Neil deGrasse Tyson (NDT) is having his #metoo moment. His response to the characterizations of him as a groper and an assaulter can be found on his Facebook page. It’s an eloquent defense, and frankly I find myself on his side, but I feel no need to defend him. Perhaps I will be accused of ‘mansplaining’ for this, and we cannot be sure what happened over a decade ago when he was in grad school, but the two other incidents he defends are in my mind an example of #metoo gone too far.
Feeling ‘creeped’ out by someone often has more to do with what’s happening inside a person’s own head than with the person that triggered the feeling. It’s well known (or used to be) from the standpoint of fiction writing that creepiness can come from an IQ or learning differential between two characters. It’s the same in real life between two people. Someone a lot smarter or a lot stupider, or disconnected in cultural experience, might feel ‘creepy’. But does that mean they are a predator or pervert?
The process of learning requires being around smarter people. We call these people teachers or mentors. Before anything new can be learned all kinds of feelings come up. The most common are feeling stupid, confused, awkward, and even creeped out. If a ‘learner’ works through these feelings they end up getting smarter, having more clarity, feeling more confident, and becoming more eclectic. Eventually, good learners become teachers and mentors themselves, and they deal with these feelings coming up in other people. Very good learners outpace others and can end up feeling disconnected from the masses. They become eclectic and weird, often in a good way. Their smartness opens up the minds of people around them, triggers the kinds of feelings that precede learning.
In appears that our shattered worldview world (thanks to internet idiocy) is at play in these incidents. It seems that no one wants to feel awkward anymore, or confused, or creeped out, and if they do it’s somebody’s fault. A natural curiosity gets seen as a ‘creepy’ expression of sexual perversion. A crush between an older man and younger woman becomes something predatory rather than an expression of friendship sans inappropriate behavior. It seems simple enough for people to step outside of their own selves, look at the situation in third person, and NOT cast it into a porn paradigm, and NOT go to the press trying for fifteen minutes of fame. They don’t, and this forces the accused to issue their own press release.
What NDT actually engaged in is better described as PDA, public displays of affection. Curiosity, on the one hand, made him want to see a woman’s tattoo during a photo op. Is this predatory? Propriety, on the other hand, made him want to not engage in hugs with a young woman who was a personal assistant. An intellectual relationship developed over the hundred or so hours they spent together and they shared dinner. Now a ‘news rag’ is mischaracterizing that to get clicks and money.
The big shame behind this is how it affects the #metoo movement. People like to point out that 95 percent of sexual assault claims by women are true. I suspect that number can drop precipitously as the idea of allegations become weaponized. It’s turning into a power trip, not a search for truth and fairness. Ultimately, we’ll need to start using our brains and stop vilifying people who are smarter than us. It’s the only way to make American smart again.