Weighing in on ElevatorGate: Perspectives and Privilege.

  1. Before I start: Trigger warning for talk of potential sexual assault and misogyny. Oh, also orientalism and Islamophobia and talk of FGM. Also describing the opinions of MRAs, PUAs, and an immensity of mansplaining, so even if you don’t need TWs, you might want to affix a small pillow to your forehead.

Also, if you happen to be my mother, than I’m warning you that I use several different swearwords here. If you’re Richard Dawkins, then you’re not my mother and you don’t get to complain if I swear.

If you’re lucky enough to not have been in the more skeptically and atheistically inclined corners of the internet this weekend, you’ll probably not have heard of ElevatorGate. Here’s a summary of events. For those of you who are already well aware of what’s been going on, I’ve popped some headings up so you can skip the summary, if you like.

What Happened at the Convention

Last month was the World Atheist Convention here in Dublin. One of the speakers was Rebecca Watson. Rebecca spoke on a Communicating Atheism panel. Her talk focused on her experiences as a female atheist activist- particularly her experiences of misogyny and inappropriate sexualisation. That night she went to the hotel bar with other attendees. Stayed up chatting till 4am, at which time she said to everyone that she was exhausted, that she’s had enough and was going to bed*. She gets into the elevator. A man follows her in to the elevator, says that he finds her very interesting, and would she like to come back to his room for coffee. She declines, goes to bed.

A few weeks later, Rebecca puts up a vlog in which she talks about the things she’s been doing, including this. If you don’t fancy looking through all of it, she talks about the afternoon panel from about 2:30, and her comments on Elevator Guy start at about 4:40.

Here’s her criticism of Elevator Guy:

“Just a word to the wise, 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 lay it out that I was a single woman, in a foreign country at 4am in a hotel elevator with you. Just you. And I.. Don’t invite me back to your hotel room, right after I’ve finished talking about how it creeps me out and it makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner. So.. yeah”

That’s it. She didn’t call ElevatorGuy a rapist. She didn’t say that this was the worst thing that has ever happened. She didn’t say anything, in fact, about the intentions of ElevatorGuy. She said that a thing had happened, that in that context it was highly inappropriate and made her feel uncomfortable, and she advised people to not do things like that in future. She then, by the way, goes on to say that loads of other people- both men and women- at the conference were awesome.

What Happened Next.

I’d love to say that what happened next was that the internet said “oh, right”, and toddled on about their business with just a little bit more of an idea of how to not make people feel incredibly uncomfortable. Maybe that some people asked for clarification on what had happened, got it, and than moved on. Because this? This should not have been a big deal.

But these things are always big deals.

Accusations fly of how Rebecca hates men. Of how she’s a feminazi who doesn’t want men to ever be able to talk to women. About how men can do nothing these days without being accused of being rapists. Of how she’s making a big deal over nothing** and should Get Over It. Of how she’s villifying poor, innocent ElevatorGuy*** who was probably just a shy, socially awkward chap who wanted nothing more than a cup of coffee. Of how she’s some kind of big-headed vanitybot who can’t accept that obviously an offer of coming back to someone’s room for coffee and a chat at 4am is hardly ever an invitation for sex, and how dare she think that anyone could be attracted to her.

All because, by the way, she said that a thing made her feel uncomfortable and that people should probably not do things like that.

But then things got worse. So, so much worse. Because here is where Richard Dawkins got involved. Yes, that Richard Dawkins.

What Richard Did Next.

Richard Dawkins commented on this. Fortunately for me, Jen McCreight has done a marvellous job of covering this one, so I don’t have to. But because I’d like to keep at least one or two readers here for the moment, I’ll quote RD’s original comment (as posted in Pharyngula):

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.


If your forehead’s all bruised from the headdesking, don’t blame me. I told you you’d need that pillow. I wouldn’t be surprised if RD finished this screed with an entreaty to Watson to finish off her vegetables because there are poor hungry kids in Africa**** who’d just love a plate of mushy, overcooked broccoli.

There are a few things I’m not going to even start with here. The lumping of all Muslims into one big, amorphous blob. The assumption that no Muslims are, in fact, Americans. The equation of a religion with a billion or so incredibly diverse followers and the actions of assholes who choose to interpret that religion in a very particular, very narrow, very fucked-up way. Because those things? Those things are important. They are big deals. They are not things that I wanted to leave unmentioned here. But they are also things for another day, and another post. Because here I want to focus not on the ways that the skeptical community can be prejudiced against other groups. I want to focus on the ways in which we have just treated one of our own.

What RD did was not unique, or special. It was not particularly different to what many other people had done. All it did, really, was fan the flames. And oh, what flames there were! Flames and flames and flames and flames and flames. And flames. And that’s just the flames on my own little RSS feed.

Wherein I get to the point.

And here is where I get to what I would like to say about this. What I’m talking about is mainly about how the discussion of this has gone- which is, in turn, a thing which mainly exists in the comments of the posts I’ve linked to so far in this post.

I want to talk about how what happened has been framed. And what that says about who is and is not privileged in our society.

Let’s go back to those accusations against Watson that I mentioned earlier. They tend to fall into a certain small number of categories.

  1. Rebecca is, herself, privileged. Loads of worse things happen to women every day and she needs to get over herself.
  2. ElevatorGuy wasn’t a rapist! Why are people being mean to ElevatorGuy? Can’t a guy catch a break around here? Why did Rebecca call him a rapist?!
  3. Rebecca wants to outlaw flirting. If a man can’t approach a woman in a suggestive manner, then nobody will ever have sex with anyone, ever.
  4. This is totally just another way that women make false accusations against men. Just like those false accusations of rape that happen all the time. ALL THE TIME, DOODZ.
  5. So, yeah, women get raped. But what about the poor non-rapist men who feel uncomfortable being associated with rapists?
  6. …yeah, I’m just expressing my opinion. You want me to not express my opinion now, huh? Fuckin’ feminazis, trying to silence men.

Okay. So I’ll admit that I’ve taken a liberty or two with phrasing here. Guilty as charged. But the concepts are reasonably true to form. And here’s the thing about them:

They’re almost all talking about how men feel, and how ElevatorGuy felt.

This is a problem of framing, and one of perspectives. You see, Watson didn’t actually accuse ElevatorGuy of any terrible intentions. She just said that a thing had happened, and how she felt about it, and that people shouldn’t do those kinds of things if they don’t want people to feel uncomfortable. Particularly if the person in question has specifically stated that they don’t want that kind of interaction.

The responses don’t talk about that. The responses don’t talk about Watson’s perspective. They don’t frame the issue as one which is about her. They frame the issue as something she said, which is about men. Men are the people who are relevant, in these responses. Men are the ones whose feelings we should worry about, and think about, and consider.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and the discussion surrounding this is all about how the men felt to hear about it.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to having discussions be framed around them, that even when the thing being described is mainly about a non-group member, they are able to alter the discussion to be about them.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and is immediately villified and told that her concerns are unimportant.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to having discussions be framed around their needs, their issues, their comforts and discomforts, that they are unable to see a thing from an outside perspective.

A woman mentions a thing that made her feel uncomfortable, and her concerns are brushed off and compared unfavourably to a relatively-marginalised group.

This is systemic privilege. A group of people are so accustomed to their privilege that any marginalisation that is not incredibly extreme is invisible to them. So accustomed to their privilege that they cannot imagine anyone can walk in the same circles they do, exist in the same society, and not share it.

There are many, many more things that I could say about this. About why ElevatorGuy acted inappropriately. About the contexts in which this happened. But this post is about framing. About who gets to talk, who they talk about, and what that means. About whose perspectives are seen as worthwhile.

* Can’t fault her on this one, since I, lightweight I am, had begged off about three hours beforehand.

** She wasn’t the one making the big deal here. A minute or so of talking on a vlog? Not. Making. A. Fuss.

*** Did you see anything in that quote where she says ElevatorGuy is a bad person? Because I didn’t. She says that he did a thing, that she felt uncomfortable, and that people shouldn’t do that thing. I’m not a bad person because I ate the last of your cookies. I just owe you a damn cookie and should probably not do that again.

**** Just Africa, of course. And all of Africa. Because Africa’s a country, not a continent, and everything is the same there and everyone knows that all the kids in Africa are poor and hungry, and all the kids in Europe and the US are rich and full. (yes this is snark)

Conference musings: Atheists, non-atheists, and the Four Horsemen.

One of the criticisms that’s often levelled at The Atheist Movement(TM) is that we’re composed almost entirely of middle-aged white guys. That our spokespeople are all white guys. That we all blindly hang on every word that comes from Richard Dawkins’ lips. That Dawkins et al are the leaders of our movement.

Nothing could have debased that notion as much as this weekend. Two things this weekend, to be precise.

The first were the hecklers. A group of Islamists* who came to the conference specifically to confront Dawkins. They showed up only for the two panels that Dawkins was included in, and Maryam Namazie’s (amazing!) keynote speech at the end of the conference. The rest of the time they spent at a stall they had put up outside the conference, arguing with anyone who got close enough.

The second was a PZ Myers’ reply to the contention that humans are ‘wired’ for hero-worship. He pointed out that as a professional scientist/academic, he has been trained to criticise and question. That there are people who he admires, and that this admiration is often expressed through questioning and criticism.

By yesterday evening, it was a group of exhilerated, exhausted people who pottered down the road from the hotel to grab a bite to eat in Eddie Rockets. While we talked about an awful lot of things- in that exciteable, giddy, stopping-and-starting way that sleep-deprived people do- Dawkins wasn’t a major topic. Not one who eclipsed all others, anyway.

The atheist community is one of many, many disagreements. As a rule, one of the few things that most of us have in common is that tendency to criticise, to question. While we admire individuals, most of us are rarely inclined to hero-worship. It’s tough to be a skeptic and see anyone as infallible.

It wasn’t the atheists who spent the weekend hanging on to Dawkins’ every word. We were, it seemed, mainly delighted to have him there, delighted to have an opportunity to engage with him, delighted to perhaps thank him for what his work has meant to many of us. But it was the Islamists who showed up specifically for Dawkins, who insisted on speaking to him specifically, who weren’t interested in what the rest of us- excepting Namazie and possibly PZ Myers- had to say.

The atheist movement is not immune from sexism, racism, ageism, xenophobia, ablism. We are part of a society which suffers from all of these things. But from the inside, the Four Horsemen play a far smaller role than an outsider might see. From the inside, my atheist movement, and my skeptical movement, is the movement of Greta Christina, Maryam Namazie, Hemant Mehta, the Skepchicks, Jen McCreight and countless others. Many of whom are middle-aged white guys. But many of whom are not. And most of whom- no matter how much a lot of us may appreciate and admire their work- aren’t the Four Horsemen.

*Thank you to Maryam Namazie for pointing out, time and time again, the difference between Muslims and Islamists.

Oh, those smooshy, sappy atheists.

This is the worst. hiatus. ever.

I have a bunch of posts to make about things that people talked about at the World Atheist Conference. I have notes! And hopes to turn the notes into cogent, well-written opinions over the next few days! Right in the middle of Bloggly Hiatus 2011!

However: us atheists have a terrible* reputation for being snarky, arrogant, argumentative types. But I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon sitting with a group of people rhapsodising about the amazingness of the universe, how incredible it is that us bags of chemicals can do such awesome things as everything we do, and how our awareness of our finite lives just plain make us want to appreciate everyone we love all the time, and do what we can to make life better for people.

Those pesky atheists. Sappy gits, the lot of ’em.

*or wonderful, depending on your perspective.

World Atheist Conference Day 1

It appears that this weekend is going to be a hiatus to my hiatus, since I’ve somehow, after a series of fortunate events, managed to find time this weekend to go to the World Atheist Conference. Or Convention. Is it just me, or do the lines get incredibly blurry between those two as soon as you step out of strict academia/geekery?

But yes. As I didn’t have the foresight to bring anything I could scribble notes on, this is all from memory as I fill myself up with delicious pad thai, and is therefore subject to incompleteness, inaccuracy and distraction by noodles. Don’t expect insightful criticism today!

I arrived about a half-hour before the conference began, which seemed like a reasonably sensible compromise between wanting to check things out before the talks started, and having a mild case of nerves about showing up to a Big Social-ish Event by myself. I needn’t have worried, by the way.

The conference was opened by Michael Nugent who was, as usual, both entertaining and to the point. He spoke about how, as atheists, our common identity only has meaning because we live in a society structured on religious grounds. In the absence of this kind of religious structure and dominance, atheism would have no more meaning than not-stamp-collecting. Word for the day, by the way: aphilatelist. I am an aphilatelist. Are you? He also talked about his optimism regarding secularisation of Ireland.

Next was the inimitable Ivana Bacik. She spoke for about three quarters of an hour, about topics as diverse as secularisation in schools, what she would like a secular society to look like, and humanist sources of ethics. I loved her points about a secular society- that she has no problem whatsoever with people being religious, and that her vision of secularisation is of a state which is not religiously biased (as Ireland’s is), and a society that respects people of all religions and none. Nice. Her comments on using the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an ethically inspiring text were also interesting- not something that had occurred to me before. I also liked her answer to a question regarding her reasons for ‘coming out’ publicly as an atheist. Turns out that, well, she was just asked about it one day. Sometimes it ain’t about soul-searching and crises, people.

Next was the first panel discussion of the conference (and the only of the day). For this, Lone Frank, DPR Jones and Richard Dawkins discussed Weird Science versus Weird Religion. Or, that was the idea at least- topics weren’t exactly stuck to, as it was a very participatory kind of discussion. It was also a lot more atheist, as opposed to secular, than the previous speakers. Some areas I do remember being discussed, though:

  • *Our innate tendency to see agency where none exists- based on the idea that brains that react as though that strange rustling noise is a predator are far more likely to reproduce than the ones who assume that it’s just the wind. There are theories that this tendency is the basis for a lot of our initial belief in spirits or gods. DPR talked about how he feels that this means that religions would always crop up even in an environment where none exist. Dawkins disagreed, seeing this as just another cognitive bias to be dealt with.
  • *Communicating the differences between Weird Science and Weird Pseudoscience. The difficulty with communicating science is often that of how to make it accessible to the layperson without dumbing it down, as well as how to communicate the evidence for what can seem like preposterous claims in a way that can be reasonably easily understood. As science advances, it becomes more specialised, and more difficult for the layperson to distinguish between genuine scientific findings and pseudoscience dressed up with ‘sciencey’-sounding words and explanations.
  • *And then there was The Inevitable. Someone was bound to come to heckle, and someone did. I can’t remember the man’s name, but he introduced himself as a Muslim* with a question for Dawkins. He referenced someone that Dawkins had spoken about earlier- a Christian young-Earth creationist ex-geologist who had left geology because he felt that all of the evidence for an old Earth conflicted with his faith, and he did not want to give up or change his beliefs. The geologist had said that even if all the evidence in the world pointed towards evolution, he would not change his beliefs. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but this man then asked Dawkins if he would show the same honesty if “all the evidence in the world pointed to creationism as opposed to everything being created by chance”. Dawkins was.. not happy to have evolution mischaracterised as ‘chance’. The man then asked Dawkins if he would explain for him how we have come to exist. I’m not sure exactly what Dawkins answered to this one, but it involved questioning which part of the past several billion years he’d like to start with. Owch. That guy did not end up looking particularly well.

One thing that I would like to mention that I like a lot about the conference plan, though, is that although Dawkins- one of the biggest names in atheism on the planet- is there, he isn’t giving any keynote speeches. Instead, he’s involved in two panel discussions over the course of the weekend. I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but if so I think it’s a fantastic way to get people listening to what other, less well-known names have to say.

Right, I’m out of pad thai, which means that this blog post, along with my delicious tofu, is coming to an end. But there was also a delightfully deadpan speech by Tanya Smith, the new president of the Atheist Alliance International, which it is terrible of me to not do justice to. I’ll try and remember to bring a notebook tomorrow and have a more comprehensive account of Day Two!

*You know, I feel a little strange about identifying this guy’s religion, given, well, not wanting to feed into Islamophobia. I do so mainly because he made a very major point of it himself. I would, however, like to point out very strongly that just because this guy is a Muslim who mischaracterised an entire branch of science and refused to accept that he had done so, doesn’t mean that this is an Islamic kind of thing to do. It’s a fundie thing to do. Any comments claiming that this is a Muslim-in-particular thing are unwelcome here, and anyone found doing so will be summarily dragged to Henry St of a weekend to listen to the rantings of the very-Christian street preacher generally to be found there. And then given a history lesson. But not by me, ’cause I’ve better things to do.