19 November 2014

Puritanism and the bullying of Matt Taylor

So, ‘Shirtstorm’, as they’re calling it. On 12 November, a brilliant but absent-minded astrophysicist named Matt Taylor (who happens to sport hipster beard and ink) celebrates the landing of the Philae probe from the ten-year-old Rosetta spacecraft on a comet on live TV. Not only is this an important landmark achievement in physics in engineering – landing a probe successfully on a comet has never been done before – but they are doing some very interesting analysis on the composition of the comet nucleus that could have far-reaching implications. But a certain segment of Twitter commentators decided that what was important was not the scientific achievement of Dr. Taylor and his team, but the bowling shirt that he decided to wear for the celebration: a kitschy shirt in the style of ‘50’s and ‘60’s pulp sci-fi, featuring scantily-clad women wielding guns.

And practically all of the easily-offended white Anglophone lifestyle-left on Twitter descended upon the hapless physicist (read: nerd) for his ‘casual misogyny’, starting with these people. Demands were made by these twits for Dr. Taylor to be fired. Two days later, Dr. Taylor broke down in tears as he apologised for his choice of shirt. Keep in mind, this shirt was not only a gift, but it was handmade for Dr. Taylor, by a friend of his who happens to be a woman, who was also baffled and upset by the Twitter-mob attack, which she characterised as ‘unreasonably cruel’.

A few thoughtful people called the white Anglophone lifestyle-leftist Twitter mob out for what they were: bullies. They attacked Dr. Taylor not for saying or for doing anything monstrously sexist, but simply for wearing something which symbolised his socially-marginal identity as a nerd. But because nerds are not and never have been viewed by the white Anglophone lifestyle-left as such, Taylor was both politically-safe as a target for their bullying, as well as being powerless enough such that they felt they could get away with showing him exactly where they thought he belonged in the pecking order.

Like most bullies, they weren’t satisfied with Dr. Taylor’s having caved to them, but rather demanded further groveling from him. And, like most bullies, they could dish out an ‘unreasonably cruel’ Twitter mob attack of their own, but when they got called on it by another group of Twitterers, they couldn’t take it, and characterised it as ‘backlash misogyny’. I recognise these exact tactics from middle school – they knew just where to be and just what to say when the teacher stepped in to make sure they could dodge the blame for having shoved the physics geek into the locker.

(To be clear, there are very real problems with misogyny amongst nerds; GamerGate and the ‘fake geek girl’ epithet being only the two most obvious. And these are truly worthy of critique. But wearing a kitschy T-shirt is clearly not quite on the same level as doxxing or stalking female game authors, threatening to shoot up schools or actively ostracising women from events.)

On one level, the critique of ‘Shirtstorm’ can and probably should stop there.

On another level, though, the substantive prudery (there is no better word to use, however loudly certain portions of the Twitter mob deny the charge) which underlies the criticism of Dr. Taylor’s pulpy T-shirt is reflective of a distinctly white, distinctly Anglo-Saxon, distinctly American, distinctly Protestant and distinctly Puritan theological manner of policing the proper boundaries of sexual expression – and not only for men. The Protestant suspicion (and abandonment) of the celibate rule and the specifically Calvinist abandonment of the doctrines of synergism and free will led the Puritans of New England to characterise natural human sexual desires as a defiling and pervasive ‘perversity’. Yet possibly as a coping mechanism, the ‘perversity’ the Calvinists sought to discover in their quest to root out and expose (or, in Chauvin’s term in the Institutes, ‘study to admonish’) sexual sin led them straight to the sexual-psychological releases found in the punishments of torture and public shaming.

Certainly on the core principle of the matter, there are some incredibly massive problems with singling out risqué or suggestive clothing as a marker of responsibility for socio-sexual reactions aroused in bystanders. Either it promotes a double standard, or it carries with it some massively unfortunate implications, particularly from a feminist point-of-view. But it is worth considering that the same Puritan inheritance, the same repressed impulse that underlies classic ‘slut-shaming’ behaviour amongst right-wing Protestants, underlies also this need for these waspish faux-radicals to publicly police and ‘study to admonish’ male ‘perversity’, and to send offenders (particularly ones with distinctly countercultural markers like Dr. Taylor’s) to the figurative stocks. The liberal culture-warrior and the fundamentalist culture-warrior here also mirror each other very closely.

EDIT: Thank you, Julie Bindel!

1 comment:

  1. Great post. Bowling shirts are supposed to be kitschy and silly. I hate to bring it up, but if Dr. Taylor was a gay man, his shirt would be laughed off as John Waters-style harmless kitsch and there would not be this issue about the shirt being sexist.