Free speech for Tim Hunt … but not his critics


Tim Hunt apologists employ a classic tactic in dismissing gender discrimination.

Gee, who could have seen that coming?

Tim Hunt made offensive comments about women scientists in front of a group of women scientists. He apologized and he resigned.

Many men feel very bad about this.

No, not bad about the fact that Hunt felt free to humiliate women at a meeting designed to honor them. Be serious! They felt bad that any male scientist should be held to account for his not so subtle put down.

And they did just what white men have always done when confronted with their own gender bias. They pretended that Hunt was “misheard,” though there were literally hundreds of witnesses. They pretended that he was misunderstood; it was only a joke, even though such jokes ARE gender bias. They pretended that the woman who broke the story lied about it, and then, predictably, they combed through her life to discredit her by tearing it apart.

Obviously Hunt made offensive statements. He himself admitted it. Obviously, it makes no difference if it were a joke, since jokes at women’s expense are evidence of gender bias. And destroying the reputation of the woman who broke the story, while satisfying to Hunt apologists, and designed to send a warning to other women who might report on similar offensive behavior, doesn’t change the fact that St. Louis reported the truth.

There are a few apologists that are willing to acknowledge the obvious, but then minimize its significance. Jonathan Dimbleby, a broadcaster and writer has resigned his honorary appointment at University College of London, in solidarity with Tim Hunt.

According to Dimbleby:

This is not an offence that should be enough to ensure a distinguished scientist should be told to resign his position.

Woah! What’s next? Donating the proceeds from sale of his unicorn? Nothing like demonstrating your support (resigning an honorary post) in a way that changes nothing and costs you nothing.

At least Dimbleby acknowledges that Hunt’s behavior was indeed offensive.

He explained:

The college has a long and honourable tradition of defending free speech however objectionable it may be. Sir Tim made a very poor joke and it quite rightly backfired. He then apologised for that.

Why do men like Dimbleby have such trouble understanding a concept as basic as free speech? Free speech means that you are free from government control of your speech. It does NOT mean that are free from consequences of your speech.

The government of the UK did not prevent Tim Hunt from speaking his mind. That doesn’t mean that the University College of London isn’t equally free to condemn him for what he said. Curiously, Hunt’s apologists don’t seem to think that their expansive definition of “free speech” applies to Connie St. Louis. Many have gleefully torn her reputation to shreds when there is no evidence of that her reporting of Hunt’s behavior was anything other than truthful.

Dimbleby goes on to say:

The idea that serious grown-up women thinking of pursuing a science career, and thinking of going to UCL to do so, would be put off by an elderly professor saying something silly then apologising for it seems bizarre.

You don’t say, Dimbleby. When was the last time someone made a joke at your expense about your gender, race, or religion? I’m betting never, so you lack the authority and experience to opine what a target of Hunt’s bias would or would not feel about it.

Moreover … and let me see if I can spell it in terms Hunt’s apologists can understand … the issue is not the joke. The issue is the gender bias behind the joke. Someone who feels free to make women the butt of his jokes at a conference designed to honor women may be so clueless about his own gender bias that he feels equally free to display and act on it in his treatment of his female graduate students.

Tim Hunt was entirely free to make offensive remarks to women. Connie St. Louis was entirely free to report his remarks. UCL was entirely free to condemn him for it.

The fact that apologists think there should be no consequences for Hunt’s speech, but condemnation and worse for those who were offended by it is a classic tactic in dismissing gender bias, and it is unacceptable.