MIT Professor’s Blog Comment Sets Off Debate Over Nerds and Male Privilege

A deeply personal posting by an MIT professor and self-described “nerdy male” wrestling with the idea of male privilege has set off a debate about feminism, nerds, and privilege across the Internet.

The posting, by Scott Aaronson, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, appeared as a comment on his blog in December.

It was part of the discussion on a post Mr. Aaronson wrote earlier about how MIT had reacted after determining that Walter Lewin, a former professor, had sexually harassed women on the Internet. In the original blog post, Mr. Aaronson wrote that sexual harassment “must never be tolerated,” but he took issue with MIT’s decision to remove Mr. Lewin’s online lectures.

Mr. Aaronson’s later comment stated: “I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified.” It went on to describe having felt so worried he might be “‘outed’ as a nerdy heterosexual male, and therefore as a potential creep or sex criminal,” that he had suicidal thoughts and asked a psychiatrist to prescribe drugs that would chemically castrate him.

His reflections, which have come to be known as “Comment 171,” struck a nerve. They have led to a number of responses, notably a soul-baring piece by Laurie Penny in the New Statesman that argues that patriarchy, not feminism, is at the root of Mr. Aaronson’s suffering, and a long post, by a blogger calling himself Scott S. Alexander, that pushes back on some of Ms. Penny’s comments.

Mr. Aaronson himself has written several updates on his blog, Shtetl-Optimized, describing some shifts in his thinking, giving feedback to others’ responses, and listing some of his “core beliefs.” In one of them, he described posting the initial comment as taking “the most dramatic, almost self-immolating step I could to get people to see me as I was, rather than according to some preexisting mental template of a ‘privileged, entitled, elite male scientist.’”

What do you make of the debate? Do you know of any research that sheds light on it, or university programs that grapple with those issues?

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