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In the MMORPG of life, straight white male is the easiest setting
May 15, 2012 11:04 AM   Subscribe

Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is...
As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up. If you start with fewer points and fewer of them in critical stat categories, or choose poorly regarding the skills you decide to level up on, then the game will still be difficult for you. But because you’re playing on the “Straight White Male” setting, gaining points and leveling up will still by default be easier, all other things being equal, than for another player using a higher difficulty setting.

Likewise, it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting.


MeFi's own John Scalzi provides an excellent, relatable metaphor for explaining the realities of race and gender without invoking the dreaded word "privilege".

I think "straight white male is the easiest setting" might have actually been in a MeFi comment thread from the last couple months, but I cannot find it.
posted by Jon_Evil (368 comments total) 100 users marked this as a favorite

 
I just read one of his novels. Great stuff.
posted by dfriedman at 11:05 AM on May 15, 2012


This being the novel.
posted by dfriedman at 11:06 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is clever, but it's a real pity we need increasingly pattycake, incomplete social analyses like this primarily because people have been taught to be terrified of Marx.
posted by mobunited at 11:10 AM on May 15, 2012 [54 favorites]


So, points are dollars? We're playing for dollars?
posted by michaelh at 11:12 AM on May 15, 2012


So, points are dollars? We're playing for dollars?

“Business is a good game ― lots of competition and a minimum of rules. You keep score with money." -- Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell
posted by radwolf76 at 11:18 AM on May 15, 2012


I suppose this all holds up, just as long as you're willing to concede that while they are few and far between, there do exist other servers out there running alternate rules "games" within which these relative difficulties are different. Not every straight white male is always playing on the easiest setting, because they're not all playing the same "game," by the same rules, within the same gaming population.
posted by trackofalljades at 11:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game

I'm curious as to why he limits it to the US and "Western world".

Interesting reading though, thanks!
posted by ODiV at 11:21 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's a dump stat? Do I need to be whiter, straighter, or more male to understand this analogy?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:22 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm curious as to why he limits it to the US and "Western world".

Because living in the third world is a different game entirely.
posted by mightygodking at 11:22 AM on May 15, 2012 [16 favorites]


“Business is a good game ― lots of competition and a minimum of rules. You keep score with money." -- Atari Founder Nolan Bushnell

"He who dies with the most toys, wins." -- sticker on an accessorized truck in East Texas
posted by resurrexit at 11:22 AM on May 15, 2012


I don't think Scalzi's server will be playing on the lowest difficulty setting today.
posted by maudlin at 11:24 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


The metaphor breaks down a little bit when you start talking about changing difficulties (you can move to another culture/society, I suppose) but I don't think it's meant to be an ironclad paradigm description, so whatevs!

So, points are dollars? We're playing for dollars?

You can't eat (and survive) dollars, nor drink them; they are pretty impractical for both clothing and shelter. They are completely irrelevant to your continuing physical functions as a human being. They only matter because you agree with someone else that they matter, whether by philosophical agreement, or because the other guy has a big stick he's threatening you with. That's it. That's the game. So, yes. Money = points. Remember: winning is really important. Get as many points as you can!
posted by curious nu at 11:24 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Now, once you’ve selected the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, you still have to create a character, and how many points you get to start — and how they are apportioned — will make a difference.

This is where, speaking as a straight white male, he loses me.

I didn't select to be born this way, and the notion that I have the slightest bit of agency in the matter is entirely wrong-headed.

I'm not someone who plays games - of any kind - on Easy. I always go for the difficulty level that has me gritting my teeth the majority of the time because I enjoy being challenged - and yes, I'm a little bit proud of that fact.

I don't have - in this MMORPG called Real Life, to use his metaphor - the option to start again looking for more challenge. It's also where the word privilege falls down for the people in the past he refers to, I suspect: it paints me as someone who opts for the easy way out, rather than having simply been born into it with no input on the matter. I hugely resent the implied laziness and lacking character.

I'm doing the best I can, with what I have, where am I, right now. I can't reasonably asked to do more. Provided I'm fighting as hard as I can to build a life within the confines of a basic ethically-sound existence, I shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for some original sin of having it easier than the next guy.

Drop the assumption - both explicit and implicit - of agency and then we'll talk.
posted by Ryvar at 11:26 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Reminds me of the Louis CK bit about being white http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TG4f9zR5yzY
posted by wangarific at 11:27 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a facile analysis, though, and waving away effects like wealth as "starting with more points" rather than playing on an easier difficulty setting is nonsense. A wealthy non-white person would absolutely be playing on an easier difficulty setting in this kind of analysis than a dirt poor white person. Of course there are a lot more wealthy why people in part because of a past history of racism, but that doesn't change the fact that having a wealthy background makes things easier. In essence, Scalzi tries to make sexual orientation, sex, and color the only things which affect the difficulty setting while the other stuff is ancillary to it. Which is convenient for him but not true.
posted by Justinian at 11:27 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ryvar, did you finish the piece? He addresses your objection explicitly.
posted by gerryblog at 11:29 AM on May 15, 2012 [18 favorites]


Well, for better* or worse** I suspect this will see a lot of linking, so there's that.

* used for the promotion of people being cooler with each other and the dismantling of inequality.
** Used as a trite and dismissive response in some nerd wang waving contest.
posted by Artw at 11:29 AM on May 15, 2012


We can't talk about class because:

1) America and again: Marx.

2) That guy on Racefail who kept doing awful things and then talking about class ruined discussion of class among fan-nerd types for a thousand years, so it will been seen as a bingo move until Planet of the Apes times.
posted by mobunited at 11:31 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I didn't select to be born this way, and the notion that I have the slightest bit of agency in the matter is entirely wrong-headed.

From the article linked:
Oh, and one other thing. Remember when I said that you could choose your difficulty setting in The Real World? Well, I lied. In fact, the computer chooses the difficulty setting for you. You don’t get a choice; you just get what gets given to you at the start of the game, and then you have to deal with it.
posted by octothorpe at 11:33 AM on May 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


I didn't select to be born this way, and the notion that I have the slightest bit of agency in the matter is entirely wrong-headed.

RTFA
posted by Jon_Evil at 11:34 AM on May 15, 2012 [33 favorites]


people have been taught to be terrified of Marx.

...because there's no way one could possibly develop a negative view of Marxist theory one one's own, amirite?

One of things that always stands out to me about the 'straight white male privilege' line is how extraordinarily US-centric it is. The US is not the whole world. In other places these factors will more important (often) or much less important (sometimes). What we're talking about is actually majoritarian privilege, and because the composition of society is lumpy it's worth remembering that such privilege is not homogenous.

It's also worth remembering that nobody asks to be born white or male any more than they ask to be born with any other set of characteristics (I'm not sure to what degree sexuality is innate, though this seems to be set so early in life that that's not necessarily a matter of choice either). If someone happens to be a privileged position by an accident of birth, that's not their fault. It's a mistake for such a person to assume that all things are equally easy for everyone, because they're not, but it's also a mistake to say that everyone in a dominant group is engineering or even vested in the subordination of other groups, or to characterize them on the fact of their group membership. There isn't a single one-dimensional scale of success or failure; nor are people entirely defined by their group membership. Reasoning along these lines just exacerbates the problems of prejudice and do little to advance social fairness.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:35 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


I didn't select to be born this way

Neither do most RPG characters. The "roll stats" portion normally comes before "class selection".
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:35 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Because living in the third world is a different game entirely.

Other things would be "a different game entirely" in the same way, but weren't explicitly acknowledged though. Maybe he was just trying to head a derail or two off at the pass? Or just setting the limits of metaphor intentionally to match those of his real world experience?
posted by ODiV at 11:35 AM on May 15, 2012


Are we allowed to consider affirmative action as affecting your "setting"?
posted by John Cohen at 11:36 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


You know, this metaphor is going to break down with anything more than a superficial glance. Which is what metaphors do. They are inexact, and don't typically hold up very well, because they substitute something that isn't a thing for the thing itself.

The thing itself is privilege. And Scalzi went with a substitution because one of the benefits of privilege is that you don't have to think about it if you don't want to, and can, instead, try to argue away the existence of it altogether by pulling out dictionaries and such.

But the thing about the substitution is that same impulse is going to work differently. In order to show how inexact the parallel between role playing games and privilege is, you must discuss what privilege is. And to do that, you can't talk about what it isn't, or that it doesn't exist. That defeats the fun of being contrary. No, you have to point out, for instance, that the metaphor breaks down because Scalzi failed to include third-world experiences, and that being white, straight, and first-world is an EVEN BIGGER advantage in the metaphor. In order to tear apart his metaphor, you must discuss privilege.

He's playing THREE DIMENSIONAL CHESS WITH THE SUBJECT AND I'M LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:37 AM on May 15, 2012 [54 favorites]


What's a dump stat?

A dump stat is a term from roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons.

In games like D&D, you have attributes (informally "stats") that quantify qualities of your character. In the classic game, they are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Wisdom, Intelligence, and Charisma and are represented by a number generally ranging from 3 to 18 (though they can be higher). Higher is better. When you create a character, you get to assign points to different stats, essentially defining how strong they are, or how wise they are. So a dexterous wise-man would have a high Dexterity and Wisdom.

But since you usually have a limited number of points to assign, you have to prioritize. Thus players will opt to deprioritize a stat that isn't important to their character. For example, a fighter might not care about being particularly charismatic, and thus only assign a low value to their Charisma stat. This is called their dump stat because they're intentionally making it a low value so they have more points to spend on other stats.

This, of course, isn't quite how real life works. We don't get to pick how intelligent or charismatic we are any more than we get to choose our race. But it does describe how some people really are gifted or deficient in some of these areas and that's the hand we're dealt.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:37 AM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I can say that as a straight white guy, I've played this game pretty poorly at times and managed to do pretty well in spite of myself most of the time.
posted by octothorpe at 11:37 AM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


gerryblog: caught! I only got partway through before dropping it simply because I couldn't accept the the implied agency in his choice of the word "selected".

Having gone back and finished...

The way he handles it is extremely weak - it makes no room for the notion that some people would opt for higher difficulty not out of curiosity but instead out of a sense that overcoming adversity fuels personal growth. He says I should just be happy that I "caught a break" - I don't accept that mindset, because there is still a connotation of blame there.

I do not accept blame for things I had no say in, sorry.
posted by Ryvar at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2012


Obligatory.
posted by hincandenza at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2012


Justinian: "A wealthy non-white person would absolutely be playing on an easier difficulty setting in this kind of analysis than a dirt poor white person. Of course there are a lot more wealthy why people in part because of a past history of racism, but that doesn't change the fact that having a wealthy background makes things easier. In essence, Scalzi tries to make sexual orientation, sex, and color the only things which affect the difficulty setting while the other stuff is ancillary to it. Which is convenient for him but not true."

I don't know. Take two people who started with equal, high wealth scores but one was white and one was black. Yes, the black guy is doing better than a white guy with less wealth, but he's got to put up with shit the equally wealthy white guy doesn't. I think this is where the game metaphor actually works well - on the surface things might look equal but how things are working out mechanically underneath are different.
posted by charred husk at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


Ryvar, take that reaction and apply it from the opposite perspective. Women "shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for some original sin", except they have been for centuries. People born into poverty didn't get to choose their difficulty setting either, yet they are made to feel like they are lazy all the time.
posted by LN at 11:38 AM on May 15, 2012 [23 favorites]


No, you have to point out, for instance, that the metaphor breaks down because Scalzi failed to include third-world experiences

I didn't do this at all. I was just curious as to why he intentionally cut it out. What makes you think I was asking the question in order to be contrary? I'm guessing you're referring to my question explicitly there.
posted by ODiV at 11:40 AM on May 15, 2012


I shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for some original sin of having it easier than the next guy.

I suspect you're reading a little too much into this, then. The piece isn't trying to make you or anyone else to feel ashamed for having it easier, it's trying to get people to simply acknowledge that you have it easier. You don't have to feel bad for being a straight white guy, but recognizing that others don't have it as easy as you do is a pretty nice way to engage with the world. Recognizing that others are less fortunate, and that you, by virtue of your birth, are one of the lucky ones, and because of that good fortune you have more power in the world, and maybe it's a good thing to work towards redistributing that imbalance that you naturally benefit from.

***
On another note:
It's a pity that we have to talk down to people in order to get them to listen. Well, that's not actually true. We don't have to talk down, and there's no guarantee that they'll listen either way. Nobody is owed a polite explanation of anything, though sometimes that's an effective approach.

The analogy's heart is in the right place, and I really hope that it does turn the light on for a few people that otherwise wouldn't have gotten the message. That being said, consider the following similar situation that I recently witnessed:

Shortly after Kobe Bryant's little anti-gay outburst the NBA put together a series of PSAs that run during basketball games. They consist of well-known NBA players reacting to a pick-up game in which someone refers to a bad call/play as "gay". Then cut to the NBA players admonishing the viewer that it's not OK to use that word in a pejorative sense, finishing along the lines of "it's offensive to gay people, and you're better than that."

I remember when this aired and I watched it with one of my wife's brothers, a casual homophobe. He's a huge NBA fan and I remember thinking awesome, he looks up to these guys and he'll listen to what they have to say, maybe he'll change his mind about these things a little.. When the PSA ended you know what he said to me?

"So I guess the gays are taking over the NBA now too. That sucks."

You can pattycake all you want, some prejudice is just so deep-seated in a person it won't matter how you word it. So the key is not in your tone or your framing. If you want somebody to listen you just have to keep talking and never shut up until they hear you. For some folks that may take an entire lifetime. But I am definitely going to use this analogy whenever I get the relevant chance.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:40 AM on May 15, 2012 [15 favorites]


I do not accept blame for things I had no say in, sorry.

It's not about blame. It's about recognizing an unbalance, and seeking to address that unbalance, even if you benefit from it. If you're aware of the unbalance, and take advantage of it, and do nothing to redress it, then you do have a say in it. You're saying "Let this thing continue."

Then we can start talking blame.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:41 AM on May 15, 2012 [79 favorites]


Neither do most RPG characters. The "roll stats" portion normally comes before "class selection".

Yeah, but most give you the option to tweak the points or at least assign the scores to abilities. And even if they don't you can still optimize your character for the stats you have because all classes are equally easy to choose and in most games everybody is on the same XP progression table. This is unlike the real world. It is much easier to succeed in life by capitalizing on intelligence than it is by capitalizing on strength (e.g. how many NFL linebackers are there compared to white collar professionals who make the same amount of money?).
posted by jedicus at 11:41 AM on May 15, 2012


I didn't do this at all.

Oh no. I was just using that as a jumping off point. I understand your question is different than the one posed in my comment.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:41 AM on May 15, 2012


I'm curious as to why he limits it to the US and "Western world".

Because living in the third world is a different game entirely.


The world doesn't divide up that neatly. People living in, say, Beijing are not living in the Western world but they're certainly not living in the third world either. Not to over-analyze it, but comments like that above seem implicitly (albeit unintentionally) predicated on the same assumption of 'USA #1' that causes people to be dismissive of other countries and cultures.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:42 AM on May 15, 2012


I think the idea the people who are resistant to the idea of privilege are going to swallow this metaphor any easier is extremely optimistic. Among other things among many hard core gamers playing on easy mode is a badge of shame, which gets things right back to the unlikely-to-appeal interpretations that what is being said is that "you should be ashamed that you're a straight white male", and "you don't have the right to be proud of your accomplishments".

Which is an issue because I think resistance to those interpretations of what motivates engaging the real issues of privilege (I kind of hate that word too but I haven't come up with anything equally pithy that covers it) represents a genuine obstruction to more people accepting that we are operating in a far from egalitarian society to the detriment of everyone.

(I confess, the first thing I thought when I read this was of this comic. It's a new theory of reincarnation, I came back as a straight white male because I did so abysmally poorly in my last life).
posted by nanojath at 11:43 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Wow, "I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men how life works for them . . ." is a really presumptuous way to start an essay. I get that I'm part of a privileged group, and that I have, no doubt, benefited from that in many, largely invisible ways -- and I'm sure I could stand to be more conscious of that fact. But goddamn, the apparent arrogance of that first phrase makes it hard for me to listen to the rest of what he has to say.
posted by inkfish at 11:43 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's lucky you get bonus metafilter points in "The Real Life Game (TM)" for being a sanctimonious bore and rehashing tired old victimology with just another new and uninteresting metaphore, but otherwise adding little to the existing discourse.

Now, if you'all will excuse me I gotta go cry myself to sleep.
posted by jannw at 11:44 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's probably worth noting that, when somebody has something to say that is worth listening to, they will probably always express it in a way that we can take issue with, and then refuse to listen.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:44 AM on May 15, 2012 [30 favorites]


The piece isn't trying to make you or anyone else to feel ashamed for having it easier, it's trying to get people to simply acknowledge that you have it easier. You don't have to feel bad for being a straight white guy, but recognizing that others don't have it as easy as you do is a pretty nice way to engage with the world. Recognizing that others are less fortunate, and that you, by virtue of your birth, are one of the lucky ones, and because of that good fortune you have more power in the world, and maybe it's a good thing to work towards redistributing that imbalance that you naturally benefit from.

I'm not sure what to say to that other than, with no offense intended, "fucking duh." Could anything be more obvious?
posted by Ryvar at 11:45 AM on May 15, 2012


Yes, the black guy is doing better than a white guy with less wealth, but he's got to put up with shit the equally wealthy white guy doesn't.

Sure. And the poor black guy has to put up with shit that the rich black guy doesn't. And the poor white guy has to put up with shit that the rich black guy doesn't. And the rich black guy has to put up with different shit that the poor white guy doesn't. And so on.

Which is why the analogy is weak and it's better just to talk about race, class, and other things. In a case like this I think using metaphors and so on is counter productive.
posted by Justinian at 11:45 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Okay, Bunny Ultramod, thanks. I just didn't see anyone else discussing that point, so I thought you had misinterpreted me.
posted by ODiV at 11:45 AM on May 15, 2012


an excellent, relatable metaphor for explaining the realities of race and gender

Only if you play role playing games. If, like most people, you don't play role playing games it's a slightly confusing, completely unrelatable metaphor peppered with weird jargon that makes an easily understood concept harder to grasp.

Or, your gamer privilege is showing ;-)
posted by jack_mo at 11:45 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I was just curious as to why he intentionally cut [the third world] out.

Because the overwhelming majority of his readers don't live there, and he's tailoring his remarks to the people he knows are his audience.

That's also why:

* There is no mention of Buddha in the Bible.
* There are no articles that discuss self-screening for prostate cancer in women's magazines.
* There are no ham recipes in Israeli newspapers.

Etc.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2012 [34 favorites]


Could anything be more obvious?

You have obviously had different conversations than Scalzi, or me. Because this sometimes seems like the least obvious thing in the universe.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


This is called their dump stat because they're intentionally making it a low value so they have more points to spend on other stats. This, of course, isn't quite how real life works.

To a point. Just like my sims character, I have the choice of reading a tome of plumbing or exercising at the gym. The former increases my intelligence, the latter increases my strength. But there's only a finite amount of time in the day before I defecate in the living room, set my kitchen on fire while making toast, and get fired because I missed the ride to work two days in a row, and I can't do both.
posted by Blue_Villain at 11:46 AM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Among other things among many hard core gamers playing on easy mode is a badge of shame, which gets things right back to the unlikely-to-appeal interpretations that what is being said is that "you should be ashamed that you're a straight white male", and "you don't have the right to be proud of your accomplishments".

This.
posted by Ryvar at 11:47 AM on May 15, 2012


What exactly is it about the term "privilege" that makes people so bitey and defensive? I mean that's what, four I DIDN'T CHOOSE TO BE WHITE I WILL NOT BE SHAMED comments from folk who didn't rtfa already, and a lot of threatened, defensive snark on top. I just don't see what's so difficult and scary about it.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2012 [30 favorites]


Ryvar: the point is that those interpretations are wrong.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:49 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


By "this," you mean that some people will choose the least charitable interpretation possible?

I have yet to discover a conversation about privilege that won't result in the least charitable interpretation possible from some people. If you have one that works, I'd be thrilled to hear it.

I'll tell you which conversation produces the least charitable interpretations imaginable: The ones that make use of the word privilege. So cheers to Scalzi for at least trying something new.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:49 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


ominous_paws: "I just don't see what's so difficult and scary about it."

The word 'privilege' carries extra connotation that many people don't like to be associated with, even if you don't mean insult. Kind of like the whole, "that's racist" vs. the assumed "you're racist".
posted by charred husk at 11:51 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Bunny Ultramod: "This." as in "When I hear you say that I have selected Easy mode, there's a implied shaming there for committing an act wholly out of character for me that I am not going to get past and anything else you might say is going to get lost because I haven't accepted your premise."
posted by Ryvar at 11:52 AM on May 15, 2012


...because there's no way one could possibly develop a negative view of Marxist theory one one's own, amirite?

You're trying to be sarcastic, but as far as North American (and more recently, broader Anglosphere) politics is concerned, you are in fact broadly right, because of suppression of the Socialist International and its historical role in lots of not-too-shabby nation-states.
posted by mobunited at 11:52 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


victimology

Oh FFS.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:53 AM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


If you want somebody to listen you just have to keep talking and never shut up until they hear you.

I am not sure about that, to be frank. That's just as likely to cause people to one one out. It's certainly important to express one's views consistently and to make use of communication opportunities, but never-shutting-up is a negative - it says that you don't trust people to come to the same conclusion as you, and that you're not willing to give them any room in which to do so. The problem for me is that people like Rush Limbaugh and bible-thumping preachers also keep talking, never shut up, and are absolutely convinced of their own moral superiority, and this is exactly that I don't like about them and why I avoid listening to them. If you're trying to change someone's views ISTM you have to start by inquiring about why they hold those views rather than simply trying to saturate the conversation with your own opinions.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure what to say to that other than, with no offense intended, "fucking duh." Could anything be more obvious?

Well if it was so obvious why did you say: "I shouldn't be made to feel ashamed for some original sin of having it easier than the next guy."? I read that and figured you had misinterpreted the intent of the article, hence the "obvious" explanation. So do you agree with the article or not?

This.

It's pretty obvious that Scalzi is NOT a hardcore gamer and is NOT trying to imply shame by using the term "easy mode". Like what Bunny Ultramod said, if you're getting some sort of shaming tone out of the article, I think you're interpreting above and beyond the author's intent.

So I ask again, do you agree that straight, white, male privilege exists? Do you agree that it's worth our collective efforts to change that? If so, why are you complaining about one person's attempt to explain this to a target audience?

On Preview: The article explicitly states that you didn't select easy mode, so why are you still harping on that irrelevant objection?
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


I confess that I have spent the past ten minutes bracing myself in the expectation of angry "i totally found a picnic ham recipe in an Israeli newspaper your argument is invalid" comments.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [20 favorites]


there's a implied shaming there

Yeah. No there isn't. Don't put your damage onto what other people say in order not to listen to what they have to say.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [10 favorites]


Doleful Creature, because before the article says I didn't select that mode, it expressly says that I did. Here's the quote:

Now, once you’ve selected the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, you still have to create a character, and how many points you get to start — and how they are apportioned — will make a difference.
posted by Ryvar at 11:55 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I confess that I have spent the past ten minutes bracing myself in the expectation of angry "i totally found a picnic ham recipe in an Israeli newspaper your argument is invalid" comments.

I was going to research this, because Reform Jews, in particular, can be ham crazy, but it seemed a bit beside the point.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:56 AM on May 15, 2012


EmpressCallipygos, I got all excited when I saw a hyperlink to what I hoped would be a picnic ham recipe in an Israeli newspaper, I am disappoint.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:56 AM on May 15, 2012 [22 favorites]


This is a desperately tenuous reading of the article.
posted by ominous_paws at 11:57 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yeah. No there isn't. Don't put your damage onto what other people say in order not to listen to what they have to say.

There is absolutely an implied shaming there. It's saying that I'm a cheater - that I take the easy way out, rather than always doing everything the right way even if - hell, especially if - it's hard because I believe it to be the essential element of all self-improvement.
posted by Ryvar at 11:58 AM on May 15, 2012


Ryvar: He states clearly at the end that that statement is purely a rhetorical tool.

The last two paragraphs:

Oh, and one other thing. Remember when I said that you could choose your difficulty setting in The Real World? Well, I lied. In fact, the computer chooses the difficulty setting for you. You don’t get a choice; you just get what gets given to you at the start of the game, and then you have to deal with it.

So that’s “Straight White Male” for you in The Real World (and also, in the real world): The lowest difficulty setting there is. All things being equal, and even when they are not, if the computer — or life — assigns you the “Straight White Male” difficulty setting, then brother, you’ve caught a break.

posted by Mercaptan at 11:58 AM on May 15, 2012


Man, you're obsessed with shame. Why don't you set that aside a little bit and see what else the article has to say. Maybe there is more to it than whether or not you should feel bad, which seems to be a sticking point for you.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:59 AM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


You're trying to be sarcastic, but as far as North American (and more recently, broader Anglosphere) politics is concerned, you are in fact broadly right, because of suppression of the Socialist International and its historical role in lots of not-too-shabby nation-states.

Marxism: either you agree with it, or you're wrong.

Think how much time Socrates could have saved if he had just concentrated on telling people they were wrong instead of trying to reason with them or walk them through alternative ideas.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:00 PM on May 15, 2012


I think what a lot of people have trouble with is the idea that you know much of anything about someone's life because you see they were born a white male or whatever. Sure, that's a break. They may also have been born with a degenerative neurological disorder, or schizophrenia, or a billion other things. Without knowing their life experience you actually have no idea what "difficulty level" they've been playing on and I thin people get rightly annoyed at some people's assumptions that they do have such an idea.
posted by Justinian at 12:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


There is absolutely an implied shaming there. It's saying that I'm a cheater - that I take the easy way out, rather than always doing everything the right way even if - hell, especially if - it's hard because I believe it to be the essential element of all self-improvement.

You really need to reread the article.

I was going to research this, because Reform Jews, in particular, can be ham crazy, but it seemed a bit beside the point.

Growing up, my dad (who is a Reform Jew), was by far the most consistently strident booster of Christmas trees and hams in the family. My mom has long since stopped wondering why.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I think people" not "I thin people", though I have no doubt there are folks for whom "thin privilege" is a point of discusson.
posted by Justinian at 12:02 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Let me come back and say that my earlier comments are not meant to be part of a tactic undermining the point of jscalzi's essay. What distresses me is that we basically have no good context to integrate other elements in a useful way that *preserves* this point because some of the best tools are unavailable.

Without that, discussions about intersectional issues tend to suck and turn into privilege-bingo games.
posted by mobunited at 12:02 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


because before the article says I didn't select that mode

Yep. And as many people (including yourself I think) have pointed out, the end of the article (i.e. the end of the argument) clarifies that it wasn't a choice. So are we discussing the whole argument, or not?
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:02 PM on May 15, 2012


The strange power of "white, male privilege" is that it is really only useful as a way to make those with privilege understand the situation of others without that privilege. By putting yourself in the disadvantaged shoes of others, you gain some notion of empathy. The detriment of this same philosophy is that once it turns to making an individual feel that they themselves are somehow unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged, the emotion turns to defensiveness and anger, which does very little good for anyone.

Unfortunately, I've read too much, seen too much, and heard too much rhetoric on this subject that focuses on making the person hearing the information feel something personal about themselves (good or bad) instead of making the listener feel something for someone else, which inspires personal growth. Making someone feel guilty is not very constructive - making them feel like they want to help, well, that's powerful.

The truth is that each of us is set with both advantages and disadvantages. It is too simple to consider whether you are a white male - what if you have a disability, are not as smart as others, are not as athletic as others, are short, are fat, are too skinny, are ugly, are poor, are etc...? What if you are an absolutely beautiful black lesbian woman born into a home of money and power? There is no one playing field, which is why when the focus shifts to shoving a person into a group to make them feel bad about their own privilege, we all lose. When the focus is on how someone else does not have what you have, and that maybe you should consider lending a hand, then good things happen.
posted by Muddler at 12:03 PM on May 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


"And having privilege isn't automatically bad and it doesn't make you evil and you are not doing anything wrong by having it, it is something society confers upon you! The most anyone will realistically ask of you is that you be AWARE that you have it, and think about what effect your privilege has had on you when you are talking to people who haven't had it! It's not an insult!"

-Titus N. Owl
posted by davidjmcgee at 12:04 PM on May 15, 2012 [12 favorites]


Aaaand they've killed his site.

I wonder if it's been linked from Fark or Reddit and the Men's Rights/Reverse Affirmative Action crew are running over to share their grievances, or if 4chan was bored and feeling put-upon today enough to DDoS it.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:04 PM on May 15, 2012


Without knowing their life experience you actually have no idea what "difficulty level" they've been playing on

All other things held the same, I think you do. Isn't the point that if you have schizophrenia and 15 other issues all the same, that handling those issues as a black person is pretty much agreed to be harder than if you're handling them as a white person? I think you're confusing things. This is really just an attempt to reach people who truly don't get that they have an advantage. Which is pretty much nobody in here.
posted by cashman at 12:04 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos: Yeah, I understand what you're saying and agree, but I was wondering why the explicit mention. To use one of your examples, a women's magazine isn't going to have a sentence telling us they're not including self-screening for prostate cancer. He was probably just trying to head off a can of worms at the pass. I'm sure there's a whole other argument to be had with regards to privilege outside of the US, but that's just a guess on my part. I was just curious if he thinks the metaphor obviously doesn't apply for specific reasons or was just limiting the conversation to within his realm of experience.
posted by ODiV at 12:07 PM on May 15, 2012


Man, you're obsessed with shame. Why don't you set that aside a little bit and see what else the article has to say.

Yep. And as many people (including yourself I think) have pointed out, the end of the article (i.e. the end of the argument) clarifies that it wasn't a choice. So are we discussing the whole argument, or not?

That's not an argument, it's a rhetorical sleight of hand. Scalzi beings with the assumption that his fellows SWMs simply 'don't get it.' And there are large numbers of people who wander through life blissfully unaware of their majoritarian advantages. It is, ironically, very patronizing.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:07 PM on May 15, 2012


To a point. Just like my sims character, I have the choice of reading a tome of plumbing or exercising at the gym. The former increases my intelligence, the latter increases my strength.

Well, blue_villian, from a D&D perspective I would argue that those would represent putting points into "Knowledge: Plumbing" (or "Profession: Plumber") and Athletics skills as you leveled up. But carry on.
posted by Mercaptan at 12:07 PM on May 15, 2012


head off a can of worms at the pass

Wow. Talk about your mixed metaphors.
posted by ODiV at 12:07 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


All other things held the same, I think you do.

But it's very important to realize that all other things are almost never held the same and a person cannot be summed up in total by a category like "white male". Which neither you nor Scalzi are claiming. I'm just trying to explain why I think many people have difficulty with things like Scalzi's analogy.
posted by Justinian at 12:08 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


This seems silly. I don't think the article adds anything not captured by a one-sentence formulation like, "Being a straight white male is like playing the game of life on the easiest setting."

And the initial framing, that this explanation is necessary because of the associations of "the dreaded word 'privilege,' to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon," seems strikingly implausible. People don't reject these accounts because they're allergic to a word, even if they sometimes express their objections in terms of attacking that word. There's nothing intrinsically irritating about that word. If people object to it, it's because they object to this argument, these ideas. Framing this in terms of video games because the poor straight white males can't understand it otherwise is patronizing.

This is in keeping with the patronizing stance often taken in conversations about privilege, for example, "you wouldn't think what you think, if you had only taken Women's Studies 101," etc. It implies that the only possible basis for disagreement is ignorance, stupidity, lack of sophistication (common rhetorical stance in leftish America).

From long experience with Metafilter, I can assure you that it is possible to understand your argument and still disagree.
posted by grobstein at 12:09 PM on May 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


I like this metaphor. As has been said, of course it's not perfect. But I appreciate he's trying something different to open up a constructive dialogue on what has got to be one of the most contentious and inflammable topics there is.

When the focus is on how someone else does not have what you have

I get what you're saying, and I agree to an extent. But long years of experience on the IntraWebs have shown me that the reactions to this tend to be either: 1) They don't have what I have because they're inferior in some way and they could have it if they worked as hard as I have because it's not like I was just handed everything on a platter when I was born

Or 2) I didn't ask to have what I have that gives me this perceived advantage over them, so stop penalizing me for it or trying to make me feel guilty.

#1 frequently devolves into "And besides, women/minorities/gays have more rights and privileges than I do! Nobody holds doors for me, governments don't specify a certain number of contracts have to go to me etc"

#2 frequently devolves into "That's just the way the universe is, and there's nothing we can do about it."

But I'm hopeful. It took me a while to understand just plain ol' male privilege/the male gaze, but I eventually figured it out. If I can grok stuff like that, I think other folks are definitely capable of eventually understanding what we're hoping to discuss when we talk about straight white male privilege. There's evidence of it in this very thread. So, excellent, Mr. Scalzi.
posted by lord_wolf at 12:11 PM on May 15, 2012 [13 favorites]


grobstein, you've obviously never tried to explain white privilege to a 19-year-old white dude.
posted by Jon_Evil at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It always turns into the tone argument. I guess that's something that even Scalzi can't metaphor his way out of. "How dare you be a scold?"
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:12 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


What's frustrating to me is the counter-argument "yeah, but it's possible to be a white male and still be dealt a shit hand. Don't tell me I have it easy". Yes. Yes, it is completely possible. The point is that your hand is still better than what it would have been, if you had been non-white or non-male to boot.

I honestly don't see that that is an idea you can dismiss as wrong. And that people here will still miss that point - despite the 8,000,000 times it's been chewed over on Metafilter - is frustrating.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:16 PM on May 15, 2012 [11 favorites]


Or perhaps you're missing the point that they're making. That's also possible.
posted by Justinian at 12:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


If people object to it, it's because they object to this argument, these ideas. Framing this in terms of video games because the poor straight white males can't understand it otherwise is patronizing.

What's worse, this metaphoric formulation of the argument introduces a number of new grounds for objection, because life is nothing like MMORPGs in many crucial regards, adding new problems where it'd hoped to make things easier. It's really kind of slippery and underhanded the way this piece treats the social analysis underlying its game metaphor as obvious and incontrovertible, even if just for the sake of argument — just assuming that people really have "stats" directly related to their ability to compete at the game of Real Life, and that "wealth" is one of those stats, something fairly treated as within the game and not to do with its difficulty levels.
posted by RogerB at 12:17 PM on May 15, 2012


But it's very important to realize that all other things are almost never held the same and a person cannot be summed up in total by a category like "white male". Which neither you nor Scalzi are claiming. I'm just trying to explain why I think many people have difficulty with things like Scalzi's analogy.

Sometimes, things are held the same, and it's clear white is easier. Of course we're all special snowflakes, but to say "well you don't have a scar on your lower cheek so you could never truly compare me to anyone else" seems like a copout and a way to dismiss what really is a pretty simple discussion. But as said above, this is pretty much a "duh" for anyone posting in here. Nobody in here is saying that someone just like them with darker skin color has the same chances. But away from MeFi, some people will absolutely not acknowledge this. It's preaching to the choir and having some of the choir get mad because they feel it's not their fault they were born sinners and need to pray, be baptized and ask for salvation. Well some of the congregation hasn't even gotten baptized and they don't really get why they need to pray.

You know, while we're having fun with metaphors.
posted by cashman at 12:18 PM on May 15, 2012


To put it another way; people are saying that this is an attempt to get people who do not understand the concept of privilege to understand the concept. I have tried to provide reasons why I do not believe this is an effective way to do so. If the reason for the analogy is to effectively get across the point, then it fails. If the reason is to make ourselves feel good for our cleverness, then maybe it succeeds.
posted by Justinian at 12:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course we're all special snowflakes, but to say "well you don't have a scar on your lower cheek so you could never truly compare me to anyone else" seems like a copout and a way to dismiss what really is a pretty simple discussion. But as said above, this is pretty much a "duh" for anyone posting in here.

I wouldn't be so sure "everyone" posting in here agrees with this, based on the pushback and critique we've seen in these comments....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Or perhaps you're missing the point that they're making. That's also possible.

It is completely, totally possible. Point me.

(I'm not saying any given conclusion follows from the above; just that I'm irritated by the total dismissal of privilege as an idea...)
posted by ominous_paws at 12:21 PM on May 15, 2012


I would argue - as a member of a social circle where people routinely use the ugly formation "checking your privilege" - that if you are getting all wound up about how bad you feel because of the awful, awful guilt trip that some marginalized person is laying on you, man...that is something that you need to work on. It's a quite separate issue from privilege - the idea that you can independently choose not to make it all about you, even if someone is guilting you.

I add that as a white middle class person who has in fact been directly called out by more marginalized people for something dumb I did, I have had to do some difficult introspection. One thing that I learned about myself was that I was perceiving a guilt trip where none was being given - the guilt trip was being laid on me by me. This has generally been true, not just in this situation.

Also, I have a separate identity as a Person Marginalized On Several Axes (it makes you flexible, anyway). And honestly, when I'm dealing with straight white dudes from middle class backgrounds, I am generally not particularly interested in creating guilt trips. I have found that when we're talking about something that affects my daily life, I often have to spend a lot of time processing the guilt and/or anger felt by the other person. Usually, all I want to do is to say "I would really like it if you could not constantly tell jokes whose punchline is "and she looked like a trannie"" but it turns into either anger, self-righteousness or shame. All I want is for the jokes to stop - manage your feelings your own self.

Now, I freely admit that when I hang about certain tumblrs the likes of "Dumb Things White People Do", there's plenty of anger, mockery and shaming language tossed around about white folks among young POC. But nobody is making me spend time there and the site isn't intended for me. I'm not going to get in a tizzy when the "lol white people you are so badly dressed and here's a gif of some white girl who thinks she can dance" stuff comes out, because again, I can manage my feelings my own self.
posted by Frowner at 12:23 PM on May 15, 2012 [32 favorites]


ominous_paws: Yeah, that was an initial sticking point for me when I was first introduced to the word and concept of privilege. Through discussions like these people generally come around though (right?).
posted by ODiV at 12:25 PM on May 15, 2012


A Person Marginalized On Several Axes would be a great name for a Game of Thrones character.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Or possibly being marginalized on several axes could be the terrible end you'd face should you cross the...the....Lanarks? Starks? The main people in the series.
posted by Frowner at 12:31 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


A Person Marginalized On Several Axes would be a great name for a Game of Thrones character.

Or for a band made up entirely of disabled transgender guitarists of color.
posted by zombieflanders at 12:33 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


There's, like, 300 main characters. I don't bother with their names. They're like a Medieval mod squad. One black. One white. One blonde with dragons.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2012


As an ardent RPG fan, I appreciate the metaphor, but I think that it is easily extended too far. I am thinking of extremely poor, white males, stereotypically living in Appalachia or the Deep South, but existing everywhere in this country, who simply do not have the opportunities that I and my white male friends did. Scalzi tries to moderate this by saying that some white males will, of course, not do as well as others, but when I think of whole classes of white society that do relatively poorly, it seems to me that "straight white male" category is too simplistic.

It ignores class, as we love to do in this society. The problem is that the definition of "middle class" in the US has swelled to include individuals and families that never would have been included in the original definition. Viritually everyone, from the wage slave to people barely less rich than Mitt Romney, refer to themselves as "middle class." But what about the original definition of the term? To use this older, harsher definition of middle class:
1) Do you work with your hands? Then you are probably not middle class.
2) Do you live paycheck to paycheck? Then you are certainly not middle class.
3) Do you have to wear a uniform? Then you are likely not middle class.
4) Do you think about what things cost? Then you are probably not middle class.
etc. etc.

This sort of definition of middle class includes many people with Bachelor's and Master's degress as lower middle class. Yes, lower. Upper middle class would be those professionals with household incomes over 100k a year and high-status jobs.

When you add in this aspect of class to Scalzi's metaphor, then it becomes clear that gender, ethnicity, and orientation are not enough to explain the benefit. If you are not at least middle class, real middle class, or above, then more doors are closed to you in this society than are open.
posted by Palquito at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


Damn, that was a fine article.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2012


AP Mosa would even work as a rap moniker.
posted by cashman at 12:35 PM on May 15, 2012


I am thinking of extremely poor, white males, stereotypically living in Appalachia or the Deep South, but existing everywhere in this country

I think he addressed this by noting that some doors will open for you, some people (cops) won't bother you as much, and that you aren't going to be thought of as second class if you are playing on SWM.
posted by Slackermagee at 12:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Palquito: Again, the point is that you will still do better than a non-straight, non-white or female Appalachian.
posted by ominous_paws at 12:38 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


grobstein, you've obviously never tried to explain white privilege to a 19-year-old white dude.

Has it occurred to you that the average (N. American) 19-yo white dude has been raised in a fairly egalitarian cultural context that says everyone deserves equal rights, everyone deserves respect, democracy is all about one-person-one-vote and so on? Those values are widely promulgated in US society, and a lot of people grow up with them and internalize them and try to live their lives that way. So when some firebrand happens by saying 'hey you - you're wallowing in SWM privilege' the first reaction of the person to whom this addressed is often 'wait, what? what'd I do?'

I mean, why are you starting with the assumption that 19-yo SWMs are a) ignorant and b) indifferent? How is that any more constructive than asserting that this set of people are morally deficient, or that set of people don't really feel pain? It's specious and offensive, because it's dismissive of the individual. It's one thing to say 'white people still benefit from the products of colonialism.' This is easily demonstrable, especially in the US where slavery is historically recent and segregation is still well within living memory. It's quite another to cite 'privilege!' as an all-purpose response to things one disagrees with, which is essentially just another kind of stereotyping. Can you imagine if someone kicked off a class on English literature with the observation that nonwhite people in the class would probably be culturally incapable of appreciating the subject matter? That would be pointlessly offensive, and likely wrong, because the people in the class presumably have their reasons for wanting to study the subject. Likewise, it's pointlessly offensive to kick off a discussion, as Scalzi does here, with the assertion that large numbers of people are just too culturally deficient to appreciate the good fortune that they may have inherited.

It basically comes down to the old saw that 'two wrongs don't make a right.'
posted by anigbrowl at 12:39 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


White people try to keep minorities in poverty because under capitalism, somebody has to be down there. A society that divides people up into winners and losers will naturally develop culture that uses bullshit reasons like race to keep minorities down because the majority are desperate to not fall into the lower rungs of society.

This is unavoidable. A capitalist society is a racist society. Logically, this means that a pro-capitalism position is a de facto pro-racism position, and Scalzi's premise of a harmonious multicultural capitalism is fatally flawed.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's quite another to cite 'privilege!' as an all-purpose response to things one disagrees with

I am not quite sure I have seen anybody doing this here
posted by ominous_paws at 12:41 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Class is definitely an aspect of privilege. We are born with our advantages and disadvantages, and this is not a classless society. White men are often born lacking privileges that others have -- they may be born poor, as an example.

But their whiteness and maleness definitely work for them, rather than against them. I don't know, for example, how a poor white man from rural Appalachia stacks up against a rich black woman from Beverly Hills in the great scale of gain and loss. He will have certain advantages based on gender and color, and she will have certain advantages based on wealth on location.

In the end, it isn't about creating a perfect spreadsheet of where we fit in this world. It's recognizing when we are advantaged and when we are disadvantaged, so we can seek to make a more equitable world. In my case, it starts with recognizing that whiteness and maleness have certain benefits that typically come with it, even if me being Jewish, for example, or whatever, might work against me in some circumstances. I would hope that people who benefit from privileges I don't have access to also work on awareness of the benefits they gain, and we all work toward a more equitable world.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:44 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


The truth is that each of us is set with both advantages and disadvantages. It is too simple to consider whether you are a white male - what if you have a disability, are not as smart as others, are not as athletic as others, are short, are fat, are too skinny, are ugly, are poor, are etc...? What if you are an absolutely beautiful black lesbian woman born into a home of money and power?

As a society, we have to constantly weigh which advantages are fair or not. For some of them, such as able-bodiedness, there is a consensus that this should not be an advantage, and therefore we should take measures to mitigate disadvantages to the disabled. But for other advantages, such as certain types of intelligence, we generally celebrate them and have structured society to confer additional benefits upon those who are innately good with numbers and logic.

So I think part of what is missing from Scalzi's argument is the reason why racial advantages, in our society, are on some level worse, i.e., more unfair, than these other advantages such as wealth, height and beauty. Race only exists as an advantage due to a kind of social pact, that is, no one (except for capital-r-racists) believes that being white is easier because being white is innately better, rather, it is in aggregate easier because Western society has evolved unwritten rules that make it easier. Rules that are perpetuated over time. That's different from other advantages such as beauty and height which are at least to some degree measures of health and genetic fitness. Race advantages are effectively a massive in-game cheat.
posted by xigxag at 12:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am not quite sure I have seen anybody doing this here

Neither have, I think, we seen anybody here claiming that there is no such thing as historically advantaged or disadvantaged classes of people. Everyone involved appears to be talking about and to folks not actually present on Metafilter.
posted by Justinian at 12:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I;m talking to the blonde with the dragons.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:48 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wish I was talking to the blonde with the dragons.
posted by Justinian at 12:50 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are we allowed to consider affirmative action as affecting your "setting"?

Absolutely! Affirmative action is a post-launch partial gameplay balance patch, complete with the inevitable forum howls from the unaffected players that they've been nerfed by comparison.
posted by ook at 12:52 PM on May 15, 2012 [27 favorites]


I will just carry right on with some general reflections on privilege and guilt.

To me, thinking about privilege feels like deepening a stretch. You know when you start out you think you've done just about the best downward dog you possibly can, but then you gradually relax into the stretch bit by bit? You get much farther that way than if you just strained to stretch as much as you could. And there's also this feeling of sinking into a more and more profound stretch, getting to a point you initially thought was absolutely impossible.

By this I mean that I am constantly struck anew by the complexities and realities of privilege.

Like, here's an example. I was watching our annual Hippie Puppet Parade, which starts out in my poor neighborhood (where I am comparatively rich) and goes to the slightly richer, much whiter and much hippier one. The parade always has a theme, sometimes moral, sometimes environmental and sometimes political. It's designed and put on by local progressive and radical people, mostly not themselves especially rich or privileged.

This year one of the parade floats - which was really quite lovely - bore a group of fiddlers playing square-dance music and dressed in old-fashioned clothing. Around the float were a group of dancers who danced the length of the parade. The float was hung with slogans like "Make do and mend". And particularly "use it up/wear it out/make it do/or do without".

I found myself getting kind of angry at the parade, because while those things are virtues for the middle class (or for anyone who is comfortable at all) that parade goes right through one of the poorest parts of town, where people have been making do and wearing out and going without for their whole lives. On my very lawn, in fact, was a friend of mine who hasn't had more than one pair of cheap shoes at a time in the entire time I've known her. She's been wearing stuff down to the uppers her whole life. (Her feet are smaller than mine or I'd give her some of my shoes).

She has often remarked on stuff like the parade, in fact. She's one of those people who can't stand Occupy because of all of the "I am the 99% and I have a lot of college debt and a job as a waiter" stuff. She says she would have loved the opportunity to run up that debt.

It reminded me once again how ridiculous my life is - how I have so much, and how much unpleasantness, insecurity and violence I am protected from just by virtue of a college degree and a white skin. ("The complexion with the protection", as Brother Ali says.)

So here is this thing, this parade that is in many ways quite a good thing. It's a giant sparkly free show for everyone in the neighborhood. Anyone can march. Anyone with the time to participate can plan the theme and create the puppets. Lots of little kids take part. Many integrated groups and many groups for people of color - arts and music organizations, political groups, whatever - participate. It's probably one of the less white days in the city's year.

And yet.

It's easy enough to say that everyone involved means well, or that we shouldn't fault a bunch of white upper-working/middle class folks for not thinking outside their experience.

But let's not do that, because doing that stops thought dead. We don't need to get hung up on "but it is so wrong to blame people when they are just doing something wonderful and they mean well!" We need to figure out how to address the underlying questions about participation, inequality and lack of knowledge on the part of the organizers. What do we want the parade to be for, that's what we should be asking ourselves, and how can we get there? Not spending a lot of time fussing about how wrong it is to criticize the actions of a bunch of nice hippies.
posted by Frowner at 12:52 PM on May 15, 2012 [23 favorites]


You do have to admit it's lovely when everybody sings "You are my sunshine" and the big sun puppet comes across the lake, though.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:55 PM on May 15, 2012


Absolutely! Affirmative action is a post-launch partial gameplay balance patch, complete with the inevitable forum howls from the unaffected players that they've been nerfed by comparison.

Yeah and here's the forum's hierarchy:
    Real Life Forums
      Easy Mode General Chatter
      Easy Mode Gameplay Chatter
      Easy Mode Suggestions to the Game Company
      Misc. and Other Modes
posted by fleacircus at 12:58 PM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


anigbrowl: "Has it occurred to you that the average (N. American) 19-yo white dude has been raised in a fairly egalitarian cultural context that says everyone deserves equal rights, everyone deserves respect, democracy is all about one-person-one-vote and so on? "

I don't know if I believe that assumption. Metafilter would like to believe that assumption, and I bet the average 19-year-old-white dude who is on Metafilter a lot does fit those molds. But by and large, being surrounded by middle-class nerdy dudes under the age of 25 who are often white and occasionally East Asian has taught me that few of them actually take these tenets of equality to heart, even when they pay lip service to it. They'll tell you that women are equal, but they'll also say feminism is basically reverse sexism. They flat out refuse to believe in the glass ceiling or in pay inequality - it must be because of maternity leave and wanting to get married. They think that rape is wrong, but that you're really asking for it if you wear short skirts. They disdain pop culture created by women because it's all about romance and feelings and mock tomboys for not being feminine enough. They demand nerd credentials of female nerds in a way that they would never dare question their male brethren.

One of the problems of paying lip service to equality is that people begin to believe that this is true, without actually lifting a finger to encourage it. The average so-called enlightened nerd--the audience that Scalzi is trying to reach--that I personally have had interactions with thinks people in the LGBTQ community are being too belligerent, that women just don't like math or aren't good at it even though we gave them all these opportunities, and that black people are better at basketball so what's the problem?

And it's true that some of them aren't like this. Some of them go out of their way to educate themselves, some of them go out of their way to try to help, or to at least moderate their language so it's not a rape joke with ever second sentence. But most of them are.

Scalzi's metaphor isn't perfect, and this article isn't perfect. But the people that Scalzi is trying to reach--the self-styled intellectuals who refuse to believe that there are unwritten social rules that favour them--they do exist. And I don't mind if they're forced to learn a little bit more about their social advantage.

I've never understood the shame argument wrt privilege. I have privilege, too. I'm a female minority immigrant, but I'm straight, and I was born into a middle class family and I'm smart and I somehow managed to graduate university debt free. My privilege is amazing and I can't imagine having to shoulder half the burdens that I see other people shoulder - people who are less financially well off, people of colour, people with disabilities, transgender folks who have to fight for their right to exist. The fact that I have privilege doesn't make me a bad person, but I'd rather be aware of the imbalance than not so I can do something about the people that don't.
posted by Phire at 1:06 PM on May 15, 2012 [58 favorites]


What's frustrating to me is the counter-argument "yeah, but it's possible to be a white male and still be dealt a shit hand. Don't tell me I have it easy". Yes. Yes, it is completely possible. The point is that your hand is still better than what it would have been, if you had been non-white or non-male to boot.

No, it isn't necessarily. There are shitty hands that only get dealt to men or to white people, just like there are shitty hands that only get dealt to women or gay people or whoever. And one can also say that for any shitty hand one can conceive, there are other people who have it worse, by being disabled for example.

The point here is that arguments from privilege are often dogmatic and moralistic to the point of being unhelpful to remedying the perceived problem. It's the sociopolitical equivalent of original sin, and just as flawed a conception, because discussions of privilege are often predicated on the assumption of bad faith and selfishness on the part of the privilegee.

None of this is to say that there aren't social benefits to being straight, white and male

I honestly don't see that that is an idea you can dismiss as wrong. And that people here will still miss that point - despite the 8,000,000 times it's been chewed over on Metafilter - is frustrating.

Maybe they're not missing the point, or even dismissing the idea as wrong. Some of us just don't think it explains everything as well as the proponents of the argument do. Above for example, you responded to a critique of the article with

Ryvar: the point is that those interpretations are wrong.

This isn't a reasonable argument, it's a dogmatic one. Moral authoritarianism isn't any more attractive that ethnic authoritarianism or economic authoritarianism etc. 'you're wrong, because Marxism' is an argument that appears frequently on Metafilter, but it's not a very persuasive one.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:14 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


"Has it occurred to you that the average (N. American) 19-yo white dude has been raised in a fairly egalitarian cultural context that says everyone deserves equal rights, everyone deserves respect, democracy is all about one-person-one-vote and so on? "

You know, as much as I have a surprising number of young white straight middle class male friends (many of whom, I surmise, are drawn to me precisely because I am both non-male and too old and queer to be attracted/attractive to them)...anyway, as much as many of those young fellows are just terrific people, I doubt that this is true.

I say this because as a white middle class person who was once 19, I was raised in a context where some lipservice was paid to these notions but not really that much. Consider the reflexive anger and hostility that many straight dudes have when women or queer folks or POC start speaking up about their experience; consider sexist gamer culture; consider pretty much everything that Racialicious and Tiger Beatdown ever talk about. We do not grow up in a culture where equality is presumed. We grow up in a culture where white straight middle class folks talk about how equal we all are now - AND it is presumed that women, queers and POC will not be so rude and disruptive as to dispute the statement. We grow up in a society where it is rude to point to lived reality and how it contradicts assertions about how equal we are.

I also say this because at 19 I figured I had it all sorted out - and for my town, I was a flaming radical anti-racist commie hippie fag. But I still believed in reverse-racism, and I still thought that riot grrrl was "too anti-men". I once jokingly remarked about something, "after all, I'm free, white and almost 21" (luckily my roommate shut that one the fuck down). I was kind of afraid of anyone working class who looked the least little bit rough, and double for POC. And on and on. And I could go into a whole vortex of butthurt when any of these things got challenged. I was also incredibly self-righteous about the way I'd been raised - I truly did not see my life as one of many; I saw it as the correct way to be and was shocked and scandalized when people were different.

Again, I emphasize that in my town and at my college I was known for being wildly, crazily left, for talking inflammatory anti-white language. By those standards, I was the left of the left. And lord, I meant well.

Now, I say this not because I am perfect at the moment, but because it took a lot of work to dislodge those notions. It was, yeah, like stretching. A little bit of bell hooks here, a vague feeling of (yes) guilt when I was afraid of some black dude on the street, a few uncomfortable arguments with riot grrrl zine writers, there...little by little, the hardened ideas I'd grown up with eroded away.

But it wasn't because I grew up in an egalitarian utopia of reason, that's for sure.

posted by Frowner at 1:25 PM on May 15, 2012 [14 favorites]


But bell hooks didn't teach me to close my tags!!!!
posted by Frowner at 1:26 PM on May 15, 2012 [9 favorites]


You know how some Mefites roll their eyes and gripe about having to explain Subject 101 again? Because they have given the lecture over and over, in many different ways, and then along comes somebody who STILL DOESN'T GET IT. ARRRGH!

I always want to remind those folks that there will always be someone who is meeting the subject for the first time. Not because of anything lacking on that person's part, but simply because each of us has a first time for encountering an idea. Or, at least, encountering it in a way we can grasp.

Today I'm reminding myself about that constantly changing audience. Because a long time ago I happened upon the White-Straight-Male Privilege 101 lecture, and I got it. A while later, somebody else gave me another version. Um, right, thanks for that. Then some other stranger pulled me aside to give me the lecture. OK, message received. And then another person lobbed the lecture at me. And another. And another. And, YES I GET IT, ARRGH!

Sometimes it feels like there is a steady stream of people strolling by, telling me, "Listen, you ignorant fool, while I enlighten you about what a soft life you have. You could not possibly be aware of this idea unless I personally set you straight."

But that's not what's actually happening. It's people like Scalzi re-forming the 101 lecture in new ways for new audiences. And that's a good thing. I know he isn't aiming at me because I have no interest in role-playing games at any setting.
posted by Longtime Listener at 1:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


But you're a longtime Lannister!
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:28 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


All the world's a stage tabletop,
And all the men and women merely players

posted by ODiV at 1:29 PM on May 15, 2012


What exactly is it about the term "privilege" that makes people so bitey and defensive?

It refocuses the topic on the people not actually suffering unfair consequences, who often feel like they're being assigned some degree of blame for the unfair consequences. Which is often (but not always!) a misunderstanding, but as someone with a fair pile of unfair consequences I don't really find the concept very useful. I think it can (in theory) be helpful for illustrating to someone how, in this Everyday Life Situation they take for granted, unfair consequences can be added just by tweaking one or two basic things about a person. If it helps someone understand what another person's shoes feel like, then that's a good thing.

But aside from that, I get kind of annoyed by the concept of "privilege," because it's not really a tangible thing and whenever it's introduced, measuring it becomes the focus of the conversation. I'd prefer to just directly address injustice where it happens, and act to stop it.
posted by byanyothername at 1:30 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


What exactly is it about the term "privilege" that makes people so bitey and defensive? I mean that's what, four I DIDN'T CHOOSE TO BE WHITE I WILL NOT BE SHAMED comments from folk who didn't rtfa already, and a lot of threatened, defensive snark on top. I just don't see what's so difficult and scary about it.

It's not the word, it's the context: "white straight males are privileged". Most affluent people I've spoken to about the topic acknowledge both the unearned privilege accorded to them and the unfairness of it. However, they've been taught their whole lives that it's wrong to attack people based on their ethnicity or gender-- so when they're singled out based on those classifications, they respond negatively.

Saying someone has an attribute because of the color of their skin is racism, and saying someone has an attribute because of what they have (or want to have) between their legs is sexism. It doesn't matter what that attribute is. It doesn't matter what the classification is. It doesn't matter if it's true.

Privilege doesn't change the fact that racism and sexism sting us all when we're on the receiving end.
posted by elsp at 1:33 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Longtime Listener, I'm pleased to be able to tell you about an XKCD strip covering the idea of hearing about things for the first time. Solely because of the meta of it.
posted by ambrosen at 1:33 PM on May 15, 2012


In the end, it isn't about creating a perfect spreadsheet of where we fit in this world. It's recognizing when we are advantaged and when we are disadvantaged, so we can seek to make a more equitable world.

It's curious that you say this in response to an essay whose central metaphor both implies that the spreadsheet does exist (in the form of the game's "stats" and "difficulty levels") and places many aspects of the struggle for a more equitable world outside discussion (the competitive, commodified, individualist nature of the game itself is not something you can change from within an MMORPG; you can only try to achieve a high level and/or gather a lot of treasure as an individual, not to play by a different set of rules). It seems like you're completely elliding the difference between your politics and what the essay actually says.
posted by RogerB at 1:35 PM on May 15, 2012


Quick follow up: I'm discussing this thread with my SO as well, and he pointed out to me that the "shame" angle of privilege is often used in a silencing way towards white straight men, as though they could never possibly understand and therefore have no place contributing to the conversation of equality.

Which is totally, totally fair. I have seen the word lobbed at male allies who dare to be male, and I think that's totally shitty, too. I personally think the conversation about equality can't happen if you don't engage the people you perceive to be currently in power, especially when those in power have not necessarily done anything to either obtain that power or engage in oppression.

It can be a bit of a frustrating double-edged sword, though, when discussions about microaggressions and discriminating behaviour that people in the minority experience turn into discussions in which people who have not experienced those microaggressions question their validity. I think oftentimes the accusation of privilege comes in frustration, as in: "I'm telling you about my experiences being sexually harassed and you questioning my life experiences simply because it doesn't mesh with your worldview is privileged". That's not necessarily the right way to engage in that particular conversation and will do nothing to further the discussion with that particular person, but...well, I can understand its motive, that's all.
posted by Phire at 1:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


What better way to explain the plight of the poor and downtrodden of the world than with a metaphor about online role-playing games?
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:36 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


And here I was thinking I'd never won anything before.
posted by braksandwich at 1:37 PM on May 15, 2012


It seems like you're completely elliding the difference between your politics and what the essay actually says.

Yes, but I understand three dimensional chess.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:38 PM on May 15, 2012


Ryvar: the point is that those interpretations are wrong.

This isn't a reasonable argument, it's a dogmatic one. Moral authoritarianism isn't any more attractive that ethnic authoritarianism or economic authoritarianism etc. 'you're wrong, because Marxism' is an argument that appears frequently on Metafilter, but it's not a very persuasive one.


I think we may be arguing past each other to some extent; what I was getting at here was only that to interpret Scalzi's article as shaming would be wrong. I dunno, I certainly wasn't aiming to slap anyone down by authority argument.

I've definitely seen shitty and dismissive arguments made from privilege. But I don't think the core concept is analogous to original sin; it's been emphasised repeatedly even in this thread that it implies no guilt or shame on the part of the priviligee.

So I'm not trying to put down any resistance to any argument made from privilege; it just bothers me when people - possibly riled by some of the more aggressive and less great uses of the term - dismiss it out of hand.
posted by ominous_paws at 1:52 PM on May 15, 2012


She has often remarked on stuff like the parade, in fact. She's one of those people who can't stand Occupy because of all of the "I am the 99% and I have a lot of college debt and a job as a waiter" stuff. She says she would have loved the opportunity to run up that debt.

This makes perfect sense (largely because I have somethings in common with your friend). The point I've been trying to bring out is that very often the arguments about privilege are being advanced by the hipper-than-thou folks in the parade to advertise how great they are.

[...] middle-class nerdy dudes under the age of 25 who are often white and occasionally East Asian has taught me that few of them actually take these tenets of equality to heart, even when they pay lip service to it. They'll tell you that women are equal, but they'll also say feminism is basically reverse sexism. They flat out refuse to believe in the glass ceiling or in pay inequality - it must be because of maternity leave and wanting to get married.

Maybe, but what percentage of nerdy men under 25 are in a position to make hiring decisions? Another way to look at this is that they're saying they wouldn't do so, but they're not exactly sitting in the executive suite themselves, either.

They think that rape is wrong, but that you're really asking for it if you wear short skirts. They disdain pop culture created by women because it's all about romance and feelings and mock tomboys for not being feminine enough. They demand nerd credentials of female nerds in a way that they would never dare question their male brethren.

Here I find it harder to see this as more than social differences. There are a good many women who disdain pop culture created by men because it's too testosterone-driven or suchlike, and there's nothing wrong with not enjoying something because it doesn't appeal to you. Rape is a more problematic issue since that tends to be a crime almost exclusively visited on one sex by the other; on the other hand women do have some agency where their own safety is concerned. Consider the fact that robbery is a crime, but almost everyone would agree that careless displays of money in a dangerous neighborhood increase your risk of being robbed. Exercising self-awareness and caution doesn't mean one condones criminality or even considers it tolerable. One can try to mitigate the problem (by avoiding rape jokes or condemning predatory behavior), but individual men aren't responsible for the existence of the problem just because they are male.

One of the problems of paying lip service to equality is that people begin to believe that this is true, without actually lifting a finger to encourage it.

This, I agree with. But equally, people are going to be alienated if they are constantly being asked to pay lip service to problems for which they are not in any way responsible. I grew up outside the US, and my mother would probably have been a first-wave feminist by American standards, because there was a great deal of institutionalized sexism in Ireland up to very recently. So I inhaled a very strong consciousness of the injustice of such things when I was growing up, since my mother had had to resign from her job because she got married among, many many other problems arising out of institutionalized discrimination. All the same, there were times when the burden of this knowledge was oppressive, in the sense of 'what am I supposed to do about this? I'm only ten.' There's a fine line between wanting people to Take an Issue Seriously and (inadvertently) calling for flagellation.

I've never understood the shame argument wrt privilege.

It's not that privilege (or more prosaically, luck) doesn't exist. Of course it does. The problem is when it's invoked as a method for derailing or shutting down discussion, which happens a lot. In that situation it can end up narrowing the scope of the discussion rather than expanding it.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:10 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


We do not grow up in a culture where equality is presumed. We grow up in a culture where white straight middle class folks talk about how equal we all are now - AND it is presumed that women, queers and POC will not be so rude and disruptive as to dispute the statement. We grow up in a society where it is rude to point to lived reality and how it contradicts assertions about how equal we are.

No, you (qua Americans) grow up in a culture where equality is praised and promoted. It most certainly is not presumed and is often fought against, but equality is held up as a great virtue, a desideratum. It is a normative value, and the historical trend is very much towards increasing rather than decreasing it.I quite agree that it is realized to a far lesser degree than it is advocated.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is really interesting and well written, but I can't help but be annoyed that there is a need to talk around the word "privilege" because of the way people tend to squall like spoiled infants when their privilege is pointed out.
posted by EatTheWeak at 2:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


very often the arguments about privilege are being advanced by the hipper-than-thou folks in the parade to advertise how great they are

I appreciate the rest of your comment, but if you want to complain about people shutting down the discussion - please don't do this. Don't just tell people they don't even believe in what they are saying. That's really bad form, and a totally unfair and unwarranted way to shut people down.
posted by ominous_paws at 2:21 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's a hard game, no matter what the difficulty level.
posted by effugas at 2:24 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


This makes perfect sense (largely because I have somethings in common with your friend). The point I've been trying to bring out is that very often the arguments about privilege are being advanced by the hipper-than-thou folks in the parade to advertise how great they are.

As it happens, she and I have had a couple of quasi-arguments about this stuff, precisely because I am college-educated and damn glad that I am not 22 and looking for my first adult job in this market. To her it feels very much like a bunch of really spoiled people whining when they have had it so easy; my experience is that my understanding of the world was so limited at 22 and the expectations about money and work that I'd grown up with were so powerful that if I'd been virtually unemployable and in a lot of college debt, hell yeah I would have been rioting. I would not have thought "at least I have a college degree and can live with my folks"; I would have thought "my life is massively scarier and harder than I know how to deal with and I feel like something has failed, me or society or both".

But if I had turned around and said to my friend that she was just lazy or didn't know how bad I had it and she should just shut up about this great movement called Occupy...well, that's the act of a jackass.

One thing I don't think that privileged-yet-activist folks get - we won't win if we don't win together. Occupy will not win if it stays majority-white and majority middle class. Just like every other failed social movement in US history, its leaders will be bought off with a few temporary reforms, the poor and the POC will be tossed under the bus, and even the white and the middle class will start getting screwed again as soon as the powerful can get away with it.

The biggest reason for a privileged radical to start listening about privilege is that privileged radicals do not have the majority. If we can't make common cause with others - or if we're so ignorant and such unrealistic strategists that we drive them away - we will lose.


No, you (qua Americans) grow up in a culture where equality is praised and promoted. It most certainly is not presumed and is often fought against, but equality is held up as a great virtue, a desideratum. It is a normative value, and the historical trend is very much towards increasing rather than decreasing it.I quite agree that it is realized to a far lesser degree than it is advocated.


Says the international? Come over to red-baiting town where I grew up and explain that one. I mean, I think that international perspective on American affairs is really valuable, but if you didn't grow up here there are all kinds of texture-of-life things you just didn't experience as a kid. "Equality" is held up as a virtue like ketchup was held up as a vegetable during the Reagan years - it's not really equality, but god help you if you point that one out.
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


anigbrowl: "There are a good many women who disdain pop culture created by men because it's too testosterone-driven or suchlike, and there's nothing wrong with not enjoying something because it doesn't appeal to you. Rape is a more problematic issue since that tends to be a crime almost exclusively visited on one sex by the other; on the other hand women do have some agency where their own safety is concerned. Consider the fact that robbery is a crime, but almost everyone would agree that careless displays of money in a dangerous neighborhood increase your risk of being robbed. Exercising self-awareness and caution doesn't mean one condones criminality or even considers it tolerable. One can try to mitigate the problem (by avoiding rape jokes or condemning predatory behavior), but individual men aren't responsible for the existence of the problem just because they are male."

Robbery is a crime, but those who are robbed are less frequently accused of being morally wrong because they had the gall to get robbed, right? Individual men aren't responsible for the existence of the problem just as individual women aren't, but they can take care not to perpetuate a culture that ignores the problem of glorifying sexual violence by admitting that rape jokes are shitty, rather than vehemently defend their right to continue mocking those victimized by it. You can not enjoy pop culture that doesn't appeal to you without making the generalized statement that pop culture created by women is by default inferior due to its overly sentimental nature. You can have a preference for more femme women as your sexual partner without somehow inferring that another woman who doesn't conform to traditional gender norms isn't a proper girl.

That's the frustrating gender-based behaviour I find myself confronted with, and I do think a lot of this comes down to simply not knowing how your behaviour feeds into a larger environment. That's fine. You're not born understanding the cause and effect of these sorts of socializations. But you can't ignore them and pretend they don't exist, which is what my acquaintances tend to do.

(I would also argue that women who disdain pop culture created by men will find themselves sorely lacking in pop culture, whereas that paragon of dumb oversentimental romantic drivel Nicholas Sparks is a dude.)
posted by Phire at 2:30 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


but if you want to complain about people shutting down the discussion - please don't do this. Don't just tell people they don't even believe in what they are saying. That's really bad form, and a totally unfair and unwarranted way to shut people down.

Actually, I think there is a certain amount of thoughtlessness in how privilege is discussed - but that's not a hipster thing, it's an American anti-intellectualism thing. Lots and lots of radicals simply did not learn to think through their ideas when they were first coming to political consciousness, and so folks don't really know how to do the whole "what do we mean by privilege? why do we use this term? what are we trying to achieve? And above all, who is 'we'?" thing.

I think this is both because of American culture and a lingering effect of McCarthyism - there really isn't the same kind of radical culture (neither in terms of readers nor in terms of writers) here that (I think, based on my European radical acquaintances) is the norm in Europe. (Although frankly I think a lot of European anarchists are really skeevy in how they talk about rape - intellectual tradition isn't everything.)
posted by Frowner at 2:33 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl: " Maybe, but what percentage of nerdy men under 25 are in a position to make hiring decisions? Another way to look at this is that they're saying they wouldn't do so, but they're not exactly sitting in the executive suite themselves, either."

Those nerds may not be in a position to make hiring decisions now, but if no one ever challenges their assumptions that women make less money because they just want to have babies anyway, then they become the corporate CEOs who do subconsciously discriminate...Because maybe the nerdy guy who was the CEO before them thought their nerdy compatriot would be a better choice as successor than a woman because they don't have the burden of wanting a family. If these assumptions don't get challenged, how does the cycle get broken?
posted by Phire at 2:33 PM on May 15, 2012 [6 favorites]


I think we may be arguing past each other to some extent; what I was getting at here was only that to interpret Scalzi's article as shaming would be wrong.

But when someone reaches for the language of castigation and exasperation - complaining about how 'SWMs don't get it' and so forth - the predictable effect is that a bunch of readers are going to feel bad about it. People don't want to be feel bad about themselves, and telling them how awful they are collectively is likely to upset them. Look, you can get the whole idea of religious guilt, right? Like if you tell people that they're inherently sinful and a disappointment to God because of (religious story), after a while they're going to have this constant feeling of moral inadequacy which can only be alleviated by placating the local religious authority figure. This is not a good or healthy thing.

The point I'm trying to make is not that privilege doesn't exist; of course it does. I've derived all sorts of benefits from being white and male, as well as various disadvantages from being marginalized in various other contexts. But whether or not Scalzi's intent is to shame people - it probably isn't - that's how his rhetoric comes across. It's like someone complaining about 'welfare queens'; when it's pointed out how hurtful and loaded this stereotype is, the speaker might say 'well naturally I don't include righteous hard-working black people/single mothers/disabled welfare recipients/whoever-I-was-stereotyping in my complaints,' but the problem is that the stereotype was introduced as a cheap rhetorical shout-out to the speaker's natural supporters, and walking it back after a bunch of people have had their feelings hurt is not much consolation for those people.

It's easy to dismiss this as 'tone argument' but I think tone is very important. Respect and civility and consideration for other people are things that need to be exemplified as much as advocated, lest one's advocacy devolve into sanctimony.
posted by anigbrowl at 2:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tone is only important when it is an introduction to the rest of the argument, and not a way of avoiding it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's easy to dismiss this as 'tone argument' but I think tone is very important. Respect and civility and consideration for other people are things that need to be exemplified as much as advocated, lest one's advocacy devolve into sanctimony.

But "respect" and "civility" (virtues I believe in and try to practice), and pleas for them, can also simply mask a desire to dismiss the substance of an argument rather than to take it seriously. Your own comments here, which seem, despite your protestations to the contrary, willfully obtuse about how privilege functions and how it gets deployed in arguments about oppression (hint: it isn't primarily deployed as a rhetorical device to shame those who've got it), is a great example. You're much more interested in over-examining Scalzi's metaphor, and finely parsing all the ways that you feel that privilege doesn't account for how the privileged also sometimes have it hard, than you are in really looking at what the advantages of being born white and male confer to ALL THOSE born white and male. You want to engage people in your "well what about this" dismissal of privilege, which is pretty effective at derailing the conversation about the overwhelming benefits conferred on certain classes in our society. It's an effective strategy for dismissing the argument, and is made more effective by crying that you feel shamed, and concern trolling about tone. It's not less despicable for being effective, though.
posted by OmieWise at 3:05 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


The word privilege as used in discussions of social and political oppression means something different from the way it's used elsewhere.

Mundanely, you may be granted a privilege as a gift, or you may earn it as a perk of a job or for joining some organization. I don't want to say that never happens with the White or Male privileges, but e.g. getting hazed by your frat in order to qualify for male privilege is not a very good example of the way male privilege works in general. Most items in my invisible knapsack are problems that I do not have; which is to say that my privilege only exists relative to other groups' oppression. If anti-immigrant sentiment disappeared overnight, my life would not change at all, but I would no longer have homeland privilege. This is counterintuitive.

Privilege can be revoked, but White Privilege cannot, short of moving to the Congo or something. Even that might not work, depending on the history of the place you move to. However, I can give up a number of specific, situational advantages that have to do with my color--affirmative action being an attempt at doing just that. These are certainly ways of addressing the problems of privilege, and they involve giving up some privilege, so a lot of people simply assume that when you're talking about privilege, you're referring indirectly to some number of specific situational privileges. To a person unaccustomed to thinking of such problems as unconscious bias, social invisibility, glass ceilings, etc., the assumption that they're supposed to give up their privilege isn't all that unreasonable. It's just naive.

The concepts of social justice may not be especially complex, but they are only intuitive if you happen to have the lived experience to see how it all works.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:08 PM on May 15, 2012


I wonder if some of the people who are deemed to be in need of assistance with understanding the concept of "privilege" (by having it patiently explained to them in simple terms) actually understand the concept quite well, and have thought about it in detail, leading them to conclusions that are more complex than some people would have expected.

Does it hurt your "setting" to be considered a relatively likely suspect of a wide array of crimes? If not, then that can't be an example of black privilege. If so, then it at least creates some tension with the sweeping thesis that men are privileged over women. (I do believe that a black man is more likely to be followed in a store as a potential shoplifter than I am, since I'm white. But I also think I'm more likely to be followed than a white woman.) Yet so many people seem to be interested in talking about this kind of privilege only in the context of race, not gender.

The point that being gay poses a challenge in society is inarguably true. I'm straight, and I assume that my life would have been more difficult if I had been gay, all other things being equal. That's unfair to gays. (I would be kind of surprised if there any regular readers of Metafilter who are unaware of this fact.) However, being gay or bisexual seems to pose a far greater challenge on the whole for men than for women. That's also unfair — to men. (You could argue that this is ultimately rooted in misogyny, and I'd agree with you, but the real-world impact still hits men harder.) When people refer to men as privileged, they're usually not focusing on gay men (or black men).
posted by John Cohen at 3:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


The other night I was playing pool in a crowded bar, and I went over to a table where a friend of a friend of mine was sitting and asked if I could put my beer there. His response? "I don't share tables with brownskins."

So that was fun. Of course, cue social disapproval and then him coming up to me later after I'd run away so as not to punch him in the fucking face, so that he could explain that he wasn't racist, it was just a joke and the kind that he makes harmlessly with his friends all the time, and that he hopes I wasn't offended because otherwise he'd feel really bad. Cause that's a thing I plan to worry about.

The thing I like about this article is that now when I hear white guys talking about how this isn't really a problem or how everyone's just trying to make them feel guilty, I can say "qq l2p n00b". I think I will find that very satisfying.
posted by Errant at 3:13 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Says the international? Come over to red-baiting town where I grew up and explain that one. I mean, I think that international perspective on American affairs is really valuable, but if you didn't grow up here there are all kinds of texture-of-life things you just didn't experience as a kid. "Equality" is held up as a virtue like ketchup was held up as a vegetable during the Reagan years - it's not really equality, but god help you if you point that one out.

I've been to plenty of red-baiting small towns, I know what you're talking about. A great deal of teh talk about equality is indeed lip service. But it's still significance that this is what people choose to give lip service to. Look at the way people talk about freedom. In practice, we don't want total freedom for people to do whatever they want, because that would have all sorts of negative impacts on others. So we have laws, regulations, and social mores, and while we argue a lot about exactly where those lines should be drawn we implicitly agree that freedom is subject to various limitations. Still, 'freedom' is an important America value. I'm not saying that US society delivers on its promise of equality. But it is something that American society expressly aspires to in general - more so than some societies that are more egalitarian in practice.

I appreciate the rest of your comment, but if you want to complain about people shutting down the discussion - please don't do this. Don't just tell people they don't even believe in what they are saying. That's really bad form, and a totally unfair and unwarranted way to shut people down.

I haven't said that and don't think that. It's the near-religious certitude of some people about their political opinions that I am objecting to. I feel I have made this abundantly clear, by repeatedly mentioning that the effects of such speech on others are often unintentional or inadvertent.

If these assumptions don't get challenged, how does the cycle get broken?

I'm not saying don't challenge assumptions. Challenge away! What I'm arguing against is assuming bad faith or discrimination in turn, which happens in many discussions of contentious subjects. A big part of the problem, in my view, is that people start critiquing the motivations of their interlocutors and attacking the perceived subtext of an argument. Well, you never know what really motivates a person; you can only speculate, and even though you may be right, you're now shifting the terms of the argument. Disputing obnoxious contentions at face value is tiring and difficult, but ultimately a more effective response because it's substantive rather than rhetorical.
posted by anigbrowl at 3:15 PM on May 15, 2012


Marxism: either you agree with it, or you're wrong.

99% of the time this is basically true, especially when the objection doesn't unpack any reasons for said objection.
posted by mobunited at 3:17 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl

Scalzi took that angle because he has found, as have many people here, that online and off for this group of people, young middle-class white males, discussion of this topic is very difficult because it always, always, runs into the hurdle of the person shutting down and declaring "But I shouldn't be ashamed of being who I am!"


This thread itself is a perfect example of this. Your comments are a perfect example. Your responses have all been about painting discussions of privilege as some sort of tool to beat those who disagree over the head with, with strawmen like "It's quite another to cite 'privilege!' as an all-purpose response to things one disagrees with..."

It all boils down to a basic misunderstanding of discussion of privilege as an attack
. It's a misunderstanding because all discussion of privilege is asking is for the person to be aware of their privilege. It is not saying they are therefore lazy, or undeserving, or anything else.

Yet, as seen in this thread and every other on this topic, merely saying "be aware of this, please" is perceived as an attack, because it forces people to consider that their life might be subject to forces beyond their control and illusion of being the master of one's own destiny is a powerful one.

I think your misunderstanding is perfectly encapsulated in this line:

It's the sociopolitical equivalent of original sin, and just as flawed a conception, because discussions of privilege are often predicated on the assumption of bad faith and selfishness on the part of the privilegee.

Original sin is a wrong, an evil that all humans are born with beyond their control. But privilege is not an evil, it's just a fact of living in society. Framing it as akin to original sin is exactly where you go wrong.

And discussions are not predicated on the assumption of bad faith or selfishness. It's an assumption, grounded in experience, that there is an enormous amount of ignorance regarding this topic from those who benefit from it. Not because they are selfish or stupid, but because they simply never have to really think about it, anymore than a fish has to think about the water. It just is. That's the inherent core of privilege, not having to think about it. That's why discussions about privilege start from an assumption of ignorance on the topic, because by definition that's what the privileged have. The reactions to these discussions are well-worn and predictable. The "But it's not my fault!" response that you and others here bring up is the standard reaction.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [8 favorites]


Does it hurt your "setting" to be considered a relatively likely suspect of a wide array of crimes? If not, then that can't be an example of black privilege.

I of course meant to say it can't be an example of white privilege / blacks starting with a higher difficulty level.
posted by John Cohen at 3:21 PM on May 15, 2012


I'm a 28 year old white male. I acknowledge the privilege I have benefitted from because of my background.

Now what do I do?
posted by allseeingabstract at 3:22 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


What's interesting to me about this whole shame argument is how people feel the need to assign the author blame.

The thing is: shame is a natural reaction to recognizing your privilege. I feel ashamed sometimes when I walk into a movie theater in front of a homeless dude. I'm going to spend $20 to watch Robert Downey, Jr. run away from explosions while I eat popcorn, and he's going to continue starving on the street. Welcome to a more extreme example of privilege. And yet, if that homeless dude pointed out the discrepancy to me, I would never say, "Stop trying to make me feel bad!"

Guess what: you feel bad because you're not a sociopath. If you're showing signs of empathy by accessing some guilt over your privilege, I suggest trying to roll with it instead of flailing and throwing blame everywhere. The fact that you're experiencing shame means that the article actually made its point. Take a deep breath and settle down.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 3:24 PM on May 15, 2012 [23 favorites]


Errant, the thing I like about your story is that there was enough social disapproval that the guy felt the need to apologize. And (one hopes) learned not to be such a dumbass in the future.

There's a long long way to go yet, to be sure, but it's nice to be reminded every once in a while that these things are, gradually, improving.
posted by ook at 3:26 PM on May 15, 2012


Now what do I do?
allseeingabstract

I think Muddler's post above nicely captures what this realization can help with: The strange power of "white, male privilege" is that it is really only useful as a way to make those with privilege understand the situation of others without that privilege. By putting yourself in the disadvantaged shoes of others, you gain some notion of empathy.

As has been said, talking about privilege is just about being aware of your situation, and the situation of others. It can help to inform you when you think about other topics, about social policy, about your own behavior, etc. You can examine these things in light of the realization of privilege to help make the world a little better.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:30 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now what do I do?

Work to level the playing field. Call out racism and sexism when you see it. Support affirmative action, minority incentives, etc. Donate to charities and help the less fortunate. Stop waiting to be spoonfed obvious answers to simple questions.
posted by ook at 3:30 PM on May 15, 2012 [13 favorites]


In a case like this I think using metaphors and so on is counter productive.

Using metaphors in this case is like a school during the summer.

No class.
posted by Bonzai at 3:31 PM on May 15, 2012


allseeingabstract: "I'm a 28 year old white male. I acknowledge the privilege I have benefitted from because of my background.

Now what do I do?
"

That's up to you. You can get involved with groups that actively try to change the dynamic. Donate money to groups whose mission you believe in. Write letters to politicians.

Or you start small, and pay attention to where your privilege might harm someone else's comfort levels or sense of wellbeing, and moderate that behaviour. Don't use problematic language, like rape jokes, gendered insults, even if you think everyone will know it's a joke. Think critically about the pop culture you consume, and don't take messages that it sends about a given subgroup of society as truth. When you see friends who're engaging in this sort of behaviour, speak up, and educate them in turn.

Is that fair?
posted by Phire at 3:31 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


allseeingabstract: Think about how your assumptions of what is default may color your actions or opinions. Then keep doing that. In my opinion, the goal is to be mindful while acting. It's an ongoing process, not a switch one just flips, much as the latter would be nice.
posted by Errant at 3:33 PM on May 15, 2012


(I do believe that a black man is more likely to be followed in a store as a potential shoplifter than I am, since I'm white. But I also think I'm more likely to be followed than a white woman.)

I'm sure there are a lot of situational benefits like that, where a normally disadvantaged group has it better than the normally advantaged one.

When speaking of X privilege in the context of systemic oppression, it is assumed that the privilege in question is a consequence of the system in question. If you want to talk about smaller, less pervasive systems, then sure, you'll find cases where women come out on top--I think a better example would be in public schools, where the rapidly dwindling resources are being taken away from boys first.

If you're trying to use this as an argument against the concept of male privilege in general, you're confusing the issue rather badly. If you're merely trying to argue that counter forces exist that give minorities the benefit in some situations, well... that's true in a trivial way, but it's hard to see what relevance that has, unless you think that "men are privileged over women" implies "every man is privileged over every woman in every context," which is silly.
posted by LogicalDash at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


John Cohen:
To chalk up the (debatable) idea that gay women face less prejudice than gay men as a victory of privilege for women in general over men in general, is... something I'm struggling to get my head around, to say the least.
posted by ominous_paws at 3:50 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here is my proposition: let's all be as empathic as we can possibly be towards others. And let us all assume that free will, agency, and choice are vastly overstated as causes of the problems that most people have. If you have "bonuses" coming from anywhere - your race, your class, your gender, your religion, your orientation, anything - think of those as the buffers against the possible consequences of empathy. Sometimes we will have empathy for bad people who have made bad choices - but usually your "bonuses" will protect you from any consequences for that. On the other hand, having empathy for the problems of others by realizing that all around the world, there are jerks treating them badly because of the X race, Y gender, or Z religion they identify with and for no other reason is basically free.

Empathy is free. It can also be very freeing.
posted by newg at 3:56 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


I was going to rag on the article because I thought "Hang on, the how can you say that white men are on the lowest difficulty setting when quotas and networking make some things easier for minorities and women?" But Scalzi is right: this fits the RPG paradigm perfectly. Most RPGs have character classes that suffer an initial disadvantage but which can potentially unlock powers that other character classes can't access. These powers really only kick in at higher levels, which is why they're irrelevant to those of us who are dicking around at character levels 2-5.

Now it all makes sense. Barack Obama is swift, silent, and excels in unarmed combat. He is a Monk.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:12 PM on May 15, 2012


Ook said, "Stop waiting to be spoonfed obvious answers to simple questions."

Ook, is that little attack really necessary? I asked the question because I wanted people's perspectives on the best ways I can move from simple recognition of the fact that I have enjoyed some privilege, to concrete ways I can start thinking or approaching problems differently.
posted by allseeingabstract at 4:24 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ook, is that little attack really necessary?

Don't take it personally. Sometimes, it's hard to parse intention and nuance from bare text. I also thought that you were being glib. Glad to see that you weren't.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:47 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yet, as seen in this thread and every other on this topic, merely saying "be aware of this, please" is perceived as an attack,

No, it's the assumption of ignorance that people find offensive. True, there are plenty of ignorant people. But to assume ignorance (and often, indifference) is a poor starting point for any kind of two-way discussion. It's one thing to cite an example of ignorance and then critique it; it's quite another thing to impute it to people and then lecture them accordingly.

because it forces people to consider that their life might be subject to forces beyond their control and illusion of being the master of one's own destiny is a powerful one.

So is the illusion of being a helpless pawn of forces beyond one's control.

Original sin is a wrong, an evil that all humans are born with beyond their control. But privilege is not an evil, it's just a fact of living in society. Framing it as akin to original sin is exactly where you go wrong.

Privilege very often is framed as an evil.
posted by anigbrowl at 4:54 PM on May 15, 2012


Anigbrowl, one of your main points of contention seems to be that, since you are already aware of privilege, then this article is talking down to you. Here's another thought: since you're already aware of privilege, this article actually isn't talking to you at all. Rather, it is aimed at the people who aren't as aware. It assumes ignorance because there is an audience for whom ignorance is an accurate assumption, and those people are the target demographic. If you're not part of that crowd, then simply accept this as a message intended for someone else. People who don't have dandruff are seldom offended that Head & Shoulders exists.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 5:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [10 favorites]


The main problem with this metaphor is the same as the problem I have with most video games -- that there is some unidimensional spectrum of difficulty. White makes it easier, as does straight, male, wealthy, educated, first-world, healthy in body, healthy in brain, tall, Christian, young, extroverted, and a number of others. These things are all fundamentally very different, even if each contributes to making life easier. I'm sure discussing privilege as a video game metaphor helps with convincing a certain brand of privileged techy nerds, but for those few who are budged you almost immediately need to start dismantling that metaphor into all these extremely dissimilar, non-unidimensional qualities which make life easier in different ways.

And even then, the problem with this game metaphor is that in real life you are playing directly *against* people on different difficulty settings. The difficulty-setting metaphor lacks that sense of extreme injustice that would be there if most video games consisted of people fighting against each other with different difficulty settings, and every time you played a FPS there would be all these guys that not only have it autotargeting your head every time, but moreover, don't even acknowledge that you are playing at a harder setting or even that a harder setting exists. That at least would capture the manifest injustice of real life, even if it collapsed it all into a single dimension.

But in any case, we'd probably do better to promote the understanding of privilege just by getting these people to read some more novels by non-straight-white-male narrators. Turns out we have these devices pre-built that allow you to experience what it's like to be someone else in all the weird and varied ways that can exist in the real world.
posted by chortly at 5:02 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Chortly, your sense of scale on this is totally accurate. This metaphor is overly simplistic. On the other hand, in a conversation about privilege, it's much easier to talk to someone with an simple reference ("You've played video games, right?") than to give them a reading list. I'm not going to convince anyone of anything by saying, "Read two Zora Neale Hurston novels and get back to me in a month." Baby steps, you know? Not every audience is looking for book recommendations.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 5:09 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Now what do I do?

I didn't think you were being facetious, although tone can be a little hard to read.

Its a very good question. Despite whatever privilege we have, we often didn't have much of a hand in creating the privilege, and it's hard to see how we can have a hand in addressing it. We're sort of alone in the world, and, alone, few of us have much power to change anything.

I can tell you, from my perspective, that awareness of privilege has helped me recognize when others may not have it, and that it may not be their fault. And this certainly helps when I participate in the world in the little way that I get to, such as when I vote. It helps me make decisions about who I give charity to, too. Americans give a lot to charity, but they tend to give to charities that directly affect them -- foundations for diseases that might affect them or their family, as an example. And this is certainly a good use of charity money, but I also try to set some money aside for charities that help people who don't have my privileges, as much as I can. I give a lot of my charity to Haiti, as an example -- a charity that I have no direct contact with, and get no direct benefit with, but a group of people who have been disadvantaged by circumstance and also by history, and it is a history that I benefit from. Not that you have to do this, but it is one option.

I also volunteer for things that don't directly benefit me. I am on the equal opportunities and women's committee of my union, and I think I might be the only white man who doesn't benefit in any specific way from that (there are a few other white men, but some are gay, some are military veterans, and some are senior citizens, so the group, to some extent, addresses their needs.) And I am mostly there just to help out with whatever they are doing.

I am a playwright, and I have made a commitment to writing plays that feature women, minorities, veterans, gays and lesbians, etc. And write plays that really address their experiences, as best as I can. It's not all I write, but it's a large percent. Because there are so many plays written about the experience of white, middle class men, and I don't feel there is any need for me to exclusively contribute to that body of work. And writing for these characters presents a constant challenge to me, because I do not share the experiences of the characters I write about, and requires a great deal of education on my part, and a great deal of openness to criticism. And yet, at the same time, it has not been as hard as I expected. The human experience is not so different, it is just in its details that it changes. A black character, for example, does not usually want to succeed in life blackly; they just want to succeed, as we all do. Their approach may be informed by their experiences, and their obstacles will often include racism, but their motivations are human and therefore something I share with them.

It's sort of surprising, when you become sensitized to privilege, the ways you discover you benefit from it, and unintentionally support it. But that sensitivity can also lead to discovering surprising ways in which you can do your part to extend privilege, no matter what you do or where you are in life. And the added benefit is that you keep expanding your awareness of the world, and the circle of people you know, and your sensitivity to their experiences, and there's something nice about living a life that gives you the chance to keep discovering things.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 5:27 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Ook, is that little attack really necessary?

Sincere apologies. There were a number of "ok, fine, I'm privileged, so what" kind of comments in the scalzi comment thread that left me kind of fuming, and I classified yours along with those. Which is not an excuse, just an explanation.

I'm making an effort to not be a jerk, so thank you for calling me out on it.
posted by ook at 5:31 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anigbrowl, one of your main points of contention seems to be that, since you are already aware of privilege, then this article is talking down to you.

No, my bone of contention is that it's talking down to everybody who is straight, white and male but not jscalzi. It's fantastically patronizing, and because discrimination is a touchy subject I don't think this is an effective way to communicate. Nor do I think that the assumptions of ignorance are anywhere near as justified as the expositors of privilege claim them to be. My view is that in general, people are actually a bit better informed and reflective than they are given credit for, but that articles like this have a tendency to put people on the defensive.

You know, if it had gone along the lines of 'I get frustrated by xyz sometimes, but in the bigger picture my white malesness in the USA is like playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty level, so overall I've been lucky and that's humbling,' I'd back it 100%. I consider myself extraordinarily lucky. But instead it comes off 'OK, let me dumb things down for you in terms that maybe you mere mortals can understand.' Even when you disagree violently with someone (and sadly, I am all too aware of the widespread sexism in the geek community), condescending to explain is not an effective way to get your message across.
posted by anigbrowl at 5:45 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


So is the illusion of being a helpless pawn of forces beyond one's control.
anigbrowl

Again, the strawmen and false dichotomies.

Noting that you are not the complete master of yourself does not imply or mean that you are helpless. Indeed, that's the exact opposite of what discussions on privilege try to achieve: by making yourself aware of your situation, you can work to improve yourself and the world. It's precisely because you have agency that you can make a difference, but it starts with having a better understanding of what's going on.

You personally did not create the situation, and thus should not feel blame or shame about your place, but in recognizing the reality of privilege you can work to change things, however slightly.
posted by Sangermaine at 5:45 PM on May 15, 2012


Anigbrowl, one of your main points of contention seems to be that, since you are already aware of privilege, then this article is talking down to you. Here's another thought: since you're already aware of privilege, this article actually isn't talking to you at all.

Amusing story: back in college, one year I lived in the same building as a charming young man who objected to the title of the popular women's health book "Our Bodies Our Selves" on the basis that it said "our" but didn't actually include any information about him.

In general, I think it's helpful to think of privilege as an emergent trait rather than an individual attribute. The propensity to think that Everything Is All About Me, and not run across too many negative consequences for holding that world view, is one of the ways that individuals sometimes benefit individually from privilege, however.
posted by eviemath at 5:53 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]


Nor do I think that the assumptions of ignorance are anywhere near as justified as the expositors of privilege claim them to be. My view is that in general, people are actually a bit better informed and reflective than they are given credit for, but that articles like this have a tendency to put people on the defensive.

But the assumption of ignorance is an inherent property of the entire concept of privilege.

Privilege is at heart a lack of understanding of one's place and position in society. If people were generally aware of the issue of privilege, there wouldn't be an issue and there would be no problems caused by, say, the unconscious assumption of straight white males that they are the "norm" in society. The assumption of ignorance is self-evidently justified by the fact that privilege and its attendant problems exist. Clearly, most people don't really think about privilege and what it means.

I think the issue you're having is you're conflating the belief that there is widespread ignorance about privileged with a belief that people in general are stupid or incapable of understanding the concept. This is not the case. It's born from people not really thinking about their situation and just accepting that things are they way they are because that's just the natural order of the world. All that's being asked is to consider the assumptions people have about race/gender/etc.

I certainly don't think I am smarter or more sophisticated than other people. I used to say and think things I had absorbed from society like everyone else, but over time people I know and things I saw/read made me consider myself and understand the privileges I have. And I don't think I'm some superhuman with reasoning abilities beyond the masses: anyone can come to understand privilege if they think about it. It's just that getting people to think about it can be a very difficult task, and for some people it might be helpful to have it presented in terms they might better understand.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:16 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


eviemath : In general, I think it's helpful to think of privilege as an emergent trait rather than an individual attribute.

Oh, make no mistake, "privilege" most definitely counts as an individual trait... But only defined by its absence. Privilege amounts to nothing more than one more blame-game. "My mother didn't love me", "no one paid for me to go to college", "Granddad wouldn't give me a cushy job in his factory".

A few have asked in this thread why people get defensive about this concept? Because like it or not, I grew up in a mostly-white, mostly-middle-class part of the country with the most gay-friendly climate in the US. Telling me my white middle class straightness gave me some sort of "edge" under those conditions amounts to nothing but a slap in the face.

Saying I played in "easy mode" ignores the fact that I played against 96% of the relevant population playing in the same mode. And yes, I find that a tad bit insulting.
posted by pla at 6:42 PM on May 15, 2012


Sorry, skipping much of the thread, although I did read the article. I don't know if it will have any success getting otherwise hostile people to buy into the idea of privilege, but it doesn't hurt to try.

I do want to address Ryvar's early-thread complaints about feeling like privilege was a way of shaming him and Frowner's response to that. Which is to say that for a lot of us, it's not about that. It's about when we're treated like shit, and every possible permutation of "please don't do that" gets blown off with a hearty laugh and a "get over it." Or when you say "here's something that's happened to me that sucked" and people straight up accuse you of lying, or say it's not really that bad, or you must have misunderstood, or whatever. All the time, every time.

It's not "you can't be proud of your accomplishments," or "playing a blame game,"but rather "you probably don't realize what it's like for other people." And getting people to agree to that latter statement is staggeringly difficult.
posted by kavasa at 6:46 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


I like that as a metaphor, it incorporates both "difficulty settings" like race and gender as well as "points" like wealth or health. I feel like often when people have a knee jerk reaction to the concept of 'privilege,' it's because it is being applied in a way that is counter-intuitive to people's real experiences of how the world around them is working. "Sometimes white males end up in bad situations" they say, and of course it's true, but it's not because they're white or male, but because there were a host of other factors that didn't end up working out for them. This metaphor provides a framework for understanding that privilege and environmental factors work differently and while there's a correlation between them, they won't always work out the same way at an individual level.
posted by geegollygosh at 6:59 PM on May 15, 2012


But the assumption of ignorance is an inherent property of the entire concept of privilege.

Yes, and this is one of the reasons it's such a flawed concept.

'Privilege' derives from the Latin for 'private law.' In legal terms, it's an immunity or exception of some kind that is granted to a restricted group. That could be anything from the right to hunt deer on the monarch's land to the right of Sikhs to wear ceremonial swords. Ignorance is not a core aspect of privilege in law. It seems to be acore aspect of the sort of social privilege Peggy McIntosh set out to deconstruct with her essay about 'unpacking the invisible knapsack,' but the point I've been trying to make is that not everyone agrees with her analysis of how these things work.

Privilege is at heart a lack of understanding of one's place and position in society.

...according to one narrow contemporary interpretation of the word. This sounds awfully reminiscent of the Marxist notion of 'false consciousness.'

I think the issue you're having is you're conflating the belief that there is widespread ignorance about privileged with a belief that people in general are stupid or incapable of understanding the concept. This is not the case. It's born from people not really thinking about their situation and just accepting that things are they way they are because that's just the natural order of the world. All that's being asked is to consider the assumptions people have about race/gender/etc.

No, the issue I'm having is with people such as yourself thinking that most people are ignorant of the issues. Which is why I said 'in general, people are actually a bit better informed and reflective than they are given credit for.' I understand the point you are trying to make perfectly well. It just happens that I don't share your opinion, because I disagree with several of your a priori assumptions.
posted by anigbrowl at 7:03 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Now what do I do?

In addition to attempting to extend your privilege to others, you can benefit personally by using a heightened awareness of privilege to notice it elsewhere so you can get a ginger in that pie too (extending someone else's privilege to yourself). For example, financial instruments that are needed by people in power, or by massive social majorities, might be expected to enjoy more powerful protection than alternatives that otherwise appear equal.
posted by -harlequin- at 7:25 PM on May 15, 2012


Saying I played in "easy mode" ignores the fact that I played against 96% of the relevant population playing in the same mode.

I'm a little confused about this. I mean, 96 percent of the population is not straight, white, or middle class. So who is the non-relevant population, and why are they excluded?

And doesn't their exclusion suggest to you that maybe you had an advantage they didn't? I mean, I'm sure you had it tough, but there's an entire sea of humanity who seems absent from your equation, and I am curious about their absence.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:50 PM on May 15, 2012


I think the problem with this difficultly-level analogy, and the problem with the idea of XYZ privilege in general, is the assumption that there's a single game and a single goal; that some traits are pure advantages and some are pure disadvantages; and that that XYZ people are better off than ABC people, all else being equal. That's too simplistic, and probably the source of at least some of the resistance to the idea of privilege.

Just some random comparisons that come to mind: who is more privileged, all else being equal?
* a white man or a white woman, in the context of parenting
* a black woman or a black man, in the context of economic success
* a white man or a white woman, in the context of economic success

If you sum all games and goals together, there are some traits that are disadvantageous more often that they're advantageous. To speak of XYZ privilege without being very specific about the circumstances reduces XYZ people to a stereotype.

Also, I think it would further the cause of empathy to recognize the ways that group XYZ is disadvantaged, if possible, while calling them out on their XYZ privilege. Then it becomes more of a dialogue than a lecture, which will be less likely to turn someone off.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]


Wow, what an idiotic metaphor. Does he really think everyone in America is playing the same game? That a straight white man will find it easier to be a stay-at-home parent if that's their objective? Does he really think that a wealthy gay Indian girl born to stockbrokers in Westchester is on a "lower difficulty setting" than a straight white guy born to two felons in Appalachia?

Is this a straight white guy thing, to just naturally think that you're "playing on the lowest difficulty" because you can't imagine anyone not like you being rich and educated?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:34 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I was raised in a diverse community, with a keen awareness of my privilege. I learned at an early age to empathize, to understand, and to look for opportunities to help people who didn't look, talk, or piss like me. I learned to be ashamed of myself when I benefited from privilege, and to point out when others like me were enjoying an unfair advantage. Consequently, throughout my life I've rejected opportunities after assuming they were unearned, offered only because I'm a white man.

It's hard to avoid regretting those forfeited opportunities, just as it's hard to look back and judge whether I saw those chances because of race and sex or skill and character. As I slide into my forties still convinced I should step aside for others, I do sometimes wonder if I bypassed not just my privilege but my potential along with it. In retrospect, I probably deserved some of the good things I've received, and I certainly benefited despite my best intentions.

I'm sure there are those who read this and conclude that I really don't understand fully, that I'm still benefiting left and right even if it seems like I've denied myself the fruits of privilege. I know that the existence of special opportunity is an advantage, whether I seize it or not. Even as I hold the door open, I'm still inside the building. It's my privilege to choose not to advance to the escalator. There's probably an elevator bank waiting for me if I just stand up straight and speak clearly when I'm finished playing doorman.

But as before, I'll find a way to undermine myself, because I'm convinced my every advancement is a symptom of social inequity. I learned that through shame, the most effective way to teach anything to my ilk. Those who say this isn't about shame are missing the point. Awareness leads to shame at being part of a problem, which leads to a sense that things should be put right. Without the shame there's no impetus to change.

I always wished I could be one of those guys with the secret handshake and the network of cronies, but I learned proper shame at too young an age. It's with me for good. There's always the next life. Maybe I'll be reborn as a total dick. I might like that.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:40 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the role playing game known as The Real World

Which campaign are we talking about? San Francisco? Miami? I know I've got an awesome "Troubled Young Punker" build somewhere around here. [shuffles through papers]



Oh, wait, what are we talking about? Oooh, I see. Carry on.
posted by RobertFrost at 8:49 PM on May 15, 2012


anigbrowl,

You're just playing semantic games, and it isn't very helpful. Yes, the word privileged has several different meanings, but you're clearly aware of the context in which it is being used in the article and in this thread. This is just hand-waving.

...according to one narrow contemporary interpretation of the word. This sounds awfully reminiscent of the Marxist notion of 'false consciousness.'

I know you are a libertarian but you seem absolutely obsessed with Marx. So it sounds like that concept. What's your point?

Which is why I said 'in general, people are actually a bit better informed and reflective than they are given credit for.'

If people aren't ignorant of privilege and are acting the way they act, then we're really fucked because it's not a product of thoughtlessness, it's intentional.

I understand the point you are trying to make perfectly well. It just happens that I don't share your opinion, because I disagree with several of your a priori assumptions.

Not a priori at all, but based on experience, which is why I and so many others here seem baffled by resistance to the concept of privilege. You express confidence that we are wrong in thinking that most are ignorant of privilege, but this idea is born out by both personal experience and history. People tend not to consider their situations when there isn't reason to do so. Again and again in history we have examples of what society has been considered the "norm" challenged and changed as a result of agitation for consideration.

You can disagree all you want, but the world doesn't bear it out.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:53 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think kavasa hits on the issue best. The word "easy" is getting a lot of people caught up. It's an unfortunate side effect of the metaphor, because no, no one's life is easy. Yes, we all have hardships. My mother died from cancer, and that was hard. There was abuse in my household growing up, and that was hard. I moved around a lot, and that was hard. But those things would have been harder if, on top of it all, I was being judged on a daily basis for the color of my skin or my gender. As a gay white male, I escaped most of that. Privilege, as this metaphor tries to convey, means that some people have it way, way harder. Like, every day is turned up to eleven or twelve in ways that my life couldn't possibly be. That's what's being said.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:09 PM on May 15, 2012


Does he really think that a wealthy gay Indian girl born to stockbrokers in Westchester is on a "lower difficulty setting" than a straight white guy born to two felons in Appalachia?

Of course not. The concept of privilege is a tool that only works as a a way of understanding the advantages and disadvantages of specific attributes.

Your gay Indian girl in Westchester benefits from the privilege accorded by her wealth. For example, she may not have to worry about how much money she's spending on food, because she has plenty of money. Your white Appalachian may be scrounging for change to pay for a Micky D's burger.

But your white Appalachian benefits by the privilege accorded by being part of the ethnic majority. He doesn't have to think about racism - it simply has no effect on his life. No one is ever going to scream 'nigger' or 'paki' at him when we walks down the street. White supremacy groups are never going to denounce people of his skin tone as diluting the purity of the white race. The Indian girl does have to think about it, because she will experience it.

One on one, your Indian girl is almost certainly better off than your white guy, because the privilege accorded by her wealth is pretty powerful.

Demographically, rich people are privileged over poor people, and ethnic majorities are privileged over minorities; but these are different sets of privilege
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:43 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


Does he really think everyone in America is playing the same game? That a straight white man will find it easier to be a stay-at-home parent if that's their objective? Does he really think that a wealthy gay Indian girl born to stockbrokers in Westchester is on a "lower difficulty setting" than a straight white guy born to two felons in Appalachia?

Whenever discussing this topic, someone always trots out this line of reasoning as some sort of knock against the idea of privilege. It's an elementary argument that completely misses the point.

The point of the discussion of privilege is to start from the concept of "all other things being equal"

Your hypothetical wealthy gay Indian girl born to stockbrokers in Westchester is playing the same game as a wealthy white girl born to stockbrokers in westchester. One has an advantage that the other doesn't. Chances are that the other advantages of their lives will buffer that disparity, but it's kind of disingenuous to pretend that there's no difference.

You don't have to go much further down the socioeconomic ladder to see the gulf widen noticeably. Your white appalachian son of felons might have it shitty, but he has a much better shot at survival than a black kid born into the same circumstances.

And there's no argument anybody's gonna make that's going to convince me that that is ok.

And to be clear, nobody who is serious about this stuff is blaming any individual for these inequities. It's a societal problem, and it's going to get fixed until everyone agrees that the rules need to change. Everyone. Even the people who the rules currently favor. And that's a tough sell, made even tougher when some refuse to even acknowledge that the game is rigged.

The metaphor that I've always felt is most apt is that of a casino. The casino has an edge. This doesn't mean it's going to win every hand. It doesn't me that some people aren't going to beat the odds and go home winners. But when you get away from individual cases, and start looking at the big picture, it's pretty obvious that the game is rigged.
posted by billyfleetwood at 9:55 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]


I'll buy that on average, MeFites are better informed and reflective than Scalzi's target audience. But it's not been my experience that very many people know about, or even care to understand, the concept of privilege and how it affects others. I went to a university that was famed for its stuffy adherence to political correctness due to humorless agitators and activists; yet when the marching band was suspended for a term due to the discovery of an internal publication that joked about raping daughters and forced oral sex, the suspiciosly vocal male part of the student body rose up in furor against the administration for overreacting and not being able to take a joke. I was once told off for wearing purple for Spirit Day, in solidarity, because my friend didn't see the point of caring about LGBTQ issues since they don't have it that bad, anyway. I've written on here before about friends who ask me why women get so worked up about unequal pay when it's been their experience that female managers are just less competent; or friends who ask that I don't call them out on their rape jokes, because then people wouldn't feel comfortable joking around with me, and nobody wants that. So I'm not particularly optimistic about the ability of someone who's not explicitly devoted time to think about these issues to be fully cognizant of their privilege, no.
posted by Phire at 9:59 PM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]


You're just playing semantic games, and it isn't very helpful. Yes, the word privileged has several different meanings, but you're clearly aware of the context in which it is being used in the article and in this thread. This is just hand-waving.

No, I'm serious. From where I'm sitting, it seems like you're asserting your personal opinions about this as fact. It seems incomprehensible to you that that someone else might simply not share your views on things like privilege being a function of ignorance.

I know you are a libertarian but you seem absolutely obsessed with Marx. So it sounds like that concept. What's your point?

I am not a libertarian, although I have some libertarian sympathies, partly due to experiences with poverty; I think economic opportunity is easier bargained for than legislated. As for Marx, I didn't bring his ideas into the thread and have avoided getting drawn into an extended argument about their applicability. However, the critical studies movement, from which this concept of privilege originates, has intellectual roots in the Marxist tradition, and in my view suffers from some of the same weakness.

If people aren't ignorant of privilege and are acting the way they act, then we're really fucked because it's not a product of thoughtlessness, it's intentional.

Yes, that's often the case, and it is a big problem.

Not a priori at all, but based on experience, which is why I and so many others here seem baffled by resistance to the concept of privilege. You express confidence that we are wrong in thinking that most are ignorant of privilege, but this idea is born out by both personal experience and history.

No, you're confident that you're right. I'm skeptical of your assumptions because I, too, have experience, and my experience is that people often shut down when they are challenged, but often reveal a broader perspective when they feel safe to do so. I have often been surprised by the complexity and nuance of people's views on such topics, even those of people I disagreed with.
posted by anigbrowl at 11:31 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


The way he handles it is extremely weak - it makes no room for the notion that some people would opt for higher difficulty not out of curiosity but instead out of a sense that overcoming adversity fuels personal growth.

The thing is: I can't.

I cannot give up the priviledges that being white and male (and straight and middle class) gets me in Europe or America. Even if I resolve not to make conscious use of my advantages (frex: using my middle class upbringing and manners to deal with otherwise hostile bureaucracies), I'll still get a huge amount of (unearned) respect and consideration from the people I interact with.

Even class, perhaps the most mallable attribute, isn't that easily shaken off; poor but culturally middle class people are treated differently from poor white thrash.

Yes, I am judged on my appearance even before I open my mouth, but in the majority of cases this is all to my benefit; therefore complaining that I didn't ask for this deference is wrong, adding insult to injury to those without my priviledges.

All I can do is acknowledge I have those priviledges, try and not abuse them, try and not get too upset when somebody calls me on it, try and work to negate my priviledges by helping those without them, if only by shutting my gob and not protest that I am priviledged.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:41 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think what a lot of people have trouble with is the idea that you know much of anything about someone's life because you see they were born a white male or whatever. Sure, that's a break. They may also have been born with a degenerative neurological disorder, or schizophrenia, or a billion other things. Without knowing their life experience you actually have no idea what "difficulty level" they've been playing on and I thin people get rightly annoyed at some people's assumptions that they do have such an idea.

Yeah!

I'm fat, so that changes everything! I'm not priviledged at all now!

Or perhaps not.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:46 AM on May 16, 2012


Posted this on facebook. Reaction? Two women called it a brilliant analogy, one gay man said it really made him think. Two non-white men said it was a great explanation of what privilege really was. Two white heterosexual men went ballistic. Reading their reactions I had to wonder if they'd even read the article. Yes, yes, gentlemen, you are not leading an easy life, you've had some tough breaks, I understand. But you don't have to deal with a whole set of issues that you would if you were not white heterosexual North American males. One even expressed that tired old "actually, as a white male, I am constantly discriminated against, we men are so oppressed" sentiment. Like I said, I had to wonder if they actually even read the article.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 1:50 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


A brief thought on metaphors/analogies that are used to illustrate complex issues: If they don't limp or seem to leave something out regarding that which they are supposed to illustrate, then you're missing something about the object of the analogy, so it is shortcomings of an analogy and their identification, not the isomorphy, what makes them instructive.
posted by quoquo at 1:58 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


A few have asked in this thread why people get defensive about this concept? Because like it or not, I grew up in a mostly-white, mostly-middle-class part of the country with the most gay-friendly climate in the US.

One wonders how that part of the country became so white and middle class and stayed that way...

Meanwhile, Black dude living in a mostly Black part of the country still has to deal with all the issues being Black in America gets you. Black dude in a majority white part of the country, too. He still had to think about racism and priviledge and all, you could ignore it.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:32 AM on May 16, 2012


MartinWisse : One wonders how that part of the country became so white and middle class and stayed that way...

One word: Water.

The North never resorted to the whole "slavery" approach to production, for the simple reason that we have an abundance of rapidly flowing rivers to tap for power (as compared with the slowly meandering swamp-like trickles common in the South). As a result, the North focused on using that power for manufacturing, and primarily grew simple-to-harvest food crops; the South remained agriculturally dominant and grew extremely labor-intensive crops such as cotton and tobacco.

So, we simply didn't deliberately import human labor, and the ones that did come did so voluntarily (which if you want to invoke the "privilege" of Europeans having seaworthy ships at a time when Africans did not, okay, have fun with that).

As for why the Northeast "wins" for having the most progressive attitudes on homosexuality in the country, I don't have a good answer to that one, we just do. Perhaps someone else can tackle that question.


Bunny Ultramod : I'm a little confused about this. I mean, 96 percent of the population is not straight, white, or middle class. So who is the non-relevant population, and why are they excluded?

By "relevant", I mean that I grew up in a place where everyone had substantially the same level of "privilege" as I did. All white, no one cared about gays, and mostly some form of middle class. I then chose to live in the same part of the country, which to extend TFA's analogy, I guess you could say comes as close to playing in "hard mode" as I could get - I didn't "make it" by crushing poor gay minorities under the heels of my brownshoes, I made it by doing what I do well and competing with people just... like... me.
posted by pla at 4:00 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


But your white Appalachian benefits by the privilege accorded by being part of the ethnic majority. He doesn't have to think about racism - it simply has no effect on his life. No one is ever going to scream 'nigger' or 'paki' at him when we walks down the street.

No but he will be called redneck, hick, hillbilly, shitkicker.

He will be assumed to be dumb, ignorant, racist and to hold a particular political persuasion, even by people who claim to be so acutely aware of their own privilage and highly empathetic toward people different from them.

He probably won't be a victim of racism but that doesn't mean he will never face prejudice.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 4:51 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yes, that's often the case, and it is a big problem.

I guess I find it less pernicious to presume ignorance than malice.
posted by Phire at 4:54 AM on May 16, 2012


The point of the discussion of privilege is to start from the concept of "all other things being equal"


Which is why the metaphor is of so little use. All other things are rarely equal. Obviously, the hypothetical gay Indian girl born to stockbrokers is playing at a lower difficulty setting than the white Appalachian child of felons. So the metaphor is pretty obviously wrong-headed in that regard.

Would the gay Indian girl have a harder time if she, too, were born in Appalachia? Depends---is the goal to become a wealthy businessperson, to become an English professor at a community college, to become a full-time parent, to avoid trouble with the law, or what? That'll have an effect on who has it easier or harder in some ways, and not in others.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:27 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


He probably won't be a victim of racism but that doesn't mean he will never face prejudice.

For crying out loud. I was responding to Billy Fleetwood's example. Further, my point was that different people are privileged in different ways. So yes, the wealthy gay Indian girl benefits from the privilege accrued by being middle class. So what? What's your point?
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 5:57 AM on May 16, 2012


different people are privileged in different ways

Yes. Correct. This is true. Which is why it's so dumb to say "white straight man is the easiest setting".
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:02 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


For crying out loud. I was responding to Billy Fleetwood's example. Further, my point was that different people are privileged in different ways. So yes, the wealthy gay Indian girl benefits from the privilege accrued by being middle class. So what? What's your point?

Pretty much this

Yes. Correct. This is true. Which is why it's so dumb to say "white straight man is the easiest setting".

When privilege is something that basically everyone has depending upon the specific situation that person is in and based upon more factors than gender/skin colour/sexual orientation, factors that you couldn't possibly know without intimately knowing that person it becomes meaningless as anything other than signifying that you agree with a certain strain of lefty thought.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 6:09 AM on May 16, 2012


The way he handles it is extremely weak - it makes no room for the notion that some people would opt for higher difficulty not out of curiosity but instead out of a sense that overcoming adversity fuels personal growth.

I am suddenly reminded of a line from the movie Soul Man (oh, stop laughing), in which a college-bound guy takes a crap-ton of tanning pills to pass as black so he can get a scholarship. It works for a while, and he has the expected "learning moments" that such movies have, but then eventually people find him out.

And there's a scene with his love interest (Rae Dawn Chong), an African-American girl herself, who's of course offended by what he's done. He's trying to apologize, and of course he says something about how it was a whole eye-opening experience for him and now he understands what it's like to be black and yadda yadda yadda, and it's made him a better person.

And she calls him on it -- no, he doesn't get it, she says. No matter how hard things got for him, he still always had the option of stopping being black, and returning to being white. He had the escape hatch. She didn't. And with this kind of challenge, it doesn't count if you have an escape hatch for it. It wasn't the same.

So yes, there are "higher difficulties" people could "opt for" to attain "personal growth." But then there are fundamental ones that are thrust upon you, foundation-level ones, that you can't choose. And they have a harder and more lasting impact.

The kind of difficulty you can "opt for" is different from the ones you're born with, because you always have the option of opting out if the shit hits the fan.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:10 AM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


I also posted this to Facebook and I'm having an argument over there too. Look, here's something that doesn't come across well in this article but anyone who's spent more than 10 minutes on MetaFilter should have this down pat:

ANYONE can at some time be the "privileged" party in a given situation. A male friend of mine can walk to his car at night without his keys between his knuckles and a socially ingrained need to "look out" for scary people; I can't. However, I can go sit on a park bench in a crowded playground full of kids and no one will give me a second glance, whereas if a male friend does that he'll probably be thought to be a pedophile and may even be asked to leave. I can stay home with kids and have that decision accepted in a way that my fiance can't; but if he takes a few years off to do so, when he looks for a new job in the end, he'll be assumed to still be in the game whereas most people seem to think women's brains atrophy while they're raising kids. So it is situation-specific. Straight white men are not ALWAYS the winners. No one is saying that.

What we ARE saying, and what this article is addressing, is that by virtue of so very seldom being on the bad end of the privilege stick, straight white men are far less likely to recognize it than, say, your average black Jewish lesbian. When I first learned about the privilege concept on MetaFilter I immediately thought "Wow. Yeah. That explains so much about what I've noticed as a member of one particular minority group. Oh whoa, this explains so many other peoples' lives, too. I need to think about this." If you don't have that first part to react to, it's hard to get to the second part -- the important conclusion -- without far more serious soul searching. The people who take socially institutionalized discrimination and bias as a given aren't surprised by privilege; the people who think we're all equal already seem to be very surprised often to the point of anger.

Those of us who point out privilege in ourselves or in other people are not doing it to whine or complain that life is unfair. Life is unfair. Yes, you can be a rich straight white guy born with a whole host of awful conditions and diseases that makes life suck. But consider if you were born a poor straight white guy with those problems. In the US, poor people can't get even basic healthcare and your life would be drastically, drastically different. The deck is already stacked against you. There is no bootstrapping you can do to fix that. You were born into an infrastructure that has been built over many many years to fuck you over. Same thing with people of color, LGBTQ folks, women in many situations, etc etc.

I was a mentor in an academic program working in an inner city school with a few absolutely brilliant students who wanted to attend the same very selective college I did, but in addition to their school not even offering the math and science coursework that selective colleges require, if you look around the classrooms you see things like "cat is an adjective!" and other flat out wrong things that teachers have written and are teaching to these kids. If you are born into a poor community to poor parents and your only option is the public schools and those public schools are full of poorly educated teachers, poorly funded programs, and a curriculum designed to get you just the bare minimum you need to graduate, you ARE NOT starting at the same level I did being born into a community with good schools in a middle-class suburb and eventually getting a scholarship to a private school. Even if it IS the same game we're playing -- go to This College, study This Thing, make a living and be a productive member of society -- I started on easy. The kids I worked with at that inner city school started on difficult. No matter how hard they worked and no matter how much they tried to do all the right things, it was basically impossible for them to get the education they needed to go to the college they wanted. I can't bitch about how they should just bootstrap themselves if I started with boots and they didn't.

To me, and the reason I get so heated when (often straight, white male) friends of mine are so resistant to the privilege concept, is that to me it's just basic empathy. It's an ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and say "Oh. I guess it's not the way for them that it was for me." And while all these same friends would insist all day that they have lots of empathy for their fellow humans, when it's framed as privilege as an explicit "you have advantages many people don't", they yell and scream and get upset. I don't want sociopathic friends. I want friendly, understanding, empathetic friends. I don't want them to deny that privilege exists, and that it may color everyone's views at one time or another. I want them to accept it so we can all find a new level of understanding on tough issues and that it's not "whining about how life is unfair" but instead "discussing how to make society more just". To deny privilege is to deny those of us getting the short end of the stick the reality of our situation; to insist that it's always just a matter of life not being fair and people not working hard enough, rather than systematic bias many people are tired of fighting against on a daily basis. The first step in fixing a problem is to admit that it exists, and until the idea of privilege is more widely understood and accepted, nothing's getting fixed.
posted by olinerd at 6:15 AM on May 16, 2012 [15 favorites]


I was a mentor in an academic program working in an inner city school... if you look around the classrooms you see things like "cat is an adjective!" and other flat out wrong things that teachers have written and are teaching to these kids. If you are born into a poor community to poor parents... you ARE NOT starting at the same level I did being born into a community with good schools in a middle-class suburb and eventually getting a scholarship to a private school

I actually think this reveals a good deal about how people get this dumb idea that "straight, white male is the easiest difficulty setting." Many earnest collegiate lefties are born in well-off white communities. There are non-white, non-straight people there, but they somehow don't get noticed (if you grew up seeing Nicole Ritchie at the country club, she's white to you). For those who grew up this way, underprivilieged people are poor city people, and poor city people (if you're in much of the U.S.) are black.

So you have all these people whose first and only experience of real poverty and the horribly shortened horizons it produces are with black people, and who are totally ignorant of the many white people living lives even more severely limited in their horizons. People who are similarly ignorant of the many people of color growing up with wealth, privilege, and comfort, because they don't notice (or can't believe) that such people exist. Who've never tried to, say, get tenure in an English department, because they're busy working with "underprivileged" communities. It's an understandable ignorance, but not one worth indulging.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:37 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is why it's so dumb to say "white straight man is the easiest setting".

Direct quote from jscalzi's blog:

"Likewise, it’s certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer and/or their highest stats are wealth, intelligence and constitution and/or simply because they play the game better than you do. It doesn’t change the fact you are still playing on the lowest difficulty setting."
posted by soundguy99 at 6:40 AM on May 16, 2012


Someone might need to break down this anology for me because when I read

Likewise, it's certainly possible someone playing at a higher difficulty setting is progressing more quickly than you are, because they had more points initially given to them by the computer

I don't see how they are playing on a higher difficulty setting, what exactly do points represent and what does the computer represent?

Also

and/or their highest stats are wealth

Seeing as life isn't actually a role playing game and you didn't get tomake any choices pre-birth the wealth you are born into is about as earned as skin colour so what is the difference?
posted by Reggie Knoble at 6:54 AM on May 16, 2012


It's funny how the only people who have a problem with this article are white straight dudes. Not funny strange, but funny hilarious. You guys are the best. I'm going to go back to fearing for my life because other straight dudes would like nothing better than to physically beat me to death. (Oh, not you particular white straight dudes, you're the good ones who understand privilege. I mean the ignorant ones that you're pretending don't exist while I look over my shoulder walking home at night because, you know, hate crimes still happen in Brooklyn and I get called faggot regularly and minority rights are still actually a huge fucking deal in this country and are being carted out as wedge issues in the current presidential campaign.)

But yeah, you're right, my life totally wouldn't be easier if I were straight. Smart call.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 7:04 AM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


Reggie Knoble: " I don't see how they are playing on a higher difficulty setting, what exactly do points represent and what does the computer represent?"

The computer is "fate". The points are your initial dump stat - if you'd like, what "level" you start out as. In this analogy, if you see life as a linear accumulation of points that indicate your success, you could maybe start off with 5,000 points more than everyone else because you're wealthy, or because you're smarter, or because you're conventionally good-looking. Scalzi's point, whether you agree with it or not, is that as a straight white male it's easier for you to accumulate points regardless of where you start off.

If you apply this analogy to real social issues like unexplained wage gaps, then it's like saying that if a man and a woman with the same social, economic, educational and experiential background performed the same task to the same level of satisfaction, a man will get 100 points for finishing the project, whereas a woman would get 80. Or, to give another example, a man might get 1,000 points for getting married, having a kid, and starting a family (and in the real world, get promoted or get a raise because he now has to support a family), whereas a woman might get 300 points for performing her reproductive duty, but lose 100 points in her career advancement because people now assume she just has babies on the brain and is no longer capable of staying relevant with industry changes. Oh, and people like Romney want to take some points away from her for staying at home to take care of the kid.

If you talk about relative situational privilege, the man staying at home to take care of the kid would probably lose 500 points in social standing, where the woman might gain points instead. If you grew up in a poor household and have trouble holding down a job because the educational system screwed you over, you might only get 200 points for getting married and having a kid even if you're a straight white dude, because now you're "taxing the system" and "living off the government".

So yeah, relative situational privilege exists, and is real, and is a big deal. But I personally quite like this analogy for situations of "all else being equal", because I'm trying to have this conversation with people who are convinced that all of their accomplishments are solely the result of their own individual hard work, and that other people are given the same opportunities with the same judgment metric.
posted by Phire at 7:06 AM on May 16, 2012


Anyone who thinks "all their accomplishments are solely the result of their own individual hard work" is obviously a fool. But if you're trying to open their eyes, perhaps suggest that their life would have been much harder if someone hadn't developed the polio vaccine, or if their parents couldn't read to them, rather than whacking them over the head with a dopey metaphor that bears no relation to real life.

That's part of what's so tiresome about this whole discussion. Many people here seem convinced that those not regularly reading Alternet or whatever are totally unaware of how lucky they've been. But anyone who actually talked to conservative churchgoers knows that being "grateful for what you've been given" is a constant theme. If you were actually interested in changing minds, rather than indulging personal smugness and martyr complexes, you might try finding an in that way.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:48 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


The computer is "fate". The points are your initial dump stat - if you'd like, what "level" you start out as. In this analogy, if you see life as a linear accumulation of points that indicate your success, you could maybe start off with 5,000 points more than everyone else because you're wealthy, or because you're smarter, or because you're conventionally good-looking. Scalzi's point, whether you agree with it or not, is that as a straight white male it's easier for you to accumulate points regardless of where you start off.

I thought a dump stat was a stat left deliberately underdeveloped as it was deemed not useful for the players desired build?

Assuming points are a generic good thing a person who fate provides with 5,000 extra free points at the start seems to be privileged, no?

So yeah, relative situational privilege exists, and is real, and is a big deal. But I personally quite like this analogy for situations of "all else being equal",

When have two people ever been identical but for the colour of their skin? Or their gender? Or sexual orientation?

Thats why the whole issue seems to be one of ideological posturing because this theory works very well as a thought experiement where all else can be deemed equal but in the real world the condition of all else being equal doesn't happen.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 7:48 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually...born to a well connected family is the lowest difficulty setting there is in the world..ever.
posted by tarvuz at 7:58 AM on May 16, 2012


Reggie Knoble: "When have two people ever been identical but for the colour of their skin? Or their gender? Or sexual orientation?"

Well, if you want to get into it, there's proven sociological study on the effect that changing the name on a resume to a more racially stereotyped one can have on people's perception (PDF) of that person's qualifications for a job, or the effects of a female name vs. a male name on otherwise identical resumes. There have been examples of blind auditions for orchestra positions where women suddenly are selected far more frequently for a position. There's even an instance of a female scientist transitioning to male, and colleagues saying that his work as a man was "much better than his sister's".

This stuff isn't unsubstantiated.
posted by Phire at 8:03 AM on May 16, 2012 [14 favorites]


My point: on a person-by-person basis, maybe you'll never meet two identical people who are otherwise differentiated only by their skin colour, gender, or sexual orientation. But to pretend that systemic bias doesn't exist, or that it's always circumstantial, seems optimistic.
posted by Phire at 8:06 AM on May 16, 2012


My point: on a person-by-person basis, maybe you'll never meet two identical people who are otherwise differentiated only by their skin colour, gender, or sexual orientation. But to pretend that systemic bias doesn't exist, or that it's always circumstantial, seems optimistic.

Yes, sexism, racism & homophobia obviously exist but there is no way you can point at a person and tell them that they are privileged because of one or two factors you can tell by looking at them when they could well be disadvantaged by half a dozen that you can't (other than the rich, money pretty much buys your way around any other disadvantage in a way that skin colour, gender and orientation does not).
posted by Reggie Knoble at 8:12 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


pla: let me tell you another (though less amusing) story.

One day I was walking down a street with a guy that I was dating at the time, who had his arm around me in the way that boyfriends do, that you could perhaps think of as possessive if you were trying to find something to be upset about, I suppose. Across the street there happened to be this older woman. And she started yelling in our direction. I couldn't make out most of it; my then boyfriend said she was alternately yelling at him for being abusive toward me and warning me to get away from him or something. But here's the thing: this woman was quite obviously homeless and mentally ill. It's not clear that when she was looking in our direction she was even seeing us, rather than some couple she remembered imposed on our frames by her imagination. She wasn't focusing real clearly on us, at any rate. Also, she was on the other side of the street, walking in the opposite direction as us, and clearly posing no threat, imminent or otherwise.

Now, this guy I was with at the time got very upset by this, and wanted to go after the mentally ill homeless woman and confront her somehow or other. He didn't seem to hear or consider my arguments that the woman was obviously mentally ill; that, given that she didn't know us from a hole in the wall as well as her lack of focus, it was highly unlikely that whatever she was yelling about had anything to do with us - maybe some detail of our motion triggered some unpleasant memory from her own past, at most; and that she clearly didn't pose any sort of physical nor social threat (we were highly unlikely to run into her again, not living in that city even, and I seriously doubt she would have remembered or recognized us if we did). He only gave it up when I got rather upset with him, and to his credit, didn't like being the cause of me being upset.

On an individual level, the sort of reaction that this guy displayed was rather narcissistic: in a situation that was clearly Not About Him to any casual observer, he failed to consider any perspectives or possible explanations for the situation that didn't center around him. Yes, he was a white, straight male (upper middle class, even!). But taken individually, his response was narcissistic, not a display of privilege.

In fact, I thought at the time that his response indicated some sort of insecurity. But I have over a decade more experience now, and one thing that I've noticed is that the people who have similarly narcissistic reactions to similar situations are almost always straight white men from a middle class or higher socioeconomic background. Every so often it's a straight white woman from an upper middle class or higher background. They are people whose experience of life through some combination of factors such as class, race, gender, sexuality, religion, country of origin, etc. has always been reflected and validated by the world around them. Tv shows primarily show people that they can relate to. Books often have characters that they feel are similar to them. Advertising and politicians' rhetoric is aimed at people such as them. In school, they primarily learned about people like them. The idea that every situation is All About Them is not inconsistent with their lived experience, nor have they ever had to worry about someone putting the smack down on them for that attitude. Certainly far from every straight, white, middle class male displays this sort of narcissism. But the statistical concentration of this type of behavior in certain groups based on factors such as class, race, gender, sexual orientations, etc. is notable.

Now, one way of looking at this issue is to say that people experience systemic oppression on the basis of membership in marginalized class, race, gender, or sexual orientation groups. This again sets up the straight, white, middle class or higher level male group (as a group, keep in mind) as the norm, and implies that other experiences are unusual. And in some cases, I think that's a good way of looking at things. Everyone should have their family status protected, for example, and the fact that non-heterosexual nuclear families in most of the US don't is a case of negative discrimination, where all other families should be brought up to having the level of protections afforded heterosexual nuclear families.

But maybe the average white heterosexual middle class male experience is or should not be the norm, you know? Maybe there are a lot of positive cultural values in my working class upbringing, and upper middle class families should take on more of our characteristics instead of the other way around. There's some evidence that children of lesbian couples do a little better on average than children of heterosexual couples, I've read. In any case, only thinking of oppression along different axes, with white being the least oppressed racial class, male being the least oppressed gender class, straight being the least oppressed sexual orientation class, etc. kind of reinforces that straight white male middle to upper class normativity. And sometimes that class is more privileged than should be the norm, not less oppressed.

But on an individual level, if every time someone tries to talk to you about their experiences of class-based oppression your reaction is to get defensive and angry and assume they are trying to lay a guilt trip on you: I'd say that whether you believe in systemic oppression or privilege or not, that's a bit narcissistic, and maybe you need to chill a bit and keep in mind that not everything that people talk to you about is All About You. Yes, I'm sorry that you feel guilty and all things being equal I'd prefer a situation where that could be avoided. But, to quote ThatFuzzyBastard, "All other things are rarely equal." Probably your feelings of guilt are not the most important consideration in the room, you know?
posted by eviemath at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


Reggie Knoble: "sexism, racism & homophobia obviously exist"

YES. Exactly. And believe it or not, a lot of people don't believe that, or don't see how they are often favoured by the sexism and racism and homophobia because they are the "good" gender, or the "good" race, or the "good" sexuality.

No one is trying to blame any individual for having it easy. We are trying to start a conversation about how sexism, racism, and homophobia affect individuals in ways that many have never thought about, and one of those ways is that they sometimes don't have to think about sexism, racism, or homophobia.

Privilege isn't meant in the accusing sense, here - not like "you spoiled privileged brat". (Well, sometimes people say that, but I try not to.) It's meant in the sense of "you get to not think about this unpleasant thing that other people can't not think about". So we ask that you do think about it, occasionally, because that helps.
posted by Phire at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


'privileged' does not mean 'better off than the median person'. It is not the antonym of 'disadvantaged'. It only means that there's a trait that person has that helps them.
posted by 0xFCAF at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


See, Reggie Knoble, that's where I think you're wrong. I think you can absolutely tell a white, straight man that he has privilege. The argument is not that a white, straight man is always, in every single circumstance, having a constant orgy of happiness. But does whiteness earn you access to things that people with darker skin don't get? Absolutely. It's a kind of privilege, just like money. There is an institutionalized preference for whiteness, straightness, and maleness in America. These are demonstrable facts. Individual circumstances do not mitigate the big-picture fact that white, straight males rule this country. Maybe not you personally, maybe not the dirt-poor mountain man we keep trotting out, but it's not a mere coincidence that all but one of our nation's presidents were white, presumable straight (and yes, rich) men. I cannot fathom why people are so passionately interested in pretending like racism, sexism, and homophobia couldn't possibly factor strongly in daily interactions in this country. Where is this United States you live in, where white straight men don't have privilege? I want to go to there.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 8:20 AM on May 16, 2012


I actually think this reveals a good deal about how people get this dumb idea that "straight, white male is the easiest difficulty setting." Many earnest collegiate lefties are born in well-off white communities. There are non-white, non-straight people there, but they somehow don't get noticed (if you grew up seeing Nicole Ritchie at the country club, she's white to you). For those who grew up this way, underprivilieged people are poor city people, and poor city people (if you're in much of the U.S.) are black.

Where in there did I say they were black?
posted by olinerd at 8:26 AM on May 16, 2012


So you have all these people whose first and only experience of real poverty and the horribly shortened horizons it produces are with black people,

So... may I respectfully suggest, ThatFuzzyBastard, that your words belie your thesis?
posted by eviemath at 8:39 AM on May 16, 2012


The North never resorted to the whole "slavery" approach to production, for the simple reason that we have an abundance of rapidly flowing rivers to tap for power (as compared with the slowly meandering swamp-like trickles common in the South). As a result, the North focused on using that power for manufacturing, and primarily grew simple-to-harvest food crops; the South remained agriculturally dominant and grew extremely labor-intensive crops such as cotton and tobacco.

Slavery was a while ago though, you might want to ask yourself how come your part of the woods stayed white even when Black people were finally free. There were plenty of sunset towns[1] outside the slaver south as well.

[1] As in, if we catch you being Black in our town after sunset, you won't be here at dawn.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


'privileged' does not mean 'better off than the median person'. It is not the antonym of 'disadvantaged'. It only means that there's a trait that person has that helps them.
posted by 0xFCAF at 4:20 PM on May 16 [+] [!]


I'm sorry but I don't see how "a trait that person has that helps them" is different from an advantage, and if straight white male are all advantages but poor, poorly educated and coming from a broken home are all disadvantages (which experience would seem to suggest) then where does someone who embodies all six traits sit on the privilege axis?

See, Reggie Knoble, that's where I think you're wrong. I think you can absolutely tell a white, straight man that he has privilege.

As with my above point are you required to know anything about a straight white male other than those three things before you tell him he is privileged?

You mentioned upthread that you are gay. Now I am going to assume that it is possible to look at you and not know that you are gay, at leat in certain situations, I will also assume that you are white just because MeFi demographics seems mostly white so I will go with the odds there.

Would you like it if someone started pointing out your privilage based on your obvious traits of being male and white without regard for the fact that you have another invisible trait that doesn't provide privilege and in fact can provide the opposite? If they told you that you had it easy, that what you have was more or less given to you because you won some sort of genetic lottery.

I would guess not. No, it wouldn't be the worst thing that could ever happen to you but it would hardly be pleasant.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 8:52 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the major failure of this metaphor is that it targets a demographic (gamer male) that absolutely hates to be told that they are choosing to do something the easy way. I don't know of many self-identifying gamers who will willingly play something on easy. This metaphor, then, tells them that not only are they playing on easy but they are stuck on easy mode.

This immediately brings up feelings of inadequacy (so you're telling me I'm not as good as [disadvantaged person] because I'm struggling at this game on easy and they're just as far on medium or hard??) because they take the words as reflecting on themselves not on the state of the world or the reality that other people are forced to live in. It almost never provokes the "damn that person is playing on hard? what a badass" or "wow that person must be really good at what they do" - it automatically goes into "I" statements (what does this mean for me, the reader, not them, the subject).

More explicitly, the desired response to a discussion about privilege is "wow that really sucks for [disadvantaged person], how can I avoid perpetrating that suckitude?" but what we get is "well I haven't directly oppressed [disadvantaged person] so the current state of suck isn't my fault and, therefore, I am blameless so stop trying to shove blame on me".

Unfortunately, the easy mode metaphor only exacerbates this issue because many gamers pride themselves on doing things the hard way, on having been the disadvantaged/picked on minority that has risen from the ashes and being told that they succeeded out of something other than sheer will always leads to massive blowback because it targets a core aspect of their self-identity (the reject that overcame). If they really didn't overcome anything then they're just rejects... and that's kind of upsetting.

We all like to think of our trials and struggles as valid whether we're disadvantaged on multiple axes or on none. We are incredibly sensitive to being told that we're not actually struggling in comparison to others or that others have it harder, potentially because a lot of us hate the status quo of our own lives. We are also extremely self-centered here in the West. These two factors together lead to the typical privilege = omg they're making a value judgement about me = quick! defense mechanism! cycle that we so often see. The easy mode metaphor does not circumvent any of this for the typical gamer, it in fact goes right to the core. As such, it solves very little of the problems with the initial argument.
posted by buteo at 8:57 AM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


While I found the original post entertaining, I think that's a very convincing argument for applying the game metaphor at least quite cautiously, buteo. Thanks for a well thought-out comment.
posted by eviemath at 9:00 AM on May 16, 2012


No one is trying to blame any individual for having it easy

Lots of people do this.

Do you mean, no one in the thread is trying to blame any individual for having it easy? I guess that's possible. Dunno how you arrived at the conclusion though.

When someone tells you to "check your privilege," what do you suppose they want you to do? Do they actually want to hear what particular privileges you think you have in the current context? That would be weird, because this is usually directed at men who are trying to take part in feminist discussions, which are Not About Men.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:04 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reggie Knoble, honest question: why would it matter if I liked it? I possess white privilege and male privilege. My opinion on the matter is sort of irrelevant.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:09 AM on May 16, 2012


The real WTF is, that the whole concept of priviledge and all was largely developed to sugarcoat the truth for us straight white males, because talking about racism or sexism directly upsets us so.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:13 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Help, I Cant Stop Talking: Why would you be pointing out privilege to people who's actual circumstances beyond race and gender you don't know. If you are hoping to convince someone then using a method most likely to piss them off seems unhelpful.

If you aren't trying to convince them of something then what are you doing?
posted by Reggie Knoble at 9:17 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


When someone tells you to "check your privilege," what do you suppose they want you to do? Do they actually want to hear what particular privileges you think you have in the current context?

They want you to stop speaking, stop taking up space talking about yourself, and listen to - actually listen to and process - what they are saying about their own experiences and how the majority can make their life harder. The goal is for you to internalize what they are telling you, decide you're not going to perpetrate that to the best of your ability, and then go out and apply that knowledge in your interactions with other people.

Within a discussion about sexism, this could mean "please stop talking about how men feel about this when we are discussing sexist imagery in the media", or "that was a sexist comment and no, we're not going to explain it to you at length in order for you to become comfortable with the topic", or "this is what sexism looks like and no, it doesn't matter if you feel bad about it". The goal is that you will then stop perpetrating sexism, call out sexist bullshit when you see it, and become a better ally to women and people of marginalized genders.

If you are not part of the minority that is being discussed and you are told to check your privilege, it is a reminder that this is not about you and your role is that of an ally, which involves more listening than talking when in that minority setting (ie. a straight ally would not be given much floor time with regards to someone who is LGB within an LGB setting but they would be welcome to advocate outside of an LGB setting).
posted by buteo at 9:18 AM on May 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


because talking about racism or sexism directly upsets us so.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:13


Us? Did I miss a vote where you got elected spokesman?
posted by Reggie Knoble at 9:21 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reggie Knoble: regardless of other circumstances, white privilege exists. Male privilege exists. Straight privilege exists. Pointing these things out can be helpful in a great number of circumstances, mostly because acknowledging the reality of the world we live in is a great way to engage in rational conversation. The sky is blue, everyone dies, and white people get jobs easier than minorities. Fact, fact, fact.

The hang-up seems to be that there are other circumstances. Also true! I don't make a ton of money, and that hurts my privilege somewhat. I'm gay, and that lowers my score. But neither of those factors erases my white, male privilege, and it's important to remember that.

Here's an example. My sister and I are basically identical in terms of background. We even look alike. Since it's not always obvious that I'm gay to innocent bystanders, and since it's tough to tell which of us is older, the only definite differentiation between us is that she's female. When our mother got cancer (see, even white people have it hard!), the doctors spoke to us differently. I got more direct, more frequent updates; she got softer news. Even in smaller circumstances, for instance, when we eat dinner together, the check always comes to me. My maleness makes me somehow more viable in society.

Over time, slights like that add up. Knowing that I benefit from whiteness and maleness in the eyes of society as a whole helps me have empathy for others who do not have whiteness or maleness to rely on. It's not about shaming people or telling them they're cheating, it's about recognizing others' hardships.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:25 AM on May 16, 2012


I mean the ignorant ones that you're pretending don't exist while I look over my shoulder walking home at night because, you know, hate crimes still happen in Brooklyn and I get called faggot regularly and minority rights are still actually a huge fucking deal in this country and are being carted out as wedge issues in the current presidential campaign.

I know, only white dudes are homophobic.
posted by smackfu at 9:29 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Or maybe I'm just misunderstanding. I thought privilege was a distinct concept from stuff like overt homophobia or racism, so I'm not sure what that comment was referring to.)
posted by smackfu at 9:33 AM on May 16, 2012


smackfu, that's a willfully obtuse misreading of my intention, especially given that I mention race absolutely nowhere in the quote you pulled. Don't be lazy.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:34 AM on May 16, 2012


But there are more than three categories of people. Once you account for family circumstances, class, wealth (or lack thereof), mental health, employment status, level of education and on and on you pretty quickly reach the point where we all have a few in the plus column and a few in the minus column. Putting a group of people in a box marked privilege because you can tell their race and gender just by looking at them is simplistic and reductive (and kind of sexist and racist) and failing to take account of (or even care) about any other factors is pretty much the opposite of empathy.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 9:36 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Reggie Knoble: I am not not not not not not not not not saying that white privilege or male privilege or straight privilege trump everything else. I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that. I'm not saying that.

I'm not saying that.

Can we be clear on that point?

I am saying that they exist and are worth remembering. I promise you that my world view accounts for all the other circumstances in a person's life. White privilege is mitigated by wealth, intelligence, opportunity, and all sorts of other circumstances. I get it, I really do. White privilege continues to exist even when other issues are added on. Is it the most important factor in a situation? Not necessarily. But it's always a factor. Being male is part of every interaction in a male's life, regardless of who that male is. It's always a factor.

That's all I'm saying. I'm not saying it's the only way to judge someone. I'm not I'm not I'm not. Can we never ever again say that that's what I'm saying, because if you couldn't tell, I'm kind of tired of hearing that argument.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:41 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Within a discussion about sexism, this could mean "please stop talking about how men feel about this when we are discussing sexist imagery in the media", or "that was a sexist comment and no, we're not going to explain it to you at length in order for you to become comfortable with the topic", or "this is what sexism looks like and no, it doesn't matter if you feel bad about it"

So uh, none of those statements actually say anything about the intruder's privilege, do they?

Why, then, are they expressed in the phrase, "check your privilege"?
posted by LogicalDash at 9:44 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds to me like you're just getting hung up on terminology, Reggie. You said this:

Yes, sexism, racism & homophobia obviously exist...

So if they exist, then certain people are more likely to benefit from them. The word privilege is just meant to convey that concept. That's it, as I understand it.

(I'm hopefully not dead wrong here.)
posted by ODiV at 9:45 AM on May 16, 2012


LogicalDash, part of privilege is thinking that every discussion applies to you.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


The conversation here reminds me of this post:

Why Teaching Equality Hurts Men
How, then, does any of this relate to the frankly incendiary notion that teaching equality hurts men?

Because of everyone, straight, white men are the least likely people to experience exclusion and inequality first-hand during their youth, and are therefore the most likely to disbelieve its existence later in life. Unless they seek out ‘feminine’ pastimes as children – and why would they, when so much of boy-culture tells them not to? – they will never be rebuked or excluded on the basis of gender. Unless someone actively takes the time to convince them otherwise, they will learn as teens that the world is an equal place – an assertion that gels absolutely with their personal experiences, such that even if women, LGBTQ individuals and/or POC are rarely or never visible in their world, they are nonetheless unlikely to stop and question it. They will likely study white-male-dominated curricula, laugh ironically at sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, and participate actively in a popular culture saturated with successful, varied, complex and interesting versions of themselves – and this will feel right and arouse no suspicion whatever, because this is what equality should feel like. They will experience no sexual or racial discrimination when it comes to getting a job and will, on average, earn more money than the women and POC around them – and if they stop to reflect on either of these things, they’ll do so in the knowledge that, as the world is equal, any perceived hierarchical differences are simply reflective of the meritocracy at work.

They will not see how the system supports their success above that of others, because they have been told that equality stripped them of their privileges long ago. Many will therefore react with bafflement and displeasure to the idea of positive discrimination, hiring quotas or any other such deliberate attempts at encouraging diversity – because not only will it seem to genuinely disadvantage them, but it will look like an effort to undermine equality by granting new privileges to specific groups. Never having experienced inequality, therefore, the majority of straight white men will be absolutely oblivious to their own advantages – not because they must necessarily be insensitive, sexist, racist, homophobic or unaware of the principles of equality; but because they have been told, over and over again, that there is no inequality left for them – or anyone else – to experience – and everything they have experienced up to that point will only have proved them right.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [7 favorites]


LogicalDash: " Why, then, are they expressed in the phrase, "check your privilege"?"

I take that to mean "Check how you are behaving towards minorities who are being affected by this thing that you don't have to deal with because of your privilege to not be affected by it, and listen to us for a second."
posted by Phire at 9:47 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have my own terrible game analogy.

Life is like an RPG where you roll for attributes. Some races are better than others, because they can do magic or shit like that. You roll your character and you get the best race. You go "awesome! this game will be really fun now!" The other players are like "shut up, you just got lucky." The end.
posted by smackfu at 9:49 AM on May 16, 2012


Then rocks fall and everyone dies.
posted by ODiV at 9:50 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


When someone tells you to "check your privilege," what do you suppose they want you to do? Do they actually want to hear what particular privileges you think you have in the current context?

They want you to stop speaking,

Yup.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:51 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


ThatFuzzyBastard, you understand the delicious irony of omitting "and listen" from that pull quote, right?
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 9:54 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Yeah, but I thought the point was much clearer without.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:00 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


LogicalDash, part of privilege is thinking that every discussion applies to you.

It's not the only reason why a person might make any of those fauxes pas, is it? So when someone disrupts your discussion on social justice, and instead of calling them out for the particular error you say "check your privilege," you are still blaming them for barging in--which is appropriate--but now you're doing it by bringing up their privilege.

If you really want to tell a person off for derailing the conversation, invoking a theoretical construct for why people who are like them might want to derail feminist conversations is kind of a roundabout way of doing it. I suppose there must be a good reason...
posted by LogicalDash at 10:02 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is, R.K. is right, above, that when you start factoring in family connections, mental health, physical health, genetic happenstance, parental involvement, region, and many other factors, you end up with a lot of things that each individual has in their plus and minus box and you have to engage with who a person really is and what their life is really like. People who insist that "white, straight, male is the easiest setting" as though that was a useful statement aren't interested in that sort of engagement (otherwise they'd understand how people not steeped in academic lefty jargon communicate the idea of gratitude and humility), they just want to silence people.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:02 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


> > people have been taught to be terrified of Marx.

> ...because there's no way one could possibly develop a negative view of Marxist theory one one's own, amirite?

The number of people in the United States who could make a reasonably good stab at a definition of Marxism is quite small - certainly less than 10%.

On the other hand, there are the tens of millions of people who believe Mr. Obama is a Socialist.

I've talked to a lot of apolitical young people about Socialism. When I ask them what it is, I almost always get one of two answers: slavery, or concentration camps. I'm actually surprised they don't reference the Nazis.

So I'd say that if you are talking to an American who has a negative view of Marxism, it's extremely likely that they have not the faintest idea what the words Socialism, Marxism, or even Liberalism really mean.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:04 AM on May 16, 2012


> Yeah, but I thought the point was much clearer without.

You edited a quote to significantly change its meaning because it makes the point "clearer"?!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:06 AM on May 16, 2012


So if they exist, then certain people are more likely to benefit from them. The word privilege is just meant to convey that concept. That's it, as I understand it.

(I'm hopefully not dead wrong here.)


When I see privilege in this type of context it is generally used to mean that people not directly affected by sexism/racism/homophobia have it easy.

Now while a straight white male may not be harmed directly by those three they can be harmed by a huge array of other traits and factors which cause them hardship.

White privilege has 5.2 million google hits. Male privilege has 19.2 million. Stright privilege has 23.4 million.

The trifecta has
posted by Reggie Knoble at 10:09 AM on May 16, 2012


Yeah, but I thought the point was much clearer without.

If your point is "I like being spoiled and I don't want anything to jeopardize that," then yeah, it does.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:09 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Didn't mean to hit post.

People don't tend to talk about other types of privilege as much.

I think people tend to be more than their race/gender/orientation and if you want to judge how hard someone has it you should look at more than those three things.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 10:14 AM on May 16, 2012


ThatFuzzyBastard, I want to be clear, as I have been in several comments, that I do not think for a second that simply being white, straight, and male make it a) a guarantee that you have the perfect life or b) make it necessary to remove you from conversation. I talk to white, straight males all the time. I'm related to and love a great many white, straight males. No one is here to say that all white people, straight people, or male people are bad people who should shut up and go home. I think you're taking an uncharitable view of what's being said, and I'd encourage you to give people the benefit of the doubt instead of only focusing on the few key words in their message that allow you to feel the most righteous indignation.

The point is that whiteness, maleness, and straightness are sort of awesome to have. And if you have them, you might not fully recognize what it's like not to have them. Maybe, because he's never gone to a party worrying that he'll be drugged and raped when he gets there, a man can sort of forget that sexually aggressive humor can be a trigger for people. Maybe, because he's never had the word thrown at him while he desperately tries to outrun someone, he'll call his friend "fag" for fun and won't think anything of it. Those are signs of privilege. They're not being brought into discussion to make you feel bad, they're being brought in to show why someone else already feels bad.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:15 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


People just generally assume that conversations are about them, in my experience. Not out of any kind of malice, it's just easier to interpret things based on what you are familiar with.

To interpret a conversation that way when it's not appropriate wouldn't be considered an expression of male privilege in any context that didn't already concern male privilege somehow. When people respond to, say, Noam Chomsky's theories about class warfare by asking what's to be done about any of it, those people are usually exactly the people who are harmed by the phenomena described, but don't want to worry about it if they can't do anything. That's narrow-minded of them, and demands that Chomsky reach beyond his area of expertise, but I wouldn't assume that they're doing that because they're rich, white, or male. Not that rich white males wouldn't do it, of course.

But then when it's a feminist issue, and the person who's made it All About Themself is male, suddenly it's because of his privilege. I can't say that it isn't, of course. I don't have a Privilege Thermometer. But it's assumed that he's making something more than an ordinary human error, because he's male, and he's surrounded by feminists.

Male privilege is the problem under discussion. Now that guy has to be double extra careful what he says, not just to be helpful--not just to avoid offending--but to avoid being Part Of The Problem.

Ironically, that actually does make the conversation About Him, although not in the way he wanted.

So anyway, when my Privilege is being used to refer to things that I am being (perhaps appropriately) blamed for, I think it is fair to say that I am being blamed for my privilege.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:27 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Reggie Knoble, you continue to bring up other privileges and mitigating factors. It seems hard for you to believe that being a white or straight or male would pose a significant advantage in the world because there are also other factors to consider. That seems to be the central contention: what about other factors? As I've said before: even with other factors that might make life hard, being white or straight or male is still a benefit.

Look, no one's going to sit and do some sort of numbers game. "Which is better: gay white male in a wheelchair or blind black heterosexual woman? What if they're both poor?" It just devolves. I know that you're trying to say that each individual has perfectly unique experiences, and you're trying to avoid passing sweeping judgments, and I appreciate that.

Highlighting privilege is not a way of judging someone. Privilege is simply something you have. Pointing out privilege is a way of judging society's expectations. But when I say I have white privilege, I'm not doing it to say that I'm better than others, or that I'm a terrible person for having this privilege. Like the skin itself, I have no control over the privilege I've acquired.

The point of highlighting privilege is simply to build awareness. When looking for apartments, the landlord will probably rent to me before he'll rent to a racial minority. I'll get picked for physically demanding jobs before most women. They're facts. They don't imply anything about me, and privilege doesn't imply anything about you. If people stopped viewing this thread as a litany of personal attacks, we could probably get a lot further.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:27 AM on May 16, 2012


> The point is that whiteness, maleness, and straightness are sort of awesome to have.

As Chris Rock puts it:
Shit, there ain't a white man in this room that would change places with me. None of you would change places with me. And l'm rich!

That's how good it is to be white.

There's a white, one-legged busboy in here right now... that won't change places with my black ass. He's going, ''No, man, l don't wanna switch. l wanna ride this white thing out. See where it takes me.''
I'm a straight Anglo-Saxon male, with a hint of an English accent to boot. There is no question in my mind but that this is an advantage in almost every interaction I have with the world, though I never realized this viscerally until I moved to the United States.

If you are white(*), particularly a straight-acting white male, and you are arguing that this is not an intrinsic advantage in your path through this world, then you are simply deceiving yourself.

Yes, you might have other disadvantages - a "lower class" accent eliminates a big chunk of your white privilege right off - but being SWM puts you far ahead of the game.

(* - God, I hate this use of the word. Are South Americans white? Are Indians (either type)? And I'm actually pink... but I don't have a better word choice.)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:30 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


When I see privilege in this type of context it is generally used to mean that people not directly affected by sexism/racism/homophobia have it easy.

And all I see are caveats that of course there are other factors and obviously having these types of privilege don't guarantee an easy life by any stretch. To use the metaphor that started all this: going through life on the "easiest setting" isn't going to prevent completely unfair scenarios like "drowned in the bath by insane parent" or "born with Down Syndrome" and will even, in some instances, make them more likely. I don't think anyone is disputing this. If they have, I've missed it.

I kind of liken this privilege talk to saying smoking increases your risk of dying of lung cancer. If I make that statement it's kind of missing the point to come up with examples of smokers who haven't gotten cancer, smokers who have died of unrelated causes, etc.
posted by ODiV at 10:34 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


The point is that whiteness, maleness, and straightness are sort of awesome to have.

Right, yes, I know. Everyone here knows that. And I certainly never mentioned "being made to feel bad".

I'm not disagreeing that people who are white, straight, and male do not have to worry about things people who are not those things don't. I know that, you know that, everyone knows that. My point is that people who are white, straight, and male might not be "on the easiest setting", because race, orientation, and gender are not the only factors, and I would say are not even the most decisive factors, in determining how difficult it is to achieve your goals. Not the least of which is what your goals are!

(and Lupus, while Chris Rock is a very funny man, I assure you that one-legged white busboy would give anything to trade places with Mr. Rock)

I take an uncharitable view of those who think that "white, straight and male is the easiest difficulty setting" because they are not only saying something obviously untrue, but also because they are saying something that would be understood to be untrue with the slightest glance at human lives. So I regard them as not all that interested in human's lives, only in asserting their own special knowledge, and I find that contemptible. As has been rightly noted upthread, once you start factoring in all the "other factors", you pile so many caveats onto the statement that it collapses. So the only reason anyone would defend the statement is because they don't want to think about all the other factors. Why not?

If all you're saying is "Look at things from another person's perspective", well, that's the sort of thing George W. Bush believed too, which is pretty much the lowest possible bar for insight. If all you're saying is "white, male, straight people don't have to worry about things those who aren't those things do", you're not saying anything that the vast majority of people don't already know. You're just saying it with the particular jargon popular with a certain subset of people, and impenetrable to others, which furthers the impression that you're more interested in feeling smug than communicating.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


My point is that people who are white, straight, and male might not be "on the easiest setting", because race, orientation, and gender are not the only factors, and I would say are not even the most decisive factors, in determining how difficult it is to achieve your goals. Not the least of which is what your goals are!

Great, so we're in complete agreement. I'm not sure who you thought it was who was disagreeing with you: everyone else was saying exactly the same thing.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look, no one's going to sit and do some sort of numbers game.

Someone already did, it just turns out that stright white male was exactly the right place to stop.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 10:47 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


We're going to have to agree to disagree here, because I need to get back to work. If this continues, I hope it's great fun for you all.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 10:53 AM on May 16, 2012


Incidentally, the idea of the RPG Real Life comes from Alan Moore's abandoned masterwork (it would have been if he'd finished it, anyway) Big Numbers - it's played by the children of the transplanted American executive sent to oversee the building of the mall. It's mentioned in passing in one of the published issues, but notes suggest that the social status dictated by roll of dice would come to have influence over the actual lives of the characters (and thus become an important part of the plot).
posted by Grangousier at 11:11 AM on May 16, 2012


Here's an alternate nerdy metaphor. Think of the fundamental physical forces (gravity, electromagnetic, strong, weak). We can say that:
* if we have three particles (let's call them A, B, and C)
* and if, all other things being equal, particle A and more mass than particle B,
* then the attractive force between particles A and C will be stronger than the attractive force between particles B and C.
Of course, if the charges on particles A and B are different, we'd have to factor that in. And if the particles started out really, really close together then we'd have to take into account the weak nuclear force more so than if the particles started out fairly far apart - that is, the different forces not only have different strengths, but act in different ways. Yet we know these fundamental forces exist: we even have mathematical equations to describe their strength and actions.

That does not mean that you can take a complicated situation such as a room full of atoms and molecules and actually calculate how those four fundamental forces are affecting each specific atom. That is just way too complex of a problem.

And yet, the fundamental forces still exist, and do have their effects, and we can say useful things on average or statistically.

Ok, so in my metaphor, there are some axes (more than four of them, of course) of privilege/oppression. If we had three people, let's call them A, B, and C, and if A and B were identical except that A was richer (or whiter, or male-er, or straighter, etc.) than B, then C would tend to react more positively to A than to B (humans are more complicated than atoms, so it's not an exact metaphor and I have to replace the deterministic "will" with the probabilistic "tend to").

Real life is more like the room full of atoms and molecules: a complicated mix where you can't calculate exactly how much privilege one individual has relative to another based on all axes, nor is that even useful in most situation.

And yet, the axes of privilege/oppression still exist, and do have their effects, and we can say useful things on average or statistically.

In fact, in many cases, we can point out the action of gravity in a specific situation, or of any of the other individual fundamental forces. And in many cases, we can point out the action of class based oppression, or racism, or sexism, or heterosexism, etc. in a specific situation. Analyzing the effects of systemic oppression/privilege can sometimes be inexact on the individual level, but is still highly useful on the everyday, societal level; kind of like Newtonian mechanics can sometimes be inexact on the particle level but highly useful on the human-scaled object level.

In this metaphor, privilege = attractive force and oppression = repulsive force, but another inexactness of the metaphor is that, while we have a clear, mathematical cutoff between attractive and repulsive force, there is not such point where we can say "on this side, you are gaining privilege, and on this other side, you are losing out due to oppression. Right here in the middle? That's exactly the norm of how things should be." Instead, it's all a relative measure: "A is more privileged than B" is equivalent to "B is more oppressed than A" (with the caveat, again, that it's basically impossible to calculate this in general, when not just focusing on one particular axis). Whether one uses the term "privilege" or "oppression" depends on the perspective one is speaking from relative the other person or group one is applying the term to. And while "underprivileged" I think is a fine synonym for "oppressed", personally, I think "under-oppressed" sounds kinda dumb, both phonetically, and as an idea. Thus we have the term "privileged".

How does that work as a metaphor? :P

(It's, er, aimed at those with sufficient privilege that they've had the opportunity to study a reasonable amount of physics, of course?)
posted by eviemath at 11:15 AM on May 16, 2012


"...particle A has more mass than particle B" would make a lot more sense.
posted by eviemath at 11:20 AM on May 16, 2012


You're so white/straight/male
You probably think this comment is about yooooouuuu...

Privilege is a finger on the scales. Loaded dice don't always come up the way you want them to, but a slight change in odds is enough to make a difference. The longer the game, the more tiny advantages tend to add up over time.
posted by Eideteker at 11:22 AM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


My point is that people who are white, straight, and male might not be "on the easiest setting", because race, orientation, and gender are not the only factors, and I would say are not even the most decisive factors, in determining how difficult it is to achieve your goals. Not the least of which is what your goals are!

Great, so we're in complete agreement. I'm not sure who you thought it was who was disagreeing with you: everyone else was saying exactly the same thing.

Ah, well then if only you hadn't said such nonsense as "I'm a straight Anglo-Saxon male, with a hint of an English accent to boot. There is no question in my mind but that this is an advantage in almost every interaction I have with the world", which suggests that you've had an extraordinarily limited set of interactions with the world, then this all could have gone much quicker.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:35 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ah hell, y'know what---that's uncharitable. Maybe you really have had such a specific set of experiences that being white, straight, male and English always has been an advantage. That's certainly not true of everyone, but I wouldn't want to deny the truth of your experience. Just wish you wouldn't be so quick to extrapolate it to others.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:40 AM on May 16, 2012


My point is that people who are white, straight, and male might not be "on the easiest setting", because race, orientation, and gender are not the only factors, and I would say are not even the most decisive factors, in determining how difficult it is to achieve your goals. Not the least of which is what your goals are!

That's if you're taking things on a case-by-case basis. In generalized conversations about how generally certain factors make things easier for another, one's individualized, specific experience is moot.

And anyway, I have to question why you're very hell-bent on asserting this point, since the discussions about privilege come up only when it's women trying to give testimony about the experience of being women, or African-Americans trying to give testimony about the experience of being black, or whatever. If the topic of conversation is about "a facet about being [something you're not,]" then what is it that you would be offering to the conversation anyway?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:46 AM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


then what is it that you would be offering to the conversation anyway?

Well it depends on where the conversation is happening and exactly what the details are and how it is framed but using MeFi as an example it is a rare post indeed that is only ever about one thing.

Also testimony is kind of a GYOB kind of thing, talking somewhere with comments makes it likely that someone might talk back.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 11:58 AM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't care about the gameplay settings, I just want the cheat code and the walkthrough.
posted by storybored at 12:06 PM on May 16, 2012


... and once again I invoke my privilege to not give a flying fuck.

Note 1: Marx was a white dude. Socialism wouldn't change much of this.
Note 2: "Money is just a way of keeping score." - HL Hunt
posted by Ardiril at 12:11 PM on May 16, 2012


Well it depends on where the conversation is happening and exactly what the details are and how it is framed but using MeFi as an example it is a rare post indeed that is only ever about one thing.

Okay, let's use the famous Hi, Whatcha Reading thread as an Exhibit A. What is the perspective that you as a man could say about what it is like to experience being female?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:14 PM on May 16, 2012


Okay, let's use the famous Hi, Whatcha Reading thread as an Exhibit A. What is the perspective that you as a man could say about what it is like to experience being female?

From the FPP (a direct quote from the linked post(and the subtitle of the linked post)): or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced.

The very first line of the linked post: Gentlemen. Thank you for reading.

I cannot imagine why men would have read or commented.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 12:27 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't care about the gameplay settings, I just want the cheat code and the walkthrough.

Historically, that's what oppressing people based on class, gender, race, and whatnot did: Create cheatcodes and walkthroughs. Some of which still exist.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 12:27 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


From the FPP (a direct quote from the linked post(and the subtitle of the linked post)): or a guy’s guide to approaching strange women without being maced. The very first line of the linked post: Gentlemen. Thank you for reading. I cannot imagine why men would have read or commented.

Reading is one thing. Commenting is one thing.

Disputing the premise is something else again, especially when the source of your dispute is based in "I have no personal experience with that." Which is what the bulk of the dissent was coming from. And the thing was, women know men don't have personal experience with street harrassment, and that was the whole point of the article -- "hey, guys, here's some stuff that you may not know happens -- and the reason you wouldn't know is because you're guys, not women -- and that may explain some thing about Why Women Act Like This. You had no way of knowing, but hey, we're telling you so now you do know. Cool? Cool."

It's like: say you're having a conversation with a new-ish friend, and you crack a joke with him about his Mother's Day plans, and he tells you, "actually, my mother died when I was six." He's not blaming you for the fact that his mother died, he's not angry with you for bringing up mothers, he's only saying it because "okay, no big deal, you didn't know before, but now you do, and I'm telling you so you can avoid making Mom jokes in the future or whatever". And likewise, you don't react by kvetching about how maybe it's just as hard to grow up WITH a mother as without one, you would probably react by saying "ooh, sorry, didn't know," and you just don't make Mothers' Day references in future.

The "Hi, Whatcha Reading" thread was the larger-social-group equivalent of "no big deal, you didn't know this before, but now you do." Just like most conversations about this kind of thing are the equivalent of "you didn't know what this is like before, or that this kind of thing happens, but hey, now you do." If you're getting "check your privilege" comments, that's probably a sign you've started saying things like "well, you think it was so great having a mother who DIDN'T die when I was six? What are you complaining about..."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:41 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Reading is one thing. Commenting is one thing.

Disputing the premise is something else again


OK. I don't really think there is any value in rehashing a 2 and a half year old thread. Nor do I have the time to read 844 comments.

However the posted linked there was about how men approach women so a male contribution on that subject was as valid a female contribution.

If it went off the rails that is too bad but that doesn't disqualify men from commenting on that or similar subjects.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 1:01 PM on May 16, 2012


I don't really think there is any value in rehashing a 2 and a half year old thread. Nor do I have the time to read 844 comments.

Well, that's why I summed it up for you thusly: "hey, guys: you wouldn't know that this sort of thing happens to women a lot, but now we're telling you so you do know, and can understand what our perspective is, so we can all get along better. 'kay?"

However the posted linked there was about how men approach women so a male contribution on that subject was as valid a female contribution. If it went off the rails that is too bad but that doesn't disqualify men from commenting on that or similar subjects.

"However, the fact that Sid told me that his mother died was about mothers so a comment on my own mother was just as valid. If he got upset that's too bad but the fact that his mother died doesn't disqualify me from asking him about his mother's day plans."
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:04 PM on May 16, 2012


I don't really think there is any value in rehashing a 2 and a half year old thread. Nor do I have the time to read 844 comments.

It might be useful to make time if you are going to comment on the thread.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:12 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


"However, the fact that Sid told me that his mother died was about mothers so a comment on my own mother was just as valid. If he got upset that's too bad but the fact that his mother died doesn't disqualify me from asking him about his mother's day plans."

Conversation about the content of links is the norm here. When the link is about a male/female interaction males and females both have something to say and a persepective to add.

If what you want is a seminar you are free to attend one.

It might be useful to make time if you are going to comment on the thread.

If I intend to comment on it then I will, I'm sure you have noticed that I haven't actually done so. I have just said that men shouldn't have been disqualified from commenting on it at the time and that given the subject matter of the linked post I can see why men would feel like they had something to say.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 1:21 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


If what you want is a seminar you are free to attend one.

But I don't want to attend a seminar, I want to force you to attend one!
posted by grobstein at 1:23 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Conversation about the content of links is the norm here. When the link is about a male/female interaction males and females both have something to say and a persepective to add.

The link is only "about" male/female interaction in the sense that men are the ones women are talking "about."

If what you want is a seminar you are free to attend one.

If it takes a seminar for you to listen when people try to tell you about their experiences you may need to re-think how social interaction works.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:27 PM on May 16, 2012


Well, as it happens, nobody said you can't comment. They did say that there is a point where you must balance out your talking with listening. Especially when discussing something that you don't have direct experience with, and somebody else does. In those circumstances, it's probably best to let the people with the experiences do most of the talking.

Yes, men have experience hitting on women in public. But that's not the subject of the thread you linked to. The thread you linked to is about how this can lead to an oppressive atmosphere for women, and that, when you consider the number of women who are raped, it's worth knowing that women must be cautious, because they don't know you, and they cannot know that you're a nice guy. That this leads to an environment where just getting hit on in public can be exceptionally stressful, especially when plenty of men respond to rejection in really weird, unpleasant ways. And this is worth knowing if you're a man and you want to talk to somebody in public -- that it's a fraught circumstance.

This is explicitly from a woman's experience. And men do not instinctually know that many women experience things this way. And that can't really learn if they don't listen.

So, yes, sometimes a seminar is just what we need. Because sometimes somebody has something to offer that we don't already know about, and it's worth sitting back and taking in what they have to say, and if we don't understand we respond with questions, so we can be sure we understand.

But instead a lot of what happened in that thread was men turning it into "Well, since you brought up men, let's now turn it into a referendum about the men's experience of this." And the men's experience is one of privilege in this circumstance. They don't have to worry that if some woman comes up to hit on them, she's going to freak out and become abusive or violent, because it almost never happens to men. They don't have to think about this in a larger context of sexual violence, because, although sexual violence does happen to men, not so often in this way that it pervades social interactions between men and women.

And the reason for the post was so that men might understand this, and be sensitive to it. But, by making it all about themselves, and by arguing the article point by point, and by discounting the experiences of the woman who wrote the piece, and by explaining to women how they actually experience things, and by behaving as though the real problem is with women, because it is so hard to know when it is appropriate to flirt with them, this point was lost. That thread became a showcase for male privilege, and became a real point of contention.

And to say, well, I don't have to read it? No you don't. You never have to address these issues. Because they don't affect you directly. That's exactly what privilege is. It's not having to be bothered.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:35 PM on May 16, 2012 [8 favorites]


There's also an interesting article about the stupid Privilege Olympics and privilege in general by Roxanne Gay.
posted by jeather at 1:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


The link is only "about" male/female interaction in the sense that men are the ones women are talking "about."

The linked post was by a woman, not many women.

It was subtitled a guy's guide, the first line was adressed to gentlemen.

The entire article is in the voice of a woman speaking to men.

Of course men are going to respond to that. I haven't commented on how they responded in that particular thread because I haven't read it recently and I highly doubt that either yourself or Bunny have a crystal clear memory of the exact content of 844 comments posted 2 and a half years ago either but I will take your word for what happened as it is irrelevant to my point.

Well, as it happens, nobody said you can't comment. They did say that there is a point where you must balance out your talking with listening.


Nope what they said was

If the topic of conversation is about "a facet about being [something you're not,]" then what is it that you would be offering to the conversation anyway?


Not quite the even handed moderate point you represented it as being.

And while what it feels like may have been a topic that followed from the linked post it wasn't the only topic could follow from it.

And to say, well, I don't have to read it? No you don't. You never have to address these issues. Because they don't affect you directly. That's exactly what privilege is. It's not having to be bothered.


So now privilege is not having to read a MeFi thread that happened 2 and a half years ago? Because reading that thread is clearly the only way one can think about these issues. Out of interest how do you know who has read it and who hasn't? Is there a quiz?
posted by Reggie Knoble at 1:56 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The thread was based on a woman saying "when a dude hits on me, because of my past experiences of being a woman, this is how I react, so please keep that in mind". The guide is speaking to men in that we're telling you something about our experiences that you wouldn't have known, as men. You can certainly respond and react, but you can't comment on the validity of the experience, because by definition, the experience happened to someone, and is therefore a thing that is real.

But so often, instead of acknowledging that my experiences as a woman in the past has shaped my decisions about how to treat men who approach me in the future, men have a tendency to tell me that I'm not being fair to them, because they're not rapists, and they're not going to attack me, or call me names for daring to reject their advances. They think that I'm misunderstanding all those poor souls who were shitty to me in the past, or that I must've done something to provoke all those nasty comments. In essence, men have a tendency to tell me that all of my past experience is not valid.

And maybe they are different - completely respectful, would never dream of escalating into screaming or worse. But that's not the point. The point is that a conversation that started out about how it sucks to be a woman in a society that enjoys patrolling the sexuality of women has now instead become a conversation about how men find it difficult to get laid. Just as conversations about how women find it problematic that they're objectified in pop culture often become conversations about how men like sexy women on posters and hey it's a compliment anyway. Just as conversations about how women struggle with body image issues turn into conversations about men who think make-up is actually really ugly, and that real women don't wear make up.

And that is I tell you to check your privilege - the privilege of thinking that your side of the story is the one that matters, above everything else. Because I kind of like talking to other women and commiserating about our shared experiences without having to defend myself for having had those experiences. I like listening to other women's perspectives about how they navigate the difficulties unique to being female without worrying that we're offending some guy who didn't realize that he was really crossing the line.

Just once in a while, I'd like to have a conversation about my gender that doesn't frame in the context of how men perceive my gender.

Don't get me wrong, I like hearing from men, too, and I certainly don't mind you listening. I like hearing from men who've realized this stuff on their own, or who never thought about the woman's perspective, or who didn't realize how they were coming across. It's great to have an inclusive conversation. I just wish listening to men's opinions didn't come at the expense of being heard.

I'm going to step away from this thread now.
posted by Phire at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2012 [11 favorites]


I have to question why you're very hell-bent on asserting this point, since the discussions about privilege come up only when it's women trying to give testimony about the experience of being women, or African-Americans trying to give testimony about the experience of being black, or whatever.

Why no---discussions of privilege often come up in a context exactly like this thread, where someone just asserts that straight, white males are "playing on the easiest setting". You've since diverted to a two and a half year old MeFi thread, but I was talking about the article linked at the top of this one, which is a particularly stupid example of the genre.

I repeat what I said before, perhaps a little more clearly: There are many circumstances where being straight, white, or male will be helpful. There are others where it won't be. There are many other factors that are often more important.

Knowing someone else's experience, and the hardships they've had to face, is very important in knowing how to interact with them. You'll never learn it if you think that someone's race, gender, and orientation are the most determinative factors in how their life has been. People who have any of a number of privileges need to work to understand those who haven't (and people who haven't often need to work to understand those who have---I've known some people who came from fight-to-survive backgrounds who needed to work hard to learn how to collaborate non-competitively).

The only reason to assert that "straight, white males are playing life on the easiest setting", an obviously false statement, is if you want to silence or assert superiority in any discussion of life, rather than just in discussions specifically relevant to the experiences of those not white, straight, or male.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 2:25 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


jeather: interesting article - thanks for posting it.
posted by rmd1023 at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2012


The thread was based on a woman saying "when a dude hits on me, because of my past experiences of being a woman, this is how I react, so please keep that in mind". The guide is speaking to men in that we're telling you something about our experiences that you wouldn't have known, as men. You can certainly respond and react, but you can't comment on the validity of the experience, because by definition, the experience happened to someone, and is therefore a thing that is real.

Well I didn't comment on the validity of your experience. I just said men have a place to comment on the post and that given the nature of the post men certainly would.

Don't get me wrong, I like hearing from men, too, and I certainly don't mind you listening. I like hearing from men who've realized this stuff on their own, or who never thought about the woman's perspective, or who didn't realize how they were coming across. It's great to have an inclusive conversation. I just wish listening to men's opinions didn't come at the expense of being heard.


It doesn't have to come at the expense of being heard. This is text based, there is room for everyone to submit their opinions and then we all get to discuss what we want with who we want. We aren't under any obligation to reply to every single person who makes a comment or to even read every word of every comment.

I'm going to step away from this thread now.

Have a good [whatever time of day it is in your timezone].
posted by Reggie Knoble at 2:38 PM on May 16, 2012


[Everyone who is threadsitting here and trying valiantly to steer the thread towards what they want to talk about should maybe chill out for a few hours and come back later so we don't all get into a dither and wind up in MetaTalk. If you have an issue with a single person, consider taking that conversation to MeMail, do not make this thread all about you and your responses. Thank you.]
posted by jessamyn at 2:43 PM on May 16, 2012


There are many circumstances where being straight, white, or male will be helpful. There are others where it won't be.

Based on my experiences as a straight white male, it is helpful more often than it isn't. Have you had other experiences? If so, do you think my experience is more common, or yours?

This privilege thing isn't an absolute. It's a tendency. Not every black person will be followed by a security guard. Some white people will get stopped by cops while driving fancy cars for no other reason than the cop thinks maybe they shouldn't be driving the car. There are plenty of exceptions.

But, all things being equal, it's going to be the black guy the security guard follows around, and the white guy the cop thinks probably does own that Mercedes. And privilege doesn't have to be consistent, or happen every time. Just enough times to matter.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:29 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


An observation I couldn't quite frame earlier:

Privilege and the dynamics surrounding it are an important discussion to have because, ultimately, the majority and the minority (or minorities) have a similar goal: they are trying to have a discussion about Topic X. Everyone genuinely wants to discuss this topic that is relevant to them and they want to share their points of view. Awesome! The problem arises largely because the majority ends up invading the minority's space (either intentionally or intentionally; space figuratively or literally, officially or unofficially) in an effort to make themselves heard and, in the process, shuts down the minority's ability to discuss.

As a concrete example, say the topic is... women and make up. The majority (ok, more accurately, people with power) in this situation are men and the minority are women (grand generalizations here, other axes play into it but this is an example). The women want to discuss how they, as women, relate to make up and the societal pressures surrounding make up. Cool! The men want to discuss how they, as men, relate to women wearing make up as well! Neat! The problem arises when men stumble across a space where women are discussing how make up affects their lives and co-opt the discussion to suit them - potentially by turning the discussion into 'well I don't like it when women wear make up' and similar judgements that take away women's voices in the conversation. How are women supposed to continue their conversation when a power-infused source sweeps in and changes the subject to one that excludes them by making them be spoken about (and not to/with)? If they try to gently remind the men by telling them their particular discussion is not about men/men's experiences, they are usually met with a very defensive response that further shuts them down. This then leads to yet another conversation rehashing what the majority thinks except this time it has removed a conversation about what the minority thinks, silencing them.

This is the problem that discussions about privilege try to fix (usually pre-emptively). Ideally, all people involved in the conversation would be aware of the power dynamics at play and would know that their own excitement to talk about something in a way that is relevant to them does not entitle them to co-opting the discussion for that purpose when it is currently serving another purpose. Then these participants could step up (if they are the minority) and step back (if they are the majority) in order to have a discussion that allows multiple voices to be heard.

In a (very distant) way, the concept is akin to trying to stay on (a demographically sensitive) topic. It's not that the majority is necessarily malignant (though expression of power can have malignant effects that people need to own up to), more that they are not paying attention to the cues that say that this is a space for a discussion of a microtopic that greatly affects a certain minority and that if they are not going to stick to the topic, they shouldn't take over the space to discuss what they want - they should create a new space for the new discussion.
posted by buteo at 4:44 PM on May 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm going to add one thing to my previous comment, because I think it's the moment when I realized not only that privilege exists, but how damaging its effects could be in the real world. I got to reading about prison, and was astonished to discover that blacks represent almost 40 percent of the prison population. Now, African Americans are only about 12 percent of the general population, at most. That's four-plus times the national population.

And you get to thinking, well, there's only two ways to understand this. Either the law treats black people differently, or black people are four-plus times more likely to commit crimes. And you dig into it, and you discover that black people are more likely to commit certain types of crimes -- crimes associated with certain kinds of drugs, as an example, or crimes associated with poverty. And you discover that these crimes are policed more heavily, and that they are punished more severely. And you discover that standardized tests that determine things like, oh, psychopathology, are weighted against black people, and these tests are used to determine paroles, so black people spend more time in jail than white people. And you discover that conditions of parole include things like getting jobs, and it is statistically much harder for a black parolee to get work that a white parolee, and so they are more likely to break parole and go back to prison.

And on and on and on it goes. Just this little, incremental moments of privilege. Some perfectly innocent. Some malicious. Some just stupid. But they are there every step of the way. And, individually, they probably don't mean that much. A white person like me might get hit with one of them -- I might smoke crack cocaine, as an example, which is treated as being more serious than non-crack cocaine. And so I would get hit harder, regardless of skin color. But, then, I might do better on the psychopath test. I might find it easier to get a job when paroled. Etc. And so these increments add up to benefit me. And so it is that incrementally the whole process is just that much easier for me and that much harder for them.

And so it is that 11 percent of all black males between 20 and 34 are in jail. And what can you say to this? Blacks are just more likely to be criminals? White are just more law abiding?

I mean, you could. But it's an assumption based in one race being more likely to be criminal than another, and that is, at its core, a racist assumption. It's the sort of thing you would need to prove. Especially in the face of all the evidence that blacks are treated differently by the criminal justice system.

So what is privilege? It's that, as a white man, I have these incremental advantages. And it doesn't just show up in how black people are treated by the courts. It shows up in a million ways. And, sure, there are a few ways I am disadvantaged, and I hope people who are advantaged recognize those. But that doesn't mean I don't tend to have these privileges. Just typically, I will. And they are worth noting about, because, if you don't, it's easy to mistakenly think black people are just criminals. It's the only other explanation. And it's easier not to think about it at all.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 4:47 PM on May 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


Which is why the metaphor is of so little use. All other things are rarely equal.

This is flat out untrue.

There are plenty of situations where the idea of "all other things being equal" is a perfectly valid jumping off point to examine the idea of privilege.

A 40 year old black man driving driving a late model BMW down the freeway and a 40 year old white man driving a late model BMW down the freeway. from the point of view of a police officer on the side of the road, those two men are in a situation where all other things are equal. But more often than not, those two people will have vastly different experiences.

Two third graders who live on the same block, same economic background, same general levels of intelligence and interest in school. one black, one white. There's no reason their teacher should have different expectations as to their abilities and behavior. Sadly, all too often this just isn't how things pan out.

Two co-workers at a creative agency with the similar educational backgrounds, experience and skill levels walking into a conference room to meet a potential client. In that situation, they should expect to be treated equally. I can tell you from experience, that is rarely the case.

When I was in High School, one of my friends(white) and I (black) would go looking for summer jobs and play the game where I would go in first and be told that they weren't hiring and then send him in, and he'd almost always be given an application. He's always make a point of asking for 2 so he could give one to the guy they just turned away. I wish I could say this only happend once or twice, but it was so prevalent that we made a game of it. And I grew up in a city that most people would call liberal and tolerant.

I don't point this out to play the victim, or shame anyone or place blame. I always got good summer jobs because I knew that I had to hustle a little harder than my white friends to find one. I've had a successful career, because I learned very early on how to deal with and disarm the prejudices of others. I really don't care that there are things the white guy at the desk next to me can get away with that I can't. I've learned to accept that if I fuck up in some way there's the possibility that it will reflect on the next black guy to walk through the door in a way that my white colleagues will never have to consider.

None of these things has held me back, but the fact that I've just come to accept them as reality is to me, just a little bit sadder than if i was angry about it, or victimized by it. It's just how it is. Which is why the ability of some do deny the existence of the entire concept is ridiculous on the face of it.

The ultimate privilege is being able to deny it's existence.
posted by billyfleetwood at 4:55 PM on May 16, 2012 [17 favorites]


I mean, you could. But it's an assumption based in one race being more likely to be criminal than another

No, it could be an assumption that people from a lower socioeconomic position are more likely to commit many crimes than people from a higher one, regardless of their race.
posted by Justinian at 5:48 PM on May 16, 2012


I'm thinking of something a friend said to me once. She had been a strikingly beautiful young woman but years of suntanning, smoking and partying had had their effect and she didn't turn heads anymore. And she said that she had begun to feel invisible, not even like a woman anymore. That she could see this kind of glazed over look in the eyes of men where there had previously been rapt attention. When she was young and flawless, she found her beauty an annoyance. Men would stare and whistle at her, and hit on her constantly. And people would make assumptions about her character, that she was promiscuous, or stuck-up, or dimwitted, that weren't true. But now, looking back, she sees how charmed her life had been in certain respects. People would just DO stuff for her; hold doors, give up seats, let her skip ahead of them on line, buy meals for her, buy trips for her, give her things out of the blue, etc. (I can think of several other attractive female friends who have told me that guys who they barely knew just "gave them" their cell phones, which I viewed skeptically at first, but I've heard it too often to maintain disbelief.) Men and women alike would smile at her and treat her pleasantly for no other reason than that they were happy that such a lovely creature had entered their dreary day. So much so that she took it for granted and thought that it was just how people normally were. But now strangers are curt with her and people just let doors slam in her face because it's like she's not there any more. And she feels in retrospect that she had had a privilege (by definition, undeserved) which had been wrested away from her.

Now, this friend has in some respects led a hard life. It wasn't a picnic. She'd been sexually assaulted, spent time in jail, raised a child alone, dealt with all sorts of difficulty, as have we all. But, despite all that, she had this pervasive advantage that made most days a little less onerous than they otherwise would've been.

Race privilege is like that. If your race is at the top of the racial hierarchy, it's not a guarantee of an easy life in every individual case, but it is one less burden to deal with, one less pebble in your shoe, one less obstacle to climb.

I wonder, as well, for those people who think there is no such thing as white privilege, do they believe there has NEVER been white privilege in America? That there never was a time that it was generally much easier to be white to be black? Even in the slave era? Even in Jim Crow? This may seem like a facetious question but it was of course an argument made in those days. Being white was a "burden" since you were responsible for bringing progress, prosperity and nobility into the world, whereas being a black slave meant you got free room and board, and your life consisted of singing and laughing in the fields with your fellows, freed even of the burden of learning to read. And naturally this idea has persisted in contemporary thought, with the concept of the archetypical welfare mom sitting at home in front of a 60-inch flatscreen television set, babies bursting out of her like popcorn, freed even of the burden of learning to read due to massive affirmative action handouts, while poor whites suffer from having no racial card to play, getting turned away from college after college despite long nights of study and sterling SAT scores, forced to surrender their hard won benefits for the sake of retribution and redistribution. But assuming that one can at least concede that being white in America USED to be a sweeter deal than being black, at which point did that end?

Someone upthread mentioned that there had never been a circumstance of someone changing race, so it's impossible to gauge to what extent privilege exists. But as we know, during Jim Crow, it was a not-uncommon phenomenon among light-hued mixed-race individuals (or, as they used to be called, "black") to "pass" for white. They would leave behind their homes, friends and family, and adopt a new, legally fraudulent identity in which they could ride in the railway cars they wished, work in the professions they wanted, and get the respect due human beings. These were people who did not suddenly become wealthier or healthier or smarter, but they found that all other things being equal, being white was greatly advantageous.

In any event, the principle of ceteris paribus is such a fundamental part of science, that it seems incredible to claim it has no jurisdiction here. Take Town B sitting on top of a toxic dump where the average life expectancy is 40 and cancer is rampant. And Town W in the neighboring county where life expectancy is 79. Sure, you could be a poor orphan girl in Town W and get bullied every day. Or you could be the guy who beat the odds in Town B, living to 90 in comfort and wealth while breathing in radioactive ash all day long, passing away with a smile on your face. But all things being equal, the person living in Town W would have a privileged life compared to the person in Town B. Right?
posted by xigxag at 5:51 PM on May 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


No, it could be an assumption that people from a lower socioeconomic position are more likely to commit many crimes than people from a higher one, regardless of their race.

I may not have been clear. Assuming black people commit more crimes is the racist assumption.

Assuming poor people commit more crimes is a classicist assumption. I mean, they may, but, then, they may just commit different crimes from rich people. In the absence of evidence, assumptions based on race or class are expressions of privilege.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:16 PM on May 16, 2012


Yes, in the absence of evidence assumptions based on class are classist. But we do have evidence; the evidence would indicate that poor people do commit more crimes. You might not like the evidence and believe rich people just get away with their crimes more often but that's not the same thing as "no evidence".
posted by Justinian at 6:41 PM on May 16, 2012


But we do have evidence; the evidence would indicate that poor people do commit more crimes.

Really? I haven't seen any evidence that poor people commit more crime. They do tend to commit crimes that are easier to police and prosecute than white collar crime, and they tend to get punished more severely and don't have protections like a corporation to hide behind, but that's not the same thing as committing more crime. It is, however, the same thing as the privilege of class showing itself the further you go up a socioeconomic ladder.

There is evidence that rich people tend to behave unethically more often than poor people. And that they tend to be more dishonest. So I think a case can be made that even the way we think of crime is determined by privilege. I mean, who went to jail for Bhopal? 3,000 people died, after years of Union Carbide ignoring safety violations. But CEO Warren Anderson refused to be tried in India, saying that he was not under their jurisdiction.

I have yet to meet a poor person who has managed to kill 3,000 people and not be tried for it. This is privilege.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:03 PM on May 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


An example. Remember the Ohio woman who was convicted for lying about where she lived to get her daughters into a better school? She wasn't the only one.
Take the case of Mark Ebner, a Columbus, Ohio, parent who illegally enrolled his children in a neighboring suburban school district. Williams-Bolar’s attorney, Singleton, considers the case illustrative. The Ebner family’s primary residence was a $1 million property just outside the suburban district’s borders. When Ebner found out that private investigators were tailing him, the Columbus Dispatch reported, he arranged for a house swap with relatives inside the district—and then sued the district for spying on him. The same year that Williams-Bolar and her daughters were swallowed up by her court case, the Ebners were handily defeating the rules.
posted by jeather at 7:16 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


There is evidence that rich people tend to behave unethically more often than poor people. And that they tend to be more dishonest

Your links are to different news stories on the same paper.

That said, what you are describing is an open question characterized by an over-abundance of evidence of varying qualities, that different people accept or reject in varying degrees. We can strongly disagree over the interpretation of that evidence, but it seems hardly fair to say that there is an "absence of evidence."
posted by grobstein at 7:19 PM on May 16, 2012


We can strongly disagree over the interpretation of that evidence, but it seems hardly fair to say that there is an "absence of evidence."

You haven't actually presented any evidence that poor people commit more crimes than rich people.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:21 PM on May 16, 2012


I don't have to, you did it for me; poor people are incarcerated at higher rates. That is evidence.
posted by Justinian at 7:30 PM on May 16, 2012


To be honest, I think you're being disingenuous if you're claiming you don't actually believe there is any evidence that lower socioeconomic status is correlated with crime rates. Does anyone actually dispute that?
posted by Justinian at 7:32 PM on May 16, 2012


It really isn't. It is merely evidence that they are prosecuted and incarcerated more.

This point may seem oblique, but it relates to the main point. Privilege allows us to just say, well, poor people get imprisoned more, poor people must commit more crimes. But that's a leap of logic. It's a leap that says, if you are prosecuted more, it must be because you commit crimes more. But there are many reasons why one group my be prosecuted more. And, without looking into it, we're just going on classicist assumptions about poor people.

Does anyone actually dispute that?

I haven't seen any evidence one way or the other. Have you? Can you link to the evidence? I have seen evidence that poor people commit more of a certain type of crime, but no evidence that poor people commit more crime in general.

This may be one of those check your privilege moments.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:36 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


It really isn't. It is merely evidence that they are prosecuted and incarcerated more.

Which is evidence that they committed the crimes. It isn't perfect evidence but it is evidence.

This may be one of those check your privilege moments.

Or it could be a your head is in the sand moments.
posted by Justinian at 7:41 PM on May 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


You're not actually going to see if you can prove that poor people commit more crimes that rich people, are you? You're going to stick by your guns, that if they get prosecuted more, of course they commit more crimes, despite the fact that I have pointed out that there are many reasons why somebody of one class might be prosecuted when others of another class aren't. Despite the fact that if you're right, it should be easy to link to a case study that demonstrates that yes, without argument, poor people commit crimes more than others. No, instead you're just going to treat me like a fool for making my case, and feel there is no need to make yours, because it is self-evident.

Well, that's your privilege.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:44 PM on May 16, 2012


We can strongly disagree over the interpretation of that evidence, but it seems hardly fair to say that there is an "absence of evidence."

You haven't actually presented any evidence that poor people commit more crimes than rich people.

Indeed I didn't! I'm not engaged in that debate, which is sufficiently hard to conduct before a hostile audience that it can't happen as a derail to a thread on another topic -- it needs more space. My personal view, in one sentence, is that in our society culture and institutions do a much better job rewarding productive behavior for higher-income people than for lower-, with the result that higher-income people commit fewer crimes. But you didn't ask, and anyway this is not the place for it. A good and detailed account can be found in The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, by Stuntz (previously).

I don't see why you want to die on this hill, though. Crime is a very well studied subject and a broad literature which attempts to account for differential prosecution suggests that poor people actually commit more of a variety of crimes, including violent crimes. For some crimes, poor people are prosecuted at higher rates. For other crimes, poor people may be prosecuted at lower rates, because police do a poor job policing poor neighborhoods (remember that poor people are more likely to be the victims of violent crime as well). You're welcome to dispute or discount the sort of evidence that leads scholars to these views, but you're overreaching to say there is no evidence.
posted by grobstein at 7:45 PM on May 16, 2012


(I want to distance myself from the view that black people's mishandling by the criminal justice system is mostly the result of economic status, though -- what I've read suggests that race is very important.)
posted by grobstein at 7:46 PM on May 16, 2012


You're not actually going to see if you can prove that poor people commit more crimes that rich people, are you? You're going to stick by your guns, that if they get prosecuted more, of course they commit more crimes, despite the fact that I have pointed out that there are many reasons why somebody of one class might be prosecuted when others of another class aren't.

I don't have to prove it. You said there was no evidence of it. Those are not equivalent statements. See grobstein's comment.
posted by Justinian at 7:49 PM on May 16, 2012


You know, I have read that book, and it makes a pretty thorough case that policing and prosecution is so inconsistent that we cannot really know how many crimes are committed by people of various classes. Is there a part of the book that shows that poor people commit more crimes? I missed it. Is there a study that's based on that shows this? Can you link?

I'll let it go at this, but the reason I brought up crime was because it's a really excellent example of where privilege asserts itself. And I'm thoroughly unsurprised that even that has become a preposterous, unresearched, nitpicky bone of contention. Such is the way of all discussions of privilege, and it gets really, super exhausting.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 7:52 PM on May 16, 2012


I think it comes as no surprise that I agree that it gets super exhausting but I disagree with why.
posted by Justinian at 7:58 PM on May 16, 2012


This last little exchange has been a great example of how the concept, and specifically the phrase "check your privilege," can be used not just as a valuable tool for reflection and understanding, but as a weapon, to instigate shame and quash discussion.

I think this is a good thing: it helps us all understand that just as those receiving the privilege lecture come from all kinds of backgrounds and experience, and thus may be familiar, accepting, vague, or resistant in varying degrees and for various reasons; so too does the lecture come from a variety of sources, with different ideas of where responsibility for privilege rests, different senses of how privileged individuals should address it, and different purposes for delivering the message.

I don't like to divide things into teams, because I think there's a real spectrum in evidence here, but the wide variety of misunderstanding, ignorance, and belligerence on display here isn't just on the receiving side. Check your hectoring.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 8:36 PM on May 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


My goodness, yes. What could be more hectoring than ask that if somebody is going to make a claim based on class, that they provide a single link that supports that claim.

But I did raise the specter of privilege, and so my hectoring must be hectored in response, without a trace of irony.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:45 PM on May 16, 2012


I'm sorry. That was sarcastic. What I should have said is that if it is your intention to police this thread because you do not especially like the way the discussion is going, it may be more appropriate to raise the issue in Meta.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:50 PM on May 16, 2012


And the Chief of Police cried, "How dare anyone police me!"
posted by hincandenza at 12:25 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is a really good metaphor, but I'm tempted to use it for lawful evil. Get your flagging fingers ready.

I agree that minorities do indeed start off with less character points, but I'd also argue that women (although they do start off with slightly less character points than men.) actually get pretty much the same to spend on their stats.

An example :
Men'll start with 100 points. Women will start with 95 points. That sort of thing.

Of course there are minor differences. Women get a +10 modifier on intelligence, men get a +10 modifier on strength. But overall, at the beginning of the game, they start off with the same number of points.

In fact, after the 21st century expansion pack, that +10 intelligence modifier is actually more useful than ever. The game isn't unbalanced, but it's getting close.

Where it all diverges with women is that once they start playing this extended game metaphor we call life, they start playing different missions. While your men are struggling to master the Employment in the Dwarf Mine missions, some women go off and spend time on the Family missions.

Notice that I didn't call the family missions "side missions". They're not side missions, they're missions. Notice that I also said "some" women.

This is all well and good. It's not for me to criticise how someone plays the game.

However, if you've spent your time on different missions, you're going to have a different skill tree. Come the time when you get to level 43, and you've completed all the family missions you're not going to be able to jump right in and complete "Smashing the glass ceiling of Antioch". For a start, you're missing some sections of your skill tree. More importantly, you never did that level 6 part of the Dwarf Mine missions where you collected the Giant Hammer of Nepotisma.

Now some would argue that as a women, you should be allowed to jump straight into these later levels. I have some sympathy with that. The family missions are super critical and super hard, and there should be more of a bonus for doing them. But asking for that extra bonus is a different thing to assuming it's the fact you started with less points which means you're unable to do these later levels.

I'm pretty sure there's nobody on metafilter who would disagree with this.

And that is me, using this awesome metaphor for evil. The flag option is that little exclamation point down from here, and possibly slightly to the left.
posted by zoo at 1:41 AM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Bunny Ultramod : What could be more hectoring than ask that if somebody is going to make a claim based on class, that they provide a single link that supports that claim.

Umm, did you notice that Ice Cream Socialist specifically didn't actually name names or point fingers?

Guilty much?
posted by pla at 3:35 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would lament that this turned into another privilege thread all about protecting the feelings of the privileged, except that's in part what the article was about. So for once, this wasn't a derail.
posted by EatTheWeak at 6:47 AM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Where it all diverges with women is that once they start playing this extended game metaphor we call life, they start playing different missions.

Don't forget that when the women players are completing the exact same missions as the male players, they're receiving 20-25% less gold every time. Such a chunk of missing wealth cannot help but impact every other aspect of the game.
posted by EatTheWeak at 6:50 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Also, your metaphor assumes that men should, of course, never diverge from their missions to take on family responsibilities. It is not a woman's work to raise babies. Anyone can do it.
posted by Help, I can't stop talking! at 8:12 AM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Metaphors are never perfect. The original wasn't and neither is mine. There was frustration at the beginning of the thread when people started nitpicking minor parts of scalzi's metaphor, and rightly so.
posted by zoo at 8:29 AM on May 17, 2012


His metaphor didn't ignore wage disparity or assume all family work to be the exclusive domain of women.
posted by EatTheWeak at 8:36 AM on May 17, 2012


His metaphor didn't ignore wage disparity or assume all family work to be the exclusive domain of women.

Nor did zoo's, his metaphor just happened to be closer to reality than the original and thus included the reality that women tend to do most of the child rearing and all of the child birth.
posted by Reggie Knoble at 8:48 AM on May 17, 2012


Absolutely, yes. Outside of the occasional Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:25 AM on May 17, 2012


his metaphor just happened to be closer to reality than the original and thus included the reality that women tend to do most of the child rearing and all of the child birth.

But if we are talking about societal reactions to an individual, why would we include the reality that women have all of the childbirth? The only way I can see it relating is "because women have all the childbirth, everyone will assume a woman will be quitting any job she takes because she's gonna raise a kid," but that just feeds into the original "difficulty setting" metaphor (play as a woman and your difficulty setting includes "everyone thinks you're gonna quit your job and have kids).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:31 AM on May 17, 2012


jscalzi appears to have posted a followup, which addresses some of the comments he's heard about this out and about. Including quite a few of the ones in here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:23 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


jscalzi appears to have posted a followup, which addresses some of the comments he's heard about this out and about. Including quite a few of the ones in here.

That's a pretty good followup. jscalzi, that post just convinced me to go and buy all of your books.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 4:33 PM on May 17, 2012


A: It really isn't. It is merely evidence that [poorer people] are prosecuted and incarcerated more [than richer people].

B: Which is evidence that they committed the crimes. It isn't perfect evidence but it is evidence.

It is not evidence that richer people didn't commit an equal or larger number of (unprosecuted) crimes, however; thus, in the absence of additional information, has no bearing on the actual rates at which people of different socio-economic statuses commit crimes.

I seem to recall reading in "What's the Matter With Kansas?" several years back that (at the time of writing of the book) some super rich suburb of Kansas City had one of the highest rates of males with criminal prosecutions in the country. Fraud, embezzlement - that sort of thing. In other datum, domestic violence rates are pretty consistent across socio-economic classes.

But even supposing the highly unlikely event that there were a difference in actual rates of crime committed based on income/wealth, which led to a difference in rates of crime committed by blacks versus whites. Give me a non-racist argument as to why there is such a large discrepancy in percentage of blacks living in poverty in the US versus percentage of whites living in poverty?
posted by eviemath at 5:02 PM on May 17, 2012


Excellent take on Scalzi from the dependably cranky Freddie De Boer here and here:

"He makes no attempt to distinguish between random factors and poverty, which we know (empirically) is not random but rather heritable, self-replicating, and enormously difficult to rescue yourself from. And unfortunately, the white liberal political class is terrible at talking about white poverty. Taking white poverty seriously and advocating for the interests of poor white people is simply too challenging to the social and cultural commitments of most people in the media."

"Most poor people in the United States are white. The percentages are, indeed, higher for black and Hispanic Americans, and that’s a matter of great concern and considerable challenge to all of us. But talk about poverty is so often focused on racial minorities that it risks ignoring salient aspects of the discussion, when most victims of poverty are in fact white. "

"Economically stable, educate white liberals often simply identify with other white people on a visceral level, and they can’t imagine being in the shoes of a poor, uneducated white person. It’s a failure of moral imagination. Second, bias exists for sad and intrinsic reasons, and I think lording it over the “white trash” is a convenient and socially-acceptable way to exercise bias in polite society. Witness constant references to “white people’s problems” and the term “sunburnt” to dismiss all problems faced by white people, which demonstrates the invisibility of white poverty and social discord in the educated white consciousness. "
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:00 AM on May 18, 2012


A: It really isn't. It is merely evidence that [poorer people] are prosecuted and incarcerated more [than richer people].

B: Which is evidence that they committed the crimes. It isn't perfect evidence but it is evidence.

It is not evidence that richer people didn't commit an equal or larger number of (unprosecuted) crimes, however; thus, in the absence of additional information, has no bearing on the actual rates at which people of different socio-economic statuses commit crimes.


This is very silly. That more poor people are convicted of crimes is evidence that poor people have committed more crimes than rich people. It is not definitive evidence; if you can show evidence that rich people commit more crimes which don't get prosecuted (besides marijuana possession, which there have been studies on), that would be counter-evidence. But you, like Bunny, haven't shown any counter-evidence, you've just asserted that counter-evidence could possibly exist and settled back to high-five yourself.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:02 AM on May 18, 2012


Considering that Scalzi has been very public about his impoverished childhood and upbringing, the idea that he has no conception of the poor white experience is especially amusing. I wouldn't want to let that get in the way of the terrifically simple ivory-tower liberal conception you and de Boer have conveniently erected in the fields here, though.

Scalzi separates out class and economic status because those are not innate personal characteristics the way that gender, race, and orientation are, nor does economic status necessarily publicly present for approbation the way that the others do. You guys seem to think that if you're not talking about class, you can't be talking about anything that really matters. You're wrong, but it's a dependable kind of wrong, the wrong one learns to anticipate whenever this subject comes up, because it's so very hard to conceive of a difficulty that you don't personally experience actually mattering.

All the money in the world isn't going to purchase a marriage license for a gay couple in most states. All the education in the world didn't prevent Henry Louis Gates from being treated like a criminal in his own home. Class is important, but it's not the one true issue, and it's frequently not even the most important factor. But I'm unconvinced by the class uber alles people anyway. It seems to me that if we managed to solve the class problem and everyone was granted relative economic parity, or at least harmony, there would still be massive amounts of discrimination. Because there's massive amounts now, and the class people say, no no, it's because of wealth that people don't look at the resume with the woman's name on it, once you help us get rich everything's going to be great, you'll see. I think it'll probably be great for someone, and I'm guessing that'll be the people who refuse to acknowledge the severity of any inequality that doesn't injure them directly.

Classism is pretty awful and I'm all for ending it, because social justice is pretty cool. I am extremely cynical about the motives of people who cannot comprehend or admit to base and plainly-evident inequalities. I do not believe they wish to dismantle a toxic system. I believe they wish to use agitation to do better for themselves alone, and I have little doubt that at the end of that particular strain of revolution, it'll be straight white guys composing the majority of the Inner Party. Oops, how'd that happen? Just a coincidence; we didn't get many minority applications, you see, and the ones we did get just weren't a good fit for our current needs, always going on about sexism and homophobia instead of the real problem. They'll learn, once they realize that we know best.
posted by Errant at 8:11 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, Scalzi has grown up poor. Lots of right-wingers did. That's perhaps why Scalzi takes the common right-wing line that class doesn't matter because I worked hard and other poor people can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did. Which is awful horseshit, and it's shameful that Scalzi endorses it.
I certainly wouldn't say that "it's because of wealth that people don't look at the resume with the woman's name on it". I would, however, say that by the time you're in a social position to be sending out resumes with nice schools in the header, you're going to do just fine and are maybe not the top priority for social justice help. I'm more concerned with people who don't know how to send out resumes. And I'm convinced the "class doesn't matter" people envision a world where black, white, Asian, male and female rich Ivy League graduates can all agree on what really matters: not getting treated like those filthy commoners!
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:16 AM on May 18, 2012


Yes, Scalzi has grown up poor. Lots of right-wingers did. That's perhaps why Scalzi takes the common right-wing line that class doesn't matter because I worked hard and other poor people can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did. Which is awful horseshit, and it's shameful that Scalzi endorses it.

*clears throat, speaks a bit louder*

In his follow-up, John Scalzi addresses many of the critiques he got since posting this. Including many mentioned here.

Including the one above.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:26 AM on May 18, 2012


Empress: Yeah, I was responding in particular to Scalzi's followup, in which he says:

Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, ... but they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are ... speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.

Which made me much angrier than his previous post, since it sure does sound like he's saying "Poor people can stop being poor, so poor people are not really playing at a harder difficulty setting, just being lazy." He uses his own experience to "prove" that, which is as distasteful coming from Scalzi as it is coming from "a Harvard MBA who wiped out his debt".

As I said before: I find it absurd to suggest that a lesbian born to Pakistani stockbrokers living in Westchester and promptly sent to Andover is "playing at a harder difficulty setting" than a straight white guy born to a felon and a crack addict in rural West Virginia who can't go to school because then no one will be home when social services show up to take his siblings away.

It's revealing that so many people are posting here about how their experience in (good, expensive) college classes really opened their eyes to privilege. If makes clear that what bothers people is their fellow graduates of expensive colleges being treated like they were commoners. Much like OWS, with its cry of "We did everything right and now we don't have the jobs we were promised!", this discussion is part of the project of establishing a multinational, multiracial economic elite which can wallow in self-pity when it needs moral propping-up against the claims of the exploited.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:53 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which made me much angrier than his previous post, since it sure does sound like he's saying "Poor people can stop being poor, so poor people are not really playing at a harder difficulty setting, just being lazy."

Ahhhh. I see what you're saying, but I'll confess I didn't interpret it that way. I instead interpreted it thusly: that a poor white boy and a poor black boy can both indeed do something to alter their economic class, and thus become a rich white man and a rich black man; but the rich white man will still enjoy greater acceptance than the rich black man. It'll be hard for both of them to change their economic class, and it's a big thing in its own right. But it is still a maleable factor, as opposed to gender or race, which are non-malleable things. Which is why he ultimately didn't include them in his analogy.

That's how I read it, rather than "all people need to do is work hard to change their class, so whatevs". Which I'll agree isn't fair. I just don't by that that's what he meant, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 AM on May 18, 2012


And of course by "a maleable factor" I meant "a malleable factor". Although it strikes me that making some things "maleable" would be an interesting cheat code.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on May 18, 2012


Well sure, both *can* become rich white and black men, at which point they'll have different problems. But it's very, very hard for a poor person to become rich. And again, to assert that a dirt-poor white kid is "playing on an easier difficulty setting" than a black woman born rich seems utterly perverse. Certainly, the black woman will face discrimination that the white guy won't. But some Kaplan tutoring, prep school, and family connections will go a long way towards making up for that, and whiteness won't help much when both your parents are too busy fighting welfare fraud charges to notice your homework.

Scalzi tries to make up for it with hand-waving about "extra points", but I think it fatally undermines his argument. Given the centrality of class in America, and the eagerness with which the economic elite welcomes people of other races in so long as they abide by the rules of class, I'd say he has it exactly backwards: The class into which you're born is your difficulty setting, and race, gender, and orientation are the add-ons.

Of course, this is a stupid metaphor in the first place because everyone is playing with different objectives, and those determine what your challenges will be. If your goal is to get tenure in the Wesleyan English department, being an Asian-American transgender woman might be a powerful advantage.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 9:28 AM on May 18, 2012


Class isn't just about money - I was very struck by an interview Paul Merton gave in the Guardian last year (I think I quoted it then too):
"Well, class is awkward, isn't it? Am I allowed to call myself working-class now? Because obviously I'm now very rich. But the phrase 'working-class' is the phrase I grew up with – and so much of the working-class thing is about thinking you're not allowed to do stuff ...

When I started off as a comic, aged 23 or 24, I remember looking at another comedian who used to read the Guardian, and thinking to myself: 'God, I wish I read the Guardian.' And then I thought: 'Hang on a minute, just go and buy it. Yes I can!' But actually I had to get over that barrier. It's just like I used to say: 'Oh, I wish I liked jazz, jazz seems to be something you could really get into.' It's bizarre, isn't it? ... 'cos that's what gets thrown at you – as if to complain about your position is somehow not allowed. And there's nothing about my life I can resent now. But how the working class are sometimes portrayed is – well, galling." I ask for an example, and he hesitates - but then, after a long sigh:

"Well you know, someone like Boris Johnson, he's done Have I Got News for You several times, but Boris doesn't know anything about – well, Boris is just not from the world where you think: 'I've got 36p in my pocket and the giro doesn't arrive for another two days, what am I going to do?' But that used to be my world."

Then he tells a story about standing in a park next to Fulham's football ground with his dad when he was only eight or nine. He looked across the Thames, and asked his father what was on the other side of the river. And his father told him there was nothing there; that he couldn't go over there.

"Then when I got to the age of about 19, I wondered if something was there. And this is going to sound ludicrous, but it's as it was. I thought I'll go and have a look. So I got off the bus, and instead of going over the bridge I went along the other side of the bank. And there was a rowing club, and people rowing; people from Cambridge, and Barclays, and stuff. And I felt so inhibited by them, I couldn't go any further on. I had to go back. These rowers and stuff – this is it, this is the thing – not feeling you fit in. I didn't feel as if I fitted in. Feeling that you shouldn't be there. That somebody's going to tell you off. That you're in the wrong place. And I realised I'd been told something at the age of 10, that you can't go there – that it's not for you. And I just believed it. So when people say: 'Oh what's wrong with the working class? All they've got to do is this and that.' Well no, it's not as easy as that."
And even though no one would ever call me working class, I know exactly what he means. There's being locked in a cell; being in a cell while the door is unlocked and you don't know you can just walk out; and knowing the door is unlocked and still being unable or unwilling to leave the cell.
posted by Grangousier at 9:48 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well sure, both *can* become rich white and black men, at which point they'll have different problems. But it's very, very hard for a poor person to become rich.

I don't see that he's denying that that's the case, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:51 AM on May 18, 2012


I don't see that he's denying that that's the case, though.

He's not explicitly denying it, but he regards it as such a minor matter than it's not worth addressing in his main post, or taking seriously in his follow-up. Again, a gay Hispanic woman whose parents can afford a lifetime of test prep, boarding school, and unpaid internships is not "playing at a higher difficulty setting" than a straight, white guy whose parents have been in and out of jail his whole life. Obviously, the Oppression Olympics are distasteful, and each individual will face challenges the other won't. But to say the above white guy has it easier is exactly the kind of smug upper-class-solidarity bullshit that alienates poor people who could be allies.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:29 AM on May 18, 2012


Doesn't he explicitly say "all other things being equal" though?
posted by ODiV at 10:40 AM on May 18, 2012


Also, to be clear, you're saying Scalzi's message about privilege here is just too upper-class and right-wing for you?
posted by ODiV at 10:42 AM on May 18, 2012


ODIV: Yes. I think he is preaching a message of upper-class solidarity ("Wow, I never realized that my friends at Williams had it so hard!") which ignores the neediest members of our society. I assume he would consider himself a lefty, or at least, in Tony Kushner's phrase, "left-ish". But he's part of the identity politics Left that shattered the labor movement (a Left that once did actual good for social justice,) and replaced it with occupying the university and becoming steadily less relevant to people's lives.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:53 AM on May 18, 2012


The irony being that Scalzi has written very well about poverty before. But that didn't get quite the same sort of online love as this, I think because it didn't work as well with the Ivy-League-solidarity attitude that this piece could be so smoothly incorporated into.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:59 AM on May 18, 2012


Eh, sorry for that last comment. It was more of a "keyword gotcha" and not a genuine attempt at conversation. I do feel that the "all other things being equal" is a fairly conspicuous and important part of the piece though.
posted by ODiV at 11:02 AM on May 18, 2012


The "all other things being equal" is there, but as I said above, all other things are rarely equal. As Freddie de Boer notes, most Americans on welfare, most Americans who are dirt poor, and most Americans who are in jail are white, and an awful lot of them are straight men. People of color are disproportionately poor, and disproportionately incarcerated, and that's shameful, and that must be fought.

But to insist that white, straight, men always have it easier than everyone else (and the ways that they don't are minor matters, easily waved away) suggests willful ignorance of the facts on the ground. This metaphor was not made to convince anybody; it was made to annoy the straight, white men who feel like their life hasn't been very easy, and flatter the people who went to expensive colleges where they learned all about terminology of privilege. It's designed to make things worse.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:23 AM on May 18, 2012


to insist that white, straight, men always have it easier than everyone else (and the ways that they don't are minor matters, easily waved away) suggests willful ignorance of the facts on the ground.

You are highlighting parts of his argument and minimizing others so that it will suggest that he is holding an easily disprovable opinion that he does not, in fact, hold. In doing so you are making this thread all about a referendum on your particular opinion about it which is problematic to community discussion. Please consider taking a few hours off from this thread or opening a MeTa thread if you feel that my request to you is out of line.
posted by jessamyn at 11:56 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


White privilege has 5.2 million google hits. Male privilege has 19.2 million. Stright privilege has 23.4 million...People don't tend to talk about other types of privilege as much.

FWIW, you didn't check class privilege (presumably) but I get 4.3 million hits for that. Lower, but not nothing either.
posted by naoko at 12:40 PM on May 18, 2012


I don't think anyone's yet raised the little matter of the inherently abusive and exploitative nature of capitalism (and its ancillaries), although some of the discussion about class, far up-thread and again more recently, kind of touches on it.

As some have already noted, the basic premise - that we are all playing the same game, to the same rules, with the same objectives - is plain wrong, from top to bottom. But, going with it anyway: if we're to assume that social/economic advancement is "winning" or just "doing well" in this game, then sure, straightness, whiteness and maleness, "all else being equal" (whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean in the context of the so-called real world) are certainly advantageous - but none of these options-which-are-not-options is strictly a requirement of the job, when the job is a senior position in the heirarchy / food chain.

Sociopathy, on the other hand, is absolutely a requirement of the job, and this point ramifies in a pretty fatal way throughout the logic of identity politics - because the precise gender, pigmentation and/or sexual orientation of the individual sociopath(s) at the top of the tree are all supremely irrelevant to the rest of us. The sociopathic nature of the machine and the people who design and run it, are overwhelmingly more pertinent to those of us down in the cheap seats. To pretend otherwise (even by simply neglecting to mention it) is frankly obscene.

Many have argued here that an exposition of 'privilege' is all that this piece is trying to do. I totally understand that. I also understand that, speaking as what would be characterised as an SWM in this conversation, I speak from a position of privilege.

But I also speak as a crusty old anarchist lefty from way back, who was marching against racism and pro-choice (amongst other things) when Scalzi was barely out of nappies (sorry, diapers), and considering the seriousness of the subject, I find these... elisions from the picture woefully inept at best.

Which brings me, finally, to the question of whether or not this piece is or is not meant to shame the straight white male reader. Now I'm not much of a gamer, at all, but I'm very well aware how hostile, belittling and yes, shaming it is to charge gamers with playing on the easy settings, and it's implausible, to say the very least, to believe that Scalzi is unaware of this. He is a skilled and experienced writer, he knows what he's doing.

It's about as sensitive and classy as screaming "lol n00bs!" in the faces of newcomers. Bullying, alpha-dick behaviour, in other words; this is no way to get anyone on-side.

Seriously, if this is what passes for progressive political discourse now (and it seems that it does, judging from the approving comments) then we really are pretty fucked.
posted by pilgrim at 1:10 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


This is very silly.

No, I'm making an argument about the non-commutativity of logical inference.

But on the topic of plausibility and who bears the onus of presenting evidence, if you want to get into that, let me just double-check that I understand your argument first.

Crimes committed and prosecutions are measuring different things, but you are claiming that conviction rate is a good measure of the rate at which different groups among the broader population actually commit crimes: that there is a strong correlation between the two. This can only be the case if
(i) all or almost all crimes lead to convictions; or
(ii) the rate at which crimes go unreported or unprosecuted is about the same for all different types of crimes; or
(iii) different types of crime have different reporting and conviction rates, but the types of crime committed (and prosecuted) are about the same across all of the population sub-groups being compared;
and, at the same time, the justice system shows no systemic bias in arrests, trial processes, and conviction rates. (Or if it somehow just works out that there is strong correlation between crimes committed and conviction rates without some direct causal relationship between the two and despite widely documented historical biases in prosecution and conviction of crimes between blacks and whites in the US as recently as the 1960s and 1970s. That would definitely be a situation where the onus of presenting evidence for the correlation would be on you, however.)

I see that you are asking for links to the evidence that I, Bunny Ultramod, and others have mentioned informally that the justice system does indeed show systemic bias in at all levels. (Incidentally, the ability to, without any negative consequences, insist that others do your basic googling work for you to convince you with hard data that a systemic problem that they have told you about actually exists is an example of privilege.)

Which of (i), (ii), or (iii) are you claiming is the case and requesting data for, as well?
posted by eviemath at 1:40 PM on May 18, 2012


I'll remain silent on the above, at jessamyn's request, except to say thanks to pilgrim, who says what I meant much better than I.

@ Eviemath: If you have a better measure of crime rate than prosecutions that would be a valuable contribution to the discussion. Prosecutions are a very unreliable number, especially as so many crimes are not prosecuted because police decide someone is too high on the food chain to go to court, or too low on the food chain to be worth bringing in. But if you don't have a better metric, not much has been contributed. It is true that some crimes are prosecuted and reported more than others, and class is very much at work there. But some data is better than no data.

You seem to be saying that existing measurements are so badly skewed as to be meaningless. To assert that, you need to show that there is not just systemic bias, but systemic bias so vast that it throws all the numbers into doubt. But that will leave people with no data at all, and they will merely apply their intuition, which will lead them somewhere you might not want them to go.

Your assertion that I can "without negative consequence, insist" on just about anything makes me wonder what sort of negative consequence you imagine would fall upon you if you insisted that I google something. I'm certainly aware of data suggesting bias, but not of data suggesting the bias throws the numbers more than 5-10% off. If you have such data, that would be interesting. If not, I assure you that I will not send the citation police to your door.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:18 PM on May 18, 2012


to interpret Scalzi's article as shaming would be wrong

Since the whole point of Scalzi's article seems to be an attempt to explain the concept of privilege to people who don't other wise "get it," then if the target audience thinks the article comes across as shaming, then it's a failure and the metaphor, no matter how much Scalzi likes it, is a failure.
posted by straight at 3:30 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


@ThatFuzzyBastard: This is not my area of expertise, so it will take me time to assemble stats (which, since you asked, harms me slightly by taking time away from other work that I should be doing; however, I also have a lot of privilege so it doesn't harm me a lot).

However, for starters, there was a whole thread recently on the disproportionately high incarceration rates of blacks in the US. It would appear that sociologists use data such as number of crimes reported both to police and on independent surveys, crimes reported in local news sources, and similar attempts at more direct measures to assemble crime rate data. For example, data on drug usage among youth from different races and socio-economic groups comes from direct (anonymous) surveys of those youth, as I understand it.

On another note, you are reading too much into my comments (both of them, so far). In my first comment, I was noting that your argument seemed to be based on a logical fallacy, in that it seemed to conflate two things that are actually separate, or tried to draw an implication in the wrong direction (if A implies B, then not B implies not A; but if A is false, then you have no information about B, and B being true gives you no information about A). In my second comment, I was trying clarify my first comment, and verify that I understood your argument. That it may not cause you any problems to spend some time looking into this topic does not imply that it does cause me any problems. Please don't set up strawmen, and try to avoid improperly applying converse implications. Thank you.
posted by eviemath at 5:10 PM on May 18, 2012


I don't have to, you did it for me; poor people are incarcerated at higher rates. That is evidence.

I can't believe this was said out loud. It's only the second time in all my years here that a Mefi comment has made me gasp and momentarily freeze with my jaw shocked open. It's breathtakingly ignorant.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:48 PM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


The target audience is going to say they feel attacked and ashamed no matter how hard people bend over backwards to salve their feelings. Then the target audience will go on to inflict real harm through racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other kinds of oppressions, all while saying that no one ever thinks about them anymore and no one's paying attention to the real problem, which is how the real problem isn't them. Of course the article's a failure. The game is rigged and the house is shocked, shocked to discover that anyone thinks so. It isn't possible to win. Scalzi's a better person than me, because he still believes people are willing to listen. I don't think the target audience thinks very hard about my feelings at all, but oh theirs are so precious. On five different occasions last week I had to tell some dude not to call a woman a bitch around me and preferably not ever again at all; but it's straight guys whose feelings we must consider. A couple days ago someone said, "ugh, ___ is for fags "; when I responded with a WTF, he said, oh, I'm not really homophobic, I just saw one of those "don't say gay in a derogatory way" commercials and it was so funny, I just think of things as being for fags now. I can't help it, it just comes out that way.

It's not possible to win over the target audience, because the target audience derives all of its social status from marginalization. Bless Scalzi for trying, but if their power is not sufficiently and obesiently honored, there is no argument strong enough to overcome the sin of making them feel less than the center of the universe.
posted by Errant at 6:06 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


EmpressCallipygos : jscalzi appears to have posted a followup, which addresses some of the comments he's heard about this out and about. Including quite a few of the ones in here.

"Dismissal" does not equal "addressing".

He answered, in order, "That’s fine. It happens", "Nope", "Go back and read it again", "I’ll let you try to figure out why that is on your own", verbose sarcastic words of mock-encouragement, "Paranoid and hypersensitive is no way to go through life", "They were also being assholes", "I don't care"; and I'll skip the two token "you agree with me, yay, I see some hope for the future oh and by the way you still suck" comments.

So you'll notice that I left out #8... Yeah. About that one...

"In the case of the “lowest difficulty setting” entry, I took what I see as the obvious advantages to being straight, white and male in our culture as read."

So random author guy can use his life experiences as so-obvious-he-doesn't-need-to-prove-them, but the experiences of so many detractors that he felt the need to write a (useless and heavily sarcastic) rebuttal, we can hand-wave away?

What can I say, other than "I am never going to buy anything you write ever again". And yes, I know - You don't care.
posted by pla at 8:36 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


Did the class discussion smother the privilege discussion? Did it work? It usually works.
posted by EatTheWeak at 9:14 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Scalzi strikes me as so enamored of how great his metaphor is and so inundated by a combination of idiots and people who aren't able to articulate very well their legitimate criticisms, that he can't really engage with the substantive problems people have raised with his essay.
posted by straight at 9:41 AM on May 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a baby and child, I had black hair, dark eyes, and tanned up very easily. This was more obvious in comparison to my very fair, blonde, blue-eyed mother.

As I got older, I lightened up a few shades. My eyes went light hazel, skin now fails to tan, and hair light brown.

Do I feel like I suddenly switched to an easier 'difficulty level' part-way through my childhood?
Hell yes!


Now, this wasn't a huge thing, it was really, really subtle. Which is why I find it bizarre that it's had any effect.

I'm sure it's already been addressed many times above me, but it's really startling how up-in-arms more privileged groups get when they are presented with 'Hey, this thing? Yeah, it's an example of privilege!'.
I mean, you didn't choose to be white, male, etc?
Uh...
That's the whole point. That's why it's not fair.
If you are not-white, and/or female, and/or disabled, and so many other things, you don't choose it either, and you get shit on, regularly in life, in a way that white/male/rich etc doesn't. Wow, imagine how much that would suck eh? Just for a second?
We all have advantages and disadvantages, but it's pretty damn disingenuous to suggest that they're all the same. Advantages do not equal out, the world is not fair, and they don't.
Entire groups of people have it harder, and that's not fair.
Unfortunately, I've met many white, males, who have been staggeringly oblivious of this at points. Why yes, I have had to struggle to find a polite way of expressing why one particular avenue is probably easier on them than someone else, and that's usually only because they've asked a 'Why?' question. Most of the time, I wouldn't bother, because it's not actually my job to read 'the manual of life' to these folks. I have other stuff to do.

To go on a geeky sidetrack: I could play Nethack, and my stats/gender/class/race could be assigned randomly, but it'd still be easier to play several classes, such as valkyrie, and hey, while I'm at it, human is easier than dwarf because then I can eat dwarves without being hit with the cannibalism penalty! That wouldn't make as coherent an analogy, obviously.

(Ok, I accidentally read a few more comments, and now I'm depressed that acknowledging that unfairness is 'teh same' as being shamed and oppressed. Yeah, no.
Oh well, I'll continue to hang out with the awesome people I hang out with, and focus on the progress in these areas).
posted by Elysum at 7:15 PM on May 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Dungeon Crawl (Stone Soup) would be a better example. The classes in that game are starting packages of skills and stats, whereas the race may determine whether or not you have a certain ability that cannot be had any other way, such as digestionlessness or access to some of the gods; and may put other abilities off limits, such as the Deep Dwarves' inability to regenerate without magical help.

In discussions comparing it to other games, Dungeon Crawl is described as "racist" where Nethack is "classist".

Hmmm.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:21 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think a more judo-y response to the CLASS CONTROL MEANS OF PRODUCTION response would work better. Something like: "Why yes, racism and classism DO support one another! Here's how..." and go on with the discussion you were already having, occasionally noting subtle distinctions between race-privs and class-privs as they arise.
posted by LogicalDash at 5:39 AM on May 21, 2012


a couple of clarifications and one correction to my post above (all to the first sentence, para 3):

By "Sociopathy", I mean an enhanced predisposition towards self-advancement, without (necessarily) any more regard for the needs and sensitivities of others than is expedient.

By "the rest of us", I mean everyone who is not those particular individuals, not some nebulous "lower class".

The "because" in the middle of that sentence should not be there. Causation is an inadequate account of the relation between the two parts of the statement, which would be improved by the simple removal of the word. Apologies.
posted by pilgrim at 9:22 AM on May 22, 2012


Nethack is "classist"

At first... but the classes converge relatively quickly. Anyone can become a demigod, so it's more of a rogues-to-riches story. *dances out*
posted by fleacircus at 2:17 AM on May 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Free to Be... Straight White Males
posted by box at 11:55 AM on May 25, 2012


If we ever needed an example of how MeFi handles race poorly this thread will suffice. Man, it must really be insulting to some dudes to be seen as playing on the lowest difficulty setting. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.
posted by caddis at 12:27 PM on May 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


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