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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351 Responses to The Inhuman Response to Rebecca Watson

  1. Pingback: Bule Voador » Está frio aqui dentro?

  2. Kevin Wicks says:

    I agree with you entirely Mr. Rennie this whole Watsongate nonsense is a mystery to me. I hope reason, which is what we are all about, prevails in the end.

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  3. J U says:

    You forgot the obvious assumption what is made in the first second: the man’s intention was not simply conversation beside coffee, but more. There is no evidence, that his proposition is a “hit on”. When I invite somebody for a talk, I mean talk and not sex. Yes it is strange to invite somebody at 4 am, but doesn’t mean he wanted more than a talk. This all based on assumptions. Rebecca made an automatic assumption, that the man’s request is a “hit on”, and got offended. This is on the same level when straights got offended, by gay couples (what you said). The basis for it is prejudice.

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    • Luna_the_cat says:

      The basis for it is not prejudice, it is the experience of personal interactions.

      “Come back to my hotel room [at 3am] for a coffee” is only NOT an invitation to a little bit more than a coffee if you are hopelessly, ineducably naive. IF you have actually been listening to someone and are interested in what they have to say, then you hear them say “I’m really tired, I need to go to sleep now” and you don’t try to get them to come keep you company instead. IF you actually want to “just talk”, then you propose a meeting in a neutral venue, “hey, would you like to get a coffee with me in the morning.” What you don’t do? Invite this stranger into your hotel room in the wee small hours of the morning.

      Especially given that, if he had then tried to take it a step further and had tried to kiss her or grope her or even just ask for sex, then almost everyone on the planet would have said, “Well, honestly, what did she *expect*, going into a guy’s hotel room at 3am?”

      I suppose it is marginally possible that the guy in question was this naive.

      But all Rebecca Watson said about it was “guys, don’t do that” — which you know, even –or especially!– if this *wasn’t* him hitting on her, is really pretty good advice, because if he wasn’t trying to hit on her, that is what it came across as anyway, and it made her uncomfortable, and surely that can’t have been what he intended. Right?

      But for that, she has now had over a year of her being characterised as a man-hating feminazi who cried rape.

      Sweet baby jesus, get OVER it already.

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      • David Jones says:

        ‘But all Rebecca Watson said about it was “guys, don’t do that” ‘

        Well, no, that isn’t all she did – witness her attempt to trash McGraw.

        You have to start considering Watson’s behaviour in the round. Dawkins, Grothe, Paula Kirby, Ben Radford…who’s it going to be next month?

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        • ForgotthenameIorgininallypostedwith says:

          I am assuming you mean the attempt described here:

          http://skepchick.org/2011/06/about-mythbusters-robot-eyes-feminism-and-jokes/

          Skeptic tells someone they disagree with that they thought their words were wrong. That doesn’t strike me as “trashing”, so much as pointing out the words someone said.

          Dawkins “Hey Muslima” response to Pharyngula’s discussion of the issue (Do not feel like looking it up to link) might be a better example of someone “trashing” someone, but I haven’t seen that one in a while so maybe its less racist/stupid/dismissive than I remember.

          The issue with this is that you are still posting about this. Whatever Watson did [which I do not think was more than: saying guys do not do this thing and criticizing a specific persons comment in a public venue] she has endured a shitstorm of death threats, rape threats, violence threats, and more general-type harrassment well disproportionate to the response.

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          • ForgotthenameIorgininallypostedwith says:

            wrong link (it was to her original discussion of the elevator) here is where she discusses talking about the person’s comment: http://skepchick.org/2011/06/on-naming-names-at-the-cfi-student-leadership-conference/.

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          • David Jones says:

            ‘The issue with this is that you are still posting about this’

            And you are doing what?

            its less racist/stupid/dismissive

            Just throw in the accusation of racism, why not. That’s utterly typical of a … certain sort of person. It was racist how, exactly?

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          • asabove says:

            “And you are doing what?”

            Responding to you.

            “Hey Muslima” was racist. Look it up.

            Your whole attitude here shows a certain lack of interest in understanding the issue. The kind of person who feels like they can comment on things they don’t bother to understand. Also the kind that quotes out of context.

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          • David Jones says:

            Are you going to withdraw that accusation of racism by Dawkins?

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          • David Jones says:

            Dawkins ‘Muslima’ remark wasn’t in the slightest bit racist. Here it is:

            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.

            No mention of race but rather a suggestion of religious and cultural background. And please, please don’t conform to the European stereotype that Americans don’t get irony. I’m guessing you’re American…because you don’t grasp the irony….

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  4. mike says:

    Staring is a sign of aggression.

    A male who stares at a male is either stupid, or looking for a fight.
    A male who stares at a female is trying to intimidate, or stupid, or just read a bad pickup book, or is inebriated stupid.

    Try it if you don’t believe me. Males: stare at a strange male. Be ready to protect yourself though, and make sure your health insurance is up to date.

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    • ForgotthenameIorgininallypostedwith says:

      I agree with this and do not recall anyone saying it in the original discussion of the issue.

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  5. Kira says:

    “Being accosted in an elevator”

    Oh dear. And there’s where your issue with Watsons justified critics falls apart.

    A man staying in her hotel recognized her in the elevator. He then INCREDIBLY POLITELY asked her if she wanted to go back to his hotel room for coffee to talk.

    What’s hilarious is that no matter which way you look at it, he wasn’t intimidating, threatening or harassing her. She was at a function regarding skeptical debate, so despite the time asking if she would like to talk is actually a situation in which the presumption ISN’T sex.

    But if it was? A man asked her, after complimenting her very nicely (compared to your ridiculous leering cat call fallacies), if she would like to chat over coffee in his room. A simple “no” later and he smiled (her own words) and bid her a good night, then left on his floor.

    WHERE is the threat? The logic expressed by her and her supporters is that he was not just creepy but acting “threateningly”. Which is odd since it would mean simply being IN the elevator with her was a “threat”, just because he’s male.

    This isn’t Feminism. That is sexism. In fact it goes beyond sexism into survivalist style paranoia akin to Waco. In fact feeling “threatened” at the time ENDS when nothing happens and he walks out. That she felt the need to complain that guys should just never politely ask any woman out ever is the issue here.

    Those criticizing her for her ignorant, sexist idiocy are completely justified. They are justified because in no potential scenario is her complaints justified.

    I mean really, people even go on about 4am being some magical “threat” hour (in a safe, secured hotel with cameras and staff everywhere) only if you’re a woman. Which is odd since it seems it’s a pretty logical conclusion to think that someone wandering around their hotel at 4am clearly doesn’t mind staying up late.

    She makes a mockery of the equality that people like my grandmother were arrested for trying to get the vote. She is not a Feminist, as ALL Feminists are for the equality of women, not taking away rights or equality from men and making women some untouchable superior gender. As a woman, I have fight conservative attempts to remove my rights. Now I have to fight my fellow “liberals” because idiots like her have taken up the mantle of Feminism and are taking away mens rights as well.

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    • Luna_the_Cat says:

      Oh FFS, get over yourself. Oh, and do work on your reading comprehension, so that maybe you can understand what is actually being discussed here.

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