Slurstorm, and the flaws in “Shirtstorm” arguments

I hate writing posts like this.  I prefer to write about fun physics, history of science and cool horror fiction.  But some things are so appalling and disgusting that one must speak up, especially if one’s friends are attacked.

You probably already know the story.  I’m not going to directly use the names of the central victims in this post, as they’ve already been plastered all over the place, and I don’t feel like adding one more link to the pile.

In short: on the 12th of November, the Philae lander detached from the Rosetta spacecraft, landing on the surface of Comet 67P in the first ever controlled landing on a comet surface.  It was a remarkable achievement, and everyone involved was elated — everyone watching, including me, was similarly thrilled.  But the event was marred when the Project Scientist appeared on camera wearing a gaudy bowling shirt plastered with scantily clad women in a variety of poses.  He also made a comment about the mission that many felt was inappropriate: “She is sexy, but I never said she is easy.”

Hopefully most people can see the problem.  Women in professional situations are still to this today subject to endless microaggressions — negative assumptions and reactions from coworkers that individually may seem very small, but add up when they are experienced literally every day.  Sometimes these microaggressions are unconscious, holdovers from outdated culture, but sometimes they are not. As more workplace protections are put into place to protect women and minorities from discrimination, plenty of bigots have just turned to less direct means.  I’m reminded of Lee Atwater’s infamous 1981 statement about the Republican “Southern Strategy”:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

You can’t call a woman a “bitch” in the workplace anymore, so you criticize their work, make degrading jokes just within earshot, toss out their opinions without consideration, do anything that could be dismissed as coincidental or “no big deal.”

Professional women are very aware of these issues.  Those who work in the sciences are often especially aware, as many sciences are still predominantly male, especially my field of physics.  In anthropology, for example, a study published earlier this year found that a stunning 64% of researchers (predominantly women) had been subjected to sexual harassment or sexual assault in the field.  I would like to think that other sciences are better, but almost every women in science that I’ve talked to about harassment has some sort of experience with it.

So it is very understandable that a lot of women watching the Rosetta livestream to see the Philae landing — broadcast all over the world — were upset by the Project Scientist‘s choice of clothing.  It isn’t even controversial that it was inappropriate attire: nearly every place of employment — Target, McDonald’s, Wall Street, Apple — has a some standard of dress code, if not an outright uniform.  Wearing a shirt plastered with half-naked women during one’s time off?  Go for it.  Wearing that shirt during a worldwide broadcast?  Not appropriate.

There was a significant amount of internet outrage shared on Twitter, it made its way to Project Scientist, and when he appeared online again, he had swapped out the shirt.  Later, during a Q&A session, he made an apology about it, breaking down a little in the process.  Everyone I knew — including my Female Friend to be mentioned in a moment, appreciated the gesture and that was that.

But that wasn’t it.  The anger about the shirt became a cause célèbre for an alliance of misogynists and conservative pundits, and soon a campaign of hate followed, most of it targeted towards my Female Friend, who in an initial moment of anger tweeted,

Thanks for ruining the cool comet landing for me asshole.

Want to see the reactions?  Since being targeted, my Female Friend has received thousands of insulting tweets and emails.  Her personal information was released online — a process known as doxxing — and the messages included death threats.  Don’t believe me?  As of today — nearly a week after the landing — people are still attacking her.  For your convenience, I have compiled a “greatest hits” of attacks from the past two days.  Trigger warning: lots of nastiness here, a true snapshot of depravity.  The red boxes are tweets directed at Female Friend; the blue boxes are tweets directed at Project Scientist; orange boxes are others.

If it weren’t so horrible, the comments would be almost hilarious: even ignoring the HUGE amount of grammatical and spelling errors, the few arguments presented are idiotic.  A few are very telling; however: it should be noted that the trolls in this case have been pretending that they support Project Scientist, even making a hashtag to bolster their fake support.  But note how many times they direct their shitty tweets at Project Scientist, as if he wants an unending stream of hate tweets in his own twitter feed!  If you would like to see how much they really care about his feelings, however, look at the last pair of tweets I included:

slur24

Of course, my Female Friend wasn’t the only one offended: lots of men and women, including me, were put off by the choice of shirt at such a momentous occasion.  I personally know of at least a hundred who were upset about it.  All of us would eventually receive abusive messages on twitter as the days passed; I think I blocked somewhere around 30-40 people.  But I’m a man, and the anger of the misogynists was, of course, primarily directed at women.  But why was Female Friend targeted specifically?  This brings me to something that really, really pisses me off: her being singled out by conservative media as a”horrible human being.” This has culminated in a pair of ideological articles being written in USA Today and TIME, of all places, that identify her as the source of all the horrible meanness that was heaped on poor, poor Project Scientist!

The problem is, both articles are based on complete bullshit, in both facts and logic.  Let me start with the USA Today article written by alleged Law Professor Glenn Reynolds, filled with such shoddy logic that it would rate a pity “D-minus” as a 3rd grader’s essay submission.  This article has already been dissected for its flaws quite admirably by Emily Willingham, so I’ll just hit the high — low — points here.  Let’s start with the lede:

Better not to land a spaceship on a comet than let men wear sexist clothing.

This, in logic, is known as a false dichotomy.  Apparently, literally the only options in this scenario, according to Reynolds, were for Project Scientist to wear a non-sexist shirt, or for Project Scientist to accomplish the mission to the comet.  Hopefully the flaw in this is obvious: how about “not wearing a potentially offensive shirt?”  I am quite sure that the Rosetta mission did not hinge upon Project Scientist wearing that particular shirt on the exact day of Philae’s landing.

Thus, what should have been the greatest day in a man’s life — accomplishing something never before done in the history of humanity — was instead derailed by people with their own axes to grind.

Note how Reynolds focuses only on a single man — Project Scientist.  It may surprise Glenn Reynolds, but Rosetta was a collaborative effort involving many scientists and engineers — looking at any set of images from the control room, I see lots of scientists and engineers celebrating.  He has managed to ignore the entire rest of the Rosetta mission in his rant.

Yes, feminists have been telling us for years that women can wear whatever they want, and for men to comment in any way is sexism. But that’s obviously a double standard, since they evidently feel no compunction whatsoever in criticizing what men wear. News flash: Geeks don’t dress like Don Draper.

Here we have a double flaw.  First: a straw man argument about feminists: no feminist I know says that any women can wear whatever she wants at any time.  Remember our discussion about dress codes? In their personal lives, women want to be able to wear clothing without being judged. Second: Reynolds manages to insult and stereotype the person he is supposedly defending, a “geek” who doesn’t “dress like Don Draper.”

[Female Friend 1] tweeted, “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” Astrophysicist [Female Friend 2] commented: “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM.” And from there, the online feminist lynch mob took off until Taylor was forced to deliver a tearful apology on camera.

Gosh, from the tone of the paragraph, and the use of the term “lynch mob,” it sounds like people relentlessly attacked Project Scientist by directly mentioning him on Twitter endlessly, just as Female Friend was and is still being attacked.

Nope.

First, you should note that neither of my friends actually tweeted directly at Project Scientist — they weren’t personally badgering him.   Either he got the message through psychic messages — unlikely — or, surely, their evil feminist horde took a cue from them and jumped in for the attack?

Nope.

M.A. Melby went through all the tweets directed personally at Project Scientist and looked for this “feminist lynch mob.”  She couldn’t find it.  Read through the list of tweets at him yourself, and compare it with those directed at Female Friend and, quite frankly, everyone I know online.  There is no comparison.

I want to move on to the next article in TIME, but one more point: Reynolds is making himself out to be a champion of science.  He has no problem, however, ignoring the scientific consensus about global warming.  Take from that what you will.

The TIME article is also written by an ultra-conservative writer, Cathy Young of the libertarian and ironically-named Reason magazine.  Let’s pick out a few low points:

[Project Scientist]’s shirt may not have been in great taste. But the outcry against it is the latest, most blatant example of feminism turning into its own caricature: a Sisterhood of the Perpetually Aggrieved, far more interested in shaming and bashing men for petty offenses than in celebrating female achievement.

Again: complete bullshit.  People were angry at Project Scientist, he changed his shirt and apologized, and everybody moved on except those who need to prove that feminists are evil.

Or, as one of [Project Scientist]’s critics tweeted, “His shirt says to women in STEM: I have no respect for you as a professional. When I look at you, I see a sex object.”

But that’s dubious logic. If a scientist gives an interview in a custom-made T-shirt with a photo of his wife and kids, is he telling women their sole purpose in life is babymaking?

This is just bizarre. No, if someone had a photo of their own wife or kids, or a family in general, people wouldn’t think much of it.  But there isn’t a history of women being pressured to give birth and make babies in the workplace — in fact, the opposite is true.  We’ll call this flaw in reasoning a “total logical disconnect.”  Again — and this isn’t too hard to understand — cute pictures of family are acceptable in a mixed gender workplace.  Images of scantily-clad people, of either gender, are not.

To suggest that a heterosexual man is incapable of seeing women both as sexual beings and as people is insulting to men and rather sad for women—a feminist version, if you will, of the old Madonna/whore complex (call it the bimbo/brain complex).

Of course, they didn’t say that, so this is a straw man argument again.  Also ironic, because the lede of this editorial is “Sadly, the brouhaha over [Project Scientist]’s shirt overshadowed not only his accomplishments but those of his female teammates,” implying, as Reynolds did earlier, that women can’t hold two thoughts in their head.

Besides, generally speaking, cultures that censor sexualized expression have not been particularly progressive about women’s rights.

Here again we ignore the context, so I’ll just call this “willful ignorance.”  Wearing sexualized clothing at home or out in your personal life?  Fine.  Wearing such clothing at work? Nope.  Is that “censoring” sexualized expression?  I’m also not allowed to go to work nude, which would apparently also be censorship.

Such double standards exist in many environments. At a skeptic convention last year, feminist science blogger Rebecca Watson, a strong critic of sexism in the atheist/skeptic community—mostly in the form of men “sexualizing” women—gave a presentation consisting of a raunchy humorous tale in which a male ex-Mormon was ridiculed for not drinking before a casual hookup and for being overcautious about birth control. If a male speaker had dared to entertain an audience these days with similar crude humor at a woman’s expense, he would have been tarred and feathered for creating an unwelcoming environment for female attendees.

I’m gonna call this a false analogy.  The author is cleverly — or cluelessly — attempting to treat male and female experiences as equal, which they are obviously not.  As just one example, let’s look again at the study of harassment in anthropology field work.  Breaking down the numbers by gender, 41% of men were harassed, and 71% of women.  Women are clearly and undeniably the biggest targets of harassment.  Because of this, jokes by women about men are generally of the “punching up” sort of humor, whereas jokes by men about women are “punching down.” The direction is different.

Would a female scientist have been trashed for wearing a shirt that “objectified” men or even made a male-bashing joke? Very doubtful. And if she had, most of the people outraged by [Project Scientist]’s shirt would have likely risen to her defense.

Let’s call this logical flaw “making shit up because I can.” How does the author know that things would be completely different if the roles were reversed? No clue. No evidence.

Meanwhile, [Project Scientist] was not simply ribbed for a faux pas but also targeted with nasty, sometimes violent name-calling and denounced for misogyny. Never mind that anyone who bothered to check his Twitter feed would have found out that the day before his fateful appearance in the “misogynist” shirt, he was urging his followers to follow NASA’s Rosetta project scientist Claudia Alexander. They would have also learned that the shirt was made and given to [Project Scientist] as a birthday present by a female friend, Elly Prizeman. And they would have seen a photo of him wearing that shirt right next to a smiling, waving female colleague, planetary scientist Monica Grady.

This bullshit offends me more than anything else in this article.  We’ve already mentioned that women in the workplace are subject to countless microagressions on a continual basis.  But, according to Cathy Young, every time a woman is faced with behavior that is perceived as sexist, they have to go perform a thorough background check on the person, sifting through that person’s internet feed, to make sure that the person really is sexist.

The logical flaw here we’ll call “completely fucked up.”  The onus isn’t on a man to not do things that can be perceived as sexist, but on a woman to thoroughly investigate every person who says or does something inappropriate. To take this to a ridiculous extreme: every time a woman is catcalled on the street, she should ask the man for his internet references, to confirm that it was a “respectful” catcall and not an “insidious, evil” catcall.

There’s another flaw here, one that is so obvious that it is easy to forget.  We think of sexism as a bad thing, and it is tempting to view those who do sexist things as some sort of stereotypical villain, presumably tying women to the railroad tracks while twirling their handlebar mustaches.  In reality, sexist people, like racist people, are usually “wonderful human beings” to their friends and family.  Racism and sexism are complicated, and it isn’t easy to deduce someone’s true intentions simply by searching their past history.  Hell, I’ve said and done sexist things in my past, and I try and do better every day.  Honestly, it’s not hard to do better, though slip-ups are always possible.

And I don’t think that Project Scientist is evil, or woman-hating.  Even the people I know who were most upset about the shirt have accepted his explanation and apology: it was a shirt made by a friend that he wore to acknowledge her, and didn’t realize that it would upset people.  If I were to run into him in the future, I would have no problem shaking his hand and congratulating him on his amazing achievement.

Grady’s delight at the success of the mission clearly wasn’t ruined by a gaudy shirt with “sexualized” women on it. Sadly, the same cannot be said for [Project Scientist]: His Twitter account, so full of excitement a few days ago, went entirely silent after his public humiliation.

Let’s file this under “completely clueless.”  He is still to this day being bombarded with misogynistic tweets that ostensibly are praising him, but are really just bashing Female Friend.  I hardly want to be on Twitter seeing the amount of filth being spread by these people; I can’t imagine what it’s like to be treated as a hero of misogyny.

The message of ShirtStorm, meanwhile, is that aspiring female scientists can be undone by some sexy pictures on a shirt—and that women’s presence in science requires men to walk on eggshells, curb any goofy humor that may offend the sensitive and be cowed into repentance for any misstep.

Here we have one final flaw, that we’ll label as “unjustified assumption.” Both Reynolds and Young are pretending that they have some inside knowledge that Project Scientist was truly bullied into making his apology.  “[Project Scientist] was forced to deliver a tearful apology,” said Reynolds, while Young said that men may be “be cowed into repentance for any misstep.”  Neither of them offer any evidence that he was forced to make his apology, or that it was anything but sincere.  From what I saw on Twitter, people who know him, and who I trust, say that it was a sincere apology.

A final thought: who is really looking out for Project Scientist, here?  As I said, the online trolls are flooding his twitter feed as much as they are my friend’s, and their messages are anything but supportive or sincere.  And plenty of them — including Cathy Young — are gleefully emphasizing his tearful apology, making it sound like he spent ten minutes sobbing on camera, instead of answering tons of technical questions as he really did.  Do they really think that he wants to be memorialized as a man who was bullied to tears?  I doubt that they care.

Okay, I’m fucking done with this topic.  I am disgusted by the mass of so-called humanity that have been attacking my friends.  I support my friends without reservation.  They are amazing scientists and journalists, and they make the world a better place.  I can’t say that about a single troll I’ve encountered.

Postscript: I’m sure that all these people, who think it is horrible to criticize a man for what he wears, wouldn’t be guilty of pointlessly focusing on a women’s attire — O HAI GLENN REYNOLDS!

Here is a collection of other thoughtful articles on “Shirtstorm.”

Space program or booby shirt? Ladies, start your fainting couches, by Emily Willingham.

A guide for science guys trying to understand the fuss about that shirt, by Janet Stemwedel.

Thanks To That Shirt, We May Get a Shirt Celebrating Women In Science, by Mika McKinnon.

So About That Shirt…, by Nicole Gugliucci.

Shirtstorm, by Phil Plait.

Why women in science are annoyed at Rosetta mission scientist’s clothing, by Alice Bell.

The spacecraft, the shirt, and the scandal, by Dr. Space Junk.

Sometimes a Shirt is More Than Just a Shirt, by Dr. Isis.

Insecure Men Outraged That Smarter Man Recognizes Sexism And Apologizes to Women, by Kiran Opal.

AAS Issues Statement on “Shirtgate”/”Shirtstorm”, by American Astronomical Society.

COMETS, PROBES, AND GENDER INEQUALITY IN SCIENCE, by American Geophysical Union.

The ASA supports members who speak up for a gender inclusive science community, by Astronomical Society of Australia (pdf).

RAS statement on Shirtgate / Shirtstorm, by Royal Astronomical Society.

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