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.