What Feminism Taught Me

Two of the communities I’ve read obsessively on the internet are the social justice and the lesswrong.com-centred rationalist communities (henceforth LW and SJ, respectively). Both of these have taught me a lot. And the second one seems to me* to, with every passing day, hate the first more. Which is just sad; because the former has an extremely complicated picture of how social interactions work at various levels, which is at the very least is worth engaging with.

*To be clear, ‘seems’ is an important word here.

This, then, is me highlighting some of the commonalities of the two. In particular, I’ll talk about why some important LW ideas were completely unsurprising to me precisely because of my previous obsession with SJ.

1 The inside view and the outside view

There’s an episode of Boston Legal, both of whose leads are constant womanisers, where one of them is worried about being a misogynist – someone accused him of treating women as objects. Check it out:

[Ignoring the reply from the other guy,] He points out that one of the things that most turns him on about women is their intelligence. And then he concludes that he is objectifying them.* To put it politely, what the fuck?

*And this is not just in fiction. I remember telling people, slightly sheepishly, that when I was watching Anita Sarkeesian and Chimamandie Ngozi Adichie (two separate memories) (only two examples where I told people, not picked for diversity or whatever) for the first time I was distracted by how attractive they were. And both times the reply was, you understood what they were saying no?

Another useful question to ask is, is the manic pixie dream girl a sexist trope? Of course not, because not every character in a story can be equally developed, and it is the storyteller’s prerogative to tell the story ze chooses and figure out whom to develop in service of that story.

But let me tell you, both those are cases of… something wrong. See, neither Alan Shore nor the storyteller are acting out of intentional misogyny, and it isn’t even the case that their actions are better explained by ingrained misogynist beliefs. In fact, in a perfect world both would be perfectly acceptable.

But, we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in one where there is a wikipedia page on manic pixie dream girls, while manic pixie dream boys are so rare I know of but one example. We live in a world where men have the sexual-feeling-expressing prerogative and therefore feel much more freedom to act out their sexual desires than women (of course, Scott Aaronson exists; I don’t feel like arriving at a more correct statement so I’ll just cop out and say I’m describing the feminist consensus of reality here). And so, on average, each example of these things is another brick in the prison wall (heartfelt apologies to Pink Floyd for this one).

This has strong parallels with the LW concept of the inside and outside views. You might think you’re doing things for a particular reason, but that’s not good enough evidence that you’re not doing it for some other reason that can explain your actions. (There is somewhat more conceptual packaging in the SJ version, but I hope that the fact that there’s an essential similarity is clear.)

2 Everyone’s a misogynist/running on corrupted hardware.

This is something of a simple extension of the previous point. Because the fact that men and women have differing social roles has been part of the culture for so long, all sorts of default things that we do depend on the social roles differing. Like, the fact that my mom cooks whenever I’m at home while I lie in front of the TV. And therefore, the way you live is a part of the misogynist framework of the world.

In similar spirit, it is common lore among LWers that rationality is about ‘self-ing irrationality.’ The way to becoming better at truth is to realise that your brain is a source of irrationality. A lot of things revolve around the ways you can circumvent your brain’s idiocy.

Again, while the conceptual framework is somewhat different, there’s a core similarity in belief.

3 Ask/tell culture.

Suppose you’re an actual human feminist and you wonder, how do I maximally avoid the pitfalls that my model of social interactions tells me are everywhere? The answer, of course, is to be maximally clear! And so you end up with Captain Awkward and Ferrett Steinmetz and ask/tell culture (though, in this case, the feminists win, because they also worry about the fact that such a culture is absurdly easy to hack).

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, but it’s non-zero in size and that’s something. Further things that I will explore (= irresponsibly speculate about), modulo my getting off my arse and writing, are why SJ ends up so toxic (actually explaining why the choices that led to this happened), a coherent account of SJ-thought (hint: much Gaussians), and what LW can learn from SJ.