The turd and the bean, or: the strange life of male nerddom under patriarchy
Jordan Ellenberg
11

Say what? That turds in the soup metaphor might be as bad as anything I’ve read all year. Sick-making and not at all informative.

Nor, I’m afraid, is your analysis here very helpful. There is no such animal as patriarchy that is “out there.” There are only people (men, women, etc.) and their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. If you want to take a bunch of those and lump them together under the label “patriarchy,” as if that were an independent entity, so be it. But people interact with actual people, not with abstract entities. Scott Aaronson took those classes from and with real people who conveyed messages to him that, combined with whatever he brought to those situations from previous experiences contributed to what he felt.

Is it conceivable that different people teaching or participating in those classes would have helped Scott come away with a different sense of what his options were and what might be ways to satisfy his normal desires for love, companionship, sexual pleasure, etc.? I suspect so. That he didn’t encounter such people is unfortunate. It’s also a reflection of a puritanical streak in what seems to be the norm on college campuses when it comes to “educating” students about sexual/romantic norms. I’m not going to revisit all the issues here. I’m sure Dr. Ellenberg and readers here are quite familiar with most or all of them. I think it suffices to say that there’s more to Mr. Aaronson’s dilemma than “patriarchy.” In particular, there are many individuals and post-secondary institutions making decisions and taking actions that have a wide variety of chilling effects on campuses. And my suspicion is that some of the people most deeply impacted by such things are like Scott Aaronson: timid, well-meaning, confused, and ultimately scared into becoming asocial and/or asexual.

I’m not sure that I can thoroughly imagine what it’s like to be in college today. I graduated in 1973 when the world was, apparently, younger and more innocent. And not because there was no feminist presence on college campuses (there was a very clear and vocal one where I went to school), but because how things played out did not entail colleges and universities taking such a heavy hand in matters that students like Mr. Aaronson were afraid to breathe. Being skeptical by nature, I doubt that the bad apples on college campuses are much moved by all the attempts to “school” them about eschewing sexist, exploitative behavior, while the Scott Aaronsons of the world are left huddled in the corners of their dorm rooms.

There has to be more to say about this than offering metaphors about turds and beans, doesn’t there, Dr. Ellenberg? If Scott Aaronson was your son or kid brother, I hope you’d show a bit more insight, empathy, and support than you’ve done in this piece.

p.s.: I have no idea if Walter Lewin is a sexual predator, but losing access to his physics course is a tragedy for students everywhere. I guess saying that just puts the last nail in my coffin as a unrepentant sexist pig.

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