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."


Andrew Ducker said...

It seems to me that what you are saying is
"My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently that's your problem."

Which is somwhat amusing...

Andrew Rilstone said...

What did you think of the argument I made about analogy and comparison in part 1?

g said...

Oh dearie me.

We appear to be in one of those situations where two parties each accuse the other of doing the exact same things. I feel pretty much like Mr C S Lewis in the passage you cite; I take it you do, too.

Perhaps the following observations will help. (Or perhaps not.)

1. I did not take you to be actually insinuating that Dawkins wants to kill everyone who doesn't agree with him. I said, explicitly, that I do not think you think that.

2. My actual points were these: (a) When you make a comparison like this, a whole lot of connotations come along for the ride (just as they do when you compare something with rape or child abuse) and in the present case you have gone out of your way to invite them in. And they happen to be very unpleasant connotations. (b) You provided some (woolly) evidence that Richard Dawkins deserves to be compared (in some respects) to a Dalek, but then proceeded to tar all "New Atheists" with the same brush.

3. It doesn't appear to me that anything you have said in reply is responsive to those points; in particular, it is not true that you have conceded the point I was making. (No reason why you should, of course; but you shouldn't not concede it and then say you did.)

4. It seems rather rude to suggest I'm so bull-headed as to be impossible to argue with when you haven't even tried.

5. No part of my point is that "the exact letter of the text could be read in the second way". It seems you are determined to regard me as one of your literal-minded cold-logic-only Dalek-Cyberman straw atheists. But my actual point is the exact opposite of that. (See above.)

Am I being unfair in saying you haven't even tried to argue with me? Well: Twice in the last five blog posts you have as good as called me an idiot. But you have consistently talked about rather than to me (I might perhaps protest that you are treating me as a specimen and avoiding any strictly personal relation); and what you now characterize as having "conceded" a point actually took the form of making me out to have said something very much stupider than what I was actually saying, and then conceding that you could have done more to make your joke accessible to the stupid and ignorant.

I haven't said much about the particular substantive point you would prefer me to talk about because I'm not sure there's much useful to say about it. But, for what it's worth: I agree that being obsessed with logic and nothing but is ridiculous; I agree that Richard Dawkins has been making rather a fool of himself on Twitter; I don't think it is actually true that the "New Atheists" (whoever exactly they are) generally are obsessed with logic and nothing but, and I'm fairly sure that even Richard Dawkins isn't most of the time. And (as you might perhaps have gathered already) I don't think calling people Daleks is a good way to respond to their alleged lack of subtlety and nuance.

E said...


Does it matter that Andrew was joking and Dawkins wasn't?

It does to me.

g said...


It certainly makes a difference. If Andrew had actually been claiming seriously that Richard Dawkins in particular, or the New Atheists in general, want to raise a genocidal robot army and take over the universe -- as he apparently thought I thought he was -- then that would have been an entirely different kind of wrong.

But the mere fact that A is making fun of B, rather than levelling serious accusations at B, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter what A says about B in the course of doing so. And it has the advantage (from A's point of view) that if C comes along and says "oi, that's not fair", they can just be dismissed as Lacking A Sense Of Humour and Taking Things Too Literally.

Andrew Rilstone said...

1: I do seriously believe that Dawkins Twitter feed, and his defense of it, are hyper-logical and hyper-rationalist.

2: I do seriously think that "excluding feeling from the argument" may be related to the extreme form of atheism he espouses.

3: My comparison of him to various hyperlogical sci-fi characters -- Daleks, Cybermen and Borg was an example of that kind of "joke" called "satire" or "caricature", where you take one characteristic of a person and exaggerate it to comic effect. It was "only a joke" in that I don't really think that Dawkins is as hyperlogical as Davros.

g said...

For the avoidance of doubt, I do (and did) understand all of 1,2,3, and thought I'd already made that clear.

But if after what I've written you either (1) still think I am so stupid or ignorant that I don't know what a joke or a caricature is, or (2) are still willing to pretend you think that for rhetorical effect -- I hope #1 but it's getting rather difficult to believe -- then I think we had better drop it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I do not understand what response there can be to the second paragraph of your last email except to say "the bit about him being hyper logical i really meant, the bit about him trying to take over the universe, not so much."

I don't get what point you are trying to make. You say that the fact that it's a joke doesn't mean that a i didn't say what I meant. Well, no. But I have said what I did mean.

You seem to be flip flopping. You say that I said Dawkins was a Dalek. I say, yes, I did, but it was a joke. You say it doesn't matter so much that it was a joke, because I really said it. I say that I really mean that he's too logical, and the Dalek thing was a caricature based on that , and you say do you honestly think I don't know what a caricature is. I don't know where you want me to go next.

Sort of like, the guy who said in the paper that beneath the Boris's jocular facade, you can hear the jackboots. We don't really think he wears jackboots. We don't even think he's literally a Nazi. We get that the writer is saying "presumption of guilt for major crimes is incredibly dictatorial and repressive." What's the point in asking over and over again why, if you don't think Boris is a nazi, you mentioned his footwear?

Rich Puchalsky said...

I tihnk that g’s point is rather obvious and that Andrew is the one having difficulties.

Why does someone mention that “you can hear the jackboots”? Because that person wants to bring up Nazi associations. Why does someone say that a whole group of people who they actually think are hyper-rationalist are like Cybermen, Borg, and Daleks? Because they want those associations. It’s quite different than if you’d said that Dawkins was like Spock from the original Star Trek or that “new atheists” were like Star Trek Vulcans more generally.

The “it’s only a joke” defense doesn’t really hold when you’re talking about your apparently sincerely held beliefs about a group of people. The “these characters are ridiculous” bit doesn’t really hold when you’re on a blog that treats these forms of entertainment seriously.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ok. Perhaps you could enlighten the ladies and gentlemen about what I actually mean , in that case.

Rich Puchalsky said...

You’re writing exactly like Dawkins does. Why should someone care what you actually mean when their complaint is about the way you’ve chosen to express it? If what you actually meant was that 2 + 2 = 4, but you chose to express it through a Nazi joke, then no one has to care that 2 + 2 really is 4.

But since you bring it up, I think that “what you actually mean” is poorly thought out. To pick only one point, Defenses of Dawkins’ Twitter feed are not "hyper-logical and hyper-rationalist”, they are what people in the U.S. tend to call “tribal” — defenses grasping at anything in order to defend someone who is perceived as being central to the repute of the political grouping in question.

I have no idea why Google is not letting me sign in, but this and the previous “Unknown” comment are by Rich Puchalsky.