Societal discounting: why white male privilege doesn’t help me

I was chatting about white male privilege recently. Let’s start by stating outright: I know it exists. I’m pretty chuffed I was born male, middle-class and of european extraction. But here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t help me as much as you think it does.

And a bit of research backs it up. But first, the theory.

White male privilege exists

It started with a throwaway thought: that the benefits of being white and male, while real, are already “priced in”.

Priced in is a finance term, meaning those who buy into a benefit aren’t getting as much value from it as you might think. Value is “priced in” when expectations of future profit are already fully reflected in the stockmarket valuation of a company.

In other words, buy that stock now and you’re unlikely to make a profit on it. The expected benefits are already part of the stock price.

But its benefits are “priced in”…

How does value get priced in? By a basic financial mechanism: discounting.

Since the benefits of buying a stock or share are in the future—and the future is unpredictable—investors balance their expectations of profit by applying a discount factor to those forecasts, usually a percentage.

The higher the risk of not making a profit, the higher the discount rate. A couple of percent per year for a Fortune-500 company, high double digits for an Internet startup.

Discount factors take expectations of profit down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing.

… and society, knowing this, discounts it

I’m arguing that society recognises the existence of WMP, and applies a discount factor to its treatment of white males that reduces the benefits of being white and male.

I call this balancing effect “societal discounting“. (Hey, it sounds nicely sociological—a bit fuzzy and obscure—so it’s halfway to academic acceptance already.) White males enjoy a status perceived as privileged… so societal discounting acts to “takes them down a peg or two.”

Which wouldn’t harm a lot of white males, me probably included. But how does societal discounting actually work?

One trait of societal discounting is the tendency to not take any protests of prejudice experienced by white males seriously—he’s a middle-class white male! What could he possibly complain about?—and seeing white males as fair targets for levels of bigotry unacceptable when expressed towards any other demographic.

That paragraph will probably make some people angry. If you’re one of them, breathe, because it’s not meant to. I’m not sure of the degree to which societal discounting reduces the benefits of being a white male, but I accept it probably isn’t 100%.

But you’re doing it. Even if you’re a white male yourself.

This discounting negates the benefits of being white and male

Societal discounting is why it’s okay to publish a blog titled “The White Guy Problem“, deriding a behaviour that’s entirely unpleasant, yet not at all confined to white males. (And which, happily, only an ignorant fraction of any community indulges in.)

It’s why Salon republishes a feminist post singling out white males’ inability to “listen to the experiences of others”. (I’m not going to diss the writing style: its author never intended it as more than a Facebook status.) If you make it down the page, one sentence jumps out:

“[you] are being infantilizing. . . You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.”

The author is right as far as she goes. But would she listen to the “lived experiences” of white males with the same degree of open-minded empathy she wants from them? Could she have aimed this valid advice at any other group without being tarred as a bigot?

But she directed it at white males, towards which almost any degree of prejudice or racism seems to be okay. (Maybe she hedged her views at the end of the article, but these pieces tend to run long copy: I’ve yet to make it to the end of one.)

It also happened in the chat that inspired this blog. The conversation was civil, but when I mentioned my “priced in” idea, the consensus quickly arose as an implicit and unquestionable understanding: I was one of those white males. Part of the problem. In inevitable sequence came the accusations of misunderstanding (true) and trolling (false.)

This is societal discounting in action. Understanding that white male privilege exists, and taking actions to discount it back towards some more reasonable norm.

And if you’re surprised by that word “reasonable”, then you haven’t been listening.

Maybe societal discounting is the right thing to do. Maybe white male privilege really does create such a distorting effect that discounting it back towards the mean is entirely reasonable.

Next, some research findings.

Some non-academic, non-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research

Back-of-envelope research needs easily accessible data with a reasonable chance of finding something in it. What follows isn’t statistically valid (although it is statistically significant) nor qualitatively appropriate. In other words, it’s a judgement sample rather than a rigorously controlled one.

So I’ll note here: I have some training in econometrics, and use modelling and analysis every day. I do understand the limitations of a sample. So unless you know your CI from your SD: whatever your complaint about my data or findings, I’ll already know it.

TV sitcoms and semi-comedies were my data landscape. (Cue laughter track.)

Why? Because comedy tends to a) magnify societal mores, and b) lag a bit behind the times. (Statisticians might call them a judgement sample of society.) Sitcoms aren’t exactly a mirror of society; they’re more like a shaving mirror, emphasising further bits that already stick out. Soap operas would work too, but I’ve never watched any.

In an attempt at control, I chose them all from the last 20 years, from both the UK and USA, and with a mix of characters from diverse backgrounds. This meant classics like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince got nixed, but The Simpsons and Buffy (known for strong female characters) made the cut. I found 61 in total.

Why sitcoms were no laughing matter

The results were startling. Of those featuring a white male lead character, in 84% of cases that character had a negative trait—and the trait was remarkably consistent, over two-thirds strongly biased towards a bumbling nature or loveable idiocy.

Just 18% featured a female lead character with a negative trait—and in 8 of these 11 shows, the trait came from a range of comedic stereotypes (the scatty blonde, the socially inept nerd) rather than a consistent characteristic of idiocy.

There was another finding. A random subsample of plotlines demonstrated that of the shows featuring a bumbling white male lead character, that trait substantially defined the plotline of many episodes. (Think of how often Homer’s idiocy is saved by Marge’s better nature.)

The cod conclusion: societal discounting against white males is an integral, unquestioned norm in the media we consume.

It’s okay to make fun of white males, in ways unacceptable about other ethnicities or genders.

White males reading this might feel aggrieved at this finding. I don’t. Because I understand why it happens. It’s just societal discounting, taking white male privilege down a peg or two. (Bear in mind most of these shows, including those featuring ethnic and minority characters, are written and produced by white males. British and US comedy shows aren’t exactly a feminist plot.)

And society hasn’t exactly collapsed because of it, has it? I laugh at The Simpsons too, you know.

But here’s the kicker: it’s okay

In discussions about sexism or racism, my experience is that of many white males: I’m either not allowed an opinion or seen as part of the problem. My own lived experience is discounted, by the same people who say I should be listening to theirs.

And you know what? Understanding societal discounting, I’m okay with that.

Because I am, after all, still white and male. Still defined by my ethno-cultural background. A quick scan of my Kindle reveals a great many white male authors and surprisingly very few women or people of colour. The writer most in tune with my personal philosophy was female, and I admire Toni Morrison, but I realise I’ve never read any of her books whole.

However, I did live overseas for a large part of my life, where I was a minority in race and mother tongue. I went to university in my 30s, on a course where white males were a tiny minority. Today, I live in one of Britain’s most diverse neighbourhoods; my (non-white) partner has suffered serious racism although she never let it slow her down.

So I do know a bit about this stuff. I’m not perfect, but hey—neither are you.

Modern society treats white male privilege as damage and routes around it. This blog won’t get lauded as a piece of social commentary, or even accepted as valid. Because if you’re non-white, non-male, or have ever experienced prejudice, you’ll discount it.

And that’s ok.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.

 

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Felicity J Lord: a tale of a tragically incompetent lettings agency

Working outside London much of the last year, I rented my house in the capital through supposedly reputable, but in reality appallingly inept, lettings agency Felicity J Lord. This ditty documents my (frustrating) experiences over the past year.

In my opinion, it’s been not merely the worst estate agency, but in fact the worst company of any description I’ve ever dealt with: F J Lord seems bumbling and clueless to a level barely imaginable in today’s competitive environment. (Including, at the actual time of writing, failing to return any of four calls inviting them to ponder on whether they should, on the final day of a tenancy, perhaps be performing certain acts related to their business.)

Anger and frustration have long since been replaced by a sense of resigned shaking-head acceptance. So to reflect the cloud-cuckoo approach to business practiced by this most Alice-in-Wonderland of property companies, I’ve put my complaint in verse. (To be read in the meter of that Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Modern Major General’s Song from Pirates of Penzance.)

Felicity J Lord: A Modern Major General Lettings Catastrophe

 

It started with a contract, and the little bit of paperwork

For Residential Shorthold, simple job for any lettings clerk

But even as the doc was signed the future trouble reared its head –

Mistake in rent (I noticed) proved the contract hadn’t been re-read.

 

In truth the indicators of a possible catastrophe

From people too incompetent to double-check a Spelling Bee

Had been there from first viewings as the designated agency

Drove up and waited shyly to inform him they’d forgot the key.

 

Then as the Tenants signed their names the problems start to pile up,

We say we’ll take a 5% upfront and then take twice as much,

Calls left hanging and our anxious landlords kept on tenterhooks

It takes six weeks from fault report to get us in to take a look!

 

Our left hand never has a clue what righty might be doing now,

The smallest task resulting in a constant escalating row

We keep our landlords so frustrated many let the errors pass –

Perhaps that’s why we say hands-on: we need both hands to find our ass.

 

As if to prove our Agency is unfailingly blooper-prone,

Each month we write in error to the owner of the letted home.

No wonder that our landlords think from F J Lord they should take flight –

We’re so inept it takes twelve months to get a direct debit right!

 

Yet through it all we have the cheek to charge the highest fees in town

To us a landlord candidate is little better than a clown

And when they ask to justify what they see as extortionate

We smile and say effectiveness is not a part of our remit.

 

The grossest errors and mistakes; throughout it all we take our fee,

As if we were a shining Modern General Lettings Agency

But competence remains a word that we do not epitomise,

We understand some customers just give up and emit loud sighs.

 

Since Britain’s in a triple-dip you’d think that all its companies

For customers would kiss the air and fall gratefully to their knees

But F J Lord exists on oddly non-converging business vector –

Servicing its customers more badly than the Public Sector.

 

And so today the disgruntled composer of this witty verse

Phoned F J Lord in tears of joy with words that needed no rehearse

The tenancy is ending and there’s no more painful work to do

F J Lord of course seemed shocked, as if it didn’t have a clue!

 

So that’s the story (with perhaps a pinch of gentle poem license)

Of F J Lord, whose tasks are hardly on a par with rocket science

Handing viewings, signing forms, and thenceforth just collecting rents

An easy job description, done with laughable incompetence!