Thursday, November 20, 2014

Culture Shock 11.20.14: Bullying spoils science achievement

And then the shirt hit the fan....
And then the shirt hit the fan....
The perpetually aggrieved are why we can't have nice things.

Last week, the European Space Agency did something incredible. It landed an unmanned spacecraft, launched more than 10 years ago, on a comet roughly 300 million miles away.

To give you a ballpark idea how far that is, the average distance from Earth to the moon is 238,900 miles. From the Earth to Mars is 140 million miles. And from here to Jupiter is 484 million miles.

It was an amazing feat of science and engineering, and for a little while, those of us who weren't alive for the Apollo moon missions got just a little taste of what it must have been like to watch Neil Armstrong take his "one small step" into the history books.

It isn't likely a lot of people will recall where they were and what they were doing when they heard a probe had touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. With a name like that, it isn't likely many people will remember 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko at all. But in the annals of space exploration, the Rosetta mission is a pretty big deal.

That's why it's so frustrating that all some people could talk about afterward was one rocket scientist's bowling shirt. Matt Taylor, the lead mission scientist, made the mistake of thinking he could wear a shirt, made by a friend and given to him for his birthday, during the live Internet feed for the Philae lander's touchdown. Little did he suspect that doing so would make him a target for people who search for reasons to be offended.

The shirt wasn't stereotypical "rocket scientist" gear. It was covered with cartoon images of sexy women holding guns and posing provocatively, the sort of thing you used to see painted on the side of vans. Suddenly, Taylor's accomplishment wasn't the story; his "sexist" shirt was.

The most shrill response came from The Verge, which went after Taylor and the ESA in an article headlined "I don't care if you landed a spacecraft on a comet, your shirt is sexist and ostracizing." ("Ostracizing"? Really?) The article, by Chris Plante and Arielle Duhaime-Ross, goes on to say, "This is the sort of casual misogyny that stops women from entering certain scientific fields."

That sentiment was echoed by other bloggers and on Twitter. It didn't matter that the friend who made the shirt for him, Elly Prizeman, is a woman, who took to her own blog to defend Taylor and thank him for the "sweet gesture" of wearing it on one of the most important days of his life.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I was taught that women could do any job men could do, that women were just as tough as men, that they didn't need knights in shining armor to protect them and should be just as free with their sexuality as men have always been. That was feminism.

What passes for feminism now, however, says women are afraid to go into science-related fields because male co-workers might wear loud bowling shirts sewn by their female friends. It says those female friends are mindless dupes of the patriarchy. And because I'm a male, this strain of feminism says I need to shut up, "check my privilege" and stop "mansplaining." I'm especially not supposed to have an opinion about what feminism is, nor cite any female scholars or writers who agree with me.

Bloomberg View columnist Virginia Postrel coined a wonderful term for this feminism of constant outrage: "link-bait feminism." Find any slight, real or imagined, no matter how small, and take offense. Blog about it, attach a sensational headline, and watch the outrage go viral. Rarely is the outrage even genuine.

This sort of cynical offense-stoking cheapens feminism and renders it increasingly irrelevant. Only 23 percent of U.S. women identify as feminists, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. The brand is tainted, because link-bait feminism isn't really about equal rights, equal pay or reproductive rights. It's about a right not to be offended, even if you're only pretending to be offended. That's not feminism; it's Puritanism.

The link-bait feminists won the battle. They bullied Taylor into a tearful apology. But with any luck, this is the overreach that will cost them the war, allowing feminism to become relevant again.

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