Observation #4: The politics of a microphone

At this GIA conference, the microphone isn’t just a tool for being heard, it’s a social justice issue.

The rules of engagement, sent out in advance, names the use of a microphone as a way of helping folks with disabilities participate in the event. It’s right up there with recognizing other points of view, not over talking, and giving props to the native people whose lands the meeting is taking place upon. To not use the microphone, then, is to exclude, to discriminate, to be rude.

But what about when the microphone doesn’t work, as it happened at this morning’s sessions at the Sheraton Hotel. It kept cutting in and out, obliterating what the speakers using it were saying. In this case, using the microphone WAS to exclude. And speaking without it, maybe a little louder than usual, probably would have been better. But no one wanted to drop the mic cause that would violate the rules of engagement. It had the potential of making the speaker look insensitive.

You could see people struggling to be correct.

This isn’t to pick on the audio quality at the conference, or to call out the folks who kept using the mic (I probably would have myself), but really to point out that rules only work when they make sense. And that the certainty of new rules — masked here as a “tip sheet” but really a list of acceptable manners — isn’t really so certain.

The GIA conference sets a progressive tone for its proceedings. Who can argue with that? It’s a new world, with new realities and new demands on all of us to be fair, equitable, open-minded. The rules are in flux and let’s all thank the universe for that.

But the microphone moment is a reminder that the remade rules aren’t innately better than the old ones. And maybe that applies to attempts to make progress in philanthropic and public arts funding decisions, as well.

There was a lot of talk here about tossing out old systems, finding “a better version of the present,” as moderator Mallory Rukhsana Nezam put it. And there were a lot of good arguments for that, as well. The old ones aren’t working equitably.

But maybe there is wisdom in time-worn ways of doing things. Of dropping the mic when new thinking doesn’t work. Rejecting the past requires rejecting the people who controlled it — in this case, a generation of folks in the philanthropic field who cut a path for the present generation, whose work I reported on for two decades, and whose work is implicitly discounted at this conference.

Reject the past? Or learn from it, and build on it? Keep the mic? Or drop it?