Brendan O’Neill writes about criticism of Tim Hunt at Reason. His analysis of how political correctness operates in the academy is correct. This movement, and its cruel ability to cow people, has been a long time in the making. I was a professor in the 1980s and 1990s, as the PC movement found its legs. Before that, college and university administrators cravenly caved to students, and student organizations, who practiced not just civil disobedience but violence during the Vietnam war. The academy has had at least two generations to reach this point.
When the next victim comes up – and we will see the movement serve up more hate – that victim may also feel forced to resign from a university position. One hopes for a university administration that says, in a letter addressed to the pack: “We decline to accept this resignation, and here’s why.” Then the administrators explain why they do not accept it, in words that leave no mistake about the character of a movement that sees a person’s disgrace as a victorious moment to savor.
You will never see a letter like that from university administrators. You can’t even tell whether the administrators are merely weak, or if they actually agree with the people who press them all around. You have the feeling that their main motive is to avoid trouble.
Another interesting development in the movement’s growth indicates that Twitter and other instantaneous means of communication lend the movement inordinate power. Witnessing this connection, however, does not explain it. We believe or hope that deliberation, reflection, judiciousness, and wisdom do not yield to fulminations of cyber-mobs. In particular, we hope these qualities of mind and argumentation reside in the academy, if not in other parts of life. As it is, other parts of life demonstrate these qualities far more than the academy. Life at the university begins to feel like life in Lord of the Flies.
Female scientists who know Tim Hunt say he does not deserve this treatment, who has experienced rejection not only from anonymous critics, but from people he knows. Yet sanctimony has become the movement’s essence, as it spews ridicule and malice toward anyone who steps out of line, for any reason. To be sanctimonious is to make a show of being morally superior to other people. The movement has power now, but its power is based on nothing outside of its own self-righteousness. The methods it uses do not win sympathy for the groups it defends. Their aggression against open, free speech, and against verbal mistakes, merely creates sanctioned orthodoxies that the movement must enforce to stay on top.
If only one university president with a reputation for integrity would publicly repudiate this movement, it would collapse. The movement has become well entrenched, so its power might ebb rapidly or slowly, rather than collapse. The outcome is worthwhile no matter how long it takes to arrive. If one academic leader speaks the truth, as O’Neill’s article does, others would recognize the terrible damage already inflicted on academic integrity and freedom. If one leader stood up for distinguished scientists like Tim Hunt, others would recognize what they must do to protect the integrity of their institutions.
Interestingly, Joseph McCarthy’s downfall in 1954 came in the context of character assassination, which is what happened to Tim Hunt. Joseph Welch, an attorney at the Army-McCarthy hearings, stood up to McCarthy, to defend a colleague whom McCarthy had publicly attacked. McCarthyism collapsed. The following account is from Wikipedia‘s article on Welch:
On June 9, 1954, the 30th day of the Army–McCarthy hearings, McCarthy accused Fred Fisher, one of the junior attorneys at Welch’s law firm, of associating while in law school with the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), a group that J. Edgar Hoover sought to have the U.S. attorney general designate as a Communist front organization. Welch had privately discussed the matter with Fisher and the two agreed Fisher should withdraw from the hearings. Welch dismissed Fisher’s association with the NLG as a youthful indiscretion and attacked McCarthy for naming the young man before a nationwide television audience without prior warning or previous agreement to do so:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale and Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale and Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.”
When McCarthy tried to renew his attack, Welch interrupted him:
“Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
McCarthy tried to ask Welch another question about Fisher, and Welch interrupted:
“Mr. McCarthy, I will not discuss this further with you. You have sat within six feet of me and could have asked me about Fred Fisher. You have seen fit to bring it out. And if there is a God in Heaven it will do neither you nor your cause any good. I will not discuss it further. I will not ask Mr. Cohn any more questions. You, Mr. Chairman, may, if you will, call the next witness.”
I can’t stay away from this topic, because it means something to me. I lost an academic position way back, almost twenty years ago, not because of something I said in a speech, but it did happen because someone wanted to get me fired. Some people speak poison, and others believe them.
Today I received an email message from a reader critical of my comments about Tim Hunt. A female engineer who works with mostly male colleagues, she sometimes experiences offensive treatment from men. In her message, she lists several incidents of misbehavior that bothered her at the time, and clearly bother her still. She ends by saying, the next time you write on a subject like this, take the trouble to learn what you’re writing about.
I am completely perplexed by the illogic of an argument like that. It shows, upfront, how resentful people might think that it’s alright to pillory a man in public, in order to disgrace him, due to the sins of many others. To do so is the essence of scapegoating. Dr. Hunt becomes a target for all the resentments, antagonism, and desire for retribution that builds up when you see people misbehave and get away with it.
Forget whether Tim Hunt actually mistreats women during his professional life. What matters is a mistake he made in a public speech: a misdirected try at light humor, in circumstances where even a small misstep brings forth venom from every quarter. Make the man pay. Do not give him a chance to explain himself, or say anything in response to the people who attack him. Tar him with tweets, and run him out of his profession. Shun him to punish others’ sins.
Treatment of Tim Hunt illustrates why the practice of scapegoating appears so ugly.