Have you heard the one about the Nobel laureate? He said he couldn’t work with women in a laboratory because either he fell in love with them or they fell in love with him, and, if you criticised them, they’d start crying. Thus spake Sir Tim Hunt, who won a Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work in biochemistry. Surely such an idle remark should be laughed off? Either he was being serious, in which case it was a joke, or it was a joke, in which case it wasn’t serious.
Does that mean, however, he was spared the familiar clusterfuck of moral indignation? You bet not. The morally outraged cannot get their lubricant on fast enough. The BBC, for example, offered us Connie St Louis, a lecturer in science journalism at City University, who witnessed Hunt’s thoughtcrime and was left almost speechless with horror. ‘I think it was clear he was trying to be funny’, she said. ‘But people will interpret his comments as having a kernel of truth. As a Nobel laureate, he has responsibility as a role model and as an ambassador for the profession.’
Perhaps agreeing with St Louis, Hunt immediately recanted and apologised for his inane remarks. But, 24 hours later, his long journey to moral atonement had begun in earnest with his resignation from University College London. Following that came a haughty encyclical from the great UCL itself, issued in the chilly language of a capital sentence. ‘UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.’ That’s a university speaking, not IS or Joseph Stalin’s Politburo.
The Royal Society, where Hunt is a fellow, was also quick to distance itself from these appalling remarks, saying he was speaking as an individual and that his views in no way reflected those of the Royal Society – as though anyone thought they did. All the same, the customary peripeteia has now been set in motion. Hunt is taking his first faltering steps on the road to Campostela. But are these showtrials really necessary? Do St Louis, UCL and the Royal Society believe we can’t think for ourselves? What kind of idiots do these Jeremiahs and Jemimas take us for?
The answer to that question could be the same kind of idiot that Jeremy Herrin takes us for, with his sanctimonious proclamation, reported in the Stage, that his theatre company, Headlong, will now only commission writers in a 50/50 male-to-female ratio. It is easy to make fun of these intrepid conformists – to borrow John Gray’s withering term for modern liberals who parade their piety. But it is salutary to make fun of them all the same. Herrin is certainly nothing if not full of himself. ‘I’m very proud that Headlong is one of the first companies to commit publicly to these important and achievable objectives’, he bleats. ‘Those of us who believe in equality need to make ourselves accountable, then things might change.’