Nice Guys, Nice Social Justice

I liked Scott’s most-recent (edit: Scott writes posts faster than I can think about posts, so it’s now his second-most-recent-post) post, an anti-anti-nice-guy treatise to the effect of “it is a bad idea to attack and shame people for being sad about being lonely, and assuming that complaints about loneliness are rooted in entitlement, misogyny, or other forms of bad-personitude is toxic”.

I can get behind this, as a prime example of almost-no-one-is-evil-almost-everything-is-broken. The world does not run on story rules, virtue doesn’t correlate with attractiveness, this is not anyone’s fault, and it’s okay to be sad about it. We humans have a nasty habit of writing in villains when telling the story of our problems (misogynists in this case), and any diagnosis of a problem that identifies the root node as “people being evil” should be suspect.

Which is my main issue with the post – that it identifies the root node of the backlash against “nice guys” as something-like “evil in feminism”, when there’s a much more charitable explanation of a world where almost everyone was and is trying to do the right thing. If you step back and blur your vision a bit, it becomes really easy to tell a story where a lot of people really have and are experiencing a lot of real pain, coming up with explanations of varying accuracy, forming political coalitions based on those explanations, becoming deeply invested in those arguments, and everyone ends up in more pain as a result.

Rebecca, in 1999. notices that in story after story, film after film, female characters aren’t really characters – they’re the reward that the hero gets for triumphing over evil and nastiness. Mario gets Peach. Luke gets Leia, except then she turns out to be his sister and he turns out to be a monk so Han gets Leia after he becomes a Good Guy. It would have been narratively unacceptable for that not to happen – the heroes deserve to get the girl after all they’ve been through. And this trope starts showing up in their personal life – Bob sticks up for her when she’s getting harassed, and she’s grateful to him. Then he asks her out, and she’s just not interested. She dates people who are sometimes rude, but she finds them charming. People seem irritated at her for not liking the people she’s supposed to like.

Bob is definitely irritated – he notices that his life isn’t going the way every story he was raised on said it should. He is trying to be a good person, but he is lonely. Loneliness is painful. Eventually some of the less-nice iterations of Bob do the human thing and seek out a villain to blame for their troubles: Women are purposefully rewarding evil people and punishing good people out of some deeply-rooted malice. Lots of Bobs get together on Digg to collectively blame their troubles on those bitches. Many more Bobs don’t do this – they’re sad about being lonely, and maybe sometimes they see the blame directed at “bitches”, but they don’t take part in it – they’re just sad and confused on their own. Let’s call these non-participant Bobs “Robert” from now on to avoid confusion.

Rebecca is really irritated. She doesn’t have an obligation to be attracted to anyone, and she really resents the implication that her dating choices make her a bad person. Eventually some Rebeccas do the human thing and seeks out a villain: Clearly, entitled mysoginists are making unreasonable demands on women – and this includes every guy who is sad about being lonely in spite of their niceness (or “niceness”). Rebecca’s case is stronger than the first group’s – she wasn’t the first to pick out a villain – but most of the people she’s attacking are innocent of any wrongdoing. Again, most would-be Rebecca’s don’t take up this flag – we’ll call these non-participants “Becca”.

The rest of the story is familiar: Bob and Rebecca form stronger, more strident, and larger coalitions (though Rebecca is much better at this). The Roberts look on from afar and get told about what horrible people they are and keep on feeling horrible. The Beccas look on and, to a lesser degree than the Roberts, have it insinuated that they’re bad people for not rewarding good behavior with dates. Over time, these constant low-level background attacks convert more Beccas and Roberts into Rebeccas and Bobs.

Eventually, Scott notices that a bunch of Roberts are being accused of being horrible people by a bunch of Rebeccas, does the human thing, and picks out the villain: Clearly, it’s the social justice movement.

Rebecca has a good point: Pretty much all media since forever has depicted women as rewards for men. This is wrong and broken and justifiably upsetting to a lot of people who would rather not be thought of as prizes to be won. But this does not justify telling all men who are hurting and wondering why virtue doesn’t correlate with attractiveness that they are horrible people. It’s a mistake, and an obvious one when it’s pointed out, but it’s a very human and understandable mistake.

No one was evil. Everything was broken.

10 thoughts on “Nice Guys, Nice Social Justice

  1. That depends on your definition of evil. You seem to take evil as in a virtue ethics approach. I believe that: 1- that’s a terrible way to do it, as you cannot read people’s minds; 2- that’s probably not what Scott thought as well.

    If you have a group of people who, being ignorant, stubborn and politically motivated, take continuous actions that significantly reduce the utility of others for no compensation other than a false belief that they are doing good, then, by all means, I consider them to be evil.

    In other words: Those who don’t push the fat guy in front of the trolley are evil

    1. By “evil” I approximately mean “allocates little or no value to the well-being of others”. You’re right that I can’t read minds, and therefore can’t infer this directly – but just because something is hard to observe doesn’t mean it isn’t part of reality.

      I absolutely refuse to label the majority of the people who don’t push the guy on the trolley problem as evil. They are making an extremely understandable mistake. So is everyone who flinches at the idea of effective altruism.

      I take issue with your characterization of your political opponents, whoever they might be in this or any case – but even with that characterization, I wouldn’t call them evil. Ignorance definitely isn’t evil – that’s just lacking access to a resource. Stubbornness isn’t evil either – it’s an often useful heuristic/method, though it has a lot of misses. Political motivation seems to be a human universal, and I won’t condemn anyone for it.

  2. How does the fact that some Bobs (and an unknowable number of Roberts) asymmetrically “take” what they think they “deserve” in the form of sexual assault interact with your thesis? Does the fact that some Rebeccas (and probably many Beccas) are rationally aware that the rhetoric of entitlement has a statistically non-negligible chance of impacting on their lives at some point not undermine the circularity of the scenario? In other words, where is Schroedinger’s Rapist in this?

    1. “How does the fact that some Bobs… asymmetrically “take” what they think they “deserve” in the form of sexual assault interact with your thesis?
      Does the fact that some Rebeccas… are rationally aware that the rhetoric of entitlement has a statistically non-negligible chance of impacting on their lives at some point not undermine the circularity of the scenario?”

      Neither of those things seem to be true. This relies on causal arrows running from ‘Watch Star Wars’ -> ‘Feel entitled to fuck some woman’ -> ‘rape woman’. There’s no evidence suggesting that’s the case. It’s not even intuitively all that plausible. There are more plausible causal stories about sexual assault (‘Watch hardcore pornography where all women only and always want sex and if they don’t it doesn’t matter you have sex with them anyway’ -> ‘Have sex with women by raping them because they want it and also if they don’t it doesn’t matter anyway’) and that turned out to be false (or, indeed, the opposite of the case).

  3. There’s a quote from Ender in Exile that pretty much nails it:
    “Whoever said virtue was its own reward was full of crap.”

    Don’t expect reward for doing good. You likely won’t get anything (or even get attacked for it), and it will hurt. Being good means knowing this and doing it anyway.

  4. Just throwing a +1 of thanks your way. Scott is very influential and this alternative interpretation is a valuable piece of feedback. It has been a while but I hope you posted in the comments on SSC.

    Also thanks for making me feel better and giving me some faith by offering a more charitable perspective on a divisive issue. This post is the sort of thing that lets me put some marbles in the “Yes” bag in that part of my mind where I wonder if EA can become a beacon of sanity in a broken world.

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