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"It doesn’t matter how good you are"
April 29, 2013 2:47 AM   Subscribe

"Meanwhile, on the LASO setup, Cody and Rob could not defeat a group of two or three grunts. I asked the students to compare each other’s experiences. “What’s the problem?” I asked Cody and Rob, “Caitlin isn’t having any trouble staying alive and she’s fighting even more grunts than you.” This moment taught us that different people approach similar obstacles with certain preexisting advantages and disadvantages that radically alter the probability of their success." -- Samantha Allen teaches intersectionality through the use of Halo's difficulty settings, as inspired by John Scalzi's essay Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.
posted by MartinWisse (78 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
Scalzi's metaphor is neat, but sitting around actually playing the game seems otiose. I mean, with good metaphors you just tell people about them and it allows them to map across instantly from a domain they understand already. If people get the game concepts in use here, there's no need to sit and play; if they don't, teaching them about the game is a slow and indirect route and you'd do better to find another metaphor for that audience.
posted by Segundus at 3:19 AM on April 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Reading and hearing about intersectionality (which, to be honest, isn't that difficult a concept to grasp intellectually) is different from experiencing it yourself, even in the context of a videogame. It's much more visceral that way.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:46 AM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


FTA: "as Carl put it, he thought that Master Chief could swim. After a few minutes she tellingly revealed, “I’m bored.”"

Wait, what? I'll admit I couldn't tell Carl's gender from the picture, but I'd at least have the decency to ask before publishing an article online featuring him/her. :)


Segundus : Scalzi's metaphor is neat, but sitting around actually playing the game seems otiose. I mean, with good metaphors you just tell people about them and it allows them to map across instantly from a domain they understand already. If people get the game concepts in use here, there's no need to sit and play; if they don't, teaching them about the game is a slow and indirect route and you'd do better to find another metaphor for that audience.

I have to respectfully disagree - As the author pointed out, many of her class (particularly the females) had never played halo, and came at it from, ironically enough, a position of disadvantage. So they wouldn't all "get" the metaphor without experiencing it.

Going further, though, while a good metaphor can indeed help us map ideas between two problem domains, we also need to take care that our underlying idea actually works - I can make flowery metaphors between cars and programming all day, but they won't help you do either, nor do they necessarily have any basis in reality.

Extending that, I originally took some issue with Scalzi's essay (more accurately, it really kinda pissed me off for reasons on which I've elaborated elsewhere on the Blue, if you feel like reading them), and most certainly did not just take it on faith that he had it right. Putting the same information in a more concrete form, while not necessarily validating the real social dynamics involved, at least validates a plausible mechanism.


So, Kudos to Sammy A for taking the time to come up with a good lesson, rather than resorting to mere rote indoctrination!
posted by pla at 3:50 AM on April 29, 2013


is different from experiencing it yourself

Wait a minute. You don't pay $40,600 for 12 credit hours at Emory University to experience stuff for yourself.

The image of rich white kids at an exclusive university - which is an enclave of suburban class and privilege in a majority black city - learning about prejudice using a videogame is metaphor enough.

Spending an afternoon volunteering at the ER at Grady Memorial Hospital would be too obvious an educational experience I suppose.
posted by three blind mice at 4:11 AM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pla, I was confused, too, but she explains the pronoun situation with Carl in the comments.
posted by taz at 4:15 AM on April 29, 2013


Spending an afternoon volunteering at the ER at Grady Memorial Hospital would be too obvious an educational experience I suppose.

You'll have to explain how that would achieve what Samantha Allen set out to do, because now your comment just reads like a weird piece of leftist oneupmanship.
posted by MartinWisse at 4:15 AM on April 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


taz : Pla, I was confused, too, but she explains the pronoun situation with Carl in the comments.

Ah, interesting! I had never run into the idea of someone who won't identify with a particular gender before. Thanks for that clarification, Taz!
posted by pla at 4:18 AM on April 29, 2013


Wait, what? I'll admit I couldn't tell Carl's gender from the picture, but I'd at least have the decency to ask before publishing an article online featuring him/her.

Yes, that is so, so freaking jarring. Isn't that what zie is for?
posted by corb at 4:19 AM on April 29, 2013


If you found yourself disturbed by the pronoun usage for Carl in the text, you need to stop and ask yourself why it matters to you what sex pronouns are used for a person. And that self-awareness should further inform your mental discussion about sexism.
posted by seanmpuckett at 4:21 AM on April 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


Spending an afternoon volunteering at the ER at Grady Memorial Hospital would be too obvious an educational experience I suppose.

Exactly how would that teach something about privilege?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:28 AM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


seanmpuckett, as much as I would rather we didn't have gendered pronouns at all (my fiction has primarily non-binary protagonists and I have wrestled with pronouns a lot) in this instance I think people were confused by the switch because they thought the subject had switched from Carl to another person, and it's kind of presumptuous to suggest this means those people are sexist obsessed with gender or something. Carl is welcome to use whatever pronouns and switch them up from sentence to sentence, but let's not project sexism on readers who weren't immediately sure what the change of pronouns meant in context. It's asking a lot to expect people to be mind-readers and be certain it wasn't a typo or a subject change on first reading. I wasn't even sure until I read the comments, and I'm perfectly comfortable with non-binary people and changing pronouns and whatever people want to do. A story I wrote even had a protagonist who switches between both and I couldn't even be sure that's what was actually going on in the article.
posted by Nattie at 4:40 AM on April 29, 2013 [31 favorites]


Spending an afternoon volunteering at the ER at Grady Memorial Hospital would be too obvious an educational experience I suppose.

Listen, every strategy for teaching privileged people about their privilege is going to have some drawbacks--because you're spending time and energy attending to privileged peoples' personal development.

You just pray that it pays off in the long term.

Your example of volunteering in an ER is critiqued by some as tourism for privileged people. And it creates a lot of work, actually, for ER staff, where that time (scads of paper work, HIPAA training, traing on how to stay out of the way) could be spent on the the goal of providing care. And, many privileged people would walk away thinking "Ugh. Poor people are dirty and yucky. Never going to work with the poor!"

People make calculations about whether or not a given strategy will pay off.

In this case, the Halo lesson is likely part of a longer range effort at teaching privileged people something. It's not a stand alone only learning opportunity. Most meaningful movement on the issue of privilege results from an accumulation of experiences.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:49 AM on April 29, 2013 [19 favorites]


Also, unless some comments were deleted it's reaching to say anyone was "disturbed" by the pronoun switching. Everyone who mentioned it in fact seemed completely okay with Carl choosing his own pronouns, they just weren't sure that she had done so or not, or that the author had discussed it with Carl or not.

I get the impulse to fight back against gendered pronouns, but I don't generally find it helpful to pretend people are making those arguments when they haven't yet, especially when they're actually doing the right thing by asking or being concerned that the person in question is being addressed how they wish to be addressed. It makes people feel like they can't ask about pronouns at all even when they're okay with people setting their own pronouns, and that's the exact opposite environment we want to create. All the non-binary people I know would rather people ask so they don't have to feel like they're demanding something. If they're going to get called sexist for doing the right thing, that kinda sucks.
posted by Nattie at 4:53 AM on April 29, 2013


METAPHOR REIFICATION 101
The instructor will divide the class into groups.


Group One
Being a white male is like playing a video game on easy. Exercise: Your instructor will help you play a video game on easy.


Group Two
Dealing with immigration authorities is like banging your head against a brick wall. Exercise: Your instructor will escort you into a corridor where you may bang your head against a brick wall.


Group Three
(Note: this material has been amended since the the printing of the previous student handbook)
This analogy is like flogging a dead horse. Exercise: your instructor will help you articulate an essay or word poem dealing with the experiences of people who were obliged to flog dead horses.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:55 AM on April 29, 2013 [18 favorites]


>Wait, what? I'll admit I couldn't tell Carl's gender from the picture, but I'd at least have the decency to ask before publishing an article online featuring him/her.

Yes, that is so, so freaking jarring. Isn't that what zie is for?


'zie' is just one of many options. If Carl preferred 'zie', I imagine the author would have used it and people would be talking about that instead. What people who don't prefer either 'he' or 'she' do probably varies a lot with geography and other factors. For example, 'they' and 'always use my name, please' might be popular in one area and somewhere else 'zie' might be common and in a third place, people might alternate pronouns.
posted by hoyland at 5:14 AM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Thanks hoyland, that is the first time I have seen something like that and I wasn't aware that there are regions where people prefer that way of address. Upon hearing that Carl was able to choose his/her form of address for each section made me think that it was a halfway measure for people who couldn't bear to hear other pronouns than his/hers - something that the author was offering as a compromise only.
posted by corb at 5:21 AM on April 29, 2013


I was a little surprised at all the negative opinions in these comments about the project. I'm a fan of both Halo and Scalzi's metaphor, so I thought this article would be very interesting. But, it wasn't.

First, the students read the article about how video game difficulty settings :: privilege. Then, they played a game on the easiest possible setting, and the hardest possible setting. Then they talked about real life privilege. Some students didn't care much for the exercise. The author quotes a student paper that could have been written based solely on a two-paragraph description of the concept; without having had to play an actual video game.

It also irks me that the author used the skulls to represent intersection. But they were turned all-on. On legendary. This is not so much an example of "Hey, if someone is X and Y, then look at how different it is from X or Y" so much as "Hey, if someone is A, B, C, D, E.... Z, well, they're fucked!"

It could be that the problem is my prolonged separation from high schools and people who are in high school. Maybe they really are just dumb, and require extended "Repeat after me: I LIVE A PRIVILEGED LIFE" sessions to learn the concept, because that's what I saw here.
posted by rebent at 5:31 AM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I saw the switching pronouns without any editorial comment I was concerned the authour (or editor) was simply making a spelling mistake that can be hurtful to some people, especially people that do not present as"normal" on the spectrum.
posted by saucysault at 6:06 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I saw the switching pronouns without any editorial comment I was concerned the authour (or editor) was simply making a spelling mistake that can be hurtful to some people, especially people that do not present as"normal" on the spectrum.

After seeing it go back and forth, I figured it was about Carl not wanting to identify as he or she. It was incredibly annoying to read through the switch back and forth.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:11 AM on April 29, 2013


I like Scalzi's metaphor and I don't mean to go off track. But if you start the game with infinite resources--already having access to all of the weapons, vehicles etc. you could possibly want, with infinite ammo--THAT'S the easiest way to play. Being born rich is like starting the game with cheat codes.

I don't say that to distract from the valuable lesson the difficulty setting metaphor has to offer and Scalzi was trying to impart. But it bears mention that wealth trumps just about everything.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 6:13 AM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Spending an afternoon volunteering at the ER at Grady Memorial Hospital would be too obvious an educational experience I suppose.

Yes, and for every rich kid I've met who's developed a little empathy doing this, I've met at least one or two who ignored all of the hardships that lead to the patient landing in the ER at Grady and concluded "I knew all poor people were loud, ungrateful, lazy drug addicts!"

Empathy and inherent understanding of intersectionality of oppression do not spring unbidden simply from exposure to victims of oppression. Most of the time they require explanation, especially to people who have literally no context for the difficulties that less-privileged people face.
posted by schroedinger at 6:17 AM on April 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


After seeing it go back and forth, I figured it was about Carl not wanting to identify as he or she. It was incredibly annoying to read through the switch back and forth.

There's something deeply ironic about this comment. What it is is left as an exercise to the reader.
posted by hoyland at 6:26 AM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Scalzi's stupid, deceptive metaphor inspired a waste of time classroom assignment, slathered in confusing writing justified with pissy self-righteousness? Yeah, that sounds about right.

Scalzi seems to think Lily Ledbetter's kids are going to play life on an easier difficulty setting than Barack Obama's kids (just with "debuffs"), which is proof enough that he either doesn't understand privilege or is (more likely) deliberately lying about it to flatter his readers. And playing Halo in class (complete with giggly "Let's close the door so that square Mr. Principal doesn't see") is exactly the intellectual level I'd expect from someone who thinks Scalzi's horseshit makes sense.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:27 AM on April 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I too had skepticism until I read the article and came to the part quoted in the FPP: “What’s the problem?” I asked Cody and Rob, “Caitlin isn’t having any trouble staying alive and she’s fighting even more grunts than you.”

Which I recognized as an immediately absorbable lesson about invisible privilege that would possibly be more viscerally understood. The question is the analogue to every "Well, I worked my way up through hard work without handouts, so should you!" statement, the continual justification of the limitation of public services and social security systems, and their rebranding under the terms of "handouts" and "entitlements".

Cody and Rob's answer, of course, is "Well, the game is harder for me", which is exactly the kind of visceral experience of intersectionality and privilege that is hard to demonstrate outside of a conceptual understanding.

Scalzi seems to think Lily Ledbetter's kids are going to play life on an easier difficulty setting than Barack Obama's kids

Oh please. Every time I see this "class trumps race!" argument, it usually seems to stem from a desire to avoid any discussion of identity politics and to brush off or ignore the effects of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc, by attempt to privileging the effects of class over anything else.

Scalzi's analogy is a deliberately simplified one. Allen's article mentions: "The individual effects of each of these skulls do not simply run in parallel; rather, they intersect, overlap and interlock, just like systems of oppression. Nobody is saying that class does not have an effect on one's abilities or 'difficulty setting' in the world -- of course it does. However, it's far from the only thing that affects one's abilities.

Hence the term, "intersectionality", which is the whole point of the article.
posted by suedehead at 6:36 AM on April 29, 2013 [24 favorites]


Every time I see this "class trumps race!" argument, it usually seems to stem from a desire to avoid any discussion of identity politics and to brush off or ignore the effects of race, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, etc, by attempt to privileging the effects of class over anything else.

Oh I'll discuss it all you want, man (well, I would if I had unlimited Metafilter time). But I stick to the original statement: Lily Ledbetter's kids are not automatically gifted an easier life than Barack Obama's. A white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia and didn't go to college is going to be playing on a harder difficulty setting (at least when it comes to career and social capital) than the gay child of rich black parents with graduate school degrees. Anyone who won't acknowledge that isn't highlighting intersectionality, they're lying about life in America so they can justify looking down their noses on hated relatives.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 6:59 AM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nobody is saying that class does not have an effect on one's abilities or 'difficulty setting' in the world -- of course it does.

In the linked Scalzi article he says:
"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."

So Scalzi does directly say that class doesn't affect the difficulty level. In general I do kind of agree with you though; I think the above is a simply incorrect part of his article, and that he makes more apt points elsewhere.
posted by Balna Watya at 7:00 AM on April 29, 2013


Wait a minute. You don't pay $40,600 for 12 credit hours at Emory University to experience stuff for yourself.

I resemble that remark. ;) No, really.

When I arrived at Emory several decades ago, I was sheltered and naive. My semi-rural southern family sent me to a private grammar and high school (I was a scholarship student) which was nonetheless very white and almost everyone was Christian. I had no idea what privelege was and I had been taught that poor people were largely lazy and it was a shame people of color (they used different words where I came from) "chose" to be poor and uneducated. I thought Ronald Reagan had brought our nation through tough times and Senator Strom Thurmond was a charming older gent who represented our state well in Congress. At 17, that is who I was. It's not easy to admit but it is true.

I would love to think now that if someone had dropped me off at Grady then (I live near there now) I would have been transformed by the experience. But I bet I would have just freaked the fuck out - it would have been too different, too scary, too strange.

I had a lot of experiences at Emory that really opened my eyes and changed how I saw myself and the world. If I had been a stronger or braver person, I wouldn't have needed the spoonfeeding that I got. I *was* privileged, still am, to get those experiences in a gentle way but I have to be honest, maybe that is what I needed. I'm embarrassed to admit that but I also wonder if that was true for other people too.
posted by pointystick at 7:06 AM on April 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


I sort of wonder how effective or valuable this is or was. The problem is that, in the real world, nothing is as easy or clear as difficulty settings on a videogame. So, ok, in the game you can check some boxes and grenades hit harder as well as get thrown more frequently. But outside the classroom, a grenade just looks like a grenade, you know? So if someone has already accepted the idea of privilege it's ok, but then kinda what's the point? Sort of the same problem happens with Scalzi's original essay, where someone reads it and responds "but I've worked really hard!"

I guess maybe I think that doing something like reading A Different Mirror might be more valuable.

On the other hand, teaching these concepts to people that aren't predisposed towards them is tremendously difficult! I'm certainly not averse to instructors trying a wide variety of tactics to try to connect with students.

Hey fuzzyb, maybe try not to jump for the most shallow, incendiary possible way to phrase your misgivings.
posted by kavasa at 7:11 AM on April 29, 2013


I appreciate the message and the effort, and maybe Scalzi's essay is useful for some people, but I find it really insipid and dumb because of the metaphor, not because of the content, which is spot on. More of the usual "hurf durf I am talking to guys so must put this in terms of an incredibly narrow range of Stereotypical Guy Stuff or they won't understand"; surprised, frankly, by lack of football metaphors and sexist nudge-nudge-wink-winking thrown in for good measure.

This piece certainly sets out to solve a real problem, but since it starts by calling its audience idiots, basically, it's probably not useful. It's very valuable to point out all of the different ways in which arbitrary socially-determined bullshit makes the world much more hospitable for some than for others. It's valuable to consider one's audience when determining one's rhetorical approach. However, it's shitty to deploy patronizing stereotypes, even if the subject is a privileged demographic, and "straight white guys can only understand stuff when it's presented in terms of one of a few types of corporate entertainment that they all enjoy" is a stereotyped message that is ubiquitous and tired and stupid.

In fact, I submit that this essay helps to perpetuate straight white male privilege, by reinforcing the way in which (in my experience) privileged people tend to close ranks against everyone else. "Hey, you are a straight white dude, too, so we automatically have foo and bar (certain common-denominator-type tastes and casual sexism, usually) in common" is something one hears a lot from other SWDs when one is an SWD. If people took steps to break down this fake group cohesion, instead of reinforcing it, maybe SWD hegemony could be eroded.

Or maybe Scalzi is playing the devious game, here, and wants to show straight white guys like me how shitty it feels to be pigeonholed in a totally inaccurate, unfair way, as happens much more frequently to people who aren't straight white guys. In that case: epic win.
posted by kengraham at 7:13 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


A white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia and didn't go to college is going to be playing on a harder difficulty setting (at least when it comes to career and social capital) than the gay child of rich black parents with graduate school degrees.
Now hold on here. We can't start the Oppression Olympics without a proper torch-lighting ceremony.
posted by aw_yiss at 7:16 AM on April 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


hurf durf I am talking to guys so must put this in terms of an incredibly narrow range of Stereotypical Guy Stuff or they won't understand

The class was not exclusively male; we have no evidence that it was even majority-male.

Hey, you are a straight white dude, too, so we automatically have foo and bar (certain common-denominator-type tastes and casual sexism, usually) in common

To say "you are a straight white dude, too" implies the speaker is a straight white dude. The instructor/author is not likely saying this, as she is a woman.
posted by Jpfed at 7:21 AM on April 29, 2013



To say "you are a straight white dude, too" implies the speaker is a straight white dude. The instructor/author is not likely saying this, as she is a woman.


I am talking about Scalzi's essay. Scalzi is, according to the essay, a man. I am not talking about the other link in the post.
posted by kengraham at 7:27 AM on April 29, 2013


asking for a perfect analogy is like asking for a perfect cake: no matter how delicious it is, it's either going to be more than you can eat or less.
posted by rebent at 7:31 AM on April 29, 2013 [12 favorites]


A white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia and didn't go to college is going to be playing on a harder difficulty setting (at least when it comes to career and social capital) than the gay child of rich black parents with graduate school degrees. Anyone who won't acknowledge that isn't highlighting intersectionality, they're lying about life in America so they can justify looking down their noses on hated relatives.

Strawman alert! But I'll engage.

1) Well, sure. The lesbian daughter of a black billionaire is probably going to be much more advantaged in most settings than a straight white man from a poor, rural family with no little education. Nobody is saying that being non-white in the US is an absolute, overriding disadvantage, and nobody is saying that being white is an absolute, overriding advantage. Let's not talk about strawman arguments here.

2) However, these advantages or disadvantages don't always exist in all situations. If we're cherrypicking examples, let's cherrypick situaations as well, and change the setting to 1969, less than a year after the Civil Rights Act was passed. That lesbian daughter of a black billionaire is still going to have a hard time dealing with upper-class white society, and is going to encounter a social 'race ceiling' that will strongly hinder her from, for example, being a CEO of a company, or becoming a lawyer. Meanwhile, let's say that our poor rural white man, through a combination of hard work, intelligence, and luck, makes his way up the social ladder and becomes a low-ranking executive. At that point, there are probably very strong social barriers to our lesbian black woman's ascension to becoming Partner or Chairman than what our formerly-poor white man may have.

I think this (cherrypicked) example points out that, at least some point in the past, race and class have overlapping but not necessarily interchangable ways of affecting someone's abilities and disabilities. Many things have changed since 1968, but unless you're arguing that at some point there was a sudden inflection point at which race suddenly stopped mattering, these social/cultural/racial/gendered barriers still exist, albeit with different degrees of severity. These backgrounds advantage and disadvantage us us in different way, based on different situations. Class doesn't completely trump race; race doesn't completely trump class; rather, they overlap, intersect, in shades of difference.

3) Cherrypicked examples are just that -- single data points. Larger analyses reveal that these inequalities are actually systematic. Here's an example. Or here's the census data. In 2009, the median income of black households was nearly $20,000 less than the median income of white households.

How do you explain that disparity? This is data taken across the entirety of the USA, not a single cherry-picked example. In my opinion, you have three options.

1) Racism (biological). The (disgusting) argument that "black people are just less intelligent."
2) Racism (cultural). Equally disgusting: "black people are lazier; black people don't have a tradition of personal advancement, etc."
3) Systematic oppression: "A result of decades and generations of discrimination, disenfranchisement, oppression, as well as still-continuing discrimination/racism/oppression."

Hmm.
posted by suedehead at 7:31 AM on April 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Straight out of high school kids do need to be exposed with this kind of thing over-and-over again - albeit given the self-selecting properties of the attendance roster for a Gender Studies class I wonder how much those students in particular needed this lesson.

I digress. The main thing I have against it is the lesson plan seems to have been… a bit thin on the ground. It wasn't edgy or all that progressive. I have an instinctual distaste for people who assign readings of essays they themselves wrote.
posted by pmv at 7:34 AM on April 29, 2013


It's pretty damn clear with race and orientation. Being white/straight in America is almost pure advantage. It gets a little trickier with gender, because patriarchy damages men in a wide variety of ways along with the advantages.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:36 AM on April 29, 2013


Please do be aware that this was one lesson, not the entirety of the class she taught and that there was more to it than just playing Halo and reading the Scalzi and her own essay. There was a link to the resources she used (PDF) in the post.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:38 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reading and hearing about intersectionality (which, to be honest, isn't that difficult a concept to grasp intellectually) is different from experiencing it yourself, even in the context of a videogame. It's much more visceral that way.

I take your point, but I'm not looking forward to some guy telling me he's got nothing to learn about intersectionailty because he's experienced it first hand playing Halo..
posted by Segundus at 7:42 AM on April 29, 2013


It does seem strange to take the Scalzi essay, which is kind of a gender inequality primer for bros who have literally never thought about privilege, and use it as a teaching tool for a gender studies class, where one would encounter people who are accustomed--or at least open to--thinking about gender inequalities. Particularly given that a number of the people in the class hadn't played video games before. Metaphors aren't effective if you don't know the reference.

Caitlyn, you're interested in equality issues, but you've never played Halo before. Come play on the easy setting (which is really easy) and then the hard setting (which is really hard). Now, Caitlyn, you understand what it's like to be a woman. Bryan, you're a dude who's played Halo, who is also interest in equality issues and is enrolled in a gender studies class--take over from Caitlyn. Now, Bryan, you get a taste of gender equality. You should enroll in a gender studies class. Oh yes, you are enrolled in my class already.

This just seems like the wrong audience for this thought experiment. Sam should take this on the road to the frats or something.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:03 AM on April 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


It does seem strange to take the Scalzi essay, which is kind of a gender inequality primer for bros who have literally never thought about privilege, and use it as a teaching tool for a gender studies class, where one would encounter people who are accustomed--or at least open to--thinking about gender inequalities.

Not if you're priming people to proselytize. (I don't think that's happening here, it's just a simple metaphor that's been buried under a ton of complexity).
posted by Leon at 8:28 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


People are different. Teacher creates lesson plan illustrating some points of this overly complex principle based on reductionist published article. Internet blog erupts in discussion that somehow misses the point.

Film at 11.

In lighter news, it's at least good that teachers have both the creativity and the flexibility to try new things to reach their students. When I was a high school teacher I spent about two weeks trying to teach the principles of poetry using pop music, or MTV, or whatever it was that those kids were listening to at the time. Parents complained, and I never attempted it again. But several students that I keep up with still refer to those lessons some decades later.

The thing is, the prof doesn't necessarily get to select the lesson plan, but they do get to select how they illustrate the principles within. Regardless of whether those students deserve to be taught the lesson, the teacher was doing her job.

(And I'm assuming that Samantha self-identifies as a "her". Not sure if that's going to confuse anybody or not, so wanted to make it clear.)
posted by Blue_Villain at 8:44 AM on April 29, 2013


Re: the intersection of class/race/sex/orientation and privilege, which would you rather be: the straight, white, son of a man on food stamps in rural West Virginia, or the gay, black, daughter of a man on food stamps in rural West Virginia? Sure, having socioeconomic privileges can mitigate some of the prejudices race/gender and sexual orientation can confer, but take any terrible situation a person can be born into: being a racial minority, woman, or gay makes it worse (from the perspective of prejudice and chance for socioeconomic advancement).

Besides, no socioeconomic privilege in the world has yet enabled a woman or gay person of any sex to be president.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 9:14 AM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I take your point, but I'm not looking forward to some guy telling me he's got nothing to learn about intersectionailty because he's experienced it first hand playing Halo..

You're looking at it half empty. Half full: wouldn't you like more (straight white) guys to be aware of the concept of intersectionality?

When I saw the switching pronouns without any editorial comment I was concerned the authour (or editor) was simply making a spelling mistake that can be hurtful to some people, especially people that do not present as"normal" on the spectrum.

After seeing it go back and forth, I figured it was about Carl not wanting to identify as he or she. It was incredibly annoying to read through the switch back and forth.


Everybody likely noticed it switch back and forth, and if paying attention, noticed it change back and forth with each sentence, so it's clearly intentional, not a mistake.

And if you are able to notice the intent and figure out what's going on ... why on earth is it annoying?

It is a bit telling that Carl's pronoun is the most interesting thing to discuss here.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:17 AM on April 29, 2013


A white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia and didn't go to college is going to be playing on a harder difficulty setting (at least when it comes to career and social capital) than the gay child of rich black parents with graduate school degrees.

You're completely misunderstanding the metaphor. The assertion is that the white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia has an easier time than the gay black woman whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virgina. And that the white child of rich parents with graduate school degrees has an easier time than the gay black woman with rich graduate-educated parents. Do you think that's not true?

The whole point of the game metaphor is the recognition that some players can score higher on the hardest difficulty setting than others can on the lowest difficulty setting, especially if the circumstances are different (for instance, if you have cheat codes that let you start the game with all the weapons and armor upgrades). But the difficulty settings are still real and an equally-skilled player in similar circumstances will kick your ass when playing on a much lower difficulty setting.
posted by straight at 11:23 AM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that if you're trying to construct a linear totem pole of oppression to argue about, or attempting to distill each person's oppression down to one number you can compare to other numbers, you maybe don't grok intersectionality as well as you think you do.


It's hard to get people who don't understand the concepts of privilege and oppression to "wake up," so to speak - this is probably biggest hurdle to taking on kyriarchy. We need varied approaches to pull as many people out of the matrix as possible, as quickly as possible, so stuff like this makes complete sense to me.
posted by Corinth at 11:52 AM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If you found yourself disturbed by the pronoun usage for Carl in the text, you need to stop and ask yourself why it matters to you what sex pronouns are used for a person. And that self-awareness should further inform your mental discussion about sexism."

It has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with how the conventions of English grammar facilitating parsing the meaning of sentences.

A change in pronouns implies a change in the person being discussed. Switching back and forth between pronouns for the same person just confuses readers and wastes our time by forcing us to go back and reread previous sentences trying to figure out whom the new pronoun is referring to.

I have absolutely no problem with people who refuse to identify by gender. But for clarity's sake, when writing about such people, either use one of the newly invented gender-neutral pronouns or abstain from using pronouns -- don't just throw grammar out the window!

/curmudgeonly prescriptivism
posted by Jacqueline at 12:00 PM on April 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have absolutely no problem with people who refuse to identify by gender. But for clarity's sake, when writing about such people, either use one of the newly invented gender-neutral pronouns or abstain from using pronouns -- don't just throw grammar out the window!

Well, you do have a problem. If it's not with them, it's with respecting their wishes for how their gender is described.

No one has suggested they were hopelessly confused by two different pronouns being used to refer to one person. Some people concluded the author made a typo. But no one was 'confused' until Carl's gender identity became known.
posted by hoyland at 12:24 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with how the conventions of English grammar facilitating parsing the meaning of sentences.

If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) "they," we'd have a grammarian complaining about "they." If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) one of the newly invented pronouns, we'd have someone complaining about them. If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) Carl's name in every instance, we'd have someone complaining about how it stilted the flow of the text.

A change in pronouns implies a change in the person being discussed.

Except now you know it doesn't, because you've been exposed to Carl, who uses both pronouns.

On preview: Yeah, what hoyland said.
posted by Corinth at 12:30 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


It has nothing to do with sexism and everything to do with how the conventions of English grammar facilitating parsing the meaning of sentences.

And just for fun I totally had a hard time parsing this, heh.

(Sorry!)
posted by Corinth at 12:59 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


"No one has suggested they were hopelessly confused by two different pronouns being used to refer to one person."

I was hopelessly confused! I must have backtracked at least five times while reading that part of the article before I got fed up and gave up on trying to figure out whom the author was talking about. I finally assumed that the author must have been writing about two different people and had just mistakenly typed Carl's name for both of them until I got to the comments here and read that the author was just playing stupid pronoun games.

"If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) "they," we'd have a grammarian complaining about "they." If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) one of the newly invented pronouns, we'd have someone complaining about them. If the author had used (with Carl's blessing) Carl's name in every instance, we'd have someone complaining about how it stilted the flow of the text."

Except in all those cases it would have been clear that the author was still writing about Carl. Out of all the possible ways to handle the situation, the author chose the worst one.

The point of writing is to communicate. If your readers are confused over something as basic as whom you are referring to in a sentence, you have failed to communicate.

Carl can be whatever gender Carl wants to be (or no gender at all), and if Carl and the author want to add something new to English grammar that respects Carl's gender identity while preserving clarity, great! Our language obviously needs some new pronouns or syntax, because the male/female dichotomy assumed by our existing grammar does not adequately or accurately describe a large number of people. Just don't misuse the existing, inadequate grammatical conventions in such a way that hinders clear communication.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:06 PM on April 29, 2013 [10 favorites]


(For the record, if I were Dictator of the English Language, I would just get rid of pronouns altogether. Too many people mess them up even when they aren't writing about nontraditionally gendered people.)
posted by Jacqueline at 1:14 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


the author was just playing stupid pronoun games.

Out of all the possible ways to handle the situation, the author chose the worst one.

The author specifically consulted with Carl and used the exact language that Carl was most comfortable with. The author wasn't playing games or choosing from multiple possibilities (other than the choice of focusing on Carl as an individual or not doing so). It might be true that the author chose to highlight Carl for a reason (in an essay on a feminist website about privilege!), and given the discussion now proceeding about how agender/bigender/genderqueer/genderfluid people prefer to be addressed, I'm glad that the author did so.
posted by Corinth at 1:19 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yet the author chose to refer to another group of people as "straight white men" despite there being many people in that group who would object to being labelled that way. This leads me to believe that the author doesn't actually give a rat's ass about using terms that people are "most comfortable" with and instead is just being deliberately difficult for comment bait.

I almost referred to the author by a female pronoun in this comment because I'd made a cisnormative assumption based on the author's first name and picture. It took me less than a minute to rewrite it to eliminate the pronoun. SEE HOW EASY IT IS?!
posted by Jacqueline at 1:37 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's also worth noting that the author needed Carl's explicit direction to get the exact usage Carl was comfortable with. If you or I wanted or needed to use a pronoun for Carl, we wouldn't have that luxury. I don't know Carl, but I do know some other genderqueer people. My approach in a situation where I don't have direct guidance but needed a pronoun would be to use "they" for these people. In my experience, the "zie" family of pronouns tends to be something one chooses for oneself, and not something that third parties should apply to someone on their own. (Or at least not to a concrete someone - it isn't uncommon for queer theory writers to use "zie" in place of the general genderless "he" in the same way that feminist writers might use "she.") corb asked earlier, "Isn't that what 'zie' is for?" meaning (I think), people whose gender presentation is ambiguous to me. And no, it's not, at least as I understand it.

Genderqueer/genderfluid/bigender/agender people are rad!
posted by Corinth at 1:40 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Jacqueline, I don't see any usage of "straight white men" by the author outside of the context of quoting or citing John Scalzi or one of her students, and I'm not sure what you're going for with this. Also, you can learn about Samantha Allen by reading her short biography thing at the bottom of the text:

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman, an ex-Mormon and a PhD student in Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on sexual fetishism. She writes regularly for The Border House and has contributed to Kotaku, Medium Difficulty and First Person Scholar. She is also an erstwhile singer-songwriter. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.

As for comment bait, presumably there are better places to trawl for responses to dueling she/he pronouns than on "a blog for those who are feminist, queer, disabled, people of color, transgender, poor, gay, lesbian, and others who belong to marginalized groups, as well as allies."

(Unless she was anticipating her article being posted to MeFi, maybe. That's a bit eleven dimensional chess for me, but if that was her game, brava.)
posted by Corinth at 1:52 PM on April 29, 2013


Genderqueer/genderfluid/bigender/agender people are rad!

True! But so is good editing! I don't care if Carl wants to be a he or a she or both, but any confusion would have been avoided with just a modicum of thoughtful editing:

"Then I got Carl to play. Carl, who identifies as intergender (and on whose request I will refer to as both "he" and "she" in this post), had never played Halo before, but was eager to take the controller."

With different people, it might be zie, or it, or they, or no pronouns--but Samantha could just introduce the reader to each person's preferences. I'm sure Carl didn't say she preferred having his preferences hidden in the comments. Doing so seems either gimmicky or bad editing, that's all.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:54 PM on April 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


From the synopsis, I thought that the teacher had set up a bank of Halo stations, each with a different modified difficulty of the game where that difficulty wasn't immediately known to the participants, and had her students randomly assigned to a few of them each. That would be kind of an interesting exercise, especially since she clearly identifies at least one and probably more skulls as analogous to specific real-world disadvantages.

The way this is set up, it doesn't really read like the kind of revelatory experience she's claiming, I think because there's only two settings: super-easy and absurdly, ridiculously hard. LASO, as she puts it, is probably only mappable to being a deaf-mute quadriplegic black lesbian. Also, people know they are voluntarily, or at least consciously, attached to one or the other. But the whole point of intersectionality is that these advantages and disadvantages are "randomly" assigned, and you can't walk away from either one. I don't mind Scalzi's essay and the idea of jumping off from it into an exercise is interesting, but this doesn't seem particularly well executed.

I almost referred to the author by a female pronoun in this comment because I'd made a cisnormative assumption based on the author's first name and picture. It took me less than a minute to rewrite it to eliminate the pronoun. SEE HOW EASY IT IS?!

Or, you could have used that minute to look at the author's byline, where she is clearly labeled as a woman and consistently referred to using feminine pronouns. That would have been pretty easy too.

The whole point of the game metaphor is the recognition that some players can score higher on the hardest difficulty setting than others can on the lowest difficulty setting, especially if the circumstances are different (for instance, if you have cheat codes that let you start the game with all the weapons and armor upgrades).

Is it? I perceive the analogy to be more like the "twice as good and half as black" argument: a player must be exponentially more skilled to achieve on a higher difficulty level the same results as another player on a lower difficulty level. To manage to score higher suggests to many that they must have cheated somehow, because the only way to square a higher difficulty setting with a lower one is through cheat codes, like affirmative action, and other people aren't using cheats so why should our player? "Because they don't have to" doesn't appear historically to have been a compelling argument.

A white man whose parents live on food stamps in rural West Virginia and didn't go to college is going to be playing on a harder difficulty setting (at least when it comes to career and social capital) than the gay child of rich black parents with graduate school degrees.

There are lots of poor white people who have it way worse off than middle-class black people. That's certainly true. On the other hand, every election season, I seem to hear a lot of speeches from the sons of pig farmers and dock workers and small-town schoolteachers. I don't hear that many speeches from non-white or non-straight sons of farmhands and mechanics. I don't hear that many speeches from anyone's daughter, and I don't hear any speeches from anyone's non-binary child. So, yeah, class is super important, but it's not a trump card, even with regard to career or social capital.
posted by Errant at 1:59 PM on April 29, 2013


Sigh. Sorry for causing a bit of a derail. I'm not going to keep arguing the matter, except to say that I wouldn't have been confused and thus wouldn't have said anything about it at all if the author had written what Admiral Haddock suggested.

I think I'm so worked up over this because I'm in the middle of fleshing out the setting for a science fiction story that I'm working on, and one of the issues I've been reading and thinking about is how to handle transgendered characters in an enlightened futuristic setting when gender is no longer a big deal. Of all the possible ways I've contemplated handling the pronoun issue, this author chose the option that was literally too horrifically confusing for me to even consider.

So my offense is coming from a place of "but there are SO MANY BETTER WAYS to write that" and not one of "yer born with the parts yer born with, deal with it." :)
posted by Jacqueline at 2:08 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Admiral Haddock, that makes sense, and that's probably what I would have suggested if I were editing the piece, especially if it were going up somewhere else. The only problem I see with that is that it runs the risk of making people like Carl seem novel (in a bad way) if a disclaimer is required just to start writing about them, every time. I imagine that wouldn't be much fun. I read the author's treatment of the situation as an explicit attempt to embrace and normalize (I cast about for a better word - I'm sure there is one but it escapes me right now) Carl's preferences. Genderqueer people get plenty of othering and special explanations elsewhere in their lives, and I think there's a valid teachable moment coming from this no big deal handling.
posted by Corinth at 2:09 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Perhaps, but I think authors will get a lot more mileage out of their "teachable moments" with parenthetical clauses that guide the reader along and are no more intrusive than "Peter, who goes by 'Petey'" than making people guess at what's going on. All the more so when the "error" just reinforces the binaries available--i.e., leaving the reader to think that Carl, who was a "he" earlier in the paragraph is being incorrectly called a "she" later in the paragraph. That's got to be the wrong message.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:27 PM on April 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


(For the record, if I were Dictator of the English Language, I would just get rid of pronouns altogether. Too many people mess them up even when they aren't writing about nontraditionally gendered people.)

I kind of agree with this. Another option would be to normalize use of some gender-neutral pronoun for everyone since, even if everyone were "traditionally gendered", using gendered pronouns very often leads to language that is, strictly, imprecise. The subject's gender is irrelevant in most sentences.

Moreover, since different people have different preferences for pronouns, there seems to be a point at which pronouns and chosen names for individual people converge, and then the point of having a special, not-strictly-necessary standard part of speech really is lost: if I want to be "xe" and you want to be "zie" and Carl wants to be "he" or "she" according to whether the number of times you've referred to Carl using a personal pronoun is odd or even, then these pronouns are basically nicknames, not standard parts of the language. So, in order to respect perfectly reasonable personal preferences, we are sort of forced to seriously weaken the notion of a pronoun anyway.

Maybe just personal pronouns have to go. Actually, I am a traditionally gendered person, but I'd be down with being referred to as "it", except in the (very rare) instances where my gender is actually relevant to the sentence. Alternatively, I like the "xe/xyr/xym" approach. I guess my point is: either we (i.e. the Anglosphere) agree on standard non-gendered pronouns, or we ditch personal pronouns altogether, and using each person's preferred pronoun essentially amounts to the latter. Either of these options seems sensible (not that either is a practical thing to just bring about by fiat). The latter seems better, because it guarantees respect for preferences (and maybe enhances the socially cohesive effect of language, since one needs to get to know someone a bit to find out xyr preferred pronoun).

(Most of my writing consists of math papers, where pronouns of all kinds are Clarity Death, so the idea of ditching them in my other speech doesn't seem so scary.)
posted by kengraham at 2:31 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


The way this is set up, it doesn't really read like the kind of revelatory experience she's claiming

I'm not sure she did actually claim this, rather than as an interesting experiment she got to perform with her class she herself wasn't too sure would work out. Also, it doesn't have to do everything for everbody or be perfect as an analogy to work.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:47 PM on April 29, 2013


"Revelatory" might be a little strong, I admit, but she does put this up as an interesting experiment that illustrates what it's like to live without privilege, and I am not really convinced that this experiment does that. She's also putting it up as an experiment in experiencing intersectionality, and, with only two states, I don't see how it could be that either. I'm not saying it's not an interesting exercise in its own right or that there couldn't be effective analogies to draw from the experience, just that I don't really buy the ones she is presenting. It's not that I think it's a failure because the analogy is imperfect, it's that I don't think the analogies she's putting forward are valid.
posted by Errant at 2:59 PM on April 29, 2013


class is super important, but it's not a trump card, even with regard to career or social capital.

Yeah, but that's the thing about life---there are no trump cards. Which is why Scalzi's metaphor and the exercise it inspired seem to me to have zoomed out way into the atmosphere, where there's no people at all.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:02 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am non-binary and find a lot of the discussion above relating to Carl's pronouns thoughtful, privileged, incompletely informed, and occasionally educational at an introductory level. I recognize the difficulty of selecting and communicating with pronouns in languages that force a binary gender on personal pronouns. I generally accept whatever pronouns a non-hostile person uses to represent me in their communications, regardless of whether they match my internal settings of "right".

On the other hand, some days the cumulative microaggression of not being able to find a toilet outside my own home that I'm comfortable using and others will accept my using can tip the balance of my mood and my day.

In my paradise, every sentient creature has the same limited pronoun set and nobody freaks out about toilets. This is not paradise; when I have the energy and focus, I try to cut folks some slack and hope most other folks are doing similarly.
posted by thatdawnperson at 5:31 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Balna Watya:

"So Scalzi does directly say that class doesn't affect the difficulty level."

But I do not say that class/wealth does not play a role in the game or how it is played -- in fact I explicitly say the opposite; it's right there in the bit quoted. This is a fact I see elided quite a bit, which is unfortunate because it then means people are not considering the metaphor in full.

I assign class/wealth differently -- it's a stat in my metaphor rather than a character attribute like race/gender/sexuality. I did it that way for pedagogical reasons primarily -- i.e., I had a point I was trying to make with the metaphor -- but also because I believe class, particularly in the US, is malleable in ways race/gender/sexuality are not. I can (and in my real life did) change my class from blue collar poor to white collar well-off. It would not be as simple to change my race or gender or sexuality, the changing of each individual attribute ranging from difficult to realistically impossible.

I assign wealth as a stat, and anyone who plays an RPG game knows that what your stats are in a game will clearly have an effect on how well you do in the game -- and may sometimes be hugely significant in how the game is played. This point is, again, directly addressed in the quote provided from me here.

(One could even argue that wealth shouldn't even be a stat -- that it should be an equipable tool or weapon (it's the BFG of real life) -- or simply part of the inventory. Does having a million gold coins in your inventory (or whatever) make the game easier to play? Well, duh, of course, and that's a fact regardless of how it's assigned in the game metaphor.)

As wealth/class is accounted for in the metaphor, when ThatFuzzyBastard writes --

"Lily Ledbetter's kids are not automatically gifted an easier life than Barack Obama's"

-- he's not saying anything that breaks the metaphor. Assuming Lily Ledbetter's kids are in fact straight white males, then they play on a lower difficulty setting than Barack Obama's and it's also the case that Sasha and Malia Obama have stats that Ms. Ledbetter's kids would envy, particularly the "wealth" stat, and which will affect their gameplay. As noted in the entry, it's possible to play on the lowest difficulty setting and still have people do better than you, because they have better stats, or just because they play the game better than you do.

Some folks apparently have a hard time wrapping their brains around that part of the piece, including a lot of straight white men who feel like their life has not been easy, which of course may be entirely true. But that's not a problem with the metaphor. The metaphor accounts for life not being easy, regardless of setting. It just sucks to believe your life is not easy, even on the lowest difficulty setting.
posted by jscalzi at 5:51 PM on April 29, 2013 [9 favorites]


hoyland : There's something deeply ironic about this comment. What it is is left as an exercise to the reader.
mrgrimm : It is a bit telling that Carl's pronoun is the most interesting thing to discuss here.
hoyland : Well, you do have a problem. If it's not with them, it's with respecting their wishes for how their gender is described.

This counts as neither ironic, nor telling, nor a "problem" with anything except the grammatical correctness of the linked article.

You absolutely do get to decide how you present yourself to the world. You absolutely do not get to redefine the rules of English grammar because you don't "like" how they apply to you - Just like they apply to everyone else. If Carl wants to present as an "he", fine. If Carl wants to present as a "she", fine. If Carl wants to present as an "it", fine. If Carl wants to present as a "Carl" - It makes Carl sound like Billy Bob Thornton's character from Slingblade, uuuhhhh huuuhhh, but okay, still just peachy, grammatically.

Now, if you want to point out any problems here - The author's use of random pronouns has led to people arguing about a fairly minor detail about her work, rather than about her work itself. While that may make for an interesting Gender Studies issue, unless she meant it as the point of her article - She has failed as a writer by including an irrelevant distraction to what she meant to convey.


Segundus : I take your point, but I'm not looking forward to some guy telling me he's got nothing to learn about intersectionailty because he's experienced it first hand playing Halo.

Would you honestly prefer that people remain completely ignorant of the topic, than admit that they learned it by getting their ass kicked by a girl in halo?
posted by pla at 7:01 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


but also because I believe class, particularly in the US, is malleable in ways race/gender/sexuality are not. I can (and in my real life did) change my class from blue collar poor to white collar well-off. It would not be as simple to change my race or gender or sexuality, the changing of each individual attribute ranging from difficult to realistically impossible.

I dunno, a lot of the advantages of wealth and class are gained during childhood. Stable parents, the best education, physical comforts, safe neighborhoods, good healthcare, etc. It gives you a tremendous leg up even if your parents go broke and you have nothing by the time you head to college.

The difference between an advantage in stats and an advantage in difficulty level seems pretty arbitrary to me.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:19 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


While that may make for an interesting Gender Studies issue, unless she meant it as the point of her article - She has failed as a writer by including an irrelevant distraction to what she meant to convey.

As has been pointed out, she's writing for an audience slightly more sophisticated than Metafilter when it comes to such things.
posted by hoyland at 7:49 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The difference between an advantage in stats and an advantage in difficulty level seems pretty arbitrary to me.

The important point is just that both kinds of advantages exist and that it's possible to have one, both, or neither, and that while none of them will definitively determine how successful you are, they do make a real difference.

Scalzi isn't denying that class and wealth make a difference, he's responding to people who claim that race and gender don't.
posted by straight at 8:19 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, it's always seemed to me he is making an argument that straight white male is always easy mode when it can in fact be hard mode due to other contributing factors, and he sets up an arbitrary distinction so he can claim that isn't true. People generally don't argue against it because they don't think race, orientation, and gender matter. They argue with it because from their point of view they aren't the only things that matter in determining who is in easy mode and who is in hard mode.
posted by Drinky Die at 8:26 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Scalzi isn't making the point that straight white male is always easy mode any more than any other feminist is when they say similar things like men are more privileged or whatever. It's shorthand, because the list of things that can modify your place in society is nearly limitless, and it's really unnecessary to require someone to say "straight, white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, recommended weight, conventionally handsome, masculine-presenting, financially sound, well-educated (etc.) male" every time they want to talk about a generally privileged class of people. You can take issue with what is a stat and what is a difficulty level, but there's a certain amount of distortion involved in fitting any kind of reality into an analogy.

And I haven't had the same experience when reading through opposition to Scalzi's point. I've generally noticed two kinds, with the first kind being more prevalent by far:

A) People who don't really get the concept of privilege in general (many of whom are in Scalzi's stated audience for the piece) and who might say, "I'm white, and being white hasn't helped me at all. I'm not privileged - I'm still unemployed for Pete's sake!"

B) People who are already on board with the concepts of privilege and intersectionality who disagree with some aspect of the comparison to videogames - it's too simplified, the stats and difficulty construct, or whatever.

The former need a different approach overall and the latter is kind of inside baseball. Scalzi's piece is explicitly aimed at "your average straight white man" who reads a videogame news site, just as Samantha Allen's implementation is aimed at her young private university students. Like I said before, getting people over the hump and into the fold is the hard part. After we've got them in, they can hash out the details with the rest of us. Until then, I think we absolutely need simplifications and abstractions like this for outreach and education even if they're imperfect.
posted by Corinth at 9:59 PM on April 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Perhapsolutely would like it known Perhapsolutely prefers other people to refer to Perhapsolutely as 'I' when a pronoun is necessary, whereas Perhapsolutely will refer to Perhapsolutely's self/selves as 'everyone but me'. Just to clarify.
posted by perhapsolutely at 10:29 PM on April 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's shorthand, because the list of things that can modify your place in society is nearly limitless, and it's really unnecessary to require someone to say "straight, white, cis, able-bodied, neurotypical, recommended weight, conventionally handsome, masculine-presenting, financially sound, well-educated (etc.) male" every time they want to talk about a generally privileged class of people.

See that's my problem, once you add all the qualifiers you have shrunken the number of people on the easiest setting so far that "straight white male" is beyond shorthand to simply being incorrect. Maybe phrasing it as an easier setting rather than easiest would work better.

If I had to marry it to a video game metaphor I might go with buffs and debuffs. Straight, white, and male are super powerful buffs but you can't say who is going to have an easier time without equally considering the ugly, poor, and schizophrenic debuffs. I don't get the sense Scalzi disagrees with that, just phrases it differently to protect the metaphor from falling apart.

Outreach to people on a hard setting is not going to go well when it's trying to convince people legitimately facing greater than average challenges that they are on the easiest mode.

From a more gamer perspective, I think the metaphor was received poorly among some segments of that intended audience because easy modes are usually made trivially easy, not a challenge at all. So it felt like a condemnation more than it was supposed to be. Another reason I think buffs/debuffs work better than difficulty levels.
posted by Drinky Die at 10:36 PM on April 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


See that's my problem, once you add all the qualifiers you have shrunken the number of people on the easiest setting so far that "straight white male" is beyond shorthand to simply being incorrect

I'm not sure. Just being (or rather, presenting as) a white male in most settings will give you a social leg up, regardless of what other qualifiers apply to you. Your percieved gender and race are the things that are most visible about you in a real life situation and will be what are judged on first, before anything else comes into play, with perhaps the exception of class; if you're a white male but homeless you will be treated differently than if you present as comfortably middle class.

So for white males class can trump gender and race, but for the most part white males have to work to not get that positive first impression, which is not so much the case for people of colour/women.

Race and gender are also the biggest drivers of inequality and discrimination, so it makes sense for a privilege 101 metaphor to concentrate on those first, then go into other matters.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:08 AM on April 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yeah, in pretty much every video game I've ever played Easy Mode is easy no matter what your stats, and Hard Mode is really hard no matter what your buffs. Either Scalzi doesn't understand class, or he doesn't understand video games.

I understand that I'm speaking harshly of him here. But that's because he knows better. Scalzi has written very well about the realities of poverty in America, including poverty suffered by straight, white men. Childhood poverty leaves scars that never heal, just like childhood wealth provides privileges that are never lost. But he's constructed a metaphor that simply elides that reality, or buries it in qualifiers that don't make much sense even within the metaphor. I know he knows better, so I conclude that he's deliberately chosen to ignore the realities of how people's childhood affects them.

In darker moments, I think that's because he's trying to flatter his audience, and his audience is made up of people who want to feel virtuous sympathy for poor black people, but loves to hate their "white trash" relatives. But mostly I think it's just classic self-perspective bias---he was a poor white male and he did alright, so he thinks it's not that hard for poor white people to do alright. This is terribly untrue, but he's certainly not the first guy to insist that he bootstrapped and why can't everyone?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 11:37 AM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The thing is, struggling because you're poor (or succeeding because you're rich) makes sense, even though it sucks and is totally unfair.

Struggling because you're black or because you're a woman doesn't really even make sense. It's completely arbitrary. It's like some cosmic switch was flipped from EASY to HARD and now the world is much more hostile to you for no real reason.
posted by straight at 1:42 PM on April 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


white males have to work to not get that positive first impression

I don't quite agree with this as stated. Correct is, I think: "For the most part, white males do not have to work as hard as people who are not white or not male to make a positive first impression." I think the point of Scalzi's essay (with which point I agree) is that being white and male often, in and of itself, makes a given situation easier than it would be otherwise, most likely not that it makes it hard to fail. I don't think an explanation of the existence of privilege is innately useful unless expanded upon in the following way, though:

It is probably worth pointing out to, say, men, that, due to structural features of society, there is a whole pile of bullshit with which they don't have to deal that non-men do, but it's most worthwhile pointing this out in the context of explaining how to not contribute to those structural features of society. The problem with, say, sexism, is not that men unavoidably play in Easy Mode; it's that non-men play in Hard Mode. In addition to talking about how some people are "hardcore", it would have been good if Scalzi said more about the fact that some people are forced to play in Hard Mode largely because others play in Easy Mode, and that there are things one can do to avoid contributing to the hardness of Hard Mode, and that though some of those things make Easy Mode harder, the easiness of Easy Mode is artificial and comes at the expense of oppressing others. Explaining to people that they've basically received stolen goods when they play in Easy Mode, and that they couldn't avoid it, but there it is, and it's their job to try to mitigate it, and they will probably mostly fail at this but have to try anyway, seems like it has to follow the explanation that certain people play in Easy Mode. Otherwise, what was the point? Moreover, I think a good explanation of this type exceeds the rhetorical constraints of the video game metaphor.

(I still have a super hate-on for artificial games as a metaphor for anything other than very narrow and strictly-defined aspects of life, though. "As the game progresses, your goal is to gain points, apportion them wisely, and level up." is the sort of sentiment I find really insidious and bad, since it's a popular sentiment but not one that's really compatible with any kind of meaningful existence. Moreover, if it were true, people would be crowing about their privilege, rather than resisting the idea, and Scalzi would have maybe not found it necessary to write this essay, since crowing about privilege would be the correct response to a world in which life was strictly competitive.)
posted by kengraham at 2:21 PM on April 30, 2013


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