Aaronson on Feminism: My Reply
Here’s my point-by-point reply to Scott Aaronson’s thoughts on Don’t Be a Feminist. He’s in blockquotes, I’m not.
Sorry for the delay! I just finished reading your book. I hereby authorize you to use the following blurb:
The way I prefer to use words, I'm a feminist and so is Bryan Caplan.
That's not my only disagreement with this provocative book, which ranges far beyond feminism to immigration policy, IQ, COVID, male circumcision, and more. But I'd much rather read someone like Caplan, who challenges my presuppositions in an unfailingly smart, civil, and generous way, than yet another author who merely confirms them. And since I have tenure, I can write a jacket blurb saying so!
Thanks for the blurb, but there was only room for one, so I went with the other Scott’s.
I choose to call myself a feminist, much like I choose to call myself a slavery abolitionist. I take feminists at their word when they say that feminism means the radical notion that women are people, that men and women should have equal rights and obligations.
Do you take non-feminists at their word when they say the same thing? Then by the same reasoning, you’re a non-feminist.
I reserve the right to think for myself about additional claims, as I'm always wary of accepting whole ideologies as "package deals." For example, I wouldn't say that feminists all have to agree with each other about specific MeToo controversies, or about the causes of or solutions to pay gaps or gender disparities in STEM fields.
Could you be a feminist and believe that MeToo is largely a witchhunt? That pay gaps and gender disparities are fully explained by gender gaps in STEM performance? That due to “anti-discrimination” policies, performance-adjusted pay gaps in STEM are now strongly in women’s favor?
What share of major claims in the standard feminist “package deal” have to be false before you disaffiliate with the label?
As I read, though, I couldn't help but try to predict how liberals are going to savage you (because as you must know, they will :-) ). A few passages will provoke their anger/ridicule so much that you might want to consider revising or clarifying them:
Hard as many find it to believe, I have zero desire to anger anyone with my writing. If there is a friendlier way to express the same point, I’m happy to revise my wording. At the same time, though, I refuse to refrain from politely saying what I sincerely think.
(1) "The good news: firmly rejecting feminism will help you network with male co-workers and mentors, who will probably continue to exert greater real-world influence."
"AHA! So Caplan admits that women who reject feminism are just shameless opportunists seeking to advance their careers at the expense of the sisterhood, by flattering the egos of powerful men who even Caplan admits still run the show!"
Are the liberals you know really so unreasonable? My point is just that once you set aside unjustified antipathy, you can take advantage of hitherto neglected networking opportunities. Yes, this is what a “shameless opportunist” would do. It is also what a friendly, can-do person would do.
(2) "A woman can legally choose to abort a child she does not want, but a man cannot legally refuse to fund a child he does not want."
"AHA! So Caplan, despite his libertarian pretensions, is shamefully oblivious to the worst rollback of liberty for American women in our lifetimes! Presumably he wrote this hateful passage before Roe v. Wade was overturned. Even so, the fact that he had the gall complain about so-called 'men's rights' -- a made-up, reactionary concept -- when we now know that one of women's most fundamental rights was fatally in the crosshairs, tells us everything we need to know about his character."
I wrote this essay almost a year ago, and Roe was overturned when the book was almost ready to publish. Perhaps I should have stopped the presses and added a detailed discussion, but I consider this a rather complicated issue. Despite black-and-white rhetoric, almost everyone realizes that abortion is complicated. After all, few pro-choice people remain “pro-choice” five minutes prior to birth.
Still, I did bring abortion up. Does the new abortion regime overturn my argument? Not really. In the 37 states where abortion remains legal, the gender disparity I highlight in the essay remains: Women can abort a child she does not want, but a man cannot legally refuse to fund a child he does not want.
The remaining states, in contrast, suddenly have gender parity. Women can’t legally abort, men can’t legally refuse to pay. Whatever you think about abortion, this hardly shows that our society treats men more fairly than women. In fact, since women can still legally abort by briefly travelling to another state, while men cannot legally escape child support even if they permanently move to another state, it still looks like the law treats men less fairly than women.
(3) "These days, the world’s best detectives would struggle to find outright racists and sexists."
"AHA! While Caplan wrote that passage before the rise of Donald Trump and his band of openly racist, sexist thugs, the point is that Trump completely vindicated the progressive worldview -- proved that we were 100% right all along to see misogyny and racist backlash and xenophobia behind every corner of American life, even when the white males in power oh-so-sanctimoniously denied it.
I wrote the essay in late 2021, almost a year after Trump left office. I’m happy to say that Trump and his admirers are openly xenophobic. But openly racist or sexist? I see little sign of that.
More generally, we should ignore anyone who claims that events “completely vindicate” their worldview unless they publicly bet an opponent on specific, falsifiable claims. I know of no progressives who did anything remotely like this, though perhaps I overlooked someone.
“Could you have even written such a dramatic demonstration of progressive fears as Trump's win as an episode in fiction? Yet even now -- for godsakes, even after the January 6 insurrection -- Caplan still hasn't adjusted to this 20-mile-long asteroid that's slammed into the ideological landscape, sending decades' worth of concealed muck into the air. He still doesn't acknowledge that our civilization is now in a desperate struggle for survival against resurgent, now-open forces of white supremacy and patriarchy.
True, I don’t acknowledge this. We are, however, in a desperate struggle for survival against the forces of hyperbole and confirmation bias. ;-)
“For that reason -- for giving aid and comfort to the enemy side of the incipient Second American Civil War -- Caplan's every word should be condemned and he should be boycotted in all academic and intellectual fora."
To be honest, I don’t talk to people who talk this way. I don’t think Scott should talk to them either. They’re a lost cause. I am happy to converse with almost anyone who wants to politely exchange ideas, but arguing with hysterical fanatics is futile. I’m especially averse to arguing with people who treat every specific issue as an opportunity to trumpet their whole worldview, instead of staying on topic and dissecting explicit arguments.
That said, I would praise Scott’s leftist caricatures for arguing about substance rather than semantics. As far as I can tell, his caricatures don’t dispute my definition of feminism as “the view that our society generally treats men more fairly than women.” Instead, they tacitly accept my definition, then try to enumerate ways in which our society treats women unfairly. Inadequate, but it’s a start.
Particularly distressing to see Scott describe men's rights as a "made-up, reactionary concept". Not unusual - men's requests for fairness have been scoffed at for at least 50 years - but saddening.
The generally pointless, time-wasting semantic debates that tend to devolve into motte-and-bailey or no-true-Scotsman arguments might be avoided if society just had a healthy respect for non-identification. It should almost never be controversial to not identify with a label; someone who doesn't identify with anti-communism or antifa can't be reasonably suspected thereby of being a communist or fascist, respectively. Complaints that one's issues with an ideology are mere nitpicks aren't really persuasive. As a general rule, it is reasonable for people to shy away from brand-name ideologies for the sake precision and nuance in expounding their views.