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.