Monday, 24 November 2014

A Shirtgate challenge to Boris Johnson

I am beginning to think NASA had the right idea, when they expected Mission Control engineers to dress like this:

Ed Harris in Apollo 13, wearing an uncontroversial shirt.
Source: toutlecine

At least it would have spared us the idiocy known as Shirtgate.

To recap: Dr Matt Taylor, a senior scientist on the Rosetta mission which landed a probe on a comet, wore this shirt on a web broadcast:

As previously noted, "covered with pictures of half-naked women" is a fair description.


I have explained why I think Taylor was right to apologise for wearing the shirt. Others disagree. Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, wrote an impassioned defence of Taylor's right to wear whatever he wants at work. Referring to Taylor's apology, Johnson wrote:

It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot

Except, of course, nobody has been taken away and shot. It is, shall we say, disrespectful to equate Taylor to the tens of millions of victims of Stalin's gulag. (Some of Johnson's constitutents in London must have personal experience of the gulag; perhaps they can explain this to him.) To the best of my knowledge, Taylor is alive, uninjured, and still employed in a senior capacity at ESA. He has not been subject to threats of violence, which is more than can be said for many women who speak out online.

Johnson continued:

I think his critics should go to the National Gallery and look at the Rokeby Venus by Velázquez. Or look at the stuff by Rubens. Are we saying that these glorious images should be torn from the walls?

No, Boris. We are not saying that, because it would be idiotic. I am saying, along with Taylor's other critics, there are times and places where sexual images should not be displayed.


Boris Johnson, dressed to ring the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange.
Source: Wikipedia
Boris Johnson: If you disagree, I have a challenge for you. I invite you to wear similar shirts to Taylor's, every day for the next year. If you prefer reproductions of Rubens and Velazquez to sci-fi women in corsets, that's fine; just so long as the women are scantily clad, and in postures intended to titillate the viewer.

Wear these shirts to every occasion: Weddings. Funerals. Receptions for overseas dignitaries. Visits to primary schools. (Schools which wanted to show Matt Taylor's broadcast, to teach children about science.) Audiences with the Queen. The campaign trail, as you seek to become a Member of Parliament in 2015. The state opening of Parliament, if you win election. The solemn ceremony of remembrance at the Cenotaph.

If you believe Taylor has been wronged, show some solidarity. If opposition to his shirt is confined to a handful of humourless feminists, it will do you no harm; they are not voting for you anyway. 

If the worst happens, and the evil feminist conspiracy destroys your political career, you are wealthy enough to retire in luxury. You would be a hero to all those who stand with you. History would remember you as a martyr, to the cause of a man's absolute right to wear shirts with sexy women on them at all times.

What's that you say? There are times when it is not appropriate to wear pictures of semi-naked women? Very good. Perhaps now you begin to see my point.

Obviously, a broadcast interview for the Rosetta probe is not as solemn as a funeral, but it is still a serious moment. It marks decades of hard work, by hundreds of talented and dedicated scientists, both men and women. They aren't in it for money or fame; astronomy does not offer much of either. Someone representing them should not dress like a sexist clown; that is not much to ask.

This would be true in any field; but as others have eloquently said, astronomy and science in general have a very real problem with sexism. A senior and highly visible figure such as Taylor is responsible for setting an example. He should make it clear, in word and deed, that sexism will not be tolerated. On this occasion he failed to do so, and he has apologised for it.

This is the real punishment for Taylor: He has to endure the screeching of idiots who claim to be on his side, including many who are far worse than Johnson.

I imagine Taylor's thinking went something like this:
  • This is a big day! I'll wear my cool shirt.
  • Oh, no. It wasn't so cool to wear that shirt. I'd better apologise.
He made a stupid mistake. We've all done that, although usually not in such a public way. He had the courage to admit he was wrong.

The pro-shirt faction read more into his behaviour. Their hypothetical Taylor was thinking:
  • I must express myself by wearing my sexy-woman shirt, in order to fulfill my sexual development and psychically actualize myself as a human being! Anyone who tries to stop me is committing an unconscionable act of oppression.
I think my version is more plausible, and deserves a lot more respect.

The pro-shirt faction and their imaginary Taylor sound like whiny, attention-seeking teenagers. No doubt some of them are, but Boris Johnson and others are old enough to know better.

You can't go for a few hours without showing off your favourite sexy pictures? Is that really where you want to make a stand? Did the Apollo engineers snivel about dressing to express their sexual needs? No, they did not; they were too busy sending astronauts to the Moon. Grow up, and learn to behave with a little dignity.

A commenter on my previous post said opposition to Taylor's shirt "leads to a dull and joyless place." Really? Landing a probe on a comet is not interesting enough, unless it is spiced up with some pin-up drawings? Do the pro-shirters understand how childish that sounds?

Maybe they don't, but some of us do. Until such time as they learn to act like adults, we will give them the scorn and laughter they deserve.

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