It only takes 39 words to end an academic career even if you are a Nobel laureate in physiology . . . or maybe it’s because you are a Nobel laureate. The sexist comments of the average smuck don’t go viral on Twitter.
I can’t help imagining some futuristic Wikipedia article on “the cure of cancer.” It would go something like this: “Professor Tim Hunt’s work on cell division proved instrumental in developing the cure for cancer, however he became notorious and his career was ended in 2015 for his off-the-cuff remarks on women in science at a conference in Korea.”
According to The Guardian these are the 39 words which Professor Hunt uttered:
“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.”
His wife, Professor Mary Collins, an immunologist, concurs with most of the critical commentary that “It was an unbelievably stupid thing to say.” Hunt himself confessed apologetically, “I was very nervous and a bit confused but, yes, I made those remarks – which were inexcusable – but I made them in a totally jocular, ironic way.” (I’ve already covered the problems with irony but if you need a refresher see Do No Harm Part II: Avoid Irony).
No-one is denying that Professor Hunt said what he said, but my reason for commenting is that his words are being so widely reported and repeated out of context. The context is the meaning. The only way to understand what an action or an utterance means is to consider the context. In saying this I know I am indirectly defending “the bad guys” (and "girls"): the politician who complains of being quoted “out of context” and the adulterer who claims that the sex “didn’t mean anything.” The truth is that politicians are frequently quoted out of context and their words attributed meanings that are different from, worse than or in complete opposition to their intentions. And yes, a single act of coitus can be as meaningless as friction. The only way to know what sex means is to consider the context, and the spectrum of possibilities range from criminal sadism to love.
For at least a generation now (the Twitter generation?) we have been training university students to read out of context. As a professor of literature I thought of my job as teaching my students to be the best possible readers, to be able to analyze and re-synthesize some of the best works that have ever been written. Reading well meant having a thorough understanding and appreciation of the various contexts within which a work could be read. As time marches on the new meanings of old works are constantly changing but if we care about meaning, we have to consider the many contexts within which literature is/was written and read.
However, I noted with chagrin that many of my postmodernist professors and colleagues were quickly and firmly attached to Roland Barthes’ proclamation of “the Death of the Author.” Fixed meanings were no longer possible, according to Barthes, because professional readers (i.e., postmodern professors) no longer considered the author (who she was, her context or intentions) when interpreting a literary work. Looking at the author to determine the meaning of a text simply wasn’t done. Whether Barthes was reporting what he witnessed around him or was announcing what should and had to be, on the ground in university classrooms the idea of considering the life of the author as part of the study of a literary work had become so passé that it would be radical to consider this approach.
To my knowledge no-one has ever pointed out how self serving the “Death of the Author” was for university professors. In the new postmodern context, meaning no longer resided with the author but with the reader, and if you wanted to know what a literary work “really” meant (even though such an absolute was never possible) you had to turn to a professional reader, a professor of literature. It was clearly a power grab, but no-one seemed to notice--or was it that no-one cared?
The precedents and procedures for quoting Professor Hunt out of context have been established and taught. Everyone is invited to posture self-righteously by attacking him and his un-contextualized utterances.
When that gets old we might consider challenging the ”Death of the Author,” and taking to heart Professor Collins’ observation that what her husband said “could be taken as offensive if you didn’t know Tim” and her assurance that “he is not sexist. I am a feminist, and I would not have put up with him if he were sexist.”
What are the proper contexts within which we should read Professor Hunt’s utterance? My counsel is that we need to be conscious that we are reading different contexts and, in this case,Tim Hunt is one important context of the utterance, not the other way around. We won’t get the meaning of Tim Hunt by reading the 39 words he uttered in Korea.