Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

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.

It starts with a blogger named Rebecca Watson who writes about science, religion and atheism on a blog called “Skepchick.”

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.”

Special thanks to David Futrelle for transcribing her words, and for writing the first post I saw about this.

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.

Written by Michael B. Duff

July 12, 2011 at 05:50

Posted in Religion

Shades of Dawkins

Double-posting today because I can't resist this image.

Richard Dawkins is perhaps the most famous atheist in the world — an outspoken educator and defender of evolution. In October 2006, Dawkins spoke at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Dawkins' lecture was attended by a large group from Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

Liberty students dominated the Q&A portion of Dawkins' presentation, questioning him with varying degrees of hostility and outrage.

A Quicktime video of Dawkins' speech is available here.

A casual observer might watch this and think Dr. Dawkins doesn't have a friend in the world. But now we have visual evidence to the contrary.

This picture cracks me up. I've never seen the good doctor smile quite that widely before, and I've never seen him photographed in that particular shade of red.

Written by Michael B. Duff

August 7, 2007 at 13:45

Posted in Religion, Video

Internet reaction to the death of Jerry Falwell

When I heard the news that Princess Diana died, I had just pulled a pizza out of the oven and dropped it face down on my kitchen floor. I think it's the pizza event, more than any affection for the royal family that makes the occasion stick in my mind.

But that was the first time I really observed the phenomenon of death on the Internet. That is, how the Internet reacts to the death of famous people. Today the Internet is mourning Jerry Falwell, in a distinctly irreverent way. The Internet demographic is younger, hipper, and generally more liberal than mainstream America.

That is acutely obvious today, as my inbox explodes with profanity, blasphemy and a variety of offensive cartoons. I've always felt that there were two Lubbocks. First there is Sunshine Lubbock, full of parks and churches and well-groomed parents pushing their children in strollers. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, set against a West Texas sunset.

Then there is the Other Lubbock, full of liberals, malcontents and college kids. The residents of Sunshine Lubbock put on suits and convene at the Chamber of Commerce. Other Lubbock hangs out at Denny's, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee until the sun comes up.

Other Lubbock spends a lot of time complaining about Sunshine Lubbock, but Sunshine Lubbock likes to pretend that their counterparts do not exist. Maybe they don't exist, in numbers large enough to worry about. They don't vote, they don't march, and they don't write letters to the editor.

That makes them invisible, for the most part, except to people like me. I grew up in the Other Lubbock, and I still have plenty of friends there. My Internet circle includes a dozen brilliant foul-mouthed college kids. Great writers, smart as hell, and as militant about their liberalism as Falwell was about the Christian right.

Today those kids are celebrating the death of Jerry Falwell the way the Bush administration celebrated the fall of Saddam Hussein. I can't quote most of what I read today, but I'll tell you there's more to this than a bunch of college students rebelling against their parents. And it's not the typical Internet tactic of being rude for the fun of it.

Jerry Falwell was the sworn enemy of gays, feminists and the secular left. He blamed homosexuals for 9/11 and said AIDS was God's justice. And a hidden minority of Lubbockites are quite upset about that. You may think mainstream Lubbockites have the moral high ground here, but I wonder how Sunshine Lubbock will react to the death of Bill Clinton, when the time comes.

Hopefully they will be as graceful as Larry Flynt was today. Falwell sued Flynt in 1988. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. And yet, on the day of Falwell's death, Flynt said:

“My mother always told me that no matter how much you dislike a person, when you meet them face to face you will find characteristics about them that you like. Jerry Falwell was a perfect example of that. I hated everything he stood for, but after meeting him in person, years after the trial, Jerry Falwell and I became good friends. … I always appreciated his sincerity even though I knew what he was selling and he knew what I was selling.”

I hope my enemies will be as gracious when I die.

I'm tempted to blame this on Internet rudeness and the deterioration of public discourse, but I think there's something else going on. It's as if once a person reaches a certain level of fame and fortune, anything you want to say about them is fair game.

It's one thing to celebrate the death of a political figure like Jerry Falwell, but I saw people cracking jokes about Steve Irwin, literally minutes after his death was announced. There were plenty of reasons to ridicule Anna Nicole Smith, but I always felt she deserved pity more than anything else.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I think there's an issue here that's more important than the legacy of any particular individual. We don't respect the dead because we approve of them. We respect the dead because we respect life itself. I'm so stodgy about this point, I even kept my mouth shut on the day they executed Saddam Hussein.

Most of the Internet does not share my view. And yet, for all the abuse they heap on public figures, people on the Internet generally respect the deaths of “real” people. The Internet is full of touching memorials set up for normal people: the online discussion group that loses a beloved regular, the World of Warcraft guild that loses a member, the podcast coalition that forms a charity drive around the memorial of a lost friend.

Internet denizens are capable of grace and tact when it comes to normal people, but it's as if once you hit a certain level of fame, you're not really a person anymore. That's the trend that bothers me, more than general rudeness or the denigration of political opponents.

I'm not here to praise or abuse Jerry Falwell, but I think everyone deserves a little respect on the day they die. There will come a day when it's appropriate to debate his politics and dissect his faults, but it's not today. I think respect for the dead should be a universal thing, no matter which Lubbock you live in.

UPDATE: Quick aside here, after talking to some editors. They're not sure if the letters they get match up with the demographic I'm talking about, but they think Lubbock's other side does write letters to the editor, and that they do vote. I would expect to see letters from academics at Tech or from left-leaning professionals in the community, but I don't think the college crowd spends much time interacting with the Avalanche-Journal.

I would like to see that change. So, if you're one of my friends who spends most of his time pouring out opinions on their blog, I would encourage you to take a moment and send a slightly cleaned-up version of your opinion to the A-J.

You can submit letters online by clicking here. Give old media a chance. It might surprise you.

Written by Michael B. Duff

May 16, 2007 at 11:44

Posted in Religion