Compliment or insult?

Two of my interests collide in this post: cultural differences and physics. Tommaso Dorigo begins his long report about a talk by Lisa Randall with:

If you allow a slip to inappropriate comments, Lisa Randall is notoriously not only an esteemed and well-known theorist, but also a quite attractive woman – a powerful mix, capable of turning to jello the knees of most men.

Well, this sure attracted some flak, beginning with Sean Caroll (so much so that Tommaso had to write another post):

Tommaso, you’re right, that is inappropriate. No matter how complimentary you are, when you insert remarks about appearances into a discussion of a talk by a female physicist, you contribute to an atmosphere in which women are outsiders to be gawked at rather than colleagues like anyone else.

It is really interesting to see how what many southern Europeans would have seen as a compliment is considered as quite offensive by US readers and (my guess) northern Europeans. Some women in the comments seemed to indicate that they, too, would have seen that as a compliment, for example Mahndisa:

I would have been complimented had someone said the same thing about me:)

Well, there were some less humor-impaired comments over there:

Given my own strikingly attractive appearance (trust me on this one I have no problem seeing the real reason for this nonsense: it’s jealousy, of course. Lisa Randall looks good, I look great, most of you poor souls don’t, so every time our looks are mentioned you go berserk. Especially plain-looking women and girly men, a.k.a. Variances.

Luboš Motl is its equal self, playing Übermench (my IQ is bigger than yours), inserting his own junk science agenda (global warming is defended only by low IQ know-nothings) and looking down disparagingly on Sabine’s rather interesting point. OK, that kind of talk I do find offensive, really. This attitude makes a comment from Eric Dennis all the more interesting:

What is wrong is this transformative moral vision, which demands in man’s actions what it cannot make real in his nature: metaphysical equality of the sexes. Like string theory, this vision is a crusade, not a science. And the sanctimony is a projection of self-contempt, the emotional state assumed by someone at war with reality.

I am not sure about string theory, but I would tend to agree with the depiction of fanatic anti-sexism…

But in the end, Tommaso gave a rather good summary of the issue at hand:

Tom I think it indeed has to do with imposing one’s way of life on others. In the US my comment would be inappropriate (were it made on someone not so publically known as Lisa), in Italy it is rather dry. Maybe my worst fault is to be an italian pretending to speak to the world, by using a language I do not fully master and ending up being read in a part of the world where people behave differently and pretend to teach the world how to.

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