Children matter as children: why Dawkins did not say that child abuse is “zero bad”

In his new autobiography and and in interviews Dawkins has been recalling his childhood. He recounts one episode, when aged about 10, of what he described as “mild” sexual abuse by a school teacher, and said that others in the class had suffered the same. Based on his many conversations with his classmates back then, especially after that teacher committed suicide, Dawkins suggested: “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage”. The wording here is tentative, but he has since accepted that he was somewhat presumptuous, and that he can’t fully know the long-term outcome for his class mates.

In the interview Dawkins also discussed the “shifting moral zeitgeist” and how society is getting better over time. He said: “I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild paedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today”.

This is saying that people today should be well aware of the damage such things do, and thus that anyone doing them today should be condemned forcefully; but that since, in the past, people were less aware of the damage they were doing, they might perhaps be judged less harshly.

I wonder whether Dawkins might also have been thinking of the practice of sending young children off to boarding school, which was the done thing then, but which he says is “nowadays looked on with something approaching horror”. Dawkins went from a near idyllic early childhood to, at age 7, less-than-pleasant boarding schools, and perhaps his reluctance to condemn past practices applies also to his parents’ decision to send him away.

There is a cottage industry in misinterpreting Richard Dawkins’s remarks in order to denigrate him. This has long been prevalent among the religious but lately some atheists have joined in. Thus the above comments caused outrage amongst those parts of the blogosphere well practised at outrage. The suggestion that some forms of sexual abuse were worse than others was interpreted as “defending” the abuse. As Dawkins replied: “Dawkins says A is bad, B is worse. Therefore he’s defending A. Now that is just totally illogical”.

The comment: “I … can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today” was similarly interpreted as “can’t find it in me to condemn it”, as though it was saying there was nothing wrong with it.

Chief among the outrage-mongers in the atheist blogosphere is PZ Myers. With customary hyperbole he twisted the statement “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage” into “it didn’t harm us”. He raged that Dawkins was saying that “mild” child abuse was: “zero bad”, “OK”, “a trivial offense, to be waved away as harmless”.

Lots has been written about these remarks, but I want to join in to emphasize one point. Children matter as children! It is not the case that harm to children only matters if it has lasting effects, only if it goes on to blight the resulting adulthood. It is not the case that harm in ones adult life matters, but that harm confined to childhood doesn’t. Children are people with feelings now and if they are suffering or unhappy or frightened now then that matters.

What Dawkins actually said about that 30-second episode was that it was: “extremely disagreeable” and “skin-crawling” and “creepy” and “almost worse than painful” and “very unpleasant and embarrassing”, and he has used the words “gagging unpleasantness” and “mental trauma” about it.

Does that sound like “zero bad”, “trivial”, “harmless”? Myers’s interpretation of “I don’t think he did any of us lasting damage” as meaning “zero bad” can only mean that Myers considers that only the long-term effects, the effects on the later adult, are relevant, and that one can discount the plainly evident suffering and hurt to that child at the time.

Now perhaps Myers didn’t mean this, perhaps he would fully concur that the child is important in the now, and not just as a proto-adult, and perhaps he gave the above impression inadvertently out of a desire to manufacture and magnify fault in Dawkins’s wording — that is, after all, the whole modus operandi of his blog.

But the issue is worth emphasizing. If child abuse goes on to blight adult life then that adds greatly to the harm by greatly prolonging it, but child abuse is not wrong only if it causes long-term harm, it is still wrong for causing short-term harm to the child.

1 thought on “Children matter as children: why Dawkins did not say that child abuse is “zero bad”

  1. Ron Murphy

    Nearly every paragraph Myers wrote in that blog post was off target. And he finishes with accusing Dawkins of entering into “a swampy mire of ambiguity”, when there is much ambiguity in what Myers wrote. And he gets it wrong on the WLC comparison. I still read Myers because on some things he is still relevant, but he seems to have bought into a degree of dogma in issues of abuse and rape. Not that he is wrong in decrying both those in all circumstances, but rather that any disagreement, or any attempt at nuanced comparison of relative harms is absolutely and unquestioningly shot down.


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