Sunday, July 3, 2011

My Turn to Weigh In

I have to start by saying I’m tired of this argument. I’m disgusted by some of the things that have been said and done by people in our movement. By the lack of support that we have shown each other, and the blatant disregard for some of our very own principles.

I’m quite sure that at this point, we all know what we’re talking about, but for those of you who may not, or may have only gotten part of the story; here is my summary of what’s been going on.

On June 20th, Rebecca Watson of Skepchick posted this video regarding an experience she had while recently in Dublin attending a conference. This video was posted on June 21st in response to Rebecca’s video and this post was created on June 22nd in response to Rebecca’s video. All three of these women attended CFI’s annual Student Leadership Conference that took place June 23rd-26th, and unless I am mistaken, it was the first time they had all met. I have met Rebecca a few times; she gave a fantastic talk at CFI Amherst in April regarding “Women’s Intuition.” I met Rose at the conference, but I was never formally introduced to Stef McGraw.
Rebecca was scheduled to give a talk at the conference, and decided to begin by speaking about her video, and the responses she received. I was working at the conference, but was unable to sit in on Rebecca’s presentation. I know that she did mention Stef McGraw (author of the post on UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers blog) by name, however other than that I do not have a firsthand account of what Rebecca said in her talk. What I do know is that this subject has dominated conversation ever since. Even though the conference ended, the discussion has continued in online forums. I have seen a slew of articles/blogs about this subject, from all different viewpoints and from both sides of “Rebeccagate.” Some I completely agree with, and as usual, some I disagree with, and some I find absolutely despicable. I have included links to some posts here where I find them to be most applicable.

Recently Stef McGraw posted her response to Rebecca’s talk on UNI’s Freethinkers and Inquirer’s blog here. I appreciate this post, as it is far more level-headed and rational than a lot of the comments, tweets, and other blog posts I have seen. She does well also to clearly separate two issues out of the fray, which is similar to what I am trying to do here. Franklin Kramer, another student who attended the CFI Student Leadership Conference also did a great job breaking this all down into clear questions that he hopes will help people separate the issues at hand. His post can be found on Illini Secular Student Alliance blog.

A lot of people have been upset by Rebecca’s comments regarding the man in the elevator. I don’t want to share too much of my own opinions right now. I don’t think it’s relevant at this point. I don’t want to muddy the waters; my goal here is to try to provide some much needed perspective to all involved. What I do share of my own thoughts is what I feel most strongly about. If you are interested in hearing/discussing more, please contact me and I’d love to chat with you about this.

There is a cold hard fact that no one seems to be acknowledging. ONLY Rebecca was in the elevator in Dublin with the man in question. Therefore, ONLY Rebecca has the right to decide whether or not he made her feel uncomfortable, whether or not he was sexually objectifying her and what that may mean for the Skeptical/Atheist/Feminist/Freethought movements on the grander scale. It is her experience, and while you may want to give your two cents, please bear that fact in mind. You are, of course, entitled to your two cents, your opinions, your thoughts and your outrage. However, having your own thoughts does not make you unequivocally right. There is a fantastic article that I think is highly relevant to this situation here. Please read, as I think it is very well balanced, providing support and advice for women while not bashing men.

Part of the truth of our world is that the sexes are not equal. The fact of the matter is that women face extremely different challenges than men. In the workplace, in social settings and especially when it comes to personal safety, there are different obstacles to overcome and different situations we face. Each woman needs to “set their own risk tolerance,” and each man needs to learn to understand and respect that tolerance varies by woman and it is NOT a man’s right to disregard that for any reason.

Rebecca has limits of what she will tolerate, and whether or not you agree with them, I believe she deserves respect for sticking to them and never letting a man overstep those boundaries. I think it is a poor reflection on those who consider themselves feminists to be so hypercritical of another feminist for sticking to her own guns, and on those who consider themselves freethinkers to be so inflexible and unwilling to listen to or tolerate differing opinions or viewpoints. I may not have been part of this movement for a very long time, but it does seem to me that in solidarity and support we feminists should stick together and we freethinkers should strive to create a safe, open environment for rational discussion of all topics. That is not the environment I feel we’ve created recently, and that disappoints me.

The other part of this argument that has caused a lot of hullaballoo (what a fantastic word) is whether or not it was appropriate for Rebecca to name Stef McGraw specifically in her talk during the conference and use her comments. When you put your opinions and ideas out into a larger forum you will receive some criticism, something Stef acknowledged in her most recent blog post and something I commend her for. Not all of her peers have been mature enough to acknowledge this fact… or mature at all for that matter.

However I think that we must take this one step further. Yes you will be criticized for your actions or your words. Not everyone will agree with you and some people will vehemently disagree to the point where you may lose supporters or friends. Unfortunately, this is part of life. It sucks. Life is hard. People will not always do the things you want them to or hope they will do. I can honestly say that had I been in Stef’s situation, I would probably have had a similar reaction; shock, perhaps some embarrassment, and a little hurt. But at the same time I cannot find fault in Rebecca’s actions; she was merely operating under the construct I just discussed: if you voice your opinions some people will take issue with them and publicly disagree with you. Again, we all must realize that submitting ourselves and our minds to a public forum puts us in a vulnerable position. People will not always treat you how you wish to be treated but we need to learn to deal with it in a rational, level-headed, mature manner. Rebecca understands this, I understand this and Stef seems to understand this.  PZ Meyers had this to say and Barbara A. Drescher said, “Open discussion, including criticism, is how shared knowledge is built,” in her post “On Sexism, Objectification and Power,” and I couldn’t agree with her more. Hemant Mehta disagreed with Rebecca quoting Stef but asked everyone to “Calm the Fuck Down.” I also could not agree with that sentiment more.

So what do we take away from this? I would hope that if we can all step back for a few moments to consider these key points, to take a wider perspective of the issue and to look at it from a few different angles, we could begin to rebuild what may have been damaged. Feelings were hurt, relationships-both professional and personal- were effected, and I believe somewhere a line was crossed between criticism and open season on the people involved. But in my humble opinion there is no reason why we cannot rebuild our forum. Let’s get back to a place where we can talk about this calmly, openly and without any danger of attack. It’s what I admired so much about the movement when I became involved, and I hope I’m not the only one looking to get back to that.


  1. It's interesting that in your first point you stress the importance of one subtle but strong power dynamic, insidious due to it's unfairness; In the next you defend another subtle but strong power dynamic (the privilege of prestige), asking we accept it's unfairness as "life".

    I guess we only have to thoughtfully consider complex social dynamics sometimes. Mercifully, we have you to tell us when.

  2. Thank you.

    I've been mute so far, but you've come out, and it looks calm enough to posit a distinction i've not seen addressed: Whether one thinks Watson was in or out of line by citing McGraw by name, there's room for disagreement over whether to encourage such a tactic. Is this kind of frankness something we should encourage (or not object to), so that the community becomes more accustomed to, and prepared for, it; or something we should discourage, in light of the storm it's brought on?

    I'm inclined toward discouragement, though perhaps only because of this mess. I actually don't know whether unexpectedly citing comrades by name in a talk is even uncommon, or or if circumstances in this case made it more volatile.

  3. Cory- thanks for your comments! I agree, this mess has certainly left a black mark on things and I'm not sure if/when it will be scrubbed off. I really hate to see such infighting and horrible insults and comments thrown around by people who are supposed to be some sort of intellectually enlightened.

    Ed- I also appreciate your comments. I welcome disagreement because we must openly discuss our differences in order to work together. I understand how I may have seemed callous or blindly in defense of Rebecca on my second point (if that's what you're getting at), but as I see it, yes Rebecca is more "famous" than Stef is. She is considered (by some) an authority and she has achieved a certain status level within our movement. But I don't see that as giving her power over the students at the conference.

    Many, if not all, of the presenters were more than happy to speak with the students regarding their talks or other issues both before and after, sometimes even welcoming questions in the middle of their talks. Rebecca was no exception. Stef could have spoken with Rebecca either publicly or privately, and expressed her displeasure or hurt. I understand that's not always easy to do, and it was obviously Stef's choice, but I have to disagree with the argument that Rebecca was in a place of "power of prestige." I have met Rebecca several times and spoken with her, and would vouch for her that she understands the value in disagreement and discussion as well.

    As women leaders of our movement (and for this fact, not JUST women leaders- men too) we need to be strong and resilient. We need to be able to stand up for ourselves. A big part of me believes that this may not have been as big of an issue if Stef had spoken with Rebecca personally and had a chance to work this out with her in a more private, personal matter. That said, I'm NOT trying to judge Stef's actions. I stated that I understand how she might have felt, and that may not have made it easy. I'm truly not trying to point a finger of blame here. Looking in hindsight from an outside perspective gives me a different viewpoint that I thought might be helpful to voice.

  4. >But I don't see that as giving her power over the students at the conference.

    So you equate having the podium and addressing the entire conference to being able to approach and have a one on one? No power imbalance there?

    Also, I heard one of my friends say they did not want to approach her because she was constantly surrounded by fangirls, creating a rather intimidating and I'd say hostile (to criticism) front. Again, I have to wonder.. how is it you can implore me to consider the subtleties of social power dynamics, then ignore them when it is convenient to your point.

    So far as I know, you are a sincere and honest woman. Explain to me how the prescription for sensitivity bends and warps like magnetic lines around one person, Rebecca Watson.

  5. As I said in my previous comments, no I don't agree with the argument that Rebecca had too much "power" to be approachable. I'm not ignoring the subtleties of social power dynamics, I'm merely disagreeing with your argument (which is based on a different viewpoint of said subtleties). Nor am I bending the prescription for sensitivity. I believe I am being sensitive to both Rebecca AND Stef.

    Am I saying it's easy to walk up to a prominent figure that you (may or may not) admire to discuss a point on which your opinions may vary? No. It can be very intimidating and I'll repeat myself to say that I do not mean to criticize Stef. In all honesty I believe she handled/is handling the situation very maturely and rationally from what I can tell.

    What I am really trying to do here is to implore everyone involved, affected or participating to step back and take a deep breath. I am saddened by the lines that have been drawn within our small movement, separating us from each other and causing a lot of unnecessary tension. I would really like to see us all move on. We have a lot more conferences coming up and a lot of work to do, and I would hate for this to go on overshadowing that. So I'm going to try to do my part; I'm respectfully bowing out of any further discussion of this subject. I've said what I wanted to say and I've made my point. I hope it is well understood and helpful.

    I do appreciate your comments and your honest but calm discussion with me. I hope that we can continue to speak like this in the future.