Visibility Is NOT Equality

Visibility Is NOT Equality

Given my new job, I spend a lot of time thinking about equity (the people kind, not the investment kind), how we define it (in a formal, first-order logic sort of way), and how we measure it in the real world. As an autistic, gender-queer person, I spend more time thinking about visibility and representation than I ever thought I would. Those two things came together today while I was tagging along on a photoshoot (one that wasn’t mine, for a change) and I saw the sticker pictured above in the featured post image.

The sticker, and its quote, stuck with me (pun wasn’t intended, although it’s rather good and I’m inclined to take credit anyway) – and for good reason. Both the quote and the posterized image are from the first interview with Chelsea Manning, the US Army Intelligence Analyst who was convicted in 2013 under the Espionage Act after leaking classified documents to WikiLeaks*, after her release from prison under a presidential pardon commutation of sentence in 2017.

I couldn’t find a transcript of the interview, which was hosted by the Institute of Contemporary Arts at the Royal Institution in London, and which was held as a conversation with writer James Bridle, but FRIEZE has a good summary (including the photo from the sticker), and video of the entire conversation is on YouTube. The quote from the sticker is just one finely-cut gemstone set in the middle of a very strong paragraph, placed in the middle of an interview full of powerful ideas and insight:

‘There’s a misunderstanding: visibility is not the same thing as equality. As a trans woman, I know that there is a systemic problem that can only be addressed when we challenge the core assumptions in society.’

Chelsea Manning, 1 October 2018

Ms Manning argues that with technology, visibility can make injustice and inequality even worse, saying that if you were already more likely to be arrested, algorithms make that 1 million times worse. There is so much packed into those words, and into the conversation around it. But the thing from the interview that I took away most (beyond the original quote from this afternoon that started me down this rabbit hole, and the part that is likely the most applicable to my current work, was a call on algorithm developers to emulate the scientists who refused to work on the Manhattan Project and practice an ethical form of refusal.

An interesting note: I didn’t know who the quote was by, or who the woman on the sticker was when I saw it, but the photoshoot I was tagging along on was for a trans friend of ours and his boyfriend. Seems fitting.

*I am not at all interested in debating the morality of what Ms Manning did (which I, frankly, agree with), or the legality of it (which a vindictive and extremely embarrassed military court found to be illegal) – neither of which are material to this post.

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