Those mole hills are looking mighty big these days

I’ve lightly been following some incident that happened after an atheist conference. Rebecca Watson suffered the indignity of being talk to by some guy. (Relevant part starts around 4:40.)

Presuming you’re too lazy to watch the video, she was at a bar with a number of people, decided to go back to her room around 4 a.m., and when she got on the elevator so did a guy who was apparently engaged in previous group conversation (or at least listening). The guy said he found the talk she gave earlier interesting and asked if she wanted to go back to his hotel room for a cup of coffee to discuss things more. It’s not a very good line, but I bet it has worked more than once. (And who knows, maybe he was being genuine. I doubt it, but let’s at least throw it out there.) She was uncomfortable and declined. And that was that – he didn’t press further, nor did he lay a finger on her.

Fast forward a bit and PZ makes a post on the topic. His focus was on an issue that arose with Watson calling out her critics by their names. Apparently one person was a student or some such thing and Watson really singled her out. I don’t know (or care) enough about the details to really give it a fair shake, but those sort of criticisms can be dicey. Hell, I’ve put out a publication around my school where I really wanted to criticize the worst professor I have ever had. I decided against it for various reasons, not the least of which was because those sort of things aren’t always clear. Besides, there are more appropriate channels.

Next PZ made a post where he gave no-brainer advice to avoid being a creeper. It was condescending, even if largely right, and I can only be thankful he stopped before giving sex advice.

It is from that post, however, that things get interesting. Richard Dawkins jumped into the comment section and gave his position in response to another user:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


And how have people interpreted that? Poorly:

However, the existence of greater crimes does not excuse lesser crimes, and no one has even tried to equate this incident to any of the horrors above. What these situations demand is an appropriate level of response

The elevator incident demands…a personal rejection and a woman nicely suggesting to the atheist community that they avoid doing that.

No, wrong. The elevator incident demands a personal rejection and some better communication skills for that guy, but it certainly does not demand the damnation of the entire atheist community.

The point Dawkins was making was not that, ‘Oh, there are worst things in the world, so get over it.’ He isn’t stupid. He was making the point that even if this is a great offense (and it isn’t), the response it has gotten makes a mountain out of a mole hill. A man asking a woman to go back to his room for coffee, whether innocent or with the greatest of hopes in his mind, might deserve a quick admonishment of the guy later on – if a friend of mine did that, I would tell him he should have chosen a better location than in a small, temporarily inescapable room. And if he hadn’t personally talked to the woman at all prior to that moment, I would wonder why he thought he was in a position to ask her anything close to that – and I would tell him he had been less than smooth. What I wouldn’t have done was create a video about the incident, make the guy out to be the greatest misogynist in the world, and condemn an entire group of people. Dawkins was advocating for some perspective.

And hell, has anyone stopped to think that maybe this guy just isn’t very good at ‘picking up’ women? His line was weak, he apparently didn’t speak with Watson directly (or at least not much), and he didn’t consider his location very well. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if he chose the elevator because it was private. I don’t know many guys who are willing to ask women out or invite them some place in front of a group of people. Just tonight, actually, I saw a TV show that featured a man talking to a beautiful woman in front of his friends. It struck me as immediately odd because that sort of scenario is rare, at least among strangers and near-strangers. I don’t want to defend the guy on this basis, but I doubt anyone, especially PZ, even bothered to consider it.

It’s this sort of stuff that hurts feminism.

Update: I’ve just seen a second response from Dawkins:

No I wasn’t making that argument. Here’s the argument I was making. The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics’ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn’t physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they’d have had good reason to complain.


Naturally, the interpretation here has been that Dawkins thinks words don’t matter. He still isn’t stupid. He makes the point that the man was polite and did no harm to the woman. She may have been offended, but he caused her no turmoil from the forgettable incident. Perhaps if he was rude, or cursing, or plainly asked her if she wanted to fuck, then hey, we’ve got ourselves something disgusting. But he asked her for a cup of coffee. That does not get us here from there.

13 Responses

  1. A further explanation by Dawkins can be found here. Thanks to Debayan for alerting me.

  2. In skimming some comments, especially those after the link I provided in the comment above this one, it’s apparent that people think the guy was in the wrong simply for being a man and being in an elevator with a woman. That he said something, no matter what it was he said, is just being used as an excuse to man-hate to all night long.

  3. I won’t wade into this issue over at PZ’s site, but I’m thinking more along the lines of Dawkins myself. I think PZ’s closeness to young people (because of his job) makes him more apt to offer advice on matters of the lovelorn and dating. That, or maybe the influence of his daughter. I dunno, but it’s much ado about nothing IMHO. Huffington Post, Salon or Slate material more than anything.

    I do think the whining over such trivial crap undermines the cause of women’s rights, not to mention shifting the focus away from the topic of skepticism/science. If this is going to be the response to every less than suave attempt at youthful couplings, I fear we’ll have little time for much else.

    No guy would ever complain if a girl asked him to her room. She feels like she’s being ‘mistreated’ because men are attracted to her. WTF? If she doesn’t want guys to approach her maybe she ought to wear a T-shirt that shouts “FUCK OFF YOU HORNY BASTARDS” instead of spending so much of her efforts getting into full peacock mode (pink hair). Also, the vast majority of guys she’s going to cross paths with in the future probably aren’t going to be privy to this video, so the FUCK OFF YOU HORNY BASTARDS T-shirt is probably the best way to go.


  4. I don’t want to blame her for getting approached. Whatever she does to look good, it doesn’t matter. If the guy was vulgar, abrasive, rude, or any combination, then yeah, he’s a dick and she should feel mistreated. Even if she had pink hair and the best push up bra money can buy.

  5. Who turns down free coffee? That’s the real crime I see.

    I’ll bet she had a taser or mace or something. Go. Drink free coffee. ZAP! Leave.

  6. This whole thing has gotten out of proportion on so many blogs.

  7. This is a weird trend – I’m agreeing with Michael a lot lately.

    Watson has a hard time distinguishing privileged and stupidity. She thinks her rejected suitor is empowered to make a pass at her. She doesn’t consider that he doesn’t have societal permission to behave that way; he just lacks the social graces to know what he’s allowed to do.

    In my opinion, she has been watering down skepticism with her personal politics.

  8. I’ve never understood this insistence that atheism is supposed to go hand-in-hand with feminism.

  9. What puzzles me is why SkepChic Rebecca thinks the awkward flirting attempts of one person at a conference warrant a blanket condemnation of “the atheist community as boys’ club.”

    I guess that’s where the “feminism” comes in.

  10. It’s what I call the “Feminist shell game.”

    First wave feminists made advances that are accepted as the norm today – the right to vote, the right to own property, etc.

    Modern “third wave” feminists make some claims that reasonable people disagree with. Feminists respond to critics of third wave by claiming they are opposed to all feminist advances, including the first wave. Criticism of Watson’s victimhood stance is represented as opposition for women having the right to vote.

  11. It’s under the shell in the middle!

    Am I right?

    Isn’t it somewhat of an “appeal to pity”? I think that society today worships ‘victims’. Which is probably why so many people strive to be one. Never waste a good crisis, nor a potential (or someone who can be spun as a) victim. Pretty much sums up most of what I would call “left wing” politics. Not that conservatives never ever use the same arguments and not that all those who call themselves liberal go along with all of these “left wing causes”.

    Feminism being the perfect example. You would be hard pressed to find a feminazi that would EVER consider voting or supporting a (perceived) conservative candidate or cause. That doesn’t mean that all so called liberals believed in their mumbo jumbo, but they do get to use to politics of victim-hood, the liberal stand by.

  12. […] thing again? Posted on July 11, 2011 by Michael Hawkins PZ has insisted on rehashing the elevator incident one more time. Now he has two more things to be wrong about: Let’s stop the shouting that […]

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