Even if meant to be taken lightly

UCL has had its ruling council meeting. It is not going to reinstate Tim Hunt. It would like to draw a line under the issue now (but here’s betting the enraged anti-feminists won’t observe that line).

Hannah Devlin at The Guardian reports:

Last week, the UCL provost, Michael Arthur, said the university would not back down, saying in a statement that reinstating Hunt would send out “entirely the wrong signal”. The remarks “contradict the basic values of UCL – even if meant to be taken lightly”, he added.

Even if meant to be taken lightly – so all the enraged anti-feminists shouting that it was a joke are missing the point. This seems slightly dim of them, since sexist jokes have been well known to be an issue since the renaissance of feminism first drew breath.

Although some of the 20 council members are understood to regret Hunt’s resignation, none are calling for the decision to accept it to be reversed and the council is expected to release a joint statement this evening aimed at drawing the affair to a close.

Hunt attended a conciliatory meeting with Arthur on Monday, at which both parties discussed how they could move on from the controversy, which has dragged on for an entire month. The university said the two men may issue a joint statement following the council meeting, but that there was “no question” of this including an apology to the scientist.

Because UCL doesn’t owe him an apology. He’s not a child and he hasn’t always lived in a cave; he should know perfectly well that his role at a conference is not to make patronizing “jokes” about and to underlings. As many people (including me) have pointed out, hardly anyone would disagree with that if he’d made “jokes” about Asians at that conference. Pretty much everyone would agree that was a terrible gaffe that put UCL in a supremely awkward position. But because it’s just women, we get all this enraged push back. Why does “jokey” or “ironic” contempt for women get so much more forbearance than jokey/ironic national or racial or ethnic contempt?

A source told the Guardian that the issue is getting in the way of dealing with gender bias.

“It’s the story that just kept on running, to the huge detriment of UCL,” the source said. “This touches a particularly raw nerve for UCL. We are particularly concerned to increase the numbers of women at the highest professorial level. We’re already under enormous pressure, and quite rightly so, because the pace of change is so glacial.”

She added that while there was a spectrum of views within the council about Hunt’s comments, members were united in thinking the affair had been handled badly by UCL – “no-one thinks it’s been handled well – there’s a lot of dismay about that”.

Criticisms included that no-one appeared to have established the precise content of Hunt’s speech or its context before coming to a judgement on the matter.

I can guess why it happened that way. My guess is that people were thinking if they delayed, there would be a loud chorus (aka a “witch hunt”) about the failure to act. I’m guessing they acted [too] quickly because they were afraid of acting too slowly. Next time the powers will probably act too slowly, because that’s how these things work – we always correct the last mistake, which generally means getting it wrong the opposite way. I’m glad I don’t administer anything.

Others said that those worst affected by the controversy were scientists – particularly younger women – who had expressed views that were critical of Hunt or his remarks.

One female scientist who commented in the media after the story broke told the Guardian she had received “such a torrent of abuse” on social media and blogs that she could no longer face speaking publicly on the matter. Other female scientists who spoke out had received death threats, she said. “We’ve all been silenced. It’s quite shocking really,” she said. “It’s just not worth the aggro of waking up to calls for me to be sacked on Twitter and hundreds of messages. It was so frustrating to see the perpetrator becoming the victim.”

Louise Mensch is personally responsible for a lot of that. She bullied and harassed people on Twitter herself, and she inspired others to do the same.

The article concludes by quoting Professor Lewis Wolpert and Professor Martin Vessey saying UCL made way too much fuss about a little thing.

Thanks, guys.


  1. Dave Ricks says

    we always correct the last mistake, which generally means getting it wrong the opposite way

    That’s Fact #2 about people in this video about Rock-Paper-Scissors:

    Fact #1 (1:30): “People who win tend to repeat” their response.
    Fact #2 (1:55): “Losers change” to the response that would have beaten their opponents.

    Those two facts give us a simple strategy for RPS, to move around the triangle opposite to human tendencies. But those two observations might apply to other games, like how oppressors losing on constitutional grounds may claim their oppression needs constitutional protection.

  2. johnthedrunkard says

    The screeching chorus of anti-feminists demonstrates that UCL’s reaction was not exaggerated at all. In an ideal ‘real life’ someone would have told Hunt to shut up and sit down. Or perhaps taken the microphone out of his hand. Certainly some loud heckling would not be out of place.

    I’ve still not seen actual footage of his ‘joking,’ So my personal level of repulsion is still fluid. But I have one. The reflexive insults and threats received by anyone even reporting the incident make UCL’s response obligatory. One doesn’t not maintain amicable association with with someone whose allies are trolls and slyme.

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