How a Nobel prize winner got fired

Timothy Richard Hunt is a biologist who won the Nobel Prize.  A faculty member at University College London, a fellow of the Royal Society, and a fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, he was knighted for his accomplishments.  But he said this in a speech:

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they’re in the lab: You fall in love with them; they fall in love with you; and when you criticize them they cry.”

A lame attempt at humor.  Offensive to women.  Politically incorrect. So he got fired from all of his positions!  Even though he has a Nobel Prize!  (I wonder if they can take that away from him.)

Lesson:  No one is safe making those kinds of remarks.  You can’t joke about this kind of thing.  Your intentions won’t count.  Your career will be in jeopardy.  For all of our alleged lack of inhibitions, we do have social taboos and you will be punished if you break them.  Even if you have a Nobel Prize. [Read more...]

“debt” = “guilt”

I’ve read two articles on Germany’s hard line against bailing out Greece that blame in part the German language.  Says Michael Birnbaum, “This tough stance comes from a rules-oriented nation where even the language is conspiring against Greece’s struggles: Germans use the same word for “debt” and for “guilt.”  (Harold Meyerson makes the same point.)

Well, I’ve got news for the journalists.  “Debt” and “guilt” also use the same word in Greek.  At least in New Testament Greek.  This is why the Lord’s Prayer is variously translated “forgive us our trespasses” and “forgive us our debts.”  The Old English version says forgive us our “gyltas,” i.e., “guilts.”  Let me explain the connection. . . . [Read more...]

The “free exercise” of religion

Justice Kennedy, in his opinion establishing gay marriage, did affirm the right of religious people to disagree with same sex unions.  But the dissenting justices warned that this ruling could cause conflicts with religious liberty.  The Constitution protects not just religious beliefs privately held, they observe, but the “free exercise” of religion.  That is, what religious people do because of their religion.

The words of these opinions are likely to be parsed closely in the days to come, and the nature of religious liberty in this country is likely to be determined by legal wrangles about what the words “free exercise” mean.  [Read more...]

Supreme Court can’t tell what “legislature” means

Lost in the tumultuous week of Supreme Court rulings over Obamacare and gay marriage was another odd ruling.  To combat gerrymandering, the people of Arizona passed a referendum that would take away the state legislature’s power to draw electoral boundaries and give it instead to a non-partisan commission.  That sounds like a good outcome, since gerrymandering–drawing districts to protect the incumbents–is a plague on democracy.  The problem is, the Constitution explicitly, in so many words, gives that power to the “legislature.”

But not wanting the Constitution to get in the way of their favored policies, the court ruled in favor of the commission.  George Will tells the tale and recounts Chief Justice Robert’s vigorous–if surprising, given his Obamacare ruling–dissent on the necessity of attending to the language of the Constitution. [Read more...]

The right to dignity

To find a right to abortion in the Constitution, the Supreme Court justices in Roe v. Wade construed from the text a “right to privacy.”  To find a right to gay marriage in the Constitution, Justice Kennedy, with the concurrence of the majority, has construed a “right to dignity.”

Law professor Jonathan Turley, who supports gay marriage, said that the judges could very well have ruled to that effect by invoking the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as lower courts have done.  But instead it invokes the section on “due process” and asserts this new right to “dignity.”  Prof. Turley, who shows how Justice Kennedy has been building up to this notion in a number of his other rulings, is worried about this new legal doctrine, saying that it opens up all kinds of legal and civil liberty cans of worms. [Read more...]

Changing language taboos

Some words are taboo, so that when they are used they constitute the “bad language” of socially inappropriate “swearing.”  Those taboo words used to consist of the irreverent use of religious language.  Then words about sex and “bodily functions” became taboo swear words.  Now,  profanity (words that profane what is sacred) and obscenity (words about what is done “out of the scene,” or out of sight, referring to sex and excretion) have become commonplace, even in public social situations.

Our culture doesn’t take religion or the body as seriously any more, so words about them are not so shocking.  Now our forbidden words are “slurs,” words that denigrate racial, ethnic, gender, or sexual groups.  The shock of hearing those taboo words and the social disapproval they create are equivalent to what the old “bad language” used to create.  So says linguist Randall Eggert, who discusses ‘how the n-word became the new f-word.” [Read more...]


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X