Sunday, January 04, 2015

When To Keep Quiet

Since comments have been shut down on the Scott Alexander post I mentioned the other day, I'll finish up a thread I was on over there, and give it some room to breathe over here.

In the post Alexander writes:

The reason that my better nature thinks that it’s irrelevant whether or not Penny’s experience growing up was better or worse than Aaronson’s: when someone tells you that something you are doing is making their life miserable, you don’t lecture them about how your life is worse, even if it’s true. You STOP DOING IT.
To which Barry Deutsch replied that Alexander's post linking feminism and nerd-shaming is hurtful to him as a feminist, and therefore, by Alexander's own standards, he should stop publishing posts like this. (Trust me, my paraphrase is more charitable than any quotation would be).

Now, while it's difficult for me to sympathize with Deutsch on this matter, I think he does raise a point -- that a simple application of the principle Alexander proposes is untenable.

First, I think we need to quantify what we mean by "making life miserable." In the original post, Alexander describes people struggling with suicidal thoughts and considering chemical castration.  It seems this is sufficient to make people reconsider what they're saying.  The same is true for suicides by same-sex attracted teenagers.

Deutsch doesn't do a great job describing how Alexander's post makes his life miserable, so I'll try to guess from his comments and general observations.

I can guess that he doesn't like seeing a movement he identifies with associated with bad actions. Well, take it from a pro-lifer -- tough shit, and welcome to the Big Leagues.

It may be that it makes him uncomfortable seeing someone he respects hold something that matters to him in such low regard, leading him to an uncomfortable decision on whether to maintain his respect or his strong association with feminism. Not fun, but again, not something that I think he should be protected from.

Or, it could be a sense the the feminists are the Good Guys, the movement preventing women from being abused by their partners, treated unfairly on the job, and any discouraging word about it means more women get oppressed. This is kind of the Col. Jessup defense, or the current defense of the NYPD, or the defense of the CIA -- you need us on that wall, and unless you're OK with dealing what's on the other side of that wall yourself, don't ask too many questions about what we do up there. As you can probably tell by my examples, I don't find this defense all that convincing either.

But, really, all this gets us to is an argument over what kind of pain is valid and worth addressing, which is what we were trying to avoid in the first place -- the big theme of Alexander's post is that it's wrong to dismiss nerds' pain because it's different than structural oppression.

Being made aware of an evil that you, or a group that you identify with, is complicit in is going to be unpleasant, even with the hope of redemption,  This pain may even go to the point of "making life miserable." Taking someone's expression of pain as a binding cue to stop gives a permanent advantage to the status quo, and incentivizes claims of pain.  Every policy has winners and losers; the winners would prefer not to be reminded of it. If they can claim that hearing about it is painful for them, and that cry must be respected, then it produces a world where nothing changes. (Again, see the NYPD).

There will always be competing claims of pain, and we will need to find ways to prioritized which ones we address.

The current way we resolve this, at least in many corners of online discourse, is that the least privileged party (or the one speaking on behalf of the lest privileged party) gets to speak, and the more privileged parties are to sit an politely listen, since they've had their turn to speak throughout history. I suppose this is as good as any alternatives, but is not perfect -- in part, because some parties, like the unborn, don't even have the privilege of claiming lack of privilege.

Commentators like Alexander point out these shortcomings, and the hope that we can avoid them by simply following some simple rules of discourse. -- e.g: if someone tells you what you're doing is making them miserable, stop doing it.  Be nice to each other. Don't be a jerk. Etc.

I wish this worked, but there is evil in the world. If we leave the field open so that people can get their way by claiming pain, some of them are going to claim pain they don't really feel.

The Legacy of Ryan Lindley

Yesterday, Ryan Lindley capped off one of the worst months of quarterback play in history with perhaps the worst performance by a quarterback in playoff game history.  With him under center, the Cardinals turned from a dominant team to one that couldn't beat a sub .500 team that made several attempts to give the game away.

Most intelligent fans recognize that this isn't really his fault.  He was the third string quarterback, and outside of Columbus, most third string quarterbacks are not very good. He was thrown into water over his head, and responded about how one would expect him to.

Still, his name will likely be synonymous with incompetent quarterbacking from now forward, and it seems kind of unfair. If Carson Palmer and Drew Stanton had not gotten hurt, he would have remained pretty much anonymous. His legacy would mainly be his college career. Instead, his name will be a curse word in much of the Southwest.

Sometimes athletes escape the goat horns because the pressure goes to the coach or manager. Michael Wacha had about has bad an inning as he could possibly have in the decisive game in the NLCS against the Giants, but everyone recognized that manager Mike Matheny should have never put him in that position, In this case, it seems that Lindley was the Cardinals' best option. Maybe they could have come up with a game plan that would help him more (as Ohio St. did for Cardale Jones), but their hands were pretty much tied.

I just find it it interesting how quickly and profoundly someone's life can change.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Throwing Out the Baby; Keeping The Bathwater

Reading this Scott Alexander post on the nerd-shaming strand of feminism (which I can stand behind close to 97% of), I was struck by this passage from Scott Aaronson about the depths to which his lack of romantic success coupled with feminist indoctrination plunged him:

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. 

And I thought to myself -- how did I avoid a similar fate?

I certainly had my dark moments.  I certainly got my share of indoctrination. I could fairly be described as a "nerd."  I am generally sensitive to other people's pain, and wouldn't want to cause any, and can identify with Aaronson's desire not to be a creep or scare people off.

But I never got near the point where I considered myself a menace and chemical castration was the only response.


Some possibilities:

  • While I am "nerdy," I was probably not an exact match for the stereotype. I enjoyed both watching and playing sports (though I was never very athletic). I usually had a sense of proper dress and fashion, and was willing to conform. I didn't get a lot of female attention, but it was non-zero. 
  • It's possible by sex drive is/was not as strong for me as for others. I could generally be in the presence of a girl/woman I was attracted to without being consumed by a desire to kiss her.
But, I think the main reason was my Faith.  That I was part of a faith tradition and community that told me I was created good, loved and saved by God, and that even my sexuality was good, regardless of what the rest of the world said.

Perhaps this stuck out to me because I had just finished this Joseph Bottum piece on how our politics may have shed explicit grounding in religion, but maintain a sensibility formed by our religious tradition, resulting in conviction of sin, but no means to escape the prison it puts us in.

I'm pretty sure none of the people taking place in the above conversation would describe themselves as religious people, and likely hold religion in disdain.  But that apparently has not not stopped them from retaining some of the worst artifacts of religion -- scruples, the notion that they are irredeemably bad, that sex and sexuality are bad and dirty, the notion that there can only be one suffering which we are destined to endure in private.

Often, we need to fight the temptation to celebrate Easter Sunday without observing Good Friday.  I get the sense that Aaronson is getting Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but missing Christmas and Easter (the baby I refer to in the title can be quite literal).  People are living with guilt, with their own sinfulness without any knowledge or hope of being set free.

I literally cannot imagine what it must be like to bear the notion that all your desires are wrong without the the underlying faith that you were created fundamentally good, so good that God cam in into the world, lived, suffered, and died to save you.  

Perhaps, living with this faith is the greatest "privilege" of all. Evangelization is spreading this Good News to all so we can all live in it and enjoy it.

Is life with this faith always a bed of roses and free of suffering? Certainly not. But it sure beats suffering without hope.