A comment on the latest drama in the atheist/skeptical community.

Considering how badly I got raked over the coals by various feminists for my last attempt at discussing issues involving male privilege, it’s probably a sign of diminished intelligence that I would step into that lion pit again, but here I go.

This time out it’s not about a web comic, but a shit-storm in the skeptical/atheist community that is commonly being referred to as “Elevatorgate.” It all started with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame when she did a video blog about an uncomfortable encounter in an elevator she had at a recent atheist conference. Here’s a transcript of the small portion of the video blog where she describes what happened:

“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’

Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner…”

Apparently Rebecca had mentioned, either in discussion panels or in small group conversations, several times throughout the day how she often feels unwelcome at skeptical conferences like the one she was attending because invariably someone tries to hit on her. Given that, it’s understandable how she would find the actions of the unnamed male on the elevator to be creepy. Especially given the time of day it was, the location in which it took place, and her announcement just prior to getting on the elevator that she was going to bed. As is often the case when things like this are posted to the net, someone stood up to defend Creepy Elevator Guy (CEG from now on), and the beginnings of a shit-storm appeared on the horizon.

Now let me say this right up front: Sure, it’s entirely possible CEG had purely innocent intentions and wasn’t actually looking to get laid, but even with as clueless as I can be about issues of feminism I can still understand why the assumption would be that he was looking to get his dick wet. Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter and I’ve hung around with enough creepy guys in my time to know what sort of stupid ideas they get in their heads, but even I was thinking it was a little skeevy. Still, it appears Rebecca declined the offer and the fellow didn’t push it any further than that.

Anyway, so some folks stood up to defend CEG and it wasn’t long before the battle lines were drawn and the growing shit-storm started to pick up speed. Reading through the comments back and forth on a couple of different blogs can be very dispiriting because there doesn’t seem to be any room for an honest discussion. Sexual harassment and the threat of rape are, understandably, emotionally upsetting topics so it’s probably no surprise that so many were outraged that anyone would think to suggest that CEG hadn’t done anything wrong. Meanwhile the CEG defenders were flabbergasted that so many people in the “skeptical” movement would make such blatant assumptions about CEG’s intentions based on how little info Rebecca had given anyone to go on. There are a lot of blanket statements being thrown back and forth that I don’t think accurately describe the stances or either side and with that comes the inevitable name calling.

This is dispiriting because the topic of sexism in the atheist/skeptical “movement” is probably a good discussion to have, but the topic is so emotionally charged that it’s almost pointless to engage in it because both sides end up talking past each other instead of to each other. Despite the apparent blindness my white male privilege gives me to the injustices of the non-white-male population (as was repeatedly pointed out to me in comments on my aforementioned entry) I do see and acknowledge that sexism and, yes, even misogyny are a problem in the atheist/skeptical community. There’s definitely room for improvement that’ll never happen so long as shit-storms flare up every time we try to talk about it.

This one has gotten so big that even well-known “leaders” (I use the term lightly) such as Richard Dawkins and Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) have gotten caught up in it and have apparently disappointed legions of fans by saying things that others felt were illustrative of their acute male privilege problem. It doesn’t help that when a female blogger by the name of Stef McGraw wrote an entry critical of Rebecca Watson’s vlog the latter turned around and used her status as a keynote speaker at an event where the former was present to criticize the criticism, which turned the shit-storm into a fecal hurricane.

Here’s where I stick my foot in it and say, well, I can see valid points on both sides. Yeah, at best Creepy Elevator Guy didn’t think his proposition (innocent or otherwise) through very well and, at worst, he made someone feel uncomfortable and threatened, intentionally or not, and that’s not a good thing. At the same time, the feminists in the audience did some amazing knee-jerk assumption making that is probably out of place in a skeptical community. Understandable as it may be from an emotional standpoint, it’s still going to rub some people the wrong way. When you stamp your feet and demand that your position is the only correct one to have and anyone who disagrees is a misogynistic fuckwad, well, you’re not going to win a lot of converts to your cause. It comes across as ideological as any Fundie and that’ll hit a brick wall with a lot of people right from the get-go.

More importantly, these sorts of shit-storms make people reluctant to even discuss the issue because it always blows up into a shit-storm. I like to think I’m a decent guy who respects and appreciates women for more than their physical assets, but by some accounts I’m more of a problem than the openly misogynistic assholes because I can’t see how anti-woman I really am due to male privilege. It’s only through sheer stupidity on my part that I even attempt to comment on these issues because the smarter side of me says I should just stick to less potentially explosive issues such as clubbing baby seals. (For the record, I’m against it, but I’m probably still part of the problem due to my Privileged Human Species status blinding me to the true horrors of being a baby seal.)

So what am I trying to say here? I’m saying that I don’t think either side has handled the conversation particularly well and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Until we stop yelling past each other and twisting what the other side said to suit our arguments, well, this will just keep happening again and again with no real gains to be made. A lot of folks keep saying they want to have a conversation, but that involves some give and take and most folks seem only interested in the giving part.

I now await being told how clueless I am and how I just don’t get it.

21 thoughts on “A comment on the latest drama in the atheist/skeptical community.

  1. I was very hesitant to address this issue as well. Like you, I finally did write something about it. Why? It dawned on me that my belief that I would get raked over the coals no matter what I said was a bit of a problem. I don’t like feeling that way in any community with which I might want to associate. I don’t hold back for fear of upsetting Christians, so why should I worry about upsetting atheists?

  2. Shitstorm is right. It went from “Hey guys, Pro Tip: If you’re drunk at 4:30am and hit on a woman who you you didn’t speak with the entire evening… you’re doing it wrong.” to a raging torrent of sexism (in both directions). Let me generalize just this once: Femnazi’s on one side, Insensitive Troglodytes on the other, each apparently just waiting for the next chance to begin throwing shit around. I don’t even want to touch the issue because it’s covered in shit. My only hope is that they go back to their relative caves and the rest of us in the middle can learn something and live a little more thoughtfully.


  3. Internet fights. Like real fights, just less useful and less restrained. And one can’t even “win” them, so what is the point. Interesting though that the people involved were “named people” to a big degree, rather than just the usual anonymous internet squabblers like (possibly you and) me.

  4. Yes, it seems there are some issues where people put up their dukes and plug their ears. It’s obvious that both sides have issues in seeing the other.

    This is the first I’ve heard but I have to agree with Les. We don’t know this guy’s intentions and assuming he was some sort of sinister individual is just wrong. But conversely it is just dumb to approach anyone, especially women, in that way.

    I must say, while he may not have had bad intentions that was a terrible way to show it. At that time of day who the fuck approaches someone of the opposite sex and asks them to come back to their room? Asking someone to have coffee in the morning over breakfast probably would of been more appropriate.

  5. As I was reading (third-hand) about this, it reminded me of nothing more than gaming league/clan/supergroup infighting, where cliques turn into Mortal Enemies and hot buttons turn into The Big Red Button That Launches Everything At Those Bastards/Bitches.

    The problem (if I can pontificate) is that most folks want to align with one side or the other. Which implies (and thus must be argued) that one side (or the other) is wholly correct and the other side is obviously not only wrong, but malicious and evil and WRONG-wrong.

    Hitting on a woman on an elevator in the not-so-wee hours of the morning is probably not going to engender a positive reaction, even if you haven’t heard what she’s been saying in panels. On the other hand, in the not-so-wee hours of the morning, even if not actually drunk, nobody’s cognitive abilities are running on all cylinders, so claiming either side acted in a wholly rational fashion is probably not all that useful or real.

    Insensitivity and oversensitivity happen. Get over it. It’s not an existential debate.

    And, yes, I read the Schroedinger’s Rapist essay. And I found myself both sympathetic to and appalled by that particular mindset. As well as both apprehensive and resentful.

  6. Ha! I had just been telling my hubby about this particular shit storm the other day. The whole thing has turned into a nest of insane folks on both sides jumping out to piss on one another. And then when Dawkins stepped in and made his rather uncouth comment ( that was certainly a strange one 😯 ) all literal hell broke loose. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned right?!
    Hemant I have no issue with, same with PZ. They are both males, like you, who brought their view and points to light without stooping to petty “in my opinion” sarcasm to make them. Dawkins… just plain shocked me, I get the point but really? did he have to say it that way? What the fuck is wrong with just coming out and saying you fools are all like like a bunch of sugar hyped children on the school yard. Get the fuck over it!

    So Rebecca felt creeped out but no where in her initial statement did she say he was a rapist or threatened to do anything of the sort. She just said it was creepy and a note to ATHEIST guys at conferences where there are hopes of picking up ATHEIST chicks (since their seems to be an overwhelming amount of the prior compared to the latter)- Don’t be a creep! That is all I took from that vlog. Find a girl interesting, cool; ask her for coffee,cool – just not at 4 am after you have followed her into an elevator where she is alone with you and ask her to your room??? Still can’t understand that bit of it. But really, how the hell does that translate to misogynist bastards and feminist shrews??

    Maybe if Rebecca had made a point of what if a straight man had been in the elevator at 4 am and this big burly biker like dude – you know the ones I am talking about 😉 – followed him in there was like “hey I find you interesting, wanna go to my room for coffee?” I don’t think most guys would be fine with that. I am sure they would have found it a bit creepy just as she found it a bit creepy for that guy to hit on her.

    To me this just boils down to respect. The big issue of late is how does the atheist/skeptical community make womenfolk feel comfortable enough to actually join it. That is where all this shit started from. But I think that is really what all this stems from is that the few chicks that are in the movement want to be respected a bit more as the smart, intelligent “leader” that the guys are instead of that hot chick who also does atheist talks.

    For me, it is a bit irritating since I get a different aspect of it then the single chicks. I am not on the market so therefore I am not really worthwhile to talk to by most of the single guys because there is no chance to convince me to go home with them. And part of me is glad about that, one arrogant prat is enough, thanks :mrgreen:

    Oh sorry… somewhere I was supposed to mention you were a clueless right? Hmmm…I guess someone else can do it for me then, I have met my bitching quota for the day.

  7. I think that the problem that many women (including myself) had with the general tone of the posts from males defending the CEG is that they defended the right to his creepy behavior, however showed a complete lack of respect and disregard for the woman’s opinion that it was creepy and made her feel uncomfortable.

    That, in my opinion, shows a very deep rooted problem. Without slinging mud I can say that it appears that misogyny seems to be very alive and well.

  8. This is one of the most thoughtful contributions I have read about this silly affair (Miranda Celeste Hale also comes to mind). It must be possible to say that the behaviour of Elevator Guy should be discouraged to make women feel more comfortable at conferences without immediately having lots of self-proclaimed “men’s rights advocates” throw insults at you. Likewise, it should be possible to say that merely asking a question and graciously accepting the answer is not really that terrible a behaviour without immediately being called an enabler of rapists and gropers. And it should really be possible for women to come out saying the same thing without being vilified as not sufficiently feminist.

    And yes, you put your finger on what is probably the most galling part of this whole “discussion”, if it can even be called that. Withdrawing to the position that everybody who disagrees with you just does not get it because, essentially, they aren’t you, and thus only your opinion counts, makes any discourse whatsoever impossible. It completely shields you from having to consider whether you may have overreached or failed to take other perspectives into account. It is the exact opposite of rational inquiry. Yet that is exactly what this whole “you don’t get it due to white male privilege” boils down to.

  9. Hmmm…a shit storm over a woman feeling uncomfortable about being invited to a strange man’s room at 4am. WTF? How does that make ANYONE think that’s other than just wrong? A man with his brain turned on would ask to breakfast — not to his room. Every woman knows that you never ever put yourself at risk like this. For the man’s part she could be a wacko and he could be the one in trouble. Just bad idea all the way around. How this got to be about male privilege shows how desperate both sides are to fight about this and will take any opportunity to do so.

    Sure there is male privilege that’s why most top executives are male, as are most politicians and all presidents. That doesn’t mean that all males benefit from it. You are not seeing much — if any, so no wonder you are puzzled by it. I’ve seen a good bit of it and have had my career pretty much derailed by it. My first supervisor had her health ruined by it. It happens. It sucks. But it doesn’t happen to everyone, so it’s just stupid to get into fights and making broad generic statements. It’s even stupider to do it on the internet where people don’t moderate their brains while engaging fingers.

  10. I did not find much to disagree with in the stated opinions of the chief protagonists, apart from feeling that the whole thing got a bit overheated.

    The guy in the elevator surely came across as creepy, and Rebecca was perfectly entitled to feel that this incident was a bit off. Stef was also entitled to her opinion.

    It was when all the hundreds of comments started pouring in, with regard to the elevator guy that I felt some unease.

    Who out there once considered that this guy was probably just extremely shy, introverted or lacking in some finer social skills and just frigged up his timing, approach and intent? If this is indeed who/what he is (and it is not improbable) and recognises that this is about him, how crushed is he now?

    The only saving grace in all this is that I have not seen the guy publicly identified.

  11. Having read Gavin DeBecker’s Gift Of Fear (and other survival signals that protect us from violence), I thought RW was absolutely right to let guys know women have a reason to be wary in elevators, in the wee hours, and of first-up invitations to private spaces. So if you want to get to know someone, word to the wise, etc.

    But the implication that interest in sex is, in itself, creepy, bothers me. And I may be the single most qualified person on the planet to say this, because in the slow-to-fast bell curve I’m an outlier on the slow side. In my dating years I never even kissed a girl on the first date – that was for the second date maybe. My libido is as strong as anyones; it’s just how I roll. And even I don’t have a moral problem with people on the other end of the curve as long as they respect the other person’s safety and autonomy. You’re a quick study and the other person is too? Have fun, kids; I won’t wait up.

    Problems happen when there’s a mismatch of speed, and social conventions exist to help smooth out those problems. Women have good reason to want witnesses to them saying either yes or no.

    That said, Elevator guy’s intentions clearly were friendly if you include sex in friendly. A little bit creepy, not a lot, because he backed right off when she said no. If he’d argued with her… whole different story. Here’s what’s really, really creepy and says a lot about some guys: the threats RW has received since then. She’s been getting emails and Tweets like; “You should be drugged and raped” and “I’ll cop a feel if I ever get you in an elevator”.

    What happened was; she flipped over a rock and some really creepy things came crawling out. Not so unexpected though. What I found interesting – and encouraging – about the whole thing is that RD had few defenders. People called his comment, and his subsequent ignoring-the-rule-of-holes defense of it wrong-headed. The atheist community doesn’t have infallible leaders, which is as it should be.

    A couple quotes snatched out of the ether from this shitstorm…

    “Bloggers: raising awareness, one Internet shitstorm at a time”


    “You’re a leader if you inspire others to change something or do something that is new to them.”

    Which by the way makes you a leader Les, because I think it was you who inspired me to start blogging lo these many years ago. Hate to let perfectly good shitstorms go to waste.

  12. decrepitoldfool wrote:

    Which by the way makes you a leader Les, because I think it was you who inspired me to start blogging lo these many years ago.

    I’m no leader. I’m just a guy trying to get back home to his wife.

  13. I’m no leader. I’m just a guy trying to get back home to his wife.

    Well that’s just what a heroic leader would say! Or was it Michael Douglas in Falling Down? 😎

  14. I suppose that, if someone follows you, you are (technically) a “leader”.

    (Because intent doesn’t matter!)

  15. I’ve been avoiding this as much as I can. The problem is some of the ‘It was wrong’ side have gone completely off the deep end, and seem to imply that any approach to a woman is sexist and demeaning. That isn’t to condone CEG, but rather to note that there are those on the net who thinka difference in opinion can only be expressed as extremes, and anyone who disagrees with them is a “INO” (in name only). There are an overvocal number on Pharyngula who assume anyone who does not agree with them 100%, anyone who can see shades of grey is a right wing lunatic, and the correct way to communicate this is to have every third word a swear word. In fact to query the need for swearing marks you out as a namby-pamby wuss.

    (If I was to post this on Pharyngula at least 2 people would accuse me of defending CEG)

  16. (If I was to post this on Pharyngula at least 2 people would accuse me of defending CEG)

    The effect might be more like a tank full of piranhas, but that’s Pharyngula. It’s like that bar where a fight always breaks out; entertaining but messy.

  17. I think the intelligence curve is broader on P than FR. Same low end, better high end. Still wading through a swamp at times.

  18. The singular, innocuous comment that we all can agree on, regardless of debates over of wrong or right, sexual objectification, etc.; CEG made a dumbass, thoughtless move. I can only hope his judgment was clouded by large quantities of alcohol. That’s the only thing that can come close to excusing his suggestion (or proposition, whichever it was). Not too many women would muse, “Stranger. 4:00 a.m. His hotel room. Sounds fun. What’s the worst that could happen?”

  19. Pingback: Once again I stand on the precipice of a decision. | Stupid Evil Bastard

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