If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
I’d like to dive into a controversy you might be familiar with. It began when Alek Minassian drove a rented van into a crowd of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 and injuring 16. It came out shortly thereafter that Alek identified as an “incel”, and at a stroke the latest group of modern villains was discovered. For those unfamiliar with the term, incel is short for involuntarily celibate, though to identify as an incel you have be especially angry about your involuntary celibacy. Thus Alek’s murderous rage was brought on by the fact that no girls would have sex with him. As you can imagine, anything that even hints at a demand for women to provide sex or to do anything they don’t want to do with their body, did not go over well with the vast majority of people. But this is not the controversy I want to talk about.
The controversy I want to talk about came when Robin Hanson, a George Mason economist, (and recent commenter on this very blog), posted a question on his blog. The question amounted to, “Why are we concerned about income inequality, but not concerned about inequalities in access to romance and sex? Especially given that most people would say the latter matters more to their happiness?” But that post is not the post I want to cover, the post I want to cover is at least three levels deep (maybe more?) The post I want to cover is Scott Aaronson’s response to Robin Hanson’s post on the original news. In most cases I would suggest reading the original in its entirety. In this case, before doing so I offer a couple of caveats. First the post is directed at those already familiar with the Robin Hanson controversy, if you aren’t a lot of it will be wasted. Second it’s pretty long, around 6000 words. If the length doesn’t bother you, then I would definitely recommend it. I would particularly recommend it if you came to this post hating Robin Hanson, because Robin Hanson does not deserve your hate.
Despite Aaronson’s defense of Hanson, who he knows very well, his advice to him would have been “DON’T DO IT!” Perhaps the reason for this advice is obvious, but I’ll let Aaronson explain it:
My view is this: the world in which a comparison between the sufferings of the romantically and the monetarily impoverished could increase normal people’s understanding of the former, is so different from our world as to be nearly unrecognizable. To say that this comparison is outside the Overton window is a comic understatement: it’s outside the Overton galaxy. Trying to have the conversation that Robin wanted to have on social media, is a little like trying to have a conversation about microaggressions in 1830s Alabama. At first, your listeners will simply be confused—but their confusion will be highly unstable, like a Higgs boson, and will decay in about 10-22 seconds into righteous rage.
For experience shows that, if you even breathe a phrase like “the inequality of romantic and sexual fulfillment,” no one who isn’t weird in certain ways common in the hard sciences (e.g., being on the autism spectrum) will be able to parse you as saying anything other than that sex ought to be “redistributed” by the government in the same way that money is redistributed, which in turn suggests a dystopian horror scenario where women are treated like property, married against their will, and raped. And it won’t help if you shout from the rooftops that you want nothing of this kind, oppose it as vehemently as your listeners do. For, not knowing what else you could mean, the average person will continue to impose the nightmare scenario on anything you say, and will add evasiveness and dishonesty to the already severe charges against you.
I guess I’m weird in that certain way (though to the best of my knowledge I’m not on the autism spectrum…) Because I can see a lot of ways in which this statement could be read other than treating women like property. For example when there was a greater emphasis on monogamy and marriage, sexual inequality was lower, these pro-marriage policies are probably a form of this redistribution (and in fact people have offered marriage as a solution to income inequality as well.) I might even go so far as to add sexual and romantic inequality to the list of problems attendant to the generalized disintegration of traditional institutions. That said, I would have probably also given Hanson the same advice, though I hope the impossibility of floating somewhat crazy and transgressive ideas like this, is not quite as great as Aaronson makes it out to be. Though I think it probably is.
From there, Aaronson goes on to bring up Ross Douthat’s column in the New York Times about the controversy (the Hanson one, not the original.) I don’t intend to spend a lot of time on Douthat’s column, particularly since this one I would recommend you just read. But I found this section to be particularly interesting:
As offensive or utopian the redistribution of sex might sound, the idea is entirely responsive to the logic of late-modern sexual life…
First, because like other forms of neoliberal deregulation the sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration.
Second, because in this new landscape, and amid other economic and technological transformations, the sexes seem to be struggling generally to relate to one another, with social and political chasms opening between them and not only marriage and family but also sexual activity itself in recent decline.
Third, because the culture’s dominant message about sex is still essentially Hefnerian, despite certain revisions attempted by feminists since the heyday of the Playboy philosophy — a message that frequency and variety in sexual experience is as close to a summum bonum as the human condition has to offer, that the greatest possible diversity in sexual desires and tastes and identities should be not only accepted but cultivated, and that virginity and celibacy are at best strange and at worst pitiable states. And this master narrative, inevitably, makes both the new inequalities and the decline of actual relationships that much more difficult to bear …
… which in turn encourages people, as ever under modernity, to place their hope for escape from the costs of one revolution in a further one yet to come, be it political, social or technological, which will supply if not the promised utopia at least some form of redress for the many people that progress has obviously left behind.
There is an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.
But this is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them.
There are two parts to this, the first is a defense of Hanson’s idea, and the second, a description of how we ended up with a sexual underclass. I think we’ve covered the first part enough (though I think Douthat lays it out with admirable clarity) and I’d like to spend the rest of the post talking about this sexual underclass. And this is where the Aaronson article really shines by laying out the brutality of the situation.
(Before I get to that, it should be clear that when people talk about incels they aren’t necessarily talking about the sexual underclass in its entirety. There’s some motte and bailey stuff going on in both directions which I don’t have the time to get into. Aaronson updated his original post to address it, so if you’re curious that’s a good place to start.)
Aaronson’s commentary on Douthat’s column, rather than dwelling on the section I pointed out, revolves around the part where Douthat compares Hanson’s article with an article by Amia Srinivasan called Does anyone have the right to sex? Srinivasan covers much the same territory as Hanson, but decides to focus on disabled people, minorities, and the overweight. Aaronson describes the reaction:
All over social media, there are howls of outrage that Douthat would dare to mention Srinivasan’s essay, which is wise and nuanced and humane, in the same breath as the gross, creepy, entitled rantings of Robin Hanson. I would say: grant that Srinivasan and Hanson express themselves extremely differently, and also that Srinivasan is a trillion times better than Hanson at anticipating and managing her readers’ reactions. Still, on the merits, is there any relevant difference between the two cases beyond: “undesirability” of the disabled, fat, and trans should be critically examined and interrogated, because those people are objects of progressive sympathy; whereas “undesirability” of nerdy white and Asian males should be taken as a brute fact or even celebrated, because those people are objects of progressive contempt?
To be fair, a Google search also turns up progressives who, dissenting from the above consensus, excoriate Srinivasan for her foray, however thoughtful, into taboo territory. As best I can tell, the dissenters’ argument runs like so: as much as it might pain us, we must not show any compassion to women and men who are suicidally lonely and celibate by virtue of being severely disabled, disfigured, trans, or victims of racism. For if we did, then consistency might eventually force us to show compassion to white male nerds as well.
It’s hard to know which is worse, the hypocrisy of the first group or the cruelty of the second, probably the latter. Though it gets worse. Aaronson continues:
Here’s the central point that I think Robin failed to understand: society, today, is not on board even with the minimal claim that the suicidal suffering of men left behind by the sexual revolution really exists—or, if it does, that it matters in the slightest or deserves any sympathy or acknowledgment whatsoever. Indeed, the men in question pretty much need to be demonized as entitled losers and creeps, because if they weren’t, then sympathy for them—at least, for those among them who are friends, coworkers, children, siblings—might become hard to prevent…
So where are we today? Within the current Overton window, a perfectly appropriate response to suicidal loneliness and depression among the “privileged” (i.e., straight, able-bodied, well-educated white or Asian men) seems to be: “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum, and remove your garbage DNA from the gene pool.” If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter. I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted, by people who probably go to sleep every night congratulating themselves for their progressivism, their egalitarianism, and—of course—their burning hatred for anything that smacks of eugenics.
As a white cis male (I thought the autocomplete suggestions for that term were interesting, second result: “white cis male shitlord”) who’s also clearly something of a nerd I find these threats somewhat alarming. I myself am married with kids, but I have plenty of friends who aren’t and likely never will be, who fall into the involuntary celibate category even if they aren’t part of the incel movement. But if we’re going to treat this subject with less emotion than what’s been described so far we need to answer a few questions:
1- How big is this sexual underclass? I suspect, like me, most people know people in this category, but if we move beyond the anecdotes how big is it really?
2- Is Aaronson accurately describing the reaction?
3- Is the reaction Aaronson is describing appropriate to the situation?
4- If it’s not appropriate how large and powerful is the group engaged in this inappropriate response? How much do we have to worry about it?
5- If it is worrisome, what can we do about it?
On the first question, the size of the sexual underclass, fortunately we have an answer for that. @lymanstoneky tweeted the following graph:
As you can see things are more or less flat from 1989 to 2008, and then suddenly start a steady climb during which the number of unmarried, sexless men doubles in the space of eight years. Also like most graphs of this sort it doesn’t go nearly far enough back. Recall that this graph starts 20 years after the sexual revolution, so it’s possible that the long term rate is really 2% and it was already pretty bad in the 80’s and 90’s. Finally, while the male percentage has almost always been above the female percentage, that the divergence recently is pretty stark. Meaning that while everyone is having less sex, the problem is particularly acute for males.
Later in the Twitter thread, Stone speculates that pornography may be having something to do with it. A subject I’ve covered in this space. And indeed if you were looking for something which happened around that time, the late aughts was when bandwidth was finally sufficient for streaming to start taking off. (Youtube was founded in 2005. Netflix’s streaming service started in 2007 and in that same year Pornhub was launched.) But regardless of the cause of the sexless male phenomenon there’s clearly a strong recent upward trend.
As far as the second question, the accuracy of Aaronson’s description, that one is a little bit more difficult to evaluate. Certainly this is exactly how I expect things to play out in this day and age, and Aaronson himself does claim that, “If you think I’m exaggerating, I beseech you to check for yourself on Twitter. I predict you’ll find that and much worse, wildly upvoted…” I followed this advice and I found plenty of pretty extreme tweets (try searching #incel scum) but I’m not much of a twitter user and it’s hard to aggregate the numerous anecdotes into actual data (particularly given the number of fake and sock puppet accounts on twitter). In other words, on the issue of size it may be difficult to say conclusively how large the “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum” group really is. It might be more useful to ask whether the reaction is a bad thing, and how much power these people have, which takes us to the third and fourth questions.
The answer to the third question, “Is it appropriate?” would seem to obviously be, “No, of course not.” I can’t imagine that saying the sorts of things Aaronson reports would ever be appropriate regardless of the context or crime. But if it’s so obviously wrong, why are people doing it? I’m sure that part of it is the horror and shock they feel at the crimes of Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian. But as Aaronson points out:
There really do exist extremist Muslims, who bomb schools and buses, or cheer and pass out candies when that happens, and who wish to put the entire world under Sharia on point of the sword. Fortunately, the extremists are outnumbered by hundreds of millions of reasonable Muslims, with whom anyone, even a Zionist Jew like me, can have a friendly conversation in which we discuss our respective cultures’ grievances and how they might be addressed in a win-win manner. (My conversations with Iranian friends sometimes end with us musing that, if only they made them Ayatollah and me Israeli Prime Minister, we could sign a peace accord next week, then go out for kebabs and babaganoush.)
My understanding is that it is a horrible crime, the kind of thing only terrible nazi racists do, to blame all muslims for the actions of a radical few. They have a name for it, Islamophobia, and we’re all strenuously instructed that only really bad people do it, and yet once again it appears that what is and isn’t allowable depends a lot more on whom it’s being done to than what is being done.
The answer to the fourth question, how powerful are they? Might be the most important of the five, and the evidence here is that, like most flash-in-the-pan outrage cascades, they’re loud and angry, but their power at the level of policy is non-existent. In this case I can’t even point to individual victims. So that’s a relief, right? Maybe, but perhaps we should consider this tweet from Ellen Pao before we write things off entirely:
CEOs of big tech companies: You almost certainly have incels as employees. What are you going to do about it?
Pao was the CEO of Reddit and the plaintiff in a big sexual harassment case against Kleiner Perkins, so she’s not without her influence. One can hardly imagine what she expects tech CEOs to do about incels in their ranks, and it’s hoped, if only for logistical reasons that no one took her question seriously, but as Aaronson points out (and as I’ve pointed out repeatedly) todays fringe leftist opinions become tomorrow’s company policy. All of which is to say, if nothing else, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this issue by a longshot.
Which brings us to the final question, what should we doing about all this? Well I think understanding the situation is a good first step, which is of course part of the point of this post. Though understanding is one of those things which is easier said than done, particularly when your speaking about understanding at the highest levels. For my own part, I hope that at a minimum I’ve managed to convey some facts about the situation, and maybe, if I’m lucky, some sense of what’s at stake, what’s been happening and what kind of questions we should be asking. I doubt I’ve changed anybody’s mind on this subject, and I would be very surprised if I had changed anyone’s behavior.
But if I could advocate for a behavior and have it stick I would do much as Aaronson did and advocate for the behavior of compassion. This may be the post with the highest ratio of quotes to original content, but this is another area where Aaronson nailed it, so I’ll quote from him one last time.
But my aspiration is not merely that we nerds can do just as well at compassion as those who hate us. Rather, I hope we can do better. This isn’t actually such an ambitious goal. To achieve it, all we need to do is show universal, Jesus-style compassion, to politically favored and disfavored groups alike.
To me that means: compassion for the woman facing sexual harassment, or simply quizzical glances that wonder what she thinks she’s doing pursuing a PhD in physics. Compassion for the cancer patient, for the bereaved parent, for the victim of famine. Compassion for the undocumented immigrant facing deportation. Compassion for the LGBT man or woman dealing with self-doubts, ridicule, and abuse. Compassion for the nerdy male facing suicidal depression because modern dating norms, combined with his own shyness and fear of rule-breaking, have left him unable to pursue romance or love. Compassion for the woman who feels like an ugly, overweight, unlovable freak who no one will ask on dates. Compassion for the African-American victim of police brutality. Compassion even for the pedophile who’d sooner kill himself than hurt a child, but who’s been given no support for curing or managing his condition. This is what I advocate. This is my platform.
It’s a good platform. Maybe a little utopian. Maybe a little too idealist. Maybe compassion should work on a scale, with depressed white male nerds who can’t get dates being pretty low on that scale. Maybe you’d rather save your compassion for impoverished orphans in Africa, or for groups that have been historically oppressed, unlike white male nerds, regardless of how depressed they are. That’s okay, it’s okay to ration your compassion and the energy it takes to express it. If you don’t want to spend any energy on the suicidally depressed nerdy male demographic, I’m not sure anyone would care or even notice. Where it gets baffling is when you take this limited energy and use it to not merely refuse compassion, but to urge these individuals to “just kill yourselves already, you worthless cishet scum!”
If creating a post mostly composed of quotes from other people with little of my own original content is what you’ve been waiting for all along, then consider donating. Though even I would find that a little bit weird, not as weird as discussing sexual inequality, but still pretty weird.