The Patriarchy-Compensated Slope

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The arguments against affirmative action are often articulated in terms of equality and meritocracy. If it’s not fair to disproportionately offer opportunities to traditionally privileged groups, then it is equally unfair to give a leg up to those who have traditionally been excluded from opportunities. Equality should mean equality; the playing field should be level.

Which, on the face of it is not an unreasonable position. It reminds me of my arguments against trying to get people to sing sharp as a cure for sinking pitch, or telling people to raise their chests when you just want them to stop slouching. An intervention that would actually spoil things if applied to the world as it should be is not necessarily a helpful intervention.

But these arguments presuppose that we know what a level playing field looks like and that it is not very different from how things are now. They don’t deal very well with things like systematic exclusion or unconscious prejudice. There are a lot of people, after all, who do not think of themselves as sexist or racist but who nonetheless come out with behaviours that articulate and maintain these social hierarchies without them even realising. There are those, for example, who genuinely don’t consider the near total exclusion of work by female composers from both music education curricula and regular concert programming a problem.

What they think is a level playing field, that is, is actually a playing field with a considerable slope in their favour, which they don’t notice because they’re used to playing on it. In much the same way you don’t notice you’re cycling along a gentle decline with the wind behind you until you turn around to cycle back again and find how much harder work it is. Male composers have no idea of the inbuilt advantage they enjoy when the automatic pronoun everyone uses for the idea of ‘composer’ in the abstract is ‘he’.

It was while thinking about this imagery that it occurred to me that a useful way to think about affirmative action is thus as a friction-compensated slope.

Do you remember these from school physics lessons? The idea was to adjust the world so that it worked as you’d expect theoretically from Newtonian mechanics, so that a body in motion would continue at the same speed in the absence of any external force acting on it. In real life, of course, the little wooden trucks we were using would slow down as they went along, due the friction of their wheels on the surface and in the turning of the axles.

So, you’d run them on a slope so the extra oomph they got from gravity to pull them downhill would cancel out the slowing effects of the friction. You knew you’d got the gradient of the slope right when the truck ran at a constant speed. (And how dull it was to be constantly measuring the distance between dots on the ticker-tape, and how revelatory it was when this information turned out to serve a useful purpose.)

There are two things I like about this metaphor. Firstly, the way it articulates the difference between the ‘in theory, perfect world’ scenario and what we actually have to deal with that lies at the heart of the arguments against affirmative action. Equality as ‘treating everyone the same’ is the Newtonian ideal, but in actual lived experience you still have to account for and deal with the hidden drag of friction.

Second, I really like the way it measures the success of your endeavours to create an as-if level playing fields by the results. If your truck gets slower as it runs along, it is still being held back; if it gets faster, you have over-compensated. If your affirmative action policies result in the senior levels of your profession looking more like the demographic of the population at large, they have worked. If, as recently reported, the profile of composers entering the profession looks much more like the UK’s population, in terms of both gender and race/ethnicity, than those receiving commissions, then those people who earnestly tell you that there are no obstacles these days are wrong.

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