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 Seventy-two-year-old man of science makes outdated joke, tumbleweed rolls by, The End.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.