SlateStarCodex and Providing Intellectual Cover
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One of my friends was in town for a visit last week. I had been looking forward to the visit, but I was also nervous. I had apparently written some things in this space that set him off, but I wasn’t 100% clear on what they were. When I had tried talking to him about it he said he couldn’t respond until he understood my intended audience. Which seemed strange, but I tried telling him that I mostly write for myself. That, apparently, wasn’t good enough, so after going back and forth a little bit more on it, I told him I would be happy if I could appeal to the same people who enjoyed Scott Alexander and Slate Star Codex. At that point I got the feeling that he had been waiting for this admission, and proceeded to call the whole lot of us “white supremacists” and not “the cute kind”, whatever that means.
That’s a fairly radioactive accusation, but also one that, currently, gets tossed out at the drop of a hat, and applied far too broadly, as well. Which is to say I could certainly imagine nearly anyone getting accused of that, particularly a white male like myself. But I would also expect the person leveling the accusation to identify as progressive, or otherwise hail from the left-side of the political spectrum, which my friend does not.
See, that was the confusing part. This friend of mine is, or at least was, very conservative. My impression is he voted for Trump (at a minimum he attended some Trump rallies). He was excited by the idea of Brexit (I was on Skype with him the night of the vote). And a non-trivial percentage of my previous conversations with him had consisted of railing against liberals. Though, on the other hand, he was getting his PhD in rhetoric, and in connection with that he was on the faculty of the University’s Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Department. Which, let’s be honest, would be a hard position to maintain for someone who was staunchly conservative. Indeed, whenever I told people about my staunchly conservative friend, the Women Studies professor, they were always baffled.
Perhaps now you can understand why I was nervous about his visit. I don’t think I have a problem being friends with people from nearly any place on the political spectrum. But not knowing where he currently falls on that spectrum was kind of like being invited to a debate without knowing what side I was supposed to take, while also being unclear on the subject to be debated.
Fortunately, as I kind of hoped, being able to talk face to face was enough to mostly clear things up. Yes, he is still pretty conservative. For example, he mentioned that he watched CNN on election night because if the night had gone against the Democrats he wanted to be able to watch the panic, and experience the associated schadenfreude in real time. He felt that Acosta crossed a line with the White House intern, and he was glad Beto O’Rourke lost. But of course all this didn’t necessarily resolve my confusion, I still had to reconcile his accusations both with my behavior and with his actual ideology.
To cut to the chase, apparently his problem with me, and with Slate Star Codex, and the rationality community as a whole was that we provide intellectual cover for bad people. And before I get too deeply into things I should mention I don’t consider myself to be part of the rationalist community (and in fact I’ve frequently been critical of them) and I definitely don’t want to take any undeserved credit for their accomplishments, or saddle them with any of my many faults. However, according to my friend we’re all guilty of this same crime.
The obvious next question is who are these bad people and how do we provide intellectual cover for them. While he brought up the subject of “white supremacists” in our initial conversation online. In person we mostly talked about Men’s Rights Activists (MRA for short), as the bad people in question. I’m still confused about the white supremacist accusation, but perhaps that will have to wait until his next visit. (Also in terms of providing cover there isn’t Trump doing far more of that then a couple of bloggers?)
There is one problem with making this switch. Most people have no problem understanding why white supremacists are bad people, but they may be unfamiliar with the MRA movement. They’re mostly what the title would suggest, sort of the male version of a feminist, but obviously we’re not interested in a bland or neutral take on things. We’re interested in the ways that they’re bad people. For a sense of that, let me quote from the criticism section of the relevant Wikipedia article:
The men's rights movement has been criticized for exhibiting misogynistic tendencies. The Southern Poverty Law Center has stated that while some of the websites, blogs and forums related to the movement "voice legitimate and sometimes disturbing complaints about the treatment of men, what is most remarkable is the misogynistic tone that pervades so many". After further research into the movement, the SPLC elaborated: "A thinly veiled desire for the domination of women and a conviction that the current system oppresses men in favor of women are the unifying tenets of the male supremacist worldview."
Professor Ruth M. Mann of the University of Windsor in Canada suggests that men's rights groups fuel an international rhetoric of hatred and victimization by disseminating misinformation via online forums and websites containing constantly-updated "diatribes against feminism, ex-wives, child support, shelters, and the family law and criminal justice systems"
These are the bad people my friend is worried about, though in our conversation, I think he was most worried about one specific argument MRA advocates make on the aforementioned forums and websites: the argument that evil women are "withholding" sex and love from "worthy" males.
With the bad people identified let’s move on to a discussion of how I and others might be providing intellectual cover. Like most people on most issues my friend’s sense of the other side’s arguments seemed vague. (I’m sure I’m guilty of this myself.) Which is to say, he didn’t provide any concrete examples. He, nevertheless, brought up an interesting point, and I’d like to steelman it as much as possible. Accordingly, on his behalf, I’ll be providing the three best examples I can find, of posts which could be construed as providing intellectual cover for the MRA. One example will be from SlateStarCodex, one will be from Robin Hanson, and one will be from this blog. (Should you feel there are better examples leave them in the comments.)
Starting with SSC, it was difficult to choose just one post. There’s his Untitled post, which he considers his most controversial post about feminism. There’s his post Lies, Damned Lies, and Social Media (Part 5 of ∞) where he discusses false rape allegations. And then there’s his post I Do Not Understand “Rape Culture” where he argues that there really isn’t a culture of rape. But I think I will actually cover his post Radicalizing the Romanceless, since it seems most on point to the “evil women...worthy males” narrative.
Near the beginning of the post Alexander tells the story of, Henry, a patient he was treating who was picked up by the police for beating his fifth wife. When questioned, he admitted to beating the first four as well. And more interestingly the reason he was beating his fifth wife is that she was yelling at him for cheating on her with one of his ex-wife’s, yes one of the ones who already divorced him because he was violent. Obviously this guy is both not a “worthy male” nor does he have any problem getting women.
I’ve been using the term “worthy males” but another, far more common, phrase you’ll encounter a lot on the internet is “nice guy” as in “I’m a nice guy why won’t girls go out with me?” Alexander says that growing up he was a “nice guy”, not in any kind of absolute or cosmic sense, just that he was nicer than Henry. But contrary to Henry, who as we have seen had no problem attracting numerous women Alexander made it to 25 without ever having been on a date. And unsurprisingly this seemed unfair to him. He didn’t think he deserved to date any specific girl, he just felt that overall he shouldn’t be doing way, way, way worse with girls than a guy like Henry, a literal wife beater.
So here we have a nice guy, who could be said to feel entitled to some success with women. And how do feminists react to this? Well, Alexander then goes on to excerpt from four feminist websites (Jezebel, XOJane, Feminspire, and feministe) all of which basically declare “nice guys” to be infuriating, pathetic, worthy of mockery and in general horrible. In other words it could be argued that this post puts forth exactly the ideology mentioned above, that evil women are "withholding" sex and love from "worthy" males. Which is exactly what my friend was claiming. Now to be clear I think this vastly oversimplifies the point of Alexander’s post, and I’ll be returning to that, but at its core this is my friend’s argument.
Moving on to Robin Hanson. His example is more recent, and you may have heard of it, given that it ended up being national news and was mentioned in Slate, the LA Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the NYT (as an opinion piece by Ross Douthat).
It all started with a blog post, though a tweet about that post may have poured fuel on the fire. The tweet said:
Those w/ less access to sex plausibly suffer simiarly(sic) to those with low income, & might similarly hope to organize to lobby for redistribution along this axis. Strikingly, I see little overlap between those concerned about income & sex inequality.
This was written after the Toronto Van Attack by Alek Minassian, a self-proclaimed incel (involuntarily celibate) which ended up killing 10 people. And that attack was mentioned in the associated blog post, so the connection to worthy males being denied sex was obvious. As far as the “evil females” part goes, that’s less explicit, but certainly someone is preventing discussion of sexual inequality, and feminists would seem to be the obvious candidates for that. Also this is the incident I ended up discussing most deeply with my friend and he was of the opinion that the whole topic of sexual inequality was territory which was well covered by feminist intellectuals and that Hanson was opinining about things without reading the relevant literature on the other side. So one way or another it’s not hard to infer an “evil women” angle to the whole thing.
Which I guess takes us to me. While I am reasonably confident everyone I’ve mentioned thus far would confidently assert that they never intended to claim that evil women are denying sex to worthy males, I am absolutely confident that that was never my intention. But once again we’re looking more at the concept of providing intellectual cover than direct advocacy, which could come about without direct intention. Along those lines, if we’re examining my potential culpability, I do have a post called Should All Incels Be Killed Immediately or Just Banished Forever? This was mostly written in response to what happened to Hanson. Though I did go fairly deep into the idea of a sexual underclass. In particular mentioning that I knew people who almost certainly belonged in that category.
In the course of the discussion with my friend I mentioned these acquaintances, and, to his credit, his stance immediately softened. This is not surprising, it’s easy to be mad at faceless internet mobs and hard to be mad at individuals. The same thing happens to me. But to be clear I do believe there is a large sexual underclass; I was advocating for them; and I do think the actions of certain militant individuals, a disproportionate number of whom are militants of the feminist variety, make things harder for this underclass. Meaning I probably fall into the same bucket as Alexander and Hanson. Whatever that bucket is.
Have we now reached the point where we can declare that my friend was right, that we are providing intellectual cover for the MRA movement? I’m sure he might answer yes, but I don’t think the answer is nearly so clear cut, and thus far I have used the term “intellectual cover” without really explaining what it might mean.
In the conversation with my friend he offered up the example of eugenics, and laid out the following pattern: You might have an idea which starts out being uncontroversial (indeed it’s hard to find a public figure in the early years of the 20th century who didn’t support eugenics.) But, later it becomes apparent that this idea can be taken to an unfortunate extreme. In the case of eugenics this happened under Hitler and the Nazis. The same public figures, who previously supported eugenics, recognized the harm that came from the idea, and abandoned their former support. (Whether they did this out of principle or political necessity is something we didn’t get into.)
He argues that we’re seeing the same thing with the examples I gave and the MRA. If I’m understanding him correctly, his point is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking up for the sexual underclass, until it becomes apparent that speaking up in this way emboldens men’s rights activists and incels who then go on to rape women and drive vans into crowds, and that just as eugenics advocacy stopped once it became clear what Hitler was doing, our advocacy (such as it is) should stop now that it’s become clear how bad the MRA and incel movement is.
As an aside it’s interesting to do a Hansonian substitution in that last paragraph, and imagine that we were talking about advocacy for the poor and underprivileged being fine until they resort to violence (as they frequently have) at which point all advocacy has to stop. Of course people are free to argue that the substitution is invalid, because there is no sexual underclass (though what else would you call adults with no access to sex?) or because there is, but they are privileged in other ways that make up for it. And maybe one or the other of those is true.
Beyond the problems of applying the pattern to advocacy for the less fortunate (recall that Eugenics was about culling the less fortunate not helping them) there are many other problems with comparing the MRA and incels to Hitler and the Nazis:
It’s immediately suspect as being a Reductio ad Hitlerum argument.
However bad you think the MRA and militant incels are, the Nazis were literally millions of times worse.
What other examples are there of this pattern outside of eugenics and the Nazis? You might mention racism and the Confederacy. But once again, millions of times worse.
There is at least one example where an ideology caused greater harm than that caused by the Nazis, but that ideology is not off limits. Of course I’m thinking of the example of communism.
If I believe that abortion is murder (or at least a close cousin, which I do) and that certain flavors of strident feminists have increased the rate of abortion (which I also believe, though accurate numbers are hard to come by) then you might put feminism in the same bucket with communism as things we can discuss despite the harm they’ve caused.
I am reasonably certain (though here we are outside the bounds of the things he and I discussed) that my friend would have argued that feminism causes very little harm, and that the harm it does cause is entirely outweighed by the good it does. Being fairly conservative he probably wouldn’t make the same argument about communism (though as far as I can tell MRAs and incels make him much angrier than communists) but there are obviously lots of people who still support communist ideology despite all the deaths.
If we switch from the argument that MRAs and incels do bad things to the argument that the things they do are so bad that it outweighs any conceivable benefit, then that’s a different argument, with a higher standard. Also recall, that my friend’s initial point was not that the people in question are men’s rights activist, but rather that we provide intellectual cover for people who define themselves as such. Meaning the harms he is so worried about are even harder to lay at our feet. Also note that we don’t have to show that MRAs and incels do more good than bad on net, we only need to show that the second order effects of being sympathetic to lovelorn nerds are a net positive.
On the bad side of the equation, have any of the people mentioned (myself included) actually done something objectively wrong? Can you point to anyone in the community who has committed violence? Anyone who as advocated for violence? On this point, and in the interest of continuing to steelman things, at one point Hanson does say that inequalities of any sort all do frequently lead to violence, but that’s a far cry from calling for violence.
The main bad thing my friend pointed to, as I mentioned above, was speaking without first educating ourselves. Of holding forth on the subject of feminists and sexual inequality without knowing the latest thinking on the subject. And while I disagree with the assertion that, Robin Hanson, for instance, knew nothing about the topic, I wonder if my friend is falling into a similar trap, of not being entirely educated about the sort of advocacy that is happening in the posts I’ve used as examples. And here we turn to the good side of the equation.
As I’ve already made it clear in my previous post I do think there is a sexual underclass. And that some of the people in that underclass are quite literally worthy males and nice guys. The form I’m most familiar with are the socially awkward nerds. Let’s take the experiences of one of them, Scott Aaronson, who could have been used as an example of a blogger providing intellectual cover, but makes a better example as the kind of person we’re actually hoping to support:
(sigh) Here’s the thing: I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not “entitled,” not “privileged,” but terrified. I was terrified that one of my female classmates would somehow find out that I sexually desired her, and that the instant she did, I would be scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison. You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year.
My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.
Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fears were as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.
Because of my fears—my fears of being “outed” as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal—I had constant suicidal thoughts. As Bertrand Russell wrote of his own adolescence: “I was put off from suicide only by the desire to learn more mathematics.”
At one point, I actually begged a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate me (I had researched which ones), because a life of mathematical asceticism was the only future that I could imagine for myself. The psychiatrist refused to prescribe them, but he also couldn’t suggest any alternative: my case genuinely stumped him. As well it might—for in some sense, there was nothing “wrong” with me. In a different social context—for example, that of my great-grandparents in the shtetl—I would have gotten married at an early age and been completely fine.
Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them. I reminded myself, every day, that no, there’s no conspiracy to make the world a hell for shy male nerds. There are only individual women and men trying to play the cards they’re dealt, and the confluence of their interests sometimes leads to crappy outcomes. No woman “owes” male nerds anything; no woman deserves blame if she prefers the Neanderthals; everyone’s free choice demands respect.
That I managed to climb out of the pit with my feminist beliefs mostly intact, you might call a triumph of abstract reason over experience. But I hope you now understand why I might feel “only” 97% on board with the program of feminism.
I wish I could say that the feminist portion of the internet reached out to Aaronson with compassion and understanding, but, unsurprisingly, that did not happen.
I think I can confidently say that none of the people I mentioned are claiming that worthy males or nice guys are being denied sex that’s rightfully theirs by evil women/feminist. As you can see from the above quote they’re actually going out of their way to say the opposite. But surely, the kind of experience Aaronson (and others) are having should not be off limits for discussion. Even if my friend is right about the intellectual cover argument, and I don’t think he is, how cruel would you have to be to hear a story like Aaronson’s and respond by telling him to “Shut up!”
Unlike Aaronson not only are you welcome to tell me to “Shut up!” It’s something that probably needs to happen more. But yes it is probably still rude, so if you want to consider softening the blow, considering donating at the same time. Maybe you’ll confuse me as much as my friend did.