The Illiberal Persecution of Tim Hunt

An old guys tells a bad joke and academia descends into a frenzy



If you were in any doubt that a dark cloud of illiberalism has descended over the Western academy, then the case of Tim Hunt should put you straight.

Hunt is a British biochemist. A really good one. In 2001 he won the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough work on cells. He's a fellow of the Royal Society in London, founded in 1660 and thought to be the oldest scientific research institution in the world. And this week he was unceremoniously ditched by University College London for telling a joke.

Hunt's crime was to make a not-very-funny gag during an after-dinner speech at a conference on women in science in South Korea earlier this week.

"Three things happen when [girls] are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry," he said. According to one of the attendees, the joke was greeted by a "deathly, deathly silence."

In a normal world, a world which valued the freedom to make a doofus of oneself, that should have been the end of it. Seventy-two-year-old man of science makes outdated joke, tumbleweed rolls by, The End.

But we don't live in a normal world. Certainly we don't live in a world where people are allowed to make off-color comments. And so with tedious, life-zapping predicability, Hunt fell victim to the offence-policers, to the machine of outrage being constantly cranked up by self-styled guardians of what we may think, say, and even joke about.

Twitter went into meltdown. Journalists kicked up a fuss. His comments were branded "shocking and bewildering." (You find a silly joke bewildering? You really should get out more.) And then came the denouement to this latest outburst of confected fury: Hunt "resigned" from UCL, where he was honorary professor.

"Resign" is in quote marks because it's pretty clear he was elbowed out. Consider UCL's statement about his leaving. "UCL was the first university in England to admit women students on equal terms to men, and the university believes that this outcome [Hunt's resignation] is compatible with our commitment to gender equality."

That's another way of saying that Hunt's penchant for making un-PC jokes was incompatible with life at UCL. So he had to be excommunicated. Professors of Britain, be warned: tell a funny that irritates the right-on, and you shall be cast out.

Even more depressing than the resignation/sacking of Hunt has been the response to it. "This is a moment to savour," said the Guardian. The Twitterati has given birth to the hashtag #distractinglysexy, featuring pics of women in laboratories, all designed to mock Hunt's 1950s worldview. One science journalist thinks Hunt deserves the roasting he's received because it is alarming that "in this day and age… someone would be prepared to be so crass, so rude."

What is truly alarming, what should really send a shiver down every liberal's spine, is not the words that came out of Hunt's mouth but the haranguing of him that followed, the shunning of him by the academy and possibly by the scientific elite itself. (As the Guardian crows, Hunt is a "fellow of the Royal Society… at the time of writing, at least." Yes! Let's cast him out of that institution too! And can we pelt him with rotten eggs as he leaves?)

The response to Hunt is way more archaic than what Hunt said. Sure, his views might be a bit pre-women's lib, pre-1960s. But the tormenting and sacking of people for what they think and say is pre-modern. It's positively Inquisitorial.

The irony is too much to handle: Hunt is railed against for expressing an old-fashioned view, yet the railers against him do something infinitely more old-fashioned: they expel from public life someone they judge to have committed heresy. Kick him out. Strip him of his titles. Mock his misfortune. "Savour the moment." How awfully ironic that the Royal Society, which played a key role in propelling Britain from medievalism to modernity, is now being asked to behave in a medieval fashion and send into the academic wilderness a heretic among its number.

The Hunt incident is quite terrifying. For what we have here is a university, under pressure from an intolerant mob, judging a professor's fitness for office by his personal thoughts, his idea of humour. Profs should be judged by one thing alone: their depth of knowledge. It shouldn't matter one iota if they are sexist, stupid, unfunny, religious, uncouth, ugly, or whatever. All that should matter is whether they have the brainpower to do the job at hand.

UCL and the mob's hounding of Hunt echoes the university of the pre-Enlightenment era, when only those who were 100 percent Good Catholics had a hope in hell of getting a job. Only now, academics must be unflinchingly in accordance with the commandments of PC rather than with Biblical thinking. A Nobel Laureate has been broken on the wheel of PC. This is bad. Really bad. For if even a Nobel winner can be treated like this, what hope is there for lesser professors? The chilling effect of the Hunt debacle on the Western academy is likely to be pretty intense.

The Hunt case confirms something important: that Western universities are complicit in the censoriousness that is consuming them. In fact, they invite it; they invented it.

In effectively dumping Hunt, UCL is sending the message that it will not tolerate deviant thinking. Oxford University did something similar last year when it cancelled a debate on abortion (which I was due to speak at) at the behest of an angry mob of feminists. The management of the London School of Economics gave the nod to the disbanding of its student rugby team for the crime of distributing a rude leaflet. In the U.S., Columbia has indulged the mattress girl, allowing her to defame both a man and campus life more broadly. UVa banned fraternities in response to what turned out to be an utterly made-up rape. Even the notorious Laura Kipnis case is not a simple case of mad, intolerant students trying to shut down an outspoken academic, but rather has been facilitated by educational structures themselves: in this case the federal Title IX rules dealing with gender issues on campus.

Too often today we're told that gangs of crazy students or irate feminists, invading armies of pinkos, are turning otherwise enlightened universities into hotbeds of PC intolerance. That's way too simple. In truth, universities themselves, having embraced relativism, non-judgmentalism, and discomfort with the idea of Truth itself, incite such behaviour. They green-light it. They facilitate it. The Hunt story confirms that the academy isn't being destroyed by morally alien beings, by cushioned, entitled youth—it is destroying itself.