#twittersilence and Science Communications

Today, there is a movement transpiring on Twitter in which women boycott the social media platform for a day in order to protest the tolerance of an online world replete with misogynistic trolls. Further background on movement can be found here.

The notion of being silent, in order to protest abuse, on a gut level is simply appalling to me. On the other hand, as a non-native born woman of colour without much economic privilege who has been subjected to misogynistic and racist attacks both in online communities and real life, to the point at which it becomes, well, normalized and to an extent, expected, I see the merits in the motivation to simply leave spaces where one feels disrespected. As a self-preservation mechanism, I think it can be an effective coping tool for individuals. However, on a  larger scale, the misogynists, the racists and the general troll community, if it can be referred to as such, only end up being given exactly what they seek by being able to so easily and strategically silence and marginalize anyone who counters their claims or brings attention the nature of their abuse. Therefore, as a political strategy to further goals of gender equality in online spaces, I believe that #twittersilence is grossly misguided.

As an aspiring contributor to the science communications community in Canada, I had doubts regarding whether, publicly identifying as a feminist, on a medium such as Twitter, alienates conversation on a variety of issues facing the scientific community at large. My experiences have shown, although women and trans-identified people in STEM fields take issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and representation seriously, many have reservations about the feminist label, or at least identifying with it publicly. This is also not something anyone should be faulted for, since identifying as feminist is a privilege too, and we never fully can understand the complexity of individual situations in which despite believing in social, economical and political equality of all genders, one cannot simply identify as being a supporter of feminism in the public sphere.  Some men (and women) even respond the label with blatant negativity. However, the climate around words like ‘feminism’ that provoke knee-jerk responses all around can be a starting point for conversations about discrimination against women and sexual minorities within STEM fields. Furthermore, it would indeed be foolish think gender and social politics do not affect science and associated policy, especially given the context of the Canadian war on science, and when imminent problems such as climate change have been shown to be a feminist issue with significant public health impact, in addition to new research linking increasing temperatures to a rise in violence. Since science and science communicators themselves have already concerned themselves with social and political aspects of STEM activities, further engagement with the culture at large and social movements such as feminism should also be considered worthwhile.

Back to the theory behind #twittersilence – as I mentioned, using silence as a mechanism to further one’s standing in a place in this case is rather counterproductive. In 2011, some of my fellow female engineering students and I were invited on a panel on CBC’s The National with Wendy Mesley (see ‘Extended Interview’), to talk about the state of women in engineering in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. We had a lot to say, and were not at all accustomed to being on a panel on national television. Some of us discussed after the interview, how we made these awkward attempts to self-censor some of the things we said, since we didn’t want to be perceived as some brand of the straw killjoy feminist. This is the same fear that predicates silencing of women in many professional and STEM fields, despite the fact that they individually do realize that the environment around them is far for ideal, but somehow need to maintain composure in order not to be viewed negatively by peers. This urge to self-censor and sanitize stories of discrimination and abuse are taking place in the same kinds of culture in which, ‘the most enlightened man in the world’, Colin McGinn, has the audacity believe he can philosophize his way out of sexually harassing a graduate student and former Harvard president Larry Summers poorly interprets science to justify sexism within STEM fields. The latter, at least, is an issue directly in the heart of science communications! As such, we cannot afford to be complacent.

The kind of attitude that perpetuates the safety in places for women, or anyone undergoing abuse to speak out is something that should be fostered early on in the burgeoning Canadian science communications community. We need to have an inclusive climate in which people’s interest in social and environmental justice don’t cause them to be marginalized from the community and further silenced, since the government and sometimes, institutions can be well-depended upon to do that themselves.

With this in mind, I think I’ll go ahead and put ‘Feminist’, as part of my Twitter bio.

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