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Posted by on Oct 25, 2012 in Atheism, Drama, Feminism, Freethought Blogs, Philosophy, Politics, Progressive Politics, Skepticism | 78 comments

Why Create New Drama When You Can Simply Move Your Performance to a Different Venue?

Yes, I apologize, but I’m going there.

Yesterday, thanks to the wise words of a commenter on one of my posts, I stumbled on an article on In sum, it’s a retelling of Rebecca Watson’s elevator experience from about a year and a half ago and the aftermath that continues in the skeptic/atheist communities to this day. The commenter mentioned that it’s a fascinating study in human dynamics and gender relations, and I agree. Unfortunately, since I’m an unimportant yet biased participant in this drama, my analysis is useless. Instead, I’d like to make a few comments about the article itself. Most of what I have to say is old news, but I think that it’s important to 1)* set the record straight, and 2) address the broader implications of this incident for skepticism and atheism in general.

You can read Watson’s article here. If you’re familiar with the story, there’s nothing new in this piece, except for the language that I will expressly address later. If you’re not interested in in rereading what has already been said by many different people, simply skip to Section 2.

1) Setting the Record Straight: The Elevator Incident And Its Aftermath

As usual, Watson’s retelling of her ordeal is one-sided, with no attention given to the real objections that have been expressed. Watson is a prominent (if not the most prominent) female figure in the skeptic/atheist community, and she speaks from a position of privilege. Her voice is loud and it carries across oceans. Compared to hers, mine doesn’t amount to a whisper at a Megadeth concert. At the same time, Watson often claims to represent the views of all women, while many women, with tiny insignificant voices like mine, don’t have a similar platform to express their objections.

The elevator incident began as an disagreement between several women. At a conference in Dublin, atheist activist Paula Kirby stated that she had not experienced misogyny or discrimination in the atheist community, and that, in fact, women have been consistently encouraged, yet reluctant, to participate. During a panel on communicating atheism, Watson took the opportunity to call Kirby ignorant, to make light of her co-panelist Richard Dawkins’ death threats, and to spend the rest of her speech complaining about the harassment she received from various online pseudonymous YouTubers and trolls. Although Watson claimed that these people were atheists, there was no way to know for sure.

Later that evening, the alleged elevator incident took place. Since Watson has post factum claimed that she suffers from face-blindness, it’s hard to know what the communications between Watson and the Elevator Man were prior to the incident. Assuming all occurred as Watson described, combined with my own relatively recent realization that many women would be uncomfortable in a similar situation (while many others wouldn’t), why the never-ending drama and in-fighting?

In reality, Watson provided good advice, given what most American women are taught about rape. I wasn’t born here, so I don’t have the same fear of strangers, but apparently many American women do. So if your goal is to get better acquainted with a woman you don’t know, elevator propositions are probably not your best bet. In fact, they’re probably not your best bet even when propositioning males.

Of course, had all this been said politely, I doubt we would have the rift that exists today. But that’s not what happened. In a YouTube vlog, sandwiched between accusations of misogyny, Watson told all men everywhere, “Don’t do that! ” while describing the proposition in the elevator. She characterized the incident as sexualization, then later called it objectification when another atheist woman, Stef McGraw, dared to disagree with Watson and mention the obvious double standards for male and female behavior in her own, relatively small, blog. Watson proceeded to call out McGraw in front of McGraw’s peers during a speech Watson gave at a Center For Inquiry (CFI) Student Leadership Conference and accused McGraw of, among other things, “parroting misogynistic thought.” She later published the same accusation in her popular blog, “Skepchick.” Shortly afterward, Dawkins wrote his Muslima comment with several subsequent clarifications, Watson responded by saying she would no longer be buying or recommending his books, and the situation blew up, making international news. People took sides, and an extremely crass and crude exchange of invective began, with most of the sexist and misogynistic comments being thrown in Watson’s direction, but not without a heap of foul, misogynistic, misandric, and paternalistic comments being lobbed at the other side as well. For some examples, women who disagreed with Watson were called “bitches,” “mentally ill,” and “attention whores.” Also, more serious tactics such as lies, Google-search poisoning, and threats were employed in attempts to destroy lives, credibility, and careers.

In the wake of the elevator incident the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) immediately adopted an anti-harassment policy at its annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM).  As far as I know, it was the first skeptic or atheist organization to do so. The policy was made public shortly after the elevator incident occurred, and one year later, the JREF added a harassment expert to its team of persons designated to ensure conference safety. It is noteworthy to mention that no incidents of sexual harassment have been reported either at TAM or any other skeptic/atheist conferences except for one, which was reported improperly, and brought up approximately a year after the occurrence. Neither the conference hosted by Watson’s organization, Skepchick, nor the CFI had an anti-harassment policy in place until the JREF took action. It is also commendable that in 2011 JREF had a 50/50 male-to-female speaker ratio, and a similar balance in the audience. As far as such conferences go, this was an extraordinary achievement.

It doesn’t help matters that Watson was, and still is, a very controversial person in the community, who is either blindly worshiped or passionately disliked. She is entertaining, has a dry sense of humor, and speaks with a smattering of condescendingly punchy wit, but at the same time, she has been accused of hypocrisy, misuse of administrator privileges in JREF’s online forums, errors in her presentations, hosting lewd parties, and objectifying women by selling nude calendars (for charitable purposes). Watson has recently stated that she no longer supports the sale of such calendars or the use of proceeds to send women to conventions, which was her given reason for making the calendars in the first place. However, she is presently posing for another calendar while clothed.

Finally, nothing that Watson or her feminist supporters have done warrants the torrent of rape threats and other abuse they’ve received.  Such behavior is deplorable, potentially criminal, and inexcusable.  But that doesn’t dismiss relevant criticism of their actions or arguments. Nor does it exempt them from the typical satire that goes along with any politically charged situation. For a brilliant example, see last year’s “Revised TAM Schedule.”

2.) Skeptics And Atheists As A Community

Watson begins her article with the following words:

I’m a skeptic. Not the kind that believes the 9/11 attacks were the product of a grand Jewish conspiracy—we hate those guys. “Stop stealing the word ‘skeptic,’ ” we tell them, but they don’t listen to us because they assume we’re just part of the grand Jewish conspiracy too.

No, I’m the kind of skeptic who enjoys exposés of psychics and homeopaths and other charlatans who fool the public either through self-delusion or for fun and profit. It’s not just me—I’m part of a growing community (some would even call it a movement) consisting of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who value science and critical thinking. We’re represented by organizations such as the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which was established in 1976 and has included fellows like Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Bill Nye.

Merriam-Webster defines “skepticism” as:

a: an attitude of doubt or a disposition to incredulity either in general or toward a particular object
a: the doctrine that true knowledge or knowledge in a particular area is uncertain
b: the method of suspended judgment, systematic doubt, or criticism characteristic of skeptics.

Groups of skeptics have attempted to distinguish themselves from people who employ skepticism in their everyday lives by focusing on paranormal and supernatural claims, along with homeopathy and other types of quackery. But in reality, skepticism belongs to everyone who is willing to question any claim, including Watson’s claim that what happened to her in the elevator is true. Being a skeptic doesn’t make a person better or worse than others, and the same applies to atheism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in god(s), and nothing more. An atheist conference is mostly about science, evidence-based thinking, activism and, occasionally, the discrimination that some atheists face.

Watson starts her piece by identifying a group of “skeptics” that she openly hates. This, to me, is the nutshell version of the problem we’re facing. Somehow, in the skepticism movement or clique, people have adopted a set of ideas that cannot be questioned. If you dare question those ideas you become the target of group hate. Worse, you are ridiculed, shamed, exposed, and hopefully silenced. The ideas surrounding modern feminist theory, although ill-defined and inconsistent, fall within this cluster, along with the beliefs held by 9/11 truthers and holocaust deniers. While I have seen evidence that persuades me that the official account of the 9/11 attacks is at least largely true, and while I have personal family experience with the effects of the holocaust, I would not automatically hate people making such claims and, therefore, find Watson’s use of the word “we” inappropriate. As for modern feminist theory, there are many great articles that elucidate exactly why it may be incompatible with the principles of rationalism and skepticism. And, in any case, beginning an article with an expression of hate and extending that hate to the entire group you’re supposedly representing is not endearing.

Watson continues by saying that she’s the type of skeptic who, among other things, enjoys exposing the self-deluded. But seriously, what’s enjoyable about that? Does her statement not express unnecessary glee at the embarrassment and shortcomings of others? I hold no contempt for such people because self-delusion is not an intentional act. Occasionally, it’s an act of necessary self-preservation. While I commend her goals of exposing charlatans and quacks who knowingly profit from lying to others, I cannot bring myself to hate people who are merely deluded, misguided, or simply not intelligent enough to tell fact from fiction. And an exclusive movement that holds itself out as superior to most other humans is — thankfully — doomed to failure. It’s no wonder that a small group of “skeptics” with leaders who hold human frailty in disdain has turned on itself as soon as an easy outside target disappeared (namely, the Creationists and Intelligent Design proponents).  And as Watson compares herself to people like Carl Sagan, I can’t help but wonder if she, in fact, opposes most of what he stood for.

Personally, I question everyone and everything, including myself, and I don’t need a support group to help me do it. Moreover, I don’t need people telling me when to be skeptical, because that’s a decision I must make by evaluating evidence (or the qualifications of relevant experts), and not by listening to the most influential person in a particular clique. That’s what defines skepticism to me. And if other skeptics are unwilling to argue charitably or question each other in good faith, then what exactly are we doing and why?

*If I made any factual errors, please feel free to correct me. I’m writing from memory, and it’s quite possible and even probable that I’ve made mistakes. I’m human.