It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, so to catch you all up, here are my prior entries in the series.
The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!)
The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down)
The Problem with Privilege (or: missing the point, sometimes spectacularly)
The Problem with Privilege (or: after this, can we get back to the actual issues?)
The Problem with Privilege: Manifesto for Change
The Problem with Privilege (or: cheap shots, epithets and baseless accusations for everyone!)
The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats
It appears that many of the bloggers now on FtB, once from various corners of the intertubes, are embroiled once again in the total catastrophic meltdown of reason that is discussing the nexus of sexism and skepticism.
The focus this time? The same as every other time — how Rebecca Watson can’t be trusted at her word, and how one must be skeptical — SKEPTICAL, I SAY — of anything she says because she’s making the obviously extraordinary claim that someone asserted his privilege to flirt over her request to not be treated that way. I mean, who’s going to believe THAT tall tale, right?
Stephanie Zvan challenges the Elevator Guy Apologists to try assuming Watson isn’t lying, and see what you think about EG’s actions thereafter. A number of folks dance around the challenge but ultimately refuse to participate. Some idiots took the opportunity over at Xblog to turn a post promoting Dawkins’ new book Magic of Reality into another thread about how poorly we’ve been treating Dawkins over his dismissive and sneering post regarding Rebecca Watson. And Ophelia Benson posted an evisceration of the meme that a man “cannot know” that a woman is interested until he cold-propositions her as a perfect stranger in an elevator at 4am.
What do these threads have in common in what’s driving their commentariat? Well, aside from having two trolls (Justicar and DavidByron, both making flat unevidenced assertions and ignoring all counterpoints to their chosen points of view) in common, the posts’ comments also run the gamut of questioning every aspect of Rebecca Watson’s story and present every conceivable method of character assassination of Rebecca Watson herself.
But isn’t that how skepticism works?
Well, in short, no. There’s a subset of skeptics that are skeptical well past reasonable levels. There are people who will pore over every detail of a paper or news article hoping to find (or spin) some part of it into something supporting their overarching worldview that the paper doesn’t actually do by itself — think global warming denialists. There are people who will not take at face value the most trivial parts of a person’s story, where every scrap of evidence must be subjected to CSI-level scrutiny — think the right-wingers checking the kerning on the fonts on Obama’s birth certificate. And there are people who must actively sow disinformation about any case or example that undercuts their chosen narrative of How It All Works, who are so skeptical of every piece of media that runs counter to their worldview that it MUST be “liberal bias” — think FOX News.
These people are unhinged lunatics, for the most part. And the manner in which they are unhinged is that skepticism normally works by keeping us from believing every little thing that’s suggested to us uncritically. I posit that the abovementioned groups are victims of a runaway skepticism of the sort that produces AGW denialists, Birthers, the Tea Party, 9/11 Truthers, New World Order conspiracy nutjobs, and just about anyone else who says something about “the establishment keeping the truth suppressed”.
To some of the cranks looking to provide apologetics for Elevator Guy’s behaviour, the problem is not EG’s behaviour at all. Nor his intentions, nor his motivations. No, the problem is entirely in how Rebecca Watson reacted to them. By… saying she was creeped out. Which I guess was totally out of proportion to what he did, according to them, given the chorus of “zero bads” you’ll hear whenever the topic is broached.
You can explain til you’re blue in the face that Watson’s reaction was entirely proportional, and that the death spiral began when Stef McGraw accused her of demanding that men never flirt or express their sexuality. Which was, demonstrably, not Rebecca’s intention at all. This fact doesn’t matter to the apologists. They’d prefer it if Watson actually said the things McGraw accuses her of saying, so they pretend like she did. That is their first presupposition.
The apologists must then gain the moral high ground of being the better skeptic, so they call into question every aspect of Watson’s story. The bar closing times are questioned, despite hotel bars in Dublin being able to serve alcohol 24/7. The photographic proof is offered that the bar setting can’t possibly have involved EG hearing her exhortation given the number of people in the picture and their relative positions to her. Never mind that Watson was in that bar for, by all accounts, ten hours, and the picture represents a few microseconds of that time, and worse, she’s even talking to someone off-frame. The existence of exhortations to please not mistreat Watson in her speech by paying her sexualized “complements” is questioned, even though the video evidence is well available. The possibility that EG didn’t hear either exhortation is raised, though he’s said “your ideas are fascinating” making him either present for one of the exhortations, or lying about what he thinks of her for even creepier reasons. The fact that Rebecca claims prosopagnosia and therefore couldn’t identify Elevator Guy if she wanted to, given that it takes her longer to pick up on unique identifying features or body language for any given person, obviously must suggest that she couldn’t even recognize the guy as someone from the bar despite it being fairly easy to tell that someone exited a room at the same or nearly the same time as you and got into the same elevator with you, alone, at 4 in the morning. The guy’s intentions are called into question, because all of these apologists would never dare ask for coffee as an euphemism for sex, and therefore he must be of noblest intentions, never mind that the hotel in Dublin didn’t provide coffee makers in the rooms and they could have had coffee in the bar they just left.
And even the existence of Elevator Guy is questioned. This last doesn’t have an adequate answer — it depends entirely on Rebecca Watson making the entire event up.
This is a level of skepticism that is predicated on one solitary idea: that women are untrustworthy when it comes to their sexual self-determination, so feminists will lie to make points that undercut a man’s privilege to flirt when and where and how he wants without consequences.
None of these pieces of evidence actually undercut Rebecca’s story, but they don’t have to. The apologists have already decided that Rebecca is guilty of inventing the story of some evil man accosting her from whole cloth out of some twisted demand that men be treated as rapists, even though no aspect of this story bears any sort of scrutiny. It is a conspiracy theory and it is somehow exempt from the especial brand of skepticism that these people claim.
So, I ask you, apologists: what evidence would it take to convince you that Elevator Guy did what Watson claims he did? What evidence would it take to convince you that Watson does not intend the subjugation of all men to a gynocracy? What evidence would it take to convince you that you’re actually the ones making it all up?
I expect the answer to that to be something along the lines of “an unbroken line of video evidence from the talk proper through to Watson’s hotel room”, but even then, I expect you’d all go over it frame by frame to prove there’s no wrongdoing.
Take Stephanie’s challenge if you want a little perspective. If you assume that Watson’s story checks out, would you continue providing apologetics for EG’s actions? I’ll go one step further — take every aspect of the story out of the equation but the encounter in the elevator. Is it acceptable to find a physically smaller and less imposing member of the opposite sex and approach them in an effort to make a transaction that’s generally considered well beyond your level of familiarity (even if you only mean coffee)? With the foreknowledge that it might be “taken the wrong way”? In an environment that has cut off any escape route for that smaller person and may in fact trigger fight-or-flight reactions? When that person has obviously had some not insignificant amount of alcohol? When that person doesn’t know you from Adam?
If you said yes to all of these, then your actions are creepy. To Rebecca, to any number of women that have been assaulted or have been taught to avoid situations like the described one, and yes, even to me. I would be very creeped out if someone more physically imposing than me had, say, decided to ask me for a loan of a few hundred dollars that he’ll pay back tomorrow in an elevator after I’d been drinking in a foreign country and I had no clue who the hell they were. I might get worried that he’d try to forceably take that money from me.
Or hell, change the analogy back to coffee in his room. I’m still creeped out, knowing that this man could very well mean sex. He could be the nicest, sweetest teddy bear of a man outside of my initial impressions of him, which are that he followed me into an elevator and propositioned me cold, without knowing me. I’m going to be creeped out regardless, because I don’t know the guy and he asked for a transaction well beyond our familiarity threshold.
Why do we need extraordinary evidence before we take Rebecca Watson at her word that this happened exactly as it did, considering how proportionate her response to the event was, and how disproportionately everyone else has taken everything else since? Why aren’t we demanding extraordinary evidence from the conspiracy theorists, that we take her as a rational and impartial actor in that play until extraordinary evidence turns up that proves that she was lying willfully about some aspect of her story, or that her motivations were not exactly as presented?