Freedom of speech in academia - Livre d'Or

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Freedom of speech in academia
Thursday, 18 June 2015 at 05:18 pm

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I confess, I'm feeling a little depressed about the whole Tim Hunt thing. Partly because Hunt's work is foundational to mine, so he's someone I looked up to, and it's always a blow when you learn that your heroes have feet of clay.

Partly because I do feel directly targeted in some ways, as a female scientist trying to get by in what is in some ways still a male-centric if not completely male-dominated world. I mean, I can't claim I've never ever cried over problems at work. And I'm struggling with imposter syndrome and anxiety over my future in academic science right now anyway. Intellectually, I think Tim Hunt was talking arrant nonsense and he's nothing but a sexist dinosaur advertising just how out-of-touch he is. But emotionally, when I'm already having a hard time, it's hard not to add to my pile of worries the one that I'm maybe just not resilient enough for this career. I mean, plenty of women are in fact just as hard-nosed as any man and never let their emotions get in the way of their work, and most of the time I don't think being emotionally repressed makes you a better scientist anyway, regardless of gender. Just, I can't claim that I personally don't have the flaws that Hunt attributes to women scientists, whom he persists in referring to as "girls", and frankly he deserves most of the flak he's getting just for that. (Talking of terminology, I saw the rather sweet comment on Twitter that scientist was originally coined as a gender-neutral term for man of science, so really female scientists should be the unmarked case, we should be saying scientists / male scientists.)

Be that as it may, a lot of what's upsetting me about Hunt is the backlash. I think the outcome of his awful remarks has been really proportionate and appropriate: He's resigned from his honorary positions. Note: he wasn't sacked, he didn't even lose his job, he semi-voluntarily left honorary positions, because UCL and the European Research Council and other prestigious scientific organizations don't want to continue giving honour to someone who behaves like a sexist shit in public. And yet both mainstream media and the internet are full of horrified think-pieces about how it's terrible that such a great scientist could lose his job over holding the wrong opinions.

I agree that Hunt is a great scientist, as I said, I admire his work greatly and it's a big part of what paved the way for my own research. And I don't doubt that he has been a good mentor to many junior scientists, including women, because sexist men very often do make exceptions for women they're attracted to (Hunt's own wife is a feminist and a high-flying scientist and I think they met when she was working for him, even), or for women who don't seem threateningly feminine and whom they count as honorary men. But he's not doing great science or great mentoring right now, he's being paid a retainer to be a celebrity, a sort of ambassador for science, as it were. Which means that precisely the job that he lost was to promote science, and making public statements directly to journalists that "girls" are bad for science because they cry and make male scientists think #distractinglysexy thoughts is in fact directly harming the institutions that were paying him.

And goodness knows it's harming women's careers and therefore harming science itself, because every good person we lose because she can't handle any more sexism makes progress slower. Why this hand-wringing over the loss of a great man for holding the wrong opinions, when there are thousands of great women who are lost, or who never get the chance to show how great they are, because there is no possible set of opinions women can hold which makes them acceptable to a sexist world? Again, it seems to come down to this meme that white men in positions of privilege (and you really don't get much more privileged than an honorary professor trading on his Nobel prize) have a seemingly unlimited right to say whatever they like, no matter how much it hurts other people who already face discrimination and exclusion. Whereas anybody who has a problem with this is censoring free speech.

I'm depressed because many of the people who are supposed to be on my side are also responding in ways I find counterproductive. One, making jokes about how Tim Hunt's name rhymes with the C-word. I mean, seriously, mocking people's names is playground bullying, it has no place in political discourse. Also, calling Tim Hunt a cunt is in my mind rather more sexist than Tim Hunt calling female colleagues "girls". But that's just individuals who think it's funny, there's no official feminist party line that "Tim Hunt! rhyming slang! lol!" is an acceptable response.

I think I'm more worried about the catastrophizing, the views that this proves that all of science is irredeemably sexist, it just feels really really defeatist. I mean, my experience has always been that cell biology is reasonably egalitarian, not perfectly, of course, but this kind of overt sexism has caused a big fuss precisely because it is rare and it isn't acceptable within my scientific community. In some ways I want to be celebrating that the right outcome occurred, here: a very, very famous and respected scientist made outrageous remarks, and suffered proportionate consequences, he wasn't protected by his massive amounts of influence and prestige in the field, even a Nobel laureate can't get away with dismissing the work of a whole gender. (I only wish James Watson had been similarly "hung out to dry" when he spouted off a bunch of scientific racism a few years ago, and he's always been disgustingly sexist besides. But he is a whole order of magnitude more famous than Hunt, he's a celebrity to people who aren't biologists.)

I'm connecting this case in my mind with the situation of American academic Laura Kipnis. She wrote a completely dreadful article titled sexual paranoia strikes academe, where she complains about how measures to prevent sexual harassment and tackle rape culture mean that:
Students were being encouraged to regard themselves as such exquisitely sensitive creatures that an errant classroom remark could impede their education, as such hothouse flowers that an unfunny joke was likely to create lasting trauma.
She tells a long anecdote where she mocks a student for experiencing PTSD after a sexual assault by a professor. She complains about using the language of survivors of sexual violence because the word should be confined to people who lived through the Nazi death camps (!) And she jumps on the bandwagon of how providing trigger warnings in an academic context makes students committed to their own vulnerability, conditioned to imagine they have no agency.

As a result, complaints were brought against Kipnis based on the American Title IX law which I don't understand the details of but it's to do with gender equality in university educational settings [ETA: see [personal profile] elf's clarification]. Her article about her experiences of being subjected to this complaint and how she felt she was denied any kind of due process is paywalled, but there's a summary here. I am somewhat suspicious of Kipnis' account, it just too conveniently feeds into the narrative she's already constructed that taking action against academics who sexually harass students constitutes a striking abridgment of everyone’s freedom. However, I do worry about the contrast between Hunt's experience and Kipnis'. Hunt said something as a direct public statement to journalists that was completely inappropriate, and directly impacted on his ability to do his job of being an ambassador for his institution and for science, and ended up resigning from honorary positions, probably under some degree of pressure. Kipnis wrote an opinion article which I strongly disagree with, but to my mind legitimately expressing her views, and she found herself facing nearly unanswerable and very damaging charges and put into a situation that amounts to being intimidated into shutting up. Now, it is the case that charges against Kipnis were eventually dropped and she did keep her job, but still, I think there is potentially a real academic freedom issue, much more so than with Hunt.

But I don't think the problem here is those dreadful social justice warriors and feminists who want students to be able to access education without being sexually harassed and assaulted. Nor is the problem offering trigger warnings so that students can prepare themselves to deal with disturbing and upsetting material. Making more effort to address rape culture and to be sensitive to the needs of trauma survivors are not an attack on academic freedom. These efforts are an extension of academic freedom, because they mean that people who have been, or are at risk of being, victims of sexual violence are much more likely to be able to add their voices to the discourse whereas without such measures they might have been shut out through fear for their own safety.

I agree with Amanda Taub's response to the debate, that a bigger threat to academic freedom than political correctness, is the corporatization of universities. Universities that are profit-focused instead of being part of public infrastructure, universities that treat students as customers rather than members of the community of learners, these are places where academic freedom is undermined. If a university is a business competing in a marketplace, they need to worry about their brand, they need to make sure that everything all the academics say is on-message. That's a problem for academic freedom. Universities that aim to cut costs by casualizing and disempowering academic labour are also contributing to an environment where would-be academics have to be extremely careful about what they say in public, and even in what they publish in the traditional academic sense. The problem is not that students are too sensitive, the problem is that shareholders and suchlike holders of the purse-strings are too sensitive.

Moreover, there's a far bigger threat to academic freedom that isn't being mentioned in much of the debate on trigger warnings and whether sexism and racism by academics should actually have consequences. Namely the government interfering with what can be taught and discussed and researched at universities in the name of preventing "terrorism". I am going to talk mainly about the UK situation which affects me directly, although my Kipnis example and Taub's astute comments come from the American context.

I am very, very concerned that everybody is bleating about academic freedom when it comes to the right of influential white men to make statements which reinforce existing power structures, but nobody is talking about the effect on academic freedom of making universities enforce draconian immigration restrictions. The thing where non-EU students in the UK have to report to an UK Visas & Immigration inspector every month and show all their papers. And where academics have to report our students to the border police if they don't show up for teaching at least a minimum number of times per week, and any time they travel either to visit their families or to attend academic conferences and carry out fieldwork internationally. And in some circumstances foreign students have to prove said attendance by providing samples of collagen, a protein from the skin which uniquely identifies anyone but identical twins, when they sign in. Because apparently signatures or ID cards or passports or even fingerprints aren't good enough for UKV&I because they can be forged. Right now students are "only" getting deported for not having their papers in order or not meeting the attendance requirements, but the machinery is perfectly well in place for deporting people for expressing the wrong opinions.

And what's worse is that the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, which comes into force next month, creates a positive statutory duty on universities to identify individuals vulnerable to being drawn into terrorism and to share information about vulnerable individuals ie report them to authorities including the police. This duty very much includes so-called non-violent extremism, defined as
vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.
And we have plenty of experience that "opposing British values" is a more often than not dogwhistle for "being openly Muslim". The new law hasn't even come into force yet, but we already have too many examples of people being punished or even criminalized for researching politically undesirable topics.

We're sleepwalking into a seriously Orwellian world (and yes, that word is over-used but I think it's really applicable here), and people are worrying that trigger warnings or pointing out that sexist comments are sexist might curtail academic freedom. I mean, there's more to this story that I'm not writing on a public blog, even anonymously, and I'm a middle-class white English woman with tenure and I'm only afraid for my job, not my actual liberty or personal safety. And most of the links I've included come from locked posts or from accounts that people don't want linked to more personal blogs, which is why everything's uncredited (but I am grateful to everybody who provided food for thought on related topics). Just so you know.

Which is all by way of telling you, I'm finding it hard to find room for a lot of sympathy for Tim Hunt, who frankly should have known better.

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Discussion: 4 contributions | Contribute something

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friend_of_tofu: default
Date:June 20th, 2015 11:08 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry
I am nodding along quite vigorously with all of this. JSYK.
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livredor: p53
Date:June 23rd, 2015 12:28 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 12:28 pm (livredor's time)
Thank you, I'm glad it made sense to you.
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blue_mai: default
Date:June 21st, 2015 07:15 am (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 07:15 am (blue_mai's time)
I haven't finished this, but it seems interesting.
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livredor: p53
Date:June 23rd, 2015 12:30 pm (UTC)
4 days after journal entry, 12:30 pm (livredor's time)
Thank you, I've started to read through it and will come back to it. I am a bit suspicious of people who blame "managers" for everything, partly because I think managers are the symptom, not the cause, and partly because I think management and administration are extremely necessary.
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