As regular followers of this blog know, I try not to weigh into controversial topics very much. Except when I do.
There is a bit of a hue and cry over questionable comments made recently by a Nobel laureate professor of medicine in London, with the issue sparking a fair amount of commentary in news columns and on many blogs. The good scientist offered up some rather outspoken thoughts about female colleagues in a speech that he made in Korea at the World Conference of Science Journalists:
“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” (http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-33090022)
I am always awestruck by people who dare to speak candidly, brazenly, and so public in an age of instantaneous and viral dissemination. I suspect much of the time it’s a generous portion of personal hubris that allows anyone to talk in such a candid way. In his later comments, the professor seems surprised by the reaction he got, regrets his attempt at humor, yet still owns what he said. While I think his thoughts are juvenile and most unprofessional (that he chose to say them in a formal speech shows a lack of polish), it seems to me an overreaction that the university who employed him forced his resignation. I’m not sure that the crime of simply being stupid fits a punishment of total banishment. But that’s obviously for that institution to determine, not me.
The professor’s comments remind me of very different ones made many years ago by then-Harvard president Larry Summers, who questioned the “intrinsic aptitudes” of women involved in science and technology. Dr. Summers’ comments were at best unhelpful and at worst discriminatory. That he was president of one of the world’s great scientific universities compounded his rhetorical gaffe, no matter how hard he tried to walk it back in the succeeding days and weeks. I thought his resignation as president a year later, though not officially tied to the remarks, was appropriate. However, that he remains with the university as a professor is also correct. Dr. Summers is a well-respected economist who deserves to teach at an institution such as Harvard.
Every few months, though, we are treated to outrageous remarks uttered by notable people. There is an uproar that usually begins on social media, quickly spreading to conventional media (TV, newspapers), and then finally results in a formal condemnation from those who feel insulted, hurt, or violated by the remarks. Depending on the “crime,” a call for an apology or termination of employment is invented by individuals or groups who deem themselves important enough to make that demand. While in some cases the reactions from such persons are wholly justified, more than not they seem overblown, contrived, and carry a lack of credibility. Umbrage these days is about as cheap as a visit to the Dollar Store.
A fellow blogger, the talented, occasionally provocative, and always interesting persona behind FiftyFourandAHalf, recently shared with me her frustration of how viral shaming can absolutely ruin someone’s reputation. People go overboard with criticism for the sheer kick of being able to do so. A gang mentality is created, and the target of such efforts is left helplessly beaten and ruined all because of an errant, perhaps inappropriate, comment that was made via social media.¹ Again, the punishment in these instances usually doesn’t come close to fitting the alleged crime.
I was once an ardent proponent of political correctness. I understood the “political” context within the phrase, but I never really saw it as political in either a literal or figurative definition. I merely saw the concept as one in which we try to consider the feelings and sensitivities of others. If being polite, which to me was another way of looking at it, was being politically correct, then fine — I was PC. Sadly, however, I’ve learned how terribly wrong and naive I was. Political correctness — whatever its original intention or design — has become hijacked by those who themselves are now suppressing ideas, originality, and social intercourse. When Jerry Seinfeld of all people decides that he can no longer perform on colleges campuses because of a hostile and paranoid atmosphere, haven’t we created a bit of a two-headed monster here?
Candidly, the fault lies with my end of the political spectrum: liberals. My fellow bleeding hearts, and I wear that epithet proudly, have fostered a rhetorical culture where speaking one’s mind using humor or any other kind of allegorical device, subjects people to the very cruelty that they allege to be protecting. This is not to say that conservatives don’t also use similar tactics to destroy a person’s reputation. They do. But at this point, liberals have managed to indoctrinate an entire generation in the belief that words and ideas can hurt, and this in turn has created a more dangerous form of censorship. Missing are the shades of gray needed to provide a broader context for young minds.
I don’t think the English professor should have lost his job any more than I think Phil Robertson should be removed from Duck Dynasty. Unless we’re talking about people who hold jobs in the public trust or safety — such as those who work in police, fire, and health departments — my feeling is that ultimately people suffer from the inadequacies of character when they are given a full spotlight under which we can view their actions. The court of public opinion is ultimately the best judge in which to remove someone from their own notoriety. Trust me, I promise sometime soon there will come a day that we will no longer see and hear of the Kardashians or the Duggars because we will collectively wise up and understand that they’ve never offered us a scintilla of any redeeming value. Likewise, there’s a reason why we haven’t heard much from Ted Nugent or Sarah Palin lately. Acts get tired and people begin to see through the veneer.
¹ Elyse’s prima facie example is in the sad saga of Justine Sacco, who in 2013 wrote an off-color tweet that went viral and nearly ruined her life. You can read about it here.