Relative Outrage, Speech, Consequences, and Compassion

I’ll admit that I don’t follow African politics closely enough to comment intelligently the political issues raised in Peter Wright’s post, “Values, Hypocrisy, Genocidal Presidents and Disgraced Scientists.

However, the failure to properly prioritize our outrage over various current events may be unfairly characterized, here, as “hypocrisy.” I was not referring to the treatment by the west of “old” Africa vs. “new” Africa, though, in saying that – but rather to Peter’s statement that “it seems that the insensitive, but not criminal comments, by Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning scientist about the distracting effects of women in science laboratories has generated more outrage than the release of al-Bashir who is accused of organising the genocide of 400 000 people and the displacement of 2.5 million more.”

We all have a limited ability to focus on issues, and trying to focus on all of them would be overwhelming and crazy-making. That’s not a criticism, it’s a reality. But to try to equate the outrage over genocide and the ire over a scientist making disparaging remarks about his female colleagues — and being censured for it, professionally – is not playing fair, in my opinion. People’s concern starts close to home and broadens as it’s able to encompass the rest of the world. As a female professional in the Western world, if I were working in the field of science, my focus might be more intensely turned to that, as well. Not that I’d consider it more important, in the grand scheme of things, but because it is more personally relevant and under my influence or control. None of us have the adrenaline to be outraged all the time over everything – even if the world around us is outrageous and atrocious on many levels. We’d go mad if we tried. Don’t mistake a real confusion about “what can I possibly do here that would make a difference?” with actual apathy or even a lack of seething outrage.

Hunt’s “humor” was not well-received, and bits of it Tweeted out of context may have been damning. What he said:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls … three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticise them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.

He should have said what he later said he stands by, after his apology: “that love affairs in the lab are disruptive to science.” That may be true. Phrased that way, it’s not sexist or demeaning. I wondered which the women were more offended by, originally – the assumption that women would all naturally fall in love with their male colleagues, that they might distract the menfolk from their important science work, or the assumption that women scientists might cry over criticism. Any of those assumptions could be taken as fighting words, and completely inappropriate, especially in the context in which he said them. He showed bad judgment; the joke fell flat. But I’d hold a 70-something-year-old Nobel laureate to a completely different standard on that than I would a legislator, a presidential candidate, a news anchor – someone out there whose job is forming public opinion or setting law and policy that affects women. For Hunt, my standard would be the opinion of his female colleagues and his working relationship with the women in his own lab, and they have defended him. A police officer gets a review board! Hunt should have, too. If the women who were students, employees, and peers of Hunt’s urged leniency and stood up for his track record, THEY should be listened to. A rebuke and his apology should suffice – the end of his career as a scientist is too much.

Politicians can generally be much more easily replaced. Or redeem themselves through their work. Look at Ted Kennedy

Leyser’s comment, at the end of the article, “Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt ‘hung out to dry’ after women scientist comments,” should haunt us all: ““We’re all of us terrified,” she said. “In this media age, when sound bites spread so quickly, an off-the-cuff remark after a lunch in some conference can suddenly result in the fatal destruction of your career.”” That’s true of everyone but the retired and those who could afford forced retirement. We should have some flexibility to be human, fallible, and stupid in public now and then, because most of us will not choose our words carefully enough, at some point, and fear has a chilling effect on vigorous exchange of ideas. That exchange is more valuable, I think, than fear-induced political correctness, which I would prefer to see replaced by more genuine politeness and civility all around. You can teach the latter without forcing it; you can think what you like about rude people without calling for their severed heads atop a laptop PC. As Peter Wright points out in his later post, “Distraction by Attraction in Science Labs,” “innovation and progress come through disruption of old ideas, cultural norms and social conventions. That’s how women got the vote, became clergy in the Anglican church. Many men were horrified at both revolutions at the time, but few now would try to reverse them.”

I have great difficulty understanding the argument that all change is slow and we should be grateful for progress in half measures; when it comes to certain human rights, a little voice inside me screams, “Not one more day!” But I would urge us all to think, to be slow to judge, to seek empathy and respond with compassion when someone makes a mistake and says something that doesn’t come off quite right. By all accounts, Tim Hunt is no misogynist, and his value to science outweighs a faux pas. We all judge; let’s just try not to judge more harshly than we, ourselves, are comfortable being judged by others.



Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at For more information on her children's books, please visit
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19 thoughts on “Relative Outrage, Speech, Consequences, and Compassion”

  1. What irritates me about the whole thing, is that his lifetime of actions (good) far outweigh his attempt(s) at (bad) jokes (Extremely unsuccessful!).

    Worse, the joke was told off the cuff, invented there, a la carte, as a bit of impromptu wit, an ad lib, at a science convention, in S. Korea. There might have been some language issues at stake. And, then he added that women (yes the butt of his joke) were likely the reason for much of Korea’s scientific and engineering progress…. Because, lo and behold, they have a lot of women scientists, and engineers. Go figure that. (Few critics mentioned that second part of what he said.)

    Definitely, the man is no Kissinger, not politically correct, but we are not paying him to conduct diplomacy, either!

    The same joke, told in a bar in Sudbury, at 10 pm, would have been received much differently. Not that we are stupid or insensitive: Au contraire, we are logical. We would have politely laughed, and probably told him the joke should not be told on a late night talk show. We’ve heard worse, laughed, and carried on.

    In fact at a noted government office, I heard that charming joke, told by a woman, who probably had an IQ of 150, was a 12 on the 1-19 scale, and helped manage some 66 employees. “Why is a man like a tile floor?” I will not complete it here. But will note that Noella, and my big sister, both found it funny, and true. And all the women and men at that office laughed and enjoyed the joke…. But some would likely find it offensive. Mind you, some people, (aka Lesley) do not like pizza, either. To each his own.

    Let us recall that…. He and his wife, who seems to love and stand behind him, were working on some cutting edge stuff. Important stuff. So we may have set back medical science a dozen years here. And his wife is no dumb blonde bimbo, who sits at home singing silly songs, and cooking pea soup.

    No, she was working on a minor little bit of bio-chemistry-medicine that she hoped some day (and given her age, likely after she has shuffled off this mortal coil) MIGHT just prove to be a vaccine for cancer. No big deal that. These are not the scientists (who likely have little night club, public speaking, or joke telling experience) who are looking for. Move along and carry on with your business….

    Mind you, in order to please a few “slightly over the top feminists”, I for one, am much more than willing to give up a possible cure for cancer. I only lost a few childhood heroes, my father, an aunt or two, a couple of dear uncles, a cousin, a brother in law, and so forth…. No biggie.

    And amongst the few survivors? Merely a few unimportant people I merely met over the internet. No one you or I might care about.

    Then there was my friend Ron, who in a couple of years, lost both his sister, then his mum. None of this did his dad any good either. And all he had on his side was me. Which, to be blunt, sucked. I did the best I could, but, I know I was NOT good at it. At least I tried.

    So, let us destroy their careers (Hers is derailed also!) in their sunset years, and forego a possible vaccine for cancer. Their work also had repercussions in Alzheimer’s, diabetes, AIDS, Dementia, and a few other not so important places…. Even better, let us do it via social media (Twitter). Interestingly enough he is 72.5 year old. Twitter, is less than a decade old. Sounds fair to me.

    At least put the guy on public trial, review his whole life, and decide just how evil he is, before we tar and feather him. A nice Scottish trial, where they have the sensibility to have Guilty, Not Guilty, and Not Proven, as possible outcomes. And if he is guilty (of something), then let us indeed tar and feather him, legally, publicly, properly. That way it will stand as a warning for the next silly nerd who is socially awkward at telling jokes….

    Sigh. We are SUCH an open minded, egalitarian, sophisticated, well humored society, are we not?

    I better go. Silly me. Wanting logic and fairness. Wanting due process and investigation. Next thing, I’ll probably ask for some silly thing like a “Bill of Rights”. Or a justice system. Well, I’m old too. And headed for senility!

    1. All your points are good ones, Pete.

      As for wives, though – particularly those in the public eye – well, we have politicians here who say truly hateful things about women, whose wives and daughters seem to agree with them and support them. I wouldn’t put too much stock in it. We have no idea the rows that go on behind closed doors, or whether their womenfolk have sold out in the name of love. It’s admirable enough that they stand by them; that doesn’t automatically mean they agree with them.

      Look, too, at the recent case of the woman who helped two prisoners escape, here in the U.S. It would appear her husband and children still love her and stand by her. How hurtful must it have been to them that she would commit crimes that will likely land her in jail, in order to be unfaithful to such a family? Who knows what goes on behind closed doors – what her reasoning was, what his private feelings really are. We could conjecture all we like, but we’d only be projecting our own feelings on the matter.
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      1. Yes, love, and relationships…. Sometimes, many women (And a few men, too!) “stand with their tribe”. It used to be mainly women who did the standing by their man (like in the song)… But as women “go places”, and have more opportunities to “err also”, you may see more men doing it (standing by their gal)! Or, at least, I would hope.

  2. Good stuff. You know where I stand on this sort of thing but I’d also like to point out that this isn’t something brand new. Look back to Al Campanis and his comments on why there were no black managers in baseball, and Jimmy The Greek and his comments on why black athletes seem to be prominent in sports. Both were older guys, one was apparently drunk, and in these off moments they, like Hunt, uttered something that some think were just off the cuff moments but seemed to show just how they thought about their colleagues, or others they didn’t see as equals.

    That’s the problem with being in a privileged class. People think they can get away with saying whatever they want, which most of the time they can. Then they get called on it and they don’t like it and think they’re the victim. Try living my life as a person of color or your life as a woman in an industry that’s heavily male and let’s see if they’d think the same thing. Nah; they’d crack and whine in a second, but at least they’d finally have something true to whine about.

    Yeah, I said it! lol
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    1. Mitch, I’m a woman in a high tech industry. I spent ten years in oil & gas. You were saying? The thing is, I can (usually) distinguish between a bad joke told by a man who is normally respectful, courteous, and appreciative of women as people and as colleagues, and one that’s mean-spirited and reflective of a deeper, more disturbing attitude towards women, black people, and other minorities. I’m going to save up my outrage and righteous indignation for the real jerks of the world – not for the nice people who occasionally slip up and briefly act like jerks. Because we all do it.

      BUT – having said that? I am glad that I now have legal recourse and workplace policies that protect me from the real jerks – glad that I can go to HR rather than being driven out of my own job because of actual workplace harassment and discrimination.

      Regarding your examples – how about Clarence Thomas on the benefits of racial imbalances, because…NBA?
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      1. Nope, I refuse to read anything more about him, by him… ugh. What a terrible legacy he was to Thurgood Marshall. He’s obviously ashamed of his degree, knowing that he wouldn’t have gotten it without affirmative action. That he’d turn against it when it helped him… nope, I’ve not got a bit of use for him.

        And I did say your in a woman in a heavily male industry; yes, I was saying…
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      2. Good follow up! Yes, sometimes people err, and sometimes some people are real jerks. And some people are just lousy at telling jokes. I know a few people who could be HANDED a great joke, by a great writer, and they would blow it.

        I am reminded of the Will Rogers bit. He told jokes. Some guy came up and complained he could never tell them, or even help tell them. So Rogers said: Nice tie! (And cut it off.) Then he asked the man if that was funny. The guy said “No”. Then Rogers complimented and cut up the man’s straw hat. Again he asked it it was funny. The man said “NO!” Rogers pointed to the audience: “Well they do.”

        Where you are on the spectrum, has a lot to do with what you find funny, or witty. Rogers pointed out the the guy, that NOW, yes, NOW, AT LAST, he’d been part of a great joke. “Now let’s get you a new hat and tie.” Now both the audience AND the man were laughing. Perspective, and time. Five minutes earlier the man had been outraged. His tie and straw hat gone. Now he’d starred in a Rogers Joke, and was going to get a new tie and hat. I hope Rogers bought him a really nice one. I also hope neither the old tie or old hat were mementos!

      3. Thing is, Pete, the hat and tie could be replaced.

        We cannot change our gender (unless we’re truly determined and WANT to); we can’t change our skin color, sexual orientation, or even our faith – I’d argue that we can and do change our faith, but it is OUR choice, and we are guaranteed that freedom in this country. So to joke in a way that demeans or belittles people based on those things that they cannot change, or that make up a part of their self-identity, is hurtful and unfunny to those who are the brunt of the joke, no matter how many people find the joke funny. Being decent human beings, we need to be kind enough to look out for one another and stand up for those people, not laugh along with the joke and make them feel even smaller.

        I’ve never minded the blonde jokes much; they’ve always been told to me by people I know had no doubt about my intelligence. But I’ve overheard them told in a truly derisive tone that says to me it’s not blonde women, but WOMEN, that the teller of the tale reviles. There’s hostility in it, not humor. And SAYING you meant nothing by it isn’t the same as having a career-long track record of treating your female colleagues – not just your wife and daughters – with respect, and giving them the same opportunities and advantages you’d give their male counterparts. It sounds like Hunt deserves the benefit of the doubt, and people to stand up for him, and I’m happy to see they’re doing it.
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    2. And there is evidence that Hunt, while not drunk,was under some stress. It is funny, that we often allow our politicians to mis-speak…. One thing: No one is perfect. If sometimes we all err.

      We should judge people not only on what they say, but what they do. Because, actions, do speak louder than words. I doubt anyone, sees everyone else, as equals, superiors, inferiors, etc. We see the world as a blend, and others, too. I may be better at “X” than so-and-so. I then, so-and-so is likely much better than me in a lot of ways. In some ways we may both be duds! And in some ways, both quite capable!

      Hunt is apparently very capable in the scientific / medical field. He did not get to where he is bu NOT being good at that stuff. Unless they hand out Nobel prizes and such to dummies.

      There is no doubt, that after a number of years of success at something (like his field), he became good a bit privileged. And, add to the mix, “old family British”, well…. (I am not running down Brits, I have an “adopted Brit uncle”. His bemoanment in life: Not a cockney. Out be 2 blocks…) Britain is very much still — and to a man of 72 more-so — a society of classes, and levels…. But, heck, how about classes in the USA? Canada? France? Russia? Japan? Germany? Middle East? India? China? None of us, it seems, “should be throwing glass rocks at our houses”, to re-mix an old one.

      Criticizing Hunt? GOOD idea. Telling him he “Did an Ooopsie?” GOOD idea. Correcting him on his sense of humor? GOOD idea. But, what we saw here was someone accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and brutally punished in the “social media”. I’m not sure that this type of action fits in properly with any system of justice to date….. Instead, there are people out trying to destroy the poor chap, it seems. What that will give us… I do not know. What that will achieve that is good for science or medicine, or society, I do not know. Moreover, it is also destroying his wife. Now there….. We are coming close to a mis-carriage, of some sort!

      1. Don’t worry too much; I think he’ll be re-instated in July, from what I’ve read.

        Another problem, though, with dragging people through the mud online is that it can never be taken back. You can destroy people – or certainly try to destroy them – and it won’t make them regret a thing if they didn’t already; it allows for no real redemption; it makes the mudslingers look bad, too – there’s generally very little to be accomplished by it.

        I make exception for politicians, for people who hold POWER over others – for people who abuse that power or control others and do live up to the trust the public has placed in them. Even there, it’s only a worthy battle if it’s honest and fair and not merely cruel or mean-spirited. I’ve often thought that our politicians should have a LITTLE more libel protection than they’re given, frankly, if it could be shown beyond a doubt that lies, innuendo, and rumors were spread KNOWING them to be such, for the sole purpose of discrediting them or embarrassing them.

      2. The thing is we don’t allow our politicians to mis-speak at all. Last year 3 Republican politicians not only lost their reelection bids, but had their parties pull support & distance themselves for some of the stupidity they uttered. There are always those folks who are ready to forgive anything someone says or does… and that’s fair because, in the long run, not all of us think the same.

        The thing is that everyone keeps forgetting the age we’re in now. Romney uttered something stupid at an event where he thought everyone in the room was on his side, it got recorded and leaked to the media and he lost the presidential election. This lady worked for a major company of some kind make a racist joke on her way to South Africa on Twitter and had lost her job by the time she landed.

        There are lots of lessons for everyone to learn from. In America there’s this little law always quoted that says “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Being stupid on social media because you didn’t know how bad it could be… no excuse anymore.

        As I said though, if he’s willing he’ll find someone to take him, even at 72. It happens to everyone eventually.
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      3. We used to allow famous people a lot of room for mis-speaking mis-acting, errors.

        But you are right: TODAY, it seems we do not do this much. Oh, there are a few lucky people, who can get away with anything…. Always have been! But there are also those, who for some reason, cannot even get away with sneezing!

        (Holly may wish to use these two phenomena under her other hat as a writer of fiction… Two twins, similar events, etc. I’d have a story to tell of the 2 brothers, almost identical cars, and their trip to PQ. One car had Ontario Plates, the other NY Plates. And depending on whether they were speaking N.Ont French, in PQ, or English, they got very different treatment. And they did this little experiment of trading cars, along the way. They were headed to PEI, you see…)

        You make a good point: “Ignorance of the law…” But, the law, is one thing. Trying and sentencing on social media, another.

        I think, that we have more ways to communicate today, than we evvver did. But fewer ways (and inclinations) to forgive.

        Moreover, we have, of late, developed a bad habit: We all want action right away. And we are all quick off the gun. No waiting for facts and evidence. One little thing, off, and we yell “Crucify him!”.

        One recalls, the not so distant in history, Charlie Chaplin mis-steps. And what of JFK and his, um….? But, I also, like Hunt, am an old geezer, from another era! And I am also most un-perfect, so, having made many boo-boos, and quick to forgive other boo-boos in others. Oh, I can get MAD. Flaming MAD. But, I cool down, and forgive, after. And often go help those same folks I was mad at!

        (Maybe I am not too bright!)

  3. The most useful response to Hunt’s comments was the very funny video I saw on Facebook — women scientists in hazmat suits and bio protection gear looking very unsexy, followed by women in white coats busting out into sexy dancing scenes. Hunt made a faux pas best treated with the sense of humor too many folks have lost. Save the outrage for the big stuff, like good people and their little kids fleeing terrorists weilding machetes.
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