Computer scientists must contribute in solving sexism

A version of this article was published in the Daily Californian.

I am male, and I have also never directly experienced the trauma of sexual assault. In fact, I am by no means a saint in regard to these matters, and am most likely guilty in perpetuating my fair share of misogyny to the world. Sexism and the patriarchy are powerful systems, so insidious partly because it is so hard to escape perpetuating them. But that they are so powerful does not give me an excuse for perpetuating them. So when I was solicited by the Daily Cal to write an article on tech and sexism on behalf of Philosophy of Computation at Berkeley, I hesitated. I had a few things I wanted to say, but I was not sure if I had the authority. In a very significant sense, I do not. However, I do have a few things I need to say, deriving from (1) my experience straddling different cultural norms in Korea and America, and (2) what I believe are genuine insights about gender theory that can be gained through fundamental ideas in computer science. Because I, again, have almost no authority to say anything about sexism, I will say just a few things, and briefly.

Let me start with an example most of us are very familiar with: catcalling. You may have seen 10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman, a video of a woman walking around NYC being catcalled hundreds of times. The video went viral, and dozens of response videos were created. One of the videos was created by JTBC, a Korean broadcasting station, called 10 Hours of Walking in Seoul as a Woman. In this video, the actress is harassed twice, not hundreds of times, and both by people not of Korean culture. She said, however, that “though there was no one who thought to follow me, they, what do you call it, scanned me? I think there were many cases where they stared at me for 30–40 seconds.” While this is far from optimal — the right number to be harassed while walking in the street is zero, not two — it is qualitatively better than the results in NYC. A subsequent experiment was performed in Delhi with results more similar to Seoul’s.

Of course, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about such a complex topic as sexism from just three short videos. However, it may be argued, that the videos show culture, at the very least, plays a role in shaping the instantiation of sexism in society; and it may give pause to the popular idea that Western women are the most liberated, least oppressed women in the world. This is important, for once it is popularly acknowledged that there may be other cultural traditions with less, not more, certain instantiations of sexism, then a popular reexamination of Western cultural values — like “the Enlightenment”, “rationality”, etc. — is possible, which may lead to less sexism overall. For example, Confucian feminism — which sounds so much like an oxymoron in today’s climate — may start being taken seriously.

The critic may claim: the videos cited were hardly rigorous scientific experiments. And, as I acknowledge, it is difficult to draw conclusions about such a complex topic through just a few videos. So I want to address a more theoretical aspect of the debate. Do-ol, Korea’s most famous public philosopher, says in his very controversial, very influential book, “What Is a Woman?”:

At last analysis … Western civilization is the resolute denial of the vagina with respect to the penis, in other words the absence of the vagina, the denial of femininity. … [our topic is] the restoration of the daughter with respect to God. It is the restoration of the female with respect to the male, the restoration of “ren” (translator: the word for “person” in Korean/Chinese) with respect to “man”.

Do-ol points out that there are languages, such as English, where “man”, a clearly gender-valenced word, can refer to “people in general”, and there are languages, such as Korean and Chinese, where such is not possible. Do-ol goes on to claim that this is evidence that Western culture is inherently more sexist than East Asian culture. This gets us into tricky territory. It is heavily debated whether language influences thought in any significant way. The mostly stable consensus, in the words of linguist Roman Jakobson, is that “languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words: users of a language that has built-in sexist mechanisms have to try harder to not be sexist. There is a joke about a professor at a meeting discussing hiring more female faculty in order to bring the gender imbalance of the department in check. The dear professor, with his enthusiastic liberal values, exclaims, “we just have to find the right man for the job!” What happened here? “The right man for the job” is a linguistic chunk, an idiom, often used without conscious consideration of the thought that there is a gender term, “man”, in the idiom. To the professor’s defense, he didn’t consciously try to be sexist; he just didn’t consciously try not to be. This does not excuse him, but it does show that the fact that he speaks English strictly caused him to need to be more careful in order not to be sexist. Such linguistic mechanisms are everywhere. I caught myself at some point writing this essay because I found myself writing “disseminate information”.

But this is an article about sexism in tech, so what am I doing writing about culture and language? It accords with the plainly obvious fact that a large portion, probably a majority, of computer science majors in this school are from, or have parents who are from, various parts of Asia. As I have argued, the cultural heritage of parts of Asia is more resistant to some aspects of sexism than the cultural heritage of the West. So, I call to you: use that cultural heritage and try to make the world a better place.

The next topic of this article is a bit more theoretical, and probably more controversial. In Gender Trouble, a classic text in gender theory, Judith Butler writes “gender is performative … there is only the deed, no doer behind the deed.” But how does one understand a “doer” and a “deed”? One option is to gorge oneself through the rest of Butler’s thick, dense book. But a computer science student has a shortcut to understanding the concepts. Try not to laugh: a doer is a piece of data, whereas a deed is an execution of a function. This, I claim, is not just a surface resemblance: there is a deep connection between concepts in computer science and esoteric ontological concepts, partly because a huge chunk of computer science was invented by philosophers of language. That a function is a piece of data, and that the execution of a function is totally different from a function in itself, is a central idea in CS61A. Countless environment diagrams are sacrificed every semester in pursuit of this idea, and it is a point that, as a CS61A TA, I repeat dozens of times every semester. Some may even remember from CS70 that the exact relation between a piece of data and the execution of a function is an even subtler idea, embodied in the halting problem. Therefore, if one understands the halting problem, one has a significant grasp on the idea that gender is performative: someone’s gender is not a piece of data that can be copied, modified, and tossed around, but an arbitrary program about which we do not know if it even halts or not.

There are countless other examples: the concept of a pointer to an object, taught in CS61C, is kind of the reason why postmodernist texts are so hard to understand, at least for people who didn’t learn pointers in CS61C. Lacan’s (in)famous idea that the phallus is equal to the square root of negative one, while incoherent on the face of it, may be understood as the idea that when we speak of the phallus we speak of it not directly, not even indirectly, but in a doubly-indirect way: in other words, the phallus is a pointer to a pointer, or, a pointer which must be dereferenced like **p.

This is not an accident: computer science, at its core, is a series of elegant ideas which, in a way, forms the blueprint of thought. Therefore computer science students have a powerful arsenal to engage with dense philosophical and political texts which even humanities majors may struggle with. CS61A is useful not just for landing that sweet internship at Google. It can be used, in fact, to actually Make The World a Better Place, not by selling your soul to a Silicon Valley corporation intent on increasing economic disparity and “disseminating” sexist manifestos, but by understanding and extending texts of central social-justice importance.