(Thanks to KatieKish for some of the links)
Apparently the blogosphere is all atwitter… although I suppose twitter probably is too, about the latest CFI conference. There was an incident… or rather an incident that happened because of an incident at another conference. Now some people have downplayed both incidents, others have gone all nuclear-feminist about the first. I’m not going to do either.
The situation, as described by the woman involved was pretty straightforward. She was at the hotel bar at a conference, late night, around 4am. She decided to leave, and a ‘fan’ of hers(she is a bit of a celebrity) followed her to the elevator, got in the elevator with her, and asked politely if she’d like to accompany him to his room for coffee.
Her reaction was, in my opinion, not particularly surprising. It creeped her the hell out. When you mix the late night, the presence of alcohol, an enclosed space like an elevator, I think a lot of people might react defensively, to what a friend of mine described, not so subtly, as: “coffee = sex”.
On this particular point, I’m with the woman. She has every right to react defensively, IN ANY situation, where she perceives a threat, or even a possible threat. We have those instincts for a reason, they have helped us survive in a very dangerous world. When you are in a situation, you listen to your gut, and if necessary, sort it out later from a safe distance. You might feel stupid later, but so what, the alternative bad ending to this story is well worth avoiding. And in this situation, I think intentionally or not, the guy did wrong. Some people seem to disagree on whether that sort of question, in itself, is sexist… but given the variety of reaction, I’d say there is nothing that would be acceptable to everyone.
When you go to geek conferences, you invariably run into two things: People who want to hook up, and people with stupendously poor social skills. He may have been either, or both. Or, he could be one of those people that celebrities hire bodyguards to protect against.
I also have no problem with her discussing her experience, women need to speak up about what makes them uncomfortable, and I think we need to encourage women to come out to these things. I also think we need to prepare women to deal with what they might experience, and encourage them to take steps to protect themselves.
Of course sometimes when people go through a traumatic experience, the last thing they want is to have it dissected and criticized. Dealing with all of this requires frank and open conversation, but also sensitivity. Unfortunately, fear and anger can sometimes lead to people lashing out verbally or via blogs. And that is when you get the unneeded drama of blog-vs-blog flame wars. In my opinion, that just makes an unfortunate situation, worse. Like religion, sex is one of those topics that people get passionate about… and so very irrational.
The only serious criticism I have for Watson is her choice of using her speech as a vehicle to attack someone in the audience she disagrees with. Seems like an ambush to me. In essence, Watson cornered this woman, who was criticizing her, in an environment where the woman could not fight back. To me that seems unprofessional, and an abuse of power. It’s not as serious as the possibility of physical danger, but still not fair or appropriate.
Being aware of the power we have, either physically, or from celebrity, and the effect it can have on others… is the point, no?
PZ has weighed in on this… and again…and again, and although I tend to agree with his views on being decent to other people, I think his point is somewhat at odds with his own attitude that we kick ass and take names, every chance we get. If people are dicks to each other on the internet, does that really translate to being decent to each other in person?
Dawkins too has waded in… with an unsurprising result. I always find it amusing when atheists find themselves disagreeing with Dawkins, and then all of a sudden, the ad hominems come out. Is male privilege real? Yes. Is it plausible that some kind of lack of understanding of women led Dawkins to his opinion, absolutely.
But this whole big blog mess started when two women disagreed on what the actions of a man meant. Watching this unravel on facebook, I’ve noted that men and women are coming down on both sides of these issues, some in the middle. So, “You’re a man, you don’t get it” seems the wrong response, and not very constructive. Typical, but not constructive.
And I should say, for the record, I don’t agree with Dawkins on this. I think the context of Watson’s experience spoke of hugely poor judgement on the part of the man involved. It doesn’t mean he’s a misogynist of course, but like many atheists, he could use some guidance on how to deal effectively with the opposite sex. Although if I were him, I might avoid conferences… for a while.
Update: and Phil Plait.