Jul 14 2011

The Problem with Privilege (or: after this, can we get back to the actual issues?)

I’ve been arguing recently with one of my Twitter followers about the specifics behind the Elevatorgate incident and the fallout that ensued. It seems that she’s seen fit to make private the extraordinarily long blog post that she put up about the subject. Completely coincidentally, I assume, after I showed her that the guy that approached Rebecca Watson in an elevator was present and within earshot when she said she was going to bed.

I had intended to address a few more of her concerns so that we can get back to the actual topic of privilege, but many of those points were only on her blog post. She did, however, reiterate many of the high points in comments, so I’m not completely without blog fodder at the moment. And hopefully this will help us get back on track really quickly.

One of Mechelle’s points was that a number of bloggers have been making use of a number of phrases that she considers hyperbolic — for instance, claiming that Rebecca had been “cornered” in the elevator.

[T]his 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.

When someone gets onto an elevator, they are trapped in that elevator between the floor they got on, and the floor they get off. It is a small, self-enclosed box, with one exit — an exit that only opens at pre-defined points in the trip. This should be self-evident, but apparently people need to be reminded of this fact. While you are on this elevator, you are required to wait for a certain amount of time before you reach your destination, during which time if there are other people on the same lift as you, you are their captive audience and vice versa.

There is a concept in the business world known as the elevator pitch. The idea is simple — when you step onto an elevator with one of the business world’s movers and shakers, you have between thirty and sixty seconds during which you might be able to sell your business to them. Because they can’t get away, they have to listen. Psychology pretty much disallows ignoring this person entirely — try ignoring someone in an elevator and showing no signs of acknowledgement while they’re speaking, then exiting the elevator without having acknowledged that they said anything. This is analogous to walking away from a person when they approach you on the street, with the exception that you are not putting any distance between you. So, when you’re on a lift with someone, they’re cornered. They’re a captive audience. They’re cornered.

And when you enter the elevator second, you are in fact following them.

I’m not the first person in this discussion to make this analogy. And Mechelle isn’t the first to claim there was, in fact, no “trapping” or “cornering” involved. The Elevator Pitch is a high pressure sales tactic intended to take a person out of their comfort zone and force them to make snap decisions that they might never otherwise make if given the benefit of some time to think. It removes the target’s ability to simply ignore as worthless the pitch, or escape the necessity of making a decision on the fly. It’s a psychological trick because it does, actually, work sometimes — more often than a less high-pressure sales tactic might. And it works not because the target actually wants to buy what the salesman is selling, but because the target does not want to be rude. Every “deferment” tactic is rude in this situation.

To understand Mechelle’s concerns, one must assume there is no harm in sitting in a bar with a woman for hours, hearing her say she’s going to bed, then following her into an elevator and making the first actual inter-personal contact between them something that could easily be mistaken for a thinly veiled come-on line, “don’t take this the wrong way” notwithstanding. Not only is it rude to suggest to someone heading to bed to do something other than go to bed, it’s rude to suggest that you have sole access to that person for a while when you, in fact, do not know the person well enough to merit that access. Even if it’s not for sex, asking a person for a one-on-one conversation usually implies either some amount of intimacy or some amount of comfort with that person; asking for a one-on-one conversation in an isolated location where escape is limited usually implies a great deal of comfort or intimacy. So even if you DON’T “take this the wrong way”, the man is well overstepping any sensible interpersonal boundaries and asking for a great deal more trust and intimacy than he’s due. It is why Rebecca was right to say no, no matter WHAT his intentions were.

I agree that there are many mitigating factors and that we do not, in fact, know whether this guy wanted anything more than coffee, or if he found her interesting for more than just her mind. Your or my feelings about Elevator Guy’s actual intent, however, are tangential. The action was deemed by Rebecca Watson as “creepy”. I posit that it is “creepy” because it is viewed, rightly so, as “potential rapist behaviour”. People who decried this event as “potential rapist behaviour” are painting this man, rightly or wrongly, as “Schrodinger’s Rapist” because he was actually engaging in behaviour that an actual rapist might engage in. Or, at the very least, they are behaviours that women are taught to avoid, even if they don’t actually keep you safe.

Now that we’ve settled that what Elevator Guy did was all-around bad, and all-around dumb, no matter WHAT his intentions actually were, can we move on to the actual question of privilege again? Or do we have to have another go-around with the Elevator Guy Defense League first?

And before you do start rallying to his defense, I will note that defending this guy’s actions is well beside the point. Even if he had the best intentions, what he did was demonstrably wrong, no matter which way you look at it. Unless of course your aim is to defend the guy’s actions because you want to, as the first commenter on that post says, “make you like the thing that I’m going to do anyway”.


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  1. 1

    Al l other considerations aside (& I assume EG was not planning on using force) how did he manage to convince himself that asking a stranger back to his room, in an elevator, at 4AM, was going to work?

  2. 2

    “It seems that she’s seen fit to make private the extraordinarily long blog post that she put up about the subject. Completely coincidentally, I assume, after I showed her that the guy that approached Rebecca Watson in an elevator was present and within earshot when she said she was going to bed.”

    I stated….in the very first paragraph..of the post I put up on Sunday morning…that the post, due to it being on my private journal….would be taken down on Monday evening.

    Or perhaps you missed that part?

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    I probably did, because I saw it as preamble, and the post itself was something like five thousand words. I can’t, of course, click back over there to check to see if I missed something, now, can I?

    For the record, this isn’t how the internet works. Instead, the internet works something like how Stef McGraw discovered it works. You put your two cents into the conversation, it’s permanently on the internet. People then refer back to what you said so that, when people see something like the rebuttal that I posted, they can click on the link and see your original words, so they can see whether or not I was being fair. It’s why I was surprised that you asked whether or not you could link me — because, of course you can link me. That’s how the internet works.

    If you take something down, it’s also very likely that something, somewhere, has indexed it. If not Google’s cache, then maybe the Internet Wayback Machine at web.archive.org. If you really don’t want something on the internet, it should never be put up on the internet to begin with. Once it is, it’s out of your control.

  4. 4

    Oh but it was there, within your “eyeshot”, therefore you MUST have read it. It was right there in grey and white. And to suggest I do anything other than what I said I was going to do is…..*gasp*…disrespectful! Oh, the horror!

    Of course, I say that with ‘tongue-in-cheek’ to merely point out that you just proved my point about the elevator guy. Just because something was in ‘eyeshot’, in print, right before your eyes, part of something you’re reading, doesn’t mean you actually saw it. And just as the EG was, according to Becca, within “earshot” doesn’t mean he actually heard her say what she said. It swings both ways. And just as you can’t go back and see if there was something you missed, the EG guy can’t very well go back in time to see if perhaps he missed something she said. You weren’t hanging on to every word I typed and it’s possible the guy wasn’t hanging on to everything Becca was saying. Thank you, Jason, for proving my point. And a photo that PZ took of the group at the bar and the position of others around, works in the EG’s favor.

    For the record, the internet works in whichever way any individual user tends to use it and the means are available to do so. There is no universal standard. There are many ways in which the internet works. And obviously, me making MY PRIVATE journal post unavailable for non-friends at whatever time I see fit, works. Otherwise, the option wouldn’t be there, to begin with. And because I did what I said I was going to do, yes, that obviously works. I don’t need someone else’s approval to post or remove a post from MY journal. If I was really worried about someone seeing my post, I wouldn’t have made it public and then advertise the link on Twitter. I have my reasons for leaving it up for only two days: it was on my private journal and it was my choice. That’s the only reason you, or anyone else needs.

    As far as linking you, that may be typical for you and others to link someone else’s personal blog without getting their permission or at least making them aware, first, but not everyone. That kind of runs parallel to what I pointed out about difference in culture, how it’s normal here for people to say hello to strangers on the street, where as in another culture, like London, it isn’t. And that’s the whole crux of this fiasco that has been blown out of the water. Just because YOU find a certain behavior to be rude or impolite, doesn’t make it so for everyone. What you, or Becca finds creepy, not everyone does. I think that’s pretty obvious with the backlash that came of it, and people pointing out that they didn’t find it creepy at all, to prove it.

    The whole Steph McGraw thing wasn’t about simply posting something that Step had already posted. It was about Becca taking a part of her quote, lumping Steph in with people who were threatening to rape her and calling her names, and implying that Steph was a misogynist and enabled rapists. You know….like creationists do…quote mining, taking part of what someone said and presenting it in a way to suggest they support something they don’t. This whole circus has really brought out the hypocrisy. Quote mining….implying that everyone else should conduct themselves according to yours and Becca’s social norms…that’s dogmatic. TJ nailed it:

    “What is the point of being an atheist if you’re going to cling to the dogma of religion? Part of abandoning God means abandoning the dogma, means abandoning the idea that there is this rigid set of rules that we must follow even though they’re completely fucking arbitrary.”

    Think about that next time you’re debating a creationist and you find no problem making them feel uncomfortable with your debating style. As you’ve pointed out to me, you’ve been labeled as “mean” and other negative words, because of it. It’s okay for you to express the truth to them, regardless of how it makes them feel, but it’s not okay for EG to express the truth about his interest in RW? This kind of hypocrisy, is one of the main reasons so many are leaving the skeptic/atheist communities. Some, who really need to get over themselves, are implying that everyone else should see things the way they see them and conduct themselves accordingly. In other words, trading one religion for another.

  5. 5
    Jason Thibeault

    No, you didn’t prove your point about Elevator Guy, Mechelle. In fact, you’ve proved exactly what I’m trying to point out — that the only way to show that Elevator Guy’s intents were completely harmless is to assume a number of things, of which any one single thing is enough to scuttle the argument. First, you have to assume that the event did not happen exactly as Rebecca says, in that he would have had to miss the conference, not be present or listening when she was in the bar for many hours, not be present or listening when she said she was tired and going to bed, not be present or listening when she began to leave the bar, and only coincidentally manage to make it into the elevator. You have to assume that she is incorrect, either intentionally or accidentally. And if any one of those assumptions turns out to be false, then your house of cards argument fails.

    Likewise, to prove me culpable for having read but ignored the non-”point” part of your post you have to assume that things did not happen exactly as I say. That I read the 5000+ word post in its entirety, and rather than writing a post about the first and most obvious foundational point in which you are incorrect about the whole situation, that I was actually waiting and baiting a trap to spring on you in a most fiendish manner when you took your enormous post offline again. So fiendish, in fact, that I could thereafter paint you as arguing in bad faith when you took it down exactly as you said you would.

    You also have to assume that Elevator Guy did not, for some reason, realize that asking someone to coffee at 4 AM in a hotel elevator as your very first contact with that person would not, by most reasonable recipients of such attention, be assumed to intend sexual congress. Which as I pointed out in my earlier post, even barring all of the things you claim he could have been doing completely coincidentally, is still totally fucking creepy. It’s still behaviour that triggers fears of rape in women, because these fears of rape are inculcated in them by decades worth of victim-blaming and stalker-excusing. And if he was saying that he found her ideas fascinating but wasn’t referring to anything she was actually saying in, say, the bar or the con, then he was lying to get into her pants and that’s also creepy.

    And yes, I’m saying that apologizing for someone who did something creepy just so that you can paint the woman who pointed out this behaviour as creepy as the bad guy, is stalker-excusing. It is this exact behaviour that Stef McGraw was enabling by saying loosely “how dare Rebecca take away this guy’s right to express sexual interest?” The problem is, Rebecca never said that. She’s said quite explicitly a number of times that expressing sexual interest is fine and good and excellent and that there’s nothing wrong with it. She just suggested that the people who attempt to do so, also maybe get to know the girl first. Or at the very least, listen to the clues she’s giving off all the time that might actually indicate that, you know, now might not be the best time to proposition her.

    A good rule, for instance, is to not make your very first contact with a person be a sexual come-on. Or be easily mistaken for one.

    There are exceptions to every rule, though. For instance, I know a story third-hand of a man who propositioned a hundred women a day, knowing that he’d only need a 1% success rate to take home a new woman every night. He apparently had a success rate of somewhere between 1% and 2%. Of course, some percentage of the other 98-99% may well have thought they were in some sort of danger and endured some amount of trauma after being forced to revisit some bad incident in their history. But who cares, so long as the guy’s getting laid, and nobody was REALLY hurt, right?

    None of this is dogmatic. None of it is arbitrary. It’s simple rules for interpersonal conduct derived directly from one’s sense of empathy for our fellow human being. It’s about not objectifying them and about listening to the words they say. It’s about not taking for granted how these people are feeling — or that they HAVE feelings to be taken into account. It’s about understanding that there are situations that might not get you what you want, and might simultaneously hurt the person in question whether you intended it or not. It’s about actually taking seriously when they say “don’t hit on me”, whether directly or indirectly, and accepting the rebuke of “that’s creepy behaviour” when you make the mistake. Because that’s the absolute harshest punishment doled out on Elevator Guy — the declaration that his behaviour was creepy. Why are you rushing to his defense as though people are actually calling him an actual rapist? Or to Stef’s, when her arguments (and yours, by the way) give so much damn cover to rapists?

    And why are you attempting the very tactic that irritates me the most in claiming dogmatism when you know damn well nothing about this is dogmatic or religious? Is this just the easiest insult you or TJ can come up with to call a skeptical atheist?

    All of these words are surely lost on you, because you’ve made up your mind that EG wasn’t creepy, Rebecca is allowed to be creeped but nobody is allowed to agree with her as to why, and that her testimony is questionable on so many counts as to be specious at best. You’ve also made up your mind that I’m wrong about what the actual problem is, and you’ve even made up your mind as to what I’m actually arguing — in that you, again, claim that Rebecca’s supporters are suggesting that flirting at all in any circumstance is bad.

    Nonetheless, I’ll try again, this time blockquoting Stephanie Zvan elsewhere:

    Have you noticed, though, that making the incident not Feminism 101 objectification requires saying it didn’t happen the way Rebecca said it did? Maybe he didn’t hear her talk on her panel (despite finding her “fascinating”). Maybe he didn’t hear her say she was tired and going to bed (because Rebecca’s a quiet person and a bar at 4 a.m. is a hoppin’ place). Maybe Rebecca shouldn’t think coffee means sex (even though, in our society, it requires context, a prior interpersonal relationship, or a solid explanation to make it mean anything else) even in someone’s hotel room (which always offers the best brew–better than anything that can be had in a more public place, like the bar). Maybe she shouldn’t have found an elevator to be a potentially dangerous place (despite having given a talk that demonstrated she has plenty of reasons to have a heightened concern for her personal safety). Because if you leave the details in place, it is exactly what Rebecca called it, objectification (from Feminism 101: the viewing of people solely as de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities and desires/plans of their own).

    It’s a relatively mild case, but it’s still objectification. Elevator Guy, unless you’d like to just say flat out that you don’t believe Rebecca, set aside Rebecca’s context and desires to assert his sexual interest. That’s exactly the point at which interest becomes objectification. And I think you understand that, since you’re working to keep the story from standing as described–and as Stef reacted to.

    If you’d like to have your argument taken seriously, perhaps you should put it back into public where it can be weighed against mine and others’. I’d be happy to host it here if you’d like, so you don’t sully up your own personal internet fiefdom with outsiders visiting! Just say so, and I’ll send you my e-mail address.

  6. 6

    Jason…bless your heart..*laughs*

    1.) You..nor Rebecca…know whether that man heard her say she was going to bed. Neither of you can read minds. And neither of you have proof that he did.

    2.) He may very well have heard her comments at the con, I don’t think that’s even an issue, because he did exactly what Rebecca said she wanted. He didn’t objectify or sexualize her…(even though there have been people who said she never used those words at the con). According to her, her words, she wants guys to see her as a “thinking human being, first. What part of telling someone you find them interesting and then inviting them for coffee for further conversation do you NOT see as seeing someone as a thinking human being? She said no, he dropped it. End of scenario.

    3.) You can sit there and knit-pick and point out how long my post was…if that makes you feel better, then knock yourself out. I don’t remember anyone giving Jason Thibeault the power to limit anyone else’s blog or journal posts to a certain number of words.

    4.) Obviously, other people don’t see the EG behavior outside of social norms. He did nothing wrong. Had he pushed the issue, then yeah, then you’d have a point. But he didn’t. Anything else that follows, you are basing on YOUR assumptions, only. Which is where we get back to one culture’s taboo is another culture’s norm. No one was trying to shut up RW. They were simply pointing out that she had no authority to give a blank order for guys not to do such a thing. Not everyone found his behavior creepy and they pointed out as much. Again, different perspectives, different social norms. Pointing out that the guy may not have had any intentions other than what he said, is not “covering rapists”. It’s not trying to shut someone up. But assuming he meant something else, is implying you can read the guy’s mind. Which, neither of you can. I don’t think anyone suggested she should have taken him up on his offer. So the point of rape is moot. And though she has a right to feel “creeped out”, as I and others have said, that doesn’t mean she was right in her assessment of the situation, or him. Anyone can assume anything about anyone and have them labeled as “creepy”, even you. Though they have a right to feel that way, doesn’t make them right in their assessment. I still chuckle at her “fearless leader” bio.

    5.) I took the post down exactly when I said I was going to. You had two days to cut and paste it so you could respond as you wished. If you have a problem with that, then that’s exactly what it is. Your problem. Which leads me up to being the bearer of bad news here….not everyone conducts their rights to use the internet, nor does the world revolve around the social norms according to Jason Thibeault and Rebecca Watson. And THAT is the crux of what a lot of people were trying to point out. You nor Rebecca Watson have that authority.

    I really don’t care if anyone takes my post seriously, because those who read it don’t even know me. In the grand scheme of things, the opinions are insignificant. My sense of self worth doesn’t revolve around what people on a blog post, Twitter or anywhere else on the internet think about me. Unlike some, I don’t need X amount of followers, or people to agree with me, or even take me seriously on blogs, to validate any sense of who I am.

    The bottom line is, you and I disagree on this. Loads of people disagree on this. It isn’t one-sided. Here are just a few examples.







    I have no desire to beat this horse any longer. We disagree. End of story.

  7. 7
    Jason Thibeault

    We absolutely disagree. Considering that you’ve asked, and I’ve answered, your points 1 and 2 repeatedly (hint: the actual circumstances of Elevator Guy’s intentions do not matter at all in whether the situation being creepy is a valid opinion), and considering that you’ve effectively retracted everything that you’ve input into this conversation, I can’t argue with you any longer on any point.

    The fact that you had a long post is nothing I’m a stranger to — look at how many words I waste on explaining situations like this on people like yourself who’ve made up their minds long before reading any of my attempts at persuasive argument! I’m just upset that I tried to take it a bite at a time, and your post disappeared before I got to revisit it. You’re absolutely right, I should have seen that you were not actually putting your essay into the discourse and had planned on “expiring” it after a short time, because then I wouldn’t have addressed any of your concerns at all, because I could have picked someone else who I thought was wrong, who had planned on leaving their essay up permanently. That way, interested parties might be able to read both and see what they thought after reading both sides.

    We also disagree about what this conversation hopes to do. I certainly am not trying to impose any kind of “thought police” on anyone. As I just said, the goal is persuasion, which is fruitless if the readers don’t see both sides. And even in cases where they do see both sides, they’re just as likely to pick the side that they already agreed with, rather than listening to the actual arguments. And there are valid points on both sides of the argument; there are, however, some I happen to think are slightly more valid or more important than others.

    (You know, like my argument that Elevator Guy may have had the holiest of intentions but still did things wrong, period. Which you’ve ignored, multiple times, to accuse me of pretending to read his mind or of misandry or something.)

    Thanks for your input, however short-lived it might have been!

  1. 8
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