Sunday, January 04, 2015

Nerds vs Feminists

Scott Alexander has a 14Kword post (which he oddly couldn՚t manage to title) about nerds vs feminists and who is really oppressed. And it has close to 1000 comments! Of course it is passionate and funny and well-argued, and it not only demolishes the post by Amanda Marcotte that is its immediate target, it entirely demolishes her as a person, painting her as sort of mindless political harpy who is only too happy to take cheap shots at the expense of someone else՚s pain and openness, specifically, MIT professor and blogger Scott Aaronson՚s heartfelt description of how his attempts to reconcile what he thought of as feminist principles with his personal desires were so difficult that it drove him into near suicidal despair.

I haven՚t been able to make myself read the article to see if it deserves this treatment or not. Probably it does. But it saddens me to see manifested once again the animosity towards feminism and social justice that seems to be a feature of the rationalist universe. Because it seems like nerdism and feminism should be natural allies, or at least, that is how I experienced it in my own life.

Feminism became a public thing during my adolescence (in the mid 70s), and to me it was a breath of fresh air. Of course it was a much different time, it hadn՚t developed it՚s PC-thought-police side. To me, the message was that girls were not this insane alien other species but just another kind of person. It՚s hard to remember that era accurately but my impression was that feminism as an idea was liberating both to women and to me, as a young socially awkward person. Whatever else it was doing, it worked for me, it opened up possibilities that had been closed.

But that was a long time ago and feminism has changed, and nerddom seems to have changed as well. Both seem like more established things, distinct ideologies and factions. Feminism seems to have morphed from liberating idea into a crushing orthodoxy, at least as experienced by many younger people.

Being an old crusty person, I am no longer surprised to find myself doing standard old person things like viewing the younger generations as somehow deficient. But I can՚t help thinking that there is an awful lot of emotional coddling and whining going on these days. Being a nerd when I grew up was just as traumatic but I didn՚t write about it at length, I didn՚t share my feelings, I barreled through my problems, not out of some great strength of character but because I didn՚t have any other options. It was a tougher world and it produced a certain toughness which seems absent in later generations, who have had their psyches pampered and protected (of course the world of my parents was tougher yet, given that included the depression and WWII and fleeing Nazis).

God knows I am grateful that my children don՚t have to go through some of the crap I did. Bullying, for instance, was just an accepted thing when I was growing up, even though it means essentially letting young children live in a lawless violent anarchy where assault was accepted and commonplace. Now at least it is supposed to be controlled by the supervising authorities. I don՚t think being the victim of bullies as a child made me a better person, but it did mold my character in a certain way – the potential reality of violence is always a salient thing for me, and I know that I can survive it.

Protecting children from violence may be like protecting them from dirt -- seems like a good idea, but you end up with an untrained immune system. And the problems with feminism also seem like a sort of cognitive autoimmune disorder. You end up with people so fearful of their own capacity for aggression that they are unable to function.

So are the younger generations less tough because they՚ve been more protected? Who knows, but it sometimes seems that way, and I՚m conflating my own adolescent children with the grown adults who are having trouble with feminism. I want to say to both these groups – stop kvetching and man up. Although that is probably useless and offensive advice. Oh well, it՚s a tough world and everybody gets beaten up by it sooner or later.


James said...

As Scott points out in Untitled, LW at least is very feminist-leaning. See also the graphic here; computer people are very, very blue. This aligns with my own experiences in the tech industry.

Scott Aaronson, and the scores of other nerdy guys who've thanked him for writing about experiences similar to their own, wouldn't have had this problem in the first place if they didn't take feminism very, very seriously. The zeitgeist seems to be that it's time for the social justice people to get Tough On Nerds, though, so it's understandable why they'd develop some reservations; the smartest of them might even notice that many feminists are reenacting many of the broadly-defined behaviors they claim to want to eliminate.

There's also the fact that rationalists find ruthless politically-motivated outgrouping highly distasteful, and, well, when I hear "ruthless outgrouping" nowadays it's hard not to think of the social justice movement. A large fraction of them really are brutal about it.

mtraven said...

Maybe. The zeitgeist is stupid though, if it is conflating gamergate types with people like the two Scotts. Both groups may have trouble with women and both spend all their time in front of a screen, but otherwise they are hardly natural allies.

Is "ruthless outgrouping" a common term? Think this is the first time I've encountered it, although the concept is quite familiar. I am kind of with the rationalists on finding it distasteful.

Although maybe not. I don't think patrolling moral/social boundaries is something invented by SJWs, it is a basic factor of human life. It just so happens that in this case the dividing line of acceptability is cutting too close for comfort.

James said...

Agreed on High Nerds being very different from the (rare but real) Neckbeard Fedoras. The problem is that I'm not confident they won't round off to the same thing in most people's minds, in the same way that someone who isn't careful might find it easy to conflate urbanite elite progressives with the most terrible corners of Tumblr. I've been on the receiving end of this myself before; nerdy guys who don't go to great lengths to signal how much they love feminism and want to give women infinite social power are likely to labeled as Ignorant Sexist Dweeb as soon as they reveal their thoughts and experiences on anything relating to gender (like, y'know, happened with Scott Aaronson).

"Ruthless outgrouping" isn't a common term (I've used it before and may or may not have come up with it), though the behavior is obviously common. I find the lack of self-awareness from people who really should know better to be the biggest turn-off with the whole thing. These are educated, not-dumb people who take up the brand of "not outgrouping people" and "listening to and understanding marginalized people's experiences", and then they turn around and do exactly those things to any low-status schmuck who dares to opens their mouth.

BillSeitz said...

Being "untitled" isn't about lacking a title, it's a pun on "entitled".

mtraven said...

Oh duh, that completely slid by me. How embarrassing.

In my defense, while it's clever, it doesn't really make sense, it seems to deliberately misunderstand what "entitled" means. Scott Aaronson is entitled by virtue of his being a white non-poor male, regardless of how he feels about it or whether he is able to take advantage of it to get laid. That is to say, he benefits from all the world's implicit and inherent and ingrained casual sexism and other prejudices, whether he consciously wants to or whether he personally disavows it.

I'm entirely sympathetic to his problems, which entitlement probably makes worse if anything. And he deserves points for talking about this stuff publicly. But I think he is confusing the personal and the political (which of course is something feminism encourages).

Ashley Yakeley said...

Scott discusses the possible interpretations of "entitled" in section IX.

mtraven said...

I saw that, I think my comment still stands.

I think Scott and people in his circle are so antipolitical by nature they can't help seeing this stuff in purely personal terms. That is one of the failure modes going on, maybe not the most important one.

jed said...

You say "So are the younger generations less tough because they՚ve been more protected?"

Good question. We can't exactly answer it directly (since we didn't start a longitudinal study with the right goals a few generations back). However ordinary social science should be able to answer questions about whether some young people are more or less tough than some other ones. In the process we might gain some insight into the dimensions of "tough", "protected", etc.

From my own youth in the 50s I recall much, much more concern about protecting youth from obscenity, information about non-standard lifestyles and certain kinds of depictions of violence. On the other hand less concern about protecting them from environmental toxins, bullying (though parents certainly intervened about this), etc.

I'm not at all clear that current young people are less tough in any general sense. I agree they are less likely to hide certain feelings -- this doesn't equate to lack of toughness in general in my mind.

jed said...

You say "The zeitgeist is stupid though, if..." Can't we just agree that for the most part the zeitgeist is stupid?

mtraven said...

jed -- yes the zeitgeist is often stupid, but we don't have to be. I think a lot of SSC posts are basically saying that.

I'm leery of making overly strong generalizations about generations (if the younger ones are more coddled in some ways, they also seem a lot more pragmatic and effective in many ways than my own). I tried to bracket this post by saying it was only an unscientific impression rather than a blanket condemnation. In other words, I'm not calling a whole swath of humanity wimps, just trying to figure out what if anything has changed in the last few decades.

Dain said...

A commenter somewhere weighing in on all this said that part of the motivation for the anti-nerd thing on the part of some feminists (despite seeming alliance as you say) could be economic in origin, and thus a pretty normal leftist thing to do. How so? The rise and economic power of the tech industry.

So attacking male nerds is attacking capitalism. Or something. I dunno, interesting idea.

BillSeitz said...

"You belonged to the technocratic elite even before you picked up that book," Kivistik said. "The ability to wade through a technical text, and to understand it, is a privilege. It is a privilege conferred by an education that is available only to members of an elite class. That’s what I mean by technocrat."

(read from there to the end)

Crawfurdmuir said...

You wrote: "But I can՚t help thinking that there is an awful lot of emotional coddling and whining going on these days."

Apropos of this, there is no better example than the way in which Rosetta spacecraft's Philae probe landing on a comet 310 million miles from Earth - a remarkable technical achievement - ended up being largely a news story about Matt Taylor's silly shirt.

Ed Quigley said...

"Can't we just agree that for the most part the zeitgeist is stupid?"

Yes it is now. I think a conversation about how hostile many pockets of nerd culture can be to women was a conversation that needed to happen, because I think most male nerds were blissfully unaware of it.

But I think now that conversation has morphed into straight out bullying of low-status male nerds, precisely because they will elicit a juicier reaction than the traditionally-targeted men feminist columnists write about: hyper-masculine jocks, frat boys, etc. As Scott Alexander pointed out:

"...I’m pretty sure nerds deserve the right to complain that actual feminists are, a lot of the time, focused way more on nerd-baiting than actual feminism, and that much the same people who called us “gross” and “fat” and “loser” in high school are calling us “gross” and “misogynist” and “entitled” now, and for much the same reasons."

I completely agree with this assessment, although there's a added incentive for these kinds of invectives for an online writer (page clicks). In response, I suspect many nerds are going to react in one of three ways: Self-flagellation, remaining silent and not talking about their experiences, or aligning themselves with the pitiable MRA/Redpill camp.