Monday, 18 July 2011

An atheist feminist walks into a bar in Dublin...

An atheist feminist walks into a bar in Dublin. Is it the start of a joke? Well, opinions vary.

For any who have been living under a rock this last while, enthusiastic blogger Rebecca Watson has gathered a lot of attention due to what is not entirely agreed upon as an overreaction to the overreaction to her overreaction to being found interesting.

Attention-gathering is generally spoken of in a negative-fashion; here I simply call it for what I perceive it to be. Drawing attention to oneself means drawing attention to whatever one is doing, which in her case broadly seems to be positive things (such as atheist advocacy in a place that apparently badly needs it). So, sometimes a soapbox is no bad thing.

The nutshell version being that, despite Rebecca mentioning being tired and leaving the bar to head to bed (at 4am), a fellow rode the same elevator, and invited her back for coffee.

The wording, as reported by Rebecca, being:

"Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more; would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?"

Which, depending on your natural reactions to such things, apparently is a matter of great ambiguity, and can be considered anything ranging from a compliment to her intellect, to a heinous and uncouth act, tantamount to sexual assault.

Personally, I'd take it in the former fashion, but the case is surely arguable that inviting someone back to a hotel room for coffee is inviting them back to a hotel room for sex. For what it's worth, I have invited a girl back to my hotel room before now for coffee and conversation, and had with her excellent, enjoyable, stimulating, conversation and coffee. Actually, I lie, the coffee wasn't that great; it was just hotel stuff, but still. So, ladies (or gents, for that matter), if we're at a conference and I invite you for coffee, I mean coffee. If I am inviting you back for sex, I will be bold enough to say so. If it's late and one of us is retiring and conversation is sought-after, I will likely enquire after your breakfast plans. But hey, I tend to be quite unambiguous.

So, was the (as far as I'm aware, unnamed) fellow's invitation ambiguous? Clause by clause, we get:

"Don't take this the wrong way," ie, please do not assume the worst
"but I find you very interesting," ie, I've been listening to you talk all day (but, admittedly, could be a euphemism for "attractive", though I'd doubt it, on account of the foregoing clause)
"and I would like to talk more;" ie, I am interested in conversation
"would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?" - would be ambiguous as a standalone clause, but after the previous three qualifiers? Please, this is no longer ambiguous after being clarified three times previously.

About this, I'll not try to paraphrase Rebecca's opinion, and instead will simply quote. She has to say (about misogyny in general, but suggesting the above incident as an example thereof):

"I think it's worthwhile to publicise the fact that some women will go through this, and that way we can warn them ahead of time of what they might expect, give them the tools they need to fight back, and also give them the support structure that they might need to keep going in the face of blatant misogyny"

So, be clear ladies; if you attend a conference, you may be offered coffee. If you feel the need to fight back against this, Rebecca will give you the tools, and also give you the support structure that you might need to keep going (wait, I thought that was the job of coffee?) in the face of blatant misogynistic offering of refreshments.

Perhaps I am unclear about misogyny. I thought that misogyny involved having a negative attitude towards women.

So anyway, perhaps the reason this has come to such popularity is because Richard Dawkins sat with Rebecca in a panel discussion, wherein this topic was discussed. He argued the same way as I would, albeit rather more in the manner of a personal attack (I am nicer, and disagree in a more civilised fashion), encouraging her to stop whining and grow a thicker skin.

This, of course, has divided the feminist atheist community somewhat, between though who will worship Dawkins no matter what, those who will champion a woman vs a man in any argument no matter what, and those will make up their own minds based on the apparent facts of a situation.

Most entertaining of all, that I have noted, is the writing of a Christian feminist (I have to wonder if she's really read the Bible, though she does give some note to doing her part as an apologist in this regard, picking a few "straw-person" arguments (thank you, I'm here all week) and refuting them), proclaiming that:

"Ladies, Professor Dawkins thinks we are nothing more than animals. He’s an ethologist (animal behavior scientist) who travels the world bragging that he is an African ape. To Dawkins – and the entire skeptic subculture – humans are just a little branch off the primate family tree, caught in Earth’s endless species class war (so to speak). Females are accommodators to males’ megalomaniacal selfish genes, and as long as a girl isn’t deprived of Vitamin D in a burqa, she’s supposed to shut up about it.
That, at least, is the philosophical dead end that seems to come from that worldview – whether subscribers of such consciously emanate it or not."

Wow! The demographic class of those that hold the view that evolution is a more likely explanation for how things are than creationism is a "subculture"? I was under the impression that creationists were a small subset even of the wider class of religious believers, and those that held with the contemporary mainstream scientific view were the holders of the default position? Hopefully this is just wishful thinking on her part!

Speaking of objectification, back to Rebecca:

"it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualise me in that manner"

Ladies, gents, dear readers all: if you have chromosomes, then you have a sex, of some description, whether you want it or not. Offering you coffee does not sexualise you - having chromosomes sexualises you.

As for being a sexual object, well, objectification is a matter of perception, intrinsically in the eye of the beholder. A body is an object, from a reductionist biological view, and having a chromosomal sex it is inarguably a sexual object.

"Semantics!", I hear you cry.

Yes, semantics, the strange and unpopular notion that words have meanings, meaning that misusing them may cause miscommunication. So, let us communicate as clearly as we can. It is a constant challenge, of course, but we can try.

Of course, even by a reductionist view, it's generally agreed upon that a person is not their body, so even if we can consider the body a sexual object, the person may not be so. So what's a person? Plenty of offered answers to that question, and plenty of non-answers. Well, one thing's almost for sure; a person is the owner of the body in question, so even if the body is a sexual object, it's not your sexual object, it's the person's. So, perhaps the moral of this is: don't treat it as yours; treat it as theirs.

Which is pretty much a cornerstone of free-thinking individualism: "respect, where reasonably possible, a person's sovereignty with regard to their body"

Now, "Excuse me, may I use your body like the sexual object it is?" might not be the best thing to say to a tired feminist in an elevator at 4am, but then, it's also not what was said, was it?

Let it be known: I am not a misogynist. I love women. Frequently. Including at conferences. And before it be suggested that this means I see women only as sexual objects, I will confess that I do love men too. Less frequently, but still including at conferences. Now lest it be suggested that this means I see all people only as sexual objects, it is not so. Recall the girl I mentioned previously, invited back for coffee, and, lo, served coffee with no side-serving of sex. In fact, we did the same again, at the next such meeting!

The moral of this?

Sometimes, shocking as this may be, a person can value a person for their intellect, and the person's sex may be completely and utterly irrelevant.

Of course, perhaps this is a biased view: to me, a bisexual, of course a person's sex ranks quite lowly on my list of things that are a matter of importance. But then the same argument could be made regarding "subjective attractiveness" rather than "objective sex". In other words:

Sometimes, shocking as this may be, a person can value a person for their intellect, and the person's attractiveness may be completely and utterly irrelevant.

If you are "not just a pretty face", then have some confidence in that. There are plenty of pretty faces that have a mind behind them that causes their other assets to pale into insignificance. But if your mind can't recognise that about your own face and your own mind, then just how great a mind is it?

Rebecca comes across as very intelligent, so I'll assume this is not the case with her. To this end, I'd suggest that if Rebecca's NOT so foolish as to think she is so much more likely to be valued in a sexual context than an intellectual context despite repeated verbal cues to the contrary, then why did she bring the thing up? Well, as far as I'm aware it was a minor off-hand example, chosen for its recency, of perhaps a lack of thoughtfulness.

Was it a come-on? Well, the only person who will know for sure is the man in question, and he has mysteriously not come forth from the shadows to state his case, and as far as I'm aware Rebecca has been sufficiently courteous for her own part to not mention who it was (unlike the blogger she got called out for naming, justified by the fact that the blogger in question had put their name to their words in public themselves and thus waived anonymity).

Personally, I think the only manner in which the fellow in question has failed to show gentlemanliness is if he has not contacted Rebecca to further clarify his intentions. Had it been me erring thusly, a message would have followed after all this hoopla, whether publicly or privately, with either:

a) Sorry for hitting on you in the elevator! It wasn't very thoughtful of me; you had said you were tired, but it's all to easy to say things without thinking too clearly at 4am after however long in the bar. I appreciate your civility regardless!
b) Just to be clear, because I thought I had been but apparently not, I really was inviting you for coffee and conversation and not sex. Still, it was 4am after however long in the bar, so it's all too easy for miscommunications to occur.

So, perhaps that's really the issue at hand. Responsibility to the responsible! If you screw up, and it becomes clear, sort it out!

Note to the fellow in question: if you did, and it's merely been kept between you, then rock and roll, I salute you. If you didn't… then really, consider doing so! Not for public gossip - personally I don't care much unless I know you (in which case it may interest me more, but I respect privacy regardless), but simply to help show that there can still be such a thing as gentlemanliness.

And, really, there can!

No comments:

Post a Comment