So straight white science fiction author dude John Scalzi has created a bit of a hubbub amongst straight white dudes on the interwebs with a blog post called Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is. The post, later reposted on Kotaku, is basically an attempt to talk to fellow dudes in their own language about the concept of privilege “without invoking the dreaded word ‘privilege,’ to which they react like vampires being fed a garlic tart at high noon.” (And they do.)
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.
Scalzi should have added “cis” to “straight white male,” but otherwise I’d say that’s fairly spot-on.
Of course, as Scalzi himself points out, life for straight white (cis) dudes is not always peaches and cream. They may have any of a number of disadvantages in life that make things difficult for them. They may have been born poor, or in a war zone; they may have been abused as children or the victim of crime or violence as an adult. Or faced any number of other problems and conditions and disadvantages.
Scalzi deals with this issue a little more obliquely than he could have, noting that some people begin the grand game of “The Real World” with more points than others, and that this can make a good deal of difference.
But do straight white cis males face disadvantages stemming from being straight white cis men? I honestly can’t think of any that have affected my life in any serious way, and these small disadvantages pale in comparison to the many advantages. Yeah, I had to register for the draft when I turned 18. Of course, when I registered there was no draft, and there still isn’t one, and the draft has virtually no chance of being resurrected in the foreseeable future, so I can’t say this requirement has affected my life in any tangible way.
As Scalzi puts it:
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.
Anyway, Scalzi got a lot of responses to his post, many of them from straight white dudes outraged by his assertions. So he wrote a followup taking some of these critics to task. He was particularly amused by the criticism that by “picking on” straight white males he was being 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!
I am sure there are many gems of obtuseosity in the comments, and in the Reddit thread on his original post. But it’s Friday night, and I have a migraine — which sucks, but it’s not because I’m a straight white cis dude — so I’m going to let you guys find them for me.
EDITED TO ADD: Thinking a bit more about Scalzi’s central metaphor here, and I don’t think it completely works: he assumes that obstacles other than racism, sexism, and homophobia can be explained as the equivalent of having started the game with fewer points. But it you have, for example, a disability, that’s something that makes you life harder every day; it’s more akin to raising the difficulty level than to starting off with fewer points. (Not to mention that you’re likely to face bigotry because of it as well.) This doesn’t erase the privileges a straight white male with disabilities gets from being straight, white, and male, of course, but it does ratchet up the difficulty.