Refusal is a Tactical Decision

This is the last of a three-part series on refusal. 

Part I introduces the idea that there are projects that should not be built.

Part II posits that refusing to do that kind of work, and risking financial loss, can powerfully perturb the status quo.

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Tactical Decision vs. Moral Imperative

In the last two posts I talked about the concept of refusing “bad” work, and how refusal to do certain types of work is a decision that may be able to perturb the status quo system and help move the world to a better place.

I want to stress that I think refusal is a tactical decision and not a moral imperative (truth be told, I’m not a fan of the concept of moral imperatives in general).

  • A moral imperative is an action that one ought to do no matter what.
  • A tactical decision is an action that one may do in a certain situation, with the hope of some tactical effect/outcome.

If it seems quite certain that no good could possibly come of some certain act of refusal, and in fact that the act would endanger the possibility of future, more likely impactful actions, then that act of refusal might be highly inadvisable.

We are in this fight to fulfill a specific vision (i.e., we aim to win), not to uphold some illusory notion of moral superiority. Moral superiority is a hazy realm to exist in. The vision of avoiding climate catastrophe and reversing ecosystem destruction is as clear a definition of purpose as we could ask for.

Doing some bit of distasteful work might be the ticket to get inside a particular system, or a means to make powerful friends. That position could grant powerful leverage to change the status quo and impact the world for the better. Not refusing can be part of a larger strategy as much as refusing can, and our struggle needs people inside the system just as much as it needs people outside the system.

I am not exhorting people to refuse debatably “bad” work on the basis of some moral evaluation. I’m exhorting people to examine the tactical and strategic power of refusal as an act of perturbation of the status quo. I’m trying to problemetize the prevalent justification that you have to take on the less good projects in order to be able to afford to work on the more good projects.

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I wish there was some simple formula, slogan, or 10 step list I could write that would make this issue black and white. The bummer and the beauty of reality is that it is complicated. There are no easy answers. Simple formulas and slogans are ideologically dangerous bullshit.

The question “Should I refuse to do work that I don’t think is good enough?” doesn’t have one answer. It’s going to be a judgement call every single time. Sometimes the call is going to be easy, and sometimes it is going to be hard.

For example, I would not work on a prison. That one is easy for me. If my boss told me I had to design a prison or he’d fire me, I’d pack up my desk up without hesitation.

Being asked to work on a LEED something-or-other luxury condo highrise in San Francisco, on the other hand, is a tough one for me. I don’t like luxury condo highrises. I don’t think the world needs one more luxury highrise. They shouldn’t exist. I want to help people, and more luxury condos is not the type of help I have in mind for wealthy people.

On the other hand, the demand for housing in San Francisco is way above supply. Everyone wants to live there and there isn’t nearly enough housing for all of them. That pressure is driving the cost of living up and up, forcing people who don’t make $90k or more out. The city is gentrifying. Providing more housing, even for the affluent, may help the less affluent afford to live in the city. The more luxury condos rich people are living in, the fewer affordable historic flats in the Mission they’ll force poorer tenants out of, renovate, gentrify, and occupy.

Ultimately, the idea of designing more stupidly opulent environments for rich people to fill with pointless luxury consumer goods is odious and I just really want to have nothing to do with it, LEED rating notwithstanding.

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I touched on this earlier but it bears repeating: it is easy for me to talk about risking financial ruin as a young white male with no dependants. I can afford to engage in risky behavior because I am priveleged. A single mother with two children cannot responsibly take risks with her source of income. She has two little humans to feed, clothe, and look after. It would be rediculous to wag a finger at her and judge her for not refusing to do work.

Refusal is a tactic that is not equally available to everyone. I do think that people who are in situations similar to mine have a responsibility to seriously evaluate refusal as a tool to further their vision of a better world.

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