Friday, January 23, 2015

Conor Friedersdorf's Disappointing Analysis Of The Scott Aaronson Fracas

Prior to the Michelson-Morley experiment, belief in the luminiferous aether was something like universal among physicists, who posited that, as with waves on water or sound waves in the air, a wave needed a medium to transmit it. Albert A. Michaelson and Edward W. Morley put an end to such talk, by measuring the speed of light perpendicular to and in the direction of the Earth's rotation. Finding it the same in both directions, they rightly concluded no such aether existed. Yet the hobgoblins of feminism, being all specters, can never be disproved to their believers; they exist with all the firmness (and justification) of the holy Trinity to a Christian. That was why it was so very saddening to see The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf's disappointing essay analyzing Scott Aaronson's now infamous "comment 171" and subsequent responses from Laurie Penny, Scott Alexander, and (briefly) Amanda Marcotte (treated at my blog here, here, and here). After going through the three essays above, Friedersdorf actually endorses the intellectually vacant concept of "privilege":
In my view, the "privilege" framework, as described by Peggy McIntosh in her seminal essay, is one of many useful frameworks for understanding the world. It's important for people—whites and men, college graduates, women, U.S. citizens—to be cognizant of unearned advantages, and to identify and remedy unfairnesses that result. But if an omniscient being told us the precise degree of absolute and relative privilege possessed by nerds of both genders, feminists, and women in STEM—giving group averages as well as individual privilege scores for all—and if accurate trauma scores were available for groups and individuals too, what good would that do? Would that resolve any useful real world debate? Would it suggest any certain answer to the problems that confront us?

It would not.
Privilege tells us nothing other than the desire of the speaker to lump certain people into one group and ascribe to them a theft or thefts. McIntosh's essay is surely tiresome; she lists forty two grievances against white males, things which she feels she should be able to do like men do, but can't, because, privilege. Such a concept, especially as an explanatory force, merits discussion only to the extent it is dismissed with great force, as Scott Aaronson did.

I reproduce here, with mild editing, my remarks in the comments.
"Privilege" is a group slur, and is no more valuable for discussions of sociology than any other sort of slander. In its more vacuous and extreme forms, it becomes an excuse for all manner of failures. "Male privilege", "rape culture", "patriarchy" -- all ghost stories ("rape culture", especially in the West), yet fundamental parts of the feminist canon. Penny's casual dismissal of Aaronson's very specific claims -- particularly, how feminist anti-sexual harassment haranguing made him feel like his normal male sexual desires were entirely wrong and awful -- along with her unfounded and wholly spectral response to the origin of his problems -- shows her as a dogmatic and unoriginal thinker. Contrast this with Aaronson's genius-level retort to her claims about "patriarchy", which dismiss such stuff as the kind of religious first principle nonsense they are.
What I find deeply disturbing about Friedersdorf's piece here is the apparent inattention to detail it takes to write this:
In his experience, he writes, "feminists throwing weaponized shame at
nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life," citing an awful collection of images that are hard to distinguish from anti-Semitic cartoons mixed in to underscore his point. (All together now: #not-all-feminists do this–nor most, I'd add.)
Contrasted with this footnote:
*This being the Internet, there were also responses that were strikingly uncharitable. For example, Amanda Marcotte paraphrased Scott Aaronson's blog post as follows: "Having to explain my suffering to women when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs, is so tiresome."
Marcotte is no small voice in the femosphere, and a quick descent into the comments will readily show that she has many supporters. Moreover, it betrays a disturbing inattention to Penny's history as a misandrist to miss the deep irony in this comment of hers:
Weaponised shame - male, female or other - has no place in any feminism I subscribe to.
Ho, ho, ho, Ms. Penny, what do you know: she came out for a sort of original sin among men, one which can never be questioned or redeemed. If that isn't weaponized shame, I'll eat my male privilege.
I probably overstate my objection to Friedersdorf's piece, but the slander of "privilege" needs the strongest possible rebuttal wherever it appears. If you've been following along here at all, he doesn't add much new to the debate, and he does (rightly) condemn Marcotte as "strikingly uncharitable". Still worth reading in its entirety.

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