Why a Shirt With Scantily Clad Women Caused an Internet Fight

Digital norms are making the culture wars worse.

Sometimes, when an Internet debate is degenerating into anger and madness, I imagine two people striving to be calm and charitable as they air their differences. This happened during the controversy over Matt Taylor, the fantastically talented scientist who helped the team that landed a spacecraft on a comet. After he appeared on television in a gaudy shirt depicting scantily-clad women, the web degenerated into a debate about whether he, the people criticizing his shirt, or the people criticizing those people are history's greatest monsters. Profane insults were hurled. Death threats were issued. At least one man cried.

To safeguard my mental health, I repaired to a location without Internet access, opened a text editor, and tried to imagine a civil exchange of opposing viewpoints. What follows is wholly a figment of my imagination and isn't meant to reflect the beliefs of any of the individuals who've actually argued about this story online. In fact, I began writing with only the haziest idea of who was involved.

A: Wow! Congrats to Matt Taylor! He's clearly a brilliant scientist. And probably a good guy too. I do wish he'd worn a different shirt. That one reinforces the perception a lot of women have about being unwelcome in science. A friend or colleague should've told him to change before going on television.

B: I agree that scientific fields ought to be as welcoming to young women as to young men. But I wish you wouldn't have chosen this of all moments to highlight the issue. Landing on this comet is a stunning accomplishment unique in history. We're witnessing the crowning achievement of this man's life. We've lost perspective if, at this of all times, we're focused on a dumb shirt he was wearing.

A: Yes, his scientific achievements ought to be the world's focus. Sure enough, television stations and newspapers are dedicating significant coverage to the comet landing. I hardly think that my noting the inappropriate shirt as a footnote to the story on Twitter at all obscures his accomplishment.

B: But the subject was raised precisely to shift at least some attention from this man's accomplishment to his shirt. It would be as if a woman won the Nobel Peace Prize, wore diamond earrings during her acceptance speech, and was heckled for being complicit in the conflict-jewelry industry. It isn't that I object to talking about making science friendlier to women, but there is a time and a place. Must we evaluate every event based on its implications for gender equity? Can't we grant that's an important issue, but also that it isn't appropriate to raise in every possible circumstance, or at least this one?

A: There are, in fact, lots of times I see affronts to gender equity and let them pass unremarked upon. All women do. Here, the very impressiveness of Matt Taylor's achievement meant that he was speaking to an audience much larger than scientists normally reach. He was unusually prominent in shaping the impressions young people have of the scientific community. If one is concerned with women facing obstacles in science—if an obstacle is that they feel unwelcome in the male-dominated culture of science—of course one would find an unusually high-profile illustration of that culture's pathologies an apt moment to speak up! Doing so hardly implies a belief that the guy's shirt should overshadow his achievement. I made one critical observation!

B: Fair enough. But was it really aimed at a significant illustration of the scientific community's pathologies? Would any young woman actually decide against becoming a scientist because some old spacecraft dude wore a naked-lady shirt instead of a white lab coat? I highly doubt that the dress of scientists is responsible for the dearth of women in the field. And I wonder if by focusing on what's basically a sui generis offense against good taste you aren't obscuring the real factors that keep women underrepresented. I don't know what they are. But consider other fields, like entertainment, where women are objectified far more frequently and prominently, often with images more graphic and demeaning than anything on that tame shirt. Yet women continue flocking into all parts of the entertainment industry, even women critical of how other women are treated in it. You're making women in science seem like they're unusually delicate—lambasting a scientist for his clueless fashion sense even as America's girls are being raised on, e.g., virulently anti-woman raps you've never condemned.

A: Why would a woman be labeled "delicate" merely for perceiving that men in a field see women as objects, not equals, and going elsewhere? That says nothing about her strength. Female scientists face discrimination that's distinct from what's found in other industries—and the multifaceted nature of that discrimination cannot mean that we're unable to point out discrete examples in science just because no single case captures the full breadth and depth of the problem, or because there's even worse misogyny in some other professional field. Would the shirt alone cause a woman to forgo a career in science? Of course not, but it's a factor among many others. That's how microaggressions work. It sent the signal that this scientist sees women as objects and that his colleagues and managers didn't find that inappropriate enough to intervene.

B: The shirt doesn't allow us to conclude any such thing about his attitude toward women. Maybe he looks at certain people as objects—pin-up girls and MMA fighters, say—but sees women and men he encounters in real life as complex individual humans. Besides, we're getting off topic. As I noted earlier, addressing sexism in science, however you perceive it, is fine. What I object to is doing so in a way that hijacks and exploits a prominent celebration of a historic feat to address a tangential problem because you find it important. Even if the guy's shirt is illustrative of a larger problem, there are 10,000 ways to illustrate that problem and 10,000 more appropriate moments. The course you chose predictably made this poor guy an avatar for a problem that's far bigger than him and not of his creation for your convenience. What if we all went about advancing our issue of choice using that method?

A: This is a grown man we're talking about. Aren't you making him into a delicate flower by suggesting it's too much to gently criticize a shirt he chose to wear? I'm sorry he cried, but all I wanted was an apology, not a tearful one. And I never suggested he is any more responsible for science's woman problem that 10,000 other people, whose behavior I'll also call out if they do something objectionable in a high-profile setting. You act like there are times when it's okay to advance social justice and other times when it's not.

B: Exactly.

A: When is it inappropriate to speak out against objectifying women?

B: Sometimes, surely. If a groomsman were ogling a bridesmaid during a wedding ceremony, would you interrupt the proceedings to shame him for his misbehavior?

A: But this was a public moment, and I was a remote observer speaking to people who weren't there ...

And so on.

That's one of many conversations that might transpire if people kept their heads. Sitting at a dinner party listening to the conversation above, some of us would find ourselves in partial sympathy with both people. Others would identify more strongly with one or the other. Very few would find either person malicious or worthy of condemnation. In this supposedly polarizing debate, most people aren't that far apart.

There is plenty of common ground.

It would be hugely useful if our public discourse could accommodate conversations where substantive, heated differences of opinion unfold without either party trying to prove their interlocutor represents all that's wrong with America.

Now consider debate as it actually happens on the web.

When I first saw a photo of the scientist's shirt and the #shirtstorm hashtag, I thought the controversy had begun with someone calling for the man to be fired or an overheated post at some widely read digital magazine lambasting him as a malign misogynist. I was ready to argue that the poor scientist shouldn't be fired over a shirt and was not a terrible person (even if I would have counseled him to change if I'd been there that day). Then I saw his tearful apology and decided to find out exactly how it all started. It was only after reaching this very point in my draft of the article that I realized a lot of people were pointing to a tweet by one of my colleagues, Rose Eveleth. (I should note here that, as usual, this piece does not reflect the beliefs of anyone at The Atlantic other than me, nor is it written on anyone's behalf other than mine.)

Now, substantively, that is a contestable tweet.

Many people felt that the shirt in question sent the signal that women aren't welcome in the scientific community. And many others retorted that one guy's extremely quirky, unrepresentative clothing choice tells us very little about his beliefs, and that he very probably does welcome female colleagues at his workplace.

I am not here to weigh in on that dispute. I just want to observe that, as online criticism goes, that tweet is extremely mild. Even if you're someone who emphatically believes that this man's day shouldn't have been sullied in the slightest by criticism of his shirt—even if you felt white-hot rage as you saw his tearful apology—it would be unreasonable to expect that one journalist's informal, off-the-cuff Twitter observation, made while riffing on the news stream, would be retweeted thousands of times and even reach the scientist himself.

Could the tweet have expressed concern about sexism in science more charitably? Only in the sense that 95 percent of what's on Twitter could be expressed more charitably.

I mean, come on.

If you tweet about the news at all, you've riffed on big, important events with a tangential point about an angle you reasonably care about, probably with three times as much snark. That 140-character missive was not responsible for what transpired next.

The problem lies elsewhere.

Diagnosing it requires abandoning the pretense that people on the other side of the culture war are to blame for all ills in public discourse, as Ken White mercifully explains in the only essay on this subject that I can enthusiastically recommend.

Among its key insights (his whole post is worth reading):

  • "Twitter lets us reach all of our followers instantly, and potentially be repeated to thousands or millions more. But it lets us do it in an instant, with very little thought or effort—really no more effort than it takes to speak it. Yet when it serves our individual narratives, we tend to assign a level of intentionality to Twitter and other social media that we would normally reserve for planned, deliberate, formal expression. A tweet might be a throw-away, a vent, a yawp, but we interpret it as 'this person carefully formulated this statement and deliberately transmitted it to thousands of people, intending that it be passed on, showing how important they think it is.'"
  • "We're also fuzzy about how to react to multiple people talking about something. When I retweet something, or comment on something on Twitter, I rarely think "this person needs to have social consequences inflicted on them and I will add my followers and then we need 2.4 million more people to read it and then that will be the appropriate level of condemnation." In other words, we don't consciously think "watch me pile on." Instead, we tweet about stuff that's interesting, or funny, or affirms or preconceptions, or that we have a good line about. But we tend to interpret other people as being part of a coordinated effort. When they do it, it's 'piling on.'"
  • "It's easy to confuse one person's momentary chosen focus for that person arguing that their focus should be everybody's focus. This is the "how can you talk about this when children are starving in Africa" rhetorical technique ... and we aim it when we disagree with what a person is saying. When Mars Curiosity landed, plenty of people paid lots of attention to Mohawk Guy. Few people were upset by that—you didn't hear a lot of 'OMG people are focused on appearance rather than on this historic event...' That's because, for the most part, the comments didn't push anyone's social or political buttons. But let the comments on appearance become critical along politically controversial lines, and all of a sudden everybody's name-checking the African kids. (That's easier to do when some people use rhetoric explicitly suggesting they are framing it as 'what I noticed is the most important thing.')"

Some observers may have wondered about the moment when Taylor tearfully apologized for his shirt. Okay, sure, he offended some people—he wanted to make amends, or his bosses ordered him to apologize—but why did that bring him to the verge of crying? The criticism that he got was relatively mild.

But I think I get it. He's probably never been an object of Twitter hate before. These days, I'm an old pro. I've had talk-radio host Mark Levin and the late Andrew Breitbart sic their audiences on me. Witnessing and reflecting on a couple of pile-ons allows one to understand that they pass, that the whole world is not in fact ganging up on you. The scientist probably knew on some level that his angriest critics didn't really want him to get cancer, or to die in a fire, or whatever the worst thing someone told him happened to be. It is, however, overwhelming to experience an onslaught of social-media hate for the first time, especially when it's totally unexpected and you're exhausted and emotional already. It's awful even when the digital hate aimed at you is less virulent than what others have faced. Few individuals intended to subject the scientist to the cumulative weight of mass criticism, much as few cat-callers intend to subject women to the cumulative weight of men constantly imposing on her attention and space.

The effect is nevertheless cumulative–and that should affect how individuals behave. If I were making a list and checking it twice, I wouldn't deny presents under the tree to those who politely suggested the scientist should've rethought his shirt choice. But people who called him a douchebag, disparaged his colleagues, asserted that he's a misogynist, and otherwise made uncharitable assumptions in concert with a bunch of other haters piling on to attack this person?

They'd get coal.

Of course, the scientist-haters were hardly alone in irrational escalation. Recall that this whole kerfuffle consists of 1) various people on social media criticizing a man's shirt; 2) a few media outlets joining in; 3) that man getting tearful during a brief apology; 4) a renewed focus on that man's fantastic achievement. No prominent denunciations, no demand for his firing, apology promptly accepted, etc. Object to that relatively mild ordeal if you like. That's fine. What I find off-putting is the hyperbole that confuses and exaggerates what happened.

Here's the normally excellent blogger Rod Dreher:

Being shamed on the Internet by feminists is galaxies away from being tortured and sent to the gulag. But you see a germ of the same principle that condemned Koralev at work in the Taylor debacle. A scientist achieves stunning, world-historical results for his work, but the most important thing to the commissars is whether or not he is correctly positioned vis-a-vis the politics (or cultural politics) of his society.

This paranoid heretic hunting was not just a Soviet thing. The Nazis were happy to throw out some of their best scientists, and exile their most creative artists, because they were Jews. This kind of thing reached its heights in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, because both countries were led by totalitarian governments, and were in the iron grip of ideology. But it’s important to remember that these regimes were simply extreme examples of a compulsion that is part of the nature of all humans and their societies. To refuse to recognize our own capacity for this kind of self-sabotaging thing is to make ourselves vulnerable to it.

Here's Glenn Reynolds, whose USA Today column normally avoids hyperbole of this sort:

...the online feminist lynch mob took off until Taylor was forced to deliver a tearful apology on camera.

Let's cast that figurative language as an analogy to see if it fits. Real-life lynch mobs are to being murdered as "online feminist lynch mobs" are to feeling pressure to say sorry.

I don't think it works.

Boris Johnson took things to another level:

I watched that clip of Dr Taylor’s apology ... and I felt the red mist come down. It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot. It was like a scene from Mao’s cultural revolution when weeping intellectuals were forced to confess their crimes against the people .... What are we all—a bunch of Islamist maniacs who think any representation of the human form is an offence against God?

If being shamed online by private actors and feeling a need to issue an apology is comparable to Stalin's gulag, the Nazis, Mao's Cultural Revolution, and Islamist radicals, what's left to condemn persecution more serious than, um, Twitter criticism? As a result of her mild tweet, my colleague, Rose, has now been doxxed, pilloried with nasty insults, faced rape threats, and watched her family be threatened. Having established that shirt-criticism is shades of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, what metaphor is left for people who, disliking a person's tweet, threaten to rape them?

Whatever one thinks of the larger controversy, the pile-on about the scientist's shirt, to which I've already objected, should not have been characterized so hyperbolically.

Let's return once more to Ken White:

We're Dishonestly Obsessed With Metaphors of Violent Oppression.

People get criticized on the internet. Sometimes this criticism is unfair, irrational, and/or ridiculous. But when you say they've suffered a "lynch mob" or "witch hunt," unless people are actually calling for the person to be hanged or jailed, you're almost certainly full of shit.

Criticism is not censorship. Criticism is what we have instead of censorship. Preserving the ability to criticize vigorously is how we convince ourselves—tenuously—not to censor. Criticism is often leveled for incredibly stupid reasons, but then, so is the mechanism of government censorship.

When you say that someone criticized on the internet (or in the news) is the victim of a "lynch mob," here are the notions you are trying to sneak past your listeners:

  • The people who criticize this person are part of a thoughtless mob, reacting with visceral emotion and caught up in the wave. They should be driven by the pure cold light of reason, like me.
  • If lots of people criticize somebody that doesn't make the criticism right. In fact it makes it less right.
  • Being criticized by a bunch of people is like being physically harmed, possibly by the government. How much like it? We'll get to that later.
  • Discourse about controversial subjects should be polite and productive and I wish these squirrel-fucking subhuman traitors would get that.

In other words, you're likely just saying "I disagree strongly with this criticism and I will use lazy shorthand to say so." That's how you get a discourse in which lynch mobs are apparently chasing each other in circles—first the lynch mob after Dr. Taylor, followed by the lynch mob chasing the people who criticized Dr. Taylor, etc.

That's one driver of dysfunction: the desire of competing tribes in the culture war to cast themselves as the victims and their antagonists as the lynch mob. Had the scientist made his television appearance in a pro-abortion t-shirt or a Che Guevara tank-top, an identical cycle would've ensued but with tribal roles reversed.

Notice that my intention here isn't to dismiss what I take to be the core concern that Dreher, Reynolds, and Johnson have, down beneath all of the hyperbolic posturing. While the scientist in this case wasn't drummed out of a job or polite company for an alleged transgression against social justice, it isn't unheard of for digital mobs to victimize people, whether female gaming journalists or Brendan Eich or the conservative bloggers who suffered the ordeal of having their homes SWATed. There are differences that distinguish those controversies, but one similarity is that no one anticipated any of those mobs when they first came to claim a scalp, and no one could quite tell which individual would be targeted next.

Lots of people across ideological tribes and subcultures are a bit paranoid on the Internet these days, because a subset of people in every other online tribe and subculture have no compunction about throwing themselves onto social-media pile-ons like troublemakers into a mosh pit. Once those start, there's really no telling where or how they'll end. Maybe you get death threats. Maybe your employer starts to see you as a liability. Maybe your bank account is hacked and emptied. Maybe your reputation is distorted and never recovers—you should be a hero, but you're a villain.

So everyone's defenses are up. The incentive when one of these pile-ons is starting with someone in your tribe at the bottom is to denounce those doing it as "a lynch mob," to undercut the perceived moral high ground that is a crucial part of their momentum. Thus do members of every tribe focus on the worst members of every other tribe–and in time, to think that they represent whole tribes. The biggest trolls, assholes, and bullies set the trajectory of many controversies and start to distort our notion of what most people in the other tribes are like. It doesn't help that it's perversely satisfying to gaze at those other tribes, the ones with whom you did not associate yourself, and to imagine that they're inferior.

But it isn't true. Their tribe has its thugs. So does yours. When you treat their thugs as if they represent folks "on their side," rather than as anomalies transgressing against widely shared values, you're helping to give all bad guys more influence. The reflex may be understandable, but we've got to stop giving in.