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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Narrative Hijack in 3...2...1...

Hopefully, narrative hijack fix in 1-2-3-4-5.

I made a sincere promise to myself, and have largely managed to keep it. This was, of course, to *never* read the comments thread on anything on the internet. Unfortunately, when it comes to the latest controversy - Rosetta mission scientist Matt Taylor's ill-advised choice of shirt - the comment feed comes via friends, and unfolds across my own social media.

My first thought was that it was overblown. My second was - this is familiar. Everyone and their parakeet is going to be out squawking about how this illustrates their pet cause. And, sure enough, the grand melee to frame the incident (and the debate around it) in whatever terms best support one's argument is heartily underway. Much jousting, splintering of lances, dust kicked up; original issue all but obscured. 

Sanity (whatever I still possess of it) now demands some disambiguation of the issues (to say nothing of the non-issues) involved. Here's my tilt at it:

1.  Matt Taylor can wear anything he likes. 
Yes, he can. This is, indeed, the point of freedom of expression. But that doesn't protect him from being judged for what he wears. He could have worn unremarkable clothes, whatever you think is typical for this occasion. He could have shown up in a towel, making jokes about Archimedes, or a bathrobe, making jokes about Arthur Dent (which would have been awesome), or in a Star Trek costume (which would be confirming a whole 'nother bunch of stereotypes). He could also have shown up dressed as Che, or as Hitler, at least one of which would be seen as even more socially inept than what he did wear. In each case, he'd be judged. (To avoid adverse judgments at professional interactions, I propose this fairly simple thumb rule - "if Archer would do it, you probably shouldn't.")

Also, "freedom of expression" is a great argument against anyone trying to curtail that freedom, but it's a horrible argument for any specific form of exercising that freedom. You're literally saying the only merit that expression has is that it's not illegal. 
But I digress.

2. That's like saying he was "asking for it", and where have we heard that before...
It is disingenuous to compare criticism of Matt Taylor's shirt to the demand that women should not be judged for the clothes they wear.

First, that's a very stylised form of the feminist argument around clothing choices - more relevant ones involve blaming victims of harassment or abuse for their experiences, because the way they dressed was "asking for it". Unsurprisingly, the people making this distasteful comparison aren't bringing up or trying to engage with these stronger claims. (Always a giveaway, when someone deliberately steers for the weakest form of the argument.)

Second, even at the stylised level, it should be clear that the sexist nature of an act depends on its context, including characteristics of the person(s) involved. A hug is just a hello, or a gesture of affection, or romantic, or - if it's Shivaji and Afzal Khan - murderous. Context matters, and the gender of the wearer is an obvious element of context. If I (self-identified cis hetero male) wear a little black dress, I'm being funny / adventurous / ironic - as is the person that catcalls me. If a female scientist had worn a dress with the same images on Matt Taylor's shirt, again, it would probably be seen as funny / adventurous / ironic.

Third, even if he was asking for "it", what is the *it* in question? To be called out as sexist? In what universe is that morally equivalent to being harassed, assaulted, or blamed for your own violation? Saying Robin Thicke's lyrics are *rapey* is a world apart from calling Robin Thicke *rape-bait*. The entire point of the feminist claim is that there is an underlying hierarchy of power structures, which have disproportionately negative impacts on women, and that some actions reinforce those structures of discrimination. It is particularly perverse to suggest that calling someone (or some act) sexist does this.

The ironic bit is that the "feminist hypocrisy" brigade miss this underlying dynamic entirely. I'd love to live in a world where gender equality had been attained, precisely because then I could arguably wear shirts like that with no controversy. That's not the world we live in, though, and how we dress does have political consequences in this one.  

3. He's a scientist (a *real* scientist), he's above such things.
I can readily accept that Matt Taylor did not set out to do something sexist. But you don't have to be *a sexist* to be sexist (or do something sexist). I'm not going to try elaborating, because I pull that from one of my favourite pieces on the topic.

BTW, the idea that science - as a field - is not sexist is appealing, but plain wrong. In some ways, it may be *more* merit-driven and *less* sexist than, say, politics - I mean, it would be hard not to be - but iniquitous societies are fractal in nature. "As above, so below" applies; almost all relationships, institutions, and structures within such societies will reflect those patterns of power, because it is part of their cultural underpinning.

My chosen science - Psychology - has recently been shown as basing numerous findings on an absurdly skewed sample. I could reasonably make the claim that the field itself has been racist; this would not imply that everyone who conducted those classic experiments was *a racist*. Hopefully you see the difference by now?
(If you're going to say *social* "science", 1) don't. 2) tell me how that affects the argument?)

4. Okay, but he really is just a nice guy who made a genuine mistake. He doesn't deserve all this feminist ire. 
I tend to think the first part is true - I sympathise with Matt Taylor, and his reaction does say to me that he made a genuine mistake. I've lived that experience, and I've been in tears each time (because realising you've been sexist when you aren't actually a sexist feels awful). It's an irretrievable screw-up, and it's entirely up to the generosity of the person you offended to accept you meant no offense. In his case, I hope this happens, but the internet is not exactly known for generosity. (*Never* read the comments.)

I tend to think the second part is true, too, but that has less to do with Matt Taylor himself, and more about what the reaction says about the feminist movement. Again, not going to elaborate, because it's so eloquently argued by Julie Bindel, in the best piece I've read on this issue yet.

Which brings us to...

5. One guy in one shirt is not going to impact the number of women entering STEM fields.
Agreed. He's not. Anyone who believes that argument applies literally is referring to some pretty remote, hypothetical, pocket case.

On the other hand, there are inequalities in employment in STEM fields, and even the most sympathetic pieces have to admit they are driven by institutional factors. Unless there is scientific evidence to back up the claim that the relevant traits and aptitudes are unequally distributed by gender - I'm yet to see it - this means a gender gap in such employment exists. (Even if the traits are / were differentially distributed, an equitable employment mix would have to match the ratio of their distribution; this is still a hypothetical, BTW, because we aren't sure if we have unbiased instruments to measure that distribution in the first place. More psychology having been racist/sexist.)

Counting is a political act. The enumeration of statistics is a political act. Where the numbers themselves are credible, they illuminate the effect of underlying incentives, policies, structures, institutions, cultures - precisely the stuff feminism studies, and (in this case) they show precisely the pattern it protests and wants to change! 

So, Will one guy wearing a gimmick shirt change those numbers, one way or the other? Pretty unlikely. But, did he just provide a very visible illustration of the culture that creates those numbers? Yes, spectacularly so. He doesn't have to subscribe to that culture. He may, in his daily life and work, actually be fighting against it. He still got on a stage wearing something emblematic of it. It's not implausible that somebody looked at that emblem, and decided any place with so obviously male (or childish) a culture was not for them. Matt Taylor won't be the reason that person didn't enter the STEM field - that's still down to the culture, not him - but he certainly made himself its instrument, and (unfortunately for him) its lightning rod.

Bonus: the red herring - A female friend made/got that shirt for him.
This has nothing to do with anything. Also, @#^#*&#! you, imbecile.

- x -

Until the next windmill, then.

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