CS students must contribute in solving sexism

Update 02/27/18: This op-ed has been updated to include a quotation from Korean philosopher, Do-ol, at the author’s request. 

I am male, and I have also never directly experienced the trauma of sexual assault.

In fact, I am most likely guilty in perpetuating my fair share of misogyny to the world. Sexism and patriarchy are powerful systems — so insidious partly because it is so hard to escape perpetuating them. But the fact that they are so powerful does not give me an excuse for perpetuating them.

So when I was invited to write an article on technology and sexism on behalf of Philosophy of Computation at Berkeley, I hesitated. I had a few things I wanted to say, but I was not sure if I had the authority. In a very significant sense, I do not.

However, I do have a few things I need to say, deriving from both my experience straddling different cultural norms in Korea and America and what I believe are genuine insights about gender theory that can be gained through fundamental ideas in computer science.

Let me start with an example most of us are very familiar with: catcalling. You may have seen “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman,” a video of a woman walking around New York City and being catcalled hundreds of times. The video went viral, and dozens of response videos were created.

One of the videos was created by JTBC, a Korean broadcasting station, called 10 Hours of Walking in Seoul as a Woman. In this video, the actress is harassed twice, not hundreds of times.

She said, however, that “Though there was no one who thought to follow me, they, what do you call it, scanned me? I think there were many cases where they stared at me for 30-40 seconds.” While this is far from optimal – the right number to be harassed while walking in the street is zero, not two – it is qualitatively better than the results in New York.

Of course, it is difficult to draw firm conclusions about such a complex topic as sexism from just two short videos. But it can be argued that the videos show that culture at the very least plays a role in shaping the instantiation of sexism in society, and it may give pause to the popular idea that Western women are the most liberated and the least oppressed women in the world.

This is important, for once it is popularly acknowledged that there may be other cultural traditions with fewer, not more, of certain instantiations of sexism, then a popular reexamination of Western cultural values – such as “the Enlightenment”or “rationality” – is possible, which may lead to less sexism overall. For example, Confucian feminism – which sounds so much like an oxymoron in today’s climate – may start being taken seriously.

The critic may claim: The videos cited were hardly rigorous scientific experiments. And, as I acknowledge, it is difficult to draw conclusions about such a complex topic through just a few videos. So I want to address a more theoretical aspect of the debate.

So I want to address a more theoretical aspect of the debate. Do-ol, Korea’s most famous public philosopher, says in his very controversial and influential book, “What Is a Woman?”:

“At last analysis… Western civilization is the resolute denial of the vagina with respect to the penis, in other words the absence of the vagina, the denial of femininity. … [our topic is] the restoration of the daughter with respect to God. It is the restoration of the female with respect to the male, the restoration of ‘ren’ (translator: the word for ‘person’ in Korean, Chinese) with respect to ‘man’.”

Do-ol points out that there are languages, such as English, where “man,” a clearly gender-valenced word, can refer to “people in general,” and there are languages, such as Korean and Chinese, where such is not possible. 

The mostly stable consensus, in the words of linguist Roman Jakobson, is that “languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” In other words, users of a language that has built-in sexist mechanisms have to try harder to not be sexist. There is a joke about a professor at a meeting discussing hiring more female faculty in order to bring the gender imbalance of the department in check. The dear professor, with his enthusiastic liberal values, exclaims, “We just have to find the right man for the job!”

What happened here? “The right man for the job” is a linguistic chunk, an idiom, often used without conscious consideration of the thought that there is a gender term, “man”, in it. In the professor’s defense, he didn’t consciously try to be sexist; he just didn’t consciously try not to be. This does not excuse him, but it does show that the fact that he speaks English strictly caused him to need to be more careful in order not to be sexist.

But this is an article about sexism in tech, so what am I doing writing about culture and language? Well, to start, we can use that cultural heritage to try to make the world a better place.

The next topic of this article is a bit more theoretical, and probably more controversial. In “Gender Trouble,” a classic text in gender theory, Judith Butler writes, “Gender is performative. … There is only the deed, no doer behind the deed.” But how does one understand a “doer” and a “deed”? One option is to gorge oneself on the rest of Butler’s thick, dense book. But a computer science student has a shortcut to understanding the concepts.

Try not to laugh: A doer is a piece of data, whereas a deed is an execution of a function. This, I claim, is not just a surface resemblance; there is a deep connection between concepts in computer science and esoteric ontological concepts, partly because a huge chunk of computer science was invented by philosophers of language. That a function is a piece of data and that the execution of a function is totally different from a function in itself are both central ideas in CS 61A.

Countless environment diagrams are sacrificed every semester in pursuit of this idea, and it is a point that, as a CS 61A teaching assistant, I repeat dozens of times every semester. The point is that it is not an easy concept to understand, but CS 61A students have internalized it. Some may even remember from CS 70 that the exact relation between a piece of data and the execution of a function is an even subtler idea, embodied in the halting problem. Therefore, if one understands the halting problem, one has a significant grasp on the idea that gender is performative: Someone’s gender is not a piece of data that can be copied, modified, and tossed around, but an arbitrary program about which we do not know if it even halts or not.

This is not an accident: Computer science, at its core, is a series of elegant ideas that, in a way, form the blueprint of thought. It is no accident that computer science has allowed the compression of so much labor in the world. CS 61A is useful not just for landing that sweet internship at Google; it can be used, in fact, to actually make the world a better place — not by selling your soul to a Silicon Valley corporation intent on increasing economic disparity and “disseminating” racist manifestos, but by understanding and extending texts of central social justice importance such as “Gender Trouble.”

Jongmin Jerome Baek is the founder of Philosophy of Computation at Berkeley.