Drop everything and read this: “Just” Joking? Sexist Talk in Science by Hilda Bastian. She’s a scientist and a cartoonist. She has a cartoon at the top of three guys indulging in a spot of sexist “banter” – it’s amusing that all three of them could be Richard Dawkins.
I want to talk about research and sexist jokes, and where that leads. It’s a response to a narrative about the Tim Hunt situation that goes something like this:
It was just a joke. An unfortunate turn of phrase. It’s not that big a deal. He’s a nice guy who’s nice to many women – he didn’t mean to belittle anybody. It’s not demeaning if you don’t intend it to be. He’s eminent as well as nice, so give him a break. Lighten up. What has the world come to? Over the top social media firestorms are a worse threat than thoughtless remarks. Academic freedom/democracy is at stake.
We’ve been seeing that narrative for two weeks, intensifying all the time, and it’s gone into high gear today thanks to the Times and the Daily Mail and their publication of breathless pieces saying “it turns out that Tim Hunt was joking and that changes everything!!!” We already knew he claimed he was joking (along with also saying he was serious about at least some of what he said), and it changes fucking nothing.
I did a much shorter – about 12 words, I think – version of that narrative for the column I wrote for the Freethinker yesterday.
“Sacked over a joke!” they cried. “No one is safe!”
Back to Bastian.
Disparagement humor (e.g., racist or sexist humor) is humor that denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group…[P]eople have become less willing to allow joke tellers “moral amnesty” for their derision of social out-groups through humor.
Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.
In the right circumstances, among people who know and trust each other, parodic sexist disparaging humor can take the sting out of it, but that’s the only way it can. Hunt’s version met none of those criteria. (I’ve been seeing lots of the parodic kind on my Facebook wall, and indeed in comments here – but guess what, that’s not the same kind of thing as what Hunt did. At all.)
Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.
And haven’t we been seeing that as a result of Hunt’s “joke.”
There’s a lot to Bastian’s piece; I don’t want to crowd it all into one piece. More later.