Language, Metaphors, and Effective Communication

Has is it ever happened to you, that you and somebody else get into a great rip-roaring debate about something, only to go back-and-forth and to-and-fro to find out that you both agreed on the same idea from the very beginning? And the only reason the both of you didn’t realize that was because you were using totally different language to describe the exact same idea?

Well, let me tell you, it’s a little amusing but mostly rather frustrating when that happens! (I blame Political Correctness. When La Revolución comes, PCniks will be right after the lawyers and politicians.)

But what prompts this post is something John Scalzi mentioned in this Wired interview: for those of you who want to skip that and go straight to the meat of the metaphor, start here.

Now, nobody who pays attention to reality can deny that minorities always have a more difficult time in life than majorities; that’s just the way things have always worked, and despite what well-intentioned people everywhere do to ameliorate it, I’m pretty sure that as long as Homo sapiens sapiens exist, it’s going to be like that to some extent. Libertarian utopias don’t exist any more than Communist utopias or pink unicorns. Which is not to say that no one should do anything to counteract that reality, starting with understanding that statistics are not individuals and treating individuals accordingly as much as possible. But the language in which that idea is expressed is sometimes not helpful for furthering the cause of love, peace, and tolerance between human tribes.

So,  in an attempt to give people a better way to talk about life hurdles than using the language of “privilege” (which is a terrible language and will get you instantly beamed to the “idiot box” category in my mind if you use it around me), John Scalzi has come up with what’s actually a pretty good metaphor: video game difficulty settings. Now, I’m not going to talk about why I disagree with John’s opinion that straight white males have the easiest difficulty setting in this post – suffice to say I think a good argument can be made that straight white females have actually edged out SWMs fairly recently in that regard. But that’s beside the point of this post, because right now I’d like to polish up that metaphor a bit!

Let me start out by saying that I think the video game difficulty levels metaphor is really good; possibly even brilliant, but then I’m a nerd, so of course I would think that. The problem with the way John uses it is that he picked “easy mode” as the substitute for “privilege” – which is a bad idea. The reason it’s a bad idea is because “easy mode” and “privilege” are both tainted with the same negative connotation – illegitimacy and shame. The unspoken thought behind each of those is that the ones on easy mode or possessing privilege should be ashamed of that and try to get rid of it entirely, or that the way that they end up on easy mode (or with the privilege) is illegitimate and should be abolished. That’s why that language is so controversial (smells like Marxism), when the idea it expresses is so obviously real. Now, if you read through all the followup posts to the original, John makes clear that he doesn’t think of it that way. Instead of being illegitimate or shameful, what he calls “easy mode” is to be desired for all persons regardless of birth – and idea with which I think everyone can heartily agree!

That’s why I’d like to polish up the metaphor, and eliminate “easy mode” from the mental construct. Because playing a video game on “easy mode” is, well, something you probably should be ashamed of, and certainly nothing to be desired! Default is designated default by the word “normal” – so that’s how I’d like to recast John’s metaphor. Sticking with his opinion that white men have it better than white women, I’d then rank straight white males in the United States as Normal Mode players; straight white women get +1 difficulty level; minorities get anywhere from +1 to +2 depending on sex and race; add on any kind of abnormality and you get another set of difficulty points, anywhere from +1 to +4. (Hard Mode begins at +2 difficulties above SWM; Insane Mode begins at +4 difficulties. The only way to get into “easy mode” in the US is to be born into one of the wealthy political dynasties, which is technically not a difficulty mode – it’s a starting stat distribution. A distribution, as you can see by my designating it “easy mode,” I don’t think should exist.)

By starting the scale at Normal Mode, you can make clear that you don’t think that there’s anything illegitimate or shameful about being randomly assigned at birth to that class of people, and that it’s something that doesn’t need to be eliminated for being unjust; rather, the goal is to get as many people as possible into it!

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About pancakeloach

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