In which I rejoice: The Rebecca Watson-fueled implosion

Rebecca Watson is sort of the Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton of the ‘skeptic’ world. She’s famous for no reason and not really qualified to add anything of any importance to anything. There are really only two reasons most Gnu Atheists even know who she is. First, she mentioned in passing something about a socially awkward guy making a pass at her on an elevator. From there a number of small feminist blogs made an issue of it. Second, PZ Myers jumped on the bandwagon in order to up his cred amongst his ilk because, apparently, he has decided to switch from being a leader amongst Gnu Atheists to a leader amongst the entirely unrelated feminists. (I’m fine with that. PZ is as bad at philosophy as Michael Hartwell or Jack Hudson; I’d rather not have a person who doesn’t even understand the difference between normative and descriptive claims leading things.) Soon after PZ almost single-handedly blew things out of proportion, he began lying about things and blaming others. It was rather pathetic, but not surprising given that we’re talking about someone who thinks that skepticism* and feminism are at all related.

Anyway. After being out of the limelight for more than a few hours, Ms. Watson has made a self-important post about why she won’t be attending the next TAM meeting. It started when the guy in charge of the meeting, DJ Grothe, made this post somewhere in the bowels of the Internet:

Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.) We have gotten emails over the last few months from women vowing never to attend TAM because they heard that JREF is purported to condone child-sex-trafficking, and emails in response to various blog posts about JREF or me that seem to suggest I or others at the JREF promote the objectification of women, or that we condone violence or threats of violence against women, or that they believe that women would be unsafe because we feature this or that man on the program. I think this misinformation results from irresponsible messaging coming from a small number of prominent and well-meaning women skeptics who, in trying to help correct real problems of sexism in skepticism, actually and rather clumsily themselves help create a climate where women — who otherwise wouldn’t — end up feeling unwelcome and unsafe, and I find that unfortunate.

I have highlighted what seems to be the most offensive portion. Apparently in Watson’s head, what Gouthe said was this:

DJ was blaming women skeptics for creating an unwelcoming environment.

(Yes, that is real. I was going to put in a fake, caricature quote, but the real deal is just as good.)

Reading skills, people. Get them. This really shouldn’t be that hard: Grothe said that a small number of people were guilty of fear-mongering without justification. That isn’t to say harassment doesn’t happen. It does. And it isn’t to say that the victim is at fault. Again, reading skills: It is to say that people are fucking fear-mongering. These skeptic-jacking feminists are the FOX News pundits of the Gnu Atheists.

Again, this shouldn’t be that hard to grasp. Grothe even quoted Watson from a USA Today interview:

“I thought it was a safe space,” Watson said of the freethought community. “The biggest lesson I have learned over the years is that it is not a safe space. . . ”

He disagrees that the environment is unsafe. I don’t really doubt him. The reports are few and far between of anything happening from his account, plus there is no reason to suspect that atheists and agnostics would be different from any other gathering of average Americans. But maybe every gathering of large crowds is hugely unsafe for women and everyone has just been oblivious. Quick, tell women to stop going to Wal-Mart!

But don’t try to argue any of this to PZ, skepchicks, or any other atheism-second people or groups. They’re all in a tizzy about this. And that gives me joy. I hope more of these people will cross themselves off the list for speaking at conferences and meetings and whatever else comes up. Gnu Atheism is interesting because it takes a hardline stance against religion from a scientific perspective. That is, it takes two descriptive angles: atheism and science. Separately, these things are fine and true, but together they can be made into a powerful normative case. The feminist faction, however, wants to take their pre-formed normative position and usurp the description of science – but not to a particular end. They aren’t interested in a strong incorporation of science into feminism but rather a strong mantle-claim. If they associate themselves closely enough with science, then maybe that objectivity will rub off on feminism a tad. It, of course, won’t be used in feminism, but the faux perception will be there. I don’t support any of that.

Anyway, I’m not sure if I’m enjoying the implosion or the take-downs more. Check out this hilarity. Also take a look in the comment section. I’ve got some great quotes from Mallorie Nasrallah.

*”Skepticism” is a meaningless word at this point and I resent its use. Simply being open to the possibility that there is a God, as Dawkins and Harris and Coyne and Dennett and I are, does not make one a skeptic. We’ve already taken up our positions, just as global warming deniers skeptics have. A real skeptical position is one where there is notable doubt. For instance, I was skeptical that this home brewed beer from Nate would be that good. (It turns out it is. Well done, old chap.)

The lying has got to stop

That “Elevatorgate” bullshit got an article in USA Today recently. The actual content was a dead non-topic from the get-go because as Richard Dawkins said, “zero bad happened”, so I don’t care to rehash something the Watsonites lost long ago. What I want to talk about is this from PZ:

What this one incident did was expose a small, fringe group of obsessive sexists who suddenly had the privileges they took for granted questioned…and oh, how they did squeal, and continue to squeal.

There are two points to be taken from this. First, it is a blatant, bald lie to say it has been those who disagree with Watson and PZ that have been making this into a big deal. Who watches Rebecca Watson videos? Who re-blogs those videos (prior to controversy)? It certainly isn’t all those “obsessive sexists”. No, it is people who are fans of Watson, those who support her, those who wanted to make this into a big deal. How anyone can say it is the other side that has made this into something it isn’t – and PZ has said so at least twice – astounds me. It is obviously the fault of Watson’s side – especially the guy with a blog that regularly cracks the top 100 blogs on the Internet – that anyone beyond a few dozen people even know about this.

Second, “obsessive sexists”? Really? PZ obviously means those who have been vocal about disagreeing that anything bad happened here. After all, that is the majority of the dissent – not those who say disgusting things or make it a point to publicly comment on Watson’s appearance or gender. And who else is included in that majority dissent? Why, Richard Dawkins, of course. Has PZ called him an “obsessive sexist”? Nope. In fact, he has explicitly said he doesn’t think Dawkins is sexist. (PZ instead condescendingly said Dawkins was just removed from the situation, as if that wasn’t the case for every fucking person on the planet except two.) Weird, huh? It’s almost like a certain someone isn’t able to stand back and be objective when it comes to sex and gender issues.

The elevator thing again?

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 Richard Dawkins is some kind of raving misogynist. What’s happened here is that he is at some remove from all of the details, and this issue got blown up by lunatics who felt their manhood threatened and who exaggerated the situation to an absurd degree. I think he is wrong, but what he was arguing against was a cartoon of feminism which far too many people have been peddling on the blogs.

No one is about to doubt the intelligence of PZ Myers, but to be such a condescending little prick to someone like Richard Dawkins is risible. Dawkins is not “at some remove” from anything. He had access to the video. He used details provided in that video when he wrote about it. If he’s short on any detail it’s only insofar as everyone else who wasn’t on that elevator is short on detail. Including PZ.

The second place where PZ is wrong is where he pretends that it’s been those who disagree with Rebecca Watson that have been blowing this out of proportion. Go take a look at the comments on all the blogs, including Pharyngula. It hasn’t been the dissent that started drawing connections with rape and deep-seated misogyny. No, what has happened here is that everyone except caricature feminists has been saying that the elevator guy made a bad move, he should have been paying better attention, but we don’t know what his intentions were. It would be no surprise if he hoped for something sexual, but all he did was ask Watson for coffee in his room, which was in the general direction they were already heading. As Dawkins said, “zero bad” happened here.

What I find really interesting about this is PZ’s defense of Dawkins. If any non-celebrity male said the exact same thing, there would be zero defense from PZ. And he knows it. If anything, he would join in the chorus of feminists who portray those who disagree with the Designated Feminist Position as women haters who are against first and second wave feminism. As I’ve said elsewhere, it is that sort of reaction – and we all know it’s a common one – that leads to Internet feminists being seen as caricatures. This isn’t some big crazy patriarchal conspiracy. (No, really, I swear. It isn’t my penis talking.) Overreacting to minor situations (or even non-situations, as is the case here) is why so many third wave feminists get portrayed as cartoons.

You can’t blame this one on men.

Greg Laden should apologize to Richard Dawkins

In all the drama surrounding Elevatageddon, there has been a lot of rhetoric thrown around. As always, I find myself appreciating it, even if I actually disagree with the point being made. But that appreciation can only go so far. Even if I think people are wrong in what they’re saying, and even if I think they’re letting their rhetoric get the best of their argument, I can take solace in the fact that at least they’re being honest. But once that honesty stops, so does all my appreciation. Enter Greg Laden:

Recently, Richard Dawkins said (full quote below) that a woman should not be concerned about her own safety if she finds herself in an elevator (under some sort of threat, presumably), because it is trivially easy to get out of an elevator if you are under attack.

This is an outright lie and Laden needs to apologize. He is being blatantly dishonest, and he even undermines his own lie by posting two of the three comments Dawkins has made. He has been caught, much by his own fumbling hands, and he needs to own up to that. Forget all the stupid drama surrounding a guy who isn’t very good at interacting with women he doesn’t know very well. Laden lied, and unless his intelligence is as low as his general blogging quality*, he knows it. Grow up and say you’re sorry, Laden.

*I used to have his blog in the blogroll widget some time ago, but the guy makes consistently muddled, ugly posts with little useful content.

Update: I told Laden he needs to apologize for misrepresenting Dawkins’ statements. He has put all my comments in moderation. As is my policy, I will no longer post there (not that I planned on it anyway) since he is not trustworthy. Here is the last thing I said (who knows if it will appear):

There are three times when my comments get held in moderation. One is when there is a blanket policy for all first-time posters. The second is when it’s a Christian blog and my comments are likely to be edited. The third is right now. And per my policy when people show their cowardice, I’m out.

Now grow up, correct your blatant (and I would hope embarrassing) lies, and apologize, Laden.

Double update: Laden is claiming my comment wasn’t being held. This picture says different.

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.