Follow Up: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

Following up on Maury’s post, (who I also owe a lot of thanks for helping me edit this cumbersome word vomit into something comprehensible) I’m going to look at some issues that are raised by Scott Aaronson’s blog comment, and try do it responsibly, with sensitivity, and finesse.  Let’s see how it goes.

The first thing that I want to address is that I believe that the guy is sincerely telling us this story from a place of vulnerability and shame, and that lends some credibility to his sincerity. If you really fight me on it, I’d probably have to admit that there’s a strategic time to offer up vulnerability and shame, precisely to leverage believability, but I’m going to work from the assumption, which I believe to be true, that it wasn’t strategic, and that the things he had to say about himself in comment #171 were genuine.

As others have already noted, I think there’s a case to be made for being sensitive to that vulnerability. That the thoughts he brought to his therapy were those of a young man who was suffering, and while there are some rather profoundly problematic elements to those thoughts, going too far on the attack on someone who is sharing “this is what I was thinking” really only teaches others “never share what you were thinking” rather than “let’s talk about how what you were thinking was problematic.”  Here is an admission from Aaronson’s youth that I found particularly troubling:

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

(For disclosures sake, here’s where I out myself as a white queer cis male, which happened on this blog far sooner than I thought I would, but what can you do, really.)

In the course of narrating his own suffering, Aaronson compares himself to others, making assumptions about women and gay men that are both essentializing and inaccurate. He’s a straight white cis male imagining the life of the Other Other Other Other, and he is imagining that the grass is greener on the Other side. When Aaronson imagines the lives of Others while coping with his own suffering, he really believes that our lives are categorically better:

Alas, as 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.

But 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.

Because he is so fully engaged with his own suffering, Aaronson cannot acknowledge his own privilege (which may indeed be less than some men) and he cannot acknowledge the suffering of others. In addition to his struggles in his life that I believe are very real suffering, I believe he would be categorically worse off if he were he any combination of Otherness on top of what he already had to deal with.

What I think might be more important though, is that it should not be that surprising that Scott came to that conclusion about his lack of privilege, and that he’s not alone in that kind of thinking in the least. When a person is nearly drowning in their own very real suffering, their ability to consider the suffering of other is compromised.  When white straight cis men who have been bullied, been abused, been harmed, and whose memories of their lives are full of such suffering, is it so hard to imagine that they’d take umbrage when confronted about their privilege?

I believe it’s precisely because of this that it’s so difficult to have a conversation about privilege; that it simply does not compute for those who have led difficult lives. Privilege is an advantage, and when someone is told they have an advantage while their memories of their lives show a distinct lack of advantage, that person is going to feel like they’ve just been falsely accused of a crime. Thus, they will often actively engage in narrating their own version, the one where they are the victim and not the Other.

Aaronson references his awareness of the lack of support and recognition he can expect regarding his difficulties due to being a member of the privileged group.

But let me draw your attention to one difference: the number of academics who study problems like the one I had is approximately zero. There are no task forces devoted to it, no campus rallies in support of the sufferers, no therapists or activists to tell you that you’re not alone or it isn’t your fault. There are only therapists and activists to deliver the opposite message: that you are alone and it is your privileged, entitled, male fault.

This received message of blame and shame for being a white male is again, not uncommon.  If a person thinks their life is worse than that of the Other, then when the Other gets recognition for their struggles, and that person does not, they see the Other as the privileged group, not themselves. When you’re part of a privileged group, you may be unable to realize that someone who is not part of a privileged group but otherwise a lot like you, could be looking at you and thinking “If only I could have that.”  All you can think about is that they don’t know about — and if they did know, they wouldn’t want — your suffering. You just wish for the clear undeniable advantages of being harassed just a little less, being scared just a little less, being Other’d just a little less than you are now. These wishes lead to Aaronson imagining that it is somehow easier to be a woman or to be gay, anything other than the privileged heterosexual white male he is. He doesn’t realize that they are feeling the same way he does.

Aaronson’s not a rape apologist. He appears to be rather starkly liberal, in his own words he’s on board with 97% of feminism. It’s just that he recoils every time he’s expected to acknowledge his white straight cis male privilege because he cannot see it in his life, and apparently cannot even imagine it. He simply continues to hear the message that “you are alone.”

But you’re not alone.

One of the reasons that I’m championing empathy is that empathy is one of the tools by which you find out that you’re not alone.  And I’m going to go out on a limb, one that’s admittedly pretty wobbly, to say that had Aaronson actually felt that he was not alone, his suffering would be significantly less horrible.

It’s through empathy that you can make the calculation, come to the conclusion that the suffering of others might be as bad or worse as that of your own.  That it’s also not your fault that things are this way.  That a lot of the time, even when you recognize that you have privilege, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.  That it’s non-transferable, non-negotiable, and sometimes even granted to you by an institution that cannot be reasoned with, cannot be mitigated, and should you try to do something about it, you get the Serpico Effect (which was what I thought I’d write about this round, but that will have to wait.)

You can find that there is a difference between your individual suffering in spite of being privileged, and the suffering of the people who are categorically worse off for being Other, and that it doesn’t actually cost you anything to acknowledge that categorical difference, your privilege, when someone speaks about their experience being Othered.  You can find yourself feeling less defensive when others ask you to acknowledge privilege, because what they want from you is not an apology, but just recognition for the way things genuinely are.

After some reflection Scott makes a follow up blog post that’s so close:

The second concession is that, all my life, I’ve benefited from male privilege, white privilege, and straight privilege. I would only add that, for some time, I was about as miserable as it’s possible for a person to be, so that in an instant, I would’ve traded all three privileges for the privilege of not being miserable. And if, as some suggested, there are many women, blacks, and gays who would’ve gladly accepted the other side of that trade—well then, so much the better for all of us, I guess. “Privilege” simply struck me as a pompous, cumbersome way to describe such situations: why not just say that person A’s life stinks in this way, and person B’s stinks in that way? If they’re not actively bothering each other, then why do we also need to spread person A’s stink over to person B and vice versa, by claiming they’re each “privileged” by not having the other one’s?

I think it’s here that we, and Aaronson really, discovered something.  That the idea of privilege isn’t quite so hard to swallow when it’s spelled out.  Yet, being confronted on privilege continues to cause people who are otherwise ideologically aligned with social justice to recoil.  I think that we’re in danger of using “Check your privilege,” to say STFU too often to effectively have any conversations about privilege. When we point out privilege we have to be mindful of what the result is.  Effectively weaponizing it to silence someone that we really ought to have a conversation with is going to bring us closer to the non-communication entrenched partisanship entails, and not the opportunity to listen.  (Maury’s going to address this soon when she examines invitational rhetoric and dominant rhetoric in an upcoming post.)

Engaging with others empathetically, being cautious regarding addressing the problematic thoughts and ideas that someone can have, even while they are being super wrong on the internet, can create better opportunities for getting folks on board with the goals of social justice.  Anger and outrage are necessary responses to a lot of the systemic oppression thrown our way, but I want to make the case that aggressive responses are not the right tool in certain circumstances, specifically ones where patience and understanding, the tools that empathy brings, could achieve a significantly better and more positive result.

It’s not hard to imagine that if Scott Aaronson was met only with contempt, shaming, and ridicule for his post, he would conclude that his assumptions were correct about feminism, activism, and social justice: that they have only one message for him, he’s a monster for being a white straight cis male. He would be lost to us.

The approach from Laurie Penny, and the many other folks who reached out in similar ways, I really believed saved the day here, and I thank them sincerely for approaching this very difficult scenario with empathy.

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3 thoughts on “Follow Up: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum

  1. I have had experiences not too dissimilar to Aronson’s, posted thoughts not far from them, and generally been met with “contempt, shaming and ridicule”. Very much as a result of this, I have found myself startled and saddened to find that where once my knee-jerk reactions were always in support of feminism, now they tend to be against it. I now have to remind myself that I agree with the vast majority of what geek feminists are trying to accomplish; by default I tend to feel like their enemy now, because I have been treated as such.

    I do understand that people who react with shaming and contempt do so because they have faced a great deal of pain and injustice. It’s understandable that they do so. I really don’t think that reaction helps their cause. (I would like to be able to say our cause.) I would like to see that cycle be broken.

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    • Hey! Thanks so much for the comment! You’re kind of the guy that I imagined I’d be writing this stuff for, so it’s pretty thrilling to hear this remark. It touches on a lot that we’d like to talk about in the future too, so I hope you’ll continue to read.

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  2. […] “Hi there, shy, nerdy boys. Your suffering was and is real. I really fucking hope that it got better, or at least is getting better, At the same time, I want you to understand that that very real suffering does not cancel out male privilege…” Here’s another post on the same subject, from a different blog: Compassion, Men, and Me And here’s a third: Neither empathy nor trauma are zero sum | Inexorable Progress […]

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