Friday, August 29, 2014


I make a joke comparing Dawkins to the Borg, the Cybermen and the Daleks. ("He's like a rather ridiculous hyper logical robot in TV science fiction serial.")

Someone takes me to be insinuating that Dawkins wants to kill everyone who doesn't agree with him, as due to my use of the Dalek catch-phrase "exterminate". He goes so far as to invoke the blood libel, forsooth.

I read back over the essay, realize that gosh-dammit you could read it that way because I hadn't done enough set-up for the "Dalek" gag. If I had written "exterminate! exterminate" or "ex-ter-min-ate" instead of "exterminate" the ambiguity wouldn't have arisen. I clarify my point, and make an alteration to the text to fix it.

The original critic continues to repeat the original point (which I have conceded) as if nothing had happened.

Some time ago I wrote an essay called "The Impossibility of Argument in the Mind of Someone On the Internet". I do rather wish I'd stopped at that point.

Yes, indeed it is "only a joke"; and yes indeed you can say hurtful things under the cover of "joking". But respond to the joke I actually made, not the one that I have made it clear that I didn't make.  "Ha-ha Dawkins is a bit like a robotic sci fi baddie" not "Ha-ha Dawkins wants to kill everybody in the whole wide world."

Even if you think that the exact letter of the text could be read in the second way, it's not fair to continue reading it that way after I have explained how I intended it to be read. It means you are focusing, at best, on a stylistic problem (Andrew sometimes allows ambiguity to creep into his jokes) rather than on substantive point (Andrew thinks some of the new atheists are ridiculous because of their obsession with logic and nothing but.)

It is a little like arguing with a Dalek about religious texts.


"Er, no, actually, I have never met one who does believe that."


"But they don't interpret that passage as meaning that, and never have done; in fact, they specifically think that those pages have lapsed."


See also: flying horses.

Not that the interpretation of my internet essays is as complex and controversial as Biblical hermenuitics, of course.

It just sometimes feels that way.

If we are quoting C.S Lewis, something which we hardly ever do in this forum, surely the relevant passage is from The Four Loves:

"Another time, when I had been addressing an undergraduate society and some discussion (very properly) followed my paper, a young man with an expression as tense as that of a rodent so dealt with me that I had to say, "Look, sir. Twice in the last five minutes you have as good as called me a liar. If you cannot discuss a question of criticism without that kind of thing I must leave." I expected he would do one of two things; lose his temper and redouble his insults, or else blush and apologise. The startling thing is that he did neither. No new perturbation was added to the habitual malaise of his expression. He did not repeat the Lie Direct; but apart from that he went on just as before. One had come up against an iron curtain. He was forearmed against the risk of any strictly personal relation, either friendly or hostile, with such as me. 

Behind this, almost certainly, there lies a circle of the Titanic sort—self-dubbed Knights Ternplars perpetually in arms to defend a critical Baphomet. We—who are they to them—do not exist as persons at all. We are specimens; specimens of various Age Groups, Types, Climates of Opinion, or Interests, to be exterminated. Deprived of one weapon, they coolly take up another. They are not, in the ordinary human sense, meeting us at all; they are merely doing a job of work—spraying (I have heard one use that image) insecticide."

Is Richard Dawkins Planning To Kidnap Little Sir Hugh Of Lincoln and Throw Him Down A Well?


Thursday, August 28, 2014

So, happy birthday then, Jack Kirby
You were born
97 years ago today.

You were the primary creative force behind
Marvel Comics

Although I think Stan Lee had some input as well
Particularly with respect to the
So I obviously hate you
And everything you stand for

(I wrote a book. George and Joe and Jack and Bob (and me))

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I wrote an article. About funnybooks. Here it is: Are the "words" printed in a "comic book" actually particularly "important." I am still quite pleased with it, actually.

Two years later a man on the internet wrote a reply. 

Here's the very note. This is what he wrote. 

God almighty, this has to be the most misguided, wrong-headed, HATE-FILLED pile of nonsense I've seen online in months. Not only is it an insult to Jack Kirby, it'a slso an insult to Don Mcgregor. That's knocking TWO of the BEST writers to have worked for Marvel!!

One thing a lot of people seem completely unaware of. Jack Kirby ALWAYS wrote his own stories, from the beginning. Since the 1930s. It's only in the 1960s that he was prevented by a no-talent hack "editor" (and I used that word loosely) from writing his own dialogue.

Lee's dialogue on Kirby's stories is often like taking a beautiful, just-constructed building, and DEFACING it with spray-painted graphitti.

And you know what? When it comes to "humor", guys like Al Hartley & Ernie Hart were FUNNIER. And SO was Jack Kirby.

I was going to make a point about this, but I think I will sit in a dark room and listen to folk music instead.

Saturday, August 23, 2014


Doctor: All elephants are pink. Nellie is an elephant, therefore Nellie is pink. Logical?

Davros: Perfectly.

Doctor: You know what a human would say to that?

Davros: What?

Doctor: "Don't be silly. Elephants aren't pink."

Davros: Bah. Humans do not understand logic.

Destiny of the Daleks

Two weeks ago, Prof Richard Dawkins decided that he would use the power of Twitter to give the plebs a jolly good lesson in logic. If thing A has quality X, he explained, and thing B has quality X to a greater degree, then it doesn't follow that thing A doesn't have quality X at all. If cheese is nice but chocolate is nicer; it doesn't follow that cheese is nasty. If the Beatles are bigger than Jesus, it doesn't follow that Jesus is small.

This is obviously true. However it doesn't fully reflect how we Hobbits actually use language. If Andrew is 6 ft 2 and Steve is 6 ft 1, it would be a little odd to say "Steve is shorter than Andrew" or "Compared with Andrew, Steve is short." You would be more likely to say that Steve is tall but Andrew is even taller. It would be positively confusing to say "toothache is more enjoyable than a bone fracture" or "Joseph was even kinder and more humane than Adolph.". Your meaning is effected by your word choice as well as the actual logic of your sentence. 

Prof Dawkins chose the most toxic and incendiary words possibly to illustrate his purely logical point.

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.

Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think.

He spent the rest of the week insisting that the logic of the two assertions was valid (which, obviously, it was) and that anyone who had taken exception to his examples obviously didn't understand logic.

To answer by the method: if you can't see what the problem is; you obviously don't understand language. Go away and learn how to write.

Utterances — even utterances on twitter — are not reducible to their logical content. Our problem is not that we are ignorant peasants who can't see that Thing B can be worse than Thing A without Thing A being good. Our problem is that your chosen examples are riddled — riddled — with unexamined assumptions.

1: "X is bad; Y is worse".

What do you mean by "worse"? How can we tell? Who gets to decide? Do you mean more reprehensible in absolute terms; more severely punished by the law; causing greater harm to the victim; less aesthetically pleasing; incurring more bad karma...? These things obviously do not need to be the same. We are being asked to take for granted a value-neutral line from "black" to "white" with "grey" in the middle. Some kinds of empirical science might work like that. Criminal assault does not. Is Macbeth worse than anchovies?

2:  "Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse." 

This takes for granted that "Violent" is a synonym for "Severe" and that "Non-Violent" is a synonym for "Mild". "Severe pedophilia is worse than mild pedophilia" would have been meaningless, amounting to no more than "Bad things are worse than good things". But "Violent pedophilia is worse than non-violent pedophilia" is contentious, to say the least. People with human feelings would  probably think that the two are, well, differently bad. The offences for which Rolf Harris went to prison were non-violent. Yet the victims testified in court about the devastating effect the assaults had had on their lives. Some people might think that a long term quasi-consensual "love affair" between an adult and a young child was if anything rather "worse" than a violent attack. But it's simply nonsense. Are orange things worse than bank holidays?

3: "Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knife point is worse." 

This has the same problems: we are being asked to take for granted that there is a thing called "rape" of which "stranger rape" and "date rape" are more and less severe examples — in the way that "punching Richard Dawkins on the nose, terribly hard" is a more severe example of "punching Richard Dawkins on the nose, fairly lightly." This ain't necessarily so. A court can send a rapist to jail for a period of time between seven years and forever. It takes into account a large number of mitigating factors (ones which make it less bad); and aggravating factors (ones that make it worse). I don't think "I bought her dinner beforehand" is necessarily a mitigating factor.

4: Go away and learn to think

Dawkins spends 30 of his 140 characters peremptorily insulting anyone who doesn't agree with him. It is just not true that people who can't do logic don't know how to to think. The world is full of people who raise families, survive in combat zones, manage farms, hunt antelopes, and carve sculpture who would go all to pieces if you asked them how many Bs were As if all Xs were Bs but only some Cs were Zs. (There are also people who are really good at keeping track of numbers in their head, but can't cope with the simplest written maths test.) The assumption here is that there is only one kind of thought — narrowly logical thought. Anyone who doesn't think in that way is a moron. Any subject that can't be talked about in terms of logic and simple continuum's from "good" to "bad" isn't worth talking about.

So, the question remains. Can we, as the young people say, give Dawkins "a pass" and say that, yes, he has been incredibly insensitive, but that's incidental to his status as National Treasure. We really should focus on the incredibly important logical point he is making, and not pay too much attention to the horrible way he has chosen to express it. Someone online said, well, yes, of course, Dawkins can sometimes come across as a bit sexist, but what do you expect of someone who is a scientific genius but also a 75 year old privately educated Oxford Don?

I am not at all sure I buy this. I think that his insensitivity is part and parcel of his ideology.

Obviously, we are talking about Twitter posts. Judge every man according to what he posted on Twitter, and which of us would 'scape whipping. But the current outburst fits into a pattern. Back in June he effected not to understand why anyone would consider throwing bacon at a mosque to be a hate crime. "Who" he asked "apart from the pig, is harmed by bacon?" That word "harm" again. It starts to look very much as if he thinks that if there hasn't been direct and measurable physical injury, nothing very serious can have happened. This is on approximately the same level as the person who doesn't understand why black people get so het up about the n-word. It's just a word. Who is harmed by a word. Why is the law so worried about this made-up idea of "offence"?

I assume that I don't actually need to spell this out: that particular words and particular kinds of meat have particular meanings in particular contexts for particular reasons. No-one was claiming that Johnny Muslim was kicking up a fuss about the remains of Bacon McMuffin which had been carelessly left near his place of worship by someone who didn't mean anything by it. The bacon had been placed there intentionally by racist bastards who knew the symbolism perfectly well. You might just as well say "what's the big deal about putting excrement though someone's letterbox?" You've probably got some marigolds and some disinfectant in the kitchen. Anyone with small kids or a dog has to clear muck up all the time.

If you press this kind of hyper objective thinking too its, er, logical conclusion, you might end up saying something like this: "Why is it such a big deal to touch someone's penis without their permission? More than, say, to tweak their nose or tap them on the shoulder? Your dick is just a part of your body, the same as any other. It's only social convention that has made it taboo."

Dawkins' Tweets are a sort of a test, like the pea which the prince put under the princess's mattress in one of those fairy stories which Dawkins doesn't think we should sometimes wonders whether we should read to our kids. Make a trivial logical statement, wrapped up in horrible example that makes light of what is, for quite a lot of people, the worst thing that happened to them in their whole lives. And watch people's reactions. Some people -- the one who don't believe in cultural meanings, feelings, or that language is complex -- will only see the logical bit, and not be able to understand how anyone could be "offended" since the logic is sound. Other people will react to the horrible beliefs that are "signaled" by the text as a whole, and say that the logic of it is neither here nor there.

Once you have divided people into sheep and goats you can then begin assimilate the logical ones into your cyber-army and start to exterminate the inferior creatures who do not know how to think.

Once you have divided people into sheep and goats you can assimilate the logical ones into the collective, form an invincible cyber army based on pure logic, rampage across the universe, seek out inferior life forms who have not learned how to think and ex-term-in-ate them!

Most of the people you talked to today were probably "atheists", in the sense that they don't believe in a personal deity who can be talked to and invoked; or in the sense that they don't give it very much thought one way or the other. But it is increasingly clear that what the "new atheists" disbelieve in is not the God of church and religion. It's also feelings and cultural meanings and subjectivity and the humanities and just about anything which isn't cold A = B logic. And if "atheism" means denying all that stuff as well, you have probably never met an atheist.

And of course, it might be that Dawkins is right. It might be that once you have eliminated Jehovah and Krishna and Wotan -- all the old men and all the sky fairies -- then all the rest caves in as well and what you are left with is a race of Daleks, who know how to think but not how to feel. And it might be that if you admit cultural meanings and feelings and fuzzy language and morals then all the gods-with-faces start creeping back in through the back door. And that might be one reason why religion can't, ultimately, be dispensed with. Not by human beings, at any rate. There is no point in asking the Daleks. They wouldn't, by definition, understand the question.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Friday, August 22, 2014


“Corporal punishment never did me any harm.”
“Really? Then what did?”
      A.A Milne. attrib.

The God Delusion is a very unevenly edited book and contains many passage which simply seemed to the author like a good idea at the time.

If you or I were briefed to prove that God doesn't exist, we might, I suppose refer in passing to the clerical child abuse scandal — Roman Catholic priests sexually molesting kids, and the church authorities covering it up. I think that we would probably make two points. 

1: Roman Catholic priests claim to have special, supernatural access to God. But in practice, they don't seem to behave any better than anyone else, so this claim to inside-knowledge looks pretty dubious.

2: The idea of "God" enables organizations like the Catholic church to build up great power and influence. Powerful, influential organisations are, by their nature, good at covering up wrongdoing in their own ranks. If you don't want Mafiosi and Freemasons adding "thus saith the Lord" to their club rules, best get rid of  "the Lord" altogether. 

Some people might make a third point: 

3: Catholic taboos about sex resulted in their clergy committing these kinds of offences. If you force a young man to take a solemn oath never to have sex, then it's not too that surprising if after ten years he's tempted to do something dreadful.

But that would be a bit of a stretch: there's no necessary connection between believing in God and vows of sexual abstinence. The fact that the Catholics believed in both is strictly speaking a coincidence. And anyway, English Public Schools achieved quite high levels of cruelty and pederasty with very little input from God. Hell, my bog standard utterly secular comp had the cane and a gym teacher who seemed rather over-keen on showering with teenagers.

A serious writer would have dealt with all this in half a page and moved on to something more substantial. But if a less serious writer — and anti-religious zealot, say — wanted to go on and on for pages and pages of ghoulish detail about all the ghastly things these Romish clergy get up to, well, no-one could really blame him. Blackening the name of your opponent is a perfectly good rhetorical technique.

The strange thing is, Dawkins doesn't really do either of these things. He doesn't use the abuse scandal to make valid points against the church; but neither does he use it to whip the reader up into an anti-clerical frenzy.

Instead, he goes on and on about how everyone else has got a terrible bee in their bonnet about sex and abuse, how there's much less of it than you'd think and that it does much less harm than you'd imagine and how he, Richard Dawkins, is going to restore a sense of proportion. Like so much of his writing, it feels like a riff; endlessly spiraling around a point that never quite gets made.

"Priestly abuse of children is nowadays taken to mean sexual abuse, and I feel obliged, at the outset, to get the whole matter of sexual abuse into proportion and out of the way. Others have noted that we live in a time of hysteria about pedophilia, a mob psychology that calls to mind the Salem witch hunts of 1692..."

The whole matter is going to be put out of the way in the next three pages. Excellent. Up there with C.S Lewis telling us he's going to take three page to sort out the doctrine of Hell. I particularly like the "nowadays" part: ah, for those sepia tinted olden days when priestly abuse meant something else entirely. And the "1692" part, in case we thought he was referring to all those other Salem Witch hunts.

In what way was moral panic about pedophilia like the witch craze in Salem? The point of Salem was that people accused their neighbors of being witches, and that some of those neighbors confessed to being witches even though there were, er, no actual witches because witches don't exist. 

And so on, talking about the News of the World "barely stopping short of inciting vigilantes to take direct action against pedophiles"; and the mob who attacked a doctor because they were "unacquainted with the difference between a pediatrician and a pedophile". Pure urban myth: a group of young teenagers may have scrawled the word "pedo" on a doctor's door, but the baying mobs hunting down pediatricians in general have their origins (again) in a Private Eye cartoon. In some versions the doctor's house is burned down, in others she is beaten up. I look forward to the version in which she flees to Birmingham just in time to celebrate Winterval. 

And so on. And on...

"We should be aware of the remarkable power of the mind to concoct false memories, especially when abetted by unscrupulous therapists and lawyers... Forty years on, it is harder to get redress for flogging than for sexual fondlings, and there is no shortage of lawyers actively soliciting custom from victims who might not otherwise have raked over the distant past. There's gold them tha long-gone fumbles in the vestry — some of them indeed, so long gone that the alleged offender is likely to be dead and unable to present his side of the story..."

This is nasty stuff. He has entwined a number of different substantive arguments:

1: People's fear of child molesters is out of all proportion to the number of child molesters in society.

2: It's hard to give a fair trial to a person who may have committed an offence 50 years ago.

3: Many of the so called victims have been manipulated by psychologists, lawyers into imagining abuse where there was none; or exaggerating events for financial gain.

4: Awareness that child abuse is a thing may encourage us to infer sinister motivations to perfectly innocent acts.

But underlying it all seems to be

5: Most child abuse really isn't that big a deal to begin with. 

This is consistent with a notorious 2013 interview, in which he said the following:

“I am very conscious that you can’t condemn people of an earlier era by the standards of ours. Just as we don’t look back at the 18th and 19th centuries and condemn people for racism in the same way as we would condemn a modern person for racism, I look back a few decades to my childhood and see things like caning, like mild pedophilia, and can’t find it in me to condemn it by the same standards as I or anyone would today."

The more I think about this passage, the more confusing I find it. Apparently, when he was at boarding school a male teacher put his hand down Dawkins underpants. Dawkins regards this as a pretty minor incident, which I guess it was. But he seems to be asserting three different things at the same time:

1: The incident was relatively trivial in itself — there are much worse things than someone briefly touching your penis without your consent. 

2: The incident was trivial because it didn't do any long term harm. (If it had done harm, it would not have been trivial.)

3: The incident was trivial by the standards of the day. (It would not have been trivial by today's standards.) 

This makes no sense at all. If "long term harm" is the criteria, and if someone touching your willy without your permission doesn't do any long term harm, then a teacher who harmlessly touches a boys willy in 2014 doesn't deserve to be condemned any more than a person who did so in 1954. But can we meaningfully make "long term harm" the criteria? Do we say that one inappropriate grope was okay because the patient suffered no ill effects, but that another inappropriate grope was not okay because the patient did? Is the idea that unwelcome touching didn't cause harm in the 50s but does cause harm now; or that "harm" was the measuring rod back then but now we've dreamed up a better metric? I give up.

The placing of "caning" and "mild pedophilia" in the same bracket it rather telling. Until about 15 years ago, corporal punishment was perfectly legal and socially acceptable. Everyone apart from a handful of utopian crackpots regarded it as a painful fact of life. This is something which society as a whole changed its mind about, rather suddenly. You get the impression that he thinks we've all had a sudden change of mind about sexually interfering with kids. But we haven't. The pervy teacher was breaking the law back then, just as much as he would be today.

I know well enough how Dawkins' minions would defend all this. Because the great man's own experience was trivial, that doesn't mean that there aren't serious experiences as well. If some victims are only in it for the money then it doesn't follow that there are no real victims. Tabloids can create a climate of fear out of proportion to the actual danger. Memory can turn a very trivia event into a more serious one. Perhaps we do tend to infer sinister sexual intentions in perfectly innocent behaviour. Maybe it is perfectly normal for men of different ages to get naked together, and its my dirty mind that has retrospectively read something weird into my P.E teachers behavior. But that's the problem with this kind of riff. The individual elements may be defensible, just. But the  piece as whole  — insinuating connections between victims who report traumatic experiences with urban myths about ignorant peasants who believe in witches and get their Greek coinages muddled up — is very troubling indeed.

Where does "we've got a bee in our bonnet about child abuse" fit into the argument of The God Delusion?

The answer seems to come down to a remark which Dawkins says he once made in a public debate:

"Once, in the question time after a lecture in Dublin, I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was"

("no doubt"...the sneery voice of the municipal jobs-worth: no doubt you are a friend of the band, sir, but you still need a backstage pass)

"the damage was arguably less than the long term psychological damaged inflicted by bringing the child up catholic in the first place."

This is a fairly obviously stupid remark. There are billions of Catholics in the world, and the great majority of them are perfectly happy about being Catholics and have no psychological scars at all. We know this because they have told us so. (If we have to believe the professor when he tells us that beatings and touchings up never did him any harm, we have to believe them when they tell us they are fine with being Catholics. Fair's fair.)

I think that police officers, doctors, social workers, child psychologists, judges and teachers are better placed than biologists to tell us about the long term effects of being sexually abused. I think that if you told them that of course its bad, but its not nearly as bad as mum and dad taking you to Mass on Sunday mornings, they would regard it as a silly, hurtful rhetorical flourish. I think that the writer is aware of this, and has spent three pages saying it-never-did-me-any-harm to soften us up for the big pay off.

The best that can be said is that Dawkins is using the word "abuse" to gratuitously yoke unrelated points together. It is certainly a bad thing to interfere with children sexually. It is almost certainly a bad thing to whack them with sticks. It may be a bad thing to teach them to believe in something which is Not True. It may very well be a Bad Thing to teach them about Hell. It may even be (yawn) that it's Bad Thing to say "Jewish child" if what you mean is "Child with Jewish parents". And "abuse" doesn't mean much more than "doing a bad thing". (Bad tempered tennis players sometimes get docked a point for "racket abuse", don't they?) So I suppose you can say that "telling a child that he might be going to hell" is a form of "child abuse", if you want to: but you haven't said anything, except that you don't approve of it, which we already knew. To say "Oh, you might call what the gym teacher did to you child abuse, but surely the real child abuse is labeling someone a Zoroastrian when they are too young to know the difference between Mazda and Odin" is an empty rhetorical gesture. Politicians do it all the time. "The honorable member speaks of police brutality, but surely real brutality experienced on a day to to day basis by my constituents is the rerouting of the number six bus to Asda on a Wednesday mornings."

Atheists presumably tell their children that granny has died and they are never going to see her again and we are going to put her in a box and burn her and sprinkle the ashes on a rosebush AND ONE DAY THIS WILL HAPPEN TO YOU AS WELL AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT SO THERE....(FX: Evil laughter). Which seems only marginally better than saying that there is a good chance that Granny has gone to be with Jesus but also a chance that she hasn't and only God knows for sure. I think the best thing is to tell children what you actually believe is true. The one thing I think is pretty definitely wrong is telling children that Granny has gone to be a star in heaven, that one, third on the left — not because you believe it, but because you don't have the courage to tell them what you really do believe. But I wouldn't call it child abuse. I wouldn't say "Being told granny is just dead is worse than feeling that the gym teacher is staring at me in a slightly creepy way." It's a meaningless, like asking which is better, Thomas Hardy or Maltesers.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Thursday, August 21, 2014


“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it....

"What do you mean?" said Gandalf. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

"All of them at once," said Bilbo.

      The Hobbit

A very clever monkey can sometimes work out that if he makes the sign for "want" and the sign for "banana" there is a very good chance that his keeper will give him a banana. 

But human language is more complicated than that. A group of words means something different from what those words mean individually. And that meaning can't be found on a look-up table. It has to do with who is speaking, and who is listening, and where the conversation is happening, and in what tone of voice, and what was said earlier in the conversation, and what was meant by that particular group of words the last 99 times someone said them.

What do the words "I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse" mean?

1: I am going to make you an offer you can't refuse
2: I am going to kill your favourite horse and put the severed head on your pillow
3: I am big fan of 1970s gangster movies

I assume that the answer is "All of them together".

Hobbits understand this kind of thing. Wizards, monkeys and biologists seem not to. Wizards pretend that they can only hear the literal meaning of what you say to them. Words mean what words mean and nothing else. Teach these boys and girls facts; facts alone are what is wanted in life. Try telling a Wizard that, at the end of the day, what makes a good school is happy children and devoted teachers, and the Wizard will ask if those things are not equally important in the morning? (I have mentioned Mr Simon Heffer's guide to the English language before in these column. It is very funny indeed.)

A sensible person might perfectly well criticize "at the end of the day" on stylistic grounds: it's a cliché, it calls to mind a particular kind of sports journalists, and my comment would read better if I'd found a fresher way of expressing it. But at the end of the day, the reality is that the vast majority of people up and down the country would understand perfectly what you meant. ("We could have a very long discussion about what makes a good school, and that discussion would go on all day, but I feel sure that we would eventually reach the following conclusion....") Only a wizard could be confused by it. 

If I were to say "Hello, hello, hello: what's all this then?" I think that most Hobbits would be able to work out what the words mean. They mean something like "I have noticed you, and I want to make it clear that I am keeping and eye on you, although you haven't done anything wrong so far." But if someone does say that, it's most unlikely that that is what they mean. The words, taken together, send out a sort of signal, and they signify something along the lines of: "I am a very old fashioned police officer." But it is most unlikely that they mean that, either. Most likely, they are signalling something like "I am a character in a play which is so old fashioned that the policemen still use this kind of cliché," or, more succinctly, "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not take this play too seriously."  You can't find this out by looking up the word "Hello" in the dictionary, or studying its etymology. You can only find it out by knowing about plays and policemen. The words don't mean what they mean. There isn't anything but social context.

People sometimes use the expression "dog whistles" to describe the practice of planting phrases, innocuous in themselves, into political speeches, which the specific intention of signalling "I am on your side" to a particular segment of their audience. The late Michael Gove communicated almost entirely in signals of this kind. His actual theories about faith schools, classroom management and the examination system were more or less irrelevant: but speeches which contained words like "detention...lines...prefects...latin...eleven entrance exam" signaled to some of his listeners "I am an old fashioned, nostalgic chap who thinks that everything was better in the olden days. Please make me leader of the Conservative Party." 

It may sometimes happen that someone accidentally sends out a signal of this kind without really meaning to. If you do this, the best thing to do is to say "Whoops, sorry, that wasn't what I meant at all". (If the speaker does this, the best thing for everybody else to do is to assume he's telling the truth.) Perhaps I am convinced that a group of Jewish people in Bristol are planning to vote together at a PTA meeting to make local schools celebrate Hanukkah instead of Christmas. Perhaps I am right. Stranger things have happened. But it would be silly of me to describe the situation as a "Jewish conspiracy". Because the words "Jewish" and "Conspiracy" together signal "I believe in a secret Zionist plot to rule the universe" or more succinctly "I am a racist idiot." 

"Oh, Andrew, so now I am a racist for pointing out that Mr Abrahams and Mr Cohen and Mr Joseph always vote together at school board meetings? But it's true. I can prove that it's true."

I daresay you can. But, by accident or design, you chose to use antisemitic language to express yourself. If it was by accident, then apologize and rephrase your concern using a less loaded phrase. Otherwise, I will continue to believe that you are a racist idiot. Or, at any rate, a wizard.

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong --  The Book

Wednesday, August 20, 2014


English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of "social context" that's your problem.
               Prof Richard Dawkins

Analogy is to a man arguing on the internet as a banana skin on the pavement is to a fat lady in a silent comedy.

In 2012, One Of Those Clergymen was reported as having said that gay marriage was just as wicked as slavery. He won an award for being the most homophobic man in the UK.

Naturally, this wasn't quite what he had said. What he had said was that his church though gay sex was taboo, on religious grounds, and that he didn't agree with gay people getting married as that gave religious approval to the taboo thing. (He may not have phrased it in quite such temperate language.) People told him that this was okay; he was entitled to his beliefs; no church was going to have to solemnize same-sex marriages if it didn't want to. He retorted that this was neither here nor there: you can't defend legalizing a bad thing on the ground that you aren't making the bad thing compulsory. 

And he was quite right. You can't. "X is not compulsory" is no kind of a response to "X should not be permitted." If you are against bringing back slavery, then you are against bringing back slavery even if you personally won't have to own any slaves if you don't want to. 

Rilstone's third law states that when someone says something very stupid, the internet will immediately claim that they said a different very stupid thing. Rilstone's second law states that the person who points this out will immediately be suspected of agreeing with the very stupid thing that the original person didn't say. When I suggested that, well, no, Father O'Bigot hadn't really said that gays were as wicked as slave owners, the Spartist wing of my fan-base claimed that I was using the concept of analogy to "give him a pass".

I am not entirely sure what "give him a pass" means. We don't use the expression in this country. I think it has to do with American school children getting permission to leave the classroom to go to the toilet.

It is very clear that Father O'Bigot had, in fact, said something very stupid. The analogy between slave-ownership and allowing gay couples to get married in church is a tenuous one. If it is wrong to own slaves, then it is wrong for anyone to own slaves, because slave ownership does obvious harm, mostly to slaves. If you personally believe that gay sex is taboo then it is hard to see how other people doing the taboo thing harms anyone else. (When the equal marriage debate was at its silliest, some religious groups attempted to claim that allow gay couples to get married would somehow make straight couples less married: I don't understand what they meant, and still don't.) 

And he deliberately chose an incendiary example. If what you want to have is a  discussion as opposed to a shouting match, then incendiary examples are not terribly helpful. And if your example is sufficiently toxic, well, naturally, everyone is going to focus on the example, rather than the substantive point, however valid the substantive point might be. If an MP says "I think that Prime Minister should roll up his sleeves and the give the striking dock workers a jolly good black eye, just as he would to his own wife if he got home and she didn't have his dinner ready" then I don't think we would be very surprised if the story in the papers the next day was that an MP appeared to take wife-beating for granted. Even if he had a good point about prosecuting the strikers with utmost severity.  

So. The question before us today is whether or not Prof Richard Dawkins should be allowed to visit the bathroom over his recent twitter pronouncements about sexual assault and pedophilia. 

Read: Where Dawkins Went Wrong -- The Book