Yet another opinion piece on #Shirtgate (or #Shirtstorm)

shirtgateWhile I realise that there are already hundreds of column-inches devoted to the issue of Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor and his shirt, I’m afraid I’m going to add a few more – mostly because most of those contributions have been in the international media, and 65% of my readership is in South Africa.

And it’s the South African responses that are annoying me, particularly on Facebook. They – like much of the international commentary, to be fair – are setting up an entirely false dichotomy between “feminist rage”, involving allegations of hypocrisy (“first you say we can wear what we like, but Taylor can’t?”); bullying (“Taylor harassed into a tearful apology”) offset against “the things that really matter”, whether it be the science itself, or the real root causes of sexism.

We don’t only have those choices. There are myriad positions available between them, and various combinations of them that are possible too – it’s entirely plausible that someone might, for example, be concerned about the signal that Taylor’s shirt might send (how it might be perceived, rather than how it’s intended), and also be gobsmacked by the scientific achievement of Rosetta.

And then, one can have this conversation without bullying – and talk about both these things at the same time. It’s not well-established that significant amounts of bullying even happened, depending on how you define bullying, of course. But because everyone is saying that’s what happened, it seems folk feel entitled to treat it as fact, even hyperbolising to the extent that Boris Johnson can speak of Taylor’s apology being “like something from the show trials of Stalin”, and his being

subjected to an unrelenting tweetstorm of abuse. He was bombarded across the internet with a hurtling dustcloud of hate, orchestrated by lobby groups and politically correct media organisations.

Of course you can find examples of Taylor being abused. My question is whether that was the typical or common response, or instead whether most commentators – perhaps outside of the filter-bubble of your prejudices (whether they be against “feminazis” or “misogynists”, both of which can be misidentified) – simply used the shirt as a springboard for a broader conversation about sexism in science, without vilifying Taylor?

In other words, is it true that the Left has “turned into Rick Santorum” – and even if it’s true, is this a good example of that, or is this case being misrepresented, meaning that we don’t get to talk about sexism in science for fear of being spoken of in this sort of supercilious tone:

Because you can criticise without “whining”, and you can celebrate the science while still criticising, less or more hyperbolically. When all the conversation is about how everyone who is criticising is “whining” – and everyone who is not is somehow complicit in sexism – then we don’t get to talk about both things (the science as well as sexism). And I’d hate to lose either topic.

To spell out why Dawkins is wrong, above: The problem here is that it sets up a simple false dichotomy, and again demonstrates the limitations of Twitter as a medium for expressing complex thoughts. (Which should make smart people, like Dawkins, more careful of what they say.)

The false dichotomy is in presenting the option of true feminism (whatever that is) in opposition to the “pompous idiots”, without recognising that there are permutations of feminism that are legitimate, and can be nevertheless be concerned about the shirt. (We’ll leave aside whether Dawkins gets to be the arbiter of what feminism is.)

There’s also an obvious straw man, on two counts – one, that everyone is whining (rather than expressing concern); and two, the implication that there’s a zero-sum game between talking about the shirt and talking about the marvellous scientific achievement of Rosetta.

Of course some treatment of Taylor can be over-the-top. But dismissing all concerns as whining from pompous idiots is oblivious, shoddy thinking.

And talking about “feminism” or “feminists” without allowing for these nuances involves painting with far too broad a brush. For me, the shirt is the springboard to a conversation that’s worth keeping going, and some “feminists” (or just humans concerned with fairness and so forth) are simply using it as that.

Other “feminists” are indeed over-reacting to the shirt as a token or instance of sexism, which then does (or can) detract from both the larger and more important issue of sexism in STEM, and can also detract from conversations about Rosetta. As I ask above, it’s legitimate to ask – not simply assert – that they are typical.

The Dawkins tweet, and comments saying that “feminists” are over-reacting, assume that everyone is in the second, hyperbolic and reactionary camp.

That’s a caricature, and to me, it’s a caricature that suggests an anti-feminist bias.

  • Angelo Z

    What about this nuance…..

    People who genuinely believe in equality for all humans believe that the criticism of the shirt was petty and that, in the same way Dawkins doesn’t get to define ‘feminism’, neither do you or twitter users who happen to be the most vocal?

    Didn’t see that option in your analysis.

    The real issues surrounding equality are being hijacked by what, in my opinion, is pettiness.

    • Chris

      1. Just because one person’s definition has been rejected (for the good reasons mentioned above), it doesn’t mean that nobody is now allowed to define anything. There are people in better or worse positions to define things, and there are better and worse definitions.

      2. You think it’s petty? There are people who feel harmed by having their issues dismissed as petty, especially if it’s for no good reason. Perhaps your opinion of what’s petty is not relevant in this case.

      • Angelo Z

        ‘Harmed’…….seriously? Of all the things that could harm someone my view that this matter is petty may make people feel ‘harmed’…..?

        Well, that’s their right. As is mine to define this incident as petty.

        And no, you don’t get dibs on who is or isn’t better placed define ‘feminism’.

        The irony of your post obviously escapes you.

  • Robard

    As a white, conservative male I hate to admit that I’m actually on the side of the feminists here. It is precisely because Taylor is such an outstanding scientist that he should be an exemplar of civility and sobriety. Instead he presents himself as a tattooed thug, the bad boy type that a certain class of women love. His critics perhaps instinctively understand that the West’s scientific achievements are only the most refined expression of its civilizational virtues. However brilliant they may be, scientists must respect and honour that type of civilization which makes their achievements possible in the first place.

    • That is absolutely priceless 🙂

      • Robard

        Indeed. What clearer sign of civilizational degeneracy than when the best and brightest are emulating illiterate savages?

        • Honestly, I’m struggling to decide whether you’re for real or writing satirically. The way you’ve leapt from “has tattoos” to “looks like a thug” and then to “emulating illiterate savages”… at the least, it indicates you’re willing to argue as though your assumptions are perfectly reasonable and probably shared by others. But of course, tattoos indicate nothing reliable about a person’s intelligence or ‘civilizedness’. The fact that you think they do only indicates your own assumptions, which are also in fact prejudice. That prejudice is the main thing that’s coming through to me from your comments.

          • Robard

            Well, since satire has since Greek and Roman times been the patrician’s commentary on the demos I don’t blame you for your confusion.

            Prejudiced or not, obviously mr Taylor intends to signal something, and in occidental culture tattoos have traditionally been associated with savagery, idolatry and heathenism. It was precisely for this reason that the American counterculture adopted tattoos in the 60’s. Whether this is indicative of Taylor’s intentions is immaterial, but the fact that a man of his accomplishments acts as an accessory to these forces indicates that civilizational rot has set in at the highest reaches of western society.

            And no, I almost said the opposite regarding tattoos as an indication of intelligence. It is precisely because Taylor belongs to the cognitive elite that his behaviour tells of something much more significant.

  • Guest

    Is this what a feminist looks like?

    (credit: http://bit.ly/1xUA226)

  • Guest

    Is this what a feminist looks like?

    (Credit: http://bit.ly/1xUA226)

  • Therese Whitton

    This is a fantastic summary and I agree with you 99%, very eloquent.

    I’m not sure that I would label those who thought the shirt might be indicative of sexism as hyperbolic and reactionary… By ‘indicative of sexism’, I don’t mean indicative that Dr. Taylor had evil intentions, but indicative of latent sexist attitudes.

    I thought that this was the point of the large body of complaints (from men and women, tweeted in more or less civil tones), and this is the very springboard to the broader conversation you mention.

    Earlier on in the article it sounded like you characterised the camp you view as hyperbolic to be the minority who vilified Matt Taylor… At the end of the article, it’s calling the shirt sexist that is seen as hyperbolic… Yet, how does a broader conversation about sexism start in response to the shirt, if no-one says that it conveys an air of latent sexism, or something similar? Asserting one’s opinion that the shirt is sexist doesn’t equate to vilification, I think these two issues are being conflated.

    I’m sure he could have worn a shirt with a range of designs that could
    potentially have offended viewers for equally valid reasons – such as if the
    shirt was covered in depictions that could be deemed racist. If that had
    happened you would have seen the overblown after-backlash mirrored, but
    possibly more in the fringes: you would have heard some people say that it’s
    political correctness gone mad, that it’s censorship, that our freedoms to wear
    what we like (even though there are already a lot of accepted limits on that)
    is being threatened.

    However, sexism is still in vogue, racism is not so popular anymore.
    Therefore a bigger backlash has ensued to people speaking their minds, and
    therefore it’s important that people speak their minds on sexist behaviour.

    The best article I have read so far on this issue:

    http://www.slate.com/blogs/bad_astronomy/2014/11/17/casual_sexism_when_a_shirt_is_more_than_a_shirt.html

    In the article, he mentions Lewis’ law: “Comments on any article about
    feminism justify feminism.”

    Every time something similar to this recent event happens, that seems
    truer to me.

    • “I’m not sure that I would label those who thought the shirt might be indicative of sexism as hyperbolic and reactionary”.

      Neither would I – and I don’t think calling the shirt sexist is hyperbolic, either (as you say in your third paragraph). The whole point of this piece is to point out the conflation you say I’m guilty of, so something has been lost in translation, I’m afraid!

      • Therese Whitton

        Apologies, I misunderstood this: “Other “feminists” are indeed over-reacting to the shirt as a token or instance of sexism,” thinking that it meant that calling out the casual sexism was equivalent to overreacting.

        Good comment piece, thanks for writing it.