The other day I pulled the curtains back, peered out of the window and said to my husband “lovely day”. Since it was actually lashing down with rain this might have seemed an odd remark, necessitating emergency meteorological lessons or at the very least an eye check. But given the context, and the manifest absurdity of the remark in that context, my husband fortunately took the remark for what it was – a joke.
Fast forward to Tim Hunt, the hapless Nobel Laureate whose own facetious remarks in this past week have led to worldwide condemnation and loss of his reputation and large chunks of his career. The joke, in case you have been living under a rock recently*, is “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.” With these few words, mayhem ensued and within a day he was made to resign from several posts including a fellowship committee for the Royal Society, and his honorary professorship at UCL.
Was this a joke? Only he knows, but at least some of the audience took it so, as there was apparently laughter. Given that this was an event for women in science it seems at least possible it was a joke (the point being that the absurdity of making a genuinely sexist remark at an event for women is reminiscent of the absurdity of saying it’s lovely weather when it clearly isn’t). So given that it might have been a joke, the rapidity with which UCL and other bodies sought to shed themselves of him is alarming.
The reason this alarms me is that I like to make jokes, especially in my lectures. I make them all the time. Indeed I generally speak in a very free-form way, making up sentences as I go, and I never quite know what’s going to come out of my mouth. Occasionally this gets me in trouble. Recently, for example, in a lecture on the psychobiology of sexual development and behaviour, I was castigated by a transgender student for apparently dismissing transgender people – for example I said that they “identify with the opposite gender from the one that they are.” (I know I said this because the student sat down with the lecture recording afterwards and scrutinized each remark, which must have taken quite some time, during which I hope they at least also absorbed a little neurobiology.) Now this was lazy speech on my part – I left “morphologically” off the end of my sentence, and of other sentences. Am I secretly dismissive of transgender people? Maybe I have an implicit bias, I don’t know, but I don’t think so. In fact I had always thought my lecture was quite challenge-gender-norms-friendly. In any case, alarm bells rang and I emailed the course convenor to say I’m not going to give this lecture any more. It’s sad, because it was my favourite lecture and it always got great feedback, and spawned several third-year projects by interested students. But gender politics is simply getting too shark-infested to be safe, and I was not prepared to risk being TimHunted for ill-formed remarks that were taken out of context, or unpopular with some sector of the population.
We are, as science communicators, placed in a very precarious position – we are supposed to deliver stand-up lectures in front of an audience with no notes, and make them interesting and entertaining (because we get judged by feedback afterwards) and we are also expected to allow anything about our lectures to be taped, tweeted or other released into the wild. Given modern social media this means that anything I say casually in a lecture might be stripped of its context, cast into the harsh glare of the internet spotlight and used to demolish me and my reputation.
Since it seems I can’t necessarily expect the unqualified support of my employer should this happen, I plan to stop making jokes in my lectures; in fact I plan to stop saying anything free-form any more. Henceforth I will read all my lectures from a pre-prepared script that has been vetted by lawyers and passed by every special interest group I can think of, so that even when stripped of every twinkling grin and every piece of context, its bald words when interpreted in every possible way they can be mean exactly what I meant to say in as inoffensive a way as possible.
Hope you enjoy them! I sure as hell won’t …
*A facetious remark – clearly most people reading blogs do not live under rocks