Who are we?

July 5th, 201111:41 am @

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This is not the first post I’d want to write for a venue like this; far from it.  I’ve got a list of other things to write — a piece about designer currencies, another about larp as form of embodied thought.  I’m also not particularly happy that I’m the one to write this, and yet someone must.  This piece is thinking in public, an introspective work in progress intended as much for this community as it is for those outside of it.

I was sitting in a cafe in Brussels with Dougald last month, after what had already been a three-week long whirlwind of introductions and conversations with old friends and new, some planned and some not.  While it could very easily be just so many conversations, a social circle of sorts at most, there was and is a relatively palpable sense of thickening.  While they will not look quite like old institutions, this is an ether out of which new institutions are forming.  Keith Kahn-Harris touched on this in his piece “Naming the Movement”, but I’m more directly speaking to a small subset of that group.  The reach of our ideas and the impact of our decisions are increasing, and there will be real resources at play.  The awareness of that reality implies a certain responsibility toward our own futures, because the institutions we create will mirror who we are and the way we are in the world — that, after all, is a part of the purpose of a place like this.

This weight was the frame for my realization, or really (on finally having a moment to sit) noticing, that everyone that was part of this circle, was male, white, straight, able-bodied, cisgendered, and approximately middle-class.  There are exceptions to all or almost all of these, but they are exceptions.  We are surprisingly well-balanced here — four women among the seventeen people who have either written here or have biographies posted — better balanced than the social circle in question overall but still hardly a reflection of society at large, especially on other axes.

This is not news.  It’s unsurprising that a set of public intellectuals should skew toward those who historically have more social power; so unsurprising and familiar from my professional life that it took me some time to notice.  A social circle is a fuzzy, amorphous thing, and the idea that one should police its bounds in the way that one might an institution feels ridiculous.  As the primogenitors of new institutions, however, we have an obligation to do much better.  If we merely match the more progressive organizations which already exist (which we are not currently doing), the institutions we create will not help society move forward.

There are plenty of reasons to take this seriously.  The more homogeneous the group that thinks about a problem, the smaller the domain of experiences that they bring to it, the fewer factors they consider, and the worse the solutions they come up with are — this is well documented in a variety of literatures.  Beyond this, social equality is a necessary public good, and access to institutions is a necessary precondition for it; if our institutions are not open and equal, they will undermine the work we set out to do.

There is, of course, no solution.

I say this because a solution implies a single thing, something finite, and what we need are a thousand little shifts in a way of living and working.  In that spirit, here are a few new habits:

Invite a more diverse group of people into the conversation

This is the most obvious way to open up a conversation — invite people into it who wouldn’t otherwise be part of it.  There’s more to it than just an invitation, though; there’s a lifestyle that goes along with the way of working that many of us share, to varying degrees and for better or for worse.  Even assuming that someone’s in a position to share it, it takes time to rearrange life for flexibility.  One of the things we talked about in that cafe was trying to find grant money for the Uncivilization conference, to expand the room for people who couldn’t otherwise make it but should be a part of the conversation.  An invitation is one thing, but an invitation which makes it easy to participate is much better.

Spread invitations horizontally whenever possible

When you’re inviting people to an event, don’t just invite up and down inside a single silo, try to actively cross-link whenever possible.  This is related to the above, of course, but for instance, if you’re asking people to come to an evening in one field, try to pull people into the group who are coming from slightly further afield than normal but still have something to contribute and ask those others (space allowing) to pull people in horizontally again.  The people you know at the borders between social circles may not the people, deeper in those social circles, who would be best served by and most use to a conversation,.

Seek out and try to represent a more diverse worldview in our work

This is a basic part of being a generalist, but making an effort to balance our input streams will ensure more diversity in both what we say and in how accessible our community is.  In a circle of men, the first woman in the room has to fight not only for her place, but for the world of ideas that she embodies.  I was in a working meeting recently, and found myself somewhat shocked that there was pushback to including childcare in a list of basic resource rights that already included basic income, education, medicine, transport, etc.  However, as the only woman in room, it’s sadly unsurprising that no one else put this forward.  If a woman has to represent all of feminism, she’s often too busy doing that to be able to contribute to the rest of the contribution.  We all have a responsibility to represent other viewpoints, and to educate ourselves about them.  This piece is an example of that burden; instead of writing about the other ideas I have, I’m writing about the importance of a diversity of voices, because none of the other voices here have stepped up.  This isn’t meant as censure, merely as example.

Be aware of who does support work

Who makes sure that notes are taken?  Who follows up with people when things don’t happen on time?  Who works to integrate different points of view, to restate points of confusion?  Who looks up supporting evidence?  Who acts to provide social reconciliation?  On the other hand, who presents original ideas or argues with ideas presented?  This is the gendered and racialized labor of the intellectual sphere.  Be aware of who does what.  Do your fair share, or more than it; again, this is work which can ensure that a minority member of a group doesn’t have time to contribute new ideas.  This is part and parcel of making an invitation actually meaningful.

Make decisions openly

As we build institutions, we can radically change their porosity to outsiders by the contexts in which we make decisions.  This is something we have to balance, but right now it seems that we’re fairly far over on side of expedience — three people sitting in a pub decide something, and then it happens.  It’s difficult to effectively open up a lot of the decisions we make in our proto-institutions, because we’re not dealing with an established community, but we should keep it in mind.  The habits we form here will determine the character of our institutions more than almost anything else.

Create public versions of private conversations

People can’t join a conversation if they can’t find it, and publishing works in progress rather than only the polished, finished objects, allows other people in.  The habit of sharing publicly things we know are unfinished, even “wrong” is a strong and important way of working.  It encourages us to take a less argumentative approach to the world, to permit ourselves intuitive thinking, to explore instead of chiseling in stone.  The first time I worked professionally with another woman it was (in what is very obviously an amazingly good working relationship) a revelation how important it was to be able to say “hey, something about that feels weird, but I don’t know what” and have it be taken seriously, or “I know this is wrong, but here’s my first idea” — not having to defend those statements as statements, and instead being able to cooperatively develop the actual matters at hand.

This essay is an attempt to do exactly this; to create a public version of a private conversation that I had with Dougald, in hopes that others will join.

Track the diversity of decisions, structures, and conversations

This is a more concrete suggestion — we can’t fix what we’re not aware of, so building our own awareness of monoculture and calling ourselves on it publicly is an interesting and possibly very productive first step.  Imagine if, every time one of us published an essay, there was a footnote stating the diversity of the sources that went into it and the people who looked at it.  In that spirit, four women and three men were consulted in writing this essay; all white, three queer, one trans, mostly college educated, all approximately middle class; no sources are cited and so their diversity is not mentioned.

Create habitual reminders

It’s useful to have phrases that one can drop into conversation to remind people to think about the diversity of the conversation — bumper stickers, basically.  Any suggestions?

This is just a start, but it’s a conversation that needs to be ongoing if we’re going to do work that’s as good as it should be and build the future we want to live in.