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A slightly more temperate post about unwanted contact

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.

32 comments to A slightly more temperate post about unwanted contact

  • Steven R

    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.

    Define offensive. Unless there is some objective definition of offense, that can, and will, vary from person to person. When I was in college, I had a woman berate me for trying to push my rape culture on her. My offense was to say “good morning” and smile when I sat down in a empty seat next to her in the lecture hall. At the other end of the spectrum, I once asked a girl at a frat party if she was down to sportfuck. She didn’t recoil in terror at the proposition, she just laughed and said her boyfriend wasn’t the sharing type.

  • A cowardly citizen

    I’m not clear on what basis one piece of meat (an atheist that doesn’t believe in the soul) and another piece of meat (ditto) can have any kind of ethical argument. Seems to me that any claims of “rights” on either side are arbitrary, with no foundation other than sentimentality.

  • I’m not clear on what basis one piece of meat (an atheist that doesn’t believe in the soul) and another piece of meat (ditto) can have any kind of ethical argument.

    Your ignorance of the notion of reason based ethics is remarkable.

  • Mr Ed

    @ Perry. It may be remarkable, but is it noteworthy?

    On topic, ‘Who owned the lift?’ is the usual libertarian question here. But property rights are not the point. He re asking the person for a coffee in the situation, the legal question might be put ‘What is your damage and what remedy do you seek?’.

  • Isn’t a regular point made here and elsewhere there is no right to be offended? I don’t deny that it was a faux pas and an elevator isn’t the place to make social interactions, regardless of the preceding events.

    So, sorry, but the guy is an insensitive jerk, but then so are all men, just not at all times and not in all places.

    I wonder what DeBrett’s Guide To Etiquette says for women in such circumstances? I suspect ‘Decline politely’, not ‘Be a fucking bitch’.

  • Richard Thomas

    I’m not one who subscribes to the idea of atheism as a religion (except when one is required to enter *something* in a box labelled as such). But an atheist convention does seem something rather odd to me. I just can’t imagine the urge to gather around people who happen to not believe in the same things as me. It’s like a convention for people who don’t like chocolate cake or an association for people without wooden legs or an organization for people who hear perfectly fine, thank you.

  • Richard Thomas

    Though I have toyed with the idea of producing a book of common prayer for atheists.

  • Fred Z

    Following up on the comments of Steve R and John Galt, we are all insensitive jerks and per both articles lack “tact” in asking women for coffee and/or a sportfuck in an elevator at 4 AM.

    So ladies, please provide us a list of times and places where an invitation to either one is tactful. Because I have been studying you lot and your reactions for 60 years and I have no idea. Honestly, no idea at all.

    Sometimes a “Good Morning!” gets a fembot reprimand and sometimes a “Sure, right now, my place, hot, hot, hot!” though usually neither. The “Hey baby, nice tits, how about it?” actually has a remarkable success rate.

    Absent a published list of tactful locations and times, and such a thing is an absurdity, the only sane male strategy is to hop on every elevator at any time of the day and start shouting “Hey baby, nice tits!” and let the chips fall where they may.

    I fault the un-named gent for his weak, weak approach.

  • This comment may belong more on the other post, but a classic telephone is actually an incredibly intrusive invention. It rings, and you are expected to answer it, regardless of whether you are in the middle of a meal, sleeping, in the middle of a conversation, writing a heartfelt sonnet to your beloved or anything else that you might be doing. This is true regardless of whether the person calling you is a stranger or a friend. One of the more useful features of SMS text messaging is that you can send somebody a message saying “Hi, are you free for me to call you now?” if you do want a conversation with someone.

  • Roue le Jour

    Michael, a very effective way of screening calls is to set personalised ringtones for your loved ones. I do this mainly as I can’t read the screen without my specs. If you then set John Cage’s 4:33 as the default your privacy is assured.

  • Kevin B

    As to how to define what is and isn’t offensive in this situation; in current Western/Judeo Christian/Atheist culture the female decides. This can have serious consequenses since a small proportion of males may find their education, employment or even liberty compromised by saying something to one female in one place which may be perfectly fine to another female in another place.

    Of course in Eastern/Muslim/Arabic society the male mostly decides but saying the wrong thing to the wrong female at any time or place can have serious consequences from her male extended family.

  • Must say the linked article about Dawkins, who I really dislike, actually reflects rather well upon him. It is actually a wonderful example of the concept of ‘meta-context’ at work.

  • Kevin, offense being subjective by definition, it is always the offended party who decides. That is not the problem, but rather the fact that third parties – such as the State (or, in your example, male relatives) – appropriate the offense to themselves.

  • Well, Dawkins still comes off as the prick that he actually is. That said, stupid/evil progressives the whole lot of them (who also have the temerity to refer to themselves as ‘skeptics’) – expect probably for that Allison Smith person: she’s quite sensible.

  • Vinegar Joe

    I solved this problem some time ago……I simply avoid any dealings with Western women. Of course not all Western women are feminists but enough are that they’re simply not worth the trouble.

  • anomdebus

    How about, for all her demands that she be met on her terms, she saw him waiting to talk to her and didn’t ask if he wanted to talk while still safely in the bar? If you spin it like that, it doesn’t make her sound very sympathetic either.

  • Mr Ed

    With regards to Prof. Dawkins, I would class his work as that of a biologist, but not that of a scientist. He ought more properly be described, in a term chiming with the Soviet era, as a theoretician.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    Hey, it sounds as if lift-guy was lucky that she wasn’t from Texas, or had just forgotten her guns for the conference! One dead male means one less potential rapist!

  • Julie near Chicago

    In re: The matter of Richard Dawkins, whom I generally cannot stand. In this case I agree 100% with Perry (10:19 a.m.). Dawkins “said it like it is,” and my apologies to the English language.

    Contrary to the protestations of various females in MS. Watson’s piece, the feminists have NOT been notable for their rushing to denounce the actual oppression that Muslim women undergo. (Oh, not all of them of course.) They’re too busy with various Politically Required hatemongering activities.

    Conceivably, of course, Ms. Watson actually has been sexually assaulted, which would make her hypersensitivity understandable. But everybody among the commenters? Gosh, the boys have been busy!

    This is one time I do applaud R. Dawkins. I don’t think he was over the top at all, and as for “hyperbolic,” since when is the simple truth hyperbole?

  • …the feminists have NOT been notable for their rushing to denounce the actual oppression that Muslim women undergo.

    But that was not the point Dawkins was making. Rather, what he was saying was ‘Muslim women are far worse off than you are, so stop complaining about western men being merely insensitive, as opposed to being oppressive misogynists like some Muslim men’. And my reply to Mr. Dawkins would be ‘Well, why don’t you, Mr. Dawkins, first stop complaining about Christianity being merely deluded, as opposed to Islam being actually oppressive and violent?’ And yes, I know that Dawkins attacks all religions, but the fact that he lumps them all together as universal evil, instead of focusing on the one that actually is – well, I find that offensive.

    Also Julie, have you watched the actual video? I do not see myself as a feminist, and I do not happen to share Ms. Watson’s sensitivity or worries about men in elevators – but I also have no problem with her being one, or being sensitive to this or that, or worrying about things that do not necessarily worry me. It is her own business, and nowhere in the video did I see her being a bitch (as some here put it) – she was expressing concern about something that bothered her, she did it in a calm and civilized manner (she never mentioned the man’s name or identified him in any other way, or was in any way insulting or disparaging about him). She was simply appealing to her fans to refrain from approaching her in similar circumstances. I see nothing wrong with that, and for the life of me I cannot see what on earth does any of that have to do with the oppression of Muslim women.

    All that said, and to paraphrase someone brilliant from one of the older threads here: in a fight between antitheists and feminazis, I’d pray for an asteroid, rather than take sides. I guess my opposition to Dawkins in this case stems from reasons different from those described in the links provided by Natalie in her post.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Mountains out of molehills.

    I would have flatly characterized Watson as an immature girl, resolved not to have anything to do with people like her, and got on with my life. If I have any daughters, remind me to raise them to be not like this self-obsessed twit.

    How on earth a solid acceptance of her refusal can be equated to rape is an insult to all rape victims. No matter how nicely she phrases it.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    The question is about laying down rules for unwanted contact. It could be solved perfectly with technology. Everyone has an some automated electronic agent that screens conversations. Until the you just have to start out being as polite as possible and go away as soon as you are made aware that you are not welcome. The guy in the lift was at least attempting to do that.

    Sometimes we are made to feel uncomfortable. If that’s the worst we have to deal with, we should be happy. (Dawkins might have saved himself some trouble, had he said just that.)

    I think Bill and Ted can sum all this up.

  • Mr Ecks

    I enclose a link to an article by Scott Locklin in which he points out that Skepchick makes money by selling semi-nude calenders of herself and other skepchicks (presumably to other atheists since who the hell else would have heard of them). It seems that Skepchick has no problem with sexualisation when there is money in it.


  • I am risk-averse, and learned early on that close associations with people of my own age and background were safest. It led to fewer unwelcome contacts in either direction simply because we grew up with the same rule-book. That loses me some diversity in my contacts, to be sure, but the gain in serenity is worth it.

  • It seems that Skepchick has no problem with sexualisation when there is money in it.

    So do porno actors and prostitutes – does this mean that people who happen to earn a living that way should be sexualized against their will?

  • Sigivald

    Judging from her internet profile, either she has had the remarkable ill fortune to repeatedly taken in by apparent friends and allies who in the end turned out to be misogynists, or she has a hair trigger.

    In my experience, it’s almost always the latter, in such cases.

    (Counterpoint: I am almost daily bombarded with messages suggesting that my entire gender are predatory savages bent on ruining women, etc. etc. etc. [to some degree or other, of course – it’s not all that blunt. And admittedly, when restrained to a small subset of men, it’s also accurate.].

    I don’t consider this a constant flood of “misandry”, though. I consider it a sad side-effect of decades of indoctrination of That Particular Subculture to see everything in that sort of frame. Often, they grow out of it.

    I could have a hair-trigger about Not Treating Men As Individuals Rather Than As Instances Of The Gender Type, but I don’t, because it’s a pointless waste of time.

    The converse is true, thus my experience that it’s usually just a hair trigger.)

  • senseless

    With regard to Nick Gray’s comment, much was made about the violence that can happen to a woman in an elevator, as reason that a woman would feel uncomfortable being talked to on one. Carrying a gun would do a lot to lessen the need for such anxiety.

    I know most of the readership here doesn’t have the opportunity to do so, but still.

    The rest of this is a great deal of over-reacting.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, yes, I saw the video. Yes, Ms. Watson sounded calm, not a termagant type. She said her piece. And then Dawkins said his.

    Ms. Watson asks the entire male gender not to make her uncomfortable, the instance being that some poor schlub (she never suggests he was leering or any such thing) invited her to his room for coffee. At 4 a.m. In an elevator. Besides, she’d already said she was tired.

    Dawkins used the occasion of her posting to note a well-known failing of Movement Feminism as being not much interested in the stoning, the whipping or imprisonment of rape victims, the murders of their women in the name of “honor” by Muslim males, etc., etc.

    Further down in the gawker.com piece to which Natalie links, Ms. Watson is quoted as saying:

    [To] have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed thanks to a rich white man comparing them to the plight of women who are mutilated, is insulting to all of us. Feminists in the west have been staunch allies of the women being brutalized elsewhere, and they’ve done a hell of a lot more than Richard Dawkins when it comes to making a difference in their lives.

    I put the lie in this quote in boldface. When these Movement Feminists start publicly railing against the horrific physical crimes which their Muslim sisters undergo — as regular practice in their “society” — at the hands of the men and women too — then they will have begun to show at least a smidgen of honesty.

    Such people should “learn the difference on their own backs.” As a certain favorite author of mine put it (addressing a different issue).

  • Julie, I find it difficult to call it a lie – there may well have been such feminists as Watson claims, but we may have not heard of them. Besides, this is all beside the point, because it was Dawkins who brought up the Islam issue – which I still find totally unrelated to the elevator and the video thing. IOW, my comment was not so much about Watson (with whom I don’t particularly sympathize, her being an atheist and a feminist), it was about Dawkins (who, BTW, is still a prick).

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Alisa, I initially thought that Dawkins bringing Islam into it was a completely low blow, but Alison Smith in the “Take Back the Elevator” post made a fair point, saying,

    “Dawkins’ point, I believe, was about privilege. Many feminists say that wealthy white men don’t understand the concerns of women because men have been born into a privileged class. I believe that Dawkins was attempting to point out the irony of privilege – how it’s so easy for someone that has it to not recognize that they do. And, additionally, his point was that absolutely nothing actually happened.”

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, I do think it’s a lie. Remember, I’m talking about the noises made by Movement Feminists — not the sensible women like Phyllis Chesler (for instance), or Tammy Bruce, or Christina Hoff Sommers. Movement Feminism is “Radical Feminism,” of the Smash-the-Western-Patriarchy variety, and while there may be a few lonely souls who understand the situation in Islam, I haven’t heard Movement Feminism taking the issue on in any serious way.

    I have no argument with your estimate of Dawkins; as I said, I can’t stand him myself. But to me his comment is on point, the point being, What are the evils that men perpetrate on women? (Remember, Ms. Watkins’ talk was about sexism in the A-Theist Church.) She said it includes unwanted invitations to coffee, and Dawkins said it also includes such things as torture and murder, which are maybe just a hair more serious.

    Rob Fisher says, “Sometimes we are made to feel uncomfortable. If that’s the worst we have to deal with, we should be happy.” Dawkins adds, “After all, you should see what some people have to go through!”

    Natalie makes a good point too.

    So although there are lots of possible ancillary circumstances which might tell for or against either RW or RD in this episode, my estimate of it remains the same.

    I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree once again. :>)

  • Julie near Chicago


    Speaking of Christina Hoff Sommers, Samizdatistas may wish to read her article at the National Review on what one site called “The Penis Monologues,” a campus event spoofing Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues. It seems the College Republicans at Roger Williams University decided to institute “P-Day” as an accompaniment to the annual “V-Day,” which resulted in quite a tzimmes! If you can’t figure out what “P” and “V” stand for, go read the article. :>)!