What if you woke up one day and realized that you were crazy?
Laurie Penny in the New Statesman argues that it’s about time that nerds realized they were simply another kind of victim. Then they might sympathize with feminists. She starts by citing the charges of unacceptable behavior directed against MIT professor emeritus Walter Lewin, whose physics lectures have been removed from the university’s online courses pending an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment.
MIT is indefinitely removing retired physics faculty member Walter Lewin’s online lectures from MIT OpenCourseWare and online MITx courses from edX … in response to a complaint it received in October from a woman, who is an online MITx learner, claiming online sexual harassment by Lewin. She provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his MITx courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners.
She sort of understands why a professor might do this because nerds are damaged. She argues the psychological stress nerds are under should open the eyes of MIT professor Scott Aaronson to the reality of “male privilege”. Aaronson’s been a victim of meatheads all his life, as he himself admits while denying the decisive influence of the patriarchy.
“Much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience . . . I suspect the thought that being a nerdy male might not make me ‘privileged’ — that it might even have put me into one of society’s least privileged classes — is completely alien to your way of seeing things. I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not ‘entitled’, not ‘privileged’, but terrified.”
I know them feels, Scott.
You know the feels. The “crippling anxiety”, the stings of “weaponised shame”, “the disaster of heterosexuality” and the “post-rationalisation”. All the feels that oppress nerds, LGBT individuals and countless other victims and make them incapable of living life. Were Scott Aaronson only able to cast off his blinders, he’d realize that the same structures of privilege which caused his childhood loneliness and frustration are the drivers of women’s failure in the STEM professions.
Nonetheless, he makes a sudden leap, and it’s a leap that comes right from the gut, from an honest place of trauma and post-rationalisation, from that teenage misery to a universal story of why nerdy men are in fact among the least privileged men out there, and why holding those men to account for the lack of representation of women in STEM areas – in the most important fields both of human development and social mobility right now, the places where power is being created and cemented right now – is somehow unfair. Nerds are not like the ‘neanderthals’, the REAL abusers of women. They should get a break.
Aaronson, like the Lewin’s accusers have been mugged by the REAL abusers, the uber white guys; the dudes who secretly foregather in Greek fraternity houses in the University of Virginia like vampires in the night; the secret illuminati who oppress the world and make it a hell for everyone else. We should shine the spotlight at last on the true villains of our age and every age.
But there’s a problem. Despite the fact that they walk among us, despite their ubiquitous power to oppress billions of people, the ubers are surprisingly hard to spot. You would be mistaken for example, if you thought Lyndon Johnson was a white guy. No, no. As Joseph Califano, LBJ’s assistant for domestic affairs writes in the Washington Post, the president stitched up Selma in coordination with Martin Luther King and there are recordings to prove it. LBJ was only pretending to be an uber white guy — secretly he was a Democrat.
In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted — and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.
On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: “There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.”
It’s important to remember that ‘white’ doesn’t mean ‘white’ any more than The Patriarchy refers to biological males, of which there is no such thing. Whiteness, like Maleness is modified by ideology, party affiliation and above all their place in the Narrative. Spotting social oppressors requires knowledge acquired in courses like Gender or Racial studies the same way people needed special sunglasses to see the aliens among us in the movie They Live.
Identity and indeed guilt are determined by the way you think. Otherwise you fall into the heresy of heteronormativity, “the belief that people fall into distinct and complementary genders (man and woman) with natural roles in life … Heteronormativity is often linked to heterosexism and homophobia.” It is descended from the even graver error of normativity, the mistaken belief that there’s a right way and a wrong way: a norm.
But back to waking up and finding you’re crazy.
Penny writes that one of the dangers to reality being all in the mind is you can think you’ve been a good guy all your life and suddenly realize you’re Darth Vader. Like Franz Kafka’s narrator in Metamorphosis, you may wake up one day to find yourself transformed into a gigantic cockroach. It’s a shocking realization but one you should be open to.
Finding out that you’re not the Rebel Alliance, you’re actually part of the Empire and have been all along, is painful. Believe me, I know. (Although I always saw myself as an Ewok). We bring our broken hearts and blue balls to the table when we talk gender politics, especially if we are straight folks. Consent and the boundaries of consent – desire and what we’re allowed to speak of desire – we’re going to have to get better, braver and more honest, we’re going to have to undo decades of toxic socialisation and learn to speak to each other as human beings in double quick time.
And most of all, we’re going to have to make like Princess Elsa and let it go – all that resentment. All that rage and entitlement and hurt. Socialisation makes that process harder still for men. The road ahead will be long. I believe in you. I believe in all of us.
Which of your multiple personalities do you “let go”? Here is where we have a modern embarrassment of riches. In the simple days of Raymond Chandler you could feel straightforward racial oppression and maybe hunger and hard bedsprings. In the novel Playback, Philip Marlowe talks to a man who been behind the social eight ball from birth.
“You’re not Mex?”
“I’m part Chinese, part Hawaiian, part Filipino, and part ni**er. You’d hate to be me. … I’m not sore at anybody. I live. I eat. Sometimes I sleep. Come around and see me some time. I live in a flea bag in an old frame cottage on Polton’s Lane, which is really an alley. I live right behind the Esmeralda Hardware Company. The toilet’s in a shed. I wash in the kitchen, at a tin sink. I sleep on a couch with broken springs. Everything there is twenty years old. This is a rich man’s town. Come and see me. I live on a rich man’s property.”
“There’s a piece missing from your story about Mitchell,” I said.
“I’ll look under the couch for it. It might be a little dusty.”
But in today’s enlightened world there’s a whole lot more to get sore at, beginning with “feelings” about gender, the environment, religious fascism. Why the Financial Times says that the International Crisis Group is worried about hardline Buddhist monks going around inciting anti-Muslim sentiment. The monks and the white patriarchs seem to be the biggest sources of trouble in the world today. A more contemporary Marlowe would have known that there were worse things in life than being a Mex. In fact you could spend your whole life trying to figure out who to rage at.
“Seen any Hare Krishna types lately?”
“Because there are worse things than being you.”
“Yeah, like what for instance?”
“Like not having Obamacare or lacking a Green card, or being without an MIT engineering degree, or finding you’re an egghead or a fruit. Maybe having those hardline Buddhists chanting in the street outside. Then you’d really be in trouble. You don’t know the half of it kid. This is a straight man’s town and on those mean streets there’s all kinds of sheds. In fact, you could own the Esmeralda Hardware Company or live in a high tower on a hill and still have to smoke reefers to sleep. Keep looking under the couch kid. The gun might just turn up there, next to the Patriarchy. Then it might just up and shoot you. See you around.”
With problems like heteronormativity it’s either a hard world or an easy one. Here’s hoping the world will still be there is a week’s time. So Happy New Year and — see you around.
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