Should we stop punching nerds?

In a December 14 comment on his blog, Scott Aaronson confessed that the idea that he gains privilege from being a man feels ‘alien to his lived experience’. Generalizing from his own story, Aaronson suggested that it makes more sense to think of shy nerdy males as a disprivileged group than as a privileged one, because such men are unusually likely to be socially isolated and stigmatized, and to suffer from mental health problems.

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. […]

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.

Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.” At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself.

The two main responses have been Laurie Penny’s “On nerd entitlement” and Amanda Marcotte’s “MIT professor explains: The real oppression is having to learn to talk to people.” These led to a rejoinder from Scott Alexander (“Untitled“) and a follow-up by Aaronson (“What I believe“). My impression is that each response in this chain has at least partly misunderstood the preceding arguments, but I’ll do my best to summarize the state of the debate without making the same mistake, borrowing liberally from others’ comments.

 

1. Does feminist rhetoric bear some of the blame?

Nick Tarleton responds to Scott Aaronson’s anecdote:

Scott attributes his problems entirely(?) to feminism. I’ve had similar (milder) bad experiences, but it’s really not clear to me in retrospect how much to attribute them to gender/sex-specific cultural stuff rather than general social anxiety and fear of imposing. Within gender/sex-specific cultural stuff, it’s really not clear how much to attribute to feminism rather than not-really-feminist (patriarchal, or Victorian reversed-stupidity-patriarchal) background ideas about male sexuality being aggressive, women not wanting sex, women needing protection, and the like. (Which feminism has a complicated relationship with — most feminists would disavow those ideas, but in my experience a lot of feminist rhetoric still trades on them, out of convenience or just because they’re embedded in the ways we have of thinking and talking about gender issues and better ways haven’t propagated.)

And Alexander writes:

Laurie Penny has an easy answer to any claims that any of this is feminists’ fault: “Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men’. Patriarchy is to blame for that.”

I say: why can’t it be both? […]

Pick any attempt to shame people into conforming with gender roles, and you’ll find self-identified feminists leading the way. Transgender people? Feminists led the effort to stigmatize them and often still do. Discrimination against sex workers? Led by feminists. Against kinky people? Feminists again. People who have too much sex, or the wrong kind of sex? Feminists are among the jeering crowd, telling them they’re self-objectifying or reinforcing the patriarchy or whatever else they want to say. Male victims of domestic violence? It’s feminists fighting against acknowledging and helping them.

Yes, many feminists have been on both sides of these issues, and there have been good feminists tirelessly working against the bad feminists. Indeed, right now there are feminists who are telling the other feminists to lay off the nerd-shaming. My girlfriend is one of them. But that’s kind of my point. There are feminists on both sides of a lot of issues, including the important ones.

Alexander is right that “Whether or not a form of cruelty is decreed to be patriarchy doesn’t tell us how many feminists are among the people twisting the knife.”, and he’s right that people who accuse nerds of misogyny often appeal in the same breath to ableist, classist, lookist, fat-shaming, and heteronormative (!) language. Being a feminist doesn’t mean you can never be cruel to people, or never misrepresent them. Consider the way Marcotte elects to summarize Aaronson’s disclosure of his many-year struggle with mental illness:

Translation: Unwilling to actually do the work required to address my social anxiety—much less actually improve my game—I decided that it would be easier to indulge a conspiracy theory where all the women in the world, led by evil feminists, are teaching each other not to fuck me. Because bitches, yo.

Marcotte adds, “I’m not a doctor, but I can imagine that it’s nearly impossible to help someone who is more interested in blaming his testicles, feminism, women generally, or the world for his mental health problems than to actually settle down and get to work at getting better.” Or, as Ozy Frantz of Thing of Thing puts it: “how dare those mentally ill people go about having distorted and inaccurate thoughts”.

Penny’s piece too ignores the possibility that feminist discourse norms are causing any harm. Sarah Constantin of Otium responds in a Facebook comment:

So, there are women nerds who make feminism their identity. The author [Penny] is one of them. And I think you do that if nerd culture treats you badly and feminist culture treats you well. But feminist culture doesn’t treat everyone well. Sometimes it’s *full* of anti-nerd contempt.

I’m unusual in this respect, but I’m much more offended and bothered by people who don’t like how my brain works than by people who don’t like what’s between my legs. I’m more wary of feminists who I suspect of wanting to mock my personal quirks and hobble my professional success than I am of sexism in STEM. I see comments on anti-SV articles like “this is what happens when you give autistic people money and power” and I get mad. I take it personally. A lot more personally than I take insults to women. Maybe it’s not fair of me, but that’s how my emotional calculus stacks up.

Scott Aaronson is right that there is a particular kind of damage that is inflicted ONLY on men and boys [eta: and queer women/girls] who want to do right by women and do not want to be “creeps”.

In general, there is a kind of damage that is inflicted ONLY upon the morally scrupulous. If you really want to be good, the demands of altruistic or self-sacrificing goodness can be paralyzing. The extreme case of this is scrupulosity as a symptom of OCD. This is a kind of pain that simply does not affect people whose personal standards are more relaxed. […]

What actually happens is that a highly scrupulous person reads a bunch of things that seem to put moral obligations on him, with the implication that the correct amount of moral obligation is always “more,” and *never* finds any piece of feminist writing that explicitly says “this is enough, you can stop here” because there aren’t that many people period who understand that obsessive moral paralysis is a problem. And so you get Scott Aaronson and many others like him (including some women!)

What we need is people talking about the problem of obsessive moral paralysis. “Yes, you *do* have some moral obligations, but they are finite and attainable. Here are realistic examples of people acting acceptably. Here are real-world examples of good men. You can be good without being a martyr.”

Wesley Fenza of Living within Reason adds:

There is a lot to like about this piece. Penny correctly points out that women have an extra layer of marginalization on top of what Aaronson went through, and that Aaronson didn’t account for that in his comment.

However, I think the thing that rubbed me wrong about Penny’s piece is that she didn’t offer any account of the role that feminism played in Aaronson’s tortured adolescence, which is an experience unique to the privileged, and which Penny didn’t acknowledge at all. […]

Penny claims the mantle of feminism, yet she refuses to acknowledge the role that her movement played in Aaronson’s tragic story. She demands that Aaronson, as a nerdy white man, be “held to account” for the lack of women in STEM, yet refuses his call that feminism be held to account for its at-worst abusive and at-best unkind rhetoric toward people deemed “privileged.”

The thesis of Penny’s piece is that as a nerdy woman, she went through all of the hell that Aaronson did, plus extra because she’s a woman. I think if she wanted to make that claim, she should have some kind of argument that Aaronson’s unique pain somehow doesn’t count or is somehow lesser than the pain of being a woman. I don’t find that obvious, and I don’t think she even attempted to make a case for it.

I think, as feminist advocates, we are obligated to recognize the darker side of our community and its potential to cause real-world harm. Aaronson’s piece was a real, raw testimonial documenting some of that harm. Penny’s piece just seemed like she was trying to handwave it away. She was compassionate, but she ultimately didn’t seem like she was listening.

I tend to recognize this because it’s a problem I have often — when someone tells me about an issue they have, I try to relate it to my own experience. On the one hand, a measure of that is how empathy/sympathy works. But on the other hand, I have a tendency to ignore the differences that make the other person’s pain and loss unique. I feel like that may be what’s going on here.

Chana Messinger raises the possibility that the harm inflicted on some scrupulous people could be “an unfortunate but necessary side effect of spreading the right messages to everyone else”. To know whether that’s so, we’ll need to investigate how common a problem this is, and whether there are easy ways to avoid it. At this stage, however, relatively few people have acknowledged that this is a concern. I certainly wasn’t aware of it until recently, and I’m now having to rethink how I talk about moral issues.

 

Punch up…!

 

2. Are nerds oppressed? How bad do they have it?

Alexander argues:

I know there are a couple different definitions of what exactly structural oppression is, but however you define it, I feel like people who are at much higher risk of being bullied throughout school, are portrayed by the media as disgusting and ridiculous, have a much higher risk of mental disorders, and are constantly told by mainstream society that they’re ugly and defective kind of counts. If nerdiness is defined as intelligence plus poor social skills, then it is at least as heritable as other things people are willing to count as structural oppression like homosexuality (heritability of social skills, heritability of IQ, heritability of homosexuality)[.]

The three main objections I’ve heard to this line of reasoning are that (1) the shaming and bullying nerds experience is relatively minor, (2) nerds are privileged, and (3) anti-nerd sentiment is really some combination of lookism, ableism, etc.

3 strikes me as a reasonable (though not conclusively demonstrated) position, and is still consistent with points like Frantz’s:

it is amazing how laurie penny can write this entire article without mentioning that neurodiversity is a form of oppression????

“Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, which, I know, totally blows.” except that a lot of shy nerdy men are suffering because… they lack privilege… on at least one axis

Intersectionality also suggests that anti-nerd sentiment won’t perfectly reduce to its constituent parts. ‘Nerd’ could be a composite like ‘Chinese-American lesbian’ or ‘poor transgender Muslim’, but third-wave feminist theory denies that the social significance of ‘poor transgender Muslim’ is just a conjunction of the significance of ‘poor person’, ‘transgender person’, and ‘Muslim’.

Alexander gives a good response to 2, pointing out that being Jewish (for example) can simultaneously result in being privileged and oppressed. 1 seems like an open empirical question, provided we can agree on a threshold level of harm that is required for something to qualify as ‘oppression’, ‘discrimination’, etc.

Alternatively, one might object that the ‘structures’ Alexander points to are cognitive and cultural, but not institutional. Perhaps there isn’t enough economic, legal, and political restriction on nerds for them to qualify as ‘oppressed’ in the relevant sense. (And perhaps the same is true of Jews in 21st-century America, and we should think of Jews in that context as ‘historically oppressed’ but not actively oppressed? One man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.)

Of course, it could turn out that ‘shy nerds’ suffer as a group from a distinct flavor of oppression even if ‘shy male nerds’ don’t. And Messinger adds in correspondence: “However strong or weak the case for nerd oppression, the case for nerd oppression by feminists is an order of magnitude or two weaker.”

But ‘oppressed’ is in the end just a word. What’s the substantive question under debate?

If some categories of suffering are unusually intense, widespread, and preventable, it makes sense to adopt the heuristic ‘allocate more attention and sympathy to those categories’. This is the schematic reasoning behind treating triggers as qualitatively more important than aversions, or treating racism as qualitatively more important than run-of-the-mill bullying. (At least, it’s the good reasoning. There may be worse reasons on hand, such as medical essentialism and outgroup antipathy.)

However, these heuristics require some policing, or they’ll degrade in effectiveness. Once everyone agrees that ‘triggers’ demand respect, people without PTSD symptoms have an incentive to expand the ‘trigger’ concept to fit their most intense preferences. Once everyone agrees that ‘oppressed groups’ get special consideration, disadvantaged people outside conventional axes of oppression have an incentive to expand the idea of ‘oppression’. This is inevitable, even if no one is being evil. Thus we need to take into account the upkeep cost of preserving these categories’ meanings when we decide whether they’re useful.

Many people intuit that we should have different norms in Europe and the Anglophone world about when it’s OK to belittle white people as a group, versus when it’s OK to belittle black people. The former is “punching up,” the latter “punching down.” Without a clear sense of whether geeks are ‘above’ or ‘below’ us, this heuristic short-circuits here; so the practical import of this debate is how strongly we should endorse a norm ‘don’t pick on shy geeky men as a group’.

Even if geeks aren’t oppressed and their problems are much smaller than those of women, black people, LGBT people, etc., their suffering is still real, and there are probably good ways to reduce it. I don’t know what the best solution here is, but trigger warnings and carefully-labeled safe spaces may be useful for people who want to avoid discussing various forms of feminism. For public spaces, perhaps we need a new concept of ‘punching straight ahead’, and new norms for when that’s OK. I generally prefer to err on the side of niceness, but I understand the arguments for being a loud gadfly, and I don’t know of a practical way to keep memes of wrath from outcompeting pacific memes.

Alexander, however, worries that even raising the issue of punching up vs. down is a red herring. He accuses feminists of misrepresenting Scott Aaronson’s ‘my suffering is real and matters’ as ‘my suffering is the most real and most important kind of suffering’:

If you look through Marcotte’s work, you find this same phrasing quite often. “Some antifeminist guy is ranting at me about how men are the ones who are really oppressed because of the draft” (source). […] But Aaronson is admitting about a hundred times that he recognizes the importance of the ways women are oppressed. The “is really oppressed” isn’t taken from him, it’s assumed by Marcotte. Her obvious worldview is – since privilege and oppression are a completely one dimensional axis, for Aaronson to claim that there is anything whatsoever that has ever been bad for men must be interpreted as a claim that they are the ones who are really oppressed and therefore women are not the ones who are really oppressed and therefore nothing whatsoever has ever been bad for women.

Alexander blames this on “Insane Moon Logic”. I find it likelier that different people, Alexander included, are just focusing on different aspects of Aaronson’s comment, to fit them into different narratives. Aaronson doesn’t deny that women are disadvantaged in various ways, but he, not Marcotte or Penny, is the person who raised the issue of whether geeks are more disprivileged than women. It shouldn’t surprise us that some eyebrows would be raised at lines like:

[1] Alas, as much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’—my privilege!—is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.

[2] But I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me “privileged”—that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes—is completely alien to your way of seeing things.

[3] 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.

[4] As I see it, whenever these nerdy males pull themselves out of the ditch the world has tossed them into, while still maintaining enlightened liberal beliefs, including in the inviolable rights of every woman and man, they don’t deserve blame for whatever feminist shortcomings they might still have. They deserve medals at the White House.

1 appears to deny the existence of male privilege; 2 suggests that nerdy men may be “one of society’s least privileged classes”; 3 calls being a heterosexual man a “curse”; and 4 can easily be read as demanding cookies (“medals”, even) for insecure men who don’t actively reject women’s rights, no matter how glaring their “feminist shortcomings”.

Aaronson has since explained that he does believe in male privilege, and he has walked back claim 2 to just “the problem of the nerdy ‘heterosexual male’ is surely one of the worst social problems today that you can’t even acknowledge as being a problem” (emphasis added). Still, a feminist could reasonably worry that Aaronson is vacillating between a motte (‘nerds suffer too!’ or ‘there exists at least one person who was harmed by feminist rhetoric!’) and a bailey (‘nerds have it worse than all or most other groups’, or ‘pointing out problems with nerd culture is immoral’).

I hate the ‘motte’/’bailey’ framing — it encourages people to assume malice, even when we should be looking into the possibility that our conversation partner has made a mistake, or has updated their beliefs, or consists of multiple dissenting factions. But if you’re going to use the motte/bailey idea to accuse your enemies of deceit (or Moon Logic), be sure you spend at least as much time testing how readily it applies to your own side.

I don’t know whether Aaronson stands by his younger self’s belief that he would have been better off as a non-white non-heterosexual non-male. As Tarn Somervell Fletcher notes:

I’ve seen plenty of responses that seemed to have completely taken on board everything he’s [Aaronson’s] said, and just think that he’s misjudged how bad it is for some people. When you’re comparing two people’s oppression, or suffering etc. (which is a terrible terribly unproductive idea but everyone seems determined to do it anyway), the default is that both people are going to discount (or, fail to count?) the others’ experience.

I agree with Aaronson’s statement, “This whole affair makes me despair of the power of language to convey human reality” (only I came in pre-despairing). Since people are extremely bad at simulating others’ life experiences, Aaronson is likely to misunderstand how bad women, black people, trans people, etc. have it. (This is of course consistent with acknowledging the psychological importance of Aaronson’s feeling that he had it worse than everyone else.) For the same reason, a black lesbian social butterfly would be likely to misunderstand how bad Aaronson has it. If we only rely on who has the most eloquent anecdotes, rather than on reliable population-wide quality-of-life measures, we aren’t going to get very far with these discussions.

And perhaps it isn’t worth the effort, if it’s possible for us to come up with norms of discourse that work OK even when we don’t all start with perfectly accurate beliefs about people’s demographics and relative levels of privilege. Even if punching up is justifiable in principle, we may not want to come in swinging when there’s a chance we’re misappraising the situation.

 

Further reading