Oh for fu….

Dear fellow atheists, sceptics, and scientists. Yes, scientists, for the driveller who has caused me consternation today used the words “As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality.”, so presumably this person is a scientist. The sentiment expressed is one I whole heartedly agree with too, but it’s used in this context to shore up some misogynistic nonsense. Or “humour” as it will doubtlessly be dubbed by some. But more on that later.

Part 1: Credit:

Here’s the object under scrutiny. The web cache version was brought to my attention by Sam Cook (@sam_cook), and I noticed the object when it was mentioned in my Twitter time line by Tracy King (@tkingdoll), Suzi Gage (@soozaphone), Dean Burnett (@gawrboy), and Martin Robbins (@mjrobbins). I’d also like to give credit to Kylie Sturgess for collating the original tweets and linking them, and for writing a detailed, well referenced post far faster than I could have! Curse my new boy inexperience!

My reply to the organisers.  (Including ironic misspelling of “de rigueur“, curse you autocorrect!)

Part 2: What I’m objecting to and why:

Firstly, I am a bit gutted, a bit annoyed. My wife and I have been saving up to go to this as a bit of a “gala event” as it’s my birthday shortly before this, so we were going to splash out and go wild in the Big Smoke. Oh yes, an evening’s lectures, that’s how we roll on a wild night out at Redux Towers. (Okay it’s isn’t just that, but hey, it sometimes is). It’s an expensive event, if like us, you choose to go for the best seats and the after event dinner, but for a reason or two too tedious to mention, this was going to be our indulgence. We’ll spend the saved money elsewhere on different events now I guess. Choose to believe that we were going or not, the point is actually moot because this is precisely the sort of issue that we use to decide whether or not we’ll support an event/thing with our cash. Open bigotry and nonsense of this nature means our tiny amount of money goes elsewhere. Yeah, yeah, I can hear the organisers sobbing into their Shreddies as I type.

Here’s the nasty bit:

I am a fanatical, misandristic ‘feminist’. May I drone on about the lack of women in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?

No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for.We’re actually very disappointed that none of our female invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Okay, let’s dispense with one thing out of the gate: humour.

I know humour. No one likes a joke more than me {Cue Monty Python sketch}. Seriously, I love comedy and humour of all types. I love a well constructed joke, a cleverly self-referring linked comic narrative. I like a lot of humour deemed sensitive, insensitive/controversial or politically incorrect (if done well with appropriate direction of punching), whether I “want to” or not. I am something of a comedy slut (which is a good thing). I’m easy. I’ll laugh at anything. This wasn’t humour. Even if it was intended as humour, it failed. It swung and missed. It wasn’t even funny. “Oh now Louis!” I hear you cry “I found it funny.”. Then, dear interlocutor, you are being thick and missing one of the key elements of humour: context. Part of what makes something humour, or as those making the “humour defence” of something odious often forget, is the context in which the “joke” is made. Here’s a joke for you:

Q: How do you stop a Paki drowning?
A: Take your foot off his head!

Aha. Ahahahaha. It is to laugh.

The context I first heard that joke in was when I was being called a Paki (Incorrect! If you’re going to abuse me racially at least get the right ethnic background. Incidentally “Paki” is a few thousand miles out.) by a teacher at prep school. This was such a funny joke that I, one of two {ahem} “very slightly brownish” people in the school at the time, had this repeated to me for a decent period of time. The context robbed that “joke” of any possible humour. If we ignore the content of the joke, we can see it’s well structured, it could even be considered ironic in construction, a joke, to some tiny degree, at the expense of the joker. Except the problem is that wonderful “logical” analysis takes place in a vacuum. In the absence of any context. Last time I checked the vast majority of people did not live in vacuums and were not raised by wolves. So the context is partly what renders that “joke” a rather sinister piece of (hopefully ignorant) racist rhetoric. Late 1970s/early 1980s UK private schools were not universally hotbeds of inclusion, tolerance and understanding of ethnic diversity. The context was one of derogation, intimidation (not that it worked, I’ve always been a bolshy bastard), designed to “put me in my place” as a darker skinned, funny named person.

The joke made above by the Consensus organiser(s) is, if a joke at all and I am being generous even considering it to be so, might not be as nakedly odious (perhaps) as the one I just repeated. I’ll leave the decision on odiousness to the reader. It is however nakedly anti-feminist in a way not seen outside of the missives of those who are demonstrably misogynist. It is made in a context where such “jokes” have a very non-humorous, sinister effect. It is the identical thing said by those who do not joke about these matters, and who are perfectly happy with a chilling climate for women speakers and participants in STEM fields and the atheist/sceptic movements. When what you say is indistinguishable from the words of known, proud, self-identifying misogynists, you’re in trouble. And you’re not making jokes. Irony is, as I have learned to my cost, a tool to be wielded with great care. You have to earn the right to use irony unopposed in an environment populated by strangers who cannot immediately detect your lack of ill will.

Part 3: What could have been done?

a) Invite more women speakers. We are told the Consensus organisers tried and failed. Accepting that at face value is fine by me, getting speakers for things is hard. I’ve tried. Getting female speakers can be hard too. Amazingly women are people who have these things called “lives” and “other commitments” just like men. I know! Radical, right? I’m such an extremist. Sometimes, in the words of one woman scientist of my acquaintance (a stonkingly brilliant scientist too btw) “You have to heave a lot of bricks before you hit a duck”. There are enough female sceptics, atheists, scientists, science communicators and downright lovely folk out there to find one or two who can do your event. Whilst, for example, I love seeing Prof Richard Dawkins at events despite the things I might disagree with him about, I’ll make special effort (and have) to go and see Dr Kat and/or Helen Arney (for example) because they are i) amazingly talented human beings and ii) I have ever so slightly more of a geek crush on them than I do Prof Dawkins. Although Prof Brian Cox and Robin Ince are dreamy-geek crushes. I should stress these are purely intellectual crushes and any kind of Thingy is right out. (Brian: Call me!…No…no, I’m joking).

b) Invite more women speakers. This may seem similar to a), I assure you it isn’t. There are lots of resources out there now (see Kylie Sturgess’ post linked above for starters). Women have not been sat idly by, like the black and white film stereotypical damsels in distress tied to the rail tracks. There are organisations dedicated to promoting women speakers. With the advent of modern technologies like Skype etc, remote talks can be given. High profile women can record video to be played at events. There really is no excuse. People refusing to speak, or people being unable to make your date is an inconvenience. Find other people. Find other means. And yes, I’m speaking from experience of having organised a dozen or so events of this nature (if not this size). Here’s another terrifying thought, be bold, be brave, build your conference/seminar around a high profile woman speaker and fit other speakers around her. Ooops I’m being revolutionary again.

c) Don’t be a defensive twit about the whole thing. If you have had complaints about not having enough women speakers at previous events, don’t be a whinger about it. The answer is not “wah feminist misandrists!”, that makes you look like i) a misogynist, you’re indistinguishable from the real misogynists if joking, and outing yourself if not, ii) someone who has egregiously missed the point, and iii) you are the kind of fragile, fevered ego who cannot cope with mild, and justified, criticism. No one likes that guy, Don’t be that guy. That guy gets sacked from his job for being unworkable with. Take a deep breath, remember that all those times your mummy told you you were a perfect special snowflake are unrepresentative (she’s your mummy, she’s meant to say that) and think about the criticism. Not all criticism is good, some can easily be dispensed with, but some might just be on the button. In this instance it is. So deal with it.

d) Pulling down the “offensive bit” is not enough. Apologise. Say you got it wrong. Demonstrate you know what you got wrong, when and why. Pledge not to do it again. We all make mistakes. Me, you, everyone. The only bad reaction is to “double down” or deny it. I watch rugby players make mistakes in games all the time. The superstars always hold their hand in the air, acknowledging what they have done to their team, acknowledging their error, demonstrating they know they erred, and implicitly stating they will not do so again. Mistakes are how we learn.

e) As scientists we have to accept reality. Good. Accept reality then: there are no major differences in intellectual cognitive function/ability between men and women. Any apparent differences are largely attributable to socialisation, cultural effects and a chilling climate against women being as forward as men in STEM fields. Even if, as a scientist, you didn’t cause/originate such problems, you, as a scientist, must realise that a huge amount of human potential is being needlessly squandered. As a scientist, someone presumably interested in more and better science being done, more being discovered, the loss of that human potential must be disturbing and seen as counter-productive. Let’s have a bit more dealing with reality from you shall we?

Come on. Do better.

Edited to Add: Part 4: An apology from the Consensus organisers:

The world of the web moves fast. All good. Here is the official apology:

“Why are there no women on the panel?

We tried. We failed. The event was set up at short notice and as it happened, of all the excellent people we approached the only ones available on the day were men. We knew this wasn’t ideal and questions would be asked, so we tried to make a joke about it.We tried. We failed. Should have been spotted by us, but as soon as our attention was drawn to it – via Twitter – we removed it. That only added to the confusion as some people saw the reactions without always knowing what was being reacted to.

So, sorry. It’s not through lack of effort the line-up is wide-ranging in the nature of their brilliance but entirely mono-gendered, but it is our fault the attempt at levity about it fell flat. And we do appreciate the efforts of all those who drew our attention to the error.”

Okay, two issues:

a) No women on the panel. It happens for honest, good reasons as well as dishonest, invidious ones. All true. C’est la vie. I can, and do, accept this. The degree to which I can honestly accept a thing like this is the degree to which these events are planned in advance. For short turn around events, as this one is claimed to be, you almost get who you get. Although, I would be a little sceptical that a “short notice” event garnered both Bill Bailey and Richard Dawkins (no insult intended or implied to the other speakers) without serious calendar jiggling. These are not low profile, unknown gents with huge amounts of free time on their hands. The more jiggling of calendars, the more opportunity…

…no, that’s a very cynical thought. Shame on me. I’m happy to accept at face value the claim that the short notice of this event caused it to be all male. That does happen, it’s certainly not an extraordinary claim of any kind.

b) It was a joke. Have you seen the state of my sides? They are split. Look it just wasn’t a joke. However intended. Or rather, it wasn’t just a joke.

As I said, when your “joke” is indistinguishable from the rhetoric of a group of vocal, well established misogynists that are currently extant within STEM/atheist/sceptic communities, as this “joke” was, you’re seriously better off making an entirely different joke. The irony, the satire, the humour is lost and it is lost because you have to expect an enormous amount of good will from people (women) who have been largely stamped on with unerring frequency by certain people simply for being women. Or worse, for being women who disagree with them. The good will is rightly in short supply on this issue. Establishing your bona fides takes time, work, an identity associated with careful use of such irony etc. And even then, as I have discovered to my cost and chagrin, the use of such irony is not unproblematic. This is the problem that Al Murray, an excellent comedian who writes brilliantly constructed material, has with his Pub Landlord character. There is a significant part of his audience that does not realise (or does not care/distinguish) those jokes are largely ironic and satirical. The irony gets missed, the jokes get interpreted and repeated as support of bigotry, not mockery of it.

Even “right on”/”politically correct” comics like Stewart Lee are aware of this issue and actively exploit it in their humour. See this for a stupendous example. The bit where he talks to the TV audience at the end of the clip is bang on.

This is, as mentioned, not an issue that exists in a vacuum. This bit of the apology, sadly, shows that the person who made, and apologised, for the “joke” just doesn’t get it. Let me play a little. Imagine if this was what was said:


I am a fanatical, white hating ‘black superiority activist’. May I drone on about the lack of black people in the line-up and despatch abusive, bigoted, mis-spelt, ungrammatical missives to the organisers and presenters?

No. Please save your talents for Twitter and Facebook, that is what they are for.We’re actually very disappointed that none of our black invitees accepted, but that is just how it was. As scientists we have no choice but to accept reality. Wanting something to be otherwise does not make it so.”

Aren’t we all so awake to racism now we see that as what it is? Naked racism. We’ve had eugenics movements, “scientific” racism, we know where these errors lie, where the nasty curdling bits of white supremacy and racist rhetoric try to hide in ginned up bad statistics. We know this nonsense backwards. Or should do. Do we really think people would be as quick to defend the (entirely fictional) modification of the original joke above as “a joke” as they have been with this? I don’t think so. Whilst we are certainly not in a “post-racism” society, racism is alive and well thanks, I met some just the other day, we’re still swimming in misogyny as deeply as we were racism of yesteryear.

Tragically for me, because you know that is what’s important {eyeroll}, this apology doesn’t only not go far enough (we humourless “feminists”* are never satisfied), it demonstrates to me that the point has been missed. If you wanted to make a jocular comment about the panels sausage-fest nature, there are plenty of ways to do it without pushing the “blame” (in the joke’s terms) onto some caricature feminist.

I’m going for a sulk.

* I am not a feminist. I can’t be. I’m not even a feminist ally. Both the titles “feminist” and “feminist ally” are not for me to take. They are to be given by individuals concerned with those particular issues. I.e. if a specific cis, trans* or genderqueer woman thinks I am a feminist, then to them I am. I’m a man, whilst the issues dealt with by feminism affect me to some degree, a vastly lesser degree than they do women, and whilst they affect the women in my life, I sit here benefiting from the very things that women largely don’t. So whilst I agree with various aspects of feminist politics and philosophy (and not others), and I try to be an ally as far as is possible for me to be, I leave it to someone else to tell me if I am a feminist or not, and that’s on a case by case basis. Given my support for trans* women and women sex workers for example, I don’t think Julie Bindel will be calling me a feminist any day soon perhaps.

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