Controlling My Outrage; the Case of Sir Tim Hunt

To a point, I share the view expressed recently by Kevin Drum writing for Mother Jones in his article “Are We Really In Control of Our Own Outrage? The Case of Social Media and Tim Hunt” that we as a society in the social media age need to evolve a more moderate, thoughtful, nuanced response to the issues which affront us which previously we would never have seen. To that end, I have started where I have the most influence: with myself. After seeing the mob reaction in response to several issues, and contributing in some, I have begun to ask myself what is an appropriate response from me? I have started to develop something of a priority list to consider as I decide whether and how to respond to current events taking social media by storm. My priority list is a work in progress, and it has two parts: what is the nature of the issue from the “offender’s” perspective, and what is the value of adding my voice to the response.

The Nature of the Issue

Was the offense motivated by malicious intent?

If an issue reflects someone clearly acting with malicious intent, I will do everything reasonable in response, including calling out the behavior publicly, participating in social media discussions of the issue, and expressing my opinion on what actions might be possible to stop the person or people from engaging with malicious intent. #GamerGate is a clear example of a group which includes people acting with malicious intent. They have made life hell for women in video games development and journalism, as well as the men and families who support those women. They have precipitated SWATting, doxxing, DDOS attacks, and online harassment with dog piling and hoardes of sea lions. I have in the past and will continue in the future to speak out against #GamerGate so long as those who associate with #GamerGate support activities with the intent of causing harm to others.

Aside from #GamerGate and other similarly motivated hate groups, it seems to me few incidents are the product of someone wanting to cause harm to the person or people affected by their words or action.

Was the offense intentional?

If the intent of the person’s words or actions was demonstrably different from how they are interpreted, then additional explanation, context, or an apology can put the issue to rest. Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor likely didn’t intend to disrespect women when he gave a mission briefing wearing a shirt made for him by a female friend which was covered with images of skimpily clad women. As soon as it was pointed out to him, he changed his shirt, apologized at the beginning of his next briefing, and then proceeded with the science. For me and most of the women I know who reacted to the issue, he made clear it wasn’t his intent to hurt so many people, and that was pretty much the end of it.

Is the offender simply ignorant of the impact of their words or actions?

For much of my adult life, I have held the view that there is no shame in ignorance. If someone makes a comment out of obvious ignorance, to me the appropriate response is to educate them, not harass them. In many cases where something was said in ignorance, once the individual has been informed of the greater context of their comments, they often take steps to undo the damage unwittingly caused by their words or actions. Matt Taylor’s sister described him as brilliant but sometimes lacking in common sense, reinforcing the possibility that he was genuinely ignorant of the impact that his choice of shirt would have on the women scientists who worked with him on Rosetta and those who watched the briefing from around the world. However, those who make their living in the public eye – corporate PR officials, journalists, politicians, and other public figures especially should be particularly sensitive to the impact their words have on others. It’s harder to justify that a person didn’t know what the impact of their words or actions would be when it’s an important element of their job.

Is interpretation of the language or action of the presumed offense reasonable?

In scientific analysis, a single data point is rarely useful standing by itself. The same is true for me of reports or sources of twitter storms. For me, seeing multiple, consistent reports contributes to a sense of reasonableness. That’s not to say a single voice can’t express a greater truth, but as the number of observers and reporters go up, all telling the same thing, the greater confidence I have that the reported incident is not someone reacting with a unique perspective. Last summer, when I saw reports of police shooting unarmed black men, I was not immediately persuaded that what was occurring was a miscarriage of justice. In the year since, the number of similar reports make me inclined to believe new reports coming out of different cities. The growing number of social media reports, and the detail associated with them over time, increases my sense that any one such report is likely to be a reasonable interpretation of what actually occurred.

Was the incident spontaneous or planned?

When Bill Clinton ran for President, I was impressed with his ability to speak extemporaneously at large numbers of events, often one right after another, taking questions from the audience, and rarely get off message or caught in an inconsistency. It is difficult to stay on message and not provide soundbites that can be turned and twisted by a hostile audience. If someone says something in an extemporaneous setting that causes an uproar, I try to judge what they say against their history and not judge them based on one minute when they perhaps didn’t have a chance to collect their thoughts and frame them carefully.

Is the person responsible likely to continue to be offensive in the future?

Shortly before Justine Sacco boarded a plane for a vacation in South Africa, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Unknown to her for the duration of her flight, her post went viral. Shortly after she arrived in South Africa, she learned that she had been fired from her job as a PR executive. I have no doubt she had no malicious intent in posting the tweet. I doubt it was her intent to offend anyone with the post. My concern is that toss-off comments such as hers reflect a deeper sentiment that I would expect to play out in future incidents.

The Value of Adding My Voice in Response

Add my voice among those targeted

With respect to what is an appropriate issue to which I might lend my voice, the first priority I consider is whether or not the language or behavior included me. Am I among the group injured by the incident? If so, I am more likely to participate in the social media reaction; if not, I am less likely to participate.

Support those affected even if I personally was not

In some cases, I have chosen to participate in social media responses to attacks on others even when I was not directly attacked. Or had not yet been attacked. #GamerGate is an example where I chose to get involved to support others I saw being attacked, even when I had not yet been attacked.

Educate people who may be ignorant of an issue

In some cases, I am not among those most affected by the issue. If it’s an issue in which I have experience and it seems that the person spoke or acted out of simple ignorance, sometimes I contribute to the social media discussion in the interests of education or clarification. I have participated silently, benefiting from, learning from, others who choose to engage in social media when issues come up in which some in the discussion are ignorant of the nuances of the issue – for example, black and white feminism, black perceptions of white supremacy, and a whole host of LGBTQ issues.

Contribute something unique of value to the discussion

The last priority I’ve used recently is to ask myself whether what I have to offer on the subject makes a positive contribution. If the response includes thousands of people mobbing the person responsible for questionable language or actions, it’s unlikely anything I have to add that will be of value in the discussion. So I don’t respond.

Sir Tim Hunt

The Nature of the Issue

Sharing Drum’s view that we need a more nuanced, temperate response to issues that storm social media, I have examined the issue with Sir Hunt in light of the evolving criteria described above.

I do not believe Sir Hunt acted with malicious intent. Sadly, however, the issue caused by his comments regarding women scientists still fails essentially every other criterion.

Were his comments intentional? As they were made at a luncheon whose purpose was to honor women in science journalism, where he was an invited speaker, I conclude they were intentional.

Was it likely that Sir Hunt was ignorant of the effect that attitudes such as were reflected in his comments were likely to have on the women scientists to whom he spoke? He is an intelligent man, whose wife is a highly successful scientist in her own right. He has worked with women scientists, whose contributions to his own success he occasionally acknowledged. He was awarded a Nobel prize as specific tribute to his ability to conduct research. If he was ignorant of the effect his words would have on women scientists, the evidence suggests to me it was a willful ignorance.

Were the people who posted Sir Hunt’s comments on social media interpreting the comments accurately and within the context he made them? Is there a possibility his words were taken out of context, possibly misinterpreted by those who reported them on social media? There was no video of the event, but multiple people in attendance posted short summaries of his comments, all similar in tone and content. After the initial reaction to his comments began to circulate, he was given a chance to explain. He acknowledged that he had said what was reported, and that he meant it. So, apparently the interpretation and context were accurate.

Were Sir Hunt’s comments spontaneous, reflecting lack of thought and mindfulness, likely to be corrected after careful consideration and further thought? Again, Sir Hunt was speaking at a luncheon held to honor women in science journalism. Whether he spoke from prepared comments or extemporaneously, he at least had opportunity to prepare his remarks beforehand.

What expectation do we have that attitudes such as those expressed by Sir Hunt would impact the future? The attitudes expressed by Sir Hunt are consistent with those of many men in science and academia. It may be that they were uniquely thoughtless and uncharacteristic of him at the time. However, considering he did not immediately distance himself from the comments but rather confirmed them hours later, I expect that his attitudes would likely result in additional harm of the same variety in the future. Certainly, if he had been associated with a university or research laboratory where I was employed, I would have cringed and been angry to be portrayed as he portrayed women scientists. If I were a female student contemplating a scientific profession, in light of his comments, I would question how I would be perceived by the men in the field, including the most distinguished.

My Response to the Comments by Sir Tim Hunt

When I saw this issue explode on twitter, I weighed what my level of engagement should be. In this case, I felt compelled to engage, albeit reservedly. I am a woman scientist, and therefore included in his trivialization. In addition to defending myself against his characterization of me, I felt obliged to support the many women scientists whom I know to have been offended by his characterization of us. There certainly is an issue of education for people contributing to the discussion of this issue – that this is the kind of attitude women scientists deal with on a daily basis and it likely contributes to the dearth of women entering scientific fields. As for whether I had something of value to contribute, I have not responded much to the incident. Here is what I posted on Facebook:

Nice. Self-acknowledged misogynist Tim Hunt resigned as Honorary Professor at University College London. J (linking the University College London RSS Newsfeed with the article saying he had resigned. Also, n.b. my characterization was incorrect; he acknowledged that he is a chauvinist, not a misogynist.)

It’s a shame that someone with his scientific talent and credentials won’t be available any longer to contribute to the college, but if the cost of that participation is that he demeans the women there (and everywhere), I’m more than ok with the loss. (A comment in the thread that followed the post of the article describing his resignation.)

So, again, I agree with Kevin Drum that we need to develop a more thoughtful response  to issues like this one. But unlike Drum, I also believe that for Sir Hunt to have been relieved of his duties in an organization responsible for employing women scientists and training new ones, was an appropriate, thoughtful response.

One Comment on “Controlling My Outrage; the Case of Sir Tim Hunt

  1. Pingback: My Response to Kevin Drum Saying “Grow Up” over Sir Tim Hunt | One Hundred Year Horizons

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