Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Rationalist Subcultures & Intra-Feminist Net-Debates

Rationalist Subcultures & Intra-Feminist Net-Debates

I have recently been following a story that has broken across several of the blogs over at the Science Blogs weblog aggregate.

I should note before proceeding any further that the story and the discussion is largely a debate about the roles of feminism, misogyny, and male privilege within the skeptic & atheist movements (insofar as these two intersect). I myself am neither an atheist nor a skeptic, though I am very sympathetic to the latter group's aims vis-à-vis spreading scientific literacy, science advocacy, and counteracting harmful social and political movements - such as anti-vaccine activism - based on false conclusions or outright crankery). I find the story worth sharing & commenting on because of its universal applicability.

I had originally planned on taking a larger look at rape, sexual assault, and misogyny in Canada and the US in this post, but have since decided to keep it short and simple.

The story involves Rebecca Watson, the founding member of the Skepchick blogging team, who, while attending a skeptic/atheist conference in Dublin as a speaker, was approached in an elevator at approximately 4 AM on her way back to her hotel room by a man who asked her to come to his hotel room for coffee. (She relates the story in this video.)

I trust any reader not already familiar with this story will find the encounter has a high creep factor. Certainly Ms Watson did. Her advice in the video was to suggest that men desist approaching her under such circumstances. Seems fairly uncontroversial, yes? (All the more so since she herself did not, in the video, suggest that she was in mortal fear or that she thought him a potential assailant.)

Well, as blog posts such as this one or this one, or comments she made in her video demonstrate, there has been a positive storm of commentary & controversy over Ms Watson's disapproval of being accosted in an elevator. The rather more well-known Richard Dawkins himself made an appearance to dismiss Ms Watson's concerns.

What struck me about the whole thing is how quickly it transformed into a discussion of rape & sexual assault, and the wider phenomena of societal misogyny and male privilege). Of course, it's not hard, in my estimation, to see why. Ms Watson was approached, in an elevator, by someone she didn't know at all, at 4 in the morning, when she was tired, probably a bit intoxicated, and asked to go to his hotel room for a coffee.

Of course, as this contrasting post or this post show, Ms Watson did not cover herself entirely in glory. It appears she used an opportunity as a keynote speaker at a skeptic student organization to call out a critic in an inappropriate manner - using the podium as a bully pulpit, as it were. And it is in fact this incident, more than the original late-night coffee invite in the elevator, which has created the online tempest.

In short, both the guy with an exquisitely bad sense of timing on the Dublin hotel elevator and Ms Watson appear, in their respective cases, to have failed to heed another noted skeptic, 'bad' astronomer Phil Plait's advice: "Don't be a dick." (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

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