Crime and Punishment

A Fireable Thought

June 21, 2015

Multiple Pages
A Fireable Thought

When a Nobel Prize winner can be hounded from his university chair by the harridans of the Internet (or any other self-constituted group of fanatics), the outlook for freedom of speech is not good. The West, having undergone its own Cultural Revolution, has taken up the baton of Maoist self-criticism.

I refer to the forced resignation of Professor Timothy Hunt from University College London. Hunt was the discoverer of a type of chemical important in cell division, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001. And that discovery was far from being his only contribution to science.

What was the terrible wrongdoing that brought about his ignominious fall? He made a few remarks while in South Korea to the effect that relations between the sexes in scientific laboratories are often complicated, that women scientists when criticized often burst into tears, and that unisex laboratories are therefore a good idea. These remarks were intended lightly, no doubt ironically, but such is the modern thirst for moral or political outrage, which is the tool of the mediocre to bring about their revenge upon the gifted, that words are now taken in the most literal sense and given thereby the worst possible interpretation. The mediocre wait to take offense as a spider awaits its prey in a web; the spider needs its prey to live, the mediocre their offendedness to feel a sense of purpose to their lives.

“The ultimate aim, of course, is that of Newspeak as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that certain things should not only be unsayable but unthinkable.”

Professor Hunt was forced to resign from his chair by what in effect was a witch hunt, or a lynch mob. He also had to resign from the grant-allocation committee of the Royal Society, one of the oldest and most distinguished scientific societies in the world, and one whose website claims, inter alia, that science needs women. Professor Hunt was speaking as an individual, not in any official capacity; but the Royal Society propagates its disgraceful lie officially, as almost the highest scientific authority in the country, probably from moral cowardice. But it is obvious that science doesn’t need women, it needs scientists, just as art needs artists and literature needs writers; whether they are men or women is irrelevant. There is no female science any more than there was Jewish or bourgeois science, of late unhappy memory.

Women who are successful in business or politics often claim to bring specifically female qualities to their activities, usually such as compassion or understanding or comparative lack of aggression. I am not sure I believe them, because it is perfectly plausible that in order to succeed in these traditionally male-dominated spheres the women who succeed have more rather than less of the supposed male qualities of ruthlessness, aggression, etc.

Plausible, but not therefore true. I seem to recall articles in the press at about the time of the crisis following the collapse of Lehman Brothers that claimed that, if only there had been more women in positions of authority in the financial system, the crisis would have been averted, for women are more cautious and less risk-averse and competitive than men. They are also more honest, or so it was likewise claimed. If women had been in charge of Goldman Sachs, for example, that powerful organization would never have connived at the deception practiced by the Greek government to qualify for entry to the European common currency. Suffice it to say that I am not entirely convinced by this: My one close-up experience with the current head of the International Monetary Fund suggested to me that she was at least as alpha as any alpha male and could strut with the best (or worst) of them. I am more than willing to admit that this is not conclusive evidence in the scientific sense, but the question of the proper relations between the sexes is seldom discussed in purely scientific terms.

It is not truth that is usually the aim of such discussions, but power. Few of those who were outraged (and were delighted to be outraged) by Professor Hunt’s remarks bothered to consider, not even for a fraction of a moment, whether there might be some element of truth in them. After all, Professor Hunt’s experience of work in laboratories was greater than theirs; he might merely have been alluding to his own experience, from which he generalized. To demand that he should not do so, on pain of excommunication, is to demand that he deny his own experience. That, of course, is the purpose of propaganda in the worst totalitarian regimes: to force starving people to acquiesce to the proposition that they have never eaten so well.

Professor Hunt’s wife, herself a distinguished professor of immunology, came at once to his defense and said that he was no sexist. I mean her no disrespect—on the contrary, her defense of her husband does her honor—but what she said was irrelevant to the situation and indeed in a way granted the premises of the witch-hunters. For supposing that instead of being not a sexist he had been a domineering womanizer, it would still not have justified the demand for his resignation from his chair. It is an intrinsically totalitarian demand that a cell biologist, in order to be able to work at all, should subscribe to the current political orthodoxy, whether it be right or wrong. It is not so much ironic as constitutive of these times in which diversity is claimed as the highest good that there should exist a demand that everyone should think alike or at least not utter heresies in public.

The ultimate aim, of course, is that of Newspeak as described in Nineteen Eighty-Four: that certain things should not only be unsayable but unthinkable. No doubt those who formed the lynch mob that forced Professor Hunt’s resignation (thanks to the terminal pusillanimity of the university administration) would not much care for a parallel with the Kouachi brothers, who carried out the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and it is true that they did not actually kill the professor; but their desire to ensure that certain things not be said was the same as the murderers’, and their method of fulfilling their desire differed from that of the Kouachi brothers mainly in the sophistication of the means employed. 

If I did not suffer from a residual aspiration to be minimally consistent, I should say that those who hounded Professor Hunt should be severely punished, for example by being forced to resign from whatever miserable jobs they do.

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