General Thoughts on Disagreement.
As I’ve had a bit more to think about the storm over Rosetta Lead Scientist Matt Taylor’s shirt, I think about what I would want to happen if I were in that working environment. As I wrote before, I don’t have a problem with the shirt, and I don’t have a problem with a person who would own such a shirt, though I might not want to walk proudly next to them while they wear it. I do have a problem with thinking it’s appropriate to wear that shirt to work, for a wide variety of reasons; I think it represents more than just, “wacky dude wears wacky shirt to office”.
The reason I’m reluctant to let it go right now, given his (I believe sincere) apology, is that he also made those troublesome sexually charged comments. Which makes we wonder – two ill-advised female-specific sexualizations in the workplace on the same day – if this wasn’t a pattern that has more of a history that we know.
Now, I also want to make it clear: none of this is really any of my business. I don’t know the man. I don’t work in his institution or even his country. There is always far, far more going on that I could possibly know. So I can’t say for certain what his history is, or how his language affects those around him, or if he’s a problem or not in his workplace. Which is why I want to talk, not about what I think ESA should do, or what Matt Taylor should do, but about what I should do, and what I’d want in my own environment. That’s how this is relevant to me. No one, not ESA, not Taylor, involved owes me anything at all.
But if this had happened in my workplace, I’d want to know that something was being done to communicate that this was irresponsible, and could have consequences. That, as I wrote before, sexualized language and imagery in the workplace is generally inappropriate. And I’d want someone to find out if there were a history. Talk to the people around him. Is there more? If there isn’t already one, establish a policy. One which has standards and accountability.
This is a little more than I wrote in my last post on the topic. And I think that the reason for that is some writing by a friend of mine who had a different perspective than I did regarding how severe the circumstances were. I maintain that I don’t know how severe they were, but I can at least endorse the idea that someone in the local environs with authority should go about finding out, and setting boundaries.
And that’s the real point of this post, today. Not what I think should happen there. But how I think people need to examine disagreements. The shirt issue has led to as much online vitriol and viciousness as I’ve ever seen. I’ve been personally called terrible things for what I wrote, and that’s miniscule compared to what women speaking out have encountered.
When people have different perspectives from me, my first instinct is often defensive, and being defensive often involves making offensive maneuvers in order to protect myself. I see that happen on all sides of every debate, especially online. In this case, as is the case a lot recently, it seems as though a number of women raised objections about this sartorial blunder, and then were immediately subjected to brutal vilification.
Any chance at questioning and honorable debate descended instead into broadsides of viciousness, sarcasm, and hatred. And there’s no comparison, that I can see. Most of the time, I can see equivalences between disparate groups, but here, there doesn’t seem to be much of one. A group of people, led by strong female voices, strongly questioned the appropriateness of Taylor’s clothing and speech. They were deluged with hate-speech for it.
Why is it so threatening to listen to someone with whom we disagree? As a younger man, I was very, very conservative. I am not now. The reason I am not is that a good friend, and my dear sisters, spent the better part of a decade and a half listening to me, debating me, and convincing me to listen to them. As a result, I’ve changed in ways that I think are for the better.
As I listened, and as my friend and my sisters listened to me, and as we talked to each other – not always in the most pleasant of tones, no – we all changed. We all learned. I am the one who has made the greatest excursion in my political and social positions, but all of us are different from what we once were. And I’d wager all would agree that the experience has been largely positive, if occasionally vexing.
The one thing I see in common between the two groups in this case is that neither group seems much willing to listen to positions contrary to their own. We believe that we know that the other thinks already. We believe it is toxic, and therefore must be defeated rather than understood. Let me be clear, I think there’s a right and a wrong here, and it ought to be very clear where I stand about that. But I also think it’s extremely valuable to listen to people we think are wrong.
Even when we think they are horribly, dangerously wrong. We can learn why. We can learn how. We can convince some. And from time to time, despite our most fervently held beliefs, we may occasionally discover that we were the ones who were wrong. Someone, somewhere, has a compelling argument for every side of every disagreement, almost. It’s worth finding that person, if only to sharpen my knife on their whetstone.
We shout at each other. And that’s ok. Some things need shouting about. But not as many as we do. I find it depressing how many people, and yes, here I’m talking specifically about my community, academia online, are utterly dismissive of anything that challenges their political or social perch. We pride ourselves, in academia, of being open to ideas and tolerant of radical thinking. But we routinely reject – without consideration, and contemptuously – ideas which conflict in any way with our own in the political and social realm. It’s unbecoming, frankly.
There is a right and a wrong here, and those who respond to expressions of discomfort with hate speech and threats are indisputably wrong. But we can only manage our own part in it. And within that frothy tide of hate, I am willing to look for a person with a reasonable, but contrary, perspective. Because I can learn from that person.