Richard Dawkins and male privilege (Phil Plait)
Much more at link
Over the weekend, a full-blown scandal erupted in the skeptical movement over sexism and attitudes about sexual harassment. It started with a fairly straightforward story about a clueless man putting a woman in an uncomfortable situation. The conversation about it was interesting, to say the least. An important point that came up multiple times is that many men do not truly understand what women go through in such situations.
This point was driven home when Richard Dawkins spoke up about it. Through his own words, he proved quite clearly that a lot of men just don’t get it.
Here’s what happened, boiled down from a video post Skepchick Rebecca Watson made about this (she tells this story starting at 4m30s into the video at that link). Rebecca was a speaker at a conference recently. After her talk and a late evening of socializing with attendees at the bar, she got on an elevator to go to her room. She found herself alone on the elevator with a man presumably also an attendee. He said he “found her very interesting”, and would she like to get some coffee in his hotel room? Rebecca turned him down, and in her video talks about how uncomfortable that made her feel.
If the story ended here there would be obvious things to say about it (obvious to me, at least, but not everyone, as will become quite clear). This man may have had nothing but noble intentions, but that doesn’t matter. Being alone in an elevator with a man late at night is uncomfortable for any woman, even if the man is silent. But when he hits on her? There’s no way to avoid a predatory vibe here, and that’s unacceptable. A situation like this can lead to sexual assault; I just read in the news here in Boulder that a few days ago a relatively innocent situation turned into assault. This isn’t some rare event; it happens a lot and most women are all-too painfully aware of it.
Rebecca, apparently, handled this situation with aplomb, and I’m glad. She turned it into a useful lesson for men on how not to treat women.
At this point there are many offshoot discussions and tangential topics being discussed on the skeptical blogs and elsewhere. I will ignore those, as they distract from what is in my opinion the most important thing here. As it happens, PZ Myers wrote a blog post about this, and Richard Dawkins — yes, the Richard Dawkins, PZ has confirmed this — left a comment in that post. And what he said… well. Read it for yourself:
It took me a moment to parse this. He was being sarcastic, obviously, but he wasn’t talking to someone specifically; he was using a rhetorical tool of speaking to an imaginary person. So he is saying to a generic Muslim woman, you think you have problems, why, Rebecca was hit on in an elevator! How horrible!
At first I thought I had misread this. Surely, Dr. Dawkins, who has written and spoken eloquently in the past on the plight of women suffering under religious intolerance wouldn’t trivialize what happened to Rebecca, would he?
Many people certainly interpreted it that way, as that does seem overwhelmingly to be his point. Dawkins then attempted to clear this up by leaving a second comment trying to argue that he was not doing this. However, in my opinion, what he claims he was trying to say is actually worse: