Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Trying to avoid the elevator

It was the talk of the secular world for weeks and I tried to stay far away from it. Yes, I was trying my best to avoid the 'elevator.' It is amazing how the  now infamous elevator incident blew up on the internet. Just google the word 'Elevatorgate' and pages of opinions come up.

It all started when a leading atheist blogger, Rebecca Watson, spoke of an incident at a skeptic conference. She was invited for coffee in a guy's room while alone with him in an elevator at 4am. She spoke on a video blog of how uncomfortable she felt about this type of approach and advised males in the skeptic community not to act like that. It seemed a simple enough comment and one that was perfectly understandable. However, since her statements, people from all over the atheosphere have jumped on to the elevator, one person no less notable than  the most famous of all atheists, Professor  Richard Dawkins.

 Dawkins suggested that the incident was blown out of proportion given the far greater atrocities that women in Muslim cultures have to endure. Rebecca was offended by the implication that her experience was trivial and asserted that Richard Dawkins just "didn't get it." Thereafter more secularists stormed the elevator in droves some calling Richard a misogynist and others labelling Rebecca as a " feminazi." Thankfully, it seems that that as quickly as this whole elevator shot up into prominence it is gradually making its way back down to ground level. So why I am I getting on the elevator now when most people have since jumped off? Perhaps its claustrophobia. It's often  much easier to think when you don't have a set of bodies all around you screaming while smothering you in a confined space.

One of the last people to say her piece on the 'elevator' was Greta Christina one of the top voices in the atheist blogs. In this article she explained her internal conflict of not wanting to talk about it and  still needing to talk about it. Ironically, she ended by saying that  we should keep talking about it. I interpreted this to mean not that we should close the doors and ride the elevator up to the top again, but rather that we should keep alive the debate about the issue surrounding gender issues in the atheist movement. It's a great point I think, because the debate as much as a ' mountain out of a molehill' as it might have been has highlighted that there is still much to be learnt by us all.  I have to admit that her call to to the atheist bloggers to talk, made me rethink my decision to walk past the elevator. So, here I am.

I certainly am not going to dig further into who was right or wrong in the story. This is not because I want to take a 'politicallly correct' neutral position. I simply feel that when it comes to gender issues it is better for me to do more listening than talking. From that perspective I agree with Greta's plea  for the men to " listen to what the women are saying." It's the same as how I would expect that if an issue of race came up in the secular community, greater weight would be given to what we as blacks or racial minorities had to say.

In thinking through how this whole episode played out I can't help but realise how in a broader sense we have an 'elevator' problem in the atheist community. A problem that can  prevent us from reaching the heights we could otherwise attain. Maybe is just a natural thing, but we atheists have shown a tendency to 'elevate' those who we perceive to be principal spokespeople in our community. I understand very well why it is tempting to do this. While we constantly go on in atheist circles about how much reason guides us in our lives, the truth is that the action of leaving religion after many years of following God can be intensely emotional. I do feel very moved myself when I reflect on my 'emancipation from mental slavery,' to use the words of Bob Marley. I have heard many people express similar sentiments. When you look at the journey, you can't help but  be thankful to those most visible in the atheist world who have helped you on your passage in one way or another. It is not unusual to hear people speaking of how the strident voices of  atheist activists have liberated them. Non-believers from many different backgrounds have told me how reading Richard Dawkins' " The God Delusion"  changed their lives. I certainly understand the reaction to Dawkins' writing, he was a huge influence on my life as well. Always engaging in style, he speaks with a level of clarity that makes the arguments he makes very difficult to resist.

While, it is no doubt humbling and an honour for persons like Dawkins to receive such plaudits from us, there is a downside as well. When we view people like Richard Dawkins as 'changing our lives' we risk elevating them to a position way above the rest of the atheists on the ground.  This means we can react to situations involving them in a manner lacking in reason and rife with emotion. It can, as we saw in 'elevatorgate', go both ways.

 You  can be led to defend the man purely on the basis of reputation. Chiding those out there for criticising the person who has  arguably done more for the modern atheist movement than any other. Then, on the other side there are those that will respond in a way that those in Rebecca Watson's corner did. They will express an elevated level of disappointment in Dawkins for the very reason that they have or had so much respect for him. " How could you as a hero of mine, do something that hurts me so much?" would be the type of lament that you will hear.  That is the problem with the 'elevators' that send no more than five or six chosen few to the top of the building. If there is a snap in someone's line of reasoning at altitude, tension is released and you can easily be crushed if you are standing underneath.

We have to in all this remember that Richard Dawkins as well as other atheists popular from blogs and podcasts are  human. Yes, those that have worked hard in the atheist movement and made a difference deserve to be recognised and lauded for their efforts. We should lift them up but we should never elevate them. Like the star quarterback, we can lift our main playmakers on the shoulders when they win a game for us, but when kickoff comes  for the next game we all have to be back on the field in a team huddle ready to take on the next challenge. This is as much a message to self as to those out there. I have tried my best to let those public atheists that have inspired me in some way know this, but I have to still remember that they are not authorities in every sphere.

We know that a large number of our believer friends are already laughing at us for getting stuck on the elevator that they ride without difficulty everyday. For them elevation is the name of the game, there is nothing they love more than an argument from authority and they always feel that they are in the ascendancy. They will tell us we shouldn't worry because none of us could ever come close to the three persons that are in the rarefied air of  the top floor office. A significant portion of them will think that once we get on the elevator the only way we can go is down.  We are destined to be stuck in the  basement where the number of bodies in such a small  space will lead to extremely high temperatures. There will be much wailing but no one will hear the alarm no matter how many times we press the 'emergency' button.

I don't worry too much about the Christian elevator views that can't be proven. However, we might just give them an ear when they suggest that we have followed their lead by elevating our elite to the level of their clergy. I cringe whenever I hear them  talk of  'Pope Richard Dawkins.' I do think this is an absurd comparison, but if we don't keep watching ourselves there could be a time in the future where there is a kernel of truth in this type of remark..

So, we have to try to avoid the elevator at all costs and not just because of the level of vulnerability being in such tiny places can bring to those on  the wrong side of a  power imbalance. If we don't use elevators there will also never be another "elevatorgate" and I think all of us would be relieved at that.

To me the stairs seems a much better option for atheists anyway. It may take us longer to get to where we want to go, but we can all make the trek together, encourage each other along the way with no one surging floors ahead. It will also mean that, unlike our friends on the believers' side, we will reach the top through our own efforts without relying on what is above us to pull us up.

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