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Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
–George Santayana

All of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.
–a guy who turned out to be a Cylon

Let me start by putting my cards on the table: Jamie Vernon is not someone I count as an ally.

At least, he’s not someone I’d consider a reliable ally. I don’t have any reason to believe that he really understands my interests, and I don’t trust him not to sacrifice them for his own comfort. He travels in some of the same online spaces that I do and considers himself a longstanding member of the SciComm community of which I take myself to be a member, but that doesn’t mean I think he has my back. Undoubtedly, there are some issues for which we would find ourselves on the same side of things, but that’s not terribly informative; there are some issues (not many, but some) for which Dick Cheney and I are on the same side.

Here, I’m in agreement with Isis that we needn’t be friends to be able to work together in pursuit of shared goals. I’ve made similar observations about the scientific community:

We’re not all on the same page about everything. Pretending that we are misrepresents the nature of the tribe of science and of scientific activity. But given that there are some shared commitments that guide scientific methodology, some conditions without which scientific activity in the U.S. cannot flourish, these provide some common ground on which scientists ought to be more or less united … [which] opens the possibility of building coalitions, of finding ways to work together toward the goals we share even if we may not agree about what other goals are worth pursuing.

We probably can’t form workable coalitions, though, by showing open contempt for each other’s other commitments or interests. We cannot be allies by behaving like enemies. Human nature sucks like that sometimes.

But without coalitions, we have to be ready to go it alone, to work to achieve our goals with much less help. Without coalitions, we may find ourselves working against the effects of those who have chosen to pursue other goals instead. If you can’t work with me toward goal A, I may not be inclined to help you work toward goal B. If we made common cause with each other, we might be able to tailor strategies that would get us closer to both goals rather than sacrificing one for the other. But if we decide we’re not working on the same team, why on earth should we care about each other’s recommendations with respect to strategies?

Ironically, we humans seem sometimes to show more respect to people who are strangers than to people we call our friends. Perhaps it’s related to the uncertainty of our interactions going forward — the possibility that we may need to band together, or to accommodate the other’s interests to protect our own — or to the lack of much shared history to draw upon in guiding our interactions. We begin our interactions with strangers with the slate as blank as it can be. Strangers can’t be implored (at least not credibly) to consider our past good acts to excuse our current rotten behavior toward them.

We may recognize strangers as potential allies, but we don’t automatically assume that they’re allies already. Neither do we assume that they’ll view us as their allies.

Thinking about allies is important in the aftermath of Joe Hanson’s video that he says was meant to “lampoon” the personalities of famous scientists of yore and to make “a joke to call attention to the sexual harassment that many women still today experience.” It’s fair to say the joke was not entirely successful given that the scenes of Albert Einstein sexually harassing and assaulting Marie Curie arguably did harm to women in science:

Hanson’s video isn’t funny. It’s painful. It’s painful because 1) it’s such an accurate portrayal of exactly what so many of us have faced, and 2) the fact that Hanson thinks it’s “outrageous” demonstrates how many of our male colleagues don’t realize the fullness of the hostility that women scientists are still facing in the workplace. Furthermore, Hanson’s continued clinging to “can’t you take a joke” and the fact that he was “trying to be comedic” reflects the deeper issue. Not only does he not get it, his statement implies that he has no intention of trying to get it.

Hanson’s posted explanation after the negative reactions urges the people who reacted negatively to see him as an ally:

To anyone curious if I am not aware of, or not committed to preventing this kind of treatment (in whatever way my privileged perspective allows me to do so) I would urge you to check out my past writing and videos … This doesn’t excuse us, but I ask that you form your opinion of me, It’s Okay To Be Smart, and PBS Digital Studios from my body of work, and not a piece of it.

Indeed, Jamie Vernon not only vouches for Hanson’s ally bona fides but asserts his own while simultaneously suggesting that the negative reactions to Hanson’s video are themselves a problem for the SciComm community:

Accusations of discrimination were even pointed in my direction, based on a single ill-advised Tweet.  One tweet (that I now regret and apologize for) triggered a tsunami of anger, attacks, taunts, and accusations against me. 

Despite many years of speaking out on women’s issues in science, despite being an ardent supporter of women science communicators, despite being a father to two young girls for whom it is one of my supreme goals to create a more gender balanced science community, despite these things and many other examples of my attempts to be an ally to the community of women science communicators, I was now facing down the barrel of a gun determined to make an example out of me. …

“How could this be happening to me?  I’m an ally!” I thought. …

Hanson has worked incredibly hard for several years to create an identity that has proven to inspire young people.  He has thousands of loyal readers who share his work thousands of times daily on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.  He has championed women’s causes.  Just the week prior to the release of the infamous video, he railed against discriminatory practices among the Nobel Prize selection committees.  He is a force for good in a sea of apathy and ignorance.  Without a doubt, he is an asset to science and science communication.  In my opinion, any mention of removing him from his contract with PBS is shortsighted and reflects misdirected anger.  He deserves the opportunity to recalibrate and power on in the name of science.

Vernon assures us that he and Hanson are allies to women in science and in the SciComm community. At minimum, I believe that Vernon must have a very different understanding than I of what is involved in being an ally.

Allies are people with whom we make common cause to pursue particular goals or to secure particular interests. Their interests and goals are not identical to ours — that’s what makes them allies.

I do not expect allies to be perfect. They, like me, are human, and I certainly mess up with some regularity. Indeed, I understand full well the difficulty of being a good ally. As Josh Witten observed to me, as a white woman I am “in one of the more privileged classes of the oppressed, arguably the least f@#$ed over of the totally f@#$ed over groups in modern western society.” This means when I try to be an ally to people of color, or disabled people, or poor people, for example, there’s a good chance I’ll step in it. I may not be playing life on the lowest difficulty setting, but I’m pretty damn close.

Happily, many people to whom I try to be an ally are willing to tell me when I step in it and to detail just how I’ve stepped in it. This gives me valuable feedback to try to do better.

Allies I trust are people who pay attention to the people to whom they’re trying to give support because they’re imperfect and because their interests and goals are not identical. The point of paying attention is to get some firsthand reports on whether you’re helping or hurting from the people you’re trying to help.

When good allies mess up, they do their best to respond ethically and do better going forward. Because they want to do better, they want to know when they have messed up — even though it can be profoundly painful to find out your best efforts to help have not succeeded.

Let’s pause for a moment here so I can assure you that I understand it hurts when someone tells you that you messed up. I understand it because I have experienced it. I know all about the feeling of defensiveness that pops right up, as well as the feeling that your character as a human being is being unfairly judged on the basis of limited data — indeed, in your defensiveness, you might immediately start looking for ways the person suggesting you are not acting like a good ally has messed up (including failing to communicate your mistake in language that is as gentle as possible). These feelings are natural, but being a good ally means not letting these feelings overcome your commitment to actually be helpful to the people you set out to help.

On account of these feelings, you might feel great empathy for someone else who has just stepped in it but who you think it trying to be an ally. You might feel so much empathy that you don’t want to make them feel bad by calling out their mistake — or that you chide others for pointing out that mistake. (You might even start reaching for quotations about people without sin and stones.) Following this impulse undercuts the goal of being a good ally.

As I wrote elsewhere,

If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people — people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves — then we are screwed.

People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn’t brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn’t require that there’s a saint on duty to file the complaint.

An ally worth the name recognizes that while good intentions can be helpful in steering his conduct, in the end it’s the actions that matter the most. Other people don’t have privileged access to our intentions, after all. What they have to go on is how we behave, what we do — and that outward behavior can have positive or negative effects regardless of whether we intended those effects. It hurts when you step on my toe whether or not you are a good person inside. Telling me it shouldn’t hurt because you didn’t intend the harm is effectively telling me that my own experience isn’t valid, and that your feelings (that you are a good person) trump mine (that my foot hurts).

The allies I trust recognize that the trust they bank from their past good acts is finite. Those past good acts don’t make it impossible for their current acts to cause real harm — in fact, they can make a current act more harmful by shattering the trust built up with the past good acts. As well, they try to understand that harm done by other can make all the banked trust easier to deplete. It may not seem fair, but it is a rational move on the part of the people they are trying to help to protect themselves from harm.

This is, by the way, a good reason for people who want to be effective allies to address the harms done by others rather than maintaining a non-intervention policy.

Being a good ally means trying very hard to understand the positions and experiences of the people with whom you’re trying to make common cause by listening carefully, by asking questions, and by refraining from launching into arguments from first principles that those experiences are imaginary or mistaken. While they ask questions, those committed to being allies don’t demand to be educated. They make an effort to do their own homework.

I expect allies worth the name not to demand forgiveness, not to insist that the people with whom they say they stand will swallow their feelings or let go of hurt on the so-called ally’s schedule. Things hurt as much and as long as they’re going to hurt. Ignoring that just adds more hurt to the pile.

The allies I trust are the ones who are focused on doing the right thing, and on helping counter the wrongs, whether or not anyone is watching, not for the street cred as an ally, but because they know they should.

The allies I believe in recognize that every day they are faced with choices about how to act — about who to be — and that how they choose can make them better or worse allies regardless of what came before.

I am not ruling out the possibility that Joe Hanson or Jamie Vernon could be reliable allies for women in science and in the SciComm community. But their professions of ally status will not be what makes them allies, nor will such professions be enough to make me trust them as allies. The proof of an ally is in how he acts — including how he acts in response to criticism that hurts. Being an ally will mean acting like one.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Bashir 9:43 am 11/19/2013

    I would say *especially* how you react to criticism. It’s easy to point at truly awful people and say “at least I’m not them”. Or to point to a few nice things you’ve done in the past. It’s more difficult, and more crucial to continually examine your own actions. How they may, even inadvertently, contribute to a problematic environment for others. Not in a “feel guilty about your privilege” way but active scanning to being aware of it.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Rob Knop 10:41 am 11/19/2013

    Janet — here’s the problem. What you describe as “calling out their mistake” is described by Vernon as “Initial statements of shock at the insensitivity of Hanson’s video have escalated into personal attacks, calls for his firing and even threats of violence against him. I’m here to ask people to reassess their response to this huge screw up.”

    There’s a disconnect here somewhere. Feedback, even direct feedback, about screwups is fine. But turning somebody into a target of broad community attacks and hate, as somebody to be held up and ostracized, because of a screwup, goes way beyond pointing out the problems and trying to fix them. It becomes scapegoating and trying to make villains. Yes, I understand that there are positions of privelege, and those who feel hurt sometimes because of the response are more sensitive than they should be, and clueless to the ongoing hurt that those without privelege feel all the time. However, even then, it’s possible to go to far. What little I’ve paid attention to this situation, it’s very difficult for me not to say, “holy cow, the science communication community has turned a couple of guys into way overvillified scapegoats for their clueless missteps”.

    Even though I’ve been a very slow blogger for a couple of years, I do not feel safe now blogging about any issue at all related to fairness. Hell, I’m not sure I feel safe blogging at all. And, frankly, even though I know and respect you, I half expect to become one of the “see, here’s another white guy who just doesn’t get it” campaign because of this comment.

    I’m just asking you to be fair here. If you think that the villifiation of Hanson and Vernon that’s going on, the true level of it, is warranted, **argue for that**. Don’t pretend that what has happened to them is just a calling out of a mistsake, because what’s happened to them goes way beyond that.

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  3. 3. scicurious 11:16 am 11/19/2013

    Wonderful post, Janet. I know from the past how hard it is in the moment to react to react to criticism. It’s so easy to just say “I didn’t mean it!” or try and back peddle. It’s something I try to keep in mind when I face criticism.

    One good thing about the internet is that you don’t always have to react immediately. You have time to consider your words and remember how to take it well and learn from it.

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  4. 4. rkipling 11:37 am 11/19/2013

    “We Are All Alone in This Together”, a song by Graham Lindsey

    I’m pretty sure I have never actually heard this song. I remembered seeing the title somewhere, and it seemed appropriate to begin this comment.

    Your advocacy for ethics in science by word and deed advances the standing of women of science. It advances all of us. That is significant. Only someone who fully understands that ethics are essential could be such an effective advocate. But you should know people appreciate the importance of what you are doing.

    Allow me to suggest that your individual achievements may far better promote the cause than any collective group of allies. Do not despair the failings of the group. Your influence on the world through your students has and will have a wider reach than whatever drama happens within your community. This is only offered as something to ponder and is not represented as wisdom. The hoped for elder wisdom so far remains elusive.

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  5. 5. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 11:49 am 11/19/2013

    Rob,

    Maybe there’s vilification and threats happening somewhere, but every time I have asked someone to show me where, I have been met with silence.

    What I’ve seen lots of is descriptions of just where the harm is, requests to address that harm, requests to engage in a serious way with the criticism. I asked Jamie, on Twitter (in reply to his tweet linking people to his post) to engage with me. Silence.

    The silence is a further harm here. What responses are available? Keep talking about the harm and asking for engagement (which, we’re doing — and I think the persistence is being read as hostile), decide that these people really don’t want to be making common cause with us (in which case, what on earth is wrong with saying that?), or something behind door #3 that I haven’t figured out yet.

    If you can point me to a good door #3, I’m willing to explore it.

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  6. 6. RSchmidt 1:03 pm 11/19/2013

    A number of years ago I volunteered on kibbutz in Israel. There were a number of us there from all over the world, some where Jewish, most were not. On one occasion one of the non-Jewish volunteers made an off-color joke about Jews. It wasn’t anything particularly nasty, not about the holocaust or suggesting that Jews were lessor people but I’m sure it would have been considered insensitive. One of the Jewish volunteers was completely incensed by the joke, calling the person an anti-Semite and wanting them removed from Israel one way or another. So here was a person who had chosen to give his time and effort to experiencing Jewish culture and what it is like to live in Israel and because of a poorly chosen joke he now clearly hated Jews, to such an extent that he was beyond reform. In fact, he was clearly an enemy of the Jewish state. Sadly I think some people have such strong personal agendas that they actively search for enemies. Perhaps it fuels their persecution complex. The one thing that seems to be true is that the assumption of innocence seems to be beyond the abilities of the general public.

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  7. 7. chemjobber 1:41 pm 11/19/2013

    Thanks for this, Janet; it is educational for me.

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  8. 8. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 3:09 pm 11/19/2013

    @ RSchmidt,

    It’s possible that what you describe as an overreaction to a joke in your story was actually a proportional reaction to the cumulative impact of many, many such insensitive remarks — each tolerable on it own, but less and less tolerable under the collective weight of the whole.

    Link to this
  9. 9. rkipling 5:27 pm 11/19/2013

    Rob Knop,

    There were calls for violence??
    This is obviously a situation completely beyond my understanding.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Rob Knop 6:44 pm 11/19/2013

    Follow the links in Vernon’s article.

    I’ve seen calls in my own twitter feed that PBS should get rid of joetheizzoe– I’m pretty sure they were there because Janet retweeted them.

    I haven’t seen Vernon receive anything like that level of treatment, but joetheizzoe has been so amazingly dogpiled that it’s not surprising he’d get defensive, no matter what he did in the first place.

    And, again, perhaps all of the treatment joetheizzoe has received is justified. But it’s not the same as simply telling him he messed up, and pretending it is so only undermines the argument.

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  11. 11. Rob Knop 6:48 pm 11/19/2013

    Edit: trying to dig through my twitter feed (which is nearly impossible; needle-in-haystick issues), I don’t think it was a Janet retweet calling for PBS to jettison joetheizzoe, but I did read that *somewhere*. Haven’t found the reference yet.

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  12. 12. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 7:07 pm 11/19/2013

    Rob,

    I’ve been following this from close to the beginning. Joe was told, quite respectfully, by a number of people, how he messed up. The apparent dogpile came about because he quite visibly disengaged from listening and/or giving a damn.

    Again, if there’s a different strategy you can recommend that would be effective in addressing this kind of problem, I am open to trying it. Because this kind of problem happens with alarming frequency.

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  13. 13. rkipling 3:10 pm 11/20/2013

    The group psychology of both this incident and the Dr. Lee insult are interesting to me. It’s something completely outside my experience. By happenstance I am not part of any oppressed demographic (I don’t count starting out as a hillbilly.) nor was I vulnerable to bullying. For those reasons it never occurred to me to seek allies of any sort. What payoff there could be from the act of bullying others has always been a puzzlement as well.

    I see this as substantively dissimilar to the Dr. Lee incident.

    I watched the Hanson video. Hanson seemed to be talking to himself, literally. The last few seconds of the video showed adolescent vulgarity. I saw the Einstein/Curie ending sequence as an indictment of Einstein’s personal lack of character. The Curie bobble head seemed to be expressing disgust with Einstein rather than yelling, “Rape!”

    Honestly, I expected something much more offensive based on the article. Although, I have to say that pixelated Einstein private parts falling on Marie Curie was repulsive. My first impression was to wonder if Hanson might benefit from some psychotherapy, what with imagining Albert Einstein unclothed and all.

    What I saw was a grown man playing with and undressing dolls who may require therapy. I’m not sure taking offense at the actions of the mentally ill on behalf of women of science is the only rational response to the video. I don’t know anything about Jamie Vernon more than this article and reading his blog post about this issue. Calling out Vernon for an insufficiently full-throated condemnation of Hanson is difficult for me to understand.

    I offer this comment as someone who admires your work on scientific ethics and ethics in general. I don’t say your view is wrong. Maybe it is just so alien to my experience that I can’t see it the way you do?

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  14. 14. rkipling 3:11 pm 11/20/2013

    The man may require therapy not the dolls.

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  15. 15. z34aa 12:24 am 11/21/2013

    Janet – “It’s possible that what you describe as an overreaction to a joke in your story was actually a proportional reaction to the cumulative impact of many, many such insensitive remarks — each tolerable on it own, but less and less tolerable under the collective weight of the whole.”

    I think I understand what your getting at by proportional reaction in this instance, the only problem is the persons reaction was directed at the one person rather than at any group, class, or type of person. It’s understandable in that hypothetical situation for him to act that way, It’s easy to empathize with him, but that doesn’t make his reaction to the one ‘joker’ right.

    Let’s say we have an average Joe American, he get’s up in the morning and heads in to work, on the way he gets a flat tire, and ends up. When he get’s there he finds out that the promotion he had been working hard for all year was given to the bosses nephew. When lunch rolls around someone has eaten his sandwich that he clearly marked with his name. When it finally gets to the end of the day and he is ready to leave his boss hands him a new job and asks him to finish it up before he goes home. Finally he gets it done hours later and heads home, only to find himself stuck in a traffic jam because everyone wants to slow down and gawk at the finder bender on the side of the road. After all this he gets to his house only to find out that his wife, who in their family takes care of sending the check to the electric company, had forgotten to do so and they had no power. Now the guy has had a horrible day and the cumulative impact of all these things has just gotten to be too much and he hauls off and hits his wife.

    People might be able to understand that this guy had a horrible day, and even feel sorry for him, but I don’t think anyone would think that his reaction was in anyway justifiable, or a proportional reaction to what his wife did.

    I don’t believe, and this is just my opinion, that anyone should be held responsible for the actions of others in anyway unless, of curse, they somehow had a part in those actions or facilitated them in someway. A reaction should be proportional to each individuals action. It’s not really fair that a person has to take the same abuse over and over again and have to respond to each person as an individual. That there is no way to satisfactorily confront the additional abuse that comes from the multiplicity of these attacks, but if we are trying to be ethical human beings we must hold to the principle that each person is to be judged by their own actions independent of those not connected to them. Otherwise you’re not really seeing that person as a person, you are denying them their humanity and instead assigning them the role as the construct of others actions.

    Well, that’s my 2 cents at least. :)

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