The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats

I really want to get on with other things. Seriously, I do. Which is why I want to cede a bit of ground — or at least it might seem that way to the casual observer, given all the things I’m about to agree to. It would pay dividends in furthering the conversation if you do your best not to skim before replying.

There are a number of arguments in this whole privilege debacle surrounding the so-called Elevatorgate (a timeline, for you newbies) that, while not actually rebutting the issues in question, are in themselves valid and correct. Here’s a few of them, and why they don’t address the problem at hand.

1) Bigtime celebrity Rebecca Watson shouldn’t have called out a total unknown like Stef McGraw at that conference keynote speech, putting her in the same category as misogynists, because of the same imbalance of power (a.k.a. privilege)!

Absolutely correct, which makes it a very good thing that it apparently didn’t happen the way people keep saying it did. I had originally argued here that Rebecca’s slide in the keynote was a nuke at a rabbit hunt given the “official” nature of the conference, preferring instead a response on the blog post or via another video blog, but on doing more research, it was thoroughly appropriate to the venue and Stef’s actual position.

See, UNI Freethought is a Center For Inquiry (CFI) leadership organization and Stef McGraw is its Director of Activities. The conference where Rebecca included the slide quoting Stef was a CFI Student Leadership conference, and Stef McGraw had posted the ridiculous, objectionable straw-man nonsense that she did on her organization’s blog as a leader of that organization. One of the things one must learn as a leader is how to best represent your organization, because everything you say in an official venue is viewed as part of that organization’s position.

Stef did not represent her organization well in saying that Rebecca was denying anyone’s right to flirt. She was, in fact, missing Rebecca’s point spectacularly, and misrepresenting Rebecca’s actual words to a great degree. And she was using an argument used by real misogynists in the process — and in exactly the same way that misogynists use the argument. She did not say that Stef is herself misogynist or a bad feminist, only that she had used an argument that misogynists use. That Rebecca pointed out that a student leader and feminist could fall prey to the very arguments that anti-woman idiots use themselves is a painful lesson for Stef to learn in public (especially as an example of how student leaders should learn to be better leaders), but even if Rebecca had taken Stef aside privately and suggested she rethink her rebuttal, Rebecca would have been treated as every inch the bully as how she was treated for having done it the way she did.

I had also considered the possibility of a debate (bare assertion vs nuance — how many times have we seen that played out in theist debates?), or via another of Rebecca Watson’s video blogs (which has actually more viewers and less appropriate scope than at the CFI Student Leadership conference where it happened!), but neither of these are equitable and would, again, have led to the charge of bullying. The only ways this explosion could have been prevented are if a) Stef had simply not posted what she did, b) someone had taken Stef aside and explained to her why what she was rebutting was incorrect, or c) Rebecca had not named names.

And considering that naming names is important in giving people real examples of behaviour that is actively damaging to your cause, and of avoiding the “let’s talk about a subject as vaguely as humanly possible so as not to offend anyone” problem that many skeptics found in Phil Plait’s “Don’t Be a Dick” speech, one cannot consider C a viable option if you expect Rebecca to also point out that what Stef said (no matter how good of a feminist Stef is otherwise) is actually used by misogynists to shut down conversation about how creepy certain situations can be.

So, yes, I agree, it really would have sucked to be Stef McGraw in that situation, because it was a no-win. But what Stef said about Rebecca’s complaint was simply flat wrong, and missing the point, and poor representation of her organization, and therefore needed to be corrected.

2) You can’t know what Elevator Guy was thinking!

True, without reservation. Also, asked and answered. And beside the point, frankly.

In this case, you don’t really need to know what EG was intending to understand that what he did was every bit as creepy as Rebecca Watson felt it was. If you want to play Pick Up Artist, you’re doing it wrong. Well, you might actually be following advice directly from pick-up artists, but you’re not likely to score with this one, mostly because of the venue. See, pick up artists do often cold-propose girls, often when they’re isolated, often when they’re tipsy or late at night. And it might even work sometimes. Except, however, when your intended target is a minor celebrity in your community, just gave a talk that included anecdotes about how annoying it is to be hit on at conferences, and just announced she was going to bed. And it’s 4 AM. And you’ve had access to her ear for several hours but this is the first you’ve said to her. And you’re in a situation that women are taught to avoid, as part of their rape avoidance training enculturated into them by overprotective parents, campus police, and every news report about rape ever.

It’s well possible that Elevator Guy didn’t even mean “sex” when he said “coffee”. It’s well possible he really did mean “conversation” and not “schtupping”. He might even have been genuine about “Don’t take this the wrong way” — saying that at least recognizes the possibility that he could be interpreted a “wrong way” to begin with. He has at least enough situational awareness to know he wasn’t doing something particularly likely to be interpreted correctly without said caveat. “Don’t take this the wrong way” is almost always a lead-in to something that will be taken the “wrong way” because it’s an incredibly impolitic thing to say.

Seriously, if you think he did nothing wrong just because he left it at the failed pick-up, you’re ignoring so much of the situation that you’re as clueless as you claim Elevator Guy to be. And I’m sure he’s seen enough of the argument to be gunshy about cold-propositioning isolated girls in elevators at 4 am from now on, even if really for coffee. Or at least so I’d hope. So why are you advocating that people can act however they want, damn the consequences? What happened to being responsible for the consequences of your actions?

3) Sexism cuts both ways, not only against women!

Absolutely true. There are many ways that sexism in society actually inherently benefits women, most markedly in the realm of child custody and alimony. Man is seen as the provider, and woman is seen as the child-rearer. As such, the vast majority of child custody cases that go to court end with the woman getting the majority of care. Before they go to court, half of these cases will be settled, the vast majority of them ending with maternal custody. Of contested court cases, the vast majority end with sole maternal custody. The scales are tipped heavily toward the woman raising the child, and this naturally also skews alimony payment statistics as well — the “provider” must help (or solely) provide for the child even though he gets little or no say in how the child is raised thereafter.

There are other, more subtle ways that sexism hurts men. For instance, the very idea that women are the default child-rearers means single fathers are basically ignored in all topics involving child care. Or the strange looks I get every time I mention that my wife proposed to me, not the other way around. Or the assumption that all men are talking or thinking about sex all the time, and that blatant come-ons in inappropriate situations are the norm as a result (hint: men and women are every bit equals in how often they think about sex).

Or how women are taught that they are responsible for rape avoidance because justice after being raped is exceedingly hard to come by, which means these women become risk-averse around men, the overwhelming majority whom do not seek to harm them. To many of these men, they are being unjustly treated as monsters, as “potential rapists”. Some of these men understand why this dynamic exists, in part because men have both physical and societal advantages that women do not, and are okay with suggesting to other men that they can shoulder some of the burden in making women feel more safe. This is noble and chivalrous of these special sorts of men, but can be seen as misandrist, “man-blaming”, and damaging psychologically to men by those men who might have scars already.

I can honestly see this argument being understandable, and sympathize with it, having been falsely accused of rape myself in high school. It has left gigantic gaping mental scars that I bear to this day. However, my own trauma is probably also why I am all about situational awareness, empathy, respect of personal boundaries, and honesty, meaning the same experiences led me to a completely different conclusion. It’s also why I’m okay with crossing to the other side of the street, or avoiding the elevator with the solo female stranger. Don’t get me wrong — my thought in this is not that I’m some kind of monster that might actually do something to her, but rather that I know that there really are real monsters out there that might have hurt some of these women in the past, or someone they might care about, and I don’t want to inadvertently hurt anyone if they happen to have mental scars similar to my own.

It all comes down to empathy. If you don’t understand the other person’s life experience, you can’t correctly intuit how they’ll react in a given situation. Since we know that women are taught rape avoidance techniques as a matter of course, they might already have considered you Schrodinger’s Rapist because of some cue you’ve given them inadvertently. Like following them onto an elevator and cold-propositioning them, for instance. Whatever your intentions, even if they don’t involve sex, that’s not the time or place for it. I mean, you’re still free to try, but you’re grossly unlikely to succeed just because of the situation. You’re far more likely to do some mental damage to the other person than you are of getting laid, statistically speaking, because even seemingly benign actions have consequences for everyone in the equation, not just for the person making the pick-up attempt.

4) Feminists can be bullies too! (There’s even a blog post.)

Again, absolutely true, without reservation. Whenever this sort of thing comes up, it’s important to note that any subset of human beings can be made up of both awesome people and jerkwads. Well, unless you’re taking a subset of people who are awesome, but then you’re just messing with my metaphor. Stop it.

There are feminists who recognize the actual power imbalance and want to right it, so men and women are on totally even ground societally. There are “radical” feminists who see the power imbalance and go as far to the fringe as humanly imaginable, in suggesting that all men are pigs unequivocally, or that women owning their sexuality are in fact anti-feminist. There are also radical feminists in the sense of the actual radical feminism movement (and in the same sense as “militant atheists” who are in fact not gun-toters), which is akin to post-colonial feminism sans some of the big picture concerns — these aren’t the ones people talk about when they say “radical feminists” as though it was a slur, of course, so I’ll always use scarequotes to denote the fringers. Additionally, there are also feminists-in-name-only, who claim self-empowered righteousness while believing unequivocally anti-woman things, like that women should be denied the vote (for instance, Ann Coulter). Or that abortions should be illegal, or sex ed should be abstinence-only, both policies that encourage women’s role as babymaker. Or pretty much any right-wing woman-related ideal, honestly.

Both of these subsets of feminists serve to drag the overton window to the left or right of “true center”, a.k.a. post-colonial feminism, which is generally about promoting equality between men and women, and is sharply critical of both “radical” feminists and feminists-in-name-only. It is only called feminism and not equalism (or more rightly, egalitarianism) because men are the empowered ones in this society at the moment — people making this claim think radical feminists are the norm, when they are decidedly not.

There are any number of ways in which men have more advantages in our society than women, not the least being that women are viewed as babymakers and men as providers, and thus many of the privileges men enjoy involve women being stuck with the baby-related duties like child-rearing, not getting good jobs or pay due to maternity leave, et cetera. So there’s a subset of feminists that actually have their eyes on the prize, who will become obviated except as defenders of the true center once equality has been achieved.

Just like you can’t claim any moral high ground automatically just by being an atheist (as Richard Dawkins proved recently), you can’t claim any moral high ground just by being a feminist. You can, in fact, go too far, overreaching what is justifiable by the plain reality of the situation. And for the record, Rebecca’s actions do not constitute “too far” by any sane measure, just by merely complaining about the event and suggesting that guys not “do that”.

5) Speaking of Dawkins, he was totally right about Elevatorgate being less bad than female genital mutilation amongst Muslims!

Yes, he was. He said it in probably the least politic way imaginable, given that he was talking to his community about a member of said community, but still, he was right — women being creeped out in elevators is less bad than women getting their bits cut up. In the exact same way, though, religious folks making pro-religious laws or inserting religious views into science textbooks is less bad than religious folks carrying out genocide against non-believers. And yet Dawkins is willing to fight both.

Most people on reading Dawkins’ comments about Watson’s complaints rightly pointed out that he was dismissing a bad situation because it was not as bad as some other thing happening elsewhere. This is a derailing tactic, meant to stop an argument when it is going in a direction one does not like, and it succeeded in a grand way — it caused the vast majority of the “Great Rift” that the atheist and skeptic communities are suffering through today (not that they haven’t suffered through dozens of such Great Rifts before). If Dawkins had not seen fit to post what he did, the community would very likely not have polarized into Team Richard and Team Rebecca like it has. He probably should have left well enough alone and let the fire burn out, rather than throwing a giant gasoline bomb then walking away after dozens of people tried to explain to him exactly what he got wrong. The retorts to Dawkins include such level-headed essays as Emily Band’s at the Guardian, or Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist fame, or even a post at SheThought, well-known as a supposedly “less sex-oriented” Skepchicks alternative. That’s right — the site created to be the Anti-Skepchick posted something saying Dawkins was wrong.

And yet, as I’ve said before, there’s nothing misogynistic about what Dawkins said — it’s actually very pro-woman, if derisive about the “chick” part of the website name and about the specific experiences of a specific “first-world” situation. And I’m very happy that he’s pledged to offer free daycare at all future The Amazing Meetings — that’s definitely materially assisting equality between the sexes and encouraging participation by those women that don’t normally because they’re child-rearers in a cornerstone annual event of the skeptical and atheist movements. (And yeah, it’ll help those single-parent men too.) He’s even right that there are more serious concerns in this world than the ones Rebecca was complaining about. But shutting down a mere complaint is seriously lacking in comprehension about the very similar kind of fight against privilege that he fights in debating with Christians who are merely happy to go about their business and are not harming society in any way by their delusions.

It’s why I really wish Dawkins would say something — ANYTHING — about the whole situation, now that people have tried repeatedly to explain why it is, in fact, important to talk about these so-called “zero bad” situations in a society where “zero bad” can escalate into “real bad” in no time flat. One must not stop considering bad things bad, just because they are not as bad as the worst things.

This ain’t even close to every argument that people are making which are right, but are simply beside the point. I’m sure I could get a few more blog posts out of this one. But this post’s long enough as it is, and again, I’m really running out of steam. And I really hate all the pushback I’m getting from some people who don’t understand why their arguments are simply tangential to the actual question of privilege. I can’t honestly see my arguments as being anything but reasonable, and still there are enough assholes pulling shit out of… themselves… that I get discouraged about our community, and can’t blame women for being discouraged about having to fight tooth and nail for their place in it. Even though this last fact means I’m almost certainly right that there’s a privilege problem.

The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats

12 thoughts on “The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats

  1. 1

    Thanks Jason for stating this all so clearly. Especially the McGraw situation which I thought was appropriate both in venue and as an example. The only thing I wonder about with Dawkins is why he didn’t use the example of being buttonholed in an elevator late at night by a fan. Surely this has happened to him, was he totally comfortable with the situation? Wil Wheaton doesn’t have any problem saying this stuff happens and is scary as well as inappropriate.

  2. 2

    “Stef did not represent her organization well in saying that Rebecca was denying anyone’s right to flirt. She was, in fact, missing Rebecca’s point spectacularly, and misrepresenting Rebecca’s actual words to a great degree. ”

    I’ve read and quoted McGraw’s piece, and I don’t think she said that. It certainly wasn’t explicit, and I’ve taken her arguments as more “Since when is showing sexual interest sexualizing, and even if it is is that always bad?” keying directly off the “sexualizing” comment that Watson made. The comment here, then, seems to miss McGraw’s comment spectacularly.

    I also disagree with you strongly that other ways of replying to it would have brought the same reaction. I think a blog post or an entry in a video or a private discussion wouldn’t have garnered the same reaction. Some might have called it bullying, but many of the people who did find it out of bounds wouldn’t have, like myself and I’d bet Russell Blackford.

    On EG, I think most people agree that what he did was creepy (some don’t). But people do draw the line at “sexualizing”, which is the accusation she made. That’s a statement about his view of her and then it does matter what he was thinking. So, if the question is “Did he sexualize her?”, then it does matter what he was thinking. Most of Watson’s defenders, tend to leave out that she said that.

    I don’t have any issues with the rest, so I’ll stop here.

  3. 3

    I think the “sexualizing” argument is ridiculous. Whether EG meant “coffee” or not, enough people recognize that as a way to suggest later sexual congress that it absolutely counts. People who interact with women solely for the purpose of getting them into bed are sexualizing those women. Whether EG was doing that or not, he inadvertently tripped those same triggers that make women think he was. They tripped my own triggers, and I’m as socially awkward as the next geek.

    Showing sexual interest in someone you’ve never communicated with before, is sexualizing. It’s empathizing with too little of their personality, thought processes and experiences, and focusing on YOUR OWN attraction. And Stef McGraw did miss Rebecca’s point. This guy could have done any number of things better to make it less creepy. This post explains it quite well, actually.

    I also still feel the venue for calling out Stef McGraw was absolutely appropriate, for the reasons I said above. Whether the outcry would have been the same or not is not to the point here. There would have been an outcry, especially since the venue would have been less appropriate in a blog post or vlog. MAYBE the private discussion might have led Stef to retract what she said. MAYBE. But the retraction never gets as many hits as the original inflammatory nonsense, does it? I’m kind of happy there was this big blow-up, or none of us would be talking about it. Sure, sucks to be Stef, but then she probably shouldn’t have posted something so close to a misogynist’s argument on her organization’s blog.

  4. 4

    Absolutely McGraw misconstrued Watson’s story so she could whine about men missing out on flirting at conferences. And her follow up post just whines some more about how unfair it was for Watson to call her out – even stating that she thought the time and place were unimportant elements of the story – instead of actually making an argument for her case (different types of feminism or why men should always have the right to approach women). From this response I doubt any way Watson approached McGraw would have an effect.

  5. 5


    Even if the sexualization argument is bad, it’s still what she actually said, and not what you said she said. You don’t get out of misrepresenting her view by saying that it wasn’t a very good view. And we disagree that it was bad.


    Do you have a link to the follow up that actually demonstrates her whining about men missing out on flirting?

  6. 7

    Stoic: I meant that your argument about “sexualization” being interpretive was bad. I also find Stef McGraw’s further accusation of “mischaracterization” to be bad.

    As I say in the above post, it’s within the realm of possibility that EG did not mean anything sexual at all. I agree with the vast majority of readers in that what he suggested is very often and very likely a set of euphemisms for “let’s have sex”, and I agree that Rebecca’s interpretation of the set of events (dependent on cues given to her in private, which she has not related) is the only measure by which we can rate any of this argument. Since Rebecca felt it was a sexual come-on, either she’s not very good at recognizing them, or it was a sexual come-on. If it was a sexual come-on, then it falls in the realm of “sexualization”. It may be a more mild form of sexualization than that which Rebecca complained about in the video uploaded to Youtube by AronRa, but it is sexualization of the same type.

    And again, if we’re talking about Elevator Guy’s intentions, we’re missing the thrust of the argument. We can sit here and haggle all day about what he meant, and whether Rebecca was right or wrong to interpret the situation the way she did (hint: she’s the only one with all of the cues she picked up on that led her to believe it was a sexual come-on as opposed to “not taking this the wrong way”), so either you trust her to be a rational actor in this, or you don’t.

    Ultimately, even if EG wasn’t sexualizing her, the suggestion by Rebecca stands: “word to the wise, guys, don’t do this”. Not “you’re never allowed to do this”, but a suggestion that they might want to avoid that course of action in those circumstances and in that particular venue if they expect to get laid. Or if they expect to have further conversation with the person they find interesting, too, because that person will think they just want to get laid.

  7. 8

    I agree completely that your proffered alternative would have been one of the ways he could have avoided the “creepy meter” tripping, though potentially not entirely, owing mostly to where/when it happened, and the (coincidental I’m sure!) following into the elevator after Rebecca decided to leave the bar. As I said, there are any number of ways he could have done what he did better, so as to avoid triggering Rebecca’s, my, and every-bloody-one else’s, judgment that he was just looking for sex. And thus a sexual come-on.

    The warning is, effectively, less a warning to Elevator Guy himself than it is a warning to other guys who don’t see a problem with cold-propositions in venues that might be considered “dangerous” (if you’re imprinted with the rape-avoidance memes that women are imprinted with by society at large). It stands. Avoid things that could be seen as blatant sexual come-ons in places where women are taught that they might be raped, abducted, or otherwise harmed. If you don’t avoid those things, then you’ll be seen as creepy, and contribute to the chilly climate. If you don’t care about women in the skeptical movement, then you’re free to keep risking being seen as creepy all you like. If you do care, then it’s incumbent upon you to help fix the problem.

    And yes, me too — I have a hard time finding people sexually attractive if I don’t also find their personalities attractive and compatible with mine, which usually involves interacting with those people a good deal more than jumping straight to a “coffee” proposition on your first interaction with them.

    Everything else — all the “radical speculation” about whether or not he ignored her wishes in following her and propositioning her — is indeed radical speculation, if you don’t take Rebecca at her word that this guy was present for at least one of the two events (saying she was going to bed, or saying she doesn’t like being sexualized all the time). I don’t consider that particularly rational, given the exact quote she attributed to him, and the mildness of her rebuke to him. He either “found her ideas fascinating” because he heard something she was talking about, and presumably that something includes her talking about being sexualized since it appears to have been the major theme to her talk, or he “found her ideas fascinating” because he was lying to get her alone.

    But I’m still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was just socially awkward, despite this. And that he was just looking for coffee. This doesn’t change *anything* in my arguments in the post above, nor about whether Rebecca was right to say what she said, nor about whether Stef was wrong to say what SHE said.

  8. 9


    So, first, I agree that he shouldn’t have done that at that time. I qualify this only with: if he had instead said “Do you want to meet up for coffee before the presentations tomorrow?” he would have done nothing wrong.

    Second, on the definition of sexualization: you can take the narrow view that any expression of sexual interest is sexualization, but then a) I agree with McGraw’s second notion that there’s nothing wrong with that kind of sexualization and b) then note that any expression of sexual interest — read: most flirting — would be sexualization in that way and would be, well, bad as well. Which, since you say that that’s not what Watson was saying, is probably not what you want. So I take the more reasonable line of “Treating ONLY as a sexual object”, which you seem to take as being Watson’s main thrust. But then McGraw’s claim that there’s no reason to think that sexual interest means treating her ONLY as a sexual object is a valid one. I’ve commented in a post on my blog that for me sexual attraction seems to INCLUDE personality traits (I have a rather odd preference for physical traits that reflect the Meganekko stereotype). So, in that case, it would be impossible for me to sexualize in the strong sense and make an approach. So jumping to the strong form from the simple expression of interest should be rightly seen as a leap that’s a bit too far.

    Now, some of the other parts — pursuing even when he should have known that as a person she wasn’t likely to be interested — might indicate more, but we’d be getting into the realm of radical speculation there.

  9. 10

    @verbose Stoic – you are correct, McGraw was not whining, she was disingenuous when she recounted Watson’s initial video, buttressed the the idea that men should be able to act however they want because others will make excuses for them if they are chided and dismissed the concept of context that almost anyone would recognize. I was unfair in my characterization.

  10. 12

    […] The Problem with Privilege (or: you got sexism in my skepticism!) The Problem with Privilege (or: no, you’re not a racist misogynist ass, calm down) The Problem with Privilege (or: missing the point, sometimes spectacularly) The Problem with Privilege (or: after this, can we get back to the actual issues?) The Problem with Privilege: Manifesto for Change The Problem with Privilege (or: cheap shots, epithets and baseless accusations for everyone!) The Problem with Privilege: some correct assertions, with caveats […]

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