Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Reply to Owen Swart, sort of

As announced last month, Owen Swart kept to his word and blogged about the evil global misandrist conspiracy, except he didn't really. I was pretty disappointed, for two reasons, corresponding with two different things he posted. The first, his own blog post, was little more than his original complaint on Google+, restated, completely ignoring all the input he'd already had from me there. My main concerns at the time were that Watson's post is pretty ambiguous and not very well written, but all the necessary qualifiers are in there to show that it doesn't actually definitely say what Owen reads it to say. For example, she gives a qualitative description of what she means by 'too drunk', a serious state where clear decision-making is impossible. That alone should have assuaged Owen's concern, if he's so sure about his ex's state of mind. (I'm not sure if this is perhaps a low blow, and it's purely hypothetical and based on no actual knowledge of that relationship, but if he were perhaps not as sure of her soundness of mind as he claims, and felt some guilt over it, then is it really fair to lash out at Watson for reminding him of this?)

But fine, Watson was ambiguous. You have to dig a bit to see it. This is not ideal, but it's not the same as Watson calling Owen a rapist. Ambiguity is not something I'd consider a sound basis for shouty indignation, and the fact that I had already done all the digging for Owen (so he didn't have that excuse anymore) when he wrote that blog post is disappointing. Why did I bother?

As a side issue, I'm curious to know exactly who's accused Owen of being a sexist and a rape-apologist, because it definitely wasn't me, and everyone else was on his side in the Google+ thread and his own blog's comments.

(I'll also point out that I'm deeply, deeply disappointed with Owen for combining a Captain Sulu quote with an image of the Enterprise. I would have accepted either the Excelsior to go with a Captain Sulu quote, or the Enterprise with a Lieutenant/Lieutenant Commander/Commander Sulu quote. I mean, this is basic shit.)
Obviously two very different things.

Let's ignore the above and assume Owen's interpretation is accurate, though: Rebecca Watson called him a rapist, because of any booze at all. That would not be good, certainly. But therefore misandry? Therefore pseudo-feminism? Therefore a grand conspiracy of shit? Hardly. One thing that can't be denied is that Watson was careful enough to keep her entire post perfectly gender-neutral. Owen's leap to misandry is entirely in his own head. Which I told him, weeks before he repeated this claim. Again, why did I bother?

Previously, his response to this was, "yes, but it fits the broader pattern," which is exactly what I then challenged him to show. I have not seen this general pattern, and as I stated in last month's post, I expect people to be able to back up their claims. Instead of writing something to that effect himself, he re-posted a piece from Freethought Kampala (in the G+ group, not in his own blog), and this is the second major disappointment for me, because it's a pretty weak set of arguments. Allow me to pick at it in time-saving point form:

  • The line: "But what happens when skepticism becomes more than a way of thinking, such as a movement in and of itself?" raised a red flag for me. There seem to be people who've conflated the general term 'politics' with the stereotypically negative behaviour of politicians, and treat politics as an inherently dirty word, something to distance yourself from as much as possible. This reveals only a total lack of understanding about what politics is and how inevitable, pervasive and even useful it is for all of us. It does not inherently, automatically imply that reason and evidence have been sacrificed, and it's ironically irrational to insist otherwise. I think that's definitely a factor here, but more specifically, it's quite counter to the skeptical activism (as opposed to skeptical arse-sitting) that I know Owen supports and engages in, and also the apparent goals of the Freethought Kampala movement. So are they hypocrites, or is there more complexity to what drives civil society than this article acknowledges? Perhaps a bit of both.
  • "Arbitrary Rules" - I kind of agree that the street crossing thing is probably overkill most of the time. But a suggested guideline is not a tyrannical "rule" that we have no choice but to accept, and it's not especially arbitrary either; the logic behind it is explained clearly enough, and the only thing lacking is a sufficiently valuable outcome to make it worth putting into practice. But if we take it in the full context of "the sort of behaviours that can be worth considering more deeply", as a suggestion of style rather than a specific, compulsory prescription, then it's not so silly as it seems in isolation. (I've just noticed there's a comment by Greg Laden expressing the same thing.)
  • "On When To Proposition Women" - Holy fuck-knuckles, I can't believe this one has to get dredged through again. Under the title of When To, he posts a PZ quote about How To, and then goes on to talk about the matter of If. How did we make that massive transformation in topic, doubting whether women should be propositioned at all? Nobody outside of this article is saying that romance is forbidden except where colour-coded labels are used, or any crap like that. The only concern has ever been that really creepy attempts at romance/sex should be discouraged. It must take a massive effort in self-deception to stay blind to that.
  • "On Making People Uncomfortable" - This is a subtle one, which mainly just over-simplifies what is meant by 'uncomfortable' in each case, but it's logically fallacious because it ignores both how and why people are made uncomfortable. First, how: Doing something to yourself that makes others feel uncomfortable but causes them no direct harm is not the same thing as doing the uncomfortable thing to them directly. You might not like to see me picking my nose/eating my wafer, and I might choose to put you at ease by avoiding that if I like you enough, but in a free society, it's my nose/wafer to pick/eat. However, that doesn't give me the right to pick your nose or eat your wafer or grab your arse. Not complicated, is it? Second, why: It's a much less important point, but I don't think "because I horny!" is as good a reason to regularly challenge anyone's comfort zone as "to improve society for all" is. And to be clear, I do feel that a more casual and free approach to sex would improve society, but I'm not going to campaign for that one cheesey pick-up line at a time. Calm, rational discussion while everyone's still focused above the eyebrows will do fine.
  • "Anecdotes Now Count As Solid Evidence" - Oh, for fuck's sakes. Straw man in aisle three! What's happened here is that one specific incident (the elevator one) has been cherry picked for its lack of concrete evidence, and he's using this to cast doubt on the whole topic of feminism, ignoring the fact that we've actually seen pretty solid evidence for most of the subsequent incidents. It's ridiculous, I struggle to see what rational alternative the article expects. Should Watson have video recorded the entire thing she wasn't expecting to happen in the first place? Should she have opened a formal criminal case against the guy who didn't technically break any formal law, just so she could use the police's evidence to explain to her internet audience why it was a socially unwise attempt? Or is there seriously a suggestion that Watson made this whole thing up, downplayed it at first, intentionally hoping that this would lead to a big kerfuffle she could practise her puppeteering on? Or what, exactly? I love my evidence as much as anyone else, but prior probability is also worth considering. Does Mr Occam suggest that it's more likely that this really happened, or that Watson has orchestrated a campaign of entirely feasible lies that she could easily have substituted with thousands of similar true stories? This casting of aspersions seems to me a lot like the common creationist tactic of not actually proving any of their own claims, but just casting as much doubt as possible on evolution. It's dirty and unsciencey.

  • "On ‘Sexualising’ Women" - This is an interesting one. As a frequent porn flyer and a feminist, I'm certainly eager to find a happy medium, where everyone's in it voluntarily and well paid, and the audience doesn't get any dodgy misconceptions from it. But that last part, at least, is very tricky. So we could have a very interesting discussion about this. Instead, Freethought Kampala's writer reduces it down to "if I don't get to sexualise you, you don't get to sexualise yourself either!" And that's just stupid, because it ignores freedom of choice, self-expression versus imposed identity, and context. Regardless, it's worth noting that Watson has since said she considers the Skepchick calendars a mistake, not to be repeated, which renders this specific criticism moot. People can change their minds, right?
  • "‘Twatson’" - Yeah, I'll agree with this one. I like my swear words and won't accept any censorship of them, so I can hardly impose the same on others. Is it at all helpful or mature to turn someone's name into an insult? No. But sticks & stones.
  • "It Only Matters When Women Are Victims" - There are two errors here. The first, comparing Watson's and Dawkins's experiences, seems to misinterpret what Watson was saying about Dawkins's death threats. I take it as praise for him and how unusually well he stands up to it, and as a way of saying, "look, we're in the same boat," to illustrate why atheists and feminists should want to work together. Second error, nobody's saying men receiving death threats is an acceptable thing, nor that we should just have to tough them out while the ladies get all the protection. It seems to me that what's being suggested is that death threats or lesser harrassments are bad (shocking!) and that nobody should have to have to respond to them with unusual Dawkinsian coolness. The fact that the author doesn't see why feminism might have any overlap with atheism or skepticism merely reflects a terribly narrow, old-fashioned point of view.
And that's it. That's all Kampala has for us. I think it's a load of shit, as you might have noticed from the discussion above. I'm going to give Owen the benefit of the doubt and assume he didn't really read that properly (same as he clearly didn't read that Watson article as thoroughly as he could have), and so didn't notice how poorly this serves as his best possible argument for a grand misandrist agenda. Now that he's seen how easily it can be dismissed, I'm sure he and the rest of the Gaunteng Skeptics will come around and forget they were ever seriously worried about this. Because really, why would they be?

Then presumably that's the end of that. I have shown that the fear of misandry is pretty badly misplaced, based mainly on miscommunication, blind conjecture and some ill will. Lessons have been learned and we're all better people now. I can't think of any reason I should ever have to write about this ever again. *glower*