Leaving Out Stef McGraw … and Other “Elisions”.

So, Rebecca Watson has a new article on Slate talking about all of the Elevatorgate issues and what happened before and after that, which is making the rounds of all of the usual sites. And, of course, this coming out again leads to a number of extra hits on the post that is my number one most read post, my comments on the whole mess, which has received almost 2500 reads over the year and a quarter since it was published. This also comes in a week when I was thrilled that my post on the Over the Rainbow results show had done smashingly well in terms of hits. It’s picked up 72 hits, while just this week so far that post on Elevatorgate has picked up 99 hits. I’d much rather be talking about musical theatre involving attractive young women with voices like angels than this again … but, since everyone’s talking about it again, I guess I should look at the Slate article.

Now, Stephanie Zvan, some time back, talked about a hundred dollar word — so hundred dollar that even philosophers don’t use it — “elisions” in the context of Elevatorgate, pointing out what those who criticized Watson usually left out. Which makes what Watson leaves out here all the more illuminating. Here is her description of the incident:

In June of 2011, I was on a panel at an atheist conference in Dublin. The topic was “Communicating Atheism,” and I was excited to join Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous atheists in the world, with several documentaries and bestselling books to his name. Dawkins used his time to criticize Phil Plait, an astronomer who the year prior had given a talk in which he argued for skeptics to be kinder. I used my time to talk about what it’s like for me to communicate atheism online, and how being a woman might affect the response I receive, as in rape threats and other sexual comments.

The audience was receptive, and afterward I spent many hours in the hotel bar discussing issues of gender, objectification, and misogyny with other thoughtful atheists. At around 4 a.m., I excused myself, announcing that I was exhausted and heading to bed in preparation for another day of talks.

As I got to the elevator, a man who I had not yet spoken with directly broke away from the group and joined me. As the doors closed, he said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting. Would you like to come back to my hotel room for coffee?” I politely declined and got off the elevator when it hit my floor.

A few days later, I was making a video about the trip and I decided to use that as an example of how not to behave at conferences if you want to make women feel safe and comfortable. After all, it seemed rather obvious to me that if your goal is to get sex or even just companionship, the very worst way to go about attaining that goal is to attend a conference, listen to a woman speak for 12 hours about how uncomfortable she is being sexualized at conferences, wait for her to express a desire to go to sleep, follow her into an isolated space, and then suggest she go back to your hotel room for “coffee,” which, by the way, is available at the hotel bar you just left.

What I said in my video, exactly, was, “Guys, don’t do that,” with a bit of a laugh and a shrug. What legions of angry atheists apparently heard was, “Guys, I won’t stop hating men until I get 2 million YouTube comments calling me a ‘cunt.’ ” The skeptics boldly rose to the imagined challenge.

Even Dawkins weighed in. He hadn’t said anything while sitting next to me in Dublin as I described the treatment I got, but a month later he left this sarcastic comment on a friend’s blog:

In the quote, there was a video … and then a reaction to it. That’s it. Now, note what was left out, which was the reply to her video from Stef McGraw, and Watson calling her out in this rather strong fashion:

But those are unimportant details in comparison to the first quoted sentence, which demonstrates an ignorance of Feminism 101 – in this case, the difference between sexual attraction and sexual objectification. The former is great – be attracted to people! Flirt, have fun, make friends, have sex, meet the love of your life, whatever floats your boat. But the latter involves dismissing a person’s feelings, desires, and identity, with a complete disinterest in how one’s actions will affect the “object” in question. That’s what we shouldn’t be doing. No, we feminists are not outlawing sexuality.

I hear a lot of misogyny from skeptics and atheists, but when ancient anti-woman rhetoric like the above is repeated verbatim by a young woman online, it validates that misogyny in a way that goes above and beyond the validation those men get from one another. It also negatively affects the women who are nervous about being in similar situations. Some of them have been raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, and some just don’t want to be put in that position. And they read these posts and watch these videos and they think, “If something were to happen to me and these women won’t stand up for me, who will?”

So, that whole part and that whole interaction? Forgotten (although, perhaps, McGraw will not thank me for reminding people of it). Watson wants to present it like she was simply saying “Guys, don’t do that” and rather conveniently forget that here, right here, quoted and accessible, is her likening at least part of that to all-out, full-fledged, actual misogyny. And calling out another feminist — presumably — in harsh tones for simply not agreeing with her. Here, for completeness, is what McGraw wrote that Watson took umbrage to:

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.”

How is that “ancient, anti-woman rhetoric”? There may be a disagreement here on many levels — and later, a much bigger deal was made over his doing so even though he should have known that she wasn’t interested — but the lashing out was over-the-top, and is what got many people involved. Russell Blackford, for example, started his criticism of this, for the most part, from there, that her comments were not appropriate for various reasons. The post where Dawkins’ comment was made? A post entitled Always name names, which talks specifically about the McGraw controversy. It is my fervent belief that if Watson had not decided to call out Stef McGraw how she did and where and when she did, most of the fuss wouldn’t have occurred and it would have simply faded away as a minor dispute. But rather conveniently Watson and her supporters tend to completely ignore that side of it, and try to present it as simply “She said ‘Guys don’t do that’ and people’s heads exploded”. But she didn’t. From the start, she classed it as “sexualization”, which is what McGraw called her out on, and McGraw’s criticism was branded as misogyny in the worst possible sense despite it actually reflecting a long-standing debate in feminist theory, something that Watson continually demonstrates that she knows little about.

If Watson had not called out McGraw, and in a manner that tied the Elevatorgate incident to deep, entrenched misogyny, Dawkins would almost certainly have never made his comment because there wouldn’t have been a post or discussion for him to attach it to.

The next thing she talks about is Dawkins’ comment itself, quoted through an image because the migration of Scienceblogs has lost old comments:

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.


What’s left out is his actual attempt to clarify that comment, that I happened to have saved in my post on the subject:

“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.

His argument? This isn’t really misogyny. It was a proposition, perhaps, nothing more. Not sexualization, not treating her as nothing but an object, but just a proposition. Just “polite words”. Now, there’s a lot you can criticize in that comment. You can criticize, as I did, the idea that it being creepy was just her interpretation — and quite possibly unreasonable — because it wasn’t all that unreasonable. He did later, at least, get the actual threat of rape in an elevator wrong. But, for the most part, the worst you can say about Dawkins here is … he was wrong. Not that he was misogynistic, or sexist. Just that he was wrong. And somehow, his being wrong on this is enough to brand him as an out-of-date sexist and possibly a misogynist who’s giving support to those who would make rape or death threats to Watson. Colour me unconvinced.

Ultimately, if I wasn’t already a realist, I think this would drive me to become a cynic, as I note that everyone who claims to be speaking from the moral high ground seems determined to run right into the gutter the first chance they get, while still speaking as if their suit is pristine clean despite it being covered in raw sewage. But, being a realist, I know that this is just how people are, and that it’s really hard for people to see this sorts of inconsistencies in themselves. This is why it’s hard to take the log out of our own eyes in order to better see the splinter in our neighbours’ eyes, and I’m absolutely not immune to this. But this should be a lesson to everyone who, for example, rants on and on about the “elisions” of their opponents to stop and look carefully at what they themselves are eliding.

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