A minor exchange in an elevator is causing quite a fiasco in the skeptic/atheist community. It is very confusing and distressing, but we can learn from this.
First, let me emphasize that Rebecca Watson was doing a service by reminding people that women often don't like to be hit on at conferences. It deserves to be repeated. So guys, be really sure she's interested before you proposition a woman. Fair enough. As humanists we strive to cause as little discomfort in others as possible. It is also helpful to bring up the topic of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) sexism in the atheist community. We need to address the issue.
She used a specific example of a man asking her if she wanted to return to his room for coffee. This polite request was after drinking at the bar with a group of people. It was also at 4:00 am, in an elevator. She complained that it made her feel uncomfortable and "sexualized" her.
It could have ended there, but...
Richard Dawkins posted a scathing sarcastic comment on PZ Myers' Pharyngula blog. Dawkins essentially said that it is inexcusable to complain about a triviality, something he called "zero bad," when there is a lot of horrible misogyny in the world. A valid point, but rather brutally expressed. His sarcasm was very intense.
That was just the start. Watson and her supporters came back with outrageous anger toward Dawkins, called him a misogynist, sexist, old white man. I trust you can't ignore the hypocrisy and self-righteousness of condemning one of the greatest minds of our era by referring to his sex, age, and race. The hate seemed way out of line and out of proportion. Watson called for a boycott of Dawkins' books! One of her SkeptiChick colleagues said: "I look forward to watching your legacy crash and burn."
Wow! Somebody please call a truce!
Maybe Dawkins could have been less negative, but to understand why he posted his comments you need some context. Watson, Dawkins, and two others were on a panel together at an atheist convention. The topic was "Communicating Atheism." Watson, instead of talking about the topic, focused on her perception of sexism in the atheist community. She also made some personal jabs at another woman atheist blogger, that some feel were unfair. Instead of talking about atheism she went off on a rant about gender politics, filled with very personal examples. It was later in a blog that she gave the petty example of the guy in the elevator. It is true that she brought up the elevator guy (often abbreviated EG in the blogosphere) example as an instance of irony, but the superficiality of the complaint itself cannot be ignored.
You can see the original panel discussion here:
This context helps to understand Dawkins' reamrks. In my opinion it is bad form and unfair to change the topic without the consent of the other participants on the panel. They didn't agree to be on a panel discussing that topic. If I had planned to discuss "Communicating Atheism," then I might be offended that she chose instead to talk about an unrelated issue. Further, she and made it very much about herself, and what bothered her about sexism in the atheist community, yet ignored truly awful sexism and misogyny that are orders of magnitude more extreme.
Part of it the problem could be the difference in content standards for bloggers and academics. It is common to make a blog about yourself and what bothers you. Nonetheless, even if you go off topic and decide to discuss sexism rather than atheism, you could at least cover that topic well. But she did not, it was very anecdotal and personal. She did a poor job of addressing her chosen topic, and didn't cover the agreed upon topic at all.
I think that is why Dawkins posted the sarcastic remarks comparing the "zero bad" of Elevator Guy with the misogynist atrocities that women in Islam endure. At the very least, her rant about sexism could have covered these more agregious examples. Really he was criticizing her for lacking perspective and not covering the topic well. Note that Dawkins did not criticize her as a woman, he did not criticize her for discussing sexism, he didn't complain that she brought up the issue of sexism in the atheist community. He criticized how she addressed the issue, and his point is a valid one.
I can understand being hurt by such sharp witted sarcastic criticism. Nonetheless, rather than accept the criticism, with grace and humility, she turned it into a gender war. That was a mistake. She dismissed his remarks as being the product of "privilege" rather than examining their possible validity. As is so often the case with identity politics, it became a name calling slug fest. I hope Rebecca Watson has the largess to admit that there is some validity to Dawkins complaint, and that her friends will apologize for their extreme statements.
I hope this goes away soon.