Tyranny of Activists
Posted on 1-September-2015
For when would you , my lord, or you, or you
Have found the ground of study's excellence
Without the beauty of a woman's face?
From women's eyes this doctrine I derive:
They are the ground, the books, the academes
From whence doth spring the true Promethean fire.
One striking feature of the present age is the proliferation of activists of all kinds: environmentalists, animal rights activists, defenders of human rights, islamists, rationalists, hinduists, creationists and so on. Some are genuine fighters for important causes, some quixotic, some dangerous and some outright silly. Some have won important battles but having won them, tend to lose sight of battles still to fight and often fall into trivialities. Modern day feminists seem to belong to this class. At least some of their recent campaigns suggest that.
In early June this year, in an impromptu talk over luncheon to a group of women science reporters and women scientists in Seoul, Tim Hunt, the renowned physiologist--he has a Nobel prize in physiology/medicine--said among other things:
"It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. 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 they cry when you criticise them. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played without doubt an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles and despite monsters like me"
Feminists promptly called Hunt's remarks sexist slander and flooded the cyberspace with demands for his ouster. Under pressure from feminists, University College, London, where he was an honorary professor, asked his wife to advise him to resign.
About a decade ago, in January 2005, Larry Summers, the President of Harvard University spoke at an economic conference and addressed complaints about proportionately small presence of women among senior faculty at the University, especially in science and engineering. He said that not all gender variation from the standard could be explained by discrimination or socialisation and wondered whether some of the variation could also be due to genetic factors. This assertion was based on a number of studies and a fair amount of sound experimental data. Rather than question the validity of the studies or the data in which Summers' statement was grounded, women denounced him as sexist and many including the National Organisation of Women of the USA asked for his resignation. Eventually Summers decided not to seek a second five year term as President.
Earlier this year, a woman member of the French National Assembly moved a proposal to change the expression droits de l'homme to droits humaines--to mean human rights-- on the ground that the former expression was sexist--the French word homme means man. The Academie Francaise, the final authority on matters regarding usage and meaning in French language, opined that the original expression correctly expressed the meaning: human rights. The proposal in the National Assembly was defeated by a small margin and the woman member was disappointed at the decision by a male dominated National Assembly. I wonder what the lady would have thought of a story about another debate in the National Assembly where in response to statement by one member that there was all the same a difference between men and women, another shouted : Vive la difference ( Long live the difference)!
The trouble with some modern day feminists is that they see sexist bias where none exists. In the case of Tim Hunt, the activists failed to see that he was indulging in light hearted badinage. In the case of Larry Summers, the feminists did not see that he was referring to views held by some serious scientists and in the third case the lady quite unseriously saw a sexist bias in a peculiarity of French usage. Judged by such standards, the lines of verse with which this essay opens are sexist and so are the bulk of the world's love poetry and love songs--most of it is authored by men. In India, particularly since the mid-December 2012 case of a very repulsive and beastly gang rape of a young woman on a moving bus, the issue of rape has, quite justifiably, concerned feminists. But woe betide someone who says for example that the woman journalist who was raped late at night at an abandoned mill known to be a haunt of criminals had been imprudent and rash or woe betide a man who says that it is not unnatural for a young man to be attracted towards a well appointed young woman. Both are immediately made to recant or apologise and denounced as condoning rape.
Feminism has a glorious past. Over the last century and a half, women have won many rights: voting, equal opportunity in education and employment, equal pay, protection against unwanted sexual advances in work place by male colleagues, to name a few. Many of these have been won through arduous and long struggles when there were no instant electronic communications. For feminists the world over there are still a number of worthwhile causes left. Such feminist movement as there is against the beauty and the advertisement industries--two industries which more than any other make women into mere sex objects--seems to be rather muted. Then many of the rights and opportunities now available to women in the West continue to be denied to women in large swathes of the developing world. In the case of India feminists have one ready made cause to take up--stoppage to female foeticide. These struggles will in all likelihood be as long and arduous as the struggles of the past and may bring no fame and publicity.Yet these issues are of greater import than indulging in raucous campaigns against sexism where none exists.
Some characteristics are common to most contemporary activists--they have single point agendas; they tend to have unidimensional worldviews in which there is no room for complexity; they are utterly convinced of the rightness of their cause and are dismissive of alternative views and, in our times, they have the capacity to use the electronic media to quickly convert small voices into deafening noises--noises loud enough to silence any timorous soul and subject it to their dictats in the same way that feminists did to Tim Hunt and Larry Summers. Would that activists of our times found ways to temper their enthusiasm and rediscovered the virtues of quiet, reasoned debate.