Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Looking at My Own Culture

By coincidence, a friend who is a city lawyer moved to Moscow in the same week I did, so by extension I was admitted to the periphery of her wide circle of lawyers in Moscow. In the end, this has been as interesting as my interactions with Russians, but it's taken me a little while to put my finger on why.

The most obvious, is that it's good to have your perceptions shattered once in a while. It's very easy to think of 'city people' as a homogenous, grey-suited, evil bloc. Of course I know there's more to it than this - I have friends from uni who went into the city - but they do all come out quite similar, and they do all wear a lot of grey. What I forget, of course, is that they started out quite similar too, and that city people are as diverse as any other group. I might have known that intellectually, but seeing it in real life is a handy refresher course.

Thinking about it though, I knew there was more to it than that. And the next point I came up with is that it reaffirms my own choices. I thought about the city a lot of times, and got as far as applying for a law conversion course and almost-applying for some management consultancy jobs. But in the end, I turned down the conversion course and didn't hit send for the management consultancy, because I knew it would suck me in and I knew it would make me miserable. Don't get me wrong; with a few exceptions, the lawyers here are happy being lawyers (some for now, some wanting to stick with it), and they have good lives of a standard way above what I can afford. But it would make me unhappy, and the way I did it, even though it involved years of slave labour, penury, and uncertainty before I finally got a job, was worth it, because through all of it I was working towards something I loved, and I ended up in a job that I love with an organisation that epitomises my ideals. I'll never be rich, I'll probably end up with malaria at some point, and it'll knock Hell out of my relationships, but Oxfam is who I am, and being here and being in a crowd in which I so obviously don't belong has helped reaffirm that.

But when I talked about this with one of the lawyers on Saturday night, I realised that in what I said something was missing. Chewing it over, I realised that what I've valued most in it is the challenge to my thinking.

During my masters degree, we talked occasionally about epistemic communities. Essentially, these are formed when academics and others working on an issue area reach a certain consensus that influences policymakers' thinking in that area - not necessarily because the epistemic community agrees on... well... anything, but because they conform to a similar model of thought that comes to perpetuate itself. Oxfam is a lot like this. Everyone there is a liberal, Guardian-reading, leftie who supports Occupy, worries about their carbon footprint, and thinks couchsurfing is awesome. I'm sure there *are* Telegraph-reading Tories in Oxfam, but they keep their heads down. To all intents and purposes, as a Lib Dem, I'm relatively right wing in Oxfam terms. This has all sorts of advantages - I love being able to explore ideas that are way outside the media mainstream, like the zero growth movement, and feel a part of an international movement of like-minded people. But it's also occasionally stultifying, and it puts me at risk of groupthink.

Being here has been a good counterbalance to that. Among the lawyers, there are plenty of people that care about inequality and climate change, vote Labour or Lib Dem, and read the Guardian. But the epistemic community they make up reads the FT and votes Conservative, and when I mentioned couchsurfing it was clear that most people filed it straight under 'crazy Oxfam hippie shit'. It's good for me to interact with them for a bit - make my arguments, then listen to how they react, what they say, and what freaks them out. Sometimes I think they are accepting arguments that just aren't true - but sometimes they question assumptions of mine that seemed obvious to me. It's less about winning the argument - at the end of the day, most of them will still vote Tory, although I might convert one or two at the margins - and more about seeing which of my assumptions they jump at.

The key point, is that I get even more out of this than when I talk to Tories at home. There, the ones I discuss politics with are people from the political-media world, or 'country' Tories of my parents' world - and although they might profoundly disagree with me on all matters of principle and policy, they have the same priorities and same perspective as me, because they grew up in and live in the same world. We argue about policy, I listen to their points, I make mine, and I make notes about how to win the argument next time. Sometimes I think they're little short of evil, sometimes I win them over, and sometimes I accept that they're right and I'm wrong, but I'm rarely called on to question my fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.

So it's another angle, to another world. It's been good for me, not only from selfish standpoints, like reinforcing my natural tendency towards insufferable smugness, but also because stepping into another world is good for us - and I think most of the lawyers would learn just as much if they came to hang out with my people and listened to us.

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