EDIT 01/01/15: Since I wrote this, Scott Aaronson has written a follow-up post, in which he says, in particular:
The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?
However, I now understand why so many people became so attached to that word: if I won’t use it, they think it means I think that sexism, racism, and homophobia don’t exist, rather than just that I think people fixated on a really bad way to talk about these problems.
I think he’s still rather missing the point, but he’s *trying* to get the point, and it’s worth reading his post before reading what follows.
This is going to be both more personal than I normally get, and more emotionally draining, so before I get started properly, here’s a song that felt apropos:
Over the last couple of days, a comment on Scott Aaronson’s blog has been doing the rounds a lot. The comment was originally posted a couple of weeks back, but Slate Star Codex linked it in a link roundup and it’s spread since then. In part, Aaronson claims that “being a nerdy male… put me into one of society’s least privileged classes” because “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.”
Laurie Penny wrote a response to this, first on her Facebook and then on the New Statesman website (which I hate having to link to, because I do not approve of the transphobia that’s a semi-regular part of that site’s editorial policy, which in my view makes it a hate site; unfortunately the liberal/left commentariat disagree with me…), which has also been getting linked a lot, and which says that yes, Aaronson has suffered, but that suffering does not eradicate his male privilege, and is effectively orthogonal to him being male, since women also suffer in similar ways.
Before I go any further, I want to say that I admire both Aaronson and Penny. I’ve read every blog post Aaronson has posted for about the last six years, he’s increased my understanding of quantum physics, computer science, and the basics of mathematics far more than any of my university lecturers ever did (though I still don’t understand those things as well as I should), and I think his Quantum Computing Since Democritus is the best book in what we might call the hard-pop-science category since Feynman’s QED.
Laurie Penny, meanwhile, I’ve vaguely known in an internet-acquaintance way for about eight years. I don’t know her well, but we used to be LiveJournal friends back when that was a thing, we’re Facebook friends, we follow each other on Twitter, and we have a bunch of mutual friends. I think she’s got the right instincts, even when I disagree with her on the details, and while a lot of her pronouncements end up sounding silly, much of the criticism she receives is because she’s a young, good-looking, woman, rather than because of anything she actually says.
I say this, because I don’t want people to think that anything that follows is personal. Well, it is… but it’s personal about me.
I think Laurie is misunderstanding, slightly, the problems Aaronson’s talking about. I had pretty much precisely the same life experiences as Aaronson, to the point that I almost cried reading his comment.
I didn’t lose my virginity until I was twenty-four, because I’m fat, ugly, and aspie. I still, in my late thirties, have crippling anxiety problems related to the idea that any woman, even my wife, could possibly find me attractive. I also, no doubt, in my late teens and early twenties, came off as creepy once or twice due to my lack of understanding of the rules, but far, far more often just removed myself from situations where the rules might matter. From puberty til my mid-twenties, my *only* experience of my own sexuality — the *only* framework I had for it — was as a source of shame, frustration, worry, and utter terror that should any woman I found attractive ever suspect for one second I was attracted to her she would be so revolted that I would actually be causing her harm by letting her know. That will never leave me, and is a large part of the reason for my ongoing mental health problems.
The idea that I grew up with — and this is not something unique to me, but is something that many, many, intelligent, socially-awkward, physically-unattractive but basically decent men have suffered from — is that me being attracted to a woman, any woman, is an unwelcome, unwanted, burden upon her, and that the only decent thing to do is not act upon that attraction *in any way whatsoever*. That’s not something anyone should have to suffer.
I know women — many of them — who have had the same experiences Laurie’s talking about, and while of course one can’t ever judge someone else’s mental state, I can say that the experiences are not comparable. They’re two very specific kinds of hell, and I will bear the scars of what I went through forever. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that every problem my marriage has ever had has been directly because of my own messed-up feelings on this matter. (Don’t worry about that sentence — my marriage is, as far as I’m any judge, incredibly strong. But it hasn’t always been, and when it hasn’t, it’s been because of that.)
As one of the few examples I can point to directly without revealing even more of my life than I have here, or than I ever want to, a year or so back I was at a party and a (female) friend said, in passing “you’re a good-looking man”. Without thinking, I immediately blurted out “Bullshit!”, because I’ve been so hardwired with the idea that any kind of sexual attention from me must be a horribly unwelcome burden that my brain makes it go the other way too — anything said by any woman that indicates even in the most innocuous way that I may be desirable is immediately shot down, often (at least in my head, though I hope rarely in reality) quite aggressively.
I think the problem Laurie is talking about when she talks about the horrible time a teenage girl has, and the problem Scott Aaronson was talking about, are two very different things, and I don’t think it’s helpful to compare them.
But even so, even as I was nearly in tears at the similarity of Aaronson’s horrible experiences to my own, as soon as I got to the point where Scott Aaronson said he doesn’t have privilege, I just thought “oh, come ON! SURELY you’re not that stupid?”
Like Aaronson, I am a white, English-speaking, cis, het, intelligent male with no visible disabilities. I have been able to find jobs in the past for which I was unqualified, simply because my face fit. When I was unemployed after leaving university, I had no pressure from the Job Centre because “Oh, you’ll have NO problem getting a job”. Except when there’s a football match on I can walk down the street without fear of any violence.
Scott Aaronson has all these advantages, plus the advantage of having been able to attend one of the best universities in the world thanks to his background, and having had the support he needed to become a professor in a field he loves. To say he’s one of the least privileged people there are, simply because in one (admittedly important, admittedly upsetting) area of his life things didn’t go perfectly for him as they have in every other area, shows a cluelessness that’s hard to comprehend.
And this is important, because Aaronson is saying that nerdy men have no privilege — are, in fact, one of the least privileged groups around — and therefore shouldn’t be held responsible for the lack of women getting jobs in STEM fields. And in fact, it’s precisely this kind of attitude, this lack of understanding of our privilege, that *does* cause that.
To take one example, I used to work at a very big technology company whose name you probably know. In one meeting, my then-manager complained about having to do diversity training. “Look at us,” he said, “we’re a pretty diverse bunch!”
The group of people in the room at the time were all male, all without visible disabilities, and all (as far as I had been made aware) cis and straight. In the office we were working in, which had between fifty and eighty people working there over the few years I was there, there was no point at which there were more than three women working there — usually there were only two, and one was the admin/receptionist.
I don’t want to say conclusively that the blame for that lies all in one direction of course, but there were a *lot* of nerdy men working there, and not a lot of radical feminists…
Man can hurt. Men can hurt badly, and in ways that women can’t really understand. Not enough is done about those types of hurt, and not enough is done to even acknowledge that they exist.
But that doesn’t mean male privilege is not real. In fact, as far as I can see, male privilege is in large part the cause of those hurts. Well-meaning men like Scott Aaronson or myself (and Aaronson definitely means well — he’s one of the good guys) should acknowledge that despite those hurts, we are still in many other ways the beneficiaries of a huge systematic imbalance in power, and that correcting that will, as well as being the right thing to do morally, get rid of those hurts. And it will also get rid of the horrors that women go through, as Laurie Penny describes, and if we do it properly it’ll get rid of the suffering that people who are neither men nor women go through, which I can only imagine is not comparable to either and probably worse than both.
We need to get rid of the state of society in which anyone at all feels that their gender expression or (consensual) sexual desires are wrong, or disgusting, or make them less than human, so no-one has to feel like Aaronson did. There’s a whole movement devoted to doing just that. It’s called feminism.
[Note about comments: This post discusses both my own personal life in a way I’m very far from comfortable doing in public, and political issues which can often lead to very heated discussion. I am going to be far firmer than normal about deleting comments and banning commenters, and am going to ask that if you’re going to make a nitpicky or angry comment you first reread the whole post at least three times to make sure that I actually said what you think you said, and that you then bear in mind the comment policy an internet friend has in place, which I think will be useful here — “Your comment should be at least two out of kind, interesting, useful & correct. If you can’t manage that, don’t post it.”
Also, a favour — in the unlikely event you share this on Facebook, please don’t tag me. There are people I’m FB friends with, who I believe are not regular readers of this blog, and who I would rather didn’t see this.]
(If you’re the kind of person who needs trigger warnings for things, the following post almost certainly contains a mention of whatever triggers you, but doesn’t contain any graphic descriptions or endorsement of those things…)
There have been many things in politics that have depressed me over the last few years — the loss of the AV referendum, Labour playing silly buggers and blocking Lords reform, the Lib Dems’ collapse in the polls… there have been a lot — but I don’t think I’ve ever been as thoroughly, utterly, depressed by politics as I was today when filling out a YouGov poll.
After the standard questions came:
Which of these policies do you think would be better for the country:
a) Raising the minimum wage to the living wage
b) Banning all immigrants from claiming benefits until they’ve been here for four years?
In case anyone’s wondering, I chose a. I don’t know what the effects of ensuring people in low-paid jobs earn enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves would be, other than some poor people having food, housing, and clothing, but I suspect overall there would be fewer negative effects than there would be from letting people starve to death on the street because they’re foreign.
Then there were a whole bunch of questions about torture. “Do you think torture is ever justified?” “Should the UK co-operate with other countries in the use of torture?” “Should the UK make use of information it knows to have been obtained by torture?” and so on.
In case you’re wondering, the correct answers to those questions are “no”, “no”, and “no”.
Because this is what we’ve come to, in 2014, that these are questions that need to be asked. These are partisan political questions, about which there is debate.
I had hoped, until relatively recently, that we had as a society decided that it was probably a good thing not to let people starve to death if they lose their jobs. Apparently not, if we’re talking about waiting *four years* before people can claim benefits. Apparently if someone moves to this country, say to marry someone she loves, follows all the rules, becomes a citizen, pays her taxes, works hard and contributes to society, but then after being here three years she gets hit by a car and paralysed from the waist down, it is a matter for *debate* as to whether society should allow her to keep paying rent and eating food.
And note the wording of the YouGov question (as best as I can remember it) — the question implicitly accepts that both choices offered are good ones, it’s just that one might be a bit better than the other.
And again — torture? As a matter for debate, where people can argue in favour of torture without having people scream “holy shit, get away from me you fucking monster!”?
And this has been happening over and over again recently. The big political debate of the last few months — in the US, but infecting our politics too, as US politics is prone to — has been “is it OK for the police to gun down unarmed teenage boys in cold blood if they’re black? How about choking unarmed black men to death? Is that OK?”
Again, this is not something that we should be having a debate about. This is something that should be settled.
So a few pointers to add to the political conversation at the moment:
Leaving unemployed and disabled people to starve to death is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Leaving people to drown is bad. Yes, even if they’re foreign.
Murdering people is also bad. Yes, even if the murder is racially-motivated. In fact that’s one of the worst kinds of murdering. Don’t do that.
Raping people is also bad. Yes, even if you’re rich and powerful.
Torturing people is bad.
Revealing the most intimate details of people’s lives, like naked photos of them or (if they’re trans) their pre-transition name, without their consent, is bad. Yes, even if they were in a film.
Threatening strangers that you will do any or all of the above to them or their families is bad. Yes, even if they disagree with your opinion about a video game.
Those are the ONLY correct opinions on these matters. I am not normally much of a moral absolutist, but these are not things that really admit of any nuance. There are many, many, *MANY* grey areas in politics and morality, but those aren’t among them.
If we can’t, as a culture, even agree on the wrongness of murder, rape, and torture — if we can’t take those as axioms from which we can proceed — how the hell are we ever going to get the ability to solve the *hard* problems?
(CalDreaming posts tomorrow and Friday, Batman and Cerebus this weekend…)
There is a speech that the leaders and prominent figures of all political parties have given recently that makes absolutely no sense. It goes something like this.
UKIP are vile, and what they stand for goes against everything that makes Britain great. Make no mistake, their brand of narrow-minded xenophobia is not what the British people stand for, it’s not what the [insert party name here] party stands for, and it’s not what I stand for. We must take a firm stand against UKIP, and tell Nigel Farage that you can love your country without hating others.
So we will not let hatred win. We will win by making a case for our values, [insert party here] values, the traditional, forward-thinking, British values, that make Britain and [insert party here] great. We must stand up to Nigel Farage and say “No more!”
But at the same time, we must recognise that people have real, legitimate, concerns about immigration, and those concerns must be dealt with. Fairly, responsibly, [liberally/progressively/conservatively]. That is why I am pleased to announce that [if I get into government I will ensure that/I have pushed in government to ensure that] from 2015 all immigrants, children of immigrants, and people who have touched an immigrant, will have to wear a sign round their neck saying “unclean!” and ring a bell whenever they are in public.
It is by fair, moderate, sensible, [progressive/liberal/conservative] measures like this that we can tackle people’s legitimate concerns, while still keeping the benefits of immigration, and maybe stopping our last three voters from switching to UKIP oh shit did I say that out loud?
That’s far less paraphrased than I’d like.
Now, the worst thing about this speech is not the mealy-mouthed refusal to take a stand without immediately contradicting it, nor the craven abandoning of every principle in the face of the electoral juggernaut that is UKIP, whose greatest success to date has been to return two incumbent Conservative defectors to the seats they already held, with a reduced majority, but wearing a different rosette. It’s not even the unnecessarily cruel policies these speeches announce.
No, it’s that these cruel policies are pure theatre. They’ll hurt people, but they won’t deal with the problems they purport to solve. And the people making these announcements know that. They don’t intend them to.
Do you see the bait and switch there? “People have genuine and real concerns about immigration, therefore we will punish immigrants”
Now, let’s accept for a second the politicians’ argument, that they’re not aiming these policies at racists or xenophobes, but only at those people (and they do exist) who have reasonable concerns. We’ll ignore for now whether those concerns are right or wrong, and just accept that. Those concerns generally amount to “there are too many people from abroad coming into Britain”. There are nuances — some are concerned about pressure on public services, others about housing, others about jobs — but they boil down to “too many people are coming here”.
(Again, I’m not saying those people are *right* to have those views — I’m a liberal, and tend to be in favour of free movement. But one can hold those views without necessarily being racist, and those are the people those speeches purport to be aimed at.)
Now, if you are presented with the problem “there are too many people coming here”, there are things that can be done about that. They range from changing the requirements for skilled worker and student visas slightly at one end, to UKIP’s policy of an all-out ban on any new immigration at all, including withdrawing from the EU in order to completely close the border.
I’m not saying those would be *good* things to do, but they would go towards solving the actual problem they claim to be dealing with. Too many people coming in — stop people coming in.
But no politician is ever actually going to do that. The Tories won’t because the City is so dependent on free(ish) movement, Labour won’t because so many public services rely on cheap immigrant labour, and the Lib Dems won’t because the majority of the party are still Liberals who believe in freedom of movement and internationalism.
So what we get instead is persecution of those already here. Making life difficult in a myriad tiny nasty bureaucratic ways for people who already live here won’t stop more people from coming — you only stop people from coming by, you know, stopping them from coming. Life in Britain is already, frankly, fucking horrible for immigrants (as my wife would tell you at great length, and she’s a white English-speaking immigrant and thus doesn’t get the worst of it). Anyone still moving here is doing so because they have a very good reason, and won’t be put off by pettiness like being unable to have a translator when taking a driving test.
It just makes people’s lives needlessly worse, but lets the politicians look like they’re “responding to people’s concerns” and “being tough on immigration”.
It’s not fooling anyone, least of all the people they actually want to fool, who are moving to UKIP in greater numbers all the time. Either actually deal with anti-immigration people’s actual concerns, however politically unfeasible that would be, or (the option I infinitely prefer) just say “no, we’re not doing that, we need immigrants”, and just stop trying to patronise voters. Unless, of course, the aim isn’t actually to attract the reasonable people with reasonable concerns about immigration, but to attract the bigots — in which case, again, just be honest and say “we hate the foreigns, they talk funny and they smell”, don’t try to pretend to be more principled than that.
And I’d remind Nick Clegg, especially, that there are as many *pro*-immigration voters as *anti*-immigration ones, and they don’t have all the major parties and a minor one that gets overrepresented on TV chasing after them. Maybe, just maybe, if he started making speeches that said “I won’t be needlessly horrible to vulnerable people” instead, we’d get back into double digits in the polls? Just a thought…
According to ITV:
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has unanimously agreed to recommend:
Online voting (including on smart phones)
Quicker ways of registering to vote (including on the day of an election)
A huge programme of devolution as well as mandatory voting
Extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds
Where to begin with the wrongness?
I’m more-or-less in favour of giving sixteen and seventeen year-olds the vote. I don’t really care one way or another, but fine,
Huge programme of devolution — show me the details. I don’t like the “DevoManc” stitch-up, but I’m entirely in favour of proper devolution.
But there are two big, HUGE, problems here for me — two problems so massive that I am actually angry and wanting to punch something.
The first is compulsory voting. I am absolutely, utterly, in favour of everyone who has the ability to vote using their vote. You won’t find a bigger supporter of the democratic process than me anywhere in the world. But I am utterly in favour of people CHOOSING to use their vote. It is utterly abhorrent to force anyone to take part in the process. There are many people with strongly-held convictions that stop them from participating in elections, whether because they believe the system to be illegitimate and that their participation adds a veneer of legitimacy, or because they hold religious beliefs that forbid them from taking part in secular government. To force them to take part in something that goes against their conscience is something no civilised society should do.
There are also, though, those who just can’t be bothered — surely they should be compelled to vote?
Firstly, because of the harm principle — “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (sorry for the sexist language — quoting John Stuart Mill). Refusing to vote causes no-one any harm, so no power should be exercised to force people to do it. That, to me, is an absolute.
But also because from a purely pragmatic point of view, people who can’t be bothered to vote will tend to have uninformed opinions, and to vote frivolously, because they don’t think their vote matters — if they thought it mattered, they’d vote.
So compulsory voting forces people to go against their deepest convictions, weakens the democratic process, and does so for no actual gain.
I have voted in every election since I turned eighteen — every council election, every EU election, every stupid local referendum about mayors or speed cameras that gets ignored anyway, all of them. I believe exercising my democratic rights to be hugely important. But should this rule be brought in, I would consider it my duty as a liberal and a democrat to take part in peaceful civil disobedience and refuse to vote. I’m a liberal, and I’m against this sort of thing.
But I wouldn’t even need to refuse to vote, it turns out, because the committee plans to take my vote away from me, by making it trivially easy to steal, or for someone to coerce me into voting for a candidate I don’t support. The introduction of online voting would be an utter disaster — as Dave Page puts it, “verifiable, anonymous, online — pick two”. Read his post — he made all the points I would have made about online voting a month ago. Basically, if you want to have online voting, you either give up the secret ballot, give up ever being able to check that the vote you think you cast actually went to the person you wanted to vote for, or (most likely) both.
This cretinous, foetid, outrage of a plan is what you get when you have a constitutional committee consisting of nine Labservative MPs, an SDLP member who might as well be Labour, and Jeremy Browne, the single most authoritarian Lib Dem MP in Parliament. Please God let these proposals be shredded, because as it is if they get accepted we might as well give up any hope of ever having a functioning democracy in this country.
At Alex and Richard’s wedding a little over a week ago, I got into a discussion about devolution, inspired by the recent decision of the North-West Liberal Democrats to declare independence from the English party. This was entirely as moderate and reasoned as you would expect a debate on such an abstruse procedural matter among Liberal Democrats at a formal occasion like a wedding to be, by which I mean it ended with me and Jennie Rigg screaming incoherently at someone who I’d never met before, but who Jennie knows well.
The reason for this is that this person (who I won’t name as I’m probably misrepresenting him) believes that England exists, while Jennie and I (and Mat, who managed to remain calm) do not.
More specifically, he believes that England as a coherent country makes sense. I don’t remember many of his arguments, and I certainly don’t want to straw-man him, so please accept from here on in that I am misrepresenting him horribly, but that I *am* representing arguments I’ve seen elsewhere accurately. I’m talking here about a generic argument, rather than a specific person’s argument.
The argument is that if we have further devolution to Scotland and Wales, there must also be devolution to England. Not because it makes sense from a pragmatic point of view — an English Parliament would have a 90% or thereabouts overlap with the UK Parliament — but because “English identity needs to be represented”.
Now, I have problems with this for a few reasons. The first is that I don’t think decisions on the best way to govern should be based on intangible things like “identity”, but on more pragmatic factors like “do the people here speak the same language, do they have the same economic needs”, that kind of thing. My own view is that the level of devolution should be to areas somewhere in size between the old historic counties and the current European Union regions — “Yorkshire” and “Cornwall” make sense to me as lumps-which-can-be-governed, but “Lancashire” doesn’t, and “the North West” feels like more of a sensible unit in that case. But those sort of sizes, anyway — regions which are, if not homogeneous, at least small enough that people in different parts of them are aware of issues that affect people in the other areas.
But even putting aside the pragmatic factors, the question of identity is one I find quite infuriating. Because yes, there is an “English identity” — but it’s not an identity that actually incorporates huge swathes of England. Rather, when people talk about England and the English identity, nine times out of ten they live in, and are talking about, the Home Counties. In the case of a legislature, this would be poisonous — in fact we know it already is, because we live in a country already where laws are made by and for London with little or no concern for the rest of the country. I suspect that would be replicated in the case of an English Parliament, and I don’t see how Penzance, Newcastle, and Hebden Bridge benefit from having laws and regulations made to benefit London, whether those laws are called “British” or “English” (nor for that matter do I see that laws and regulations that benefit Penzance would necessarily be particularly helpful for Newcastle or Hebden).
But even on its own terms, if identity is what matters, the fact is, a large chunk of English people don’t consider “English” to be a meaningful identity. During the Scottish Independence referendum, the comment I saw more than any other from English people living, roughly, north of the Trent or the Dee was “take us with you!” — and, indeed, most Scottish Yes voters I talked to said “oh, we’re not trying to get away from the North, it’s the English we’re trying to become independent from”.
It may not be the case for all of us — perhaps not even a plurality — but there are *millions* of people in the north, and also in Cornwall, who feel a far greater affinity with Scotland and Wales than with those parts of England that people usually mean when they talk about “the English identity” and “Englishness”. Manchester, Liverpool, and Leeds are closer to Glasgow not only geographically but also culturally and economically. Wales feels far less foreign to me than Oxford does.
There are many, many people who feel this way. I won’t, of course, say that there is no sense of Englishness outside the Home Counties — of course there is — but I know a LOT of people from Yorkshire, for example, who don’t think of themselves as English, as having anything in common with the South.
Any form of devolution based on concepts of “identity” has to take into account the fact that different people have different senses of identity. In the case of Englishness, there is a large group that doesn’t want to be part of that identity — but that identity can only exist by erasing and subsuming those people.
And this is what happens if you build systems based on identity, rather than based on practicalities. Ignore the “English identity” and you’re ignoring one group’s wishes. But the alternative is to impose that identity on people who in many cases already see themselves as being oppressed and ignored by the very people doing the imposition. Quite apart from the sheer futility of it as a legislature, an English Parliament would be seen by many, many people in the North as yet another case of something being done for London’s benefit, and imposed on the rest of us against our will.
The argument for an English Parliament boils down to an emotive one — that people’s feelings about England matter, that they’re not important. But by even making the argument that way, by framing it in those terms, the people making it are also saying that the feelings of those who disagree with them *do not* matter, and *are not* important. And we’ve already heard that rather a lot.
I’m British. I’m a Northerner. I’m an (adoptive) Manc. I’m a European. But I’ll never be English, and you can’t make me.