Likewise, Richard Dawkins finds it patently absurd that his pal Michael Shermer would be a serial sexual predator, because after all, he’s a good guy, and “What decent person is NOT a feminist”?
From this vantage point—the presumption of one’s own obvious decency—it is easy to see why Harris and Dawkins and so many others like them (and like myself from time to time and probably you too, dear reader) are so quick to interpret any dissent as vituperative. To imagine themselves as the victim of “thought police” and “witch hunts.” In his own defense, Harris goes to great lengths to demonstrate his love and respect of women*, as though that should be enough to settle the matter for all to see that what is in his heart is good. And yet he cannot, apparently, recognize the extremely elemental problem with his “estrogen vibe” analysis: that it permits no role for structural sexism. The “I guess women are just different from men” argument is inherently victim-blaming.
Dawkins has been famously victim-blaming women since the “Dear Muslima” affair, and has recently taken to subtweeting former comrade PZ Myers for calling him out on his rather spotty command of feminist principles. For his part, Myers is hardly known for his fondness for kid gloves—most recently he wrote that Dawkins had been devoured by “brain parasites.” But mockery and name-calling are just the medicine that the New Atheists have insisted from the outset would rid the world of delusion and superstition. Unfortunately it would seem that to resist this medicine one only need inoculate oneself with the image of one’s own reasonable good-heartedness. Armed with such a self-image, no one need engage anyone else’s ideas or experiences with anything more generous than condescension and self-righteous pity.
The global all-time winner of the victim-blaming gladiatorial games has got to be Jerry Coyne, who wrote in 2011 that Anne Frank would not have perished in the Holocaust if only she were not Jewish. But here's another victim-blamer from today's headlines. Sean Hannity, in a segment defending Adrian Peterson's whipping of his infant child, said on his TV show yesterday "I got hit with a strap. Bam, bam, bam. And I have never been to a shrink. I will tell you that I deserved it." A heartbreaking statement.
It is a remarkable coincidence that those who have no time for what other people find afflicting so often must downplay--if not outright defend--their own childhood abuse. Before I read that Hannity quote today, I wrote on Twitter that it was getting harder and harder to tell Dawkins and Hannity apart, twinned as they seem to be in their incapacity for self-reflection.
And indeed, Dawkins has written publicly of his own abuse multiple times. The most widely-known remark made the rounds a year ago when he told an interviewer that he thought being groped by his boarding school teacher did him "no lasting harm." Maybe it didn't. But such a denial is the exact form we would expect a defense mechanism to take in a child that age. Overgeneralizing just a bit, children are too emotionally invested in the rectitude of adult authority figures to attribute serious evil to them. When seriously wronged, they tend to either downplay the harm done them, or justify it through their own wrongdoing. The alternative--that the adults who take care of them might be cruel, capricious, or incapable--is too much for the young psyche to take on.
Here's a Dawkins quote that got a little less attention at the time, tucked away as it was in the pages of his comment forum:
I remember spending a lot of time at my [kindergarten] trying to call down supernatural forces to protect me from bullies. I had a distinct mental image of a large black cloud with a human face, which would swoop down out of the sky and deal with the bully.It's facile to say that children who are bullied grow up to become bullies themselves, but that they often do is, again, no coincidence. I see the seeds of so much of Dawkins' disdain and contempt for religion in this memory, as though the only way he can bear the disappointment and terror of not being saved from bullies by "supernatural forces" is to make sure that everyone else who believes in the supernatural is never, ever allowed to forget how foolish they are. Just as Sean Hannity can only bear the memory of having been violently beaten by the man who should have been his protector by spewing venomous contempt for the weak and ill-favored, night after night, to an audience of millions.
When we ally ourselves with that kind of hatred and dismissal, when we take ritual glee in the stupidity and cravenness of others, we invariably declare war on parts of ourselves, forcing these parts to live in darkness, without a champion, finding expression only through violence. Sean Hannity was caught in hs own trap last night -- "as a woodcock to his own springe." Maybe the strange reenactment of his own child-beating will break the spell for some viewers. Maybe too the poisoned-sword combatants of the atheiosphere will be prompted to piece together that the mockery and demonization directed at many of them now by their erstwhile deacons and elders were just as shallow, myopic, and reactionary when they were directed at the common enemy of religious adherents. Maybe maybe.
[*Update: As Amanda Marcotte observes, all the women he cites as examples are in subordinate or subservient roles.]