Biologist, philosopher, and atheist prophet Richard Dawkins really put his foot in it. The New Statesman says Dawkin's career as a public intellectual is kaput. The Atlantic Wire has him losing a flame-war against his very own fan base. In the blogosphere, the most devoted Dawkinsians—people who've spent their adult lives in adoration of his every utterance—are boycotting his books and calling him a buffoon. A classist, male chauvinistic, and potentially racist buffoon. And why?
Because some asshole in Ireland doesn't know how to ask a girl on a date.
Here's what happened. In Dublin last month, Rebecca Watson attended a conference and spoke about sexism in the skeptical community. (It was technically an atheist gathering, but it was probably attended mostly by skeptics.) Now, you should know that Rebecca Watson is the founder of the Skepchick blog and a very big deal to skeptics; and that the "skeptical community" is a bunch of people who, on their good days, strive to live their lives and structure their beliefs according to rational, evidence-based thinking. They're big on the physical sciences, on atheism/agnosticism, on social libertarianism, and pretty dim on things like homeopathy, faith healing, psychics, and hell.
So Rebecca Watson does her spiel on feminism vis a vis the skeptical community, and wants to party with the conferees. Suddenly it's 4am, and she's closing down the bar with fellow skeptics. She's sleepy. She says she's gonna go to bed. She gets on the elevator, and a guy from the bar hops on, too. From Rebecca's description of the encounter, he's pretty nervous. (For a certain kind of skeptic, sharing an elevator with Rebecca Watson is a very big deal.) Maybe he's constitutionally awkward. This is a likely bet, as male skeptics are not known for their suavity. According to Watson, the guy on the elevator says: "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?"
Rebecca rebuffs him. Eventually she flies home, and posts a video on her blog. Most of it's devoted to the nicer bits of her trip. She briefly recounts her elevator adventure. She does this in a calm, measured voice, before saying in an equally calm, measured voice:
Just a word to the wise here, guys. Don't do that. I don't know how else to explain how this makes me very uncomfortable, but I'll just sort of lay it out: I was a single women in foreign country in a hotel elevator with you, just you, and I—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.
Fair enough. Don't sexualize Rebecca Watson. Or, if you must, don't do it in an elevator, one-on-one, at 4am. Not because you're a creep, but because if you hit on her that way, you're behaving in a way that's indistinguishable from creepiness, and it's apt to make folks antsy. Flirt in the open. Rebecca's a progressive gal; she probably won't be morally scandalized by your desire to hook up. (And if she is, well, fuck it. Not your fault.)
But some people—perhaps people who've never been propositioned in a pre-dawn elevator—thought her point was a little weird. The blogosphere debated. Righteous uglinesses were exchanged. Accusations of sexism were flung. And then, on the very famous science blog Pharyngula, Richard Dawkins made his thoughts known. In a comments section, he wrote:
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.
And that really did it.
Dawkins was asked to explain himself. Was he really arguing that, because greater evils happen elsewhere, lesser evils oughtn't be fought close to home? He issued an exasperated response, which did him no good at all. Then he posted another response, in which he literally begged for someone to explain to him what he was missing: "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." Seemed like a reasonable request, but no good. The hate was happening.
At the popular skeptical blog Blaghag, Jen McCreight wrote:
[It] makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I'll do that too):
Words matter. You don't get that because you've never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don't have people constantly explaining that you're subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don't have people saying you shouldn't have rights. You don't have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don't live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.
At Skepchick, Rebecca Watson proved the gravity of the skeptical feminist situation by posting an old piece of hatemail, and then wrote:
[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. Feminists in the west have been staunch allies of the women being brutalized elsewhere, and they've done a hell of a lot more than Richard Dawkins when it comes to making a difference in their lives.
Then she called for a boycott of Dawkins' books.
There were many, many more blogs written along the same lines, and by the time the kerfluffle made it to The New Statesman, the fix was in. "Can Richard Dawkins still credibly pose as a champion of rational thinking and an evidence-based approach?" asked famed attorney David Allen Green. "In my opinion, he certainly cannot, at least not in the way he did before."
Interesting contention, but aren't there other, more pertinent questions worth asking?
Such as: Is it really unreasonable that a 70-year-old man who's never had to worry about sexual assault might have a hard time understanding why an attractive young woman would feel uneasy being propositioned in an elevator?
Or: Why is feminist blogger Rebecca Watson speaking dismissively of Dawkins' efforts to combat the the oppression of Muslim women? Didn't Dawkins' The God Delusion kind of jump-start the whole modern atheist revival? Does that count for anything?
Or: Can it really be that Dawkins has never been exposed to insults as odious as the ones mentioned by Ms. McCreight? As a jump-starter of the modern atheist revival, doesn't Dawkins probably get a lot more threatening hate mail than all of his critics combined?
And the best question: Have the world's self-professed rationalists really spent the last week arguing about a proposition in an elevator?
Jesus, they have. It's enough to make you wonder if anybody knows what the hell rationality's all about. Not incidentally, this isn't the first time skeptics have become so uselessly derailed. This is the movement that almost boarded up shop for a week last year while it tried to figure out if the "Skepticon" gathering had too many atheists on its speaker roster, and oughtn't therefore be called "Atheistcon." This is the movement in which a respected leader not long ago gave a talk entitled "Don't Be a Dick," and the suggestion was so novel that nobody shut up about it for weeks.
That's skeptics. Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners.
[Photo of Dawkins via AP]