Comet landings, shirts, and human potential

Less than a week ago, the European Space Agency marked a moment with the potential to change the course of humanity. After a decade of travel, the Philae probe detached from the Rosetta orbiter and made the first soft landing on a comet in human history. It was a triumph of human planning, coordination, and scientific achievement. Meanwhile back on earth, key ESA scientist Matt Taylor briefed the global media on the achievement while wearing a shirt depicting scantily clad, sexualized women. The shirt raised an uproar, dubbed #shirtgate and #shirtstorm, and an apology.

See the CNN coverage of the controversy and the apology:

In addition to remarks that the shirt is generally unprofessional for an interview situation, objections related specifically to concerns about women’s lack of participation in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Concerns included that the shirt represents a sexist attitude that objectifies women and focuses on their looks. Find out more from American Association of University Women research and programs.

Those objections prompted a backlash, including the claim that those who spoke out against the shirt don’t care about the accomplishment of landing on a comet, as if it is not possible to both celebrate an achievement and criticize an action related to that achievement at the same time.

Some said that women claim they want to wear whatever they like but don’t like it when a man wears whatever he likes, not recognizing the difference between women claiming the right to display their own bodies and a man claiming the right to display their bodies. They seemed to not understand that the argument isn’t that the human form isn’t beautiful or that nonconformity is bad — some of the greatest achievements come from thinking outside of the norms — but that the problem was a matter of context.

Outcry over the outcry provided plenty of illustration as to why the shirt was upsetting.

Those commenting claimed that women who let some shirt deter them from science are wimps, as if the atmosphere if sexism is in total this one-time occurrence rather than the shirt selection reflecting an overall view of how women are to be viewed by society, for their looks instead of — or at least in addition to — their accomplishments.

Some called those who who objected “feminist bullies” and criticizing Matt Taylor for apologizing. After all, how dare he discover that his action caused an undesired reaction and express regret over that? Instead of seeing the situation as offering the potential for insight, the mind-in-a-rut crowd viewed objections as bullying. Some resorted to bullying of their own, such as a YouTube viewer of the original interview:

Oh no no no, doesn’t matter that he did more in a single days work than any feminist has done in over 30 years, it’s instantly discredited because you know.  He’s wearing a shirt.  And it’s not that women aren’t welcome in science, it’s that as soon as you say “four more years of incredibly difficult college courses you can’t sleep through” the girls turn for the door to get their AA or masters in communications.

Or another response:

The sadest thing here is that he actually apologised for wearing that shirt! Thats not they way we should ALL be fighting this crazy feminazism! He should show his middle finger to every single braindead hateful btich out there! The only real difference betwen average feminazi and Hitler was the power he had. If any single average retarded feminazi would gain the same amount of power Hitler did, millions of innocent people would die. That is why this so called ‘3rd wave’ feminism should be banned by law.

If a woman were criticized for what she wore, some reasoned, then there would be a huge outcry. Except that how women scientists look IS a factor, as this article illustrates, noting that female scientists are far more likely to have their appearance described in profiles.

Consider some of the comments on YouTube in response to this BCC news report showing the excitement of Professor Monica Grady, who has been with the lander project from its early days.

Comments (as of this posting, as some have been taken down previously and some of these could be candidates for removal) include:

Haha it’s almost as If her emotional wailing is more important to this reporter, (and the BBC for that matter) than the actual f@#king Philae landing.

And

nice knockers!!!! and she has brains too……………approved!!!! i take her!

And

Look at those tits bounce! Damn!

And

wow shes unhealthy

And

No meals were skipped in the making of this video.

She was joyful at the success, as surely Matt Taylor was, and who is defending her?

Female scientists have spoken out to defend their industries and the shirt choice as well as to criticize it, as this article notes. It is undeniable that SOME people found the shirt inappropriate, and appropriate behavior is not a majority-rules conclusion.

The mean and contemptuous reactions to an article of clothing on both sides show that individuals have a long way to go in how they treat each other, including whether it’s appropriate to tell someone to die (or get laid) for voicing an opinion. If people are unable to listen to each other respectfully, then a million comet landings won’t fix humanity’s problems.

One of oft-repeated criticism of the outcry is that it “ruined” what should have been the best day of Matt Taylor’s life, that he and others will never be able to look back on it with pride and happiness. That does not need to be the case. It might seem unbelievable at this moment, but the excitement surrounding the landing and the way he personally handles the situation has the potential to become the catalyst for expanded minds and richer futures, sort of penicillin for the STEM soul. Perspective has the power to turn what seem like unfortunate twists into triumphs.

Matt Taylor’s apology seemed heartfelt, indicating he had heard the concerns, recognized how his actions related to them, intended no malice, and was genuinely sorry about what happened. It is an apology worthy of acceptance, and those who hope to make progress toward a better atmosphere should consider acknowledging it. The idea that someone can make a mistake and not learn from it, that a person’s actions have no potential for redemption or forgiveness, benefits no one.

Matt Taylor the husband and father showed thoughtfulness in wearing a shirt was made by a friend. She obviously thought enough of him to make and give it to him, even if neither of them predicted how others would react. He might wonder about the network surrounding him and why apparently no one predicted the response and warned him. Are they not offended because the shirt is unoffending or because they’ve become insulated to the attitude it represents? He can look around at the balance of men and women working alongside him and ask if something more could be done to encourage people to appreciate the accomplishments of women, regardless of their appearance.

Yes, he metaphorically landed and bounced. That doesn’t mean that the process is over. Just as he was positioned to help direct the first-ever landing on a comet, he may well be positioned to steer the STEM world toward a new era of inclusiveness.

Somewhere right now, a brilliant girl is reaching the age where enthusiasm for science and math give way to the pressures of appearance and wanting to not seem too smart, so the boys won’t dislike her and pick on her. In a decade, she could be preparing for a career that could lead to as-yet unimagined discoveries. Should the benefit of humanity depend on whether she has enough personal strength and direct support to overcome social pressure?

Somewhere right now, a brilliant boy is taking the turn from being grossed out by girls to dreaming about making one part of his life. In a decade, he could be appreciating potential companions for what they offer as a whole, from their hearts to their minds, or thinking of them as objects to ogle or acquire – never really knowing the full bounty of a partnership because his attitudes and actions drive away real connections. Should his happiness depend on whether he has the personal insight and direct support to overcome living as a stereotype?

Doesn’t humanity, as a whole, deserve the sort of society that does its best to help individuals succeed without being hampered by unnecessary cruelty?

Just as Matt Taylor has the power to fight the stereotype of a stodgy, stiff, uncool scientist, so too can he claim the power of changing the image of a sexist male scientist. Others can also claim that power, from the online gamer to the science instructor to the white lab coat-wearing technician to the code jockey, who has the choice of making a comment or action degrading to women or finding some other way to laugh and enjoy life.

Philae rides a comet through space, the world spins on, and the actions of the present will determine the science of humanity a decade from now, a generation from now, and long after the lander is no more. Sometimes a comet landing and a shirt can provide the course correction for an eternal trajectory. It all depends on how the scientists analyze the data.

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