A comment on the latest drama in the atheist/skeptical community.

Considering how badly I got raked over the coals by various feminists for my last attempt at discussing issues involving male privilege, it’s probably a sign of diminished intelligence that I would step into that lion pit again, but here I go.

This time out it’s not about a web comic, but a shit-storm in the skeptical/atheist community that is commonly being referred to as “Elevatorgate.” It all started with Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame when she did a video blog about an uncomfortable encounter in an elevator she had at a recent atheist conference. Here’s a transcript of the small portion of the video blog where she describes what happened:

“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…”

Apparently Rebecca had mentioned, either in discussion panels or in small group conversations, several times throughout the day how she often feels unwelcome at skeptical conferences like the one she was attending because invariably someone tries to hit on her. Given that, it’s understandable how she would find the actions of the unnamed male on the elevator to be creepy. Especially given the time of day it was, the location in which it took place, and her announcement just prior to getting on the elevator that she was going to bed. As is often the case when things like this are posted to the net, someone stood up to defend Creepy Elevator Guy (CEG from now on), and the beginnings of a shit-storm appeared on the horizon.

Now let me say this right up front: Sure, it’s entirely possible CEG had purely innocent intentions and wasn’t actually looking to get laid, but even with as clueless as I can be about issues of feminism I can still understand why the assumption would be that he was looking to get his dick wet. Perhaps it’s because I have a daughter and I’ve hung around with enough creepy guys in my time to know what sort of stupid ideas they get in their heads, but even I was thinking it was a little skeevy. Still, it appears Rebecca declined the offer and the fellow didn’t push it any further than that.

Anyway, so some folks stood up to defend CEG and it wasn’t long before the battle lines were drawn and the growing shit-storm started to pick up speed. Reading through the comments back and forth on a couple of different blogs can be very dispiriting because there doesn’t seem to be any room for an honest discussion. Sexual harassment and the threat of rape are, understandably, emotionally upsetting topics so it’s probably no surprise that so many were outraged that anyone would think to suggest that CEG hadn’t done anything wrong. Meanwhile the CEG defenders were flabbergasted that so many people in the “skeptical” movement would make such blatant assumptions about CEG’s intentions based on how little info Rebecca had given anyone to go on. There are a lot of blanket statements being thrown back and forth that I don’t think accurately describe the stances or either side and with that comes the inevitable name calling.

This is dispiriting because the topic of sexism in the atheist/skeptical “movement” is probably a good discussion to have, but the topic is so emotionally charged that it’s almost pointless to engage in it because both sides end up talking past each other instead of to each other. Despite the apparent blindness my white male privilege gives me to the injustices of the non-white-male population (as was repeatedly pointed out to me in comments on my aforementioned entry) I do see and acknowledge that sexism and, yes, even misogyny are a problem in the atheist/skeptical community. There’s definitely room for improvement that’ll never happen so long as shit-storms flare up every time we try to talk about it.

This one has gotten so big that even well-known “leaders” (I use the term lightly) such as Richard Dawkins and Hemant Mehta (The Friendly Atheist) have gotten caught up in it and have apparently disappointed legions of fans by saying things that others felt were illustrative of their acute male privilege problem. It doesn’t help that when a female blogger by the name of Stef McGraw wrote an entry critical of Rebecca Watson’s vlog the latter turned around and used her status as a keynote speaker at an event where the former was present to criticize the criticism, which turned the shit-storm into a fecal hurricane.

Here’s where I stick my foot in it and say, well, I can see valid points on both sides. Yeah, at best Creepy Elevator Guy didn’t think his proposition (innocent or otherwise) through very well and, at worst, he made someone feel uncomfortable and threatened, intentionally or not, and that’s not a good thing. At the same time, the feminists in the audience did some amazing knee-jerk assumption making that is probably out of place in a skeptical community. Understandable as it may be from an emotional standpoint, it’s still going to rub some people the wrong way. When you stamp your feet and demand that your position is the only correct one to have and anyone who disagrees is a misogynistic fuckwad, well, you’re not going to win a lot of converts to your cause. It comes across as ideological as any Fundie and that’ll hit a brick wall with a lot of people right from the get-go.

More importantly, these sorts of shit-storms make people reluctant to even discuss the issue because it always blows up into a shit-storm. I like to think I’m a decent guy who respects and appreciates women for more than their physical assets, but by some accounts I’m more of a problem than the openly misogynistic assholes because I can’t see how anti-woman I really am due to male privilege. It’s only through sheer stupidity on my part that I even attempt to comment on these issues because the smarter side of me says I should just stick to less potentially explosive issues such as clubbing baby seals. (For the record, I’m against it, but I’m probably still part of the problem due to my Privileged Human Species status blinding me to the true horrors of being a baby seal.)

So what am I trying to say here? I’m saying that I don’t think either side has handled the conversation particularly well and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. Until we stop yelling past each other and twisting what the other side said to suit our arguments, well, this will just keep happening again and again with no real gains to be made. A lot of folks keep saying they want to have a conversation, but that involves some give and take and most folks seem only interested in the giving part.

I now await being told how clueless I am and how I just don’t get it.