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Privilege and other thoughts -- Rebecca Watson and Richard Dawkins on my mind

When household robots are around in the future, I wonder how they will be designed.

Suppose, you want to have water. You can get it on your own.

Suppose you are busy and want someone else to bring it for you. You would request someone in your family to bring it -- Johnny, can you get me a glass of water, please?

You will not say -- hey, fucker, why don't you move your ass and get me some freaking water?

I would imagine Johnny won't be so pleased (and worse if it was your wife that you were addressing and not Johnny) if you adopted the second tone.

Now imagine you have that household robot. Would the robot be designed to respond the same way no matter how politely or impolitely you asked it for water? Or, may be, Hitachi or Honda will program it in such a manner that if you ask it for water in an impolite manner, it will coolly bring the water (hot) and splash it on your face.

Just a thought.

How do you prioritize your responses to these three problems:

  1. children having to work thus losing their childhood,
  2. young people defying various caste restrictions and getting married ... and then villagers decide to kill them and the couples get killed, and
  3. women getting molested in crowded buses.
I wonder if I am privileged. I do not sleep on pavements or sidewalks at night. So many Indians in Mumbai and Delhi and elsewhere do. Clearly, I am privileged.

But I do not casually use a car or take a plane like the average American does. I am not privileged by American standards.

Are we clinically objective observers without any bias whatsoever who are able to give their opinions about events without any influence of their own life experience?

I am far from certain. I do not think I am such an impartial and objective observer. I do not think anyone is.

Which perhaps explains many things. Humans are capable of incredible cruelty as exemplified by the world wars and various riots in India and massacres elsewhere.

In a more narrow example, the reactions of people about the elevator incident involving Rebbecca Watson illustrates this point.

Rebbecca Watson had an incident inside an elevator which she did not like and she mentioned it on her blog.

Dawkins pointed out that this was a trivial matter compared to other great atrocities being faced by women elsewhere. Surely, everyone is aware of, for example, how people can be stoned to death in Taliban country.

Surely, feeling uncomfortable with a strange man in a confined space such as an elevator is trivial compared to great tragedies which are happening daily. It's a no-brainer. Everyone should realize this automatically and if anyone stresses this by pointing it out, he should not be branded a traitor, prick, misogynist, MCP, etc.

But we see exactly that happening. There's this great raging debate. It occurs to me that if people had a purely objective way of looking at the world, then, if people are capable of so much outrage over the elevator incident, then there would have been endless protests (may be even indefinite fasts, which has come back into fashion in India right now), about the stoning to death of people or the killing of couples in inter-caste marriages in Haryana.

But we do not see that happening. What gives?

The explanation is simple. The online community that is participating in the Watson vs. Dawkins debate so vigorously is immediately able to relate to the elevator incident but is quite alien to the tortures suffered by women under the Taliban.

It's a good thing that the Taliban is an exception in the 21st century and not the rule. So, much of the world finds the goings-on there to be difficult to relate to.

Then there's the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, women in Western countries can relate to that. But there's not the slightest danger of Western women themselves being deprived of their right to drive. If such a possibility were to be suggested, I am sure we would see such a protest as we have never seen in the history of the world.

Similarly, women in developed nations and the sliver of people in India who are well-educated face no danger whatsoever of living under Taliban rule. So, it's difficult for them to contemplate the horrors being inflicted on millions of women.

On the other hand, women do travel in congested buses. Women do use elevators and parking garages. Women do work in offices.

So, elevator etiquette has quite a lot of relevance for women. And so on.

Was Dawkins being absolutely fair and objective in pointing out that what Watson went through was trivial compared to the far worse sufferings of other women? Or was he showing his privileged position? Well, what about Rebbecca Watson? Is she not privileged as well compared to Saudi and Afghan women?


  1. I am absolutely privileged compared to Saudi and Afghan women. If I was in their shoes, I might then be privileged to the woman who lived down the street from me who had a more abusive husband than me. Would that then strip my right to complain?
    The fact is, somewhere in the world at this exact instant there is someone who has it worse than you. Is it possible to care about those people and take care of your own needs at the same time? Absolutely! To say X happened and I didn't like it in no way diminishes suffering elsewhere in the world.
    Let me frame this another way:
    Hunger happens in America. Hunger happens in a larger scale in other parts of the world. People who are hungry in America are better off. People hungry in America should sit down and shut up.
    Wow. That makes me sound like a jerk. Not a big jerk, mind. It's not a crime against humanity, but my ignorance is showing. Maybe I should talk to some of those people who are hungry in America and see what I can do to help. After all, if the problem here isn't as large as it is else where, than it takes smaller steps to fix. If all lending a hand would require of me would be a small, occasional inconvenience, I should probably stop being such a jerk and do that small, inconsequential thing.
    All that Watson was asking was for men to listen (she'd said she was tired and going to bed) and failing that, to at least take into account how their approach might be perceived ("don't take this the wrong way," 4am, foreign country, enclosed space). Is this really such a huge inconvenience? If someone asks you politely not to repeat a specific behavior ("Guys, don't do that") how difficult is it to respect that request? And, should that request be ignored, is it any wonder that person might exercise their rights for free association by avoiding you?
    I think it is also important to note that Dawkins was the one comparing the situation to the plight of systematic abuse of women's rights; Watson was offering constructive criticism to a small minority of awkward men who might otherwise come off as creepy and not get a date.
    I fail to see how this sage advice was so offensive that Dawkins felt the need to belittle Watson in a public forum for asserting her preference regarding how men approach her.

  2. I wanted to say that I entirely agree with you. I have been trying to get this point across but - you cannot imagine the level of privileged narcissism that dominates much of the first-world "atheist" and "skeptic" scene.

    I wish, I wish that I could say that there was some evidence that the 'skepchicks' will do anything at all about horrors such as the ones you describe.

  3. @Tam Rebecca had to ride in an elevator with a man and he told her that she was interesting. Oh, the horror! The guy didn't do anything wrong, and instead of addressing actual problems, we're discussing this. As if the fact that Rebecca felt uncomfortable in a perfectly normal, safe situation is of any import to anyone. At the same time, Rebecca felt justified in launching a rabid attack on Dawkins and a CFI student. Is that privilege? You betcha.

    No, you can't compare two harms or two wrongs, but there was no harm done here. Or are men not supposed to take elevators with single women? Because what he said did not increase her "danger" one bit.


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