Saturday, May 19, 2012

My privileged life

I have just read the article Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Level, and the comments, and the follow-up and its comments.  The author claims that straight white males (SWM, for short) don't like being told they are "privileged," so he is going to try to explain their advantages in terms they understand.  He then very condescendingly compares their lives to playing a game on the easiest difficulty level, whereas people in other categories have it harder, and black lesbians are playing on the hardest level of all.

I understand that this is a metaphor, or an analogy.  I understand that it is not supposed to be a perfect model of reality.  There are, however, several reasons why I think it is a very poor and misleading metaphor.

First of all, using the gaming-difficulty metaphor implies that SWMs have an easy life.  No one plays at the easiest level unless he is a total noob, and only college students with lots of time on their hands play at the hardest levels.  In fact, while there is probably some advantage to being a SWM, it isn't all that great.  I mention this because the author spends at least a whole paragraph talking about the different ways the game is less challenging on the easiest level -- all in metaphorical terms, of course, not with any real-life examples.

Note that we're controlling for other variables here, such as wealth.  Money makes a huge difference in outcomes, which the author acknowledges; he is saying that, given two people in the same wealth category, the SWM has it easier.  This is important, because sometimes one reads that one of the disadvantages of being black is that you have a greater chance of being born into poverty.  That fact is irrelevant, however, to any given individual; either you are born poor, or you're not, and a rich black person starts with a leg up on a poor white person.  At least, I think the author would acknowledge that much.

So the author sets up a metaphor that makes it sound like SWMs should pretty much sail through life unless they got really unlucky in other respects, such as being born dumb.  Even the wealthy black lesbian from an educated family, he says, is still playing on the hardest difficulty level.

I won't dispute that people who are not SWMs face some additional difficulties.  I don't know anyone who would admit to discriminating against them, and I have not actually witnessed much discrimination that I recognized as such, but I acknowledge that I only have occasional opportunities to witness them, whereas non-SWMs face them every single day.  Presumably, they get bad breaks sometimes just because of who they are and not what they did.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Short people.  Every inch of height is worth one to two percent higher income, and male CEOs are a full 3" taller than average men.  It is also well-known that the taller candidate usually wins presidential elections.  (It's not 100%, more like 67%, but that's still pretty striking.  There is also evidence that height is an advantage in senatorial elections.)  I won't even get into the advantage tall people have in dating.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Fat people.  In one study, children were shown pictures of a black boy, a white boy in a wheelchair, and a fat white boy, and asked which they would not want to play with.  The overwhelming choice was to avoid the fat kid.  Fat people are also one of the last groups that it is okay to make fun of, not only on the school playground, but in public life.

You know who else gets bad breaks?  Introverts.  Extroversion is largely an inherited characteristic, and people born with it have a major leg up in getting jobs, getting promoted, and, of course, getting dates.

This is besides the other factors that affect success, such as how much money you have, whether your parents were educated, whether they were married, how smart you are, and how emotionally balanced you are.

If you throw all that together, it seems to me that the added advantage of being a SWM is rather small in comparison.  Now, if there were legal barriers to non-SWMs, that would certainly be a cause for action.  There used to be, but not anymore.  In fact, there are now legal incentives for hiring and not harrassing non-SWMs.

This is why I object to the term "privilege" when applied to white males.  The author of the article says he is trying to avoid the word because SWMs don't like it, but at the same time he says it is a perfectly appropriate word that fits the situation.  Privilege is traditionally a legal distinction:  some people have special protection under the law.  This was very important in the past when the concept of treating everyone equally was unknown; you fought to obtain whatever privileges you could.  People now like to use privilege to mean any advantage, regardless of whether it is legal, institutional, or social.  There was a time when SWMs definitely did have privileges that no one else did; now, they just have some vague prejudices in their favour which they share with people who are tall, thin, and good-looking.  It doesn't seem meaningful to me to use "privilege" in that sense.  It's an advantage, and a fairly minor one (controlling for all other variables).

So what we're dealing with are non-institutional, personal barriers that SWMs get to avoid and other people have to face.  These barriers are similar in nature to the ones faced by short, fat introverts.  One obvious difference is that the nation has never had laws discriminating against short, fat introverts, but that is of little concern to the short, fat introverts of today.  It is also of little concern to homosexuals or women, except insofar as the residual attitudes from the days of discrimination persist.  The only people affected today are racial minorities, who are more likely to be poor and uneducated because of those past laws.  But that doesn't say anything about how they are likely to fare compared to other poor, uneducated people, and I would think that the chances in life are much better for a tall, athletic, extroverted, mentally healthy, intelligent minority of either sex, even though poor and uneducated, than for a short, fat, introverted, neurotic dumbass who is also poor, uneducated, and white.  To say that the white person is "playing life on the easy setting" is about as ridiculous a statement as one could make.

I have yet to mention my biggest problem with the video game metaphor, which is this:  it implies that life is a game with a specific object, and that object is material success.  I'm not going to dispute the importance of material success in a lot of things, but it is, after all, a secondary rather than a primary goal.  No one but the compulsive collector buys things just to have them; what most people want is to be happy.  One definition of happy could be religious fulfillment.  I'm going to leave that to the side, because I don't know of any studies on that subject, and I would be unlikely to get any agreement on their meaning anyway.  I point it out because a good many people care more about religion than about material success or anything else, and I think our society is fixated on materialism as the measure of everything.

So here's another side of happiness:  self-esteem.  Surely people who feel good about themselves are happier than those who aren't.  And if you are discriminated against at every turn, as you must be if you are not a SWM, you must have low self-esteem, right?  Wrong.  As it turns out, black and latino adults have higher self-esteem than whites, on the whole.  Would you rather be a rich, privileged SWM with low self-esteem, or a minority with high self-esteem?  Almost by definition, you would rather be the minority.  This is not to say that minorities are necessarily better off, even the ones with higher self-esteem, but I do want to raise the question whether all the talk of SWMs "playing life at the easy level" really makes any sense if one looks at anything beyond plain material advantage.

On the whole, I am inclined to believe that there is some unsystematic, low-level, but pervasive discrimination against non-SWMs.  I also believe that its effects are largely limited to material gain, and even there, they are minimal compared to other variables.  I am open to being proven wrong, but I would like to see the evidence to the contrary.  You may use a simplistic metaphor that even SWMs like me can understand, but please include specific facts to support your contention.

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