The Tim Hunt saga is still raging, with new blog posts still being written and new information still coming to light. In response to Sue Nelson’s blogpost on the subject from a few months ago, which she RTd again very recently, I wrote this comment today and submitted it to her blog. It is awaiting moderation, and so I thought I would post it here in the meantime. So, what follows is addressed to Sue.
I apologise in advance! I am a person defending Tim Hunt and therefore one of the people you’re getting fed up of hearing from. But…you have written a blog about this, and you have a comment box, so I figure that must mean on some level that you’re willing to hear from people. (If not, feel free not to read any more of my comment!)
I’ll start with what I agree with you about/like about your post: I think you’re dead right that no one should ever be punished too harshly for saying a dodgy thing, and that if one has a track record of being an all-round good person, that ought to count for far more. Also, as a professional woman (though nothing to do with science), I know very well that sexist things can happen to women. For example, a woman at one of my book events once said to me, ‘Your husband must be very patient, letting you do your writing.’ So I don’t in any way wish to deny that sexism is a thing that can happen. Also, I think you were right to stick up for the person who abandoned the use of the word ‘tart’ when he saw that it had upset people.
Here’s where I think you’re wrong:
1) your blog post defines Tim Hunt’s speech at the lunch in Seoul as ‘casual sexism’ – though you argue that it shouldn’t be overreacted to, and is not a hanging offence. I don’t believe it was casual sexism, or any kind of sexism, because…
2) I believe you have made a fundamental error, as demonstrated by your words here:
‘…the renowned biologist recently described the problems of working alongside women in the lab as: “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” ‘
That is incorrect. The renowned biologist *did not offer those nineteen words as a description of what, in his view, were the pitfalls, for men, of working with women.* He categorically did not. He offered them as a description of awkward experiences he had had in his life so far. We know this because he prefaced the nineteen words with, ‘Let me tell you about *my* trouble with girls…’ If he had prefaced them with the words ‘Let me tell you why brilliant genius blokes should never work with drippy, lovelorn birds…’ then I would absolutely agree that he had said something sexist, but by saying ‘my trouble with girls’, he intended to say, ‘Let me tell you about some of the romantic pickles I’ve got myself into.’ If that argument seems too dry and pedantic, I would suggest that we think instead about what was overwhelmingly more likely from a psychological point of view. Did Tim Hunt, a man with a long record of non-sexist behaviour and support for female scientists, stand up and a) decide to be rude about women scientists by suggesting women were a nightmare to work with, or b) decide to try and make people laugh by portraying himself as an old dinosaur who’d got himself into some romantic pickles in the lab, which had distracted him from his work? B) is obviously the right answer! He sought to make fun of himself, and then praise and encourage women. Anyone not convinced of this need only listen to the audio recording in which we hear part of Sir Tim’s speech: ‘Congratulations, everybody. I hope, I hope, I hope – I really hope – there is nothing holding you back, especially not monsters like me!’
When you say, ‘…he described the problems of working alongside women in the lab as…’, you give the impression that his preamble indicated that he was about to put forward, in earnest, the opinion that women make problematic colleagues. This might sound like nit-picking, but it changes and distorts everything!
3) If I’m right about point number 2, then his remark was not a naff remark, as you suggest; rather, it was an attempt to tell the audience something about himself. Maybe he was trying to say, ‘Hey, you might think I’m some lofty Nobel prize winner, but let me tell you, I’m a bit awkward and hopeless when it comes to matters of the heart.’ That’s not naff – it’s endearing!
4) You say ‘describing himself as a chauvinist pig probably wasn’t a good idea’. I think describing himself in that way would certainly have been a terrible idea if he genuinely was a chauvinist pig and described himself as such in order to promote chauvinist pig values. But by describing himself as a chauvinist/monster, and making a joke against himself, he actually intended to encourage and congratulate women in a ‘silly old me, good old them’ kind of way – again, the audio clip makes this abundantly clear. He cast himself as the bad guy in his own joke, in order to make women the good guys! The anti-sexist intention is glaringly apparent.
Your ‘naff comment’ remark raises the broader issue of whether it is irresponsible to make ironic jokes – where you say the opposite of what you mean – in front of an audience of strangers. After all, some people might not be intelligent enough to understand your true meaning or intention. Tim Hunt once said, ‘Then something wonderful happened – the lab burned down.’ Tim Hunt did not truly think that the lab burning down was wonderful; was it irresponsible of him to encourage arsonists with his ironic comment? No, of course not. I believe it is reasonable to expect people to have a moderate degree of discernment in interpreting the remarks they hear. I don’t think it would be a good idea for intelligent people with robust senses of humour to alter their way of speaking in order to cater for people who are likely to misunderstand jokes. We don’t do that with Maths – (‘You don’t understand Pythagorus’s Theorem? Fine, let’s agree Pythagorus never had a Theorum, then.’) – so why should we do it with jokes?
5) You say:
‘One naff remark – or shirt as in Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor’s case – does not maketh the man. But those words (or shirt) will have an impact and there will be consequences.’
You’re right that both Tim Hunt’s remark and Matt Taylor’s shirt had an impact and consequences. But you have omitted something crucial here – you have omitted to mention whether in those two cases the consequences were deserved or fair. In both cases, they were not. Tim Hunt did nothing wrong when he said what he said. Matt Taylor did nothing wrong by wearing that shirt. The shirt depicted scantily-clad women. Any woman could walk down a London or New York street dressed like the women on Taylor’s shirt and she would not get arrested, and she certainly should not get criticised, so why shouldn’t Taylor wear a shirt depicting women dressed in that way? It’s his business what he wears as long as the contents of his wardrobe are not in any way illegal. As a professional woman (still not a scientist, though I do own many brightly coloured shirts) I wouldn’t give two hoots if every single man I ever worked with wore a shirt like Matt Taylor’s. As someone who believes women are totally and in every sense the equals of men, I hate the idea that some women might give all women a bad name by feeling threatened by a shirt that’s none of their business. So…’there will be consequences’ implies ‘You reap what you sow’, which is false in both Taylor’s case and Hunt’s. Both scenarios can be more accurately paraphrased as: ‘You do/say something entirely harmless, and people erroneously heap condemnation upon you’. And – same point, different inspiration – your use of the phrase ‘verbal grenades’ is therefore inaccurate. If I say no more and no less than, ‘I love swimming’ and hundreds of people then slate me for being tennis-aphobic, I launched no verbal grenade; rather, i was on the receiving end of a ridiculous-reaction grenade!
6) You say (re Tim Hunt and Matt Taylor) ‘Both men apologised and that should have been the end of it.’ I believe you are correct about Taylor; I think he did apologise, though in my opinion he shouldn’t have (see no. 5 above!). But Tim Hunt’s apology, as has now been proven, was in no way an admission that he had committed casual sexism. Rather, he was very concerned by the idea that he’d upset anybody – because he is a kind person and would hate to upset anybody – and so he apologised because, irrespective of his good intentions, it seemed that people were upset. He made clear that a) he was sorry anybody was upset, and b) he had intended only to be honest about his own shortcomings, and not to say anything negative about women. He also said that his comments ‘as interpreted’ had no place in science – making it clear that the interpretation of his comments that had upset people was not the correct interpretation, or the one he intended. So, it’s severely misleading to say that his apology was in any way a recognition that he had been sexist.
7) You say:
‘Tim Hunt’s comments, as with all verbal grenades, has had professional and personal fallout. Some seems unbelievably harsh. But take heart Tim. For several days the world witnessed the huge variety of female scientists – with pride and humour – doing their jobs and, more importantly, joyously and refreshingly visible.
For that inspiring and unexpected consequence, I thank you.’
I find this bizarre. While I completely accept that you and I disagree about the Tim Hunt situation, I cannot believe that you would really ask a man who’s been viciously trashed all over the internet to ‘take heart’ from the vilification of himself because it led to a funny hashtag? I mean…really? I can see that the #distractinglysexy thing might have shown the world that there are loads of brilliant women scientists out there (many of whom have been helped by Tim Hunt!), but isn’t it a little cruel to ask Tim Hunt himself to take heart from the fun everyone was having on Twitter while he was being stripped of various important positions and being called a misogynist, unfairly and slanderously? (I think it is.)
You’ll be relieved to hear that I have now reached the end of my list of numbered points! I just want to say one more thing. I have a v v good friend (a passionate feminist) who disagrees with me about the Tim Hunt issue. She thinks it was a sexist joke; I don’t. We have discussed it at length. What she cannot understand, though, is why the ‘Joke Was Sexist’ campaign doesn’t get its act together and present itself in the best possible light. It would be so easy! First, one says, ‘I think Tim Hunt made a sexist joke – I surely do.’ Then, one does the following:
1) one apologises for the factual mistake of attributing to Tim Hunt the comments that he did not make at all – thanking the women for making the lunch, because that was their role. It would be so easy to say, ‘Apologies, folks – Tim Hunt did not say that at all, that was a mistake’;
2) one apologises for claiming Tim Hunt was at a Sexism in Science panel when he was not, and for the claim that, at said panel, he was given the opportunity clarify his lunch remarks and rejected that opportunity;
3) one clarifies whether notes were taken by 3 journalists while Tim Hunt spoke, as one of the journalists claimed, or whether notes were not taken, but rather the 3 journalists compared their memories of the event afterwards, as another of the journalists claimed;
4) one explains why there was ever a discrepancy about point 3 above – why were there two different versions if everybody involved reported responsibly? Surely one knows whether or not one has taken notes while listening to a speech?
5) one apologises for omitting to mention what Tim Hunt said before and after those nineteen words – the support for women, the ‘I hope, I hope, I hope’, which he expressed so warmly and passionately. By leaving out the context and the surrounding words, the nineteen words reported were highly misleading. Many people who know the context and have listened to the audio clip *still* think Tim Hunt’s joke was sexist; you know this because you are one of them, Sue – but surely fair reporting would have provided the whole picture and allowed everyone to make up their own minds? I don’t see how you can report fairly on an allegedly sexist comment without saying, ‘He did then go on to say positive, encouraging things about women, but I still feel his joke was sexist.’ When sexism is the issue you’re reporting on, *anything* Tim Hunt said during his speech that revealed his attitude to women scientists becomes utterly crucial – including the bits that reveal his pro-women attitudes;
6) one apologises for saying he wasn’t joking, when one knew he was, as evidenced by one’s own tweets;
7) one apologises for saying it would have been so much better if he’d followed the nineteen words with some praise of women but sadly he didn’t, when he totally did.
I’ll stop there, though I could go on – I’ve thought of another three already. My point is: if you think his joke was sexist, behaving in all of the above apology-necessitating ways *harms* your case – and therefore risks making it look as if people who care about eradicating sexism are a bunch of hopelessly inaccurate fools at best, and chronically dishonest at worst. This doesn’t help to eradicate sexism. It does the opposite.
Thanks for reading, if you have – sorry it’s long.