Effective communication between men & women

And now, a few more thoughts related to the Watson–Dawkins debate:
In response to Rebecca Watson’s entreaty that men “[not] do that”, a great number of respondents, including Richard Dawkins, opined at length and with varying degrees of civility. It’s clear that different people are interpreting Ms Watson’s comments differently. As I see it, there are two ways to read Ms. Watson’s statement “Don’t do that.”:
1 A kind word of advice to men considering talking to her, limited to that particular situation in the elevator at 4am or ones very much like it.
2. A demand not only of how to treat her specifically and limited to that situation, but also a broader statement of what is right and wrong when talking to women in general.
If you interpret her words in the first way, it’s hard to find any fault with them. Every woman has a right to communicate her wishes and preferences to those around her.
However, I can understand why some might have interpreted her words in the second way. Many people go quite easily from “this makes me uncomfortable” to “this is wrong, not just for me but for everyone.” Religious people do this a lot! E.g., “You must show respect for my religious ideas; if you don’t, it will greatly offend me and my god!”
If Ms. Watson’s comments were intended as a broader commentary regarding not just that particular situation late at night in an elevator, but also on how men should talk to women in general, then this would probably explain some of the push-back she has gotten.
Each man is different. Each woman is different. Every situation is unique, and general rules are blunt tools applied to delicate tasks. I can understand men who might have been perplexed by Ms. Watson’s words. I think she might better have expressed herself by starting from a position of empathy and understanding for those she wished to inform. Here’s and example of how Ms. Watson might have communicated her advice more effectively:
“The situation in the elevator made me very uncomfortable. I felt trapped, and intimidated by the stranger. Of course I don’t know what his actual intentions were—perhaps he really only wanted to invite me for coffee and conversation—but the situation felt sexually threatening to me. If he was trying to pick me up after hearing my talk earlier in the evening, then he was being disrespectful, and was way out of line. In any event, it seemed to me that he was ignoring my statement that I was tired and wanted to sleep. Perhaps I should have countered by inviting him for a coffee the next morning in the hotel bar. I mean maybe I really had nothing to fear! But the fact is, I was so uncomfortable with the situation that I was just glad to get away from him.”
“Men, please try to show some understanding of what it’s like to be a woman. Even if you’re a true gentleman, remember that there are a lot of assholes out there. We women have to deal with them all the time. You’ll go a long way toward showing that you’re not one of the assholes if you show a little consideration. This means sometimes forgoing making an invitation if it might make the woman uncomfortable. Your intentions are surely important, but they’re not the only thing that’s important. The situation—and the other person of course—are also very important. If the man had invited me for a coffee the next morning in the hotel bar, I would have been much less like to have taken it as a sexual overture. This alone would have made me more comfortable. Just use a bit of common sense, and do your best to read the other person and the situation before acting. Women everywhere thank you in advance!”
Men clearly need to be conscious of how the communicate with women. I think women could improve how they communicate with men too. Remember that unlike in a debate, the goal should not be to prove the other wrong. The goal is to communicate your thoughts and wishes in a way that the other will understand.


Men, women, assumptions & offense. Thoughts on the Watson–Dawkins debate

This morning, I read Phil Plait’s blog post on the weekend’s dustup between fellow skeptics Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins. Plait sides with Watson in this debate, and doesn’t show much understanding for Dawkins.

Reading some of the many comments on Plait’s post, as well as comments on Watson’s post, I was struck by how one-sided most arguments were. Most commentators stood clearly on one side or the other: they either didn’t see what all the fuss was about, or they thought Dawkins was out-of-line in his remarks.

This sort of misunderstanding is unfortunately quite common. It happens any time two people engage in a debate about a topic informed by different experiences. Each person’s experiences combine to create a set assumptions that can make it difficult to appreciate or even understand another’s point of view.

  • Rebecca Watson felt uncomfortable with an unwelcome advance from a man she did not know, and believed that the man should have known that his overture would be perceived as sexually aggressive.
  • Richard Dawkins felt uncomfortable with the assumption that the man’s invitation for coffee in his hotel room represented a threat, and thought that the man should have been given the benefit of the doubt.

Watson believes that men should try harder to understand women. In her view, if a woman feels uncomfortable with a man, it is the man’s sole responsibility; he should accept this responsibility gracefully, adapting his attitudes and behaviors to match the woman’s standards of what is acceptable. A man cannot assume that a harmless invitation will be perceived as harmless. He should know that many invitations will be perceived as sexual, that they will likely be unwelcome, and that they can therefore create a threatening environment for the woman. For him to act as though he is not aware of this is insulting to that woman in particular, and to all women in general.

Dawkins believes that women should try harder to understand men. In his view, men and women should be treated equally—not just in principle, but in actual day-to-day practice. A woman receiving an invitation from strange man in an elevator should feel and react no differently than a man would if he were in the same situation. It is the woman’s responsibility to express her desires and limits openly and clearly. If she is not interested, she should assume the stranger’s intentions are friendly, and should decline the invitation gracefully. For the woman to assume that the man poses a potential threat is insulting to that man specifically, and to all men in general.

These extreme and unwavering absolutist positions belie the hurt and offense their adherents have endured. Both Watson and Dawkins consider themselves victims of the ignorance and intolerance of those who do not understand what it’s like to be in their position. Yet ironically, they are both willfully blind to the feelings of the other. Neither side will understand the other until they let go of this absolutist way of thinking.

Both Watson and Dawkins are skilled debaters, their abilities honed by years of argument. However, no amount of logical debate will resolve this issue. What’s required is for both sides to acknowledge the feelings of the other. Too many debaters—and particularly, many in the skeptical community—are so convinced of the righteousness of their cause that they neglect to show respect for their opponents, and instead concentrate on the mere facts and arguments of the debate. Worse still, erstwhile reasonable people tend to let resentment and rancor slip into their arguments when they feel slighted. Dawkin’s bitter sarcasm is an excellent example of this sort of unthinking lack of consideration of the feelings of others.

Dawkins should offer an apology for the tone of his comment, and make it clear that offending people was not his intention. He should expand upon his ideas and make his position more clear. He should be honest about his feelings and experiences, and how they influence his point of view. He should acknowledge the obvious truth that millennia of evolution have given men and women not just different bodies, but also different minds, feelings, and behaviors. We do not live in a perfect world where no woman need fear assault, and no man the assumption of aggression. Pretending that we live in such a world does not make it so. Dawkins should express some compassion for those women who have been victimized, or who have felt powerless to stand up for themselves. Instead of chastising these women for whining or being meek, Dawkins should encourage women to give men the benefit of the doubt while still standing up for themselves.

Watson should accept that despite her claimed feminism, she is espousing a society in which men and women have different rights and responsibilities. She should be honest about her feelings and experiences, and how they influence her point of view. Men and women are different in meaningful ways. Men initiate sexual contact far more frequently than women, and are inherently more aggressive. There are simple and well understood biological reasons for these differences. Both intuitive common sense, as well as many cultural traditions, build on the assumption that men and women think, feel, and act differently. Watson should not pretend that she supports true equality of the sexes, and instead should lay out a reasoned justification for a system that treats the sexes differently. Furthermore, she should accept the inherent unfairness of such a system, particularly toward honorable, well-intentioned men. She should acknowledge that uncomfortable situations are a necessary part of life. She should express some understanding for men who through naïveté, optimism, or idealism choose an approach that makes her uncomfortable. She should encourage men to express their affection, admiration, and interest in ways that will be most appreciated.

Put simply, Watson and Dawkins must acknowledge the truth in each other’s positions. This will not only make their arguments more honest; it will also engender trust and respect, and make for a more fruitful and less acrimonious debate.


Happy Fourth!

Captain Big Hat
On this Fourth of July, I wanted to write something touching and heartfelt, stirring poignant memories of fortitude through hardship, and triumph over tyranny. I hoped to pen words inspiring a rededication to the highest ideals of freedom, justice, and equality—an homage to the industrious, pioneering spirit that defined a nation, and still today emboldens the common laborer and the titan of industry, the grassroots volunteer and the astronaut.

Unfortunately, I had a bit of writer’s block, so I won’t write that today. Maybe next year.

But that’s not to say I don’t plan to celebrate. Anyone up for a BBQ at the lake tonight?