Sir Tim Hunt: not Cockney rhyming slang for anything (yet) (edited)

Low-level controversy rumbles on about the fate of the eponymous Nobel Prize winner, who was forced to resign from what sounds like a fairly meaningless honorary post at University College London (as well as what was probably a rather more professionally significant role as Fellow of the Royal Society) over his dastardly claim to women science journalists that when in the lab, “girls” cried when criticised, “you fall in love with them” and “they fall in love with you,” and a suggestion that maybe single-sex laboratories would be better as a result.

If all that’s true, I would say Sir Tim has spent his career working in the laboratories of the Sir Kingsley Amis Institution for the Manufacture of 1950s Comic Novels. Of course, it’s nonsense, and was apparently all meant as a joke but (a) trying to be light-hearted in the vicinity of a bunch of hardened professional controversy-mongers is the worst idea in the world and (b) jokes should be funny and (preferably) original, and this one wasn’t either. If Sir Tim is now paying the price for anything, it’s for not making the sort of meaninglessly bland response for which difficult questions posed in public usually call. Having said all that, I still can’t agree that this is the sort of thing over which anyone really deserves to lose their job, even their meaningless non-job. It’s slap on the wrist territory, and the only reasons I can see for this becoming such a big deal is the ever-growing influence of the free-range mob of pitchfork-waving nobodies that currently roam social media in pursuit of the next thing to be offended at and also, perhaps, the deep self-importance of the sort of people who end up in charge of academic institutions (and, to be fair, most other kinds of institutions).

It’s not enough for such people to front an elaborate if necessary hoax that justifies the public funding of continued intellectual life by kidding the middle classes into thinking that their kid’s degree really will be a golden ticket to continued middle class-ness. No, they have to take the institutions themselves seriously, and start thinking that they must be a shining example of this and that and the other kind of socially-approved of behaviour – no racism, no sexism and so on.  Hence the reaction against anyone, like Sir Tim, seen as threatening that. It’s like a posh version of the people who justify cracking down on misconduct by footballers because “they are role-models.” But the age of “Roy of the Rovers” ended a long time ago, and even young kids don’t really look on players as moral exemplars now. Likewise, no-one really cares about the supreme political correctness (or otherwise) of University College London. As with football teams, the important thing about universities is what a group of people can collectively produce, not how individuals behave and still less what everyone thinks about the club or its management.

EDIT: It has since emerged that the prime mover in breaking the story was Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at City University.  I assumed the hacks involved were just following their usual professional rule of “stir up shit whenever possible,” but  she comes across as a moderately annoying Social Justice Warrior type who would do exactly the same but with a high-minded air, rather like farting in someone’s face and then claiming it was “to save the rainforest.”

Having said all that, she now claims to have been subject to e-harassment about this (and I believe her). If this wasn’t important enough for anyone to lose their job over, it certainly isn’t important enough to subject anyone to abusive e-mails over.

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