Saturday, July 23, 2011

Throwing two cents into a storm.

The Internet is a curious beast. Some stories and arguments quickly ignite, then disappear as quickly as they started. Others seem to be perpetual in that as soon as it seems to have faded away, some newcomer to the scene causes whole histories to replay and flare up again.

Of these two very coarse categories, Elevatorgate definitely belongs to the latter. In many ways, I should like nothing more than to see the whole of the tempest pass by, recovering brain cycles for more important issues. The problem with this attitude, however, is that how we in the skeptical and atheist communities treat women is an important issue. As often as people misunderstand, misrepresent and mistake the issue, at its core, what is at stake in Elevatorgate is whether we want the communities we build to be defined by positive and rational values such as inclusiveness, respect and diversity, or whether we are content to define our movement in terms of a narrow and ill-understood notion of privilege.

Up until now, I've kept my involvement in this debate (or rather, what a debate has since devolved into) to a minimum. I am, after all, a beneficiary of the very privilege under question, being male, and hence have more to learn than to contribute in this particular exchange. (Just to preempt the inevitable, that does not for a moment mean that I am "apologizing" for other men, or that I am asserting that I should take the actions of other men upon myself--- we are all each individuals, are we not?) I am also white, learned English as my native language, and was born into a affluent family in first-world country, etc. My life has hence been one in which doors open to me that are shut in the faces of others, by no virtue of my intellect, my choices or my efforts. Were I to project my own experiences on the world, then, it would thus be all too easy for me to come to the impression that those opportunities that I enjoy are universally enjoyed. When something like Elevatorgate occurs, it should serve as a wake-up call, in that Rebecca Watson was denied a choice I almost certainly would have enjoyed in the same situation: the choice of when and how to disengage from a social event.

As a progressive, as an atheist, as a skeptic, when a wake-up call like that sounds through my social media neighborhood, what can I do but attempt to understand what dynamics of privilege and yes, of misogyny, lead to that failure to respect Watson's independence? Once I start to examine these dynamics, it becomes all too obvious that such failures add to the cost that women must pay in order to participate in communities and movements that I consider to be important. If I take seriously that central value of rationality, self-improvement, then I am led just as inescapably to try to understand how to change the social environment around me so as to prevent this cost being exacted against women in the future.

An alternative approach, however, is to become defensive and to assert that things are fine the way they are. When confronted with contrary evidence, I could have instead dismissed it, and attacked the credibility of those calmly pointing out the cost associated with privilege. I could have even tried to deny the very existence of privilege, instead casting the original incident into a false narrative of "men versus women," of feminism being a thin veil for misandry, or of Watson being a drama-queen (even that term should rankle a few nerves by now!) interested not in reducing the cost of privilege but in inflating her own popularity. Such tactics, however, are fundamentally incompatible with the positive valuation of rationality, as rationality demands entertaining the notion that one is wrong, and as rationality demands a continual effort to improve oneself and to more closely align one's beliefs with reality.

It is in this spirit that I am pleased to note that despite the many men (and even women!) that see no wrong in Elevator Guy's actions, that despite the many people loudly and vilely attacking Watson, there has been a venerable chorus of men and women working hard to shape this incident into a concrete improvement for women in our communities. The fact that this incident has so inflamed passions belies the importance that we place on hashing through disagreements, rather than letting important issues fall by the wayside. Slowly, painfully and fitfully, our communities are improving due to the hard work of activists within our midst. That is something to take solace in, and likewise, is something to encourage the rest of us to join in, even when it can be discomforting.

Notes: Please accept my apology for the lack of links here today. There's simply too many good ones for me to choose a representative set from. Also, a hearty thanks go out to the person that originally suggested the subject for this post, and that introduced me to the concept of "sitting with your discomfort."

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