A response to Scott Aaronson

Scott Aaronson has been kind enough to respond on his blog to a couple of my tweets. I would like to thank him for his interest and engagement, and encourage everyone to take the time to read his entire post. There is also an excellent discussion in the comments.

Much of the discourse focuses on the use and misuse of jargon in social and physical sciences, and specifically on words such as “privilege,” “delegitimization,” or “disenfranchised.” I’ll address that in a moment, but let me first say that my main reason for objecting to the comment that started this discussion was the phrase “This isn’t quantum field theory” at the end. I understood this, in the context of that comment and the comment to which Aaronson was responding, and in light of the similarity to the well known phrase about rocket science, to imply that social sciences do not have the same complexity as quantum field theory and should not need a multilayered structure where concepts are defined, compared, then used to define further concepts, whereupon the procedure is repeated and iterated, so as to make advanced discourse possible and manageable. Aaronson has now explained that this would be an oversimplification of his position, and I’m glad to stand corrected.

I also would like to speak to some of the other points that he makes about language, feminism, social science, and clarity of writing. I’ll try not to repeat the arguments that his commenters have already made, perhaps better than I could have done it. Still, I have no desire to hide (as some have suggested) behind Twitter’s 140-character limit and avoid making my case at more length. And so, here we are. I will just quote the last two paragraphs from Aaronson’s post, but please do go to his site to read the rest:

On the other hand, to restrict freedom and invent new forms of discrimination—and to do it in the name of equality and justice—that takes theory. You’ll need a sophisticated framework, for example, to prove that even if two adults both insist they’re consenting to a relationship, really they might not be, because of power structures in the wider society that your superior insight lets you see. You’ll need advanced discourse to assure you that, even though your gut reaction might be horror at (say) someone who misspoke once and then had their life gleefully destroyed on social media, your gut is not to be trusted, because it’s poisoned by the same imperialist, patriarchal biases as everything else—and because what looks like a cruel lynching needs to be understood in a broader social context (did the victim belong to a dominant group, or to a marginalized one?). Finally, you’ll need oodles of theory (bring out the Marcuse) to explain why the neoliberal fanaticism about “free speech” and “tolerance” and “due process” and “the presumption of innocence” is too abstract and simplistic—for those concepts, too, fail to distinguish between a marginalized group that deserves society’s protection and a dominant group that doesn’t.

So I concede to Prof. Laba that the complicated discourse of privilege, hegemony, etc. serves a definite purpose for the people who wield it, just as much as the complicated discourse of quantum field theory serves a purpose for physicists. It’s just that the purposes of the privilege-warriors aren’t my purposes. For my purposes—which include fighting injustice, advancing every social and natural science as quickly as possible, and helping all well-meaning women and men see each other’s common humanity—I said last year and I say again that ordinary words will do.

I must say I had to read the penultimate paragraph several times and found it a little bit difficult to understand. Aaronson seems to be defending the unqualified principle of free speech from those that who might try to saddle it with restrictions. At the same time, he also objects to destruction of people’s lives on social media, even though I see it as a prime example of the negative consequences of unrestricted freedom of speech. When I read that part, I immediately thought of women like Anita Sarkeesian and Zoe Quinn who have received multiple death threats and have had to leave their homes to protect themselves. They are on the side of the “privilege warriors,” though; also I do not think that they misspoke. They said exactly what they had intended. Such incidents are then compared to “cruel lynchings.” The word “lynching” has a specific historical meaning, one that is in fact very much related to the relations between dominant and marginalized groups. Descriptions of such events are available, with photographs and graphic details, and as much as I despise internet hate campaigns, I would rather not make this particular comparison.

I’m saying this not so much to criticize Aaronson, but rather to give some measure of the gap between us. I expect that he might say something similar about my writng. We may use the same words, but we understand them differently. We do not share the same points of reference. In aiming for metaphors, we might not find it equally easy to liberate words from their other contexts. It’s completely possible that a different reader might read the same paragraph and find its logic to be seamless. Such readers have, I believe, spoken up in the comments. But if they were to tell me, as people often do, “come on, you must understand what he means, you’re just pretending that you don’t,” I must reply that the more I think about it, the more I’m aware of the limits of any such common understanding.

Aaronson is not keen on jargony words like “privilege.” To be honest, I don’t often use that word, either. This might in fact be its first appearance ever on this blog. My favourite feminist writings are often completely jargon-free, for example The Wave in the Mind, a book of essays by Ursula Le Guin, or Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things To Me, also a book of essays. The title essay from Solnit’s book is now a classic, and she is only getting better. (We’ll return to Le Guin in a moment.) Should one wish to expand this conversation to also include racism, and because this sort of came up in the comments, try Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. All of these authors write in plain, clear, beautiful language using very ordinary words. They all speak from personal experience and reflection. They all, in Aaronson’s own words, “just talk directly about the actual well-being of actual people.” And they all use words like “privilege” or “discrimination” very sparingly, if at all. Coates has said explicitly that this is a conscious choice he makes as a writer.

There are also other words that these writers use very judiciously, if at all. Those would include “fighting injustice,” its cousin “fighting for peace,” “righteous anger,” the many variations on “advancement,” “progress,” “tolerance,” and even “common humanity.” And that makes me very happy. Aaronson spends some time critiquing Marxism-Leninism, rightly, but from a distance. I grew up in a communist state and lived there until the age of 23. I will not dispute his critique; if anything, it might not go far enough. The degradation of language in communist countries went far beyond “class struggle” and “false consciousness.” It extended to all of language, including simple words like “progress,” “peace,” or “justice,” whose meaning was sent for a hike as their shape was being mouthed by political commentators and painted on the red Party banners hanging from city buildings. Progress meant communism, peace meant more communism, and fighting for justice meant marching in the May Day parade before your local Party officials. Hope and optimism were mandated by the Central Committee and enforced by the censorship office. Only “constructive criticism” was permitted, where every problem had an easy solution and those that didn’t were presumed nonexistent.

I wrote about this before. The Eastern European emigrés of the yesteryear, having left The Land of Things Always Getting Better, found to their dismay that too many of their Western academic colleagues had bought into the same easy narrative of progress, better future, and, occasionally, omelettes and eggs. I hear echoes of the same naiveté in the writings of Steven Pinker. I hear them every time I try to speak about my own experience of being dismissed, ignored, or ranked a little bit lower, only to hear “So what’s your solution?” in return, as if I were once again only allowed to offer “constructive” criticism. Pinker, of course, might show me graphs and charts proving that I probably just don’t exist, even as he proudly declares his feminist credentials. And so, when Coates writes that “the arc of progress bends towards chaos and concludes in a box,” I want to close that box, seal it with a glittery rainbow-and-unicorn sticker, and tie a giant bow on it. I also have a selection of Polish literature that I would like to suggest to anyone who might find Coates too pessimistic. But I digress.

Ordinary words are not always neutral, not to all of us. Thomas Paine used ordinary words. He also used “man” to refer to people in general, even as he, at the same time, was influenced by feminist writers and had much sympathy for women’s social and political rights. Ursula Le Guin writes in Introducing Myself:

So when I was born, there actually were only men. People were men. They all had one pronoun, his pronoun; so that’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man.

Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon. I mean, after all, can I inseminate? Can I belong to the Bohemian Club? Can I run General Motors? Theoretically I can, but you know where theory gets us.

She’s not exaggerating:

The very first version of Encyclopaedia Britannica, written between 1768 and 1771, featured 39 pages on curing disease in horses, and three words on woman: “female of man.”

Of course, a man objecting to words like “privilege” or “microagressions” is only using common sense. A woman insisting that she is not a “he” is being unreasonable and should accept the way that the English language has always worked. Back to Le Guin:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old.

We can try to escape the vocabulary, but we can’t escape the syntax. Women, especially, are rarely allowed to speak in simple declarative sentences. It took two years of legal campaigning to get Canada to admit, in 1929, the simple declarative fact that women are persons. We must hedge, tack, curtsy at every figure, wary that if we don’t then our next turn might end on the outside of a closed door. Our truths have to crawl out from under the stones first, uncoil a little bit, veer this way and that to avoid the stick.

The situations we try to describe are complex. The language we use is always open to misinterpretations, no matter what. We are rarely allowed to simply tell the detailed facts of the story: we are bound by workplace confidentiality requirements, we must protect the privacy and the careers of our students. I have many stories of gender bias that I cannot tell publicly for this type of reasons, except possibly in the roughest of outlines. Ban me from using words that are too complicated, or words that you do not like, and you’ll get metaphors. Take away those, and my sentences will get long and clunky to compensate for it. Put down any restriction you like, and I will try to find a way around it. But if you leave me no way out, you will be asking me to lie. You will be asking me to pretend that I’m someone I’m not and that my experience is something that it never has been.

Clarity is in the eye of the beholder. Some readers don’t mind complicated syntax. I’m one; I love James Baldwin’s long sentences, for instance. Others find it more illuminating to break down their reasoning into smaller steps, and one way to do that is through identifying component parts and giving them names. Most scientific jargon never catches on with a larger audience; if “privilege” did, that might be because this concept clarified something to enough people who then took to using it more widely.

Even if social scientists could write like Woolf, Solnit or Le Guin, I don’t believe that we would actually want them to do that. We’d ridicule them if they tried. We expect science to offer models, analyses, comparisons, classifications, and numerical data. “This happened to me and this is how I felt about it” is not a sociology paper. There are plenty of such testimonials already on the internet, many of them written in simple everyday language, and there are plenty of comment sections attached to them where readers dismiss them as “anecdata” and demand more quantitative data and more comparative studies. And that does require a theoretical framework and a specialized terminology.

I don’t necessarily think that all frameworks are perfect, or that the words chosen are always the best possible. Still, Aaronson makes a good point in the comments, namely that if feminists tried to use different terminology, the designated words would still become emotionally charged in no time at all, due to the nature of the material. Take the title of Solnit’s essay, “Men Explain Things To Me.” No jargon at all, and yet, I doubt that this somehow makes it less contentious. We can’t blame that on the word “mansplaining” that was derived (by someone else) from that title. That would have it backwards. The word was created, and found purchase, precisely because the incident described in the essay has resonated with so many women who had had a similar experience. That reality existed before the word did.

Take that example of the woman being lashed in Saudi Arabia for driving a car, from the original year-old comment I had quoted. No, we do not need theory to explain that the woman is treated unjustly and horribly. We need it to explain her oppressor. A man–an ordinary man who loves his wife and children–lashes a woman who has done nothing to him personally, and nothing at all that we believe to deserve such a punishment, until her back is raw and her skin breaks. Why would he do that? He is not alone in it. Ordinary men spit on women who dress “immodestly” and stone them to death for the crime of having been raped. Should we just assume that all men are monsters in Saudi Arabia? How would that not be misandry? Are we sure that we would not act the same way if we were in his place? It’s not just Saudi Arabia, either. See: lynchings.

Most of us, most of the time, do what the society expects from us–not because we are especially evil, but because the society makes it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to act any other way. That man may have been taught from the time he was born that women have to be beaten because you can’t reason with them. He may have been taught, and may honestly believe, that a woman behind a wheel threatens the social order that he and his people depend on, and so he must lash her to save himself and others from some awful, unimaginable danger. He might even believe that he is doing her a favour by protecting her from the more horrible things she might do in the future. He might assume that if he doesn’t do it, then someone else will, and that someone else might be even more cruel to her, so it might as well be him. And if he refuses, he will not be the only one to pay the price; his wife and children will also pay. No, I would not call it “male privilege.” I’d call it structural and institutional misogyny.

None of this negates or diminishes the woman’s horrible suffering. None of it means that the man bears no responsibility for his actions. Structural misogyny and institutional discrimination are real; so is personal agency and responsibility; so is individual suffering and happiness. It is completely possible for many of those things to exist all at the same time, and none of them cancel each other.

I did not learn that from feminists or internet SJWs. I learned it a long time ago, back in the then-communist Poland. The system we lived in was widely hated and despised. It would have never lasted as long as it did were it not for the Soviet boot; in fact, had it not been for the Soviets, Poland never would have been communist in the first place. And yet, we had to live in that system. We had to function in it, and, in order to be able to do so, we had to collaborate with it. We were all compromised, to various extents. I, too, marched in May Day parades when I was in school. I, too, recited the various communist catechisms when it was demanded of me. And yet, we had some agency. We could try to do the decent thing, if we could figure out what the decent thing was, which wasn’t always clear. Other times, there were no good choices. If you read Havel, for instance, he’s not using SJW language from the internet that did not exist at the time, but he is saying very similar things about structural oppression, the average person’s complicity in it, and the cost of opting out.

My feminism has never demanded of me that I should hate men. If anything, it taught me empathy and understanding. That understanding does not imply agreement or approval, nor does it mean that I will now submit meekly to whatever sexist thing comes my way. I won’t. It does mean that if and when I fight my battles, I’ll have a better idea of what I’m dealing with. I’ll probably still fail, but I might fail better.

Feminism is not a rigid doctrine or a unified front. The moment that happens, I’m out; but I don’t think I need to worry about this anytime soon. There are feminists who consider some types of oppression more important than others. There are feminists who agree on the goals, but disagree on the methods. There are those who disagree on the goals as well. There are always those who are in it for career opportunities. I’m with those who want to learn. If I need to read a literary essay in order to do that, fine. If I need to read an academic paper in sociology and learn some vocabulary in the process, I’ll do that, too. We must learn from the mistakes of the young, naive Bolshevik recruits who went to fight for progress and did not believe that well-meaning people like themselves could do wrong. We must learn if we are not to repeat their mistakes.

Author: Izabella Laba

Mathematics professor at UBC. My opinions are, obviously, my own.

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