There’s a video that has been running through the feminist segment of the atheism community from popular atheist, skeptic and feminist Rebecca Watson from The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and Skepchick:
The video describes an interaction that Rebecca had with an attendee of an atheist/skeptic conference. She had been hanging out int he hotel bar with some of the people at the conference. It was late, and she said goodnight to everyone and went to head back to her room. One of the people who had been at the bar followed her onto the elevator and asked Rebecca if she wanted to go back to his hotel room with him, which she didn’t. Rebecca thought this was a clear-cut example of behaviour that men should avoid when attending conferences – don’t assume that just because a woman is out drinking that she wants to have sex with you. It was particularly on the nose for her, since she was there to talk about how to make these conferences more woman-friendly.
I had a difficult time getting on board with Rebecca on this one, because I couldn’t really see where the offense was. When I read Jen McCreight’s response, I was even more baffled. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that atheists ought not to proposition each other for casual sex – that’s really much more puritanical than the general atheist community tends to be. Was she suggesting that we don’t do it when we’re drunk? Or when it’s that late at night? Or when you don’t know the person well? I was sincerely confused.
Also, there’s Elevator Guy to consider. It seemed as though he was being passed off as a clueless lout that made sexual advances at someone and should have known better. But how? How could he have known his interests were unwanted? We don’t know if they’d spoken before, or if he was just a random creeper. We don’t know if he was drunk we don’t know how he asked the question (it might have been super-awkward, or it might have been with Don Draper-like poise and suaveness). As a guy who’s been rejected for making the first move, and also rejected for taking too long to make the first move, I wanted to make sure I understood what was going on so I didn’t make the same mistake.
So I posted a comment:
“cornering a woman in an elevator at 4AM and asking her up to your hotel room, after not having said two words to her the whole night, is about a 9.0 on the creepy scale.”
And here’s my problem with this whole discussion. Even from Rebecca’s video, we don’t know that he “cornered” her except insofar as there isn’t much besides corners in an elevator. We don’t know that they hadn’t spoken before. We don’t know what his reaction was when she said “no” – he might have just said “okay, cool.” It’s entirely conceivable to me that he was waiting for the crowd to thin out before making his proposition, but when she went for the elevator he threw a last-ditch “Hail Mary” pass, got shot down, and went on his merry way.
I can understand feeling threatened by an unwelcome advance in an elevator, but why are we assuming that this guy was physically threatening her, or that he was particularly creepy about it? There are some salient details missing from this story that we should have before we pass judgment on this guy for being a 9.0 creep.
The response to what I thought was a totally innocuous comment was… less than friendly. I suddenly realized that, to all eyes, I was trolling the comment threads trying to pick a fight, or to make some stupid statement about “men’s rights”, standing up for every guy’s right to sexually harass whomever he wants. Having dealt with trolls before, I knew immediately what would and wouldn’t work, and so I thought I would share some of those insights with you.
If you ever find yourself commenting on a forum where your opinion is in the strong minority (especially if it is diametrically opposed to the position of the author of the forum/blog post), here are some important lessons to keep in mind if you don’t want to get written off as a troll.
The hallmark of a troll, in fact the defining characteristic of a troll, is that she/he is not posting to gain information or change a perspective – she/he is there to propagate conflict. If you are sincerely interested in offering a dissenting opinion, make sure you actually listen to the responses that come back your way.
You will accomplish nothing besides looking silly if you lose your temper. You’re going to need to maintain a level of zen-like calm to avoid being drawn into a flame war. Since you are surrounded by people that disagree with you, they will be ready to dismiss your perspective if you look like a raving lunatic.
3. Realize there’s a good chance that you’re wrong
It’s far more likely that your disagreement is due to misunderstanding some point or nuance of the argument than it is that everyone (including the author) is a moron.
4. Assume they’ve already heard your arguments
When dealing with a group of people who are passionately defending a position, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ve already heard what you have to say. If it’s a topic you’re very unfamiliar with, it’s not a bad idea to point that out. Some websites are “101 level” websites, meaning they are populated by people who are willing to explain basic concepts to newcomers. Others assume that you have a certain level of knowledge. Asking “how come there are still monkeys” on a biology blog won’t go over well. (Note: I like to consider this a 101-level blog, although sometimes I forget).
5. Prepare to be Insulted
It’s going to happen. Learn to deal with it. If your self-esteem gets tied up in what people on the internet think about you, then you’ve got to stay away from forums.
6. Don’t respond to insults
The knee-jerk reaction to being attacked is to fight back. Avoid this temptation. You’re only hurting yourself (see #2). A tactic I like to use is to agree with the person insulting you (‘I must be as stupid as you say, but please try to show me where I’m wrong anyway’) – it pivots you away from emotional reactions and shows people that you’re not going to get stuck in the mud.
7. Point out areas of agreement
This one is major. If you can identify where you agree, it’s easier for both sides to tone things down a bit. It may also help you to realize where the other side is coming from (see #1).
8. Admit your mistakes
If you take a statement out of context, get called on a fallacy, or are proven to be incorrect in one or more assertions, acknowledge it. “Yeah, but…” isn’t an acknowledgment, it’s a dodge. It’s a sign of maturity when you can say “You’re right, and I shouldn’t have said that” or “You’re right, and I should have made that more clear.”
9. Prepare to walk away
If after all the talk you still think you’re right and they’re wrong, there’s no shame in just walking away. Don’t burn the bridge (“I’m done with you idiots”) or try to get the last word (“I guess you’ll never understand X”), just bow out gracefully (“I guess I’m just not getting it. I’ll take some time to think about what you said”). Many people will prefer to communicate through e-mail rather than continue spam on a forum. I myself have received e-mails from people who want to talk about an issue outside the context of a public forum – sometimes the venue inhibits the conversation. Be the bigger person genuinely – don’t try to win by walking away.
10. Be honest
This is probably the most important of these points. Don’t go in trying to win, don’t go in trying to score points or shove it in someone’s face. Be honest about your intentions, be honest in your words. Part of honesty is logical consistency – don’t twist or distort facts or others’ statements. This is where every troll fails – if you want to not be seen as trolling then you need to obey this scrupulously.
Keep in mind, of course, that none of this will save you from being seen as a troll, or being called a troll, but then the problem is with your accuser, not you. If you’re not trolling, then hopefully your audience will pick up on that and extend you the benefit of the doubt. Of course, if you’re not willing to do these steps then you probably are trolling, in which case you deserve whatever treatment you get
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