Wednesday, July 6, 2011

It's Lonely On This Side

Well, the atheist community has spoken, and I find myself on the outside looking in on my favorite bloggers. It appears, I disagree with the vast majority of mainstream atheist bloggers on the Elevatorgate issue. I also happen to agree with Richard Dawkins.

Wow, against the odds, I agree with his Lordship Richard Dawkins. I should be giddy with intellectual indignant pride.

But I'm really not.

Adam Lee, the founder of Daylight Atheism is the blogger I admire most in the world. He talks about complex issues that challenge what we know about truth, justice, morality and ethics - and no matter the position he takes - I always found myself agreeing with him. Always.
But not now.

Hemant Mahtma, founder of the Friendly Atheist has always been the voice of reason in the community. He blogs about important events in the atheist community almost instantaneously. He is always approachable. I don't agree with him on vegetarianism, but he's mostly spot on. I especially appreciate his friendly, not-in-your-face strategy when dealing with atheist Public Relations issues.
But not now.

P.Z. Meyers, the founder of Pharyngula, is a fiery, angry atheist in the most stereotypical vein of thought. I don't like P.Z. I'm going to come out and say that. There are people in the world I disagree with, but like. P.Z. is a guy I generally agree with, but dislike. I don't like his tone, I don't like his blog style - it's all too angry for me. He probably is a fine person - but as a blogger - no me gusta. That said, he's usually right about issues. He may speak arrogantly, but his point is right on, and I agree with him.
But not now.

Lastly, Jen is the founder of BlagHag, and next to Greta Christina, probably the most famous female atheist blogging right now. Jen is a sex-positive, science-loving not-straight feminist atheist blogger. In the past, she's called out feminists for it's failure to embrace science. I particularly like her because she can poke holes in evolution misinformation. And generally, she's got the movement right and we agree.
But not now.

When I find myself on the opposite side of "party lines" I usually use that as an indicator that I need to re-evaluate my position.

Surprisingly, I think I can clear up this problem, and the above bloggers probably aren't going to like what I have to say. This comes down to which you are first - a humanist or a feminist?

Borrowing from Hemant's blog, here's the rundown of the situation:

1) Female 1 is at a bar after giving a speech on sexism in the atheism community in a foreign country. She announces she is tired and goes to the elevator.

2) Unknown Male approaches Female 1 in the elevator and says: "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?'.

3) Female 1 says no and then goes to her room.

4) Female 1 makes a video in which she mentions the situation, that she felt creeped out, and tells men "not to do that."

5) Female 2 responds to the video saying that situation doesn’t sound as bad as Female 1 made it out to be and that although Female 1 has a right to feel creeped out, she has no right not to tell men not to do that.

The situation progressed a little further when Female 1 called out Female 2 while giving a speech where Female 2 was an audience member. But that is a separate matter and not something I care to address.

For most of my regular readers of this blog, the situation may not seem like a big deal. But this is a HUGE deal - both for the atheism movement and for feminism.

For what it's worth, I stand very firmly on the side of Female 2 (Stef). In some ways I can identify with Unknown Male (Elevator Guy) because it's possible that he really did find her interesting and wanted to talk to her more before she probably left his country. That said, of course I think Female 1 (Rebecca) had every right to feel creeped out. However, when she sent out a APB to other men saying "don't do that" she was taking a subjective experience that creeped her out and saying that it creeps all women out - therefore there is no good reason to do that.

Rebecca makes a serious error here - because not only does she impede Elevator Guy's freedom to engage in polite conversation - but she speaks for other women by branding his actions as something that is universally deplorable. It was this second point that I think prompted Stef to make her video.

If you're having trouble understanding Stef's point of view, how would you feel if a member of your sex made a blog post that said "Please stop complimenting us on our hair. It creeps us out - and we imagine you making little hair dolls of us."

You might say "Wait a second! I got a compliment on my hair the other day and it really lifted me up! And just because you are afraid of someone making strange hair-dolls out of your hair, doesn't mean that I get that mental image when someone compliments me. LET THE HAIR COMPLIMENTS CONTINUE!"

This is the difference between Feminists and Humanists.

Feminists want to maintain the class differentiation between men and women - and give women improved protections from men (because men are physically stronger than women) and maintain female victim status. In other words, they want to keep up the fence between men and women, put a gate in between it and only allow women to pass through to the other side. They see men's side of the fence as having the greener grass and the richer soil. It's got more sun, more shade and higher property value. They want to mosey on over to the men's side so that things are "equal." When men express interest in heading over to the women's side - the reply is simple "No, no no, that side is shitty and there's no reason for you to go there, so you just stay over here on the nice side."

Humanists want to tear down that fence and give everyone the freedom to enjoy the entirety of the human experience. Sometimes that means sticking to one side of the field - but the most important thing is the ability to pursue the act of being your own person. You should not be held back by other people for any reason, especially race, sex, ability or orientation. Genetics and fortune will already do enough to hold us back - we don't need other people to do it for us.

From a humanist perspective - the admittedly "not threatening" behavior of Elevator Guy could not have reasonably been expected to ilicit a creeped-out response in Rebecca. Therefore, he was acting reasonably in approaching, conversing and then ending the encounter after she declined his offer. These were simply two people - on of whom with power and fame (Rebecca) and one without (Elevator Guy). He made a request to spend more time with her. In a humanist world, every person, regardless of sex, class, race or orientation has the right to speak to another person in respectful manner. It doesn't matter the time or location. That is a human right.

From a feminist perspective - the subjective experience of the woman in the situation (Rebecca) is paramount. She has unique perspective on the actions of men and how they relate to the oppression of women. Her uncomfortableness is valid, and that valid uncomfortableness is the direct result of another persons behaviors: therefore that other person's behaviors are WRONG. FULL STOP.

I can be pretty cruel to feminist ideology on this blog. But the above sentence is intended to be a real, honest attempt at summarizing the feminist position here. I'm doing that because I realize that feminists aren't evil - but their ideology is based on a flawed idea of gender classicism that, if we continue to follow it, will result in more suffering than is necessary. That's why I'm a humanist before I'm a feminist - because sometimes the answer to society's problems isn't "More Feminism."

There is another angle to this - and it's how atheism deals with the lack of women active in our groups. But I'm going to save that for another post.

P.S. I, personally, would never engage in any meaningful conversation with a person I'd not met previously in an elevator. I have a few reasoned, rational reasons for this:
A) Elevators constrict our movement. Body language is important in gauging a person's mental state and emotions.
B) Possibility for conflict. You can never be sure when someone will "go off." If I mention to someone, for example, that I'm about to get my tax return, they could've just been informed that they owe millions in back taxes and could have an emotional breakdown that I will have to be party to for the remainder of the trip.
C) Possibility for extended discussion. I might hit a sweet spot with the other passenger - they may want to tell me a story longer than I have time for - I don't want them to hold me up from getting to my floor.
D) Possible false rape accusation. I'm just saying, it's possible.

Now many of these issues are "non-issues" at a convention when you know the person. That's why I don't give Rebecca any slack. In fact, at a convention, I'd be MORE likely to strike up conversation in an elevator. That said, I would not proposition a woman I had JUST met on an elevator while she was heading back to the room - because I know I would have about a 0.00001% chance of being successful. 1 - Because I'm not much to look at and 2 - because typically an intelligent woman speaking at an atheist convention wouldn't be turned on just by my looks and I'd need to develop some rapport for her to comprehend my "assets."

P.P.S. Some people - trying to get it across to white, privileged men what it feels like to be propositioned in an elevator have offered this analogy:
Suppose you were in an elevator, and a big (bigger than you) thug said to you "How about we go up to my room and I fuck you in the ass."
My honest response would be to laugh and say "No thanks, I'm sore from playing Halo." And if he continued, I'd say "You would not survive the attempt; I'll cut your balls off."
I'd rather be dead than a violent rape survivor.


  1. You know, you really talk a lot, like, a lot. But I think I really like the way you talk. Great post.

  2. TfT, I hadn't heard of you before today, but I like what you write too. Consider yourself added to my RSS feed.

    Sorry for the longwindedness, by the way. As my religion professor used to repeat "brevity is the soul of wit."

    I suppose I have little wit.

  3. Here via Holly Pervocracy and a bit of clicking around. Since you seem well-meaning, I will to try to explain slowly and clearly what's going on, in the hope of changing your mind.

    I think what's missing here is an understanding of why Rebecca might have been bothered by Elevator Guy's actions. I guess I am still a bit shocked that so many people leapt to interpret her as crazy and irrational, instead of putting a minimal amount of effort into seeing her point of view.

    Here is what is wrong with the Elevator Guy situation:

    1) Person A asked person B to put themselves in a vulnerable situation. There were obvious alternatives that would have made person B less vulnerable (meeting in a public place, such as a hotel bar), but person A did not suggest any of these. Keep in mind that person A and person B were strangers.

    2) Person A made this intimidating request in a situation where person B didn't have an obvious, easy way out (enclosed physical space, nobody nearby, late at night, unfamiliar physical setting that person B was not used to navigating).

    3) In a talk that day, person A had already explicitly expressed a desire not to be hit on, which person B heard but apparently ignored.

    And here is what is not wrong with the situation.

    4) A man asked a woman on a date.

    I do not understand why anybody thinks 4 is even relevant here. 1-3 make the approach disrespectful, and they make it an approach that would predictably elicit a creeped-out response from a reasonable person.

    If you're having trouble understanding Stef's point of view, how would you feel if a member of your sex made a blog post that said "Please stop complimenting us on our hair. It creeps us out - and we imagine you making little hair dolls of us."

    I would want to know more about what had happened, why the person felt uncomfortable, and what I could do to change the situation to make the person feel more welcome. The reaction you frame as rational sounds dismissive and thoughtless. And I say this as somebody who enjoys getting my hair complimented.

    My honest response would be to laugh and say "No thanks, I'm sore from playing Halo." And if he continued, I'd say "You would not survive the attempt; I'll cut your balls off."

    This shows that the thought experiment isn't working, because you're not realistically imagining what it's like to be sexually harassed. (Crap, I am unbelievably jealous of people who are so sheltered that they can't even picture being sexually harassed.) From your comfortable perch in front of your laptop, where nobody is actually physically intimidating you, it's easy to imagine yourself as perfectly rational, incapable of being rattled by physical intimidation. I feel comfortable about the prospect of bullies when those bullies are far away too. When someone catches you unprepared and starts sending ape threat signals, it's amazing how much less calm and rational you feel!

    I don't think Dawkins is acting from deliberate malice. But I do think he is revealing a remarkable amount of ignorance for someone so educated. This sort of ignorance is exhausting for women who have to repeatedly explain why we are not crazy when we object to people violating our boundaries.

  4. Rae! Thank you for the thoughtful comment. It got stuck in my spam filter and I never approved it. My fault.

    Since writing this post, I've become a little more soft towards Rebecca's possible intent with her original video.

    Also, did you notice the assumption you made about EG? You assumed he heard her talk about picking women up at conventions. We can't know that. We also don't know that he heard her say that she was tired and going to bed.

    I may revisit this - and reframe my position, which has changed a bit.

  5. Hey EE,

    I'm not sure if my second comment got stuck in spam, or if the Internet ate it, but I want to make sure you get it, so I'm going to repost.

    First, I really appreciate your willingness to listen and change your mind.

    Second, you are correct about this:

    Also, did you notice the assumption you made about EG? You assumed he heard her talk about picking women up at conventions. We can't know that. We also don't know that he heard her say that she was tired and going to bed.

    and so I retract point 3.