Tim Hunt and St Paul: two bigoted, insensitive MCPs

This conversation took place circa 53 AD. James and Peter, who headed the Jerusalem Christian community, had summoned Paul from his peregrinations to explain to him the facts of life.

James: Saul, there’s trouble in Corinth.

Paul: There’s no Saul here, Jim. The name’s Paul, as you well know.

James: Okay, fine, there’s trouble in Corinth, Paul.

Paul: Too bloody right there is. Every mass is a God-awful shouting match. They all scream, argue, turn the whole thing into a unholy mess. But I’ve sorted them out.

Peter: Yes, well, that’s not the kind of trouble we mean, Paul. The trouble we’re talking about was caused by the way you sorted them out.

Paul: What on earth do you mean?

James: I mean this [picks up a parchment scroll and reads]: “Let the women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.” Did you write this, Paul?

Paul: You bet I did. So what?

Peter: So every Corinthian lass is screaming her head off, calling you an insensitive bigot, a male chauvinist pig and an antediluvian troglodyte. What are you trying to do, mess up the whole show?

Paul: Oh come off it, Pete. I just didn’t want those gals to sputter spittle all over the place. We needed some discipline there, that’s all I said.

James: Well, let me tell you, that’s not how it came out – and it’s certainly not how they took it. We’ve received 153 complaints. Here’s one from Sabina…

Paul: Sabina who?

James: Never mind Sabina who. Just listen: “This bloody bigot thinks he’s the bee’s knees, but I’ve got news for him: this is the 1st century AD, the reign of Emperor Trajan. We, female persons, are equal to any man, including this Saul, Paul or whatever he calls himself. And I don’t just mean equal before God – we’re equal in every way. How dare he tell us to shut up and listen to our husbands? Who the hell does he think he is? We don’t want his kind preaching to us, ever.”

Peter: And this is the most polite letter. Most of them want you whipped and stoned, at least. Are you off your rocker or what?

Paul: But the law saith…

James: Never you mind what the law saith. You are finished, do you hear me? She’s right, this isn’t bloody Athens under bloody Pericles. Female persons in Corinth won’t stand for this kind of talk, and neither shall we!

Paul: But Jim…

Peter: You’re history, Paul. We want your resignation today. Go back to Tarsus, make some tents.

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, I’ve made this up. No such conversation took place in Jerusalem circa 53AD – moreover, it could not have taken place. But a similar exchange did occur at University College London, circa 2015.

At the end of it, Sir Tim Hunt, the Nobel-winning biochemist, was effectively sacked (“hung out to dry”, as he put it) from his job at which he is generally believed to be rather good.

His crime? An offhand light-hearted remark he made in a speech. “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls,” he said, digging a huge hole for himself. “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”

Now you must agree that, on the scale of male chauvinist piggery, this remark doesn’t even come close to 1 Corinthians 14: 34-35. Yet it never occurred to the good women of Corinth to report Paul to the authorities.

Had they done so, it’s a safe bet James and Peter would have dismissed their complaint for the silly, insecure, borderline psychotic rubbish it was. And Paul was dead serious when he wrote his epistle.

Sir Tim wasn’t when he talked about lab girls. He just made an innocent remark that, to anyone with the sense of humour of your average German (shepherd, that is, not a person), would have sounded like exactly what it was: a joke.

Yet in the reign of Emperor Dave a joke like that is a career-ending sacking offence, even if the offender is one of the world’s top scientists. That’s progress for you. Aren’t you happy we’ve advanced so far since the reign of Emperor Trajan?

Ave Dave, morituri te salutant.






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