Thursday, June 12, 2014

first they came for the gruffaloes

I suppose there's an argument that Richard Dawkins provides a vital service for the rationalist community by acting as a sort of lightning-conductor for abuse and hatred, owing to his being atheism's most publicly-visible spokesperson. And it is true that a lot of the vitriol directed at him is entirely undeserved, and motivated either by a visceral reaction to the perceived threat to the cosy religious status quo, or by some hopelessly ill-thought-through notion of "balance" that shies away from his public statements as being too "strident".

That said, it is also true that some of his public pronouncements are ill-thought-out and badly-presented, and just confirm the view a lot of people already have of sceptics as joyless, humourless hyper-pedants, and of Dawkins himself as some sort of representative of the rationalist thought police, like a sort of cross between Professor Yaffle and Hitler. This is especially true of his Twitter feed, constrained as it is to 140 characters, which is a pretty hilarious record of ill-thought-out statements, general piling on by the rest of the Twitterverse, and then some huffy clarifications, grumpy retractions and complaints about people not understanding nuance or sarcasm or whatever.

The latest spat actually didn't originate on Twitter, but as a result of a speech Dawkins gave at the Cheltenham Science Festival, where, despite later claims that various media outlets had taken his words out of context, he pretty clearly did suggest that fairy tales are at least potentially harmful to children:
I think it's rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway. Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable.
Needless to say this generated something of a Twitter storm and required him to clarify his thoughts via various media outlets, though he still didn't seem entirely clear, simultaneously claiming that he'd never claimed fairy tales were harmful:
I did not, and will not, condemn fairy tales. My whole life has been given over to stimulating the imagination, and in childhood years, fairy stories can do that.
and that, well, maybe he had, but now he'd changed his mind:
If you did inculcate into a child's mind supernaturalism ... that would be pernicious. The question is whether fairy stories actually do that and I'm now thinking they probably don't. It could even be the reverse.
Of course part of Dawkins' intention here would have been to draw a parallel with religion and its assorted implausible tales, it being a fairly common atheist trope to refer to them scoffingly as "fairy tales" - I've done it myself often enough. I think he's probably taking aim at the wrong target, here, though, unless there are parents who, in addition to reading these stories to their children, insist that they are LITERALLY true and that if you keep sucking your thumbs some crazy person really will come along and cut them off. It's not the implausible content of the stories that's the issue, but rather the fact that there is a subset of implausible stories that some people would have you believe are the literal truth, and furthermore get all punchy and bomb-y if you try to point out that they're not.

There is another problem, of course, which is: what's a fairy story? I mean, I grant you that the whole pumpkins turning into gold carriages, frogs turning into princes thing from what you might consider "classic" fairy stories is obviously not real, but then what of talking pigs? Dragons? And let's not forget there really is no such thing as a gruffalo. Strip away anything not corresponding to the real world and you discard something like 99% of children's literature (and indeed adult literature); you're really just left with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Haynes manual.

I was prompted to go off at a mental tangent by all this and think about how much I do, or should seek to, police my daughter's reading material. I don't so much mean the religious stuff, since we don't exactly get a lot of that pushed on us, although I did come across an old hardback Children's Bible Stories book in a pile of stuff the other day which I think must once have been Hazel's (I've hidden it again now). I think I'm more inclined to be all censor-y about the stuff that's pushing the gender essentialism, pink for girls, blue for boys, Disney princess tropes, since all that stuff gives me the heebie-jeebies. We have acquired (by what means I'm not sure) a couple of books that I deem to be over the line in this regard, and I've made sure that they've been shoved down the back of the book rack where they're unlikely ever to be pulled out and read. I answer my own questions about whether I'm being too sensitive about all this by telling myself I can afford to be, given the blizzard of cultural influences in the opposite direction she'll be subjected to once she gets out into the world.

Of course this is fairly easy when you've got a large degree of control over what cultural influences your child is exposed to, but what about when they go to school? This is where you have to make some tricky judgments about what to let slide and what to dig in your heels about - just as I wasn't prepared to bow to prevailing cultural orthodoxy and have Nia christened, I certainly wasn't prepared to have her go to an overtly religious school, not least because there is usually some sort of entry test involving gauging the devoutness of the parents, and that would not have gone well.

But there will still probably be some absurd uniform rules, and inevitably there will be some sort of exposure to religion in one form or another. What about nativity plays, for instance? Do schools in general still do those, or is it just the fundamentalist Christian ones? Would I feel obliged to veto Nia's participation, or would that be heavy-handed? And what if the school organised an outing to Noah's Ark Zoo Farm? I think that might be the thing that tipped me over the edge into torching the place.

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