Medallion Status: comparison is the thief of joy, and John Hodgman is the thief-taker

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/10/15/owning-it.html

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you can be measured for complementary custom-made leather shoes

Any shoes that fit are complementary to your feet, and the left is always complementary to the right, but if you get a pair for free, it’s complimentary (because you get it with their compliments, instead of with an invoice).

I don’t make the rules here; I just observe the consensus.

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I once ran into John Hodgman when he was doing a stoop sale with his kid. I told him I was a fan of his work and he replied that he was happy to be recognized at all for his work? This was back when he was still doing his Secret Society shows and I assume transitioning from current TV actor to former TV actor.

Edit: forgot to mention that Vacationland was one of my favorite books of recent years and I’m looking forward to this one too.

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the systems around you are designed to tempt you to strive harder to attain the next level of privilege, where, you are assured, you can rest up from your anxious climb and enjoy the summit. But each summit reveals another summit, and higher, more promising, more tantalizing summits you can attain.

See also Graydon Carter’s “Seven Rooms” speech about NYC society for new Vanity Fair writers:

‘You think you’ve arrived, doncha?’ he said. ‘I hate to break it to you but you’re only in the first room.’ He paused. ‘It’s not nothing — don’t get me wrong — but it’s not that great either. Believe me, there are plenty of people in this town who got to the first room and then didn’t get any further. After a year or so, maybe longer, you’ll discover a secret doorway at the back of the first room that leads to the second room. In time, if you’re lucky, you’ll discover a doorway in the back of the second room that leads to the third. There are seven rooms in total and you’re in the first. Doncha forget it.’

The thing is, we’re all on the ol’ hedonic treadmill, so the questions become “what is a given individual’s baseline level of happiness, how is that baseline measured, and how likely is it that one can achieve that baseline?” In the global West, the answer to the second question is provided in many ways, not only in money but also in various formal and informal status programmes. And in the global West, the more ambitious baselines of extreme wealth and fame and power are only realistically achievable by an increasingly tiny number of very lucky individuals, most of whom become twisted into horrors once they reach the highest tiers.

And worse: as Hodgman travels through, and finds some accomodation within, these rarified heights, he sees how privilege turns the privileged into monsters, including Hodgman himself, whose impulses are warped and stunted under its ferocious gravity.

So: risk becoming a monster who loses his basic humanity, or be forever disappointed that you can’t reach monster status and feel like a loser as you drive yourself deeper into a myriad of debts to “fake it til you make it”. In an increasingly unequal society that’s hastening the demise of the middle class, that’s the choice that most Americans are left with.

I’m sure Hodgeman puts this even better. I’m looking forward to reading this book.

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Capitalism is a pyramid scheme with nobody at the top.

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The older I get, the more I wonder why anyone would want to be rich.

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To a point it’s very nice, but once you get past “f*ck you” money (anywhere between $10-30 million in net worth, depending on how one reckons things) it just starts getting silly.

I was talking to someone with that kind of money last week, and he mentioned that one of the downsides of being that wealthy is that other people are always asking you for money in one way or another and basically relate to you mainly in that way. He wasn’t saying this in a “poor me” kind of way (he’s aware of his privilege and good luck), just making an observation that struck me as being true.

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I wish we had a better way of phrasing this. Privilege is real, and there are plenty of entitled, oblivious people who need to hear something like this. But it comes off as – or at least, it’s a very short step to – “Because you’re playing life on ‘easy mode’, your ‘problems’ are necessarily trivial and your concerns may be deservedly ignored. If you think you’re having a hard time, you must be a gigantic loser.”

I know the people who deploy this phrase don’t usually intend it this way, but the way it lands is also important. You can argue that the people who most need to hear it don’t deserve sympathy, don’t deserve empathy, don’t merit the effort. Nevertheless, we’ve all got a better shot at reaching them if we continue to make the effort.

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It’s a very effective metaphor, especially for the kind of privilege-blind young white cisgender American male who needs to hear it most, the kind who thinks equality seems like oppression and who’s played a video game or two in his time.

Scalzi addresses that in the follow-up:

3. Your description should have put wealth/class as part of the difficulty setting.

Nope. Money and class are both hugely important and can definitely compensate for quite a lot, which I have of course noted in the entry itself. But they belong in the stats category because wealth and class are not an inherent part of one’s personal nature — and in the US particularly, part of our cultural sorting behavior — in the manner that race, gender and sexuality are (note “inherent” here does not necessarily mean “immutable,” but that’s a conversation I’m not going to go into great detail about right now). You can disagree, of course. But speaking as someone who has been at both the bottom and the top of the wealth and class spectrum here in the US, I think I have enough personal knowledge on the matter to say it belongs where I put it.

4.I’m a straight white male and my life isn’t easy! My life sucks! Your “lowest difficulty setting” doesn’t account for that!

That’s actually fully accounted for in the entry. Go back and read it again.

This one’s a stand-in for all the complaints about the entry that come primarily either from not reading the entry, or not reading what was actually written in the entry in preference to a version of the entry that exists solely in that one person’s head, and which is not the entry I wrote. Please, gentlemen, read what is there, not what you think is there, or what you believe must be there because you know you already disagree with what I have to say, no matter what it is I am saying.

This graf from the original article covers it:

You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting. The lowest difficulty setting is still the easiest setting to win on. The player who plays on the “Gay Minority Female” setting? Hardcore .

In other words, what Scalzi is saying is, yeah, white cisgender guy, you may be having a hard time, and yeah, you and others may consider yourself a loser by societal terms, but that’s not because there’s some campaign to disenfranchise or oppress white cisgender guys.

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I appreciate you pointing all this out, but I think referring back to the source underlines my point rather neatly, in fact. If what appears ‘in print’ around the web is the “easy mode” phrase, and correctly understanding the phrase requires reading a whole article to contextualize and explain it then something’s gone amiss. Edit: If the phrase alone can’t or doesn’t communicate what the author means, that’s a failure, it’s bad writing.

It really doesn’t take that much extra thought to get there, unless one refuses to believe that one can lose a game on easy mode. Scalzi throws that graf in, but anyone who understands how video games work should get it immediately from the main phrase alone.

The premise underlying the metaphor is simple: video games have varying difficulty modes, and one can lose on any of them.

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It takes no thought at all to get to the “I think you are a loser” type conclusion, though, and I’d wager that’s where many readers are going to stop. The fact that Scalzi responded to this sort of reaction with “No, I covered that, go back and read it again” seems like a gigantic red flag; if your audience isn’t getting your point, it’s not effective to tell them they’re just dumb.

Medallion Status sounds like a remarkable and interesting book, maybe partly because it sounds like I’ll agree with so much of it.

The kind of story that’s really needed, and good as it is, it isn’t Hodgman’s, is something more like a modern version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. Something that convinces the wealthy that they improve their own well being by using their wealth to help the less fortunate.

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He’s telling them in the follow-up that if they’re not getting the article’s point then they didn’t read the article, because it’s right there in anticipation of those who’d make the objection by pretending one can’t lose on easy mode. Scalzi created this metaphor, and the article exists to explain it to those who can’t or don’t want to understand it.

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Only reading or watching the very first part of something and then writing a letter to complain about it is a grand American tradition, practiced through the ages via the letter to the editor and complaints to the FCC.

Sometimes you don’t even need that. Just reading the title is enough to be enraged. Or the summary writeup on some content aggregator. Or the missive from an organization you belong to telling you how to think on the subject.

Those guys aren’t going to go back and read the article either. They already decided that they were butthurt over it and don’t need someone like the original author telling them differently.

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Correct. Those who willfully don’t want to understand the metaphor are not Scalzi’s problem – he’s pre-emptively addressed their concerns, but they skipped that inconvenient bit (even though in choosing to entertain they metaphor they already understand that, in video games, one can lose on easy mode).

Frequently when we talk about white male privilege here, some clueless white guy here shows up with “hurf, durf, tell that to the white male homeless guy I saw near the highway today”, as if that somehow disproves the whole concept of white male privilege. Using this metaphor undercuts that handily, even if it requires a little further explication (“Think of video games – they have difficulty modes, right?” Right. “And someone can lose on any difficulty mode, even easy mode, right?” Right. “Well, being a white cisgender male in the U.S. is playing the game of American life on easy mode.”)

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It takes a lot less. I was talking about “f*ck you money”, which is a different concept than reaching a level of financial security that affords most people a modest middle-class hedonic baseline of happiness (which, as you imply, is all that most people need and is more than the vast majority of people in history ever enjoyed).

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Almost all of the people who encounter the phrase “playing life on easy mode” aren’t going to understand whatever nuance was in the source article because they’re never even going to see the article, at all. They’re going to react to the phrase. And that seems like a real shame, a missed opportunity.

I don’t think litigating Scalzi’s intentions really address any of that.

The people who encounter it and understand the core concept (“video games have easy modes”) should also understand that one can lose on easy mode. Unless they don’t want to, but again, that’s not Scalzi’s problem to solve.

He’s putting the metaphor out there, it’s internally coherent, but he can’t do anything if certain people want to pretend it isn’t internally coherent because they’re either butthurt by what it implies and/or because they didn’t RTFA.

No litigation needed. Again, his intentions are right there in the original article about this metaphor he came up with.

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Wow, this sounds like a must-read!

I have thought for some time that, strategically, we must pivot from attacking people for their privilege (which will naturally cause them to become defensive of it and the system that confers it) and instead point out that privilege isn’t a panacea for those who have it, either; that there’s something better and more meaningful for all of us if we dismantle the systems of oppression.

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