13 January 2015

More on feminism, courtship, rites-of-passage and nerd shaming

Full disclosure: I am a nerd. I come from a family of STEM Ph.D.s and am the oddball in the family having gone into philosophy and economics, and have made up for it with interests such as computer gaming, manga, D&D, Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and other speculative fiction (like the Space Trilogy and the works of Lois McMaster Bujold). I am also from a fairly ‘privileged’ (in the conventional sense) background, having been born to a bourgeois Anglo family with a non-ethnic surname. And I also have a troubled relationship with feminism – having oscillated between full-out opposition and equally full-out support during college and having found myself staking out a claim in a halfway field of clarifications and nuance ever since. The most complete of which, I think, I have written here at Solidarity Hall – mostly in agreement with contrarian-left historian and social critic Christopher Lasch.

So let me put it bluntly. I feel for Scott Aaronson. Full stop.

I won’t patronize him by saying I know just what he went through. But some of the discrete elements he describes: of shame, of paralysing self-awareness, of the natural desires for emotional and physical closeness, of trying to wish these desires away, of relations with women which were thereby characterised by a stiffness and remoteness (neither of which is an attractive trait in either gender!) reinforced by the fear of being an uncontrollable sex-crazed monster, of the ease with which all these things could sour into self-loathing and resentment of the people who were sexually ‘successful’ (men and women both!) – these things I can identify with. These things were real, they were reinforced from the outside, and they were problems. I can remember in high school and college many periods when I was made to feel each one of the above things – though perhaps not to the degree Scott Aaronson did. (I never sought out Andrea Dworkin’s work, for example.)

And I have also read the responses. In fact, I read one of the responses (Laurie Penny’s) before I actually read the good computer scientist’s comment which inspired them, which ought to tell one something. The most execrable of these were mostly anti-intellectual, knee-jerk, rage-fuelled exercises in attempting to reinforce and amplify every single one of Dr. Aaronson’s former neuroses about dealing with women, and being thus, they aren’t worthy of a serious response.

This one, the aforementioned one written by Laurie Penny, is far less knee-jerk and even perhaps well-intentioned, but still falls into the trap of misinterpreting most nerds’ motivations and absolutising social ‘privilege’ along a single dimension. This attempt to absolutise one’s own group’s suffering as more essential is merely annoying when directed at nerds, but it becomes seriously more problematic when it is directed at, say, Third World societies or even at black American communities here in the US. ‘Intersectionality’ is, after all, not trivialising someone else’s problems, and not shifting the frame of the conversation toward your own. Certain sections of feminism are far better at talking about ‘intersectionality’ than practicing it. And however well-intentioned and sympathetic Penny’s approach might be, it still manages to expose the fundamental disconnect which makes intersectionality such a problematic concern within feminist circles.

Another written by Jeopardy! champion Arthur Chu may sound more reasonable on its face but still fails to grasp the true and systemic nature of the problem. Social behaviour and psychology are intrinsically linked, as psychology is necessarily shaped and reinforced by social cues and messages. What ‘happens inside [one’s] head’ often has a very real bearing on what ‘happens to’ people in the real world, and vice-versa. To make the requisite nerdy Harry Potter reference and quote the wise Professor Albus Dumbledore: ‘Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?’ Thus, Chu would have been on safer ground if he’d said that rape and harassment of women were a more immanent and morally-immediate problem than the psychology of the male nerd, but instead he tried to posit the former as more ‘real’ than the latter, without trying to understand that nerd psychology and rape are actually equally-real symptoms (albeit not ones of equal moral weight or importance) of the same socio-psychological problem.

Suffice it to say that I don’t think either Scott Aaronson or any of the commenters on his blog are as ‘blind’ as Arthur Chu thinks they are. When speaking about ‘rape culture’, because the perpetrators are so often men whether nerdy or not, psychological issues of men’s self-image and self-worth are inevitably going to come to the fore. I agree completely with feminist commentators and with Arthur Chu, when they say that women being stalked, raped and killed is ‘something that men are doing and that men can stop other men from doing’. But, certain forms of feminist praxis – even moderate feminist praxis – have historically had the precise opposite effect.

What do I mean by this? First, think for a moment about some of the context Aaronson gave to his blog comment – a key part of the context that came in for some of the harshest criticism by Penny. Aaronson says that he might have been just fine under the rules of the traditional rural Ashkenaz community, the shtetl (think Anatevka), and Penny all but accuses him of harbouring a secret yearning for a time when he might have ‘been the legal owner of [a woman’s] body, property and the children [she] would have been expected to have’. To which Aaronson has since amended his comment to add: ‘there were many times and places where marriages did not occur without both parties’ consent, but there was also a ritualised system of courtship that took much of the terror and mystery out of the process’ (emphasis mine).

Let’s do Scott Aaronson the honour of taking him at his word here, and take a closer look at this ‘ritualised system of courtship’. Ritualised systems of courtship were part of a larger societal construct meant to hold men and women at a distance from each other, and in so doing keep the sexes from coming into conflict with each other. Rural, traditional courtship rituals were, at their basis, an acknowledgement of the physiological and psychological distinctions between men and women, and a bargain between them to minimise or ameliorate the conflict between the sexes. As Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong puts it: ‘Rural society seeks stability, so it fears the destruction of social relationships. It is Apollonian. The relationship between men and women must be arranged so that their emotional states are not erratic… One need not seek an underlying commonality between men and women; between them, there should be some distance.’ And, more directly, Christopher Lasch: ‘The tradition of gallantry formerly masked and to some degree mitigated the organised oppression of women… Polite conventions, even when they were no more than a façade, provided women with ideological leverage in their struggle to domesticate the wildness and savagery of men. They surrounded essentially exploitive relationships with a network of reciprocal obligations, which if nothing else made exploitation easier to bear.’

Obviously, both Fei and Lasch, and clearly Aaronson also, see that this setup is not optimal – particularly not from a woman’s point-of-view. But it does have the virtue of taking the ‘terror’ out of the courtship process, and prevent that terror from leaking out into the society generally. What does Aaronson mean by this? Well, here is where feminist praxis runs aground against the law of unintended consequences: a big part of (particularly second-wave) feminism took it as a duty to ‘strip away the veil of courtly convention… revealing the sexual antagonisms formerly concealed by the “feminine mystique”’. Lasch in particular notes the result of forcing men and women to regard each other in ways which are completely devoid of even the fictions of sexual civility: ‘Denied illusions of comity, men and women find it more difficult than before to confront each other as friends and lovers, let alone as equals. As male supremacy becomes ideologically untenable, incapable of justifying itself as protection, men assert their domination more directly, in fantasies and occasionally in acts of raw violence.’

Little wonder indeed, that socially-inept and introverted men who find themselves literally terrified by a landscape of dog-eat-dog sexual competition – finding themselves both the ill-equipped competitors of the ‘Neanderthals’ and the easy targets of certain women’s frustrations with men generally – harbour at least a kind of sentimentality for the days of conventional courtship!

Even more generally, though, historical feminist praxis has very often acted as a force for an atomising individualism and, as feminist writer Nancy Fraser herself devastatingly puts it, as ‘capitalism’s handmaiden’. The family being an environment of stifling oppression, so the second-wave feminists reasoned, women ought to be turned out into the marketplace to fend for themselves. The catchphrase became ‘lean in’. The ‘family wage’ – an income that, by definition, sustains a family and allows for the full socialisation of young women and men in the home – is made prima facie suspect by that fact alone. Solidarity within the state was eroded by dovetailing feminist and neoliberal attacks on welfarism. Social solidarity and the possibility of intersectional cooperation were undermined by a greater emphasis on ‘identity’ politics.

But there are still deeper, sociopsychological effects still at play due to this atomisation. As Daniel Schwindt remarks, such individualist praxis as this deprives young men and young women of the stable and vibrant social context and intergenerational support (family and neighbours both) they need to define themselves as adults. It removes all frames of reference for, all mutually-reinforced responsibilities associated with, and all socially-accepted markers of, adulthood. With one highly notable exception, highly painful in its brute biological imperative: that of sex.

And here we find the one place where nerds – young male nerds in particular – are the most disempowered. Adulthood for young men particularly is culturally defined by sexual conquest alone – and not by any significant physical, moral or intellectual achievement unless it brings direct monetary gain. As we have shown above, the death of courtship has made sexual competition even fiercer and more dangerous – for this reason its allure is perversely increased as a field in which a young man must ‘prove himself’. And antipathy for nerds (even and especially when it comes from self-described feminists) is almost always couched in a language that explicitly links failure in sexual exploits to a perpetual childhood: ‘virgin’, ‘man-child’ and ‘mother’s basement’ figure prominently in such abuse, as do acne and vestigial allusions to lack of personal grooming or social aptitude. I can’t stress enough that this is not in the slightest to deny or excuse in the least some of the childish and malicious behaviour that some nerds are capable of, only to highlight the fact that society offers us vanishingly few resources or reasons to overcome such behaviour.

In fact, I suspect this is one of the reasons so many nerds – boy and girl nerds both! – are so strongly, keenly and painfully drawn to fictional portrayals of rites-of-passage and the heroic monomyth. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, practically every traditional comic superhero mythos, Harry Potter, the sword-and-sorcery novels of Robert E. Howard and Dungeons and Dragons in particular are representative of such fiction. Imperfectly, they stand in for a society which has forgotten how to distinguish a girl from a woman, or a boy from a man, along any dimension other than sexual experience.

Entire tomes could be written on any of the topics mentioned above. And I emphatically don’t want to make feminism the evil Empire of this little space-opera. My only purpose in writing this piece was to highlight where many of the problems in this particular landscape still exist, in a way that respects Scott Aaronson’s personal experience and that of young male geekdom more generally. Like Scott Aaronson and Arthur Chu, I wholeheartedly agree with the feminist demands that we men behave better; they are well-grounded and tragically well-evidenced. My interest, though, is in finding ways to re-equip boys and men with the social and psychological resources we need to do so, which we seem to have lost somewhere along the way.

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