A few posts ago I wrote about the difference between being respectful and agreeing with someone. I came across an interesting series of blog posts that I thought really demonstrated this well.
I think there is a lesson to be learned from an incident that has been getting a great deal of buzz on the internet. It has become know as the Rebecca Watson incident.
If you haven’t heard about it the basics (as I understand them) are this. Rebecca Watson is a feminist skeptic blogger/podcaster. She had presented at a conference. Later that night (or rather early morning) she was in the elevator of the hotel heading to her room. There was a man in the elevator who told her he really enjoyed her presentation and wanted to know if she was interested in going to his room for coffee to discuss it further. She said no and he did not purse the issue.
Rebecca did a video discussing the situation and stating that is essentially demonstrates how women have become sexually objectified in our society. What followed was a maelstrom of responses. Most were heated. Many were vitriolic. And they came from both sides.
The heart of the question is the question of appropriateness of the man’s actions. Some felt it was a respectful, authentic, perhaps clumsy interaction while others felt it was harassment and showed absolutely no respect. If you want to read more you can find streams of content on many blogs.
I really like the perspective of Jeremy Nicholson, M.S.W., Ph.D. He writes a column called The Attraction Doctor for Psychology Today. I encourage you to read his posts (initial post here) and the subsequent discussions in the comments but let me summarize my take away of his perspective.
As I understand it, Nicholson says that the problem with that judging these situations is so based in personal perspective. For example, many feel that a strange man asking a woman to his room for “coffee” (they mostly believe he was really hoping for sex) in an elevator early in the morning is “creepy”. The woman is trapped and has no ability to escape if she feels threatened.
That is a perfectly valid perspective to hold. But it doesn’t mean everyone holds it. One way we know this because this approach actually works. Plenty of mean can testify to that. It might not work often but there are times where that kind of approach has resulted in two (or more) people having sex. And there is undoubtedly a wide range of responses in between, many of which have been stated by the many responses to the incident.
Nicholson says the perspective that the approach was creepy is valid…just don’t expect the person approaching to assume that is your perspective because other perspectives also exist.
In addition, there was nothing expressly rude about the question. He may really have wanted to have coffee and talk. Or, maybe he hoped to have sex. What is the problem with either? He wasn’t crude, rude, overbearing, use physical force…he asked a simple question.
What Nicholson believes is the real issue is the response. Person A asks a question. Person B sets a boundary and or states a preference. “No thank you.” “I find that offensive.” “I’d like you to leave me alone.” When that happens the person approaching needs to respect that perspective. The approacher now does know the other person’s perspective and the appropriate response is to honor that.
And that is exactly what happened in this situation. He asked. She said no. He respected her decision. Why is this such a problem? Granted, he may be clumsy, socially clueless or just daring. But once a boundary was set he was respectful.
Being respectful doesn’t mean we agree. And because someone disagrees with us it doesn’t mean they are being disrespectful. I believe the more we can honor those positions the more civil and productive we can be.