Here is how people who consider themselves especially rational behave:
Person A does something which person B finds discomfiting. She says so and (without identifying A) publishes a request that others refrain from such behaviour. Howls of outrage (mostly anonymous blog comments) are directed at the unknown A on the basis of unfounded interpretations of his intent which were not explicitly alleged by B (although she did say that suspicion of such was what motivated her discomfort). More howls of outrage are directed at B, and person C publicly expresses a dismissal of B’s concerns. Person B publicly responds to C by name and objects to the dismissal. More howls of outrage either at the offense of C or at B’s response (for having the indecency to respond publicly to a public rebuke). Famous person D, having had plenty of time to come up with a considered and humane response which might calm the waters, decides instead to post a derisive attack on B’s right to express discomfort by sarcastically comparing it with others’ more serious problems, and when asked for a retraction chooses to elaborate by saying that B had no reason to feel any discomfort at all. More howls of outrage against all of the participants. Person B expresses offense at D’s attack and responds by withdrawing her approval and support of him until he apologizes – and urges others who agree with her to do likewise. Person E calls this “vile” and a “character assassination” of the wonderful person D and characterizes it as “unskeptical” (apparently confusing skepticism with niceness and not understanding that it is a word which applies to opinions not behaviours). More howls of outrage on all sides, while outside the teacup real stuff is happening.
Personally I have no stake in the social environment of skeptics conventions and no interest in correcting every insane blog commenter, so if it weren’t for Richard Dawkins’ problematic involvement in the issue I probably wouldn’t have given any of it more than a moment’s thought. But when someone of his stature appears to behave badly it prompts more serious consideration of what the proper standards are.
I believe that any person has the right to say what makes them uncomfortable and ask for it to stop, so long as their request does not intrude unduly on others. Others may decide to accede to the request, or not. And it is reasonable to explain one’s response. But it is not reasonable to publicly belittle a reasonably and unintrusively expressed concern, nor is it reasonable to deny the existence of a bad feeling in another person since we have no reliable means of measuring the existence or extent of their distress.
What is “undue” intrusion is of course a judgement call, but
Watson’s original “elevator guy” message was made in her own space and did not intrude at all. Perhaps if it had been made during a conference presentation on another topic it might well have been judged “unduly” intrusive, but what was expressed in that more intrusive way was something different. It was a response to a pattern of responses to the original complaint which, in Watson’s opinion, was sufficiently serious to warrant the intrusion of bringing it up in the way she did. Public debate as to the appropriateness of that intrusion has been extensive and inconclusive but has no bearing on what follows.
Dawkins’ belittlement of the original concern was an inappropriate attack. (It would have been fine to disagree with Watson about the need for responding as she did to the responses, or with some of the allegations of sexism in Meyers’ post and comment stream, but not to do so by attacking Watson’s *original* concern). This was compounded by his subsequent denial of any harm at all (“zero bad”) associated with the expressed discomfort which he had no way of assessing.
So in my opinion there is nothing inappropriate in Watson’s demand for an apology.
Come to think of it, I guess he owes me an apology too – on account of the time I have wasted thinking about all this.