Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Saying Stupid Things and Internet Outrage

My original plan was to largely ignore Tim Hunt and the comments he made at the conference in South Korea. (If you need a rundown of what he said and what has happened since, here is a good place to start.)

But then came the somewhat predictable outcry that he had been the victim of a "witch hunt."

Leaving aside the fact that victims of actual witch hunts usually ended up dead, not embarrassed and out of a couple of honorary, unpaid positions, I think there is something I want to work through there, which means there is something I want to blog about. Bear with me: this post is essentially me thinking out loud.

Do I think people should lose jobs- even honorary ones- for saying stupid things? Not really. But is that really what usually happens? It seems to me that what actually happens is something more like this:

1. Person with some amount of privilege says thing that is offensive and/or insulting to a group with less privilege.

2. Outcry ensues.

3. Person with privilege issues a "sorry I was misunderstood" sort of apology and/or doubles down on offensive thing they said.

4. More outcry ensues.

5. Person is fired or resigns. (Or person retains position and nothing really bad happens to them at all- but for this post, let's assume they're fired.)

6. Other people with privilege are understandably a bit alarmed by this outcome, particularly if they don't fully understand why the initial thing that was said was so harmful. They start arguing that the response was unfair, often with inflammatory and/or wildly inappropriate terms like "witch hunt" or "lynch mob." (Note to fellow white people: do not call anything a lynch mob except an actual lynch mob. Just don't.)

So why was the person fired? Was it for the first offensive thing said? Or was it for the refusal to listen and show signs of learning and addressing the underlying beliefs and/or implicit biases that made them think that offensive thing was an A-OK thing to say? I don't know. I actually suspect that even the people doing the firing don't know in some cases.

Is the firing a problem? I am not 100% sure what I think, but I lean towards thinking that if you have any role in reviewing other people and/or their work, then it is actually quite appropriate to lose your job if you demonstrate that you are unwilling to address your biases.

Racial biases, gender biases. homophobia... these all hurt people. They always have. We've just become used to the way they hurt people. We've become used to women having to walk a ridiculous tightrope in order to garner respect and advance into leadership roles. We've become used to Black people having to keep their reactions under tight control so as not to be labeled "angry" and therefore unpromotable (or unhireable). We've become used to having the upper echelons of our professions be completely unrepresentative of even the composition of the entry level, let alone society at large. These things seem normal to us, just the way the world is. And yet these things have real, harmful consequences on actual people. The impact of implicit biases is well documented. They change the lives those people lead. They hold people back and keep them from reaching their full potential. They cause people to abandon well-paying careers, sometimes without really knowing why they've burned out and need to quit. They create stress and worry that spills over into the rest of people's lives. These are not "victimless crimes."

So now, social media has come along and changed the power balance a bit. Sometimes- not always, but sometimes- the person with the biases actually experiences some harm from them. This is shocking to many people, because it is so unexpected and new. It feels like the rules have changed, and indeed, they have. The potential harm to yourself of harboring unexamined biases is much larger now.

Again, note that these unexamined biases always had the potential to cause harm- that harm was just usually to other people, not the person who harbored them. Also, I'm not unsympathetic to the people who say the stupid, insulting things. I have a fair amount of privilege myself. It is probably only a matter of time until I say something stupid. I hope that if I do, and I get called on it, I can muster a proper apology.

Are the new rules perfect? No, but then, neither were the old rules. Could we come up with something better? Absolutely. But going back to the old rules is not better, and I am not on board with any suggestion that we do that. I am, however, on board with suggestions to find our way to a better set of new rules. To do that, though, all parties have to be willing to try, and frankly, whenever I see one of these events play out on social media, I don't see a lot of willingness to try from the people in the old privileged positions. If you want society to find a better way to respond when someone says something incredibly offensive or insulting, you have to be willing to acknowledge that the initial problem was the offensive or insulting speech, not the outcry against it.

For the record, here's how I'd like to see this sort of thing play out:

1. Person with some amount of privilege says thing that is offensive and/or insulting to a group with less privilege.

2. Outcry ensues.

3. Person with privilege issues an actual apology, indicating that they have understood the problem with what they said. Ideally, they also spell out steps they will take to address the harm caused and/or take meaningful steps to be more aware of the bias that prompted the insulting speech and combat its effects.

4. Everyone goes on with their lives, and the world gets a little better.

If we get to that point, will the "angry Twitter mobs" be willing to accept the apology? I don't know.* But wouldn't it be nice to find out?

*Actually, I can think of one example in which the events went pretty much as outlined above: Daniel Handler's racist joke about Jacqueline Woodson at the National Book Awards. Granted, not everyone who says something stupid and insulting has access to the money required to make the particular restorative gesture he chose, but I suspect most people could come up with something meaningful that was also within their financial means... if they really thought about the mistake they made and how to make amends.


  1. Very good point.
    What's interesting to me is that he made the comment in front of an audience of science communicators and journalists at a conference *about* women in science, and he can't understand why it went down like a lead balloon!

    Also interesting to me was an interview with him and his wife (who is a professor, go her!), and they started talking about how he's a man of his time, the 70s, and that sort of thing was ok to say then! A) that was 30 years ago, catch up! B) it wasn't actually okay back then, only there weren't the consequences.
    C) his wife defended him as "not a Sexist, else why would I be married to him?", not understanding that implicit biases are a thing, and that everyone, but everyone, carries sexist attitudes to some degree because of the culture we're marinating in. Even self-professed feminist women carry such attitudes and suffer the consequences.

  2. Anonymous4:56 AM

    You are on point.

    Something else I would note-- the people who are actually hurt when they say something -ist (or even not -ist-- see Adria Richards) almost 100% women. (But what about Larry Summers, random people ask... No, Larry Summers was *not* fired because of his ignorant comments about women, but stepped down because his micromanaging of the faculty made him extremely unpopular.) That woman with the aids tweet comes to mind. Even the guy who Adra Richards tweeted about was fired because he had a long history of awfulness and even so, he's happily reemployed.

    As I've gotten older I've become more and more sympathetic with Malcolm X, though in a "shame" rather than violence way. Culture isn't going to change if people who make it difficult for everyone who isn't a CIS white male are given head pats. They deserve to be shamed for their bad behavior. (Ironically, this weekend if the car had been moving slower I would have stuck my head out of the window and told the Catholics holding the anti-gay marriage sign that they should be ashamed of themselves, but instead I just had time to give them the finger.)

    Yoisthisracist is right, tell off and peace out. And yes, I get that doing that leads to people making fun of white women for calling things out as racist, but it's still worth it.

    So Tim Hunt-- you deserve worse than to resign from your unpaid honorary position. You shouldn't be allowed to hurt the careers of women. But nothing is going to happen. And you aren't going to learn. And the journal Nature is going to continue to double and triple down on its sexism. But maybe in another 50-100 years science will get to the point that the rest of research community is at where they know they're not supposed to be explicitly sexist even though they still have major implicit biases.

    1. Even if Larry Summers HAD been fired for his sexist remarks... it isn't like his career was over! I mean "White House adviser" isn't exactly a nothing job.

      Adria Richards, meanwhile, reports that she is still struggling to find new work.

    2. Anonymous7:29 AM

      Adria Richards *who did nothing wrong*. No, we're already policing any woman (POC or white) who shames white male racists or misogynists. We're not doing such a good job policing the white male racists and misogynists themselves.

      And that is no doubt why nearly all the commentary on Tim Hunt by women has been in the form of cute positive pictures of themselves rather than calls for him to step down (or be fired) from anything. We know it's too dangerous. Dangerous to our careers, to our lives, to our children.

  3. This is a very insightful blog post and I have spent a long time thinking about it.

    I completely agree with you, and am curious what is the right answer to the following question: what happens when someone is accused of saying something he didn't actually say? Its certainly possible for mobs to believe thing that are not true and stil get outraged about untruths.

    In the new set of rules, should the accused offender have to apologize even if he did not say what he was accused of saying?

    1. In the Tim Hunt case, there were several independent (and trained!) observers there who all heard essentially the same thing. In the Lemony Snicket case, there was a videotape. In other cases, there have been screenshots of the actual tweets. I cannot think of a case where people were upset over something that wasn't actually said. However, I'll think about the case in the hypothetical.

      If you are on the receiving end of outrage about something you didn't say, I think you would defuse much like you'd defuse outrage over something you DID say. "I didn't say X. I said Y." The listen, and see if you can understand if people are actually upset over what you did say, and if so, understand why and apologize for that. If they were misinformed about your actual words, acknowledge that what they thought you said would be bad, and reiterate that you didn't say that. But that only works if they actually have the wrong words. If they have your actual words, and the difference is just that you thought you were making a joke or intended them differently than they were received... Sorry, you'd better apologize. As John Scalzi says, "the failure mode of clever is asshole." If your attempt at clever failed, you should apologize.


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