I’m not a fan of privilege as a foundational argument. It’s confining and limiting. It’s focused on generalizations without regard for the individuals involved. It establishes a hierarchy for problems with the result, if not purpose, of minimizing any X that is less severe than Y according to the person wielding the argument. It’s claptrap that eventually resolves to “Shut up”.
Such is the case with John Scalzi’s recent post, Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. From the beginning it sets out the argument’s flaw as a definitive, justifiable rule that allows anyone who agrees with it to “prove” that the person who disagrees commits an error. Usually being dense, or something similar. It’s a way to shut down debate rather than start or continue one.
I’ve been thinking of a way to explain to straight white males how life works for them, without invoking the dreaded word “privilege,” to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon. It’s not that the word “privilege” is incorrect, it’s that it’s not their word. When confronted with “privilege,” they fiddle with the word itself, and haul out the dictionaries and find every possible way to talk about the word but not any of the things the word signifies.
It starts with condescension. Straight white men need to be educated, and if you challenge the argument, you’re proving your need to be educated. It’s stupid. It signals that there are default rules, either implicitly or explicitly assumed, that no one may disagree with. The only real question it allows is who’s next in needing to be educated about their privilege with respect to someone else under a simplified set of rules: straight minority males or non-straight white males.
Mr. Scalzi’s argument on privilege is easy enough to understand:
Dudes. Imagine life here in the US — or indeed, pretty much anywhere in the Western world — is a massive role playing game, like World of Warcraft except appallingly mundane, where most quests involve the acquisition of money, cell phones and donuts, although not always at the same time. Let’s call it The Real World. You have installed The Real World on your computer and are about to start playing, but first you go to the settings tab to bind your keys, fiddle with your defaults, and choose the difficulty setting for the game. Got it?
Okay: In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is.
As a generalization with no context, sure. But that’s shallow thinking. It’s meaningless. We don’t live our lives as generalizations. Our interactions are more complicated and messy than simple identifying characteristics. Mr. Scalzi’s argument rests on the basis that sexual orientation, skin color, and gender are the three supreme defining characteristics and life should be judged accordingly. All else being equal, would I encounter an easier, harder, or indistinguishable challenge in working with Mr. Scalzi as a Straight White Male than a Gay Minority Female would? I bet on indistinguishable.
He acknowledges other characteristics within the metaphor but makes them subordinate to these three:
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.
I disagree that these three are the complete, highest characteristics. Is a straight white female born with genius-level intelligence, a trust fund, and a respectable family name playing on a more difficult level than a poor, stupid straight white male? What’s the scenario, fixing a flat tire on the side of the road? Being treated respectfully at the Mini Mart?
A later argument demonstrates the largest hole (emphasis in original):
And maybe at this point you say, hey, I like a challenge, I want to change my difficulty setting! Well, here’s the thing: In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun. And you say, okay, but what if I want to replay the game later on a higher difficulty setting, just to see what it’s like? Well, here’s the other thing about The Real World: You only get to play it once. So why make it more difficult than it has to be? Your goal is to win the game, not make it difficult.
My goal is to “win” the game? According to whom? Judged by what criterion/criteria? By whose criterion/criteria? In which game? The argument fails because it neglects the reality that straight white male, gay minority female, and everyone in-between are people with unique, complex mixes of characteristics playing – or not playing – the game to which Straight White Man is the lowest difficulty setting. There are many games. There are different players. And there are different game masters. Context matters. Generalizations bludgeon.