When privileges collide

Who's more aggrieved, feminists or nerds?
“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,” Aaronson said.
The feminist response was swift and harsh, with controversial blogger Amanda Marcotte calling Aaronson’s mini-memoir “a yalp of entitlement combined with an aggressive unwillingness to accept that women are human beings just like men.” His essay boils down to a belief that women are “a robot army put here for sexual service and housework,” she said.
I assume the article omitted the intervening comments that formed some kind of rational bridge between the nerd's cri de coeur and the feminist backlash.  These two groups don't seem to be communicating well.  I've always been fond of nerds, myself, especially since I are one.


Grim said...

This discussion is one I wasn't going to post about -- I'm neither a feminist nor a nerd, and so I'm not sure I have much to add to the topic -- but it produced two of the best pieces I've seen lately.

This one by Scott Alexander, in which he manages to be sharply critical of the feminist approach without losing sight of the humanity of some of those he is criticizing.

This one by Mary Dydd, on being both a woman and a nerd and how feminist rantings about nerds affect her.

I think they're both very humane and admirable pieces.

Texan99 said...

This paragraph from Scot Alexander was good:

"Ms. Penny may be right that her ideal feminism doesn’t [cruelly shame nerds]. Then again, my ideal masculinity doesn’t involve rape or sexual harassment. Ideals are always pretty awesome. But women still have the right to complain when actual men rape them, and 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.

At the same time, I admit a discomfort with a certain brand of online feminist-trashing whose subtext really is resentment against women for being so distracted by the need to be seen as human beings that they're not busy fulfilling the overwhelming sexual needs of guys who have no other earthly use for them. Once you set up that dynamic, it's predictable that the feminists will lash back with, "So you really think that's a reasonable strategy for attracting us sexually? And then you're aggrieved that you can't get laid?"

Neither of these groups is looking at the opposite sex as people, in my book. I have that problem with a super-PUA type--I tend to see him as a horrifying example of human corruption rather than a person--but it's easier to escape the mistake with a nerd. Nerds are my guys. I prefer their company (sexually and otherwise) to all others', whereas I couldn't last 3 seconds in a conversation with a PUA.

Also, oddly enough, I've never had any trouble with a nerd's not being able to deal with my feminism. As soon as we discover how many interests we have in common on other topics, the romantic interaction is easy street.

Somehow there's developed an online tradition that nerds are peculiarly prone to wanting gorgeous bimbo idiots. In my experience nerds like having someone they can talk to, and are very forgiving of flaws in personal appearance if they can get that.

I may not be understanding what people mean by "nerd" these days. But Aaronson, who started all this, sounds like a guy after my own heart.

Grim said...

...being so distracted by the need to be seen as human beings... Neither of these groups is looking at the opposite sex as people, in my book.

Feminists use these phrases -- "human beings" and "people" -- in a way that doesn't make sense to me. There are some Islamists who sometimes act as if they don't understand the distinction between women and animals, not just because they buy and sell women, but because they sometimes have sex with animals. That's what I understand when someone says, "You don't seem to see women as people."

Clearly, that's not what you mean. You're able to recognize that the super-PUA is not an animal. When you say you can't see him as a person, I'm really not quite sure what you mean by it. You are so annoyed by him that you can't care about his opinion? Something like that? But that seems to entail seeing him as a person: it's his moral responsibility for the opinions that is causing you to judge him. That's something one would only do to a person.

Texan99 said...

I mean he's no longer a person I'd like to get to know better as an individual, to find out how things look from his perspective, to become intimately concerned with. He's just a thing that I need to get away from as soon as possible. Similarly, I have encountered guys online who can't quite get beyond the "I'd hit that" view of an attractive woman. She's just a thing with a use, not a fellow soul, which of course reminds me of the thread in history that I so execrate: "The story of this group of men and their women and livestock." Bad stuff happens when we see each other as things.

Grim said...

Well, OK, but weren't we just yesterday talking about our concerns for the comfort of chickens?

Sorry, I realize this is probably a philosophical habit that is annoying to people who use language in an ordinary free way. But you're a lawyer, and so perhaps you'll understand what I mean when I say that I am confused by the way these terms are used in this discourse.

Normally by "person" and "human being" we mean overlapping categories: the two categories can be thought of as sets with all and only the same members. But maybe they come apart: maybe "person" means a being with a perspective, feelings, interests, and so forth, rather than a specifically human being. And in that case, maybe dogs are people: in talking about chickens having a good life, we're assuming that they have a perspective and feelings of some kind.

In that sense, it's usually the same academic feminists (e.g., Martha Nussbaum) who talk about the importance of seeing women as people and also talk with nearly equal passion about the importance of animal rights because of the personality of animals. So now we're saying both that these men are guilty of not being able to distinguish between people and livestock, and also that livestock are in some sense people.

Kant sort of uses 'personality' in this way: he means that there's a being behind the eyes (or whatever) who is thinking and making free choices in a rational way. That being deserves respect, he says, because it's a free being like ourselves. He goes on to deny that this is possible for animals, but the argument isn't good and I am sure he's wrong about it. The fact that a dog or a horse (or a crow) can learn the rules of a game we make up suggests they share an order of reason with us; the fact that they can learn how to fool us is very nearly proof that they have a theory of mind. That is, not only do they think, they think they know how we think. And they're often right!

Grim said...

Anyway, the reason I mentioned the judgment you're passing on him is that it isn't something you'd do to a chicken. So here's a difference between livestock and this other category of "human beings." You wouldn't judge the chicken for trying to fool you, or holding morally wicked opinions. It's just because you are judging the man that you come to see him as a horrible entity. Exactly by making the judgment, you're proving that you do see him as a human being, and perhaps also proving that the categories of "human being" and "person" seem to overlap.

But in that case, judgments of this sort -- aimed at feminists or at nerds or at Jews -- are de facto recognition of humanity and personality. They're the kind of things we only do with humans who are presumed to be people.

Texan99 said...

Yes, it's something I've never successfully communicated to you.

Perhaps I'm closer to treating the PUA as a human being than he is of treating me as one. I am at least holding him to an ethical or spiritual standard I apply to people like myself, whereas as far as I can tell I exist in his mind only as a potential conquered object or type who pegs a specific score for hotness on his subjective scale. But I was not so much equating my attitude absolutely with his, as with my ideal attitude toward a fellow human being: someone whom I respect as an individual with his own independent reality, not merely a prop or tool in my personal life story.

It's possible that I attribute more humanity (in that loose, metaphorical sense of "something with its own experience of life, not merely a tool or robot") to animals than the committed PUA does to women. I'm sure it's an exaggeration born of taking too seriously the nonsense they write. If they really thought of women as mere objects, they couldn't consider them a notch on their gunbelts: that's the kind of score-settling one does only with people who trigger painful memories of past emotional slights. Only genuine human beings can inflict pain of that kind.

That's how I explain the seething contempt and resentment of PUAs: it's a way of at least trying to make people into things--trying to blot out painful knowledge of their souls--and it leads to awful trouble to my way of thinking. Better they should stay away from women for a while, and practice experiencing empathy with a dog for starters. Or even a chicken.

Of course the fact that I'd prefer, all things being equal, not to make a chicken suffer unnecessarily is not to say that I don't distinguish between people and chickens. I equate another person's subjective reality with my own in a way that I don't with that of chickens. I think there are scales of consciousness, and they are important. I eat chickens. I don't think I'm entitled to view people primarily as meat. The PUA, the Nazi--that's disturbingly close to how they view people outside their narrow type. But the phenomenon crops up in less virulent form whenever we fail to see that other people are as human as we are, and no more wish to be pigeonholed or treated as adjuncts or serfs than we would ourselves.

Grim said...

Part of the problem may be that you use the terms in ways different from Nussbaum, etc. I think she'd be happy to have personhood extended to animals, even though it means in some sense losing the distinction between women and livestock. You're not responsible for the way she uses the term, only for how you want to use it.

The analysis seems troubling to me. I proposed a kind of Islamist who practices bestiality and sells women like livestock, but in fairness (even to Islamists!) that isn't typical. Normally they only enslave women because of what they hold to be moral failings, e.g., refusal to adopt Islam and practice moral lives according to Islam as they understand it. Normally having sex with a goat means you should be put to death. So they recognize that moral standards are rightly applied to human beings in a way that is not true of livestock.

And, again in the spirit of being fair even to Islamists, they aren't claiming the right to craft for women standards they wouldn't accept for themselves. They're claiming that God crafted those standards, and if anyone had the right to do it, surely it would be God.

So the analysis that they don't see women as people, or as human beings, is surely wrong. It's just because they see women as human beings that they apply these moral standards to them.

Obviously I reject their approach entirely, however scrupulously fair I mean to be to it for the purpose of the discussion. But we can't say why they are wrong by reference to this terminology of 'people' and 'human beings.' We have to say it in terms of how human beings ought to relate to God, how we ought (or at least how we ought not) to seek God's will in the world: and that means we have to engage their religious tradition and reject it directly.

That's very much harder -- you have to really say, "Your faith is wrong insofar as it believes these ancient rules are from God" -- and I suspect that some academic feminists are hiding behind this sort-of Kantian language because they're afraid to look that truth in the eye. They'd like to think they can reason with Islam the way they reasoned with Christianity, on points about doing onto others as you'd want to have done to you; but that's an explicitly Christian argument. It's Jesus' argument.

Texan99 said...

It's certainly possible to say someone theoretically is prepared to accept the same standard for himself as he applies to a woman, if you grant him that God decreed a woman could rightfully be treated like the less fortunate sort of livestock, and he insists that he'd be happy to accept that standard for himself if only he were a woman--but hey, that's impossible, God made him a man. So he gets credit for the good thought, while he could never, ever have to experience the burden of anything like the reality in the natural course of things.

Not really the kind of empathy I was talking about. I think the Golden Rule can be applied with more humanity, imagination, generosity, and justice than that. Something more like Natan Sharansky's "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master." He can really get a pretty good grip on what a slave's life is like, and it teaches him the peril of a smug acceptance of master status. Not that there will not always be imbalances between people in terms of power, luck, and everything else, but we don't have to be blind to the other's guy's point of view and subjective experience.

Grim said...

I met Sharansky in Jerusalem, briefly. He gave a talk I attended. What a tremendously impressive man.

The Golden Rule principle appears in a slightly different form in the Book of Tobias, which is part of the Torah and the Catholic Bible (but not the Protestant ones). But there it's one rule among (very) many; I think a good Jew can reason to it as an overarching guiding principle, but you could just as easily believe in the rigid application of all the laws, even the ones with disparities.

In Christianity, it really is the core of the teaching. Jesus is pretty clear in suggesting that he intends you to set aside as many other laws as necessary to treat people as you would want to be treated (and not merely, as Tobias puts it, not to do to others things that you hate -- you must positively do things you would want done). You get that in Mark 7:6-16, Mt. 22:36-40, Lk. 6:31, and many other places, right in Jesus' own speech.

So it's really the core of the doctrine, and I think that's why the Kantian language (which Kant was adapting from Christianity to his ideal of a system of pure practical reason) was so persuasive in Western Europe and America during the 19th-21st centuries, and not as successful elsewhere. The argument is rhetorically very powerful here because it lines up with what the culture has long taught, even if it has not always produced.

Grim said...

As for the PUA, maybe he's doing something different from the Islamist. But of the little of their stuff that I've read, it's pretty clear that they are applying a theory of mind to women: their whole deal is trying to describe effective means of seduction. They seem pretty ready to morally condemn women, too, which is the other half of the equation.

So I don't know that the analysis is correct even applied to them. They judge harshly and unfairly, and they adopt manipulative practices that are wicked; but I don't think it's because they don't see that they are dealing with a person and a human being. I think it's because they explicitly want to cause suffering and humiliation to a person and a human being.

It's evil, in other words, rather than an epistemic failure. It's not a mistake. They're aware of the harm, and actively seek to make it.

Cass said...

As for the PUA, maybe he's doing something different from the Islamist. But of the little of their stuff that I've read, it's pretty clear that they are applying a theory of mind to women: their whole deal is trying to describe effective means of seduction.

Somehow, I don't quite get that from the moronic references to hamster wheels and tingles.

They seem pretty ready to morally condemn women, too, which is the other half of the equation.

Yes, women are wrong/bad/slutty if they sleep with a guy, but no matter how many women a man sleeps with, he is never, ever wrong/bad/slutty but only "more masculine" and more worth of admiration and emulation. Somehow. Even if he habitually lies and treats people badly.

It's really all rather exhausting, and like Tex I relegate men (term used very loosely) like that to the category of "people to be avoided at all costs".

And I agree with Grim that they are wicked, just as feminists who condemn men for being men (not for doing wicked things) are wicked.

Grim said...

In fairness to Tex, the fact that she likens them to Nazis and slavers suggests to me that we're all agreed on the wickedness point. :) I'm just trying to do what Sun Tzu would suggest, and know the enemy. I think the analysis of why they're wicked is off.

They aren't wicked because they don't see women as people or human beings. That would just be a mistake, maybe, but they plainly do see women as people and human beings because they apply a theory of mind and morally judge them. They aren't wicked because they refuse to see women as people or human beings. They don't refuse: they want to hurt a human being who is a person.

What makes it evil is exactly that they do know, they do see, a human being and a person, and they choose to hurt them for pleasure. They choose to humiliate them to aggrandize themselves.

That's the problem.

Cass said...

I think they see women as inferior human beings. If you read their arguments, they're all about how women are weak and irrational, which somehow makes it OK to treat them badly.

The whole "never apologize, even when you're doing something you wouldn't want done to you" pretty much sums up the attitude.

In all fairness, I think some feminists see men as inferiors, too.

Texan99 said...

It's not the wickedness I'm concentrating on, though I certainly think it's wicked to objectify human beings, and that it's a mistake commonly made by some of the most famous types of wicked people and cultures. Nevertheless, I'm really commenting on a style of thinking that nearly all people fall prey to in large or small ways. Taken to an extreme, it's dramatically grotesque, as in the Nazis, but in its more minor manifestations it causes mischief even in moderately healthy cultures, relationships, and people.

Treating a seduction target as a complex or challenging object is not the same as understanding that she is a human soul of equal dignity and independence with oneself. She doesn't exist to fulfill a function; when she is away from the seductor she has a complete life that may have nothing to do with him. A PUA sees her only as a device. Maybe a complicated device; maybe a device that requires skillful handling in order to be used most effectively; but not a person. If I understand correctly what psychologists mean by narcissism, it's something like this mistake: really believing in some sense that everyone else is only a prop on one's own stage. Love is incompatible with this mindset. The most that could be achieved is an impersonal benevolence. I can feel that about a tree. God expects more of me in relation to my fellow human souls.

If it's an awful idea to treat even an animal as an object, as I believe, it is a much worse crime and waste to treat a human being that way, as if we could stick them in a box and expect them to be there when we come back, as if they had no agency of their own, no destiny other than as it affects our own schemes. As if, for instance, Christ hadn't died for that person as much as He did for you or for me. But I think it's a fairly common error, not at all confined to world-class criminals and psychopaths. The more alienation between two people, by reason of culture or ethnicity or whatever, the more prone many of us are to the error. For that reason, it also is a fairly common source of misery between men and women.

Grim said...

Yes, that's Kant's Second Formulation of his Categorical Imperative (by which he meant to encode the golden rule as a rational principle):

"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end."

But in order to be guilty of violating the categorical imperative, you have to know that there is humanity (and a person) present.

I suppose doing it accidentally is still blameworthy for Kant -- failing to recognize it might be proof that you, yourself, were not really as much of a rational being as you ought to be, and therefore that you were of less moral worth than a fully rational being. Oddly, that's harmonious with what Cass was just saying about PUA arguments about why women are inferior (i.e., less rational): Kant also makes that argument explicitly in several places. But it would redound upon them, not on the women.

But I think we've established that they do know what they're doing. In choosing to do it anyway, to use another person as a mere means, I don't think they're failing to see a person. I think they're choosing to do evil.

Texan99 said...

"In all fairness, I think some feminists see men as inferiors, too."

You mean as mindless sex-obsessed violent oppressors? I'm sure I don't know what you mean. :-) Speaking for myself, while I obviously have a preference for some of my own preferences, I'm also awfully glad there are people in the world who are just plain different from me. They do things I'm not good at; they take delight in things I'm blind to; they rely on me to do things that I'm better at and vice versa. That has to be a good thing, and it doesn't call for a judgment of whether I'm superior or inferior.

Texan99 said...

"I think they're choosing to do evil."--I don't disagree. I think they're often choosing not to see a person. But it's something others do as a simple error of empathy or imagination, when the other person is so different that they fail to make the necessary sympathetic leap--especially if they've been brought up that way. Not every man who is incapable to seeing a woman as truly human is evil, no matter how much mischief the attitude causes.

Ditto for the flip-side, a woman who sees a man as a walking wallet. She may scarcely know any better, but it's since an interpersonal horror.

Texan99 said...

"Still" not "since."

Grim said...

OK, so if we're not talking about PUAs, I suppose it could happen accidentally. It would still be much to your discredit, though: even if you don't share Kant's opinion that rationality is the seat of personality and humanity (and therefore of the degree of respect one is due), you don't look good if you can't recognize something so basic.

douglas said...

Isn't it possible you're both right? Perhaps there are those who are truly on the way to if not Psychopathic- who see women as people, but don't care about them, or what they do to them, and those who have problems interacting and relating and who mainly perceive them as props- not as people. Both problematic, and similar results, but perhaps not quite the same morally.

Both, however, suffer from an superiority complex.
""In all fairness, I think some feminists see men as inferiors, too."
Humility- it's a good thing to have.

Grim said...

Well, again, I have come to understand that Tex is using the terms in a much more colloquial way than Nussbaum and others of that academic school. What Tex is saying is equivalent to saying that there are people who violate Kant's second formulation of the categorical imperative by using people as mere means, to which she wants to append an idea that this can happen out of a kind of thoughtlessness in addition to the purposeful formation of an evil will.

What Nussbaum et al are saying is really that people fail to imagine the other as a center of perception and experience at all, but as merely a thing in the world like a rock or a tree. That seems implausible to me for the reasons I've laid out: even the manipulative apply a theory of mind to the people they manipulate, and are prepared to judge them as moral objects (often with scorn, for being easily manipulated). I think in that sense the theory of 'not seeing X as a person' won't hold water.

But that's not what Tex means, and she's not responsible for defending Nussbaum's approach.