I love the metaphor of being in an interdependent web. A web, something that spans, something that entangles, something that entirely affected when a small piece is. You know what that metaphor is missing?
Webs exist so that spiders can kill and eat. Sure, the gentler metaphor interpreters among us will say “webs provide us nourishment”, but that’s a rather disempowering and passive approach. Someone, something, created the webs in a context not created by them. The spider is responsible for the web, though not the trees, not the twigs, not the wrought iron slats of my apartment’s porch. The spider exists because it created the web to capture everyone else. If we exist in a web, it’s because our days are numbered, and though we feel the hum and the vibration of the rest of the activity, the dominant activity is the spider walking over to transform something living into a meal.
That “web” has come to be a metaphor of interconnectivity is ironic to the fact webs are predatory tools.
I have years worth of experiences where I meander into social spaces of people who I thought should be my tribe, usually for some sort of political or change-oriented group, and I’m blatantly an outsider. We speak the same language, we share the same values, we see the same visions, but the thread that actually does the connecting appears to be missing. Like we’re spiders of the same species but our silk won’t stick.
Semi-recently I had this experience where discomfort was encouraged because we were doing something bold. I felt uneasy the whole time, but it wasn’t fear. Fear and I go way back. Discussed it with friends, my actual tribe, and they summarized with “it’s not you, it’s them.” The key part being that there was a distinction of the me and the them, which played out in the uneasy and problematic ways my own contributions laced together (or didn’t) with the rest.
I feel it in so many of these groups that I otherwise should belong to, whose books read like something I’d have written, whose events feel like something I’d have organized. And I’m baffled, wondering why the water everyone is drinking tastes toxic only to me. The answer is that it is, in fact, just me, that there’s more to connection than affinity, agreement, and a similar vision. I leave the experience feeling alienated again, wondering what’s wrong with me.
And my friends look at that and go, “Nah. It’s them.” They think the water is toxic too.
There is a politician in my area who isn’t know for their magnanimity. Some of the stuff they say is downright awful, and many of their ideas play on tired tropes of pre-existing social order, and are insulting to boot. There was an advocacy group that tried a social media campaign to accomplish… something, I don’t really remember what, or why, but they wanted people to post selfies with handwritten signs expressing their outrage. (Remember that era?) As I recall, and it’s been awhile, most of the faces were the Usual Suspects of Buffalo’s left. And one of the things mentioned over and over again – why aren’t liberal politicians saying something? Is it because they contribute to their campaigns?
I was discussing this politician with another former politician, who told me that Mx. Non-Magnanimity is substantially funding some charities very quietly. They contribute to a lot of things but doesn’t take credit. Former Politician knew this, because they too had been around a long time. So while when Mx. Non-Magnanimity is bad, they’re bad, but it is worth noting that they are not allll bad as the campaign against them would have seen.
The former politician enlightened me to a perspective that I’ve thought a lot about since: everyone I share the city with? I’m sharing the city with them forever. People rarely move out. Politically active people, people running programs, anyone who would be broadly considered in the “change-making” set are probably firmly anchored into place. If I make an enemy, I’m going to keep them for a long time. And likewise – if someone makes me an enemy, I’m just as anchored. My mindset shifted from more goals oriented to, “Well, if we’re on this long train together, I guess I might as well get to know you,” and it’s helped considerably with my patience for general human foibles.
Boundaries. I used to make the mistake of being too open; now I err towards the side of Fort Knox. It’s not you; it’s me. Younger me did not have a good sense of responsible relationship, a fact I learned the Hard Way. Given two options of error, I realized that making the former mistake risks my close relationships. Openness defines those who are close to you. Secrets are the currency of intimacy. Relationships differ for a reason. The latter mistake might have opportunity costs in friends, but if you have a lot of friends anyway, that does not seem so bad. And it’s certainly more responsible. So post-Hard Way, I became more reserved, and very hesitant to be vulnerable to strangers in any meaningfully risky way.
When you have a boundary, you spend a lot of time policing it – a thing I’ve learned is that people are always pushing. I push back. You can sink a lot of effort into keeping these fences up, and it can affect how you see and interact with the world at large. Suspicion is the default because human history is pretty much a list of times people treated each other badly. The more closed I am, the safer I am, but more risk adverse. Risk aversion is hardly good leadership or visionary thinking. Closedness preserves that status quo, keeping all its problems intact. Openness is required but it remains risky. It’s so tempting to retreat to your tribe.
We cut society into our people and those people. Everyone does it. Even the most supposedly open progressive people do it. The people who are kindest to most people simply drew their boundaries broader than is typical. But make no mistake – there is a boundary. I’ve yet to meet a person with a line that didn’t have someone on the other side. And that doesn’t mean it is not a wise thing to do. People do, turns out, treat each other badly. It is a fact that means we are going to continue to have many of the same conflicts over and over again. Shuffle the deck, switch the population, and history replays the same fights with its new cast of characters and their new technology.
It has consequences. My street has a few households that are only here because there were wars in the former Yugoslavia over the boundaries of ethnic belonging. Over a few blocks, the refugees fled the Middle East. Another block, Africa. I am watching people in my country become increasingly open about their loathing of Muslims, Mexicans, and African Americans. “Eh, that’s just so-and-so,” I hear a lot. I’m worried. These prejudices have more power than labeling them as simply unpopular opinions would suggest. Fed and nourished, these opinions kill. If that weren’t true, I would have never met the people I have the pleasure of sharing my city with.
Orb-style webs are usually constructed out of a radial pattern of non-sticky silk united by a swirl of sticky silk. That sticky silk is what catches the prey. Most of it isn’t meant to be sticky. I suppose the best part of the metaphor would be to liken ourselves to the strands of non-sticky silk, affected by the sticky uniting silk. Yet. We’re animate. We create. We link together. We divide. We’re less entangled in a unified web so much as we are the spiders weaving the web, creating the contours of its boundaries, deciding how big and how broadly it will span, and what we’ll kill after it enters it. If we are in an interdependent web, it is because we built it, and there is a great deal of power in that. We can build our webs broadly, narrowly, and as collaborative efforts.
We’re not the web, we’re the spiders.