Before being overwhelmed by phone-induced homicidal rage the other day, I had intended to discuss a subject that has been interesting me lately, namely how difficult it is to specify in advance rules for social interaction. More specifically, I was pondering how hard it is to lay down rules for dealing with unwanted contact. Cold calling is one form of that; what are traditionally described as “unwanted advances” are another.
The problem is that word “unwanted”. To say, as the organisational psychologist quoted in this article does, that “An unwanted advance is a form of injustice”, strikes me as unfair. We are not telepaths. Quite often the only way one can find out that unwanted contact is unwanted is to ask, that is, to initiate unwanted contact. On the other hand while we may not have telepathy, we most of us do have empathy to help us guess in advance when advances might be unwelcome. Phone sales companies know to the fifth decimal place exactly how likely their calls are to be welcome. They know that the first four of those decimal places are filled by zeros, scumbags that they are. Few men asking a woman out have quite such a large database of prior results upon which to draw. I’m glad I’m not a guy! That last breath before you open your mouth to begin the sentence that might get you rejected cruelly or rejected kindly must be painful.
So I pondered, and while pondering hopped from link to link, as one does, and I came across a really interesting article in Gawker from July 7th which encapsulated several relevant issues. It describes a bitter row in the community of atheist activists. Given that I was out of sympathy with both the parties to the row when it came to politics (both of them are left wing progressives, one I already knew to advocate coercion reaching quite deeply into private lives and the other is a radical feminist) and religion, I was better able to think about the issues rather than the individuals.
Then a nagging feeling that I had read about something very similar a couple of years ago led me to finally notice that the post was not from July 7th 2013 but from July 7th 2011.
Then I slapped myself round the side of the head and said, “what does the fact that these events happened two years and a few days ago rather than a few days ago matter?”
You are now commanded to read the article that I linked to above by the then-editor of Gawker, Remy Stern, on pain of not understanding what on earth I am on about. It puts the case for “Skepchick” (real name Rebecca Watson) in her “Elevatorgate” dispute against Richard Dawkins well if a little one-sidedly.
You are also commanded (on pain of only getting one side of the story) to read post by Alison Smith called “Take back the elevator” which was the most persuasive argument against Skepchick’s position that I read, particularly where she talks about “Leap of Logic Number Two”.
The reason why many people, particularly women, immediately sympathised with Skepchick in the incident is described by commenter “Ivriniel” to Remy Stern’s Gawker article:
To anyone who doesn’t understand why Rebecca Watson was uncomfortable, let’s put it another way.
It’s late at night, and you get into an elevator alone, oh, let’s say in a parking garage. A stranger gets on with you. As soon as the door closes, the stranger asks you for money. You’re now in a confided space with a stranger who wants something from you. You do not know how they will respond if you turn them down. It’s different than being asked for money on the street, because at least on the street there are other people around, and you have the choice to walk away, or even run away if things become threatening. You’ve had that option taken away from you.
Yes, there are buttons in the elevator you can press for help, however, if things get violent, the stranger will do everything they can to keep you away from the buttons.
Yes, the guy who approached Watson in the elevator was harmless. But she had no way of knowning that. Not everyone has the luxury of going through life assuming that everyone’s intentions are benign.
On the other hand, the lift wasn’t in a parking garage, it was in an atheist convention in a hotel in Dublin. I have never been to an atheist convention, but I have been to many science fiction conventions full of the same sort of clever but dorky guys. Indeed, while taking the lift to bed in the wee small hours at one SF convention I recall being invited round to someone’s hotel room for talk and coffee. That memory is why this story caught my eye. In my case the invitation came from two guys, one of them moderately famous, and I did not doubt that coffee meant coffee. (I politely declined because it was late and I was exhausted.) In the context of an event whose main purpose is talk the probability that a request for a talk means what it says is higher than in other situations. And even if it was a coded request for sex, that is neither a crime nor a threat, and the overtone of menace because it happened at 4 a.m. is much reduced since conventions tend to be nocturnal anyway. Having said that, the elevator man would still have shown more tact to have approached Ms Watson somewhere else and some other time. I won’t go on layering “buts” and “on the other hands” because there are a lot of layers there. You see what I mean about the difficulty of specifying rules that cover all situations?
Below is another comment to that thread, this time forcefully supporting Dawkins, from Joel Rubin. My eye was struck by the line ” Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level.” Some commenters to my earlier post, Rob Fisher, Joebob and Ben, made a similar point that having a front door or a phone, or in this case going to a convention in a public place, is to some extent giving permission for others to peacefully initiate contact, so long as it is not pursued if demonstrably unwelcome. Mr Rubin wrote:
Okay, Dawkins went overboard with the hyperbole, yes, but everyone else did too.
Here’s where the flaw lies: Rebecca Watson. Yes, you. Don’t go online an publicly disparage a person who respectfully and politely asked you for coffee. I don’t care that you were in an elevator, I don’t care that you were alone, I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.
What matters is this: The man asked you for coffee, and you declined. That was it. He did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG. But you decided to use a public forum to act like an asshole about it, and someone else called you out.
I don’t give a fuck if you “felt offended” by basic human interaction—that just makes you hypersensitive. Nothing in what you told us he said “sexualized” you in any way. And then responding to Dawkins with this nugget: “[To] have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed…” was absolute bullshit.
He wasn’t talking about rape, or sexual assault, he was talking about the fact that you overreacted and belittled a person who, by all accounts, was respectful and direct in asking you to coffee. YOU BLEW IT UP to something it shouldn’t have been.
Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level. Just because he asked you for coffee and conversation doesn’t mean you were hit on, propositioned, or had to “survive rape and sexual assault”—it means you were asked for coffee.
You, dear, give humans in general, and feminists in particular, a bad name. Because you know what? It was insensitive for Dawkins to use the oppression of some women in the way he did—it was trollish and overboard. But HE MAKES A SOLID POINT, one that I probably would have made myself—you are flailing for attention and belittling a person for no reason.
The problem began not when a person talked to you in an elevator, or when another person used excessive hyperbole to prove a point—the problem began when you sensationalized and mocked a person who didn’t deserve it in a popular forum. It was arrogant, and rude.
I take issue with the part where Mr Rubin says, ” I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.” The speech to which he refers was not just generally feminist. In it Ms Watson specifically said she did not like having passes made at her at these conventions. The man who asked her for coffee in the elevator was in the audience for that speech. That does matter, actually. He should have listened. Even if he did not intend to make a pass, it should have been obvious that his approach was likely to be read as one. She had just asked people not to do that.
In the end I incline to Skepchick’s side of this particular argument about this particular incident, by a degree or two. Remember that her initial video did not denounce the lift guy, it just advised men in general “don’t do this”. I would second that advice. But the scales are almost even. I am not convinced of Ms Watson’s general reasonableness, which is relevant. Judging from her internet profile, either she has had the remarkable ill fortune to be repeatedly taken in by apparent friends and allies who in the end turned out to be misogynists, or she has a hair trigger.
Screeching sound! Skid marks! Smell of burnt rubber! I am letting myself get pulled away from the point, which is not how nice anyone in the story is but how very difficult it is to specify whether it is right for one human being to ask another human being for something when the request itself might be offensive.