Richard Dawkins tells feminist blogger to ‘grow up and grow a thicker skin’
This is a story about three people who abused their power, but I think all three of them did it by accident.
Rebecca was in Ireland for an atheist conference. She was chatting with strangers at the hotel bar until 4 a.m. and decided she’d had enough. A man she had been talking to followed her into the elevator and invited her back to his room for coffee.
Here’s the description of the incident that Rebecca posted on YouTube:
“So I walk to the elevator, and a man got on the elevator with me and said, ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting, and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?’
“Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don’t do that. You know, I don’t really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I’ll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4 a.m., in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and–don’t invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.”
Rebecca posted the video of her (relatively mild) comments, and the Internet exploded. I don’t think she was trying to fire the first shot in a new Battle of the Sexes but she’s certainly in the middle of it now.
Feminist blogs erupted with admonitions for men to “check their privilege” and Rebecca’s comment section was overwhelmed by a misogynist backlash.
So how did an awkward moment between two people get blown so out of proportion? Turns out one of the commenters was famed atheist and science author Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins’ reply was so provocative I’m not comfortable quoting it here. He basically compared Rebecca’s small complaint to the plight of women suffering genuine abuse in Muslim countries, telling her to “For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.”
The man in the elevator didn’t understand the inherent power that men have over women. He misread Rebecca’s signals and didn’t understand the delicate nature of the situation. The fact is, once a woman is uncomfortable, it doesn’t really matter why.
Maybe something in his speech or body language felt wrong. Awkwardness that might have been overlooked at 4 p.m. is hugely magnified at 4 a.m., and if the poor guy didn’t know it then, you can bet he knows it now.
But Rebecca has power, too. A female blogger writing in a male-dominated field has tremendous power over her audience. Awkward young men get very excited when they find a woman who thinks like they do, particularly when the women go out of their way to seem attractive and approachable.
These men have exaggerated reactions to videos and photographs because they haven’t really learned the difference between reality and marketing. The girl in the picture isn’t posing for “you,” she’s posing for the camera. And no matter how insightful her posts are, she’s not writing blogs about “you,” either. She’s writing for her audience — for an anonymous, romanticized vision of an audience that may not even exist.
The Internet has created a world where geek girls can be treated like movie stars, but that attention cuts both ways. A blogger who knows how to sell herself can attract an extraordinary amount of male attention, but men who can’t tell the difference between reality and marketing can easily see indifference as rejection and take it personally.
Female bloggers inspire extraordinary levels of love and hate in the men who follow them. That leaves them open to abuse, but it also gives them a special kind of power. With a twitch of her finger that audience can be mobilized and used as a weapon.
Elevator Guy hasn’t been revealed yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The avalanche hasn’t landed yet, but it’s hanging right over his head. Awkward moments come and go, but Google is forever. If he’s lucky his name will never go public, and he’ll just have to spend the next six months worrying about it.
A man might have more power in an elevator, but a female blogger on YouTube is a hurricane in a bottle. She can destroy a man’s whole life in two seconds.
The third actor in this little drama is Richard Dawkins, and he’s the one who really should have known better. Dawkins is a recognized leader in the atheist community, an international celebrity whose every word is praised by fans and twisted by enemies.
He probably thought he was just firing off a silly comment, but he’s not some random commenter. His celebrity imbues his words with tremendous power, and he attacked Rebecca Watson like Zeus hurling thunderbolts from the mountaintop.
Men need to watch what they say in strange elevators, but female bloggers need to watch their language, too. They need to watch how they market themselves and be mindful of their own power, as they decide what to share on YouTube.
Finally, Richard Dawkins needs to remember that he’s not just a private citizen anymore. He’s a public figure, wielding tremendous influence and moral authority in this community.
“Check your privilege” is good advice for everybody, no matter what kind of elevator you’re in.