Politics & Policy

‘Shirtgate’ and Common Decency

Matt Taylor being interviewed on November 12, 2014.
Had scientist Matt Taylor simply dressed professionally for TV, there would be no “scandal” to speak of.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta project accomplished one of the most impressive scientific feats in our lifetime. They essentially moved a clunky machine from one speeding bullet onto another, by remote control, from 310 million miles away. It’s hoped this achievement will help usher in a new era of space exploration by teaching us how to exploit the raw materials swirling around the solar system. Also, it was really cool.

But it wasn’t cool enough for some feminists who found the shirt worn by Matt Taylor, Rosetta project scientist, to be a bigger deal. Taylor’s shirt, designed by a female friend, depicts a bunch of attractive, scantily clad women drawn from comic books holding guns. (Slate’s Amanda Marcotte oddly described their stances as “pornographic poses.”)

Rose Eveleth, a science writer, tweeted in response to a televised interview with Taylor: “No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.”

A meteor shower of hashtagged rage rained down on both sides of the Atlantic. “Shirtstorm!” “Shirtgate!” and similar bullshirt.

What should have been the best week of Taylor’s professional life ended with him weeping on TV as he apologized for his alleged crime.

Many of my friends and colleagues on the anti-PC right have responded with understandable outrage. And it’s true: Taylor’s confession of wrongdoing did feel forced — awfully North Korean.

Still, the feminists have a point. Although I like the shirt (which is now selling like hotcakes), I would never wear it to a nice restaurant, never mind on a globally broadcast TV interview. The reason I wouldn’t wear it has very little to do with my fear of offending feminists. It’s simply unsuitable professional attire. I’d ask critics of the feminist backlash, would you wear it on a job interview? How about to church or synagogue?

Where feminists seem remarkably self-absorbed is in their assumption that only their sensibilities matter. It is hardly as if feminist-friendly career women in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering, and math) are the only people who might reasonably dislike the shirt. But here’s astrophysicist Katie Mack tweeting: “I don’t care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn’t appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM.”

Okay, maybe. But why are feminist motives so special? What if you’re a devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew working in the humanities? What if you like cartoonishly sexy ladies, but you hate guns? What if you’re simply the kind of person who thinks male professionals should wear a jacket and tie on TV?

In short, feminists want a monopoly on when everyone must be outraged or offended. A few weeks ago, feminist idiots rolled out a video of little girls dressed as princesses, cursing like foul-mouthed comedian Andrew Dice Clay. Unlike Taylor, they set out to offend. But that was in support of feminism, so it was okay. (I’d like to see the parents of those kids tearfully apologizing for exploiting their kids as cheap propaganda props.)

We live in an age of diversity, defined not merely by gender and race, but by lifestyles and values. That’s mostly a good thing — mostly.

Like all other good things in life, diversity comes at a cost. And a big part of the tab is a lost consensus about what constitutes good manners and propriety. So instead of knowing how to behave, we spend vast amounts of our time worrying and arguing about it, with combatants on every side insisting it’s “Live and let live” for me but “Shut up! How dare you!” for thee.

In this age of unprecedented cultural liberty, we’ve lost sight of the fact that common standards of decency and decorum can be liberating. They inconvenience everyone — a little — but they also free us from worrying about who we might offend or why. School uniforms, remember, constrain the wealthy kids for the benefit of the poor ones.

For millennia, good manners were understood as the means by which strangers showed each other respect. Now, too many people demand respect but have lost the ability, or desire, to show it in return.

— Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor of National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail atgoldbergcolumn@gmail.com or via Twitter @JonahNRO. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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