I don’t normally write quick responses to anything. It’s possibly a symptom of over-thinking, but also just a slow cogitation process; I usually have to let things sit for a while before I feel I’m ready to say something, so nothing I write in this blog is what you’d call a “hot take.”
But there’s something I want to comment on with regards to the debate about a recent and now notorious incident involving Sir Tim Hunt, a British Nobel-winning scientist who expressed offensive opinions about women in science at a luncheon at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul last month. This is part of what Hunt said, worth quoting here as a reminder:
“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 criticize them, they cry.”
I’m not going to recap the entire discussion, nor the aftermath of this incident, because the issues are extensive and others have covered them better than I could manage. But what strikes me about much of the commentary, even some that is critical of Hunt, is the focus not just on what Hunt said but on the fact that he said it publicly at all.
In some of these arguments, sexism is discussed more as a violation of decorum—“he shouldn’t have said that,” even in “a light-hearted, off-the-cuff speech,” because gosh, one simply doesn’t. Best to let it pass, like the faux pas or “blunder” that it is; we all make mistakes! Perhaps this is why some people saw better media training as the answer to Hunt’s “tactless remarks,” and why others lamented that he was “smart enough to know better.” It was the appearance of the opinion, not the opinion itself, that was a problem.
Then there’s Hunt’s defence of himself—his dismissal of his own words as “a joke,” and insistence that others have misinterpreted him—which shows us a classic derailing move in the face of legitimate criticism (“what, you’re not laughing? That’s on you!”). It also follows logically from the assumption that words alone are the problem, that words can somehow be severed from both their context and from the ideas and attitudes that produced them.
But they cannot. Interpretations and effects of our words are rooted in circumstance, and not all of this is obvious to us as we speak. This is one reason why there are many studies of gender and communication* that have highlighted the ways in which our language use both reflects and reinforces gender norms, both overtly and covertly inculcating and reinscribing particular ideas about people’s behaviour and place in the world (for example, the use of “generic he”). Our words are revealing; they come from somewhere, and they usually say something beyond the intentions of the speaker. So what does it tell us that Hunt later said: “I just meant to be honest, actually”?
Gender discrimination is unsurprisingly a deep-rooted phenomenon that, even after decades of activism and policy change, has not gone away. Like many other forms of discrimination, it’s merely gone underground, operating at a subconscious level or in private conversations among “like-minded” colleagues (not just men, either). This is supported both by research and by anecdotal accounts. When discriminatory behaviour is so difficult to pin down, then it makes sense that people react strongly to cases such as Hunt’s, because they present clear examples that we can all identify. Hence the social media “backlash,” which itself became the topic of a fresh round of commentary.
But I think the point here isn’t whether or not Tim Hunt was “demonized,” or made a scapegoat, or treated unfairly as he and his supporters claim. Surely what matters more is whether the attitude clearly expressed is going to be tolerated and dismissed, or critiqued and rejected, by the community of his colleagues and peers. What Hunt’s comments show us is that in practice, the institutional culture still supports his view to the extent that he felt confident enough to state it publicly. Like Geoffrey Miller, it seems Hunt hadn’t received the message that his attitudes (not just his words) were offensive. When Martin Ince writes that “facing the media is nothing like facing your academic peers,” he’s unintentionally pointing to this problem.
While Hunt’s defenders have invoked his lifetime of scientific and educational contributions and his “gentle, unassuming and warm” personality, the reaction here is not about “outrage” at his words in spite of all the other good things he’s done. It’s his very prominence, his position as a role model and mentor, that made things so much worse. If this is what we see from someone at the peak of the profession, what hope is there? In a context where women are still dealing with discrimination and harassment in science, a context of which Hunt was fully aware, this kind of “joke” is profoundly unfunny.
Some of Hunt’s defenders have decried the “buck passing and finger pointing,” as if critiquing one person’s opinions is necessarily the same as individualizing a systemic problem. Perhaps in some cases it has been; but I agree with Phil Plait that, “in the end, while the spotlight may be on Hunt and what he said, that light has certainly cast a very large reflection on the rest of us,” providing an uncomfortable reminder of how much work we have yet to do. It’s also provided us with another reminder that the message you send is about so much more than just the words you say.