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.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.