The Tolerance of Intolerance

 

Germany Comet Landing ShirtMany of y’all have heard of the furor over the tacky — and I think, unprofessional — shirt worn by the Rosetta comet mission’s Project Scientist. Various feminists took offense at the cartoon women on the man’s shirt as being misogynistic and claimed that this kind of thing is what keeps women from going into the physical sciences as a career. The pile-on got so heavy that the man was nearly reduced to tears in an on-camera apology.

Yet even now, it hasn’t stopped. Among my fellow astronomers, there is a lot of talk about writing an official condemnation of Matt Taylor by the American Astronomical Society on the issue, as the Astronomical Society of Australia has done. While I think the shirt was in poor taste, the volume of ink being spilled talking about it is way out of proportion to the offense, and the claim that this is evidence of astronomers’ “misogyny” is ridiculous.

Now, a few days later, our biggest professional discussion group had someone post a link from Media Matters to a joke making fun of Fox News. While the joke is mildly funny and only made me roll my eyes a little, it demonstrates the comfort my fellow academics feel in making fun of those of different beliefs. In the discussion that followed, we were told that it’s actually justifiable for us professionals to openly make fun of people of particular political beliefs or religions. (For the record, this joke didn’t bother me; I’m really talking about much worse behavior I have seen in this crowd.)

Now, I pointed out that — just as we try to be aware of and correct the subtle and unconscious biases against women and people of different races (discovering these subtleties in all kinds of seemingly-innocuous behavior is an art form this bunch is skilled in) — so too should we be aware of and correct the intentional and openly-expressed dislike of people of different political or religious belief. Beyond the legal protections against these forms of discrimination, it’s beneath us professionally to be mocking people this way, and it makes others feel unwelcome.

Well, in response to my plea for even-handed tolerance, I was told that it is “inappropriate and offensive” to make any comparison between discrimination against race or sex or sexual orientation (which are said to be unchangeable and are grouped under the heading of “identities”), and discrimination against religion or creed (which, she said, you can pick and change).

What can I possibly do or say? This is such open, unashamed a defense of prejudice that I’m speechless.

This person has pulled out this argument before that it’s “offensive” to compare sex discrimination to religious/political discrimination (with the implication that the latter is nothing to object to), and she’s shut up her opponents pretty effectively.

Secondly, another one of the angry crowd has explicitly said that when it comes to “offense,” the intent doesn’t matter, only the subjective feeling of the offended person.

I know that openness and tolerance are better, but I don’t know if there’s any way to convince this crowd of it.  They have been using the language of “identities,” “intersectionality,” and other stuff I think they picked up in a sociology class, and it’s such a twisted way of thinking of the world that they seem oblivious to normal logic.

Is there any argument I can make, any approach to this that can back up the idea of an open, liberal, tolerant society and leave them with no defense?

There are 44 comments.

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  1. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    They need to write an official condemnation of the interviewer for her non professionalism, getting off the subject of the landing and bullying a scientist about his clothing. The whole thing is low 72 I.Q. dialog. The guy needs to get some backbone and tell everybody to stick their heads in mud.

    • #1
  2. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    If that interviewer had worked for me, she would now be fired.

    • #2
  3. Kay of MT Member
    Kay of MT
    @KayofMT

    Tim H.: So here’s my question: What can I possibly do or say? This is such open, unashamed a defense of prejudice that I’m speechless.

    I would suggest that you look this dimwit right in the eyeballs, and tell her you find equating sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and clothing choices, offensive and not to discuss it again.

    • #3
  4. carlboraca@gmail.com Inactive
    carlboraca@gmail.com
    @PleatedPantsForever

    What about bringing up the list of pet leftwing causes and going through, checking one by one, ask if it is OK to “openly display dislike” for such people….1. “pro-choice” 2. religions other than Christianity and Judaism, 3. people receiving government benefits, 4. New York Times/MSNBC/etc subscribers, 5. scholars in the university grievance fields………if your colleague is of the left she will either have to lie or think a bit more about her position

    • #4
  5. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    I don’t know if I have any advice, but I just finished a Air Force Office of Scientific Research program review on imaging and remote sensing and the the only woman in the room among 50 men was the program manager.  This was a particularly bad skew, but the physical sciences, particularly optics (my specialty), is overwhelmingly dominated by men.  However, the biological sciences seem to be dominated by women nowadays. There is definitely a difference between the sexes in the fields they choose to pursue, and I don’t have any idea how to change that.  It is not a problem of attrition either, the proportion of men to women in most physical science fields is the same in undergraduate school as it is in the upper reaches of the discipline.

    • #5
  6. Roberto Member
    Roberto
    @Roberto

    Tim H.:So here’s my question: What can I possibly do or say? This is such open, unashamed a defense of prejudice that I’m speechless.

    Call a spade a spade I would say. No one should be taking the opinion of these prejudiced individuals filled with such religious hatred seriously. State it clearly that unless they can behave in a more professional manner it would be wise to refrain from discussing certain topics.

    Perhaps a small quip to this person noting that the FBI does track and prosecute hate crimes committed against religious groups,  “So that if you are feeling tempted to scratch a swastika into the door of a synagogue you would be well advised to restrain yourself.” I am afraid one really must go nuclear as it were with individuals of this sort in order to have any impact at all.

    • #6
  7. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Dunno.  You are up against an entrenched logic.  Maybe always reply –

    “Four legs good.

    Two legs bad.”

    Although Orwell is maybe not considered so cool these days.

    • #7
  8. Severely Ltd. Inactive
    Severely Ltd.
    @SeverelyLtd

    You might mention that believers suffer from having the ‘God gene’ and of course can’t help it. And aren’t there studies that Conservatives have a lower I.Q. than Liberals, so they’re hapless victims as well. If she believes this stuff, she’s cruel. She can’t have it both ways.

    I’m surprised you get a lot of this in a STEM field. Good luck.

    • #8
  9. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    I can’t tell how widespread this sociological nonsense is among astronomers.  I hear it a lot on this discussion group, but I hear it from the same people, over and over.  One of them is the official person in charge of cross-posting links from the Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy.  (Astronomy has a relatively large minority of women in its ranks, but this bunch still pushes for special treatment.  They even got a women-only fellowship at one of our research centers.)

    The specialized sociology-class language of “identity” and “intersectionality” is coming from these same people.  Maybe just one person took sociology in college and thought it was really cool and wants to use the jargon on everybody, and it’s hard to argue against it, because it’s got its own special, twisted way of looking at the world:

    Me:  “No, see there’s not any evidence widespread discrimination against women in astronomy.  Women sometimes make different career choices than men, and…”

    They:  “But the heterostructures of the intersectional identities have manufactured the dominance of an F-major chord!”

    Me:  “Umm…”

    Anyway, I do my best not to reveal my personal opinions and simply argue for evenhanded tolerance.  I need to keep from making personal or hard-edged arguments, because it’s a pretty small community, and I’ve got to work with these people.  Some of the ones pushing this are friends of mine, maybe even future collaborators, and it’s best if I can avoid direct disagreements.

    • #9
  10. carlboraca@gmail.com Inactive
    carlboraca@gmail.com
    @PleatedPantsForever

    Tim H.: I need to keep from making personal or hard-edged arguments, because it’s a pretty small community, and I’ve got to work with these people. Some of the ones pushing this are friends of mine, maybe even future collaborators, and it’s best if I can avoid direct disagreement

    As the cat poster says “hang in there”.  I’ve been in a similar place many times.  Sometimes I just grin and bare it and throw in the occasional smart a$$ remark such as “like Ted Kennedy or Bill Clinton” taught us just to keep my sanity.  Otherwise, nod an smile, get home, pour a drink, and long into Ricochet.

    • #10
  11. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    Oh, now they’ve gotten our society to make an official condemnation of the [CoC] shirt.  (Our president is a friendly acquaintance of mine, so I just sigh and keep my mouth shut.)  Note the references to the harassment that the angry feminists got from (presumably non-astronomer) Twitter trolls when they gave the scientist grief over the shirt.  I would really like to say that being harassed on Twitter does not mean your ideas are correct.

    Here’s the whole text:

    November 19, 2014

    Statement from the American Astronomical Society

    The past few days have seen extensive international discussion of an incident (known online as #shirtstorm or #shirtgate) in which a participant in a European Space Agency media conference wore a shirt with sexualized images of gun-toting women and made an unfortunate remark comparing the featured spacecraft to a woman. Viewers responded critically to these inappropriate statements, especially jarring in such a highly visible setting (one in which very few women appeared), and the scientist apologized sincerely. But in the meantime, unacceptable abuse has been directed toward the critics, from criticism of “over-active feminism” to personal insults and more dire threats.

    We wish to express our support for members of the community who rightly brought this issue to the fore, and we condemn the unreasonable attacks they experienced as a result, which caused deep distress in our community. We do appreciate the scientist’s sincere and unqualified apology.

    The AAS has a clear anti-harassment policy (http://aas.org/policies/anti-harassment-policy), which prohibits “verbal comments or physical actions of a sexual nature” and “a display of sexually suggestive objects or pictures.” Had the offending images appeared and comments been made under the auspices of the AAS, they would be in clear violation of our policy.

    We also note the important sentiments that preface the policy:
    As a professional society, the AAS must provide an environment that encourages the free expression and exchange of scientific ideas. In pursuit of that environment, the AAS is committed to the philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. All functions of the Society must be conducted in a professional atmosphere in which all participants are treated with courtesy and respect…

    The AAS Council reaffirms the importance of the Society’s anti-harassment policy to our mission to enhance and share humanity’s scientific understanding of the universe. Only when all astronomers feel welcome and supported in the profession can our discipline realize its full potential for excellence.

    • #11
  12. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Tim H.:

    philosophy of equality of opportunity and treatment for all members, regardless of gender, gender identity or expression, race, color, national or ethnic origin, religion or religious belief, age, marital status, sexual orientation, disabilities, veteran status, or any other reason not related to scientific merit. All functions of the Society must be conducted in a professional atmosphere in which all participants are treated with courtesy and respect…

    What are you complaining about then?  Report them.  I jest.  Actually if you can’t win by argument it all goes underground.

    • #12
  13. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Tim H.:I can’t tell how widespread this sociological nonsense is among astronomers.

    “Science is a social construct.”  Does any person in hard sciences agree with that one?

    • #13
  14. Mark Thatcher
    Mark
    @GumbyMark

    Well, in response to my plea for even-handed tolerance, I was told that it is “inappropriate and offensive” to make any comparison between discrimination against race or sex or sexual orientation (which are said to be unchangeable and are grouped under the heading of “identities”), and discrimination against religion or creed (which, she said, you can pick and change).

    Actually, this statement regarding race, sex and sexual orientation is not correct under current academic theory.  All of these are mere social constructs imposed by the white male heteronormative power structure and which the oppressed individual can alter in accordance with their desired reality.

    • #14
  15. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Tim H.:

    Me: “No, see there’s not any evidence widespread discrimination against women in astronomy. Women sometimes make different career choices than men, and…”

    They: “But the heterostructures of the intersectional identities have manufactured the dominance of an F-major chord!”

    Me: “Umm…”

    I am a firm believer that all such conversations should be responded to with “what.”  Followed by the classic Samuel L. Jackson link which is not CoC compliant.

    I don’t have any advice for you.  I do the same thing -but I’m actually outed as a winger among my immediate colleagues.  It doesn’t matter.  Anyway, I’m pulling for you.  We’re all in this together…

    • #15
  16. FightinInPhilly Coolidge
    FightinInPhilly
    @FightinInPhilly

    I’ve found myself in this position a few times over the years. I’ve occasionally gotten some traction with response along the following lines: “I appreciate your guidance but feel compelled to point out that your position of power relative to mine is one of great responsibility and your apparent inclination to silence the minority opinion in this discussion is sadly reflective of more traditional uses of this power construct. Diversity of opinion is the strength of this group- don’t you agree ?”

    • #16
  17. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Another aspect to the double-standard:

    The people complaining about this man’s shirt are, essentially, saying that the European Space Agency should have a dress code forbidding images of women in sexually-provocative clothing.

    At the same time, we all know what happens when a school board tries to impose a dress code forbidding young women from wearing sexually-provocative clothing.

    It makes me hypothesize about the reaction had the interviewee been a female astrophysicist dressed in the same manner as one of the cartoon women on his shirt. I wager that she would have been hailed as a pioneer who was “owning” her sexuality in a male-dominated work environment.

    (On the other hand, some might lament that this poor hypothetical woman worked in such a coercively misogynistic envir0nment that she felt she was required to dress provocatively.)

    One might also hypothesize about the reaction if this man had been dressed like Sean Connery in Zardoz. I’m guessing that he would not have been hailed as a pioneer “owning” his sexuality (unless, maybe, he was LGTB).

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Another thought: How many of the complaints about this man’s attire are coming from Europe, and how many are coming from America?

    This wasn’t an American mission. It was a mission of the European Space Agency.

    Why the heck should the ESA give a flying fig what American pundits think of its dress code policies?

    I wager that NASA’s dress code would not permit a mission head to wear that sort of clothing on the biggest day of the project when the world’s media were in the building to watch.

    So, when American pundits claim that this man’s shirt is “evidence” that women aren’t welcome in STEM workplaces, it’s a blatant lie.

    The shirt is, at best, “evidence” that women aren’t welcome at the European Space Agency, and that NASA would actually be a far more “progressive” work environment because it makes its mission leaders wear more “conservative” attire.

    The mission team for the Mars Science Laboratory. At least six women in the photo, and zero Hawaiian shirts.

    • #18
  19. user_124695 Inactive
    user_124695
    @DavidWilliamson

    It seems the Astronomy community needs to run Sexual Harassment training courses, as is required in all (as far as I know) US companies.

    They would then know that you have to be extremely careful not to offend anyone, especially, err, women and other minorities, who have special protections under the Law.

    So, especially no artwork of scantily clad women, as used to be seen on garage workshop calendars. And that would include, err, shirts.

    I’m sure Galileo would be impressed by how civilization has advanced since his persecution by the Catholic church.

    Update: It seems NASA runs Harassment training classes. Of course they do.

    Oh, BTW, my profile pic was taken at the Mauna Kea Observatories – no Hawaiian shirt :-(

    • #19
  20. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    David Williamson: It seems the Astronomy community needs to run Sexual Harassment training courses, as is required in all (as far as I know) US companies.

    I wager that NASA employees already do.

    Basically, this whole kurfuffle boils down to American pundits wagging their fingers at a European organization.

    Update: Oh, you mentioned that…

    • #20
  21. EstoniaKat Inactive
    EstoniaKat
    @ScottAbel

    If I land something on a comet, I am going to go all day without pants.

    • #21
  22. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Sabrdance: Anyway, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together…

    “Keep your stick on the ice.”

    • #22
  23. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Z in MT:

    Sabrdance: Anyway, I’m pulling for you. We’re all in this together…

    “Keep your stick on the ice.”

    “Don’t let your meat loaf.”

    • #23
  24. Douglas Inactive
    Douglas
    @Douglas

    At the risk of ticking off the author, the worst thing about science is scientists. I know I’m not the only one that was driven away from a fascination of things like astronomy (used to have a telescope and enthusiastically participate in web groups) by scientists themselves, and their fanboys (see: the Neil DeGrasse Tyson cult). The “I effing Love Science” crowd really sealed the deal for me, but it started in college with professors bad-mouthing religious faith, and continued into the 90’s with the new atheist wave that was enthusiastically supported by scientists. I used to read the pop-sci books… Hawking and such… but eventually just couldn’t stand to be in the same crowd with the “fans” of science. The scientists were bad enough, but then they got their pop culture mob, and became even worse.

    I’ve thought about buying another telescope and introducing my little boy to the night sky, but if I do so, it’ll be alone. The people in science, and their whole “If you’re not with us, you’re against us” shtick ruined the fun of it for me.

    • #24
  25. J Flei Inactive
    J Flei
    @Solon

    As my dad used to say:  “Liberals accept everyone – except for anyone who disagrees with them.”

    This shirt controversy is pathetic.  I suspect that we all know that here, and we are all with you and feel your frustration.

    Also, you should have seen the dildo shirt the astronomer was going to wear.

    • #25
  26. RPD Member
    RPD
    @RPD

    Tim H.: “I need to keep from making personal or hard-edged arguments”

    Unfortunately this is the major problem with these people. They have no problem running roughshod over those they disagree with.  I have little doubt that if you were to confront them, they would do their best ostracise you from the profession.  I wish luck with them.

    • #26
  27. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Douglas: I know I’m not the only one that was driven away from a fascination of things like astronomy (used to have a telescope and enthusiastically participate in web groups) by scientists themselves, and their fanboys (see: the Neil DeGrasse Tyson cult).

    That wasn’t my experience.

    My experience was that the science I learned in class couldn’t possibly hold my attention like the whiz-bang neat-o science that I saw on PBS.

    PBS science shows had explosions and graphics and travel and movement and colours, etc, etc, etc.  All science class had to offer was textbooks, math, and multiple-choice exams.

    More of the “I f-ing love science” fanboys during my formative years might have helped me pay more attention.

    • #27
  28. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Severely Ltd.: I’m surprised you get a lot of this in a STEM field. Good luck.

    I’m not. Radical secularists are sadly drawn to STEM professions.

    • #28
  29. Umbra Fractus Inactive
    Umbra Fractus
    @UmbraFractus

    Tim H.: Some of the ones pushing this are friends of mine,

    Why? I understand the need to work with these people, but why be “friends” with someone who so clearly holds you in contempt?

    • #29
  30. Severely Ltd. Inactive
    Severely Ltd.
    @SeverelyLtd

    Scott Abel:If I land something on a comet, I am going to go all day without pants.

    You don’t need to achieve anything in today’s society to celebrate or be celebrated, it’s all about unearned self-esteem. Go ahead and whip those pants off just for being you, wonderful you!

    • #30

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