On being used as an example of something you oppose

Slate Star Codex has been the number one referrer to my site for a while, and I had not read the article I was cited in.  Weirdly, Scott Alexander used my article as an example of a trend to condemning male nerds about their entitlement.  What makes that particularly weird is that the post was literally about the thin line between sexual anxiety and both perceived and real entitlement.  Alexander changed the title of my post from The Spectre of the Bro: On Male Entitlement, Geeks, Creeps, and Sex to On Male Entitlement: Geeks, Creeps, and Sex.

There is a difference in meaning between colon and the comma, and this is one of the few times where that nuance, has import. The Geek and Creep is a line where it is nearly impossible to tell if one is dealing with sexual anxiety or predation.  Sexual anxiety is not entitlement, it’s desperation and alienation, but I was describing that line when it is nearly impossible to make a rational calculus for someone to tell if you are or aren’t being predator.

Now, the funny thing is that I am sympathetic to Alexander’s position in the post. I don’t talk about Ur-feminism because as Alexander himself notes, feminists–like most identitarians–are not consistently on a side as an identity position can be a coherent politics in opposition to something, but how one defines and limits that identity has very profound implications for what counts as an attack, as Alexander demonstrates, on most cultural and political-economic issues, feminists are on both sides of it. Given that I spent a lot of my criticism of the left on exactly the same points at Alexander does, but since I have been involved, I know the history of its intellectual development, being seeming linked to that is frustrating.

This was frustrating because frankly I am being linked as a precursor to a On Nerd Entitlement by Laurie Penny. Laurie Penny, or Penny Red, is almost the embodiment of what I was complaining about in If Everything is Problematic…  It’s not that even thought that Laurie Penny was particularly hateful this time either, but things were bogged down in categories masquerading for concrete analysis.  Compared to some of Penny’s other writings, I agree with Alexander’s friend, it was relatively compassionate.

The confusing categories with concrete analysis is something Scott Alexander finds frustrating.  In fact, my problems with privilege are deeper than Alexanders but also rooted in a historical distrust in way privilege is used to justify present social conditions. Alexander thinks they are dishonest argumentation tactics, motte-and-baily tactics, and in some ways they are. Scott Alexander, like many in the rationalist community, approaches these things as if they were arguments that trans-historically emerged and were just used as rationalizations to when arguments.  (I talk about kinds of rationalities for the reasons Alexander hints at in the piece as I am not a “critic of rationality” nor I am member of the “rationalist community” because from what I know about both logics [note the plural] and neurology, there is no Ur-form of rationality, but its silly to say that because there is a single thing called rationality, there isn’t “rationality” en toto )  However, I think the categories are more than just rationalizations to shut-up because the hurt the people who use them too, and their historical development is really where the problem is.  I will quote in entirety by prior to pieces on this:

Privilege theory.   I have said this many times before, privilege theory was created as a pedagogical tool.  W.E. DuBois first used privilege to describe the subtle forms of cultural capital (a term coined a half-century later) that was accorded whites above and beyond economic dominance.  This came from a complex of legal counts and what Marxist would call primitive accumulation. It was a short hand for talking the following. This is how I explain “racism without racists” to my students: “Let’s imagine there is a group of people that is allowed any kind of work they can procure, and another group limited to certain kinds of work or outright enslaved.  This goes one for 200 to 500 years.  Then one day, the slaves are freed, the serfs are unbound from the land, the restrictions lifted, whatever.  You and the group that could do anything they wanted, but the first group has 200 years of gathering stuff, and the second group has none. Who is going to dominate the society?”  My students always reply, regardless of their–generally inherited–political leanings, “the first group.” “Now let’s imagine the oppressed group is obviously different in some way, skin color, gender, sex, language etc.  Are you not going to assume that any one in those characters has less money and treat them accordingly?” Some say, “No.. well.. urm… maybe a little bit.”  Some say, “yes.”

This is what privilege was describing.  Cultural capital + primitive accumulation. (This gets vulgarized into “power + privilege = racism,” an equation that some sociologists may accept but confuses things since it seems to conflate all kinds of racism as one thing, which I think is actually damaging to the original point as explicit and even implicit psychological racism would be implied in the above). This is a material reality. The original examples in that famous “invisible knapsack” essay, but it was removed from this material context. Now, the person who reintroduced privilege theory as a pedagogical tool was probably Peggy MacIntosh in the late 1980s in a book called “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.”  Now while many of the ideas I have issues with theories from sociologists, which we shall see later, MacIntosh was an education professor and former teacher.  This was a pedagogical framework taken from DuBois and applied as an educational example for how sociological realities can complicate education and social justice work.

Now, MacIntosh, however, began to see remove this from its context in political economic and move into the more abstract level of discourse.  Here, in my personal opinion, is where the mystification of privilege began.  What do I mean by mystification?  It means taking something that has material correspondence and making it more and more abstract.  Furthermore, as a pedagogical example, this makes perfect sense, but as a theoretical apparatus, it is purely negative.  Privileges are things can be fixed by granting them to everyone, thus making it not a privilege, or removing them from everyone, thus reducing people to a lowest common denominator approach to social condition described. One can see this in the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite,  it is very unclear if the goal that everyone should receive that respect or if white people should just be randomly shot.   No one would say the latter except maybe as a form of misplaced–in the sense that would be arbitrary beyond race who is affected–revenge.  Yet the examples are easily read that way.   Stupid white guy aims a gun at the cops, why didn’t the cops just off him. It is important to note, that if one is poor the cops generally still do, but if your odds of surviving are significantly better of surviving if white, then (most) asian, and if you are black or Native American, you’re basically dead.   Furthermore, this is true with little difference in regards to the race of the police officer in question from most of the research I have seen.

Privilege becomes seen as a monolithic, or even intersecting force.  Instead of describing a complex socio-economic development that overlays with implicit bias and historical hatred–but can actually exist apart from the latter–it is seen as the cause itself.   Furthermore, one tends to argue with individuals and focus that rage when the problems exist in a structure.   Realizing one’s privilege does not undo it.  Sensitivity to privilege does not unto it.   It’s a metaphor for a material reality.

And here,

May I be honest? I don’t really understand the ‪#‎crimingwhilewhite‬ hashtag as it seems to often imply not that non-white (and let’s be honest, non-most-Asian too) shouldn’t get mistreated, but often just as easily could imply that everyone should be treated equally shitty, it would be okay. This is one of the implications of the privilege discourse that I don’t like people don’t seem to get: you can remove EVERYONE’S privilege equally just by oppressing the shit out of everyone, but not by liberating anyone. Again, I am not saying what “privilege” theory is trying to describe is not real, but what is actually going on structurally coded oppression and privilege is way too soft a word and with implications people don’t think about. I sometimes think its acceptance now by all but the most reactionary elements of our society indicates that people in the know actually realize the implication.

While basic human rights was a myth, the moving from “formal rights” to “formal privilege” is an objective degeneration of liberal discourse. It is more honest about how things function, but the idea that everything is being framed negatively in this matter doesn’t even get acknowledged. One points that out, one is told one is denying privilege and thus rejecting oppression, but honestly the former does not follow from the ladder.   Furthermore, while racial, sexual, and gender issues cannot be subsumed under a rubric of class, trying to understand them outside of class or as something that is not structural necessary to an economic system is out. (In use of the term, “classism,” for example, makes acknowledging class something of a moral failing instead of a structural result of our current economic relations).

I do not think it is derailing to point this out as an obvious implication of the way liberalized framing of stand-point epistemology have moved the “discourse.”   This is what I have meant by that–not a denial of the realities of both exploitative and repressive structures built around ethnicity, race, gender, etc.

So back to the “Creep.”  I was theorizing, informally, about creepiness as a category of difficult to interpret bodily communication in a way that as negative for both parties.  When it comes to more nebulous things like “rape culture,” I don’t deny them so much as think they are too abstract to actually create use responses to a variety of different situations.  On that, I will simply quote Yasmine Nair,

What is so troubling for me about all this discourse around rape culture is that it’s not just, you know, liberal feminists taking it up, but also, I think what’s most bothersome to me is how it’s also being used especially in radical queer circles. So it’s not only liberals who are doing this but people who I’d hoped would think better of it.

It just reduces everything to a set of circumstances completely beyond our control and understanding. And I think it also insists that everyone identify as a trauma victim in order to be considered, really, nowadays, a legitimate subject. I’m sure it’s linked in some ways to this proliferation of identities one can carve on the Web, but I think also in some ways the perfect neoliberal subject is becoming the traumatized subject, the subject of trauma. So despite excellent critiques by people like Ruth Leys—discussing the idea of trauma as a defining feature of the ideal neoliberal subject, including even those who might not actually identify as neoliberal subjects, like the queer radicals with whom I work—It just seems like trauma has become a requirement. I’ve been writing recently about how I am sick of being on panels where everybody starts to confess to their rape, or to their sexual trauma, and I just want to walk out on them! I just want to say “if you cannot think about critiquing policies and the state without having to assert how and why you have been a victim, then let’s end this conversation. Does everybody have to be a victim in order to gain sympathy, first of all? And what does it mean to have to constantly reconstitute yourself as a subject of trauma? What happens to people who don’t do it? Are they to be seen as traitors?

There’s this weird kind of culture of confession which is also something I write about: this constant imperative to confess, and this imperative to reveal oneself as the wounded subject, that I find very disturbing. Because I think it pretends to be a systemic analysis, because what it’s pretending to do is to say “Look, this matters because so many of us who work on this matter are in fact also traumatized.” That’s the rationale. But I want to say: is that only way to understand trauma in neoliberalism? Is it possible that only those who have experienced it are allowed to talk about it? There’s a kind of demand for authenticity in all of this that I find particularly vexing. And I know for a fact that many people who have a critique of trauma and of violence and of the state may well have been sexually abused, but just don’t talk about it. And does that make them less authentic?

It just all devolves. These discussions all devolve into these constant narratives, this kind of personalized narrativizing about the state. And I can see that as having emerged as a response to a time and a discourse where all of that was actually erased. I get that! I get the historical reasons why people have been encouraged to reveal their trauma, I totally get it. In the US, for instance, until recently, women in marriages could not be raped, legally speaking. So I get the historical reasons why all of this is important, but it makes for shitty organizing, and it makes for really shitty analysis. And it makes for a very insufficient and haphazard critique of capitalism.

Perhaps “creep” as a category isn’t useful for same reasons–it may be incidentally and accidentally motte and bailey–but it was never meant as a condemnation of “nerd entitlement” as if there was a platonic concept of nerd, part of whose essentially characteristics were merely “rapey” because said Platonic form of nerd is also a product of the platonic form of “rape culture.” The general is not the specific, and if one is allowed to equivocate, one may actually be weakening one’s position.

You can’t slam these various political problems into need neologism and fix them. You have to deal with them logically as well as historically, even if they are basically irrational in origin.


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