Them things you don’t show, I can see
Them things you don’t say, speak to me
Them things you hide ain’t hiding
No firm ground but we ain’t sliding
– Kae Tempest, “The Beigeness”
I would like to begin by stressing how deeply miserable I am to be back on this beat. I was happy writing about the occult history of British comics, gods damn you. It didn’t involve horrible abyss gaze. It didn’t involve fashy trolls in my Twitter mentions. It was nice. But fine. Since people seem to love pointing out tht Neoreaction a Basilisk does not actually talk about Scott Siskind, aka Scott Alexander, here’s another goddamn essay. Are you sitting comfortably? Well fuck you.
For anyone not aware, Siskind is the blogger behind Slate Star Codex and whatever the hell he’s calling his Substack these days. He’s a major figure in the LessWrong diaspora—a post-Yudkowsky “rationalist” whose work was just the subject of an extremely anodyne and diffident New York Times profile that his defenders decried as a hit piece because it mentioned the fact that he’s rather more receptive to neo-nazi rhetoric about “the science of race” than one might expect a respected person to be. I was quoted in the article as a source because obviously, a major rationalist blogger who keeps taking neoreactionaries seriously is the sort of thing I’d be aware of after writing Neoreaction a Basilisk. But Siskind was only ever a minor figure in Neoreaction a Basilisk—I describe him in a footnote as someone “who flirts with neoreaction like a horny teenager befuddled by a bra.”
I am not going to discuss the aforementioned fumbling about the hook clasps of human biodiversity at any great length, mostly because it’s too straightforward to actually occupy that kind of time. This is someone who repeatedly speaks admiringly of Charles Murray, puts Nick Land, Razib Khan, and various other fashy types on his blogroll, and openly advocates eugenics. The Reddit community around his work is the sort of place where posting the fourteen words gets dozens of upvotes and complaining about that gets you banned. Those adamant about defending him will point out—at astonishing length—that he penned an essay called “The Anti-Reactionary FAQ,” but it’s revealing that this consists of a tedious Gish gallop working its way through a host of minor claims, whereas his corresponding essay “Reactionary Philosophy in an Enormous, Planet-Sized Nutshell” offers a credulous account of the high level claims of neoreaction, a disparity that does not exactly amount to refutation. The claim that he’s troublingly invested in racist bullshit is straightforward and, frankly, uninteresting; anyone trying to dispute it has a disingenuous agenda most likely involving racist bullshit.
Instead I want to talk about (or at least I’m going to talk about) a question I never really addressed in Neoreaction a Basilisk, namely the mechanics of a certain genre of writing that Siskind exemplifies. Let’s discuss one of his best regarded essays, then and look at how it functions. We’ll work purely on the level of prose writing and how it’s structured. Even a lowly humanities PhD is presumably qualified to talk about that, right?
My contention is that Siskind’s prose—which I view as representative of a larger style—works through a sort of logorrheic beigeness. Siskind is good at giving readers the sense that they are being intelligent—that they are thinking about serious issues at considerable length. In practice, he says… not quite nothing, but very little, at least on a moment to moment basis. Instead he engages in a litany of small bullshits—shoddy arguments that at their best compound into banality, but at their worst compound into something deeply destructive, all made over such length that smoking guns are hard to find, which is of course the point.
Obviously I need an example. Let’s do “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” which is oft-cited and taken seriously by people, including ones who are actually serious themselves. “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” is, unsurprisingly, an essay about tolerance. But let’s look specifically at how it works. Over the course of the essay, Siskind offers ten separate case studies of tolerance—that is, things he spends more than three paragraphs discussing the content of. This is what they are.
- A G.K. Chesterton story.
- A very weird remake of a Zen parable.
- A May 2012 Gallup poll of 1024 randomly sampled adults asking which of three sentences about the relationship between God and human evolution they liked the best.
- A large Reddit thread about arguments against gay marriage.
- An internal survey of the website LessWrong about what political parties they affiliate with.
- A LiveJournal post he wrote in 2011 in which he vagueblogged about the death of Osama bin Laden.
- A blog post on Slate Star Codex from 2013 in which he compared his recollection of his media intake in 2011 to his sense of the previous five days of media intake regarding the death of Margaret Thatcher.
- The Implicit Association Test as applied to race and political affiliation.
- Russell Brand’s video blog in which he said Fox News was worse than ISIS.
- The essay “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup” by Scott Siskind,
This is an extremely unusual and heterogenous group of texts. This is not, in and of itself, a problem; writing lengthy essays that swerve among heterogenous groups of topics is kind of my jam. But the point of an exercise like that is what the overall sense of the topic you get by combining this set of examples. So let’s go again, this time looking at what Siskind actually says about each example.
- A fictional town mocks our detective for only being willing to forgive a popular man who murdered an unpopular man in a duel based on his repentence, then wants to murder the man when they discover that he was actually the unpopular man, while our detective/priest remains willing to forgive based on repentence.
- Siskind retells a parable about an Emperor who boasts of his good deeds and is told that boasting is sinful to one about a man who says that “I have been tolerant of innumerable gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, transgender people, and Jews” and is told that he doesn’t get any “tolerance points” for that because he likes those people anyway.
- The people surveyed had 46% of people who preferred the statement “God created humans in present form,” 32% who preferred “Humans evolved, with God guiding,” and 15% who preferred “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process.”
- In a 10,000-comment thread nobody argued at length against gay marriage except to play devil’s advocate.
- 80% of readers were Democrats, 16% were Republicans preferring the term “libertarian” and 4% were “conservative” or “Republican” (it’s not quite clear which from his summary, and he doesn’t link this study.)
- He got some very polite comments in a twenty-four comment thread that were curious why he thought it was worth writing about this topic because they didn’t much think it was. He describes this as “the worst reaction I’ve ever gotten to a blog post.”
- He got some very polite comments in a thirty-seven comment thread that didn’t find this comparison very interesting.
- The test shows that people have immediate negative reactions against black people and even stronger ones against whichever political party they don’t like.
- Russell Brand says that he hates Fox News more than ISIS.
- He criticizes himself for spending ten thousand words (it’s doesn’t actually break 9k) criticizing people for what he views as sloppy thinking about tolerance and complains about how he feels like he has to be so precise about who he does and doesn’t tolerate.
Does anything straightforwardly emerge from these examples? Do they reveal anything about the nature of tolerance? Siskind clearly thinks that they do, using them as the basis for his oft-cited taxonomy of the red tribe, the blue tribe, and the obviously superior tribe to which he and his readers belong, the grey tribe. (You can guess what the first two are; the third is basically technolibertarians) and then concluding with a discussion of the differences between the grey tribe and the blue tribe. But this is quite a leap, so it’s worth identifying exactly what the evidence backing up this conclusion is, especially given how foundational the “grey tribe” is to his community’s self-mythology and how its alleged proximity to the blue tribe allows Siskind’s defenders to pull shit like saying “but he voted for Warren” as a defense when someone points out that he openly supports eugenics.
Spoiler: There isn’t any. I can’t prove a negative, and so if you do not believe me here, I invite you to look through the essay and identify the portions that draw any clear connections from his ten examples of tolerance to his conclusions about the relationships among the tribes, and particularly to the establishment of the grey tribe upon which his conclusion hinges. I’ll even provide limited technical support for this essay and engage with the first couple of people to do so in comments. But having looked at the essay pretty extensively, I’m confident in this claim: its conclusions are not actually supported by evidence, not merely in the sense that the argument does not work but in the sense that the argument is not actually there in the first place.
This is in its own demented way actually an impressive feat of writing. “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” gives, after all, an impressive illusion of actually arguing something. It feels convincingly like an essay—I mean, it’s really long and everything. It gives the strong sense that it analyzes things and moves towards a conclusion.
How, then, does Siskind’s beigeness generate this impression without actually arguing something, and what can this tell us about the larger mode of rhetorical discourse in which the supposed rationalists function?
Let’s begin by looking at the meta-structure—those ten case studies and what they can and cannot say about the subject of tolerance. The first thing that becomes clear when you think about them is, as I said, that they cover quite a lot of ground. Specifically, he’s jumping around from high level societal claims (the evolution poll, for instance, and the Implicit Association Test), quite niche examples that at times border on anecdote (a single Reddit thread, or his impressions of comments on his own blog), and what we might call literary texts, whether fiction (the Chesterton story) or non-fiction (the Russell Brand podcast). Again, this isn’t a problem per se, but it’s really easy to do sloppy work when you jump recklessly from small scale textual analysis to high level societal claims, and that the moments of your argument when you make such a jump are moments when you slow down and work carefully. Scott does not slow down or work carefully in these moments. The result is obfuscatory—a connection that’s made by a sleight of hand trick, performing most of the rhetorical work of making a connection without actually doing so and expecting that the reader will go along with it.
It is here that it’s also important to talk about length and its rhetorical effect. There is a (very good) suggestion that goes around anarchist Twitter periodically of getting a friend, tossing on bright orange reflective vests, and calmly walking around public spaces removing the anti-homeless bars from benches. Because the bright orange reflective vests make you look, at a momentary glance, like a construction worker, everyone will assume you are supposed to be fiddling with that bench and nobody will do anything annoying like call the cops. Siskind is operating on much the same principle, only for far more pathetic ends. His essay is 8,670 words long, and proceeds at a dry meander. It is the pace and, more importantly, tone of Serious Thinkers—the way in which a particular genre of supposedly important thought unfolds. It feels like the sort of thing that smart and thoughtful people write, and so the reader is primed to treat it that way, which means a particular sort of engagement that is rooted in credulity.
But the length also helps assist the sleight of hand through sheer overloading. Simply put, it’s harder to keep the whole picture of an 8,670 word essay in mind than it is a short one. That’s not a flaw; sometimes ideas are complex and hard to get a handle on and need a lengthy unpacking. I mean, do a word count on this essay if you want; clearly I’m not opposed to length. It’s simply that length can be used to create obfuscatory prose that facilitates passing off dodgy arguments. And more to the point, that Siskind does use it this way.
But let’s move from the big picture to the small and look at Siskind’s prose in action so that we can really see the way in which it works to studiously and emphatically avoid actual thought. I’m going to move not quite sentence by sentence through a section of the essay, but in small steps, carefully noting what’s actually happening in the prose. This is section three of the essay, for reference.
Let’s start by asking what exactly an outgroup is.
Siskind opens in a state of ambiguity. This is already interesting—the previous section, after all, used “outgroup” in its definition of “tolerance,” and so he’s put the reader into a curious state of rhetorical uncertainty here. He’s defined one of the key words in the essay title in terms of the other, and now he puts that second word under the microscope. The consequences of this investigation are obviously huge; whatever he ends up defining the term as is going to dictate more or less the entirety of the rest of his argument.
There’s a very boring sense in which, assuming the Emperor’s straight, gays are part of his “outgroup” ie a group that he is not a member of. But if the Emperor has curly hair, are straight-haired people part of his outgroup? If the Emperor’s name starts with the letter ‘A’, are people whose names start with the letter ‘B’ part of his outgroup?
Siskind has notably, still not actually said anything. Four sentences into the section we have two questions, a sentence indicating that we will be asking questions, and a sentence that opens by disavowing its own conclusion by describing it as “boring.” Siskind is tarrying in the ambiguity. But it’s worth being explicit about the fact that this ambiguity is purely a rhetorical posture. Siskind is not actually unaware of what he intends to define “outgroup” as. He can’t be; he’s already used the term to define one of the other key terms in his essay. This is posturing—a performance of indecision and ambiguity that leads up to something else.
You knew this would be the next word, more or less. Which reveals something about the ambiguity that Siskind was playing with. It’s notable that the two questions asked in the previous section are self-evidently absurd. Obviously this is not what we mean by outgroup. It can’t be. This is a tacit call and response. Siskind asks two questions to which he and the reader already know the answer, deliberately to elicit the reaction that he ultimately resolves upon.
I should stress that there is nothing wrong with this. It’s a classic rhetorical trope. I’ve used variations of it more times than I can possibly count. It’s not sinister to engage in this sort of rhetorical performance. But we also can identify immediately where we’re going from here. You throw out two obviously wrong answers, you point out they’re wrong, and then, obeying the rhetorical law of threes, you move on to the correct answer. It’s as inevitable a structure as a I-IV-V-I chord progression—something that leaves the reader anticipating and indeed needing the resolution.
I would differentiate between multiple different meanings of outgroup, where one is “a group you are not a part of” and the other is…something stronger.
Except here we are, not hitting the resolution. We haven’t denied it either, of course. Instead we’re once again tarrying in the ambiguity, actively lingering in a state of not saying the thing.
I want to avoid a very easy trap, which is saying that outgroups are about how different you are, or how hostile you are. I don’t think that’s quite right.
And again. What are these two sections doing? In both cases, Siskind is vocally not saying something. The first goes “I would differentiate between” two things, one which he defines, and one which he does not, including dramatic ellipsis and ominous implications. The second goes “I want to avoid,” then throws up a possible definition. In both of these cases, the things set up to be discarded are not obviously wrong—they differ from the earlier rhetorical performance. But they are still the same basic structure—“I don’t mean X. I don’t mean Y.” And again, we’re primed for Z, the correct answer. In fact, we’re doubly primed; Siskind has trotted out two rhetorical structures that are both designed to flag “here is the correct answer,” stacking them on top of each other. Whatever comes next is obviously very, very important and true.
Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese.
Unless you have read the essay before, I cannot imagine that you were expecting Siskind to go here next. It’s notable that literally every part of the section prior to this sentence could have been cut without any change in the meaning of the section. Siskind could have opened with this imperative demand and gone right into an analysis of the Nazis and their antisemitism/alliance with Japan. Instead, however, he used a series of rhetorical tropes to turn up the volume on this—to establish it as the bit in which he says something true and important. It’s notable that part of the effect of this is to make what comes next seem true and important. The audience is primed to accept what happens in this section. And Siskind uses it for an unexpected swerve, effectively cashing in the rhetorical capital he’s accrued in order to make a more dramatic sale.
The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But although one could imagine certain situations in which the Nazis treated the Japanese as an outgroup, in practice they got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately friendly with the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.
Here it becomes evident why he had to do this. Had he opened with this paragraph—which again, he structurally could have, as it’s the first paragraph of the section to actually say something as opposed to disavowing and deferring the point—it would have been pathetically unimpressive for the simple reason that, as historical analysis, this is a steaming pile of absolute horseshit.
In fact, half of the construction could have been framed in the same rhetorical structure he’d earlier used. “When the Nazis needed a scapegoat to establish their stab in the back myth, who did they pick? Was it the Japanese? Was it the Chinese? No, it was the Jews.” The first two examples are obviously wrong, not just because we know the history of World War II, but because we understand that’s not how stab in the back myths work. Instead, however, he holds the direct comparison back until the end of the paragraph, making the idea of a “theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people” a thing that has been taken seriously and then refuted. Ironically, the effect of the paragraph, even though it ultimately disavows the position, is to bolster the idea that Japan or China could have served the same function within Nazi ideology that the Jews did, simply by dint of making it feel like a remotely serious idea when, had it been presented on its own, without all this rhetorical foundation, it would have been self-evidently stupid.
But by formulating it the way he has, with the chain of rhetorical devices that positions this as a triumphant climax of truth he’s avoided having to point out that the analysis that understands Nazi antisemitism by imagining the Chinese and Japanese as the most plausible alternatives to it is facile garbage. He gets away with said garbage because of the rhetorical tricks he’s deployed as its foundation, and because the reason the analysis sucks isn’t that it’s wrong per se—there are in fact sound reasons why the Nazis scapegoated the Jewish population of Germany—but because of what it obscures, which is any sort of historical analysis of the actual context in which intolerance exists.
It’s also worth remembering Siskind’s problems with scale shifts at this point. Prior to the Nazis coming up, Siskind’s examples of tolerance had been the Chesterton story and his weird remake of a Buddhist parable, which is to say, two stories about intolerance on a personal scale in which the stakes of the intolerance are very small. Suddenly he’s jumped to the Nazis, and done so with no interest in historical context. The result of this is, effectively, to treat Nazi genocide and the small town politics of the G.K. Chesterton story as basically the same thing, a conclusion you could not actually get to through any sort of historical analysis. This collapse happens extremely subtly—so softly that you don’t even notice it happening. And yet it’s going to have profound consequences on the essay’s conclusion.
And this isn’t a weird exception. Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”.
If one is familiar with more conventional forms of charlatan writing, this might be unexpected. The standard bullshit artist, upon successfully nudging the reader towards accepting a bad premise, begins to rapidly build upon the premise, quickly escalating to more and more elaborate bullshit. Siskind, on the other hand, does the smart thing and retrenches, contextualizing his claim in a larger tradition of thought, shoring up his dodgy gains before he moves on.
Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
Having done that due diligence, however, Siskind sets about expanding on his dubious premise. But of course, it’s worth remembering why Siskind’s bad premise is bad: it’s not wrong, it’s stupid. So instead of just compounding it with more wrong stuff (c.f. Jack’s and my analysis of Rothbard’s prose in Neoreaction a Basilisk) Siskind instead very rapidly applies his new analytic framework to a number of situations, some of which it makes sense for and some of which it very much does not. The list of groups here contains a mixture of ethnic groups living in the same geographic area (Hutus/Tutsis, Yugoslavian groups, and to an extent the Nazis and the Jews), an example of sectarian conflict (Ireland) and two situations in which an indigenous population and a colonial population are in conflict. All of these are treated as basically the same thing. Perhaps an argument could be made for why this is true, but crucially, Siskind hasn’t made it. Instead he’s relied on the very slow tick of his rhetorical engine, essentially warranting all of this on the fact that he said two wrong things first.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences.
This is around where you should start screaming. If you don’t see why, look at how Siskind has smuggled “small differences” in here. His initial Jews/Japanese/Chinese analysis did not actually hinge on small differences; it hinged on proximity. He got small differences via a Freud quote, but has done no analytical work to establish it short of quoting Freud, which is actually kind of funny given the regard (or lack thereof) with which contemporary psychologists generally hold good old Sigmund. And now it’s getting deployed casually to the list of conflicts in the previous section when, to make a very obvious statement, the differences between indigenous black people in South Africa and the colonial occupiers who engaged in a decades-long project of politically disenfranchising them are quite fucking large actually.
If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.
Wisely, for his lengthier restatement of the problem Siskind retreats to safer ground. Instead his gobsmacking attempt to claim that apartheid was the narcissism of small differences gets to sit unexamined—territory claimed but not expanded on so rapidly as to risk making it obvious how appallingly bad the claim is.
What makes an unexpected in-group? The answer with Germans and Japanese is obvious – a strategic alliance. In fact, the World Wars forged a lot of unexpected temporary pseudo-friendships. A recent article from War Nerd points out that the British, after spending centuries subjugating and despising the Irish and Sikhs, suddenly needed Irish and Sikh soldiers for World Wars I and II respectively. “Crush them beneath our boots” quickly changed to fawning songs about how “there never was a coward where the shamrock grows” and endless paeans to Sikh military prowess.
It would be possible, after reading all of this, to get the impression of Scott Siskind as a genius of bad rhetoric, capable of weaponizing it in subtle ways that require this sort of lengthy unpacking in order to fully appreciate. This paragraph helpfully clarifies that, no, he’s actually just a very foolish man whose inane blathering is nevertheless effective at passing off dumb ideas as smart ones. Literally the paragraph after he has stressed “proximity” and “small differences” as foundational elements in the outgroup, stressing that this is what you need to “have eight hundred years of seething hatred” he proceeds to discuss the “centuries subjugating and despising the Irish and Sikhs” on the part of the British. Which, sure, makes sense for Ireland, which is after all an island right next to Britain. The Sikhs, on the other hand, originated in the Punjab in the Indian subcontinent. Go ahead and find a map and look for Britain, Ireland, and the Punjab while you contemplate the ideas of “proximity” and “small difference.”
Sure, scratch the paeans even a little bit and you find condescension as strong as ever. But eight hundred years of the British committing genocide against the Irish and considering them literally subhuman turned into smiles and songs about shamrocks once the Irish started looking like useful cannon fodder for a larger fight. And the Sikhs, dark-skinned people with turbans and beards who pretty much exemplify the European stereotype of “scary foreigner”, were lauded by everyone from the news media all the way up to Winston Churchill.
In other words, outgroups may be the people who look exactly like you, and scary foreigner types can become the in-group on a moment’s notice when it seems convenient.
I mostly quote this for completism, as nothing particularly interesting happens in it; Siskind compounds the problem of the previous paragraph for a bit, then exits the section with a summary that is not actually what he’d previously said, and which is indeed more reasonable than his initial small differences argument.
If you feel as though you’ve lost the forest for the trees in all of this, it’s understandable. Siskind’s prose is practically designed to do that, and it’s difficult to unpick that sort of thing without falling into its own problems yourself. Ultimately there are two important things to take away from that analysis. The first is that Siskind gets to his definition of outgroup on nothing but rhetorical devices. The second is that he uses that definition to quietly collapse a host of important distinctions.
Neither of these happen in particularly flashy ways. That is largely the point. Were you to take to Twitter and accuse Scott Siskind of poorly supported conclusions or of dangerously shoddy thinking about apartheid his defenders would immediately show up demanding citations. And it’s nearly impossible to give them, because the damage isn’t done by what he says (which is as always very little), but rather by what he doesn’t, or by the way in which he stretches the act of not actually supportng his claims over several paragraphs. There’s no smoking guns; it requires the sort of 2500 word exegesis I just engaged in to point out.
Indeed, this is crucial to the rhetorical strategy of Siskind and his ilk (a strategy shared by Yarvin/Moldbug and Yudkowsky, who could just as well have been the subjects of very similar essays). When they’re arguing for their own claims the structure is this sort of elongated non-speech. When it comes time to engage with a position they’re critical of—whether an attack on their claims or simply something they think is wrong—they will suddenly collapse into the most pedantic and fine-grained tedium imaginable. This is illustrated well in how Siskind treats the jobs of arguing for and against neoreaction. Arguing for: lengthy, high level analysis. Arguing against: a Gish gallop through tiny claims.
I am, thank gods, almost done with “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup,” but I want to jump to the end just to illustrate what Siskind ends up doing with his poor claims from section three. Specifically, I want to look at the consequences of his twin collapses of all intensities of intolerance and all causes of intolerance into a single gestalt notion of “the outgroup.” Both of these, recall, were not argued for, and were extremely dodgy claims passed off through rhetorical sleights of hand.
And yet when it comes time for a conclusion, Siskind leans hard on these heuristics. Section 11 of the essay contains its argumentative climax—section twelve wraps things up, but it’s section 11 where Siskind makes his largest claims. Here’s one of the biggest.
The outgroup of the Red Tribe is occasionally blacks and gays and Muslims, more often the Blue Tribe.
The Blue Tribe has performed some kind of very impressive act of alchemy, and transmuted all of its outgroup hatred to the Red Tribe.
And so it is that Republicans and Democrats are calmly and without fuss added to the already ludicrously broad list that included Yugoslavian, Irish, and South African conflicts—a list that is defined precisely by its total disinterest in both the content and intensity of these conflicts. And then, once this has been accomplished, Siskind identifies the remarkable thing about this conflict, which is the fact that the Blue Tribe’s “outgroup hatred’ is focused on a single target, and by implication all the more pathological for it.
This essay was written in September of 2014, less than a year before the rise of Trump commenced, with all the underlying factors of that rise already well in place. I mention this to stress just how much work that erasing of all distinctions between the red and blue tribes save for how focused the blue tribe’s hatred is actually does.
Note also the weird breaking out of the red tribe’s hatreds: blacks and gays and Muslims are treated as separate from the blue tribe, a point he doubles down on a few paragraphs later when he says, “Research suggests Blue Tribe / Red Tribe prejudice to be much stronger than better-known types of prejudice like racism. Once the Blue Tribe was able to enlist the blacks and gays and Muslims in their ranks, they became allies of convenience who deserve to be rehabilitated with mildly condescending paeans to their virtue.” The blue tribe has, in other words, been somehow purged of everything but white liberals. This was already established when he made his initial definition of the blue tribe, but it becomes genuinely shocking here, especially when you realize that in practice fully 47% of people who voted for Biden in 2020 were non-white. Exit polls don’t break down for sexual orientation, but I’d be stunned if, once you factored for it, the share of straight white liberals within the Biden vote did not fall below 50%. So all of the red tribe’s hatred for blacks (87% of whom voted for Biden) is, in practice, actually just a special case of hatred for the blue tribe.
And then there’s the issues like what exactly the objections between the two groups are—objections Siskind is actively uninterested in looking at, but that actually matter. Does, for instance, the red tribe object to the blue tribe because the blue tribe wants to prohibit them from marrying and make it legal to deny them health care? Do they object because blue tribe dominated law enforcement routinely engages in extrajudicial murder of the red tribe? You already know how this rhetorical trope works, so I’ll cut it off here and simply point out that if one applied Siskind’s reasoning here to the example he started with when formulating the heuristic one would be forced to conclude that the reason German Jews objected to the Nazis was the narcissism of small differences.
You see now how Siskind works; the way he carefully constructs bland tedium to give his readers the constant sense that they are doing Serious And Rational Thought while in fact constructing farcically bad methods of analysis that are defensible mostly because they’re so incoherently set up that it’s difficult to find a smoking gun. You can see how Siskind gradually escalates from facile conclusions to actively flawed and useless analysis of important situations. You can see why he is not a thinker worth taking seriously.
Now let’s watch what happens when he sets this methodology to work on some really nasty shit. Since we’ve already discussed his belief that “HBD is probably partially correct or at least very non-provably non-correct” (HBD being “human biodiversity,” which is one of the chic new terms for pretending you’re not talking about scientific racism), let’s deal instead with his sexism and tackle “Untitled.”
Siskind would, of course, prefer we not do this. Within days he had appended a header to the essay asking that it not be shared on Reddit or social media. Sometime around a year after posting it he expanded this to an opening disclaimer that reads:
This is the most controversial post I have ever written in ten years of blogging. I wrote it because I was very angry at a specific incident. I stand by a lot of it, but if somebody links you here saying “HERE’S THE SORT OF GUY THIS SCOTT ALEXANDER PERSON IS, READ THIS SO YOU KNOW WHAT HIS BLOG IS REALLY ABOUT”, please read any other post instead.
So right off the bat Siskind opens with his familiar mode of tarrying disavowal. “Here is a 15,000 word essay that I stand by and that got a lot of attention. Please don’t take it seriously.” It is in a very real sense the most audacious iteration of his non-speech yet—an attempt to classify an entire essay as non-speech that ought not be engaged with while simultaneously asserting its truth. Anyway, since I’ve just spent over five thousand words on another post, I figure it’s time to do this one. I’m not going to go line by line through it, but I will actually address this one in full because of the sheer amount of horror involved.
Siskind opens with surprising earnestness and anger. “In my heart, there is a little counter that reads “XXX days without a ten-thousand word rant about feminists.” And I had just broken three digits when they had to go after Scott Aaronson.” This is technically true—none of his whinging about feminism in the previous hundred days runs to ten thousand words. But let’s unpack this apparently appalling violation of all decency that requires such a rant, shall we?
As Siskind tells the story, Scott Aaronson poured his heart out about his historical anxieties around women and accusations of sexual harassment and a bunch of feminists were horrible and abusive to him for it. In Siskind’s words, “Guy opens up for the first time about how he was so terrified of accidentally hurting women that he became suicidal and tried to get himself castrated. Eventually he got over it and is now 97% on board with feminism, but wants people to understand that when done wrong it can be really scary,” and the response to this was so hostile that after quoting some of it he sneered, “This would usually be the point where I state for the record that I believe very strongly that all women are human beings. Problem is, I’ve just conceived a sudden suspicion that one of them is actually a Vogon spy in a skin suit.”
Yes, Aaronson’s outpouring is indeed emotional and full of expressions of pain. But entirely unmentioned is the reason Aaronson made these comments in the first place. Aaronson, see, was replying to a blog commenter who was talking about how the presence of “shy and nerdy” men did not make her feel safe given that she’d been sexually assaulted by such men, and calling Aaronson out for his somewhat milquetoast positions on sexual harassment. It was in response to this that Aaronson unloaded his long and traumatized history of anxiety about women and sexual assault. This was, it is fair to say, not great. “I have been sexually assaulted by shy and nerdy men” is not a prompt to talk about how hard it is to be a shy and nerdy man. It is, in fact, a horrifically inappropriate move that essentially makes someone who has just confided their sexual assault suddenly emotionally responsible for Aaronson’s feelings. Regardless of whether Aaronson’s feelings were valid, this was neither the time nor the place to express them, and there’s clearly some objections to be had here, a fact Siskind seems unwilling to admit to, to the point of carefully trimming Aaronson’s comments to remove anything that might point towards the rather important context that Aaronson was declaring that, as a shy and nerdy man, he was a member of “one of society’s least privileged classes” in response to someone saying they were a rape victim.
But once Siskind has accomplished the sleight of hand necessary to make the story “man confesses his feelings” he’s capable of getting the response from Amanda Marcotte to sound shrill, unreasonable, and cruel. Although again, he has to trim context, transforming Marcotte’s essay from what it was—a line by line reading of Aaronson’s comment that—into an unbroken screed of invective. Siskind also, in the course of trimming Marcotte’s essay down to the pointiest bits, reassigns a phrase that is explicitly about “one of the more irritating aspects of ‘Nice Guy®’ anti-feminism” in general to being a description of Aaronson’s post in specific. It’s a hack job quote that he’d howl bloody murder about had the New York Times done it in the article on him, which obviously they didn’t because they’re a professional news organization with basic editorial practices like quote approval, not a crackpot blog that keeps giving cover to fucking nazis. Oh, and with no evidence save for his own assertion he proclaims this quote to be a “representative sample” of the entirety of feminist discourse about Aaronson, a laughable claim given that it’s not even representative of the thing it’s quoting.
I should point out explicitly that Siskind is using a more conventional strategy of bullshit thus far—the one I outlined in “The Blind All-Seeing Eye of Gamergate” in Neoreaction a Basilisk that can be roughly described as “outright lying.” And fair enough—that essay is a close cousin of this one, in that they’re both specifically analyzing bullshit rhetoric. But it’s an escalation—a move into a more intense form of intellectual dishonesty. Siskind will soon retreat back to his more familiar crap, but it’s worth noting that this more familiar crap is, in practice, a baseline from which more exceptional levels of malicious thought can periodically emerge.
Having dissembled sufficiently to create the rhetorical occasion for his post, Siskind identifies his main target: an essay by feminist journalist Laurie Penny. Penny’s essay had, as Siskind tells it, been put forward as a “kinder” and “more compassionate” critique of Aaronson, a claim Siskind takes immediate objection to, noting that this kindness consists only of acknowledging the reality of Aaronson’s suffering before calling him entitled, sarcastically giving Penny the following award:
We can see here the steady expansion of Siskind’s beachhead, via much the same approach he used in “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup.” Having lied to create the impression that Aaronson was subjected to a torrent of entirely unreasonable criticism for his supposedly noble and soul-bearing confession, Siskind gently turns up the temperature so that now any criticism—even the mere acknowledgment that there exists some entitlement in the act of telling a rape victim that as a nerd you are one of the most oppressed people on earth—-is unreasonable. It’s notable again that Siskind’s verbosity enables this, allowing a frog-boiling strategy of gradually making stronger and stronger versions of a weakly supported claim so that the drift from “rhetorical sleight of hand to get a dodgy premise accepted” to “extremely fucked up claim” is imperceptible.
And when you start with something as toxic and audacious as he did here you can, it turns out, get there pretty fast. Zeroing in on Penny’s specific focus on the misogyny and entitlement of nerds, Siskind complains, “I live in a world where feminists throwing weaponized shame at nerds is an obvious and inescapable part of daily life. Whether we’re ‘mouth-breathers’, ‘pimpled’, ‘scrawny’, ‘blubbery’, ‘sperglord’, ‘neckbeard’, ‘virgins’, ‘living in our parents’ basements’, ‘man-children’ or whatever the insult du jour is, it’s always, always, ALWAYS a self-identified feminist saying it. Sometimes they say it obliquely, referring to a subgroup like ‘bronies’ or ‘atheists’ or ‘fedoras’ while making sure everyone else in nerddom knows it’s about them too.” Note the already familiar trick of high-speed conflation of a number of issues from the actually mean and widely condemned within feminist criticism move of fat-shaming people to the observation that the Internet atheist community has a misogyny problem as though these are the same thing. Siskind follows this with a tableau of memes about such men (into which he pointedly inserts three antisemitic caricatures in a handwave attempt at drawing an equivalency) before concluding, “Let’s not mince words. There is a growing trend in Internet feminism that works exactly by conflating the ideas of nerd, misogynist, virgin, person who disagrees with feminist tactics or politics, and unlovable freak.”
It is here necessary to provide some context. In the lower left corner of Siskind’s tableau is a cartoon of a bearded man in a trilby and a t-shirt reading “gamer” wielding a hand-puppet of a red-haired girl in a green and purple striped dress proclaiming, “this puppet works great!” Siskind positions this directly next to one of his antisemitic cartoons, this one of an orthodox Jewish man with a beard and a traditional Hoiche hat working puppets of Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The attempt to equate the two is obvious and explicit. But let’s be very clear about what the left one is depicting. The puppet is a portrayal of Vivian James, the fictional moe avatar of Gamergate used in a transparent effort to pretend that the movement was about something other than misogynistic abuse. She is, I stress again, not a real person. Rather, she’s a mascot used to pretend that a movement is something that it isn’t. This does not have any substantive similarities to the claim that Jews are secretly running the world and that the actual people in actual governments are just their puppets. Siskind is trying to get by on the superficial visual similarities between the fedoraed gamer stereotype and traditional Orthodox Jewish dress in order to suggest that criticism of Gamergate is basically the same thing as antisemitic conspiracy theories in the course of making a claim that criticism of misogyny in nerd culture is out of line.
I am not going to relitigate Gamergate. I’ve already linked my essay on that. But that essay was first published in August of 2016, and there have been some things that happened since then. Most obviously, one of the primary sites that weaponized Gamergate for white nationalist recruitment, Breitbart, had its executive chairman—an open white supremacist—serve as the campaign director for Donald Trump. So in a real and material sense, Gamergate was a component of a process that saw actual fascists take actual political power. But it actually goes deeper than that. Gamergate was, among other things, a demonstration of how conspiracy theories can be spread on chan sites in order to weaponize hate mobs. And so after taking power the fascists who used Gamergate as part of their rise proceeded to repeat the trick, only with a different conspiracy theory. It was called QAnon, and as multiple game designers have noted, it weaponized concepts from ARG design into a conspiracy theory. More to the point, the techniques of whipping up a hate mob that Gamergate pioneered were used by the same people who had profited from Gamergate to whip up the crowd that stormed the Capitol in an insurrectionary coup on January 6th, 2021.
And here’s Scott Siskind in January of 2015 providing cover for it. Here’s Scott Siskind suggesting that criticism of Gamergate is basically the same as antisemitic conspiracy theories, that criticisms of misogyny in nerd culture are fundamentally out of bounds, that in fact it’s the feminists that are making these criticisms who are the real villains. And doing it all in his long-winded, pseudo-intellectual style, making it all seem so bland and anodyne and harmless.
This sounds extreme. That’s because it is. Scott Siskind provided intellectual legitimacy to a movement that led directly to a fucking fascist coup.
We’re in section two of a thirteen part essay, by the way.
Siskind’s next section is one that he half-heartedly retracted after the original version of the essay, reducing a litany of arguments about how women have an easier time finding sexual partners than men to a “say it but don’t” approach in which he gives a bunch of statistics and arguments, then says “my commenters have convinced me that taking this further would be joining in the pissing contest I’m condemning,” an impressive bit of Schrodinger’s cake eating even for him.
So instead he engages in a section that compounds errors so fast that it is worth switching to a line by line reading for a moment.
A couple of studies show that average-attractiveness people who ask random opposite-gender strangers on dates are accepted 50% of the time, regardless of their gender.
The original version actually cites the single study, so I’m not quite sure how it multiplies into “a couple of studies,” but let’s go with “cool story bro” and move on, as this is just table setting.
Grant that everyone involved in this conversation has admitted they consider themselves below average attractiveness (except maybe Marcotte, whose daily tune-ups keep her skin-suit in excellent condition). Fine. Maybe we have a success rate of 10%?
A thing I didn’t bother to note when Siskind first introduced this joke but may as well since he’s bringing it back for a callback is that it is, at its core, a joke about how Amanda Marcotte is secretly a hideously repulsive alien. Just, you know, seems worth pointing out in the context of the larger argument he’s making here.
But no, the real thing I want to point out here is that last sentence. Maybe men of below average attractiveness have a 10% success rate. Maybe they don’t! Siskind has, in fact, pulled this number out of his ass. Also, note that we’re working off of people who “consider themselves below average attractiveness.” The self-assessment here is doing a lot of work. How accurately do men judge their attractiveness? Does this work like the Dunning Kruger effect where they overestimate it? Or do they often suffer from body dysmorphia and underrate themselves? I don’t know. Neither does Siskind. This is guesswork on the way to arriving at a totally arbitrary number. Which is fine. Maybe 10% is just a figure of speech—a metonym for “low.” It’s not a problem. It’s not like Siskind is about to do math with the number he just made up, right?
That’s still astounding. It would be pretty easy to mock teenage-me for not asking for dates when ten percent of people would have said yes. Asking ten people something takes what, five minutes? And would have saved how many years of misery?
This is a pretty impressive market failure – in sheer utility cost, probably bigger than any of the market failures actual economists talk about.
I just want to point out the wealth of value judgments implicit in reducing finding someone to have sex with into a discussion of economics, not least the objectification of women involved in treating them as commodities to be priced and purchased. Although, wait, is it really commodification if the underlying math is pulled out of Scott Siskind’s ass? Now there’s a worthy philosophical question.
Some people say the female version of the problem is men’s fault, and call the behavior involve slut-shaming. I take this very seriously and try not to slut-shame or tolerate those who do.
Ooh hang on I have just the thing for this.
But the male version of the problem is nerd-shaming or creep-shaming or whatever, and I don’t feel like most women, especially most feminist women, take it nearly as seriously as I try to take their problems. If anything, many actively make it worse. This is exactly those cartoons above and the feminists spreading them. Nerds are told that if they want to date girls, that makes them disgusting toxic blubberous monsters who are a walking offense to womankind.
It is at this point that Scott Siskind’s bullshit finally achieves the critical mass necessary to punch through the very fabric of reality, launching him into a mirror universe in which the entire content of feminist critiques of geek misogyny is attacks on how nerds are ugly. And, presumably, where everybody has a moustache or wears an eyepatch or something. Idk. Siskind will spend much of the rest of the essay in this parallel dimension, a place where he is able to say things like “when someone tells you that something you are doing is making their life miserable, you don’t lecture them about how your life is worse, even if it’s true. You STOP DOING IT” as though he is not in the middle of an essay defending a man who did exactly that to a rape victim talking about the sorts of people who had assaulted her and responding to an essay in which Laurie Penny talks quite movingly about her experiences of sexism, loneliness, and even mentions how the sexual expectations put on her “I hated myself and had suicidal thoughts. I was extremely lonely, and felt ugly and unloveable. Eventually I developed severe anorexia and nearly died.”
The main advantage of this alternate reality, of course, is that Siskind has simply removed all actual misogyny. There’s no longer an object to feminism. Laurie Penny is not actually writing from within a culture where a misogynistic hate mob is in the midst of rehearsing a fascist coup. She didn’t nearly die of an eating disorder contributed to by the beauty standards imposed on young women. She’s just a big meanie who makes fun of men’s fedoras, because that’s what feminism is now.
Eventually Siskind tires of exploring his new reality, and commences analyzing feminism, or at least feminism within the Bizarro World he has come to inhabit. He begins by introducing one of his favorite concepts: the motte and bailey trick. He links here to another essay of his, where he defines the trick as “when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you retreat to an obvious, uncontroversial statement, and say that was what you meant all along, so you’re clearly right and they’re silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.” This is a favorite accusation of Siskind, who reduces all sorts of things to motte and bailey tricks. Never mind that it’s also a fair description of his frog-boiling method of argumentation. That’s just how much he loves the image.
Because he’s off in his weird little shadow realm, however, what he ends up characterizing feminism as is not quite a motte and bailey per se. Here’s how he sets it up: the defensible claim (the motte) is “patriarchy is the existence of different gender roles in our society and the ways in which they are treated differently.” Meanwhile, the bold and controversial one (the bailey) is “patriarchy is men having power over women.” What’s notable is that both of these are wrong. The former is a completely watered down version of the claim that removes a central aspect of the patriarchy, which is that it is in fact dominated by men. (Clue’s in the name.) The latter, meanwhile, is too specific. Without wanting be overly “no true Scotsman” about it, the feminist claim is not that every single instance of male power is patriarchy.
No, patriarchy—and this is honestly not a hard concept—is the systemic tendency of the world to gravitate towards male power. It’s the fact that forty-five out of forty-five Presidents have been men, the fact that men are overrepresented in board rooms, the fact that male actors get to age gracefully into beloved silver foxes where female actors mysteriously have their work dry up at the age of forty. It’s the wage gap and the unequal divisions of domestic labor and the fact that people write stupid, dishonest fucking essays like “Untitled” and get taken seriously as thinkers. It is an unfathomably vast system that it is impossible to actually see all of at any time because it is simply too big and too comprehensive for that. (And, crucially, a fact Penny is very clear on is that patriarchy hurts men too.)
But instead Siskind reduces it to two claims, one too weak to mean anything, the other so specific as to work as a strawman, so that the actual claim slips out between them to disappear forever. Having pulled this magic trick off, Siskind is able to move on to the even more impressive feat of blaming feminism for rape. Because, of course, in a world where men are constant oppressed by all this feminist rhetoric and where the central claims of feminism have simply been erased, feminism has very little to say. In fact, Siskind goes so far as to say, since Penny is a heterosexual woman (she’s actually pansexual) whereas he’s heteroromantic and Aaronson is heterosexual they’re actually more qualified to talk about the matter of attraction to women and what problems might exist around it.
At this point the water has pretty much turned to superheated steam, the frog is long since dead, and there’s not really a lot of point in continuing to track the upticks in Siskind’s insanity. So here’s a highlight reel. There’s another motte and bailey thing, this time where the straw man is that if someone is privileged their life is better in every single way, a point that’s trivially refuted by the existence of intersectionality. There’s the complete elimination of structural oppression as a thing worth talking about (which, if you dig back through the whole argument is ultimately warranted purely on “feminism is about insulting nerds’ appearances”). There’s an explicit comparison between Nazi Germany and the treatment of nerds that does a big tarrying “I’m not saying the thing I just said” that pulls a truly astonishing bait and switch between the word “structure” as used in the phrase structural oppression and the idea of a rhetorical structure. There’s an attempt to draw a general point about feminist obsession with Star Wars metaphors that uses as its data points Laurie Penny, and Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire. There’s a whole long bit where he tries to dissolve all discussions of the gender imbalance in tech with his standard “now we’re going to selectively get hyper-specific about individual studies and numbers” trick that works in “women are genetically predisposed against tech” for good measure. And he ends by offering to set Laurie Penny up with a bunch of his friends.
I should admit that in all of this that I have, in Siskind’s eyes, been terribly unfair. He explicitly asks that anyone who is going to criticize his essay stick to an explicit list of ten points he provides in section twelve of the essay instead of “whatever bizarre perversions of my words the brain of the worst person reading this can dream up.” (I assume by this point I’m the worst person reading it in Siskind’s eyes.) So fine, let’s play scrupulously fair and go through that list before we actually wrap up. After all, it’s totally normal to demand that critics only engage with a tiny section of your essay. A completely rational demand.
- There are a lot of really nasty stereotypes perpetuated about nerds, especially regarding how they are monsters, nobody can love them, and they are too disgusting to have relationships the same way other people do.
One obvious advantage to Siskind’s demand that I only engage with his bullet points is that sticking the executive summary makes it impossible to discuss whether he’s actually supported a given claim or not. So I’m going to have to break from his request at least partially, and remind you that the justification for this claim was the cherrypicked imageboard of images that included that fucked up Gamergate/antisemitism thing.
More broadly, Siskind is referring to nerd hate that was happening in the white hot heat of Gamergate. He’s talking at a time when outspoken women who were at all adjacent to nerd culture—-and note that Siskind treats “nerds” as a gendered term that excludes women in this bulletpoint—were immediately set upon by an absolute mob of invective spurred on by actual neo-nazis. This was the period when Milo Yiannopolous was still on Twitter for fuck’s sake. There might be some discussion to be had about whether some of the snark and jokes that the women surviving this began to make went too far. That discussion cannot happen without acknowledging the larger context, however, which Siskind doesn’t. And it cannot happen by taking a cherrypicked set of images and treating them as representative of the entire discourse.
- Although both men and women suffer from these stereotypes, men really do have a harder time getting relationships, and the experience is not the same.
Note that “getting relationships” becomes the sole standard of oppression. It apparently really does collapse to getting laid. Although a thing that’s probably worth pointing out is that in a heteronormative society in which polyamory is discouraged it’s necessarily true that roughly the same number of men and women have relationships at any given point. Like, the basic claim here is literally mathematically impossible.
- The people suffering from these stereotypes are pretty much in agreement that feminists are the ones who push them a lot of the time, and that a small but vocal contingent of feminists seem to take special delight in making nerds’ lives worse.
Feminism’s relevance to the conversation has apparently been reduced to “none at all,” which is coincidentally how much time Siskind has for women’s claims about the suffering they’re enduring at the hands of misogynistic nerds.
- You cannot define this problem away with the word “patriarchy”.
It is in fact true that the word “patriarchy” is not a magic spell, but I suspect what Siskind actually means is that the word has no explanatory value in the world, a claim that would require him to be at all thorough in his analysis of what it means. In practice the feminist thinker he engages with most substantively is Janice Raymond. Which is to say he doesn’t even try.
- You cannot define this problem away by saying that because Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire, nerds are privileged, so they already have it too good. The Jews are a classic example of a group that were both economically advantaged in a particular industry, but also faced unfair stereotypes.
It speaks volumes about how bad faith this argument is made in that his response to the straw man “because Mark Zuckerberg is a billionaire, nerds are privileged” is a point about the Jews instead of just noting that this is a self-evidently stupid thing to say. (The portion of Penny’s essay he’s responding to when he says this, incidentally, is another selective quote that joins two paragraphs together and even in his edit doesn’t actually say anything like “because Zuckerberg is rich all nerds are privileged.”)
- Whether women also have problems, and whether their problems are even worse, is not the point under discussion and is not relevant. Women can have a bunch of problems, but that doesn’t mean it is okay for feminists to shame and bully nerds.
Critiquing feminism while declaring that its central claims are “not the point under discussion” and “not relevant” is self-evidently arguing in poor faith.
- Nerds are not uniquely evil, they are not especially engaged in oppressing women, and they are not driving women out of Silicon Valley. Even if they were, “whenever they choose to open up about their private suffering” is not the time to talk about these things.
SCOTT AARONSON WAS RESPONDING TO SOMEONE TALKING ABOUT THEIR SEXUAL ASSAULT YOU FUCKING DISHONEST NAZI-SYMPATHIZING SHITHEAD.
- “Entitlement” is a uniquely bizarre insult to level at nerds given that by most of the term’s usual definitions nerds are some of the most untitled people there are. It is probably so popular more for its successful triggering value than anything else.
Again, the word “entitlement” was used specifically because Aaronson was responding to an expression of pain by situating his pain as a trump card. It was used because an inescapable part of the underlying logic of Aaronson’s post, and of Siskind’s based on point two, is that there’s some degree of right to relationships. Also, wow, “some of the most untitled people there are.” Nerds. Fucking… wow. I’d pick, say, much of the global south. But sure. Nerds.
- The feminist problem of nerds being desperate and not having any social skills (and therefore being creeps to women) is the same as the nerd problem of nerds being desperate and not having any social skills (and therefore having to live their life desperate and without social skills). Denying the problem and yelling at nerds who talk about it doesn’t help either group.
The lack of agency assigned to men here is revealing and appalling in equal measures.
- The nerd complaint on this issue is not “high school girls rejected us in the past when we were lonely and desperate,” it is “feminists are shaming us about our loneliness and desperation in the past and present and openly discussing how they plan to do so in the future.” Nobody with principles is angry at the girls who rejected them in the past and this is a giant red herring. If you don’t believe feminists are shaming anyone, then say so; don’t make it about little Caitlin in seventh-grade.
And one more time, the nerd complaint, in 2015, was that Anita Sarkeesian made some videos about sexism in video games and Zoe Quinn made a Twine game about depression. It was that the new Thor was a woman. It was that the boobs of some video game character didn’t jiggle as much in the remake. It was that people criticized the Penny Arcade strip with the dickwolves. And if it was that feminists were shaming them, it has to be asked whether this was actually an honest recounting of feminism given how little of what was going on then was honest. Certainly Siskind hasn’t been.
“Untitled” is, it should be clear, both a very stupid essay and a very evil one. As anyone who’s read Neoreaction a Basilisk knows, the two go hand in hand these days. But it’s also a third thing that I want to be very clear about, which is that it’s a harmful essay. I’ve already noted the consequences its intellectual cover for Gamerate had. But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, Siskind’s essay is an argument for ignoring women when they talk about their experiences of sexual assault. That is, after all, what the Aaronson piece he’s defending does. It takes a woman who said “actually shy and nerdy men have sexually assaulted me multiple times” and howls “WHAT ABOUT OUR PAIN.” And sure enough, it completely shut down the conversation that had been going on beforehand. But it’s also what the overall sum of the arguments being made in Siskind’s bullet point list does. “Feminist arguments cause harm. They’re irrelevant. Nerds have so much pain and it’s unreasonable to criticize us for how we treat women.”
Just over three years after Siskind posted this essay a woman named Kathy Forth committed suicide. She left a suicide note. Forth was a member of the rationalist community in which Siskind was a star. In her note, she makes it clear that she killed herself because of the repeated sexual abuse she suffered within the rationalist and effective altruist communities—communities she made clear were “the loves of my life. They are who I am.” She reported it multiple times. Nothing happened. And so she decided in her own words, that “If I can’t have my body, no one can.”
In the wake of this, Scott Siskind wrote a Tumblr post in which he repeated accusations that Forth had made false reports of sexual assault, concluding, “Kathy was obviously a very disturbed person. I feel bad for her. But not as bad as I feel for everyone she hurt, so I’m not okay with giving her martyrdom.” This from the same man who was outraged that feminists would criticize Scott Aaronson’s outpouring of emotion. About a woman who killed herself.
I wish I could tell you that Siskind was the worst of it. He wasn’t. Discussion about Forth’s suicide within the rationalist community amounted to discussions of her mental illnesses. Some people said her suicide was emotionally manipulative and so discredited everything she said. Her calls for the community to have a reckoning about sexual abuse went unheeded, just as they had when she was alive. Here’s a proposal about it she put together four months before she died. Here’s a reply saying the community is too intelligent to rape people. Actually, more specifically because the community is too high IQ. Because of course that comment exists within a community where one of its most prominent members is a eugenicist who wrote an essay about how you should ignore women when they talk about sexual assault in nerd spaces.
Obviously Kathy Forth is not the only person to be abused within the rationalist community. Because when you have a community that valorizes essays like “Untitled” of fucking course you have a massive abuse problem. She notes two people in her note whose abuse was so rampant the community couldn’t look away, which meant that all of them had other victims. One of them, by the way, was Roko. Yes. That Roko. He’s a nazi now, if you didn’t know. Here’s a Twitter thread from someone else who suffered a lot of abuse in the rationalist community, including by one of the people Kathy Forth called out, Michael Vassar. The thread describes how he called her “a 5yo in a hot 20 yo’s body” and details how “Once he put his dick in my mouth as I was waking up and pet my hair and talked soothingly to calm me down so I wouldn’t panic. What a nice assault, no?”
Heh. I just realized why I stopped working on this topic after I transitioned. I never used to break down crying while writing this shit before HRT. Oh to still have that capacity for abyss gazing.
All right. Let’s change tack. Instead of just talking about the harm of “Untitled,” let’s talk about the harm of Scott Siskind in general. As with Eliezer Yudkowsky, who the other day declared that anyone who hates him, Scott Siskind, or Scott Aaronson is “a bad person inside and has no ethics,” Siskind is extremely popular in silicon valley tech circles—a point made clear in the New York Times profile. And while I can’t draw a causal link any more than I can prove that xccf’s “we’re too high IQ to rape” comment was caused by Siskind, I cannot imagine consequences of an intellectually dishonest eugenicist and rape apologist being tremendously influential among tech CEOs to be good, y’know? It doesn’t seem like telling the CEOs of social media companies that feminists shouldn’t be listened to is gonna have great consequences for how online abuse is handled. It doesn’t seem like telling the CEOs of big data companies that poverty is hereditary and eugenics are a good idea is going to lead to good things.
I don’t have a big, stunning conclusion here. Or, rather, I’ve already made it, back when I wrote the book that was why Cade Metz got in touch with me for his article. Scott Siskind is yet another example of extreme stupidity that’s nevertheless extremely dangerous—one that ties in directly to neoreaction, to the rise off the alt-right, to the malevolence of Peter Thiel, and to everything else I talk about in that book. We aren’t any less fucked, and I still don’t know what I can do other than point all of this out.
Inevitably when I talk about this stuff I get accused of a certain degree of self-interest. Often the motivation is implied to be financial. So I want to reiterate what I said at the start. This is not the bulk of what I do, nor is it what I intend to do. The next thing I intend to post on this site (or rather the long delayed site relaunch that’s finally actually happening) is going to be a history of the minor DC comics hero Animal Man and how it relates to an occult war over the nature of the 21st century. I don’t do this beat anymore.
Yes, I have a book on it. I’m proud of the book, and if you like this essay you should absolutely grab a copy. But look, if it moves fifty units on the back of this essay it’ll be a lot, especially given that I didn’t even bother linking the book, and while the resultant $175 in my family’s pocket would absolutely be nice, the truth is that we do well enough that we probably won’t even notice the difference in that month’s budget. I make more than three times that for every 2000 word chunk of Last War in Albion I get out. That’s a much better bet than writing over 12,000 words to try to sell things off my back catalogue. And as successful as Neoreaction a Basilisk was, I made more money serializing the first third of a history of cyberpunk to my Patreon than I did off that, my bestselling book. While I expect this essay will get some attention—I do know how to throw a bomb after all—I don’t see that attention translating into Patreon backers for the upcoming essay on triple goddess symbolism, the Moon Tarot card, mirrors, and Batman comics that will be happening there. Not least because I didn’t bother to link my Patreon either.
I have, in other words, very little to gain by writing this. There is not a lot that I want from this essay other than to have it written. Nor am I doing it because I enjoy sneering at these people. I mean, yes, I enjoyed writing some of the lines. That reuse of the “probably not the literal worst” image? I’m proud of that. Also the all caps bit in response to point #7 in the “you’re allowed to respond to this” section of “Untitled.” I like my craft, and I like doing things I’m good at. But writing this has meant literal hours of being angry, upset, and horrified. It has not been good for my mental health over the last couple of days. I had bits of fun doing it, but I didn’t do it for fun and I mostly didn’t enjoy it.
I’m doing it… for the same reason I broke down crying a few paragraphs ago, frankly. Because I am angry. Because I have looked at this situation and I see Scott Siskind peddling pernicious bullshit in ways that make the world an actively worse place and I am angry about it. I see him bilking $250 a year from people for it and I am angry. Not because $250 is too much a year for supporting a writer—plenty of people give me that every year—but because it’s too much for the fucking beigeness of Scott Siskind. It’s too much for eugenics and sexism. It’s too much for shoddy arguments that hurt people.
So yeah. What I want is for Scott Siskind to stop hurting people while the number of people whose deaths his actions have directly and materially contributed to is still in the single digits. What I want is for people to stop listening to his poorly written and poorly argued bullshit. What I want, in fact, is for people to stop listening to all of it: Siskind, Yudkowsky, Moldbug, Thiel, Trump, Bannon, and all of the other fucking idiots helping work towards human extinction. I want them to shut up and go away and stop making the world an actively worse place to live in.
I don’t expect this essay will accomplish that though. So my second choice is that one of the well-meaning people to be suckered in by Siskind’s con will read this and go “oh, shit” because they finally see what’s been done to them and what purposes it served. And they’ll go and be better people afterwards who don’t read eugenicists and sexists and maybe when they hear someone talk about being sexually assaulted they’ll actually listen and work to make a world where that happens less. So by all means, if you find yourself arguing with some Slate Star Codex fan online, link this article. If I can manage this happening once, frankly, all 12,500 words of this and the genuine unhappiness they provoked will be worthwhile.
And if I can’t have that, I want to go back to writing about my Batman comics and never think about Scott fucking Siskind again.