Dr Matt Taylor in his shirt.
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A Shirtgate newflash: wearing a terrible shirt doesn't make you a terrible person

Dr Matt Taylor gave a tearful apology after he was criticised for wearing a shirt covered in semi-naked women. That doesn't make the initial criticism wrong, but it does remind us that there is a difference between sexist acts and sexist people. 

There’s no denying that it was a terrible shirt. From a purely aesthetic perspective, I found it offensive - and that’s before we even get into the symbolic sexism people believed Dr Matt Taylor’s clothing choice demonstrated. I wonder who does the media training for the European Space Agency, because anyone vaguely cognisant of how the viral internet news cycle operates would immediately have earmarked a shirt covered in pictures of semi-naked women as a Very Bad Idea indeed.

Dr Taylor might now be wishing that he had taken a leaf out of Australian TV host Karl Stefanovic’s book. Stefanovic, it emerged this week, wore the same blue suit on air for a year and absolutely no one noticed. What freedom! How the women of the media world must envy him.

That Dr Taylor’s shirt provoked a debate on how women are unrepresented in science can only be a good thing. Whether intentional or unintentional, the clothes we wear send messages, and the message of Taylor’s shirt appeared to be signalling: “Ladies! Rolling around scantily clad, watching fully clothed men landing spaceships on comets, is ultimately what you’re good for.” But does Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt make him a sexist? I think not.

After decades and decades of judging women on their appearance, it appears that our image-dominated internet culture is increasingly scrutinising men’s clothing too. What we choose to wear is symbolic: we are told our clothes say something about us as individuals. Mind you, as anyone who has turned up to a party only to be greeted by three guests in almost identical outfits will know, the choice implicit in the transaction is largely an illusion. The high street presents us with rows and rows of identikit garments, and any deviation from the norm necessarily makes a statement.  Cast your mind back to your school days and you’ll remember that one of the main catalysts for bullying was clothing choices.  A long skirt might make you a frigid geek; a short one and you’re a slut. The same goes for the wrong pair of trackie bottoms; a hole in your jumper; a pair of jeans in an unfashionable cut. Earlier this year, an 11-year-old boy was bullied so badly over his choice of a My Little Pony lunch bag that his school, stupidly, asked him not to bring it in any more.

Bullying and mockery over clothing choices is something that any woman in the public eye will have experienced, from the “circle of shame” in women’s magazines to the Daily Mail’s “Downing Street Catwalk” featuring photographs of new female cabinet ministers alongside commentary about their clothing choices.

“It’s fine if it inspires young girls to go into politics,” said “thigh-flashing” Esther McVey at the time. Not likely. Try going on Twitter after a female guest has appeared on Newsnight or Question Time. And that level of sartorial scrutiny is not the preserve of the internet, trash mags and tabloids, either. The Guardian once put Theresa May’s disembodied brogues on its front page, and in September, a television journalist asked Yelena Serova, the first female cosmonaut in seventeen years, what she was planning to do about her hair while she was in space. In 2013, meanwhile, the comedian Sarah Millican found her BAFTA nomination overshadowed by her choice of dress, after she logged in to Twitter and saw that people were calling her fat and ugly. She cried in the car on the way home. The next day, the newspapers picked up where the tweeters left off. “I’m sorry. I thought I had been invited to such an illustrious event because I am good at my job," Millican responded in the Radio Times. "Putting clothes on is such a small part of my day."

Keyboard warriors sometimes forget the cumulative effect that receiving hundreds of negative messages can have on a person’s psyche. Seeing anyone - male or female, Sarah Millican or Dr Matt Taylor - in tears because a lot of people dislike something as simple as their outfit, will be disappointing to anyone who believes that human beings should be defined first and foremost by their actions. Taylor’s shirt may have become symbolic of endemic sexism in science, but we need to separate criticising the shirt's message from criticising him. Feminists should not be engaging in the kind of shallow, superficial scrutiny that women have been enduring for decades.  Look at my comments about the shirt at the beginning of this article. Were they really necessary?

Of course, the case of Taylor differs in that the motivation of his critics was political - raising awareness of sexism - while Millican was the victim of sexist abuse. But the root of the problem is the same. Clothing is seen to define the individual, and thus criticism of it feels personal even when it isn’t. Women are scrutinised far more than men, though the latter are by no means immune (see recent political storms regarding the wearing or not of feminist T-shirts for guidance). Millican rightly pointed out that on the red carpet, her husband was not asked once about his ASDA suit. Stefanovic wore the same suit every day in protest at the scrutiny faced by his female colleagues for their on-air clothing choices. In a similar act of defiance, Daniel Radcliffe wears the same outfit for five months of the year, to hamper paparazzi efforts to sell photographs of him every time he leaves the house, and is not the only guy to do so: Simon Cowell and Mark Zuckerberg do it to avoid having to waste time making decisions. Should female celebrities start doing the same? “I made a decision the following day that should I ever be invited to attend the Baftas again, I will wear the same dress,” Millican wrote, in the Radio Times, after her bad experienec.

We live in a society where a woman choosing to wear clothing to please herself, and not others, has become a political act. I suspect, as with Millican, putting clothes on constituted a very small part of Taylor’s day. As clothing retailers become all the more homogenous, the great lie that fashion provides us with a means of expressing ourselves is becoming much more difficult to buy into, and yet, people are still trotting it out as though it means something.

Earlier this year, I was asked to speak at Stoke Newington Literary Festival alongside my Vagenda co-editor Holly Baxter and the everyday sexism campaigner Laura Bates. During the Q&A session, an older, second-wave feminist stood up. Then, in a room packed with people, she drew attention to our long, feminine hair, some of which was, she “suspected”, coloured with hair dye. She criticised our skirts, and the fact that we were wearing make-up. All of these adornments, she reckoned, undermined our feminist credentials. It felt horrible and shaming. At the same time, I felt as though I had done something wrong. It felt personal. “This isn’t me”, I wanted to say. I imagine it’s what Dr Matt Taylor felt like saying, too. And Sarah Millican. And anyone else who has been made a spectacle of because of the fabric they use to keep their bodies warm. “I am more than this”, you want to shout. “SO MUCH MORE.”

My takeaway point from all this is that the clothes we wear say very little about us, and one hell of a lot more about the society around us. It’s unlikely that Taylor’s shirt defines his views on women, any more than the length of a skirt defines a woman’s sexual availability, or Esther McVey's dress defines her as a politician (and where was Boris Johnson to criticise people for noticing someone's clothing choice then?) But it does say a lot about the environment Taylor was working in (had there been a few women around, I’m fairly sure they would have had something to say). The Internet would do well to remember to fight the system and not the people in it. It’s either that, or wear the same thing every day.

Yes, it was a terrible shirt, but that doesn't say much about the person inside it.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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