This week saw a perfect storm of spacefaring milestones, loud shirts, and crying. It was enough to bring Bernard Darnton (right) out of retirement.
Last week’s landing of the Philae spacecraft on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko gave us insights into not just the earliest epoch of the solar system but also the postmodern political universe.
Through the comet lander’s separation, descent, and landing sequence, project scientist Dr Matt Taylor gave a television interview explaining the progress of the spacecraft, its experiments and scientific goals. He concluded his interview by saying, “everyone should enjoy it because we’re making history.”
Not everyone enjoyed it. Because, as well as landing a robot spacecraft on a comet five hundred million kilometres away, he was also wearing a saucy shirt. Twitter, that bastion of reasoned debate, erupted in a shitstorm. Or #shirtstorm.
The tweet at the eye of the storm was snarky, but not unhinged. Unhinged is where the debate quickly headed, aided by both man-hating identity-warriors, desperate to be offended, and woman-hating trolls, desperate to offend, a cyclone of artificial anger fuelled by artificial hurt.
Shortly afterwards, Taylor apologised. All of this would be understandable if Dr Taylor had actually done something nasty, like land his probe somewhere it wasn’t wanted. Instead, he is guilty of that most modern of crimes, wearing an amusing shirt. Or, more to the point, a very unamusing, oppressive, patriarchy-reinforcing shirt that tells girls they’re not welcome in science.
By the way: if you want one of your own, you’ll have to make it yourself but you can order the fabric on the web. If it’s men you’d rather objectify this Christmas, there are plenty of other pin-up fabric options for the lady or out-and-proud homosexual in your life. The International Union of Lesbian Rocket Scientists is split between those who want to order a souvenir set of sexy shirts and those standing with their Twitter sisters, who are not gonna take it any more.
Closer to home, another sexist pig got his comeuppance on Monday. Roger Sutton was forced to resign as head of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority. You’d think it would be because, four years after the earthquake, Christchurch still looks like the surface of a comet, five hundred million kilometres from civilisation. But no. Sutton is supposedly guilty of calling a senior CERA staff member “sweetie.”
That doesn’t sound like a firing offence to me and rumours of worse are swirling. But even if Roger Sutton were actually Jack the Ripper, and what we’ve seen were a plea bargain down to the lesser charge of ‘male patronises female,’ the fact that this justification can be used with a straight face is telling. It’s supposed to sound reasonable that calling someone “sweetie” is a resignation offence. The zeitgeist quote from the Stuff article: “I will become a better person. I'm going to tell fewer jokes.”
Offence-taking has become a trump card in modern political debate, an attempt to silence dissent. But it shouldn’t be. Claiming to be offended is just whining, and in the words of Stephen Fry, “so fucking what?”
There’s nothing wrong with saying what you think about a political or religious claim, a dirty joke, or a comedy shirt, but it should be the start of a debate, not the end. Rose Eveleth’s initial criticism could have started that debate: is the dearth of women in science and technology due to Matt Taylor’s shirt? No, of course it bloody isn’t.
But, more interestingly, is there a dearth of women in science and technology? Does it matter? Is there a gender bias in science? How do three-year-old girls who want to know how everything works turn into sixteen-year-old girls with no desire to attend a physics class? And just how casual are casual Fridays at the European Space Agency?
Those who leap to offence don’t care about actually answering the complex questions and today we’d rather judge people on trivia than their real achievements.
It doesn’t matter whether you oversee the exploration of a comet left over from the formation of the solar system, or whether you oversee the smothering of a city that was already on its knees, success or failure in your chosen path is irrelevant in today’s sensitive, censorious society. Just maintain the inoffensive veneer, sweetie.
Bernard Darnton writes regularly for NOT PC. He promises.