On October 12, the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley and the Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts are partnering to host a live-streaming of the Creative Time Summit, an annual conference in New York that brings together cultural producers–including artists, critics, writers, and curators–to discuss how their work engages pressing issues affecting our world. To jump-start the conversation in advance of the event, attendees have been asked to submit a paragraph on a keyword associated with one of the summit themes: Inequities, Occupations, Making, or Tactics. This posting is by Rebecca Neumann, American Cyberculture student at UC Berkeley.
How we individually or collectively think about inequality has a huge effect on our political views, but it also implicitly affects so many other aspects of our lives as members of society. It shapes our understanding of our social circles, our jobs, our schools, and countless other things, and it penetrates each of those institutions so deeply that it affects assumptions about how societies work that are so fundamental that we aren’t usually aware that they’re even assumptions. By this I mean ideas about ‘deserving’ things that we have or don’t have, or that others ‘deserve’ more or less than they have, and above all that there is a system by which these things should be decided. Even if you don’t like the current system, to complain about it is to claim that a better one exists and that ‘fairness’ is both obtainable and desirable. Within this conceptual mess, we have to negotiate a precarious position between the influences of individual effort and performance on the one hand, and external circumstance on the other, as well as the influences of nature vs. nurture. In my personal experience, while most people recognize that the most extreme positions on any of these issues are ultimately untenable, the continuum is so long that even ‘middle ground’ compromises can seem light-years in ideological distance away from each other. Worse yet, we all have ulterior motives to believe that whatever helps us is fair and the near-infinite capacity to justify those beliefs in our minds. To what extent is it fair for a successful businessman claim that his wealth is earned if he was born into a well-to-do family and given opportunities to attend the best schools all his life? To what extent is it fair for someone not afforded the same opportunities to demand that society compensate them in some way? Are advantages manifested in class more or less ‘fair’ than those that are genetically based? Which should be rewarded more highly, great effort or great results? These questions lead to other questions about what you think your obligation to your fellow citizens should be, or whether you have one at all. It forces you to think about why your friends are your friends—what do you share in common? What differs between you? Why do you, and not someone else drastically different from you have your job or go to your school? Why do some people born into the same circumstances do better than others? I don’t dare to suggest that there are good answers to all or any of these types of questions or that the answers don’t change with time and new experiences, but it’s important to recognize that decisions about inequality have real consequences for society and to think about how to best make those decisions. We may want to promote opportunity and allow more people to be more productive, but we have to balance that with the desire to reward excellence and promote competition. Those need not be mutually exclusive and there might be multiple ways to achieve either or both, but by evaluating our own beliefs and asking ourselves these tough questions both as individuals and as citizens, we can at least be cognizant that we are choosing a particular set of assumptions from a set of many and perhaps achieve a greater understanding of why others’ views differ from our own.