This Talk is Political

Some in this industry ask for their colleagues to keep “politics” out of their work and off the stage. To those who would ask that: no.

Discussions about rights are avoided by those who seek deflection because of guilt, those who shy away from difficult decisions and those who profit from a more superficial, simple, and ultimately useless, analysis.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights37th session of the Human Rights Council

Last Saturday, I attended World IA Day Boston. The event was well-attended, well-executed, well-programmed. It was also political.

Brian Durkin opened with a heartfelt nod to the Parkland shooting. Margot Bloomstein’s keynote focused on truth and trust in information. Alexandra Chandler talked about communication methods and being trans in the DOJ. Dana Chisnell walked through the American voting process. Eduardo Ortiz showed us the official 19-page application to become a naturalized citizen. And that was just the first half of the day.

All of these talks addressed issues of information clarity, information access, information presentation. They all had lessons for those of us who work on the web, poignant lessons about how design can lift users up—or grind them down.

So when I say it was “political,” that’s what I really mean: the willingness to examine our impact.

You’d think that looking at how our work impacts people would be a natural inclination, or at least a necessarily learned practice, in an industry that claims to favor the user experience. It’s literally in the name.

Unfortunately, not everyone is willing. Self-reflection can be scary. It can show us things we’ve overlooked, accidental hurts, mistakes we’d rather not take responsibility for. And so some of us don’t do it. Some in this industry ask for their colleagues to keep “politics” out of their work and off the stage.

To those who would ask that: no.

Political does not mean partisan

First, let’s get one definitional issue out of the way. Sometimes when people hear the term “political,” they understand it as “partisan.” To be political is to acknowledge the lived experiences of people outside of yourself. To be partisan is to advocate for the beliefs or propaganda of a specific party affiliation.

Look again at those topics from World IA Day Boston: they are certainly political, but there is nothing partisan about acknowledging a school shooting, or pointing out the complexity of bureaucracy and citizenship. If simply hearing about people’s experiences in the world causes someone to assign a partisan value to them, well, that’s on them.

The request to “keep politics out of your talks” often comes from trying to assuage the egos (and wallets) of those who confuse politics with partisanship—those who are uncomfortable considering the impact of their work. But we should use our conferences and platforms to speak to that discomfort, to challenge their views, rather that restricting everyone else’s.

To be clear, I understand the intent behind such a request (though intentions don’t matter; impact does). To flip the script: I certainly don’t want to hear a speaker discuss their party affiliations any more than I want to hear a CMS sales pitch—especially as a bait-and-switch at a web conference. I respect the range of personal beliefs across the web industry, and would never want anyone to feel unwelcome at an industry event.

But if your “politics” involve restricting the rights of others to lead full, productive, engaged lives in this country, then, yes, I do want you to feel unwelcome at an industry event.

Nothing is neutral

“Please keep politics out of your talks” takes neutrality as a baseline. It relies on the premise that our viewpoints exist in frictionless purity, and we simply need to keep them there to communicate them appropriately. But this is a myth; there is no such thing as neutrality.

Choices draw boundaries—something must be included, something must be excluded. Even choosing not to choose—choosing “neutrality”—has political ramifications. Imagine you are a company that offers an ecommerce platform, and you have chosen to be “neutral” in allowing anyone and everyone to use your platform. The boundary you have just drawn is that you are comfortable allowing Nazis to benefit from your product. That’s your choice, but don’t you dare tell me that it’s neutral.

Our choices are always guided by something—laws, morals, values, rules. And because that something is not neutral, our choices cannot be either. And what is design, if not a series of choices? Our web work, no matter how insignificant we may think it, is inherently political, and to pretend otherwise is willful ignorance.

I am not saying every talk needs to be about the political ramifications of your work. Just don’t pretend those ramifications aren’t there. Recognize that your choices draw boundaries.

And if you’re going to willfully ignore how your work impacts people, then you don’t have any business working in the user experience industry.

A loud silence

Finally, the most dangerous and wrongheaded thing about “please keep politics out of your talks” is the resulting silence.

By defining what is and is not acceptable to discuss onstage—what is political, what is not political, what is too political—you are making choices. You are excluding something—or, more likely, someone.

For too many people in this world, their entire existence has been coded by society as “too political.” Their skin color, their religion, their gender presentation, their physical ability, their citizenship status, their language facility, their health, their marriage—just getting through the day being who they are becomes a political act.

No one should be able to tell them that their professional contributions need to be separated, sanitized, neutralized, to be worth hearing. No one should get to decide that.

What message does “please keep politics out of your talks” send to the speakers and would-be speakers whose daily lives are politicized by oppressors? How does this message silence those who haven’t begun speaking, who have been turned away, who can’t afford to rock the boat, who feel the need to conform to succeed? How many underrepresented voices—already hyperaware of how the industry is closed off to them—does this silence?

And if you are among those who choose comfort over inclusion, who choose to uphold the status quo over welcoming new ideas, who choose not to empower the powerless in this industry, then you will conduct your conferences without me.

We are political

We cannot separate who we are from the work we do on the web. Call it political; call it real. Any request to stifle that reality, no matter how well-intentioned, damages us and damages our industry. And I urge all of you—conference organizers, speakers and panelists, attendees—to think long and hard about what it means to ask people not to be “political.” To understand the boundaries drawn by that request. To understand the very political stance you are taking when you ask it.

The question is not: should our talks be political? We don’t get to choose. They simply are, and always have been. Our lives are political, and our work on the web will always be political, and we should not flinch.

The question is only: is our industry brave enough to listen to us?