The Inhuman Response to Rebecca Watson

Next time you’re in an elevator, don’t stare at the other passengers—especially if they’re strangers. Even if you think you’ve noticed some spark of connection and that your unblinking gaze conveys only warmth and friendship, don’t stare at them. However you intend it, it will come across as creepy and possibly threatening. It’s just not cool.

That doesn’t sound very inflammatory, does it?

Ever since Rebecca Watson of Skepchick and the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe spoke about being accosted in an elevator, she has been showered with repulsive reactions, some of the worst of which came from the evolutionary biologist and atheist icon Richard Dawkins. Fortunately, posts at Pharyngula, Bad Astronomer, Shakesville, Pandagon, Greg Laden’s Blog, Bug Girl’s Blog and countless other sites have risen to her defense, and Rebecca has of course been more than capable of taking care of herself, too. What’s clear, beyond the fact that Rebecca’s remarks brought out a lot of people’s unrecognized misogyny and anti-feminism, is that most of them seem not to understand her point, despite Rebecca and others having explained it repeatedly. However redundantly, I thought I would take a crack at it, too.

For the purpose of my explanation, I’m going to leave out sex and male-female dynamics. Not because those specifics are irrelevant—they are obviously central to the experiences of Rebecca and many other women in elevators and elsewhere—but because they seem to be red flags distracting her critics from the deeper principle involved.

The principle is: be sensitive to others’ feelings and don’t make them pointlessly uncomfortable. Simple human decency, not some special consideration that some of us should show to the rest of us. Consider the advice with which I started this post. The idea of not staring at strangers in elevators is something that all of us learn or intuit as part of our normal social adjustment. We learn that staring at strangers is a generally bad idea, and that people may be extra disturbed by such attentions in closed confines.

So the natural reaction that socially adjusted people would have to my advice not to stare would be a nod or shrug of acceptance. Someone who instead responded by shouting “Why shouldn’t I be able to stare at them? I’m not hurting anybody!” likely wouldn’t come across as merely weird; he’d come across as a little psychotic.

Yet that was the overreaction that some people had to Rebecca’s remarks. She didn’t denounce all men as monsters. She didn’t say men should never approach women. She didn’t say the act was criminal. She made the unexceptionable point that most women would find it creepy to be propositioned, even discreetly, by a stranger in an elevator at 4 a.m., so men shouldn’t do it. Somehow, her message is being misinterpreted as unreasonable or anti-male.

Broadly speaking, the critics’ arguments seem to fall into categories. The first is that Rebecca’s expectations are unreasonable because it’s impossible for men to know whether their attentions might be welcome unless they try, and then it’s too late. They seem to want some set of absolute or fail-safe guidelines that will absolve them of blame for acting on their attractions.

Sorry, but such rules don’t exist for any human relationships. You can’t reduce personal interactions to a set of robotic commands (“IF A= FEMALE AND LOC=ELEVATOR GO TO 23…”) in the absence of feedback about the feelings of other people. It’s pathologically narcissistic to treat people like machines, to act as though their feelings and autonomy don’t exist or matter. Good social rules of thumb can steer you away from some kinds of trouble but they are always incomplete. Social cues offer all the important refinements, and for the most part, people are exquisitely good at picking up on others’ feelings if they want to be.

Therein lies the problem. Many men who don’t think of themselves as misogynists have a blind spot: they become obtuse about women’s feelings that might conflict with their own desires. The rancor they’re directing at Rebecca now suggests they don’t like being called on that flaw. Moreover, they’re making a hypocritical argument—accusing Rebecca of laying down some inflexible, inhuman rule when they’re the ones shutting out the feelings of the women with whom they presumably want to strike up a relationship. Guys, if you’re looking for advice about how to meet women, Rebecca just gave you some: stop creeping them out in elevators. Say thank you.

(A few of Rebecca’s critics, including some women, have said she is wrong to be generalizing and that she isn’t entitled to speak for all women. No kidding. Still, from my conversations, I think it’s disingenuous to argue that Rebecca’s feelings about being approached in an elevator at night don’t reflect those of most women—certainly enough to justify the rule of thumb. If anybody wants to pull together an empirical case to the contrary, knock yourself out. And if you happen to find yourself in an elevator with an appealing stranger who’s drooling for your attentions, have fun. But most of the time, Rebecca’s advice holds.)

Some people have also protested that Rebecca’s position penalizes innocent men who are socially awkward or inexperienced, and consequently poor at picking up on women’s feelings. Again, she didn’t accuse the guy who bothered her in the elevator of committing a crime; he disturbed and offended her. Yes, people are sometimes going to make mistakes—all the more reason to thank Rebecca for the heads-up about the wrong way to introduce yourself. It’s not doing the socially maladroit any favors to encourage them to blunder through encounters inattentive to others’ feelings.

The other strain of criticism of Rebecca’s stance seems to be a quasi-libertarian argument that, especially at a free-thinking venue like a skeptics and atheists conference, people should be able to speak candidly, clash as they will and not worry about bruised sensibilities along the way because they simply exchanged words. But even if we ignore all the other reasons why one should still care about others’ feelings, how is being purposefully blind to women’s feelings not counterproductive to these men’s goal of striking up a relationship with them?

Are there times when one shouldn’t be afraid to offend others? Of course. Rosa Parks offended white people when she sat in the front of the bus. Married gay couples apparently offend plenty of straight conservatives who think they own the term “marriage.” They are standing up for rights that are more important that the hurt feelings of people aligned with an injustice. Sometimes any of us may need to set a principle ahead of others’ discomfort; if we’re then judged harshly, so be it. But what exactly is the principle that men hitting on women indiscriminately are defending: that their desire for sex trumps women’s rights to be left alone?

Again, the fundamental idea—”be sensitive to others’ feelings and don’t make them pointlessly uncomfortable”—is a matter of simple decency, not restricted to dating advice. Rebecca was right in her explanations to highlight that for many women, these kinds of clumsy advances by men are fraught with entirely realistic worries about violence, rape, and worse. Men owe it to themselves to avoid stupid misbehaviors that might lump them in anybody’s eyes with predators. But this isn’t a matter of how men should treat women, or of how people of any group should treat those of another. Individuals need to recognize and respect the feelings of other individuals. Anything less is inhuman.

Updates (added at various times): The web is full of good commentary on this subject, but here are a few links that I find particularly relevant or entertaining:

Rebecca Watson herself, writing about The Privilege Delusion and Frequently Answered Questions. (Honestly, everybody attributing certain attitudes and actions to her ought to check out these.)

And (via Pharyngula) Rebecca’s speech for the Center for Inquiry where she supposedly savaged a woman who had disagreed with her. As PZ Myers writes, she in fact discusses that blog post “civilly and without victimization.”

Lindsay Beyerstein’s concise and cutting Attention, Space Cadets: Do Not Proposition Women in Elevators.

The evergreen humorous wonder of Derailing for Dummies: Making Discrimination Easier.

Jennifer Ouellette’s brilliant Is It Cold in Here?, which not only all the right intelligent points about this Elevator Guy incident but also connects the attitudes Rebecca is encountering to ones that discourage women from staying engaged with scientific and engineering careers.

And this, just for fun: Gynofascists are Invading the Manosphere, which seems to capture the rhetoric of many of those commenting in opposition to Rebecca’s point.

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