On the practical advice of a cheap psychotherapist, I lost the habit of involvement in social media outrage about a year ago and have since recovered the ability to be cross at things for an actual reason. What I have also found, along with several new hours each day, is a growing unconcern for who’s-shaming-whom. However various the objects of these online disputes, their structure had become as predictable as any episode of Law & Order: SVU. Someone says something possibly bad. Many people point out the badness of this thing. Many more people point out the badness of the people pointing out the badness of the thing. Everybody hates each other but ultimately agrees that Freedom of Speech should always be very cautiously approached by whichever side you’re not on. Except, you know, if you’re a cartoonist pillorying Islam. Because, apparently, those guys are awesome and must be universally defended. Je suis Charlie.
It’s actually easier than you might expect to drop out of outrage. Once you see it as a procedural drama, the end becomes as inevitable as Ice-T shaking his head in surprised disgust at the presence of semen on a corpse. There is just, as far as I can tell, one difficulty and that is, by the time the very liberal and the very illiberal press start talking about such-and-such an internet outrage as though it were actual news, you feel reflexively obliged to keep up. It’s in the newspaper. So it must be worth reading, right?
Well, probably yes and probably no. The fact that, say, such-and-such a company produced “inappropriate” clothes for children and some mothers on Facebook paused in the work of parenting to agree for several hours that this company may as well be trafficking pre-schoolers for sale to an international pervert cartel is not news. The fact that forty-thousand of them were caught in precisely the same moment of uncritical idiocy where the real evil of child abuse is conflated with cheap clothing — itself only evil insofar as Bangladeshi children were likely forced to make it — is news. And it’s not even really news because these people are right in their unsupported claim that “inappropriate” clothing is harmful beyond the fact that certain parents feel that the mass market owes them “appropriate” dirt-cheap choices. It’s “news” because any story that deludes people into thinking that “people power” is real and that we can “act” to “end this injustice” gets a fuckload of clicks.
Of course, that a group of people can affect the market, as they did in the case of the “inappropriate” clothing protest, is, on one level, cheering. BDS strategies are not without the power to effect change. I’d say in the case of Oxfam releasing Scarlett Johansson from her role as Global Ambassador when she was also promoting wares then produced in reportedly unfair conditions in a West Bank factory was a good move. That this moment was considered in its approach and dignified in its execution probably led me to consider it more carefully. I had no previous notion that SodaStream was an Israeli company or that, in addition to the rest of the crap the half-citizens of occupied Palestine have no choice but to endure, West Bank labourers are subject to extraordinary exploitation.
I was able to learn something in this case and form a slightly more complex view about what it means to be, and what it means not to be, a nation state. Johansson was not hung out to dry for doing what so many other unfeasibly beautiful celebrities do but was simply discharged from a role. And, yes, it was not “people power” but the quiet and persistent lobbying of activists that led to the instructive response.
I was able to learn precisely nothing about the evil and the prevention of child abuse from a much more widely reported campaign.
Honestly, who the shit did? This was, as it often is, a mob moment stuffed with idiots who are not relieved from their idiocy by the malevolence of their target. Child abuse is horrible. Inappropriate clothing is just, well “inappropriate”. No one’s raping kiddies because they look like adults. I imagine this defeats the entire point of paedophilia.
But, what we do now is find someone to blame. We personify evil just as enthusiastically as we did in the Middle Ages. Yes, there are bad things in the world that desperately need amending. No, the way to go about it is not to punish those persons, or in the case of the clothing boycott, those frilly knickers, who seem to be vaguely responsible for it, or even by valorising its opponents.
Caitlyn Jenner describing her journey does not “make a difference” any more than Tim Hunt, a scientist currently in the news for his failure to engage a good speech writer, prevents a difference from occurring.
I’d been just about as successful in avoidance of the Tim Hunt affair as I had been in gaining any knowledge of the protein molecules that, apparently, made him famous. But this particular outrage procedural has now gone on for so long, it’s turned into “news”.
If you’ve also managed to dodge this tale, I’m sorry and so just please think of this brief explanation as another plea to restore actual “news” and activism to a place far beyond the individual, to a place it should properly be.
In June, Hunt proved himself as bad at after-dinner speaking as he was good at winning research grants. In Seoul, he told a room of scientists that women were “trouble” and that he found that their creation of sexual tension in the barracks and propensity to cry was an argument for segregated labs. Outraged and 4G-enabled, some attendees posted these remarks to Twitter. Although Hunt explained, badly, that they were made in jest and served only to parody, and not embolden, such antique ideas, he was relieved of several of his positions.
Now, Hunt was probably a dick. He probably should have not said those things at an event that honoured such a notoriously sexist institution as science. I don’t know what he was thinking and it seems to me that such light-hearted restatement of a thing that some in the room and in the institution were likely, in any case, to believe was ill-advised. I would probably have the shits if I attended a literary event and some douche arose before dessert to say that women are terrible plagiarists who sleep their way to positions of literary influence. Both of these things have been said to me and I half-wish that I was bold enough to be the charlatan and slut I am in the minds of male colleagues.
I would get the shits. But, what I wouldn’t do is see this person as “the problem”.
In recent days, recording of the event has surfaced and even some of those who initially, and successfully, called for Hunt’s sacking have agreed that, yes, it did seem like he was joking.
I don’t think this “proof” particularly excuses Hunt from the charge that he can read a room about as well as Joe Hockey. But, it really doesn’t excuse misguided bloodlust, either.
I have read the arguments that it is moments such as these that are likely to dissuade women from becoming scientists and that unless we “call it out”, such things will keep occurring. But, I have also read, across the years, a dozen other more compelling rationales for the under-participation of women in STEM and these tend, like most things, to be a bit more difficult, and a lot less fun, to deal with than a sexist old blowhard.
Sure, he did nothing to advance women in STEM and frankly, having lost several jobs for saying the wrong thing before today, I don’t feel particularly surprised that Hunt lost his gig. Very few people in the world are employed just because they do good work. They must adhere, particularly in more elite positions, to a specific code of acceptable speech. I am also angry with Hunt for giving that tiresome old pilchard Richard Dawkins another cup of “feminist injustice” to flop about in.
But, more than anything, I am angry that this becomes another tiresome story which pretends to, but cannot functionally, point to a deeper truth.
This just in: science can be sexist. And it’s a particularly bitter kind of sexism because it’s an institution full of people, like Dawkins, who think that the objectivity of their study magically extends to the objective treatment of others.
But the freaking way to freaking go about fixing it is not in baying for blood.
Tim Hunt may, or may not be gone. Toddlers may or may not be dressed like strippers. The evil that we have erroneously come to see them not just represent but actually start remains untouched. And I will now resume the advice of my cut-price psychotherapist.