Culture of Outrage
The Persecution of a Nobel Laureate

The story of Timothy Hunt, the British Nobel Laureate in Biology whose career was ruined in a flash this summer by misleading allegations of sexism, is a story about the convergence of some of the most destructive trends in modern Western intellectual culture: vindictive political correctness, social media shaming, fact-free reporting, and academic spinelessness. The current issue of Commentary has an authoritative feature story by Jonathan Foreman on the Twitter-driven persecution of the hapless 72-year old scientist whose comments about women in science to a room full of reporters were maliciously misinterpreted to cast him as a misogynist:

Speaking for fewer than five minutes, Hunt praised female scientists with whom he has worked, and then he said this:

“It’s strange that 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 criticize them, they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls.”

It is not clear whether Hunt had already mentioned that he and his wife met and fell in love when they were working in his lab, or whether he assumed that everyone in the room was aware of this fact and therefore the context of the remark. Hunt continued: “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 the obstacles and despite monsters like me!”

A few hours after the lunch, a British science journalist named Connie St. Louis sent out a tweet to her followers that read: Nobel scientist Tim Hunt FRS says at Korean women lunch “I’m a chauvinist and keep ‘girls’ single lab.

Shared more than 600 times, the St. Louis tweet ignited a combined Internet, social-media, and then print-media firestorm with astonishing speed.

From that point, it was only a matter of days before Hunt was ejected from University College London and the Royal Society with apparently no attempt on the part of these institutions to discern what Hunt had actually said, besides glancing at outraged tweets. Like so many people confronted by a social media mob, Hunt felt compelled to apologize, and barely resisted the outrageous punishments and condemnations heaped upon him.

Some of Foreman’s most compelling passages come when he tries to place the Tim Hunt saga in political context. He describes the ideology that brought Hunt down as

a phenomenon that combines modern ideology with quasi-Victorian notions of “respectable” behavior and feminine fragility. For these witch-hunters, there can be no toleration of “inappropriate” speech by the contemporary equivalent of “Society.” The wrong kind of joke, breed of joke-teller, or even the wrong political opinion, moreover, creates a “hostile environment” that supposedly intimidates the sensitive victim to such a degree that she cannot function on an equal level. The Hunt affair shows that this way of thinking doesn’t hold sway on American campuses alone. It has crossed the Atlantic and spread outward and upward.

This seems to be an accurate assessment. We have commented before on the strain of social liberalism that manifests itself as “a distinctive mix of cultural libertarianism on the one hand and cultural Victorianism on the other.” Many of the people heaping invective at Hunt did so just as much out of their support for female professional empowerment as they did out of their conviction that society must zealously punish those who expose women to offensive thoughts.

Foreman’s article, besides offering incisive analysis of the various insidious trends that define modern outrage culture, reminds us that it has real victims—in this case, a brilliant scientist whose standing with the public has been needlessly shattered. Read the whole thing.

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