Steve's Blog

Including "Hillary's Basket"

I am troubled by some of the things the people I like to hang with say about recent political events, or more precisely, about the "other side". I even wanted to put Hillary's D-word in the title of this essay, but that would immediately close about half the minds in the world. (I don't even want this document to be googlable by that word!)

Who "We" Are

First, let me mention that the "we" and "us", the "people I like to hang with", are by and large academics (mostly in the social sciences) and software engineers, and more generally members of various professions. So it is dangerous for me to generalize about "them", even though the first generalization is to point out that "they" are individuals whose interests deserve consideration. Let's put it this way: I am exercising my right to describe the society I'd like to live in, and doing so presuming a world-view that I believe most of "us" subscribe to.

Who Needs to be Included

The inconsistency that bothers me is that putting diversity, inclusion, equal treatment, and related values on the agenda is applied to women, the physically or mentally handicapped, people of color, and so on, but not to "them": the members of Hillary's basket, the nativists, the populists, the "fascists".

"There isn't an excuse for racism, no job and 7 kids to feed isn't a reason to scapegoat a group of people", as a new friend of mine tweeted. True enough. On the other hand, the recent political prominence of nativist, racist, sexist, generally toxically intolerant opinion, both from elite commentators like Steve Bannon and from everyman Twitter feeds, is often imbued with the feeling of being economically and socially handicapped by trends they don't control. It is no more the fault of a middled-aged white male autoworker whose job is eliminated by technology that he has no training for equivalently good jobs (especially since the most important training is on-the-job) than it is of a person who was excluded in the first place for reasons of color, gender, or whatever. Both have good reason to believe that their futures aren't bright, whatever the differences in their pasts.

I am not denying historical discrimination, the right to redress, nor the benefits of diversity in an uncertain and evolving world. I do not condone exclusionist denial of others' humanity, and certainly not the violence which too often accompanies it. What I do want to say is that we need to defang the elite exclusionists, and we can do so most directly by finding a way to become "populists" ourselves. The Economist presents a related analysis.

Why Inclusion Cannot Be Complete

For example, an activity that most of the "people I like to hang with" participate in is mentoring. But we're really only competent to mentor the things we're pretty good at, and that's what we do. Right? But that automatically means that the people we mentor are "like us" in a very important way (especially from the point of view of this essay!) Often this is explicitly intended to contribute to inclusion and diversity. Men can mentor women, gays straights, teenagers retirees -- but they have in common an interest in a certain kind of work. This is good. This is very human and humanizing activity. We should do more of it.

But I profess the Dismal Science of Economics, and so must point out that there's a flip side. In practice, the ideals of diversity and inclusion require discrimination. The reductio ad absurdum is simple. There are more than 7 billion human beings, each unique, on the planet. To be maximally diverse and inclusive an organization must include them all. This is not possible (especially not for small groups whose activity is a personal professional service like mentoring). So if we want to include some of the currently excluded, we need to exclude some of the currently included (not necessarily one-for-one, but additional inclusion will not come for free).

What About Those Who Don't Want to be Included?

The first, most important criterion of discrimination is "don't include those who don't want to be included." This may seem innocuous, but it's not. First, as we recognize, a group can create a "toxic atmosphere," repelling many who have an interest in the group's central purpose. (This issue often arises in open source software development projects. The purpose of course is developing a particular software implementation, but traditionally many such projects developed a culture well-described by Jamie Zawinski. I also know from painful personal experience that many "non-intellectuals" feel deprecated and dismissed in the company of academics and professionals, regardless of how the latter actually feel.) This problem is recognized, so I'm not going to discuss it further here.

The second problem with this criterion is that there are people who will never be interested in working with us, but who will be displaced or see their incomes reduced by our success in the marketplace. At this point in history, all "good" manufacturing jobs are at risk. Even if the jobs themselves don't disappear, their products will get crowded out as people refocus their purchases on "high tech" services and manufactured products produced in low-wage regions, so prices and wages come under pressure. One might argue that "we" have a responsibility to address this problem in our work, since it's our technologies that are the trigger for these socioeconomic changes. I'm not going to do that here.

One might ask if employment in declining industries is associated with exclusionist views. That's complex, and also not the topic of this post. I recommend George Lakoff's blog for some analysis of the Trump victory that helped reinitialize my current thinking on the matter. One aspect I do need to mention is that people who work in manufacturing and service jobs generally aren't systems thinkers. They prefer explanations via direct causation (a term I borrow from a Lakoff blog post, about halfway down that page).

What We Can Do

For us, what that means is that we aren't going to be able to convince those who support "populist" candidates easily or quickly. I believe in systems thinking. I don't think the proposals that populist politicians make, and typically do try to enact if elected, are going to work. They are too simplistic to work. "Simplistic" is not (entirely) a putdown (although "direct causation" is a more neutral way to put it). The problems that need to be solved do have their roots in complex systems interactions, so advocating the "simple obvious solution" is burying your head in the sand. Solving them is work that we "systems thinkers" are going to have to do. If we want to live in the kind of societies we want to live in, we're going to have to look after the interests of people who really don't want to associate with us nor we with them, and they probably are going to oppose our proposals to do it!

You can mutter "bread and circuses" or "buying them off," and there's certainly some truth in that. Successful programs to employ people who think of a job as a way to get money with minimal pain and effort per dollar (rather than as an expression of one's being that is compensated because it is valuable to others) are going to have those effects. I doubt there will be a lot of thanks offered.

But I think that if we want to consider ourselves serious about promoting diversity and inclusion, we need to do some work on those issues in the larger society, and help create well-paying jobs for people who aren't interested in the kind of work we mentor, and who may well hold social views we hate.

It's strategically and morally the right thing.


Postscript: For me, a social scientist who works in a business education program in a university, "help create jobs" is a personal commitment. For most of us, that's generally not going to be reasonable, and it doesn't mean to neglect the work on diversity and inclusion we're already doing. Just spread the meme that "inclusion" is more general than just those who have been traditionally excluded for reasons of race, gender, sexual preference, and so on. It should be extended to cover those who find themselves "excluded" (to be sure, in a different sense) by social and economic trends they didn't start and can't fight.

Yeah, "we" do support the welfare state, and we're not so naive as to think just handing out money or telling people to get retrained is going to provide welfare. But we are going to have to be more tolerant of some kinds of thinking about these problems that we don't agree with.

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Stephen J. Turnbull