/ 2 September 2011

Dawkins, Watson and the elevator ride

What are the boundaries of acceptable behaviour between a man and a woman? When does flirting become uncomfortable, unwanted attention? This is the story of how what could have been an intelligent debate about sexism in the sceptic and atheist communities descended into a free for all, name-calling brawl.

A man walks into a lift with a smart, attractive woman. On the way up to his room he propositions her, saying: “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?”

Without knowing the context in which they were uttered, these two lines seem innocuous. How is it they spawned a flame war in the atheist community resplendent with name-calling trolls; the rubbishing of Richard Dawkins and his legacy; a feminist witch hunt for misogynists; and divided atheists?

The protagonist in this piece is Rebecca Watson. The founder of Skepchick, Watson travels the world speaking about atheism, feminism, science and presents talks on Skeptics Guide to the Universe, an incredibly popular podcast that debunks pseudoscience, the paranormal and other forms of nonsense. Guests on the show — which is one of iTune’s most popular science podcasts — have included Christopher Hitchens, Jimmy Carter and Michio Kaku.

But back to Watson and that elevator ride. The incident took place in June this year when Watson was participating on a panel discussion at the World Atheist Convention, which if you weren’t there was held in Dublin, Ireland. Watson joined Richard Dawkins, Tom Melchiorre, and AronRa to ad lib about “Communicating Atheism”.

During the panel discussion Watson raised the issue of sexism in the atheist community and told of the hate mail that Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe receives when “that girl” discusses feminist or women’s issues. Irritated men write in to Watson’s male co-hosts asking them to “do something with that girl” or to shut her up.

Watson said if she’s not getting vitriol she’s getting fan mail that is overtly sexual. “Some of these emails do describe in graphic detail what these men would like to do to me sexually. These are from people who agree with me [her talks outside of feminism on Skeptics’ Guide] and who think they are complementing me by sending me these emails,” Watson said during the panel discussion. “These are from atheists and they don’t understand that they’re being horribly misogynistic, but they are.”

Watson went on to explain that misogyny isn’t something that’s relegated to religion, because rational people in the atheist community often don’t examine their own ideas of gender, equality and sex. Watson joked with Dawkins about his hate mail, and said she also gets death threats. But Watson’s death threats come with menacing threats of rape and sexual humiliation. They are from religious people who are pissed off by her combative atheism. She ends her talk at the global atheist conference by encouraging atheists to support the women in their community, saying: “It is a problem, and maybe watch your own language and your own behaviour to try to root out any biases that may be lurking within you.”

After the day is done Watson joined her fellow conference goers in the bar for a few drinks. At 4am she said she was tired and headed off to the elevator and to her room. A man came up behind her and joined her in the elevator. When the lift doors closed, and they were alone in a small, contained space, he propositioned her with those now two very famous lines.

Describing the incident on YouTube Watson says: “Just a word to the wise here guys, don’t do that. I don’t know how else to explain [that] this makes me incredibly uncomfortable but I will lay it out that I was a single woman in foreign country in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I have finished speaking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner.”

Watson had no sooner committing her words to YouTube when the war began. One of the first salvoes came from fellow female atheist Stef McGraw at the University of North Iowa free thinkers site.

“My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her. What’s wrong with that? How on earth does that justify him as creepy? Are we not sexual beings? Let’s review, it’s not as if he touched her or made an unsolicited sexual comment; he merely asked if she’d like to come back to his room. She easily could have said [and I’m assuming, did say], “No thanks, I’m tired and would like to go to my room to sleep”.”

United States biologist and controversial blogger PZ Myers joined the fray in defence of Watson, saying: “There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways.” He went on to say: “women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them. Also as liberal, enlightened people, of course, we will graciously accede to their desires, and if they ask us to stop hassling them, we will back off, politely. Isn’t that nice of us?”

Not to be outdone, Dawkins waded into the debate, but did so with what appears to be some form of satire that backfired horribly. With this response to Myer’s blog Dawkins proves that he should stick with his day job and abandon any aspirations of becoming a satirist:

“Dear Muslima
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and … yawn …. don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with. Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so …

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

After a flood of outrage Dawkins clarifies his bizarre letter to ‘Muslima’ by saying: “Here’s the argument I was making. 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 … 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.”

Watson subsequently publicly denounced Dawkins, rubbishing his entire body of work because of one horrible gaffe, and asked her readers to join in her protest of Dawkins’ work. By so doing she led a feminist army who launched a virtual assault on the evolutionary biologist and best-selling author.

The more polite emails and social media vitriol aimed at him express the wish that Dawkins’ legacy will “crash and burn”. In the wake of this maelstrom, the feminists went in search of misogynists who supported Dawkins or who didn’t take a strong enough position on the debate. This took the form of a modern day Salem, with feminists naming and shaming those who didn’t conform to their ideology.

And so a fairly useful debate about feminism, sexism and appropriate sexual boundaries between men and women descended into all out troll warfare and an attendant witch-hunt to persecute sexists in the atheist community.

Watching this vitriolic in-fighting and vituperative restaging of Salem in a community that associates itself with reason, intelligence and scepticism, was profoundly disappointing. It was almost as disappointing as witnessing a man as supremely intelligent as Dawkins being socially inept and irresponsible in his use of a vulgar metaphor to express his belief that “Elevatorgate” — as it now has become dubbed — was trivial.

If there’s a lesson to be gleaned from all of this it is that feminists have as much hope of converting misogynists to their cause with public rebuke and shaming, as militant atheists do in converting believers to reason by offending the religious. Finally, the onslaught of misogynist bile spewed at Watson after “Elevatorgate” did nothing to dispel the notion that sexism was absent among male atheists. Instead it bolstered her cause and showed the world that she’s part of a reason-based movement that’s riddled with chauvinism.