Elevator-Gate and attempting to relate from a male perspective

Part of me doesn’t even want to write this post because it has been discussed so very much these last few days. But there are a few things I want to say related to the topic. First, the video by Rebecca Watson that started it all if you missed it the first time around (1):

Then the comments by Richard Dawkins that really inflamed the situation (2) (PZ confirmed that it really was Dawkins (3)):

The man in the elevator didn’t physically touch her, didn’t attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn’t even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that.

If she felt his behaviour was creepy, that was her privilege, just as it was the Catholics’ privilege to feel offended and hurt when PZ nailed the cracker. PZ didn’t physically strike any Catholics. All he did was nail a wafer, and he was absolutely right to do so because the heightened value of the wafer was a fantasy in the minds of the offended Catholics. Similarly, Rebecca’s feeling that the man’s proposition was ‘creepy’ was her own interpretation of his behaviour, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.

Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical privations, legally sanctioned demeanings. The equivalent would be if PZ had nailed not a cracker but a Catholic. Then they’d have had good reason to complain.


Then the atheist blogosphere pretty much exploded, with everyone taking sides. There has been much vitriol and hate from both sides of the argument, with much name calling, stubbornness, and general childishness. It’s pretty depressing to see this from a group that prides itself on its rationalism. Suffice to say, I pretty much completely agree with Hemant on this issue, so I’ll just redirect you to his most recent post (4) instead of retyping it here.

One thing I do want to talk about is the difficulty of men to understand the viewpoint of women (which also applies to any situation where one non-oppressed group is trying, or not, to understand an oppressed group). As a white male (who grew up in Texas no less), I recognize that I can never fully understand what it was like for Watson in the elevator that night, or the issues women face in general. I try to be good at recognizing this limitation though, and defer to people with a better view point than me when the situation arises. I hope that when I am mistaken on these issues due to privilege that I will be called out on it, and that I will recognize my mistake and apologize. Growing up I thought that feminism was no longer needed and that of sexism /inequality were a thing of the past, so I never paid much attention to inequality issues. I have learned that this is (unfortunately) not the case through my wife and reading a variety of atheist blogs.

German women's right's movement logo

German women's right's movement logo (5)

I think an important strategy in advancing the rights of any oppressed group is to increase understanding of what it’s like to be that group. If you can relate to someone who is oppressed, you are much more likely to advocate for their side. I have been spending some time trying to understand what Watson’s situation was like, and I might have found an analogy. Suppose you are a guy and walking home late at night by yourself. Another guy who is larger than you, wearing gangster-style clothing, and hiding in the shadows jumps out all of a sudden asking for bus fare. How would you feel? I would be creeped out and on guard, if not outright defensive. Chances are the guy meant no harm and really did just want bus fare; most people who dress gangsta aren’t actually part of a gang after all. But nonetheless, the first thought that would go through my mind would be “shit, is he going to try and mug me?”Even if I was mistaken about the guy’s intentions, I would still be fully justified in being afraid of him. Now, let’s say this was the middle of the day, and the guy did the same thing: would this be the same? I wouldn’t be nearly as scared, but I would still be on guard. Now let’s suppose the guy was sitting in plain site the entire time in the middle of the day with a bunch of people around. In this case I wouldn’t be scared at all. I suspect it’s the same thing with elevator guy. Each individual component in the situation (i.e. the type of proposition, the time of day, the location, etc) isn’t really that offensive, just misguided, but when you put them together, the situation changes entirely. I think this is what the guys claiming that “so we’re not supposed to flirt ever? that’s bullshit” are missing. It’s not that he was hitting on her, it’s a combination of a lot of factors.

I realize that my example isn’t a perfect comparison obviously; no such comparison exists unfortunately, but I hope it’s helpful. To the women reading this blog, does this seem reasonably accurate? Do you have any better examples?

(1) Watson, Rebecca. “About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes.” Skepchick. 2oth June, 2011. Available: http://skepchick.org/2011/06/about-mythbusters-robot-eyes-feminism-and-jokes/
(2) McCreight, Jen. “Richard Dawkins, your privilege is showing.” Blag Hag. 2nd July, 2011. Available: http://www.blaghag.com/2011/07/richard-dawkins-your-privilege-is.html
(3) Myers, PZ. “Oh, no, not again…once more unto the breach.” Pharyngula. 3rd July, 2011. Available: http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2011/07/oh_no_not_againonce_more_unto.php
(4) Mehta, Hemant. “A Few More Thoughts That Are Sure To Be Uncontroversial.” Friendly Atheist. 5th July, 2011. http://friendlyatheist.com/2011/07/05/a-few-more-thoughts-that-are-sure-to-be-uncontroversial/
(5) “Feminism.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feminism


3 thoughts on “Elevator-Gate and attempting to relate from a male perspective

  1. I applaud your attempt to see Watson’s perspective. Even I thought her reaction was a bit over the top when I heard about it second hand. After seeing her video (the one posted above) and hearing her talk about other instances in which she had been both sexually harassed and threatened by other atheists, and trying to imagine the details of the situation, I actually completely understood her. Your analogy is excellent in that it express the difference between a woman approaching a man and asking him to come upstairs with her, versus a man doing this. Men are bigger and stronger and can rape us. I guess one way you could improve your analogy would be to make it a man who was not only bigger and stronger but also a gay man who was inviting you upstairs. (BTW I Iove gay men and this is not an attempt to insult gay men or make any negative claims about being gay). My point is that many men seem to think that it is always flattering when they hit on us. Yes, sometimes it is, especially when you know the person, have expressed attraction to them, it is in a safe setting and their statements are not completely objectifying. More often we are put off by it since we are simply NOT ATTRACTED to the majority of men. This is nature. Men forget that when they hit on us (and we have shown no sign of interest in them) they are often merely creeping us out since we are not attracted them. Add the effect of the elevator, the time, the alcohol, the fact that she didn’t know him AND that it was a foreign country and YES this would be extremely creepy and inappropriate.

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