Defend Truth


Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can rip my soul

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

During World War II posters urging everyone to guard their comments with the assonant warning: “Loose lips sink ships” were ubiquitous. Those redoubtable Poms understood the power of the ill-considered comment – a power which it would be wise to reconsider in an age of hyper-sensitivity and the ready, but wrong riposte.

Comment facilities on blog posts and online newspapers can be enormously valuable to both readers and writers, in that they allow for prompt corrections and clarifications of points of view. As all readers will know, they can also conduce to venting of spleen or expressions of odious viewpoints, as I’ve discussed in a previous column. But what they also allow for is a detachment from the arguments of the piece in question, where the comment thread rapidly takes on a life of its own, completely divorced from the ideas the author intended to explore.

A recent example of this is provided by what some readers might know as the Elevator Incident, where an (arguably) off-hand remark by science-blogger and secular activist Rebecca Watson has resulted in three weeks of infighting in the secular community. Some might observe that we indulge in these squabbles fairly frequently.

However, this one is particularly notable, in that not only is it the largest such squabble since the one sparked by Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a dick” speech in July 2010, but also because one of the wounded in this current round is Richard Dawkins, who is the subject of a campaign to boycott his talks and published output. The British lawyer David Allen Green has gone so far as to say that Dawkins can no longer “credibly pose as a champion of rational thinking and an evidence-based approach”, as a consequence of his comments on Watson’s elevator experience.

What happened in the elevator was this: It was 4:00 in a Dublin hotel. A particular man had been attending a conference with Watson, and then drinking with her and others at the bar. Watson said she wanted to retire for the evening, and headed for the elevator. The man entered the elevator after her and told her that he found her to be “interesting”, and asked whether she would like to continue the conversation over coffee in his hotel room. These were apparently the first words he had exchanged with her, rather than being the continuation of a conversation.

The details matter: Watson’s talk earlier that day had focused on the marginalisation of female voices in the sceptical movement, and also on how frequently she had been the subject of what she perceived as sexual harassment by male members of the movement. In this context, and given that they hadn’t established a relationship of any form, she regarded the attempted pick-up as insensitive and implied that she felt objectified by it.

When Watson then spent a few minutes of a recent podcast saying something to the effect of “Guys, don’t do that – it makes me uncomfortable” – not naming names, and not accusing the man of anything beyond disrespecting her known sensitivity on these issues – it kicked off a series of blog posts and comments numbering in the thousands. One of those comments was from Dawkins, who said:

“Dear Muslima

“Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

“Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep‘chick’, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

“And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


While this comment could certainly count towards confirming the widely held belief in Dawkins’ tone-deafness, again the details matter. The conference in question had been dealing with communicating atheism in hostile environments, and discussion had included topics like female genital mutilation. Defenders of Dawkins point out that he might have been affronted by Watson choosing to spend her talk describing her own experiences as a (privileged, well-educated, financially secure) woman in the secular movement, taking attention away from the situations of those more troubled than she. Dawkins himself has defended his comment, agreeing we should fight “the slightly bad as well as the very bad”, but insisting what Watson experienced was “zero bad”.

But as logically correct as much of this might be, it’s horribly wrong on every other level imaginable. More to the point, it’s arguably wrong to even say it in the context of a conversation around Watson’s feelings of having been objectified. To claim that the experience was “zero bad” is to claim that Watson was wrong to feel uncomfortable, but this is plausibly just another example of someone – a man, in this case – telling her that her worldview and emotional responses are inappropriate. Dawkins could well be right that it wasn’t abuse at all, but there are better ways of pointing that out. Doing so in a tone that would (justifiably) be read as trivialising Watson’s concerns simply demonstrates them to be valid ones.

Words do matter, especially when directed at people who are more frequently the subject of demeaning or dismissive language. Of course we’d all prefer a world in which these sorts of words mattered less – one in which our confidence allowed us to shake off insults from others. But as many have pointed out during this saga, Watson had spent her talk explaining how the world she lived in was one where that demeaning and dismissive attitude is prevalent, and in which elevator guy (and then Dawkins) amplified that through trivialising her concerns.

And now, the secular community is at each others’ throats, and nobody can comment on this saga without being branded a misogynist, militant feminist or apologist for the objectification of women. Part of the reason for this is that as much as the details matter, many enter the conversation long after those have been revealed and end up responding only to the soundbites, or to comments that are taken out of context or are themselves based on misreading.

Where the conversation started has, however, long been lost in these accusations and counter-accusations. A simple, non-accusatory and exceedingly polite request from Watson for some sensitivity has resulted in either her, Dawkins or both of them cast as villains, and the opportunity to discuss her basic concern regarding gender roles and representivity has (at least for the moment) been lost.

And in the meanwhile, it becomes increasingly difficult to convince oneself and others that scepticism and rational debate are comfortable bedfellows. DM


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