Neil deGrasse Tyson Responds to Sexual Assault Allegations
How to Respond to Claims of Harassment and Assault
“It’s getting to the point whenever I see a beloved celebrity’s name trending on Twitter I’m like, ‘Oh, please tell me they’re dead. Please tell me they’re dead… Ah, damn it!’” — Trevor Noah after claims of Louis CK’s sexual misconduct were brought to light.
When news broke this week that multiple women accused Neil deGrasse Tyson of sexual wrongdoing, I didn’t wish he was dead, but I really wanted him to respond with the metered rationality and moral character I’d come to associate with him.
Louis CK tried to sneak back into the limelight shortly after confessing to the allegations against him. He didn’t show any visible signs of genuine change, but it still managed to surprise me when he rebounded onto the stand-up circuit with rape jokes.
Before he was accused, Aziz Ansari wrote a book, holding himself up as standard for men navigating modern romance. Since the now famous Babe article, he hasn’t exactly been able to map out an honorable way for men to respond to such accusations. Instead of continuing his self appointed objective of changing our consent-hostile culture, he’s quietly back on tour with a new set that takes a sharp detour away from his ardent feminist roots.
Neil deGrasse Tyson isn’t just everyone’s favorite astrophysicist. He has the cult of personality to make science engaging, accessible, and most of all, cool. He gives a relatable voice to an important cultural narrative about the history of science and the triumph of empiricism over superstition, a message that seems oddly prescient these days.
I am… disappointed in what I read in his facebook announcement On Being Accused. For such a likable man, he uses some despicable tactics to try to defend himself and discredit the women speaking out. For such a sharp guy, he seems to play dumb in self-serving ways. For an advocate of reason and science, he employs some corrupt logic in place of evidence.
He starts, not with any sincere self-reflection, but with a plea for due process. It’s a much abused starting point but I do believe in due process, so I am not going to try to deliberate here on the merits of the women’s accusations. This is about the merits of his public response to those claims.
“The 2009 Incident”
He explains that a woman with a tattoo of the solar system claims he felt up the sleeve of her dress, ostensibly looking for Pluto. He doesn’t remember it, but he thinks it certainly sounds like something he’d do… because of his connection to Pluto.
Understand the Problem: Tyson’s complicated relationship with Pluto is not the issue. The problem here is his deep lack of regard for her autonomy over her own body, a hubris that plays loud and clear throughout this essay. He sort of half confesses to his actions, but he hasn’t admitted that his actions amount to wrongdoing.
A real confession acknowledges the harm done.
He apologizes for her feelings and emphasizes that he’s a super-friendly guy. You don’t apologize for someone’s feelings. You apologize for the harm you caused. At no point in this essay does he seem to have any insight about the harm he caused, which is alarming because if you don’t understand what was really wrong with your behavior, then you’re likely to keep making the same mistakes.
He showed a lack of respect for her bodily sovereignty. By his own characterization, he was so caught up in his own image of himself as accessible and fun that he didn’t check with her. He didn’t know it was creepy because he wasn’t looking for her consent. He forgot she was a person, not a prop.
It meant so little to him that he walked away and forgot the interaction. Yet she has carried that feeling with her since that day. That is not a simple matter of “personal space.” Women’s bodies are treated like public space our entire lives. It limits our freedom and poses a constant threat.
Look, I’ve been guilty of touching people when I shouldn’t, too. I hate it, but I know it’s true because some of them have rightfully called me out on it. Only when you acknowledge the harm, can you allow these lessons to guide your future actions.
“Summer 2018 Incident”
He explains that a person, who was paid to assist him in various ways, engaged in polite conversation with him, and he felt increasingly comfortable with her. Also, she hugged a lot of other people. He told her if he hugged her he “might want more,” introducing the topic of sex into a conversation with a subordinate in the workplace. He later invited her for wine and cheese. “No pressure.” She said his invitation creeped her out. He apologized. “If only I had known…” She accepted his apology but also quit her job and then consensually hugged him goodbye.
Again he confesses to something, but rather than give a clean apology, he seems to be making the case that whatever he’s confessing to isn’t all that wrong. His mitigation techniques are sadly cliche.
Rewriting History: He seriously claims that his comment about “wanting more” was meant to show his restraint. I think more highly of Tyson’s intellect than to believe he didn’t get the flirtatiousness of that comment at the time.
This is a classic gaslighting move. He disingenuously backfills his motives to fit his current narrative and pretends that what happened didn’t have the context that it had. You can tell when someone’s doing this because the logic makes no sense.
Try this thought experiment: Imagine approaching every woman you pass on the street and saying “look how I’m not trying to have sex with you right now even though I might want to!” Imagine them bragging to their friends later about your “restraint.” It’s ridiculous.
Victim Blaming: That friend-hugging whore, who hugged other people, was totally asking for him to announce his sexual desire towards her. The fact that she confronted him about it and accepted his apology, while quitting, means that he didn’t really do anything wrong. Also that hug-whore hugged him, so there.
Abuse of Power: I feel silly explaining that a subordinate making polite conversation and having a history of hugging other people is not an invitation for you to say sexual things about her, but here we are. Was she the one who was supposed to keep Tyson from posting tone deaf self-incriminating statements on social media? That would explain a lot.
General Creepiness Tip: Saying “no pressure” about inviting a woman to do anything other than listen to a condo timeshare pitch is creepy. You’re introducing the topic of sex into a professional situation by inference. You can’t just put that topic back in Pandora’s box by brushing over it.
More Victim Blaming: Please stop saying “if I had only known.” People don’t always feel safe calling you out directly and immediately. Or sometimes, when they are emotional, they want to give themselves space to process their feelings and respond rationally, especially at work. And what if she did call Tyson out immediately rather than a short time later? I can’t image his off-the-cuff response would have been better than this non-apology he put together after he had time to think about it or Google it or, say, ask HR for advice.
Here, he starts with a lengthy brag about his impressive PhD and all the people who didn’t make it through his program. Seems irrelevant to this discussion until we get to the part later where the woman accusing him of drugging and raping her is one of those PhD drop outs. Loser!
Appeal to Authority: Do you really want to play the role of the powerful man trying to use his authority to invalidate claims of assault? This is just gross. There is no educational degree anywhere in the universe that mitigates sexually violating someone like this, so right now is not the time to flaunt your curriculum vitae.
Women He Didn’t Rape: There’s more boasting about the girls he nailed, including a comment about his wife that I’m guessing is supposed to humanize him. He cops to dating the woman who accused him of rape but says they broke up because there was no chemistry. It definitely wasn’t because he raped her.
Double Standard: Then there’s this weird part where he says he saw her much later, pregnant, with a guy who might not be the father. I guess him sleeping around is a cute story about meeting his wife, while her sleeping around is a stain on her character. He’s too shrewd to be rambling off topic. This stuff is in here because he wants it to persuade you.
Misc. Character Attack: He mentions that she changed her name and she believes in some kind of pseudoscience. You’re still not allowed to rape her, Ty.
Tortured Logic: Ultimately, he makes the case that if she was drugged and raped, then she wouldn’t remember it so she can’t say for sure that he did it. The fact that rape drugs wipe your memory doesn’t mean rape didn’t happen. The fact that he’s stooping so low as to use that argument, even if he’s innocent of rape, is deeply disturbing.
These statements are not random word salad. He’s a brilliant, erudite man making calculated digs designed to endear people to him and discredit the women. He cries “evidence matters,” yet he’s presented nothing but sneaky little manipulations and derailments that have nothing to do with evidence.
Furthermore, he’s employing very old, harmful, sexist tricks that fortify and encourage rape culture.
When #MeToo tags you, you have an opportunity to decide who you’re going to be in this moment. Will you shrink off for a few months and come back preaching patriarchy? Will you tepidly swim with the tide of oppression hoping to save your own skin? Or are you clever enough to respond with courage, authenticity, and moral virtue?
What He Could Do
Neil, it’s not too late to take some time and really sit with this. Let the initial shock wear off, and take another pass at this response. Your mission, if you accept it, will be to confess your wrongdoing, acknowledge the harm you’ve done, repair whatever you possibly can, and take responsibility for shaping culture in a slightly better direction.
Confess your wrongdoing, acknowledge the harm you’ve done, repair whatever you possibly can, and take responsibility for shaping culture in a slightly better direction.
Get Help: There’s nothing wrong with asking for some help from the experts.
At the very least, Fox and/or NatGeo could hire someone to write you some copy more befitting of this moment in history. Maybe run it by the HR department. Maybe a lawyer.
I say this, not to discourage your candor, but because you are a public figure. Your fame, your 4 million Facebook followers, and your 13 million Twitter followers are a testament to your impact on society.
At best, you have a chance to be a teacher and a role model in a movement that desperately needs one. This is where you can show off, not your fancy degree or your famous friends, but your stellar inner character.
Take Responsibility: If I flail my arms and accidentally smack you, I can muster a sincere apology. If we bump into each other and it’s really your fault, I reflectively say “I’m sorry” and I mean it. I’m sorry for taking up space in way that was hurtful. I care about how I impacted you. I want to know if you’re ok, and I want to help you if you’re not. I learn to look around for signs of my impact on other people and things that I may not have seen before. Being responsible for how you move through the world with other people is not rocket science. I am weary of good men who know how to behave in every other type of scenario but pretend that sexual conduct is impossible to comprehend.
Cooperate: At the end, you welcome an investigation by the corporations that have large sums of money on the line over your career. That was your only offer of cooperation. I’m reminded of Upton Sinclair’s observation, ”It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
Drop the Martyrdom: Although you’ve not acknowledged the harm you have caused and are continuing to cause with your response, you do want your readers to think of the potential harm this could have on your career and your marriage. How can your readers do you more justice than you have done to us with this defense built of victim blaming, slut shaming, and rape apologist underhanded maneuvers?
On Taking You At Your Word
Finally, you ask “I’m the accused, so why believe anything I say? Why believe me at all?” Well, I do believe you, Mr. Tyson. I see you exactly as your words have represented you here. I still don’t know what the women alleged, in their own words. I only know your representation of events. You have demonstrated your moral character through the arguments you have chosen. Your logic is your amor, so be careful whose flag you wear into this battle.
You could become a model for how to respond to harassment and assault allegations. You could teach us all something about wisdom, compassion, justice, and dignity. You could use your clout and influence to work for the greater good. Or you can be just another fist waving at the sky, refusing to move forward as history passes you by.
Post Script (12/22/2018): Today, I came across another article, posted the same day I wrote this. Megan Garber discusses the career ramifications for the women who’ve accused Tyson. That is a perspective that is close to my heart, so I’m appending her article here.