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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On the Privilege Game

Scalzi offers an excellent metaphor for privilege, to which Meghan adds some crucial missing pieces.

Since comments are closed chez Scalz, I'll blog my thoughts here.

I really like Scalzi's metaphor, and I expect I'll be using it in the future.

I have one quibble. It's with this part:

"Well, here’s the thing: In The Real World, you don’t unlock any rewards or receive any benefit for playing on higher difficulty settings. The game is just harder, and potentially a lot less fun."

So, I know where you're going with this, John. I know the 101niks your metaphor addresses often desperately want to believe that people targeted by oppression get some material benefit from it -- like reversely-racist affirmative action, or being pampered by that rabidly leftist mainstream media, or the oh-so-delicious ability to complain about being targeted by oppression (which is somehow way better than not actually being targeted by oppression). They want to point at some compensation the marginalized get for being marginalized. They want it as a shield from cognitive dissonance, so that they can continue imagine the lives of more oppressed people as being basically just like theirs... plus the right to be indignant.

And I think it's wise of you to block that exit.

But in another sense, I don't actually think it's true, even within the confines of the metaphor, that "you don't unlock any rewards".

It's true that you don't unlock any material rewards -- any rewards of relative comfort or ease of acquisition or the capacity to control others.

But here are some rewards you do get:

  1. accurate perspective: perceptions more closely aligned with reality, on the axis of the particular oppression you're targeted by, due to not having the distortion of emotional investment in a lie. Where you don't have privilege, you're not blinded by privilege; you don't have to lie to yourself and others to protect it.
  2. typically, a greater probability of encountering real emotional solidarity and mutual support within your subaltern group; the ghetto teaches a lot more sharing and mutuality and warmth than the country club. This is mostly an empirical observation than a theoretical given, but it may be fundamentally related to point 1.
  3. and something else, which I hope I am not romanticizing too much when I call it -- along, again, the specific axis of the oppression -- a better grip on your humanity.

    What I mean is: when people in a subaltern group look at people in the corresponding hegemonic group, on the one hand, they typically quite rightly resent the mechanisms by which the world is stealing their resources and autonomy and decision-making power and giving them to the hegemonic group. But on the other hand, if you ask them "would you like to switch places?", they quite often say, "what, and have to act like those assholes?" And I don't think that's actually just internalized oppression or sour grapes or wishful thinking. I think there is a piece of accurate perception there, that the lives of people surrounded by privilege, while a hell of a lot more comfortable and suffering-free, are often in some important ways less human than than the lives of those they oppress.

    This does not mean anyone likes to be oppressed. No one likes to be oppressed, and no one would choose it. If you asked anyone, "would you like those people to cut that shit out?", everyone would say yes. But that's a different question than "would you switch places with them?" Everyone is willing to escape being bullied; not everyone is willing to do so by becoming the bully. And not just because of moral qualms or basic goodness, but because who wants to live like that?

Of course, there are cases where such motion is possible -- assimilation, conversion, upward mobility, "passing", or when the lines between races or classes get redrawn -- and, when it is possible, many people do switch groups up the hierarchy of oppression.

But a lot gets lost in doing so; assimilation has a high cost. I say this as an American Jew. Did the game get easier, when we turned white? Oh hells yeah. But more fun? ...well, I think that depends a lot on what you mean by "fun".

And I think this is actually a more constructive attitude for people with privilege to have, than assuming that their privilege confers on them only goodies and no downsides. To say that the game is purely "easier and [potentially] more fun" at the Easy setting, is to suggest that if you have privilege, your only possible motivations for confronting it, or for helping dismantle the institutions that perpetuate it, are altruism or a sense of justice. You're just doing the oppressed people a favor; there's nothing in it for you. You'd just be making the game harder for you in order to make it easier for them, because you feel sorry for them.

But comparing the (many) places where I do have privilege, to the (relatively fewer) places where I don't, I think that's not the whole story.

I don't, for instance, think someone's mainly doing me a favor if they critique their own anti-Semitism -- if they start catching themselves believing that the Jews run Hollywood and Wall Street and the media, say, and begin to wonder whether that's really the whole story. I mean, I think that's great and all, go them; but I don't feel like the main reaction indicated is gratitude. I'm actually more happy for them that they are extricating themselves from the clutches of something invisible which was making them act like a moron.

As Meghan says, People on other settings may might not even see the value of the game’s definition of “winning,” or they might want to play a different game completely, but they exist in a world that prioritizes competing for points and levels on terms created to benefit those for whom it is easiest. The second half of her sentence is very important; systematic oppression has the ability to reward those who play by its rules. But I want to point to the first half of the sentence as well. There is actually another scorecard available -- an infinite variety of them, in fact.

If you find (as I do) that you're playing Real Life at the Easy level, you might well ask "why would I ever stop doing that? Why would I even want the next rev of the game to decrease the gap between the difficulty levels?" I would submit that the answer is not only, or mainly, "to be a nice guy." The answer is actually more like "the scoring system you're using -- the one that comes with the game's standard distro -- is actually crap. Consider modding it so it scores for solidarity, community, authenticity, joy, connection, and freedom, rather than acquisition, power, material comfort, satiation, zero-sum competitive victory, and fame. And if you do that, you'll find the disparity between difficulty levels isn't actually doing you any good at all; they're a design flaw. They're just in your way."

Everybody should be hungry for a just society for their own sake, not as a favor to others. The game will be more fun modded, for everyone.

Posted by benrosen at May 16, 2012 01:58 PM | Up to blog

Quibble with your quibble: in the last third, you seem to be conflating the choice to ignore or downplay the in-built victory conditions with a genuine change in difficulty level. If I can overcome my anti-Semitism (or whatever), that might give me a more enjoyable playing experience but it doesn't mean I'm not still playing on Easy. I would also suggest that Easy level has more access to rewards 2 and 3, at least, than we usually think; the official reward structure does at least as much to smother them as privilege. (Oh, God, I'm making it about white people. Look, all I'm saying is the distinction between difficulty level and reward structures and access to rewards needs sharpening, okay?)

Posted by: David Moles at May 16, 2012 03:42 PM

You are, of course, still playing on Easy, and will be for the rest of your life. On the other hand, we should not steer so far away from the Scylla of "solving oppression will be easy dudez!" that we run into the Charibdys of "there's nothing I can do, oh well." Actually oppression can be dismantled; the project is a big one, but there are generally pretty easily discernable next action items. So I would counter that I'm talking neither about "ignoring or downplaying", nor about "a genuine [total] change" -- I'm talking about whatever the next action is towards modding the game to close the gap between difficulty levels.

I don't know if the example I gave is a good one, and I actually think it's a strength of the metaphor that it allows distinction between structural issues (reward structures built into the game) and individual styles of play (don't be a griefer). But that distinction can be carried too far, to the extent that we might ignore that actually all of the structural issues are purely epiphenomena of our (collective) perceptions and behavior. Each of us individually modifying our behavior does not, in itself alone, change the difficulty level structure. On the other hand, all of us doing so would.

Explain to me a little more what you mean by " the official reward structure does at least as much to smother them as privilege" -- what is the distinction you're making between "the reward structure" on the one hand and "privilege" on the other? I guess whether "Easy level has more access to rewards 2 and 3....than we usually think" depends a lot on what we usually think; it seems to me that the conventional wisdom is more that the benighted subaltern people neglect and beat their children, women and gays are catty with one another, the ghetto is a place of distrust and suspicion, and everything is fine and lovely in the spa and the answer to life is to get yourself as middle-class and white-male-seeming as you can manage and then you will be happy and safe; and indeed that elites are "better informed"; and, thus, that the conventional wisdom would suggest that Easy level has more access to all these (nonmaterial) rewards. I think it has somewhat less access, though obviously not zero. In some cases, of course, it's in the interest of kyriarchy to exaggerate in the other direction -- oh those beautiful noble savages! they're so pure of heart and rich in love, that's why they don't mind us taking their stuff! -- and then the opposite corrective is needed.

How you made it about white people went over my head: I think your brain was moving faster than your fingers. Sharpen away, I'm listening.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 16, 2012 04:05 PM

Too tired to sharpen, all I got is (unrelated, don't look for a narrative through-line in) bullet points:

• Reward structure says we're playing for XP and levels and treasure. Difficulty level says players on Easy level up faster and get better loot drops.

• Counterculture [white, straight, middle-class] conventional wisdom says the subaltern is the fount of authenticity and artistic expression and middle-class suburban conformity & the pursuit of wealth are the root of alienation, despair, etc.

• Christian [white, straight, petit bourgeois / peripheral proletarian] conservatives of the non-televangelical variety share your skepticism re: acquisition, power, material comfort, satiation, zero-sum competitive victory, and fame.

• "[Having] to act like these assholes" is neither here nor there re: difficulty levels. It is, however, a very nearly required component of major success in accumulating XP & treasure at *whatever* difficulty level. It may be possible to achieve that success with other, less orthodox play styles, and doing so will certainly be more difficult than playing through the standard quest lines, fighting in the approved player-vs-player arenas, etc. But the choice of play style is orthogonal to the set difficulty level even if both impact difficulty.

(I feel like I'm making it about white people because from where I'm standing I can see the edge of the cliff of complaining, "But *I* don't act like those assholes! *I* have an accurate perspective, real emotional solidarity and mutual support, and a grip on my humanity!")

(Except I don't really have emotional solidarity and mutual support.)

(But I probably could if I moved to the right town and joined the right church. And I'd still be playing on Easy.)

Posted by: David Moles at May 17, 2012 05:14 AM

P.S. Also blurry: distinction between playing the game as it stands and arguing for what to be or not be in the next patch.

Posted by: David Moles at May 17, 2012 05:23 AM

And now I'm going to bed before I mix any more metaphors.

Posted by: David Moles at May 17, 2012 05:23 AM

You can have emotional solidarity and mutual support with me! :-)

Ben, I'm not sure I buy #2 & #3 of your initial points, but I am too sleepy to type it all out, and also, I still have your novel to finish. But maybe we can discuss further at WisCon.

Posted by: Mary Anne Mohanraj at May 23, 2012 04:19 AM

I think I'll only have time to tackle this in depth after Wiscon, but as a quick note on #3: Meghan said, "The fact that privilege robs us of empathy and humility is nearly as poisonous as the advantages it brings, because humble, empathetic people would not gleefully skip through difficulty while leaving others to suffer." What I'm saying is: in what kind of world (what kind of scoring system) is being robbed of empathy and humility not accounted as a cost?

If we construct it as if the people placed in oppressor roles are simply being favored -- if being robbed of empathy and humility is simply a way of getting ahead, a bonus -- hey, I'm free of that pesky empathy and humility that was keeping me down, now I can steal and hoard stuff better, whee! -- then the best we can manage, in our oppressor roles, is maybe to feel guilty about it. We will know we ought to change it, but there will inevitably be some ambivalence.

If we, however, note that being robbed of our empathy and humility actually sucks, is dehumanizing and horrible, if we actually face what had to happen to us, how we had to be socialized, to turn us in to such effective oppressors, we will have the proper emotional reaction, which is to be enraged. And we will be fighting for change for our own sakes, with impatient vigor.

Posted by: Benjamin Rosenbaum at May 24, 2012 01:29 PM
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