Shaming and Truth

Shaming and the Quest for Truth


Howard Adelman

In the spring, I wrote a series of five bogs on shaming and humiliation. In the first blog, amongst other illustrations, I discussed the case of Tim Hunt, the Nobel scientist who made inappropriate sexist remarks at a luncheon in South Korea of female science writers. Late last week I received a message from a colleague, who is a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto, bringing my attention to a report on the truth and falsity of what took place in the initial event and in the controversy that ensued. The long discussion was unconcerned with shame and humiliation and only focused on issues of truth. The report can be found at:

Before I get into that report, I want to remind readers about some of my depictions concerning shame and humiliation.

“Shame is what you do to yourself. Humiliation is what one person does to another. You humiliate your neighbour when you try to shame him or her. Trying to put a neighbour to shame is one ineffective way of trying to get rid of the shame you feel in yourself. Whether expressed inwards towards oneself or displaced outwards onto another, as the ancient Jewish sages wrote, ‘Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.’”

“Humiliation, instead of attending to a specific wrong, deflects attention from that fault to attend to an allegedly greater one, an offence against an abstract and universal principle. By abstracting and deflectin…the process drives shame into even deeper recesses in the soul. And the shaming allows the multitude to coalesce and feel good about themselves… Most importantly, shaming prevents us from expunging our sense of shame within and inhibits us from striving and standing on the stage to express our own self-worth. Who would want to take the risk and be subjected to so much scorn and humiliation? As Brené Brown so richly characterizes the difference between shame and guilt. ‘Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.’ Blaming someone tells the other that he or she did something wrong; shaming someone tells you that the other is bad.”

“Shame is allowing your self-worth to be determined by how you appear to others. Ironically, shame, so tied with exposure, hides in the deepest recesses of your being, subverting your self-worth in the most devious ways. Fed by self-doubt and a low opinion of oneself, shame is not determined by who you are or what you do, but by the phantom of who you are supposed to be.”

“Why then is shame defined as a painful feeling that arises from a consciousness of dishonourable or improper behaviour towards another? It is because we project shame onto another and believe it is the other who behaved dishonourably? Tim was a sexist…He should feel pain, we insist. He or she should be conscious of his or her misbehaviour. But it is we who cast stones who must become self-conscious of our behaviour. Tim Hunt did not feel that he was disgraceful. But he was disgraced.”

Then there is the issue of truth and Dan Waddell’s blog.

“Deborah Blum is not only an American journalist and columnist for The New York Times, but also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for best reporting for her series entitled, “The Monkey Wars” on the ethical conflict between scientists who use animals in their experiments and animal rights activists opposed to this purported cruelty to animals. As a star science reporter, she gave a parallel lecture to Tim Hunt’s in South Korea at the Ninth World Conference of Science Journalists. She wrote about what happened to Tim in an article for The Daily Beast called “Sexist Scientist: I Was Just Being Honest,” the title of which quickly informed readers about her view of Tim Hunt as well as satirizing rather than explicating and understanding his own account.”

“Both speakers had given their lectures. At the luncheon afterwards, they were each asked to add a few informal comments. Deborah talked about the way women make science smarter. Tim gave a tribute to women’s contribution to science. He then went astray to talk about his troubles with girls in the lab (supposedly humorously, and suggested perhaps structuring labs on the apartheid principle.”

“Deborah Blum’s nerves had already been set on edge when Tim referred to female scientists as ‘girls’. When he made his infamous remarks, which I wrote about, Blum, along with two other science journalists, were appalled.  They tweeted simply to put what they had seen and heard on record, and the story went viral. Tim later protested that he had been ‘hung out to dry’ and that he had only been joking, but to no avail. He insisted that no one had called him to ask him to explain what he meant. Blum took umbrage at that for she declared that she had made a point of asking Tim for that very explanation. In that explanation, Tim had evidently said that, ‘he was only trying to be honest’. But Blum never reports on what that explanation was. She presumes the remark was just a revelation of Tim Hunt’s sexism, though she quotes from his apology to the Korean female scientists and journalists. Most serious of all, in contrast to her award-winning series on the war between lab scientists and animal rights activists, she never even attempts to explore the war of righteous journalists battling for the purity of principle in a number of different fields and the sacrifice of individual human lives and reputations in that crusade.”

“Hunt had written that he regretted his ‘stupid and ill-judged remarks’. He added: ‘I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.’ Blum acknowledges that this indicated that the event was not entirely an ‘ill wind’, but not because Hunt’s remarks were not an ill wind, but because Hunt was forced to retreat and retract his sexist remarks – without ever determining whether those remarks were intended to convey a sexist worldview. Blum never tries to reconcile the remark, Tim Hunt’s apology and his behavioural record as a scientist and collaborator with women or to explore why he would offer such a tasteless joke. Instead, Blum went in another direction. She challenged characterizing the firestorm that followed as a ‘witch-hunt’ and, instead, insisted that, although she sympathized with anyone caught is such a media storm, ‘if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.’”

“But that is precisely the nature of a witch-hunt. The individual hunted down and quartered does not count. What counts is the principle. And if Tim Hunt had to be sacrificed on the altar of pure principle, so be it. Further, it was not even worth investigating whether there was any empirical evidence to support her assumption that Hunt was a sexist. That was just a given. The remark was made. He said that he was trying to be honest. Case closed.”

In contrast, Dan Waddell’s blog, “Saving Tim Hunt,” is an extensive effort to gather evidence to establish that the criticisms of Hunt were based on reasonably accurate reports of what he said. Wassell tries to escape the charge that, “The frame determines what the facts are.” Instead, he tries to weigh in considerable detail disputes over interpretations of so-called facts.

What are Waddell’s conclusion about the facts? Generally not that dissimilar from my own, but with a very different analysis and assessment. It is generally agreed, though not without many modifications and dissents, that Waddell agrees that Tim Hunt said the following: “It’s strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women and you should do science despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

There is a dispute over whether he added the phrase: “Now seriously” after the fact, but I suggest, whether he said it or not, the phrase is consistent with the rest of the content. In any case, there is widespread agreement that the remarks, or even joke, if it was one, was in poor taste and especially inappropriate before the crowd that he was addressing. Since he called himself a “chauvinist,” there is little need to cower away from judging the remarks, and even Tim Hunt, a sexist.  My question was, if Hunt was a sexist, was the treatment he received appropriate? Waddell’s focus is on the intent of the remark. Was it supposed to be a joke? Further, was it an effort of Tim trying to be honest?

Let us take the first assessment – that the comments were inappropriate, an expression of poor judgement, and, in Tim Hunt’s or his wife’s words, stupid and ill-judged,” “inexcusable,” and “unbelievably stupid.” They were understandably “offensive.”  Tim Hunt apologized for the remarks. Waddell wrote: “Hunt responded with a ‘heartfelt’ apology, albeit one that implicitly blamed the audience for their erroneous ‘interpretation’ and failure to understand his ‘self-deprecating joke’:

‘I am extremely sorry for the remarks made during the recent “Women in science” lunch at the WCSJ in Seoul, Korea. I accept that my attempts at a self-deprecating joke were ill-judged and not in the least bit funny. I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.’

Tim Hunt apologized…His wife admitted that she could see how his words could be offensive to those who didn’t know him. Few had ever heard of him before this incident. Even fewer knew him at the WCSJ conference. And many – many more than have been claimed to date –  found it deeply offensive and, above all, sexist, including Hunt’s ERC press adviser for the trip. So why wasn’t Hunt’s apology simply accepted and the matter left there?

Were the comments a joke or intended? The comments were unfunny, as Hunt admits. So unfunny that a number didn’t even twig on he was joking. That Hunt went on to encourage those present to overcome obstacles and said ‘congratulations,’ as later emerged in Demina’s audio clip, is pretty standard fare for someone offering a toast. It in no way alleviates the crassness of his earlier comments. He made a heartfelt ‘apology’ for offending people and this apology was accepted by his hosts.

Were Hunt’s comments appropriate? No. Were they helpful to the cause of women in science, the same people he was there to toast? Not in the slightest. Were they funny? No. Even those who thought it a joke didn’t consider it amusing. A significant number did not even recognise it as a joke.

If it was meant as a joke, does that make it alright? It doesn’t. First of all not being serious doesn’t mean not being sexist. People can believe things to be funny and also think they’re true. The English language even has an aphorism for this: “Many a true word is spoken in jest.”

In the end, the parable of Tim Hunt is indeed a simple one. He said something casually sexist, stupid and inappropriate which offended many of his audience. He then confirmed that he said what he was reported to have said and apologised twice. The matter should have stopped there. Thus far, I am in full agreement with Waddell. But thereafter we are in strong disagreement. Waddell went on to write: “Instead a concerted effort to save his name — which was not disgraced, nor his reputation as a scientist jeopardized — has rewritten history. Science is about truth. As this article has shown, we have seen very little of it from Hunt’s apologists .” I do not think that I am a Hunt apologist. I also contend that Hunt’s name was disgraced. I do not think that history has been rewritten or that Waddell has shown that to be the case.

Let’s repeat what Tim Hunt said:

Sir Tim Hunt: I did mean the part about having — having trouble with girls. I mean, it is true that people — I have fallen in love with people in the lab, and that people in the lab have fallen in love with me, and it’s very disruptive to the science. Um, because it’s terribly important that in the lab, people are, sort of, on a level playing field. And I found that, um, you know, these emotional entanglements made life very difficult. I mean, I’m really, really sorry that I caused any offence — that’s awful. I certainly didn’t mean — I just meant to be honest, actually.

Sir Tim Hunt: I came after three women, who very nicely thanked the organisers for the lunch. And I said it was odd that they — they’d asked a man to make any comments. And I’m really sorry that I said what I said — it was a very stupid thing to do, in the presence of all those journalists. And what was intended as a sort of light-hearted, ironic comment apparently was interpreted deadly seriously by my audience.

According to Waddell, “In our view, based on the evidence, the idea he was telling a self-deprecating joke solely about his emotional entanglements in the lab to a roomful of strangers simply doesn’t wash.” He refers to Blum as maintaining that on 9 June Hunt did not explain his comments as a joke, but as an attempt to be honest, the same sentiment he would express to the BBC the next day.

Hunt did not initially explain his comment as a joke. But he did subsequently. Further, attempting to be honest and telling a joke are not mutually exclusive. Waddell’s argument is facile and misleading. Further, there is a difference between a joke told in bad taste and characterizing it as not intentionally a joke at all. A bad joke, a distasteful joke, remains a joke, an unfunny one, but a joke nonetheless. Demina had commented in a tweet on 19 June: “Everybody who heard T. Hunt’s speech yesterday understood that he was joking. For those who did not: guys, where is your sense of humour?” Dismaeli wrote: “good for him that he took responsibility for the comment.”

Tim Hunt, in contrast, when he cracked a stupid dumb joke and it backfired, fled the field when the abuse and put-downs poured in. He offered a clearly sincere and heart-felt apology, that, as can be expected when one understands witch hunts, was either ignored or misinterpreted and used against him. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low.

Let me end with repetition: When you are ashamed, your own sense of self suffers a hit. You metaphorically shrivel. You avoid effects and corresponding affects. On the one hand, shaming and humiliating may reinforce the status quo ante and even enhance bad behaviour. On the other hand, it may supposedly work, but work only by lowering the self-esteem and self-respect of the Other. In either case, the culture of shame is enhanced from either of these opposite results. And there is no learning or change in behaviour. The reason is simple. Shaming is not designed to alter behaviour by changing who we are. It is designed to perpetuate and enhance war – war between the sexes, war between and among people of ostensibly different races or religions. Shaming attacks our beliefs about ourselves and about others. Though an act of shaming, another may let off steam, but it is decidedly ineffective in dampening the passions that lead to war.

And it is war – the war of terror and the war on terror that I will attend to very soon.


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