This is part of The Blogging Gauntlet of May 2016, where I try to write 500 words every day. See the May 1st post for full details.
I was hesitant to write on this topic, because I care about it a lot and didn’t want to mess it up. Eventually I decided it was worth writing a beta post.
Last month, Anca Dragan gave a presentation on her work in human-robot interaction. Anca is one of those terrifyingly smart people that make you feel slightly ashamed about yourself. She did a PhD at CMU, was nominated for several best paper awards at top robotics conferences, and was hired straight out of her PhD to a assistant professorship at Berkeley.
The event was hosted by FEM Tech, a new student organization that, quote,
promotes gender diversity and inspires women from all majors to excel in technology careers. Through organized seminars, mentorship programs, training workshops, and networking events, FEM Tech will provide a supportive community for all majors to create meaningful connections with like-minded women. We hope to excite new interest in tech and provide support for women already in STEM majors.
(FEM Tech website)
The event was billed as open to everyone, but I didn’t go. I was very busy that week, and the event description sounded like it wouldn’t go into enough depth to be interesting to me. Or rather, that is the excuse I gave myself.
In truth, I walked towards the event, and saw almost everyone there was female. I wasn’t comfortable with that, so I turned around and went back to the library.
I only grasped the full implications when I was at the library doors. I wasn’t comfortable with an all-female room, at a time when many women in tech have to deal with an all-male room. Oh, so that’s what that feels like. Did deciding not to enter that room make me part of the problem?
Several of my friends are worried about the reasonable chance Trump has at becoming president. Of course, the majority of my friend group is planning to back the Democratic nominee. (What, you were expecting me to know a Berkeley CS student who would vote for a Republican? Tell me if you find one of those, because that’s a rare breed.)
Some have semi-jokingly talked about finding ways to live in Europe next year. Many are seriously worried about the damage a Trump presidency could cause.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking about the 2008 general election, and the voters who gave their all to stop an Obama presidency. I’ve seen interviews from volunteers for the McCain campaign - some were truly frightened about how an Obama presidency would erode American values, destroy the economy, and send the US into a death spiral.
I listen to the conversation with a blank face. So now we understand what it feels like, to see a candidate we truly fear. A candidate who we believe will rip the nation asunder. That fear is nothing new. It existed before, exists now, and will always exist. This year, we get to see it with our own eyes.
It doesn’t feel like I’ve had a tough life.
Yes, I went to a challenging high school, and a tough college. I’ve definitely had struggles. But, it doesn’t feel like I’ve had to work as hard as other people. I’ve never had to worry about failing a class. While students vent about a final’s difficulty, I walk out feeling like I solved every problem.
That has to mess with my empathy. How am I supposed to effectively cheer up a student for the class I’m TAing, if I got an A+ while they find mod math inscrutable? How am I supposed to understand implicit prejudice, when I’m a male Asian in Silicon Valley? How do I justify avoiding crazy working hours, when those in poverty have to deal with them out of necessity?
I view suffering as input-independent. It doesn’t matter if someone is crying because their salary is below $100,000, or if they’re crying because they didn’t have enough to eat. The inputs don’t entitle us to write off the suffering of a privileged person. Suffering is symmetrical, no matter the cause. Fixing those causes may have wildly varying costs, but we should still strive to empathize with that suffering.
We should try, and yet it feels like I don’t. I can walk to an artisan tea shop every day and ignore the homeless on the streets. I don’t understand what it feels like to view the police with fear, or my bank account with dread, and I never want to. I’m in a position where I can avoid these issues, and quite reasonably decide I don’t want to add pain into my life for the sake of having pain in my life. Suffering is symmetrical, and I choose to avoid it.
Tyger, tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(William Blake, The Tyger)
Yesterday, I lost. I didn’t finish my post in time. I have to donate $20 to some effective charity, and it feels like I lost. It’s going to help people, and it feels like I lost.
I don’t know how to reconcile that, and some part of me doesn’t want to.
On days like these, I have to wonder. Which is worse - always living with wool worn over your own eyes, or taking the wool off and pulling it back on by your own accord? And in the end, which will I choose?