Solidarity with Connie St. Louis

Reactions to Sir Tim Hunt‘s controversial comments about women’s role in science continue to illustrate how misogynists dislike to be held to account for their prejudice.

Hunt said: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry”. Although he has since declared he was joking, the three people who initially reported on the story after hearing him speak insist that he spoke in earnest.

 

 

Whether Hunt was joking or not is beside the point. As Hilda Bastion has already demonstrated, his remarks are equally offensive when framed as “humour”  .

In a 2004 review of empirical research, Thomas Ford and Mark Ferguson[PDF] point out:

Disparagement humor (e.g., racist or sexist humor) is humor that denigrates, belittles, or maligns an individual or social group…[P]eople have become less willing to allow joke tellers “moral amnesty” for their derision of social out-groups through humor.

Sexist and other discriminatory disparaging humor takes a code for granted: its funniness relies on people recognizing the stereotypes that are the basis for the joke. It asks us to not take discriminatory stereotyping seriously. That’s not going to take the sting out of it.

Ford and Ferguson concluded that jokes don’t create hostility to the outgroup where it doesn’t already exist. But the evidence, they said, showed that joking reinforces existing prejudice. If you joke about women and get away with it, those who are hostile to women will see this as social sanction for their views and behavior. The joke tellers don’t themselves have to be actively misogynist to end up encouraging others to be.

 

Hunt’s comments initially provoked condemnation of the type above as well as humorous memes from women scientists who poked fun at him using the hashtag #distractinglysexy. It also proved a good opportunity for many to talk about sexism in science.

The discussion turned unpleasant after Hunt resigned from a Honorary Fellowship at University College London. It was then that a narrative suggesting Hunt had been driven from his job by on-line “witch-hunt” from feminists began to form. The narrative has lots of problems, as Emily Hunt has shown. Chief amongst these is the fact that it is simply not true.

Studying the comments under an on-line petition demanding Hunt’s reinstatement, Dr. Dorothy Bishop notes that three misconceptions govern on-line discussion in support of Hunt:

  1. a) They think that Tim Hunt has been sacked from his job
  2. b) They think he is ‘lost to science’
  3. c) They think University College London (UCL) fired him in response to a ‘Twitter mob’.

But as she goes on to say:

None of these things is true. (a) Hunt is a retired scientist who was asked to resign from an honorary position.  That’s shaming and unpleasant, but an order of magnitude different from being sacked and losing your source of income. (b) Hunt continues to have an affiliation to the Crick Institute – a flagship research centre that recently opened in Central London. (c) UCL are explicit that their acceptance of his resignation from an honorary position had nothing to do with the reaction on social media.

Dr. Bishop highlights how this narrative of on-line bullying has been presented to the public via the media: especially, from the BBC. She points to the fact that women and feminism have been the favourite scapegoats for what people believe to be the hounding of Hunt:

there was an awful lot of blaming of women, Twitter and feminism in general, with comments such as “Too much of this feminist ranting going on. Men need to get their spines back and bat it away” and “A respected and competent scientist has been hounded out of his job because of an ignorant baying twitter mob who don’t happen to like his views“. And my favourite: “What he said was a joke. If lesbian feminist women can’t take a joke, then they are the joke.”

In this post, we would like to point out how the Daily Mail is contributing to the propagation of this fictional narrative against women and feminists. In particular we wish to draw attention to its hate campaign against one of the women who initially reported on Tim Hunt’s comments: the academic Connie St. Louis, senior lecturer in Journalism at City University, London.

Last week, the Mail published two articles about Ms. St. Louis:

Connie St Louis who revealed Sir Tim Hunt’s ‘sexist’ comments has no regrets | Daily Mail Online

Sir Tim Hunt investigation reveals flaws about Connie St Louis’ testimony | Daily Mail Online

The first article sought to frame Ms. St. Louis as the reason why Hunt was “fired” from his job. The second was an attempt at discrediting Ms. Louis – “the architect of the witch-hunt” against Hunt- by questioning the veracity of the curriculum vitae available on the City University website. The principal complaint of the Mail journalist, Guy Adams, was that Ms. St. Louis’s CV made references to work done more than ten or twenty years ago as if they were still in progess. He also appears to find it strange that breast cancer and family illnesses might have prevented Ms. St. Louis from concluding a research project.

Neither of these accusations hold much water. As Ms. St. Louis’s statement makes clear that the curriculum available on the City University website is not at all recent. City University itself says it has no doubts to the veracity of her curriculum. Moreover, breast cancer and family illness are both quite adequate explanations for the incompletion of projects.

Of course, the idea that Ms. St. Louis’s CV is somehow suspicious allows the Mail to fan the flames of the misogynists’ conspiracy theories regarding Sir Tim Hunt. It gives weight to the idea that the condemnation of his comments has been orchestrated by humorless feminists who are simply jealous of Hunt’s achievements.

Moreover, articles like those published last week, also mean that the Mail gives host a range of misogynist comments under its texts. The Mail may argue that these views do not reflect its editorial line. However, as can be seen from the following extracts from the comment thread under the second article, it would appear that most of its readers endorse its narrative of a “witch-hunt” of feminists and are in doubt who is the leading “witch”.

As the Mail also was careful to produce a full length photo of Ms. St. Louis, it also invited comment both on her attire and her looks. Much of this commentary is of an explicitly racist nature. The usual content warning apply.



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Finally, it is also of note that many the commentators on this thread heartily endorse and celebrate the continued harassment of Ms. St. Louis. To judge from the comments below, they wish to make sure Ms. St. Louis is kept in her place.

 

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This story also been repeated by the right-wing press: both the Spectator and Breibart News suggest that The Mail’s story is not receiving the attention it deserves.  On both sites, the comment threads contain similar opinions to those expressed on the Mail page. In the case of the latter, the racism and misogyny is as explicit in the text as in the comment section.

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As ever, we send our solidarity to Ms. St. Louis and all women beng targeted by misogyny and racism.

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