There is an odd attitude in our culture that it’s acceptable for men to proposition women in curious ways — Rebecca Watson recently experienced this in an elevator in Dublin, and I think this encounter Ophelia Benson had reflects the same attitude: women are lower status persons, and we men, as superior beings, get to ask things of them. Also as liberal, enlightened people, of course, we will graciously accede to their desires, and if they ask us to stop hassling them, we will back off, politely. Isn’t that nice of us?
It’s not enough. Maybe we should also recognize that applying unwanted pressure, no matter how politely phrased, is inappropriate behavior. Maybe we should recognize that when we interact with equals there are different, expected patterns of behavior that many men casually disregard when meeting with women, and it is those subtle signs that let them know what you think of them that really righteously pisses feminist women off.
But I don’t want to talk about that. I want to mention one thing that annoys me. Rebecca Watson talked about this experience at a CFI conference, and one thing she did was to directly address, by name, criticisms of her reaction to being importuned in an elevator late at night. She specifically discussed a criticism by one of the attendees, Stef McGraw, quoting her and saying where the argument was found, and a few people were angry at her for that, and demanded that she apologize to McGraw. Which is, frankly, bizarre.
The demands for an apology were very interesting. None of my critics at any point offered any counterargument concerning my points on objectification or feminism . . . all their criticism was entirely about tone. At first they were angry because I had criticized a student. For instance, Trevor Boeckmann, a CFI intern, Tweeted, “It’s one thing to call out a public figure, it’s another to spend your keynote calling out a student.” (Boeckmann must have actually missed my talk, since I spoke about McGraw’s post for about two minutes out of sixty. Despite this and the fact that he did not mention my name, I saw the Tweet on the #CFICON feed and correctly guessed it was about me, anyway. See below for more on that topic. )
As Watson says, she loathes passive-aggressive behavior. So do I, and this is a fine example of it. Name names, always name names, and always do your best to be specific. It is right and proper as good skeptics to confront and provoke and challenge, and you have to be direct about it. Would it have been better if Rebecca had talked vaguely about broad-stroke disagreements, fuzzily mentioning some unnamed persons with some unrecognizably blurred wording of disagreement, and then taken that blank-faced effigy to task? I don’t think so. It also would have been a tactic to blunt subsequent rebuttals.
The skeptics movement has a surfeit of that passive aggressive attitude right now. As exhibit #1, I’ll mention the infamous “Don’t be a dick” speech by Phil Plait, which, while representing a good goal of asking for more tolerance, was turned into a flopping issue of disagreement specifically because it was all about tone, not substance, and because Phil could not found any of his arguments in specifics, keeping everything vague, and often cartoonish.
And now, of course, Watson is getting all this heat because she was willing to stand and deliver the goods. Disagree with her all you want, but apparently, you’re not supposed to be confronted over your differences, ever. You can name Rebecca Watson as a villain, but she can’t take you to task over your characterization. When did skepticism become a one way street?