Skepticism generally refers to:
…any questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.
On one hand, I can see great value in people of a skeptical bent meeting, and exchanging ideas. I can see the benefit in skeptical people getting together to discuss ways in which they might get the wider public interested in applying skepticism in their daily lives. In a way, that’s kind of the reason Freethought Kampala came into existence in the first place. I am also interested in meeting and interacting with skeptics everywhere. There is a lot to learn about this world, and a lot of information to share. Meeting people with the same passion for knowledge is, without a doubt, a great thing.
But what happens when skepticism becomes more than a way of thinking, such as a movement in and of itself?
Movements are essentially political entities – and thus a skeptical "movement" is very much prone to abandoning the very skepticism it claims to uphold in favour of what, at the time, may seem politically expedient or politically correct.
Skepticism advocates an approach to thinking – not conclusions. On the other hand, political ideas advanced by movements are premised on what are already conclusions. That is why Elevatorgate, for example, is the scandal that it has become. It is, at its core, a purely ideological problem.
(To see and understand what exactly happened, see my previous post: Elevatorgate)
You would think that being skeptics, whatever disagreements arising from how the events surrounding and following from Elevatorgate were to be interpreted would be done calmly, rationally, and above all, skeptically.
But this is not what happened at all.
My concern is not so much about whether someone takes one view or another with regards to Elevatorgate. Indeed, even among the members of Freethought Kampala, there are different opinions on various aspects of the matter. My concern is about how the matter has been handled, the poor quality of arguments that have been advanced, the astounding amounts of hypocrisy on display, and above all the intolerant attitude towards viewpoints that don’t tow the radical gender feminist line – all this, among people that call themselves skeptics.
In this post I’d like to go into detail about some of the things that I found mind-boggling with regards to this fiasco – the ways in which I think skeptics decidedly jettisoned their skepticism, to embrace dogma instead.
THE BIRTH OF DOGMA
At the height of Elevatorgate, arbitrary prescriptions for behaviour were declared – with anyone questioning them being told they’re too privileged (or clueless) to know any better. Greg Laden, for example, declared that men must go to whatever lengths they humanly could to act in ways that did not cause a woman stress, under any and all conceivable circumstances:
Chances are that Elevator Guy was just a socially ignorant slightly drunk dweeb of no consequence.
Or not. And it is the "or not" part that a woman MUST pay attention to in order to live her life as long as she can before her first sexual assault, or to increase the amount of time spent between her last sexual assault and her next one, or to make the next sexual assault hopefully non-fatal or something that she can get out of quickly or minimize in some way. Because very few women get away without something happening in their lifetime.
[…] So I learned this trick. Cross the street about a block back and "pass" the lady that way. Same with a potential head-on encounter. If you see a woman walking towards you in the middle of the night on a lonely urban street, my practice in those days was to cross the street to not stress her out.
[…] All men. ALL men who have given sufficient consideration to women’s position in our society do this walking trick. If you are a man and you do not know about this trick then there is a problem with you.
So if I find this arbitrary rule to be faulty, which it most definitely is, the problem, apparently, is with me.
(The crucial flaw with declarations like Laden’s is discussed in my deconstruction of Schrodinger’s Rapist, further down this post: LOGICAL FALLACIES GALORE —> Special Pleading.)
On When To Proposition Women
Much was said about how men, blinded by male privilege, saw themselves as having the right to proposition women anytime they want. Below we have PZ Myers:
There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways — Rebecca Watson recently experienced this in an elevator in Dublin, and I think this encounter Ophelia Benson had reflects the same attitude: 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?
It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior. Maybe we should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off.
Unwanted pressure? Unwanted?
Here is where the problem lies: a man generally cannot know until after attempting the proposition that it was unwanted. Not only that – it is, after all, also possible for a proposition to be unwanted at first but for the recipient of the proposition to change her mind after persuasion.
I can think of several occasions where I was invited out for a drink by a lady yet I did not seek this proposition, and I most definitely was not interested in being asked out initially. But after sufficient persuasion I relented and found myself later surprised to have actually had a good time. In the end, was I glad that I was propositioned even though at first I wasn’t interested and had said no? Indeed, yes. But then this is an ex-post-facto assessment of the proposition.
This basically means you can’t really tell if your advance is unwanted unless you actually make your move first, and even when the person seems initially reluctant, she can still be persuaded to take you up on it and can later find herself having fun. That said, there is an interesting debate to be had here about what degree of persuasion one might say is acceptable.
Human interaction is complicated thing. I would be curious to see how feminists would propose to delineate between scenarios like these, and those in which the offer was completely rejected despite attempts at persuasion – in such a way that the determination that the advances were completely unwanted can be made prior to actually making the advance. Can it be done? Is it possible to establish a meaningful and consistent default position on the matter? I highly doubt it – there is simply too much ambiguity.
The solution to such ambiguity is simple – as a way forward, women who attend atheist-skeptic conferences that are absolutely certain they don’t want to be hit on should wear a clearly visible “do not proposition me” sign on their backs. If not, maybe a colour-code can be designated for such women by the event organisers – let’s say, red – and then it could be announced that all women wearing red clothes should not be propositioned or approached by strangers. But will they do this? Most probably not. They will, in all likelihood, protest that it should not be incumbent upon them to make clear to others not to hit on them – yet at the same time they want to be in a public conference where human beings, the highly sexual creatures they are, are freely interacting.
I don’t think they can’t have it both ways. Feminists need to take responsibility for the things they are asking for. Either visibly label yourself as unapproachable, or expect that during the course of a conference a person who takes an interest in you might proposition you, as it is their right to do so. It is also your right to decline such an offer. If you have a problem with this, then just don’t attend these conferences. And its as simple as that.
Many feminists will probably point to this call for clarity and consistency and call it sexism. Well, if this is what counts as sexism in the atheist-skeptic movement these days, then I guess I’m a sexist. For goodness’ sake, if what they want is an end to unwanted propositions, are they envisaging a scenario where propositions will be made only when it is announced that it is permissible? What kind of a community is this then – where people want decrees issued about when and where you might and might not proposition a person?
Blind conformity to arbitrary cultural practices and social conventions is something you would think atheists had Ieft behind with religion. As long as one’s actions do not violate anyone’s fundamental human rights, and no laws are being broken, it’s difficult to see why a freethinker should be concerned with conforming to anybody’s ideas about conventions for social interaction. Of course, he can conform to them if he chooses to, but I don’t at all see how it can be argued that such conformity should be mandatory, let alone morally obligatory. And such rules, conventions, and prescriptions about behaviour are particularly funny coming from the atheist-skeptic community, for reasons I shall present in a moment.
With respect to propositioning women, should any feminist-atheist (male or female) insist that what they are simply asking for in this instance is for men to adhere to ‘basic’ rules of etiquette, then they have revealed themselves to be sexists. Why? Because rules of etiquette are premised on the notion of women as being the weaker sex – requiring men to do things like open doors, lift heavy things, or give up seats for them. Rules of etiquette, in essence, require men to give special, not equal, treatment to women. Yet feminists and their sympathizers issuing decrees about how and when men must proposition women claim that their aim is to promote equality.
That many skeptics do not see this contradiction, is something I find disturbing.
On Making People Uncomfortable
Atheists routinely mock and ridicule the deeply cherished beliefs of billions of people around the world. To the fervent believer, listening to an atheist questioning the existence of ‘God’ is deeply painful. They find it deeply offensive when we describe their deity as a petty and sociopathic murderer – or when we call their prophets pedophiles. They get upset when we call their holy books collections of fairy tales and myths invented by goat-herders. And now we’re even putting up atheist billboards to add insult to their injury. All of this is grates on the sensibilities of the faithful – and yet, we atheists do not waver in our criticisms of their beliefs.
We rightly point out to the offended that they don’t have the right not to be offended. We justify the things we say by exalting the value of free speech. We tell the religious that their blasphemy laws are barbaric and archaic – and tell hem to grow a thicker skin. And as we say this, we proceed to desecrate their consecration wafers, and draw cartoons of their prophet – to press upon them the point that being in free society means people have the right to freely express themselves, no matter who it offends.
All well and good.
But then in the NEXT BREATH, the people who are drawing cartoons (or promoting and encouraging those that are doing so) and desecrating wafers (and those who support them) are now insisting that its just plain wrong to do anything that makes ‘women’ feel uncomfortable (and they claim to speak for women in general).
Oddly, those who suggest that women who claim to be made uncomfortable should also grow a thicker skin (as the religious have often been told) are called sexists and misogynists. And most surprisingly, any woman who disagrees with their assessment of what qualifies as discomfort to a woman is derided as being blind to the plight of their fellow women, or get labelled a gender traitor.
Anecdotes Now Count As Solid Evidence
People who claim to have had out of body experiences report having seen things they could not have seen unless their souls were hovering above the room or out of it. We skeptics usually dismiss claims of Out of Body Experiences as not genuine. Well, we may grant that people might have had certain experiences of dissociation, but we tend not to accept that this is due to an immaterial soul or spirit leaving the body. We highly doubt that souls and spirits exist, and usually posit that such experiences can be induced by a variety of natural factors, such as consumption of hallucinogens or psychoactive substances, oxygen deprivation, or maybe even an over active imagination. New Agers will insist that these experiences are genuine – and skeptics will remind them, and rightly so, that anecdotes do not count as evidence.
The response of skeptics to defenders of acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy, and reiki is usually the same. Volumes upon volumes of personal testimonies they present as evidence are dismissed as being anecdotal – and in all fairness, they usually are. Self reported accounts of improvement following alternative medical therapy are indeed difficult to quantify or verify, and so we usually demand that its practitioners apply rigorous controls in their studies that would rule out the placebo effect, among other factors.
So as applied to alternative medicine, miracle healing, and psychic reading, we do not give anecdotal evidence much weight. Our skeptical attitude towards hearsay is especially heightened in areas where we know that emotions and personal agendas play a big role in shaping one’s opinions and recollection of events, and rightly so.
The Wikipedia entry on anecdotal evidence expands on the issue further:
Anecdotal evidence is often unscientific or pseudoscientific because various forms of cognitive bias may affect the collection or presentation of evidence. For instance, someone who claims to have had an encounter with a supernatural being or alien may present a very vivid story, but this is not falsifiable. This phenomenon can also happen to large groups of people through subjective validation.
Isn’t it ironic then, that the SKEPTICAL COMMUNITY has exploded over what is essentially an anecdote from ONE individual?
In the above video is where Rebecca “Skepchick” Watson first talked about her experience in a hotel elevator in Dublin Ireland. Here is a transcript of the part where she specifically discusses her ordeal:
[…] The response at the conference itself was wonderful, um, there were a ton of great feminists there, male and female, and also just open-minded people who had maybe never considered the, um, the way that women are treated in this community, but were interested in learning more. So, thank you to everyone who was at that conference who, uh, engaged in those discussions outside of that panel, um, you were all fantastic; I loved talking to you guys—um, all of you except for the one man who didn’t really grasp, I think, what I was saying on the panel, because at the bar later that night, actually at four in the morning, we were at the hotel bar. Four a.m., I said I’d had enough, I was going to bed. So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘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?’ Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and – don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
Question 1: Did this ordeal actually take place?
Question 2: Did the events unfold as she described them?
Question 3: Was the man present in the conference in which she talked about how it creeps her out and makes her uncomfortable when men sexualize her?
Question 4: Was the man in the bar when she said she was tired and wanted to go to bed? And if so, was he within hearing range of her?
Question 5: She quoted the man as having said “I’d like to talk some more”. Doesn’t this suggest they had been engaged in prior conversation? Otherwise why would he say he wanted to talk more? Perhaps Watson is not telling us the whole story.
Question 6: Does what the man did constitute him ‘sexualising’ her?
Question 7: Does this man actually exist?
All these are basic questions, for which no verifiable evidence has been adduced, besides Rebecca Watson’s saying so. Anybody who calls himself or herself a skeptic should be interested in obtaining answers to these questions before forming an opinion on the matter. Should such evidence not be forth coming – he or she should suspend judgement. Indeed, skeptics have been known to respond this way when it comes to alternative medicine, claims of miracles, and psychic phenomena. That is what it means to be skeptical. However, when it came to evaluating the ordeal Rebecca Watson described, all that went out the window. Her anecdotal account of events was accepted as absolute infallible fact.
Responses to skeptical questions about Watson’s ordeal usually take the following form:
“Yeah… and all women who get raped are just making it up, right? Its because of people who think like you that rape victims don’t report the crime to police.”
How bizarre, for a skeptical attitude!
As unfortunate as it may be to some, where an accusation is made, the burden of proof lies with the accuser – at least that’s the way it is in most legal systems. If I have been defrauded it is my (and my lawyer’s) burden to demonstrate that someone defrauded me. If I have been assaulted it is my (and my lawyer’s) burden to demonstrate that I was assaulted, and assaulted by the person I am accusing of having done so. The guilt of the accused cannot be presumed from the start. This is important to note because there is precedent for rape allegations being fabricated sometimes. People have also been charged falsely for crimes they did not commit and have have served time in prison for them – and in worst cases, some have even been executed.
There is simply too little evidence to go on, and yet this man in the elevator, whose existence has not even been conclusively established, has been crucified for the thought crime of sexualisation and objectification. Several have even argued that he was a potential rapist.
All these allegations – based on an anecdote.
But it does not end there. Its bad enough for someone to form a conclusion based on an anecdote – but its another thing for this same person to reject the anecdotes of others as evidence. If anecdotes are admissible as evidence, why not be consistent and grant the anecdotes of others – including, and especially, the anecdotes of those with whom you disagree?
This is partly the problem with the discussions of sexism in the atheist community. There is no data – only anecdotes. Feminists and their sympathizers are not interested in the anecdotes of others, but demand that we accept anecdotes supportive of their views as fact. Rebecca Watson and a number of other women may report some experiences they had that they describe as sexist – and use this to make a case for how there is rampant sexism in the atheist community in general. But as a co-host on Skeptics Guide to the Universe, I’m sure she’s heard of the famous Roger Brinner quote:
"The plural of anecdote is not data."
The Wikipedia entry on anecdotal evidence expands on this some more:
Anecdotal evidence is also frequently misinterpreted via the availability heuristic, which leads to an overestimation of prevalence. Where a cause can be easily linked to an effect, people overestimate the likelihood of the cause having that effect (availability). In particular, vivid, emotionally-charged anecdotes seem more plausible, and are given greater weight. A related issue is that it is usually impossible to assess for every piece of anecdotal evidence, the rate of people not reporting that anecdotal evidence in the population.
This point needs emphasis: “In particular, vivid, emotionally-charged anecdotes seem more plausible, and are given greater weight.” Indeed, because of our inherent tendency to be more sympathetic to women expressing feelings of distress, we are more susceptible to accepting their anecdotes as fact, over the anecdotes of women who may not have experienced similar distress – hence, bias.
So if Watson and other feminists want to make a successful case for how there is sexism in the atheist-skeptic community, they’re going to have to furnish us with data, not anecdotes.
For example, out of the entire volume of correspondence between skeptics, how much of it is clearly ‘sexist’? What percentage of all such correspondence would have to be sexist for us to be able to say there is a ‘problem’ of sexism in the atheist community? One percent? Five percent? Twenty percent? And just what constitutes sexism? Unwanted propositions? How so? We’ve already seen the ambiguities that come with that.
Let’s see some data – with clear definitions of what constitutes sexism, in a manner that is gender neutral. Like this one, from wikipedia:
Sexism, also known as gender discrimination or sex discrimination, is the application of the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one’s gender that indirectly affect one’s abilities in unrelated areas. It is a form of discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, with such attitudes being based on beliefs in traditional stereotypes of gender roles.
If it is sexist to make an unwanted advances towards women, surely it must also be sexist for women to make unwanted requests for men to ‘act like gentlemen’. Being told to ‘act like a gentleman’, is, after all, an age-old social imposition intended to intimidate men into forgoing their own interests in the interest of women who are in need of their assistance (etiquette, if you will). It is very much an attitude based on traditional stereotypes about gender roles, and an artefact of female privilege in society (in that specific regard) – hence sexist. Indeed, throughout history thousands of men have lost their lives by ‘acting like gentlemen’ – such as those who willingly gave up their seats on life boats for women as the Titanic was sinking. Other examples:
being expected to offer his seat to a woman
being expected to open doors for women
being expected to adhere to the “ladies first” rule of etiquette
being expected to “take it like a man” when faced with certain annoyances, while being expected to stop at nothing to ensure the minimization/eradication of the same annoyances if they are experienced by women
Can it be argued that all these are not a forms of sexism against men, if sexism is defined as “a form of discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex, with such attitudes being based on beliefs in traditional stereotypes of gender roles”? It obviously can’t. By proposing a gender neutral definition, and collecting relevant data that captures the entire picture indiscriminately – feminists will have demonstrated themselves to be the true champions of equal rights. But no, to them its only sexism when women are victimised - and the anecdotes of the few women who received unwanted male attention and insults will be all that counts.
The rigour that would be required in quantifying the prevalence of sexism, as it applies to all genders, is simply astronomical. And because there is no hard data to base any assessment of the prevalence and nature of sexism on, all discussions about it will always be nothing more than a he-said, she-said, slugfest of conflicting anecdotes. As we’ve already seen, the plural of anecdote is not data – and as people who call themselves skeptics and critical thinkers, we must evaluate data, not anecdotes.
On ‘Sexualising’ Women
[Sexualise – defn: make sexual, endow with sex, attribute sex to.]
Feminists who tell us that it is wrong to sexualise women are sometimes never shy to sexualise themselves when it suits their purposes. The video below is a video advertisement for the 2007 Skepchick Calendar, uploaded by Rebecca “Skepchick” Watson – the woman at the very center of this Elevatorgate controversy.
Below is Rebecca Watson herself, who also appears in the nude calendar.
She published a blog post titled Looking for Nude Skeptics? in which she said:
Looking for nude skeptics? Of course you are. OF COURSE YOU ARE, pervert.We here at Skepchick haven’t been in the pin-up game for awhile now, but that doesn’t mean we don’t support those who are still snapping sexy pics of themselves for a good cause. To fund Skepticon, the annual free atheist-y conference in the heart of the Bible belt, the Missouri State students are selling both sexy lady and sexy dude calendars for $14.99 each or both for $27.98. And man, are they sexy.
So they are quite happy to sexualise themselves to raise money – which they know they couldn’t do unless there were people who they knew would be interested in sexually stimulating images (the ‘perverts’ she spoke of), and were willing to pay for them. Then Watson has the audacity to say:
…don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
So on one occasion she promotes and sells calendars in which her and others deliberately portray themselves as sexual eye-candy, targeting ‘perverts’, and on another goes on to give speeches about how she hates to be sexualised. Further, when some someone allegedly does take interest in her in a sexual way (which, even if we grant Watson her anecdote, cannot be established), she says it makes her uncomfortable to be sexualised.
The hypocrisy is simply mind-blowing.
Then I’ve seen the madness on the internet over some people calling Rebecca Watson a twat and the associated portmanteau, Twatson .
Twat is apparently slang for vagina.
I find it funny that atheists would be losing their heads over this. Muslims said that cartoons depicting their prophet were deeply offensive to them – but most atheists went ahead to show full support to the cartoonists, and some even held competitions for the best cartoons. Catholics found PZ Myers’ desecration of a wafer to be deeply offensive – but he went ahead with it anyway, bragged about it, and we in the atheist community cheered him on and had a good laugh over it.
Creationists and Republicans have been the target of some of the most abusive tirades in the atheist blogosphere. Most atheists have said nothing to discourage this. The few that have said something, meanwhile, have been telling the others within their ranks not be a “dick”. Dick is slang for penis, but can also be used to describe an obtuse person. The insult is born out of its double-meaning. A lot of people find the term ‘dick’ deeply offensive and sexist; others do not, and have made a habit out of calling people they disagree with “dicks”. Hardly anyone seems to be describing this calling people obscene names as a sign of a moral crisis in the atheist movement – when it is directed at men, and the religious in general. But apparently we’re being asked to believe that there now is a moral crisis in the atheist movement because a few atheists are calling females they disagree with “twats” and “bitches” – and that this shows there is rampant misogyny in the atheist movement. But then there is no misandry in calling men “dicks”? Some consistency is needed here.
Once again, if what feminists are calling for is equality for women – that is, if they want men to treat women in exactly the same way that men treat fellow men – well, they should know that men frequently insult each other with profane words when they disagree over issues. Sometimes those insults may refer to the person’s genitalia. If feminists are suggesting that women should be excluded from such insults – on account that it makes them feel bad, without asking for the same exclusion for men – then what they are in fact asking for is special treatment, not equal treatment. There is nothing wrong with asking for special treatment – but there’s everything wrong if it is feminists asking for it, while at the same time claiming to have equality as their goal. That is hypocrisy.
[Personally, I take the view that being offended by words says more about the offended person than it does the person saying the ‘offending’ words, so I don’t make a big deal out of them. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. But I digress.]
Many who have been critical of Rebecca Watson have had their arguments dismissed because on occasion they might have insulted her. One Watson sympathiser said:
Please people, address the arguments, weigh in on the issues, be passionate in defending your point of views. But if you give me “Twatson”, you show yourself to be a clueless sexist dimwit who doesn’t shy away from using sexist derogatory slurs to advance a point, and I do therefore see no reason not to dismiss your arguments out of hand, for being the blatant and ill-advised ad hominems that they are.
But this person clearly misunderstands what the ad hominem fallacy is, and has unwittingly committed one himself. The fallacy occurs when you use a personal attribute of a person to dismiss a person’s argument, rather than the content of his argument itself. One can insult a person yet still address their arguments by raising sound objections. So while calling Rebecca Watson a cunt, bitch, or twat may be unacceptable according to the moral standards of some, it does not render any argument/counter-argument made alongside it invalid.
To illustrate the point, let’s say an atheist on Youtube said in the comments section of a creationist video (in which the creationist claims that there is no genetic evidence for evolution):
Hey fuckwit, Evolution happened. Comparison of the genetic sequence of organisms has revealed that organisms that are phylogenetically close have a higher degree of sequence similarity than organisms that are phylogenetically distant. Further evidence for common descent comes from genetic detritus such as pseudogenes, regions of DNA that are orthologous to a gene in a related organism, but are no longer active and appear to be undergoing a steady process of degeneration. Now go fuck yourself with your creationist bullshit and while you’re at it, shove the bible up your ass.
The creationist wouldn’t get to say (if I may take what the Watson apologist said and replace twatson and sexist with fuckwit and vulgar, respectively):
Please people, address the arguments, weigh in on the issues, be passionate in defending your point of views. But if you give me “fuckwit”, you show yourself to be a clueless vulgar dimwit who doesn’t shy away from using vulgar derogatory slurs to advance a point, and I do therefore see no reason not to dismiss your arguments out of hand, for being the blatant and ill-advised ad hominems that they are.
.. without being called out for committing the ad hominem fallacy himself. Indeed, the atheist has insulted him, yes – but he also presented a valid counter argument, which our creationist has decided he will dismiss out of hand because of the insult. The insult was not intended as the counter-argument. The insult was intended as an insult. What was intended as the counter-argument remains valid as a counter-argument, whether or not insults were included.
I have already stated my views on insults – and as an error theorist, I will leave any moral evaluation of the use of such language up to individuals who care to make such evaluations, based on their personal standards.
If according to feminists it is wrong to call a woman a twat because she finds it deeply offensive, then so be it. They’ll have a tough time convincing others that it should apply as a universal rule, however. Just wait till they are told that their cartoons of the Islamic prophet are deeply offensive, to see why. “Free expression” they will argue, in defense of their right to draw Mohammed, should anyone take offense. But if free speech or expression is a valid defense for causing offense to others in the case of drawing cartoons of prophets, or desecrating Catholic wafers, how is it not a valid defense for calling people bitch, cunt or twat even it happens to offend someone? I can’t see how it is not.
It Only Matters When Women Are Victims
Anyone who’s listened to Watson’s various public talks knows that as an outspoken feminist activist, she does discuss sexism a lot in different public fora. In fact, prior to Dawkins’ comments on the Pharyngula, she had spoken about misogyny at 3 different events, including in Dublin, where she sat on the same panel with Dawkins to discuss “Communicating Atheism” (in the video below). Dawkins was therefore used to Rebecca Watson bringing up her personal anecdotes about sexism and misogyny on a regular basis. Here he is on a panel having to sit through yet another of her talks on misogyny – when she was in fact supposed to be discussing a different topic altogether.
Its interesting to observe that during her talk on the panel Rebecca Watson makes jokes about Richard Dawkins reading death threats that have been sent to him. She even says she uses his recorded reading of these death threats as her phone’s ring tone, and then laughs after attempting a mock imitation of Dawkins’ English accent. Then in the next breath she labours to press the point that people sending her rape and death threats should be a point of real concern. Watson alleges that such hateful emails supposedly prevent women like her from freely speaking out on atheism. But if that is the case then how come Dawkins doesn’t complain about the same? Where is the concern for Dawkins’ personal safety from Rebecca Watson? Or should we only be especially concerned if such e-mails are sent to a woman?
The threats, meanwhile, don’t seem to be discouraging Dawkins and most atheist men from speaking out – so in the interest of EQUALITY, shouldn’t we be asking atheist women to toughen up too? No? Double standards.
Further, in her talk why does she complain when her fans send her emails outlining their sexual fantasies about her yet she goes out of her way to depict herself in a sexually provocative manner to them?
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right, and I suppose we can all agree that insults are not the best way to foster productive discourse. But it is frustrating to see that the voices screaming loudest about how we should not offend particular women with insults nor make them uncomfortable are themselves highly reputed for offending, insulting and making uncomfortable those whose beliefs they do not share. The ones making the most noise about how it is wrong to sexualise women are also the ones aggressively sexualising themselves on the internet. Those who object to calling women “twats” seem to have no problem when men are called “dicks”.
Hypocrisy makes it difficult for people to take you seriously, no matter how noble you feel your intentions are. More so if you’re engaging in a moral crusade in which you’re trying to intimidate people and bully them into accepting your rather arbitrary prescriptions for behaviour by using shaming language.
Definition of Witch-hunt:
A rigorous campaign to round up or expose dissenters on the pretext of safeguarding the welfare of the public.
…as exemplified by this post on a blog called Furious Purpose, in an attempt to get blogger Abbie Smith (ERV) black-listed. He begins by listening the comments of ERV that he finds objectionable, and says:
Now, here is the opportunity for Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford, Miranda C Hale and anyone else, to state loud and clear that they do not approve, or maybe in fact disagree with Abbie’s comments that I have just listed here. Could it be any more simple ? I’m waiting. And if I don’t hear from any of these people, that message will be just as loud and clear, in that they do in fact approve of Abbie’s hate trip against Rebecca Watson, the one she authorised to be conducted on her blog for the last month. One that has done far more damage to the atheist or skeptic movement than any timid appeals by Watson for “Guys, don’t do that”.
To begin with, most of the the criticism that Watson has received has more to do with her actions after the posting the initial video, especially her attitude towards dissenting views. And in the case of ERV and her commenters, this is specifically the case. I contend that many of their criticisms are both legitimate and justified, given the hypocrisy on the part of Watson and her defenders, examples of which have already been elaborated upon on this post. The fact that insults have accompanied the criticisms does not negate or invalidate the criticisms contained therein. Indeed, atheists are experts at insulting people who do not share their beliefs, as any cursory perusal through the blogosphere will show. Does this invalidate their arguments? Does ‘God’ therefore exist?
Of course not.
What is doing damage to the skeptic community is not ERV’s blog, but the fact that many of the prominent bloggers and ‘opinion leaders’ in the movement have decided to deliberately eschew their skepticism on this matter, promote a culture of witch-hunting, and rely on logical fallacies to defend the dogma that is radical gender feminism.
LOGICAL FALLACIES GALORE:
Guilt by association
People who disagree with Rebecca Watson’s interpretation of the incidence on the elevator have been labelled misogynists.
Misogynists disagree with Rebecca Watson, and have sent her atrocious emails containing threats of rape
You, too, disagree with Rebecca Watson
Therefore, you are a misogynist and a rapist-sympathizer
The fallacy draws its power from the fact that people do not like to be associated with people they dislike. Hence, if it is shown that a person shares a belief with people he dislikes he might be influenced into rejecting that belief. In such cases the person will be rejecting the claim based on how he thinks or feels about the people who hold it and because he does not want to be associated with such people.
Of course, the fact that someone does not want to be associated with people she dislikes does not justify the rejection of any claim. For example, most wicked and terrible people accept that the earth revolves around the sun and that lead is heavier than helium. No sane person would reject these claims simply because this would put them in the company of people they dislike (or even hate).
Following from Rebecca Watson’s encounter on a Dublin hotel elevator at 4am, there was heated discussion about why it is supposedly wrong for a man to proposition a woman who he’d never spoken to before. Especially in an elevator.
“Schrodinger’s Rapist” has been presented as the smack-down argument by those who take the view that men should not proposition women in elevators. The concept made its debut in an article called “Schrödinger’s Rapist: or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced”, written by an author going by the pen-name of Phaedra Starling:
Now, you want to become acquainted with a woman you see in public. The first thing you need to understand is that women are dealing with a set of challenges and concerns that are strange to you, a man. To begin with, we would rather not be killed or otherwise violently assaulted.
“But wait! I don’t want that, either!”
Well, no. But do you think about it all the time? Is preventing violent assault or murder part of your daily routine, rather than merely something you do when you venture into war zones? Because, for women, it is. When I go on a date, I always leave the man’s full name and contact information written next to my computer monitor. This is so the cops can find my body if I go missing. My best friend will call or e-mail me the next morning, and I must answer that call or e-mail before noon-ish, or she begins to worry. If she doesn’t hear from me by three or so, she’ll call the police. My activities after dark are curtailed. Unless I am in a densely-occupied, well-lit space, I won’t go out alone. Even then, I prefer to have a friend or two, or my dogs, with me. Do you follow rules like these?
So when you, a stranger, approach me, I have to ask myself: Will this man rape me?
Do you think I’m overreacting? One in every six American women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.
[…] When you approach me in public, you are Schrödinger’s Rapist. You may or may not be a man who would commit rape. I won’t know for sure unless you start sexually assaulting me. I can’t see inside your head, and I don’t know your intentions. If you expect me to trust you—to accept you at face value as a nice sort of guy—you are not only failing to respect my reasonable caution, you are being cavalier about my personal safety.
[…] To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%.
As used by Watson’s defenders – women, we are told, have no way of knowing which man might rape her so she goes about her day assuming that every man she encounters is a potential rapist. If you proposition her in an elevator, it makes fearful for her personal safety – because she assumes you are a potential rapist. Putting women (or should it be ‘people’?) in the position fearing for their personal safety is absolutely wrong. Therefore propositioning a woman in an elevator is wrong – and should you disagree, you are a sexist-misogynist who is too blinded by privilege to “get it”.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that the overwhelming majority of rapes are in fact committed by people who are well known the victim, this argument fails the viability test as a credible moral prescription because, if the principle grounding all three premises were applied universally, it will lead to scenarios such as where black men are told not to talk to a white man in a confined area – because neither can the white man know which black man might assault/rob him, and making people fearful for their personal safety is supposedly wrong.
This counter-example is sometimes called “Schrodinger’s Black Assaulter/Mugger”. All attempts to challenge this counter example while maintaining the same principle for the potential-rape scenario, do, as far as I’ve seen, amount to special pleading. It is difficult to see how it could be argued that the fear of women being raped by strangers is intrinsically superior to the fear of a white man being assaulted by black men. Indeed this would be special pleading.
Should one try to counter “Schrodinger’s Black Assaulter/Mugger” by saying that it is a false comparison, or that rape stats outweigh assault stats, then all I have to do to refute this person is by quoting the author of the Schrödinger’s Rapist article herself, where she says:
To begin with, you must accept that I set my own risk tolerance. When you approach me, I will begin to evaluate the possibility you will do me harm. That possibility is never 0%.
In other words, based on the logic underlying Schrödinger’s Rapist, it is irrelevant whether or not it is a particular white man’s ignorant racist attitudes, or his familiarity (or lack thereof) with crime statistics that have made him fearful of being mugged by a black man. Black men must simply accept that a white man sets his own risk tolerance. To say this counter-example is inapplicable is to engage in special pleading of the highest calibre.
This counter-example successfully demonstrates the absurdity of proposing the Schrödinger’s Rapist argument as a basis for prescribing how men should behave around women. If the underlying principle were applied consistently and universally, you’d basically get segregation – and no one wants that (unless you’re a racist, of course). But if one insists that the moral principle underlying Schrödinger’s Rapist should be applied only to the threat of rape scenario and nothing else, then that moral principle is completely arbitrary – hence the fallacy of special pleading ensues when one tries to argue for its adoption.
Argumentum ad hominem
It is ironic indeed, that atheists, on one hand, like to laugh at Christians who say "you reject Jesus because you’ve hardened your heart" and yet there go the feminist-atheists, telling their detractors "you just don’t get it because of male privilege".
Let me grant, for the sake of argument that male privilege is a real thing. Even so, being privileged doesn’t necessarily make one’s argument invalid – in just the same way that being under-privileged, doesn’t necessarily make one’s argument valid. So Richard Dawkins, might be a rich, white, old, heterosexual male, but this in itself doesn’t render him unqualified to comment on issues pertaining to sexism or misogyny.
The notion of ‘male privilege’, as a sociological concept, is also a rather dubious, especially if it is applied in a linear fashion, which it most usually is when it comes to gender issues. The human experience is comprised of a vast web of inter-locking, counter balanced, privileges that cut across gender, class and race. Privilege is also context relative. For example:
In terms of quality of life – relative to a rich white woman, a poor African male peasant is underprivileged.
In terms of access to emotional support – relative to men, women are more privileged.
In terms of life expectancy – relative to men, women are more privileged.
So pointing to ‘white male privilege’ as some sort of over-arching evil force that is being used to oppress everyone else is narrow-minded at best, and disingenuous at worst. It also smacks of political ideology.
We are all privileged – one way or another – and Rebecca Watson is also highly privileged to live in a society where on the basis of her uncorroborated personal testimony have legions of men, who will gladly overlook her several acts of hypocrisy, jumping to her defense and calling her detractors misogynist rapist sympathisers. Not many men could get away with pulling off something like that, but she can. Now that’s privilege.
But I will not let her being a privileged white female distract me from engaging her arguments, if they are there. In any case my problem isn’t really with her – it is with her defenders and enablers who have, on this occasion, decided to eschew freethought and skepticism for the political ideology of radical gender feminism that primarily sees women as helpless victims. This in itself, is sexism, whether feminists realise it or not.
As we’ve so far seen, the Male Privilege argument is bunk. The Schrödinger’s Rapist argument is bunk. They are bunk because their defences rest on logical fallacies.
Richard Dawkins has taken a lot of heat for the comments he left on Pharyngula, after this fiasco had already gained full steam. From Salon:
She didn’t call for the man to be castrated or claim to be a victim of great injustice; all she expressed was that his overture made her feel "incredibly uncomfortable," and that guys should generally avoid doing that. "That" being 1) hitting on a woman after she has gone to great lengths to explain why she doesn’t want to be sexualized within the atheist community, and 2) ignoring her remark that she is tired and just wants to go to bed. PZ Myers, a biologist who pens the bookmark-worthy skeptics blog Pharyngula, wrote a post about it and then Dawkins himself — the rock star of atheism — waded into the comments thread with a satirical letter addressed to a Muslim woman…
“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…”
Who knew Dawkins had such flair for creative writing – and for being a dick?
Quick responses to the 2 points raised:
1) There is absolutely NO corroborative evidence that the man in question was present in that specific conference where Watson discussed sexualisation.
2) There is absolutely NO corroborative evidence that the man in question heard Watson say she wanted to go to bed. And even so, since when did saying “I want to go to bed” equal “I want to have nothing to do with anyone so please don’t bother me”? (I have, on several occasions while with friends, announced that I was leaving them to go do something, only to have one of them walk up to me on my way out and suggest we go do something else together, with me obliging in the end. Such scenarios are hardly uncommon.)
I will also add that there is no evidence that the man in question even exists. All of this is based on the anecdote of a single person, for which there is no corroborative evidence. It therefore cannot be assumed that Watson’s account of events is factual.
That said, Dawkins’ initial Dear Muslima comment was not even directed at Watson. It was directed at those who he felt were blowing things out of proportion. He obviously was of the view that time could be better spent discussing what he considered to be actual cases of misogyny such as the plight of women in the Muslim world who are subjected to the horror of female genital mutilation. Comparatively, to him, Watson’s ordeal on the elevator was a non-issue.
Of course there are those who, at this point, accused Dawkins of fallacious reasoning – that just because bigger problems exist, it does not mean that smaller problems should not be addressed. Indeed in the strictest sense, this is true. But then this unfairly frames Dawkins point in a way it was not intended. There is such a thing, after all, as dwelling on non-issues. Whether or not something is a non-issue is in the mind of the evaluator, but once someone makes that assessment, as subjective as it may be, he or she is justified in emphasising the triviality of one thing in comparison to another. A proper response to Dawkins, therefore, should have discussed why Watson’s specific ordeal (where misogyny, sexism or harassment did not occur) merits as much attention as the suffering of Muslim women through genital mutilation. Unfortunately, most saw Dawkins’ comment as him telling Watson to shut up. But that was not the case at all. He was simply telling the people who were blowing things way out of proportion on her behalf to put things into perspective. And he made this clear in the response that followed his initial comment:
“Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home?”
No I wasn’t making that argument. 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.
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.
People still didn’t understand his point. He tried again:
Many people seem to think it obvious that my post was wrong and I should apologise. Very few people have bothered to explain exactly why. The nearest approach I have heard goes something like this.
I sarcastically compared Rebecca’s plight with that of women in Muslim countries or families dominated by Muslim men. Somebody made the worthwhile point (reiterated here by PZ) that it is no defence of something slightly bad to point to something worse. We should fight all bad things, the slightly bad as well as the very bad. Fair enough. But my point is that the ‘slightly bad thing’ suffered by Rebecca was not even slightly bad, it was zero bad. A man asked her back to his room for coffee. She said no. End of story.
But not everybody sees it as end of story. OK, let’s ask why not? The main reason seems to be that an elevator is a confined space from which there is no escape. This point has been made again and again in this thread, and the other one.
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.
No, I obviously don’t get it. I will gladly apologise if somebody will calmly and politely, without using the word fuck in every sentence, explain to me what it is that I am not getting.
Dawkins was probably unaware that an interesting bait and switch had already taken place. Rebecca’s initial complaint about discomfort about allegedly being sexualised was not the issue anymore. The issue was now about the possibility that she could have been raped. The man in the elevator was now no longer just a guy who made Rebecca Watson feel uncomfortable by making an awkward pass at her – he was now a potential rapist. So Dawkins’ dismissal of Watson’s experience as trivial was now taken as Dawkins’ dismissal of the plight of women who live in fear of rape, or of actual rape victims.
So to have my concerns – and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault – dismissed thanks to a rich white man comparing them to the plight of women who are mutilated, is insulting to all of us.
Rebecca Watson, from her article: The Privilege Delusion
This, of course, was a terrible distortion of the intent of Dawkins’ comments – but that didn’t matter. Other feminist-atheist bloggers decided that Dawkins was going to be crucified for the sin of being dismissive of the ordeals of rape victims:
And so began the castigation of Richard Dawkins from all feminist quarters.
One interesting evaluation of Dawkins’ actions came from Jean Kazez, speaking at a recent meeting of the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas, below. She tried to put Dawkins’ comments in context of what had been going on in the weeks prior to them appearing on Pharyngula. Listening to her explanation, it is easy to see where Dawkins was coming from:
Much as I’m annoyed by this all, I think we needed this debacle. This is a wake up call that I think all skeptics should reflect on. It raises many important questions.
For example, perhaps skepticism is not something that works well in a group setting, or as a movement. On the other hand, perhaps it is. Is radical gender feminism consistent with skepticism? Maybe it is. I’m inclined to think it is not. Is sexism the real reason women opt not to participate in atheist/skeptic conferences? Perhaps not – and I personally doubt it. The thing is, having the audacity to even ask these questions, is, for me, what skepticism is actually all about.
Any questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere – is what skepticism is.
Let’s start acting like skeptics.
I certainly expect that not all will see things the way I have, and your comments are more than welcome.