The privilege of the forum

As anyone in the atheist/skeptical/feminist blogosphere has heard, there is a massive kerfuffle going on about Rebecca Watson’s response to being creepily propositioned in an elevator1. I really don’t have much to say about it because far better writers than I have covered all the bases I can think of. What hasn’t been addressed is the fundamental fuck-upedness of one of the underlying assumptions of Rebecca’s critics: there is such a thing as an appropriate forum.

The idea of an appropriate forum is basically that a dialogue should be confined to a single rhetorical space. We see this a lot in “manners” guides, where it’s considered rude to publicly criticize someone for what is considered a private wrong. This seems to be the primary motivation in condemning gossip, which is, after all, merely warning one’s friends that another person is inconsiderate, an idiot, or outright dangerous.

It also comes up in other, sometimes weirder contexts. For example, when Rosie Redfield and others pointed out on their blogs that no, Felisa Wolfe-Simon’s paper on arsenic-eating bacteria doesn’t show what it claims to show, the first response of Science magazine (which published the paper) and Wolfe-Simon was that the bloggers were inappropriately publicly airing science’s dirty laundry and should have instead submitted official responses to Science.

This whole idea is absurd. Rhetoric (and any dialogue, from political speeches to Hieronymous Bosch paintings, is rhetoric) has exactly one rule: achieve your goal. If the most effective means of achieving your goal is by publicly calling someone out, you should do it. If the most effective means of achieving your goal is by humiliating someone, you should do it. If the most effective means of achieving your goal is to point out their marital infidelities and imply that they molest goats, you should do it.

Now, if your goal is to have a single person change their behavior, it’s probably not effective to publicly call them out. But that clearly wasn’t Rebecca’s goal in criticizing either the douchenugget who cornered her or the idiot who thought that the douchenugget was just being a man. Her goal was to get the community to recognize that such douchenuggetry is present, if not common, in the atheist/skeptical community, and that non-douchenuggets need to stop providing cover for the douchenuggets.

Now, was that goal a bad one? I don’t see anyone saying that. Was she ineffective? I don’t see anyone saying that. Did she, in being rhetorically effective, cause some harm that outweighed her goal? I don’t see anyone saying that either2.

So, what it comes down to is bashing Rebecca for violating a non-rule of rhetoric.

CalvinballAs Amanda pointed out, creating non-rules—the political strategy of Calvinball—is a long cherished means for those with privilege to shame, shut up, and shut out those without. The particular non-rule of the appropriate forum is particularly harmful because it is both accepted by many people and very effective at preventing change. For example, when Science and Wolfe-Simon said that their detractors should submit formal rebuttals to be published in Science, what they were asking was for:

  1. Several months where they would be the only “experts” who got covered by the media, thus ensuring that the public would never hear about Wolfe-Simon’s crap science and Science‘s crap review system.
  2. Only people with academic careers, regardless of expertise, to participate in the debate. (Only those with academic careers have the time to usher a paper through the process of peer-review and the institutional funding to pay for page charges.) This would ensure that science remains an ivory tower where a misplaced sense of collegiality prevents harsh criticism.
  3. The very important debate about whether Glamour Mags’ review criteria (novelty over quality) improperly distorts peer-review to the detriment of science to be held in backrooms, if at all.

In other words, they were asking for a complete subversion of the spirit of peer review, where the opinion of Stephen Hawking and the opinion of Stephanie the Physics Undergraduate are equally valid if they are backed by data. Similarly, people like Hemant Mehta are asking Rebecca and other feminists in the skeptical movement to abandon the powerful tools of awareness raising, shame, and personal story telling in order to spare the feelings of douches and douche-supporters.

Fuck. That.

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1. Long story short, at 4 am during a conference she said she was tired and going to bed. A guy followed her to the elevator and asked her to her room for coffee. Or, quite obviously, “coffee.” Rebecca pointed out in a vlog post that this is a douchy thing to do. Stef McGraw posted a response basically saying “hey, he wasn’t  a douche, Rebecca’s being a reverse sexist!” (conveniently leaving out the whole 4 am, tired and going to bed, part). In her keynote address, Rebecca used the response as an example of the fact that sexism is present in the atheism community. Several people then called Rebecca out for this.

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2. Yes, Rebecca was not nice to the douchenugget and his defenders. Good is not nice. Yes, Rebecca probably embarrassed Stef McGraw. That is a good thing—embarrassment is the emotion that keeps us from doing stupid shit more than once. I am embarrassed at my frankly creeptastic methods of asking girls out in high school and my first year of college, so I try to no longer be a creep.


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