At Least He's Honest?

The topic sucking up all blogospheric oxygen at the moment is the great elevator incident. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you can find lots of good summaries and explanations, including from Phil Plait and Josh Rosenau. The core of the story is that Rebecca Watson was propositioned in an elevator by a skeevy guy at a convention, and said "Guys, don't do this." Leading Nü Atheist Richard Dawkins scoffed at this because "nothing happened," and basically said Watson was overreacting, and has dug in his heels in the face of numerous people telling him he's wrong.

I'm not going to rehash the gender issues and male privilege stuff, because other people have done a far better job with that than I would (again, read Phil and Josh and links therein). I will just say, if it's not clear from the above paragraph, that Rosenau and Plait are absolutely right on this, and Dawkins is absolutely wrong.

One thing that I haven't seen in my limited reading on this, though, that I'll throw out here is that while Dawkins's wrongness is kind of depressing, it's also completely unsurprising. Not because of any knowledge I have of his attitudes about women-- I don't have any such knowledge-- but because the manner of his wrongness fits perfectly with his established modus operandi, as it were.

What do I mean by this? On several occasions, Dawkins has said things that lots of people take as deeply insulting. When they take offense, he replies that using the literal dictionary meaning of the words, stripped of all context and connotation, what he said was not offensive.

That's exactly the same thing that's going on here. His argument about the elevator incident is that, stripped of all context and connotation, nothing happened. An incredibly clumsy advance was made, it was refused, and the story ended there. Looking solely at the narrowest, most literal description of the events, there's nothing offensive about the incident.

What's being pointed out regarding Watson's story is the same thing that dozens of people have said before about his insulting statements: that while an incredibly narrow and literalist interpretation of the statements may not technically be offensive, human beings do not operate in a narrowly literalist world. Connotations matter. Context matters. You can't strip all that away and have any meaningful understanding of what it's like to read Nü Atheist statements about religious people, or to be a woman alone in an elevator with a skeevy guy in the wee hours of the morning.

In a perverse way, though, this incident has actually improved my opinion of Dawkins. Not because I agree in any way with his implied attitudes or any of that-- again, he's wrong on this in just about every way it's possible to be wrong-- but because I had previously thought that the "say something offensive, then use strict literalism to argue it isn't" shtick was a deliberate game. That is, that he knew perfectly well how his statements would be taken, and was setting this up as a rhetorical device allowing himself to adopt an air of dispassionate superiority to the irrational and emotional religious. I didn't think that anybody as successful as he is in the field of popular writing could possibly be that clueless about how human beings use language and interact with the world. This act had to be disingenuous at best, and lying at worst.

Now, though... Well, at least he's honest?

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There are three interesting things about this episode: that the focus of the conversation has changed, from being about the ethics of publicly calling out the grad student, to essentially having the debate the grad student started; that it has gone on as long and as intensely as it has, with celebrity scientists risking their reputations to get involved; and that Elevator Guy has been able to maintain his anonymity.

Not to belittle the very serious issue of sexual harassment itself, but the incident here seems to be something on which people of good will can disagree assuming they keep the conversation classy. Dick thinks it's okay to hit on a tired woman in an elevator, Phil doesn't, we all agree harrassment and actual assault are bad, we disagree on how far along that spectrum this incident lands.

Is Dawkins the only player whose motives or sincerity are worth considering? What about Dr. Watson? Or the grad student blogger? Or PZ or Phil Plait for that matter? Is there animus behind their words and actions beyond their literal meaning? Some that jump to mind: personal resentment and jealousy toward elders and betters; feeling threatened by subordinates; resentment of the dominance or preponderance of privileged white males in academia; guilt and shame over feelings if lust toward attractive female peers when we know better; and self-aggrandizement and attention-getting.

The point being that there has been some serious ax-grinding at work here. My prediction is that the community will be healthier and stronger for having gone through this process. I think some women said some things that needed to be said, a lot of guys heard something they needed to hear, and the Internet did what it does best: making a global incident out a single inappropriate gesture.

By ManOutOfTime (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

Elevator guy took 'no' for an answer and made no more trouble.

By Abdul Alhazred (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

Funny, neither Plait nor Rosenau give a complete summary. That Gawker article manages to do that better. Laden's Link Farm post has a rather substantial collection of related articles, though.

By lost control (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

Sometimes you americans seem almost as alien culturally to us europeans as fundamental islamists.

@beccaf22: ERV is a woman.

By frank habets (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

Thanks Frank! I LUV ERV!!! Greg Laden's link farm has alot of responses (male and female) and is worth looking into as well...

There is a certain type of guy who ingratiates himself with the opposite sex by basically agreeing with whatever opinion an attractive girl has regardless of whether she is an overreacting twit or not. I'm not saying the author of this article is doing that, but many of the defenders of "skeptichick" are hoping to win points just as much as the character in the elevator. If the girl was not attractive , they would be no where near as vocal. Just my observation.

Strip it of all context and what you get is:

Someone said something.
Someone else said something.

Seriously. Nothing offensive there.

By Surgoshan (not verified) on 08 Jul 2011 #permalink

Wow. I've somehow missed this particular "controversy". It's all a parody, right? Kind of vicious though, in the way it makes fun of these bloggers. Why did they allow it to be posted on their blogs? It's not April 1, or am I missing something?

Adam: You need to refine your investigative technique, because your observation is wrong. Just for starters...a lot of "the defenders of 'skeptichick'" are apparently heterosexual women. It's a statistical certainty that some are homosexual men. And it's another statistical certainty that some are lesbians or straight men who just aren't attracted to Ms. Watson (like me). So. Yanno.

There is an obvious solution to this sort of problem: Every building should have two elevators, one for women and one for men (where this is not possible, men should take the stairs).

The same with buses, trains, planes ...

With a little bit of effort we can make sure that women and men will no longer face the danger of talking to each other in awkward or misleading or somehow threatening ways.

Yes, Dawkins is wrong. But we have to cut him a little slack. After all, he's British. These are the people who enjoy warm beer and cold toast, and they send their children off to boarding school at age 1.

Dawkins has fought and continues to fight against the very physical dangers to women in less fortunate political environments than ours. The point he was making, perhaps badly, was that this was a minor issue from which nothing happened when compared, for example, to the actual mutilation of women in other cultures and that people should get their priorities right.

I think this whole thing has been blown out of all proportion. I have also listened and read quite a lot of what Ms Watson has produced about the "Lift Incident".

I would tend to be on Dawkins's side. Woman in foreign culture, and Ms Watson is very American in her supposition that her cultural mores are universal, is approached in a lift/elevator by a man who issues an invitation. She refuses. She goes to her room, he goes to his. The idea that this somehow constitutes "The Worst Thing that One Human Being Can Do to Another" is absurd.

Her response to women who have the temerity to disagree with her is utterly condescending and dismissive; apparently no other female can be as feminist as her. Her dismissal of Dawkins' comments, and her treatment of other people who disagree has also involved the abuse of privilege on her part.

Is this the same person who was very unhappy that Europeans were not taking feminist issues seriously at the recent world atheist get together?

Just because I don't get to say it very often: I am with Peter on this one. The whole thing seems like a parody on the self-absorbed and trivial nature of the blogosphere. If so, it actually makes the point very convincingly.