Some thoughts on a provoking discussion

So I recently stumbled upon (via Izabella Laba) the discussion at Scott Aaronson’s blog that arose from the events surrounding the dismissal of Walter Lewin.

Amazingly enough, I actually read through the entire 593 comment responses. This was a surprisingly intelligent a civil discussion (on the internet!) between people who don’t completely see eye-to-eye about everything, and about sexism, no less!

The discussion is a little disheartening for the first (roughly) hundred comments or so. However, starting some time around the linked comment, things get a lot better—as a whole, the major players in the discussion actually listened and seemed to empathize with one another, if not perfectly all the time.

A few thoughts:

  1. I think that Scott (and the main people in the discussion) did a great job of ignoring the more troll-ish posts. There are a number scattered throughout—towards the end, in particular, there is a post which calls for the ban of Amy (if only for a few days!), which thankfully is largely ignored. However…

    Comments such as these are an interesting instance of Lewis’ Law. I do believe that Scott is a good person who—as much as possible—eschews overly sexist views. But it’s interesting that underscoring a discussion about the role of women in STEM fields that there is—quite literally!—a constant low-level buzz of commentary that at the least borders on anti-feminist. So if you were someone reading this post who held views similar to those of Amy (which are not radical in the least), on one hand I would be welcomed that the major discussion is civil and interesting. On the other hand, it’s also believable that you might also feel like the room in which the discussion is happening is subtly hostile to you and your views. Is it surprising that women might be discouraged from self-advocacy in situations like this?

    I really should stress that I think that Scott did a wonderful job in this discussion of staying on point, not engaging the trolls, etc. But the existence of these background comments really does suggest something, I think.

  2. On that note, seriously? Amy is by no means a “radical feminist” in her postings. I would describe her as pretty middle-of-the-road (although that may say more about me than anything, I guess). She advocates for communication and being aware of the existence of structural imbalances. CRAZY AND RADICAL INDEED.
  3. Reading through this sort of discussion really makes me think again about the difficulty of communication when we don’t define our terms—or in this case, when either the context is difficult to convey, or the terms themselves may not be easily definable. Many of the flare-ups that occured throughout the discussion often seemed to result from a mis-reading of what one of the other posters was trying to convey. Not all, certainly, since not everyone agreed on a variety of issues. But there were still many of them.

Anyhow, it was a surprisingly edifying read, although I can’t really say if I would recommend reading through all 593 comments, which will take quite a long time regardless. Still, I’m glad to see that civil discussion about sexism among people who do not agree can take place in this day and age. Kudos to Scott, Amy, Gil, Vijay, dorothy, and a few others.


About charlesflorian

Mathematician. Climber. Living in Copenhagen.
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2 Responses to Some thoughts on a provoking discussion

  1. Cede booflawkr says:

    The entire blog suffers from the lack of any substance on what the Professor did. It is reported variously on the web that he made an indecent suggestion via an online chat associated to his lectures.
    The absence of an open process calls on consideration of why MIT would abandon due process when a woman feels put upon by a retired professor. I do agree that some of the commentators were more polite than the usual trolls. However, one is left with the question how the feminists will ever reproduce.

    • It’s worth noting that Scott addresses that reasonably well in his comments; to the best of his ability, I think he stresses pretty well that the charges are sufficiently serious.

      That said, that is entirely beside the point that I was trying to make in my post, which is more about civility online and the fact that even within a civil discussion you can have a low-level noise of hostility. I would argue that your post also contributes to that, with is somewhat non-sequitur-ish ad-hominem at the end.

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