On Vulnerability

I was catching up on The Atheist Experience blog this week and came across the flying debris of a rather puzzling shitstorm. A female atheist/skeptic blogger had recently commented on an awkward late-nigh encounter in an elevator at a convention and had- consequently- advised men to generally avoid propositioning lone women in elevators, late at night…

Not only was it rather shocking that Richard Dawkins shared his thoughts on the matter, the tone and nature of his response was, in my humble opinion, baffling.

As a lover of science (and a gemologist- which makes me sort of a bona fide Scientist, in some way, no?) and an atheist, I obviously have been closely following Dawkins’ excellent work and contributions to the science world. Perhaps this is why his extremely sarcastic and- worst of all- ineloquent response was extremely sobering to me:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.

Richard

I must admit, I was actually wondering if this was indeed penned by Dawkins’ hand; the same hand that wrote ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, a sensitive, lovely, shining description of the wonders of life and world…

It seems to me that Dawkins has somewhat misunderstood Rebecca Watson’s statement. My greatest disappointment in his dismissive reply is that, despite being deeply immersed and knowledgeable in life itself, in every animal’s drives, challenges and motivations, he could somehow completely disregard a state that all beings must contend with:

Vulnerability.

Rebecca Watson’s story about the man in the elevator was not a story about all men being crass and violent. It was an honest statement about vulnerability.

Women, everywhere, in all countries and all walks of life, are vulnerable. They are vulnerable of course because all living beings are vulnerable; it is such fine line between a living animal and a dead one, between vigor and crippling injury… They are also vulnerable as women; generally smaller and lighter, more empoverished, more underestimated and, quite simply, more fucked with. Mrs Watson’s was describing a situation in which she was isolated (in a foreign environment) and confined with a perfect stranger. This, while not necessarily a dire situation is indeed a vulnerable one. This, I believe, was the gist of her comment: If one wishes to engage a person positively, especially a woman, an elevator in a strange environment at a late hour is not a good place/time to do it because it makes her extremely vulnerable. Vulnerable beings are simply not in a prime state to socialize, just ask any cornered, trapped, frightened, injured or ailing animal…

Being vulnerable is, in most contexts, not an enjoyable state. It is stressful not to know if harm is right around the next corner or moment. While men tend to be raised to deny their own vulnerablility outright (for better and for worse), most women are conditioned to deal with their vulnerability on a daily basis: Avoiding dark alleys, listening to their ‘gut feeling’, not letting their drinks unattended, not leaving their doors unlocked, not travelling alone, not hitchhiking, etc, etc… They also often take a lot of blame when they dare letting their guard down and walk the dark alley alone, wear too short a skirt, get a bit too drunk, etc, etc… So, indeed, a lot of women ARE mindful. They prize their physical integrity and life and act accordingly. It makes for a bit less spontaneous get-togethers in late-night elevators, but it is also a tactic to maintain some measure of control and safety in a STILL relatively unsafe world, America included.

I don’t know what Mr Dawkins’ advices to his own daughter were when she was young: Did he encourage her socializing with men at 4am in hotel elevators? Would he had coldly chastized her for ‘whining’ about an uncomfortable exchange in a foreign, isolated spot?

I would have thought that, of all places, the atheist and so-called ‘rational’ circles would have been a tiny bit more open to a dialogue about basic human (or, hell, animal) interaction and gender issues. Men and women need to openly discuss about ways to make their relations healthier and more empathetic. A tiny bit of acknowledgement of the Other’s true situation and- often very legitimate- concerns goes a long way.

I still respect Richard Dawkins’ contribution to science but I sure expected a bit more empathy from him.

We are all animals; humans, women… We are all vulnerable at times.

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6 Responses to On Vulnerability

  1. Doug says:

    Striking at the heart, is difficult and rare; you have put the proverbial arrow through an arrow. This is difficult because men rarely feel this vulnerable. Men are constantly sizing each other up. We know, when we enter a room, who we can take and who we need to fear. A good bluff will handle most men, but most women are not taken seriously by men and will never be seen as anything but prey.

    Dawkins, while his intentions are good, suffers from the complacency of the white male, who rarely feels vulnerable. He is the one that lives in a sweet little world where he is rarely, if ever, threatened. Typical upper class noob. The pathetic thing is that those of us in the more violent working class take a certain pride in our ability to kick ass in all its forms.

  2. Celeste Ewing says:

    Now see, Doug, you got the point. It’s a simple effort of empathy. I think that’s why Dawkins’ response came as such a shock to me. I was puzzled that someone with his obvious intellect would a) make so little effort to understand the issue before essentially telling Watson to STFU and b) that he got defensive enough about the matter to have such a knee-jerk, outraged reaction to her comment in the first place.

    I don’t know. I suspect that if, say, some brats would be vandalizing his front yard, he’d be disgruntled about it, probably bitch a bit and probably wish that someone would teach these kids better manners despite that fact that there are genocides, mass rapes and atrocities being conducted elsewhere…

    Perhaps he was in an especially cantankerous mood that day? We will never know…

  3. Buddy says:

    Some guys never stop fishing. I read about the elevator incident and Dawkins’s response over at Salon. Both the troller and the scientist sound like jerks. But I don’t know what atheism has to do with it. I’m guessing there are just as many clueless mooks at a convention of disbelievers as there are at a gathering of Rotarians. It takes a long time and a lot of knowledge to see the world through the eyes of the opposite sex when it comes to sex.

    If empathy is identification through shared experience, as I believe it is, then women won’t get much of it from men; but sympathy merely requires the recognition that there is a problem, although not necessarily a shared one, that must be respected. ”It must be awful” is as sensitive a response as ”I know how it feels.” Men do not have to see the world through a woman’s eyes to see that there are problematic situations unique to her gender. But with knowledge and imagination we can better achieve sympathy, that finest of social graces.

    And also better our chances at getting laid.

  4. Charlie says:

    This is relevant to atheism, because Watson’s whole piece at the convention was about making the atheist community welcoming to women and minorities. Watson has quite the vision for the atheist community- one in which women and minorities are welcomed and embraced, and it makes the community stronger as a result. The fact is, she’d been talking about the issues all day- and then, that evening, she was disrespected, and then Dawkins compounded the disrespect.

    Rebecca Watson would like to see the atheist community stop fellating itself over being so smart as to not believe in deities, and reorient its focus in secularism in society. Atheists are very concerned about creationism being taught in public schools, but they’re less concerned, or are making a less concerted effort, about proper sex education in schools- though abstinence-only sex education is a direct result of religion encroaching. She’d like to see the atheist community organize behind LGBTQ rights, behind women’s rights- from pro-choice rallies to comprehensive sex-ed, etc.

    The only problem is that many in the atheist community manage to be bigots without a god to hide behind.

  5. Doug says:

    Charlie, I would agree. Unfortunately, not believing in gods or not following religious dogma does not tell us anything more than that about an individual . My guess is most people who suffer from Anti-Social Personality Disorder don’t believe in anything except themselves and whatever the person they are trying to fool believes.

    Intelligence, is also not an indicator of a persons beliefs or how they treat others. Intelligence is a dull tool without knowledge and ruthlessly wielded without empathy.

  6. Charlie says:

    And that’s what Watson keeps stumbling against, trying to mobilize a community which professes to be above all those silly religious people. Was listening to Citizen Radio recently, with Jamie Kilstein professing his absolute shock that there aren’t more lefty-leaning atheists in the world.

    She did say something else I loved though- paraphrasing, “functionally I’m an atheist, philosophically I’m agnostic,” which is how I feel.

    For more Watson, listen to the Citizen Radio podcast, here.

    I personally think she’s swimming against the tide and would be better served to create an “Atheists sans Frontieres” or something. So the Dawkins fetishists could stay in their Dawkins-aggrandizing bubble.

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