Saturday, July 09, 2011

Stop Your Whining! Dawkins on Western Women.

Stop whining! That's what the famous evolutionary biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins told the women of America, pretty much. Here's the story:
It all started with a video blog from Rebecca Watson, founder of Skepchick, about her experience at an atheist conference last month in Dublin. She participated in a panel in which she talked about the problem of sexism among atheists, and the rape threats she had received from men in the community who don't agree with her. Importantly, Dawkins was on the panel and the guy who went on to hit on her was in the audience. Afterward, she went to the hotel bar with conference-goers until 4 a.m., when she told everyone that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. A male attendee followed her out of the bar and into the elevator, where he said, "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?" This is what she had to say about the encounter:

Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don't do that. You know, I don't really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I'll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and -- don't invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.

That's all. It took up just over a minute of an 8-minute-long video. She didn't call for the man to be castrated or claim to be a victim of great injustice; all she expressed was that his overture made her feel "incredibly uncomfortable," and that guys should generally avoid doing that. "That" being 1) hitting on a woman after she has gone to great lengths to explain why she doesn't want to be sexualized within the atheist community, and 2) ignoring her remark that she is tired and just wants to go to bed. PZ Myers, a biologist who pens the bookmark-worthy skeptics blog Pharyngula, wrote a post about it and then Dawkins himself -- the rock star of atheism -- waded into the comments thread with a satirical letter addressed to a Muslim woman:

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...

This is quite lovely, for someone who wishes to learn more about persuasive writing. From now on I'm going to respond to anyone who whines: Stop your whining! Think about all those who died in the Rwandan genocide! You have nothing to complain about.

Which is to point out that Dawkins used that trick to respond to Watson.

But on another level it reads like something different: Look how nice men here are to you? We could be razor-blading your genitals and forcing you to obey our every word but instead we just ask you for coffee and let you refuse and even for that you yell at us!

Except that Watson did not yell. She pointed out the context: A discussion of sexism and rape threats was the topic of her panel, and then a man asked her for coffee at 4am in the elevator. A man who had attended the earlier discussion, on sexism and rape threats.

So yeah, that is creepy, in my view, and all she said was pretty much that it was creepy. No big deal, honest, until Dawkins made it into one.

Now let the gentle Echidne speak for a change:

All this is such good evidence of the different life experiences of many men and women. If someone invites Richard Dawkins for coffee in the elevator, he is most unlikely to think that the invitation might really mean anything more than coffee and a conversation. If his name were Richarda Dawkins, the interpretations of what is going on might be very different.

It still would not be a big deal, not like having your genitals razored, sure. But many women know how that little backpack of alertness and fear and checking out exit routes is seldom put down anywhere, how part of the brain blinks fast when those kinds of questions are presented (4am? we just talked about rape threats? locked elevator! can I get to the buttons past him? is he stronger than me? if I yell will anyone be awake to hear?), even when the rest of the brain just thinks the guy is totally self-centered asshole and doesn't understand how creepy this is.

And the difference is in the life experiences. (One day I will write a post about the boy at school who started stalking me or about the time when some stranger grabbed my friend's breasts in the middle of the day on a busy city street or about all those times when I felt someone's hand on my butt in the subway and so on. But I know many of already are familiar with that drill.)

It is those different life experiences which allow Dawkins to take the view he takes. He has only theoretical knowledge on the topic of sexual harassment, his emotions have not been primed and he indeed has the privilege of not having to learn much about the whole topic.

It is still not a big deal. But what upsets me about the discussion is the presumption that not having experienced continuous sexual harassment is not a handicap in understanding how someone who *has* experienced it would interpret the data.

An interesting aspect of this whole debacle is that it seems to have transformed Watson into a feminist! Or strengthened her transformation:
When I started this site, I didn’t call myself a feminist. I had a hazy idea that feminism was a good thing, but it was something that other people worried about, not me. I was living in a time and culture that had transcended the need for feminism, because in my world we were all rational atheists who had thrown off our religious indoctrination so that I could freely make rape jokes without fear of hurting someone who had been raped.
And then I would make a comment about how there could really be more women in the community, and the responses from my fellow skeptics and atheists ranged from “No, they’re not logical like us,” to “Yes, so we can fuck them!” That seemed weird.
Mmm. I think some probably responded more neutrally or positively. But yes, the othering of women is not dependent on being religious.