I know you’re sick of this by now, but I need to get my own thoughts cleared up and it helps me to write them down. So there you go.
- I had said before Elevator Guy was a creep. I’m now convinced that was a poor choice of words because that gets him off easy. He put Rebecca Watson in the uncomfortable position where, if she said no to his advances, there’s a chance he could’ve acted in a scary/I-Don’t-Wanna-Think-About-It sort of way. It doesn’t matter if that’s rare or if that’s not your intent. A lot of men (and some women) don’t know what it’s like to be in that situation — I know I don’t. And if we ignore the fact that it’s an uncomfortable situation for some people to be in, we’re only going to make the matter worse. If I understated the situation before, I offer my apologies. I’ll try to do better next time.
- A question to throw out there: Would this situation have been bad if the same conversation took place just outside the elevator before either of them got on? (My answer is yes, but I think that scenario gets more to the heart of the problem and that’s a discussion we ought to be having.)
- I called for a civil tone when I first wrote about this. That doesn’t mean “don’t take this issue seriously.” It means we need to stop talking over each other and calling each other names at the expense of getting the message across to those of us willing to listen. Not every person who doesn’t see this as a huge deal is a “rape-apologist” and not every person who thinks this is a big deal is a “feminazi.” That doesn’t mean there’s a middle line to take here — I don’t want people to defend what Elevator Guy did. But let’s educate others about why he was wrong instead of arguing over why some people “don’t get it.” (I know some of you feel like you’ve explained this all before, and it’s exhausting to say the same stuff again, but until more people in our movement are educated about it, it has to keep happening.)
- I had written before that the way Rebecca publicly berated Stef McGraw at the CFI conference was unprofessional. That led Amanda Marcotte to call me a “sexist paternalist” whose intent was to shame Rebecca for being successful.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I support feminism and I tend to support most of the things prominent feminists say, but that is a completely unfair accusation.
Since everyone is so quick to point out the lessons we missed from Feminism 101, here’s a key lesson from Education 101: When a student says something you know is wrong, you don’t correct the mistake by humiliating her in front of her classmates. You acknowledge the parts she got right and then gently guide her toward the way she ought to be thinking. If you want her to never speak up again, you call her out in front of her peers and make her feel bad that she raised her hand in the first place.
Since it’s been lost in the shuffle, and because people have (correctly) said we need to pay more attention to women’s feelings in light of all this, this is what Stef had to say after the exchange at CFI took place:
My first reaction was complete shock. I wasn’t surprised that she had seen my post, but I didn’t think she would choose to address it during her keynote, let alone place it in a category with people advocating for her to be raped. In fact, I was excited to possibly speak with her afterward in order to discuss the matter face-to-face. Instead, all I could do was just sit there and watch myself being berated for supposedly espousing anti-woman views and told that I wouldn’t stand up for women in sticky situations with men, as one hundred of my peers watched on. I found both of those accusations to be completely and utterly incorrect, as anyone who actually knows me could tell you I care deeply about fighting sexist thought. I started thinking, how can I respond? It didn’t feel right to have to endure a widely respected keynote speaker’s accusations that I was a living example of what was wrong with our movement while I sat there unable to defend my position.
As I said before, I don’t think Stef fully understood the danger inherent in those situations, but how dare anyone say she’s “anti-woman”? I thought one of Rebecca’s goals (in life, in her blog, on her podcast, etc.) was to educate people about skepticism and feminism and whatever else she deems significant. From one educator to another: You could have handled it better.
- Richard Dawkins has been a punching bag for the comments he made about the incident — and rightfully so. He downplayed the seriousness of what happened in the elevator because there are worse cases of misogyny out there — and by doing that, he’s showing us that he doesn’t get it either. Jen was right to say he’s exhibiting “male privilege.”
But this isn’t a person who’s anti-woman and he’s certainly no dummy. We want him to “get it” and it’s upsetting that he doesn’t. I don’t get these comments people are making about how they “lost all respect” for him, as if he’s made no other contributions to science and atheism and, yes, women’s rights. He made a mistake. He’s wrong. We know it. He doesn’t. Yet.
He didn’t run away, though. He *asked* people to tell him why he doesn’t get it. He wrote: “I will gladly apologise is somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word “fuck” in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.” So let’s correct him, because if we can get the message through to him, he has a greater ability than most of us do to pass it along to other people who need to hear it. Explain it to him in calm, rational way because that might get through to him.
- Some people (mostly men) have said the elevator incident wasn’t a big deal. Here’s what you may not understand (and I don’t think I connected the dots until now):
I’ve been to dozens of atheists conferences over the past several years. At just about every one of them, the men have vastly outnumbered the women. As a result, the women become something of a competition for the men. Who can hit on them? Who can sleep with them? Obviously, not all the guys do this and we don’t even talk about it, but enough of them do what Elevator Guy did that the women have basically come to expect it. (And then we wonder why it’s so hard to get them to attend atheist gatherings.)
So why not just kick out those individuals who are making the women uncomfortable? It’s not that easy. To begin with, it’s not just a small group of men. Some of them are prominent guys. Some of them have run (or do run) atheist organizations. There’s not always a smoking gun that points to harassment (kind of like in the Elevator Incident), but incidents like that are not uncommon.
How do I know this? Because I’ve been around the women who are subject to this treatment. They talk about it. They talk about the “Old Boys’ Network” atmosphere that permeates not only our conferences, but also some organizations and their boards. Sometimes, they’re hit on, and other times, they’re excluded from important conversations and prevented from holding positions of higher authority. It’s a serious problem for us. It doesn’t just apply to one “type” of woman, either.
Paradoxically, I think the way we fix this is by getting more women involved in our movement. But we’re pushing them away by treating Elevator-like incidents as if they’re not representative of a larger problem. All of us need to call those incidents out when they happen and educate the people who don’t know better.