On switching places

I’ve been reading some of the discussion on Scott Aaronson’s comment on his difficult youth as a shy geek with a very conscientious style of feminism. An excerpt:

My recurring fantasy, through this period, was to have been born a woman, or a gay man, or best of all, completely asexual, so that I could simply devote my life to math, like my hero Paul Erdös did. Anything, really, other than the curse of having been born a heterosexual male, which for me, meant being consumed by desires that one couldn’t act on or even admit without running the risk of becoming an objectifier or a stalker or a harasser or some other creature of the darkness.

Someone replied, essentially, “You can’t really mean you would trade places with truly oppressed people.” Aaronson replies:

I feel incredibly lucky to have gotten to a place in life where I’m happy to be who I am, with a wonderful wife and daughter and a job doing what I love. But with a slightly-different roll of the dice? I would absolutely have traded places with any of the people you mentioned—the poor black kid, the gay kid, any of them. I wouldn’t even have to think about it. Are you kidding me?

I wouldn’t have written what I did, if that wasn’t honestly how I felt. And I wonder if this isn’t the crux of so many people’s failure to understand me: the only possibility they can contemplate, is that I can’t grasp how badly other people have it. That I would’ve gladly traded places with them, despite knowing how badly they have it, is a fact they won’t assimilate no matter how often I say it.

Which got me thinking about how different people’s experiences can be wildly different even within the same group.

One noticeable thing about jail is that people react very differently to it. Most everyone is miserable, but some of them put together a semblance of normal life (working out, writing letters, conducting intrigues, reading all the Game of Thrones books). One of the most charmingly normal things I ever saw on a segregation unit was two women playing “battleship” from their respective cells, calling out coordinates through the cinderblocks.

Recently a client on his first real incarceration told me he wasn’t sure what was so bad about jail. There was nothing that really felt like punishment to him, no physical torture. His childhood was worse: “I was always getting beat and stuffed in closets, so this ain’t a big deal to me.”

But some people lose their minds. Some people (especially immigration and other non-criminal detainees) can’t handle the loss of status, the shame of wearing a uniform and shackles. Some people have panic attacks. Some can’t eat or sleep. Some lose touch with reality.

The same circumstances can have vastly different effects on different people. So to say, “I would rather have been poor or gay or black than geeky and shy” doesn’t make a lot of sense. Who is the you that is being transformed? Is that person still shy? Is that person still prone to feeling horribly sad and ashamed? Because you might just have a terrible time in whatever group you land in.


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