One of my first supervisors as an intern gave me the advice to always “check my assumptions.” The context of this was working in a complex code base, but trivially applies to any type of problem solving. This advice has proven useful all over my career so far: existing code bases, bash scripts, interacting with APIs, pretty much everywhere. It’s particularly useful when writing documentation - it’s pretty much the only time I’m nice to future me.
This process of checking assumptions is useful for problem solving outside code bases and the “building” part of engineering as well.
Checking assumptions is a useful technique for interrogating things we perceive as norms around us. I’ve found, for myself anyway, that doing this for the obvious norms around myself has made it easier to critically look at other, subtler norms. With practice this process becomes more organic and natural and requires less effort and self-encouragement.
Step 1: societal assumptions
Here’s are a couple of starting points:
Voting and Elections
- What purpose does the electoral college have in the US?
- Why is first-past-the-post used in the majority of US states?
- Why are some animals pets and others food?
- Why do we consider some foods in other cultures not only gross, but inhumane?
If these questions lead to other, possibly uncomfortable questions, that’s a good thing! We can use this process to find gaps in our world view, then use these new questions to explore these gaps. Many of these questions can’t be answered without research into history or general critical analysis. Of course, bear in mind when researching topics like these that the authors have their own biasses.
More seed questions
- Why are food subsidies not based on nutritional benefit?
- What is the benefit of a representative congress over direct democracy?
- What is the purpose of the police? What do they do for me personally? Do they serve us all equally?
- Why do borders exist?
These questions are a decent starting point to get comfortable exploring some of our personal assumptions because they require us to face things we have been ingrained with (likely our entire lives), but don’t actually require much in the way of self-reflection. It can be easier to look at the culture we live in than to look in the mirror and challenge more personal assumptions.
Step 2: self-reflection
Self-reflection can be difficult and downright painful, but can open ourselves up to becoming better and more accepting people. One piece of advice before starting: if you find something about yourself that you deem problematic do not avoid working on it just because it is uncomfortable. This sounds obvious but, from personal experience, really needs to be said up front.
Here are a few self-reflective seed questions:
- Are there ways that I personally benefit because of the color of my skin, gender, sexual orientation, or religious views?
- Are there things that I can do that my partner or a friend wouldn’t be able to do?
- What types of bigotry have I internalized?
- Am I ever uncomfortable around certain people? Why?
- Is there a specific “type” of person that I tend to listen to more than others? When I look at authority figures in my life (i.e. leaders in my profession) is there a common pattern?
This type of reflection can be awkward and uncomfortable. When we tease out uncomfortable things about ourselves we also need to be ready to decide who we would rather be and consciously work on improving ourselves.
2020 has been a year with so many people flaunting bizarre privilege in the face of a historic epidemic. I assume that many of these people don’t realize that that is what they are doing. We need to remind ourselves that this year some of us are using our privilege in other ways - I personally have ordered delivered food many times this year. Those of us lucky enough to still have a job, and to work from home, and to still make enough to order delivery are benifiting off the backs of people that likely make much less than us and are beholden to the new “gig” economy.
Before 2020 I was flaunting my own privilege in other ways frequently. In school I never feared for myself when walking to my car or the bus stop late at night. I frequently slept on the bus, something I doubt many others would be comfortable doing. I’ve never been comfortable around police but I’ve also never thought that I would be arrested on a bogus charge, beaten, or shot by them. I’ve been privileged to be able to assume that I would be safe in most situations, a privilege that so many others are not afforded. This is just the bare minimum of avoiding physical violence and doesn’t even scratch the surface of all the other violent acts impacting people for being “others.”
In 2021 let’s challenge our assumptions.