Updated: Nov 25, 2018
Show Notes & Credits for PROBLEMSwithMEN Part 1: Privilege
Click on hyperlinks for further reading and citations.
If you can't find the citation you're looking for just ask.
Weathers – Problems
ABBA – What’s the Name of the Game
The Imitation Game - Alexandre Desplat
Video Game Footage Credits:
Game of Life / Sims / Enter the Matrix / FIFA Football / Red Dead Redemption
The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is
On the 15th May 2012, a science fiction writer called John Scalzi published an article on his personal blog entitled straight white male the lowest difficulty setting there is.
In it he employed the metaphor of a computer game to convey his own personal perception and experience of living life as a straight white man in 21st century North America.
He proposed that if the life experiences of everyone alive in the world today could be equated to that of being a participant in an online multi-player game called ‘the real world’ then people like him would experience the entire game as if they were playing at the lowest difficulty setting there is (particularly if they were playing the Western civilization variant of this game).
The lowest difficulty setting there is… otherwise known as living life as a straight white male.
It’s entirely possible for someone playing on the lowest difficulty setting there is to play the game badly and to lose badly. And indeed it’s entirely possible, inevitable even, that some people playing at a higher difficulty setting will still manage to succeed much better at the overall game than someone people who’s entire gaming experience is permanently fixed at the lowest difficulty setting there is…
Sometimes this will simply be because some people plain and simply turn out to be more skilful gamers than some of the straight white men who exclusively get to play the game of life on the lowest difficulty setting there is…
but it can also be because the computer (or if you like, the universe or some sort of higher being) will randomly assign every single player in the game with a unique combination and variations of skills, resources, strengths, weakness and defining cognitive and cosmetic characteristics at the very start of the game.
After all… we are all unique individuals and the Universe, (or in this metaphorical scenario the computer) clearly loves diversity.
So for example if at the start of the game…a gay minority female player is randomly assigned extremely generous proportions of charisma, intelligence, beauty and wealth and conversely a straight white man like John Scalzi is assigned drastically lower proportions of all such valued attributes.. and virtually zero wealth points…his entire gaming experience would still be played out at the lowest difficulty setting there is…
making it infinitely easier for him to overcome, challenges, gain points, open doors, experience fascinating side quests and ultimately reach those much sought after higher levels.
Indeed according to his model while John is playing at the lowest difficulty setting there is… the extremely wealthy, intelligent and charismatic lesbian lady from a minority ethnic background is stuck playing at the highest ‘hardcore’ setting for the entire duration her game.
The article very quickly went viral after it was republished by the Video Gaming Website Kotaku and it was welcomed by many as a simplistic and non-threatening way to explain the societal privilege that benefits people with particular characteristics by providing them with elevated status while, also masking inequality experienced by other people in this world.
Now such a metaphor is undoubtedly a very helpful and straightforward way of explaining the concept of notional privileges, predominately afforded to particular groups or classes in society based primarily on perceived personal identity characteristics.
…And in my HSO it is also the first and most important concept that needs to be considered and understood by anyone seeking to champion the notion of universal human rights and equality of opportunity for everyone regardless, of largely fixed immutable characteristics that people are born with such as sex or race.
Because a great many people alive in the 21st Century happen to share John Salzi’s perception of the world and the fact is that even a great many champions of human rights and equality for all… do sincerely subscribe to the notional notion of male privilege, and even entirely embrace it.
Which inevitably means that their efforts to make the world a better place, to promote equality and universal rights for all, is both informed and corrupted by a model of the world which arbitrarily assigns characteristics and roles to entire subgroups of the human race determined and limited solely by attributes of sex.
A perspective which is more commonly defined as gender stereotyping.
And so I want you to bear John Salzi’s metaphor about men playing the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is in mind throughout this series as we take a closer look at some of the problems that some people have with men and consider some of the complex and quite often inevitable reasons that these problems exist.
Problems that co-exist and combine to create significant the attitudinal and structural barriers impacting on men that need to be addressed by anyone remotely serious about or involved in the very serious work of promoting equality and human rights for all.
Now in a minute I’m going to Validity test John’s model of the world and I don’t expect it’s much of a spoiler if I say it in advance that it fails this test.
But before I debunk it almost entirely, I want to be clear that it is not my intention to entirely dismiss it out of hand…and I want to again reiterate that (so called) ‘male privilege (or for that matter white privilege, or straight privilege) is an important concept - that should to be fully understood by anyone seeking to champion notions of equality and human rights for all.
Indeed my intention is to build on and extend John’s metaphor for the purpose of both exposing it’s limitations and illustrating that, no matter how well intentioned, such notions are extremely dangerous and detrimental to the future well being and prosperity of the entire human race.
As a concept male privilege has been around since at the very least the 1970’s when sociological scholars began undertaking studies designed to identify, examine and overcome barriers to equality for women in areas of social, economic, and political life where men have traditionally dominated.
In later years such studies also began to also consider the intersectional or overlapping nature of such dominance or (so called) privilege relating to other forms of social classification, such as race, and sexual orientation.
And it is generally recognized that it was the personal perspective of a woman called Peggy McIntosh in 1988 that particularly helped to propel and proliferate the concept of privilege determined by characteristic so widely within educational institutions and progressive political movements.
Peggy extended the notional notion of male privilege to take in other characteristics, most particularly, race and her own personal experience of privilege as informed by the colour of her skin.
As we’ve seen Scalzi incorporated this variable into his gaming metaphor but for reasons that will hopefully become clear, I want to consider the validity and indeed credibility of his entire proposition by focusing solely on the fixed variable of being born into this world as a boy.
So male privilege can essentially be defined as social, economic or political advantages or rights that are available to men solely on the basis of their sex.
Salzi claims that he had initially assumed that the relevant evidence supporting his metaphor were so obvious as to not require any actual clarification but in response to criticism about the lack of actual facts he had actually put forward to support such a sweeping and stereotyping statement he signposted critics to a blog post by another straight white male science fiction writer which helpfully listed data that he believed supported his model’s underlying assumption about privilege experienced by males.
Now this included data coving a range of different outcomes across a reasonably diverse range of areas including annual earnings, average prison sentences for comparable felonies, experience of crime, life expectancy, sexual assault, and risk of suicide.
Quite a few of them are at least as relevant to concepts of white or straight privilege but one of the more straightforward examples primarily exposing evidence of (so called) male privilege was the membership of the United States Congress …so let’s zone in on that:
So it is noted that in 2014 the membership of the United States Congress was a whopping 82% male.
And by highlighting this percentage it inevitably becomes apparent that [women] as a combined social group, or fixed binary characteristic are quite clearly under-represented in the United States Congress, especially when you consider that roughly 51% of the United States population are female.
Now I don’t want to dwell too much on this particular statistic because I’m going to look more closely at concepts of power and patriarchy over the next two episodes.
So for now all I’ll say is that for champions of equality and human rights for all - this sort of benchmark is quite clearly very useful because it very clearly indicates that there must be specific reasons why there aren’t more women in Congress and if those reasons can be effectively established then it might also be reasonably possible to identify actions that would help to increase female representation be it by removing structural or attitudinal barriers or taking positive action to encourage more young women to take an interest in politics and get in the political game.
But that very same significant under-representation of women in the United States Congress also helps to illustrate the most obvious flaw in John Salzi’s personal perception of his own privilege which presumably any gamers in the audience would be able to explain.
Because surely to goodness if you’re going to come out with a claim as bold and as sweepingly stereotypical as to suggest that men plain and simple get to play the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is (even incrementally so depending on their race or sexuality) then you have to at least define the whole point of the game. [name of the game]
Certainly some people may dedicate their entire life to playing to win a seat on Capitol Hill but just as clearly there are more life long missions available than that.
But presumably one thing that we can surmise from his workings out is that, at least as far as John’s concerned, the point of the game of life isn’t ultimately to pass on your genes to the next generation of players.
Because how else could it be that significantly more women than men manage to achieve this life defining goal?
So many in fact that our current population of gamers have at least twice as many female ancestors as we do have male.
Nor clearly is to commit to the very human goal of simply trying to stay in the game for as long as humanly possible.
Because contrary to models of prepotent psychological priorities proposed by people like Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, according to John, not only does the ability to consistently maintain the most basic physiological requirements required stay alive go entirely unrewarded bit it also has no objective relevance to the objective outcomes of the game.
After all, not only do men have a lower average lifespan than women throught-out the entire world but they are also more likely to die prematurely at every stage or age of life, including in childhood and even before or during birth. Indeed boys aged between 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die as a girl the same age.
And there is one very particular aspect of this particular reality in particular that makes John’s particular model of the world so curious and it is this troubling reality that particularly inspired me to make this series of videos
Because if men in general and straight white men in particular really do get such an easy ride in the game of life – to the marked detriment of other players no less - then why is it that so many of them appear to play the game so badly to the extent that they ultimately opt to opt out of the entire game.
Take Scalzi’s home country for example where men are up to five times more likely to kill themselves than women – a reality that has been the case for at the very least half a century.
It just seems somehow strange, self indulgent or selfish even to propose that so many people who get to play the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is would for some reason of their own choosing simply choose to give up on the game.
And according to the US Centre for Disease Control white men kill themselves at twice the rates of both African Americans and Hispanics so even when you allow for the trend that suicide rates are higher among homosexual men before they reach adulthood – the fact that white men in middle age have the highest rate of suicide to the extent that in 2016 they accounted for seven in every ten souls lost, does show us that the majority of those lost souls will apparently have been playing the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is.
Maybe they just need a bit more of a challenge.
The World Health Organisation estimate that 1 million people die by suicide every year. Overall about one in every three deaths will in fact be female but the gender-suicide ratio is generally highest in Western countries.
Death rates across the European Union for example are estimated as four-to-five times higher for men so again that’s going to include an awful lot of people throwing away their exclusive privilege to play the game of life at the lowest difficulty setting there is.
Take the wee country of my birth Northern Ireland for example where it is estimated that 98% of the population are currently white.
It also currently has the highest rate of suicide in the entire UK and the male suicide rate has increased by 80% in the past thirty years and doubled since 1998.
For context, more men have voluntarily opted out of the game entirely in the twenty years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement than were killed during a thirty year period of civil conflict.
Opted out of a game they were (supposedly) playing at the lowest difficulty setting there is.
Of course deep down we all know that life really isn’t that simple.
Deep down we all know that the reality is that each and every one of us are playing a different version of the game of life and the natural assets we are born with are as unique as the personal challenges we face and the sort of games we choose to play.
Some of us will decide that the point of the game is to make as much money as humanly possible and some of those people will reach a level where the main goal suddenly becomes to spend less hours in the office and as much or as little of the time that they have left with the little players they love the most.
Certainly there are circumstances where the sex you are born with can be a help or hinderance.
Certainly it can impact on the type of challenges or barriers you encounter. Certainly you can argue that all men are inherently privileged and certainly there can be consequences to making such a sweeping stereotypical and sexist claim.
Because many men, particularly younger men, increasingly do not recognise this perception of our world and the reality is that some of the most marginalized, disadvantaged and desperate people in society will inevitably be men.
Maybe as an isolated independent subgroup team men really DO overwhelmingly get to win the game of life.
Maybe it depends on how you keep score.
And Maybe people like John shouldn’t be left to define the rules applied to everyone else's game.
Ironically back in 2012 John dismissed critics of his model by observing that most of the criticism he received had come, surprisingly enough, from Straight White Men who simply could not abide the idea that their lives play out on a fundamentally lower difficulty setting than everyone else in the game.
To unlock the next level of the multi variant puzzle that is our shared problem with men it will be helpful to establish that in a way he may have a point.
But if you agree with John that it is in fact reasonable to entirely dismiss the validity of someone’s opinion based solely on the personal characteristics that they happen to hold.
Then you may choose to entirely dismiss john’s notion about the lowest difficulty setting there is entirely on the basis that it is a perception of the world around us put forward entirely a straight white man.
Maybe people like John shouldn’t be left alone to determine the rules of the game alone
Or maybe we should dismiss his opinions entirely solely on the basis that he is a straight white man.