Okay, so here we are again.
Someone wrote a thing about something (which is almost inconsequential now, considering how far the topic in question is from its premise), and somebody posted a comment on that thing (comment #177, and believe me, the unsung heroes in this are comments 178 and onward, because they take the topic into a much more productive direction than the rest of the thing in some cases), and that got shuffled around the internet for a bit and landed here in a response piece called "On Nerd Entitlement", although you might know it by the moniker I initially knew it under when I saw it on Facebook, "Male Nerds Think They're Victims Because They Have No Clue What Female Nerds Go Through", and now it's everywhere and we're here now.
Again. After Gamergate, after FeministHackerBarbie, after all this, we're at the same place. I still see the marks on the table where our drinks were. There's still sweat and blood on the table. The remains of our food is cold, but edible.
This is a problem. We get here, and we make a dramatic show of the feminist books we read and how much our thought life has progressed since the last time we were confronted with the monster under the bed, but somewhere along the line we make a left turn, and another left, and another left, and, hey, look, that looks like my jacket.
This started as a comment, moved its way into a TextMate file, and now this. This was not a good day to have not much going on in the office.
Words, As Bricks, to Build Shelter
Three terms were highlighted, and they couldn't come with more baggage between them. These works discuss Privilege, Struggle, and Oppression.
Basically, I think a fourth word needs do be included in order for any of these words to mean anything.
In the same way you can be a Consumer, a Customer, or a Business, but deal in Currency (which really codifies the relationships), You can be in a position of Privilege, endure a Struggle, and engage in or encounter Oppression, but the main currency is Discomfort.
It's a simple word. It might sound belittling, almost with an implication that anyone who claims it is a bit high on their horse, but I mean it for what it claims to mean. Lack of comfort. Stress. Inability to relax, to be one's self, to self-actualize.
Commenter #177 is responding to the allegation that, as a white male "nerd", he enjoys a position of Privilege, and thus undergoes no Discomfort. He refutes this by telling stories about his life that prove otherwise (as much as anecdotal evidence proves anything, but for the moment we'll grant his point as presented). My issue is not with the refutation, but the premise of the allegation.
To enjoy a position of Privilege is not to say one undergoes no Discomfort. To insinuate that, to say that as soon as one undergoes Discomfort, they remove themselves from the ranks of the Privileged and join the herd, is actually very counterproductive. It places the Privileged on a higher and higher pedestal, to the point where we can no longer really make out what it really looks like. Is it being white? Or white and male? Or white and male and tall? An athlete? A lawyer? Ivy League school? Hats? Leather shoes? Who even knows anymore - we tell stories of our own discomfort so much that as soon as we see it as a ticket out, the room empties and we all pat each other on the back and say "now, didn't we all learn something about each other?"
Everyone's uncomfortable sometimes, in varying degrees, and everyone's own discomfort is supposed to be taken very seriously. Ideally, positions of individual discomfort serve to build Empathy for the discomfort of others and sensitivity to their needs and desires, to their own need for self actualization. Instead, we use it as an excuse to avoid taking action on our part. Commenter #177 was not telling his story out of solidarity, but rebellion:
"...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."
He thinks he understands, and he truly might, but regardless of all the Feminist literature he has read he still feels this;
"Now, the whole time I was struggling with this, I was also fighting a second battle: to maintain the liberal, enlightened, feminist ideals that I had held since childhood, against a powerful current pulling me away from them."
A current, pulling him away. That's not identification. That's not empathy. Whatever this is, it's fighting against empathy.
If we're going to talk about these things, and we absolutely have to or we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes and condemn another generation of women, we're going to have to know what we're talking about and look at how we talk about it.
I submit that Discomfort is the trade. People in a Struggle are in a position of some kind of Discomfort - to avoid that kind of discomfort is Privilege. Not all Discomfort, but a specific kind. Imagine a series of buckets pouring water into each other, cascading down a wall. To see only one discomfort is to be deliberately closed minded to the pain of others.
Oppression is when Struggle is endured at the hand of others, both Consciously and Subconsciously. It's a whole degree above Struggle, or the combination of tens or hundreds of individual Struggles at the hands of a Privileged group who knowingly and unknowingly perpetuates it. The key here is the lack of knowledge and understanding the Privileged class has about their own part in the Oppression.
One can be in Discomfort and still be Oppressing others. In fact, it's the way most people make themselves okay with it, or at least avoid examining the ways in which they engage in it. Think of the War on Christmas - the Discomfort of a class in power, allowing them to shove their belief system down the throats of anyone who passes them on the street.
All Struggle is not the same. All Discomfort is not the same. And there's a big system of Oppression here, and we don't want to look at it. It's the way men treat women.
Wait, I thought we were talking about Nerds? Big glasses wearing Geeks, right? D&D? Magic: The Gathering? That shit, right? Those fucking weirdos.
Nope. It's Men vs. Women again, and talking about in a smaller context only decreases the likelihood we get anything done. It's not some men, or some women.
Why can't we talk about it in this context? The galaxy of the Nerds is arguably engaged in a struggle, albeit one it's currently winning. They're maligned, not taken seriously outside their sphere, dismissed. It's worth talking about, as much as any Struggle is in itself valid.
But some perspective is necessary, and the smaller the Galaxy, the smaller the prescription for a solution. If you don't want to engage in a solution presented here, just don't self identify as a Nerd. There. problem solved - you don't have to do anything to improve gamer culture or tech workplace ethics or sexism in game development. You don't have to look at sexism in STEM programs, where the stories of women being discouraged by teachers from pursuing the field (some who are themselves women, perfect examples of institutionalized sexism and sexual ideals) are more common than their converse. You don't have to talk about nerd sex culture and sub/dom fetishism, or the cartoonish nature of the way women are portrayed to the community. You don't even need to think about sexual abuse among women in technical colleges, which is rising, by the way. It's none of your business.
It's the same way we shrug off domestic violence by categorizing wife beaters as hicks or savages or idiots (or to use #177's term, "Neanderthals", although he was using it to talk about how women are into them and he has to stop blaming them. Interesting, right?). If they're dumber than us, or more brutish than us, then we've isolated the issue and can safely cast it aside as "Not My Problem". I would never do that, I hear some men exclaim in proud self-righteousness. I know better. I'm civil. Are we really going to believe that all the men who beat women like disobedient farm animals are brutes that didn't have the advantage of a good education and a healthy diet? Is that the extent we'll go to refuse to look at what has to be a current under all men in order to make any sense at all?
Solutions targeted at all men, every single man, whatever their profession or background, are unable to be ignored. Those are the solutions we need, because the problem these women face is not unique to Nerds, but in some way shape or form is encountered by every woman at least some of the time.
Sexual ideals are forced upon them that are impossible to meet, robbing them of possession of their own sexuality.
The female desire for sexual liberation is condemned alongside the female desire for sexual privacy.
We question the women who are raped, and assume they have a hidden motive, based on a statistically irrelevant fear that women falsely report rape to get back at men. The statistically relevant fact, that men rape women at an alarming rate, does not combat this assumption.
They earn less, for more work, and aren't respected at the jobs they have, almost no matter what the job. When they behave the same as their male counterparts, they are deriled for being demanding and bitchy.
Men talk about them as possessions, when we're not talking about them as potential acquisitions and conquests. Throw a rock hard enough and you'll hit a screenwriter penning a new comedy about how a woman's life falls apart and comes back together right as she meets the man of her dreams. Maybe it's got a male character in it who vies for the acquisition of a woman for the entire duration of the film. Maybe she'll have a one dimensional friend.
On top of all that noise, if we don't like them, we beat and murder them, and devote years of study into why they stay with their abuser, rather than study why they are beaten. Nothing is as unanalyzed, with the exception of maybe pedophilia, as the violent male psyche. We refuse to examine it as an undercurrent, preferring to throw in prison the obviously sick Exceptions to an otherwise perfectly fine Rule. Meanwhile, women learn from a very young age to be afraid and prepared for anything while walking in public. Makes sense, right?
Men do this stuff without knowing it. Without even thinking about it, men make it impossible for women to self actualize (to gain Comfort) by removing so many of the things they demand for themselves (self-determination, a complex personality, varying degrees of sexuality, control over their own self image) from the possession of women, holding onto it instead and doling it out, sometimes through lust wrapped up in love, sometimes through "making sure they earn it", and sometimes just by the way they saw their dad treat their mom and how they earned things should and will always be. I'm not talking about a "them", really. I'm talking about a "We".
That's the Galaxy we're all in. That's the oppression we're talking about here. To isolate it among Nerds removes all the air from the balloon.
The Problem With Anecdotal Evidence
It's only when we loosen up on our personal stories that we can see our place in the larger galaxy. Both primary source documents here are rife with examples of personal conflict and discomfort. I mean not to diminish any of them; in fact, I mean to emphasize them, but in order to do so we need to relax our grip on our own personal stories for a second and take a look at what all this really means.
Our personal stories cloud our judgment as well as color it. We know the entire backstory to very one of our experiences and the genesis of all of our thoughts (at least, to the degree we can remember or want to think about them, which judging by what's on social media, is constantly and without a break for months on end). How can we be expected on our own to see the bigger picture? Look at Serial - see how complex the story becomes, the more we discover and earn about the whole situation. Imagine how much more clouded Koenig is than us - she has reams of stories she hasn't told us because they're inconsequential, but I bet they show up in her head time and time again. Imagine being Adnan. Or Jay.
When both authors of the pieces in question tell their stories, they identify as members of many different groups, and some aspect of their affiliation in these groups put them in Discomfort, in a position of Struggle. Both cases focus on their tormentors as their basis for identification, but lack a sense of self awareness to truly see their true relationship to the Struggle they're in and their position in the larger Oppressive state. #177 is a Nerd, so he's in a struggle just like women, according to him. The respondent claims that Nerd-dom for women is worse for women than men, but that misses the point that it's worse precisely because she's a woman, with nothing to do with her being a Nerd, but how could she know? How could either of them know? They're only themselves.
The way you learn about Oppression is exclusively through empathy. We learned about the Oppression inherent in the Civil Rights movement by watching it on television and being forced to look at the brutality the marchers absorbed. If the Struggle of a Male Nerd doesn't serve to unite them with the cause of eliminating as much Struggle as they can, and get them to look for how they themselves might be perpetuating the very things they endured on a larger scale, than what is it for? What good is it, other than to refuse it all and claim that no, its actually you on the bottom of the barrel.
We can do better than that.