The internet is trapped in a shame spiral, and it’s time for us to get the fuck out. Last week, the vortex churned around British physicist Tim Hunt, the Nobel laureate who went to lunch and lost his job.

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Obviously it wasn’t that simple. The “lunch” was a professional meeting of women scientists during an international science journalism conference in Korea, and during his speech to the group, Hunt told the attendees that his problem with women in science is that they are always falling in love with him (or he with them), and crying when they are criticized. Given that Hunt has supervised hundreds of scientists over the past 40 years, and held positions that gave him the power to make or break a scientist’s career, this was a troubling statement to say the least. He was essentially telling these women that he didn’t think they should work in science.

In the hours that followed, people took to Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram to make fun of Tim Hunt with the #distractinglysexy hashtag. Women posted pictures of themselves working in labs and in the field, looking just as geeky or geared up as their male colleagues, and joked about how “distractingly sexy” they were. People posted pictures of “mixed gender lab” signs in research facilities all over the world. “No crying. No falling in love,” they read.

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Of course, there were serious criticisms of Hunt’s clueless comments too. Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer Prize winning science journalist who was also speaking at the women scientists’ lunch with Tim Hunt, explained in an article for The Daily Beast that Hunt really did think that labs should be gender segregated because he’d had so much trouble working with women. Blum added that the scientists attending the lunch had been horrified by Hunt’s speech; they sent a public letter thanking all the people who criticized Hunt for his comments.

As a result of all the publicity, Hunt was asked to step down from his honorary positions at the University College London and on the European Research Council. It was clearly the right thing to do. Not only did Hunt say completely reprehensible things, but he couldn’t even figure out that you don’t tell a room full of female scientists at a professional conference that they are lovesick crybabies. This is not a guy who should be in charge of anything.

But then the counter-shame forces kicked into gear, with London mayor Boris Johnson calling for Hunt’s reinstatement. Hunt claimed he’d been “hung out to dry,” and that mobs of mean people on the internet were mischaracterizing his “jokes.” Then the #reinstateTimHunt hashtag began to pop up, and the op-eds rolled in about how terrible it is that we live in a time when “the internet” can destroy a man’s career just because he makes sexist comments at a conference.

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Suddenly the argument was in a shame spiral. We were no longer trying to solve the problem of sexism in science, but instead mired in a debate about how people are talking about it. You might recognize this bizarre turn in the conversation as an age-old form of internet rhetoric called tone policing.

On Tumblr, Tooyoungforthelivingdead describes tone policing like this:

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Tone policing is the ultimate derailing tactic. When you tone police, you automatically shift the focus of the conversation away from what you or someone else did that was wrong, and onto the other person and their reaction.

Once the tone police arrive, we’re no longer talking about how disturbing it is that one of the top scientists in the world thinks women shouldn’t be allowed to work in labs because he might fall in love with them. Instead, we’re talking about whether it’s appropriate for women to mock his comments by posting pictures of themselves on Instagram.

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Jon Ronson’s new book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is another example of this shame spiral at work. Ronson fetishizes the shaming of his subjects, then attempts to redeem or humanize them, without really getting into the question of whether these people actually did something wrong. His book is a bestseller in part because there is nothing more seductive than reliving someone’s shame, then pulling back to shame the shamers, without ever making a judgement about the supposed misdeeds (or, indeed, actual acts of villainy) that set the cycle off in the first place.

No matter how Hunt finally got deposed, we can’t ignore the facts. His comments were unacceptable. A man who says that he can’t work with women because he might fall in love with them should not be allowed to have professional power over women. Or anyone really.

When you listen to the forces of counter-shame in this debate, or any other one, keep in mind what they are really saying. In the case of Tim Hunt, they think the scientist should be put back in his old job because it’s OK for him to declare publicly that he discriminates against an entire class of his colleagues, at a professional event being held in those colleagues’ honor. But none of those colleagues should be allowed to make fun of him on the internet, nor demand that he step down.

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That’s why shame spirals are a fine way to start wars. They are about perpetuating conflict instead of getting to the root of our problems.

So the next time somebody sucks you into an internet shame spiral, remember that it’s a form of policing. To stop the cycle, we need to get back to the bedrock of what started this fight in the first place, and decide which side is right based on the substance of their arguments — not on tone.

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Top image by Theo Zizka


Contact the author at annalee@gizmodo.com.
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