Confused Politics

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Archive for July 2011

Feminism and the Failure to Empathise

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A row has erupted in the atheist/sceptic community over a female member’s complaints and Richard Dawkins’ response to them. Basically Rebecca Watson, a commenter on Skepchick (a sceptic blog), made a video blog about her experience at an atheist conference. She had made a point in a panel discussion about women being discouraged from getting involved in the sceptic community because they were constantly hit on. She mentioned in her vlog that after being in the hotel bar until 4am she went to bed. A man followed her into the lift and invited her back to his room. The vlog can be found here and hopefully the link leads straight to the relevant part of the video.

Rebecca’s message basically boils down to, “hey, it’s a bit creepy, don’t do it guys.” So far, not really all that controversial. Unfortunately Richard Dawkins decided to comment. Basically he wrote very sarcastically about the bad things that happen to Muslim women and how Rebecca Watson had nothing to complain about. To be fair to him, he did admit that Muslim women having it worse is not in any way a legitimate argument. What I find interesting though is the need to make a viciously sarcastic comment about what was a very mild complaint. This might have been appropriate if she had made a series of hyperbolic comments. In fact she was more restrained than I suspect I would have been. “Guys, don’t do that, it makes me incredibly uncomfortable…” seems to be an entirely reasonable response.

Anyway, my interest in Richard Dawkins is limited. I have lost respect for the man, but what I found really interesting about this case is the responses from men in general. Rebecca Watson has mentioned getting threats of rape (including from members of the atheist community), I’ve seen a wide variety of offensive responses myself on blogs and forums.

I find it disturbing that when a woman makes some sort of fairly mild complaint about male behaviour, it gets treated as some kind of hysterical overreaction. Sure people have a point that propositioning someone in a lift is not all that bad on a grand scale of things. That’s not what’s going on though. Instead people take a very mild complaint about something that is definitely worth complaining about, even if it isn’t the end of the world and treat it as if the complainer has gone off in a hysterical rant about how every man is a rapist. It’s an interesting phenomenon because it involves people who, I am sure, would swear blind that they believe in gender equality essentially characterising mild comments about male behaviour as women engaging in hysterics.

I think this is indicative of a major problem with getting men onside with certain feminist (and other oppressed groups’) issues. That men don’t understand some of the problems affecting women. They dismiss them based on their own experiences and this simply doesn’t work because those experiences are different. I am a large, fit male and so have never felt trapped with someone who could physically overpower me and wants to have sex with me…

Obviously, people formulate an initial opinion based on their own experience. Normally it wouldn’t even occur to me that a woman might feel physically threatened by me. After all, like most men, I am not a violent person and am not trying to intimidate anyone. However, many people’s problem is in accommodating extra information. It’s not unreasonable to use your own experiences, it is unreasonable to dismiss other people’s experiences when they are going to have a better understanding of the circumstances. There is a need for simple empathy and understanding.

Really my point here boils down to this (unfortunately I suspect I will be preaching to the converted). The way that people tend to dismiss women’s concerns as overblown is indicative of deeper problems in societal attitudes towards them, and it’s always worth examining your own reactions to the concerns of any minority group.

Sometimes people will indeed overreact and be paranoid. Keeping with the case of propositioning people for sex, it’s an incredibly complicated area and people’s opinions on acceptable behaviour vary wildly. However, if you don’t try to empathise and understand things from others’ perspective before coming to such a conclusion, then you will be on the wrong side of the argument. So, watch yourself.


Edit: I’ve been directed to this blog post on privilege and perception and it’s definitely worth a read.


Written by Confused Politics

July 13, 2011 at 2:33 pm