Right. I wasn’t going to talk about this, but I’ve unexpectedly had an opinion, so what the hell.
Brief summary of what’s been going on, in case your Twitterstream and RSS feed haven’t been exploding over this in the same way that mine have. Skip the next four paragraphs if you know what I’m talking about and it’s already given you a headache.
Rebecca Watson. Cool lady, Skepchick, atheist activist. She’s at a conference a while ago, giving a talk on religion and feminism and stuff, mingling with other critical thinkers. Hangs out in the bar afterward, decides she’s done and announces her plans to go to bed at around 4am. Is followed into the lift by some guy, who invites her to his hotel room for coffee.
Rebecca makes a video, describing this encounter and why it made her really uncomfortable and was not an okay thing to do, and offers this advice to any men in a similar situation: “Don’t do that.”
You know how YouTube comment threads can get. Some people went a little over-the-top in castigating this guy as a sick sleazy creep deserving of nothing short of contempt and disgust. Others went a little crazy in slamming Rebecca for speaking out about something that made her uncomfortable, and for daring to criticise a man for what they – from their expert witness position of not being there and not really knowing a thing about what happened – deemed totally innocuous and nothing to get worked up about.
PZ Myers offers some advice, regarding just when it is and isn’t okay to make sexualised comments at a stranger in a confined space in the middle of the night. Hemant, in the friendly manner that earned his blog its name, calls for calm. Richard Dawkins weighs in on a comments thread, and Jen McCreight picks him apart. PZ has another go at explaining things with a calm civility that many wouldn’t expect from him.
And here we are. You’re up to speed.
To get to my Opinion wot I has had, we need to take a bit of a detour. I’ll try not to ramble.
Who remembers Dr Laura? She’s been a talk-show host and self-help guru type in America, and was the inspiration for the character at whom a famous Jed Bartlet rant was directed. She’s kind of a dick.
Last year, she was fielding a call on her phone-in radio show, from a black lady wanting some advice on dealing with her white husband’s friends, who would sometimes casually use racial slurs that she found offensive. Dr Laura questioned whether the n-word was really something to be offended by, and said it herself eleven times over the course of the conversation.
She repeatedly said arguably the most objectionable word in the language, in a rather confrontational manner, to a black woman who’d come to her for help, after the woman expressed some surprise that Dr Laura would say it at all in such a blasé fashion. Dr Laura was widely criticised for being insensitive, and apologised the next day, but completely undermined this later by saying some bullshit about her First Amendment rights.
Here’s where I think much of the problem lies:
One thing I suspect Dr Laura knows, with considerable certainty, is that she’s not a racist.
Racists are other people. Racists hate black people, or at the very least think less of them just because of the colour of their skin. That’s a horrible way to treat people. Dr Laura would never act like that. She doesn’t have a problem with black people just because they’re black.
So when this black woman comes along, and starts implying that Dr Laura is racist – as if it’s somehow offensive when she, Dr Laura the non-racist, utters a perfectly harmless word that she hears black people using all the time – well, that’s just rude. This black woman needs to calm down and get some perspective and stop making these horrible accusations.
Because Dr Laura knows that she’s not a racist.
And, goes my thesis, one thing that a lot of men know is that they’re not sexist.
A number of people have been indignant and quite angry that Rebecca found the behaviour of Elevator Guy (as he’s come to be known) at all creepy. One thing that I think motivates this is that he wasn’t doing anything that far off what many of them might find themselves doing: approaching someone they find interesting and attractive with an invitation to further discourse. They’ve tried to chat up women before, maybe under similar-ish circumstances, and they’re not all chauvinist pigs.
So how dare this woman come along and start implying that we men, because of perfectly innocent behaviour like this, are all sexist? She’s obviously making a fuss about nothing. Sexists are other people who hate women and only think of them as objects. We’re not like that.
The problem being, of course, that people are quite capable of getting things wrong, offending others, revealing hidden prejudices, and otherwise failing to be perfectly politically correct and socially acceptable, even without being some horrible sexist racist monster, and without meaning any harm at all.
What Dr Laura didn’t appreciate was that racism is a much bigger deal for some people than it is for her, and that even if her intentions weren’t actively to disparage any person or any race, there’s a wider culture of racial tension and abuse out there, and she can’t claim to be apart from all that simply by knowing, as I suspect she does, that she’s just better than all those horrible racists out there. (And also that her bruised ego at being accused of racial insensitivity isn’t the most important part of the conversation.)
Similarly: what some of Rebecca’s critics might not appreciate is that gender politics is complicated and difficult, and even “nice guys” can misjudge things, or make faulty assumptions, or just get it wrong, and should really consider accepting the mild rebuke when it’s offered, rather than passionately insisting that they didn’t do anything wrong, because they’re not sexist. (And their offense at having their “nice guy” status called into question isn’t the most important part of this conversation either. Rebecca didn’t even call anyone sexist. Nobody’s been written off as a horrible monster because of what they did. Just learn from this.)
And I think I’m done.
I like having opinions. I should try it more often. Feel free to tell me why this one’s a load of bollocks, though.