Dear President Biden,
I do sometimes have original thoughts. Or at least I think I do. Mostly, though, my best thinking is reactive – or perhaps if I’m giving myself grace, my best thinking is responsive. Whichever adjective I go with here, what I’m referring to is my propensity to find the gaps in arguments, notice the hand-wavy glosses and the glides past the inconvenient, and to see connections between seemingly disparate things. These mini-superpowers of mine aren’t going to rock the world, but at least they keep me engaged and at times, amused.
The rather defensive start to this letter is because yet again, I am going to quote someone else and then give you my riff.
I might have mentioned a few weeks ago that the person behind the Twitter handle “Julius Goat” has started sending long-form essays to people who signed up to follow his blog, which I did over a year ago (see his Bubbles series – it’s brilliant), and after a long, long silent spell he suddenly started producing these essays weekly. His real life name is A. R. Moxon (A stands for Arthur).
Well, in case I haven’t actually told you about him and his essays, the last four weeks he’s been unpacking the “both sides” trap, with the final installment coming this morning. Even though his argument boils down to something very, very simple (which I’ll share in a sec), it would be worth getting one of your reader people to look for his blog, read the series, and give you a distillation that includes more than what I’m about to share. I think a lot of his framing could come in handy for you, especially when you finally, finally shift your attention to voting rights and actually protecting democracy – like later today, ok?
So here’s what I take to be A. R. Moxon’s bottom line on the “both sides” argument:
“What if we only debated the complex and infinitely varied question of how to create a world that made space for everybody, and categorically rejected any questions about whether to do so?”
Boom! There it is.
The “both sides” clingers would (will) surely find some disgusting, cloaked way of arguing that it’s reasonable to argue about whether to create a world that makes space for everybody, but if we don’t let them hijack the conversation and instead insist that we always, always come back to the fundamental how question, we can take the fetid wind out of their sails and get on with the work of creating an inclusive, equitable world. Instead of wasting energy and precious time engaging the fatally flawed whether argument, we could bring it all to the generative process of reshaping our world so that it works for everyone, to include the vitally important non-human fauna and flora as well as future generations of all of us.
Part of why I’m spending so much time reacting/responding to Moxon’s “both sides” essay is that yesterday I was encouraged to try to come up with some tools for leaders to share with their teams to prepare their teams to talk about and work on creating space for everybody. Core to this is the question of how to handle defensive and offensive reactions (I’m purposely not using the word “responses”) to these conversations.
Generally, antiracism work and other DEI work is completely voluntary – people sign up for workshops or attend trainings on their lunch hours or choose books to read because they want to learn about systemic racism. (And please note: 1) I’m really talking about White people right now because BIPOC people don’t have choices around whether to participate in race-focused diversity work, it’s a given for them day in and day out, and 2) I’ve yet to see very many set aside trainings (etc.) for widespread consumption about anything other than racism and thus the focus here on antiracism work.) It’s a completely different thing for a company or an institution or a work team to insist that its employees deal with this stuff at work. In this situation it’s almost inevitable that someone will object to even starting the conversation, casting it as so much PC bullshit or an inappropriate topic for the workplace, etc.
And those voices can be very, very loud. And the people behind those voices have learned that if they are loud and insistent enough they can shut the conversation down lickety-split because most of us are super conflict averse and because most of us (liberal types) have bought into the idea that we need to give EQUAL airtime even when someone is being a racist (sexist, homophobic, etc.) asshole.
Right? We tend to figure that if we’re being honorable and not doing to them what they’ve done to certain groups of us for f***ing ever, we’ll respectfully listen to them and allow that there are “two sides” even when their reductive arguments shut down the whole conversation.
Basically, I’m finally seeing that if we lean on Moxon’s framing and provide what I hope will be a useful reset such that the conversations are focused on “how will we create a world that makes space for everyone” it would be nearly impossible for someone to successfully argue the whether angle. They can do a “show me the data” thing and then we can humor them and do that – there’s plenty of it. They can gnash their teeth about the need to choose “the most qualified” candidate for a position and how identity characteristics shouldn’t be considered, and then we can calmly point out the business arguments for broadening the criteria such that lived experience, diverse viewpoints, non-traditional contributions are all valid qualifications that actually need to be considered. In other words, we don’t have to be assholes in return – we can attempt to educate and bring along those who are willing to come and at the same time keep the focus on the crucial how question.
You know I’m mostly talking to myself – working out ideas for ways through the thorny thicket, but if you find any of it useful, that’s great. Either way, thanks for reading.
May we all be safe and secure in this world of ours.
May we all be willing to let go of whether and embrace how we will make space for everyone.
May we all understand that we’ll be stronger and life will be more sustainable if we do.
May we accept that we can’t keep siphoning energy and time off to the haters.