Phil Plait does good

In one of his Crash Course Astronomy episodes, he made a joke that could easily be interpreted as transphobic (he didn’t intend that, but you know what everyone says about intent…). So he did something very smart.

He edited out the bad joke, re-uploaded the video, and then publicly admitted the error, and apologized. But of course that bizarre crowd of haters that populates youtube comments is irate that he did the right thing, and has started flinging a grievous insult at him: “Social Justice Warrior!” So he has replied to that, too.

And here’s the important bit: Apologizing and changing it does no harm, and in fact does some good; it helps a group of people see that we can be sensitive to their needs.

There are times when I think people are too sensitive, and times I think others aren’t sensitive enough. I tend to judge these on a case by case basis. But with a group that is historically marginalized and “othered”, well, a little (extra) empathy does a soul good.

And for the other bit, people derisively calling us “social justice warriors”? They may use it as a derogatory term, thinking of SJWs as shrill and overbearing, but to me it’s a term that refers to people willing to go to bat for others who don’t have as big a soapbox. I might prefer the term “ally”, but SJW fits fine, too. This world could use a lot more social justice. I’ll be happy to fight for it when I can.

Here’s the fixed video. It’s good science, too.


  1. brinderwalt says

    I’ve always enjoyed Phil Plait’s blog. Given recent events, it’s nice to see someone I like not turn out to be an asshole when he gets the chance to be (I’m looking at you, Dawkins).

  2. Annie Bruce says

    Good on him!

    I can easily see how that happened and why it would look funny going into it. Glad to see he realizes that isn’t enough, and that he apologized.

    People aren’t perfect, it makes a huge difference how you handle it when you screw up.

  3. throwaway, never proofreads, every post a gamble says

    We’re so upset and offended that you would kowtow to the possible offendedness of people who aren’t us!

    There’s a tiny kerfuffle occurring due to a recent decision by Blizzard to rename a ship from “Tyrande’s Silence” to something else. The reason they changed it was in part due to the fact that Tyrande doesn’t have a silence (way to stop spellcasters). The other reason was because they didn’t want to offend anyone by rehashing the previous occurrence where her husband, Malfurion, told her “Hush, Tyrande.”

    There is a lot of blame flying around. A lot of gamergaters are rabidly decrying Blizzard caving in to the pressure to change the name. Except…. They can’t produce anything remotely close to the amount of outcry they are making because of the move to not offend people (and to be consistent with “lore”).

    It’s all just very frustrating to see such blinkered shortsightedness.

  4. hoku says

    I don’t think the joke was transphobic in the slightest. He was mocking himself. That said, this is the perfect way to handle it. It’s like the plaitonic ideal of how to react to something like this.

    He left to put together a tv show. It was ok, but I don’t think they ever showed the final episode.

  5. Hoosier X says

    The way the hate-filled ding-dongs explain it, you’re an SJW if you’re not a total asshole all the time for no reason.

    So … I’m trying to figure out what the downside to being an SJW is.

    The main consequence is that truly horrible and nonproductive people will not like you. And they will call you an SJW.

  6. cormacolinde says

    A lot of gamergaters are rabidly decrying Blizzard caving in to the pressure to change the name.

    Blizzard is certainly not going to cave in to those trolls. Mike Morhaime (CEO) came out strongly against Gamergate at last year’s Blizzcon. Made me proud ot be a fan of their games.

  7. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @hoku, #7:

    I don’t think the joke was transphobic in the slightest.

    Your privilege.

    I don’t think it was motivated by trans*hatred, but I think “mocking oneself” using gender dissonance cannot help but employ trans* hatred for effect.

    I certainly take him at his word that he was the butt of the joke. I don’t have any reason to believe that he had ill intent. Nonetheless criticism of the joke was deserved*1.

    As for your statement that this was the way to handle it, I agree. This reflects well on Phil. None of us can be perfect, but we can be compassionate and accountable and responsive. Phil has demonstrated all of these just now. I thanked him on his blog, and am happy to praise him here.

    *1 …I can’t say if specific criticisms were deserved without seeing them, but in general the joke was one that deserved criticism

  8. samihawkins says

    I don’t think the joke was transphobic in the slightest.

    The joke is ‘ooh a pretty lady. No wait, it’s really a guy! Gross!’

    Check out the post before this one to see an example of the shit trans women have to go through because of the attitude perpetuated by that joke, the idea that it’s gross and wrong when someone who looks like a lady turns out to be a man.

    Obviously trans women aren’t men but a disgustingly huge number of people think we are and cheap jokes like this are part of the reason our culture so often reacts to our existence with ridicule, bigotry, and violence.

    Good on him for changing it. He could have left it as it was with no repercussions, safe in the knowledge that there’d be tons of cis people ready and willing shout down any trans women who objected to the joke they deemed to not be transphobic, but instead he did the right thing. Kudos.

  9. says

    Thanks for that explanation. I was a bit confused at first, but after reading your comment, I echoed Phil’s sentiment in my mind: “in retrospect, it’s obvious.”

    And you’re right, he could have just ignored any objections and allowed the comment thread to become a haven to haters in much the same way that a certain irish blog has become. That he didn’t, but rather immediately fixed it, is absolutely fantastic.

  10. says

    GamerGaters, MRAs, anti-feminists and their ilk really hate it when someone listens to criticism, agrees with it, and changes their mind, or does anything to respond to it beyond digging in their heels and loudly proclaiming that there is nothing wrong. Changing your mind, due to exposure to new ideas, or other ways of viewing what you have done, is tantamount to censorship in their worldview.

    I remember, way back in GamerGate started, participating in a Twitter thread with someone that really, really hated the idea that someone would consider changing something in a game after reading something Anita Sarkeesian wrote, because as far as they were concerned artists should not change anything they do. It was amazing running into someone like this, someone that essentially thought things should be static, and that exposure to new ideas was horrible because it might change what you do.

    It saddens me to see these ideas are as strong as ever. That they still view any change of viewpoint as some awful thing, that it is caving, rather than seeing something in a new light and actually changing your mind.

  11. says

    @samihawkins #13:

    The joke is ‘ooh a pretty lady. No wait, it’s really a guy! Gross!’

    As I see it the intended joke was ” …. No wait, it’s really ugly ol’ ME!”. The fact that he used himself rather than a random male face suggests that he was the intended target off the joke, which fits well with his persona and previous actions. I could easily have pulled a similar stunt if I were in his shoes, meaning no more offense than he did.

    I must also confess that my first reaction was “storm in a teacup” , but after some reflection I agree with the critics. It can indeed be seen as a joke on trans people, and I think they get more than enough shit as it is. In fact you could go as far as saying that it only “works” because of the trans-implication. So yeah, good call on removing it and apologizing.

    Most of us have a fair bit of crap in our ballast, we’re the product of a society oozing with prejudges. I have no problem admitting that trans people “bother” me on some level. But that’s my fault not theirs, and I try to better myself in that regard.

  12. Seven of Mine: Shrieking Feminist Harpy says

    hoku @ 7

    I don’t think the joke was transphobic in the slightest. He was mocking himself. That said, this is the perfect way to handle it. It’s like the plaitonic ideal of how to react to something like this.

    You still have a bad habit of thinking that things people say can’t be harmful unless the person saying them means them to be. It’s pretty obvious he didn’t mean the joke to be transphobic. However, last I knew, people are not psychic and Phil Plait doesn’t control the attitudes of his listeners. The business of the image being an attractive woman at first glance and turning out to be a homely dude plays into the stereotype that trans* women are inherently deceptive and get their jollies out of tricking poor, innocent dudebros into doing icky, sexy things with another penis-haver. These attitudes get people killed all the damn time and jokes like this perpetuate the attitudes that people use to justify that.

  13. opposablethumbs says

    It’s a pity more people don’t respond like this to being alerted to their mistakes/fuck-ups instead of doubling down. If Plait can react this way, why can’t … the thinky thought leadery leaders?

  14. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Erlend Meyer

    I have no problem admitting that trans people “bother” me on some level. But that’s my fault not theirs, and I try to better myself in that regard.

    This is probably going to come as unfair criticism and I want to say that I’m not trans and I’m not speaking in anyone’ s name but my own.
    So… fuck, but I wish you had a problem admitting that trans people “bother” you at some level. There’s being able to publicly admit that you have a problem and that you are wrong, and then there’s… that.

    Maybe it’s because I’m kind of feeling vulnerable right now, but just imagining how it would feel to read that someone admits to being bothered by my very existence…. Just why? Why even say that?
    It’s not like admitting “I have a problem, I’m an alcoholic” so that one, in the act of admitting out loud that they have a problem, they admit it to themselves and accept it (or at least I think that’s the reasoning). When it comes to this situation… you just told other people< that their existence bothers you. Why? Why do that?
    Skip the proudly admitting you have a problem straight to rectifying it.

  15. Seven of Mine: Shrieking Feminist Harpy says

    Erland Meyer @ 18

    I have no problem admitting that trans people “bother” me on some level. But that’s my fault not theirs, and I try to better myself in that regard.

    I have to agree with Beatrice on this one. I think you probably should have a problem admitting that. It looks like a self-serving attempt to pat yourself on the back for being willing to better yourself at the expense of trans* people. Probably not the effect you’re going for but it’s a tad um…messed up, doncha think?

  16. says

    It’s messed up, I totally agree. And maybe I’m wrong for admitting it publicly, I didn’t intend any harm but I can see how it might be perceived as hurtful. Guess I did like Plaid did, I didn’t quite think that one through.

    And for the record, it’s not like their existence bother me in the slightest, that was probably a poor choice of word. People are who they are, in fact I kinda like the fact that there are more to gender and identity than just men and women. It simply adds to the beauty and complexity of humanity.

    Nevertheless, I do have a knee-jerk reaction I really wish I didn’t have. And I know I’m not the only one. So what do we do about it? How do we combat something without addressing it openly? Or is this a shame we should simply carry silently to our grave?

  17. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Erlend Meyer,

    Transphobia is a well known fact, so it’s hardly hiding a problem when every single person who has issues with transness (that’s not a word, but it totally should be) doesn’t advertise it in potentially hurtful ways.

    I don’t know how exactly you should word it, but lets try and find some balance between our need to improve and improving at the expense of those we try to improve for. That’s all I’m saying. Give some thought to people who read the words “trans people “bother” me on some level” and have to live with hearing them implicitly or explicitly or violently every single day.

  18. Seven of Mine: Shrieking Feminist Harpy says

    Erland Meyer

    Nevertheless, I do have a knee-jerk reaction I really wish I didn’t have. And I know I’m not the only one. So what do we do about it? How do we combat something without addressing it openly? Or is this a shame we should simply carry silently to our grave?

    This seems like a false dichotomy. The choices aren’t “announce I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to trans* people where I know trans* people are reading” or “silently carry this shame to my grave”. As Beatrice says, we all know transphobia is a thing. We’ve all absorbed this conditioning from our culture. You wouldn’t actually be keeping a secret by declining to mention this involuntary twinge out loud. You would, on the other hand, avoid othering trans* people.

  19. says

    Seven of Mine @20: It seems to me that us old, white cis-males have a lot of slack to give ourselves when we make a crack about some/every other marginalised group, but a member of that group has, by the very nature of dealing with the marginalisation, considerably less emotional slack to give. “Oh, it was just a joke” and “I didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t stop the immediate sting of the remark, and the classy thing to do when confronted with the hurt feelings is to do what Plait did, apologise and edit.

    Saying that, I guess I should go visit another thread and make an apology myself….

  20. says

    Heh, I just found this in a completely unrelated search:

    My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain. — Charlie Chaplin

  21. says

    Beatrice: You are right, what I wrote was offensive. My only excuse (and it’s a slight one) is that English isn’t my first language, so it didn’t come out quite as I intended. But it doesn’t really matter, and you guys were right in criticizing me for it. I’ll gladly say it again: I’m sorry.

    As a white male in my 40’s I have pretty much accepted that I’m wrong more often than I’m right, at least when it comes to social issues like gender, race and equality. I try to do better, but even then it seems like I manage to embarrass myself more often than I like. At least there are people like yourself out there to tell me when that happens. So thank you once again for educating me.

  22. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says


    I have no problem admitting that trans people “bother” me on some level.

    which Erland admits, was a poor choice of words. I offer my little tiny bit of suggestion. Instead of the phrase, “X bothers me etc” rephrase it as “I am bothered by X” and to express your recognition of the fault being your own, get a little redundant, as in, “It bothers me that I am bothered by X…”
    That’s my “takeaway” from a class on “Assertion v Agression”
    Assertive :== “I was hurt by what you said”, — “I am uneasy around X
    Aggressive :== “You hurt me with what you said”, — “X make me uneasy”
    a more rational form of auto-“tone trolling” (I think)

  23. says

    FTR, slight, I wouldn’t find your reformulation more helpful. It’s still sticking your problem in our faces and saying, “hey, tell me why I shouldn’t be bothered by your existence.”

    And yeah, after being blindsided yesterday, it was pretty unpleasant to read those words, Erland. I don’t need more apologies, but you really ought to think whether you would say that about another marginalised group, or would you properly feel like it shouldn’t be their burden to bear? Because there are a fucktonne of people out there who are relying on me to educate them as to why I should exist. Adding to that number should not be a priority for you.

  24. says

    Phil has always struck me as a person with the intent to do good in the world and make as many around him, and himself, better with each passing day. Thus, he is and must be my eternal enemy. Curse you, Plait! Cuuurrrrsssse Youuuuuuuuuu!

  25. says

    CatieCat: I really can’t apologize enough for my thoughtless words, and I will try to weigh my words on this subject more carefully in the future.

  26. unclefrogy says

    some of the critics that make a big deal about the creators should never change what they create as a reaction to criticism have a point in the abstract but have no idea how artistic creation actually works in the real world. The artist /creator is trying to communicate some idea or feeling and if it is found to not be working in its current form will often modify or change it to improve it and should be and is at perfect liberty to do so for what ever reason they wish.
    In theater there is a long tradition of taking the show out of town before the big opening to see if the show is working and then fixing it when it is not.
    For all their protestation they “the defenders” are in practice against free expression and would disallow the creator the right to modify what they make as they see fit because they “the defenders” do not like the changes!
    that is some rank BS!
    uncle frogy

  27. Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened says

    If I may weigh in, I think I see what Erland Meyer is trying to say, despite the unfortunate phrasing.

    I first met a trans* woman when I was 21, not long after I finished Uni. When I first meet someone, my brain applies a load of labels based on visual clues. Subculture (rocker, metalhead, etc.): affects what likely interests they have, and thus what I will bring up in conversation; Gender: affects how I greet them and what terms of address I will use; Race: irrelevant as far as the approach I take, but never the less my brain picks up on it; etc.

    So for example: Rocker, male, Black: I shake his hand when I introduce myself, call him “mate” if not using his name, and talk about bands I like.

    When I met Chrissie, who was mid-transition at the time, my brain went through the labeling process, got to gender, and got confused. Do I just shake her hand, or kiss her on the cheek? Do I address her as “mate”, or “darling” (more on this later)? Which pronouns should I use? When we know each other a bit better and say goodbye, is it a hug and a hearty backslap, or a kiss on the cheek? So it’s not so much that she made me uncomfortable as much as the usual labeling process my brain goes through couldn’t easily decide which behavior applied to her, which left me confused.

    I did the logical thing and merely used the approach dictated by her chosen gender expression. The difficulty was that I had to think about it; it wasn’t automatic as it normally is. So at first I was a bit awkward and self-conscious about it; unsure whether I would offend her or not. But she seemed happy with my approach and now it seems as natural as anything else.

    It’s fucked up that perceived gender has such a huge effect on how I interact with people, but that’s another question. I actively try to avoid such patronizing terms as “darling” and “love” these days, but at the time that was how I spoke. I guess I was “primed” to a certain extent, because my friendship group at Uni included a lot of people who, while not trans*, had little respect for traditional binary-gender clothing; so I imagine my brain adapted quicker than most people’s would. So I imagine that’s what Erland is talking about; that strange, self-consciousness engendered by a worry that you might offend someone. Of course I could be wrong, I’m merely attempting to relate.

    The more you hang out with trans* people, the easier it gets, obviously. I now automatically address any trans* people by their expressed gender, and normally back this up by double-checking about pronouns (I still find that awkward sometimes, but haven’t offended anyone yet). A friend from Uni has since come out as a trans* man and is currently transitioning, and while I fucked up a couple of times at first because I’d always addressed her as a woman, I never got the same awkward self-consciousness I did with Chrissie.

  28. says

    I think Thumper pretty much nailed it. I now know that gender and identity is much more complex than I was taught, but as I’m so deeply conditioned to the concept of gender as a binary phenomena I get confused. The language doesn’t fit, I don’t know the right pronouns, and I can’t help but try to interpret the person as either male or female even though I know it’s not accurate or even necessary.

  29. Dark Jaguar says

    I’ll be called a “social justice warrior” or “white knight” any time, because last I checked those are admirable things to be. Minus the actual fighting. We use such violent terms to describe just about every cause we “fight” for, that I wonder at times if the language starts to make us think violence is okay. Don’t we have any terms that don’t have the baggage of violence attached to them?