Illustrious company

Even someone who writes for the Telegraph thinks it’s bad and revealing that people are saying Tim Hunt did nothing wrong. Cathy Newman is a presenter for Channel 4 News and she thinks the “nothing wrong” claim is full of wrong.

[A] week after the pro-Hunt bandwagon really started to gather speed, broadcaster and writer Jonathan Dimbleby has leapt aboard and resigned his honorary fellowship at University College London in protest at its treatment of the Nobel prize-winning scientist.

He’s in illustrious company. The mayor of London Boris Johnson and fellow scientist Richard Dawkins have already publicly accused Sir Tim’s critics of a gross over-reaction.

So have Brian Cox and Brendan O’Neill.

Notice something? They’re all pale men – they’re all immune from the kind of casual contempt that Hunt expressed at that lunch, whether as a joke or not. They all have that in common with Tim Hunt, and all of them including Hunt do not have in common with their women colleagues the handicap of being subject to constant everyday sexism.

It surprises me how many high-profile and highly intelligent men – and some women – seem to think a sexist joke about women crying and falling in love with their professional colleagues is just a bit of fun.

While Sir Tim did make clear he meant his comments in jest – something which was overlooked in the initial reporting of the incident – he has fessed up to being a “chauvinist pig”, and lest Dimbleby et al forget, he’s also insisted that some of his remarks were meant in all seriousness, while others were ‘misinterpreted’.

“I did mean the part about having trouble with girls,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

And either way, joke or not joke, it’s still dismissive and belittling.

Dimbleby, Johnson and Dawkins would surely never dare to weigh-in on behalf of someone who’d cracked a racist gag.

So why is it still OK to be a little bit sexist – and Sir Tim has admitted as such – when society quite rightly has zero tolerance for other forms of discrimination?

Politicians who say something racist are immediately shown the door.

If sexism is their crime on the other hand, a raised eyebrow appears to suffice.

That comparison shouldn’t be pushed too far, because it’s horrifyingly easy to flip it – to cite ways in which racism is ignored while sexism isn’t. But still, when it comes to certain kinds of casual everyday discourse, people who wouldn’t dream of babbling into a microphone about their “troubles with black people” have no such inhibition when it comes to talking about…girls.

while wise-cracking men are tolerated, the women who call out sexism face a torrent of abuse for doing so.

The woman who brought Sir Tim’s remarks to public attention, British academic Connie St Louis, has since faced a right-wing smear campaign about her own CV.

No doubt simply writing this blog will earn me the “feminazi” badge again.

Can’t we take a joke? Yes of course we can. It’s just that what Sir Tim said wasn’t particularly funny.

Well, that plus the fact that it was casually sexist.


  1. says

    But still, when it comes to certain kinds of casual everyday discourse, people who wouldn’t dream of babbling into a microphone about their “troubles with black people” have no such inhibition when it comes to talking about…girls

    I remind myself that it was quite common for people (even well-respected scientists…) to blather on in horrifically racist ways – until quite recently. There are even a few hold-outs who have received appropriate scorn. But it’s embarrassing to read Huxley write things like:

    No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal . . . of the white man. And if this be true, it is simply incredible that, when all his disabilities are removed . . . he will be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival, in a contest which is to be carried out by thoughts and not by bites.”

    Such casual racism is widely recognized, now, as wrong.

    It boggles my mind that the casual sexists haven’t yet realized that their future is going to be ignoring their interesting work and focusing on the fact that, apparently, they were sexist ignarts. Personally, I don’t think Richard Dawkins has accomplished that much (“memes” is a silly idea, really, and besides he’s just reifying Vannevar Bush’s ideas into a new pseudo-science) and “the selfish gene” sounds like it was John Maynard Smith’s work, rewritten and popularized – I don’t expect Dawkins’ legacy is going to shine. He’ll probably go down in posterity as “nowhere near as cool as Sagan, or as thoughtful as Bronowski, and a silly sexist who snatched defeat from the jaws of victory thanks to twitter.”

  2. xyz says

    IDK guys, do we really need the racism comparison? I guess we could try to compare and contrast the whole “James Watson says black employees are hard to deal with, says he is now an ‘unperson’, sells Nobel Prize” incident with this one, but why? And anyway, his treatment of Rosalind Franklin in his memoirs shows that sexism and racism often go hand in hand.

    Sexism is wrong and is too often minimized, period.

  3. says

    Sexism is wrong and is too often minimized, period.

    Well, I think it’s reasonable to point out the similarities. After all, both ideas are wrong for the same reasons and both ideas exist to maintain the power of the patriarchy/aristocracy/pale-ocracy. When I point out the similarities, I am being hopeful! I believe we’re making progress (still a LONG way to go!) on making racism unacceptable. Sexism’s next and the tactics and strategies for that battle are going to be more or less the same (except the numbers are even more on the side of the right)

  4. aziraphale says

    Marcus Ranum: my personal view, for what it’s worth, is that as a popularizer Dawkins is at least the equal of Sagan and Bronowski. His books have given me more pleasure, and indeed more insights, than either of the others.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 1 – Pls note the TalkOrigins note on this quotation:

    In the sense of racism as promoting preferential treatment of one group over another, Huxley was not racist. The quote above comes from an essay in which Huxley argues against slavery and for equal treatment of blacks and women (Huxley 1865, 66-67). For his times, he was a radical reformer.

  6. xyz says

    That TalkOrigins explanation is vexing, but i don’t want to derail the whole thread further over it.

  7. drken says

    Yep, you can get away with saying things about women you could never get away with saying about anybody else. Plus, if you do get in trouble, you can always count on a legion of supporters to have your back. Had Hunt complained about the problems of having black scientists in the lab, he’d be lucky to only lose a honorary position. Brian Cox and Richard Dawkins wouldn’t be rallying around him, that’s for sure.

    But, I wouldn’t let Dawkins’ sexist ramblings overshadow his actual accomplishments. He’s turned more people to Atheism than pretty much anybody. We can’t take that away from him.

  8. says

    I don’t actually see that as such an unmixed good thing any more. He’s turned a lot of people on to atheism, but so many of them are anti-feminist and often misogynist shits. Is that a net gain? I don’t know.

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