I really want to get on with other things. Seriously, I do. Which is why I want to cede a bit of ground — or at least it might seem that way to the casual observer, given all the things I’m about to agree to. It would pay dividends in furthering the conversation if you do your best not to skim before replying.
There are a number of arguments in this whole privilege debacle surrounding the so-called Elevatorgate (a timeline, for you newbies) that, while not actually rebutting the issues in question, are in themselves valid and correct. Here’s a few of them, and why they don’t address the problem at hand.
1) Bigtime celebrity Rebecca Watson shouldn’t have called out a total unknown like Stef McGraw at that conference keynote speech, putting her in the same category as misogynists, because of the same imbalance of power (a.k.a. privilege)!
Absolutely correct, which makes it a very good thing that it apparently didn’t happen the way people keep saying it did. I had originally argued here that Rebecca’s slide in the keynote was a nuke at a rabbit hunt given the “official” nature of the conference, preferring instead a response on the blog post or via another video blog, but on doing more research, it was thoroughly appropriate to the venue and Stef’s actual position.
See, UNI Freethought is a Center For Inquiry (CFI) leadership organization and Stef McGraw is its Director of Activities. The conference where Rebecca included the slide quoting Stef was a CFI Student Leadership conference, and Stef McGraw had posted the ridiculous, objectionable straw-man nonsense that she did on her organization’s blog as a leader of that organization. One of the things one must learn as a leader is how to best represent your organization, because everything you say in an official venue is viewed as part of that organization’s position.
Stef did not represent her organization well in saying that Rebecca was denying anyone’s right to flirt. She was, in fact, missing Rebecca’s point spectacularly, and misrepresenting Rebecca’s actual words to a great degree. And she was using an argument used by real misogynists in the process — and in exactly the same way that misogynists use the argument. She did not say that Stef is herself misogynist or a bad feminist, only that she had used an argument that misogynists use. That Rebecca pointed out that a student leader and feminist could fall prey to the very arguments that anti-woman idiots use themselves is a painful lesson for Stef to learn in public (especially as an example of how student leaders should learn to be better leaders), but even if Rebecca had taken Stef aside privately and suggested she rethink her rebuttal, Rebecca would have been treated as every inch the bully as how she was treated for having done it the way she did.
I had also considered the possibility of a debate (bare assertion vs nuance — how many times have we seen that played out in theist debates?), or via another of Rebecca Watson’s video blogs (which has actually more viewers and less appropriate scope than at the CFI Student Leadership conference where it happened!), but neither of these are equitable and would, again, have led to the charge of bullying. The only ways this explosion could have been prevented are if a) Stef had simply not posted what she did, b) someone had taken Stef aside and explained to her why what she was rebutting was incorrect, or c) Rebecca had not named names.
And considering that naming names is important in giving people real examples of behaviour that is actively damaging to your cause, and of avoiding the “let’s talk about a subject as vaguely as humanly possible so as not to offend anyone” problem that many skeptics found in Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech, one cannot consider C a viable option if you expect Rebecca to also point out that what Stef said (no matter how good of a feminist Stef is otherwise) is actually used by misogynists to shut down conversation about how creepy certain situations can be.
So, yes, I agree, it really would have sucked to be Stef McGraw in that situation, because it was a no-win. But what Stef said about Rebecca’s complaint was simply flat wrong, and missing the point, and poor representation of her organization, and therefore needed to be corrected.
2) You can’t know what Elevator Guy was thinking!
True, without reservation. Also, asked and answered. And beside the point, frankly.
In this case, you don’t really need to know what EG was intending to understand that what he did was every bit as creepy as Rebecca Watson felt it was. If you want to play Pick Up Artist, you’re doing it wrong. Well, you might actually be following advice directly from pick-up artists, but you’re not likely to score with this one, mostly because of the venue. See, pick up artists do often cold-propose girls, often when they’re isolated, often when they’re tipsy or late at night. And it might even work sometimes. Except, however, when your intended target is a minor celebrity in your community, just gave a talk that included anecdotes about how annoying it is to be hit on at conferences, and just announced she was going to bed. And it’s 4 AM. And you’ve had access to her ear for several hours but this is the first you’ve said to her. And you’re in a situation that women are taught to avoid, as part of their rape avoidance training enculturated into them by overprotective parents, campus police, and every news report about rape ever.
It’s well possible that Elevator Guy didn’t even mean “sex” when he said “coffee”. It’s well possible he really did mean “conversation” and not “schtupping”. He might even have been genuine about “Don’t take this the wrong way” — saying that at least recognizes the possibility that he could be interpreted a “wrong way” to begin with. He has at least enough situational awareness to know he wasn’t doing something particularly likely to be interpreted correctly without said caveat. “Don’t take this the wrong way” is almost always a lead-in to something that will be taken the “wrong way” because it’s an incredibly impolitic thing to say.
Seriously, if you think he did nothing wrong just because he left it at the failed pick-up, you’re ignoring so much of the situation that you’re as clueless as you claim Elevator Guy to be. And I’m sure he’s seen enough of the argument to be gunshy about cold-propositioning isolated girls in elevators at 4 am from now on, even if really for coffee. Or at least so I’d hope. So why are you advocating that people can act however they want, damn the consequences? What happened to being responsible for the consequences of your actions?
3) Sexism cuts both ways, not only against women!
Absolutely true. There are many ways that sexism in society actually inherently benefits women, most markedly in the realm of child custody and alimony. Man is seen as the provider, and woman is seen as the child-rearer. As such, the vast majority of child custody cases that go to court end with the woman getting the majority of care. Before they go to court, half of these cases will be settled, the vast majority of them ending with maternal custody. Of contested court cases, the vast majority end with sole maternal custody. The scales are tipped heavily toward the woman raising the child, and this naturally also skews alimony payment statistics as well — the “provider” must help (or solely) provide for the child even though he gets little or no say in how the child is raised thereafter.
There are other, more subtle ways that sexism hurts men. For instance, the very idea that women are the default child-rearers means single fathers are basically ignored in all topics involving child care. Or the strange looks I get every time I mention that my wife proposed to me, not the other way around. Or the assumption that all men are talking or thinking about sex all the time, and that blatant come-ons in inappropriate situations are the norm as a result (hint: men and women are every bit equals in how often they think about sex).
Or how women are taught that they are responsible for rape avoidance because justice after being raped is exceedingly hard to come by, which means these women become risk-averse around men, the overwhelming majority whom do not seek to harm them. To many of these men, they are being unjustly treated as monsters, as “potential rapists”. Some of these men understand why this dynamic exists, in part because men have both physical and societal advantages that women do not, and are okay with suggesting to other men that they can shoulder some of the burden in making women feel more safe. This is noble and chivalrous of these special sorts of men, but can be seen as misandrist, “man-blaming”, and damaging psychologically to men by those men who might have scars already.
I can honestly see this argument being understandable, and sympathize with it, having been falsely accused of rape myself in high school. It has left gigantic gaping mental scars that I bear to this day. However, my own trauma is probably also why I am all about situational awareness, empathy, respect of personal boundaries, and honesty, meaning the same experiences led me to a completely different conclusion. It’s also why I’m okay with crossing to the other side of the street, or avoiding the elevator with the solo female stranger. Don’t get me wrong — my thought in this is not that I’m some kind of monster that might actually do something to her, but rather that I know that there really are real monsters out there that might have hurt some of these women in the past, or someone they might care about, and I don’t want to inadvertently hurt anyone if they happen to have mental scars similar to my own.
It all comes down to empathy. If you don’t understand the other person’s life experience, you can’t correctly intuit how they’ll react in a given situation. Since we know that women are taught rape avoidance techniques as a matter of course, they might already have considered you Schrodinger’s Rapist because of some cue you’ve given them inadvertently. Like following them onto an elevator and cold-propositioning them, for instance. Whatever your intentions, even if they don’t involve sex, that’s not the time or place for it. I mean, you’re still free to try, but you’re grossly unlikely to succeed just because of the situation. You’re far more likely to do some mental damage to the other person than you are of getting laid, statistically speaking, because even seemingly benign actions have consequences for everyone in the equation, not just for the person making the pick-up attempt.
4) Feminists can be bullies too! (There’s even a blog post.)
Again, absolutely true, without reservation. Whenever this sort of thing comes up, it’s important to note that any subset of human beings can be made up of both awesome people and jerkwads. Well, unless you’re taking a subset of people who are awesome, but then you’re just messing with my metaphor. Stop it.
There are feminists who recognize the actual power imbalance and want to right it, so men and women are on totally even ground societally. There are “radical” feminists who see the power imbalance and go as far to the fringe as humanly imaginable, in suggesting that all men are pigs unequivocally, or that women owning their sexuality are in fact anti-feminist. There are also radical feminists in the sense of the actual radical feminism movement (and in the same sense as “militant atheists” who are in fact not gun-toters), which is akin to post-colonial feminism sans some of the big picture concerns — these aren’t the ones people talk about when they say “radical feminists” as though it was a slur, of course, so I’ll always use scarequotes to denote the fringers. Additionally, there are also feminists-in-name-only, who claim self-empowered righteousness while believing unequivocally anti-woman things, like that women should be denied the vote (for instance, Ann Coulter). Or that abortions should be illegal, or sex ed should be abstinence-only, both policies that encourage women’s role as babymaker. Or pretty much any right-wing woman-related ideal, honestly.
Both of these subsets of feminists serve to drag the overton window to the left or right of “true center”, a.k.a. post-colonial feminism, which is generally about promoting equality between men and women, and is sharply critical of both “radical” feminists and feminists-in-name-only. It is only called feminism and not equalism (or more rightly, egalitarianism) because men are the empowered ones in this society at the moment — people making this claim think radical feminists are the norm, when they are decidedly not.
There are any number of ways in which men have more advantages in our society than women, not the least being that women are viewed as babymakers and men as providers, and thus many of the privileges men enjoy involve women being stuck with the baby-related duties like child-rearing, not getting good jobs or pay due to maternity leave, et cetera. So there’s a subset of feminists that actually have their eyes on the prize, who will become obviated except as defenders of the true center once equality has been achieved.
Just like you can’t claim any moral high ground automatically just by being an atheist (as Richard Dawkins proved recently), you can’t claim any moral high ground just by being a feminist. You can, in fact, go too far, overreaching what is justifiable by the plain reality of the situation. And for the record, Rebecca’s actions do not constitute “too far” by any sane measure, just by merely complaining about the event and suggesting that guys not “do that”.
5) Speaking of Dawkins, he was totally right about Elevatorgate being less bad than female genital mutilation amongst Muslims!
Yes, he was. He said it in probably the least politic way imaginable, given that he was talking to his community about a member of said community, but still, he was right — women being creeped out in elevators is less bad than women getting their bits cut up. In the exact same way, though, religious folks making pro-religious laws or inserting religious views into science textbooks is less bad than religious folks carrying out genocide against non-believers. And yet Dawkins is willing to fight both.
Most people on reading Dawkins’ comments about Watson’s complaints rightly pointed out that he was dismissing a bad situation because it was not as bad as some other thing happening elsewhere. This is a derailing tactic, meant to stop an argument when it is going in a direction one does not like, and it succeeded in a grand way — it caused the vast majority of the “Great Rift” that the atheist and skeptic communities are suffering through today (not that they haven’t suffered through dozens of such Great Rifts before). If Dawkins had not seen fit to post what he did, the community would very likely not have polarized into Team Richard and Team Rebecca like it has. He probably should have left well enough alone and let the fire burn out, rather than throwing a giant gasoline bomb then walking away after dozens of people tried to explain to him exactly what he got wrong. The retorts to Dawkins include such level-headed essays as Emily Band’s at the Guardian, or Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist fame, or even a post at SheThought, well-known as a supposedly “less sex-oriented” Skepchicks alternative. That’s right — the site created to be the Anti-Skepchick posted something saying Dawkins was wrong.
And yet, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing misogynistic about what Dawkins said — it’s actually very pro-woman, if derisive about the “chick” part of the website name and about the specific experiences of a specific “first-world” situation. And I’m very happy that he’s pledged to offer free daycare at all future The Amazing Meetings — that’s definitely materially assisting equality between the sexes and encouraging participation by those women that don’t normally because they’re child-rearers in a cornerstone annual event of the skeptical and atheist movements. (And yeah, it’ll help those single-parent men too.) He’s even right that there are more serious concerns in this world than the ones Rebecca was complaining about. But shutting down a mere complaint is seriously lacking in comprehension about the very similar kind of fight against privilege that he fights in debating with Christians who are merely happy to go about their business and are not harming society in any way by their delusions.
It’s why I really wish Dawkins would say something — ANYTHING — about the whole situation, now that people have tried repeatedly to explain why it is, in fact, important to talk about these so-called “zero bad” situations in a society where “zero bad” can escalate into “real bad” in no time flat. One must not stop considering bad things bad, just because they are not as bad as the worst things.
This ain’t even close to every argument that people are making which are right, but are simply beside the point. I’m sure I could get a few more blog posts out of this one. But this post’s long enough as it is, and again, I’m really running out of steam. And I really hate all the pushback I’m getting from some people who don’t understand why their arguments are simply tangential to the actual question of privilege. I can’t honestly see my arguments as being anything but reasonable, and still there are enough assholes pulling shit out of… themselves… that I get discouraged about our community, and can’t blame women for being discouraged about having to fight tooth and nail for their place in it. Even though this last fact means I’m almost certainly right that there’s a privilege problem.