Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Agency, Part 2

[Part 1 here.]

In my last post I tried to imagine what would have happened if, instead of Connie St Louis, a careful, conscientious journalist had nosed a story in Tim Hunt's joke in Seoul. In addition to getting Hunt's actual position on women in science properly on the record, I thought it might have been helpful to get Hunt's hosts to explain their decision to invite such a "monster" to their luncheon. At a higher level, she might have solicited the organisers of the conference itself, the World Conference of Science Journalists, for an opinion on the behaviour of one of their featured speakers. This, in fact, identifies another alternative focus of agency in the narrative about Tim Hunt's joke, another set of "decision point[s] from which the universe might have gone forward in different directions," to use Janet Stemwedel's language. What could the conference organisers have done differently? How could Hunt's hosts have responded? And here is where the story of the coverage of Tim Hunt's toast goes completely off the rails for me.

I wonder if this is a wise thing to bring up, but does anyone remember, back about five years ago, when Sarah Silverman did a TED talk? (You can get the story at TechCrunch or you can watch Silverman explain the whole debacle to Bill Maher.) The short version is that she was invited by Chris Anderson to do the talk but in the event, it seems, offended his finer sensibilities. So he apologised on Twitter for the behaviour of his guest and went so far as to call her talk "god-awful". She came back at him, also on Twitter, with a, for our purposes, well-stuck jab, thanking him for making TED an "unsafe haven for all", followed by a nice little bit of invective that I'll let you click through to read or hear yourself.

Why do I bring this up? Because it nicely illustrates the social difficulty that is faced by hosts when their guests end up saying something that is "inappropriate"--appropriateness being, as we all know, highly relative to context. What has happened is the host has come to regret the decision to invite the speaker. Now, Silverman (and most observers, I would think) was surprised that Anderson was surprised at her act. Anderson, it appeared, had not done his homework. The faux pas that Anderson committed was to disown his guest, rather than to own the decision to invite her, which he had now decided was a bad one. He may have reasoned that, on balance, that was the best thing for him to do, but Silverman was right to say it made the event "unsafe for all". As Jack McKenna at TechCrunch put it: "TED speakers beware – make sure your talks are within acceptable parameters or face the wrath of TED. And their friends."

If a good journalist had thought there was a story in Hunt's remarks, I imagine she'd be on the lookout for a reaction from the hosts. Perhaps she would go and solicit it. The conference was organised by the World Federation of Science Journalists and the luncheon was hosted[sponsored]*** by the Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations*. Obviously these two federations stand in a formal relationship to each other, and there were no doubt representatives from both in attendance at the luncheon. And here's where it gets weird.

In fact, we don't have to speculate about whether there were "officials" in the room. We can read at the conference website that Ivan Oransky, who helped to break the story, was the vice-chair of the program committee for the conference and that Deborah Blum, another of St Louis's collaborators, also served on it. Meanwhile, Connie St Louis herself was running for, and would ultimately win, a seat on[had been elected to] the executive board of the WFSJ. This means that if Connie St Louis had been a serious journalist, and had thought that someone higher up had something to own here, she could have gone, in the first place, to Oransky and Blum and, if she had waited until after the conference[June 10] to publish her story, she could have asked herself for comment about why the WFSJ would invite such a "monster" to speak at their conference.

Instead, the very people who should have owned their invitation of Tim Hunt to speak at their conference ganged up on him to humiliate him for expressing himself with candour. (As in the Silverman case, after watching a few videos of Sir Tim, I can't imagine how anyone could be surprised that he might try to be a bit "funny", no matter what he was speaking about.) They didn't even have the courage to publicly disown him. Instead, when writing about it, they simply neglected to mention their own agency in the event, their own responsibility. Blum, for example talked vaguely about "the conference" and "the organisers", about what "they" had hoped would happen by having Sir Tim speak.

Then something completely baffling happened. Recall that, because the story was so poorly sourced, St Louis's account was quickly drawn into question. Some said he was clearly joking. Details about his actual remarks, and, in particular, the reaction in the room, were made public and it became unclear whether anyone other than St Louis, Blum, Oransky and their followers on Twitter (who of course had not been there) had actually found the remarks offensive.

Enter Hee Young Paik, president of KOFWST, Tim Hunt's host at[which had sponsored]*** the luncheon. Now, it is actually not clear to me whether she was present in the room, nor who emceed the proceedings, nor who asked him to speak. But it doesn't really matter because presidents are made, precisely, to resolve such ambiguities by stepping in and taking responsibility. In a manner of speaking, she did. What she and KOFWST had apparently decided to do, after Tim Hunt had apologised publicly for his remarks and resigned from two committees as well as an honorary professorship at University College London, was to demand a further formal apology. It was ridiculous in scope, claiming to speak "on behalf of all women scientists in Korea and the world" and baroquely implied that he'd never again have "future fruitful collaboration[s] with Korean scientists" if his "sincere and prompt apology" was not forthcoming within 24 hours.

The Korean Federation of Women's Science and Technology Associations, that is, entered the conflict more than a week after the scandal had broken, and then proceeded to act us though Tim Hunt was something that had happened to them, rather than someone they were responsible for (in the double sense of having responsibilities both to him and to his audience. They were responsible both for his actions and his well-being.)

Sir Tim did not, as Silverman with some justification did, lash out at the bad manners of his hosts.*** Instead, he appears to have met the deadline and penned an apology with extreme graciousness and contrition. (Both the baroquely worded demand and his apology bear the same date, namely, June 16, which is also when the press release, albeit somewhat oddly dated June 17**, was published by Connie St Louis on her blog.) Unlike Silverman, who we can perhaps call a professional controversialist, Sir Tim had already decided to avoid further confrontation and withdraw to his garden and tend to his quinces. I don't blame him in the least. (Perhaps he calls his garden "Outside the Asylum"?)

Sir Tim's hosts--both WFSJ and KOFWST--acted entirely out of keeping with all conventions of hospitality that I'm aware of. They knew no tact, no manners, no graciousness. They took no responsibility. And by concealing the power that they had at the time to mitigate the harms of any unfortunate remarks their speaker may have made (when they instead amplified those supposed harms by "reporting" them) St Louis, Blum and Oransky perpetrated a serious breach of professional ethics. Like University College London, they hung Sir Tim "out to dry"; they had no decency. Sure, yes, that's my personal opinion. But I would suggest to all future speakers at WCSJ what John McKenna at TechCrunch said to all future TED speakers: beware. Do not think you'll "get away with" speaking your mind.

I use that phrase advisedly. It's how Connie St Louis put it on BBC, talking about the case. Remember that she was now, and is today, on the executive board of the federation behind the conference that brought Sir Tim so much embarrassment. That interview will be my jumping off point for the third part in this series on the agency of the Tim Hunt scandal. We have talked about the agency of journalists and the agency of professional societies. Next, we will talk about something closer to the heart of the matter: the political agency of feminists and the personal agency of women.

[Part 3 here.]

*While KOFWST does seem to have website, it has a funny effect on my browser, so I'm hesitant to provide a link. The address I've found is kofwst.org. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

**[Update 14:13: It's possible that this has something to do with the 8 hour time difference. Hunt could have sent his reply from London on the 16th to Seoul on the 17th, after which St Louis might have immediately gotten a copy from KOFWST, which she then published on her blog in London, where it was still June 16.]

***[Update 16:18: It has been brought to my attention that KOFWST never claimed to have "hosted" the luncheon but only that they had "sponsored" it. This would mean that they paid for it, but that the conference itself presumably had organized the event and invited the participants. This also means that they probably had little to do with the decision to get Tim Hunt to speak. My characterization of their role as "hosts" probably came from Connie St Louis's report, which mentioned "the female Korean scientists who were hosting the luncheon". I should of course not have taken her report at face value, and I apologize to KOFWST for the error.]


Anonymous said...

Small correction: Connie St Louis had already been elected to the WFSJ executive board, a month before the meeting:

Thomas said...

Thanks. You're right. The election was over, but she joined the board formally on the day after her tweet. That's a good thing to keep straight.

Debbie Kennett said...

There are a few odd things about this KOFWST press release. I only realised quite recently that there are actually two different versions available on the internet. The first version dated 16th June is in English only and is on the European Women in Maths website:


The version you've linked to in your blog post that appears on Connie St Louis's website is dated 17th June and includes a translation into Korean.

According to this tweet from Deborah Blum the apology was private but she decided to "publicise" it:


Blum includes some of the text from the press release (she calls it a "letter") in her Daily Beast article which was published on 16th June:


It's not clear why Deborah Blum should have had access to what was supposedly a private apology. At some point the private apology seems to have been changed to a public press release. However, it's also odd that no newspaper seems to have published the press release.

Thomas said...

I agree that it's puzzling. I certainly don't understand why KOFWST would, after getting Hunt's very contrite apology, would choose to publish also their jeremiad against his reported remarks. A simple press release saying that Tim Hunt had apologized to them personally and that they were satisfied that the apology was sincere would have been a great deal classier. And more normal. The primary intent of the "publicizing" of demand and the apology, it seems to me, must have been bolster the claim that someone "official" had taken offence. I don't really know why they would ask for the apology in such an over-the-top and clearly "meant for publication" manner. Especially if it was intended to be private. (I don't really think Blum means the same thing by "private" here that I would.)