And so, Gentle Reader, Richard Dawkins has published a not-pology in relation to his latest utterances on child-abuse. I say "not-pology" because mostly, to me, it reads more like a doubling-down coupled with an aggrieved whine about expecting to be read by "reasonable" people. That is to say, people who agree with his views. It was his expectation of who would read it which was wrong, not what he said. Because, obviously, to reasonable people, it would have been "obvious" that he was playing down his own "mild" encounter with a paedophile in order to spare the feelings of the worse-abused. Thus either missing or ignoring entirely, the fact that his dismisal of dirty old men shoving their hands down young children's underwear as in any way "mild," was the point of many of the objections to his blunder.
But, no matter how kindly, or not, one might wish to read his 'pology, there's a huge and glaring omission. This is not a one-off. There is context. And that context is his continued assertion that teaching kids about Hell is worse than "mild paedophilia." Both "mild" and "worse" being defined by reference to his personal scale of relative badness-of-effect.
But before we get into that, I'd like… no, "like" isn't the word. I'm going to introduce you to Hell, as perceived by me.
(Trigger warning: fairly graphic description of child-abuse follows.)
D'you remember that Sandtex paint which was popular for indoor decoration in the nineteen-seventies? Basically, it turned the entire wall into a huge sheet of heavy-grade sandpaper, especially if stippled into lumps.
Much of my Hell has to do with a Sandtex-painted living-room wall.
My Hell is having my back purposefully scraped along that wall.
My Hell is being thrown against that wall, or being pushed up against it and hit—the pain in the gut being echoed by the further scrapes of my back against the wall as I was physically prevented from doubling over from the punch.
My Hell is trying desperately to place myself with the sofa at my back when Dad started shouting, so that when I got hit or shoved, I'd slam into something soft instead of that wall.
My Hell (which, thankfully, never came to pass) is knowing, with absolute certainty, that one day I would hit that wall with my head first instead of my shoulders or back, and that I probably wouldn't survive the experience.
Away from the wall…
My Hell is rushing straight home from school, to try to do two hours' worth of homework in half an hour, that being the amount of time I had before Dad—who insisted that homework should be done before he got home from work—came in. Then getting beaten anyway, for still being in my school uniform. Then getting beaten when he found out from school that I wasn't finishing my homework. Then getting beaten the next day for not having it finished when he got home. And around and around the circle goes, each stage spawning the next inevitable beating.
My Hell is scrubbing my fingernails 'til my fingertips were raw and excruciatingly painful—until I stopped because I thought they were about to bleed—lest a tiny speck of dirt give Dad an excuse to let off the head of steam that had been building for days.
My Hell is purposefully not scrubbing my nails before coming to the dinner table, in order to get what he was quite obviously going to find some excuse to do, over and done with as soon as possible.
My earliest recollection of Hell is from when I was about eight years old. Playing with a toy aeroplane, I put on my best pilot-to-tower nasal radio-voice and announced that I was "coming in to land." Looking back on it, I can see that Dad misheard me. All I knew at the time was that he asked me "What lamp?" Two minutes of increasingly distressful mutual misunderstanding later, I was being kicked, slapped and thrown up the stairs to an early bed. The banishment-to-bed would, in later years, come to seem like Heaven; releasing me, as it did, from the preceding Hell.
My Hell is learning that the only reason he would accept for me not doing something was "I couldn't be bothered." Any other reason being sneeringly dismissed as "an excuse, not a reason," because Heaven forbid that he should be denied a reason to beat the crap out of me! Then getting into trouble at school for "insubordination" after giving the one reason I knew, through painful experience, would be accepted by an adult with authority over me, for why I hadn't done my homework.
My Hell is finding ways to avoid PE lessons, or at least turn up late to an already empty changing room, so no one would see the bruises.
I could go on but I'll spare you and, to be honest, spare myself. This has not been easy to type, and I know for sure that it's going to be even harder to hit the "Publish" button.
Try, if you can, to imagine not what I, as a child, went through physically. What I'm hoping you can do is to empathise with that scared child I've described, impotent to do anything about an awful situation he or she is stuck in. The form of abuse—even the frequency of abuse—is almost irrelevant. It's the mindset—the utter, abject helplessness—of the victim you need to try to imagine. (Sadly, there's a damned high chance that a large proportion of readers won't need to imagine, but rather to remember.)
I've talked to, and read the words of, a lot of survivors of childhood abuse. To say that we don't share stories would be a lie. What we don't do though—what is never done—is to compare their effects as if they can be graded on some absolute scale of badness-of-outcome.
Because Hell is subjective.
You don't, if you have any clue whatsoever about human beings—even if you think someone's abuse "mild"—turn "what happened to me physically was worse," into "it affected me worse." You do not dismiss someone's pain with an airy wave of the hand and an implied "Stop whining—other people have it much worse." (Something of a pattern, with Dawkins. Dear Muslima…, anyone?)
Because Hell is subjective.
If there's one common strand which ties all forms of childhood abuse together into a common weave, it's this:
Our Hell—often the insidiously worst part of our Hell—is not being able to do a damn thing about it. Knowing that the person doing it was bigger, stronger, and faster than we were, and had absolute authority over us. That the person causing us pain was often the very person we should have been able to turn to for help. The abuse, for many, became a fact of nature, an inescapable nightmare. And this is true no matter how "mild" another person might find that abuse, whether as an observer who's never experienced it, or as one who, like Richard Dawkins, managed to shrug it off without too much trouble. It's true even if the abuse wasn't repeated—a nightmare is still a nightmare, even if it's a one-off. I'm glad for him that he did manage to shrug it off, but some of us weren't that lucky. And he doesn't get to dismiss other people's Hell, based on nothing but the fact that he personally didn't find Satan to be too bad a chap.
Because Hell is subjective.
And, as Eristae put it brilliantly in a comment at Pharyngula, we wouldn't forgive and forget the crimes of an adult who threw children out of high windows, merely because the children were lucky enough to survive unscathed. Why the Hell should we, as Dawkins implies, forgive and forget the crimes of an adult whose acts (those of which we know) of "mild paedophilia" happen, luckily (as far as we know), to have been perpetrated on children who went on to suffer no lasting harm? The abuser certainly doesn't know, or care, beforehand, whether their acts will cause harm or not.
Both legally and morally, that idea is, I suggest, despicable.
But here's the thing. The point I wanted to make when I sat down to write this essay (which started life as a would-be comment, elsewhere). If, as he repeatedly asserts, telling children about Hell is child-abuse (and, at least in the more extreme cases, I can quite well believe that it can be traumatising), then he does not have the right to grade its subjective effects on his personal effects-of-abuse-scale, any more than he has the right to grade any of the other abuses.
Because Hell is subjective.
There is no scale by which we might measure and compare the horrors contained in subjective Hells which, for all that they may have physical causes, lie solely in the mind. Whether produced by "mild" or heavy physical abuse or by purely psychological causes, such as the expectation of physical abuse or the too-enthusiastically promoted idea of an actual place of eternal torture, they are all equally Hell to their inhabitants.
Because Hell, Professor Dawkins, is subjective.
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