Walking the Razor’s Edge
“The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
— Katha Upanishad
Technology and law are double-edged swords. The technology that connects us can always be used to control us. The law that protects (some of) us can also be weaponized to terrorize us. And while people have tried to avoid these, whether by moving to far regions of the planet or living a tech-free existence, to abstain is also to avoid responsibility. If we do not change the technology or the law in time, we simply push the problem to the next generation, for whom things will be even harder to change.
The quote above begins The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, one of my favorite books. In it, after the First World War, Larry Darrell is disillusioned with war and its evils, and walks away from the capitalist world to live a simpler, more spiritual life. “Money is nothing to us [Americans],” Larry says. “I happen to think that the greatest ideal man can set before himself is self-perfection.” The narrator argues with a pragmatic perspective, pointing out “it’s damned lucky for you that you have a private income” and that Larry is “free, white and twenty-one.”
But those of us who experience marginalization in various forms and are not free, white, twenty-one, or having a private income, know that there is no walking away from the fight. We may need to take a break, and find a pocket where things are better, and rest awhile. But the fight is unavoidable. The work must be done, even if not every battle is won. So how do we stay in the fight without burning out in exhaustion or burning up in rage?
Every system you are trying to change, whether a process (like the justice or electoral process) or an organization (a team, a college or a company) has multiple stakeholders with varying degrees of power. Let’s say you’re trying to change the culture of a corporation to be less racist and supremacist. Where do you start? I mapped out the stakeholders of a sample organization in order of how much power they wield, from highest to lowest, below. I also marked out the possible states for each stakeholder from worst to best to drive the change. This technique is known as a Zwicky box which is a method to identify solutions to complex problems with many moving parts.
Very often, the call for institutional change starts at the grassroots. The newest members of the organization are usually most aware of the problems. Coming in from the outside, armed with the basics of intersectional feminism and antiracist education, they often come in to find that the culture they encounter is driven by the sediment, i.e. by those with the greatest tenure. These new people run conferences, they write pamphlets, they host listening sessions, and they try to change things, but usually they end up growing tired, with all their thrashing having not the slightest disturbance on the river bed. Why is that? They don’t have their hands on the levers of power.
Railing at middle managers will have little impact when the Board of a company sees no reason to change course. Most organizations are imbalanced in this way by design. It’s not just to create roadblocks for activists trying to change the institution, but to make it easy for those on the left of this table to execute a change across a great number of people. If I were an executive who needed to institute a policy on diversity or remote work, I should just be able to declare it and have it be executed across my organization. Unfortunately, it means that even thousands of signatures on a petition will have little material impact on the policies of a company, unless somehow the objective of the petition is already aligned with the values of those in power on the left.
So how then do we rage more effectively against the machine? We make use of two more double-edged swords.
“If my brothers were angry that would have been considered masculine, and a good trait… in a girl, it was pathological.”
— Isabel Allende
The anger I often see among those new to the fight is raw and full of pain, but it’s also the easiest to dismiss. Executives and leaders just want “everyone to calm down” and “discuss this rationally.” The calls for rationality, for peace, for objectivity and neutrality add fuel to the fire of people’s anger because these calls are the hallmark of white supremacy, which has defined these very terms to pathologize the emotions of other races and cultures.
Our societies have turned to more civilized (and legal) ways of acting on prejudice, so that today anger, particularly the anger of women of color, seems unusual, unjustified, sometimes even to themselves. Owethu Makhatini speaks, in “A Lot to be Mad About: Advocating for the Legitimacy of a Black Woman’s Anger” of trying to avoid the stereotype of “the angry Black woman, and yet here I am. I am livid. I have denied my anger. I have been ashamed of my anger.”
Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism speaks of the pain of maintaining the mask of respectability in the face of trauma: “The emotional labor required to be respectable, to never ruffle anyone’s feathers, to not get angry enough to challenge much less confront those who might have harmed you, is incredibly onerous precisely because it is so dehumanizing.” (More about this here).
Perhaps the greatest challenge with using anger effectively is that the alt-right has weaponized it. Timnit Gebru speaks of being goaded into responding with anger to harassers in the Verge:
Some called Gebru a bitch and told her to “go back to Africa.” Others said she was arrogant and only hired because she is Black.
When Gebru pushed back at the men on Twitter, it only seemed to inflame them further. Once, she cracked and told Domingos to go fuck himself. “This is how an AI ethicist speaks to a fellow computer scientist,” he responded. Gebru felt like she’d fallen into his trap, though she didn’t regret what she’d said. “That’s what he wanted,” she adds. “He wanted to catch me.”
In fact, Domingos had laid out his tactics for combating “social-justice radicals” in an article in Quillette. “Goad [the cancel crowd] into overreaching,” he said. “Mock them mercilessly.”
So how do we use anger better, without falling into the traps set by the alt-right and by freaked out executives who just want you and your problems to go away? Author and activist Mona Eltahawy’s masterpiece, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls, calls Anger the first of the seven necessary sins, but “anger has to be channeled and anger has to be accompanied by the other six sins.” Mona writes, “feminism must be as universal and commonplace as patriarchy. But it must be a feminism that terrifies patriarchy, a feminism fueled by rage as foundational to its strength. Anger is that bridge that carries feminism from idea to being, from the thought ‘How the fuck is this happening?’ to ‘This must fucking stop.’ ”
Those who know me well also know that I used to have a serious anger management problem. My rage was a wild, brutal thing. Not only would I unleash my fury when I felt violated, I knew how to use my words to cut people to shreds. But at the same time I felt exhausted and powerless. All my rage only made me feel weak, because I lacked focus and conviction. I needed a strategy, some way to ensure I could not be dismissed, or marginalized or silenced. I didn’t want leaders to be better allies or to better support me. I wanted a greater share of their power. Once my path became clear, my rage… settled. I wouldn’t say it has gone away, but I have learned how best to harness it to drive change.
The very presence of rage demonstrates optimism. We rage against things we think should be fixed; therefore we believe they can be. The alternative is despair.
I do believe things are getting better, that the work is making a difference. That said, just as we lean on rage to avoid feeling shame, we lean on optimism to avoid feeling helpless. I have seen first hand the damage blind optimism does to the work of equity. The belief that “we are the best at what we do, therefore this idea / product must be great” makes us ignore real, valid feedback that would counter our narrative and expose it as a single person’s perspective rather than the nature of reality.
This Twitter thread is making the rounds, talking about how a Director of Product ignored repeated feedback about how his idea to prevent abuse on Twitter simply would not work, because it would interfere with his press release. This mindset is common among technologists, particularly those who have been successful. It is as if past success has convinced them of their infallibility, and therefore they speak as if everything they say is objective fact. This authoritativeness makes them dangerous but unwitting weapons of white supremacy. People cannot be made to hear information when their incentive structures or their very sense of self depends on their not hearing it.
Maria Farrell writes of the rise of the Prodigal Tech Bro, “tech executives who experience a sort of religious awakening. They suddenly see their former employers as toxic, and reinvent themselves as experts on taming the tech giants. They were lost and are now found. They are warmly welcomed home to the center of our discourse with invitations to write opeds for major newspapers, for think tank funding, book deals and TED talks.” And all the (usually) women of color who raised the alarm in the first place are waylaid, because they are “too angry.”
I personally don’t care what caused these Tech Bros to convert, but I am aware that some people simply will not hear a message unless it comes out of a white man’s mouth. I’ve made my peace with that. I’d rather be invisible in a better world than a martyr in a worse one. That’s not to say everyone ought to make the same choices. I just choose not to let the daily influx of bad news, co-opted narratives and silenced voices affect my course. I am reminded of David Hogg’s response to the NRA, “We’re going to have to outlive the NRA, and we will. Because they certainly aren’t going to stop, but neither are we.”
Optimism is a duty, but it is double-edged. It requires us to believe in what we might achieve in ten, twenty, fifty and five-hundred years, despite what setbacks we encounter today, and establish the means of sustainable, intergenerational change. It requires us to take the same attitude towards the trolls and harassers and naysayers that the Director of Product at Twitter took towards negative feedback on his product idea. We have to believe not that we can change the world but that we will, even knowing that optimism running rampant is just hubris.
The line we walk is difficult. It is the razor’s edge.
This concludes a 4-part series on driving systemic change. Parts 1, 2 and 3 are here.