The Ever-Important Need for Context
Seemingly invariably, odd things happen when you start talking about things about which “everyone” knows something. I take on a lot of these topics: poverty, gender, engineering and sustainability to name a few. We run into tacit definitions that make conversation difficult. For instance, if I am attempting to talk about poverty and I do not retain a focus on cash flow, then I am not actually talking about poverty. If I am attempting to talk about gender and I do not retain a focus on the bodies of the people in the room, then I am not actually talking about gender. If I am attempting to talk about engineering and I do not retain a focus on a technically trained workforce for industry, then I am not actually talking about engineering. If I am attempting to talk about environmental sustainability and I do not retain a focus on climate change, then I am not actually talking about environmental sustainability. All four of these “essential” definitions drive me bonkers because they constrain and limit the conversation in ways that is often times less than helpful about complicated phenmomena.
Depending strongly on the perceived essentials can lead to some entirely strange thinking. For instance, people focused on responding to poverty by increasing the cash flow in an area might want to settle nomadic farmers, take away their livestock, encourage Nike to build a soccer ball factory, and create an economy where the previously nomadic farmers make $3 a day building soccer balls for Nike where all of the components for the soccer balls come from a different region. [True international development lore.] The ability to take in $3 a day makes sense if someone is defining poverty as making less than $1 per day. But concerns about livelihood destruction, paternalistic oversimplification, environmental disruption, human rights, labor relations, and globalization are nowhere to be found in this essentialized discourse.
Unrelenting awareness of bodies in rooms can also create some intriguing thinking because we stop conceiving of people as human beings and start thinking of people as demographic descriptors. We have essentialized pretty much every feature on the so-called diversity for non-discrimination lists: sex, age, race, religion, national origin, ancestry, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability. Part of the problem is when we start to attribute causality to these various demographic descriptors. For instance, I often wonder what if anything my gender has to do with the fact that I tend to be a holistic thinker. I think my holistic thinking comes more from my tendency to over-think and over-analyze everything. To say that someone is just saying something because they happen to be a woman, a man, a Muslim, a Christian, married with children, gay, English, or elderly strikes me as a profound way of outright dismissing a claim, concern, or argument. Sure some of these categories are exclusive, but most of us exist as a mash-up of a lot of demographic descriptors. And all of these categories carry with them a generally helpful question of “What do they mean anyway?” Meaning of assorted terms comes from understanding the context. And actually considering a person primarily as a human being does require some work at listening that goes beyond any stereotypes you may be tempted to utilize.
Essential components mitigate our expectations. It is intriguing for me that pretty much every longer-term exposure to engineering as a potential academic pathway tends to involve some sort of bridge construction project. If you mess with the accepted canon of exemplars, then you can almost count on rather shrill commentary. As an instructor, I constantly try to shift the canon of exemplars to help people relate. When speaking to someone two days ago who claimed to not be mechanically minded, I asked her if she could quilt. I then proceeded to detail out my example of how making a patchwork quilt required a mechanically-orientated brain. But it is hard if “mechanically-orientated brain” means “playing with small engines.” Incidentally, even as a mechanical engineer, I have never taken apart a small engine. Ever. I think it would be cool, but it is not an essential component of engineering. Yet thinking about appropriate context actually does require having a good sense of what you are actually talking about before you begin the discourse.
The pervasive dominant themes also can make it difficult to raise other concerns. Around environmental sustainability, I would personally like to see the questions raised about stewardship and consumption. But if “green consumerism” helps us “combat climate change” then it can be hard to shift the conversation. I really have my doubts that green can modify consumerism, particularly when we have taken the time to compare assorted environmental impacts of various options.
Considering context in complicated discourse helps us acknowledge the complexity of our conversational subject. We can identify why strange thinking is strange. We can try to appreciate the people we interact with in the context of their humanity regardless of their demographics. We can raise critical questions of our expectations and enable more persons to participate. And we can raise additional concerns while still engaging in productive conversation and work.
Additionally, I think when talking about challenging things, we should consider the retort of a very wise frog:
I didn’t ask what you’ve said about it. I asked what you’re going to do. Nine times out of ten, talking is a way of avoiding doing things.
The quote comes from Dealing with Dragons, arguably one of my most favorite works of young adult fiction.