Rosetta stoning: Social media’s secular Puritans are putting Western civilization on trial

Rosetta stoning: Social media’s secular Puritans are putting Western civilization on trial
It was easy enough to defend Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor from the venomous enforcers of social mores, but even when they lose, the guardians and their enablers are poisoning the public sphere, making people jittery, and damaging Western societies.

The Twitter outcry over Taylor’s Hawaiian shirt was simultaneously the reductio ad absurdum and the generic template for a modern-day media scandal.

For those few innocent enough to have followed only the scientific progress of Rosetta, the first space probe to ever land on a comet last week, here is a quick recap.

During a broadcast in the hours before it made its descent onto the fast-moving space rock, Rosetta’s project scientist Matt Taylor appeared on a web broadcast wearing a shirt, decorated with garish comic-book depictions of nubile, but not naked, women.

This immediately sparked an outpouring of outrage on social media – with the requisite catchy hashtag #Shirtstorm - branding Taylor the perpetrator of a range of offenses, from vanilla misogyny, to being exactly the type of man that discourages young girls from choosing a career in science.

Two days later, a contrite (and plainly dressed) Taylor choked up while spontaneously apologizing to the world in front of evidently mortified and sympathetic colleagues.

Ink was spilled to both defend and excoriate the British scientist, empty threats and insults were flung on Twitter, but within days the watchtower of denunciation retrained its sights on a new target (US comedian Bill Cosby, as it happened to be) and nothing was left but an aftertaste.

But that aftertaste might be more of a toxic residue.

Even if Taylor scales even greater heights of scientific achievement, or maybe, particularly if he does, he will now have the incident associated with him for the rest of his life. Any public move he makes will be from a position where he first has to explain that he is not a misogynist, though there is no evidence to say he was. Did this make him a better person, benefit his life, or society at large?

His self-professed feminist accusers, and the liberal-minded defenders got a chance to air their views in front of a sizeable audience. Working themselves up into a rhetorical lather may have been satisfying, though the debate was so cartoonish, the gap in perception so gaping, that it seems unlikely that a significant percentage of neutrals were convinced by the torrent of tweets to change their mind.

In fact, after the initial frisson of controversy wore off, most outside the eye of the storm felt an increasingly that insistent tugging sensation, accompanied by involuntary eye-rolling and teeth-gnashing, that is felt by anyone being forced to follow an increasingly tedious, unimportant and inescapable conversation between strangers. The banality of being forced to endlessly take positions on shirts, re-tweets, etiquette and appropriate punishments is irritating and then dispiriting.

It is that last feeling, of sadness, of seeing a major scientific achievement derailed into #Shirtgate, that was particularly articulated by those living away from the UK and the US, far from the epicenter of the scandal. Most foreigners whose opinions I have heard or read on social media, whichever side of the debate they were on, were open-mouthed that such a small issue could escalate into such an intense and sour struggle, and be considered vital to the wellbeing of society.

Yet this now appears to be the new normal state of society – lurching from one unseemly over-played incident to another. Why does this happen, and is it healthy?

That this Twitterstorm happened in Anglo-Saxon countries is not a coincidence, and can be traced directly back to the Protestant – and often Puritan – foundations of these societies.

Mayflower in Plymouth Harbor by William Halsall (1882) (Image from wikipedia.org)

A tight-knit 17th century New England Puritan commune, with its “worldly saints” – those who proved to themselves that they were predestined by God for salvation by strictly abiding the Scriptures – and the others, excluded, contains many of the same impulses at work today. With religious authority concentrated not in Rome, but in the hands of the “godly” local elders, and the division of a community into the spiritual haves and have-nots, this gave a platform for Pharisaic, and hypocritical spiritual leaders – whose belief in their own superiority was often as egregious a sin as those they condemned – to decide the fates of others with a pointed finger. With outward evidence of God’s favor being the main yardstick of godliness, outcome was valued over motive, conformity over individuality, reputation over substance.

It is unsurprising that the Salem Witch Trials are still the image used when someone is hounded for failing to comply with social norms.

Salem witch trials (Image from wikipedia.org)

The feminists who denounced Taylor are predominantly secular, and likely atheists. Yet it is those values and attitudes they carry, alongside proponents of political correctness, are historically, socially and psychologically connected to those of radical Protestants.

Once again, there is a group of self-appointed upholders of the most sophisticated social stances who feel entitled to condemn and exclude others, relying on the rest of society to follow their lead. And as before, Taylor is judged not on his intentions or internal values – if he wore that shirt as a proud misogynist, it shouldn’t be that difficult to get him to confess that he really has a low opinion of women – but on his inability to comply with debatable social codes. The punishment is not meted out in years but in public ostracism as an inferior citizen, for there can be no return without penitence, which was earned through Taylor’s tears (and even then suspicions remain that deeply-held personal beliefs are intractable).

Puritanism has been condemned by many from the very first years of its existence, and pointing out the parallels between third-wave feminists and the passengers of the Mayflower is not a new pastime either.

But there are two novel factors that have returned these attitudes to the forefront (even as the original religious dogmatic voices have receded). The first is the invention of electronic, and particularly social communication, which has shrunk distances, and allowed more voices to be heard in the same space. Two decades ago (where it belonged better) the Hawaiian shirt might have attracted sniggers in front of TVs, and isolated comments. Now, the individual comments synergized into a public scandal, and continued to snowball.

The second is of course the media, which enables what is mere gossip and comment to pass through its membrane and become official published news. At a time when the world has more leisure time than ever, and an increasingly competitive media landscape, it is not surprising, or inherently evil to dedicate an official forum to discuss such trivial issues. Of course, as a corollary, more people than ever – who unlike the media remain unevolved real individuals with feelings - are being put through the grinder.

The third factor, one that is consistent from the 17th century commune, to modern Anglo-Saxon society, is the value of reputation (just think of the Italian and Catholic Berlusconi as a contrasting comparison). The Twitter bellowers usually get what they want from terrified and endless pliable corporate and government entities. Taylor apologized, among scattered demands to resign, Dapper Laughs, a tasteless and laddish, but hardly law-breaking UK comedian had a show and a tour canceled, while the hit Blurred Lines – risqué but not an incitement to date rape – was banned in numerous UK universities. All of this was done without any official procedure, or consideration of how many people agreed or disagreed with the decision.

Together, the three factors have rebuilt certain areas of society, into the digital equivalent of that claustrophobic New England village.

Now, some might say that this is insignificant – after all who is Matt Taylor, when there is ISIS or a world economy struggling with continuing upheaval.

Yet, the impact of this discourse is ubiquitous and insidious.

To have a public sphere where people feel like any symbolic mistake will cost them their reputation and their livelihood seems counter-productive. This becomes perverse if opinions that have offended a select few that are enough to earn someone a reprimand, even as the majority agrees with the person being punished, afraid of also being branded a misogynist or a “rape apologist” (as in the recent discussion over the UK footballer Ched Evans, most of whose defenders did not actually think it was OK to rape people). The only people brave enough to speak out often seem to be the ones holding strident contrarian views – be it conservative commentators or Twitter rape threat issuers – which seems to leave a scorched earth where no fertile debate can be had. Even when the scholars of politically correct norms do not get what they want, and the public generally sides with their target, the brouhaha has enough of a chilling effect to prevent others being brave enough to act the same way in the future (risqué patterned clothes are now taboo, though that in itself may not be a devastating social consequence).

Often, the sanctimony not only condemns, but distorts the discussion, which can be the most socially harmful effect of all. Among the clatter of opinions the very reasonable question of why there are not more women in science, which may have a nuanced answer beyond young girls being scarred by Matt Taylor, becomes politicized. If we do not want to fall foul of the guardians of social values, a neutral hypothesis such as “What if girls are less interested in becoming scientists?” not to mention “What if men are more likely than women to possess the specialized skills and single-mindedness to become engineers?” become outright taboos. Few respectable politicians or scientists want to become pariahs, even if this means certain negative policy outcomes – such as the Rotherham abuse scandal – or swathes of scientific research being made off-limits.

And what starts as public discussion quickly filters down to every school and corporate office in the land, with mini-replays of the public tribunals and condemnations.

Now, maybe advocates of perfect social compliance – be it on issues of gender, race or class – believe that the importance of the “proper attitudes” is greater than the drawbacks of permanent hysteria, twitchiness, resentment and public shaming.

In their eyes, three decades down the line someone like Taylor would be regarded the same as a person wearing blackface now – as someone breaking a social taboo. But it is also possible that in the next thirty years, society will push back against the nexus of sanctimony and technology, and Taylor’s hounding will look as outdated as those McCarthy trials that we all look back on now, with a smug knowledge that we are not like that.

Igor Ogorodnev, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.