Category Archives: London

Not A Meritocracy

Social Justice

So, I’m done with the social justice world.

I always had more time for the really complex and nuanced arguments of the heavyweight writers anyway and I had the privilege of working with smart and level-headed activists when it came to actions.

But, in the last few years I lost my certainty about every cause I was involved with and now I feel much more interested in studying all sides, watching how things play out and to a certain extent having a go at predicting outcomes, without feeling particular alleigence to any “side” in a debate because almost everything has merit and almost no-one is interested in measuring actual outcomes. When outcomes are played out, things are normally good for some people and bad for others, appropriate in some circumstances and irrelevant in others.

Im interested in that fact, but openly sympathising with the problems faced by men’s rights activists gets you pushed out of the feminist activist club fairly quickly, and rightly so, because passionate outrage is the fuel needed to act there.

Anyway, excellent activism is more drowned out these days by tribe-signalling meme warfare and I generally ignore it.

But I still have thoughts and critiques when particular examples float my way and here is one of them.

Intro

A friend invited me to a talk by a woman of color about the difficulties she has experienced in the media industry. It set me to thinking about the media industry and how this is a known industry for being extremely difficult to get into. It also strikes me that the media industry is one of those industries that is most obviously based on nepotism (powerful people promoting their friends) than based on merit (fair interview processes for all job openings).

In this talk I wonder if the person will be calling for less racism in a meritocratic sense or in a personal relations sense.

Systematic lies

I certainly used to be a highly systematic and individual person who believed in rules and fairness. My understanding of feminism moved through the following cycle:

Believing that the world was fair to the genders -> angrily realising it was not -> advocating for more fairness ->seriously thinking about how to educate others to be fair -> realising you partly have to tell the next generation to behave better than you do ->telling kids that the world already allows boys in pink skirts ->those kids believe the world is fair ->angry realisation that it’s not…. etc.

In this way we are iterating over the generations since the 60s telling little lies that everything is fair.

Relationships

I recently spent some time working on my skills when it comes to relationships, being dissolved in a web of humans, forgetting the rules and so on.

A pertinent example of this is moving to London. I had always been too scared to move to London since the barriers to entry are so formidable. When I decided to make the move, I had no money, no previous address and no (current) skills. I knew that the “correct” way to move to London, use an agency to rent a property at market rates, would be impossible for me. I knew it was impossible for others too, and yet people managed to get there. It seemed obvious that it was important to meet some people who had found some sweet deal, some cheaper niche of their own, by luck and rule-bending and circumstance. It was important to personally meet these people because any spare rooms would be a closely guarded secret that would never leak out onto “official” channels, reserved only for friends by word of mouth. This strategy would take time and luck, but was my only way in.

It worked, and that is exactly how I moved to London.

This is nepotism, the epitome of “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. The catch-22 of “networking” is that human networks is one of the only ways things get done but articifially trying to build those networks at networking sessions is exactly the wrong way to forge those connections. It must be done in a way that feels natural and inspires trust.

More Lies

Back to lies we tell our kids. Adults claim that their institutions are based on a meritocracy, which is not really the truth. There is a sliding scale of truth to that claim, with most universities and boring companies on the meritocratic end and Oxbridge, government and the arts industries on the nepotism end.

When I was a feminist activist, I took fair, meritocratic systems as a given and was trying to eliminate unfair practices between genders in what I perceived should be a fair system.

I wonder if this woman of color is making the same assumption: that unfair racist practices are occuring in what should be a fair, meritocratic system. If so, I don’t think she will get very far. Not because of the resistence to equal treatment of race and gender (though that is likely present), but because protecting the facade of merit over the reality of nepotism is something people will fiercely defend and lie about (and do it well, this is the media we are talking about).

My advice to this woman would be to use race and gender as a tool in this nepotistic setup. Go find the people of color who are already there and if they won’t help you (likely) they might indicate who in power likes having black friends. Gender is an even more unpalatable option, since other women may not help (they might, find that one feminist who works in TV), so one might have to resort to feminine attractiveness or, more likely if its TV and theatre, one could do well by butching up for all the gay guys that find women a bit scary.

This all sounds like a social justice nightmare, but if you’re not willing to be realistic about these strategies a career in the media may not be for you. It also does not preclude activism. Someone’s personal climb through the nepotisitc ranks may lead those friends on the way up to regard a person of a colour as a good bet in the relations stakes, whereas before they were prejudiced/ blind to it. I genuinely believe that that outcome would be a big win that does a lot of good.

Support

I won’t be going to the talk. I’m bored with all that. My advice above would not be taken well, and I can see why. But my friend is definitely showing signs that she takes my lack of support for her talks as a rejection of her friendship. Is it possible to show support for someone in this part of their life without resorting to totally faking it?

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Britain’s unequal cities and the magnetic force of London’s social norms

EDIT: Please note that the philosophy portions of my blog can now be found at TheoryEngine.org

City Size and Stability

An acquaintance once told me that Germany experiences political stability in part due to the fact that all of its cities are roughly of equal size. I have no way to validate this claim, but Germany’s cities do seem to be noticeably uniform in their population and population density after the top 4. Among the top 4, the largest city, the capital, is double the size of the next largest, while 2,3 and 4 are similar in size to each other.

At some point I became aware of Britain’s “top ten” city sizes and this is the kind of information that my brain likes to keep around. I lived in rank number 8 at the time: Bristol, and now I live in number 1: London.

What is interesting about the U.K.’s city sizes is that the capital, London, is four times larger than the next contender: 8.3 million vs. 2.3 million in Birmingham. After that the city sizes decrease sharply among the top ten. Manchester is 1.7 million, Liverpool 0.8 and so on. My home city of Bristol in rank 8 is only 0.4 and these numbers include a “greater urban area” so they are on the generous side.

This interesting table also lists the “Large Urban Zone” EU rank of these areas. London is number 1, while the next largest area, Birmingham, is rank 21.

On hearing my friend’s anecdote about political stability in Germany, I started to wonder if regions with unequal size cities have more social/political upheaval or strife.

It is sort of common knowledge in the U.K. that London dominates the political and financial landscape of the country, meaning that politicians are unduly influenced by the needs of London and are liable to ignore the needs of the rest of the population. But aside from politicians wearing London-tinted glasses, are there other mechanisms also in play?

Advertising as Signalling

This interesting article about advertising proposes a mechanism for how advertising works. Its thesis is that adverts probably do not overtly or covertly make a consumer have emotions related to a product (“emotional inception”), rather they create a shared social environment where the product is associated with a sign or signal of certain social messages. I recommend reading the article for specific examples, such as Corona being associated with being chill on the beach, so that’s the beer you’ll bring to the barbeque to signal “we are all chill here”.

The article stresses the fact that advertising has to create a potent and enduring social milieu within which to present a consistent social message. This milieu only works if everyone has seen the message, and everyone knows that everyone else has seen the message. Thus, signalling by means of products can begin.

London’s Impact on Advertising

London’s supermassive size has the effect of pulling everything into its orbit. If a company would like to use some kind of creative agency to make an advert, the people they call will be in London.

Now that I’ve lived in London for a while, I noticed that much of UK-produced media is made by people who live in London, using London locations. I recently watched an advert that showed a variety of people in a variety of settings. The urban scenes were in different parts of London with different types of background architecture, but the “rural” or “park” scenes were also in London – the hexagonal black bins and other street furniture were instantly recognisable.

Clearly some London agency had taken the client’s money and shot a “diverse” advert with diverse locations without going any further than Hampstead Heath.

London’s Social Norms

Crucially, I recently noticed that London people also project London social values in their output. The advert mentioned above was quite diverse in terms of the people in the advert: a white same sex couple, an older sikh gentleman jogging, a black family. The ad was trying so hard it was almost painful.

However, for a Londoner, a same sex couple in Trafalgar square, a black family on an urban road and an older sikh man jogging in Hampstead Heath is just normal life. The hammy diversity is only hammy for a Londoner because of trying to jam in different examples of normal people into a short time frame.

The advert lacked poor people, because no-one is very poor in London. London takes racial diversity for granted, as well as sexuality. Engagement in a capitalist economy is also taken for granted in London, because everyone is there to make money, and everyone is succeeding in that. Making money is not inherently bad, since it supports taxes which in turn support infrastructure which supports making more money.

London is ethnically very diverse. London is 49% white British, 58% white (all groups). 37% of London residents were born outside of the UK. This compares to 95% white in the rest of the UK population.

Being a diverse mega-city, politeness in London is an interesting game. There is no way to know which custom should take precedent among diverse people. For example, getting on the bus politely. Whom should you defer to when entering the vehicle? Older people? Women? Men? Children? It amuses me to think that even in say, patriarchal cultures there is no consistency. One culture might deem that women should go first, while another says that women should be at the back of the queue. Most people will defer to elders, but tellingly, only if they have their shit together to board. This shows London’s default social norm: efficiency and speed (which = money).

The only way to keep this city going is with speed and efficiency. If an older person is faffing, it is culturally polite in London to get on before that person, because in the time we’ve wasted deferring to our elders, ten people could have boarded the bus and we’d be underway.

The older person is never left behind, because Londoners are also culturally aware that each person adds more wealth to the whole. This wealth is both cultural and fiscal at the same time. London is so big that it has (paid) roles and niches for absolutely everyone. London understands that diversity is good, not through strength, but through money.

Social Pressure

And these are the values that are translated into advertising. These values make sense in London, but for the rest of the population, which is 95% white, with no financial incentives, they may be having a very negative effect.

If advertising creates a social signalling environment, then a person in a small town or village is being forced to feel that they should welcome and tolerate people who, for them, display disruptive, frightening and dangerous characteristics.

When someone from another culture shows up in a small(ish) community, it is probably better for everyone involved if that person is integrated into community life, ie they are asked to change their behaviours to match their new surroundings (and a link to this idea now eludes me).

However, the opposite message is being broadcast by London-based advertising producers. Cultures should apparently be tolerated and celebrated, not integrated and if a local person thinks that the new person should be restricted or compelled to integrate, they are made to feel racist.

If advertising sets the tone of social interaction, a large part of the UK population is being made to feel social shame. Shame often leads to anger and defiance. Perhaps it has led to backlash voting.

I’m not sure if unequal city sizes generally contributes to social tension rather than harmony, but the mechanism described above could be one more explanation for London’s black hole effect on the rest of the U.K.

London Transport

Londoners are famous to anyone outside of London for their thousand yard stare, their seeming indifference to all things involving social interaction and their stressed-out attitude. Everyone is in a desperate rush to get where they’re going and they’ll ignore everyone else as much as possible.

A Note On The Tube

Most of these observations are made by people who don’t live in London when they happen to interact with Londoners, which almost exclusively occurs on the Tube. Moreover, it is on the tube at Oxford Circus on the weekend, or central London in the rush hour. Such conditions are going to be a challenge for even the most kind-spirited individual, but even under these conditions I think Londoners are wholly underrated for their good wishes towards their fellow humans and London social norms are entirely misunderstood.

First of all, Londoners do make eye contact and even talk to each other on the Tube. It is a slow process, and requires the circumstances to be correct so that each party can be fairly sure that the other one is reasonably sane and actually desires to interact. This involves gradual increase of eye contact and something external upon which to comment.  Londoners don’t talk to non-Londoners on the Tube because non-Londoners don’t realise that refusing to make eye contact means “leave me alone”. In a city that screams for your attention every second and from every surface it is the height of politeness to leave everyone else around you their own personal space. This ‘personal space’ is an interactive space, or a communication space. Londoners deal better than anyone with a lack of <i>physical</i> personal space, as the rush hour Tube will testify. It is the demands on one’s attention that Londoner’s are sensitive to, since we are all trying to shield ourselves from the constant communication we are in with the city itself. As a result, demanding another Londoner’s attention is a matter of delicate etiquette. Any non-Londoner trying to make conversation with the entire Tube carriage has severely trampled that etiquette and will be met with cold shoulders and averted eyes, even if some of the people were inclined to talk.

In addition, the transport systems are incredibly busy. It is a simple fact that every seat on your vehicle will be taken, and many might be standing too. Now, no-one wants to have to sit next to a nutter. In other cities I’ve heard talk about how to make yourself look unwelcoming so that no-one sits next to you on the bus. Not so, London. London life obliges us to sit cheek-by-jowl during every journey we make. As a result, the social etiquette of *not* talking to the people next to you has evolved so that we can all get along, none of us makes the others uncomfortable and we can all get where we’re going unharmed.

This etiquette has evolved out of necessity however I believe it is a testament to humans overcoming their tribal, in-group/out-group tendencies – something which is extremely hard to do. The complaint is still raised that this system isn’t very happy because it essentially leads to everyone ignoring each other but frankly the “let’s chat on the bus” way of doing things has the unacknowledged downside that people also feel free to be openly hostile to each other. In London, I have yet to observe anyone so much as raising their voice on a bus or a tube, let alone have a fight. In a city of 7 million people teeming all over the transport system, this is nothing short of a miracle.

A Note on London Bus Drivers

London bus drivers are the friendliest bus drivers I’ve ever come across, and there is really no need for them to be. If someone’s Oyster card is not working, they let the person on for free. If they see someone running for the bus, even though there is guaranteed to be another bus coming along in 8 minutes or less, be it day or night, the driver still holds the bus to allow them to get on. Pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike are awful road users around London buses, seeming to have suicidal tendencies, but bus drivers never get angry. Why should this be so? I have no idea, but it is.

A Note On London Cycling and Taxi Drivers

I always try to cycle within the Highway Code and in such a way that another road user will not be freaked out by my behaviour. I love to cycle in Central London and have not once had a near miss. The first time I was beeped by a taxi driver, I was quite upset. However I quickly realised that, like most other communication in London, it was by no means a personal slur and oddly also complied with the Highway Code. London taxis use a very short beep to signal their impatience. Beeping the horn in the Highway Code simply means “Warning – I am here” and this is pretty much what a London cabbie means when he beeps you. It means, “we’re all busy trying to get somewhere, you are in the way, warning – I am here and I’m about to swerve around you.”

I find road use can feel relatively safe if the vehicles around you have predictable behaviours. Luckily, London taxis are fairly predictable, in that they want to be away from you, and fast. I often move to the centre of my lane if overtaking me at that moment would be a bad idea, and move far left if there is a good spot to overtake me (given oncoming traffic). Since knowing what I know about taxi drivers, I seem to have good interactions with them. They appreciate that I mostly try to get the hell out of the way, and give me space when it’s impossible to overtake anyway. These days, I only get beeped at when I probably am in the wrong.

A Note On Standing On The Right

It may seem harsh at first, but it is the simplest, easiest and oh-so effective rule which enables everyone to move around this town at their chosen speed. I am fully behind it as a rule. Don’t make excuses, just stand on the right.