08 August 2011

Civility is in the eye of the beholder

civility: civilized conduct; especially: courtesy, politeness

There's been quite a bit of discussion on the internet about Rebecca Watson's talk at the CFI Student Leadership Conference, and her "calling out" of Stef McGraw, who was in the audience at the conference. Apparently, there are many in the community who see nothing wrong with what Watson did, since she was "civil" while doing so.

I've been somewhat puzzled by this, but Mrs. A.S. has been particularly pained by this apparent lack of empathy - even more so now that the video has been posted. So she put together this little exercise and asked me to post it here.

The exercise is simple: put yourself in Stef McGraw's shoes. She had seen Watson's YouTube video, and posted a response (in a blog post) taking issue with what Watson said there. For the purposes of this exercise, it doesn't really matter whether McGraw was right or not. Just imagine yourself as her, sitting in the audience at the conference, along with the other students, getting ready for the keynote speech by Rebecca Watson.

Watson prefaces her scheduled talk with some remarks about sexism within the secular community. I have excerpted the relevant parts below, and underlined some of the key words and phrases:

So I mentioned this story on YouTube... there were some interesting responses, like this, calling me "An annoying cunt." This person writes: "I can't believe that someone (gasp) would talk to you on an elevator. How dare a man talk to you alone. You sound like the fundamentalist muslims that you hate, due to their positions on women. Congratulations." ... this commenter completely missed the point, and he or she is not the only one.

There's another comment I found on a blog, from actually one of your own, and I wanted to use it as an example, not to embarrass this person, but to point out that we have a serious problem when young women are this ignorant about feminism... Stef McGraw, she posts a transcript of the story I just told you...

Bam! She called you "ignorant," and part of a "serious problem." In front of 100 of your peers.

So there are many things wrong with this paragraph... in the transcript that Stef posted, she conveniently edited it to begin after I told everyone at the bar that I was exhausted and going back to my room...

Pow! She says you conveniently left something out, implying that you were being dishonest.

But the real problem is actually in the first sentence, and it's sort of the same problem the other commenter has: "My concern is that she takes issue with a man showing interest in her..."

Thwack! You're just like the other commenter -- the one who likened her to "fundamentalist Muslims." But you didn't say anything like that!

This is, unfortunately, a pretty standard parroting of misogynistic thought...

Zap! And you're just "parroting misogynistic thought." Just a thoughtless parrot?

Because there are people in this audience right now who believe this: that a woman's reasonable expectation to feel safe from sexual objectification and assault at skeptic and atheist events is outweighed by a man's right to sexually objectify her. That's basically what these people have been telling me, and it's not true.

Wham! Not only do you not believe such a thing, you never said anything like it!

...I've heard from a lot of women who don't attend events like this because of those who have this attitude. They're tired of being objectified, and some of them have actually been raped; quite a number of them have been raped, or otherwise sexually assaulted. And situations like the one I was in, in an elevator, would have triggered a panic attack. They're scared, because they know that you won't stand up for them. And if they stand up for themselves, you are going to laugh them back down. And that's why they're not coming out to these events.

Kapow! So women are staying away from conferences because of you! You won't stand up for women who genuinely need support! You'd laugh at them instead! And all because you questioned her interpretation of her encounter as being an obvious example of sexism.

In Watson's blog post on this incident, she stated that she treated McGraw and Rose St. Clair (who was also in the audience) with "respect" by "naming names," and was criticizing McGraw's argument, rather than the person. If you were in McGraw's place, would you have felt that Watson's criticisms were really about her argument? Would you have felt encouraged to be part of the community?

Is it that hard to understand why McGraw, and others, might not consider Watson's behavior civil?


  1. About Mythbusters, Robot Eyes, Feminism, and Jokes, Rebecca Watson, Skepchick
  2. Fursdays wif Stef #32, Stef McGraw, UNI Freethought Blog
  3. Fursdays wif Stef #33, Stef McGraw, UNI Freethought Blog
  4. My response and take on sexism in the atheist community, Rose St. Clair, YouTube
  5. In times of crisis, to what do I, an atheist, turn?, Rose St. Clair
  6. On Naming Names at the CFI Student Leadership Conference, Rebecca Watson, Skepchick
  7. Rebecca Watson at CFI, PZ Myers, Pharyngula
  8. On Naming Names and Tuning Tones, An Ardent Skeptic, Skepticism and Ethics
  9. Transcript of the Rebecca Watson talk at the CFI Leadership Conference 2011

[Comments closed here. There are plenty of other places still discussing this.]