How Twitter Schooled an NYU Professor About Fat-Shaming

The Atlantic
How Twitter Schooled an NYU Professor About Fat-Shaming
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How Twitter Schooled an NYU Professor About Fat-Shaming

The deleted tweet that sent NYU Professor Geoffrey Miller into virtual hiding on Sunday and through Monday read, in full, "Dear obese PhD applicants: if you didn't have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won't have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth." Then came the rest of Twitter. Responding to one critic who called the message "judgmental," Miller wrote that finishing a dissertation is "about willpower/conscientiousness, not just smarts." Within a few hours, however, facing the rebuke of his NYU colleagues and Twitter's active academic community, Miller deleted both tweets and replaced them with two new, apologetic ones. "My sincere apologies to all for that idiotic, impulsive, and badly judged tweet. It does not reflect my true views, values, or standards," he wrote. "Obviously my previous tweet does not represent the selection policies of any university, or my own selection criteria." He appeared to be sincerely contrite.

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But it was too late: by the time Miller apologized, people had organized an email campaign directed at NYU's administration, accused him of endorsing eugenics, and dug up other incendiary tweets that he had deleted a month ago. Less than 48 hours earlier, The Washington Post had warned, direly, of the "Twitter Police," the paper's name for users who take glee in surveilling Twitter accounts for errant or offensive content, who supposedly threaten "to turn interesting, provocative people — those most likely to find their accounts hounded should they say something controversial — into guarded politicians, saying a lot while meaning nothing." Miller, it seemed, was their latest target.

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How appropriate, though, was the academic outrage directed at Miller? There's a difference, after all, between saying something stupid — something you don't actually believe — and accidentally unmasking an abhorrent belief. Remember when economists dug up Harvard professor Niall Ferguson's fixation on John Maynard Keynes' homosexuality? The evidence in Miller's case is similarly complex, if not exactly conclusive. In a series of deleted tweets captured in early May by Brooklyn editor Erin Kissane, Miller argues that human diversity is a "weakness" and that "if we all ate Paleo diets and did CrossFit, mental and physical health would soar." (The so-called Paleo diet, which emphasizes food that our prehuman ancestors would have likely consumed, is flawed in many ways.) Meanwhile, Austin neuroscientist Steve Phelps pointed out a January 2013 essay published at Edge.org (which was comprehensively debunked) in which Miller unreservedly praises China's eugenics program. And then there's this tweet of Miller's, published earlier this year:

Taken together, these thoughts do suggest something troubling. Here is a tenured, credentialed professor of psychology who appears to harbor an active disdain for those he deems genetically or physically inferior, and trades on that disdain with Twitter jokes. (Who except a snotty teenager ridicules fat people for no apparent reason?) Plus, Miller has in fact sat on admissions committees for PhD candidates. This is why the Twitter Police came out in such full force: in the context of his prior comments about human differences — and his desire to eliminate them — a joke about the hopelessness of fat PhD applicants is not "idiotic" or "impulsive" or "badly judged," as Miller suggested in his apology. The wisecrack precisely corresponds to positions he has already staked out. On Twitter, it seems, the only thing worse than throwing around a repugnant idea is lying about whether you believe it.

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Miller's continued silence hasn't helped his case, either. He did not respond to emails at his NYU account, and a staff member at the university said that he was not in his office today. Which is a shame. He inspired a rich (if heated) conversation that, despite his area of expertise, he refuses to engage. Instead he strained to explain, before disappearing, what his "true views, values, [and] standards" were not — leaving open the important question of what his true views and values really are.

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