A fish notices the water

At Slate: Phil Plait on The Shirt and the fallout after The Shirt and the apology and the moving on.

To be clear, I don’t think Taylor is a raging misogynist or anything like that; I think he was just clueless about how his words might sound and his shirt might be interpreted. We all live in an atmosphere steeped in sexism, and we hardly notice it; a fish doesn’t notice the water in which it swims. I’ve lived in that environment my whole life, and I was well into adulthood before I started becoming aware of it and figuring out how to counter it. I’m still learning.

*raises hand* I notice it!

Boy do I notice it. I so notice it. I’ve been noticing it my whole adult life, and somewhat even before I was an adult. That’s why I get called all these names: for noticing it, and then saying I notice it, and saying what it is and what’s bad about it. I notice it I notice it I notice it. I notice the water.

And then came the backlash.

If you think this is just women complaining, you’re wrong. Certainly many have, and rightly so. But the fact is, I’m writing about it. I can point you to many men, friends of mine, scientists and science communicators all, who have spoken up about it. It’s important that men speak up, and it’s important that we listen, too.

If you think this is just complaining from wannabes who can’t hold a candle to someone who just landed a probe on a comet, you’re wrong. Talk to my friend, the cosmologist Katie Mack. Or the planetary scientist Sarah Horst. Or geologist Mika McKinnon. Or planetary geologist Emily Lakdawalla. Or radio astronomer Nicole Gugliucci. Or professor and science communicator extraordinaire Pamela Gay. Or Carolyn Porco, who worked on the Voyagermission and is the leader of the Cassini imaging team, the space probe that’s been orbiting Saturn for over a decade now.

If you think this is just pompous idiots, see above. Richard Dawkins please note.

If you think this isn’t a big deal, well, by itself, it’s not a huge one. But it’s not by itself, is it? This event didn’t happen in a vacuum. It comes when there is still a tremendously leaky pipeline for women from undergraduate science classes to professional scientist. It comes when having a female name on a paper makes it less likely to get published, and cited less. It comes when there is still not even close to parity in hiring and retaining women in the sciences.

So yeah, it’s just a shirt.

And it’s just an ad.

It’s just a saying.

It’s just a TV show.

It’s just the Internet.

Yes, but you almost make as much as a man does.

It’s just a catcall.

It’s a compliment!

It’s just that boys will be boys.

It’s just that she’s a slut.

It’s just that your dress is too short.

It’s just that we want to know what you were wearing at the time, ma’am.

It’s just it’s just it’s just.

It’s just a death by a thousand cuts. No one cut does the deed. In the end, they all do.



  1. Caroline Herschel says

    OMG! I actually had to check out Phil’s original post to make sure that last bit were his word and not yours.
    He got it. A hard science white guy astronomer actually got it. “A death by a thousand paper cuts.” He actually got it.
    So, what’s Dawkin’s excuse? What’s Shermer’s excuse? What’s Harris’s excuse?

  2. says

    Seems to me that there’s a fine continuation of the metaphor there. There’s water everywhere and the fish (privileged people in general, men in this example) don’t mind, because it causes no problems. When other animals are complaining that they’re drowning, the fish go: “We’re not drowning. We don’t see a problem. You must be exaggerating. Don’t you think we have bigger problems than a bit of water?”

    When somebody suggests maybe constructing a few islands, to allow other animals a resting place in between all the swimming, the fish go crazy, complaining that it’s all a conspiracy to kill them off. “Why are you trying to exclude us?” they cry. “You must be biased against fish.”

    When somebody suggests a compromise, like a shallow water zone, where fish can swim and animals can wade, the fish complain that they wouldn’t be able to dive like they’re used to. “Why would you stifle us in this way?” moan the fish. “We grew up diving. You can’t expect us to change now. ”

    Despite this, they still don’t see the problem with other animals having to constantly struggle against drowning. Because that’s just the natural state of things. And the fish aren’t drowning.

  3. DaveL says

    I’ve often thought of the same metaphor when it comes to talking to other white people about racism in the United States. It’s like swimming up to a school of herring and asking them whether they don’t find it rather wet down here.

    “Wet? No, I don’t think it’s particularly wet.”

    “Well, some places used to be kind of damp, but they’re much drier now.”

    “Anyone who complains about the wetness is just making excuses for not being a stronger swimmer…”

  4. Kevin Kehres says

    Seems to me I was mad at him a while back for something…I’m over it now.

    He got it exactly right. And coming from someone within the field with exactly the same privileges as Taylor…well…I’m going to consider this the definitive last word on the subject.

  5. John Horstman says

    Death by a thousand cuts works; I myself was always a big fan of Marilyn Frye’s birdcage analogy, as the essay in which she describes it was the first work I read that led me to get it with respect to issues of benevolent sexism (her main focus in the essay) and microaggressions.

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