In the past week there has been a lot of talk about sexism in science. I don’t want to rehash any of the arguments (though you can hear some of my views on Radio 4 and in the Telegraph). One might summarize it like this, just to set the stage:
1. Some silly, ill-thought-out comments were made by a high-profile scientist in a very public venue, as an attempt at humor
2. The comments were shared widely via social media
3. Many people thought the comments, even if delivered in jest, were damaging to the cause of parity; others didn’t see what all the fuss was about
4. Much commentary ensued, both in mainstream and social media channels as well as in emailing lists and in the tea rooms of academia and beyond
5. Perhaps predictably, the backlash instigated a backlash, which in turn spawned a counter-backlash, and a counter-counter-backlash…so on, as the ripples radiate further afield and begin their inevitable dissipation into the vast, short-term memoried milieu of the media sea
The current reigning trope seems to be about how social media is a spiteful and devastating weapon, a kangaroo court that can decimate a reputation in minutes flat. A piece yesterday in the Guardian ascribed to Twitter “innate cruelty” and “savage power”. But while social media may at times have this effect, it can also be a strong force for good – a conduit for protest, a way to share knowledge with a swift efficiency never before possible in the history of the world. It can boost a lone cry escaping the censorship of a repressed regime, or a small-town mindset, or a lonely city of millions. With social media, even the most insignificant voice might be amplified so that all can hear. So is tarring the entire medium with one brush really fair?
First off, everyone will see their own version of social media: my timeline is not the same as your timeline. The people I follow might be more reasonable that the timeline of a troll. Can we assign one modus operandi to a medium fractured into a billion personal pathways?
From my filtered end of it, the commentary was as varied in tone as human nature itself: measured and balanced; or humorous; or outraged; or bewildered; or hostile. Some called for heads to roll; some called for sympathy; some called for people to lighten up; some called for censoring all feminist response; some used the opportunity to widen and refresh a discussion of the underlying issues. (My step-daughter’s science class even used the affair as a basis for a lesson.) Social media was neither good nor bad; it was simply media, a channel for people to air their views in a global discussion. Do we kill the messenger, and vilify the people who had genuine concerns and wished to exert their right to air them? Or do we celebrate the fact that Twitter, Facebook and its ilk can help everyday people, not just the privileged few, make their cases public – the good, the bad and the ugly?
Actions have consequences. Ill-judged, damaging comments will provoke response, and the people who make them, for better or for worse, need to understand that there may well be unpleasant repercussions – even inappropriately harsh ones. The responses will be varied. But the people responding have a right to be heard. Free debate is not ‘dystopian’- even when it goes against your opinion, or unfairly damages a reputation. This is the nature of free speech. We reap its benefits, and we also, if we’re unlucky, feel the sting of its tail.