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The Outrage Factor – Then and Now


Cartoon wishing for just the right emoji for being enragedThere’s a lot of outrage about outrage storming around women in science and science journalism at the moment. And fear of causing it, too.

It’s easy to cast outrage as inimical to thinking and discussion. It’s not unusual to want to curtail debate once it has been aroused.

That’s probably a vain hope – and perhaps a lost opportunity as well. When outrage is spreading unusually widely, it signals a need for more thought and discussion, not less.

“The outrage factor” is a theory in risk communication. It led some scholars to grapple with measurement, although it’s a narrow field. Still, I found this area of outrage management an interesting entry point to thinking about the outbreak of intense passionate debate that begun with a lunch in Korea a month ago.

The theory was developed by Peter Sandman [PDF]. You can’t manage communication about environmental risks effectively, he argued, if you don’t consider the level of potential to invoke an extreme emotional response.

A risk, in this view, is never just a hazard: Risk = Hazard + Outrage. The outrage factor may be anywhere from negligible to catastrophically high. Any situation with a high potential outrage factor is high risk, even if only a small direct hazard to people is involved.

Sandman lists 20 components that contribute to the potential for outrage. Even though Tim Hunt’s comments weren’t about an environmental risk, we can still check off a good bunch of items on this list – like fairness, moral relevance, identifiable victims, amount of trust for experts or authorities, vulnerable populations, attractiveness to media, and the possibility of collective action.

You didn’t need any academic theory, though, to know that wading into gender generalizations – even flippantly – was foolhardy territory for a formal guest at an event intending to honor women in science at a journalists’ conference. Progressing women’s rights to equal dignity and opportunity has always elicited outrage. But for the last couple of decades, sexist remarks and sexist jokes have, too.

Cartoon taking aim at an educated woman
1895 caricature of an educated woman (George du Maurier, via Project Gutenberg) (click to enlarge)

This cartoon by Punch contributor, George du Maurier, comes from 1895. That was the era when anthropological claims about lower female intelligence had been losing ground as a way to keep women out of higher education (Joan Burstyn, 1973). So the ground had shifted to fanning medical fears to discourage women from higher study – nervous problems, threats to ovaries, and the like.

Du Maurier uses “ugliness” as the stereotype basis for his joke about an intellectual woman. That one was also part of the standard repertoire for demeaning suffragettes. And it’s still going strong in 2015.

Another commonality across time has been many thinking that women who want more respect are over-reacting: maybe they had a point with this or that, but this time, they’ve gone too far.

Whether or not events arouse outrage in each of us has partly do with how seriously we view a problem, and whether we can feel a close identification with any of those involved [PDF]. Our ability to identify with victims can also often face a strong pull towards explanations that reassure us that our own corner of the status quo doesn’t need to be disturbed [PDF].

Those factors split sympathies in a variety of combinations as the Tim Hunt controversy gained force. It sent us quickly into different corners – or left us torn between them. Was what he said a big deal or was it harmless? Did people identify more with being vulnerable to sexism or to putting their foot in their mouth?

The distress and harm to a small number of individuals at the center of the storm was immediate and obvious. For many, though, the distress Hunt’s comments caused others, along with the large-scale outbreak of sexist (and worse) opinion that inevitably followed, didn’t count. A high-status representative of science’s upper echelons declaring his own sexism and offering arguments to justify it on national radio is likely to encourage sexism and discriminatory behavior [PDF]. But the specific women harmed that way aren’t right there in front of our eyes.

Photo of inspector and two women in above-the-knee bathing costumes
Policing distance between knee and an unnamed woman’s bathing suit, Washington DC (1922) (Credit: National Photo Company Collection)

I think this image of a bathing beach policeman enforcing a “no higher than six inches above the knee” order captures another of the reasons that keeps the Tim Hunt controversy steaming ahead.

Most of us have some kind of “protected values”. They are ones that have a moral force for us. We don’t like to trade them off against anything. A protected value in the mix is a common source of rigidity and anger that ramps up to outrage.

Egalitarianism is a protected value for many people. But the desire not to police people over those values is itself a protected value – and often for the same people.

In a collection of essays on “political correctness”, its editor, Sarah Dunant, writes: “What PC has done is achieve the remarkable double whammy of offending both the right and a good deal of the left at the same time”.

In one of the essays in Dunant’s book, Stuart Hall writes that the concern over “PC” is a backlash to the fast social change of the 1960s – a resistance to the intrusion of the political into the personal. Two reasons for opposing it are that on the one hand, it’s regarded as dealing with a trivial symptom not a cause – I’ll come back to that. And on the other, it’s seen to represent a form of policing. That is a hot button issue at academic institutions in particular.

When a rights-based complaint is seen as trivial by a group that’s strongly “anti-PC”, outrage from competing protected values can be propelled into high-speed collision. When feminism is involved, that can quickly draw a crowd that gets very ugly, and it certainly did here. Once it tapped into the rich vein of resentment many have about journalists too, it brought a torrent of extreme online abuse into the arena. [Update: I wrote more about that here.]

The backlash outrage fueled conspiracy theorizing and a repetitive re-telling of events into a new narrative where Tim Hunt was purely an innocent victim beset by villains. I had published a blog post on the centrality in the debate of dismissing Hunt’s remarks because they were “just a joke” – a couple of days before it was claimed as news that it had been a joke. It’s a tribute to the power of revision that so many now argue that its status as a joke had been withheld from the public debate.

In this revision, the original outrage had not been about his remarks and radio statements at all – it had all been based on a false portrayal of the man’s character. Watching that version of events become a dominant narrative for many, and seeing all the concerns expressed before 24 June thereby discounted as based on a debate about something else, was particularly fascinating.

As people got to know Tim Hunt the person – most had never heard of him before or knew little of him – identifying with his distress rather than the harm his statements were causing became easier. “We didn’t realize it had just been a joke” seemed to become an easier way to explain any shift in sentiment though. On the other hand, those who argue it was “just” about Hunt’s reputation are underestimating how utterly devastating the experience must be for him and those close to him.

Which brings me to the outrage about outrage itself.

These are not pitchforks meme
People with banners at the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC (Image credits below)

Many think of all outrage as purely negative in its consequences, and as invariably punitive. I think that’s a misconception – and it is part of why the over-the-top violence-based rhetoric of pitchfork-wielding mobs is so rampant.

In the 2015 edition of his book, Networks of Outrage and Hope, Manuel Castells writes that the anger of outrage plays a critical role for people whose desire for dignity in daily life is not respected. It creates togetherness with others in the same position, and helps them overcome the fear of speaking out. (If you don’t have access to the book, there’s an interview with him about it here.)

The internet, writes Castells, enabled a new form of genuine democracy to emerge as more people can voice their opinions than the mechanisms of traditional media and public institutions allowed. Online communication enabled what he calls mass self-communication,

…based on horizontal networks of interactive communication that by and large, are difficult to control by governments or corporations… Mass self-communication provides the technological platform for the construction of the autonomy of the social actor, be it individual or collective, vis-a-vis the institutions of society… Thus, communication networks are decisive sources of power-making…

Concretely speaking: if many individuals feel humiliated, exploited, ignored or misrepresented, they are ready to transform their anger into action, as soon as they overcome their fear. And they overcome their fear by the extreme expression of anger, in the form of outrage, when learning of an unbearable event suffered by someone with whom they identify. This identification is better achieved by sharing feelings in some form of togetherness created in the process of communication…

In our time, multimodal, digital networks of horizontal communication are the fastest and most autonomous, interactive, reprogrammable and self-expanding means of communication in history… This is why the networked social movements of the digital age represent a new species of social movement.

The Tim Hunt furor vividly highlights the extent to which concerns about everyday sexism are regarded as trivial – a minor nuisance that’s a kind of social hazard of being a woman, something to just shrug off and go about our science. As though that’s unconnected from anything serious. Yet, as Virginia Valian writes, the mountains of disadvantage women face are made of molehills “piled one on top of the other”.

Everyday, or mild, sexism (including jokes) imposes a burden of disrespect and workplace incivility. That doesn’t mean it happens to everyone, or that it bothers everyone. But workplace incivility is common, and it’s part of sustaining a climate that allows discrimination against individuals to thrive. That climate includes under-recognized and under-reported workplace harassment. And a society where there’s been no substantial drop since the 1990s, but perhaps an increase, in sexual assault against young women.

Uta Frith, chair of The Royal Society’s Diversity Committee, wrote, the swift, wide, and strong reaction to Tim Hunt’s comments “was an outpouring waiting to happen”. How do you mitigate against individuals being harmed when that happens though?

We’re still finding our way through this. The analogy of storm seems to me far more useful than ones based on violence: we can shut the metaphorical doors against digital communication, not fuel it, and wait for it to pass. Apology, showing care for those other than yourself who were harmed by your actions, and not seeking personal redemption during the storm seem to be the best outrage minimization/reduction strategies for an individual.

For the rest of us, understanding and impulse control are essential to finding a path that doesn’t encourage cruelty. But can deep, meaningful, societal change be achieved at more than a glacial pace only through non-confrontation? Historically, it hasn’t. Action can’t really be avoided if the intractable harm caused by hostility and lack of empathy to the distress of women and minorities is to really shift. The outrage isn’t just negative: it’s a sign of hope and enthusiasm for creating a better future, too.

Times have changed in some ways, but Eleanor Roosevelt’s words in her speech on the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1958 resonate still:

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.


Photo collage
Rallying against sexual violence: India 2012 (top left), Brazil 2013, USA 2011, Iceland 2011 (Images via Wikimedia Commons)


POSTSCRIPT: If you’re interested in more detail on the storm around Tim Hunt, I posted an analysis on my personal website on 27 July (with a followup on 7 September). And I wrote a post about handling abuse on Twitter here.


The outrage cartoon at the head of this post is my own (CC-NC license). (More at Statistically Funny and on Tumblr.) 

1895 George du Maurier cartoon via Project Gutenberg.

1922 beach policing photo from the National Photo Company Collection and the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

I made the “These Are Not Pitchforks” meme using Michael Fogelman’s open source iMeme. The image comes from Wikimedia Commons (credits Becca and Bubamara). It’s a photo from the massive 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington DC (see also Wikipedia).

The collage of images of rallies against sexual violence via Wikimedia Commons: rally against New Delhi rape, in Kolkata, India by Biswarup Ganguly (2012) (top left); Slut Walk protest by Cintia Barenho (2013) (top right); Slut Walk protest in New York City, USA by David Shinbone (2011) (bottom left); Slut Walk protest in Reykjavík, Iceland by Helgi Halldórsson (2011) (bottom right).

[Update on 23 July] Disclosure: I am a contributor at MedPage Today, whose global editorial director is Ivan Oransky, one of the journalists involved in reporting Tim Hunt’s remarks.


* The thoughts Hilda Bastian expresses here at Absolutely Maybe are personal, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Institutes of Health or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.


  1. “I had published a blog post on the centrality in the debate of dismissing Hunt’s remarks because they were “just a joke” – a couple of days before it was claimed as news that it had been a joke. It’s a tribute to the power of revision that so many now argue that its status as a joke had been withheld from the public debate.”

    Who with any credibility only then on June 22nd claimed it was “news” that Hunt’s comments had been a joke?

    How has information changed over the last month?

    What personal investment has this author in the (still) unfolding story?

    On June 10 Natalia Demina, a witness to the Tim Hunt’s speech, tweeted:

    “Everybody who heard T.Hunt’s speech yesterday understood that he was joking. For those who not: guys, there is u sense of humour? #wcsj2015”

  2. Internet is a fertile ground for free speech!
    Both good and bad ideas flow together with the same weight.
    PC is an unacceptable source of censorship… Hurt feelings has silenced and it still continue silence the development is science. Starting with Galileo and it is still ongoing with digs in China…
    PC is an old plague that still making our World away from a Kardashov 1 civilization.

  3. Free speech is incredibly important, Henley, both to science and society. Although there are always limits – inciting people to crime, for example.

    I think the repression faced by Galileo is a long way away from the issue of non-discriminatory speech. I hadn’t heard of the Kardashev scale for civilization before and I’m very uninformed about issues like fusion energy and other energy sources. Still, it seems to me that there are likely to be many factors related to research and use of different energy sources that are far more relevant than “political correctness”. There are many areas where people have these sorts of concern – sometimes, suppression of dissent has definitely cost us scientific progress. But at other times, these claims aren’t well-founded – at the extreme end, there are also essentially conspiracy theories.

    On the other hand, I agree that we do lose scientific progress at times because people have had work suppressed or not funded for political reasons. I faced extensive levels of intimidation and harassment by an organized group who wanted to prevent me publishing the results of my first major epidemiological work. I published anyway, but I can see that faced with that kind of pressure, it would be totally understandable to not pursue the work. (And once I’d published that piece, I left that field.) That said, there is also a great deal that would be useless or harmless that is prevented by societal concerns – work that most in society would deem to be unethical, for example, or projects that would jeopardize human safety on a large scale.

    It’s a vitally important area, but I don’t think it’s a reason to allow scientists to encourage retrograde social views that contribute to discrimination against groups of people in science: discrimination costs us progress, too, on top of the human misery and injustice.

  4. tlitb1, I was referring to the reaction to reports on the 24th that were seen by many as a revelation that he was joking. That’s when people were claiming it was news. I was pointing out that it could hardly have been news when it had been a major focus of discussion from the first day, covered in depth in my post on the 22nd.

    Q2: How has the information changed over the last month? I had been working on a personal project analyzing this. I have posted it today on my personal website, because it’s not really the “style” of Absolutely Maybe.

    Q3: What’s my personal investment? I added a disclosure here a few days ago, pointing out that I am a contributor to MedPage Today (which I try to give a high profile to) – the global editorial director is Ivan Oransky. I haven’t discussed Tim Hunt with him. I know quite a few others involved in this – inevitably, as it touched on both women in science and journalism, both areas where I am active. My personal investment is two-fold: firstly, as a woman science who wants to see life in science improve for women. Secondly, because I’m a longtime social movement participant, with a strong interest in being effective and doing more good than harm. Hence the intensity of my interest in an event in which I was participating.

  5. I find this article troubling for two reasons

    1. Do you really think reactions such as this will result in improvements in the way women are perceived? It simply reinforces the very notion that people reacted to, the inability to control emotion. Yes people will be more reluctant to say anything publicly but that doesn’t mean you won’t see more jokes in private, or more thoughts like this being held in people’s minds. Getting outraged over statements based on heresay does not fight stereotypes about over emotional women.

    2. You seem to basically resort to “well he had it coming to him”. The entire article reads as “yes the reaction was to strong, but that’s the only real option”. Again, that’s not a sentiment I find particula heartening.

  6. Alex, I certainly don’t think he had such a tidal wave of awfulness “coming to him”: the consequences were dreadful, and I said, I’m are it was devastating. I don’t think he deserved that. But that doesn’t reduce Tim Hunt’s responsibility for what he said to journalists.

    Your first question – do I think this will result in improvements in the way women are perceived? I don’t know. I think it will discourage people from making sexist remarks publicly, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s because it’s burdensome for many women, and because it encourages people with hostile attitudes to women to see their opinions as socially sanctioned, according to the research I looked at for my previous post on this episode.

    The private joking, of course, will also reinforce social acceptability of sexism. It’s clearly going to take a long time for this to end.

    It’s not only women who were outraged, but even if it was, I think non-reaction to statements like that reported publicly would really be a problem. One of the questions this episode brings sharply into focus, though, is how, when something like this happens, do you balance the application of the precautionary principle: to guard against harming potentially many women in order to protect one man, versus protecting excessive harm to a person’s reputation and wellbeing. A different reaction from Hunt from the morning of 9 June, when journalists began indicating to him that his remarks were being met with grave concern, would have done that: protect both himself and others.

    I agree that sexism operating invisibly is a problem, and certainly that this kind of thing can just drive it underground, rather than end it. But I don’t think that’s a stage that’s avoidable on the way to behavior becoming rare.

    I wish the reaction hadn’t been as harmful to Tim Hunt and Mary Collins as it was. And I don’t find the conclusion that outrage is necessary heartening either. But then, I’ve been a feminist since I was a teenager, and those 30 years have seen a lot of progress – and a lot of lack of progress too. Sexism is still an obstacle to women flourishing, we still go to scientific conferences and hear mostly men talking even when the participants are 50/50 or even a majority of women, equal pay is still a long way from being a reality, sexual harassment is still harming large numbers of women in the workplace, and in society, sexual assault of young women isn’t decreasing and might even be increasing. Change has mostly come only very slowly in the decades I’ve been an adult women. I find that more disheartening.

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