“Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting,” Ten Years On
Posted on May 18, 2022 Posted by John Scalzi 86 Comments
Ten years ago this week I thought I would write a piece to offer a useful metaphor for straight white male privilege without using the word “privilege,” because when you use the word “privilege,” straight white men freak out, like, I said then, “vampires being fed a garlic tart.” Since I play video games, I wrote the piece using them as a metaphor. And thus “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” was born and posted.
And blew up: First here on Whatever, where it became the most-visited single post in the history of the site (more than 1.2 million visits to date), and then when it was posted on video gaming site Kotaku, where I suspect it was visited a multiple number of times more than it was visited here, because Kotaku has more visitors generally, and because the piece was heavily promoted and linked there.
The piece received both praise and condemnation, in what felt like almost equal amounts (it wasn’t; it’s just the complainers were very loud, as they often are). To this day the piece is still referred and linked to, taught in schools and universities, and “living on the lowest difficulty setting” is used as a shorthand for the straight white male experience, including by people who don’t know where the phrase had come from.
(I will note here, as I often do when discussing this piece, that my own use of the metaphor was an expansion on a similar metaphor that writer Luke McKinney used in a piece on Cracked.com, when he noted that “straight male” was the lowest difficulty setting in sexuality. Always credit sources and inspirations, folks!)
In the ten years since I’ve written the piece, I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, the response to it, and whether the metaphor still applies. And so for this anniversary, here are some further thoughts on the matter.
1. First off: Was the piece successful? In retrospect, I think it largely was. One measure of its success, as noted above, is its persistence; it’s still read and talked about and taught and used. Anecdotally, I have hundreds of emails from people who used it to explain privilege to others and/or had it used to explain privilege to them, and who say that it did what it was meant to do: Get through the already-erected defenses against the word “privilege” and convey the concept in an interesting and novel manner. So: Hooray for that. It is always good to be useful.
2. That said, Upton Sinclair once wrote that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” In almost exactly the same manner, it is difficult to get a straight white man to acknowledge his privileges when his self-image depends on him not doing so. Which is to say there is a very large number of straight white men who absolutely do not wish to acknowledge just how thoroughly and deeply their privileges are systemically embedded into day-to-day life. A fair number of this sort of dude read the piece (or more perhaps more accurately, read the headline, since a lot of their specific complaints about the piece were in fact addressed in the piece itself) and refused to entertain the notion there might be something to it. Which is their privilege (heh), but doesn’t make them right.
But, I mean, as a straight white dude, I totally get it! I also work hard and make an effort to get by, and in my life not all the breaks have gone my way. I too have suffered disappointment and failure and exclusion and difficulty. In the context of a life where people who are not straight white men are perhaps not in your day-to-day world view, except as abstractions mediated by television or radio or web sites, one’s own struggles loom large. It’s harder to conceive of, or sympathize with, the idea that one’s own struggles and disappointments are resting atop of a pile of systemic privilege — not in the least because that implicitly seems to suggest that if you can still have troubles even with those many systemic advantages, you might be bad at this game called life.
But here’s the thing about that. One, just because you can’t or won’t see the systemic advantages you have, it doesn’t mean you don’t still have them, relative to others. Two, it’s a reflection of how immensely fucked up the system is that even with all those systemic advantages, lots of straight white men feel like they’re just treading water. Yes! It’s not just you! This game of life is difficult! Like Elden Ring with a laggy wireless mouse and a five-year-old graphics card! And yet, you are indeed still playing life on the lowest difficulty setting!
Maybe rather than refusing to accept that other people are playing on higher difficulty settings, one should ask who the hell decided to make the game so difficult for everyone right out of the box (hint: they’re largely in the same demographic as straight white men), and how that might be changed. But of course it’s simply just easy to deny that anyone else might have a more challenging life experience than you have, systemically speaking.
3. Speaking of “easy,” one of the problems that the piece had is that when I wrote the phrase “lowest difficulty,” lots of people translated that to “easy.” The two concepts are not the same, and the difference between the two is real and significant. Which is, mind you, why I used the phrase “lowest difficulty” and not “easy.” But if you intentionally or unintentionally equate the two, then clearly there’s an issue to be had with the piece. I do suspect a number of dudes intentionally equated the two, even when it was made clear (by me, and others) they were not the same. I can’t do much for those dudes, then or now.
4. When I wrote the piece, some folks chimed in to say that other factors deserved to be part of a “lowest difficulty setting,” with “wealth” being primary among them. At the time I said I didn’t think wealth should have been; it’s a stat in my formulation — hugely influential, but not an inherent feature of identity like being white, or straight, or male. This got a lot of pushback, in no small part because (and relating to point two above) I think a lot of straight white dudes believed that if wealth was in there, it would somehow swamp the privileges that being white and straight and male provide, and that would mean that everyone else’s difficulty setting was no more difficult than their own.
It’s ten years on now, and I continue to call bullshit on this. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and I’ve been in the middle, and in all of those economic states I still had and have systemic advantages that came with being white and straight and male. Yes, being wealthy does make life less difficult! But on the other hand being wealthy (and an Oscar winner) didn’t keep Forest Whitaker from being frisked in a bodega for alleged shoplifting, whereas I have never once been asked to empty my pockets at a store, even when (as a kid, and poor as hell) I was actually shoplifting. This is an anecdotal observation! Also, systemically, wealth insulates people who are not straight and white and male less than it does those who are. Which means, to me, I put it in the right place in my formulation.
5. What would I add into the inherent formulation ten years on? I would add “cis” to “straight” and “white” and “male.” One, because I understand the concept better than than I did in 2012 and how it works within the matrix of privilege, and two, in the last decade, more of the people I know and like and love have come out as being outside of standard-issue cis-ness (or were already outside of it when I met them during this period), and I’ve seen directly how the world works on and with them.
So, yes: Were I writing that piece for the first time in 2022, I would have written “Cis Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.”
6. Ten years of time has not mitigated the observation about who is on the Lowest Difficulty Setting, especially here in the United States. Indeed, if anything, 2022 in the US has been about (mostly) straight white men nerfing the fuck out of everyone else in the land in order to maintain their own systemic advantages. Oh, you’re not white? Let’s pass laws to make sure an accurate picture of your historical treatment is punted out of schools and libraries, and the excuse we’ll give is that learning these things would be mean to white kids. You’re LGBTQ+? Let’s pass laws so that a teacher even mentioning you exist could get them fired. Trans? Let’s take away your rights for gender-affirming medical treatment. Have functional ovaries? We’re planning to let your rapist have more say in what happens to your body than you! Have a blessed day!
And of course hashtag not all straight white men, but on the other hand let’s not pretend we don’t know who is largely responsible for this bullshit. The Republican party of the United States is overwhelmingly straight, overwhelmingly white, and substantially male, and here in 2022 it is also an unabashedly white supremacist political party, an authoritarian party and a patriarchal party: mainstream GOP politicians talk openly about the unspeakably racist and anti-Semitic “Great Replacement Theory,” and about sending people who have abortions to prison, and are actively making it more difficult for minorities to vote. It’s largely assumed that once the conservative supermajority of the Supreme Court (very likely as of this writing) throws out Roe v. Wade, it’ll go after Obergefell (same-sex marriage) as soon as a challenge gets to them, and then possibly Griswold (contraception) and Loving (mixed-race marriage) after that. Because, after all, why stop at Roe when you can roll civil rights back to the 1950s at least?
What makes this especially and terribly ironic is that when game designers nerf characters, they’re usually doing it to bring balance to the game — to put all the characters on something closer to an even playing field. What’s happening here in 2022 isn’t about evening up the playing field. It’s to keep the playing field as uneven as possible, for as long as possible, for the benefit of a particular group of people who already has most of the advantages. 2022 is straight white men employing code injection to change the rules of the game, while it’s in process, to make it more difficult for everyone else.
So yes, ten years on, the Lowest Difficulty Setting still applies. It’s as relevant as ever. And I’m sure, even now, a bunch of straight white men will still maintain it’s still not accurate. As they would have been in 2012, they’re entirely wrong about that.
And what a privilege that is: To be completely wrong, and yet suffer no consequences for it.
One, as this piece is likely to get more than the usual number of comments, many from people who do not usually comment here, I recommend everyone who is new here read the site disclaimer and comment policy. Short version: Be polite to others and don’t troll, and bigoted comments will be Malleted.
Two, if you are planning to use this comment thread to gripe about the original “Straight White Male” post, don’t; it was posted ten years ago and you missed your chance, at least as it pertains to this site (you are free to gripe about it in your own spaces). That said, the chance that what you were going to complain about being addressed in one of the two follow-up pieces (here and here) is pretty high; maybe check them out. No, you can’t comment about them here, either. Ten year rule, my dudes.
(Also, if you’re going to complain that the very nature of this ten-year anniversary piece is as racist/sexist as you would argue the original was, one, oh, honey, that’s cute, but no, and two, the first of the follow-up pieces from ten years ago address this, and what I said there still applies.)
Please remember also that the “SWM:LDS” metaphor is neither 100% complete nor 100% accurate (this is also noted in the follow-up pieces); it’s a discussion generator, not a discussion ender.
Three, if you’re the sort of person who is going to argue that I’m mischaracterizing the GOP-created laws to restrict speech and content in schools, etc, please know that I am neither so obtuse that I’m not aware of the intent of the laws, no matter how vaguely worded they are, nor so obtuse that your attempt to assert they they are other than what they are will sound reasonable to me.
(Also, yes, I know the GOP is largely comprised of people who purport to be Christian, but please note that a very large number of Democrats — almost two thirds — identify as Christian as well. I do not assume the GOP speaks for Jesus Christ, as much as it would like to claim a monopoly on Him, and assure us that they are doing His business on Earth. They’re not.)
Not every person who votes Republican is out there spouting racist bullshit or is a terrible person in their daily life. On the other hand everyone who votes Republican should be aware that here in 2022 the party is all in on white supremacy and authoritarianism, and that both are what they are voting for on election days.
Four, yes, I’m aware Elden Ring does not have difficulty settings. I didn’t say it did. I did say the game of life is difficult, like Elden Ring on a substandard rig would be. And the game of life does have difficulty settings.
As a cisgender, straight, white male let me say, “Right on Scalzi!” Having worked in urban, suburban, and rural communities, I am well aware of the lowest difficulty setting I get to play the game on. Unlike some of my students, I’ve never been followed from store to store by a security guard in a mall; never been arrested in the middle of the street for no apparent reason other than being Black; and never had anyone tell me that, in order to improve the school I led that I needed to get the White kids out of the school. Nope. Never. I am heartened to know that there are folks such as yourself willing to state what is true, even when it would make your “gameplay” easier if you never pointed it out. Screw the Great Order of Prejudice party and their hatred. Hatred that has contributed to horrible acts against people based on their not being cisgender, straight, white males.
I do a lot of reading on race in America, and your metaphor remains the best for explaining privilege to other white people (even though I am not someone who plays video games). I use it constantly — always crediting it. I applaud that in this follow up piece you call the GOP what it has become, a far right party. So few in our press will do so, despite the fact that the policies of the GOP are to the right of, say, Le Pen’s in France. Thanks for continuing to bring it. (And I hope you are limbered up for Mallet-swinging. . . .)
Straight-white-male Canadian here…and I am convinced that you were correct then, and you’re still correct now, to say all of this. I don’t see any error in your thinking, and because the situation is as you say – with modifications as appropriate to the Canadian political context – we are all of us still in greater danger than we might otherwise be as individual citizens.
First off, excellent piece, no surprise there. The one issue I find is that (whether included as humor or for inclusivity) the “hashtag not all straight white men” line. Just as the “hashtag not all men” does for blatant denial of the every males involvement and role inclusion in the fight for equal rights, it denies the necessity of all men to fight to change the systems in place that they are actively members (phallic pun intended).
The whole point of the piece is not lost on me, as I’m basically reiterating your point. However, just as “difficulty” does not equate “easy,” the by proxy nature of systemic imbalances need to be actively addressed by everyone, all straight white men (who should be fighting the hardest and holding other straight white me accountable) included.
Thank you for everything you do.
A Cis Straight White Man
A few things jump out at me:
1) Can’t believe it’s been 10 years… although looking back, it tracks. It was long enough before the Former Guy’s sh!tshow that it helped put it into focus.
2) The original article (and others like it) helped push me, a stereotypical (cis)-SWM of about the same vintage as our host, very comfortable in my privilege, to reevaluate my position; I haven’t completed my turn from a libertarian “both parties are bad” sorta guy into more of a “eat the rich” who recognizes the growing fascist tendencies of half of the voters in America.. but I’m close.
3) This is an article that i remember reading (and possibly commenting on?) at the time, and have used it to help define privilege for many around me. So i’ve been a loyal Whatever reader for at least that long.
Bravo. To this and the original. As someone who has blown a lot of chances (and I also fail when playing video games even at the lowest difficulty setting), I can still be aware of my privilege.
To run with the extended video game metaphor a bit:
While the grossly unequal welding of the nerd bat is morally reprehensible and will lead to vast amounts of completely unnecessary suffering for all those not playing on the lowest difficulty setting, watching the erosion of societal rights leaves me worrying about a particular systemic challenge as well. Namely, the game of life is dark souls/elden ring/Nintendo-hard and features a rather large amount of PvE, but has many flavors of groups and guilds and other collective mechanisms to address the underlying difficulties of life. This beggar thy neighbor approach to preserving the relative position of those playing on the lowest difficulty setting will inevitably eventually degrade all (or nearly all – maybe those NZ apocalypse bunkers really are cozy) players’ ability to succeed, and perhaps even to survive.
To draw a parallel from dystopian fiction, it is worth remembering that the party elite of 1984 were not doing particularly well by any standard save their relative position to those below them.
Yeah, I remember that piece really well, in large part because it was the first big public blog by someone famous in SWFA/RWA that I could point people to when I was working “back of house” type jobs as a network/audio/systems engineer in video games. It’s a very bittersweet anniversary for me, too, because as much as it did some good, it lead to me getting the same sorts of threats as every other “independent” games lady did a couple years later when the Sad Puppies and other usual suspects decided to use it as a hammer against FemFreq, Zoë, and every other not-white-enough-or-straight-enough Independent Game Developer.
The last few years have been just a brutal reminder that even when we win, it feels very, very temporary. I want to stay hopeful, but it is hard to escape the (admittedly very slipstream-magical realist, not true SF-F) feeling that some of us will always be stuck in those cages.
I never talk about my racial background online anymore; I just talk about linguistics. Cajun French from Louisiana is… well, it has never been a monolithic category, but the Internet has made it so hard for me to feel safe anywhere where “only” the Anglophones or “only” the Francophones are awake. Maybe someday all of us will have the wuffie/social credit to really stand up together, but it sucks feeling stuck in the wrong C.Stross/C.Doctorow collab every other year.
EEK – just went back and checked for my name in the comments – I wasn’t ANY of those Sean’s. ;)
Thank you for saying this so much better than I ever could.
I think I may be one of the people who inadvertently equated “lowest difficulty” with “easy” when relaying this metaphor to others.
I don’t think the difference was entirely clear to me at first, but it makes complete sense now.
Will definitely make a point of not doing this in future.
One hundred years ago in a movie/TV version of Hitchhikers Guide, there was a “gun” which made the shootee instantly see the shooter’s point of view. I always wanted one of those. But if I had one I would want to use it to make everybody see your (John Scalzi’s) POV, because OMG you are so smart and sane and reasonable. And my own POV (like so many others) is … less so.
John, this is from Luke McKinney in 2012:
Was this the original inspiration you mentioned?
I remember reading the original piece, how much sense it made to me, how much it made me think about my own privilege. It’s still my default metaphor when explaining concepts like this to others, including my kids.
I also remember how loud the shitstorm of reactionary responses was and how surprised and disappointed I was at the time. A decade later I’m even more disappointed, but no longer suprised.
A decade later, I’m
As a cis-het MAWD (middle-aged white dude) all I can say is “amen.” But your Upton Sinclair quote is right on the money, too. It’s especially hard to acknowledge that you might have an advantage if you don’t think life has treated you fairly.
That’s it! I tried pulling it up and got a 404. Weird.
Hi Mr. Scalzi,
My daughter is a Ph.D. teaching Criminology and Sociology at the University of Central Missouri. This column touches directly on some of her course matter. Would you be willing to let me send this column to her to use in her classes?
Best Regards and PLEASE keep writing!
GreggB57 @ Gmail .com
It was a good article 10 years ago and this is a good follow-up now. I only have a few issues, not complaints.
As a SWM, i do understand that, in most situations, those at the same level as me who aren’t SWM have either the same level of difficulty or more. And this generally true as we move through levels of the world.
The problem arises when the idea of “lower difficulty” is used as a generic thought. Not easier but always less difficult. That’s an average and the world really exists on the level of individual. A young or old SWM living in rural Appalachia, whose mines (and future) are closing, are going to think you are crazy if you tell them they are living on a lower difficulty than others. Yes, compared to non-SWM in the same areas, they may have it less difficult but so many of the programs to help aren’t focused for them, which makes it seem worse
If we are using a gaming analogy – they are playing Elden Ring and others are playing Stonefly. Yes, they are on the lowest difficulty level but that’s still vastly more difficult that Stonefly will ever be.
And that’s why I, an upper middle-class cSWM, agree with all that John says but also disagree – not because anything wrong but it’s shown as a “group” and we aren’t “groups”. We are in groups. And worse, people who are running around in Stonefly use the group-speak to say why those living in Elden Ring should be ‘grateful’ for their low difficulty level. It just sounds insulting (and why friends in South Africa think we are all weird – and laugh).
I feel it is partially what gave the rise to the (shutter) Trumpians and, sadly, it’s what President (then VP) Biden lectured the Democrats on back in 2016 – stop being limousine liberals (drive in, lecture about what you think their problems are, tell them what solutions you feel they need and drive off).
(to preempt certain questions/comments, no – I don’t live in those areas. I do work on some federal programs for them and others and with people who live there, mostly non-SWM.)
Hi Mr. Scalzi,
My daughter is a Ph.D. teaching Criminology and Sociology at the University of Central Missouri. This column touches directly on some of her course matter. Would you be willing to let me send this column to her to use in her classes?
Best Regards and PLEASE keep writing!
My policy on educational use is here.
Excellent follow up.
The original was one of the strongest, most effective essays I’ve ever read on ANY topic. Clear, articulate, and cogent, it systematically dismantled one argument after another that somehow (cis) straight white men are not the beneficiaries of privilege – yet did so without making them feel ashamed of their privilege. Which is as it should be – their privilege isn’t something that makes them lesser; they were born into it. What shows their character is what they DO WITH IT.
I’m one of those who teaches it in a university setting. It doesn’t resonate with everyone, but on average it resonates with exactly the people it needs to. I’ve had (white, male) students tell me it’s the first time they’ve understood what the term privilege actually means.
Not everyone plays that kind of video game, but the people who don’t also tend to already “get” privilege because they’re on the wrong side of it.
So the issue I have with this is that your video game analogy shows a lack of understanding of the crowd you are looking to educate. One of the most popular games out there for white males is Madden. In Madden there are 4 difficulty levels (Rookie, Pro, All-Pro, All-Madden). Try googling someone playing Madden on Rookie mode. It is just dudes throwing up hail mary’s all day and putting up ridiculous scores. Your title statement of “lowest difficulty” is immediately insulting to white males by comparing their lives to that experience of Rookie Difficulty in Madden. You then spend the rest of your article coming back from that with valid arguments but it would be a lot more effective if you were not fighting a poorly worded title card.
I suspect there is another difficulty setting on life, and that’s nationality (at birth, I guess).
I’m a white cis bi man with UK nationality, and the fact that lets me live here, let me live right through the EU as of right, and lets me apply to emigrate most places with a reasonable chance of success and lets me travel almost anywhere in the world for business or pleasure with no more than a postal visa application is not something that people with many other nationalities can claim.
Missing word alert: “But of course it’s simply just easy to deny that anyone else might a more challenging life experience than you have, systemically speaking.”
Shouldn’t that be “might have a more challenging”?
Thanks for writing this update!
Why stop at Griswold and Loving? What makes you think that overturning Brown isn’t a wet dream for the right?
And, as a science fiction writer, you could throw Dred Scott into the mix as well. After all, “If This Goes On…”
[Deleted for contentless trolling — JS]
wordless agreement (anomic aphasia really being a pain today)
In the past few years we straight white males have at least fallen from the default setting of society.
Please keep fighting to keep it that way, there are some of us who are shocked that we have fallen from that spot, don’t let them win it back.
Well said all around, although I have to be honest: I don’t think “This game of life is difficult! Like Elden Ring with a laggy wireless mouse and a five-year-old graphics card!” is going to have the same kind of longevity as “the lowest difficulty setting” has enjoyed. ;)
What surprises me is the people who think they are playing on that setting, who actually aren’t…. A friend who was raised Jewish, and converted to Christianity to marry his wife, who is a Nicaraguan refugee. He’s very maga, and doesn’t seem to realize that he’s (according to the white supremacist types) a walking example of Replacement Theory.
I suspect he’s in for a rude shock someday.
I think what I appreciate about this metaphor is that it doesn’t break down immediately into black/white duality. It allows room for more nuances and more experiences such as the Latino or Asian (for example, most POC and Asians look at Asians as being closer to POCs, while most whites classify Asians as white). It doesn’t exclude other formulations or aspects of experiences, so I think it’s a useful tool to use.
If only this was a game. We could just quit it, and play one better suited to our tastes and abilities.
Alas this is more like “The Most Dangerous Game”, or “Squid Game”. No matter how we ended up playing, we must keep playing.
I’m afraid that column’s going to keep on resonating.
You hit the target with that metaphor.
Thank you for point #3 here. To the degree that I’ve ever had a problem with the original piece, it was founded in an unintentional (and apparently unintended) conflation of “easy” with “lowest difficulty setting.” I think that clarification is SUPER important for all the reasons you discuss here, and it really helped straighten out my own thinking on the topic.
John – your original post was an important element in my own consideration of the issue of privilege, and this update provides a nuanced reflection of where things stand today. When it was first published I shared it with friends, one of whom offered this analogy – don’t be that dude who, in the 100-yard dash of life, was born on the 90-yard line, and considers himself a champ for getting across the finish line first. Especially when so many people are not simply stuck at the starting line, but are in fact still out in the parking lot waiting to get into the stadium.
It was a great piece, and I continue to share it with people who need the message.
When I was a young man, I complained of being deprived.
I was deprived of understanding the concept of “discrimination”… because I was a male WASP. This circumstance was obviously unfair!
I lived in France for several decades, gathering a wife and a passport along the way. I played (lousy) basketball, on a teams where all the other players were natural-born French. Many had dark skins. I was never asked for ID; they were.
At some point, I added “straight” to my self-identification. My ignorance of discrimination added a new dimension!
When “White privilege” became a topic in the media, my reaction was, “Huh??” I did not understand how anyone could possibly not see a phenomenon that had been so determinant in almost every facet my life… and in theirs.
I’m kinda slow, so it took me a while to realize that “none is so blind as he who will not see.”
Despite the objective, demonstrable fact that “cis straight white male” is indeed the lowest difficulty setting, it seems to be the case that too many cis straight white male humans are apparently utter crap at this game and need to “git gud.”
But even worse than that is the fact that far too many of them (any number above zero is far too many) are, to extend the analogy even more, simply choosing to rage-quit the game in protest, which sadly tends to have dire consequences for anyone else who happens to be nearby at the time.
Another (successful) cSWM here. I always enjoyed this piece. No disagreements really whatsoever.
My one note/observation (which isn’t particularly insightful) is that “white” carries the least amount of weight in this equation, whereas “straight” and “male” seem to be the true universal advantages wherever one happens to have been born in the world. Otherwise it’s mainly just being in the racial majority.
Which, I guess, is what this “replacement theory” BS is all about. The fear that “your” group won’t be in that majority anymore.
It is just one more function of my privilege, I suppose, that – while I can roll my eyes at the notion, and mock the morons who seem to believe in it – other people are, you know, currently dying as a result of it.
I have been using your metaphor (with attribution!) for years… it’s a great way to lead in to the idea that cishet SWM privilege is about what you (and I) don’t have to do/worry about/put up with on top of the actual and real problems of our lives.
That is actually the basis of almost ALL conflicts we see around the world both internal and external and has been throughout history.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, pretty much all the conflicts in Africa, India’s internal conflict, China… you name it, the underlying structure is “fear of someone else gaining or having power over my group.”
Even internal fights that don’t become violents tie to this.
It’s an underlying fear of other groups. As it was said a bit ago… why do we tend to judge our group by its best and others by their worst?
And yes, all do it, even if unconsciously (think of it everyone’s microaggression tendencies, that’s part of humanity.)
I’ve loved your piece since the first time I saw it. There is one thing I would add that sadly has become even more true over the past decade – Christian. Life is getting increasingly harder for those of us in the U.S. who aren’t Christian (shootings in mosques and synagogues, increased hate crimes, chants at marches, etc.) to a point I’d never have imagined seeing a few decades ago. I never thought I’d have to consider which venues I feel safe revealing my religion. I’m not a cis-straight-white-male, but I know that the difficulty setting for people who are but are also Muslim or Jewish or Sikh or other also have an added intrinsic level of difficulty.
No. No no. No! No no! It has not been 10 years since that piece came out. No!! That means I’m now in my 50’s, and that certainly can’t be the case! No!
All joking aside, the piece holds up, and will continue to hold up, unless the playing field is, indeed, leveled. A note about wealth: It amplifies privilege one already has. Fame might amplify it even more. But, if you do not already have privilege, those things may just make you a target, because “how dare someone else obtain fame and/or wealth when they don’t look like me?!” So yeah. Spot on!
It was brilliant then, and it’s brilliant now. It puts what’s often seen as an incredibly complex and convoluted idea into a very clear metaphor that is just about as perfect as metaphors get.
Thank you for writing it then. Thank you for addressing it again now.
Useful stuff, both the original and this update. As a gay white male, my difficulty setting is low most of the time because my difference from many people is not usually visible. And I live in an area where the majority are supportive of gay people. My next setting shift, ongoing, is aging–people treat me differently than they did before my hair was gray and by “differently” I don’t mean better. AARP discounts do not fully compensate for this change.
I was thinking you could add “neurotypical”.
John, long time reader, first time commenter here. When you first posted that essay I shared it (with attribution) on my Facebook page. The only negative responses came from two of my friends. Both die hard SWM Republicans. Ten years later they still are, though I keep them at more of an arms length away these days.
Anyhow I have always enjoyed your musings and am also glad Athena is back on board. Regarding your spouse, you are indeed a very lucky man!
Best to you all
Yes. And disability in general. But even if we just stick to “neurotypical,” being white and male makes it a lot more likely that (1) your neurodivergence will be diagnosed correctly and (2) that you won’t be one way or another blamed for it.
I think the video game analogy still works, and allows plenty of tweaking/discussion in addressing different groups. One thing I do wonder is whether you would consider adding “able-bodied” to the equation? As someone who has been disabled my whole life (but with a fairly invisible/manageable disability), I have considered myself privileged to be married to someone who is not disabled and can outearn me. Many of my SWM friends have struggled to support themselves and their families — even with college degrees and experience — because as men with a disability, they’re also fighting against constant discrimination. I’m not sure if that would qualify for inclusion in the “difficulty” setting, or if that is more properly considered an example of social failure. To be fair, America is surprisingly more progressive in this area than some other countries; I have taught children who were not educated in their native countries at all because it was assumed they could produce nothing of value. Anyway, curious about your thoughts on this?
Your friend and his wife sound like the classic first-generation immigrant – bad as America is to those on the inside? It’s how people on the outside dream about living!
The myth of a “classless” society where, if you work hard enough you can improve your lot in life significantly, is still real enough to people on the bottom rung in the countries they were born in that they come here and embrace The American Dream wholeheartedly. Many of them are also easy prey for the present-day Republican Party because of that, even though the ex-Dixiecrat White Bigots in the party keep shooting themselves in the foot repeatedly.
It’s why the Hispanic vote is so problematical for Republicans – there’s an huge demographic of socially-conservative voters who want to belong to them, except anti-Brown Person racism is such a gigantic part of the Party’s rank&file that they drive away a major chunk of potential voters.
No – because as a middle-aged White dude, I’ve never had to be afraid that when a cop pulls me over he’s going to be trigger-happy because of my skin color!
Even extremely successful and you’d think recognizable Persons of Color have that fear – in addition to Forrest Whittaker, Giancarlo Esposito has commented on how if a cop pulls him over? He has his license and registration on the dash and his hands on it as well, so the cop has no “existential fear” that that the Brown Man is going to pull a weapon on him!
Same goes for Shah Rukh Khan, one of the world’s biggest movie stars (just not in the U.S.) – he’s detained by Homeland Security every time he comes into the U.S. because they think he MUST be a terrorist! He’s said he’s just not coming here any more, because he’s had enough of our racist shit….
We train our police to be bigots as a way to “protect” them when they’re out on the street. Everything we tells cops encourages them to see Anybody Not Like Them as dangerous, so any smart cop better be ready to shoot first or die!
Scalzi, your original column was – eye-opening to a Straight White Male who’s always thought of himself as fair-minded and reasonable.
It’s very uncomfortable to take a look and realize just how prevalent the advantages of being a SCWM are and how easy it is to not see them, in the same way that a fish never realizes it’s able to “fly” through a lake or ocean because it’s underwater!
I still use it to this day, and it’s changed my thinking…for the better, I absolutely believe.
@just different: “Yes. And disability in general. But even if we just stick to “neurotypical,” being white and male makes it a lot more likely that (1) your neurodivergence will be diagnosed correctly and (2) that you won’t be one way or another blamed for it.”
As a definitively neurodivergent white male, I agree completely with John Scalzi that I’m playing the Game of Life on its standard-issue “lowest difficulty setting”.
What I’m not doing (along with all the other neurodivergents and disabled people out there) is playing it with its standard-issue controllers.
Some of us got keyboards instead of gamepads, and the developers of the Game of Life never bothered with a proper port to a keyboard version. Some of us did get standard-issue gamepads at one time, but a couple of the buttons broke very early on and can’t be repaired. And lots of other controller possibilities that work just fine with some games and/or game configurations, just not the ones available right now.
10 years on it is still spot on. I hope for the day when it can be used to describe how broken things used to be.
Your argument against wealth doesn’t make sense, obviously, because all you’ve done is state the self-evident fact that being “privileged” on one axis doesn’t mean that you can’t face structural discrimination on other axes. Indeed so, but the same could be said in relation to any of the three (I guess now four) traits the metaphor highlights.
Forest Whitaker’s wealth didn’t stop him from being frisked, it’s true. But his blackness also didn’t stop him from living in this house,. Likewise, something on the order of ~170k “straight white men” were homeless in America last year. It is likely true that being white (statistically, not in every case) gives these homeless men a better chance of escaping the street, but their whiteness, like Whitaker’s wealth, is nonetheless clearly not a panacea. So I’m not really sure what your point is.
If you (incorrectly, but whatever) think that “wealth” simply doesn’t matter as much, maybe you should just say that.
I’m going to add my voice to those that think you may be underthinking the wealth side of things. Take, for example, the issue of fixed fines as punishment. To someone who lives in poverty, a simple traffic fine can be devastating; that money could be spent on food, health care, or education for their children. For a wealthy person, that traffic violation fine is pocket money in comparison; they have money they can afford to spend to drive recklessly. This applies to any form of fixed fining; large companies (owned by richer people) can treat fines as the cost for doing business, while those same fines can crush smaller businesses.
And there’s more to the equation, of course. Wealth determines the quality of education you can afford, the amount of mobility you have to escape areas where being not-white, not-straight, not-male, or not-cis is more detrimental to your success, even whether you can afford to vote on voting day, because you work two jobs. Far too many things in our society are deliberately gated by wealth.
As a final example, go back to Forest Whitaker being frisked. In that situation, he had the wealth necessary to sue the store and the police. He chose not to (good on him), but he had that ability. A poorer black man thus accused and frisked would have no real recourse unless he managed to garner enough attention to get some representation from the UCLA or the like.
So, yes, wealth is very much an independent part of that equation.
OMG that last sentence hit me in the gut. I’ve experienced white privilege first hand – a traffic stop where a cop is screaming in my face, trying to get a different answer than what I was giving.
I was not on the ground. I was not in cuffs. I made it home alive. And fortunately, I was aware enough to be grateful.
I was reading this while watching a documentary about American Apparel – one quote from an employee summed up the attitude of the folks running the system: “The board’s gonna overlook what they overlook, until the stocks tank.”
The concern about using wealth as one of the great determining factors is undermined by this: this is one of those famous data visualizations that the New York Times is so good at where they took real data and visualized the fate of Black and White men born wealthy https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/03/19/upshot/race-class-white-and-black-men.html
The discussion around wealth misses the point of “lowest difficulty”.
Yes, Forrest and others with wealth may have it less difficult than many SWM. But we are talking about keeping all other variable constant when we do this. In the same game (e.g. same income level), SWM like me have less difficulty than non-SWM. That doesn’t mean SWM cannot have it harder than non-SWM in places but when you control for variables, we do.
Thus Forrest may have it easier than me but when you compare him to others in his income level, he has it more difficult. And others in my income level have it more difficult than me, the SWM.
Using John’s game analogy from earlier, the game has to be the same game, controlled for: income, differing ability, region or neighborhood, sexual preference and a multitude of other factors. When you change those one or more factors, you are playing a different game. And in each game, SWM, on average, are at a lower level of difficulty.
I’ve just had a strangely coincidental experience: I’m attending a racism workshop right now. During the discussion around white privilege I looked up this essay (the original) to grab the link and share it in chat. After doing so I was rereading the piece (as I’ve done a few times over the years) and saw that you’d posted this 10-year retrospective TODAY.
1) Weird (mildly).
2) Ten years? Really? Geez.
@Tim, well, at the very least you make a more cogent argument than Scalzi.
@Christopher Franklin, I don’t think that visualization demonstrates what you seem to think it demonstrates.
CSW male here and it’s long amazed me both how obviously accurate your original post is, and yet how strongly some oppose these seemingly self-evident ideas. Great post, great follow-ups, and excellent decennial review. Well done!
The NYT has a cogent description of what the visualization is: in general, two individuals, Black or White who start out wealthy, odds are that the White one will remain wealthy while theBlack one won’t. It is a part of a series. For another group, White individuals tended to have their wealth increase while Black individuals didn’t if they start out poor. The upshot of the series is that wealth doesn’t trump race.
Go read Scalzi’s original post, and the follow-up, and the follow-up to the follow-up, for why the “wealth side of things” is treated differently.
As for comparison of Forest Whitaker’s mansion to homeless white guys, who do you think has more reason to be afraid of random violence, a homeless man or a homeless woman? Who do you think will be viewed with more sympathy by a police officer or a prospective employer, a homeless white man or a homeless black man?
Notice that the answers are exactly the same whether or not the word “homeless” is in there. Homelessness can change. Who you are cannot.
@Aaron You aren’t nearly as clever as you think you are.
I never claimed that wealth “trumps” race.
Who do you think will be viewed with more sympathy by a police officer or a prospective employer, a homeless white man or a homeless black man?
It is plausible that, all else equal (which to be clear is an entirely theoretical proposition, because it never is), the homeless white man will be viewed with more sympathy. What’s your point?
I’ve shared the original with people over the years to mixed results. As has been noted, some people don’t want to understand.
I work and live out of the US, and have for a dozen years, and this still seems true. In Asia and Africa being Asian or African generally puts you on an easier setting, but white skin still has its privileges. People are a bit more helpful, you worry about interacting with the police less, and it easier to get hired at some places. Not always easy, but less difficult
As a POC, your original essay and its update made me think about the “by your bootstraps” rhetoric. Conservative whites love using the phrase as an implicit insult of Blacks and other non-whites who fail to thrive and be successful in society. Because such POC didn’t put in “sufficient” effort, they failed in life.
But what if “by your bootstraps”‘ meaning had been misunderstood all this time? What if it actually meant “you can’t rely on the rules of society because they were set up by whites so that you were more likely to fail?” An interpretation that drew attention away from how society was set up so that whites faced only the lowest difficulty setting in life is one that could keep up the fiction that society is implicitly fair for everyone when the opposite is actually the case.
Comments off for the night, will be back on in the morning. Sleep well, folks.
Update: Comments back on — JS
Re: “…everyone who votes Republican should be aware that here in 2022 the party is all in on white supremacy and authoritarianism, and that both are what they are voting for on election days…”
Our host’s essay on The Cinemax Theory of Racism, six(!) years on, is still relevant.
“Forest Whitaker’s wealth didn’t stop him from being frisked, it’s true. But his blackness also didn’t stop him from living in this house,. Likewise, something on the order of ~170k “straight white men” were homeless in America last year.”
But that only reinforces the validity of the analogy.
Some folks thrive on the most difficult setting imaginable. Others fail despite playing on the lowest difficulty setting. Whittaker became wealthy because he succeeded against the odds.
“I never claimed that wealth “trumps” race.”
What, if anything, were you trying to claim, then? Or is this yet another dodge into the ambiguous?
“But what if “by your bootstraps”‘ meaning had been misunderstood all this time?”
In this era of racist dogwhistles and intellectually fraudulent arguments, it’s easy to forget that “pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” originally denoted a physically impossible task.
Given the propensity of stupid racist/bigoted people to glom onto slogans without attempting (or having the mental wherewithal) to rationally analyze the meaning of said slogans, over time it became a conservative rallying cry. It has not only been misunderstood, but completely turned inside out after being coopted by fascists (see also: “right to work”, “pro-life”, “constitutionalism”, etc.).
This is why when privileged libertarian dingbats use the expression, they are (ironically) getting right at the core of the problem, while being several light years away from comprehending it.
Some folks thrive on the most difficult setting imaginable. Others fail despite playing on the lowest difficulty setting. Whittaker became wealthy because he succeeded against the odds.
Okay, so this is kind of interesting. So you’re saying that wealth (rather than being a “stat” as posited in the original metaphor) is actually the point of the game? Does this mean trust fund kids automatically win? (Actually, I suppose that kind of tracks.) But obviously you would need a certain amount of wealth before you can reasonably be said to have won the Game of Life, most people in the US are neither the children of billionaires nor in absolute poverty, and as an accountant I know better than most that money makes it easier to make money. So even under your version of Life, wealth is still a relevant metric in addition to being the endpoint.
Now, I can certainly agree that the dynamics of wealth are somewhat different than those of race, gender, and orientation. It’s not binary (but then neither is race or orientation). It can change over time (but so can gender and, at least according to some recent progressive encyclicals, orientation). It is also true that (as you seem to claim with respect to Whitaker) wealth can at least sometimes be attributed to hard work and talent rather than chance. But this seems a bit of an odd hill for self-styled progressives to die on.
Also, the fact is that no two “axis” of social dominance and marginalization are exactly alike. Indeed, the major problem with “intersectionality” as a sociological concept is that it tends to imply otherwise.
What, if anything, were you trying to claim, then? Or is this yet another dodge into the ambiguous?
My argument is that wealth (and other things too, but let’s table that) have just as much of a claim to being included in the “difficulty setting” as the three (now four) traits that are currently included.
(Actually if I really wanted to make myself unpopular I’d note that being non-straight isn’t actually that much of a barrier in American society outside of particular contexts – it’s certainly not meaningless, but it’s also far less consequential than wealth or race, which, as Christopher Franklin’s NYT link rightly notes, are very much connected and indeed to a certain extent inextricable. But of course this sort of post isn’t actually about accurately modeling the world. It’s about other things.)
Anyway, I further claimed that Scalzi’s argument against including wealth in the difficulty setting is bad, because it is (see above). None of this is tantamount to saying that wealth “trumps” race any more than gender or orientation.
It took me 22 years to realize how much easier life was for me as a straight white dude in the Midwest. When my boss completely glossed over a coworker of mine, who was Black and female and 500x more qualified than me, for a promotion that I ended up getting (having not asked for it in the first place) – it clicked.
Was I a bad pick for the position? No; I worked hard and performed well. Was I the “right” pick? Potentially, but that wouldn’t be the point anyway. I could be the best damn assistant manager in the company’s history (I wasn’t), or I could have burned the whole thing down (I didn’t, but probably should have); the point is I had the opportunity to do either of those things, and my coworker did not.
To this day I regret not saying anything to that manager, who purposefully or not showed a clear gender and racial bias in this decision. Why didn’t I? Perhaps I was excited – who wouldn’t want a promotion? Perhaps I was scared – what if I not only lost the promotion but my entire job as well? Maybe I was still coming to terms with my privilege, and struggled to articulate why this was unfair.
The truth is, it was all of those things and more. On paper, treating people equally sounds astoundingly simple. In practice, it’s incredibly difficult. A person’s bias is a manifestation of their entire life experience, from things people told them while they were growing up, to individual experiences with people of different backgrounds, to biology tricking us into associating a whole from one of its parts. This stuff is hard, and in many ways it’s even harder when you personally benefit from it.
But it doesn’t get any easier by ignoring it. We need to keep talking about this, and more than anything else we need to educate our children and give them a chance to learn about this. Teaching them about our racially challenged past doesn’t breed resentment of our country or make people feel bad for being white. It teaches people how to have difficult conversations, and how to respect other people’s opinions and experiences.
Ignorance is the enemy of progress. We need to get comfortable discussing inequality, and acknowledging our own advantages.
@just different “Homelessness can change.” Sure, if we change all the systems that make people homeless and keep them there. You know, the same kinds of systems that discriminate based on other qualities, like race, gender, or orientation.
@Tim M The issue you’re missing here is that you are using race as the basis of comparison. You can also use wealth as the basis of comparison: Does Forest Whittaker have an easier time in life because he is wealthy, compared to other black males? A comparison is always a comparison, but that doesn’t mean that one comparison has more merit.
The issue here is that people are thinking of wealth as something that can be fixed. Meanwhile, half of America lives below the poverty line, with no way out. Where they have to spend every cent to have a place to live, food to eat, and even the most basic healthcare. That they can’t climb their way out of, because literally every system is designed to keep them there.
Having access to money, which is almost always a generational thing, affects people in profound ways. Everything from spending habits to whether they seek health care to how they eat to how they value education. Being able to seek therapy, for example, or being susceptible to addiction. Recourse for being falsely accused or imprisoned.
In a country where the cost of living on average is now $26/hour, and the minimum wage remains $7.25/hour, where people resort to payday loans or have to live in the least safe neighborhoods and terribly maintained, vermin-infested buildings, at best, just to have a place to live, where they have to ration insulin and are told that all they need to do is “not buy that cup of coffee” to improve their lot, convince me that wealth isn’t a factor. Money is a privilege, and increasingly so.
Will point out again that having money isn’t the blank check so many people are assuming — I recall a fabulously weathy person of the darker complexion preference named Oprah being thrown out of an upscale shop in Switzerland when she wanted to look at a $30.000 purse.
This regardless of the fact that Oprah could have afforded 50, or an hundred, or a thousand of those purses without making a dent in her fortune, estimated to be $2.6 billions of dollars..
Plus myriad NFL stars worth way many multiple of a million dollars being pulled over for “stealing” the expensive and beautiful sports car they bought with their very own very good salary money. Actually for driving while black.
I’ve been pulled over many times, and the po-po were always helpful and polite, because I’m a slightly overweight 70+ white guy with a gray beard driving a nice vehicle of some sort. Even when they write a ticket for not having a current inspection sticker, they issue one that goes away when I show my inspection receipt to the magistrtate. Politely~!!~
Straight White Male is indeed the lowest degree of difficulty there is, everyone else has everything else a little harder. Even billionaires who are Black, or Asian, or, well you get the picture… Of course even straight white males can lose their low degree of difficulty by getting Nazi tats all over their face! Oops, busted again!!
Scalzi, correct again for the win!
This piece is as spot on as was its ancestor.
The phenomenon in question has never been more evident than it’s been over the last two years.
In 2020, tone-policing and white supremacy got BLM and its supporters shot, buzzed and snatched into vans while white men with guns got to brandish weapons and invade state capitols because they wanted to spread covid.
Black folks protested being lynched because…reasons and were threatened and arrested on mass. White supremacists stormed the US capitol with the intention of overturning an election and murdering people and are being treated like naughty children who lost their way.
Unarmed black folks die at the hands of police because…reasons, and white men who put actual bodies on the ground are taken alive and treated like mental patients.
Meanwhile, the cowardly lovers of zero-sum logic are positively outraged!, outraged! that anyone would dare call them racist in an era where the legal, albeit tacit, right to harm and kill brown people on sight has been supposedly taken off of the figurative books.
I’ve washed my hands of this country and am almost ready to stick to only associating with people who look like me
“at the very least you make a more cogent argument than Scalzi”
Translation: I agree with your argument.
Cory Doctorow referenced this particular blog entry on Twitter thread and on his blog.
Cory admits to being on the Lowest Difficuly Setting but there are those CisSWM(ie the bosses or .01 percenters) also who also have access to God Mode who can simply steam roller their way through any obstacles.
Entirely tangential to the main topic of discussion, I would be fascinated to know what your mental time/attention budgeting process is when you post one of these, because the demand is clearly substantial.
Thank you. I love this piece.
I like the lowest difficulty level analogy, because it doesn’t imply your life is easy, just that you have to put up with less obstacles than someone who shares your conditions but not your race or ethnicity. The “privilege” framing sometimes bothers me because it frames things that should just be the case, like not being shot to death, raped, harassed, etc. as “privileges” which always struck me as weird. It made it seem like all these groups should be competing for privileges, rather than uniting to tell the people in charge to make things better for all of us.
Ah yes, ye old lowest difficulty setting essay. I remember the general reaction to the piece. It’s amazing how many people still don’t understand the systemic hierarchies we’re all forced to live under and instead scream about how a tiny percentage of black Americans have ended up with money, so there.
A white cishet guy is 5x less likely to be targeted by cops, harassed, beaten, arrested, charged and jailed than a black person, and thus keep his ability to work and vote (lower difficulty setting.) A white cishet guy is 3x more likely to be able to get a mortgage, business loan and other credit than a black person and be able to build wealth, even if the black person has a better credit history and job (lowest difficulty setting.) A white cishet guy is 3x more likely to get a job interview and a job than a POC and 5x more likely versus a black person (lowest difficulty setting.) A white cishet guy who is struggling financially is 10x more likely to have family resources — financial aid, a place to stay and can get more easily government resources than BIPOC, because even working class white families have had generations to build those resources while BIPOC were deliberately blocked from developing and accessing them (lowest difficulty setting.) Average white households have nearly 7 times the wealth of average black households in the U.S., etc.
The game of life has obstacles and monsters for all, as well as bad luck, but marginalized groups have additional obstacles and monsters and aid taken away because of who they are, so they are playing on the higher difficulty setting. White cishet guys are given a +1 sword to fight with for being white cishet men, white women get a regular sword and BIPOC aren’t allowed swords and have to make a weapon out of whatever they can find.
The majority of white cishet guys support mainly other white cishet guys who promise them that they will get an even more powerful sword and all the obstacles will be removed and the white cishet guys will be super heroic and successful. Then those elected and/or wealthy white cishet guys instead put up more obstacles and monsters against the white cishet guys who supported them. And instead of blaming the white cishet guys who lied to them and made things worse, those white cishet guys instead blame the black person who figured out how to kill a monster with a stick. And demand that the black person give them the stick. And call the black person a monster who is out to get them if the black person protests.
It isn’t cishet white guys in the U.S. who are currently having their civil rights stripped away so that they can be more easily fired, jailed or beaten for believing they control their own bodies or identities. It eventually hurts them too but in the meantime they have the advantage of not being deliberately targeted, whatever their personal situation. When they roll the dice, they are more likely to get a saving roll. When they make a small effort, it’s valued as worth more in our society than marginalized people making a big effort. And collectively, they still own and control more of the game.
Those advantages don’t mean that cishet white guys win. But the game is rigged to give them a better shot at it. And that makes them feel bad, as if we’re calling them wimpy for pointing it out and how dangerous that makes things for the rest of us. Especially if they don’t feel that they are doing so well. So then a lot of them try to shove more obstacles at marginalized players, instead of teaming up to give everyone a better shot. The lowest difficulty setting isn’t necessarily a good thing for white cishet guys, but it’s definitely bad for the rest of us.
And yeah, being able-bodied and neurotypical definitely are lower difficulty settings too that have been a factor.
Brilliant and absolutely correct as (almost?) always.
Amen – alas.