I usually try not to comment on stuff that’s being thoroughly covered by the Freethought bloggers. So I’ve had nothing to say about Elevatorgate. But this issue just won’t go away. Now Ophelia Benson has withdrawn from TAM because of death threats. Some idiot commenting on Greta Christina’s Facebook page said he’d need proof before he’d believe her. Greta told him to go fuck himself. Naomi Gutierrez defended the idiot, and dissed Greta for reacting to him. And the whole exciting skeptic/atheist community seems to be bitching at each other and forming contentious factions. Must be time for me to comment.
First of all, let me say that Richard Dawkins is a major hero of mine. I’ve read all his books. I think the man is brilliant, and has given the whole atheist movement considerable visibility and credibility. It breaks my heart to see him being pig headed and stupid, but there you go. He was wrong. He should have apologized. He should have apologized and meant it.
Richard Dawkins says that nobody has explained to him why he should apologize, but this is not true. It’s been explained, and explained very well. He’s just too steeped in white male privilege to be able to understand why he was wrong. So, Richard, on the infinitesimal chance that you will read this, here’s why you were wrong. Rebecca Watson was not making a big deal out of the guy on the elevator, certainly not a big enough deal for you to suggest a contrasting comparison to Middle Eastern victims of abuse. She was simply pointing out that if we want women at conferences, we should think about what kinds of behavior make them uncomfortable, and not do it. Your comment trivialized a very legitimate issue for many women. Your after the fact justification is downright fatuous. “No escape? I am now really puzzled. Here’s how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the centre of Dublin. ”
Richard, it was three in the morning. All a man has to do is reach over and flip a switch and none of those buttons will work anymore. But that is beside the point. Rebecca was just pointing out that the situation made her uncomfortable. That was all. She didn’t deserve to have a man of your standing and reputation publicly call her an idiot. I don’t think you know who you are, Richard, or how much weight your opinion has. On this issue you came down solidly on the wrong side, on the side of jerks who think that any opportunity for a proposition is okay, as long as they are meek and mild about it and will take no for an answer. Well, it isn’t okay in an elevator at three in the morning, and you stepped out of line to legitimize such behavior.
Without making this about myself, because it isn’t, it’s about women, let me see if I can explain vulnerability in a way that you could understand. I’ve felt it only once in my life. Years ago I had a back spasm that left me nearly crippled. I could barely move. I was walking with baby steps, standing carefully very upright, in incredible pain. I came out of a physiotherapist’s office and made my way down to the sidewalk, holding the hand rail. Then I started to make my baby steps way homeward. At that point, an obviously demented and filthy street person confronted me, making animalistic growling noises. I realized that if the man attacked me, I was completely helpless. Normally I would feel no fear at all in such a situation, but that time I was freaking out, trapped in a body that could not protect me. And for the first time I felt what many women must feel. Vulnerable. Defenseless. It is a horrible feeling, Richard. Now, if I were to complain about this some people might tell me that I’m over reacting. After all, nothing happened. The man didn’t touch me. I just felt uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable. But that was enough. Most people would sympathize with my feelings, and allow me to think that the man’s aggression justified some concern. Few would tell me that my situation was nothing compared to, say, what black people feel at a KKK rally.
Many women feel vulnerable. It is in our own best interests, as concerned and caring men, to recognize their feelings and to try to accommodate them. This means don’t make them feel vulnerable. This means don’t proposition them in an elevator at three in the morning unless you’ve been getting unmistakable come fuck me signals all evening. Even then, don’t do it. If she wants further company, let her ask for it.
Richard, you should have thanked Rebecca Watson for bringing this to our attention, and letting us know that we shouldn’t proposition women in elevators at three in the morning. It’s something I could have done, and obviously you could have done, without giving it a moment’s thought. But instead of thanking her, you belittled her and trivialized her feelings. In public. With all the weight of your considerable reputation and authority. That’s why you are wrong, and that’s why you should apologize.
It’s fine to think that Rebecca’s issue is trivial. But don’t say that out loud. A man in your position should have the good sense not to express this thought. You came off as mean spirited, inconsiderate, and lacking empathy. And these are also reasons why you should apologize. Why is this so hard? You were wrong. Just admit it, and let’s all move on. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But please, Richard, if you finally come to your senses and decide to apologize, please don’t give us all a notpology. Don’t try to justify or explain, you’ve already done that and it only made you look worse. Just admit you were wrong and say you are sorry. Because you were wrong.
As for the recent Ophelia Benson with TAM and death threats situation, please guys, do not even think about suggesting that you need proof before you will believe her. Why the hell would you not believe her? Do not for a minute trivialize her concerns, or the concerns of other women. Most of all, do not tell women to shut up about this issue. We need to hear them. We need to do something when a man makes inappropriate comments, calls women sexist names, or otherwise creates an unpleasant atmosphere for women in the skeptical/atheist movement.
Finally, women, please keep in mind that we have enemies. Before you react harshly to something a man says on the Internet, please try to make sure you aren’t reacting to some right wing Christian sock puppet who would like to see our movement founder in vitriol and strife over bullshit. Do not put this past them. We know that while they have the morals of pond slime and no integrity at all, they are not stupid when it comes to promoting their beliefs, or discrediting ours. Let’s try our best to cool emotions and be nice to each other.
It’s very sad to see what is happening with TAM. James Randi deserves better. We all do. So let’s clean up our act. Publicly and quickly. Please.