"...in accordance with the Fascist policy of intellectual freedom and free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it..." (From the announcement at the beginning of each of Ezra Pound's radio broadcasts from Rome during WWII.)
Philip Moriarty has been challenging me to consider alternative situations, in which it would be clearer that Tim Hunt's infamous 39 words would be inappropriate. In the comments to my earlier post he writes:
If I were to stand up in front of an audience of applicants for our physics courses -- and let's just say that they're mature students applying for our Foundation Year (so we can avoid any silly patronising counter-arguments about students not being adults) --- and start off with "My trouble with girls..." and say exactly what Hunt said (those precise 39 words) and follow it up with "But seriously...", would that be fine with you?
When it comes to being tolerant of different views, how about we replace "girls" with any other group -- "gays", "Irish", "Jews", "blacks" etc. --- and repeat Hunt's 'joke' word for word. And again, remember that I fully appreciate the idea that it was meant to be self-deprecating. We can dream up many scenarios/'gedankenexperiments' where I could well be making a similar 'joke' in a self-deprecating fashion, particularly when it comes to the Irish. (As you know, I'm Irish). It still doesn't make it witty or anything more than cringe-makingly naff.
The pre-emption of my "silly patronising counter-arguments" stems from a Twitter exchange about a scenario he suggested on his blog:
I’m undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. A couple of weeks ago I stood up in front of hundreds of potential applicants and their parents for two days running at our open days and gave talks about the teaching and research we do in the School and the various aspects of the physics courses available at Nottingham.
Let’s say that I made the following “gag” at some point during my open day talk (or, indeed, opened up with it):
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls in physics courses. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls taking our courses?
Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the strides made by girls in our physics courses over the years I’ve been at Nottingham. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”
Then, when asked by a student during the Q&A session at the end of my talk to clarify my comments, I say:
“I’m really sorry if I have caused any offence. I was only being honest.”
Would my Head of School be justified in calling me into his office, explaining why my comments weren’t entirely appropriate for that audience, and asking me to stand down from the Admissions Tutor aspect of my job?
I agree that there'd be something here for the Head of School to look into. What Philip thinks is "silly" is my intuition that, in the case of prospective students, the remarks become less appropriate (and a reprimand therefore more appropriate) because the audience is less "adult". I think the presence of the parents is what makes that example so clear. I thought that's why he put them there, actually.
In any case, there's an important thing to keep in mind when comparing it to the Hunt case. However we re-imagine the situation, we have to remember that Hunt spoke about his "trouble with girls in the lab" well-aware that he was talking at a luncheon to honour "women in science". That shared understanding of why he was speaking was part of his context. It contextualizes the specific irony of calling himself a chauvinist in a way that is entirely absent when talking to either coming undergraduates or graduate students.
To see what I mean, consider two examples where this relationship between the joke and the audience is maintained. Instead of making it a joke told about women in the lab to any audience, make it a joke about Tim's trouble with the audience itself. I'm going to try to construct a context in which it would be almost certainly innocent, and perhaps even witty, and one in which it would just as certainly fail, and indeed, would come off utterly vile unless it was exceptionally funny.
Suppose Hunt was speaking to an audience of children (something he apparently does often and well.) Suppose he said, "Let me tell you about my trouble with children in the lab..." Remember that he's talking directly to the children as an adult, even an "old man" (from their point of view). He's probably going to invoke some stereotypes about how, say, "curious" the children are and how much "mischief" they therefore cause, and he might play those off against some "ageist" stereotypes about himself and how children befuddle, even "distract" him. And he might end with the punchline that "maybe that's why we have altogether separate labs, one for children (in school) and one for adults." It would be natural to go on from here saying, "But seriously, we actually need you children in the lab because, however distracting and disruptive you are, it's that curiosity that drives the whole thing. So I really, really, really hope grumpy old monsters like me don't hold you back."
Now, to pick a group off Philip's list, imagine Hunt being invited to speak at an NIH Black Scientists Association luncheon. It's almost impossible to imagine a "my trouble" joke here that could conceivably be in good taste, and that is of course Philip's point. But I stress the almost. Suppose Neil deGrasse Tyson had spoken immediately before him. And suppose we gave Louie C.K. and Chris Rock a week, working together, to come up with a toast that started with "You know, it's surprising that a white supremacist like me should be invited to speak here today. Let me tell you about my trouble..."** The difficulty setting, if you will, on this one is really high. In fact, there's a good reason I'm not even trying to imagine a punchline here. It's above my pay grade, as they say. And above Tim Hunt's, I'm sure. But, like I say, it's not* completely inconceivable that Louie or Rock could come up with a stereotype-dismantling joke that conforms to the terms of Philip's challenge.
I think the appropriateness of Hunt's infamous 39 words lies somewhere between the entirely innocuous bantering with children and the dangerously incendiary BSA situation. I thought the joke was worth trying and, if it fell flat, that should not have made the news.
Pay grade is actually an interesting notion here. After all, Tim Hunt is not a professional comedian but a professional scientist, and in the BSA example we need serious professional help. (Philip's challenge, i.e., the "set up", doesn't call so much for constructing a joke here as dismantling a bomb.) In his comments, Philip adduces as evidence of his own sense of humour that he finds Rowan Atkinson funny in Black Adder. That's a pretty high bar, if you ask me, for a luncheon toast. But there's something telling about this comparison. The occasion to denounce Tim Hunt's joke as "stupid" and "unfunny" seems to be that he stepped out of his professionally assigned role of speaker of scientific truths about cell division. He was not duly qualified to make a joke, certainly not one involving women. It's interesting that the "free expression of opinion by those who are qualified to hold it" is an actual Fascist policy.
What we might call the Seoul Incident, which sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel about a precipitating event that puts the world on the brink of global fascism, suggests that science journalists fancy themselves enforcers of a similar policy. As Connie St Louis put it, Hunt was not to think he would "get away with it". In a recent interview, Hunt suggested that, to avoid all this trouble (!), he could have just offered some "anodyne" remarks about the ERC's policy on gender equality. I think a lot of people do exactly that, in part for fear of being "Hunted". Let's call it the Anodyne Alternative, which also sounds like a Robert Ludlum novel. A thriller, to be sure. Unlike the luncheons that conform to the policy.
*OOPS. Missed this word in the original posting.
**Update (02/12/15 at 16:15): I intentionally left off a cognate of "black people" here in order to give our two experts some freedom about how to make the shift that would be analogous to the one from "women" to "girls". Hunt's use of the latter has been interpreted by some as a slur, though I think it's plausible that he just means to invoke "boys and girls". It's important to me to point out that I've chosen this scenario, not just because the joke would almost certainly appear racist, but because, in the context of a BSA luncheon, that context would be the only saving grace, the only element that could make the joke work. Without that (i.e., imagine the context to be an AAAS luncheon), the problem is not difficult but, I would think, impossible to solve.