfortunate that he did not have the abuse and rape examples in quotation marks, to point out that they were indeed “examples” and not substantive arguments, or indications of Dawkins’ stances, themselves.

In both my hypothetical examples, I made the mistake of forgetting to put quotation marks around the hypothetical quotations. The second one, for instance, should be amended to

“Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse.” If you think anybody who said that would thereby be endorsing date rape, go away and learn how to think.

Actually, it’s rather plausible that some people might find date rape WORSE than being raped by a stranger (let’s leave the “at knifepoint” out of it). Think of the disillusionment, the betrayal of trust in someone you thought was a friend. But my logical point remains unchanged. It applies to any hypothetical X and Y, which could be reversed. Thus:-

“Being raped by a stranger is bad. Being raped by a formerly trusted friend is worse.” If you think that hypothetical quotation is an endorsement of rape by strangers, go away and learn how to think.

This rather saddening, though undoubtedly interesting overreaction and subsequent debate spilled over into conversations I had with others, primarily over Facebook, as articles and comments regarding the controversy kept popping up. Dawkins’ comments and style can rub a lot of people the wrong way, and as a fan of his in most things, I do at time wonder if he might have handled certain issues more diplomatically. But if you read his more thought-through responses (ie: his blog posts rather than tweets) I think most people would agree that Dawkins is at the very least up for debating these issues and not as dismissive as he might appear. Sadly the impression many get is that it sounds like he is saying “let me explain things to you, you irrational fool”, and the confusion between whether he was making a substantive point about rape or purely a point about logic, seemed to suggest that he was accusing people of not understanding logic by disagreeing with his logic statement (as opposed to the truth of either off his examples). Many admitted however that it was true that most reactions were over the top and most people simply didn’t read beyond a gripping headline. But the point was also made to me that perhaps that not everything is science, not everything has to play by the rules of “objectivity”, not everything “needs” to be discussed logically. It’s not a statement I agree with, but it’s a compelling one nonetheless. Furthermore, these points were made on his twitter account, so perhaps he should have expected this sort of backlash, and worded his statements more carefully. On the other hand, regarding the angry responses, this is after all “Richard Dawkins”, and to complain about Richard Dawkins being a dry rationalist is a bit silly.

Many suggestions on one side of my discussions were that commentators such as those on Jezebel found it disappointing to have someone like Dawkins use words like “mild” attached to words like “pedophilia” in the first place, suggesting that such suffering can be graded, especially when such experiences are very personal, whilst nonetheless acknowledging that saying that one horrible offence is less horrible than another does not mean that the person is endorsing or approving either one. I found myself agreeing with many of the points made by those in theory opposed to Dawkins comments, but pointing out that it did not in fact seem that these implications about what kind of abuse is worse did not seem to be in any way the point Dawkins was trying to make. We seemed to agree that Dawkins logical point was fine, that comparison does not imply condoning one of the compares instances, but disagreed on whether he should have chosen examples from such a sensitive area, or the utility of comparing two bad thing in the first place.

Similarly, I often felt compelled to point out that at no point in the debate did he defend any particular views on rape or abuse, he might have implied a few, and later apologised if it seemed that that was the substantive point he was trying to make. But the only thing he actually tried to defend was the right to talk about these things, to discuss taboo subjects, and that people shouldn’t react as though he has no right to discuss it at all, that because it is very personal it is therefore out of bounds. Also,  in a second blog post regarding the whole debacle, this time popularised by The Huffington Post, entitled “Are There Emotional No-Go Areas Where Logic Dare Not Show Its Face?“, Dawkins points out the more overarching message  which he was attempting to defend – that everything should be up for discussion. Even the proposal that everything should be up for discussion. This does not sound like the statement of the arrogant man he is so often suggested to be; “Nothing should be off limits to discussion. No, let me amend that. If you think some things should be off limits, let’s sit down together and discuss that proposition itself. Let’s not just insult each other and cut off all discussion because we rationalists have somehow wandered into a land where emotion is king.


Whilst an evolutionary biologist by trade, one should not lose sight of the fact that Dawkins (qualified or not – his opponents might suggest not) also writes and talks extensively on issues that are primarily philosophical in nature, much as did his departed friend and fellow champion of rationality Christopher Hitchens. As such, many of the points made by Dawkins will be inherently philosophical ones, and go to the core of how fundamental questions of morality should be dealt with. He points out a number of examples in his defense of talking about taboo subjects, particularly the experiences of a friend of his whilst lecturing students on some aspect of philosophy and though experiments;

“We all agree it isn’t true that some human races are genetically superior to others in intelligence. But let’s for a moment suspend disbelief and consider the consequences if it were true. Would it ever be right to discriminate in job hiring? Etcetera.” My friend sometimes poses this very question, and he tells me that about half the students are willing to entertain the hypothetical counterfactual and rationally discuss the consequences. The other half respond emotionally to the hypothetical, are too revolted to proceed and simply opt out of the conversation.

Could eugenics ever be justified? Could torture? A clock triggering a gigantic nuclear weapon hidden in a suitcase is ticking. A spy has been captured who knows where it is and how to disable it, but he refuses to speak. Is it morally right to torture him, or even his innocent children, to make him reveal the secret? What if the weapon were a doomsday machine that would blow up the whole world?

There are those whose love of reason allows them to enter such disagreeable hypothetical worlds and see where the discussion might lead. And there are those whose emotions prevent them from going anywhere near the conversation. Some of these will vilify and hurl vicious insults at anybody who is prepared to discuss such matters. Some will pursue active witch-hunts against moral philosophers for daring to consider obnoxious hypothetical thought experiments.

It is true, that it’s up for discussion as to whether creating controversy about these sorts of issues is indeed useful. For the examples of abuse and rape which sparked this storm I feel that the idea of comparing objectively the types of abuse could itself be abused, and support the culture of victim-blaming. But I also think it could help society be less reactionary, and at times  disproportionately so, to the words “rape” or “child abuse”. Is there even a risk in how these terms are treated? I don’t know, perhaps. It seems to me that in areas where emotions run high it is almost always good to have someone take a step back and attempt to take an objective look at the issues at hand, however unpopular it may make them. Interestingly, as he points out in the article featured by the Huffington Post, Dawkins actually got onto the topic because he was accused of similarly wandering into taboo territory where reason and debate is not welcome when talking about how you can dislike the behaviour of both Israel and Palestine and compare them without suggesting that you approve of the actions of either.

I have met the following reaction when discussing the vexed and terrible question of Israel/Palestine. Israeli friends have said to me things like, “We needed a Jewish state because, after the Holocaust, we realised that nobody else was going to look after us, we’d have to look after ourselves. Jews have been downtrodden for too long. From now on, we Jews are going to stand tall and take care of ourselves.” To which, on one occasion, I replied, “Yes, of course I sympathise with that, but can you explain why Palestinian Arabs should be the ones to pay for Hitler’s crimes? Why Palestine? You surely aren’t going to stoop to some kind of biblical justification for picking on that land rather than, say, Bavaria or Madagascar?” My friend earnestly said, “Richard, I think we had better just terminate this conversation.” I had blundered into another taboo zone, a sacred emotional sanctuary where discussion is forbidden. The emotions aroused by the Holocaust are so painful that we are not allowed even to discuss such questions. A friend will terminate the conversation rather than allow entry to the sanctuary of hurt emotion.

At the end of the day, Dawkins’ points are essentially ones about ignoring taboos, holding nothing sacred and at least allowing people to discuss emotional issues rationally. Though he may have started a number of unhelpful and pointless debates about how precisely one could or should rate different forms of rape, his initial goal was simply to encourage philosophical discussion in areas in serious need of discussion, and suggesting that people do not shy away because these areas are controversial. At almost no point in world history, or in most of our own personal experiences, has a sensitive issue been helped by stigma attached to discussing it.

I believe that, as non-religious rationalists, we should be prepared to discuss such questions using logic and reason. We shouldn’t compel people to enter into painful hypothetical discussions, but nor should we conduct witch-hunts against people who are prepared to do so. I fear that some of us may be erecting taboo zones, where emotion is king and where reason is not admitted; where reason, in some cases, is actively intimidated and dare not show its face. And I regret this. We get enough of that from the religious faithful. Wouldn’t it be a pity if we became seduced by a different sort of sacred, the sacred of the emotional taboo zone?

Similar worries about certain areas being taboo and how this can lead to unhelpful and reactionary public discourse and even law-making abound. One such example is the brilliant and wonderfully clever song by fellow skeptic Tim Minchin entitled “The Fence“, in which he points out the absurdities of people’s black and white, fundamentalist beliefs on certain subjects that are deemed to be particularly sensitive, including the wonderful commentary during the intro;

This sort of pervasive black-and-white-ism; everything has to be good or evil; or healthy or deadly; or natural or chemical, you know?

Our troops in Iraq are good and paedophiles are evil, ignoring the fact that some troops like kiddies and some paedos have guns. If you eat these berries or drink this juice you’ll be miraculously healthful and you will live forever! But if you take this toxin or have this vaccine you will get cancer and die, or you will get autism and you won’t like hugs!

And everything organic and natural is good, ignoring the fact that organic, natural substances include arsenic, and poo, and crocodiles! And, you know, everything chemical is bad, ignoring the fact that… everything is chemicals. Everything is chemicals!

I for one think that, as distasteful as it might be at times, pretty much everything should be open for discussion, and objective analysis. Obviously one should pick their battles, and as mentioned above, no one should attempt to condescendingly suggest “objectively” to a victim of child abuse or rape that their experience is lower on the spectrum than someone else’s; but the idea that such a spectrum for sensitive subjects might exist should indeed be discussed, even if it turns out in the end that such distinctions do not exist, are unhelpful at best or unknowable at worst.

~ Shane

Photo Credit: ssoosay via photopin cc


Further Reading:
Richard Dawkins, “Response to a bizarre Twitter storm”, Richard Dawkins Foundation, available at
Richard Dawkins, “Are There Emotional No-Go Areas Where Logic Dare Not Show Its Face?”, Huffington Post Blog, available at
Erin Gloria Ryan, “Thank Goodness Richard Dawkins Has Finally Mansplained Rape”, available at
Mary Elizabeth Williams, “Richard Dawkins gets it wrong about rape — again”, Salon, available at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s