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.


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