When Bullies Grow Up

To mark the joyous occasion of Rick Santorum dropping out of the Republican primaries, here’s an observation that I wrote a while ago but never got around to publishing.

Last night I watched the movie Fucking Åmål, or as it was retitled in the USA, Show Me Love. (I have a sneaking suspicion that The Shins’ song Phantom Limb is based on it.) It reminded me of my short school career in good ol’ Sherwood Githens Middle School in North Carolina. The homophobic student body there had a rather broad definition of homosexuality: presumably it would have included actual homosexuality if they had known what that was, but it also included getting good grades, or being bad at sports, or… well, okay, it was pretty arbitrary who got beaten up for being ‘gay.’

The school placed a lot of emphasis on respect and “stomping out killer comments,” as one school poster campaign at the time put it, but even the good teachers only had ineffectual measures at their disposal for stopping the bullying. This was because the prevailing policy in American education at the time was that every child had a right to their ‘self-esteem’ and the children’s right to express themselves was paramount, even if it came at the expense of other children’s right to express themselves.

I believe it’s fallen out of fashion, but this self-esteem business is something that would make today’s conservative pundits and Republican politicians howl. “Your children are being persecuted by their peers for performing well in school!” I imagine them yelping in moral outrage. “And that’s exactly what the liberal conspiracy in America’s schools wants!” Well, it was a flower-power philosophy, and it was stupid, so this is one of those rare times I’d have to side with the conservatives.

Wait a minute though. Conservative politicians hate gays.* So diminutive homophobes punching gay children are actually the real American heroes in this year’s Republican primary. Well, too bad for the smart gay kids, at least the smart straight kids will catch a break if we get a Republican president, right?

“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image.” — Rick Santorum, Americans for Prosperity rally, Feb. 25, 2012

“I understand why Barack Obama wants to send every kid to college, because of their indoctrination mills, absolutely. […] The indoctrination that is going on at the university level is a harm to our country.” — Rick Santorum, interview with Glenn Beck, Feb. 23, 2012

Conservative politicians hate gays and education! It was then that I realized the awful truth:

Republican politicians are what happens
when middle school bullies grow up.

*Of course not all conservative politicians hate gays. For example, I’m sure Mitt Romney is just pretending to hate them. Of course, what Romney’s homophobia lacks in sincerity, Santorum’s makes up for in oversincerity. What I mean when I say “conservative politicians hate gays” is “conservative politicians think that more voters want them to hate gays than not.”

Republican politician of tomorrow

Republican president of tomorrow. (Attribution: Diego Graz, licensed CC-BY.)

Rain in the Desert, Part II

Recently I wrote about my experience with microblogging at a physics conference. I was gratified to find out that people actually read and enjoyed it, and it might even have had an effect on next year’s conference. Roy Meijer was kind enough to send me some tips on how to use social media at scientific conferences. I’ve said what I wanted to say about the experience, but I want to discuss my further thoughts about two inappropriately sexist messages that showed up on the big Twitter screens at the conference.

A conference-goer who made one of the sexist comments wrote a comment on this blog, anonymously, objecting to me calling him a socially retarded asshole in my essay. Let it be absolutely clear that I don’t take kindly to people who create an unwelcoming or unpleasant environment for women in physics. But it made me think anyway: he seemed genuinely convinced that women enjoy this kind of attention, and indeed, one shouldn’t ascribe others’ objectionable behavior to malice when it could be just cluelessness. So maybe I should just have said socially retarded.

But no matter whether it’s malice or cluelessness, I know that physicists can do better. Not just can, but have to. Sexist attitudes just don’t belong in the world today, and most other professions have gotten with the program. But physicists apparently still live in 1972. Here are some examples of what women in physics have to put up with:

  • A few years ago a professor at our Institute gave a really horrifying speech at the Christmas party, in which he thanked the secretaries for being our mothers who took care of us, and the technicians for being our fathers who brought us toys to play with. As if that piece of gender stereotyping weren’t enough of a train wreck by itself, he had actually started out his speech by telling an off-color story that involved mistresses, then said he’d heard that story from a Jewish colleague and that it was typical Jewish humor. (Although this post is about sexism, not racial stereotypes, and I can only be outraged about one thing at a time if I want to keep my message on track.)
  • Another professor at our Institute told grad students that to be a successful physicist, you have to have a supportive family, so his wife stayed home and took care of the children. Yes, there were female grad students in the audience. Perhaps there were gay grad students too.
  • At a conference I was at, a professor put a slide of a bikini model into his talk. He had photoshopped her head to be the professor organizing the conference (who is a woman).
  • If you go to the poster session at a physics conference, you’ll always see a crowd of nerds clustered around a few posters. At the center of each cluster is a female physicist presenting her poster. If I put myself in her place, I figure the attention to one’s research is gratifying — as a male physicist, I always have to work really hard to get anyone to even stop and take a look at my poster — but on the other hand, as a male physicist, I never have to worry about whether the attention comes from sincere interest in one’s research, or ulterior motives.

[Man writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, you suck at math. [Woman writes incorrect equation on chalkboard] ONLOOKER: Wow, girls suck at math.

Dear readers, I respect you, really I do. I know everybody on the whole internet links to this XKCD cartoon and you've seen it fifty thousand times already. But there's just no possible way to illustrate sexism in science more accurately and simply than Randall Munroe does.

So the question is what in particular is wrong with these comments I objected to. The Geek Feminism Wiki’s page on technical conferences has a list of problems with which women are often confronted. My experience is that FOM does a good job at making sure that most of these problems don’t occur at the Veldhoven conference. (Although my personal experience doesn’t really count, does it, since I’m lucky enough not to have to face these challenges.)

However, our conference-goer who made the inappropriate comment on the public screen, in my opinion, has made the mistake of falling into the “You should be flattered” trap: the misguided belief that since he was actually making a compliment, it should be OK. I quote (and slightly paraphrase) from that link on why this belief is wrong:

  • “It attempts to dictate women’s emotional responses to such comments, in particular perpetrating the idea that women are socially obliged to be pleasant and accommodating;
  • “It places the blame on women for responding negatively to attention which is wholly inappropriate in [a professional context];
  • “It reminds women that they are subject to men’s approval […];
  • “It reminds women who aren’t the object of the comment that they are also subject to men’s approval;
  • “It ignores the fact that many women have had negative experiences with sexual attention, such as immediate or eventual criticism or violence, and therefore do not view it with unmixed (or any) pleasure;
  • “It makes non-straight women feel particularly marginalised;
  • “Focusing on women’s appearance contributes to feelings of exceptionalism and conveys the judgment that a woman’s [physics] expertise is less valuable than her attractiveness.”

In my mind, there’s still an unsolved question. Does the conference organizer have a responsibility towards the conference-goers to prevent this stuff from happening or mitigate it when it does? On the one hand, you have to assume that people will comport themselves decently in public, and you can’t prevent every possible turd that people might drop in the punchbowl. On the other hand, allowing someone to create a poisonous environment for a minority lasts much longer than the conference does.

Addendum 1: I debated with myself whether to name-and-shame the professors in the examples above. They certainly deserve it, but I’m not sure it would serve any purpose other than spite. The time for denouncing the first and third incidents was right after they happened, and I will always regret that I said nothing in both cases. I wasn’t present at the second incident myself; I only heard about it from people who were there.

Addendum 2: Please realize that I’m not trying to flog a dead horse by chastising someone for an inappropriate comment at a conference that has been over for two months now. I am writing this because I think that the problem is an important one and I think that we have a responsibility to educate our colleagues so that physics can move out of the social Dark Ages, and women will actually feel welcome in our field, and nobody will argue about affirmative action policies, because we won’t need them.

Hurdles Even Here

My good buddy Diederik was on the popular evening variety show De Wereld Draait Door Tuesday evening, being interviewed by the host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk about the Nobel prize going to the graphene people. It was a rousing success: on twitter, people were wondering whether he had a fan club, and clamoring for him to appear on the program more often! It was wonderful to see Diederik combine his gift for entertaining people with the contagious enthusiasm with which he does everything. The clip below is ten minutes well spent, if you speak Dutch that is.

He did a brilliant job, but if I’m to keep true to the principles of this blog, I’ll have to make a serious observation, not just congratulate him on a job well done — sorry, Diederik. Well, my observation is about the part that starts almost exactly two minutes into the interview. I’ve transcribed it and translated it into English below:

MVN: He won, and you were ecstatic, is that what you said?

DJ: Maybe not ecstatic, but I worked a lot with the material [graphene] at university, and it’s such a cool material! His winning is completely justified. It’s as if… well… if you read the papers from those days, then the American phrase “It’ll even walk your dog!” comes to mind. It’s strong, it’s flexible, you can see through it, it conducts infinitely better than copper — well, not infinitely of course — a million times better…

MVN: [interrupting] Please consider, Diederik, that not all the viewers have your brains!

Of course it’s good practice for talk show hosts to interrupt their guests when they’re not getting to the point quickly enough. I happen to think Matthijs van Nieuwkerk is a good interviewer. However, probably without even meaning to, he came uncomfortably close to the knee-jerk reaction that physicists are so familiar with: physicist starts talking, and interlocutor stops listening because he’s busy thinking “Oh no! He’s opening his mouth and I’m not going to understand anything that comes out!”

My geek heart breaks a little whenever that happens.

Not too much though, because Diederik went on to give one of the best popular-science explanations I’ve ever heard. Seriously, watch the video.