By Evan Byrne
One week ago the Rosetta probe completed its ten year, four billion mile odyssey, and successfully landed on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The media interest surrounding this momentous scientific milestone was unsurprisingly substantial, and so the project scientist, London born Dr. Matt Taylor, appeared in a live stream to discuss the landing. Soon after, Dr. Taylor became the focal point of internet discussion.
However it was not his work on the Rosetta project which was discussed, but instead his sartorial choices; he wore a Hawaiian shirt with illustrations of scantily clad women during the stream. The internet quickly exploded with condemnation, with Twitter being used as a primary means of delivering well constructed 140 character arguments such as “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” Within hours tweets, blogs and fringe news sites produced a library’s worth of condemnation over Dr. Taylor’s shirt. The following day, Dr. Taylor used another media appearance to apologise, for his “big mistake” and for the offence he had caused. Spectacularly however, this was not the end, with Rachel Feltman of the Washington Post continuing to condemn, and dismissing Dr. Taylor’s apology as not enough. By this point many were coming to Dr. Taylor’s defence, including Mayor of London Boris Johnson in his weekly Telegraph column.
What is most baffling is why the shirt was offensive at all. The original line of complaint seemed to be that the wearing of such a shirt would discourage women from entering STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields. Of course this is a ludicrous argument. How the actions of one man could turn an entire generation of young women permanently off science is absurdity. Anyway, those young girls who are fascinated by Science would hopefully be so engrossed with the fact that we just landed a probe on a giant rock hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles a minute, that they would not take enough time to notice the shirt in question, let alone be in anyway affected by it.
Sadly, the irony of all this is that the outrage over nothing has completely eclipsed the success of the mission itself. Instead of column inches being dedicated to discussing the mission, and what we have learned from it, they have argued over a supposedly sexist shirt. Many have already commented that Dr. Taylor’s moment in the sun has been ripped from him, but that is not entirely true. Everyone who worked on this mission have lost their moment too. That includes all of the female scientists involved in the mission. Rather than praise the women of the mission, and demonstrating to the world all that women have to offer science, it seemed a more prudent course of action to vilify one man. And it is this problem exactly, that exists within a certain kind of “internet feminism” that this entire affair has stemmed from. The increasingly short attention span of internet users requires arguments to be condensed into tweets and comments. It is considerably easier to highlight a “problem” than engage in a meaningful discussion about the issue. So instead of a well informed discussion about the lack of women in science, during which I am sure the successes of the female members of the Rosetta team would have been highlighted, we had abuse directed at a man and his shirt, as if that shirt was the root cause of the suffering of all women.
Perhaps what is most worrying of all is that this is nothing more than censorship for the sake of sensitivity which is becoming all too prevalent in this day and age. The real problem for those who condemned Dr. Taylor was not that his shirt was indicative of a sexist culture within scientific fields and workplaces, but that he had the audacity to wear such an offensive article at all, and worse still, in the public eye.
But even that rationale is incredibly flimsy. Whether we like it or not, our media is saturated in semi-naked ladies (and men too); Kim Kardashian appeared (mostly) nude at the same time as the Rosetta news was breaking for the first time. Yet the illustrated women on Dr. Taylor’s shirt warranted being singled out. Ultimately Dr. Taylor’s crime was expressing his own individuality. Certain sections of the internet decided that that expression was unacceptable to them, and cowed the offender into submission. This is a worrying trend. Everyone has the right to think that the shirt was amazing, or think it garish. One might hold the view that Dr. Taylor’s decision to dress as he did with the obvious media spotlight on the mission was unprofessional. That he did not appear in front of the cameras in a jacket and tie was improper. That is our prerogative. And clearly there were those who objected to the shirt. But that they used the safety and anonymity of the internet to abuse Dr. Taylor is far from acceptable.
Rather than open up a dialogue, or spark a discussion, they censured. And that is what is truly offensive.