Bad Astronomy

Richard Dawkins and male privilege

Over the weekend, a full-blown scandal erupted in the skeptical movement atheist and skeptical communities* over sexism and attitudes about sexual harassment. It started with a fairly straightforward story about a clueless man putting a woman in an uncomfortable situation. The conversation about it was interesting, to say the least. An important point that came up multiple times is that many men do not truly understand what women go through in such situations. This point was driven home when Richard Dawkins spoke up about it. Through his own words, he proved quite clearly that a lot of men just don’t get it. Here’s what happened, boiled down from a video post Skepchick Rebecca Watson made about this (she tells this story starting at 4m30s into the video at that link). Rebecca was a speaker at a conference recently. After her talk and a late evening of socializing with attendees at the bar, she got on an elevator to go to her room. She found herself alone on the elevator with a man presumably also an attendee. He said he “found her very interesting”, and would she like to get some coffee in his hotel room? Rebecca turned him down, and in her video talks about how uncomfortable that made her feel. If the story ended here there would be obvious things to say about it (obvious to me, at least, but not everyone, as will become quite clear). This man may have had nothing but noble intentions, but that doesn’t matter. Being alone in an elevator with a man late at night is uncomfortable for any woman, even if the man is silent. But when he hits on her? There’s no way to avoid a predatory vibe here, and that’s unacceptable. A situation like this can lead to sexual assault; I just read in the news here in Boulder that a few days ago a relatively innocent situation turned into assault. This isn’t some rare event; it happens a lot and most women are all-too painfully aware of it. Rebecca, apparently, handled this situation with aplomb, and I’m glad. She turned it into a useful lesson for men on how not to treat women. At this point there are many offshoot discussions and tangential topics being discussed on the skeptical blogs and elsewhere. I will ignore those, as they distract from what is in my opinion the most important thing here. As it happens, PZ Myers wrote a blog post about this, and Richard Dawkins – yes, the Richard Dawkins, PZ has confirmed this – left a comment in that post. And what he said… well. Read it for yourself: It took me a moment to parse this. He was being sarcastic, obviously, but he wasn’t talking to someone specifically; he was using a rhetorical tool of speaking to an imaginary person. So he is saying to a generic Muslim woman, you think you have problems, why, Rebecca was hit on in an elevator! How horrible! At first I thought I had misread this. Surely, Dr. Dawkins, who has written and spoken eloquently in the past on the plight of women suffering under religious intolerance wouldn’t trivialize what happened to Rebecca, would he? Many people certainly interpreted it that way, as that does seem overwhelmingly to be his point. Dawkins then attempted to clear this up by leaving a second comment trying to argue that he was not doing this. However, in my opinion, what he claims he was trying to say is actually worse: Oh my. I have tried and tried to see some other way to interpret this, but it looks to me that he really is comparing a potential sexual assault to someone chewing gum. And I’m not the only one who thought so. Many others did, and none, I think, put it more clearly than Jen McCreight at her blog BlagHag (note: I have edited this because it uses some choice NSFW words that will get my own blog caught in nanny filters; seriously, go to read Jen’s whole post on this. It’s important), who addresses Dr. Dawkins:

Frankly, this is disappointing for a number of reasons […] you’re kind of an idol of mine, and it makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I’ll do that too):
Words matter. […] You don’t have people constantly explaining that you’re subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don’t have people saying you shouldn’t have rights. You don’t have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don’t live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.
This. The real problem here is that Dawkins (and several others who left comments) didn’t see this as a potential assault scenario. This problem is driven home by Dawkins again in a third comment, where he literally argues that nothing bad happened to Rebecca in that elevator [I blurred the instance of a cuss word in the section below]: It’s this third comment that truly stunned me. I know a lot of people might agree with his sentiment, but it’s staggeringly wrong. I can understand that it’s hard for men to truly grasp the woman’s point of view here, since men rarely feel in danger of sexual assault. But Jen McCrieght’s post, and many others, make it clear that to a woman, being alone on that elevator with that man was a potential threat, and a serious one. You may not be able to just press a button and walk away – perhaps he has a knife, or a gun, or will simply overpower you. When there’s no way to know, you err on the side of safety. And what makes this worse is that most men don’t understand this, so women are constantly put into situations ranging from uncomfortable to downright scary. Put even more simply: this wasn’t a guy chewing gum at her. This was a potential sexual assault. So you may not think anything bad happened to Rebecca on that elevator, but something bad did indeed happen. He didn’t have to physically assault her for the situation to be bad. The atmosphere in there was enough to make it bad. And Rebecca was absolutely right to talk about it and raise awareness of it. The discussion ongoing in the blogs is in general aimed at the skeptical and atheist movements. But this is far, far larger than that. This is a societal issue; sexism (conscious or otherwise) is still a strong force in our society, and a lot of men will dismiss claims of sexism from women. As has been made very clear here, we all need to make sure that all men understand the woman’s point of view, or else this type of thing will continue to happen… and people will continue to dismiss it as no big deal. It is a big deal. If Dawkins – a leader in the critical thinking movement and a man known for defending women against religious oppression – can take such a dismissive stance, it’s clear that we have a long way to go. I don’t know if it was sexism on Dawkins’ part or just plain obtuseness, but this attitude is shared by far too many men. It trivializes the justifiable fear women have to live with as well as their point of view, and that’s just plain wrong. [UPDATE: Rebecca herself has posted at Skepchick about this, and it’s very much worth your time to read.] * It was pointed out to me that all this started at an atheist meeting and not at a skeptics meeting. There is substantial overlap between the two communities, of course, though in reality they are different. I made the correction to the text to make that more clear.