Players: Famed evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins; Rebecca Watson, female activist.
Opening Serve: Richard Dawkins made an unexpected appearance in the comments section of biologist PZ Myers' post at Scienceblogs.com last week. Myers was commenting on Rebecca Watson's recent experience being propositioned in a hotel elevator by a male attendee of a conference at which Watson had just spoken in Dublin. Dawkins got himself into hot water by commenting in the form of a sarcastic letter to a Muslim woman, pointing out how trivial Watson's experience in the elevator was compared to the abuses Muslim women deal with on a daily basis. "Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and...yawn...don't tell me again, I know you aren't allowed to drive a car, and 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," he wrote. "But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with."
Return Volley: Several Science Blogs readers reacted negatively to Dawkins' comment. "Did you just make the argument that, since worse things are happening somewhere else, we have no right to try to fix things closer to home? By that argument, I shouldn't complain when our local high school biology teacher tosses around idiot arguments because there are children elsewhere who can't even go to school? Or I shouldn't complain that my sister was raped by three men because far worse things are happening now in the Congo?" wrote commenter Brother Ogvorbis. Another commenter by the name of Forbidden Snowflake asked, "What right have you to bemoan the teaching of creationism in your country while people are dying of malaria in West Africa?"
Dawkins returned to the comment section to clarify, in response to Brother Orgvorbis's question, "No I wasn't making that argument." His argument, he explains, is this:
The man in the elevator didn't physically touch her, didn't attempt to bar her way out of the elevator, didn't even use foul language at her. He spoke some words to her. Just words. She no doubt replied with words. That was that. Words. Only words, and apparently quite polite words at that....Rebecca's feeling that the man's proposition was 'creepy' was her own interpretation of his behavior, presumably not his. She was probably offended to about the same extent as I am offended if a man gets into an elevator with me chewing gum. But he does me no physical damage and I simply grin and bear it until either I or he gets out of the elevator. It would be different if he physically attacked me.
As for his comment on Muslim women, Dawkins writes: "Muslim women suffer physically from misogyny, their lives are substantially damaged by religiously inspired misogyny. Not just words, real deeds, painful, physical deeds, physical provisions, legally sanctioned demeanings."
This comment elicited several more responses, including a post by Jen McCreight at her own blog, BlagHag, arguing that "words matter." She writes:
You don't get that because you've never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don't have people constantly explaining that you're subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don't have people saying you shouldn't have rights. You don't have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don't live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.
Myers documented Dawkins's comments and McCreight's response in another post which received yet another comment from Dawkins, this time countering that the argument made by Watson supporters contending that being propositioned in an elevator is particularly scary because "there is no escape." Dawkins responds, "Here's how you escape from an elevator. You press any one of the buttons conveniently provided. The elevator will obligingly stop at a floor, the door will open and you will no longer be in a confined space but in a well-lit corridor in a crowded hotel in the center of Dublin."
This last comment finally pulled Watson in. "This weekend when I read Dawkins' comments, I was, briefly, without hope. I had already seen the future of this movement dismissing these concerns, and now I was seeing the present do the same." She urges readers to protest Dawkins's work, declaring that "this person who I always admired for his intelligence and compassion does not care about my experience as an atheist woman and therefore will no longer be rewarded with my money, my praise, or my attention. I will no longer recommend his books to others, buy them as presents, or buy them for my own library," she writes. "I will not attend his lectures or recommend that others do the same. There are so many great scientists and thinkers out there that I don't think my reading list will suffer."
What They Say the Fight's About: Dawkins insists that Watson's story is trivial. She was not physically harmed or even touched by the man in the elevator and therefore should not tell the story as if she was in danger. Watson and her supporters argue that, whatever the man's intentions, it is natural for a woman, alone, in a confined space, in a foreign country, late at night, to feel uncomfortable when invited back to a strange man's hotel room. Especially, Watson points out, when the man in question had just attended her lecture on feminism not appreciating being hit on in such a way.
What the Fight's Really About: Several comments, including Watson's own, hit on exactly what the fight's about. Dawkins has every right to dismiss Watson's story and to argue that she was not in a high risk situation. But his attempt to prove how insignificant Watson's story was by comparing it with the much worse scenario of a Muslim woman's daily life hurts his argument. The fact that something worse is going on somewhere else does not diminish whatever may be happening here. Also, as Watson points out, Dawkins is admired widely for work criticizing creationism and denouncing the use of religion as an excuse for repressing women in particular. To defend only some women from misogyny and not all, she and others argue, is hypocrtical.
Who's Winning Now: Dawkins seems to be losing, based on the many who've disagreed with him in the Science Blogs comments section and their own blogs. Watson, though having become disillusioned by someone she once admired, should feel vindicated by the amount of support she's received.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.