Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Dawkins in an elevator

Firstly, let me point out that Dawkins was NOT the person in the elevator!

There has been a recent kerfuffle in the atheist community regarding sexism, misogyny and all round bad behaviour by the so-called sceptics.  The biggest deal thus far has been a poor lady, Rebecca Watson, caught in the eye of a storm for a very minor point she made about being hit on in an elevator - alone at 4am, after apparently being asked not be hit on.  It has been blown out of all proportion by a comment made by Richard Dawkins where he trivialises the situation by comparing it to the caricatured (but all too common) suffering of a  Muslim woman in an Arab country.

So there are several points here: the girl has been vilified; Dawkins has been branded a misogynyst, many atheist women speaking in support of Rebecca have been branded feminazis and many men have been tarred as sexist pigs.

It's actually very simple.  Rebecca naturally, but not rationally (scepticism anyone?) felt threatened by the unwelcome advances at 4am, alone in an elevator.  There is actually sexism on both sides in this thing, the idea that only a woman can feel threatened in this situation has been thrown around by some (not by Rebecca as far as I'm aware) but this is plainly false, men can be physically threatened by women or other men or emotionally, legally or otherwise by both genders too, but this is a minor aside.  The risk of physical assault is infitesimal - sure, the fear is real, the feeling of powerlessness and victimhood can be all too real, but any actual assault is so rare as to be non-existent in any situation one finds oneself in in a western country - more so at a sceptics conference I would suggest.

So Rebecca is to blame?  Hardly.  She was in a situation with a stranger where the outcome was uncertain, the advance unwelcome and safety nowhere in sight.  Mathematically she was safe but her body was telling her otherwise.  So Elevator Guy was to blame?  Kind of, but not entirely.  His approach and location was inappropriate to say the least, but that was assuming Rebecca would a) rebuff him and b) act irrationally.  We have politeness and social etiquette to try and avoid this kind of thing.  So far, so nothing, Rebecca acted like a woman might often do and Elevator Guy acted like a social incompetent - and Rebecca's video was a reasonable request for guys (she should have added girls in here too) to think about what they do, where and when they do it and how it might be received.

Then the comments started.  Some quite horrible, some quite funny, and all due respect to Rebecca for leaving the nasty ones up there too.  Some bloggers decided to defend Rebecca, and all women at atheist/sceptical conferences by calling out the underlying misogyny of the proceedings - I haven't been to one so can't comment - leading to others to defend their own, as it were.  This kind of typical internet scuffle lasts a while then dies out.

Then the Godfather of atheists dips his oar in...  Richard Dawkins, Foundation for Reason, comments on Pharyngula that a woman being politely engaged in flirting in an elevator is not a sign of male boorishness, nor is it a fight worth having.  I am going to be generous and say his exasperation was not with the situation but with the fuss that had been kicked up over it.

Okay, Dawkins was massively OTT, he was, for want of a better word, a bit of a dick about it.  But he was, to all intents and purposes, right.  This is not to say that there aren't male idiots at conferences or that women aren't treated badly, but being placed in an uncomfortable situation isn't an example of it.

What is more sexist: to say a woman can't be asked back to a man's room for her irrationality will make her feel threatened; or to say that women are perfectly capable of being presented with a free choice and making their own minds up?

So, how would I handle that situation?
As Elevator guy I would have waited until I was getting out (or Rebecca was) so as to remove the confinement aspect and asked if she'd like to come to room 123 later to discuss it further, thus not putting any immediate pressure on an answer and leaving the proverbial door open.
As Rebecca I would have liked to think I'd have recognised the situation for what it was and reduced my body's natural fight or flight response and taken refuge in statistics and reason to know that I was probably more likely to be knocked down crossing the street the next day than to be assaulted by Elevator Guy.