Elevator Guy Hits the Wires (updated)

Here's an Atlantic post about the infamous elevator incident. One problem: the author says Elevator Guy "propositioned" Rebecca Watson, but that would mean he asked for sex explicitly. He didn't, he asked her to his room for coffee! There's some difference, even if one can assume he probably wasn't just in the mood for a beverage.  Why is it different, if presumably he was thinking of sex?  To explain would take a long story about meaning, communication and psychology--it's actually kind of interesting.  But it is different, and everyone knows it.

UPDATE 7/7: On my morning walk, I got to thinking about this.  Why is it different to ask for coffee, and only insinuate an interest in sex?  There are three advantages:  deniability, refusability, and ambiguity. 

Deniability. The speaker can protest (inwardly or verbally) that he was only asking for coffee--that's face-saving if the hearer says no. So it's an advantage for the speaker.

Refusability.  The hearer can refuse a request for coffee without addressing the more intimate topic of sex. She can say--"sorry, it's too late for coffee," or some such.  So indirect communication is better for the hearer.

Ambiguity.  Asking for coffee leaves it open where this will lead, the open-endedness being advantageous to both speaker and hearer.

Asking for coffee in an elevator is thus clearly better than asking for sex, but the apocryphal story has taken hold that Elevator Guy asked directly for sex -- see the Atlantic story and before that, at many blogs.  (For example, Amanda Marcotte reported that Elevator Guy had "cold propositioned her for sex" here.)  Result:  Elevator Guy's malfeasance and Rebecca Watson's victimhood have been exaggerated. 

Exaggerating victimhood has a funny way of triggering exaggerated dismissal, and I think that may be what's going on with Richard Dawkins.  He smells exaggerated victimhood and he says--"Bah, it was nothing!" (even though--come on!--it wasn't exactly nothing).

So I got to wondering--why does he smell exaggerated victimhood? There's nothing terribly exaggerated about Rebecca Watson's complaint in the video that started this whole controversy.  She laughs and smiles as she tells the story and she quotes Elevator Guy in a way that's restrained and presumably accurate.  She doesn't call the invitation a "cold proposition for sex."

Perhaps Dawkins was responding to exaggerations in the blogosphere, but I also suspect another factor.  If you watch the panel on which both appeared the day before the elevator incident, you can actually see foreshadowing of Dawkins' later outburst on the web.  

Watch Dawkins as Watson speaks about Paula Kirby (from about 3:00 to 5:00).  Here's what Watson says about Kirby's presentation on an earlier panel about women and atheism--
She made a comment that she felt that there was no problem with sexism in the atheist community because she's never experienced any sexism in the atheist community. In the atheist community we refer to that as an argument from ignorance, and in the feminist community we refer to it as an argument from privilege. I'm genuinely happy that she hasn't experienced any sexism, but I don't think that's a proper basis to make a judgment about whether there is any sexism in atheism.
I suspect this is a strawman, and Kirby didn't make the idiotic argument from "I have had no problem" to "there's no problem."  She just took her experience as some evidence like Watson wants to present her experiences as some evidence.  

Think about what it would be like if scientists disregarded negative data.  If the question is about whether autism and vaccination are linked, studies that find no link are just as relevant as studies that find a link.  Kirby should not have been dismissed as "ignorant" and "privileged."

To the extent that Watson wants to dismiss women with no negative experiences, she has exaggerated the victimhood of women.   My hunch (based on his body language in the video) is that Dawkins saw her as an exaggerator of victimhood before the later video about Elevator Guy ever appeared, and that's what put him on the road to dismissal.

Moral of the story:  neither an exaggerator nor a dismisser be.  One tends to lead to the other. The more one side dismisses, the more the other exaggerates; the more exaggeration, the more dismissal. And also--don't claim to be the paradigm case.  Women who don't get treated in a sexist manner are also entitled to tell their stories and to have them taken seriously.

Update:  The Kirby panel is here, and no, she doesn't make the idiotic argument Watson attributes to her.  More about her argument here.


ʧɪʩʡʧʣʉʙɷʙʛɴɡʊʂɣɠɘɩə said...

Pinker has a great talk about that


Jean Kazez said...

Terrific video, thanks.

Faust said...

You know this has been interesting to follow, because of the volume of material generated by the incident. The incident itself seems banal in the extreme (to me), but of course this is precisely what is at issue: is the event a banal event of no particular interest? Or is it a case in point, an exemplar of bad behavior so institutionalized that many people (especially male people) see it as innocuous when it is in fact a representative case of an important problem. Thus the core argument becomes about whether or not the event is important or trivial. If trivial, then why even mention it? If important, then those who dismiss it are evidence of the problem.

While there are some good and bad arguments floating around out there none of them ultimately settle the issue of the significance of a man getting on a elevator with a woman and saying "Don't take this the wrong way, but I find you really interesting, and I was wondering if you'd like to come to my room for coffee and discussion." (not quite verbatim, at least the second part, but his lead in is directly transcribed from her vblog).

I think you very correctly identify that he was going for deniablity, refusability, and ambiguity; and I also think contextually that it is very unlikely he was merely asking her to his room for coffee and discussion.

People who want to defend this fellows "right to proposition" will focus on the innocuousness of his ask, while those who want to condemn it, will point out the wierdness of the context (enclosed space, time of day). But in the end it is unlikely that there is any argument that will settle what basically ammounts ot a case of ettiqute. The basic ideas people have about what is and isn't acceptable in the exchange of requests for more intimacy (however construed) are precisely what is at issue, and for the most part are presuppositional and not derived.

I do think the gender specificity here is of key interest. Consider, for example, if both parties were women, or both parties were men. Do we have different intutions about gay people ambiguously propositioning each other in elevators than we do for straight people doing the same? And if so are those differences fundamental? Or are they just artificats of a highly relativized social milieu?

Jean Kazez said...

Great comment!

I was wondering the same thing about two men or two women. I have a hard time believing the etiquette for gay men would be the same--no asking virtual strangers for "coffee" in elevators at 4 am. Rather--you ask, you get turned down, done. There's no victim. I think the question is why it must be otherwise when one is male, the other female. That's apparently what Dawkins was thinking.

Faust said...

I concur, and after thinking about this this morning I think the answer basically amounts to the question of power relations. When we imagine same-gender situations, there is essentially equivalence between the two parties (differences could be imagined, but if they aren't stipulated one tends to imagine parity).

With men and women there are all manner of differences: average size, average strength, biological differences, and socio-cultural differences that tend to arise in relation to all the other differences. The problem at issue is precisely the problem of men having significantly more power historically and still currently, varying on culture and other factors.

In order for us to introduce a power relations problem into a same-sex scenario we could imagine differences in age, or employer/employee relations, or doctor/patient relations. All of these would create sufficient problems for "requests for coffee" to be problematic, even independent of elevator settings.

So I think the idea here would be that somehow the combination of implicit and explicit power relations between men and women get "activated" by the context of a guy deliberately creating a situation where he is alone with a woman so he can ask for "coffee and conversation in his room" (but don't "take this the wrong way!"). If you take a certain view on these things, I think you basically assume that there is an implicit or even explicit power imbalance generated by typical gender relations, and that this has a de facto coercive force, or even that the mere use of "elevator capture" effectively produces a coercive situation. But I think you have to buy into this baseline sense that the power relations are fairly severe, that there is real THREAT (also called “creepiness”), because if you don't buy into that, if you see a basic symmetry, of the kind one is prone to imagining when one imagines same-sex scenarios, then it’s hard to see what the issue is.

I take Dawkins (however poorly he’s made his case, and I do think he made his case very poorly) as saying that there is nothing to see here, that the power imbalances are not severe enough to warrant any particular response to this kind of event: i.e. he asked you for some intimate time (however construed) you rejected him, the end. But if you think that requests for intimacy come packaged with a whole host of background power relations then it’s not the end, its evidence of the fact that guys are willing to leverage whatever means they have at their disposal to put pressure on the women they “sexualize” (I read: “are attracted to”) to have “coffee” with them.

Aeolus said...

If I suggested to a woman I'd just met that we have coffee, I'd probably really mean... tea.

Jean Kazez said...

Faust, Another possibility--guys who do this sort of stuff are not necessarily scary, they're just a nuisance. I used to live in Boston (a long time ago) and lie around on the Esplanade on summer days, and it was irritating having to get rid of guys who didn't want to read the cues (like my head being in a book). They weren't a threat or anything, they were just intrusive. I used to rant about why it had to be my job to get rid of them, instead of their job to read the cues. Sounds to me like Elevator Guy was one of these cue-ignorers. Is it sexist to be a cue-ignorer? Not sure. Some women are cue-ignorers too. There's an element of sexism if a guy's a cue-ignorer because he thinks it's his right, as a man, to be constantly on the make, no matter what the cues.

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, Cuz we are older now sometimes it's just about the beverages. Weep!

ɭɸəʄʔɖʢʄʜɝɷʓʫʫɗɞɰʛɚɦ said...

there's actually one of those great RSA animations made from that Pinker's presentation


Faust said...

That video was great! Thanks unreadable name person!

Jean Kazez said...

Wow, that was great. I had to make it a separate post.

Yanquetino said...

Well expressed! Your thoughts on this "elevatorgate" are very close to me own. See my essay:


Alan Cooper said...

During the Watson talk, Dawkins may have been jotting down a note to respond somehow about it but I didn't pick up much of an emotional reaction from him there. (So would it be sexist of me to admire your "feminine intuition" on that?)

With regard to Watson's alleged misrepresentation of Kirby, it seems like a pretty fine line to me. Kirby did say that she didn't think there was sexism based on not having seen any but technically that's not an argument from ignorance if what she really means is "not much" rather than none and if the extent her observation has been sufficient to justify her conclusion (which I agree with you it probably has).

But I think they are talking about different kinds of sexism. Watson explicitly denies that she is referring to a patriarchal conspiracy and her main complaint (especially in the EG video) is about a perceived pattern of objectification (which she presumably feels to a greater degree at those conventions than in other contexts she is used to). And having been everything from a horny teenager to a dirty old man myself, I can well imagine that she is right (and also that Kirby's more conservative manner may make her less likely to become the object of unwelcome attention).

Also, having experienced gay propositions, I can say that, even though most gays are less threatening than the average male, when unwelcome propositions come from someone bigger and stronger in an isolated situation, then they can indeed feel threatening - and I also know from other experience that some males can be unpredictably violent.

So I have no doubt that fear of uncomfortable situations may well be deterring some women from participating in things. Just because these aren't the greatest sufferings in the universe is no reason to belittle those who express them, and to respond to censure for that error by denying that they cause any pain at all is, well, hard to understand as the response of a reasonable person.

So I do think Dawkins has a problem at this point, and if he doesn't deal with it pretty soon I'll have to suspect that he really does "have a problem".

Peter said...

Perhaps Dawkins was responding to exaggerations in the blogosphere

Well, where did Dawkins make his reply?

Did he make it on his website and address it to Rebecca? No.

Ah, then he went to Rebecca's website, replying directly to her sentiments there? Nope.

He replied on a thread at Pharangula, I think we can assume the bulk of his vitriol was intended for the commenters at that place where there was an awful lot of exaggeration and silliness going on.

PZ Myers later even admitted to basically agreeing to what Dawkins was saying, except that he thought Dawkins was making Rebecca's situation out to be 'zero-bad', this provision can be safely ignored since PZ Myers then went on to explicitly say that Stef McGraff suffered 'zero-bad' when Rebecca Watson deemed her a misogynist and rape-supporter to a crowd of supporters.

If anything, this has boosted by respect for Dawkins whilst simultaneously disgusting me how the narrative of "Dawkin's reply to Rebecca" has taken hold with lazy journalists as well as the disgusting nature of PZ Myers' hypocracy.