Academic life on social media has developed a surprising resemblance to an Anthony Trollope novel over the past few weeks. People who usually get along fine and hold similar views find themselves sharply divided on an issue they feel passionately about. The source of all this division: the fate of Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, whose comments on the “trouble with girls” at a meeting of female scientists in South Korea generated uproar, culminating in his resignation from an honorary post at University College London, from the Royal Society’s Biological Sciences Awards Committee and from the European Research Council.
There are many aspects to this story, but I want here to focus on just one of them: whether construing a sexist comment as a joke changes how we evaluate it. I am not so much concerned with the specifics of this case but rather by a more general issue: the division between those, like me, who think that the “joke” status of a disparaging comment is irrelevant, and those who think that whether someone is joking or not is a game-changer.
Many people I respect hold the latter view, and their argument goes something like this. We are all capable of saying something stupid and insensitive, but if a stupid comment was intended as a joke, then we should be tolerant and not make a big deal about it. Furthermore (and here the issue becomes of much broader significance), if someone suffers repercussions for a mere joke, this is a threat to free speech. Many of us working in higher education are concerned at trends to muzzle those who might say something off-message – either because what they say is offensive to a particular group, or because they are being critical of their own institution. If we are not careful, we could end up with an academy where we are not allowed to tell jokes, to express disagreement with others’ religious views, or, indeed, to mock the policies of our institutions, as Laurie Taylor does so effectively every week in Times Higher Education. I’ve even heard it argued that we are on a slippery slope: one minute it is Hunt being pressured to resign from an honorary role, the next it is Charlie Hebdo journalists being killed because their cartoons are deemed offensive.
My view is that we have to consider the balance between the rights of the individual on the one hand and the consequences for society and our academic institutions on the other. At one extreme, the individual is free to say anything, provided it is in jest; at the other, a university could sanction a staff member for causing offence of any kind. I regard neither extreme as acceptable.
Personally, I think we should be allowed to criticise the policies of our institutions and to debate robustly with those whose beliefs are at odds with our basic values. However, when we are talking about the fundamental biological characteristics of the individual, it is a different matter.
If we say derogatory comments are acceptable in the context of a joke, this basically allows anything, because anything can be construed as a joke post hoc. Suppose someone said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with blacks. Three things happen when they’re in the lab: (stereotype 1), (stereotype 2), (stereotype 3).” I think most educated people would regard this as unacceptable, even if the speaker subsequently argues that they were being ironic. However, substitute “girls” for “blacks” and for many people it becomes OK. The classic response if a woman calls out sexist language is to be told: “You can’t take a joke” – firmly placing the blame on the complainant’s inadequate sense of humour. I recommend a blogpost by Hilda Bastian, an academic editor for Plos Medicine, which draws on academic work on “disparagement humour” (ie, jokes that denigrate, belittle or malign an individual or social group to reinforce existing prejudice). In “ ‘Just’ Joking? Sexist Talk in Science”, Bastian notes that disparaging comments do not need to be made with malice in order to be sexist, and it does not follow that those who make such comments are bad people. But the use of negative stereotypes of women gives others licence to treat sexism as normative, especially when it is a high-status person making the remarks.
I also think that academic institutions have the right to dissociate themselves from someone who brings them into disrepute by using racist or sexist language. Gender equality is very much on the agenda of academic institutions and funding bodies. Many universities with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) departments have seriously engaged with the Athena SWAN initiatives to address gender inequality in the workplace; the Royal Society and the European Research Council have come under fire for the low success rates of female grant applicants, and both organisations have taken this criticism seriously and are examining ways to ensure their processes are transparent and fair. Having a high-profile figure make a sexist joke in a public forum undermines such initiatives, and places the organisations in a difficult position whereby they either appear to condone sexism or risk being attacked for political correctness. Sexist language, however jokey, shows an insensitivity to gender issues that is at odds with the core values of most academic institutions. Calling this out is an indication of a commitment to women’s right to fair treatment and not a threat to academic freedom.
Dorothy Bishop is professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford.