Feminism and The Search for Truth

Part 1: Pain is bad; also, it’s data Social justice and feminism, like every other intellectual movement, should be about truth. They can and are and should be about other things as well – solidarity, encouragement, emotion, commitment, action – but truth must be at the center, or we will find we are fighting for, and perhaps more frighteningly, against, the wrong things. I was pained by the internet’s response to Dr. Scott Aaronson’s comment on his blog, detailing the pain he underwent as a self-described nerd, wholly committed (to the point of asking for castration) to never acting towards women in a way that could ever be interpreted as an assault or unwelcome advance. The worst was about what you’d expect from the worst of any group, with the multiplier of the internet and a pile-on mentality: cruel in its dismissal of Dr. Aaronson’s vulnerability and pain and vicious in its unfounded attacks. Even the article in the New Statesman by Laurie Penny, lauded in several corners for its empathy and compassion, was to me, a terrible disappointment. There are more and more whispers coming from disparate places that echo what Dr. Aaronson said. It is becoming emprically and ethically questionable to doubt that feminist messages make the lives of some men (and others attracted to women, and others period), specifically those in the nerd camp, harder, and not in a productive way. The New Statesmen piece barely addressed any of this. It acknowledged that being on the social outskirts is difficult, and then tied everything back to traditional feminist ideas by pointing out the struggles that women face, and how they are more, or harder, or more important. But to address someone expressing the pain they felt as a result of trying to take feminist ideas seriously by offering them yet more of the same is a failing, in ethics and in thinking. As Aaronson himself said in edits to his original comment:

[My comment] is not, insanely, to suggest a lack of misogyny in the modern world! To whatever extent there is misogyny, one could say that there’s also “male privilege.” Rather it’s to suggest that, given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their “male privilege” is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.

Not only that, but the angle was kind of a non sequitur, since Dr. Aaronson didn’t bring up anything about patriarchy or privilege(1) unhelpful to me. Dr. Aaronson did seem to misunderstand  privilege, feeling like he didn’t have it since his life was so hard, and that it would have been easier to be a woman or gay. He even suggested, though did not necessarily stand behind, the idea that being a shy male nerd might “have put me [Dr. Aaronson] into one of society’s least privileged classes.” However, while there’s certainly room to engage with that misunderstanding, I saw Laurie Penny addressing primarily the question of whether Dr. Aaronson was less privileged than his female counterparts (no, and I’m glad she pointed that out) rather than the bigger question of feminism’s role in making his life more difficult, and whether privilege is a useful concept in this context.  I can tell Laurie Penny was trying to do a good job, but the formulation of “being a woman means you have less privilege than a ceterus paribus man, full stop”, while largely or entirely true, is incredibly common, and did not move the conversation forward. It reminded me of a Fixed Argumentation Pattern, wherein people make the same arguments in the same ways regardless of what ideas they’re actually confronting.

A facebook group

A facebook group

What would I have liked to see? I would liked to have seen the kind of feminism that I and a (small? but hopefully growing? it’s so hard to know) community of people adhere to, one that goes hand in hand with our goals of truth and accuracy. We attempt to utilize all of the tools of science and aspiring rationalism to collect evidence, think critically about ideological claims, and land wherever the data and best argumentation takes us, even when it’s inconvenient or unpalatable. It’s a feminism that is willing to use explanations of ideas in place of potentially unproductive jargon. It’s a feminism that acknowledges it does not have the only useful model and the only claims to truth. It’s a feminism that sees critiques of its claims as reasons to do more research and argue better (or change its mind), rather than as attacks from The Enemy. Such a feminism would have taken Dr. Aaronson’s pain seriously and been more compassionate, because it would have known that he was not the enemy. (A guy who is on board with 97% of feminism (possibly more than me) is not doing a particularly good job as an enemy of feminism.) It would have asked itself, if it believed in feminism so strongly, why good ideas were leading to bad outcomes and what that meant about feminist strategy. It would have acknowledged that the growing body of confessions of people, specifically nerdy men, in pain, is data, and that data needs to be incorporated if the theory is to remain robust. Part 2: Alternate Responses: Some suggestions My first response to reading about all this was a veritable stream of consciousness of questions. In a more organized fashion, here are some thoughts I would want my feminism to explore What’s going on with this pain?

  1. Is it just that the feminist ideals of consent and respect for women’s autonomy have been badly conveyed or communicated?

No doubt that this is true in some cases, since not everyone in the world is a good communicator, but is that enough to explain all of it?

  1. Is it an issue of strategy, where we have focused on what bad consent looks like and not enough on what good men and good consent look like?

I can think of several examples of positive discussion, but perhaps they are not widespread enough, or are not being communicated well (see #1)

  1. Are the men suffering from this simply over-scrupulous, that is, they suffer from the sense that they must achieve moral perfection and lambast themselves if they fail?

If so, this has relatively less to do with feminism. Such scrupulosity (and over scrupulosity) can be found in Effective Altruism circles and highly religious environments (where the term comes from), to name just a few. That said, Effective Altruists are at least trying to undermine that aspect of their messaging, and I am on record saying that purity, and its attendant request for perfection, is a shitty moral foundation and we should eschew it whenever possible. Feminism can and should do the same. Not least, it’s worth adding, if some of the people most hurt by feminist messaging are the people trying the hardest to do good and hating themselves for not getting it right enough, something is probably going wrong. Scrupulous people are the best, let’s please not make them hate themselves.

  1. Is it an unfortunate but necessary side effect of spreading the right messages to everyone else?

Every social message engages with the tension between who it will reach and who the optimal audience is. If your social circle really needs to be more X, and so you start spreading X messages far and wide, you might be hitting people who ought or could be less X. It’s possible that the optimal way to spread feminism sadly involves the pain of the more scrupulous (if we combined this with #3, someone might point out that scrupulous people are most at risk for bad effects from any message imploring people to do better).  If that’s true, so be it, but arguing that the current equilibrium constructed on the base of passionate, angry, self-interested actors + the internet (i.e. Moloch’s playground) is optimal, like, the actual highest point on the highest mountain of what feminism could be would take some serious work and my prior for it is somewhere around 10%.

This may also just be a question of competing access needs, in which there is no way to make a safe space for everyone, because people have different needs. Feminists might need spaces to be communally harsh and critical of injustices. Scrupulous people might need a safe haven from that kind of criticism, which will harm them more than help them. Aspiring rationalists might need a place where everything can be criticized, including feminism itself. And people at the intersections are probably going to have a hard time. In fact, this issue is evidence that they are having a hard time, and I hope this opens up the space a little.

  1. Is there a vicious undercurrent of feminist thought and thinkers that don’t take seriously the pain of people they consider privileged?

Many seem to think so, some of whom are dedicated to battling feminism in ways just as if not more unproductive and obnoxious than what they’re criticizing, and some of whom may have more of a point. It only takes looks at some of the ways that feminists are themselves attacked by other feminists to feel uneasy about some of the discourse. And of course this may just be a human problem, not a feminism problem, though feminism might still want to clean house. It’s also worth pointing out that feminism and social justice sometimes argue for the reasonableness of uncivil argumentation. My natural inclination to steelman means that that doesn’t end the conversation for me, but it does suggestively point out a problem.

Part 3: The Future I wanted to write a response to the Laurie Penny article as soon as I was asked what I thought and ended up writing a four paragraph Facebook comment. But I wanted to write this particular piece, wherein I have tried to outline the feminism that makes sense to me and bring others on board for an additional reason. In the comments of a blog post discussing these events, I saw a call to action, asking for feminists to speak up and demonstrate their allegiance to compassion and evidence and self-criticism. It’s anyone’s guess how necessary that is; I don’t feel that all the feminism that has come before me has been uncommitted to truth or evidence or rationality, and it is utterly ridiculous to believe that I am starting or leading something completely new. All of us are thoroughly indebted to the people who have been doing feminist and other justice-related work all along, but there’s also an evolving need for a different kind of space. Something is happening, and I want to be part of the group that stays a part of feminism, that remains embedded in the same issues and fights, but also changes and adapts more readily, using tools of thinking that already exist. My feminism will be accurate, or I can’t do it anymore.

(1) I was wrong here. I focused on the parts of Dr. Aaronson’s posts that I found most important, that I thought were most important to respond to, and forgot about the others. Laurie Penny oviously responded more to the privilege aspects, which I still argue is unhelpful, but is a reasonable choice. Mea Culpa. Possibly related posts

Pictures of cute animals make things better

Why I Support the Open Letter to the Secular Community

I am really thrilled that a group of secular organizations came together and wrote an open letter to the secular community about online communication. They’ve called for a change of tone and substance in online argumentation, in the hopes that arguments will become less personal and more productive. Like everyone else, I have no idea whether it will make any difference, but I’m really glad to see more and more people and organizations publicly supporting a certain type of discourse. I happen to believe that productive and useful discussion is a good idea on a practical level, helping us win arguments and learn more, and I also think there’s an ethical dimension to how intellectually honest we are about other people’s arguments and to how we’re treating other people. But more than that, this is a community issue. Everyone knows the internet is kind of a cesspool, but these organizations aren’t speaking out publicly to talk about the internet at large. They’re talking about to atheists, agnostics, the “nones”, we nonreligious folk who make up this community. It’s a motley crew, to be sure, and the community in online form is a very loose collection of secular, atheist and skeptic networks, blogs and forums. But it’s still there, and insofar as it’s a metaphorical space that we inhabit and use to interact with each other, meet people, plan events, engage in activism and talk about issues, it’s worth protecting. Right now, one of the threats to the ability of the community to act like a community is the way that online discussion is happening. Is this an existential threat? No. Is it the only threat? No. But it’s one we can and should do something about. So thank you to Jesse Galef and Dan Fincke, for talking about this stuff starting years ago, and thank you to these organizations, who are trying to get us all back on track.

I also happen to love a lot of the specifics they’ve put into their letter. I’m more and more coming to the opinion that moderation of blog comments is crucial. It simply creates a better space for everyone, and doesn’t allow support for trolls or harassers to accrue. Communicating privately with people to clear up misunderstandings before lambasting them online is brilliant, and it’s an idea I’ve loved since I heard Hemant Mehta talking about it at Chicago’s skepticamp. Why wouldn’t we want to clear up misconceptions before they adversely affect our opinions or writing? And of course, listening and being charitable are important practices that are very close to my heart. Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Of course, there’s been plenty of criticism of the open letter, and that’s great. Nothing is perfect, and discussion helps us learn more and more. However, I think most of the criticism is off the mark, and I’d like to explain why, in a few posts.

But before I go into specifics, what I’d like to tell everyone who doesn’t like the letter is: The Open Letter is probably not talking about what you think it’s talking about.

That is, it probably (probably) isn’t calling for the end of the online comments you want to see around. Up and down the Friendly Atheist comment sections were people grievously concerned that they weren’t going to be allowed to criticize certain bloggers or ideas anymore. Leaving aside that this open letter and these secular organizations have no ability to forcibly stop anyone from saying anything on the internet, criticism isn’t the problem here. Content generally isn’t the problem. It’s not an issue that people want to say how much they hate Freethought Blogs or various prominent people or whomever. It’s that to do it, some people make false accusations, state claims based on rumors, call people feminazis, femistasis and worse, harass by email, comment and blog, and send illegal and despicable rape, death and other violent threats. If you’re not doing those things, you’re probably not the problem, and no one is trying to curtail your free speech.

(On that note, and I can’t believe I have to say this, blog moderation is only censorship under the broadest possible definition, and it’s a totally reasonable form of it, social disapproval doesn’t infringe on free speech and calling for a higher level of discourse isn’t fascistic. Everyone on board? If not, let’s talk in comments.)

Similarly, to those who felt the open letter didn’t support feminism strongly enough, you may be right, and I’ll address those specific concerns in my next post. But one concern I saw over and over again was that the kind of behavior the open letter wanted to see stopped was the kind of behavior that victims of harassment and marginalized people take on their own behalf, and so the open letter served to perpetuate both harassment and marginalization by criticizing those who speak against it. Again, I really don’t think that’s what these organizations are talking about. They’re not talking about people who get angry because people are awful to them. They’re not talking about people and ideas being called out for being insensitive or offensive or cruel. They don’t want people to stop standing up for themselves or stop pointing out problems or stop making legitimate criticisms. They want people to stop being considered enemies because of who they associate with, and people who are asking sincere questions (even if thoughtless) to not be treated as if they were malicious, and claims not to be trusted without verification. Generally speaking, if you’re not doing that, it’s not a problem. That, anyway, is my interpretation of the letter.

By the way, it’s a good place here to say that I DO NOT think these problems are on the same level. Insults and harassment and rape threats are orders of magnitude worse than being someone being misinterpreted and thought offensive when they meant no harm. What they have in common, though, is that they do harm to discussion and to the community.

That harm is what the writers of the open letter would like to see ended. And everything else they speak out against is what everyone should be against. It doesn’t matter what you believe or what “side” you’re on. There is a basic level of discourse which must be present for anything productive to take place. Of course skeptics should “trust but verify.” Of course as atheists, many of whom were once religious, we should all remember that not everyone knows what we do. I’ve argued before that of course all of us should be charitable, if not to our interlocutors, then to their arguments, and if not for their sake, then for all the observers. Of course we as internet users should care about the kind of space we create. And of course as intellectually honest people we should take care to only write things that are true and not spread misinformation.

For instance, yesterday, in the Friendly Atheist comment section about this very issue, the following exchange took place,


Person A, do you really think this is groupthink? I think the idea is to come together and really work on improving the community. Isn’t that the same kind of thing you write about?

Not Person A:

“i don’t need “improvement” thank you very much.

people tell me all the time that there is something wrong with me, and that i need “fixing.” you know who?

anti-gay religious groups and racists, to name just a few. do you really want to join those ranks? you’ve already made several statements on this thread that i disagree with, am i better positioned than you such that i should decide what is best for you, in the name of “the community?” it seems to me like that is what you, and this letter, proposes to do.”

This is the kind of thing the letter is talking about. I got compared to anti-gay religious groups and racists in a way that was ludicrously out of step with what I said. This is bad discourse. This is the kind of thing that should end. Not feminism, not standing for yourself, and obviously not free speech.

Whatever we believe, I think the ideas in the open letter are ones everyone should agree with. They’re basic due diligence. They’re the foundation of our ability to talk to each other. And I want to make sure we can keep talking to each other.

That’s why I support the Open Letter.

All-or-nothing is All Wrong

Let us imagine an enormous cavern. Two people who are arguing with each other are on two pillars with spotlights above them. The rest is darkness. Their goal is to get the other person to switch columns. Using an all-or-nothing approach is like talking only about the rightness of Column B and the utter uselessness of Column A, and in fact Columns C-Z as well. Nothing but total agreement is acceptable or has any value at all. There’s a lot wrong with this approach.

1. It’s wrong: It is almost never true that only one position in an argument is reasonable or acceptable. A finite amount of evidence (which itself might be reasonably interpretable in multiple ways) usually gives us a range of positions that could be arrived at rationally given different starting positions. Ignoring those multiple pathways is an intellectual mistake, especially if the people are arguing are have different sets of evidence and different approaches to analysis. For example, when arguing about a complicated subject, not first principles, it’s irrational to think that someone should concede on a point that runs counter to their core assumptions. Arguing about environmental policy when disagreeing about global warming rationally shouldn’t lead to agreement without a proper discussion about global warming, and it’s therefore irrational to expect it.

2. It’s unproductive: Even in cases like a (mostly) round earth, evolution and taxes being a necessary part of government, where there really is only one answer, it is hardly ever the case that accepting nothing but full agreement is a helpful approach to getting someone to change their mind. It’s the column situation above, where Person B continues to argue that Column B is *obviously* right and Column A *obviously* wrong, without telling anyone how to get from one to the other. Even if it seems clear that they should switch, without that knowledge, it’s much safer to stay at Column A rather than grope around in the darkness.

This is basically by definition the wrong way to have an argument. It doesn’t acknowledge any possible counterarguments. It’s not at all charitable to Person B’s Column. It’s not nuanced. It’s a dig-your-heels-in, battle-to-the-death kind of argument. Those don’t tend to change people’s minds. That’s why intransigence is far more likely to lead to backfiring, defensiveness and offense than the desired result.

Also, it’s not even a real argument. Ignoring entirely the possibility of being wrong makes arguments farcical. Not taking anything your opponent says seriously if it doesn’t agree with your position takes away the possibility of learning from them. It’s not a true engagement with the ideas, and it essentially ignores the fact that your opponent can think.

3. It’s a win for irrationality: Even if the all-or-nothing approach worked at changing someone’s mind, it seems that would be almost certain to be a result of deference to a more confident opponent rather than a true acknowledgment of the intellectual benefits of the other position.

All of the points I made above about why these arguments probably won’t change anyone’s mind are the same reasons that make the unlikely agreement unlikely to be rational. After all, arguments that only allow for full agreement don’t tend to lead to a sober analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of two or more positions. They don’t involve a proper assessment of the available evidence. They don’t weigh alternative interpretations of the evidence. It’s hard for me to see, then, how that agreement could actually have been arrived at in a rational way.

This is a problem. We don’t want people just to believe one thing over another, but also believe it for the right reasons. We don’t want to bludgeon our opponents into agreement; we want them to actually agree on rational grounds. Besides the obvious reasons, the only way that they could go on to defend that very position to others is if they understood why they agreed with it in the first place. And also, when we allow our opponents to really think about the position, they might even teach us something.

4. It’s mean: Demanding utter concession makes arguments ugly. It’s a shaming, humiliating approach. It means there can be no compromise, and sometimes not even an acceptance that someone might need to think about something for awhile. This creates a punishment for being wrong without any useful way to become more right, other than total, even unthinking (see above), capitulation. Without full agreement, Person A will simply continue on with how wrong Person B is. Even when there’s been some movement towards column A, Person B is still totally wrong about everything they haven’t conceded yet.

There is a true cruelty to that, one which, frankly, disincentivizes thinking. Because if what someone gets for engaging with new ideas, or even trying to see what changing positions would be like, is the same constant pressure, and no acknowledgement of their thinking, they have no reason to do it any more. Mind changing is painful enough as it is; making it harder only makes it less likely to happen.

How to Do It Better
Every argument should be a chance for everyone in it to learn something. That’s why it’s so great when skeptics are fervent about knowing what would convince them they were wrong, which is the equivalent of knowing the series of steps that would take them from their column to someone else’s and the willingness to walk them if there is sufficient evidence. This ensures that every discussion is, to greater and lesser extents, about every participant making sure they believe what is best supported by the evidence. Arguments like these foster a respectful environment of mutual learning, where everyone is, at least a little bit, productively unsure and figuring it out together.

Arguments should also be, as much as possible, imbued with a spirit of good will. When someone makes a good point, praise it, whether or not it helps your position. (Though, tactically, you should certainly praise them when it seems like they’ve understood or agree with one of your points). Make their arguments better. Acknowledge insufficiencies in your own argument. Tell someone when they’ve made an argument you haven’t heard before, or one that taught you something. Admit when they bring up a piece of evidence you hadn’t heard before. Learning is a process, so offer compromises, even if they’re not totally the position you want them to have. In all things, foster an environment of learning rather than battle.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

When to Consider Reconsidering: A Quiz

In this Better Arguing Series, I have argued that one of the ways that we can exercise due diligence in argument with others, is by acknowledging that counterarguments to our position exist and taking them seriously. But what does taking them seriously really mean? We aren’t going to agree with those counterarguments, right? Otherwise we’d be on the other side of the argument! How sure are we allowed to be that we can dismiss the counter argument? More broadly, what does taking counterarguments seriously really entail?

I’m so glad you asked! For this express purpose, I’ve made a quiz!

The Better Arguing Quiz: What To Do When You Encounter a Counter(argument)

Step 1: We start with a number. It could be your birthdate, 6 times your favorite number from 1-10, or the number of windows in New York. It’ll be most helpful, though, if it’s the probability you put on your belief being true. What do I mean by that? Well, what odds would you put money on if someone was betting on this belief? Or how biased would a roulette wheel have to be before you felt more comfortable spinning it than betting on the belief being true?

Put your number here ___

Step 2: Mark all that apply:
__ The person disagreeing with you is or appears intelligent/rational
__ The people agreeing with you…don’t
__ The argument is one you’ve never heard before
__ You learn of any evidence that doesn’t agree with your point, from the argument or elsewhere
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about the weak parts of your argument
__ You realize that in order to maintain your current position and confidence, you’re avoiding thinking about certain arguments or facts
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with one or more of your core values
__ The person disagreeing with you agrees with you on related issues
__ You forgot why you believe the thing you currently believe (don’t laugh, it happens to me all the time)

Step 3: How many did you get?
0 marks: You’re good! Keep your position as is, and remember to keep arguing well!
1-3 marks: You should consider restructuring your position so it takes these things into account.
4-6 marks: You should consider spending some significant time with websites or books or other places with arguments against your position so you can see if you can come up with defenses to them.
7-9 marks: You should consider re-evaulating your position from scratch. Go back through all the arguments, facts and research you can find, and see where you land.

I’m a little bit kidding, but mostly not. If someone who is as smart as us and who shares our premises disagrees with us on something, probability theory really does say that we should have a higher expectation of being wrong than we did before. And if we hear an argument that we haven’t heard before that sounds similar to one we have heard and don’t like, then we’re more likely to dismiss it (something called the inoculation effect). So we should be extra sure to remember that that behavior is a red flag, and that for every argument, if we haven’t heard it before, it counts on its own.

As a result, these red flags end up being really informative about how sure we should be about our positions. For example, they don’t tend to come up when I argue with Flat Earthers (not that I do that much) or Creationists. They occasionally come up when I talk about feminism. And they come up a lot when I talk about politics or economics. Wonderfully, that’s precisely the decreasing order of sureness with which I hold positions in those areas.

When we argue, we shouldn’t just be able to change our minds, we should also be able to change our confidence. So let’s use this checklist (and any expansions if people want to suggest things in comments) as a way to remind ourselves to always be questioning our sureness in our positions, so that we can be sure we’re getting as much truth out of every argument as possible.

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