The Twitterstorm that wasn’t

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who started the #distractinglysexy hashtag, explains that she didn’t get Tim Hunt kicked out of anything and neither did the hashtag.

Despite claims that the response to Hunt’s comments constituted an online “march of the feminist bullies”, no one who was part of this humorous attempt to highlight the varied and complex work of female scientists called for Hunt’s resignation or hounded him online, but that was the way it was framed.

There were undoubtedly unpleasant people on social media crowing about the man’s downfall but as far as I could see the discussion was largely jocular and – owing to the fact that many of the female scientists were posting photos under their own names – mostly professional.

The Hunt controversy continues to make headlines, with Boris Johnson and Brian Cox wading in this week as the backlash to the backlash. I even heard it said on Radio 4 this morning that “Tim Hunt was hounded from his job by a Twitterstorm”. This is patently not the case.

I’ve seen serious people who should know better Twitter-moaning about the feminist “witch hunts” and the desecration of the memory of John Stuart Mill. But that’s not what happened.

In actual fact it was clearly embarrassment on the part of the scientific community at his retrograde sexism, and that sexism being splashed across the media, which led to pressure on him to resign. University College London, where Hunt held a professorship before his resignation and which was the first university to admit women on the same terms as men, would have no truck with comments such as Hunt’s. No doubt concern about an international PR disaster played a part, but anyone who knows anything about the university’s founding principles would have expected this result, whether justified or not.

And that’s just normal for people who have jobs and positions and titles. Tenure protects academics, but Hunt wasn’t pushed out of any tenured jobs – he has already retired from those.

Twitter also gives the illusion of reversing the normal power dynamics. Suddenly powerful people – often men – and corporations, cannot ignore the outraged voices of the “rest” of the population. Yet this is an illusion. By blaming the downfall of Hunt on mobs of internet feminists, the media are ascribing them power, transforming everyone on social media with feelings about sexism into a dangerous monolith that threatens free speech. They must then be criticised and undermined, rendering them even less powerful than before.

Heads we win, tails you lose, neener-neener.


  1. luzclara says

    Jeez, why not simply accept that Hunt’s ridiculous and thoughtless comments were offensive. Why invent even more stupid offensive sexist shit?

  2. karmacat says

    It does seem to be what oppressors do. They make it seem like they are powerless ones. I would guess some do this unconsciously and some do this deliberately (see Fox News)

  3. Athywren, Social Justice Weretribble says

    In similar, though less relevant news, a few people wrote tweets about how the use of the term “mechanical apartheid” for Deus Ex: Humanity Divided was weird and possibly appropriative of the horrors of actual apartheid, and members of the games-related reactionary movement that shall not be named lose their shit about the SJW twitterstorm…

    I hold out hope that things like this will inevitably lead to a rise in skepticism among all but the most unaware members of humanity, just so it’s possible to exist in an online world without being rendered senseless by it all, but people are really getting quick to believe that any comment about anything remotely questionable is a politically correct mob come to take away your voice.

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