The Collapsing of Categories
We're having the thickest conversation in the thinnest spaces.
On the collapsing of categories
Tressie Cottom,* the American intellectual who writes about inequality and status, said recently on a podcast that Americans are being forced to "rethink almost every meaningful category that we’ve kind of taken for granted," and this amounts to a grand moral panic of our time. Categories that once felt ironclad are being revisited and deconstructed.
To list a few examples: gender is not a binary, but is on a spectrum. Racial groups are something we invented out of thin air, but also a very real organizer of society, caste, and culture. Our individualism is undeniable, but so is the fact that individuals create social groups and those groups wield power. We like to think that we're rational creatures, but there are unconscious biases that operate below the surface of our reason, invisible even to us. We don't live in a meritocracy, but the relationship between input and output still matters immensely to our sense of fairness and our economic mobility. We're complicit in systems we didn't invent, but perpetuate simply through living the easiest, most default versions of our lives.
The point Cottom goes on to make is that we're entirely ill-equipped to navigate this period because we're having the most complex, nuanced conversations on the most un-nuanced and histrionic mediums of social media. It's like we're using large blunt-force farm implements to do delicate woodworking, or as Cottom says we're having "thick conversations in thin spaces."
It might be tempting to chime in and add our slice of wisdom to these thick conversations, but I wonder if the work of cultural and organizational leadership is actually to focus on thickening the spaces instead of contributing to the topics. We're missing spaces, not ideas. We're missing bravery, not brilliance. We're missing listening, not thought leadership. We are too focused on the content of the conversations and not spending nearly enough time creating the spaces where we can explore them. But, we might be tempted to stop there and simply hold the space, entertain the conversation, and ultimately become paralyzed with no way forward. Leadership, ultimately, is more about the movement through ambiguity than a love of it.
*I referenced Cottom's podcast with Ezra Klein in last month's Insider as well because it is one of the most thought-provoking pieces of content I've engaged with in the last year, and Cottom is a genius on the thickest conversations of our time.