Saturday, June 13, 2015

Tim Hunt: Not a martyr

As with most incidents relating to the feminism vs. "men's rights" debate, I had planned on quietly ignoring the Tim Hunt issue.  Like previous events (donglegate, elevatorgate, etc.), this one is a fairly straightforward issue (Should Tim Hunt have said those things?  No, of course not) with a lot of stupid internet drama on the side (though since I left reddit, I have seen a lot less of that), and I prefer not to contribute to the latter.

But then I read a fascinatingly unhinged article in Reason.  I got about halfway through before I decided I wanted to blog about it.  The basic premise seems to be that Hunt is being oppressed in some fashion.  The truly bizarre part, however, is who's (allegedly) doing the oppression.

Reason, as you may or may not already know, is a libertarian magazine.  They favor maximal individual liberty.  Yet the people they are denouncing are private individuals exercising their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association.  It's simply baffling.  It's as if the author wants Mr. Hunt to enjoy full civil liberties, but not his audience.

Let's go over freedom of speech.  Here's our cherished First Amendment (which, incidentally, does not apply to the UK, but American freedom of speech is quite strong compared to the rest of the world, and serves as a useful example in this case):
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
(bold added, bizarre semicolon usage in original)

The 14th Amendment later extended this to cover state governments as well.  But that's it.  If the person acting is not a government entity, freedom of speech doesn't even come into play.  If other people mock you because you said something stupid, you have no redress.  None whatsoever.  This is not a bug, it's a feature.  Otherwise, the marketplace of ideas would be stifled by protectionist lawsuits and other such barriers.

So this is standard libertarian freedom-of-speech-is-a-positive-right nonsense.  May as well analyze it while we're here.  We might even learn something.

In the beginning of the piece, the author is careful to note his disagreement with Hunt's comments:
Hunt's crime was to make a not-very-funny gag during an after-dinner speech at a conference on women in science in South Korea earlier this week.
In a normal world, a world which valued the freedom to make a doofus of oneself, that should have been the end of it. Seventy-two-year-old man of science makes outdated joke, tumbleweed rolls by, The End.
Yet later, he uses rather different terminology:
The response to Hunt is way more archaic than what Hunt said. Sure, his views might be a bit pre-women's lib, pre-1960s. But the tormenting and sacking of people for what they think and say is pre-modern. It's positively Inquisitorial.
The irony is too much to handle: Hunt is railed against for expressing an old-fashioned view, yet the railers against him do something infinitely more old-fashioned: they expel from public life someone they judge to have committed heresy. Kick him out. Strip him of his titles. Mock his misfortune. "Savour the moment." How awfully ironic that the Royal Society, which played a key role in propelling Britain from medievalism to modernity, is now being asked to behave in a medieval fashion and send into the academic wilderness a heretic among its number.
[snip]

Too often today we're told that gangs of crazy students or irate feminists, invading armies of pinkos, are turning otherwise enlightened universities into hotbeds of PC intolerance. That's way too simple. In truth, universities themselves, having embraced relativism, non-judgmentalism, and discomfort with the idea of Truth itself, incite such behaviour. They green-light it. They facilitate it. The Hunt story confirms that the academy isn't being destroyed by morally alien beings, by cushioned, entitled youth—it is destroying itself.
(bold added, capitalization and italics (rendered as roman) in original)

The author's choice to associate feminism with the Inquisition is, I think, unfortunate. We usually think of the Inquisition as scientifically illiterate, suppressing truth in favor of religion.  In this analogy, that casts Hunt's comments in the role of truth, reinforced by the use of that word in the final paragraph.  Perhaps I'm reading too much into it; the author did say he disagreed with Hunt.  But he does clearly say this:
The Hunt incident is quite terrifying. For what we have here is a university, under pressure from an intolerant mob, judging a professor's fitness for office by his personal thoughts, his idea of humour. Profs should be judged by one thing alone: their depth of knowledge. It shouldn't matter one iota if they are sexist, stupid, unfunny, religious, uncouth, ugly, or whatever. All that should matter is whether they have the brainpower to do the job at hand.
I must respectfully disagree.  Scientists do not live in little boxes producing research isolated from the rest of the world.  Science is a collaborative process.  If a professor is sexist, racist, or "whatever," that directly interferes with his or her job.  I don't pretend to know whether Hunt's comments rise to the level of a dismissable offense; that's his employer's job.  But an offense they were.

What's truly sad is that the article misses a critical opportunity.  Hunt's former employer was UCL, which I believe is government funded.  Arguably, then, Hunt's firing is government action in response to speech.  I'm not sure I agree with this line of reasoning, but I feel it is on stronger footing than any of the arguments the author raises.