Thursday, 31 July 2014

What we can learn from Richard Dawkins

One odd explanation offered for Dawkins' latest faux pas, claiming that date rape is bad and rape by a stranger is worse, is that he was busy making a logical point (x can be bad, y can be worse, and both are still bad) and forgetting a rhetorical technique that undermines his point (when we say x is bad, y is worse we are often implying that x is not really that bad after all). This doesn't wash - the effectiveness of applied logic is only as good as its underlying assumptions and Dawkins' assumption here is flawed. Add to that the fact that a large majority of reported rapes are perpetrated by people known to the victim.

Dawkins is knowledgeable within his field. He is also widely read and has a degree of awareness of the cultural heritage of the West. What he does not have is a clear awareness of the nuances of gender issues or the realities of sexual abuse. Added to this, he is unwilling to learn, generalising the attacks he sees on Twitter and comments threads to claim that all opposition to his magisterial pronouncements is offered by weak-brained, combative people who do not have valid points. Dawkins, someone whom I once respected (and I still think his books on evolution, like Unweaving The Rainbow, are marvellous), has fallen into the trap of turning an unexamined and poorly-informed opinion into dogma. He is so committed to upholding his own image of infallibility that he has shut down the possibility of productive dialogue and learning. He is a useful object lesson to us of how people can claim to follow a certain philosophy but in reality apply it when it suits them and are actually driven by more emotional compulsions and obsessions.

Perhaps what we should learn from Dawkins' poor performance on issues of gender and race is to always examine our own opinions and be aware of their basis, and ready to discuss them with others and try to learn from differing opinions. We should also learn that our backgrounds shape us more than we like to admit - my online friend Derick has pointed out that Dawkins is at heart a British Protestant philistine for instance - and understand the values and limitations imposed by that background.

Most of all, we should always be prepared to change our minds and admit we were wrong. Growing as a human being is more important than preserving some image of ideological commitment or personal infallibility

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