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Elevatorgate and the power of words

As published in The Daily Maverick

Comment facilities on blog posts and online newspapers can be enormously valuable to both readers and writers, in that they allow for prompt corrections and clarifications of points of view. As all readers will know, they can also conduce to venting of spleen or expressions of odious viewpoints, as I’ve discussed in a previous column. But what they also allow for is a detachment from the arguments of the piece in question, where the comment thread rapidly takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the ideas the author intended to explore.

A recent example of this is provided by what some readers might know as the Elevator Incident, where an (arguably) off-hand remark by science-blogger and secular activist Rebecca Watson has resulted in three weeks of infighting in the secular community. Some might observe that we indulge in these squabbles fairly frequently.

However, this one is particularly notable, in that not only is it the largest such squabble since the one sparked by Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech in July 2010, but also because one of the wounded in this current round is Richard Dawkins, who is the subject of a campaign to boycott his talks and published output. The British lawyer David Allen Green has gone so far as to say that Dawkins can no longer “credibly pose as a champion of rational thinking and an evidence-based approach”, as a consequence of his comments on Watson’s elevator experience.

What happened in the elevator was this: It was 4:00 in a Dublin hotel. A particular man had been attending a conference with Watson, and then drinking with her and others at the bar. Watson said she wanted to retire for the evening, and headed for the elevator. The man entered the elevator after her and told her that he found her to be “interesting”, and asked whether she would like to continue the conversation over coffee in his hotel room. These were apparently the first words he had exchanged with her, rather than being the continuation of a conversation.

The details matter: Watson’s talk earlier that day had focused on the marginalisation of female voices in the sceptical movement, and also on how frequently she had been the subject of what she perceived as sexual harassment by male members of the movement. In this context, and given that they hadn’t established a relationship of any form, she regarded the attempted pick-up as insensitive and implied that she felt objectified by it.

When Watson then spent a few minutes of a recent podcast saying something to the effect of “Guys, don’t do that – it makes me uncomfortable” – not naming names, and not accusing the man of anything beyond disrespecting her known sensitivity on these issues – it kicked off a series of blog posts and comments numbering in the thousands. One of those comments was from Dawkins, who said:

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.


While this comment could certainly count towards confirming the widely held belief in Dawkins’ tone-deafness, again the details matter. The conference in question had been dealing with communicating atheism in hostile environments, and discussion had included topics like female genital mutilation. Defenders of Dawkins point out that he might have been affronted by Watson choosing to spend her talk describing her own experiences as a (privileged, well-educated, financially secure) woman in the secular movement, taking attention away from the situations of those more troubled than she. Dawkins himself has defended his comment, agreeing we should fight “the slightly bad as well as the very bad”, but insisting what Watson experienced was “zero bad”.

But as logically correct as much of this might be, it’s horribly wrong on every other level imaginable. More to the point, it’s arguably wrong to even say it in the context of a conversation around Watson’s feelings of having been objectified. To claim that the experience was “zero bad” is to claim that Watson was wrong to feel uncomfortable, but this is plausibly just another example of someone – a man, in this case – telling her that her worldview and emotional responses are inappropriate. Dawkins could well be right that it wasn’t abuse at all, but there are better ways of pointing that out. Doing so in a tone that would (justifiably) be read as trivialising Watson’s concerns simply demonstrates them to be valid ones.

Words do matter, especially when directed at people who are more frequently the subject of demeaning or dismissive language. Of course we’d all prefer a world in which these sorts of words mattered less – one in which our confidence allowed us to shake off insults from others. But as many have pointed out during this saga, Watson had spent her talk explaining how the world she lived in was one where that demeaning and dismissive attitude is prevalent, and in which elevator guy (and then Dawkins) amplified that through trivialising her concerns.

And now, the secular community is at each others’ throats, and nobody can comment on this saga without being branded a misogynist, militant feminist or apologist for the objectification of women. Part of the reason for this is that as much as the details matter, many enter the conversation long after those have been revealed and end up responding only to the soundbites, or to comments that are taken out of context or are themselves based on misreading.

Where the conversation started has, however, long been lost in these accusations and counter-accusations. A simple, non-accusatory and exceedingly polite request from Watson for some sensitivity has resulted in either her, Dawkins or both of them cast as villains, and the opportunity to discuss her basic concern regarding gender roles and representivity has (at least for the moment) been lost.

And in the meanwhile, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince oneself and others that scepticism and rational debate are comfortable bedfellows

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

7 replies on “Elevatorgate and the power of words”

Here is a few details I see missing from the article:

1) The guy also said “Don’t get me wrong” to begin with. What does he wish Rebecca not to get wrong? Besides, the guy apparently takes no for an answer and go no further.

2) The “interesting” is not highlighted in Rebecca’s vblog. One may as well highlight the “conversation” or “coffee”. We did not have the story from the guy’s side so we did not know his true intention.

3) Rebecca said the behavior “objectifies” her. She was also addressing her opinion to the “wise guy” in general and “to girls” in general, but not to any specific person.

4) Rebecca later uses her public key notes (about religious rights) to address an student with opposite view and associate her with the hate mail she recieves. In fact, this is what Richard Dawkins’s comment in PZ Myer’s blog is referring to.

5) On a personally side, Rebecca also named Paula Kirby (rumored to be Dawkin’s friend) in the Dublin conference earlier (about communicating atheism) for critistism, in a simliar way with the later key notes speech event.

One is hard-pressed to imagine why the facts are so difficult to square for people. Assuming that everything is exactly as Rebecca says they are, you seem to have slanted some of the facts to present a picture in a particular way for a desired result.
Contrast your claim here:
“A particular man had been attending a conference with Watson, and then drinking with her and others at the bar.”
With your claim here:
These were apparently the first words he had exchanged with her, rather than being the continuation of a conversation.

As it happens, he wasn’t drinking with her at the bar. What is accurate to say is that both he and she occupied the same bar, but had no interaction with one another at all – after all, the elevator is the first either had spoken to one another.

Which kind of does away with the whole line about his having known she was heading to bed or whatever.

So, which story would you like go with? They hadn’t before spoken and thus there’s no reason to think he heard her announcement? Or that that they had and Rebecca wasn’t being honest about their having never before spoken to one another?

Your side simply cannot have it be both ways, though that hasn’t stopped you at all from telling both stories. In the same paragraph. Without a single critic thought.

Also, you seem to have changed the dialogue slightly.

Even further, I noticed that you haven’t asked Rebecca Watson to identify which man it was notwithstanding the fact that we have a picture of her in the bar as well as everyone else in the bar before she left. Why will she not point him out so that we might ask him his side of the story?

Oh, I forgot. You already have a conclusion – facts don’t matter here.

Justicar, that’s quite an unsympathetic reading of a post that was aiming for balance, and explicitly trying to not get involved in the kind of battle you’ve been engaged with at PZ’s site and elsewhere. I agree that there’s ambiguity in the lines you quote. Thanks for pointing that out, but they aren’t evidence of sinister intent – just sloppy editing. You say “your side” – but I haven’t taken one, and haven’t offered a conclusion, despite your snarky last line. I’ve mostly tried to argue that many people, on both sides, are not applying anything remotely resembling the principle of charity when engaging with this issue, and that this is to secularism’s discredit. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with EG asking her for coffee, though I would think it impolitic if we knew that he had heard her announcement. You also have no idea what I’ve asked Rebecca or not – but regardless of that, Rebecca used him as an example of a general point (whether a good point or not), and I doubt she has any interest in identifying him, now that there’s a mob waiting.

“A simple, non-accusatory and exceedingly polite request from Watson for some sensitivity”? She accused Elevator Guy of sexualizing her based on a polite invitation to coffee that didn’t even mention sex. I found her remarks condescending, at best.

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