In the past week, I have been alerted to two very different posts in two very different spheres of the online world. The similarity? They both deal with a privileged group taking an argument made by a non-privileged group and making it look irrational in order to make their own indefensible argument look rational. While this tactic is by no means limited only to privileged groups, it is one that I do see often employed by privileged groups in order to stop discussion on a bigoted remark that they have made.
Although I prefer to keep these posts short and punchy, this one got a little long, so I’m putting it behind a cut. Below I deconstruct the two examples I spoke of and then explain in my conclusion why I believe that this tactic is, in fact, privilege in action.
I. Example 1: A discussion on gender inclusive game design
Merrua is a GM who blogs about gaming, world-building, and ways to make games more inclusive. It all started with this post where she quoted another person discussing how Spirit of the Century‘s rule book had chosen to gender its list of character ideas.
Mer’s take on it was as follows:
Dont you wish that there wasnt half a dozen things you had to ignore as a women before you could play?
Again this a game worth turning into a alternate world when the sexism and racism is reversed. Hmm those dashing Irish women conquring an Irish empire and their lovely men hanging off their arms. Teeheehee. I like it.[From Spirit of the century by merrua]
To me, this is not the rant of an angry, and especially not irrational, woman. This is the observation of a GM saddened by feeling excluded, but optimistically brainstorming ways to engage with the dynamic in a positive fashion. She is not calling for action against this book, or those who use it, nor is she saying anything even remotely extreme. All she’s doing is expressing sadness over feeling excluded and then musing about how she could play with the situation.
Matt of lategaming responds by calling her suggestion irrational [emphasis mine]:
Yes. Itâ€™s a bloody shame. So why donâ€™t we create games where sexism and racism are reversed?
Okay, how about we compromise. Letâ€™s look at my local gaming club and make some calculations. On Monday night we had about thirty people. And not more than 4 were women. So slightly more than 13%. Letâ€™s build games to attract the 13% rather than the 86%!
That doesnâ€™t make a lot of sense.[From If Jesus had tits, would you believe in God? by matt]
In order to paint mer’s suggestion as irrational, he creates some statistics to show how women aren’t the target audience. Even though he’s using a laughably small sample size (here’s a hint: thirty people aren’t a proper representational sample for gaming as a whole), he converts it into percentages in order to make his argument look more rational while making mer’s emotional-based argument (feeling excluded) look more irrational because it’s not grounded in “science” (in this case, statistics).
He further goes on to create the “emotional equals irrational” connection further down in his argument [original emphasis]:
Does it really spoil your enjoyment of the game if the archetypes are male? Do you find it jarring and upsetting if the pronouns in a game are exclusively male? Does it pain you to your very soul that Wells chose male characters for his books The Time Machine and War of the Worlds? Would Emma have been better if Jane Austen had named the character James and made a comedy of manners about the debut of a young squire? Why the hell wasn’t Moses a girl? Would Jesus have been a better saviour if he’d had mammary glands?[From If Jesus had tits, would you believe in God? by matt]
He begins with a rhetorical question, turning mer’s disappointment into her complaining that the male archetypes “spoil [her] enjoyment of the game”, going right into emphasizing the words “jarring and upsetting” in his line of questioning in order to strengthen her argument’s ties to the emotional, and ending with the clearly mocking hyperbole of “[d]oes it pain you to your very soul,” when he switches to his next tactic of comparing the game to literary works.
Suitably primed by the paragraph’s rhetorical questions, the reader is meant to take the literary role-reversals that matt posits as evidence at how ridiculous it is to suggest that gender inclusive game design, or at the very least that a GM might want to play on the lack of it, really is. Works of literature have tradition and history behind them and therefore to the typical gaming audience the idea that the stories could possibly contain prejudice, and might have been done differently if the roles were reversed, is, I suppose, supposed to be the icing on the proverbial irrational cake. Not withstanding that many authors have, in fact, re-imagined works of traditional literature in creative ways that, yes, do sometimes include switching the gender to explore how things may have turned out, of course.
Why does so much of matt’s argument rely on making mer’s look stupid and over-the-top? Well, what is matt’s argument? He lays it out near the beginning of the article: “People have wracked their brains in how to attract more women into the hobby and I have to say that I am beginning to see it as futile.” In short, his argument is that gender inclusive game design isn’t important because getting women to game isn’t possible.
I can’t speak for tabletop gaming, but I know in video games similar arguments are made. Those arguments? Are not defensible.
I could link you to the piles of articles coming out about how women are becoming a larger and larger portion of the video game community (we’re a significant force if you include so-called “casual” gaming), but since that would take a while I suggest just going to Jade Reporting and doing some browsing of the “Real Life Impact” and “Real Live Gamers” categories. There’s also my post on gender inclusive game design for a broader rebuttal to his argument that it’s not important.
And, anyway, let’s be honest here: matt would look like a callous asshole if people thought he was telling a rational person that her want to be included in a game that she plays is stupid. So by inventing some statistics, making the argument that catering towards the majority by deliberately excluding the minority is a good business proposal, and painting mer as some stupid over-emotional chick makes him look like the authority to listen to, rather than a jerk telling a woman to basically shut up and realize that gaming is for the boys.
II. Example 2: Being called out on a fat joke
Which leads me to the second example of this phenomenon: a recent blog war on fat jokes made on Sadly, No!. The pertinent threads in this one are Feministe’s Red Scrunchie Blues and Sadly, No!’s Why Iâ€™m Coming to Hate Blogging.
Like matt, Brad of Sadly, No! says upfront that he finds the people he’s arguing against to be irrational:
2.) That said, some people need to lighten the eff up. Specifically, Iâ€™m thinking of many of the people leaving messages on this thread. Holy mother of God. Letâ€™s do a quick sample of the completely ridiculous and embarrassing comments posted there:[From Why Iâ€™m Coming to Hate Blogging by Brad Altrocket]
Brad, like matt, does give lip service to the problem (matt with his “Yes. Itâ€™s a bloody shame” and Brad in the unquoted 1.) of his post), but then goes on to use the tactic of making the other side look completely irrational. The result of this, of course, is that it allows him to avoid engaging with how his privilege interacts with the problem he is about to dismiss with the rest of his post. Where matt’s specific tactics involved using gender stereotypes (his “rational” pseudo-science against mer’s “emotional” experience as a woman gamer), Brad’s depends on deliberate and sarcastic misreadings of the comments in order to create an “us rational people versus those crazy zealots” mentality that gathers sympathy and thereby downplays the seriousness of his bigoted remarks.
This can apply to all of the comments that he commented on, but I will chose one in the middle because I think it’s the easiest to understand the actual argument. It is as follows:
The problem is that itâ€™s not just about offense. Itâ€™s about power and privilege, all the way down from the very large scale to the little scale. Youâ€™ve seized on the fact that fatness is something you have the power to mock, and thatâ€™s only because fat people are at a social disadvantage. This pattern repeats itself in the previous, larger-scale fractal iteration that is society.[From Red Scrunchie Blues, comment by Mandos]
What Mandos is saying is twofold: 1) fat jokes are part of a system of power that affects our lives in both macro and micro ways; and 2) part of the reason that fat jokes are funny is because they are made at the expense of a group that can’t properly fight back.
Now, are there arguments to be made about Mandos’ premise? Sure, if you don’t believe that our society has hierarchical structures then I can’t see you agreeing with the idea that fat jokes are tied to a power structure. Similarly, if you don’t believe that fat people are disadvantaged by this society, then I can’t see you agreeing with the conclusion that the pleasure in making fat jokes is rooted in holding power over another human being. Of course, there are an abundance of studies on how American society’s ideas on fat affect people’s perceptions of themselves and others, and to that end I would highly recommend going over to Alas, a Blog and doing searches on “fat” and “fatphobia” to check out some of those studies.
But does Brad engage with any of this? Well, see his response to the above comment and judge for yourself:
Fat jokes: responsible for racism, sexism and homophobia.[From Why Iâ€™m Coming to Hate Blogging by Brad Altrocket]
Where in Mandos’ comment is it mentioned that fat jokes are responsible for anything? Let’s give Brad the benefit of the doubt here for a moment; in the original comment Mandos is responding to something said upthread. Maybe that is what made the explicit connection for Brad.
Here’s what Mandos quoted:
Why donâ€™t we fragment into small, homogeneous groups and focus intently on the deep offense we feel at other groupsâ€™ speech and language.[From Red Scrunchie Blues, comment by Sadly, No! Investor Services]
Well, no, the frame is actually pretty much the same as without the quoted response. Although the idea of intersectionality — that no group stands in isolation but rather affects, and is in turn affected by, the groups around them — is tied in more closely. But, still, I can’t see where Brad could have taken the idea that Mandos is saying that fat jokes being responsible for anything, much less racism, sexism, and homophobia combined. In fact, that particular comment thread was started, not by fat jokes at all, but rather by a commenter on Sadly, No! making fun of Hugo by stereotyping geeks!
I mean, that, in itself, seems to prove the very intersectionality that Brad is seeking to paint as irrational. Arguments made about negative stereotypes about one traditionally marginalized subgroup of society were turned into generalized commentary by Brad himself, and then the generality was seamlessly brought back to the original subject of fat jokes by Mandos. So seamlessly, in fact, that Brad decided to use the comment for his sarcasm without realizing that following the path back to it’s origin would show that there actually is rationality behind the argument that Brad is erroneously claiming that Mandos is making.
All of which, I suppose, unintentionally proves my point, which is that Brad is using deliberate misreading and sarcasm in order to cover up the reality that his argument is completely irrational while painting the other side as the irrational ones.
III. Conclusion: So what’s this got to do with privilege?
So what does all this have to do with privilege? Quite a lot, actually.
If you look at the favored tactics here, they rely on elements that already reinforce hierarchy. Matt, for instance, uses the gender stereotyping of rational:irrational::science:emotion*, which (as any geek can tell you) carries the connotation of male:female::rational:irrational. Brad, for his part, relied on using the tool of sarcasm, which is possibly the number one way that privileged groups used to shut down conversation.
Not only that, but I also argue that privilege allows you the unerring belief that your argument is right, no matter what the evidence says. Although I deconstructed matt and Brad’s arguments rather brutally above, I don’t actually believe that they believe their arguments are wrong, baseless, or irrational. I don’t think that they sat around and thought to themselves, “Gee, today I’m going to take a totally indefensible position and make it look defensible by taking an opponent’s rational argument and making it look irrational!”
What I do think, however, is they took their belief in their own correctness and took the well-worn path that other people relying on privilege have made for them: that of making one’s argument on the basis that the opposition is so out there that only an idiot would agree with them. They might even think of it in terms of “exposing” the reality of the illogic of the other side, because that’s the frame I usually see on this argument (seriously, watch some Fox News broadcasts to see what I mean).
But, that’s just it. Did they ever stop to question their own methodology? In all of their time trying to show how baseless their opponent(s) were, did they ever think to examine their own logic in arriving at the conclusions that they did? Privilege is not being forced to question yourself, your actions, or your arguments because, if you get called on something, you have tradition backing up your choices and the power of majority opinion to agree with your defense.
*: The English translation of that is, “Rational is to irrational, as science is to emotion,” which means that rational is equated with science and irrational is equated with emotion. Sorry for those of you who hate the SATs. I do too, actually, but the format was useful so I decided to use it.