Last month, MIT Computer Science professor Scott Aaronson (disclaimer: a colleague, although as he’s a theoretician, not one I interact with very much) wrote a thoughtful blog post about MIT’s response to the allegations of misconduct against former Physics professor Walter Lewin. Scott allows a wide-ranging discussion in the comments on his blog, and in this particular case, it didn’t take much topic drift to bring the conversation around to the role of feminism in technology, and in particular how invoking “privilege” can have the effect of stifling discussion, and more specifically how this can cause well-meaning people who understand themselves as feminists and allies, and wish to make a positive contribution to disengage — simply because they are middle-class straight white cismen, and no amount of good intention can overcome the inherent privilege that comes with that. (The fact that we so easily pass means that middle-class bisexual white cismen like me get no free ride in this regard.)
Scott’s “Comment #171” in the discussion thread takes this head-on, in soul-baring detail, and talks directly both about his personal experience of non-privilege as a shy, nerdy guy, and also about his attempts to engage feminism on its own terms, and how he at times felt himself driven away by feminists’ assertion of his own supposed privilege, contrary to his direct experience. (Scott certainly engaged feminism to a far greater degree than I ever have; doubtless his relative youth and education must have contributed to this.) In the days following the posting of that comment, Scott’s discussion made the rounds of social media several times, and attracted long-form responses from both feminist and “shy, nerdy guy” prespectives.
A few days ago, Jean Yang posted an answer on Quora in response to a question asking for opinions on “Comment 171”. (Jean is a Ph.D. student in the interdepartmental research laboratory where Scott and I both work, and thus also a colleague, albeit one I’m not aware of having ever met in person; our respective social circles have a nonempty intersection.) She surveys some of the previous published responses, including Laurie Penny’s in the New Statesman, and raises the honest criticism that for feminism to succeed, it needs to allow men a place in the conversation — particularly those men who are actually willing, interested, and able to engage in a meaningful way. After all, feminism isn’t about making women superior to men (even if some famous feminists believe that), it’s about breaking down the walls that keep us unequal. (Jean’s response is quite thoughtful and I’m not going to be able to do it justice in summarizing it here — go on, read it; this post will still be here when you get back.)
Scott’s comment (which I didn’t see at the time, only when it made it back around through my social media circle) made me think, and Jean’s response made me think a bit more, about why we so often have this difficulty talking past each other about issues of power and privilege and how those relate to gender and identity. One thing is for certain: we all experience, and perceive, gender differently. (I am reminded of Douglas Hofstadter’s rhetorical query, “Has anyone ever had precisely this thought before?” One might reasonably ask, “Does anyone else have precisely the same gender identity as I do?” I think the answer to both questions must surely be “no”.) But there is also this question of power and privilege, and one of the reasons we so often talk past each other is that every person simultaneously experiences situations of both power and powerlessness, and consequently, has aspects of their life in which they are privileged and other aspects in which they are disadvantaged. The challenge — for feminists and indeed for all right-thinking people — is to understand each other as whole people, not as ivory-tower exemplars of one particular privileged (or stigmatized) group.
I have a great deal of empathy for the particular situation Scott describes, although he was clearly much worse off than I at his low point (and is much better off than I at present), since I too am a “shy nerdy guy” — or as I would put it, a typical strongly introverted, insecure geek — and the society that we live in has expectations that make it extremely difficult to get along if you’re not an overconfident flaming extrovert. (Seriously, have you seen the latest personnel evaluation forms from HR? Doesn’t even have to be MIT HR, most large organizations’ HR departments read from the same playbook. Either I can answer the questions honestly to my lights, in which case I’m setting myself up to be terminated, or I can pretend to be an overconfident extrovert, maybe get a small raise, and feel disgusted at myself for the deception. Haven’t these people ever heard of Impostor Syndrome?) But on the other hand, there’s no denying that anyone who works for MIT, even the people who vacuum the floors and clean the toilets, benefit from more privilege than most of the other seven billion people on earth — and people with steady middle-class jobs like mine, or faculty positions like Scott’s, or even fully-funded graduate assistantships like most students in our lab, have it quite well indeed. This is of course unavoidable in any universe where economic inequality exists.
There are other forms of power differences, however, and my situation is both similar to and very different from Scott’s in another way as a result. I have been a network administrator — in practical terms, the network administrator — for this lab since shortly after my 24th birthday. (This February will mark my 18th anniversary in this position.) I didn’t go to graduate school — that wasn’t an option open to me, for various reasons I won’t go into — and MIT has been my only employer since college. The computing industry has changed a great deal in that time, and the sort of skills that I have are really no longer suitable for working in most other places (and, truth be told, I really have no desire to work in other places, especially not in industry, most of which seems to have moved in a direction that I personally despise).
Even without formal training (which it seems that my hire antedates), I have always been conscious that this position gives me an enormous amount of power — such that if I were a less ethical person, I could disrupt users’ work, read their email or their personal files, untraceably alter database entries, otherwise make their lives more or less difficult at whim — over even the most senior colleagues. Perhaps I am too conscious of this power, because one of the things that it has left me with is the same sort of social paralysis as Scott described in his comment, when combined with my own natural introversion. For many years (and to a significant extent even now), I was always tense and on guard when in certain kinds of situations at work, to ensure that I did not say or do anything that might potentially be considered inappropriate or objectionable — particularly when an attractive young person, especially an attractive young woman (and there have been some), was involved — for fear that one small slip would inevitably result in a career-destroying harassment complaint, and I would spend the rest of my life flipping burgers for $5.50 an hour.
I doubt many, if any, of them ever realized how fearful I was, and I obviously have no idea how they would have responded if I had actually expressed an interest in them beyond the merely professional. I had always resolved that I would never say anything of the sort unless it was someone who I knew very well indeed, and knew for a certainty that they would be flattered if not actually interested, rather than offended — and there were essentially no such people in my life. (Still aren’t.) Thus, the particular, intense awareness of the sort of power that I had (uniquely, in my social circle) joined in positive feedback with my own natural severe introversion to the point that I entirely squandered my own “dating years”, I’m lonely nearly all the time and still single at age 42. This does not make me any less cognizant of the ways in which I am undeniably privileged — to be male in a male-dominated field; to have chosen the right parents so I could go to college, even if I was a lousy student; to have figured out that I was bi at a time when the stigma was finally on its way out; to get paid very well to do what was effectively my dream job straight out of college — but it shouldn’t mean that I am somehow not allowed to contribute to discussions of privilege even when I am (or perceive myself as being) on the other side.
That’s one of the reasons I like to bring up other kinds of privilege that don’t fall into the convenient dichotomies that drive many of these arguments. What about the social privilege of those overconfident extroverts? Our country, and indeed our world, are run by such people, but there is very little discussion of “extrovert privilege”. What about the privilege of neurotypicality? What about the privilege of those who, through the vagaries of chance, have managed to find good, satisfying, mutually supportive relationships of whatever multiplicity and orientation? (There’s plenty of discussion of people who have bad or abusive, or serially unsuccessful, relationships, but this is rarely anchored in the framework of privilege other than the dichotomous gender-privilege concept.) Privilege and power aren’t unitary things: glib aphorisms aside, every person experiences some of both in their lives, often at the same time, and to shut people of good will out of a conversation because they have but one sort of privilege out of many does a serious disservice to everyone involved.
At least, that’s how I see it. I’ve run out of words here. I don’t like to whine, but this has been bothering me for long enough; thanks for your patience if you actually read this far. (Have I mentioned how terrible a self-editor I am? Far easier to say nothing than to say exactly the right thing, so most of the time I keep my thoughts on controversial topics to myself.)