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Many 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?Published in