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Jul 10 2011

The Problem with Privilege (or: missing the point, sometimes spectacularly)

Part three of a series.

I disagree with a lot of people, a lot of the time. I even disagree with people who are being very reasonable and forthright with their thought processes in how they came to the conclusions they did. In fact, often, it’s those thought processes that give me insight into exactly how they missed the point of whatever it was they were disagreeing with in the first place. It’s at times like this that you have to step back and objectively analyze exactly how and where they went wrong so as to make them an object lesson for others that will almost certainly make the same mistakes.

@Mechelle_68, a twitter follower of mine, disagreed with most of my analysis of the ongoing Rebecca Watson “Elevatorgate” nonsense. She offered a number of arguments against what I had said in my first two posts, many of the points relating directly to the concept of privilege.

The main way she got things, in my view, completely wrong about Elevatorgate:

The issue that was pointed out here is that the man disrespected Rebecca by extending an invitation to her after she expressed, in the bar, that she was tired and wanted to go to bed. Also, that she had stated during the Con that she’d prefer to be treated as a “thinking human being, first”. Enter fire and brimstone.

Firstly, it’s possible this man may have not heard Rebecca make this statement. Bars are noisy. And if you’ve ever been to a post-con bar-meet, you know they’re even noisier. Loads of different conversations taking place and alcohol being consumed. You do good to hear someone talking to you without them shouting in your face. Now if Rebecca had jumped up on the bar and said “Excuse me, can I have your attention? Quiet, please, I have something to say. I’m tired and I’m going to bed. That’s all. Thank you.” then yeah, it’s possible to assume the man deliberately ignored her wishes. But I doubt very seriously that it played out like that. Chances are this guy didn’t hear her.

This was a hotel bar, filled mostly with the con goers, at 4 AM. Even at fairly large conventions, like TAM, I understand the bar scene is relatively close quarters so everyone can discuss. Sure, it’s a bar, and there’s likely to be some noise, but I strongly doubt it’s anything like a pub at happy hour. There’s absolutely no reason not to take her at her word that it happened exactly as Rebecca said — she announced to the remaining people at the bar that she was going to bed, then she left the bar, and one of the people in that crowd followed her out. Sure, I don’t know, because I wasn’t there. Neither were you, so who are you to cast aspersions on Rebecca’s credibility?

Say, for the sake of argument, that this person was not at the convention to hear her say explicitly that she would not like to be sexualized at every con (and remember, she was speaking not just for herself, but on behalf of all women, to actually encourage more participation by women in such cons — because that’s a big problem our community has in terms of inclusion at the moment, since women don’t particularly like being included in a movement just to be leered at). Let’s say also, for the sake of argument, that he had not heard her say that she was going to bed; rather, that he had seen her get up and start to leave the bar. Let’s even say for the sake of argument that he only coincidentally left at the same time.

Even with all these hypotheticals, the salient points are still that she was alone, slightly tipsy, in a foreign country, at 4 in the morning, in a hotel during which time most of the activity was winding down for the night, and a stranger got on the elevator with her and the first contact she’d ever had with this guy was for him to offer her coffee in his room so they could “talk”. Because he found her “interesting”. Rebecca still has every right to be creeped out. She has every right to say “don’t do this”, partly because it won’t work, but mostly because it will set off triggers like crazy in any society in which women are trained to be rape-avoidant. And that’s even ignoring the fact that he was supposedly paying enough attention to her to know who she was and to think that she was interesting, and yet wasn’t paying enough attention to know she’d talked that day about being sexualized, nor about being tired and wanting to go to bed. You know, because that fact would just make the whole situation all the creepier.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that Rebecca had taken this man at his word, and joined him for further conversation and coffee. Now, hopefully, that’s all this hypothetical elevator-guy had on his mind. But since we’re doing hypotheticals, let’s also assume that Rebecca had been sexually assaulted.

Yes, I’m suggesting the unthinkable, and I’m painting Elevator Guy as Schrodinger’s Rapist and therefore apparently disqualify myself from the conversation akin to Godwin’ing a thread. But still, play along, because I have a point to make.

What judge in Ireland, or England, or the USA, or in any other country in this world, would accept Rebecca’s word against the Elevator Guy’s and convict him of rape after she willingly joined him in his hotel room at 4 AM for “coffee”? In fact, would YOU accept her word in those circumstances?

Privilege works that way too, you see. Rape is disturbingly common and underreported in Western society, very likely because of how unlikely it is for the rapist to actually get convicted of his crimes. Men have the privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to he-said/she-said situations where what she-said might give you five-to-twenty. If Rebecca had for some reason gone to his room, she would therefore have been insufficiently self-protective, and therefore would have been assumed to be a slut trying to screw over her last one-night-stand.

Don’t think it could happen in your country? Hell, it even happens in the liberal socialist paradise that is Canada.

I have more to say about Mechelle’s post, but that’s enough vitriol for one night. Tomorrow, I hope.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    Mechelle

    Firstly, you’re hypothetical situation could only be a reality if she actually accepted the invitation. I don’t recall where anyone suggested she should have. I certainly haven’t. This isn’t about if she should have taken the guy up on his offer. So that part can be nipped, here and now.

    Secondly, this is about a guy who was, off the bat, not only judged to be displaying inappropriate behavior by telling her he thought her interesting, but also extended an invitation to his room for coffee. Furthermore, it was done so in quite dishonest ways. Words were used to exaggerate the situation, like “cornered” “trapped” “followed” and it was even said that “he found her sexually attractive”, which he said nothing of the sort, all to plant the seed that the situation was more sinister than it really was.

    Thirdly, I even pointed out in my post, that if that sort of scenario creeps you out, then it does, and who are we to question her feelings about it.

    “all except the one man who didn’t really grasp what I was saying ON THE PANEL”….meaning, at the Con. Not at the bar. I’ve listened to her video, several times over. I’ve read every tweet she’s made since the Con. No where does she say, or even imply, that this guy was anywhere within earshot of her at the bar. To say “she announced to the remaining people at the bar” she never said to the “remaining” people at the bar. To say she did, giving the impression that he was included in the only group left in there whom she was talking to, is bordering dishonesty. And to furthermore, imply that I am the one questioning Rebecca’s credibility?

    Fourthly, Rebecca never mentions any offense of a guy not “respecting her wishes to go to bed”. The only thing she mentioned as any type of offense, is the guy going against what she said on the panel, about sexualizing her. That whole argument about disrepecting her wishes to go to bed is a strawman.

    Also, I said from the get-go that my post had MORE to do with the after-math of what happened, even went on to elaborate by pointing out the insults and death threats she received. Also, her supporters who were exaggerating, at best, or worse, fabricating the issue to make it sound more sinister than it probably was, and less to do with the situation that took place in the elevator.

    I also pointed out that this guy did exactly as Rebecca insisted she wanted. To be treated like a “thinking human being, first”….her words. This guy, first tries to reassure her already-stated-annoyance by saying “don’t take this the wrong way” and then goes on to tell her he finds her interesting. He didn’t say he found her sexually attractive, as you stated. He didn’t say he wanted to jump her bones or said anything what-so-ever to imply sex. He said he found her interesting and then invited her for further conversation.

    Also, I added an amendment to my post to point something else out, the difference in social norms from different cultures that could have been a factor here. As someone who has traveled from the southern states to London several times, I can tell you that the social norms in the way people interact with others is amazingly different. Some of their social norms, we’d consider snobbish and even rude. Some of our social norms, they’d consider too direct and inappropriate. This could have very well played into the elevator situation. Rebecca was in a different country. It’s a bit unwise to expect people in a foreign country you’re visiting to instantly assume the norms that you are accustomed to in your own country. The bottom line is, no one knows what this man heard. No one knows what this man was thinking or what his intentions were. The only thing one can do is take what he said at face value and not assume that he meant something else. You know, like women expect men to do when they say something.

  2. 2
    Iason Ouabache

    Men have the privilege of being given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to he-said/she-said situations where what she-said might give you five-to-twenty.

    I’m having difficulty figuring out your position here. Do you think it should be easier to conviction someone of rape based solely on conflicting testimony? I’d rather live in a society where people are considered innocent until proven guilty (“given the benefit of the doubt”) even if that means that rape cases are harder to convict.

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    Iason: no, in fact, I’m not saying that it should be easier to convict someone based on heresay. I am merely observing that, once raped, the likelihood that any justice will be had against the rapist is exceedingly low. You’re grossly unlikely to have a sympathetic ear so as to have the crime investigated, much less to actually make it to a judge. And heaven forefend if you happen to have been wearing makeup or a skirt or happen to have done something naive like join someone in their room at 4 AM for “coffee”, because then it would take extraordinary evidence to overcome the natural prejudices of the people doing the judging. Click on the last link in the post for a good example.

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    Mechelle: thank you for repeating several points that I also disagreed with, all of which you argued eloquently enough in the post I linked. I was saving my dissent for another post of my own.

    Your “first” point in this comment does not fly. You don’t get to eviscerate my hypothetical by saying it didn’t happen — that’s why it’s a hypothetical. You also missed the entire point of my post, as apparently did Iason. That point being, because it’s exceedingly unlikely that once raped you’ll have any justice (mostly because if you do report it, it’s unlikely to be investigated, much less make it to and through trial — see the statistics link in the post above), women have to practice rape avoidance. It’s because they’re trained to practice rape avoidance that you have to assume that being propositioned when alone in an elevator at 4 am that you’re in some amount of potential danger. Thus the “creepy” feeling.

    You’ve said that you don’t want to say she’s not allowed to consider it creepy. Yet in your post you spend the vast majority of your words defending this guy’s actions as potentially safe. In other words, you’re saying it’s okay for Rebecca to have found it creepy, but that it’s not okay for anyone else to agree with her.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    The original final link of the post is now behind a pay wall. I updated it to this: http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-25/justice/canada.judge.comments_1_canadian-judge-sexual-assault-victim?_s=PM:CRIME

  6. 6
    Mechelle

    We could sit here and come up with a myriad of “what if” hypothetical scenarios that could have played out from that situation. My point is, to give any “what if” that didn’t actually happen serious consideration is a waste of time and unfair to both parties involved. People aren’t convicted of crimes based on hypothetical situations. And thank goodness, or any of us, for any given reason could be charged.

    I said that if that’s what creeped her out, then that’s what creeped her out. I stand by that. I never said it wasn’t okay for anyone to agree with her. I just pointed out the man didn’t give any reason to accuse him of what he was being accused of, by other people. There are two different things at play here. What he did and how she felt. Just because I acknowlege her right to feel threatened, even if slightly, in some way by the situation, doesn’t mean I have to paint the guy in a way that would support her fears, as a lot of her supporters have, especially, when there’s no evidence to support it.

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    Dammit Mechelle. You’re telling people not to assume the worst about this guy, but they’re assuming the worst about this guy because they’re trained the same way that Rebecca is. We’re not painting him as a rapist, we’re painting him as having *accidentally* (giving him the benefit of the doubt) set off “creepy” alarms by doing stuff that people are trained to understand as “potential rapist” behaviour.

    It’s why I agree with Rebecca, and it’s why I see your excusing his behaviour as telling people they can’t agree. Because people agree that the behaviour is creepy. Myself included.

    My hypothetical illustrates why it’s creepy. You can’t take away a hypothetical by saying it didn’t happen. Especially when the point it serves to illustrate is why people are agreeing with her that the behaviour itself is creepy.

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    From ON NAMING NAMES AT THE CFI STUDENT LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE:

    You may recall that last week I posted this video, in which I describe an unpleasant encounter I had with a fellow atheist that I thought might serve as a good example of what men in our community should strive to avoid – basically, in an elevator in Dublin at 4AM I was invited back to the hotel room of a man I had never spoken to before and who was present to hear me say that I was exhausted and wanted to go to bed.

    Not that it matters, because as I pointed out in my series of hypotheticals in this post the behaviour would still be creepy without this fact, but she said this guy was present to hear her say that she was going to bed.

    Perhaps you’d like to apologize to all those people who have said that his behaviour was creepy now? Now that you can see the words that led everyone to believe that this guy had actually ignored her to exert his privilege to flirt, we’ve met the criterion that you outlined that would make it “possible to assume the man deliberately ignored her wishes”.

  9. 9
    Erin

    Okay, I’m an absolute slacker at keeping up, so I may be a little off here. First up there are cultural differences – maybe his behaviour is considered acceptable and not creepy in Dublin when it would be in North America. Yes, we all speak some form of English; no, we’re not all the same. Regardless, there are ways to go about talking to a woman without setting off her creep-o-meter.

    1) The approach – Between open space and confined areas, open space will always win. If you don’t give a girl the option to escape, chances are she’ll start to get nervous.
    2) The audience – The type of person you’re talking to can make all the difference in the world, as can her state of sobriety. Know your audience and adjust your behaviour to reflect (i.e. don’t be aggressive with a shy person, etc.)
    3) The delivery – “Come to my room/place” = bad. In this particular case, suggesting a meet the next day and offering a number so she can call would have been a much wiser choice. You may not get your talk, but at least you haven’t come across as a creep.

    I had a guy approach me in Ottawa and tell me that my (then hip length) red hair was what caught his attention. He seemed nice enough and I eventually agreed to meet him for coffee. Now, my mother brought me up in a world of fear: “Don’t talk to strangers, don’t go anywhere with strangers, etc.” I know better than to talk to stranger men so I asked a friend to call me at a specific time so I could have an out if I needed it. During that innocent coffee, he mentioned several times the he just wanted to be my friend, tried to invite me to his place so he could cook dinner for me (when I hesitated, he said I could bring a friend), and he also said, “If we were in my country, I’d talk to your parents and we’d be married.” And there we have it, the creep-o-meter phrase! The very next day, I got my hair chopped from hip to chin and kept it shorter the remainder of my time in Ottawa. Yet, to this day, I wonder why I should have to adjust my behaviour or appearance to keep the creeps away. Nothing I did or said encouraged him in any way.

    Take that one step further, a rape victim does not encourage a guy to rape her and yet all too often, she’s left with no recourse because no one can prove that she didn’t say yes. The rapist may be considered innocent until proven guilty, but doesn’t that, at the same time, consider the victim guilty (of saying yes, of lying) until proven innocent (and therefore actually raped)? The UK has a campaign dealing with blaming the victim: http://www.notever.co.uk/ that has a little quiz and some of the answers are quite revealing.

    I leave you with some rape prevention tips: http://canyourelate.org/2011/05/24/rape-prevention-tips/

  10. 10
    Mechelle

    You’re right, Jason. It wasn’t in the areas that I mentioned, but in that post, she did assume that the guy heard her. Note, I said “assume”. So, I will go ahead and apologize to YOU, not for going against your belief that the guy did hear her, but for implying such was borderline dishonesty on your part. I was wrong and I apologize.

    So, are you going to apologize to readers for misleading them with words that did not apply? Never mind. It doesn’t matter.

    However, it still doesn’t mean the guy heard her. RW is assuming he did, but now…yes…I will question her credibility, because of what I learned after following your source. But not only will I apologize, I want to thank you. Because that link lead me to a post of hers, which lead me to a myriad of other posts/blogs regarding other situations that I wasn’t aware of, like the ordeal with Steph McGraw and RW’s bully-with-a-microphone I’ll-exercise-my-PRIVILEGED-status-as-speaker-and-one-up-you-in-public, dick move, on someone who happened to disagree with her. It says a lot. Talk about disrespecting someone. It says a lot about RW.

    As far as the elevator situation, there are lots of people who see RW’s POV of it, there are a lot who see it differently. The discussion will just continue to go around in circles without ever really accomplishing anything. And quite frankly, I’ve spent as much energy on a person such as RW, more than I care to. The apology I gave to you was sincere. I hope you accept it.

  11. 11
    Jason Thibeault

    I accept your apology, Mechelle. Expect no apology from me in return until you point out exactly what words were misleading and why. Oh, and some proof that they are in fact misleading would be nice. I have an idea about which words you’re specifically looking to target, but I doubt you can show them to be anything but factual.

    I’m still saving my rebuttal to the other points you’ve made on your own post and reiterated in your first comment here, for another blog post. I will continue to discuss these issues because they’re important. The fact that you were willing to dig in your heels and fight with me, someone you respected, proves it.

    Erin: but but! The hair gives you power!! Ah well, the sprog has more than enough to make up for it now. :D

  12. 12
    Erin

    I’ve been out of Ottawa for years now, Jason. My hair’s almost back down to my waist though doesn’t seem too willing to go any longer. On the plus side, it was a charity event that all the proceeds went to juvenile diabetes and I donated my hair to make wigs for cancer so someone else out there is wearing my awesome hair.

    Both sprogs have good hair. Callan’s was so perfect he looked like he’d spent the night at the salon before being born. In fact, when people asked what colour his hair was, we responded, “Awesome!” Now, it’s red.

  13. 13
    Mechelle

    “Trapped in an elevator”?….”cornered her in an elevator”….”The offense was not that he found her sexually attractive enough to make such a hamfisted attempt at breaking the ice”

    No one was trapped in an elevator.

    Getting onto an elevator with someone isn’t cornering them.

    He never said he found her sexually attractive. He said he found her interesting. You can find someone interesting without finding them sexually attractive. He could have been a homosexual for all you know.

    Fight?…*just laughs*…no, Jason. I’m not fighting with you, nor have I been. I’ve been debating an issue with you that we disagree on. That’s not fighting. At least, not from my end. There are a lot of issues I discuss with a lot of people on different blogs, even debate. It’s not fighting. In my opinion, this girl, the situation that took place and the circus that came of it, is not worth fighting over. And from this point on, it’s not worth my time to consider, discuss or even respond to anymore discussion about it. It’s beating a dead horse. I had my entry up for two days. I stated my response. You disagreed. We disagree about the issue. End of story. This is my last post on any thread that has anything to do with it.

  14. 14
    The Nerd

    I know I’m late on the scene, but I appreciate this post. So many people attacked RW for presupposing him to be a rapist. I’m not saying she did actually give him the Schrodinger’s Rapist treatment, but society practically demands women do so at all times, or else women are to blame for not trying hard enough not to get raped should that happen. I can hear it now: “Well, she shouldn’t have been alone in an elevator/hallway/room with a strange man!” Not everyone would assume that she contributed to her own rape, but enough would that the heaps of insult added to injury make living a care-free life impossible.

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