Sunday, April 9, 2017

Dear Fellow White Dudes…

White dudes

Dear fellow white dudes,

It’s pretty cool being a white dude, isn’t it?

We’re well represented. Here in the United States (my home country and focus here), the majority of Senators and Representatives have always been white dudes, not to mention 44 out of 45 US Presidents.  The majority of actors in leading roles in Hollywood movies are white dudes, as are most Hollywood directors.  Most corporate CEO’s, military leaders, educational administrators, and so forth are white dudes. 

We white dudes have done some pretty cool stuff.  Plato and Aristotle were white dudes, although nobody realized this until the construction of modern racial identities in the European Enlightenment, which was also the work of white dudes (and a few white dudettes).  Many of my favorite science fiction and fantasy authors are white dudes: J. R. R. Tolkien, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, etc.  Some of my best friends are white dudes.

White dudes are far less likely than others to be harassed or to receive threats of violence in person or online.  We are less likely to be murdered by our romantic partners or by the police.  White dudes who engage in mass murder are framed as troubled loners, but rarely as terrorists or thugs.  We statistically get paid more for the same work as other people.

We white dudes have a lot of privileges, which as science fiction author and white dude John Scalzi has pointed out, is like playing a video game on the easy setting.  We still have to put in the effort to play the game, but it’s easier for us, especially if we're straight, cisgender, non-disabled, and come from middle to upper class socioeconomic backgrounds.  White dudes’ greatest privilege is that we can choose to ignore all this and go about our lives in the invisible safe space of a world made for us.

Man, it’s pretty awesome to be a white dude!  But you’d never know it if you listened to a lot of white dudes these days, which as a white dude myself I find kind of weird.

Atomistic Nihilism, or the Misuse of Nietzsche

Many white dudes, especially younger ones, have lately embraced what I call atomistic nihilism.  This expresses itself in a kind of libertarianism that goes far beyond the libertarian party.  We white dudes are told our whole lives that we are atomic individuals in control of our own destinies (just watch 99% of Hollywood movies to see what I mean).  We don’t often consider that viewing yourself as such an individual is often only possible on the backs of others or that this view might make us pathologically uninterested in the wellbeing of everyone else. 

Normally this sort of individualism could be tempered by some kind of other-regarding moral view, but many white dudes are also enamored with a kind of moral nihilism, or the view that nothing really matters morally, which is sometimes based on a (mis)reading of white dudes like Friedrich Nietzsche.  This can result in hero worship of older white dudes who offer answers.  Young white dudes, unable to find answers within, look without, but usually to other white dudes (like Nietzsche or a wide variety of philosophical, athletic, political, or artistic heroes, who might even be fictional superheroes or supervillians).

Conjuring Oppression

White dudes sometimes make up our own oppressors to fight against.  Over-hyped, under-contextualized click bait articles about things like safe spaces and identity politics convince us that “social justice warriors,” “snowflakes,” feminists, and purveyors of “political correctness” are the real threat and it is we, the guardians of Truth and Goodness, who are under attack, who must take up the banner of resistance against this (mostly imagined) oppression. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that tired old “PC is running amok” narratives usually pit crusading white dudes against women or people of color who are depicted as somehow simultaneously weak and dangerous.  There’s something piquantly bizarre about white dudes telling people to suck it up and be tough when the average white dude wouldn’t last a day navigating the social world as anything other than a white dude.

This could all be passed off as a harmless youthful exuberance resulting from a steady diet of resistance narratives like V for Vendetta and “edgy,” anarchic anti-heroes like the Joker in The Dark Knight.  But this attitude is particularly perverse in a world that contains a lot of real problems.  

Some white dudes seem to believe that “political correctness” is a greater threat than things like racism, misogyny, or economic exploitation.  Why?  I’m not sure.  Here’s a tentative hypothesis: maybe it’s because it’s something we white dudes can more easily see ourselves fighting against.  We white dudes love to see ourselves as iconoclastic crusaders (I know I do).  Any whiny white dude on the internet is equipped to fight the dastardly “SJWs” in campaigns like Gamergate or the Rabid Puppies, while fighting against real injustice might require actual empathy and work to understand and cooperate with people who are different.  It might require dropping the mantle of white-dude-as-universal-expert to learn about how other people experience the world.  All of this is difficult for white dudes encased in thick cocoons of atomistic nihilism.

The Toxicities of the Internet and the Economy

In the last 10-15 years the internet has weaponized fragile white masculinity in anonymous toxic discussion boards and comment sections as well as directed hate campaigns such as the one against Leslie Jones in the summer of 2016.   

In my late teens and early 20’s I was as angsty and as prone as any young white dude in 2017 to rail against the hypocrisies of my society.  But the difference is that I’m just barely old enough to have grown up without the internet, and I was a full-fledged adult well before social media blew up.  When I started using the internet as a young adult in the late 90’s, it was a more benign place, or at least the malignant places were harder to find.  If I had come of age in the comparatively toxic online environment of the 2000’s and 2010’s, I can’t say that I’d be any different than young white dudes today.  (See this fascinating history of 4chan, which may be the most bizarre, influential, and toxic of recent internet phenomena). 

There is also, as every article on millennials reminds us, a very real economic angle.  Now that many white dudes are starting to feel something closer to the economic struggles faced by everyone else, the psychic tension between white dudes’ perceptions of our presupposed economic viability and our present realities are all the more apparent.  This is not to say that income inequality and economic injustice aren’t real problems (they definitely are), but I think white dudes perceive these issues a bit differently.  Others see these issues as involving future goals to work toward; we see them as slights against what we were previously entitled to.

Assessing Dismissiveness

Now, I realize a lot of my fellow white dudes will dismiss everything I’m saying here as lame “political correctness,” moralistic scolding, or being old and out of touch.  This is especially true because the biggest prerogative of a white dude on the internet that he gets to tell other people what they really believe.  A white dude’s socially sanctioned cognitive authority is so vast that he gets to decide what others think and feel even if this means dismissing what they actually say. 

I can attempt to carefully clarify and qualify my claims all I want (like that everything I say about “political correctness” is tentative and I’m not telling others what they think).  Yet some white dudes might me what I really think as if they’re doing me a favor, as if my life’s goal was to wait for them to reveal the truth of my own mind to me.  This is one of the more annoying aspects of internet interaction for me, but at least I’m a white dude so I never get threats of violence or targeted harassment.

I’m also not saying that white dudes don't have some real problems, like higher suicide rates.  Part of my point is that trying to deal with these real problems by ranting against political correctness or blaming our problems on the disenfranchised is simply not working.  Facing our real problems may require in part thinking about the ways in which white masculinity hurts us, too (for instance, in a reluctance to seek help with our mental health).

I’ve written before about my genuine confusion and annoyance about the whole narrative surrounding “political correctness.”  I honestly don’t know what it’s supposed to be, or why anyone thinks the occasional sanctimonious, but relatively powerless, college student is as deep a threat to free speech as powerful corporations and governments.  

I can assure you, reader, that I’m not writing this to be a moralistic scolder.  I have no interest in getting up on my high horse.  I’m not intending to just shake my cane at these kids today. 

A Lament for Young White Dudes

I’m writing from a place of sadness and lament.  It’s sad that much of a generation of my fellow white dudes have grown up thinking that the project of trying to be a good person is something to be cynical about, that being tough or edgy is more important than being decent or kind, that social justice is something to be mocked.  It’s depressing that nasty dismissiveness, snarky memes, and thinly veiled racism and misogyny are seen as substitutes for political engagement, that the real oppressors are thought to be those with the least power.  It breaks my heart to see those who have the most power to change our society willfully turn that power toward counter-productive ends.

I don’t believe I’m a better person than my fellow white dudes.  Honestly, I think we’re all just trying to do our best with what we’ve got.  I just hope that we can all someday discuss our experience in a constructive manner, although I admit this hope has grown thin in the last couple years.

I should be clear that I don’t want to engage in martyr rhetoric that white dudes are the real victims; there’s too much of that already, and we still have it pretty good all things considered.  But I do hope that somehow white dudes will figure out a way to be white dudes in a world where we are no better than anyone else. 

I don’t think scolding or curmudgeonly harrumphing from middle-aged white dudes like me is going to make that happen.  I suspect we need new role models of responsible white dudeness.  But I have no idea where to find them or how to be such a role model, especially since my attempts are likely to be dismissed as weakness, moralistic scolding, or grumblings about the kids these days.

Toward a Responsible White Dudeness

I’m haunted by the thought that the real blame for this mess is on older white dudes like me.  Maybe we let down our younger brothers by creating the conditions that made them who they are; perhaps we failed to be role models of what responsible white dudeness looks like. 

At 40, I’m probably among the last group of white dudes who grew up with our privilege largely unquestioned.  It must be confusing to have come of age in the last 15 years or so with the vestiges of invisible privilege while having that privilege made visible and explicitly challenged.  Younger white dudes hear echoes of a world that tells them they are owed something for being white dudes while new voices simultaneously question this message.  When you look at it this way, the result – bitter cynicism masking white dudes’ deeper anxieties – seems almost inevitable.

I have far less sympathy with or hope for older white dudes.  If a white dude is around my age or older, I doubt he’s going to change his ways.  It’s younger white dudes we need to worry about.  And worry is what I really feel: I’m watching my younger brothers stumble down a path of self- and other-destruction that I helped pave, realizing that there’s little I can do to stop them.

But there is also hope.  As young white dudes age they might reflect on whether to continue on the path of atomistic bitterness.  As our Trumpian times predict, many will continue on that path (although one bit of hope is that Trumpism is largely a phenomenon of old white dudes).  But as age mellows the appeal of angsty resistance narratives, some might see that they’ve been really been raging against the mirage of white dude superiority all along.  Most will, under the pressures of career, family, and actual human interaction, come to understand that there’s more to life than directing online vitriol toward the disempowered.  And when this happens, younger white dudes might finally show the rest of us what a responsible white dude looks like.

So my hope is that we white dudes can learn to navigate our new social realities. We’ve always been just one among many kinds of human.  It’s time we started acting like it.

Thanks for reading.

PS: I've disabled comments on this post partly because I don't have time right now to deal with the type of combative dismissiveness that a post like this might elicit, but mostly because I'd prefer that readers reflect for awhile on what I've said rather than respond immediately.