MEMBERS ONLY: The Matt Taylor #ShirtStorm Fiasco and the Myth of Diversity

Last week I published something here that was, for me at least, unusual. Let me explain by way of some background. I was taught years ago by a writer for The Miami Herald whom I respected a great deal that if you take up the mantle of a critic — no matter what kind — you have to speak as if yours is the voice of God. You never hedge with phrases like “in my opinion,” or “I think that,” because it’s implicit within your job title that what you write is your opinion, but at the same time the fact that you’re being paid to offer that viewpoint means that it has merit.

This was, however, before the rise of the internet and the instant feedback it provides. Unlike in my silent mentor’s time, you’re no longer living in some tower from which you can issue your royal edicts then retire to your study for a flagon of warm mead. People get to talk back to you now, which is why I came to understand a long time ago that while you’ve still got to think things through and put down an opinion on digital paper that you believe in wholeheartedly, you also need to sometimes allow for the fact that someone’s going to come back with a point you hadn’t thought of or at least find worthy of serious consideration. Like anybody who’s only 80% prick as opposed to 100% prick, I’m almost always willing to listen to smart contrarian arguments in response to the nonsense that I put out there into the ether.

But every so often, a story comes along that I’m so convinced I’m on the side of the angels on that I refuse to entertain even an ounce of dissension or polemical defiance. There are some subjects on which I’m pretty damn sure my position is bulletproof and I therefore just don’t want to hear it if you happen to think otherwise. At the risk of reviving a mercifully close-to-dead horse, the ridiculous fight over Rosetta project manager Dr. Matt Taylor’s shirt from last week was one of those subjects.

A lot of intelligent people argued in good faith in the comment section of the quickie piece I wrote on this “controversy” last Friday, and I appreciate that. But the fact is that if you’re someone who thinks the rockabilly culture shirt Taylor wore — the one with the comic book-style drawings of latex-covered girls with laser guns — was somehow a misogynist slap in the face to women and a deterrent to brilliant female scientists interested in joining organizations like STEM, you’re wrong. You’re just fucking wrong. And if you’re somebody who passionately railed against this shirt at, say, The Verge or on Twitter — claiming that its “casual misogyny” overshadowed or simply sullied the almost miraculous feat Taylor and his team had accomplished — you’re not just wrong, you’re an asshole.

Before we go any further, take a few minutes to hear what the Young Turks’ Ana Kasparian had to say about “#ShirtStorm” this past Sunday. Her view is that by losing your mind over something as innocuous as a shirt worn by a genius whose team just landed a probe on a speeding comet, you’re “belittling feminism” and making women seem like perpetually victimized creatures who are so fragile that the design of a shirt would fluster them enough to stop them from entering the field of science. That’s the main point she makes, but really just about everything she says here is dead-on.

There are a couple of larger issues at play in the aftermath of this dumb-ass superintendent class outrage-gasm as well, though. First, there’s the argument that what Matt Taylor did amounted to a defiant screw-you to workplace diversity because his shirt could be perceived as being offensive to women. No one should set out to willfully offend his or her coworkers or to create a hostile environment in the workplace and certainly no working environment should be prohibitive to any gender, race, ethnicity or culture. But when exactly did “diversity” in the workplace come to mean, in some ways, exactly the opposite? The gospel of diversity now commonly accepted is one in which every person’s every little hang-up is respected and no one is ever made to feel the least bit uncomfortable — and the problem with this is that rather than diversity we wind up with homogeny. True tolerance of the uniqueness of each culture and, even, oddball idiosyncrasy would allow for the occasional offending of someone’s sensibilities for the simple reason that you can’t make a bunch of disparate personalities exactly alike.

Dr. Matt Taylor is a character. The unconventional personality that led him to wear an insane shirt on international television is the same personality that made him go into the field he did and the same personality that helped him lead his team to do something no one alive had ever done. He believes science is “cool” and he approaches challenges that can change mankind with excitement and childlike wonder. The fact that he sees himself and his team as rock stars rather than socially inept scientist clich├ęs is not only part of his charm but something that makes him effective. And not to put too find a point on it, but how dare anyone piss on that. We need more people like Matt Taylor in this world, men and women of all races and cultures who make our planet’s boldest dreams a reality because they don’t think like the rest of us. You give people like Taylor space to be who they are. What you don’t do is cut them down and make them tearfully apologize to the entire planet because their attempt at self-expression offended the Church of the Perpetually Aggrieved on Twitter, whose members will never in a million years accomplish anything close to what Taylor and his crew did (unless someone figures out how to turn smug self-satisfaction into rocket fuel).

Ana Kasparian makes a great point about this awful back-and-forth, which is that it admittedly really did get co-opted by the usual suspects at the fringes of the fight: MRA assholes who despise women and who never met a persecution fantasy — or a rape threat — they didn’t like and Third Wave feminists for whom no amount of indulgence or capitulation on the part of their perceived enemies is enough. But that reality doesn’t change the parameters of this debate — and this debate has been stupid from the moment it started. I’m not sure what’s led us to this new era, an era in which people seem to think they have a right to never be offended by anything. Maybe for Millennials it’s a lifetime of being able to curate every single aspect of their environment to the point where they never expect to have to see or hear something they haven’t expressly pre-approved. Maybe for everyone else it’s the thrill of the relatively new technology that allows us that same privilege. The new toy that each of us can use to block out all the yucky stuff he or she doesn’t like and therefore render the world entirely on-demand and completely “safe.”

Either way, it’s crap because coexistence means tolerating people, personalities and actions you may not necessarily like. It means celebrating all the weirdos among us rather than making them suffer because a few petty assholes are all about getting their feathers ruffled over every little supposed slight. And yes, sometimes it means putting up with a tacky shirt in favor of looking at the monumental achievements of the person wearing it.