Soapbox: Inclusiveness, and how not to do it

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soapbox I wrote this post last September, in the midst of an eventful period in the British barbershop community, but a wise friend talked me down from posting it at the time. She may continue to have her doubts about the wisdom of posting it, indeed, which I can understand, but I’m choosing to do so anyway for two reasons.

First, because whilst the immediate crisis has passed, the issues it deals with have not gone away and there are some points here I’ve not seen in the public debates (though they have circulated to a degree in private ones I think).

Second, as a record of the experience of the events at the point they happened. Looking back at the post, the tone carries considerably more heat than I usually bring to this blog, and I did consider rewriting it before posting to de-escalate the language. But the strength of the reaction is testament to the impact of the events, and whilst the grown-up thing is often to minimise one’s public displays of emotional response in order to maintain diplomatic relations, there is a risk thereby of pretending the damage didn’t happen. So, I’m saying, calmly, this is how uncalm it felt 6 months ago.

Last week was a bit of a rollercoaster in the British barbershop community. The British Association of Barbershop Singers – historically the men’s organisation – announced on Sunday with only 8 months to go that they intended to make the contests at their 50th anniversary Convention next year ‘open’, by which they meant they’d invite choruses and quartets from the two women’s organisations in the UK (LABBS and Sweet Adelines Region 31) to participate.

On Wednesday night, they announced the reversal of that decision, having received feedback from their own members that it was far too near to the event to start making fundamental changes to it, especially without any prior consultation with the membership. I don’t know what feedback they’d had from LABBS or R31 members, as so far as I could ascertain, they hadn’t set up any system to collect it - I had access to the BABS communications as I’m still a member, but as a LABBS member I was relying on social media.

Anyways, the headline reason for proposing this change was ‘inclusivity’: removing gender as a category to determine the right to participate. And if you were starting a new barbershop organisation from scratch, that’s probably how you’d go about it these days – indeed, should LABBS and BABS end up merging as is currently being explored, this is what the new organisation will no doubt achieve.

However, there are a number of specific ways in which the proposed open contest at Sing24 succeeded in being anything but inclusive, and it is instructive to analyse them to guard against repeating those mistakes in the future.

The main one, of course, was in springing this decision on the people whom it was intended to ‘benefit’ without any discussion. The LABBS board had been informed in advance of the announcement (as I understand it, the R31 board had not even had this courtesy) and had raised some concerns, which were not responded to. Apparently, gender inclusivity is something to be done to women without their consent and without listening to what they think about it.

This primary act of high-handedness carried with it a fundamental lack of consideration of the impact the decision would have on the ensembles to which the contest had now been opened. Conventions are expensive things to participate in, both in the financial costs of registration, travel and accommodation, and in the time costs of rehearsal time to prepare for them. By seeking to add this event to ensembles’ performance calendars, BABS were adding a significant potential drain on these ensembles’ resources. And if a group could only afford to participate in one Convention per year, they were effectively seeking to divert these resources away from the women’s organisations’ own Conventions.

And BABS is aware of the high costs of course. One of the issues they have faced over the past couple of years is lower participation at Convention from their own membership, many of whom are feeling the combined pinch of rising Convention costs, rising cost of living, and smaller membership numbers to support it all. Given the proposed registration structure of giving BABS groups first dibs on registration and then filling up the gaps with women’s groups, it was a fairly transparent way of getting the two women’s organisations to prop up their finances. It isn’t a good look when you’re trying to be inclusive for those on the richer side of the gender pay gap to ask those on the poorer side of it to subsidise you. Not just high-handed, then, but also appropriative.

In both the FAQ relating to the proposed open contest and the email to members announcing the decision not to go ahead with it, the BABS board stated that it wouldn’t affect the ongoing discussions with LABBS about a potential merger.

This, to me, was probably the most tone-deaf statement in the whole episode. How could it not make a difference? The two organisations were supposed to be collaborating to find a future together, and here one of them is making unilateral decisions that go directly against joint statements previously made about not making structural changes to Convention. If you wanted to fundamentally undermine people’s trust in the process, this would be an effective way to go about it.

I get that there are those in BABS’s leadership who are pained by the historical exclusion on which the organisation was founded. We only have women’s organisations because the men didn’t want us back in the 1970s. But the way the putative open contest was framed betrays that alongside this desire to make amends is an underlying belief that BABS is somehow ‘the original and best’. The appropriation of the gender-generic title for an originally men-only organisation, and the consequent labelling of the women’s organisation as gender-specific, leads people into the unconscious assumption that the women’s game is somehow lesser or secondary, and that women should thus be grateful to be allowed to come along to the party at last. Which is patronising in itself, and especially so given the recent track records of both LABBS and R31.

It’s clear that I’m writing this from the position of a LABBS member. But I am also a BABS member, and there were a bunch of things about this decision that irked me from that perspective too. But I think BABS have at least listened to their own members on these, if belatedly. So I’m focusing on the things that will need to be done better if our organisations’ merger talks are to succeed, which are basically for BABS to stop behaving like it is the centre of the UK barbershop universe and start listening to the people they claim to be collaborating with.

One can imagine that BABS felt in part encouraged to propose this path by the policy changes of the Barbershop Harmony Society in recent years. But funnily enough, when the Barbershop Harmony Society announced its Everyone in Harmony policy back in 2017, women in barbershop had exactly the same critique of what looked very like a colonialist land-grab for members and associated resources clothed as equality. But it was only women making those critiques, so of course they were ignored. I’ve tried to reword that so it sounds less bitter and cynical, but I think I am actually feeling quite bitter and cynical about this, so that’s how it keeps coming out.

Anyway, if anyone wonders why we still need women’s organisations ‘in this day and age’, this is why. We do at least sometimes manage to listen to each other.

By the way, my post last October entitled Inclusiveness, and how to do it: A case study was originally written as a follow-up to this post. It works as a stand-alone of course, but it also works as a counterpoint to this one; the two posts put each other's key messages into relief by contrast.

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