Looks like Scalzi’s post on Straight White Males got linked basically everywhere and garnered 800 comments before he closed. The thread was devolving, so it’s probably for the best, though I was finding his increasingly creative smackdowns amusing.
Doing a quick post-mortem, it looks like most of the dissenters fell into four categories:
- Unapologetic selfish jerks/bigots/sociopaths.
- Guys who took their or their friends’ bad divorces to their illogical conclusions, and decided the deck was, in fact stacked against them.
- Guys who were conditioned to believe that life is about winning, winning is everything, and the only valid win condition is everyone else losing.
- Guys who’d suffered from class discrimination/poverty getting tunnel vision about that, and deciding that it’s impossible for anyone with money to suffer from any other kind of oppression.
The first two I can dismiss pretty easily because they’re never going to see reason. The third I feel sorry for, and think that a judicious application of therapy and/or confronting abusive dads or coaches might turn them around, but there’s no amount of intarweebz debating that’s going to help that.
The fourth, however, was probably the most common, and it’s one I think can be worked on. Thus, I’m going to give it a shot. It may be futile, but I’m nothing if not stubborn. ;)
Time and again in that thread, I kept seeing people angry at the idea that being a Straight White Male meant they had it easy–that their advantages were a golden ticket to fame and fortune. Regardless of the fact that nowhere in his piece did Scalzi say this, and actually made a point of saying otherwise, a whole lot of dudes took umbrage at this idea. Some, of course, didn’t actually read the piece and therefore missed the point, but for others, I think some of their reaction wasn’t so much about what Scalzi was specifically saying, but what’s been said to them before on the topic. And from that perspective, I can understand their frustration.
Over decades of debate and work on progressive ideals, there’s one key problem I keep seeing rearing its ugly head: people getting so focused on the one or two areas in which they struggle that they fail to see how others are struggling, too, and thus come to believe they’re the only ones deserving of help or justice. The opposition has done a great job of convincing us that justice is a limited commodity, and that attention to the issues of one group means less attention for another. They’ve managed to divide and conquer, getting us to fight each other like rats in a cage over an artificially limited supply of fair treatment. Getting people to see that this is happening, and to understand that getting the short end of the stick does not give you license to treat other short-enders poorly, is a monstrously difficult task.
Even more difficult is getting people to understand the concept of intersectionality. Because there’s so much emphasis on identity politics, people get pressured to focus on just one thing that’s the biggest struggle for them, and to ignore everything else, even when the people with whom you share that one trait are oppressing you for something else. (See: sexism from some male civil rights activists, racism from some white GLBT folks, homophobia/transphobia from some straight, cisgendered feminists, etc.) While there are a few areas in which only one aspect of oneself matters, and therefore the person in the advantaged position needs to automatically defer to the disadvantaged one, life is generally not so simple. People are more than one thing, and having advantage in one area simply doesn’t cancel out disadvantages they may have in others–especially if they have more than one disadvantage.
Unfortunately, the lack of understanding of this, and the vile, cynical machinations of the people who benefit from our internicine wars, mean any amount of asking people to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is going to feel to them like an automatic dismissal of their own issues. And thus, the fight continues, to the detriment of everyone.
One of the worst examples of this is the ongoing fight between working class white men and the women and PoCs they’ve been artificially pitted against. Especially when the overall economy is a mess, any amount of trying to explain to these guys that they need to defer to people who have it harder than them feels like a declaration that they don’t have it hard at all–when, clearly, they do. The economy has been sucky for so long that it undoubtedly feels like that concern isn’t being addressed at all (even though it is–not that mainstream news will ever tell you so) so when they’re asked to care about the needs of others, when their own are being ignored, of course they’re going to get upset.
Affirmative action, in particular, is a very sore spot for men who’ve been struggling to find work, and who have bought into the lie that unqualified women and PoCs are getting jobs they don’t deserve, over white men who have worked hard to get ahead. When you desperately need something, and see someone else getting it thanks (in part) to something they didn’t work for, it’s going to hurt. The notion that these people also need that thing, and also have a much lower chance of getting it without that boost doesn’t register. Net result: jobless white guy is bitter at the women and PoCs getting what he needs while he still suffers, and assumes he’s being punished for things over which he has no control.
It needs to be said that class discrimination and poverty are near the top, if not the top, of the heap when it comes to how a person can suffer from bias. We live in a capitalist world. If you’re not born at least middle class, you’re going to be operating at a general disadvantage no matter what other advantages you may have, and no matter how hard you work to get ahead. Even as far back as what kind of prenatal care your mother could afford will affect you decades down the road.
Class, however, is not the only roadblock on the path to self-sufficiency and happiness, and it doesn’t completely erase other advantages a person is born with. Someone with incredible intelligence or talent in a lucrative field can overcome rough beginnings if they have even a bare minimum of access to education. Sometimes people are just in the right place at the right time–all those video-game-playing Gen Xers who lucked into the tech boom at its birth can attest to that. And yes, having the luck to be born with race, gender, ability, orientation and other advantages can help mitigate the amount of damage that not having money can do. It’s important to understand that being asked to be aware of those advantages, and to not abuse them, doesn’t mean one is being asked to shut up about the very real needs and disadvantages one does have.
As Scalzi said–though it clearly got missed by dozens–it’s not that being a SWM makes life easy. It’s that it makes life easier, if all else is equal. If a poor white boy and a poor black girl grow up on the same street, under the same conditions, go to the same school, etc., the boy will always have a better chance of success later in life than the girl, simply because he’s not fighting sexism and racism while also battling poverty. The more hurdles you put in a runner’s path, the slower his time’s going to be, regardless of the fact that he started at exactly the same point as every other runner. Put enough hurdles in the way, and even runners with a head start aren’t going to be able to keep up. Only those runners who are exceptionally gifted at what they do are going to be able to beat the clock when there’s so much in the way.
I do think most working class SWMs would understand this if they felt their very real and critical concerns about poverty and joblessness were being addressed, and if their genuine sense of being marginalized wasn’t being exploited by Fox News and other entities that benefit from keeping the wars going (it’s definitely easier to keep the rabble from showing up at your door when you have other rabble keeping them in line.) Getting them to understand how public services really are critical for people who may not have the same advantages they do is impossible when the media makes a huge deal out of the .05% of people who scam the system. It’s also impossible when they keep lying about how tax increases on the rich will affect the little guy–either by directly increasing his own taxes (they don’t) or by causing inflation (they don’t) or by slowing down job creation (again, they don’t.) All that little guy sees under those circumstances is that his wallet is damn near empty, and yet he’s still being asked to open it for the sake of others.
Complicating matters are some people on the other side, themselves suffering from tunnel vision, assuming that those three letters trump all, and that he has absolutely no room to complain. Just as these SWMs have a hard time seeing how women suffer from sexism because they themselves don’t experience it, wealthy women may have a hard time seeing how a poor man is suffering because class discrimination is outside of their range of experience, and therefore are disinclined to take him seriously when he says he’s hurting. I have, to my great horror and secondhand embarrassment, seen queer folk, women and people of color actually say, in so many words, that it’s impossible for a SWM to face discrimination, no matter what other limitations he may face. And that’s patently wrong, not to mention counterproductive.
Scalzi, of course, implied nothing of the sort. He himself came from humble beginnings and clearly knows how poverty can screw the pooch for a SWM such as himself. But because his illustration of the advantages SWMs do have had a lot of the same elements as those wrong-headed arguments, it’s not surprising a lot of guys weren’t willing to listen.
So, what’s the solution for this? Well, more than anything else, we need to get rid of the tunnel vision–on both sides. We need to stop assuming that having advantage in one or two areas means a person can’t ever suffer, or that they’re automatically fair game if they’re doing nothing other than just existing. If they’re actively making life worse for someone else with disadvantages, by all means, they need to be called on that. Don’t get me started on how many essentialist feminists claim that women should somehow be immune to criticism, as if the mere state of suffering from sexism is a free pass to be a giant jerk. Crying discrimination as a way to cover up for your own crappy behavior needs to stop. People also need to stop claiming that there’s no way they can be racist/sexist/blah blah because they themselves are in a marginalized group. Yes, Virginia, gay men most definitely can be sexist. Just because you understand your own discrimination doesn’t mean you automatically understand a different kind faced by someone else. It all sucks, but it sucks in different ways.
It seems petty to do this, and it won’t work in every situation, but I also think it’s important that we start seeing both ourselves and everyone else in far broader terms than we do, so maybe a bit of actual tallying isn’t a bad idea. If you can add up your alphabet soup and someone else’s, and determine that hey, maybe you really do have it better, overall, than they do, it’s a lot more likely you’ll behave in a sympathetic way. I generally dislike the More Oppressed than Thou game, but if you’re inclined not to have sympathy for someone until you’re convinced that they really are worse off than you are, then maybe such list-making is necessary.
If that’s not your inclination, then it’s even easier: don’t assume a given person is an oppressor just because he or she has one or two traits shared by people who are. Evidence of a person’s character is not in their vital statistics, but in their actions. Yes, those people might have advantages over you in that one area, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to abuse that advantage, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they have advantage overall. That SWM you’re considering The Enemy might also be unemployed, suffering from a chronic illness and trying to hide being Wiccan from his Dominionist landlord. If he’s not actively being a jerk to you or defending other people being jerks, it hurts no one to give him the benefit of the doubt.
It is, of course, irritating to see SWMs arguing that they’re being discriminated against because they’re SWMs. This is, of course, hogwash, and anyone making that argument should be mocked, smacked down or ignored, as the situation demands. But if he’s arguing that he’s being discriminated against for things unrelated to being SWM, and that people are neglecting his very real needs merely because he’s SWM and they assume that means he’s immune to suffering, then hey, give him a listen. Not everyone really is suffering, and some people are so far out of touch they may as well be covered in six inches of plastic. Someone whining about their hangnail while someone else bleeds to death truly does need to STFU. But beyond the few people who truly are fair game due to their detestable actions (Mitt Romney deserves every ounce of crap that’s lobbed his direction), chances are that most people are just trying to get by–just like you are–and are trying to get past the roadblocks life threw at them–again, just like you are.
Save your ire for the people who really do deserve it–they’re not getting nearly enough of it because we’re too busy wasting it on each other.