09 July 2011

Porridge Pots Within Porridge Pots

Imagine you're a climate scientist, working on climate change. One day in early August, you give a paper at a prestigious conference at Oxford University, and spend the afternoon relaxing in the college grounds. As you unwrap your summer salad under a cloudless sky, a man approaches you. It's James Delingpole. You make small talk, and your field of study is mentioned in passing. He notices the umbrella protruding from your bag. Suddenly he's all accusations. You obviously have no faith in your own science. You expect rain every day in Britain, even on a glorious day like this, despite all the so-called evidence you put forward that it's getting sunnier. You try to explain that you carry an umbrella “just in case”, but for all it's worth you might as well tell a golden retriever that the mean man is still holding the stick.

Now imagine you're a feminist, trying to talk about the potential threat of rape to Pete Hague, who opens his polemic at 22m46s with this
Over the years, I have genuinely tried to be sympathetic to the feminist movement.
You can tell it's going to be good, can't you? As we quickly discover (and as I've previously pointed out), Hague's two favourite words to use in his section are “rational”, to refer to himself and feminists who agree with him, and “silliness”, to refer to feminist opinions he does not share. If one was a man-hating harpy with fuzzy armpits and a chip on her shoulder about phallogocentrism, one might be inclined to find that condescending, even mildly misogynistic, in the old-fashioned hysteria-and-emotion-and-that-time-of-the-month fashion. Despite his frankly enormous rationality, Hague's own weakness is exceptionally poor reading comprehension, and I shall be repeatedly and often tediously belittling him for it as the post goes on, while referring to my own arguments as “I get it Pete, but you'd understand this much better if you spoke six languages”.

We first see these reading skills in action when a nasty feminist says “Men still have no idea what 'no' means”, which Hague seems to interpret as meaning the same as “are rapists”. This doesn't just apply to perpetrators, but to judges, juries, prosecutors and random punters reading about it in the newspaper. Even a lot of women. Society has a confused understanding of what counts as consent. Many people think it can be expressed through some kind of weird thigh-and-cleavage semaphore (hence SlutWalks). Pete hasn't really thought about that.

Speaking of victim blaming, he doesn't seem too happy with Rebecca Watson either
She made a video in which she mentioned in passing that this was a creepy way to approach her, and this seems to have kicked off a bit of a shitstorm, far beyond what the original incident, or Watson's comment on it, would seem to warrant.
The 'this' seems to refer to her making the video, which implies that it was her innocuously, friendly and downright fucking useful advice that caused the shitstorm and not, say, an arrogant know-it all bursting in, swinging his massive cock and balls all over the place and
belittling Watson's experience, in the context of the suffering women have to endure in less developed countries.
Again, he's also misread Dawkins. Dawkins refers quite specifically to Muslims, including Muslims in the West who live in households “dominated by Muslim men”. Perhaps he wants to make Dawkins sound less aggressive towards Muslims and more sympathetic towards poor people, perhaps he'd just understand this better if he spoke six languages. Either way, he's misrepresented the very man he was trying to defend
He was bitingly sarcastic, but I think he had a point.
Yes, he was. Bitingly if not that artfully. But Hague assumes all the bloody feminists are angry about is the sarcasm, rather than, say, the biting contempt for women, Muslims and especially Muslim women.
The Feminists disagreed though, and hit back hard, often citing Dawkins' privilege, race, wealth and gender
I don't think he's quite got the point of “privilege”. Being alone in an enclosed space with a strange man isn't a threat to Dawkins, because he's a man. It might be a bit more for a woman. He has no more personal, lived experience of this than I do, and this may or may not affect his ability to understand Watson's point. Many feminists are white and privileged themselves. It's not an expression of hatred, and Hague is missing the point by calling them “ad hominem” attacks.

Possibly my favourite bit is where he tries to explain it in Anglo-American “cultural differences”, because their rate of sexual assaults is 2% higher than ours, and because all feminists are Americans and look like this.

I do agree with him that it's unfair to label him a sexual predator when, from the story, all we know is that he was blithely inconsiderate. But I can't help wondering if half the time they weren't talking about “predatory behaviour” rather than labelling him
The apex of this silliness was reached by Amanda Marcotte, who claimed that any approach made by a man in a confined space is a conscious decision to use the threat of rape to increase the chances of getting a positive response. This absurd idea claims [...] an insight into the mind of every man on the planet
What she actually said was: “In sum, men who corner women know what they're doing. And yes, they are relying on the fear of rape to grease the wheels towards getting laid”. This doesn't refer to “every man on the planet” but those who “corner” women, who understand that they are doing so. What she says about fear of rape is not that they consciously use it, but that they benefit from it, knowingly or not. It's not only very different in substance, but he has drastically, changed the tone – not just to make himself sound more serious, but to make this sound like a calm, considered, theory-heavy argument from academic literature, rather than a simplified, throwaway clarification.

This he links to
something that many men have always feared about feminism: the “thought police” aspect. Again, like man-hating, I had always assumed this was a thing reactionaries made up about feminists.
This is where he really reveals himself. Pete Hague is saying absolutely nothing new. He's regurgitating the same old and tired anti-feminist goatwank that people with reading skills have refuted time and time again. He just modernises it by opening with“I really want to support them and believe they're not all man-hating mind-Nazis”, which is at least a more nuanced version of “I'm all for women's lib, but...”.

Then he gets onto Schrödinger's Rapist, and his English teacher starts to have serious concerns and contacts his parents. The post
treats unknown men as wave functions, with the potential to collapse into either a rapist or a non-rapist state.
Straight up, he's missed the idea that it might refer to the cat metaphor, as opposed to the actual physics.
A nice little solipsist metaphor that completely disregards the notion that men might have any intention or agency of their own.
He doesn't really get that the thing about the cat is that we don't know if it's dead or not. He seems to think that the “all men are potential rapists” means that as x% of men commit rape, there is an x% chance that you, as an individual man, will commit rape RIGHT NOW. If he spoke six languages, he'd probably realise that it just meant there's an x% chance of this complete stranger being one of the ones that rapes people. Complex, I know.
The bad astronomer described this situation as a “potential sexual assault” without any proof at all that this man had any such intentions.
This is the very interesting part. Largely, I think, because he's misunderstood it as being about the specific man, and partly because of his paranoid fantasies about the Thought Police, he sees the entire situation purely in terms of the man. The idea that the woman's perception and interpretation might be equally important, equally valid and, yes, equally rational doesn't even cross his mind. A friendly chat about privilege before recording could have set him straight before he started being all bullish and condescending about it.

He then pulls out the “what if you said this about a black person?” argument, thinking, genuinely I believe, that this will end the argument once and for all. I find this argument initially quite alluring, so I'm going to tell you another story or two:

You're a man. You get on a late-night tube, going to a not-particularly-interesting area of London. The only passengers in your carriage are you and another white man. At the next stop, he gets off and a gentleman of colour takes his place. To pass the time on the tube, you usually play with your Very Expensive SmartPhone. You know people who've been mugged for these, so you're naturally a little wary about being alone with strangers at night. But only a little.

You're a lady-girl. You get into a carriage on a late-night tube, going to a not-particularly-interesting area of London. The only passengers in your carriage are you and another woman. At the next stop, she gets off and a gentleman takes her place. You have a vagina. You know people who've been raped, so you're naturally a little wary about being alone with strangers at night. Often more than a little.

Now, Pete, in the second scenario, while the woman is still unlikely to be harrassed or assaulted (very unlikely in fact – we're only potential rapists you know!), I'm sure you'd agree she is under more threat from the man than she was from the woman, even if it's only a rise to about 0.005%. This is for the following reasons:
  • If we take Kinsey's estimate that around 10% of people are less than entirely straight, this means this means the man is nine times more likely to want to have sex with her than the woman, even we completely disregard any possibility of bisexual or heteroflexible men.
  • Should the man wish to have sex with her, and should he also be willing to even without her consent, he is significantly more likely than the woman to be able to physically overpower her.
  • Even if she believes she could best him, a man is more likely to believe he can overpower her, and therefore more likely to try in the first place.
  • Cocks. Useful if not essential for rape, I've heard.
  • Due to social conventions about making the first move, a man is more likely to approach her, and so the risk of an aggressive reaction to a 'no' is a greater danger.
  • To my knowledge, lesbian sexual assault is not particularly prevalent, though this may be a grossly unfair myth.
So Pete, if you consider these situations at all analogous, which you do, this obviously means you believe it to be at least nine times more likely, though probably much more so, that a black person will steal your mobile that a white. Please tell me you didn't mean that, and that you'd just utterly failed to read Schrödinger's Rapist properly or think about the issues in any kind of depth.

Anyway, he blames the victim a little more and a little harder, and wags a token finger at Dawkins:
Watson reporting this was kind of tactless and, as some have suggested, it had an element of bragging to it, which didn't help. Dawkins probably shouldn't have made such a sarcastic comment. But this incident does need to be put into perspective with the horrors that women suffer around the world.
And then, for the first time in the podcast, with a sigh that would make Johann Hari proud, he manages to make me feel condescended to:
And feminists. If you want support from men, then please stop calling us rapists, or potential rapists, or anything else like that.
I am a man. I support feminists in an awful lot of things. Not only do I do this after reading Schrödinger's Rapist, I actually treated Schrödinger's Rapist as advice on chatting up strange women without scaring them, in the confidence that I'm not any kind of a rapist, nor had that been implied. The reason I can reconcile this with my penis is because
  1. I understand what a “potential rapist” is.
  2. I take the time to try and understand the feminist arguments that bamboozle me slightly or initially come across as a bit man-hatey.
  3. I speak six languages, and so am able to understand relatively simple concepts written in plain English.
  4. Through intense research, I can now even distinguish between a man (head, two legs, two arms, one winkle, usually) and a situation (location and set of circumstances, no winkle, usually).
So anyway, I think the moral of the story is to read once quickly for gist then again more slowly for details, that direct quotes are safest and indirect reported speech is for people with some vague comprehension skills, and that you should always make sure you actually vaguely get what a thing is about before you get all hot and bothered and 1970's retro-sexist about it.

Update: Comment off the man himself:


  1. I love you. I really, genuinely love you.

  2. Alex, you beautiful bastard. I owe you much pintage next time I'm down.

  3. You speak six languages? My admiration for you knows no bounds!

  4. "Speak" in the loosest possible sense of the word. It includes having forgotten everything in Spanish except "I've forgotten all my Spanish".

  5. Anonymous14/7/11 21:39

    Nice one. Some of the most distressing aspects about this are how people seem - wilfully? Because they're stupid? Because they can't allow information which devalues their pathetic misogyny to pass?- just incapable of actually understanding what people even mean when they talk about this stuff. Er, which is what you just said, only better.
    Don't mean to be Anonymous, btw, I usually comment in various places as DanGBH.

  6. Anonymous14/7/11 21:40

    Oh, I meant you said it better. Damn.

  7. Schrodinger's Rapist is a nasty piece of (written) work. But if it helped you get laid, alex, then I guess it has its uses.

  8. Hi Elly, I was wondering why you hadn't popped up here as it seemed just your thing.

    To be honest, I've never quite worked out how your opposition to Schrödinger's Rapist differs to Pete's, apart from your having read it properly and not being a dick about it.

    Incidentally it hasn't actually got me laid. But it might well have spared me some awkward rejections that would have wrecked my fragile little confidence even more.

  9. OK, I refrained from responding to this unpleasant slur of a blog post, but seeing as its been nearly 6 months and certain people keep throwing a link to this up as if its some kind of refutation of my work, I feel I have no choice. Congratulations, the relentless haranguing I have received from your friends has had an effect.

    Your entire post is ridiculous, based as it is on the premise that your subjective interpretation of things is an objective truth, and that my disagreeing with it must make me crazy or stupid. I feel no need to address this, because you have not made any rational points to address - merely shouted an opinion loudly.

    One thing I will pick you up on is attempting to imply I am racist. You, like the person who wrote the awful 'Schrodinger's Rapist', seem to be unable or unwilling to comprehend the simple fact that saying 'X group is more likely to do Y' has no bearing on whether a specific member of group X is likely to do Y - only whether a randomly selected member of group X will.

    Given that you think the difference between the lifetime rape prevalence in the US and UK is 2%, based on the numbers I gave in my article, I don't expect you to let a little mathematical reality get in the way of your rant.

    Hopefully, if you at least have a shred of honesty to allow this comment through, re-posting of this link will at least contain some of my counter argument to be read by people too lazy to refer to the original podcast.

    There is little point responding, because I have no intention of engaging with someone like you (this is why I have not answered your petty attack before now). I already know you think I am stupid, and rest assured the feeling is quite mutual. The same goes for your supporters and allies who will no doubt throw some abuse at me after reading this.

    Pete Hague

  10. Hi Pete! Good to hear from you!

    I'm flattered to know you couldn't stay away, and I'd hate for you to go away with the impression I think you're stupid, so I'll clarify with the bear minimum of condescension.

    Given I basically listened to your podcast and copied down the bits I wanted to reply to, and at some points this involved holding three numbers, all even, in my head at once, the difference in lifetime rape prevalence was probably an error in my initial transcription. If you've the actual figures to hand I'll happily post a correction right up there.

    As for subjectivity - I'm well aware that both our interpretations were subjective. It's just that yours was very badly done, and belied next to no effort on your part to actually understand what Rebecca Watson or Phaedra Starling were actually saying, while your attempts at paraphrasing demonstrably misrepresented not just Amanda Marcotte but even Richard Dawkins. Even your reading of the Schrödinger analogy failed to involve the cat. In most of these cases you seem to be arguing with straw men rather than engaging with the arguments themselves, and I'm afraid subjectivity of interpretations is no excuse for that kind of intellectual laziness.

    You're definitely right that, as you say, 'X group is more likely to do Y' has no bearing on whether a specific member of group X is likely to do Y - only whether a randomly selected member of group X will. But, fairly obviously I'd say, which total strangers you end up sharing a lift or a tube carriage with is pretty much a form of random selection. To Rebecca Watson, the stranger in the lift was, at best, a randomly selected member of group XY. (Of course, in reality, he was from the self-selecting group of 'men who consciously engineer situations where they are alone in a confined space with a strange woman who they want to see naked', which I'm sure you'll agree is a group rather likely to contain more rapists).

    As for the racism, I suggested that as one of two possibilities, the least likely in fact. I've already explained why a randomly selected man is several times more likely to commit sexual assault than a randomly selected woman, which you don't seem to have raised any objection to. So, unless you do take issue with that, there are only really two possibilities:
    1. You believe a randomly selected Black person is over nine times more likely to commit robbery than a randomly selected White; or
    2. Your comparison of Schrödinger's rapist to a slur against Black people was ill thought-out, disingenuous arsewash.
    Clearly, my implication wasn't that you were a racist - it was that you were either a racist or a shameless peddler of piss-poor knee-jerk comparisons. Given the rest of your podcast I find #2 far more likely.

    Anyway, I'm sure you've got plenty to wilfully misread there, see you back here some time in the New Year I suppose.