On Laurie Penny on Scott Aaronson

So Scott Aaronson wrote a really good blog comment on what it’s like to be a nerdy guy, which has gotten a lot of attention online, ranging from positive to really vile. Among the responses was one by Laurie Penny, which my friend Kate Donovan shared on Facebook. I wrote a long comment on the Facebook thread, which a lot of people liked and one person even specifically referenced in a Tumblr post. So I’ve decided to repost my comment here:


This article makes me *really uncomfortable.* I was reluctant to read past the title/subtitle, and only did so because you were the one posting it. When people feel the need to specifically talk about how *nerds* are entitled or privileged or whatever, I often get the sense that they’re just looking for an excuse to pick on nerds. (I feel the same way about women who use feminist jargon to attack other women–it often comes across as a more deniable way of saying, “oh my god, what a skank.”)

Laurie Penny seems confused about the fact that this wasn’t a blog post, but a *comment*, responding to one specific comment someone else had written. The commenter in question (“Amy”) was being pretty obnoxious. Her first comment in the thread was insinuating that Aaronson’s blog had no female readers and this was due to some failing on Aaronson’s part. Aaronson was being extremely patient responding to her, focusing on explaining why he doubted sexual harassment was *especially bad* in STEM fields.

Penny repeats the assertion that things are especially bad among nerds (“Men, particularly nerdy men, are socialised to blame women…”), but doesn’t provide the kind of evidence Aaronson was originally asking for. Instead, the assertion is stuck in almost off-handedly, as if it needed no justification.

A lot of her post also doesn’t really connect much with what Aaronson was saying. She says she’s sorry about Aaronson reading Andrea Dworkin, rather than other unnamed feminist writers she would have preferred he read. But Aaronson doesn’t single out Dworkin as the source of his problems–on the contrary, he says he read a lot of different feminist writers, and mentioned Dworkin only to say she was his favorite!

What Aaronson *does* single out as causing him pain is this:

“You can call that my personal psychological problem if you want, but it was strongly reinforced by everything I picked up from my environment: to take one example, the sexual-assault prevention workshops we had to attend regularly as undergrads, with their endless lists of all the forms of human interaction that “might be” sexual harassment or assault, and their refusal, ever, to specify anything that definitely wouldn’t be sexual harassment or assault. I left each of those workshops with enough fresh paranoia and self-hatred to last me through another year”

Aaronson goes on to say:

“Of course, I was smart enough to realize that maybe this was silly, maybe I was overanalyzing things. So I scoured the feminist literature for any statement to the effect that my fearswere as silly as I hoped they were. But I didn’t find any. On the contrary: I found reams of text about how even the most ordinary male/female interactions are filled with “microaggressions,” and how even the most “enlightened” males—especially the most “enlightened” males, in fact—are filled with hidden entitlement and privilege and a propensity to sexual violence that could burst forth at any moment.”

Penny doesn’t really interact with any of this–she just waves it away with a dismissive reference to Dworkin.

Also this:

“What fascinates me about Aaronson’s piece, in which there was such raw, honest suffering, was that there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently.”

This is infuriating, because it’s not even criticizing Aaronson for what he said, but what he failed to say. But if you’re going to play that game, you can *always* find something you think someone should have talked about in any piece of writing of finite length. It’s an example of a toxic dynamic that shows up a lot in social justice internets–people talk as if your feelings only matter if you’re the most oppressed person in any given conversation. (If someone wanted to play that game against Penny, the obvious thing to do would be to go after her for her straight privilege and her failure to discuss the plight of gay teenagers in her piece.)

It’s also an example a dynamic that seems to show up whenever the topic of male nerds shows up. Male nerds talking about their pain *will* have their expressions of pain scrutinized for evidence of said nerds personal failings. And if the evidence can include things they failed to say, that’s a game the nerds can’t win.

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