A Few Remarks on the Comet/Shirt Kerfuffle

Ms Althouse has some interesting remarks regarding this kerfuffle (I’m going to assume those readers aren’t hiding under baskets and know the actual subject of this particular kerfuffle, which dealt with particular details on an engineer’s shirt during a press release after the successful landing of a satellite on a comet). Mr Reynolds (Instapundit) points that the landing on a comet by a satellite is more important than what a person wears and the “feminists” (or some feminists) were hijacking this event. Ms Althouse in an attempt to “be provocative” suggests:

And I will be more provocative: In the broad span of human culture, fashion is more important than space travel.

She is in some ways correct, in other ways not. I will return her provocative remark by noting that which is important about fashion, is exactly the same as what is important about “space travel” or landing on comets. What is important about fashion is man’s search for beauty. This is the central search in science, space travel, and much of engineering. The search for a beautiful solution is not far adrift from the cathedral (architectural beauty) or fashion (beatiful people/clothing). Beautiful clothes and in general the quest for beauty is precisely what was achieved in a different field (aerospace engineering) as what is sought (and I’d offer rarely found) on the fashion runway. Fashion is not “more important” than space travel. Landing spacecraft on comets is the height of fashion for those who don’t do color and form, but instead do maths.

And I disagree that wearing that shirt is “an attack on feminism”. Feminism celebrates such displays, witness vagina displays, slut walks &c. I’ll also disagree with Ms Althouse that he intentionally “made a statement” by wearing that shirt. More likely, given the engineering culture, is that is was the top “button down” (read as ‘fancy’) shirt in his drawer or closet.

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18 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    I’m a bit perplexed by the reflexive anti-feminism. The shirt was totally improper for a work environment. It has nothing to do with engineers being wacky, informal people. It was:

    A. Not a shirt you should wear in a mixed gender work environment.

    B. Not a shirt you should wear to represent your employer on international TV.

    Do I think this shows the guy to be a bad person? No, but it is a problem that the culture is such that wearing such a shirt doesn’t even register a 2nd thought. Given that women are very under represented in STEM careers, this is an issue that should be raised. There are still jobs that are mostly unmixed genders (Alaskan fishers, maybe deep sea rig workers etc.) and it’s understandable that the culture of a mono-gendered environment will be different than a mixed one. But it is not obvious that science is ‘naturally’ a mono-gendered environment.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    When I started working with Numina we had the notion that the best programmers wore old jeans and t-shirts and worked ridiculous hours. This dress code sort of carries over to grad school academia and I suspect places like JPL are similar. This was a guy on team which probably normally had no dress code(s) at all and management came down with an edict (on the tail of several months of 80+ hour weeks) that for this day “button down + collar” shirts were required. So he either grabbed the “top one” or even did the same with just a little bit of anger and desire to tweak back on the dress code order.

    I doubt he wears such on a regular basis. Probably mostly with t-shirts and jeans.

    I also think that those who think this is oppressive to women remind me of the anecdote of the young girl telling her grandma what gluten free diets where … after she explained, grandma told her daughter that when she was her daughter’s age they had to eat leather belts and paste from books because they were starving.

    It is also odd that the permissive diversity crowd can find offense at at a PG shirt. Do you not find that somewhat contradictory.

  3. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    But I guess that means you agree with the main thesis of the post regarding the similarity between the goals of fashion and landing satellites.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Btw, at our office, we realized pretty quickly that people were less likely to give us wads of money if we didn’t dress better. My guess is those engineers have no such pressures.

  5. Boonton says:

    I have no problem with engineers who dress down. Casual, though, doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’ and once you start decorating yourself with images of mostly naked bodies you are setting yourself up to be made an example.

    “can find offense at at a PG shirt” How about enlarged images from a Victoria’s Secret Catalog? Strictly speaking they are PG too, esp. any one single image so why not many images?!

    Offsense isn’t quite the correct word IMO here. It isn’t so much that the shirt is offensive as much as it is impolite for mixed workplace company IMO and by mindlessly choosing it the unthinking assumption here seems to be that this particular workplace is not and will never be gender mixed. I have no idea what the actual gender makeup of the Dept. of Comet Landings in the European Space Agency is and I’m totally open to the possibility that it will always be a male dominated field but the environment itself should be no less inviting to women than men.

  6. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Casual, though, doesn’t mean ‘anything goes’ and once you start decorating yourself with images of mostly naked bodies you are setting yourself up to be made an example.

    Girls in bathing suits are not objectionable.

    The confusion is why this is not objectionable but must be tolerated for “diversity” but a guy with bikini’s on his shirt is problematic. A girl can wear what he had on his shirt (or the equivalent) but he can’t wear the shirt. Doesn’t make sense.

  7. Boonton says:

    The confusion is why this is not objectionable but must be tolerated for “diversity” …

    Must be tolerated? People walking in public? You seem to confuse a workplace for the street.

    A girl can wear what he had on his shirt (or the equivalent) but he can’t wear the shirt.

    I would actually say no and women do experience both formal and informal dress codes even at ‘casual’ jobs.

  8. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    By the by, I looked a little more carefully at one of the pictures of the guy. He’s (a) covered with tatoos (which perhaps is not relevant) and (b) the pictures on the shirt seem to be tamer than most Marvel Comics female super heroine going by their pose and outfits. This is a tempest in a teapot.

    Also, I did use to wear (don’t recall if I wore it to work, certainly I did to work at grad school) a Chicago Film Festival T-shirt, which featured full frontal nudity (both sexes). No comments were made by anyone regarding attire, although I think some teenage or 12 y/old boys did do a double take once when I was at the zoo … and a more socially aware friend asked me at a party hosted by his parents, if I’d put on a sweatshirt as the party featured his parent’s friends, not his. He was (another aside) somewhat shocked when I told an elderly lady that my profession was “software whore, we’d do any (programming) for money”. Apparently the lady sat on a federal bench. Ah, to be young and foolish, eh? Apparently however, being young and foolish isn’t allowed in today’s PC world. At least if you’re liberal.

  9. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Must be tolerated? People walking in public? You seem to confuse a workplace for the street.

    Hmm. To this, add “wear a PG T-Shirt to a presser”.

    So .. is this offensive too? Just trying to find out where the line is drawn.

  10. Boonton says:

    Notice I used the word ‘polite’ rather than ‘allowed’ or ‘tolerate’. As a word polite differs dramatically in that you are encouraged to normally be polite but you are free to deploy impoliteness either on purpose or because you are ignorant of social norms.

    You, perhaps because you have an engineer’s mindset, seem to veer towards hard and fast rules, black and white judgements when the fact is human culture is made up of a lot of nuance.

    I think this indicates your confusion between workplace culture, which is normally a bit more formal, and culture at your home, ‘in the street’ or at a bar or club. Workplace culture is a bit special because most of us have to go to work and many jobs consist of bringing together people from different cultures and norms. This often requires us to ‘tone down’ our own personalities in order to make work work.

    Example, perhaps your daughter has lots of piercings. Perhaps when she got a first job at a fast food place, her boss told her she can only have no more than two earrings in each ear and nothing else visible. Likewise her co-worker might be a Muslim who wears a headscarf. At home both women will have dramatically different norms but each one ‘tones it down’ so to speak in the interests of making commerce work.

    Of course different places have different cultures. A bartender at a dive bar, for example, will probably be fine for someone with lots of piercings but is just not going to work for the Muslim woman. Cashier at an adult bookstore, likewise, probably means just about any shirt you want to wear is fine.

    So this is why I say in this case the t-shirt is best described as impolite for a professional job, esp. if that professional job happens to provide an opportunity to represent your employer on TV. I don’t really see the need to address whether it would be ok or not to wear that t-shirt to your aunt’s Thanksgiving dinner or out clubbing if you’re on vacation with your wife in Aruba. Likewise I have no idea if your very artsy t-shirt that featured some nudity on it would be acceptable in various contexts. These are essentially judgement calls that a person has to make and society has to enforce it’s norms by holding those who make bad calls up to mockery and criticism.

    Ah, to be young and foolish, eh? Apparently however, being young and foolish isn’t allowed in today’s PC world.

    You were chastised no less harshly in your youth for your violations of norms. Perhaps you were just not aware of it (in general I find many men, myself included, are deaf to a lot of social criticism and many women are much more adapt at picking up on it).

    The engineer, though, does not strike me as exceptionally young nor was his ‘punishment’ exceptionally harsh. The nice thing about ‘politeness’ is that for all the attention paid to it, no one is really talking about hurting anyone over infractions. Be thankful, if you were, say, TE Lawrence, you might discover in some cultures impoliteness, intentional or not, can get you killed.

  11. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    You almost had it.

    Of course different places have different cultures.

    Exactly. This is exactly the point. Your assumption is that workplace cultures are homogeneous across professional activities. But to put it at extremes, what is permissible for an Madison avenue fashion house isn’t appropriate workplace wear for a 7th grade teacher. My confusion isn’t about “hard and fast” rules from an engineer’s mindset, but that an aerospace engineering environment is more, not less, similar to a scientific grad school culture than to a big company corporate one. In the former because of the student’s random wear and that grad students are still students but make up perhaps a majority of the employees, MLK III’s maxim strays to clothing choice. That is to say, people are judged not by their appearance but by their work. Politeness regarding dress in that environment is to accept without comment whatever whomever wears. There is, unlike corporate greys, no “toning” down of personal choice in wear, but instead the reverse. This isn’t commerce. It’s R&D. Big difference.

    You were chastised no less harshly in your youth for your violations of norms.

    No less? I wasn’t chastised. In my undergrad days I wore a T-shirt and jeans to the symphony (sitting in the cheap seats. The last two rows in the 2nd balcony (gallery) at the Symphony were $8, half price for students … quite the deal).

    The engineer, though, does not strike me as exceptionally young nor was his ‘punishment’ exceptionally harsh.

    Being forced to make a public (tearful?) apology on international TV may seem “not harsh” to you, ’cause he wasn’t sent to the gulag or fired like, say, Larry Summer who was fired for transgressing PC behavior rules. Or should I say, he hasn’t been fired, yet.

  12. Boonton says:

    Being forced to make a public (tearful?) apology on international TV may seem “not harsh” to you, …

    No one ever said you were entitled to find your 15 minutes of fame enjoyable. Nonetheless, I’m sure the fellow has emotionally and physically recovered from his ordeal.

    The world must have gotten remarkably peaceful and friendly under Obama’s rule if this is the sort of thing you feel the need to worry a lot about.

  13. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    So, if you had your 15 minutes of fame and it ended with tears … no probs says the left. Gotcha.

    Uhm,

    The world must have gotten remarkably peaceful and friendly under Obama’s rule if this is the sort of thing you feel the need to worry a lot about.

    Seriously? The main thrust of my post was to point out that Ms Althouse was confused regarding her statement regarding fashion and the aims of scientific exploration that results in landing a satellite on a comet (that is these are expressions of the same impulse). You’ve decided to make it about insisting that workplace norms are equal everywhere and what is out of place at your corporate place of work should extend to academic ones and that a PG (if that) rated shirt is offensive to women. Do you ever read any Marvel?

  14. Boonton says:

    So, if you had your 15 minutes of fame and it ended with tears … no probs says the left. Gotcha.

    The mother of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo was on TV not too long ago. Her reality show is off the air, she is under investigation because a man she is/was dating has a record of molesting young children which the Internet discovered and called her out on.

    Another woman was on TV last night. She was dating an Olympic medalist who just got hit with a DUI and is in rehab. She was not a public person but the Internet discovered that this woman was born ‘intersex’ and had corrective surgery. She had not told her bf who now, of course, has both rehab and this unexpected public revelation to deal with.

    I’m sorry fame is pretty fickle and fleeting and often stings as much as it helps. If you think the right is going to make a society where that isn’t the case then you are proposing a plan that would be more radical than any entitlement or welfare scheme ever contemplated in human history.

    With this in mind, what exactly are you proposing here? That somenone can go public but everyone else has to take what they do without any criticism? Sorry there are dozens of TV shows, Youtube channels and other outlets devoted to broadcasting and mocking everyday people caught doing stupid things on camera, wearing stupid outfits and so on. How come those people, who did nothing to look for fame, cry out and get no attention from you while you pound the sand for someone who did seek out some minor fame and got some minor ribbing?

  15. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Uhm, Michael Phelps has had somewhat more than 15 minutes of fame.

  16. Boonton says:

    What are you a fame redistributionist now?

  17. Mark says:

    Not sure, all the references to the young lady in question was about Phelps, not the lady in question. But then again, I haven’t caught really much on that. Nothing at all on the swimmer blogs I read (now that I’m swimming for exercise I’m watching that, which it seems will make the Olympics next year more interesting because I’ll know more of the names).

  18. Boonton says:

    Yes the attention was on her because of her connection to Phelps but the fact remains her ’15 minutes’ was totally unwanted and consisted of broadcasting something very personal about her. Actually if it had been a doctor or doctor’s office that had made that information public she could have sued them for HIPA violations. Yet public gossip is essentially fair game.

    Point is fame is arbitrary, unfair, and often unkind. If that made the engineer cry after he sought it out I’m not really all that concerned.