The Internet is throwing one of its childish tantrums again.
The rocket scientist Matt Taylor, who had just made the remarkable achievement of landing a spacecraft on a comet, did a TV interview while wearing a Hawaiian shirt decorated by 1950s-style pinups that a female friend had made for him as birthday present.
Yes, the shirt could be seen as sexist in a workplace context, though I’d doubt most people would have batted an eyelid had he worn it to a rockabilly gig. But the outrage that followed blew things up out of all proportion, and showed the internet at its worst. It started with a nasty mean-spirited article on a clickbait website I won’t link to, and it was followed with the usual pattern of a Twitter mob gathering up torches and pitchforks. It resulted in the man making a tearful apology on TV. But the resulting backlash shows no signs of dying down.
Sorry, but I’m not seeing this as a successful calling out of sexism and misogyny in science. I’m seeing a brilliant but socially awkward man set upon by a pack of bullies over a social faux-pas. And from what I can tell, that’s how a lot of people outside the social-justice bubble see things as well. You are left with the impression they’ve gone for him because he makes an easy soft target who won’t fight back, and forcing a humiliating apology gives them a nice glow of moral righteousness. But there are far worse things than an inappropriate shirt, and cheap victories are often hollow ones.
There are real problems with structural sexism in the worlds of science and technology, but they’re not going to be solved by this sort of knee-jerk public shaming. Remarkable scientific achievements are often the work of people who don’t spend precious brain cycles on things like fashion sense. A scientific world that has no room for socially awkward people with a few rough edges who have difficulty navigating complex and constantly-changing rules of etiquette is a scientific world that will be less able to do things like land spacecraft on comets.
By all means call out blatant sexism. But always retain a sense of proportion, and never forget that there are real human beings at the other end of the invective. As I said about the Requires Hate saga, we must always put empathy before ideology.