Sunday 23 December 2012

The Tabloid Reporter Delusion

As it (almost) says on the tin...

Is the BBC biased?

...and other media-related matters
Everyone loves a piece about Richard Dawkins. Some newspapers love to wind their readers up with regular Richard Dawkins stories. Threads then fill up with massed regiments of anti-Dawkins and pro-Dawkins commenters, insulting all and sundry and generally having a high old time. Everyone's a winner with a Richard Dawkins piece. So, here's a post about Richard Dawkins. (You know you want one!)

Back in 2006, the aforementioned Richard Dawkins (have I mentioned him yet?) published his famous polemical book about religion, The God Delusion. In Chapter 9, he recalled a Q&A session after a lecture he had given in Dublin where he was asked by a member of the audience for his thoughts on the Catholic priestly sex abuse scandal in Ireland: 
I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place. It was an off-the-cuff remark made in the heat of the moment, and I was surprised that it earned a round of enthusiastic applause from that Irish audience (composed, admittedly, of Dublin intellectuals and presumably not representative of the country at large).
As you can see, Richard was hardly unaware even as he wrote that chapter that he had engaged in a little spur-of-the-moment hyperbole - the sort of thing that can lead him very easily into being misrepresented, quoted out of context and then being forced to defend himself against those misrepresentations years later.

He continued (in The God Delusion) by quoting a letter he had received from an American woman, brought up as a Catholic - a letter that had rekindled his memories of that Q&A session in the Irish Republic. As a seven-year old girl a schoolfriend of the woman had died in tragic circumstances. Because the girl was a Protestant, she believed (because of her Catholic upbringing) that her little friend had gone to Hell. At the same time she was also abused by her parish priest in a car. Richard Dawkins quotes from the letter she wrote to him:
"Being fondled by the priest simply left the impression (from the mind of a 7 year old) as ‘yucky’ while the memory of my friend going to hell was one of cold, immeasurable fear. I never lost sleep because of the priest – but I spent many a night being terrified that the people I loved would go to Hell. It gave me nightmares."
What lessons did Richard draw from this?
Admittedly, the sexual fondling she suffered in the priest’s car was relatively mild compared with, say, the pain and disgust of a sodomized altar boy. And nowadays the Catholic Church is said not to make so much of hell as it once did. But the example shows that it is at least possible for psychological abuse of children to outclass physical....I am persuaded that the phrase ‘child abuse’ is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell.
A thought-provoking argument, that can be generalised. Is it, for example, also appropriate to describe as 'child abuse' the inculcation of Palestinian children to hate Israeli children and to believe that killing them is a religiously-sanctioned and morally right thing to do? Is it 'child abuse' to dress them in Hamas terrorist uniforms and give them toy rocket launchers and guns and, thus, encourage them to idolise terrorists? Is it 'child abuse' to put those children in harm's way during a conflict, using them as human shields or propaganda weapons whenever they are accidentally killed or injured? Is it 'child abuse' to tell them that suicide bombing is martyrdom and will ensure them a place in Heaven? Is it 'child abuse' for Islamic scholars, preachers, politicians and media outlets to push these messages into the ears of their children, again and again and again?

The extracts from The God Delusion were been raised by Mehdi Hasan during an interview with Richard Dawkins, held at the Oxford Union and broadcast last night on Al Jazeera. If you can face 45 minutes of Mehdi Hasan, it's well worth a watch. Again, the audience is generally receptive to Richard's defence of those comments on Catholic child abuse.

Now, I have to say that even though I - and presumably you - can see what Richard is getting it, he doesn't exactly help himself with the way he puts things sometimes. Mischievous people can very easily quote you out of context and put the blackest interpretation on what you have said....


'Being raised Catholic is worse than child abuse': Latest incendiary claim made by atheist professor Richard Dawkins
By Daniel Martin |

  • Incendiary: Richard Dawkins

Incendiary: Richard Dawkins

Raising your children as Roman Catholics is worse than child abuse, according to militant atheist Richard Dawkins.In typically incendiary style, Professor Dawkins said the mental torment inflicted by the religion’s teachings is worse in the long-term than any sexual abuse carried out by priests.He said he had been told by a woman that while being abused by a priest was a ‘yucky’ experience, being told as a child that a Protestant friend who died would ‘roast in Hell’ was more distressing.Last night politicians and charities condemned the former Oxford professor’s views as attention-seeking and unhelpful.
If anything's "incendiary" here, it's this Daily Mail article. Please put protective gloves and a gas mask on before reading it! 

Can you see what the Daily Mail reporter did there? He .. quoted .. Richard .. Dawkins .. out .. of .. context. Hard to believe of a tabloid journalist, I know, but there you are! 

Few of those reading Daniel Martin's article would be aware that Richard Dawkins hadn't just made those remarks and that this wasn't exactly news - a point Richard himself makes on his own website:
Following a recent report in the Daily Mail, various twitterers are horrified at what I am alleged to have said about child abuse. It was in The God Delusion published in 2006 and distributed in more than 2 million copies and therefore hardly red hot news. 
As well as risking misleading its readers about the context of Richard's remark, the Daily Mail article then misreports Richard's statements, alleging (wrongly) that he says Catholic teaching is worse than "any" sexual abuse carried out by Catholic priests. Even the quotes for the Al Jazeera interview used in the Mail article undermine that bit of dubious reporting

Reading what Richard Dawkins actually wrote shows that he wasn't (and isn't) making any such blanket statement. As so often, Richard has now been forced to defend himself against (deliberate?) misunderstandings....which he only partly left himself open to:

Incidentally, I was myself sexually abused by a teacher when I was about nine or ten years old. It was a very unpleasant and embarrassing experience, but the mental trauma was soon exorcised by comparing notes with my contemporaries who had suffered it previously at the hands of the same master. Thank goodness, I have never personally experienced what it is like to believe – really and truly and deeply believe ­– in hell. But I think it can be plausibly argued that such a deeply held belief might cause a child more long-lasting mental trauma than the temporary embarrassment of mild physical abuse.

Anecdotes and plausibility arguments, however, need to be backed up by systematic research, and I would be interested to hear from psychologists whether there is real evidence bearing on the question. My expectation would be that violent, painful, repeated sexual abuse, especially by a family member such as a father or grandfather, probably has a more damaging effect on a child’s mental well-being than sincerely believing in hell. But ‘sexual abuse’ covers a wide spectrum of sins, and I suspect that research would show belief in hell to be more traumatic than the sort of mild feeling-up that I suffered.
The argument here is, of course, a highly controversial one and many of you are going to strongly disagree with what Richard Dawkins is saying. But he is not saying what that Daily Mail article says he is saying and it's surely far better to disagree with what someone actually says than with what some rabble-rousing article (wrongly) alleges he said?

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