Inflection Point

on Apr 13, 2020

I think a lot about how our world and society has progressed, not just over my lifetime, but over decades, centuries, and millennia. I remark on the “savage” conditions our ancestors lived in and, perhaps more notably, the unnecessarily savage conditions “society” forced upon others. It gets me thinking: in the decades, centuries, and millennia to come, what savagery will our more utopian descendants see in our lives?

I imagine our descendants will remark on how terrible we were to force most of us to “prove” that we deserved to exist through a system of labor that primarily benefited those who were already well off. That we had to prove that we were worthy of having food, shelter, health, and the freedom to express ourselves through art, despite the fact that there was more than enough wealth and resources in our world to give every human being these very things. How with pity will they look upon us because so many of us had amazing art and creativity and talent and energy that would have made our world so much a better place for everyone, and couldn’t. Because we simply had to uphold some false story, some misguided or ill-guided belief, that we have to “contribute to society” in a specific manner.

Perhaps what our descendants will find most astounding is that we put up with it.

I believe this pandemic has given us plenty to worry about beyond just the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our loved ones:
– that many of us are living paycheck to paycheck and barely scraping by when it comes to basics like housing, groceries, and healthcare
– that millions find themselves laid off (and now without health coverage) by the corporations they poured their hearts and souls into
– that artists – from musicians to dancers – are fighting for any grant that can help them and are left performing and teaching online on the basis of charity
– that structural inequalities have left certain groups of people, like women and people of color, far more exposed to disaster
– that so many people are out working in an exploited manner because they have little other choice – frontline healthcare professionals, teachers, delivery people, farmers, grocery store workers, local law enforcement, transit employees, sanitation workers – the most essential members often suffer the most and have always been underpaid, overworked, and most at risk for some disaster

Here’s the thing though: all of this has been the case for a very long time. The difference now is that every major societal problem is being pushed to the forefront and to the limit, and it’s all as out in the open as it may ever be. With this in mind, I believe the whole “going back to normal” mentality is very misguided. Over the long term, society moves forward, and what was considered “normal” at one point in time was a terrible reality for some or even many members of our society. Going “back” to the pre-pandemic era erases the lessons we’re learning about economic and health inequality. It’s not all that different than how “going back to normalcy” to before the current political regime would require forgetting the racial and class divides being foisted upon us, or how in order to “Make America Great Again”, we’d need to undo all the civil rights advances so that we’d once more be at the “rosy” stage where white men flourished at the expense of all others (of course there’s more work to be done here).

We’re at the cusp of what’s likely to be the biggest inflection point we’ll see in society in our lifetimes. We’re embarking on an opportunity to make great strides in improving our social fabric, but only if we challenge our choices in what constitutes the new “normal” for action. Most of us are in SOME position of privilege, so we have ways we can act:
1 – For those privileged to have skills that are in high demand, you can choose to take on work that produces a net positive on members of our society, or at least avoids doing damage.
2 – For those privileged to have some position of power at their workplace, you can demand greater transparency in the consequences of the work you do or demand that your organization chooses a more socially conscionable strategy.
3 – For those privileged to have any pocket money, you can put it towards the essential members of society (you know who they are now): pay artists their fair share; shop at businesses that treat their employees well; tip service workers.
4 – For those privileged to have lots of free time, you can use it in service of others by pursuing projects that help your community – even if it’s centered around a hobby of passion – or finding opportunities to volunteer.
5 – For those privileged to not be part of a group that’s marginalized (e.g. if you’re white or a man), you can stand up when you see others being treated unfairly, by saying something, even or especially if it means making for an awkward situation.
6 – For those privileged in any other way (get creative here!), you can use that gift instead of taking the more “convenient” approach so that there’s something left for those less privileged.

I have no shame in saying that I put my money (and actions) where my mouth is. In terms of work, I’ve turned down many requests and offers from well endowed corporations because I wasn’t convinced that the work wouldn’t indirectly cause damage to our society. I instead primarily do contract software engineering work at a lesser rate for a non-profit (fittingly this has been paying off, as I’ve had more paid work than normal, not less, during this pandemic because we’re pursuing COVID response initiatives). When taking recent online classes, like from dance instructors, I’ve paid well above the minimum donation amount because they deserve to be paid fairly for what they’re providing. I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort working with Skate Instructors Association, for next to no money, to expand online educational resources for the skating community. Even presently I’m spending massive amounts of time and energy to develop software that instructors in the physical and performing arts can leverage to create new means of business. I’ve minimized purchasing anything online (especially groceries) because I’m able-bodied to get things myself and that way the already strained system can cater to those who don’t have the resources I do. And as a general rule, I avoid giving money to large corporations whenever possible. I create space and opportunity for women and people of color including through work mentorship, leadership roles in the skating community, and doing everything possible to support my partner who’s a woman, person of color, and an incredible professional artist.

So when the economy reopens, will you see business as usual as bad business? When we’re no longer wearing gloves, will your hands already be in action? When we’re no longer wearing masks, will your voice already be screaming through?

I understand that some of you reading this might be in the category of “just scraping by”, and I get that we don’t all get to make the choices above. And that’s ok. But there’s plenty in my circles (myself included) that have privilege in some dimensions if not across many, that can make a huge impact. We get a choice in all this of course. We can choose to remain in our comfortable privileged cocoon, doing work for a corporation under the false illusion that you’re doing something essential for the world (hint: this pandemic has made it quite obvious what’s considered essential), when more likely than not, it’s harmful to many members of our society. We can choose convenience whether it comes to where you spend your money, how you receive services, or from not having to worry about changing things from the way they’ve been.

But is that the legacy you want for yourself? Is that the side you want to be part of when our descendants look at the history books? Or will you write a more inspiring story for yourself, and for the rest of our world?