A few good men: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the problem with nice guys

We learned a powerful lesson this week courtesy of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The nice guys are still not recognising their own problematic behaviour and ultimately, until they change, little will says Sophie White


We want to keep the good men. We don't want to alienate them but what happens when their numbers dwindle? What happens when they reveal themselves to be dangerously lacking in self awareness? Perpetrating trauma unconsciously is arguably as dangerous as hunting a woman in an organised, premeditated and predatory fashion. Bad men know they are bad. But good men believing in their righteous goodness is almost as much of a threat. It is the good men not being held accountable that allows a persisting culture of silence and abuse of power.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is the latest good man to be accused of sexual misdeeds.

Another day, another powerful man is toppled, sighed social media. For many months now, many a hot take and TV debate has asked: Has the #MeToo movement gone too far?

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When the careers of powerful men are at stake, the lives of woman are less important – this is not news to us, we are a generation that watched Monica Lewinsky systematically dismantled and recast as a villain rather than taking a hard look at Bill Clinton's actions.

While not a president, deGrasse Tyson is a highly regarded figure in the world of PopScience and mainstream culture. He is the host of Cosmos, he has written more than a dozen books on astrophysics, he has appeared as himself more than 15 times in shows like the Simpsons, BoJack Horseman, Futurama, Family Guy and the Big Bang theory.

The allegations levelled at him run the gamut of the sexual transgressions from inappropriate comments to touching and rape. Four separate women have come forward to date, each sacrificing their anonymity and putting their lives and careers in jeopardy to publicise their experiences.

Whenever claims are made I find I hear the same conversations over and over. Pleading for prudence in our handling of the allegations – sadly impossible on social media platforms but certainly, I agree, essential. I also hear murmurs about false claims for profiteering and I wonder who can look at these women who have ventured into the court of public opinion, with so much at stake, reliving their trauma, and think they are doing it for anything other than justice and profound sense of responsibility to other women to do so. There is nothing to be gained here.

Is the MeToo movement verging on kangaroo court territory? Or are the cascading allegations a necessary readjustment? With so many of the allegations being decades old and falling outside of the statutes of limitations, many boil down to a matter of he said/she said which leaves the movement vulnerable to criticism as so much has played out on social media.

DeGrasses Tyson's original accuser, Tchiya Amet, who says she was drugged and raped by him in the 1980s, was roundly dismissed for many years and deGrasse Tyson himself intimated that her spiritual lifestyle was an indicator of mental instability.

A three-year investigation by Buzzfeed is the first mainstream publication to look into the matter. "Amet told the police she had waited so long, the report stated, because 'numerous people had said that Tyson was 'a high profile person and that no one would believe her.'"

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DeGrasse Tyson was a good guy on so many levels. He has been an educator for decades. He has made science accessible and brought a passion and enthusiasm to a field often considered cold. As a person of colour, he also provides an important figure for marginalised communities whose input have historically have been excluded from academia.

As Buzzfeed reported: "One of the officers wrote that Amet “had tears in her eyes as she said this has affected her entire life: her marriage, her relationship with her children, her unrealised ambitions and the choices she had made over the course of her life.'"

After the case was reviewed, it was found that it surpassed the 10-year statute of limitations for sexual assault and Amet published a blogpost detailing her account of events which eventually spurred three other women to tell their stories. Early this week, deGrasse Tyson published a statement of his own "On Being Accused" and inadvertently highlighted his own spectacular lack of awareness.

Because of the lack of substantial evidence, we are once more in the murky territory of trial by social media. However, even if you take deGrasse Tyson's own account as the truth of the matter, it appears by his own words that he has abused his position of power in dealings with his former assistant and a fan in 2009.

In his statement, he describes admiring the woman's tattoo of the solar system and because of his special interest in Pluto he looked for it.

He writes: "I was reported to have 'groped' her by searching 'up her dress', when this was simply a search under the covered part of her shoulder of the sleeveless dress."

The covered part of her shoulder.

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Of the incidents with his former assistant alleged to have occurred this past summer, he writes:

"I expressly rejected each hug offered frequently during the production. But in its place I offered a handshake, and on a few occasions, clumsily declared, 'If I hug you I might just want more.' My intent was to express restrained but genuine affection."

They spent an evening together chatting over wine and cheese, she later said she felt and uncomfortable and explained this to deGrasse Tyson.

He writes: "Further, I never touched her until I shook her hand upon departure. On that occasion, I had offered a special handshake, one I learned from a Native elder on reservation land at the edge of the Grand Canyon. You extend your thumb forward during the handshake to feel the other person’s vital spirit energy — the pulse. I’ve never forgotten that handshake, and I save it in appreciation of people with whom I’ve developed new friendships."

A word of advice: Maybe don't do your special handshake on someone who has previously advised that you were being creepy? Or at all?

The whole "on being accused" statement said much about the danger of men who consider themselves the "good" guys. The good guys are unwittingly forming a sub group who likely want to be allies to woman in this time of social upheaval but who are doing damage by not examining their actions. The social mores are changing and men need to take responsibility, acknowledge their power and position and not abuse it then later throw up their hands and claim ignorance. DeGrasse Tyson is beyond above average intelligence, he should know better.

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