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Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
I've been thinking of a way to explain to straight white men 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.
So, the challenge: how to get across the ideas bound up in the word "privilege," in a way that your average straight white man will get, without freaking out about it?
Being a white guy who likes women, here's how I would do it:
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.
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it's easier to get.
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. Initially the computer will tell you how many points you get and how they are divided up. If you start with 25 points, and your dump stat is wealth, well, then you may be kind of screwed. If you start with 250 points and your dump stat is charisma, well, then you're probably fine. Be aware the computer makes it difficult to start with more than 30 points; people on higher difficulty settings generally start with even fewer than that.
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.
You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the "Gay Minority Female" setting? Hardcore.
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.
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.
Straight White Male Is The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is: A Follow-Up
[Editor's Note: Last week, Kotaku republished an essay by author John Scalzi titled "Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is." In it, Scalzi put the notion of privilege into a new context: Video game difficulty settings. The response to the post on his own blog was such that he wrote a follow-up to address some of the most common comments and questions. That post, which was written before Kotaku republished the initial article, follows below. One section discussing Scalzi's own blog's commenting policy has been removed.]
It's been a couple of days since I've posted the "Lowest Difficulty Setting" piece, and it's been fun and interesting watching the Intarweebs basically explode over it, especially the subclass of Straight White Males who cannot abide the idea that their lives play out on a fundamentally lower difficulty setting than everyone else's, and have spun themselves up in tight, angry circles because I dared to suggest that they do. Those dudes are cracking me up, and also making me a little sad.
There have been some general classes of statement/questions about the piece both on the site and elsewhere on the Internet, that I would like to address, so I'll do that here. Understand I am paraphrasing the questions/statements. In no particular order:
1. I fundamentally disagree with every single thing you said!
That's fine. It happens.
2. Your metaphor/analogy is good, except for [insert thing that commenter finds not good about the metaphor/analogy]
Well, yes. Metaphors are not perfect; it's why they're metaphors and not the thing the metaphor describes. Likewise analogies break down. I thought the "lowest difficulty setting" description worked well enough for what I wanted to say, but I don't think it's perfect. "Perfect" wasn't what I was aiming for. And of course, if you don't think it's the right metaphor/analogy, that's fine. Please, make a different and better one - the more ways we can make a general point to people who need to understand that general point, the better chance they will listen.
3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.
Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. 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 (note "inherent" here does not necessarily mean "immutable," but that's a conversation I'm not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But 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.
4. I'm a straight white male and my life isn't easy! My life sucks! Your "lowest difficulty setting" doesn't account for that!
That's actually fully accounted for in the entry. Go back and read it again.
This one's a stand-in for all the complaints about the entry that come primarily either from not reading the entry, or not reading what was actually written in the entry in preference to a version of the entry that exists solely in that one person's head, and which is not the entry I wrote. Please, gentlemen, read what is there, not what you think is there, or what you believe must be there because you know you already disagree with what I have to say, no matter what it is I am saying.
5. What about affirmative action (and/or other similar programs)? It just proves SWMs don't have it easy anymore!
Asserting that programs designed to counteract decades of systematic discrimination are proof that Straight White Males are not operating on the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life is not the winning argument you apparently believe it is. I'll let you try to figure out why that is on your own. Likewise, anecdotal examples of a straight white guy getting the short end of the stick in some manner do not suggest that, therefore, it's hard out there for all straight white men all the time.
6. Your piece is racist and sexist.
This particular comment was lobbed at me primarily from aggrieved straight white males. Leaving aside entirely that the piece was neither, let me just say that I think it's delightful that these straight white males are now engaged on issues of racism and sexism. It would be additionally delightful if they were engaged on issues of racism and sexism even when they did not feel it was being applied to them - say, for example,when it's regarding people who historically have most often had to deal with racism and sexism (i.e., not white males). Keep at it, straight white males! You're on the path now!
7. I feel this piece is an attack on straight white men.
You need to re-calibrate your definition of "attack," then, because it's depressingly (or hilariously) out of whack. Suggesting all straight white men should be defenstrated into a courtyard covered with spikes would be an attack. Noting that straight white men operate at the lowest difficulty setting in life is an observation.
Otherwise, in a general sense, when people point out the things straight white men get on credit (or don't have to deal with), the unspoken part of that is not "and that's why we plan to burn all you bastards in a big screaming pile when the revolution comes," it's "hey, just so you know." Because you should know. It's not about blame, it's about knowledge. Stop assuming it's about blame. Paranoid and hypersensitive is no way to go through life.
8. You did not lay out in exhaustive factual detail, with graphs and charts, your assertion that straight white men operate at the lowest difficulty setting in our culture.
Also generally lobbed at me by aggrieved straight white men. And indeed I did not. Also, when I write about tripping over my shoelaces and falling on my ass, I do not preface the comment with a comprehensive discussion of the theory of gravity. For two reasons: One, it's not needed because for anyone but committed gravity-deniers, the theory of gravity is obvious and taken as read, and two, that's not the focus of the entry. 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. One may of course argue with that assertion, and some did in the previous comment thread, but I have to say I've generally found those arguments to be less than compelling (see point six, above).
9. I am never going to buy anything you write ever again.
I don't care.
10. Not every straight white man thinks what you wrote is wrong.
Of course. Noting that some straight white men are having difficulty accepting the idea they operate on the lowest difficulty setting in life doesn't mean that all straight white men do, or that any particular straight white men will experience said difficulties. Alternately, there are a lot of straight white men who think my premise is wrong to a greater or lesser extent, but who can express that disagreement cogently, and even forcefully, without additionally coming across as a five-year-old having a tantrum because he's been told he has to share his toys. Straight white men, like any group, have all sorts of personalities.
11. You wrote the article and pointed out the straight white men live life on the lowest difficulty setting. Okay, fine. What do I/we do next?
Well, that's up to you, isn't it? What I'm doing is pointing out a thing. What you do with that thing is your decision.
That said, here's what I do: recognize it, and work to make it so the more difficult settings in life become closer to the one I get to run through life on - by making those less difficult, mind you, not making mine more so.
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