So, in addition to the other posts that I’ve talked about, Dr. Nerdlove has weighed in on the topic. Let’s skip the preamble and get right into the action:
While I can sympathize with the emotion – I’ve had all the same worst-case scenario nightmares when I’ve approached women I like – the cold truth is that this anxiety is self-inflicted. The problem isn’t in the desire, it’s in the belief. At their core, these imagined nightmares are about ego protection. All these over-the-top consequences – the mockery, the social expulsion, even being jailed – are ways our brain protects us from the fear of rejection. Don’t get me wrong: the discomfort and anxiety that Aaronson and so many others feel is very real – our bodies respond to imagined fears the same way they respond to real ones. The heart palpitations, the way your hands start to shake and your vision starts to narrow… these are all the physical symptoms of fear. However, the reason we have these anxieties is because they keep us from attempting what we really fear: getting rejected by someone we’re attracted to. These unpleasant fantasies provide convenient and plausible excuses for why the person suffering from them can’t and and shouldn’t approach someone. We dislike the sensation of being afraid and so we come to avoid the situations that might trigger them… literally becoming afraid of being afraid.
(Note: the emphasis doesn’t come through with my copying and pasting, so I’d have to add it, and I don’t think it will confuse things too much for it to not be there. But please note that this is happening and read his article yourself to see if this is still an accurate representation of what he’s saying).
The implication here is that these shy and nerdy people are inventing these extra consequences because they are really afraid of being rejected, and these extra consequences then essentially become excuses to not have to approach without having to admit that it’s because they’re afraid of being rejected. I think that’s nonsense, as the fear of extra consequences is on top of the fear of rejection. To grasp what people are really afraid of when they are afraid of rejection, think about this rather extreme example:
Imagine that you’ve decided to ask your long-standing SO to marry you. You go through all the planning, you try to make it romantic, you do everything right, you do it, and you’re there eagerly awaiting their response.
Now imagine that they say “No”.
This, of course, will be devastating. It will hurt. It will massively hurt. And it will hurt, it seems to me, from the combination of the fact that your vision of the future that you wanted to have and thought you were going to have is shattered — ie it’s a lost opportunity to make your life significantly better — and the worry that it’s something about you, that there’s a flaw in you that causes this, and that in some way you’ve been rejected for who you truly are. In some small sense, there’s also the thought that your life will be worse and more empty because of this, but that’s mostly the result of the other two things, and the loss you’ll have of the specific future that you wanted and now can’t have.
The fears of people reacting as if you are a harraser because you asked are more about the possibility of having all of that and ruining your life in the bargain.
I think a job interview example can help make this clear. There’s nervousness and a fear of rejection in job interviews as well. Assuming that you want the job, there’s a fear that they’ll say “No” and so you won’t get that job that will make your life better, and also the fear that they won’t take you because you simply aren’t good enough. Getting passed over for a job hurts in pretty much the same way that getting turned down for a date does.
Now, imagine that when you are considering going for that job interview, you’re worried that the fact that you went on the interview will get back to your boss, who’s big on loyalty. So, if your boss finds out, at best you’ll be treated less favourably because you’ll be seen as less loyal, and at worst your boss might fire you. So, on top of not getting what you want and feeling that that is because you aren’t good enough to get that, you now risk losing what you already have, which may not be what you want but is still better than nothing. This, then, is going to discourage you from going on job interviews, or at least going only going on job interviews where you know it won’t get back to your boss. This, then, is a fear of consequences that is on top of your normal fear of just not getting the job.
The same thing applies to dating. Being afraid of being rejected is bad enough, but in general the easiest way to overcome it is to point out that if you don’t ask, you’ll never know, and the worst that can happen is she says “No”, you feel badly for a while, you get over it, you move on. Even this is a bit much for some shy men — although I think a lot of that comes from the fact that it’s a lot more effort for them to make an approach in the first place, meaning that they have more of a need to succeed to make it worth that extra effort — but in general it’s not that bad. Now, add in the fact that they might have people in their social group not just think they are a loser — which those people likely already do — but that they are a bad person — ie sexist or a creep — and depending on the context might lose their job or get suspended/expelled for violating a harassment policy, and you can see that the standard argument loses its force. What’s the worst that can happen? Your life gets ruined. Hardly a consequence that you should approach without major trepidation.
And while it is indeed certainly true that Aaronson was overly worried — seriously, I don’t know where he got “prison” from — feminist theory isn’t exactly helping on this. When discussing harassment policies at conferences notable feminists including one that claims to work in some kind of HR capacity advocated for a policy if “If she feels like she’s being harassed, she is”, which technically means that if you even ask a woman out or attempt to flirt in a normal way and she feels that that is harassment, then it is. Note that in that link they resisted attempts to ask for clarification on that point, insisting that I had to do the research myself … which is likely to result in the sorts of conclusions that Aaronson came to. Also note that they seemed to reject a “reasonable person” standard. So the fear here is that anywhere where there is a harassment policy in place, you could be accused of that if the person feels harassed and because of that have no way to defend yourself by saying that they feelings are unreasonable and that they were indeed just interpreting something more normal and harmless incorrectly. So while the fear is unreasonable, the standard structure of feminist argument doesn’t make it any better. The reason behind that is the fear that people will abuse “normal” behaviours in order to harass people, but that can be easily fixed by simply including “normal behaviours that you know bother someone are harassment”.
So, sure, his fears were incorrect, but they were neither excuses to avoid having to fear rejection or totally invented. Feminist views really do lead to this sorts of thoughts if taken exceptionally seriously.
This is similar to what I call the Dr. Google effect – if you’re sick and enter your symptoms online, Dr. Google will inevitably tell you that you have cancer. By looking for information without context to interpret that information or being aware of where to look, you get results that are unhelpful at best and terrifying at worst. Aaronson found information without context – in this case, the writings of Andrea Dworkin and other radical feminists – and took it as further confirmation that he was a horrible person.
The problem is that he – like many other nerds and Nice Guys – took all the wrong lessons from what he read.
So, what we had with Aaronson was a case where he went through the standard harassment training and came away with a skewed and incorrect idea of what that entailed. However, he was self-aware enough to understand that this probably wasn’t what was meant, but that these sorts of training are going to be much more vague and black and white and lack context, and so wanted to go and find out what the underlying theory was to find out what it all really meant. He did so, and found that it seemed that what he thought were misconceptions actually seemed to be, well, the case. And Dr. Nerdlove’s response here is that that is something wrong with Aaronson, that he took the wrong lessons and read the wrong books, instead of a problem with the training courses and with feminist theory in general that either is in conflict over this or at least doesn’t give people looking into this an easy way to find the “right” authors. While I commend him for giving an explicit reference to bell hooks, I wonder about it because while pretty much everyone who knows anything about feminism knows who Dworkin is, but I think that a lot of feminists don’t know who bell hooks is. Which means that someone who was looking for an example of feminist theory is not exactly likely to find her first. So when Nerdlove blames him for not having the context and so coming to incorrect conclusions, that seems like him putting the blame on someone for not having what they really could not reasonably be expected to have.
As I pointed out above, the whole notion around not educating people with 101 questions because they are likely JAQ’ing off or whatever leads precisely to the sort of “Dr. Google” problem cited here. If you tell people to simply Google the details, they aren’t going to get the context. What we need is to understand that there are people that might be this overly analytic and make the resources that will help explain the underlying details obvious. Nerdlove’s site might be one source, and to their credit a lot of feminists are starting 101-type sites that can be linked to to try to do this, but these are still in their infancy. Because of this, it’s rather perverse to accuse him of taking the wrong lessons from what he read when there wasn’t any real way for him to find the nuanced and context-laden sources that would give him the right lessons.
The problem is that Aaronson made the same mistake that many other nerds and Nice Guys have made: he misunderstood the point of what he was reading. Specifically: he wasn’t willing or able to step outside of himself and realize that not everything was about him. It’s #notallmen all over again – seeing everything as being about him instead of about what women go through.
I’m really starting to find lines like this disingenuous. There is no reason to think that Aaronson thought that it was all about him. There are good reasons to think that he was at least thinking in some way about the feelings of women, even if it was only because their feelings mattered to his getting what he wanted. The cry here is far more about the fact that it can’t be all about what women go through, but we have to consider what the proposed thoughts and solutions mean for others as well. But any attempt to say “Here’s what your advice means for people like me, so can we find a solution that still solves your problem but doesn’t make my life a living hell?” is treated as someone thinking only of themselves. While I do try to avoid this sort of rhetoric, this sort of statement seems to be one that can be only made by people who are thinking only of themselves and trying to maintain that. It is never a good response to “What about us?” to say “Stop thinking of yourself, think about us instead?”
Note that there may be cases where the charge is valid, but I personally think that it often isn’t, and just reflects self-centered thinking … the kind that we all engage in, which is why I prefer to replace the word “privilege” with the word “perspective”. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women, but women don’t know what it’s like to be men, meaning that it is a mistake to dismiss either view a priori, without argument.
So what should he have done instead? Well to start with, he should’ve read some bell hooks instead of Andrea Dworkin. But more importantly: Nice Guys like Aaronson need to take a step outside themselves and examine their behavior. Take that sexual harassment seminar: ok, now you’ve seen behavior that is considered harassing. Are you behaving in that way? No? Cool, then it’s not about you, now is it?
Nerdlove says that he’ll get to Alexander’s stuff later, but this highlights one of the major issues that he raises. Yes, he’s not acting in the ways that they say are harassment … and he isn’t getting any credit for that, and is instead being treated as being just as bad as the people who would do that. Meanwhile, he watches what the cool, popular and romantically successful guys do and, lo and behold, they doing the things that the seminars say you shouldn’t do. And they succeed. At that point, it is reasonable to conclude that something’s not right there. And based on the experience of most unpopular people, it seems like it comes down to the old standard: the people who are popular can get away with things that the people who aren’t can’t.
Which is not likely to calm fears that if you try to do even the most innocent thing, you’ll face the full consequences of the harassment policies, while the popular people get away with even egregious breaches.
Well… no. As I’ve said many times before: you don’t get a cookie for meeting what are minimum requirements for decent behavior.
As Alexander and other commenters have pointed out, that’s not the expectation. The expectation is that meeting those minimum standards will at least leave you better off than those who don’t meet those minimum standards, and in general it seems that the inverse is true. Hence, PUAs and why they find fodder among shy people, because they explicitly point out that doing those sorts of things isn’t actually bad … at least, not if done properly.
And that’s where things fall apart. He doesn’t consider that the so-called Neanderthals weren’t “breaking the rules” or “playing grab-ass” but flirting with the women they liked. While Aaronson and others were paralyzed by fear, those supposed assholes were actually making approaches. They were out there taking chances and risking getting rejected. That doesn’t make them Neanderthals; they’re just guys who’re choosing to go for what they want instead of letting fear hold them back.
Hence, they’re the good guys, the ones worthy of dates, and the shy guys aren’t. Except that the main reason that these men are indeed willing to approach is that they aren’t actually afraid of offending, hurting or violating the boundaries of the women they approach. This might be because they are convinced that they won’t be; they think that their flirting abilities remove that. This might also be because they just don’t care if they do as long as they get a date, so either she accepts that and he wins or she gets offended and he moves on to the next one. But at the end of the day, they don’t care about hurting the feelings of women or violating their boundaries. You know another one of the best ways to get shy men to overcome their fear? Tell them that if they approach the woman won’t be offended, but instead generally flattered. Guess what much modern feminist theory explicitly rejects (see Elevator Gate and the whole discussions of harassment around that)?
I want to drive this home: the thing that changed for him was that he asked a woman out. He matured enough to stop looking at women as The Enemy who were looking for reasons to fuck him over and call him a rapist and just interact with them as though they were people. And yet even looking back on things, knowing he was wrong this entire time – he still can’t stop blaming others for the unfairness of his situation. He still blames “society” for teaching a subset of “unprivileged” men not to approach instead of taking responsibility for his own attitudes and beliefs – ones he still holds on to.
So, yes, he ended up succeeding by gaining the confidence to approach. A big step, and surely the big step in greatly improving his life. A step that he not unreasonably feels was made harder for him to take because of societal attitudes and teaching and expectations. And Nerdlove’s response is for him to stop blaming society for making this harder because … it didn’t make it harder, despite the fact that it did? That the solution to Aaronson’s problem was indeed to get over it and approach doesn’t mean that we should ignore all the ways in which our society makes it harder … including by insisting that he had to ask a woman out instead of encouraging women to take more responsibility for that themselves and so face the same issues. At the end of the day, this is an excuse to ignore how our society makes some people’s lives harder and do nothing about it.
Nice Guys, for all that they insist that they aren’t, are dealing with an over-inflated sense of entitlement. The Nice Guy outlook is about what they’re “owed” and how the world needs to change and conform to make their lives better without requiring that they change. Even in his complaints about how feminists made him feel bad for wanting to have sex, he’s focused on himself – he wants someone to make him feel better and validate his feelings rather than acknowledging that some behaviors are problematic and people need to try to address them.
I don’t think he ever denies or even fails to acknowledge that. I think he is saying that there has to be a better way to solve that than to make people who care about avoiding those behaviours lonely and miserable while having an underlying societal structure where people who don’t care about avoiding those behaviours are actually more successful. If I can’t get a date only because I don’t ask, I want to know that so I can start. If I can’t get a date because I’m approaching women who aren’t going to like my personality — ie I’m approaching the wrong women — I want to know that so I can learn how to find the women who will. If I can’t get a date because I’m giving off an incorrect image of who I am, I want to know that so that I can work on my image. If I can’t get a date because I’m just too unattractive, I want to know that, too, so that I can deal with it. These are all things that I can’t do myself. These are things that I need other people to do and help me with. If other people are instead insisting that I have to do all of this alone and on top of that pile on a list of behaviours that I ought not do despite the fact that everyone who succeeds does them, I think it’d be reasonable to be at least a bit annoyed at how screwed up society is over these sorts of things.
Let’s go back to Aaronson’s complaint that the sexual harassment seminars didn’t provide him with clear-cut rules on when approaching someone isn’t sexual harassment. Of course, they couldn’t; the difference between welcome, consensual flirting and harassment is contextual, not binary. What works in some circumstances for some people isn’t going to work for everyone or in every circumstance. It’s on the individual to learn to adapt and change as needed. But by complaining that he wasn’t handed a consistent, universal rules-set2 is asking people to stop being people and start being social robots and the world doesn’t work that way.
Sure, but the only way to learn what works for you is to try, and particularly to try and fail, and particularly to try and fail in a way that lets you get feedback on what you’re doing wrong so that you can correct it. In the ordinary, basic, patriarchal societal expectations, you don’t get feedback. In the feminist societal expectations, screw it up badly enough even one time and you could face all of the consequences of being a sexual harasser. This is not likely to encourage experimentation, and that’s the only real solution that Nerdlove can offer from his starting point. Heck, he can’t even offer a way to figure out if it’s you that’s doing something wrong so you can fix it or if you’re simply hitting one of her personal hang-ups. This is less than likely to be helpful.
In short, for men to learn these things they have to be able to screw up and have people no judge them as being intentionally bad for screwing up. Guess what feminism’s attitude towards intentional vs unintentional harassment is?
Feminism’s theory and its focus on women makes the existing societal constraints worse. While I commend Dr. Nerdlove for trying to provide some clarity on dating and the like the whole — and, admittedly, necessary — focus on it being something that is personal and context-dependent means that theorizing is never going to work. Trying and failing is going to work. And that trying and failing is what feminism both intentionally and unintentionally is stifling. Thus, at the end the day, only people who do not fear and perhaps need not fear the consequences of failing will learn by experimentation … and the experience of most nerds is that they are not those sorts of people. While shy nerds do need to do things themselves to help themselves, we must acknowledge the ways society could help them and the way society hurts their efforts to make those sorts of improvements. Refusing to do that, as Marcotte’s, Penny’s and Dr. Nerdlove’s responses seem to do is to essentially say that you don’t care about their pain and what you and society as a whole are doing to make it worse. Adding that sort of even implicit attitude the idea that it is because of their purported privilege just makes the most damning case against the concept of privilege imaginable: the idea that the feelings of those you declare privileged don’t matter. But people matter … even purportedly privileged ones.