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On the moral purity of skeptics and fallacies

Last updated on 22 Jun 2018

The recent furore, called #elevatorgate on Twitter, about what Richard Dawkins said in response to complaints of sexism amongst atheists, has hit Gawker, who finish with the line: “That’s skeptics. Rational about everything except themselves, self-preservation, and manners.”

Now without discussing personalities (for as a Tone Moderator I eschew mere ad hominem) there’s a general point to make here. It is this: be careful of the fallacies of composition, division, hasty generalisation and difference. In short, don’t incorrectly extend the properties of one man to the whole movement, from the movement to the individuals that comprise it, or focus on the unique traits of a movement as if it were somehow isolated from the wider society in which it exists.

Of course there are sexists in the atheist movement and the skeptic movement (which, by the way, are not identical)! This is because they exist in a society in which people generally are sexists. If there weren’t sexists amongst atheists and skeptics, then the movement would be a movement of antisexists, not atheists or skeptics. Issues are not linked by conceptual cement. They move around independently of each other.

I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask that men at atheist or skeptic conferences behave with sensitivity. Likewise, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to ask that these groups fight against the subjugation and mutilation of women in other societies too. These are not mutually exclusive moral claims. Moreover, simply because one old man is the product of empire and thinks that some activities are harmless (like trying to hook up at conferences), it doesn’t follow this is thereby going to be a defining character for everyone else in any movement they may happen to be part of.

No matter how much of a leader in these movements Dawkins may be, he is not authoritative in every respect (or, given the nature of skeptical reasoning, in any, really, although I’m going to believe him when he talks about ethology, the topic of his doctorate; oddly, he rarely does). He is not Pope, nor is he, nor even Bertrand Russell, infallible ex cathedra. What I find most heartening is that the atheist movement immediately did criticise his sexism, as mild as it may have been. We aren’t blindly following authority here (for the purposes of this debate I will self-identify with atheism for simplicity).

In case anyone is still confused, here’s a Venn diagram:

Atheists skeptics and sexists

I hope this clears things up.

15 Comments

  1. bob bob

    I think Dawkins’ response was an overreaction, because Watson only said “don’t do that.” However I don’t think anything he said would show he’s a sexist. And I think the response to Dawkins has been an equal overreaction.

    And I don’t think the guy in the elevator should be considered a sexist (unless there’s more to the story). I think it’s reasonable to debate whether the guy should’ve said it or not (I know I personally wouldn’t have) but I think it’s the type of question where reasonable people can disagree.

    This is a pseudo-controversy that is causing a rift for almost zero reason (unless I’m missing some key information).

    • I think the problem arose because commenters thought that this was not something that reasonable disagreement could exist on. They got extremely nasty almost from the get-go. But I don’t want to defend either Dawkins or Watson, or attack them personally. It’s only the issues, the principles, that matter to me.

      I have noted a strong amount of sexism at some skeptical meetings I have attended over the year (women being ignored or talked over). I have noted women being constantly propositioned at conferences of academics, skeptics and even atheists. Now for those women who have no trouble responding in kind, this is no difficulty. But a lot of women are unable, just as a lot of men are unable to deal with aggression. In civil society, even the least assertive individuals should be protected by convention. That is not too much to ask, I think.

  2. bob bob

    The sexism and propositioning issue is legitimate and I wholeheartedly think it’s an issue that should be raised (this latest conflict probably isn’t going to lead to productive dialogue, maybe it will). I also think it’s more of a society wide issue and goes beyond these circles (but certainly exists within them). I’d rather have a discussion on these important topics and avoid avoidable rifts between valuable members of the community.

  3. … simply because one old man is the product of empire and thinks that some activities are harmless (like trying to hook up at conferences)…

    I trust you are not talking about the former British Empire here. Like it or not, both you and I are also products of that empire – but I don’t remember being taught anything about hooking up at conferencesin my history lessons. It doesn’t sound very British to me.

    People don’t have to be a products of empire (or even an old men) to be utter jerks. We should treat jerks as jerks (when they are being jerks), rather than blaming their jerkiness on accidents of history or old age.

    • John S Wilkins John S Wilkins

      Actually you and I were taught these behaviors. Some of the sons of empire learned not to act that way later, or were too timid to act that way.

      • I certainly don’t remember being taught any such thing. Quite the contrary. My public school education comprised mainly cold showers, bromide in the tea, and lies about its making one go blind. If that wasn’t a product of empire, I don’t know what was.

  4. Moreover, simply because one old man is the product of empire and thinks that some activities are harmless (like trying to hook up at conferences), it doesn’t follow this is thereby going to be a defining character for everyone else in any movement they may happen to be part of.

    It’s not even a defining character of old men who are a product of empire.

  5. Richard Carter, FCD: …People don’t have to be a products of empire…

    I really should read what I’ve typed before clicking the Post Comment button. What a jerk!

  6. Ian H Spedding FCD Ian H Spedding FCD

    I have to say that, of all the commentary I have read so far, Gawker has come the closest to nailing it as far as I am concerned.

    While we’re on the subject, though:

    Moreover, simply because one old man is the product of empire and thinks that some activities are harmless (like trying to hook up at conferences), it doesn’t follow this is thereby going to be a defining character for everyone else in any movement they may happen to be part of.

    a little less of the ageism and unfounded accusations of imperialism and, much worse:

    In case anyone is still confused, here’s a Venn diagram:

    condescending Vennism.

    Unfortunately, the skeptical and atheist and even agnostic communities are going to have roughly the same proportion of sexist idiots, assholes and boors as any other community.

    Like it or not, we are a sexual species. I cannot help finding some women sexually attractive and it takes an effort of will to prevent that influencing the way I behave towards them. I am not going to apologize for being a male human being but if I have inadvertently given offense to any woman by my behavior then I do apologize for that.

    As I understand it, Rebecca Watson was followed into an elevator by a man who invited her back to his room for coffee. She declined and he left. That was all. She was a little exasperated because she had made it clear earlier that she was tired and wanted nothing more than to get some sleep. The incident made her feel a little uncomfortable but nothing more. She did not feel in fear of her life or that rape was imminent. The man’s approach was clumsy and badly-timed but the most you could say he was guilty of on the evidence is poor judgement.

    Of Richard Dawkins comments, you could argue that he underestimated the difficulty of escaping from an elevator in the event of an attack. You could argue that he failed to take into consideration how his comments would be received by the survivors of rape and other sexual assaults. But in no way can his words be construed as a defense of rape or violent sexual assault or as condoning male sexual chauvinism.

    I have never met the man but from what I have seen and read I do not believe for a minute that he would ever regard the experiences of rape victims as minor or trivial. He condemns the oppressive treatment of women in patriarchal Islamic societies and no doubt feels the same about such behavior where it happens in allegedly more advanced and liberal Western societies.

    On that basis, I think the letter demanding he apologize for things he did not write and does not believe is misguided. No normal person can read the comments from rape survivors following the draft letter and help be moved. If he chooses to apologize out of consideration for their sufferings then fair enough but there are more deserving targets for their anger and frustration than Dawkins.

  7. TB TB

    Ian H Spedding FCD: The man’s approach was clumsy and badly-timed but the most you could say he was guilty of on the evidence is poor judgement.

    Well, sure, but from what I understand this whole thing started as a gentle chiding for that man’s specific actions in the way that you’re saying. When Watson was taken to task just for that, the blow up began and escalated.

    And that’s where I share John’s appreciation of the irony – Dawkins walked into all this with his big gun of snidery and let loose. Whatever point he was trying to make about proportion was lost due to the way he made the argument. You’re making a point about proportion too, but in an entirely reasonable and successful way.
    So to me, the real lesson is that there are people who – for whatever irrational reason – are tone deaf, to play on words. And I can ignore the rationalizations in favor of their argumentative style because any reasonable counter arguments will fall on those deaf ears.
    The useful thing to come out of all this will be to see who will be self-aware enough to appreciate the irony of the situation and learn from it.

  8. Of course there are sexists in the atheist movement and the skeptic movement (which, by the way, are not identical)! This is because they exist in a society in which people generally are sexists.

    I don’t think this ‘of course’ actually follows, except on the assumption of a skeptic movement that does not put sexism-relevant skepticism relatively front and center. Now this does indeed seem to be exactly what we have, but it also means, I think, that there’s no ‘of course’ about it: sexism in the skeptic movement is an outgrowth, even if an unintentional outgrowth, of decisions made about what deserves focus and emphasis. Loose movements like the current skeptic movement grow around shared goals and are unified chiefly by those goals alone (some institutions develop, of course, that provide a bit of extra integration, but they do so in response to people trying to achieve such goals); if they attract sexists as anything more than a strange freak, that says something about what the goals are that the movement is coalescing around. Goals, however, can be chosen, and they can be redefined. That is (in the terms you go on to use in the next few sentences) it is a mistake to treat ‘antisexist’ and ‘skeptic’ as an either/or choice. You could easily have a skeptic movement that was at least heavily antisexist, because sexist assumptions are one of the things you can be rationally skeptical about.

  9. I’d not heard about this until reading it here, but really don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

    This isn’t about ‘hooking up’ at conferences, which, if appropriately conducted and mutually agreeable, seems a harmless enough human activity.

    No, the initial events are one thing; inept male hits on ‘interesting’ female at 4am in a lift and is, unsurprisingly, refused. She is perfectly within her rights to talk about what happened to her to whoever she wants, why shouldn’t she?

    But it’s the resulting furore that engulfs the woman that is so revealing! Methinks these, erm, gentlemen protest too much. maybe they have guilty consciences, and are worried that they too may be exposed for crass behaviour on their parts?

    • Mitchell Coffey Mitchell Coffey

      When reading about this second hand I’d assumed Watson had made far bigger a deal than she did. In fact, her actually comments were brief, calm and appropriate. The big damn deal people many people made – as if she’d been Betty Friedan with pitchforks – was all about their own stuff.

  10. Nick (Matzke) Nick (Matzke)

    Re: “hooking up at meetings” — I’ve never been to an atheists’ meeting. At scientific/professional meetings it is pretty rare I think, although of course not unheard of. But isn’t it true that an atheist/skeptics meeting is partially a social event, a chance for people of that persuasion to meet like-minded folks? Especially for people from places where atheism is rare or most atheists aren’t “out”, I imagine that these meetings could seem like quite a social outlet, and men might be more vigorous in pursuing women than they would be at other sorts of meetings, on the “she’s attractive, AND she’s an atheist, I’m in love!” theory. Maybe it’s more like ComicCon than a meeting of the AAAS.

    Any opinions on this? I didn’t learn much from the whole Watson/Dawkins/et al. fracas, but one theme that kept coming up was women saying they’d been to atheist/skeptics meetings and wouldn’t be going back, due to the incessant-being-hit-upon. Certainly this seems to be a problem if the goal is to bring more women into the movement.

  11. Congratulations on maintaining an island of sanity. All of the comments here seem very reasonable – a standard that even many reasonable bloggers have been unable to achieve on this topic.

    Personally I have no stake in the social environment of skeptics conventions and no interest in correcting every insane blog commenter, so if it weren’t for Richard Dawkins’ problematic involvement in the issue I probably wouldn’t have given any of it more than a moment’s thought. But when someone of his stature appears to behave badly it prompts more serious consideration of what the proper standards are.

    I believe that any person has the right to say what makes them uncomfortable and ask for it to stop, so long as their request does not intrude unduly on others. Others may decide to accede to the request, or not. And it is reasonable to explain one’s response. But it is not reasonable to publicly belittle a reasonably and unintrusively expressed concern, nor is it reasonable to deny the existence of a bad feeling in another person since we have no reliable means of measuring the existence or extent of their distress.

    What is “undue” intrusion is of course a judgement call, but
    Watson’s original “elevator guy” message was made in her own space and did not intrude at all. Perhaps if it had been made during a conference presentation on another topic it might well have been judged “unduly” intrusive, but what was expressed in that more intrusive way was something different. It was a response to a pattern of responses to the original complaint which, in Watson’s opinion, was sufficiently serious to warrant the intrusion of bringing it up in the way she did. Public debate as to the appropriateness of that intrusion has been extensive and inconclusive but has no bearing on what follows.

    Dawkins’ belittlement of the original concern was an inappropriate attack. (It would have been fine to disagree with Watson about the need for responding as she did to the responses, or with some of the allegations of sexism in Meyers’ post and comment stream, but not to do so by attacking Watson’s *original* concern). This was compounded by his subsequent denial of any harm at all (“zero bad”) associated with the expressed discomfort which he had no way of assessing.
    So in my opinion there is nothing inappropriate in Watson’s demand for an apology.

    Come to think of it, I guess he owes me an apology too – on account of the time I have spent thinking about all this.

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