Terms of engagement: why the Dawkins-Benson pact is meaningful

Richard Dawkins trended today on Twitter, which is never a good sign. ‘Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse’, he’d tweeted, an idea I blogged about last year. ‘Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse’, he added, which Ashley Miller has unravelled along with Amanda Marcotte. Dawkins, it turns out, was only making a simple point about syllogisms using the two most inflammatory examples imaginable – how anyone could be upset about is a mystery. (It always is.)

I’ve just criticised Richard Dawkins, and some will say – indeed they have – this makes the last thing I posted meaningless.

We have to be able to manage disagreement ethically, like reasonable adults,’ he said in a joint statement with Ophelia Benson, ‘as opposed to brawling like enraged children who need a nap.’ The statement has been called a ‘peace accord’ and was read by many, it appears, as the ‘ceasefire’ in atheist infighting some had demanded. Now that so soon after cosigning it, Dawkins has put foot in mouth again and been lampooned, it’s a sure bet hands are rubbing gleefully.

That was hesitance about this statement from the off. Some said it didn’t go far enough, and that Dawkins had yet to ‘walk the walk’ in pursuing activism ethically; others found it too nonspecific. Some declared he hadn’t meant a word, either to undermine him or it; others suggested Benson ‘bullied’ him somehow into signing it. But sign it he did, and my view is that even assuming a cynical reading, the Dawkins-Benson pact – shut up, that’s what I’m calling it – matters.

Because it wasn’t a ceasefire at all – the authors’ wording makes the point extremely clear that ‘disagreement is inevitable’, which must include on things like Dawkins’ tweets yesterday. The point is what it adds: ‘bullying and harassment are not.

It should go without saying, but this means no death threats, rape threats, attacks on people’s appearance, age, race, sex, size, haircut; no photoshopping people into demeaning images, no vulgar epithets.

This isn’t a peace accord – it’s a treaty establishing terms of engagement.

For the past three years, the above behaviour has been endemic in online atheism, targeting secular ‘social justice warriors’ and feminists in particular. There’s more: to quote a recent list,

There’s no serious doubt this began when Richard Dawkins mocked Rebecca Watson’s discomfort at being hit on in a lift and roused entitled male atheists the net over against her. Implicitly or explicitly, these harassment campaigns have often been carried out in his name.

We have to conclude that if a blog comment from Dawkins could unleash such violent torrents of misogyny, the man has influence, and any statement from him will have impact; more specifically, we also have to conclude that the hordes of angry antifeminists who till then hadn’t advanced on Watson felt empowered by his example.

So it’s not meaningless that in his statement with Benson, he says: ‘Some people think I tacitly endorse such things even if I don’t indulge in them. Needless to say, I’m horrified by that suggestion. Any person who tries to intimidate members of our community with threats or harassment is in no way my ally and is only weakening the atheist movement by silencing its voices and driving away support.

If Dawkins’ current tweets on rape and molestation tell us anything, it’s that he’s going to keep arguing with feminists in our community – there’s no peace in our time to be seen here, and nor should there be if it meant letting statements like these go. But his statement alongside Benson makes clear too that the bullies, harassers and abusive trolls in atheism aren’t part of that argument any more.

There is no single atheist as influential as Dawkins; there may never be again, and likely this is a good thing. There’s certainly no feminist atheist as influential as he is, but his feminist critics are many and hold great collective influence. In the atheist sex wars, these are the sides – and the Dawkins-Benson pact means both sides will shun atheism’s worst elements.

That means the Slymepit, who exist entirely to harass and bully feminists among us.

That means the ‘Amazing’ Atheist, who has repeatedly threatened them with rape and violence.

That means Justin Vacula, who published the home address of Amy Davis Roth.

It means everyone who mounts cyberattacks against websites like this, including DDOS attacks and leaking private emails.

It means everyone who hounded Melody Hensley till she had PTSD, and everyone whose whole online existence is about harassing feminists in atheism.

When Richard Dawkins and Ophelia Benson – people almost never on the same side of the fence – agreed that this was unacceptable, they defined a new community standard. If any of the above is you, you don’t meet it, and however loudly or venomously you respond, this the start of your being squeezed out of our movement.

Have fun, to quote Jen McCreight, as you circle jerk into oblivion.

Going, going. Soon enough you’ll be gone.

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On Honeygate

Religion’s not the sole unrighteousness
In your philosophy, we’ve learned of late:
Caught in the act (high-minded, humourless)
Hightailing hot goods to an airport gate –
A jar, specifically, of sandwich spread –
Reports relay your patented contempt,
Determining the art of protest’s dead.
Did you expect to be declared exempt
At once, on turning up, from rules in place?
We laugh because your notion customs might,
Kafir, favour you simply for your face
Isn’t far wrong. That onlookers make light
Now of your trouble’s just, if jibe-filled. Honey,
Say what you like – the world’ll say it’s funny.

You want sex? So stop asking for coffee

If you weren’t aware by now that arguments about harassment are burning through the skeptosphere again, you can’t have been paying much attention. I won’t be entering that fray myself just yet, except to say – in general terms, in principle – that reports of abuse or harassment should always be taken seriously and investigated. For the moment, in fact, I’ll stick to discussing the issue in general terms, in principle, for reasons I hope are obvious.

The one event I will name is the one to which these spats always return.

Reliably, at least one person will say a version of the following whenever ‘Elevatorgate’ comes up:

For goodness‘ sake, he only asked her for a coffee! Why would she think that was a sexual advance?! He even said ‘Don’t take this the wrong way’. What a professional victim – she must just have been desperate to be offended.

There’s a great deal that response ignores: that the proposition was made in the small hours of the night, in an enclosed space; that it followed the part of the average conference schedule most associated with pass-making; that the man in question invited Watson back to his room – that is, his bedroom – rather than somewhere ‘coffee’ could mean nothing else. It’s the kind of conduct most effectively excused, as Stephanie’s pointed out before, by cutting all contextual detail.

This post though isn’t about Elevator Guy or any other individual. Revisiting that incident just crystallised a feeling that’s played on my mind a while. That feeling is this:

We need to stop asking people for coffee.

Not that we should stop asking people for sex, in appropriate contexts, at conferences and elsewhere; not that we should stop asking people on dates. We need, specifically, to stop saying ‘for coffee’. If that sounds prudish or odd, let me explain.

Some months back, a friend got an online message from a stranger who’d found him in an online student group. The sender, having seen his comments, asked if he was ‘up for a coffee’. It took my friend three days, and hours of advisory IM exchanges, to know how to respond.

Exactly what was ‘a coffee’ in this case? What invitation had been made? Was this coffee and socialising, as in German Kaffeeklatsch? Was it a coffee date? Socialising, with the option of dates to follow? With the option of dates and/or sex? Of no strings attached sex, specifically? A date with the option of staying friends?

‘Coffee’ is popular, I think, due to this ambiguity. It works both as euphemism and get-out clause, putting sex or romance on the table with plausible deniability. Ask to hook up, and your neck is on the line; ask them for coffee, and rejection can be parried with face-saving assurances you ‘didn’t mean it like that’. (Ewan McGregor, in the film Brassed Off, walks Tara Fitzgerald home after a night out. ‘D’you want to come up for a coffee?’ she asks. He doesn’t drink coffee, he says. ‘I haven’t got any’, she replies.)

The trouble is, that ambiguity puts the other person’s neck on the line. Inviting someone neither to dating or sex, nor to a meetup, but to something that could plausibly be either puts on them the burden of interpretation – of negotiating properly an advance chosen for its ambiguity. My friend didn’t want to hurt a stranger’s feelings, but returning their message was a minefield. Guess wrong – that a sexual or romantic invitation was a purely social one, or vice versa – and he faced huge chances of creating awkwardness. He’d no doubt have felt bad if that had happened, but the deck was stacked against him. To avoid taking a social risk themselves, the other person put his feelings at risk by making him guess what they meant.

We’re all somewhat culpable for how what we say will likely be construed; part of communicating well is being hard to misinterpret. It doesn’t matter, in the end, what Elevator Guy meant to say; his job, especially where and when he said it, was to think about how it would sound. When you’ve said something used often as an overture to sex, you’ve no right to blame or guilt-trip somebody for taking it that way. Doubly so if you said it because it’s used that way. Triply if you said it hoping to hide behind its vagueness if they turned you down.

It’s not just about coffee. That’s a prime offender, but the attitude behind it – indirectness about what we want, expecting others to divine it magically and blaming them for guessing wrong – has implications for our wider sexual culture. I don’t think it’s by chance behaviour reported as harassment – unwelcome touching, inappropriate comments, furtive photographs – can often be presented as benign. Central to solid sex-positivity is stating clearly what we want or like. Not doing so means if and when we breach someone’s boundaries (as can happen with the best intentions), the message they get is that their feelings don’t count, and they’ve just ‘misunderstood’.

If it’s sex you want, ask – appropriately, in appropriate contexts – for sex. If it’s a casual date, then ask for that. If it’s fine-ground aromatic Italian espresso, well, all right then – ask for coffee. The rest of the time, steer clear, and say what it is you’re after.

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