Fighting All the Battles at Once.
You can skip this post. Really. It’s a white man’s writing about social justice movements. I’m going to get shit wrong and probably piss people off. So, if you ignore the warning and proceed and you start to get mad? Well, me too. I’m mad. That’s why I’m writing this. We need to do better. We need to do better sooner. And I don’t know the best way to do that. So I’m not going to be prescriptive here. I am not trying to tell people what to do. If I knew what to do, I’d be doing it instead of moaning here.
Specifically, the thing I’m thinking about today is the Science March. But the issues of the Science March bleed into all the issues of all the movements. The entire resistance to the Trump administration. And generally into society itself. Basically, we need to advance specific causes in order to create a better society, and while doing that we need to specifically spend attention, effort, and money on correcting disparities between citizens in how those causes’ benefits and participation are distributed.
This means that every progressive movement has a cause, and a meta-cause. We need to increase science in the domains of funding, education, public literacy, and influence on policy. And while doing that we must also improve disparities in the participation in the production of science, and in the benefits of scientific advances. Too much science is conducted by and for white men with little regard for other sorts of people. To all of our detriment.
These efforts are inextricably linked. But they are not identical. Among social conservatives (among whom I group the libertarian-type scientists who place “reason and evidence” above all other things) there is the misperception that these goals can be decoupled. And among social progressives, there often seems to be little acknowledgement that these goals are in any way addressable through divided efforts.
I land firmly on the side of the progressives in these argument, generally speaking. The issues of disparity and participation are intrinsically associated with funding, education, and policy, because we do those things worse (we fund lower quality proposals and make poorer policy decisions) when the lion’s share of science production and benefit are conducted and consumed by a strict subset of the population. One often heavily selected for lower-quality scientists due to systemic biases.
However, the issue of science funding advocacy – for example – can plainly be advanced without rhetoric that invokes disparity and participation. And there are cases where that may be the more pragmatic approach to take. There are members of the GOP, for example, like Newt Gingrich, who are champions of the NIH. The GOP is, as a rule, opposed to things that they can cast as affirmative action or civil rights “overreaches”. Therefore, when advocating for NIH funding to Republican senators, it is probably worthwhile to pretend social justice issues aren’t relevant.
This is where the side of the progressives struggles at times, I think. Yes, it would be better if the battle over disparities and participation were won at the same time as the battle for elevated significance of science in the national discourse and budgets. And yes, those two battles are connected skirmishes of a larger campaign. But if every discussion of science with every audience must focus on disparity, we are going to lose the ability to convene with people who might be allies on one front while foes on another.
Without science funding and without evidence-informed policy, we cannot address the issues of disparity and participation at all; too little science will be done whatsoever. But it is unconscionable to tell groups suffering from those disparities not to advocate for themselves, or that their needs should not hold positions of prominence in an agenda. They should. It is unconscionable not to support those issues whomever you are.
But I fear that always leading with disparity and participation leaves us all flailing to do science with fewer resources than we might have. I suspect there is room for a phalanx of influential policy lobbyists for science for whom their sole advocacy is funding and policy, leaving social issues of race, gender, and other identities entirely to others. But the rest of us, and the masses of us, need to stand for the eradication of disparities.
And I think there is good reason for us, when we see influential policy lobbyists who leave disparities off of their list of advocacy priorities, to pause and refrain from vilification. We should not assume hostility to a social agenda simply because a person is tactically silent about it. Additionally, if advocacy for increased funding is successful – for example – there is still the second-wave opportunity to advocate for reductions in disparity and improved participation at the later stages of review and dispersal of those funds.
Progressives lose, often, because we fall upon each other for perceived insufficiencies of commitment to the cause. We berate and denigrate one another whenever one of us prefers a different issue or approach from another. We are easily dividable, and the regressive right laughs at how easily they can disrupt our agendas by sending us spinning into rabbit holes of investigations for the least-privileged constituency. Never has a global movement, in my awareness, been so susceptible to being derailed by minutiae.
This is especially true of scientists: reductionists by nature, we obsess over details and are steamrolled by big-picture oppressors who are willing to accept a flawed victory rather than demand their battle plan be perfect – and unwinnable.
This weekend, the Science March goes off. Many of us are entirely jaded about it because it fails this constituency or that one. And it should have done better, absolutely. It should have done much better. But can we not breathe and be grateful that millions of Americans are going to march in the streets to protest a regressive and oppressive administration’s abandonment of basic human inquiry?
No millions of us will all agree on a social agenda. We have to fight those battles as brigades, not divisions. At least for now. And we do have to fight them. Because the rights and benefits of our nation’s wealth and freedom belong to every one of us, and should be spread widely, not retracted into a fearful bristle – our hedgehog right wing must not be allowed to squash the progress of liberty and justice.
But on April 22nd, some millions of us at least will all be agreeing that science matters, and should be a priority for our government in funding and policy. Can we celebrate that?