Unacceptable is Unacceptable

Years ago I read a short piece about Richard Feynman, the Nobel-award winning physicist. I was intrigued. A genius who had the chops to work at the leading edge of his field and the communication skills to make science understandable to the public, he was known as brilliant, eccentric, dynamic, and the kind of thinker and scientist who couldn’t be button-holed. Feynman asked irreverent questions, dressed as he pleased, cracked safes, and played the bongos (we have the video to prove it). He advanced quantum physics and mechanics, participated in the making of the atomic bomb, and inspired thousands of other scientists. He was influential, popular, and charismatic. What’s not to admire?

I wanted learn more about the man, so a month ago I read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. The book is a series of reminiscences, pulled from recordings, that Feynman made with a friend. It covers his childhood, his first wife – who died of TB while Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project, his research, and his interests. The book was popular when published in 1985 and was everywhere after Feynman’s death in 1988. I heard that it was funny and I expected a critical and interesting take on a dynamic period in American science from a creative thinker. The book delivered on that. It also gave a sense of Feynman’s curiosity, marked by relentless questioning and a willingness to look at things differently. He was a provocative dynamo.

The book also highlights – in stark and completely unapologetic terms – Feynman’s misogyny and sexism. Feynman recounts offensive and creepy exchanges with women he was pursuing sexually. When I reached the first of these, I stopped and rethought all that I had read before. What was he thinking? What did the editors think? Feynman’s sexism is bold and ugly. He theorizes that women want to be disrespected by men, that they are  “bitches” or “whores” – and that the “secret” to more sexual conquests is through the dehumanization of women. He explains this proudly, as thought it was a lesson he had mastered. Missing is a sense of shared humanity.

Internet research on Feynman revealed that his inappropriate behavior with women is well-trod ground. He was supportive to some and predatory with others. Matthew Francis wrote about genius failing and the problem Feynman presents. Kali Halli explained that brainiacs get it wrong. A woman mathematician who blogs under the title Mathematigal wrote that Feynman was no heroScientific American had ongoing debates about Feynman and sexism a few years ago. Read in its entirety, and following up the hyperlinks, the article leads into a complicated history of a brilliant and flawed man. He had serious flaws. Feynman has been the subject of several biographies. Some have theorized that the tragic death of his wife caused long-standing problems. Whatever the biographers argue, Feynman remains to this day a scientist and figure of significant standing. He produced outstanding science, was very helpful to many people (men and women), and was hurtful and harmful to more than a few women.

As I considered Richard Feynman and the environment that supported his brilliance, his science, and his misogyny, the Harvey Weinstein story emerged. The patterns are sadly familiar. In Hollywood, in media, and Wall Street, in many communities – and in academia – it is possible for the cunning, the successful, and the powerful to create and sustain environments in which unacceptable behavior is tolerated, facilitated, or left unaddressed. Sexism, a long-standing problem in of itself, provides sustenance and cover for predators and harassers. We have a responsibility and obligation to fight this. Unacceptable behavior is just that: unacceptable.

Higher education has a special obligation, above and beyond regulatory requirements, to make sure that everyone has agency, support and protection. Effective learning demands it. Title IX prescribe policies and practices that can help colleges and universities ensure a safe environment to learn and work. This federal law certainly will not solve all problems, but it is necessary and important. Ongoing training, discussion and attention can and will make a difference. Established law, policy and practice spell out what is and is not permitted, and gives guidance and structure with how to address problems. Finding the time for training, discussion, and more training on Title IX can help everyone in an academic environment. Even superstar scientists.

David Potash

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