Thursday, July 31, 2014

From bad to worse

Richard Dawkins, when not talking about evolutionary biology, is a bit of a tit. The particular tittish thing he has just done is write the following tweet:
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.
He was doing this, apparently, to illustrate logical thinking. Which was pretty straightforwardly dumb of him for a start: if you want an argument about the application of cool reason, don't illustrate it with rape analogies. Equally, for the love of God, don't start calling some types of rape 'mild' because that really is both insensitive and ignorant.

Tom Chivers writes a fairly good piece here on why the example should never have been used. But he also makes the claim that it's impossible to determine whether one rape is 'worse' than another unless you have yourself been raped:

...those of us who have never been raped telling those who have which ones are worse, with no reference to anything other than our own assumptions, is insensitive at best and utterly crass and devoid of empathy at worst.
I'm not sure that I'm a fan of that approach. Tom wrote an excellent piece on Ebola the day before. But who is he who has never had Ebola to tell people who have how bad it is, with no reference to anything but his own assumptions, so to speak? Well, he's someone who's researched the topic, presumably read survivors' testimony, has awareness of the general topic of illness etc. In other words, he's an educated observer. If people can't make value judgements without having physically experienced the subject then the scope of discourse gets pretty limited.

In any event, when discussing the relative severity of criminal actions, we actually do have a fairly objective assistant: the law. All rapes are serious. Some have aggravating factors that make them more serious. Some have mitigating factors that make them less serious (although the only specified mitigating factor is that the "Victim engaged in consensual sexual activity with the offender on the same occasion and immediately before the offence" - which reads to me as being more about the perpetrator's belief in consent than anything else). But that again is almost what Dawkins was saying - the fact that some offences are more serious than others does not make those others trivial.

Where he went wrong, of course, was in talking about "mild date rapes", because there really are no such things. But then that's because he's a tit.