The topic sucking up all blogospheric oxygen at the moment is the great elevator incident. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can find lots of good summaries and explanations, including from Phil Plait and Josh Rosenau. The core of the story is that Rebecca Watson was propositioned in an elevator by a skeevy guy at a convention, and said “Guys, don’t do this.” Leading Nü Atheist Richard Dawkins scoffed at this because “nothing happened,” and basically said Watson was overreacting, and has dug in his heels in the face of numerous people telling him he’s wrong.
I’m not going to rehash the gender issues and male privilege stuff, because other people have done a far better job with that than I would (again, read Phil and Josh and links therein). I will just say, if it’s not clear from the above paragraph, that Rosenau and Plait are absolutely right on this, and Dawkins is absolutely wrong.
One thing that I haven’t seen in my limited reading on this, though, that I’ll throw out here is that while Dawkins’s wrongness is kind of depressing, it’s also completely unsurprising. Not because of any knowledge I have of his attitudes about women– I don’t have any such knowledge– but because the manner of his wrongness fits perfectly with his established modus operandi, as it were.
What do I mean by this? On several occasions, Dawkins has said things that lots of people take as deeply insulting. When they take offense, he replies that using the literal dictionary meaning of the words, stripped of all context and connotation, what he said was not offensive.
That’s exactly the same thing that’s going on here. His argument about the elevator incident is that, stripped of all context and connotation, nothing happened. An incredibly clumsy advance was made, it was refused, and the story ended there. Looking solely at the narrowest, most literal description of the events, there’s nothing offensive about the incident.
What’s being pointed out regarding Watson’s story is the same thing that dozens of people have said before about his insulting statements: that while an incredibly narrow and literalist interpretation of the statements may not technically be offensive, human beings do not operate in a narrowly literalist world. Connotations matter. Context matters. You can’t strip all that away and have any meaningful understanding of what it’s like to read Nü Atheist statements about religious people, or to be a woman alone in an elevator with a skeevy guy in the wee hours of the morning.
In a perverse way, though, this incident has actually improved my opinion of Dawkins. Not because I agree in any way with his implied attitudes or any of that– again, he’s wrong on this in just about every way it’s possible to be wrong– but because I had previously thought that the “say something offensive, then use strict literalism to argue it isn’t” shtick was a deliberate game. That is, that he knew perfectly well how his statements would be taken, and was setting this up as a rhetorical device allowing himself to adopt an air of dispassionate superiority to the irrational and emotional religious. I didn’t think that anybody as successful as he is in the field of popular writing could possibly be that clueless about how human beings use language and interact with the world. This act had to be disingenuous at best, and lying at worst.
Now, though… Well, at least he’s honest?