Words are useful insofar as they have publicly agreed upon definitions. From definitions, we can have discourse that leads to some sort of useful truth. But what happens when the meat and potatoes of a discourse is made up of terms that have a powerful connotation, but no precise definition? You get people talking past each other in a fog of emotion and cognitive bias.
Slate Star Codex started the new year with a very long but very important post on the a specific expression of feminism’s contempt for nerdy men. It concerns an MIT professor, Scott Aaronson, opening up about being tormented throughout his adolescence by crippling self-hatred issues.
(sigh) Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.
My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.
Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.
Aaronson goes on to explain that he was so tormented that he’s tried to castrate and kill himself. So what useful truth to feminists have for him? It’s made clear that he needs to recognize that his misery is necessarily of a lower grade than what women feel. Women are oppressed and men are not, so no matter how bad he feels, it’s never oppression-grade bad, whatever that means. Secondly, we are to believe that his own assessment that feminism made him feel the way he did is wrong, and that It’s actually the patriarchy. For whatever reason, whenever gender is part of the story, the focus has to be on women.
The best example of this is an article posted on the New Statesman. Laurie Penny wrote an article explaining Aaronson’s folly for him, titled “On Nerd Entitlement.” Jesus Christ, we’re off to a bad start. I am going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that the tears shed for him were not of the Crocodile variety, but they sort of look that way. She is, intentionally or not, using one man’s heartfelt expression of suffering to make it about her. His painful collision with the diktats of a powerful cultural force was made into a passion play about about how that very same cultural force is the medicine that he needs to learn to learn to like. The problem I have with this way of approaching the issue isn’t that it’s mean, it’s that it presumes that all of society has taken certain vague concepts as gospel.
By using the loaded terms “patriarchy” and “oppression,” feminists are begging the question that these things actually exist in line with their definition. The fact is that those are both controversial and non-falsifiable concepts. There’s a few things that, if they are actually interested in a discourse, feminists need to establish.
What does oppression mean?
Again, words are useful because they have meanings that both speakers and listeners agree upon. What is oppression?
I have a feeling that we’re talking about something in neo-Marxist “power that types of people have” territory, but nobody seems to be able to explain it. How is structural oppression different from plain-old unqualified oppression? Because apparently Aaronson is neither oppressed nor structurally oppressed. Laurie Penny uses them interchangeably. I have a creeping suspicion that “structurally” is a modifier that exists to make it sound “serious and academic,” but please correct me if I’m wrong. What is oppression if not structural?
To some kind of idea what the term denotes, let’s refer to Penny again:
Nerd culture is changing, technology is changing, and our frameworks for gender and power are changing – for the better. And the backlash to that change is painful as good, smart people try to rationalise their own failure to be better, to be cleverer, to see the other side for the human beings they are. Finding out that you’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re actually part of the Empire and have been all along, is painful.
So, it might be that oppression happens when you’re on the good guy team and something happens to you. Scott Aaronson, being a white male, is on the bad guy team. Bad things that happen to him are still sad, but ultimately, tough luck. That makes things really simple, probably because it’s a really simplistic way of looking at things.
Is oppression concrete enough that we can parse it to draw useful conclusions from?
I am asking if oppression can parsed in either the general sense, where we can determine who is oppressed and what that means, and the specific sense, the meaning of any specific situation. In the service of reminding everyone that women are the real victims in this situation, something that looked like parsing happened. Feminist commentary on the opening of Scott Aaronson’s heart invoked a model of oppression to draw the concrete truth that this type of culturally sanctioned shaming as doesn’t count. This is pretty much the platonic ideal of the reification fallacy. According to Wikipedia:
Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a concrete thing something which is not concrete, but merely an idea.
Oppression, even if well-defined, remains an abstract and hypothetical concept. Trying to parametrize it with Laurie Penny’s “vectors” is like building a castle in the sky. There’s an empty, falsifiability-shaped shaped space where the foundation should be.
I think one of the ugliest truths to come out of this ordeal is the feminist coveting of the status as oppressed. Every visible feminist response to Aaronson’s outpouring fit the template of “That’s sad, but you don’t get a piece of my oppression spotlight, because your misery doesn’t follow these rules I made.”
Even if the made-up rules are internally consistent enough to parse, so what? Magic: the Gathering has internally consistent rules (epic nerd reference!) and doesn’t shed light on the human condition. If there is a theoretical dichotomy between the suffering of Scott Aaronson and “real oppression,” it doesn’t seem to tell us anything about anything. Aaronson was victim of culturally sanctioned shaming tactics to the point where he was ready for self-castration and suicide. Whether or not it technically fits an ideological criteria for oppression can only serve as a measure of whether or not that very criteria is meaningful.
Is it possible that patriarchy isn’t problem? That “more feminism” isn’t the solution?
Penny, despite having empathy for Aaronson, claimed that his take on his own misery was actually totally backwards. She was kind enough to explain his folly:
I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson’s suffering. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of “being bullied at school doesn’t make you oppressed”. Maybe it’s not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal. Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for “shy, nerdy men”. Patriarchy is to blame for that.
Scott Aaronson has enough intelligence and intuition for logical systems that he taught himself calculus at age 11. This man, who went on to become a professor of theoretical computer science at the number one institution of learning on planet earth, is less qualified than a stranger to understand what kind of social assumptions made his life a living hell. Sure, people can be wrong about why things happen to them. Feminists themselves can readily write off their personal shortcomings as “the patriarchy.” The problem is that there are no patriarchy workshops like the feminist workshops that Aaronson describes.
Crystal ball-gazing into the unseen patriarchal workshops of our society doesn’t work either. First of all, you need to make a case for them existing as described. But in this case, Aaronson specifically states that he received a direct, black-and-white message from actual feminism. Is Laurie Penny also in the business of telling people that they’re wrong about why they’re thirsty? When someone says that they’re thirsty because of a lack of water, I have no reason not to believe them. I don’t have a ostensibly water-explaining ideology that implements that kind of cognitive bias.
For all my criticism of feminism (mostly due to its cultural preeminence making a big target), I can acknowledge that feminists definitely get some things right. “Mansplaining” is a real phenomenon. It happens when a man assumes he is more knowledgeable and competent than a woman and therefore talks down to her. But, as we’ve seen by what Penny just did to Aaronson, it doesn’t have to be a man doing it. Do men mostly do it? Maybe, and if so there’s probably a multitude of complicated and non-ideological explanation for it.
Is patriarchy the difference between insidious mansplaining and Penny’s “compassionate” harangue? Is it the difference between shaming nerdy men for their lack of attractiveness to women and the lack of shaming fat women for their lack of attractiveness to men? In that case, you need to prove it. Claiming that these things cannot be compared is a rhetorical upheaval, and the supposed unseen force behind justifying the disjunction should be given some real scrutiny. Things that sound good doesn’t automatically lead to truth. Being a feminist, Penny jumped to the conclusion that “patriarchy is the REAL culprit here.” That’s the result of a cognitive bias in someone who doesn’t seek out alternative explanations. Let’s refer to Bayesian reasoning:
Core tenet 1: Any given observation has many different possible causes.
I happened to stumble upon this today just after reading Penny’s article on New Statesman. What was so uncanny is how precisely cognitive biases describe the system of thought that Laurie Penny and other feminists is wrong. The observation of Aaronson being miserable due to his feminism-induced self-loathing has explanations beyond “I think feminism is good and patriarchy is bad, so patriarchy caused this bad thing.” That the patriarchy and structural oppression even exist in a way that can actually be give us useful truth has not even been established yet.
This fiasco and others like it are microcosms of the bad blood between nerds and feminists. Non-feminist nerds are often familiar with formal logic and proof-based mathematics. This makes them skeptical of simplistic, all-encompassing explanations – the stuff of ideology. Non-nerd feminists, on the contrary, are often familiar with the dogma of their favored ideology. Think for a moment about how these two groups tend to arrive at their conclusions.
Feminism isn’t evil. It’s right when it says that women do have a unique set assumptions and expectations projected onto them. The same is true for men, nerds, short people and people with friendly-looking faces. Patterns of ideas that addresses one of these types of unfairness certainly has reason to exist, including feminism. Do women have it worse? I don’t know; I don’t even think that’s a question that can be answered. I am just increasingly left wondering why I am supposed to care about a specific pattern of ideas when it exists mostly in a capacity to minimize the suffering of people who aren’t women. It’s especially weird when those are the people who talk about groups “voting against their own interests.”
I’m not asking for feminists to stop being feminists. I am asking them to admit that feminism doesn’t have the answers to everything. Let’s get a sober admission that feminism has risen to unprecedented eminence in our culture and therefore, if its praxis isn’t responsibly managed, it could really hurt people. Consider that the patriarchy isn’t behind sour gender dynamics every time; it might actually be your well-intentioned ideology.
Individuals have desires types to behave in certain ways. The problem is that other people have sensibilities that these desires can upset. A kind of equilibrium between behaviors that work is reached when the aggregate of individuals have interactions. This is the function of socialization. I monitor myself for weird or awkward behavior because other people have a stake in the interaction, and I have a stake in their responses. I think this is a good thing. Nobody has a responsibility to become romantically involved with people they find unattractive. That doesn’t mean that unattractive people awkwardly hitting on you is a “vector of oppression.” Finding nerds creepy is fine, but trying to synthesize that with feminism into an ideology of creepy-nerds-as-patriarchy is plain unhinged.
I have common ground with the feminists because I agree that the “men’s rights movement” is ridiculous. It’s a near-mirror image of feminism in its ideology and often functions as a support group for those who think they are being victimized. What answers do the men’s rights activists (MRA’s) have for people that hurt? A nihilistic book of tricks on getting laid? Replacing an exclusively pro-female dogma with an exclusively pro-male one wouldn’t have saved Scott Aaronson, it would have embittered him. Instead of talking about which ideology is the best one, we need to talk about abandoning ideology altogether.