Revenge of the Nerds: A Response to Comment 171 and the Oppression of Geeks

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[Content warning: discussion of rape.]

I’ve recently read some articles which have forced me to conduct an introspective analysis on my views of the male nerd and the role of feminism within their lives. If you haven’t heard, Scott Aaronson, a fairly well-known mathematician and MIT professor, left his emotions bare in the now-infamous Comment #171 regarding his opinion of feminism and the lack of privilege white male nerds actually have in modern society.

Professor Aaronson has been put on blast since he made his comments on December 14th. People have decried him as a misogynist and anti-feminist, despite his numerous attempts to have an open and intellectual discussion on his experiences and general support of feminism. He revealed an adolescence riddled with anxiety and self-oppression and was subsequently attacked, sometimes cussed out, and ridiculed for his life experiences and how they’ve shaped his views.

Luckily, there have been more level-headed responses to his comment. Aaronson has mentioned on his own blog that he received positive responses to his post from “shy nerds” and women in STEM. Two articles which I found to be particularly rational in their response and rebuttal to Aaronson were Laurie Penny’s and Arthur Chu’s.

To be clear, these articles do not agree with everything Aaronson said in his original comment. But, when the author disagrees or believes Aaronson is missing certain points, they choose to address the point and provide evidence countering it, with nary a curse word in sight. For instance, Penny manages to remain balanced between accepting Aaronsons’s experiences and suggesting that he consider other viewpoints. Her article doesn’t dismiss his experiences, but accepts them, and further states that women, including herself, have had the same experiences. The difference being: women who are shy nerds also had to deal with the structural oppression that comes with being a woman on top of the issues that come with being a “shy nerd.”

Chu takes a different approach than Penny; he sympathizes with Aaronson’s struggles in his youth, but also believes that Aaronson misses the bigger picture of feminism. As Chu points out, the struggles of social anxiety and depression are normally internalized oppressions, rather than the external oppressions women face. For instance, Aaronson struggled with the idea that approaching a girl (or her even finding out that he found her attractive) would make him a misogynist and a predator. However, this was an idea. As Chu points out, existential oppression does not equal physical oppression. This doesn’t mean that Aaronson didn’t suffer, nor that his points are invalid. However, it does mean that you can’t consider his anxiety to be equal to a woman’s of being drugged and raped.

Many commenters have missed the fact that this is not an either/or discussion. It’s unfair to assume that Aaronson is anti-feminism because his worldview is different than yours. As it turns out, Aaronson regularly reads feminist literature and supports promoting women in STEM. He has a daughter and a wife and has stated how he wants more for them than previous generations of women have had. He believes they have the right to make their own choices and be considered equals, not objects or abstract ideas.

I have to say that I don’t agree with all of Aaronson’s points, nor do I fully agree with the arguments of Chu or Penny. This is because my worldview is unique to me, as is each of their worldviews is to them. We don’t live in a purely dichotomous world, and neither feminism nor general equality can be considered fully dichotomous issues. This is a subjective world. Rape is not just a woman being taken by a stranger, against her will, in a dark alley (which happens to be the image that comes to mind when I think of that word). Rape is a woman being too drunk to say no. It happens when a wife doesn’t want sex and her husband presses the issue until she finally gives in. Rape is when a husband says no and his wife presses the issue. Remember, rape doesn’t just happen to women.

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Aaronson struggled with this subjectiveness in his youth. As anyone with an anxiety disorder is aware, when you are an anxious person and are informed of multiple subjective ways that you might be oppressing someone else, with no clear guidelines of what activities are not oppressive, you can easily become paranoid that you’re committing all of these acts. You start to think that you’ve been a horrible person all this time without knowing it. You become obsessed with reviewing your past actions and second-guess every decision you ever made. Were you unconsciously oppressing that person? Did you not pick that girl for a project because you thought she was ugly and therefore you were being a misogynist, even though you thought you didn’t choose her because you wanted to work with your best friend? The spiral never ends. It drove Aaronson to desire chemical castration.

The goal of feminism isn’t to make all men wish to chemically castrate themselves. That could cause quite a few issues for our species’ survival and just wouldn’t be prudent. The goal is for all people, regardless of gender, ancestry, sexual orientation, or sexual identity to be given an equal playing field. The goal is for none of that stuff to matter. Having breasts doesn’t affect my ability to arrive at the correct solution to a mathematical formula. Having more melanin in one’s skin doesn’t make that person a criminal. Being gay doesn’t change a lawyer’s ability to successfully defend their client. Being transexual doesn’t make you less of a successful leader. Being a white man doesn’t automatically make you successful or rich. None of these things should affect a person’s success.

Sadly, they still can – and do – which is why feminist programs exist. And this is a point that I didn’t see being brought up in either response article, Aaronson’s comment, or the responses to these works: feminism is a reaction, not an instigator. Hey, whether intended or not, women have been largely kept out of science. So, feminists started campaigning to bring them into science. There have been laws and manuals in place throughout history to keep women, people of color, and non-cishet people from achieving individual success in life. These groups continue to react and fight to have the same rights as the people who made these laws.

And nerds, though not typically lumped in with the rest of the oppressed groups, have also fought back. We’re in the middle of a geek/nerd fad. It’s now cool to be quirky. Movies like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the new Star Trek franchise, every Marvel movie, and LotR/The Hobbit series have brought in the time of the geek. (Though Revenge of the Nerds was really the start of this movement.) Loving a fandom is not super weird right now. It’s accepted.

So, I suppose my ultimate point is this: don’t overgeneralize or dismiss other’s experiences because they don’t align with yours. If a woman says that STEM is largely a boy’s club and details how she’s been groped and catcalled at STEM events by self-proclaimed “nerds,” don’t dismiss her by saying you wouldn’t have groped her as a “nerd,” so “real” nerds would never do that. At the same time, don’t dismiss a white male as anti-feminist because he never self-identified as privileged and explains why (though Penny does a great job of explaining how being privileged doesn’t mean you can’t feel oppressed).

As a final thought, I love Revenge of the Nerds. It’s a great movie about accepting who you are and not letting others bring you down for your uniqueness. Yet, it’s also not a great movie for feminism. After all, the main character rapes the cheerleader, and she’s so impressed with his technique that she immediately falls in love with him and doesn’t care that he pretended to be someone else to sleep with her. Yeah. I’m going to have to think about that one.

wormser

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