Monday, October 13, 2014

SXSW and its unpaid workforce

I don't remember how I stumbled across this Salon article from February of this year, but I felt compelled to respond to it as it reflects a lot of what I have been blabbering about in this blog.

In short, the article goes on to recount how the SXSW festival went from being a small indy music festival to a 9-day multimedia, corporatized event and how the people who run the festival (SXSW Inc.) now rake in the dough. With the help of a conversation with Eric Glatt, the article's author (somewhat indirectly) posits that, with all of that profit going into SXSW Inc's pockets, the owners of the festival could be paying the thousands of people who agree to volunteer for the festival each year, thereby injecting even more money towards Austin's local economy, but they don't.  Then the author goes on to point out that SXSW is breaking existing labour laws thereby exposing SXSW to possible class-action lawsuits in the future.  I hope it also isn't lost on most readers that, as stated in the article, Eric Glatt is someone who worked as an unpaid intern on the set of the blockbuster film The Black Swan and was attending the 2014 SXSW festival as a guest speaker...

In principle, I agree that SXSW could share more of their wealth and it would no doubt be very nice of them if they would.  One could even argue that it is selfish of them not to share more of the wealth.  No arguments here.  But this idea that they therefore should pay those volunteers, and that those who originally agreed to volunteer for the festival are somehow entitled to sue SXSW for payment after the fact, is where I have to part ways with the author.

As pointed out by the author, SXSW's volunteer workforce goes against Austin's existing labour laws.  What's interesting, though, is that the author fails to address why the City of Austin has seemingly been turning a blind eye to what SXSW is doing for over 25 years now.  Why does the author think that is?  Could it be because those who run the municipality, and the citizens of Austin who vote for them every election, realise that what the festival brings in revenue to the city via tourism, publicity, etc., far outweighs what SXSW Inc. isn't investing in the way of paychecks to those who volunteer for them?  Could it also be because no one is forcing or tricking those people into working for free?  Could it be that those who volunteer feel that being able to attend the festival without having to pay admission, getting to bump elbows with celebrities and getting exposed to and networking with people who have similar interests, not to mention people from across the country and around the world, is worth their unpaid labour?  This sounds to me like a bunch of adults weighing the pros and cons and deciding for themselves whether the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.  It sounds like people associating voluntarily.

But seemingly the author would have us believe that there is some outside force at play: "Like millions of other interns, Eric – who is in his 30s and now a law student and public interest fellow at Georgetown — had been conditioned to believe that working for free or close to it is simply what you do to break into a glamorous industry."

I wish I could ask the author just who he believes has "conditioned" Eric and the "millions of other interns" to "believe" that?  Is there some corporate conspiracy to brainwash people into unpaid labour?  Were they feeding them these ideas through their iPods?  Or is that what the Chemtrails are for?

But seriously, does the author really think that all or even a significant portion of these millions of volunteers were completely unable to assess for themselves whether the benefits they were receiving through volunteering outweighed the lack of payment?   Does the author think that the thousands of volunteers who worked at the festival in 2014 were under the mistaken assumption that they were being charitable in providing their free labour to a barely-profitable festival, that also happens to run 9 days and attract performers such as Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Kanye? Furthermore, is it so inconceivable that someone might actually still want to volunteer their time even though they acknowledge that SXSW Inc. probably makes enough profit to pay them?

The author then advises us that, as the US Department of Labor is concerned, even the volunteers themselves are breaking the law because individuals “may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.”  So, as per some words written on paper, sovereign individuals are not allowed to contribute their own physical or mental effort towards a for-profit enterprise, without also personally profiting monetarily from said enterprise. And if an individual chooses not to personally profit monetarily from an enterprise this could ultimately result in a fine or imprisonment.  In other words "you better have received some sort of paper with numbers on it from that corporation you helped, or we might force you or the owners of said corporation to pay us using some sort of paper with numbers on it, or we'll put you in jail."   While there may be such a "law" on the books, it's interesting that the author makes no attempt to analyse whether or not that law makes any sense or whether the people who volunteered for SXSW should be using this law as justification to sue for recompense. He just kinda puts it out there...

Now, before some of you jump to the assumption that I am some neo-con corporate apologist who agrees with maximum profit for those running the show, I again assure you that, in my personal opinion, to simply not pay the thousands that volunteer for you every year even though you could is a dick move.  And I agree with the author that there are even entire industries where employers co-conspire to not pay or to poorly pay entry-level people under the guise of "internships", leaving people who want to get into those industries no choice but to take those positions, because "if I don't someone else will" — the terrestrial radio business is but one example of this. 

But you know what?  If no one applied for these jobs, you can bet that SXSW, blockbuster film producers, radio stations et al, would have no choice but to resort to offering fully-paid entry-level positions in order to keep themselves staffed.

And if you knew that the industry you were looking to work in was also run by a dickish culture like that, why not find a way to break into the industry independently, or consider a different career choice?  Who wants to work for people like that or, even worse, who wants to risk eventually becoming them? After all, decades worth of interns before you didn't put an end to this "unjust system" once they got their full-time employment, so why would you?

And so the system persists...

But you know what? Most people don't even consider just not participating, because non-compliance isn't fair. They don't feel that they should have to sacrifice their own dream career, therefore they would rather take that unpaid/badly-paid position and bitch about the state of affairs than actually take direct steps to change it.  Or worse, they take the matter to the courts, forcing millions of others (i.e. taxpayers) to contribute to a complete stranger's fight via their tax dollars, because it is that person's right and they are entitled to justice under the law.

Do you think it sucks that you aren't being paid? Do you think you are being taken advantage of? Here's an idea: Don't participate. 

SXSW can't run a 9 day festival without people, so if people don't like their unpaid volunteer policy they should stop giving SXSW Inc. their unpaid work hours (and stop buying tickets to attend the festival.) But there are people who find that the perks of attending the festival as a volunteer — the behind the scenes access, experience, and networking possibilities — are attractive, and they are fully aware going-in that the trade-off is doing some work that they won't get paid for in cash, then what is the harm?  No one is being forced into the situation.  Making the assumption that you are entitled to monetary compensation simply because you know that those funds do indeed exist still doesn't explain why the festival runners owe any of those profits to you.  Again, obviously there are thousands of people who felt the trade-off was a good one as it was.  If you're someone who didn't, oh well.  And if enough people really felt the same way, eventually the volunteer work would die off, the quality of the festival would wain, and the owners would either have to consider offering paid positions or let the festival maybe return to a similar size to what it was in the early years (gasp!)
And would that be so bad? Why should it be a 9 day festival?  And if you truly have a love of music, or film or what ever other type of oeuvre represented at the SXSW festival, why would you also want to involve yourself in a festival run by the likes of Miller Lite, Subway, AT&T et al (or attended by Gaga and Kanye for that matter)?  And how do you suppose that the festival makes enough money to attract these big name celebrities and large corporate sponsors? Hmmm... Maybe it's because most of the people involved in the festival are agreeing to work for free?

Which brings me back to several messages you will find peppered throughout the posts on my blog:
  • If you don't like how SXSW treats their employees, stop supporting the festival with your time and money. Just like the Walmart episode of South Park where Kyle teaches the town that "Wall-mart" only becomes a big scary over-encompassing menace because everyone goes to work and shop there.  There is no "man behind the curtain"...Walmart is us...  SXSW is us too.  Do you want all of their workers to receive pay?  Then stop paying for tickets, stop attending as a guest speaker, artist or performer, and FFS stop working there for free!
  • Stop trying to force others to do what you think is right.  If others continue to support something you don't agree with, so be it.  As I said in part 3 of my Government Shmovernment posts: If you believe in freedom, which is to be free from outside control, then for freedom to exist means that you yourself cannot control others. You are not always going to like what other people choose to do, so freedom also means that you can't always get what you want, even if what you want is "right".
  • Be the change you want to see in the world.  Exemplify what you think is right. Show others what is possible.
  • You are not entitled to happiness and your level of happiness is totally up to you.  If you're not finding happiness at SXSW, look somewhere else, or better yet, create an alternative.
Now pardon me while I try to find a ladder so that I can get off of this damned high horse.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I am not the passenger

I love ya Iggy, but I, for one, am not the passenger, and realising that has started me down a very interesting path.

In my last post I hinted at an experiment on myself that had helped me with anxiety.  In effect it has helped me in more ways than that.  It is helping me become more mindful of my thoughts and feelings and has allowed me to even quiet my mind at night.

I've always been interested in the concept of Mindfulness, in both the spiritual and psychological senses, but as I alluded to in my previous post, I was never felt disciplined enough to persist with practices such as meditation or Cognitive Based Therapy.  Having said that, much like my "thankfulness" trick, I might have stumbled across another mind-hack to help me become what one of my life teachers calls the "observer/witness".

It all started on one of my many drives home from work:  I was on an 80 kph rural road, and some guy was coming out of a driveway ahead of me. He paused at the edge of the driveway to take a look, and must have seen me coming, yet continued to turn out onto the road anyway.  Now, here's where my ego came in, because truly I could have put on my breaks at that point.  Truly I had enough time to just slow down to about 60 kph and let him back-out in front of me — but you see my ego was saying "I shouldn't have to slow down.  I am going the speed limit and I have the right of way..." blah, blah, blah.  So with my ego on full blast, I instead pulled into the left lane to go around him, honked my horn and proceeded down the road at 80 kph.

Well, this obviously pissed this guy off, because he proceeded to gun his engine to catch up to me and followed me extremely closely, in an aggressive manner.  I got to the next stop sign, took my usual left turn onto a 50 kph road; he followed. The guy continued to tailgate me closely, but I think going exactly 50kph was too slow for him, because he quickly pulled out to get around me, screeched his tires and sped away.

We never spoke and I never saw him again.  I don't think that man lived at that house either; I've driven past it on hundreds of occasions since then and have never seen this guy's car in the driveway.  Nevertheless, almost every time I was in my car alone and drove past that house my mind would replay the events. I would often think about what I would have said to this guy had I decided to, let's say, stop my car and get out and ask him "what's your problem?"  I'd run through scenarios and what he'd probably say or do, and what I'd say or do in return.  It's ridiculous, but this was the type of thing that my brain often did — it would have these imaginary arguments that never happened. *facepalm*  I was a Brooder and Holder of Grudges of the highest class!

So on one of these many days when this imaginary argument played out in my head, and I was busy getting myself all riled-up, it finally struck me: "Why do I do this to myself?" But instead of asking me I asked the passenger. I asked that voice that whispers at your ear.  The voice that comes from the part of yourself that is based in fear; that primordial part of your brain that is based in survival and fight-or-flight levels of thinking. "Why do you do this?"  "What do you have to gain by reliving this scenario over and over again?"  "Why replay a scenario that has not and will not ever happen?"  "Why relive such negative emotion for no reason?"  "How does this help?" "Is it helping you accomplish anything?  Because it sure doesn't seem to be helping me do anything but feel like shit every time I drive by here..."

And you know what?  There was only silence.  There was no response. No retort. No explanation.  Just silence.

The passenger, you see, can only make suggestions.  If you ask it to explain itself, it won't answer.  It can't answer.  It is not coming from a place of logic and reason.  It's not that evolved. Its messages are solely based on autonomic responses to outside stimuli.  Fear-based.  Fight or flight. Its messages are also often limiting, like thoughts of self-doubt and possible negative outcomes that keep us from taking risks.  It also likes to create mental roadblocks to keep us from considering ideas that poke holes in our currently held views. it's at this point that I feel the need to assure my dear readers that I'm not suffering from an onset of schizophrenia.  I'm not talking about some disassociated voice directing me to do things with verbal commands that I can hear in my head like a phone conversation. What I'm talking about is the voice that we all have inside our heads.  The voice that speaks in the first person.  The voice that says "I'm hungry", "I'm tired," "this feels nice," "I think that's weird," "I'm not so sure about this," "I don't like this." And it's not like we "hear" these things said outright in words in our brains; these are things we just kinda...well....think.

I believe that there are actually two places from which thoughts arise:  There are the lower, reactionary, automatically and anatomically-based thoughts — i.e. the "I'm hungry", "this is scary", "I don't like this" kind of thoughts; these come from your passenger.  Then there are the thoughts that are capable of higher thinking — it's the part of the mind that analyses why you're hungry, scared, or repulsed by something.  It's also the part of the brain that is creative, inquisitive, inclusive and expansive. It's the part that thinks outside the box and considers different and new ways of looking at things.

To me the passenger is just an organ, much like a liver or spleen; it has its function. I also believe that most of us humans confuse it with our true consciousness/enlightened mind/observer mind (I'm still trying to think of a term for this, but let's go with the "observer mind", the "OM").

I believe the OM is our true selves.  It is the consciousness that inhabits our blood and flesh shell.  Our body is the vehicle of our OM — it is a biological machine that the OM inhabits. The OM is what no longer presents itself after the body expires — some might say it is what "leaves the body" when we die. I suppose it is what some would call "the soul".

The passenger however, is just another organ that sends us messages — it's just a part of our brain that receives data from our other organs and then takes the data and sends you a message to let you know.  The thing is the passenger often makes rash, uninformed decisions about what this data means. To make matters worse, the passenger's messages and the thoughts of the OM come through the same "pipe" and in the same "inside voice", so we often fall under the illusion that these thoughts are both coming from the same place.  After all, there are thoughts being generated in your head and they are coming from your brain, which is part of your body.  So that's you having those thoughts, right?

Have you ever had someone say something or do something that triggered an automatic, angry, obstinate response that you later regretted, having realised that what you said in anger was completely wrong and out of line? But at the same time it felt so "right" when you said it, didn't it?

Even crazier, have you ever regretted a comment you made at the exact moment that you were making the comment itself?  It's like you are feeling hurt, analysing what was said and formulating a regrettable response and finally saying it, yet at that exact moment you are also thinking "shit, I shouldn't be saying this". It's like a movie playing out in first person with director commentary: "Now here's where the protagonist puts his foot in his mouth..."

So, who's controlling your mouth?  Who's making your brow furrow and bringing blood to your face and making you express an angry "thought" towards that other person?  And who's saying "shit, I shouldn't be saying this," at the very same time?

The seeming ability of the human mind to observe its own thoughts is so deliciously paradoxical.  You are, in effect, using your mind to think about how your mind thinks. You are using thoughts to observe your own thoughts.  It's like an Escherian stairwell of the mind.  If it is you having those thoughts, then who is it that is thinking about those thoughts?

This is a question for the ages and certainly I am not the first to ponder it; this ego/higher-self dichotomy is present in many of the ancient philosophies and practices of the East. I also believe that the many great teachers of history (Buddha, Christ, Baha'ullah et al) were simply regular flesh and blood humans that managed, through consistent and thorough inner-reflection, to be able to more accurately identify each "thought" for what it was, making them able to choose the "higher" or "enlightened" response throughout most of their lives.  And like many aspects of the human condition, I believe humans lie on a spectrum between being directed by the passenger and the OM, and I believe that this can change and fluctuate in the micro (from minute to minute) to the macro (over a person's life time).  I think that most of us slide more towards the OM side as we age, just simply because of knowledge accumulated via experience.  Some of us get closer than others before we die. Some of us reach the OM state earlier in life than others.

So getting back to my mind-hack: That day, when I first asked the passenger to explain herself and realised that she could not formulate a response, I gave my passenger a name.  Her name is Naggy Maggy.  I found that giving her a name helped me to further separate her thoughts from my OM. It gave my passenger an identity and made it more comfortable to have dialog with it.

Once I had given my passenger a name, anytime I found myself playing out negative scenarios and conversations in my head I would call her out and say "Hey. Maggy. Cut it out."  And she would stop.  Often a few minutes later I would be caught unawares and Maggy would start nagging again, so again, I'd talk to her and ask her why she was persisting in bring up whatever thoughts she was bringing up and I'd remind her that the scenario she was playing out wasn't actually happening and that there was no point in creating this anxious state. Making me feel anxious was not helping anything, in fact it was only making my current state worse.  And she would stop.

And this helped me greatly at night too.  I used to be a person that would have racing thoughts at night that would keep me from from sleeping. For a while when I'd go to bed and those thoughts would start up I'd say "Maggy, I don't want to think of this stuff right now. I'm tired and want to sleep.  I can't fix these problems at this very moment and all you are doing is keeping me from sleeping."  The first time I did this, Maggy stopped and immediately after I said this (and much to my surprise) I yawned.  It's like I reminded my body that I was tired and it said "yeah, you're right I am tired, let's do this," and I passed out.  Now I don't have to do anything more than tell her "I'm not thinking about this right now. I'm going to sleep." It truly is magical.

I first named Maggy about a year and a half ago and since then I've found I have to speak to her less and less and I rarely even call her by name.  I just speak to her directly: "Nope. We're not going there." "Now, you know that doesn't make sense." "What are you basing that opinion on?" etc...

Now, I am by no means a master of my passenger and I get tripped up all of the time.  It's one thing to talk to Maggy while driving my car, alone in my thoughts. It's another to try to observe and react while interacting with someone else.  This, my friends, is still a great challenge for me.  It's challenging enough to recognise the passenger's thoughts when they arise, but to do so while also speaking (especially when speaking of things I feel passionately about) feels to me like learning to pat your head while rubbing your tummy.  Having said that, like patting your head and rubbing your tummy, with enough practice it is possible to do it, and I'm happy to say that I am at the point in my life where I appreciate the practice.