Although we usually disagree on just about everything, I recently found myself in the strange position of agreeing with Richard Dawkins as he came to the defense of Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Timothy Hunt, who’s been hounded out of his important and prestigious job for foolish comments he made at a scientific conference in South Korea.
Speaking about women scientists, 73-year-old Sir Timothy had said that the “trouble with girls” in laboratories was that “you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.” Indefensible, stupid, wrong, and infuriating. No doubt about it.
Hunt subsequently apologized for the comments, saying they had been intended to be jocular and ironic (as the unreported following sentence proved). But due to the massive social media backlash, he was told by his employers at University College London that if he did not resign his position he would be sacked. He has complained that he was given no opportunity to explain his remarks or allowed to put them in context.
He was also forced to resign from a number of other influential academic posts and roles, such as the Royal Society. Thus a fifty-year career in cancer research has been brought to an ignominious end by stupid remarks magnified and amplified by the social media megaphone.
No apology would suffice. No second chance was given.
Then, into the breach steps Richard Dawkins with a letter to The Times:
“Along with many others, I didn’t like Sir Tim Hunt’s joke, but ‘disproportionate’ would be a huge underestimate of the baying witch-hunt that it unleashed among our academic thought police: nothing less than a feeding frenzy of mob-rule self-righteousness. A writer in The Guardian even described it as ‘a moment to savor.’ To ‘savor’ a moment of human misery — to ‘savor’ the hounding of one of our most distinguished scientists — goes beyond schadenfreude and spills over into cruelty.”
Subsequently many women scientists have spoken up in support of Sir Timothy, praising him for his personal support and encouragement of them.
I’m with Dawkins on this one. Yes, what Hunt said was extremely foolish in our current hyper-sensitive culture. Surely an apology and perhaps even a brief suspension would have sufficed.
But Sir Timothy is only one of many who have suffered at the hands of our “no-second-chances” culture. It’s truly frightening the way talented and successful people are being written off and consigned to the garbage heap of history for one mistake, one bad decision, one bad remark, one loss of temper, one bad joke.
I don’t know what would have happened to me if I’d been judged like this, because I often feel as if my whole life has been built upon second chances, third chances, and even more chances. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve disappointed over the years through foolish statements and actions, and yet I’ve received grace upon grace.
But I fear that this is changing even within the Christian community. Increasingly I’ve seen ministers (and other Christians too) written off after years and years of faithfulness, for one slip of the tongue, one bad decision, one failure to visit, one poor sermon, one memory failure, one disagreement.
Surely if there’s anywhere we should give second chances, it’s the church? Surely Christians can be more gracious than Richard Dawkins?
UPDATE: Here’s a feminist scientist’s take on it:
I am a feminist – I don’t need the T-shirt, thanks, I’ve got the PhD – but I do not want to be part of an intolerant feminist movement that seeks to punish, silence and repress its declared enemies, grinding them underfoot. I don’t want to shame people for their mistakes and delight in their misfortune. And I despair at the cowardice of the institutions who, mindful of their public image, and desperate to be seen as upholders of the “liberal” moral consensus, are so willing to comply with this vicious, censorious agenda. Offence won’t kill you. It’s time to call off the hunt.