Build don’t burn

Everything you do is a reflection of who you are, and your beliefs. And, I’ve recently realised that calling people out in public is a reflection of who I am: an occasional bully on the internet.

I am struggling at the moment with being tired. With being angry. With being hurt. There is so much shittiness in the world, and I often feel the need to point it out to counter the narrative of “how great are we doing? Everything is getting better.”.

In a lot of ways, things aren’t getting better though. The gap between rich and poor is stagnant or getting worse (depending on who you talk to), the situation for women in New Zealand is bad, but worse for women of colour, and it worries me that we don’t seem angry about that. Women are dying, whether it’s locally from domestic violence as the worst country in the OECD, or internationally where every 11 minutes a woman dies from a botched illegal abortions, or in Texas where the maternal death rate has doubled in the last few years. It’s going to take at least 80 years in New Zealand for women to be treated equitably.

But, publicly naming and shaming people might not help change that. Making people angry and hurt, for intentionally or unintentionally perpetuating the issues, isn’t going to make them like you (at least in the short term). “Swooping and pooping” is not super inspiring.

Two years ago, I co-wrote an article calling out Spark, for their lack of women in an event they drove. I heard the organisers were angry, hurt, and I definitely didn’t make any friends there. While it was partly constructive (we gave them a list of names of women for next time), I didn’t make any effort to get in touch with the organisers in advance to tell them what I was doing. They might now realise that they need to do better, and it started a conversation, but it didn’t need to be done in that way. (Note: in an unrelated move, the CEO of that company has now made a public stance on how he needs to improve his internal culture, and not just focus on diversity, but also inclusion. It is a magnificent speech, that everyone should read).

Earlier this year, I saw someone tweet about how poorly an organisation was doing with diversity at their event and I decided to take a different tact. I searched for the contact info of the event organiser because I knew the organisation personally, and sent them a list of diverse speakers that I thought they would be able to get along to their event next month. This included not just women, but a diversity of age, background and ethnicity.

My email was shunted to the most junior person in the team, who called me to discuss it. While they were thankful I took the time to send them a constructive and private note, they didn’t think there was anything they could do in the time. They had already tried to find diverse speakers, and since the line-up was set there wasn’t any room to add anyone new.

I pushed on that. Can’t or won’t? I asked. They said can’t, but maybe they could reshuffle.

Do that, I said, and in the end they did. And, their CEO and a General Manager both separately thanked me for the prompt.

A wise and eloquent friend, Nat Dudley, named what I did during a discussion: calling in rather than calling out. Working with someone, and treating them with compassion, rather than running with the naming and shaming culture social media can amplify. But even that isn’t nuanced enough. Because while Twitter has on one side increased pile ons, and even worse horrific doxxing of marginalised voices, it has given others the opportunity to anonymously voice issues that they may otherwise be unable or unsafe to raise.

Even further, as Nat wisely pointed out when I checked this article with her:

It takes emotional labour and a belief in them acting in good faith to call in and that’s something that marginalized people don’t always have. It also can be somewhat risky because it exposes them to private abuse.

Calling in relies on the social currency on the person raising it to get a response, and it’s why it’s so much more important for allies to do it _and_ for allies to acknowledge that it’s riskier and harder for more marginalized folks.

So, when calling people in we need to acknowledge our privilege that we can even call someone in. That they might listen to us. And, we have to note, it’s exhausting work. And that we need to call people in not just for things that improve the world for people with immense privilege in some respects, but for those that are more disadvantaged in society and need us to amplify their voices (or just shut up and listen).

It’s not to say that I won’t in future name and shame organisations that blatantly refuse to make an effort to support marginalised voices (because it’ll make a fucking better event, not as a token attempt). And, that I won’t sometimes be angry, because as Ghandi rightly pointed out “Anger is good. It is an energy that compels us to define what is right and wrong”. But, I believe anger should be sparingly directed at individuals.

I think we should all try to build the future we want to live in together, rather than burn people that make mistakes. We all need to be kinder to each other and ourselves, and realise we’re all going to fuck up. There is no perfect, and there never will be, but together we can solve anything if kindness is at our core and we are willing to do the work. We can’t expect those affected to take the time to teach us, we have to try and teach ourselves while listening really hard, and be open to being called in or even called out ourselves.

To leave you with the words of one of the wisest wonder women I know: “Build, don’t burn.” (Tash Lampard)

And, I’m starting with myself.