A Default of Privilege

Become comfortable with discomfort.

It might sound good as a hashtag or on a T-shirt, but the above statement is utterly impossible. Discomfort is of course, by definition, not comfortable.

It’s one of the reasons we have default settings. They are comfortable. They save us time and mental energy. They eliminate conscious choice. To move away from them requires deliberate decision. As Dr. Jason Fox explains, our default is “selected automatically unless a viable alternative is specified.”

One of the reasons this pandemic season has been so exhausting is that we cannot live on autopilot in ways that we used to. We need to give conscious thought to too many areas of our lives at once. Allowing time for standing in line at a grocery store and remembering to bring a mask along are two of dozens of daily examples. It’s tiring.

Yet I’m also amazed at how quickly our default settings have actually shifted in recent months. They’ve had to. For some, working at home was an exception that has now become the norm.  I’ve stopped using the word “digital” to describe upcoming workshops, as everything has shifted to digital. Even four months ago, that would not have been the case.

Because our default settings are mostly unconscious, it is unusual for us to think about them at all. But one of mine came to my attention in a recent community engagement session on preventing and mitigating hate. I realized that I assume people’s input will be taken seriously. An occupational hazard perhaps, and it’s clearly not the first time I have heard people sound cynical about whether their feedback will make a difference, but in this case, I was struck by my own hardwired belief that my opinion will be heard and will matter to the listener. And because of that personal experience, and my commitment to designing meaningful engagement processes for others, I have worked from a starting point that assumes people’s input will be seriously considered.

To assume to be seen and heard. It’s yet another instance of my immense privilege and my frequent obliviousness to it.

Our default settings are hard to change, but they do change. And recent experience has shown that it can happen quickly when it is forced to happen. I wonder if we will look back on this period in history as having changed not just our ways of working because of the global pandemic, but our ways of seeing because of a global wave of attention to anti-racism that forces our unconscious biases to become conscious and then to shift.

There will be discomfort along the way. Skipping it or becoming comfortable with it are two of many options no longer available to us.

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