I don’t normally directly participate in social conflicts between individuals because I feel the issues are so transient that they rapidly lose relevance and long-term usefulness. But I have been both externally encouraged and internally provoked to share my opinion on the Rebecca Watson issue, so here goes.
I’ve taken a lot of time to think about this and hear many sides before commenting. My conclusion is that, as happens so often in human conflict, many people are falling short in the cognitive task of empathy. I think that all of the major players whose opinions I have read (Watson, PZ, Hemant Mehta, Dawkins, Phil Plait) have fallen short in some major ways at empathy and thus at accurately assessing the situation.
I think that outrage from both sides has caused people to galvanize their lack of empathy and villainize the other side. I think people have been impulsively and unconsciously engaging the “us vs them”/”in-group vs out-group” module in the brain, causing them to caricature their opponents and represent them inaccurately. I see this mental maneuver constantly in human conflict and it exhausts and discourages me. On the other hand, I can understand why people give into it because resisting it takes a lot of stamina and tedious mental reassessment of the situation given each new piece of information.
Here are the primary empathetical mistakes that I think have been made:
By Rebecca Watson, PZ, and Hemant:
Calling the Elevator Guy “creepy” or worse.
Based on the evidence of the words and actions of the conversation, I think that Elevator Guy had sincere and genuine intentions. I think that it was his understanding that this was an appropriate way to ask an intellectual and social equal for company. I don’t think he had any intentions of being misogynistic and I don’t think his actions were misogynistic. I don’t think that any general disrespect for women was committed. I think he was simply ignorant of how uncomfortable his advance made Watson and women in general. Given his ignorance, and, thus, given the limited information he had, he acted completely rationally and with full respect for women as equals.
Ignoring Watson’s appeal and request that these situations not continue.
Regardless of how noble Elevator Guy’s intentions were, his actions made Watson uncomfortable. She felt threatened in the situation. It was emotionally stressful for her to be approached by a relative stranger in a confined space. Elevator Guy and other men like him may have been ignorant of these feelings on the part of women before Watson spoke up and made it clear. But now that she has made it clear that women do feel like this when being approached this way, even when approached politely, I think we are obliged to take heed to those feelings and alter our social propositioning practices.
By Hemant and Phil Plait:
Calling this a potential sexual assault and generally associating Elevator Guy, Dawkins, etc with misogyny.
I think Phil and Hemant have been the closest to showing maximal empathy that I have read so far. But, as I said before, I don’t think Dawkins and Elevator Guy are misogynistic. I think they are just ignorant. I think that they want to fully respect women as equals. But I think that they have not processed how this new information from Watson is relevant to that goal and that practices should probably change.
In short, I think the fully empathetic cognitive summary of the situation is as follows:
1. Elevator Guy propositions Watson in an elevator. As far as he knows, he is being completely respectful towards women. He asks politely and withdraws politely when she refuses. Given the limited information he had at the time, he cannot justifiably be called creepy or misogynistic.
2. Watson reveals to the Internet community that this situation made her uncomfortable. She explains that the elevator was a confined space, the man was a relative stranger, and she was alone with him. All of these factors gave her anxiety. Others, such as Phil Plait, have also provided hard evidence for how situations like this have led to sexual assault.
3. Given the evidence of Watson’s feelings it seems that social conventions should change. Men should be informed that women feel this way when propositioned by strangers. And men should stop propositioning them this way.
I think Elevator Guy made an innocent mistake, ignorant of the cognitive situation. I don’t think that he or other people should be called misogynistic for making that mistake. But now that we are all aware, things should change.