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Thoughts on #Shirtstorm

matt_taylor_esa_shirtDr. Matt Taylor recently landed a spacecraft on a comet. He also happened to wear a shirt depicting scantily clad women to an interview. He subsequently issued a teary apology for his choice of apparel. My Facebook feed has since split in two. One half (mostly men but with exceptions) is outraged at Taylor’s treatment. The other half (mostly women but with exceptions) sees his shirt as symptomatic of the scientific community’s treatment of women.

I don’t think there’s actually any contradiction in these two stances, but it seems as if there is because emotionally charged issues tend to foster tribalism. “If someone isn’t in my tribe,” the thinking goes “then they’re clearly in opposition to my ideology.” I don’t feel like arguing a side as much as writing down some clarifying thoughts.

Does Dr. Taylor deserve all the animosity he’s got?

Probably not. He wore a shirt a friend made for him with (presumably) no ill intent.

But shouldn’t sexists be publicly shamed and humiliated?

You can do whatever you want. That doesn’t mean your behaviour is proportional to the supposed crime. Humans are rarely two-dimensional characters. Just because we some times do something inappropriate, it doesn’t mean that it defines who we are. Dr. Taylor is (probably) not a sexist. He wore a shirt, some people took issue with. A gentle reminder that the shirt makes you feel unwelcome in the scientific community might have been in order. Treating Dr. Taylor as if he’s the embodiment of the Man keeping Womankind down isn’t.

So there’s no problem with the shirt?

That doesn’t follow. Nor does it follow that there is a problem. Whether the shirt is problematic is an entirely separate issue from whether Dr. Taylor intended it as such or whether he deserves the treatment he’s been subjected to.

Is the shirt objectively sexist?

Nothing, or at least almost nothing, is objectively sexist. Sexism, like all bigotry, is highly dependant on context and on the experiences of the relevant group. If your black and Jewish friends are ok with you using slurs ironically, then that’s between you and them. If they take issue with it, you probably oughtn’t argue with them about how they’re wrong to feel that you’re being unintentionally bigoted. When it comes to what’s appropriate in regards to women, we ought to take our cues from the relevant women. In this case the relevant women are all women, and at least some seem to think this shirt is unintentionally misogynistic. Don’t argue they’re wrong, if you’re not a woman. They’re the sole authority on the matter of how they experience the world. Men don’t get to say on what women should and shouldn’t feel. No, not even about something as “silly” as a shirt.

But the shirt was made by a woman?

Sure, and the song ‘Niggas 4 Life’ was made by black men. That doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for me to recite it in any and all contexts. Now, obviously I’m not saying Dr. Taylor’s shirt is as bad as racial slurs. I’m merely reiterating the point about context-dependence from above. Just because something is made by a member of group x, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a non-member of group x can say it, wear it, show it or what-have-you without thereby hurting group x in the process. I’m not saying Dr. Taylor’s shirt is hurtful to women – again, that’s up to women to decide – I’m saying it might still be hurtful to women regardless of having been made by one.

So Dr. Taylor doesn’t have the right to wear his shirt?

Of course he does. He has every right to wear whatever he wants including Tutu skirts, KKK robes, strawhats, possibly sexist t-shirts, cowboy boots, Blues Brothers shades, his birthday suit etc. That doesn’t mean that all of these things he has a right to wear are equally appropriate for an interview wherein he acts as a representative for his scientific community. Nor does it mean that his right to wear what he wants negates everyone else’s right to criticise his chosen apparel.

“He deserved it because of what he was wearing,” eh?

Idiotic and reprehensible rhetoric. With all sympathy and respect for the emotional turmoil Dr. Taylor has been through, comparing it to being raped is trivialising and belittling to actual rape victims. That joke is not as clever as you think. It doesn’t make you come off as a witty and insightful person for making the comparison, it makes you come off as psychopath who doesn’t see the difference between being criticised (even harshly) and having something rammed into an orifice against one’s will. Dr. Taylor wasn’t forcibly penetrated because of the clothing he wore, he was criticised – even verbally abused – for what he intentionally or unintentionally expressed by the symbols printed on the clothing he wore. Everybody has the right to not be raped for what they wear. Nobody as the right to not be criticised for what they express just because it’s printed on their t-shirt rather than on their blog.

But I’ve seen feminists wear misandrist clothing?

Sure, and while we might rightfully criticise their clothing-mediated opinions, we likely won’t unless they represent a larger community rather than just themselves. I, for instance, regularly get away with wearing this t-shirt:

AtheistOn the other hand, I bet Obama wouldn’t get away with it quite as easily.

 – DisThoughts

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