The latest installment of "Jurassic Park" is out as "Jurassic World," pitting regular dinosaurs against a synthetic hybrid female called Indominus Rex. The movie is a critical and box office success, but it’s been a rough couple of weeks for the male chauvinist version of these extinct reptiles.
In an essay that went viral, “Edward Schlosser” (a pseudonym) outlined his plight as a state school professor who lived in constant fear of offending his hypersensitive students. He talked a lot about the politics of personal testimony, accompanied by extensive hand-wringing to confirm he really was a liberal. The end result was both “utter bollocks,” as one of my British friends said, and yet very persuasive, confirming everything that fragile white males feared about a world being led by angry feminist women (cough *Hillary*).
Drill down past the soi-disant nice-guyness of his position, however, and what you end up with is a screed that boils down to this: YOU WHIPPERSNAPPPERS GET OFF MY LAWN. For "state school" is code for a student body made up of huddling masses yearning for a degree. Even while hiding behind a pseudonym, Schlosser added a feint. To deflect any Internet outrage from hitting his misunderstood anonymous self, he included a tweet by a black female critic (Minority! Female! Outspoken!), making her the face of everything he deemed wrong with today’s life of the mind. Which is to say, as far as he is concerned, it's in the wrong sort of body.
Without a second thought, he’d tossed her into the metaphorical jaws of the Internet, serving up red meat for the outrage mill burping up the last of Jerry Seinfeld. With depressing predictability, she promptly began receiving death threats. Vox’s editors should have caught the trap Schlosser had set up, but when the attacks became too vicious to ignore, they removed the link and added a vague apology at the end of the essay.
Poetic justice, then, and kudos to Vox, for publishing rebuttals by two female academics who deftly dismantled Schlosser’s plaints while demonstrating the kind of everyday courage required to say what needs to be said. The first rebuttal came from Amanda Taub, a former adjunct professor who had no job security in that position, and zero hope to obtain it. The second came from Koritha Mitchell, a black professor with tenure, but whose very presence in the academy turns her into a walking bulwark against racism. They spoke up knowing that their real lives would bear the consequences of their words, while also clearly identifying the true nature of Schlosser’s fear: the corporatization of the academy.
The fundamental flaw in Schlosser’s essay was that he was practicing an old canard called “punching down.” Here is the explanation, from a blog called “Reasonable Conversation”: "Punching down is a concept in which you’re assumed to have a measurable level of power and you’re looking for a fight. Now, you can either go after the big guy who might hurt you, or go after the little guy who has absolutely no shot. Either way, you’ve picked a fight, but one fight is remarkably more noble and worthwhile than the other. Going after the big guy, punching up, is an act of nobility. Going after the little guy, punching down, is an act of bullying."
What Schlosser really fears is losing his job. Nowadays, who doesn’t? But it is intellectually dishonest to lay that fear at the feet of “liberal” students, when it is really born out of the new, less-than-minimum-wage status of academics as the newest and most bamboozled members of that economic class called “precariat.” Students do not hire and fire professors. The institution does – an institution run by boards of Trustees who now see higher education as a business, and blasts tenure as an vestigial impediment to greater profits. Now that professors are the professional equivalents of fast-food employees, the Management has no financial interest in retaining a malfunctioning labor unit when it is cheaper to simply replace it.
That latest malfunctioning unit would seem to be Sir Tim Hunt -- Nobel laureate, Knight of the realm -- who made sure to remind us that misogyny is alive and well and growing in petri dishes wherever Visa is accepted. At the World Conference of Science Journalists in South Korea, he explained his problem with “girls” (i.e. ,women) in science: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”
Twitter exploded with its usual bipolar mixture of brilliant sarcasm and four-letter WTFs, and the media followed suit. After delivering a classic non-apology, Hunt stepped down from his honorary post at the University College London. Manly man that he is, he shed no girly tears as he resigned from a non-paying position that meant absolutely nothing, in concrete terms, to a 72-year-old scientist over the age of retirement.
Didn’t Hunt’s public pillorying confirm everything that Schlosser said about p.c. culture undermining the very foundations of the ivory tower? Hunt was Twitter-hated, after all. People were mad! The media called him a dinosaur! And the cumulative effect of all those 140-character damnations was that Hunt lost his job.
Well, no. Actually, it didn’t. Yes, he was just asked to step down from his advisory position on the European Research Council, but as Marion Walker pointed out, Hunt is still Emeritus Group Leader at the forthcoming Francis Crick Institute, “a post way more significant than being an honorary professor, which is a title of recognition rather than an actual job.” These honorary posts are the academic equivalents of owning a condo in the workday city, a house in the weekend suburbs, inheriting a summer place on the lake, picking up a pied-a-terre for a song, and oh yes, can't forget the chalet in Chamonix -- but oh! the drudgery of taking care of them while devoting so much time in the office where one lives -- euphemistically, of course -- in shabby, monastic purity (and please ignore the homeless person by the stoop. She doesn't belong here.)
Already retired, Hunt is at an age when many prefer to rest on their laurels. As a Nobel laureate, he has actual laurels on which to rest. He is still a Fellow of the Royal Society. Nobody has threatened the integrity of his research. It's not his pension but his pride that is wounded by this attention. He seems to be oblivious to the fact that women in science are fed up with never getting the chance at any job in the first place, instead getting invisibly chewed up and spit out as so much fodder sacrificed to the male ego. Having spent seven decades as self-avowed "chauvinist pig," has Hunt never considered the wisdom of making way for a new hybrid generation of scientists, some of whom use Twitter and are female, as he enjoys riparian entertainments and prunes the quince trees of his dotage?
In the world of movie monsters, Indominus Rex scares the pants off the tourists in a dino-eats-dino world, which seems to be the case in Schlosser's and Hunt's battle against opinionated women. But here is the thing that everyone forgets: It doesn’t matter which dinosaur loses as long as the system wins. All those noisy fights and spectacular attacks are designed to distract you from noticing the larger machinations at work, ensuring that our Jurassic World remains intact and insanely profitable. Unfortunately, we can't seem to learn what these real-life dinosaurs are teaching us: the corporate machine will keep manufacturing more of them, even as the rest of us become more fearful of being consumed by the system, howling in disbelief as we disappear into the belly of the beast.