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.
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.