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Comet Guy and the social-justice black hole

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An amazingly stupid story with a clever Twitter hashtag, #shirtstorm, has been brewing for the past couple of days.  Long story short, one of the brilliant scientists who just landed a space probe on a moving comet decided to wear a shirt covered with cheesecake cartoon girls for a media appearance.  A gang of decidedly non-brilliant feminists freaked out and organized an Internet flash mob to accuse Dr. Matt Taylor of objectifying women, charging that his choice of shirt would intimidate young ladies out of pursuing careers in science.  The really stupid part of the story is that it worked – Dr. Taylor was bullied into making a tearful public apology for his shirt.

No one seriously thinks Taylor is a misogynist or meant to offend anyone with his shirt.  In fact, it was designed by a woman named Elly Prizeman, who was properly mortified by the reaction.  “My heart just broke watching Matt’s apology,” she wrote on Facebook.  “That is not cool.  The public can be unreasonably cruel.  I’m saddened and angered by this.”  A personal friend of Taylor’s, she has described him as “an amazing, kind, loving and sensitive person.”

Of course, the very point of the mob action is that no conscious offense by Taylor was required for him to be boiled in online oil.  Thoughtcrime does not always proceed from deliberate action; intention is divined by the accusers.  The goal is to create an atmosphere of terror, in which everyone is double extra careful to pre-censor their words and deeds, and by extension their thoughts, for fear of career destruction.

And it occurs to me that the target of this noisy little radfem band is women, as much as it is men.  Women are being programmed through these actions.  Offense is being taken on their behalf, to fine-tune the programming of a group mind.  A key objective of “War on Women” freak-outs is to push the women who initially dismiss them as ridiculous into accepting them, at least tacitly.  

The concept of “social justice” as a process of balancing out the “inequities of power” is reinforced by performances like this.  It is highly unlikely that a female scientist wearing an equivalent shirt covered in beefcake would have faced anything approaching the same criticism – in fact, I’d wager some of those who rained fury down upon Taylor would have applauded such a female scientist.  That’s because acceptable behavior is now defined not by universal norms, but by elastic, politicized equations that take identity into account.  There are things Person A can do with impunity, but Person B would be destroyed for, based entirely on their sexes, or the color of their skins.

In case you doubt the magnitude of #shirtstorm, it has been judged a big enough deal in some quarters to overshadow the incredible comet-landing achievement.  Instapundit’s Glenn Reynolds wrote about it for USA Today, mentioning that only a tiny minority of women (23 percent) currently identify themselves as “feminists,” and the word was recently ranked Number One in a Time Magazine survey of terms that should be retired from the English language.  Reynolds included the quote that kicked off #shirtstorm in his essay:

The Atlantic’s Rose Eveleth tweeted, “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” Astrophysicist Katie Mack commented: “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM.” And from there, the online feminist lynch mob took off until Taylor was forced to deliver a tearful apology on-camera.

It seems to me that if you care about women in STEM, maybe you shouldn’t want to communicate the notion that they’re so delicate that they can’t handle pictures of comic-book women. Will we stock our Mars spacecraft with fainting-couches?

Reynolds was promptly accused of unleashing a horde of his followers on Rose Eveleth, and even of “doxxing” her (the technique developed by some hacker groups of exposing and revealing confidential private information to destroy a targeted individual), merely because he dared to quote her and disagree.  (Check out Insty’s Twitter feed for Saturday evening if you want to see that little drama play out.)

We’ve been down that dreary road many times before: certain people are insulated from criticism, to the point where responding to them in any way is treated as an attack, or maybe even assault.  We’re supposed to have “open and honest discussions” about vital social issues, but only some people are allowed to talk.  Anything you say can and will be used against you in the kangaroo court of Internet totalitarianism, so shut up.

The saga of Comet Guy is developing some similarities to GamerGate, another “social justice” scrum in which the Left did not expect to face any pushback, and has been rocked on its heels by sustained resistance.  GamerGate is a complicated machine with a lot of moving parts, but a major element of the controversy involved videogame players who were tired of being subjected to industry journalism saturated with left-wing social harangues, to the point where game reviews were starting to read like Berkeley undergraduate papers.  Similar ideological penetration has occurred in many other areas of nerdy culture, such as fantasy and sci-fi literature, without much resistance… but the gamers pushed back, hard.  Witch hunts are a lot less fun when the witches are shooting back with fireballs.

Gamers have enjoyed many simulations in which they performed incredible deeds with spaceships.  Dr. Matt Taylor did it for real.  (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess he probably did it about ten thousand times in videogames first over the course of his life, often while exchanging laser fire with hostile aliens, and then did it for real.)  He doesn’t deserve the treatment he got.  We’re never going to have a just and harmonious society if offense is defined entirely by the eyes of a very small, very loud gang of thin-skinned, ideologically rigid, opportunistic beholders.  We will not enjoy robust discourse or vigorous competition in the arena of ideas if people live in fear of thinking the “wrong” way.  That ain’t rocket science.


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