Two weeks ago, prompted by a commenter named Amy, I wrote by far the most personal thing I’ve ever made public—what’s now being referred to in some places as just “comment 171.” My thinking was: I’m giving up a privacy that I won’t regain for as long as I live, opening myself to ridicule, doing the blog equivalent of a queen-and-two-rook sacrifice. But at least—and this is what matters—no one will ever again be able to question the depth of my feminist ideals. Not after they understand how I clung to those ideals through a decade when I wanted to die. And any teenage male nerds who read this blog, and who find themselves in a similar hole, will know that they too can get out without giving up on feminism. Surely that’s a message any decent person could get behind?
Alas, I was overoptimistic. Twitter is now abuzz with people accusing me of holding precisely the barbaric attitudes that my story was all about resisting, defeating, and escaping, even when life throws you into those nasty attitudes’ gravity well, even when it tests you as most of your critics will never be tested. Many of the tweets are full of the courageous clucks of those who speak for justice as long as they’re pretty sure their friends will agree with them: wow just wow, so sad how he totes doesn’t get it, expletives in place of arguments. This whole affair makes me despair of the power of language to convey human reality—or at least, of my own ability to use language for that end. I took the most dramatic, almost self-immolating step I could to get people to see me as I was, rather than according to some preexisting mental template of a “privileged, entitled, elite male scientist.” And many responded by pressing down the template all the more firmly, twisting my words until they fit, and then congratulating each other for their bravery in doing so.
Here, of course, these twitterers (and redditors and facebookers) inadvertently helped make my argument for me. Does anyone still not understand the sort of paralyzing fear that I endured as a teenager, that millions of other nerds endure, and that I tried to explain in the comment—the fear that civilized people will condemn you as soon as they find out who you really are (even if the truth seems far from uncommonly bad), that your only escape is to hide or lie?
Thankfully, not everyone responded with snarls. Throughout the past two weeks, I’ve been getting regular emails from shy nerds who thanked me profusely for sharing as I did, for giving them hope for their own lives, and for articulating a life-crushing problem that anyone who’s spent a day among STEM nerds knows perfectly well, but that no one acknowledges in polite company. I owe the writers of those emails more than they owe me, since they’re the ones who convinced me that on balance, I did the right thing.
I’m equally grateful to have gotten interesting, compassionate responses from feminist women. The most striking was that of Laurie Penny in the New Statesman—a response that others of Penny’s views should study, if they want to understand how to win hearts and change minds.
I do not intend for a moment to minimise Aaronson’s suffering. Having been a lonely, anxious, horny young person who hated herself and was bullied I can categorically say that it is an awful place to be. I have seen responses to nerd anti-feminism along the lines of ‘being bullied at school doesn’t make you oppressed.’ Maybe it’s not a vector of oppression in the same way, but it’s not nothing. It burns. It takes a long time to heal.
Feminism, however, is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men.’ Patriarchy is to blame for that. It is a real shame that Aaronson picked up Dworkin rather than any of the many feminist theorists and writers who manage to combine raw rage with refusal to resort to sexual shame as an instructive tool. Weaponised shame- male, female or other- has no place in any feminism I subscribe to. Ironically, Aronson [sic] actually writes a lot like Dworkin- he writes from pain felt and relived and wrenched from the intimate core of himself, and because of that his writing is powerfully honest, but also flawed …
What fascinates me about Aaronson’s piece, in which there was such raw, honest suffering, was that there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently. And Aaronson is not a misogynist. Aaronson is obviously a compassionate, well-meaning and highly intelligent man [damn straight—SA]
I’ll have more to say about Penny’s arguments in a later post—where I agree and where I part ways from her—but there’s one factual point I should clear up now. When I started writing comment 171, I filled it with anecdotes from the happier part of my life (roughly, from age 24 onward): the part where I finally became able to ask; where women, with a frequency that I couldn’t have imagined as a teenager, actually answered ‘yes’; and where I got to learn about their own fears and insecurities and quirks. In the earlier draft, I also wrote about my wife’s experiences as a woman in computer science, which differed from Amy’s in some crucial ways. But then I removed it all, for a simple reason: because while I have the right to bare my own soul on my blog, I don’t have the right to bare other people’s unless they want me to.
Without further ado, and for the benefit of the world’s Twitterariat, I’m now just going to state nine of my core beliefs.
1. I believe that women are authors of their own stories, that they don’t exist merely to please men, that they are not homogeneous, that they’re not slot machines that ‘pay out’ but only if you say the right things. I don’t want my two-year-old daughter to grow up to be anyone else’s property, and I’m happy that she won’t. And I’d hope all this would no more need to be said, than (say) that Gentiles shouldn’t be slaughtered to use their blood in making matzo.
2. I believe everyone’s story should be listened to—and concretely, that everyone should feel 300% welcome to participate in my comments section. I don’t promise to agree with you, but I promise to try to engage your ideas thoughtfully, whether you’re a man, woman, child, AI-bot, or unusually-bright keyboard-pecking chicken. Indeed, I spend a nontrivial fraction of my life doing exactly that (well, not so much with chickens).
3. I believe no one has the right to anyone else’s sexual affections. I believe establishing this principle was one of the triumphs of modern civilization.
4. I believe women who go into male-dominated fields like math, CS, and physics deserve praise, encouragement, and support. But that’s putting the point too tepidly: if I get to pick 100 people (unrelated to me) to put onto a spaceship as the earth is being destroyed, I start thinking immediately about six or seven of my female colleagues in complexity and quantum computing. And no, Twitter: not because being female, they could help repopulate the species. Just because they’re great people.
5. I believe there still exist men who think women are inferior, that they have no business in science, that they’re good only for sandwich-making and sex. Though I don’t consider it legally practicable, as a moral matter I’d be fine if every such man were thrown in prison for life.
6. I believe that even if they don’t hold views anything like the above (as, overwhelmingly, they don’t), there might be nerdy males who unintentionally behave in ways that tend to drive some women away from science. I believe this is a complicated problem best approached with charity: we want win-win solutions, where no one is made to feel despised because of who they are. Toward that end, I believe open, honest communication (as I’ve been trying to foster on this blog) is essential.
7. I believe that no one should be ashamed of inborn sexual desires: not straight men, not straight women, not gays, not lesbians, not even pedophiles (though in the last case, there might really be no moral solution other than a lifetime of unfulfilled longing). Indeed, I’ve always felt a special kinship with gays and lesbians, precisely because the sense of having to hide from the world, of being hissed at for a sexual makeup that you never chose, is one that I can relate to on a visceral level. This is one reason why I’ve staunchly supported gay marriage since adolescence, when it was still radical. It’s also why the tragedy of Alan Turing, of his court-ordered chemical castration and subsequent suicide, was one of the formative influences of my life.
8. I believe that “the problem of the nerdy heterosexual male” is surely one of the worst social problems today that you can’t even acknowledge as being a problem—the more so, if you weight the problems by how likely academics like me are to know the sufferers and to feel a personal stake in helping them. How to help all the young male nerds I meet who suffer from this problem, in a way that passes feminist muster, and that triggers the world’s sympathy rather than outrage, is a problem that interests me as much as P vs. NP, and that right now seems about equally hard.
9. I believe that, just as there are shy, nerdy men, there are also shy, nerdy women, who likewise suffer from feeling unwanted, sexually invisible, or ashamed to express their desires. On top of that, these women also have additional difficulties that come with being women! At the same time, I also think there are crucial differences between the two cases—at least in the world as it currently exists—which might make the shy-nerdy-male problem vastly harder to solve than the shy-nerdy-female one. Those differences, and my advice for shy nerdy females, will be the subject of another post. (That’s the thing about blogging: in for a penny, in for a post.)
Update (Dec. 31): I struggle always to be ready to change my views in light of new arguments and evidence. After reflecting on the many thoughtful comments here, there are two concessions that I’m now willing to make.
The first concession is that, as Laurie Penny maintained, my problems weren’t caused by feminism, but rather by the Patriarchy. One thing I’ve learned these last few days is that, as many people use it, the notion of “Patriarchy” is sufficiently elastic as to encompass almost anything about the relations between the sexes that is, or has ever been, bad or messed up—regardless of who benefits, who’s hurt, or who instigated it. So if you tell such a person that your problem was not caused by the Patriarchy, it’s as if you’ve told a pious person that a certain evil wasn’t the Devil’s handiwork: the person has trouble even parsing what you said, since within her framework, “evil” and “Devil-caused” are close to synonymous. If you want to be understood, far better just to agree that it was Beelzebub and be done with it. This might sound facetious, but it’s really not: I believe in the principle of always adopting the other side’s terms of reference, whenever doing so will facilitate understanding and not sacrifice what actually matters to you.
Smash the Patriarchy!
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.
Update (Jan. 1): Yesterday I gave a seminar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Since I’d been spending all my time dealing with comment-171-gate, I showed up with no slides, no notes, no anything—just me and the whiteboard. But for an hour and a half, I got to forget entirely about the thousands of people on the Internet I’d never met who were now calling me an asshole because of wild, “postmodernist” misreadings of a blog comment, which twisted what I said (and meant) into its exact opposite, building up a fake-Scott-Aaronson onto whom the ax-grinders could project all of their own bogeymen. For 90 minutes I got to forget all that, and just throw myself into separations between randomized and quantum query complexity. It was the most cathartic lecture of my life. And in the near future, I’d like more such catharses. Someday I’ll say more about the inexhaustibly-fascinating topic of nerds and sex—and in particular, I’ll write the promised post about shy female nerds—but not now. This will be my last post on the subject for a while.
On balance, I don’t regret having shared my story—because it prompted an epic discussion; because I learned so much from the dozens of other nerd coming-of-age stories that it drew out, similar to mine but also different; because what I learned will change the way I talk about these issues in the future; and most of all, because so many people, men and women, emailed me to say how my speaking out gave them hope for their own lives. But I do regret a few rhetorical flourishes, which I should have known might be misread maliciously, though I could never have guessed how maliciously. I never meant to minimize the suffering of other people, nor to deny that many others have had things as bad or worse than I did (again, how does one even compare?). I meant only that, if we’re going to discuss how to change the culture of STEM fields, or design sexual-conduct policies to minimize suffering, then I request a seat at the table not as the “white male powerful oppressor figure,” but as someone who also suffered something atypically extreme, overcame it, and gained relevant knowledge that way. I never meant to suggest that anyone else should leave the table.
To the people who tweeted that female MIT students should now be afraid to take classes with me: please check out the beautiful blog post by Yan, a female student who did take 6.045 with me. See also this by Lisa Danz and this by Chelsea Voss.
More broadly: thank you to everyone who sent me messages of support, but especially to all the female mathematicians and scientists who did so. I take great solace from the fact that, of all the women and men whose contributions to the world I had respected beforehand, not one (to my knowledge) reacted to this affair in a mean-spirited way.
Happy New Year, everyone. May 2015 be a year of compassion and understanding.
Update (Jan. 2): If you’ve been following this at all, then please, please, please read Scott Alexander’s tour-de-force post. To understand what it was like for me to read this, after all I’ve been through the past few days, try to imagine Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the American Declaration of Independence, John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women, and Clarence Darrow’s closing arguments in the Scopes trial all rolled into one, except with you as the protagonist. Reason and emotion are traditionally imagined as opposites, but that’s never seemed entirely right to me: while, yes, part of reason is learning how to separate out emotion, I never experience such intense emotion as when, like with Alexander’s piece, I see reason finally taking a stand, reason used to face down a thousand bullies and as a fulcrum to move the world.
Update (Jan. 13): Please check out this beautiful Quora answer by Jean Yang, a PhD student in MIT CSAIL. She’s answering the question: “What do you think of Scott Aaronson’s comment #171 and the subsequent posts?”
More generally, I’ve been thrilled by the almost-unanimously positive reactions that I’ve been getting these past two weeks from women in STEM fields, even as so many people outside STEM have responded with incomprehension and cruelty. Witnessing that pattern has—if possible—made me even more of a supporter and admirer of STEM women than I was before this thing started.