This story begins with Sam Altman’s article about sexism in technology, with its strong follow-up, a reminder to investors, by YC partner and cofounder Jessica Livingston. Both make the same perfectly valid and unimpeachable point: disgusting sexist behaviour by investors is bad. I’d like to start by agreeing with this point, wholeheartedly. In fact, only a few days ago I wrote a blog post on this very topic. It’s here.
Unfortunately, sexism is one of those conversations that has a tendency to degenerate into shouting matches. The fault lies on both sides – and on neither side, actually.
At this point, it’s worth stepping outside of this thread for a second and reading Scott Alexander‘s excellent article about the “weak man” superweapon. It’s really great. Read it, I’ll wait.
For those who didn’t follow my instructions above, the article begins with a simple few questions:
There was an argument on Tumblr which, like so many arguments on Tumblr, was terrible. I will rephrase it just a little to make a point.
Alice said something along the lines of “I hate people who frivolously diagnose themselves with autism without knowing anything about the disorder. They should stop thinking they’re ‘so speshul’ and go see a competent doctor.”
Beth answered something along the lines of “I diagnosed myself with autism, but only after a lot of careful research. I don’t have the opportunity to go see a doctor. I think what you’re saying is overly strict and hurtful to many people with autism.”
Alice then proceeded to tell Beth she disagreed, in that special way only Tumblr users can. I believe the word “cunt” was used.
I notice two things about the exchange.
First, why did Beth take the bait? Alice said she hated people who frivolously self-diagnosed without knowing anything about the disorder. Beth clearly was not such a person. Why didn’t she just say “Yes, please continue hating these hypothetical bad people who are not me”?
Second, why did Alice take the bait? Why didn’t she just say “I think you’ll find I wasn’t talking about you?”
After much intelligent and enjoyable discussion1, it concludes:
In the example we started with, Beth chose to stand up for the people who self-diagnosed autism without careful research. This wasn’t because she considered herself a member of that category. It was because she decided that self-diagnosed autistics were going to stand or fall as a group, and if Alice succeeded in pushing her “We should dislike careless self-diagnosis” angle, then the fact that she wasn’t careless wouldn’t save her.
Alice, for her part, didn’t bother bringing up that she never accused Beth of being careless, or that Beth had no stake in the matter. She saw no point in pretending that boxing in Beth and the other careful self-diagnosers in with the careless ones wasn’t her strategy all along.
In short, if you are part of group X (or if you are just believed to be part of group X) and group X includes subgroup X1, which is not representative (and which you may dislike), then if someone attacks group X1 you find yourself with a choice of either defending group X1 (who you don’t even agree with) (option 1), or distancing X from X1 as thoroughly as you can (option 2), or being on a slippery slope that leads to group X being publicly discredited, and you along with it (option 3).
This fairly convincingly explains why men tend to react to statements like “men are rapists” 2 by saying “hey, wait a minute, not all men are like that.” Because it’s of course true – the majority of men are not rapists, wouldn’t dream of being rapists, abhor rapists, would cut off social ties with anyone found to be a rapist immediately, etc. But since option 1 is totally not available (rapists are indefensible) and option 3 feels intuitively like a bad choice in the long term, many men will pick option 2, and make the obviously true statement that “hey, you’re exaggerating quite a bit there, not all men are rapists”.
Which gets feminists very excited. They get to point at their feminist bingo card3 and say “oh my god, he used the ‘not all men’ argument, what a douche, I wonder what other stupid sexist patterns this guy uses.”.
Which leads to completely unproductive discussion. The ironic part is, the “not all X” argument then gets lobbed in both directions, with the reverse statement being that not all feminists are narrow-minded bingo card abusers. Both sides are thus locked in an eternal struggle till Judgement Day (which is starting to sound like a good thing in comparison).
Yes, I just summarised Scott’s arguments. I know what you’re going to say: “Not all of us readers skipped that article that you recommended reading!” There must be a blogist blogwiki entry for that meme.
In such a climate, and having even a vague awareness of how the internet is a batshit crazy place, it’s not very surprising that an intelligent, self-aware, publicly-facing organisation is going to try to defend itself proactively.
Which brings us back to YC’s announcements. Chris Stucchio wrote a blog post in response that fairly comprehensively analyses the very loose and shoddy logic in Sam Altman’s post. In short, the post conflates various orthogonal statements that don’t really fit together in any sort of coherent argument. This poses the question of why a smart guy like Sam would write an incoherent blog post like that. Chris answers that question in a Hacker News comment that naturally got obliterated by HN users and by a high-profile member of the community since it takes an unpopular view:
YC is attempting to appease the internet bullies and avoid unwanted media attention (witness the Paul Graham sexism non-incident), not convey facts.
In context of this discussion, it shouldn’t be all that original or controversial to come to this conclusion. The internet is a crazy place. The tech scene is a prominent place on the internet. A number of high-profile tech organisations have been attacked very publicly recently (some for very obviously good reasons, some more ambiguous, some actually targeted at YC and HN itself on laughably bad premises). There is a general climate of extreme hostility in the tech scene, spearheaded by aggressive characters, often (but not always) justified in their reaction by actual behaviour. Basically, shit can erupt in any direction at any moment for valid or invalid reasons and hit a multiplicity of fans that will make for a very unpleasant few days for whoever has to clean up, and can frequently produce sufficient effect to cause founders to be kicked out of their own companies.
It’s only sensible for any prominent player in this field to make some kind of meek statements trying to convey “hey, we’re not the bad guys, we’re totally with you” whether or not that is true. In that context, Sam’s post is perfectly understandable and seems like a pretty sensible move to reduce the impact of any shit-and-fan incidents in the future.
If only it were that simple. There’s one dynamic that’s not at all covered by this. Feminists are not alone in their single-minded and aggressive pursuit of a somewhat intolerant agenda. There’s countless other groups that can be equally narrow-minded and bigoted. And based on my anecdotal observations, they all seem to be on the rise, figuring out how to be more and more effective at using online tools to organise instant lynch mobs and attack whatever target they set their sights on today.
Recently we got a first-rate and somewhat ironic explosion when Richard Dawkins, atheist extraordinaire, met feminism. It was ironic because atheists, like feminists, are themselves a group (X) that contains an X1 which is highly aggressive and narrow-minded4. When X1 met Y1, sparks ensued. Just be glad you weren’t in the middle of it.
So here’s the problem: first of all, trying to placate these groups is a losing strategy, because they are exceptionally narrow in their beliefs. If you’re not exactly on their agenda, repeating their mantras word for word, you’re a bad guy/gal/other. The second problem is that all those groups are growing in prominence5, and their agendas are mutually exclusive. So even if you do manage to placate one completely, you’ll inevitably tread on the others’ toes.
It’s not a battle anyone can win, let alone a public organisation.
So what to do?
I wish I had a grand solution to suggest, that would magisterially solve the problem in one fell swoop.
Unfortunately, this is the real world, and those solutions don’t exist. Damn.
I can, however, suggest a step in the right direction.
These *-ist movements are made of people like you and me. Some of them are very intelligent. How they get into the mindset of believing the narrow agenda of one of these groups baffles me, but it happens.
If you’ve read this far, perhaps this is a topic you’ve thought about. Perhaps sexism in tech is something that bothers you. Perhaps feminism in tech is something that bothers you. Perhaps it’s some other form of social justice that you’re thinking of fighting for (the causes are many and varied and march around the field with their big flags waving for more supporters).
Here’s the very simple thing that you personally can do to help with this: don’t join one of those movements6. If you see one of those deaf arguments going on, don’t take sides. When someone in a hostile, polarised, *-ist environment makes a legitimate comment that seems to go against the grain, think carefully before you join in kicking them.
Internet flash lynch mobs are a reality we’re going to have to deal with for the foreseeable future, but what you can do personally is at least make sure you don’t join them. Support their agenda where it makes sense, but don’t join in the crazy conversation. Don’t condone it. Don’t give it more reach than it already has, however tempting it is to jump on a hobby-horse from time to time7. Lynch mobs thrive on the fact that large groups of people grab pitchforks, join in, and help make things even bigger and louder than they were. Don’t be one of those people. Just. Stay. Out. Of. It.8
If I’ve managed to convince even a single person that was standing on the edge of an *-ist-precipice to step back cautiously and think things through, this article has achieved its goals.