Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Agency, Part 3

"The real point is that telling a roomful of female scientists that they aren’t really welcome in a male-run laboratory is the sound of a slamming door." (Deborah Blum)

"Are women scientists really so fragile that they’ll be discouraged by a flippant comment made on the other side of the world?" (Joanna Williams)

I hope I have established that, in their treatment of Tim Hunt's toast at a WCSJ luncheon in Seoul last month, Connie St Louis, Deborah Blum and Ivan Oransky were horrible science writers (i.e., "journalists") and terrible conference organizers (i.e., "professionals"). In this post I want to go all in and argue that they're also not very good feminists. And then I want to put a button on it by questioning their "cultural sensitivity". I think Norman Mailer's slogan, which he got from Andre Gide, is worth invoking here. "Please don't understand me too quickly."

And one other caveat before we begin. I think it's clear at this point that Tim Hunt did not make any sexist remarks in Seoul last month. He made a joke at his own expense (at first figuratively and, sadly, ultimately literally) and his remarks were then grossly distorted to express sexist, even "misogynist" sentiments. But in this post I'm going to proceed, for the sake of argument, as though what he said could reasonably have been construed as in some sense sexist, at least at first pass. Even on that assumption, which I don't actually hold, I think Hunt was treated unfairly and science suffered. Also, it did no service to feminism, or any other kind of progressive politics, to shame Hunt in public. That's what this post is about.

Like my previous two posts on agency, this one is inspired By Janet Stemwedel's counter-factual analysis at Forbes, in which she asked us to imagine how this train wreck of public discourse could have been avoided. Not everyone, mind you, is equally worried about the quality of public discourse. While expressing "sympathy for anyone caught in the leading edge of a media storm," Deborah Blum, for example, argued that the important thing is ultimately to "stand up for what’s right [and] have an open conversation about gender balance in science—even if that conversation is conducted as a virtual shouting match" (my emphasis.) My view is that Sir Tim's remarks, no matter how they could reasonably have been construed at the time, should have been met with curiosity, charity and, if necessary, criticism, not with denunciation. He should have occasioned something more like an open conversation and something less like a shouting match.

Hunt's critics, I think, have an exaggerated sense of the power of words. They think it is very important not to express sexist sentiments and, correspondingly, very important to denounce such sentiments when expressed. Tim Hunt should not have said what he said, they argue, but, since he did, we're going to have to step up and "un-say" them, if you will. It is as if they think that once words are spoken they go straight into the minds of their listeners and become beliefs about the world. (In fact, a few years ago I made more or less this criticism of the presumptions of science writers about their readers. In some sense, then, this shouldn't surprise us.) So, if Tim Hunt says something sexist, his female listeners will believe that there is no place for them in science. His words, as Blum says, are "the sound of a slamming door."

In my first post on the Tim Hunt affair, I ribbed Stemwedel a bit about her apparent sense that the only one who could have done anything very different was Tim Hunt, i.e., the man at the centre of attention. Everyone else, mainly women, merely had to re-act. It was strange for a feminist, I thought, to have eyes only for male agency. I had the opportunity to point out the same thing to Deborah Blum directly on Twitter a couple of days later. I had said that Hunt's remarks would have been harmless if they had been ignored, but might have been beneficial if they had been discussed rather than simply denounced. "You think it's harmless," she replied, "to say to a roomful of women scientists (17 percent of Korean research population) that they are a problem for male scientists?" To which I countered that, seriously, none of the women in the room that day were harmed, nor were any who read Connie St. Louis's tweet. "As we know," she responded, "repeated messages of this kind can do harm, be discouraging to minority groups." (Note that we're supposed to imagine that getting "the message" from Sir Tim in a small room is harmful, but when Blum blazes it across "countless media platforms" with her personal assurance that he's wrong it's perfectly safe.) I pointed out that she seemed to think that Sir Tim and Deborah Blum (et al.) were the only people with agency in the room that day, the only people who were capable of doing and undoing harm, the only people who could form an opinion about women in science on their own.

Tim Hunt was speaking to roomful of scientists as equals. The subject happened to be women in science, and it happens to be one he is passionate about. (He has done a lot, we now know, to further the cause of women in science throughout his career, and nothing notably to hinder that cause.) He thinks, rightly or wrongly, that one of the consequences of getting more women into science is that things get a bit "emotional", not because women are emotional mind you, but because men and women fall in love. But even if his experience were that women are bit more emotional than men and express their hurt at being criticised differently than men, would a woman really be "harmed" by hearing this view expressed publicly? Is that really how the female mind works? Of course not.

All the women in that room—all of them possessed of the kind of intelligence you need to be a professional scientist or a professional journalist—must, out of simple respect for their humanity, not their femininity, be presumed to have been able to make up their own minds about what Sir Tim meant—whether it was funny, whether it was directed at himself or at them, and, of course, whether the premise of his joke was in any way anchored in reality. Tim Hunt at one point ventured that he had "stood up and gone mad". Maybe that's exactly what happened. If so, the women in the room no doubt had both the insight and the empathy to discount his statements as daft and be utterly unharmed by them.

For some reason St. Louis, Blum and Oransky were unable to ascribe this modicum of intellectual agency to the women in the room that day. That is why they were forced to intervene. As St Louis put it to the BBC, he was not to think he could "get away with it". In stating this view, I believe her ideological project sort of took over and momentarily possessed her. On the radio she said she "just couldn't believe, in this day and age, that somebody would be prepared to stand up and be so crass, so rude in a different culture, and actually to be so openly sexist as well." On television she said that "it was just really shocking. It was culturally insensitive and it was very sexist. And I just thought 'Where in the world do you think you are ...?'" St Louis, we are here reminded, is not just a somewhat touchy feminist, she is also "culturally sensitive".

This is a telling admission. Tim Hunt, whose daily work takes him all over the world, including Japan (where, let's remember, he helped to set up day care facilities for a lab,)* and having been told he was speaking to room full of women scientists, was not, according to St Louis, sufficiently "sensitive" to the fact that he was also speaking to a room full of ... Asians. This idea, that he was not just representing his gender (something he was obviously acutely self-consious about, as his remarks show) and not just representing his vocation (with a Nobel Prize to his name), but also his "Western" privilege, is, I think, an important part of "what went wrong" in the, let's say, Seoul Incident.

From the perspective of most people in that room, I suspect, Tim Hunt was not from a "different culture" at all. He was, rather, a fellow scientist, or a fellow academic at least—perhaps just a fellow worker in the spirit, an intellectual. But Connie St Louis, because of her "cultural sensitivity", was inexorably in a room full of Koreans. And isn't it true that they are very respectful of authority? And isn't it true that they just politely believe everything you say? "Here's my trouble with Asians," Hunt should have said, "you respect them, and they respect you, and when you criticise them, they immediately grant your point." I really don't know enough about Koreans to be sure whether that joke is even funny. But then again, like Tim Hunt, I would have spoken to them as a man and a scientist, not as a Westerner condescending to "Orientals".

Perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Connie St Louis just has no sense of humour at all and would have been equally offended if Sir Tim had made the same remarks in London. But I'm inclined to think that what went wrong here was a denial of agency that stems from a particular kind of bias, an unconscious "exoticism", if you will, that blinded a few journalists to the moral and intellectual capacity of a roomful of people who, if they'd given it a moment's thought (or more than three hours, let's say, of frantic reaction), they would of course have ascribed the ordinary sort of intelligence that is required to get a self-deprecating joke. If they had not been so intoxicated with their own sense of Western privilege, perhaps their guilt over being associated with this "monster" who was speaking, they might have let the alleged victims themselves, the hosts to which Tim Hunt had been "culturally insensitive", formulate what they themselves took to be a culturally appropriate response. Like I say, I think they would have simply let it slide, like most intelligent people. But we don't know, because Connie St Louis couldn't wait to save them. It was not women scientists that were robbed of agency in Oransky, Blum and St Louis's "reportage", it was Korean women scientists. Poor things.

I'm of course aware of the outrage that such a hypothesis can provoke. Did I just call Connie St Louis a racist in retaliation for calling Sir Tim a sexist? Well, sure, maybe. Maybe I said he's as much a sexist as St Louis is a bit of a racist. A mild, unavoidable, well-intentioned, somewhat ignorant, we'll-get-past-that-too-in-a-generation-or-so sort of racism. A lingering bit of bias that is so ingrained in our habits of mind that it's worth making a joke about every now and then but not worth making a big stink about, and certainly not worth forcing people to resign over—especially in science, where reason really is ascendent, and, as Tim Hunt suspects, gender discrimination probably rules hiring and promotion decisions less than anywhere else in social life and, to the extent that it does, decreasingly with every graduating class.

Real meritocracies, which we can hope science largely is, can handle a bit of retrograde sentiment because the "ultimate concern", to take another jab at UCL's Michael Arthur, isn't gender equality or "cultural sensitivity" but truth. That means you're going to have a few inconsequential bigots among you. If you go after them too aggressively, as Blum et al. did with Hunt, you're going to end up getting some (as we say in science) "false positives", as Blum et al. got with Hunt. And you're going to get them because you took your eye off the real action, the actual work of science in the lab where truth is pursued, and went for the easy scandal. Hounding highly intelligent and otherwise harmless people out of science for expressing themselves in slightly unconventional ways is a very impractical way to make science safe for women. It's not culturally sensitive, it's just sentimental.

Like I say, try not to understand me too quickly. I'm making a real effort to get this point right.

Norman Mailer once said that "It is the actions of men, not their sentiments, that make history." He also said that "Sentimentality is the emotional promiscuity of those who have no sentiment." I think Deborah Blum is what can be called a sentimental feminist. She feels something about gender equality but she does not think very seriously about it. So she would rather be offended at a few words spoken by a very successful man than to look carefully at the record of his actions, both as a scientist and, yes, as a feminist, and then render judgment about whether he is on the right or the wrong side of history. I worry that she is right, of course. I worry that the "actions of men" are no longer considered important in making or understanding history, only their sentiments. I worry that we now only have a "conscience" that "makes cowards of us," as Hamlet put it, that we have "lost the name of action". I truly hope he was wrong about the name of frailty.

*Update (08/12/15): At the time of writing, I was only just beginning to understand who Tim Hunt is, and what he spends his time doing. Japan was the only country in the region that I knew for certain he had visited before Seoul. It of course turns out that Hunt is very traveled, both because of the cosmopolitan nature of scientific work and because, as a Nobel laureate, he's invited everywhere, including Korea which he has visited many times before. Hunt, in other words, is very familiar with foreign cultures, probably much more familiar than Connie St Louis, and has learned to see people as people, scientists as scientist, i.e., in terms of what he shares with them, not as members of "different cultures". Unfortunately, he has only just recently learned to see journalists as journalists, it seems. He's found out the hard way.

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