This is a somewhat tricky post to write, as I have no desire to cause upset to the friends or family of the recently departed. Also one of the problems with critiquing great people is you are open to accusations of jealousy, sour grapes, trying to drag other people down and so forth. However the current sanctification of the late Dr. Hawking within my social circle has been a little grating. Given recent popular movements regarding micro-agressions, believing the victim, #MeToo and so forth I was under the impression that “greatness” was no longer an excuse for treating people badly. As these attitudes are popular amongst much of my social group I thought it worth mentioning that amongst all the hagiographies it might be worth mentioning that he wasn’t necessarily such a great human. Much as we saw with Mr Weinstein, and others, how “everyone knew” and it was “common knowledge” so it was with Dr. Hawking. Way back when I was a lowly Physics undergrad the scuttlebutt at various physics meet up was that his attitudes and behaviour towards women weren’t exactly great. Now of course my saying that is just hearsay and rumour, though I heard it from people who witnessed or experienced it so felt quite comfortable saying that we shouldn’t over look his very human nature. I’m not going to link to anything directly but if your curious you could search on Stephen Hawking misogyny and anti-Semitism.
That is where it got kind of interesting. Suddenly the previously applied standards were suspended, it was to be expected because of the period he grew up in, it was understandable because of his illness, it was forgivable because of his great intellect. The mere suggestion that we could acknowledge his intellect and scientific contributions without ignoring that his past attitudes and behaviour might have been problematic was “vilification” and “turning him into a monster”. On this occasion suddenly there were demands for proof, and not just second-hand reports but on camera instances of his behaviour. So the level of evidence that condemned athletes, actors, some producers, right-wing politicians and other celebrities was no longer sufficient. I’m going to resist the temptation to try to guess why this might be the case, why in this instance we shouldn’t talk honesty about behaviour and call out even the smallest misdemeanour’s. I will ponder that if people are willing to overlook unacceptable behaviour for some people for whatever reason it rather undermines the argument that such behaviour is unacceptable. Of course you can still admire him, you can still think him brilliant or anything else you like, but much as I like my friends whilst acknowledging their flaws we should also acknowledge the flaws of those we look up to and hold them to at least the same standards we apply to those we look down on. I hope that when I die those that know me remember me as I was, big up the tales about me for sure but remember my flaws and don’t excuse them so that those that come after me can do better than I did.
So in memory of Dr Hawking and one of (what I think was) his coolest discoveries I’d like to propose the term “Hawkings Hypocrisy”. A bit like “revealed preference”, Hawkings Hypocrisy is hypocrisy revealed when someone exempts specific individuals from standards they insist on for others.