(This piece originally published on my personal blog under the same title.)
I’m glad to see burgeoning efforts in the tech community to organize in response to Trump’s looming presidency. One current effort is the neveragain.tech pledge, which opposes the creation of a Muslim registry and vows to refuse participation in such work.
I absolutely oppose the creation or use of any kind of registry to oppress those deemed to be undesirable. But I haven’t signed the neveragaint.tech pledge and I probably won’t. I have concerns about the pledge in particular, and about efforts like it in general.
I am not criticizing you if you signed it, feel empowered by it, or otherwise derive value from attaching your name to it. There are many ways to act in the world according to one’s values and I don’t prescribe one right way of doing things.
Here I want to share my thoughts on the pledge, and movement building in genera, especially for those who might be concerned by the absence of my name on the list of signatories.
I need to know who my leaders are.
I am always cautious of joining movements (or communities), especially ones that appear to develop rapidly. It’s important for me to understand what the shared values, agreements, and goals of the movement are. It’s important that I know who the leaders are, how they govern now, and how they have governed in the past. All of this information helps me understand what committing actually means in practice and helps ensure that I am living up to the commitments I make.
The neveragain.tech pledge lacks nearly all of this context. I don’t know who started the pledge or what their history organizing is. I don’t know if they have a demonstrated pattern of acting ethically and in good faith. All I have to go on is the list of signers, which continues to grow. Many names I recognize. Some of the signers I know personally and trust a great deal. Others I know to be problematic actors. The latter adds to my weariness about signing on.
I appreciate the need for anonymity in many contexts. And yet, having anonymous leadership never works for me.
I need to understand strategy, context, and history.
I also want to understand the long-term vision of a particular movement and the strategy of a particular action, including how it serves the short- and long-term goals of the moment. I want to know it is well thought-out and is likely to use resources wisely, including the material, emotional, physical, and spiritual resources of the people involved.
I do not want to participate in vanity exercises or ones that end up being learning experiences that merely retread well-documented ground.
Of course, we must learn by doing. That’s fine. But I don’t want to start at square one when it’s not completely necessary. I want us, the tech community, to understand that there is a long history of organizing for social justice and a deep body of knowledge and experience derived from that history. I want us to acknowledge and build from this wealth of experience, using it as our starting point.
What resistance strategies have been effective?
Being a student of history, I want to understand the role of similar pledges in resistance movements and in organizing for social justice. Off the top of my head, I can think of examples of a lot of other kinds of actions that proved to be effective. I can’t think of a single pledge-type activity that was. (Please, let me know if you have examples.)
I’m still learning about what’s been effective. What I’ve learned so far is that localized, direct action is critical. Coalition building over geographic distance is important for knowledge and resource sharing, as well as fundraising and consciousness building. But it’s localized, direct action and community building that is the fundamental building block of movements.
What building solidarity feels like to me.
Building solidarity and community, especially in terms of trusted relationships and networks of mutual support are equally critical to building effective resistance and social movements. Organizing is tough, dangerous work. When it’s effective, it has real consequences. Living up to the neveragain.tech pledge means putting your salary and your health benefits on the line. I think many of us in tech are not prepared to do that.
In order to achieve and sustain mass participation, we must be willing and able to take care of each other, especially those who are most vulnerable and who will bear the greatest losses. We need to work on adjusting our mindsets so we are willing to give up some of our own security to help out others. We need to become adept at pooling and sharing resources so that we can provide each other with food, shelter, sundries, rent and mortgage money, household repair, medical services, etc.
So does the neveragain pledge help build solidarity in this way? It doesn’t for me. Generally I find that solidarity-building efforts that are primarily online and distributed feel too diffuse and empty. I need more direct, person-to-person interactions. Solidarity is fundamentally about trust. I need to have opportunities for shared vulnerability in order to build trust. I can do a lot of that via online communication, but need interactions to be consistent and frequent. And even then I need a certain percentage of these relationships to be based near to where I actually live.
I can see how signing the pledge might be the first time some people have ever made a public statement opposing the status quo. I can see how if that’s the case, doing so would feel like they are putting something on the line for what they believe. And with this in mind, I could see how those folks feel like they are building mutual trust with the other signers. It’s just not where I’m at personally and I’m eager to start at a much different place.
We need to support a multitude of approaches.
The neveragain pledge is highly aspirational and prescriptive but it lacks accompanying support mechanisms and context. It sounds nice and just. Signing seems like the obviously right thing to do. But how do you actually embody the pledge in your day-to-day life? It is my experience that the moral calculus of the situations we actually end up facing are far from simple and a clear best choice is hardly ever available.
I once thought there was always clear, undeniable value in the lone employee, or small group of employees, standing up and walking out after all other avenues of addressing injustice had been exhausted. But having experienced this personally, and witnessing it play out several times, I now think differently. Power does not care about the lone employee or even the few. Power might care about a mass exodus or work stoppage if it impacts their bottom line. On the other hand, the individual employee(s) almost always have a lot to lose.
If you’ve done something like this as a lone employee or in small group, I’m not saying you should not have. Sometimes you have to speak truth to power even if its seems likely nothing will change. I support you in doing so. Likewise, I want to find better ways to support folks who resist injustice, both in terms of limiting harm (to individuals and their families) and maximizing effectiveness (of the overall movement or specific action).
And I also support you if you aren’t in a position where you can just stop working for a problematic company. This stuff is complicated. It’s not my business to tell you to quit and/or make public statements, or take any particular action for that matter, especially if I don’t know about all the others things you’re dealing with in your life. And even if I did, it still wouldn’t be my place to judge since I’m not the one that has to live your life!
Aiming higher than “the least we can do.”
I’ve seen a few people saying that signing the pledge is “the least they/you/I can do.” And that’s precisely the problem with pledges like this. Just as electricity takes the path of least resistance, humans will quite often do the least they have to and then move on to the next thing. I worry that this pledge will have that effect for many. Instead, we need to be focusing on the most that we can possibly do at any given time.
Our energy and attention are finite. We need to use them both wisely. Maybe the neveragain pledge is a great first start, one that will mobilize a great number of people to significant action. Or maybe it’s just another demonstration from the tech community that will get a lot of attention for very little impact.
What can you confidently infer about who signs these pledges?
There’s a strange side-effect I’ve noticed with these kind of pledges that I’m rather uncomfortable with. Those who sign it are awarded a king of “good” point and those who don’t fail to get the point. Or, worse, are assumed to be in favor of the things the pledge promises to work against. I’ve already seen one person in my personal network say something like “sign this or don’t talk to me.”
I think this is why there is always a group of people who rush to be the first to sign these things. Is it because they have truly committed to embodying the pledge, or because they want to be visible as having signed it?
Seeing a name on this list, by itself, does nothing for me. What touches me is direct interaction with you. It’s witnessing substantive conduct on your part. It’s hearing first hand from others whom I trust about your actions and deeds. It’s collecting these touch points over a period of time and contexts sufficient enough for me to get a sense of your overall pattern of behavior.
Signing a pledge does not constitute substantive conduct. It’s everything you’ve done before and after signing the pledge that matters.
The machine is already here; Our focus needs to be subversion, sabotage, and protection.
Another thing this pledge supposes is that there aren’t already sufficient, significant mechanisms for identifying and surveilling those deemed undesirable. I believe there is. And I believe there are plenty of organizations and individuals willing, no matter how many of their colleagues quit in protest, to maintain and improve these mechanisms.
And so I am much more interested in collectively developing, practicing, and deploying counter-measures. How can we technologists disrupt and sabotage what is already here? What protective mechanisms can we provide? What existing in-person support networks and movements can we participate in? How can we support coalition building across our vast country?