Male nerd privilege
I recently read this essay by Laurie Penny (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg) about male nerd privilege. Her essay stemmed from comment 171 of Scott Aaronson’s blogpost about whether MIT professor Walter Lewin, who was found to be harassing women, should also have had his OpenCourseWare physics course taken down. Aaronson says no.
Personally, I think it should, because if I’m a woman who was harassed by that dude, I don’t want to see physics represented by my harasser up on MIT’s website; it would not make me feel welcome to the MIT community. Physics is a social community activity, after all, just like mathematics, and it is important to feel safe doing physics in that community. Plus the courses will be available on YouTube and other places, it’s not like the physics represented in the course has been lost to humanity.
Anyhoo, I did really want to talk about white male nerd privilege. Penny makes a bunch of good points in her essay, but I think she misses a big opportunity as well.
Quick summary. Aaronson talks about how he spent his youth and formative years terrified, since he was a shy nerd boy. Penny talks about how she did too, but then on top of it had to deal with structural sexism. Good point, and entirely true in my experience. Her best line:
At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege, or make it somehow alright. Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t suffer, which, I know, totally blows.
So, I had two responses to her piece.
First was, she was complaining about her childhood, but she wasn’t even fat! I mean, GAWD. She was complaining about being too skinny, of all things. Plus it’s not clear whether or not she came from an abusive home. So I’ve got like, at least two complaints up on her. She thinks she’s had it bad?!
My point being, we can’t actually win when we count up all the ways we were miserable. Because the truth is, most people were actually miserable in their childhood, or soon after it, or at some time. And by comparing that stuff we just get stuck in a cycle of feeling competitively sorry for ourselves and pointing fingers. We need to sympathize, not only with our former selves, but with other people.
And although she does end the essay with the idea that we have to transcend all of our personal bruises and wrongs, and call each other human, and forget our resentments, it doesn’t seem like she’s giving us a path towards that.
Because, and here’s my second point, she doesn’t do the big thing of naming all of her privileges. Like, that nerds get good jobs. And that white people get loads of resources and attention and benefit of the doubt just for being white. At the end of the day, we are privileged to be sitting around talking about privilege. We are not worried about dying of hunger or exposure.
When Aaronson complained that naming male privilege is shaming, I’m prone to agree, at least if it’s done like this. What I’d propose is to figure out a way to talk about these structural problems in an aspirational way. How can we help make things fairer? How can we move this problem to the next level? Scott, you’re wicked smart, want to be on a taskforce with me?
Would it help if we gave it another name? Basic human rights, perhaps? Because that’s what we’re talking about, at the end of the day. The right to be free, to not get shot by the police, the right to hold a good job and care for your family, stuff like that.
Of course, there are plenty of people who are unwilling to move to the next level because they don’t acknowledge the structural racism, sexism, and other stuff at all. They don’t see the current situation as problematic. But on the other hand, there are loads of people who do, and Aaronson is clearly one of them.
As for problems for women in STEM, we’ve already studied this and we all know that both men and women are sexist, so it’s obviously not a blame game here. Instead, it’s a real cultural conundrum which we would like to approach thoughtfully and we’d like to make progress on as a team.