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.]