Sir Tim Hunt and Twitter ruling Academic Freedom

29665-12jezj“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them, they cry,” were the words of 72-year-old Sir Tim Hunt who, among his impressive postings, won the coveted Nobel Prize for Physiology in 2001.

Twitter, in its 140 characters of wisdom, went crazy.

Bit by bit, Sir Hunt lost his academic postings. He was given the options to resign or be sacked. So he sent in his notice. The hashtag, #/Users/Jsmith/Desktop/sir-tim-hunt-gets-nobel-backing.jpgdistractinglysexy, started trending as the academic and scientific community kicked him out the door. The Guardian called it a moment “to savour”. It was called a triumph against sexism, and many celebrated his misfortune.

Both Sir Hunt and his wife, respected immunologist Professor Mary Collins, say that the comments were ill thought, but were ultimately meant in a jovial, ironic manner.

Still, many insist that sexism in science, or sexism in general, is not a joking matter. It is never acceptable to joke about sexism!

Except that’s not exactly true, is it? Comedians have been on the forefront of so many social issues because they make light of situations that would otherwise be taboo. Sometimes a joke is the only way to actually open up the conversation.

I am not familiar with the scientific community and had no idea who Sir Tim Hunt was before this debacle. But I know a little bit about male-dominated work environments and I know that this backlash might end up being bad for science and bad for women.

It is an illustration of how the immoderate schadenfreude of social media places hurt feelings at a higher value than competence.

It causes an environment that tells people they say something dumb without risking their entire livelihood – and who among us hasn’t made a ridiculous mistake or two (or three…). It tells them to be leery of these minority groups because they might decide to pull the race/sex card and take your job from you because of a flippant comment. While sexism, racism, and many other –isms are a very real problem, the constant industrial threat of “Don’t offend or make jokes that could be deemed offensive because it could cost you your job” ultimately harm to the cause.

I once knew a female officer who was to go on a mission with an infantry unit. Most of these men had never really worked with a woman in that environment before. There was palpable tension as the men braced for impact as the officers cautioned everyone to make sure that no one said anything inappropriate or offensive in case this female soldier took offense and rained political hell down on top of them.

When they saw this female, she could feel their uneasiness. So she made a joke.

“You know what sexual position is enjoyed by nine out of ten people?” she said when she entered the armored vehicle.

One of them mumbled a negative answer.

“Gang rape.”

That was the beginning of a long working relationship that immediately smoothed relations between this female and her colleagues.

Thankfully, no one had twitter at the time and there were no journalists present to report it. There were also no PC police, also known as equal opportunity representatives, in their midst to warn her, and the others, about how inappropriate that discourse was. As Sir Tim Hunt was taken down by 39 words, these 15 words could easily been used to end the career of that officer. Then again, maybe she would have been spared because, after all, it’s okay for women to make these jokes in the work place, but not a man.

But it is okay for anyone to joke about sexism. What is not okay is the intent of the joke. It’s universally accepted that it is okay to mock sexism. The carpet ban on sexist jokes is simply unrealistic, and I would argue that it’s even oppressive.

If you can’t forgive a bone-headed statement, then you suck the air right out of a work place. Everyone is constantly afraid for their job because we all say stupid things at some point or another. And none of us deserve to answer to the court of public opinion for our banter.

Even if Hunt was a sexist prick, is he, or any one of his mindset really going to change their mind because of this incident? Or will they dig in, and take it as an oppression of the PC police to show how overly sensitive women are?

Women who have worked for him are saying that he never made them feel oppressed. In light of this, can’t we agree that, ultimately, his work is more important than some flippant comment? Should we really allow the collective mob of twitter to make decisions on who gets to work in science (or any other industry)?

Getting called out for his sexist remarks and the hashtag that mocks him are all well and fine and probably deserved. Firing him over it is, in my view, a step too far.

Is competence so undervalued that we allow the mob to lynch his career because his bad comment/joke happened to go viral? What will this do to academic freedom? What will it do to science? If one does believe that this is the right action, they why should we stop with Sir Tim Hunt? Why not fire every professor with unpopular or radical political leanings that are unrelated to the field they work in?

About The Author
Kat Argo
Kat Argo is an indie writer and filmmaker covering the war in Ukraine; A former military analyst and Afghanistan veteran living out of a backpack and sends articles and video dispatches from war zones that blogs at ARedRover.com