How anti-science bigotry triumphed | P | I, c, h, a, e, l, , P, o, w, e, l, l, l, e, l

Is Dorian Abbot a brilliant and forward-thinking scientist, or is he a sexist whiner with a proclivity for undermining relationships? The answer is complicated. Or so we were led to believe, when it was…

How anti-science bigotry triumphed | P | I, c, h, a, e, l, , P, o, w, e, l, l, l, e, l

Is Dorian Abbot a brilliant and forward-thinking scientist, or is he a sexist whiner with a proclivity for undermining relationships? The answer is complicated. Or so we were led to believe, when it was announced that M.I.T. had invited Abbot to join the faculty. Then came the publicity in which his facial expressions were analyzed for coded signals of insensitivity and hostility. Abbot was castigated for making rude gestures, and his unfamiliarity with diversity training was derided.

Unfortunately, the byplay didn’t end there. Abbot went on a 20-plus-page “Open Letter” on the school’s website, in which he reiterated his criticisms of the institution (particularly the fact that he was already on the faculty) and spoke about how he had been “charged with inspiring radical and transformative intellectual research” (the word “providing” was left out, along with other qualifiers). Then he accused the faculty of “confusion and division”; specifically, he refers to the leadership’s “ambiguous” statements about the “seamless integration” of gender studies and science, as though there were two distinct axes.

Are we willing to tolerate the fact that our institutions hire those who use “discriminatory language and attitudes, which they conceal with good faith rhetoric”? Can we overlook the fact that “openly prejudiced people” present us with “a serious threat to the integrity of the multidisciplinary exploration of the human mind”? I fear the answer is a resounding yes.

How did we get to this point? Those who teach and teach–as Abbot does at least–get to decide. The word “diversity” was rarely raised at the initial announcement, but when Abbot did, the response was immediate and unequivocal. Even his supporters had to concede that, to the degree he wasn’t of the traditional straight guy type, Abbot is at best crassly sexist, at worst downright creepy. Of course, this is precisely what attracts people to sexists, chauvinists, and others whose “long-term goals for their work” include the repression of women, homosexuals, and minorities, at least in Abbot’s eyes.

Many have read this conflict through the lens of the politics of identity, and it’s a fair point. The guiding principal for gender studies has always been the question of what it means to be a woman, a man, or a minority. Yet, when you pit the claims of human dignity–identity–against the demands of political correctness, it’s hard to see how the two can coexist. Genders and classes often proceed along different tracks, if they even have one. It’s impossible to thread the needle.

Most disagree. Personalities are idiosyncratic, and who a person sees as “his/her people” usually falls along, well, a racial or gender binary. It was only a matter of time before Abbot created his own identity, and thus positioned himself to play some kind of ironic part in the culture wars. When science engages with race, it does so mostly in the service of white supremacy. When science engages with identity, it does so through the interests of various different individuals and communities, regardless of their racial, gender, or class differences. So what happens when institutions, working on behalf of identity politics, insist that the research the scientists are doing is somehow intended to “reform” things, even if it has no interest whatsoever in meeting that seemingly noble goal? They begin to create their own histories–and the war begins.

There’s no easy answer, and every university, every campus, every demographic group has a stake in this standoff. But unless the race card is recognized as no longer a strategic play but rather as a red-herring, the waters will only grow more muddied, the narrative will never be resolved, and the impact on science will be dire. The best they can hope for is that one side of the race card will lose so badly that they’ll retreat to a more conventional form of politics–perhaps, say, not creating an identity of their own.

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