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THE ETERNAL RETURN OF THE SHAME: TIM HUNT, SHAMING AND TROLLING ONLINE

Guest post by Stephen Lee Naish

Coincidently, around the time of British Nobel-winning biochemist Tim Hunt’s chauvinist comments regarding female scientists in
the lab, I was reading British journalist Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve
Been Publically Shamed
. Here Ronson investigates the numerous people who
have had their ill-advised tweets or comments scrutinized and shared
bringing a whole world of vitriol their way. The book’s most famous and notorious
shamed personality is the pop psychology writer Jonah Lehrer, who in 2012 had been
outed as having fabricated Bob Dylan quotations for a book on creativity, and had
self-plagiarized his own work in numerous columns. Despite reading about the
savagery of public shaming, I partook in Tim Hunt’s very public disgracing with
the following tweet dated June 10, 2015.

#TimHunt Massive
Virgin!

This isn’t
some regretful apology or request for forgiveness. I pictured Mr.
Hunt (and still do) as an older, but no less annoying Will Mckenzie from The
Inbetweeners
; uncomfortable around
girls, unable to lose his virginity, and constantly mocked by his “mates”
for being a “massive virgin” and a “briefcase wanker.” Although in my haste to
join the masses in the public flogging I did overlook the fact that Hunt is
happily married, with two daughters, indicating that he has partaken in sexual
intercourse at least twice, and therefore virginity doesn’t quite apply. However, there
is something else I and many of his accusers have neglected to notice, or at
least acknowledge. The comments he made, as misguided as they were, had another
context that was ejected from the original foray. The full speech delivered to a
room of female scientists reads as follows:

“It’s strange
that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women
scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen
when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with
you, and when you criticise them they cry.“

This is the part
of the speech that has been reprinted countless times and by itself causes no
end of offences. However, Hunt followed this up with:

"Perhaps we
should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by
the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt
an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite
all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

The content is certainly thoughtless and chauvinistic, coming from
the mouth of an elder male, well established in the scientific community.
However, Hunt wears his chauvinism on his sleeve; and at the very least acknowledges
and mocks his own male shortcomings. This is not to say that Hunt’s comments
were okay, given that he offered context, but it does shed light on the media,
and the blogosphere’s interpretation of events. In 2011, television presenter
and columnist, Jeremy Clarkson, was victim (if he has ever been a real victim
of anything) of a similar contextual mishap. When asked on The One Show how he would deal with striking public sector workers,
Clarkson, with tongue firmly in cheek, stated,

"I
would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how
dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going
to be guaranteed, while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

As
disgraceful as Clarkson has proved himself to be, his comments, printed in bold-type,
as they would have appeared in countless tabloids, take on an almost
sinister tone. The video footage however offers a different perspective, a
befuddled middle-aged man being childish, and attempting to be humorous and
controversial. The calls for Clarkson’s head came from far and wide. At this
point he managed to hold on to his job, but when he physically assaulted a
television producer earlier this year, the public quite rightly outraged him
out of a job. Both Hunt and Clarkson
publically apologised for their offhanded comments and actions, but still lost their respectable positions.

Ronson’s
book draws the conclusion that Twitter-shaming amounts to a modern take on medieval public
floggings. However, there is something even more sinister about shaming, or
trolling on the internet. The anonymity, and often the distance, that the
internet offers means you never have to face the victim, but instead form a safe
worldwide group mentality that is happy to offer repeated and prolonged stabs
to the victim’s back. The real problem is that we learn nothing by taking this
stance. We are uninterested in looking at context or even accepting an apology.
Nobody can change the “group-think” mindset. The accused also learns
nothing by being hounded out of a career. Instead, they form a defensive posture, and no matter how foolish they have been, they stand up for what they have
done, which draws even more ire from the accusers. Tim Hunt is just another
participant in a never-ending merry-go-around that involves an ever-changing
list of accusers and accused.

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