Inclusive Exclusivity - Self-Cancelling Greek Life And Our Broken Vocabulary Around Curation (Cafe Society Dinner Discussion #11)

The Wing's Mea Culpa, Sofar Sounds & Exclusivity/Curation vs. Elitism

Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team.

Hey everyone!

We’ve been working hard behind the scenes and we’re going to start dropping hints about what that final Maxwell experience will look like in each newsletter as we’ve been hard at work on interior design and much, much more. Before today’s post about whats happening in Greek Life, The Wing and more about Sofar Sounds, take a look at the first renders of the space we’re designing below :). We’re working with Matt Dennis @ Bolt Design Group, so serious credit goes to them for being our quarantine design buddies.

Now onto our update!

The Cut recently published an in-depth article about how Zeta Tau Alpha at Northwestern was seeking to disband itself after reflecting on Greek life as a facet of institutional racism post Black Lives Matter. A major criticism aside from charges of sexism and racism in the Greek system was that the institution itself was based on exclusion, and that, merely by virtue of having fees high enough to make membership not possible for everyone, was wrong.

The same day, Audrey Gelman published an apology about her time at The Wing, and The Wing posted their own acknowledgement and started laying out their pathway forward. Most of it was just fine, it sounds like The Wing did a lot wrong when it came to treating their employees & POC well. But the thing that stood out to me was again, the emphasis on inclusivity, specifically around affordability.

There were a lot of other problems with both organizations but the common theme seemed to be that even if they fixed most of them, even if there was no more overt racism and sexism, there was still a level of elitism and lack of inclusion that damned the entire framework and made it unworthy of saving based on our new understanding of the world. Anything that limited inclusivity was inherently bad. Exclusivity was inherently part of the white male patriarchy, by definition.

But exclusivity, or as I prefer to frame it, curation, is a necessary prerequisite for intimacy — as Michelle Obama once said “if everyone is family, no one is family” — and I can’t help but think the anger at these institutions perhaps has nothing to really do with the idea that they accept people and deny others, but because they have screwed up on many of the other things.

Exclusivity based on if you can afford something is not going away as long as we have a capitalist society. FOMO and exclusivity/curation is a natural part of how we gather, and trying abolish it is not a worthwhile endeavor, but the best institutions aim for a concept that I first heard expressed at Sofar Sounds — Inclusive Exclusivity.

Wasn’t Being Part of a Group of Exclusive Women The Entire Point?

The whole The Wing story struck me as odd because I remember my reaction when I saw their Series A deck a few years ago. This was the slide that stood out to me:

As a person ineligible to join I remember feeling an intense amount of FOMO when I saw that. That looks like a cool group! I’d love to hang out with them.

At the risk of mansplaining here — from my various conversations with insiders and members it seemed like the reason many joined was not the coworking space or the Feminism, it was to be part of a group of baller Girlboss women. The feminism always seemed like a nice way for some of those progressive women to rationalize paying that much — a feel good while doing good kind of thing, but I’m going to venture a guess and say that the real unsaid reason they joined was that The Wing made them feel special. The Wing made them feel chosen.

As of a few days ago it seems like The Wing is The Wing in name only, and I couldn’t help but feel as if it was almost like if Nike took their Colin Kaepernick/Social Justice focus of their ad campaigns too far sometime in the future and gave the impression that Nike was actually going to solve racial injustice, and when it blew up in their faces instead of leveling with people and going “Hey guys, sorry we gave you the wrong impression, we’re actually just a shoe company,” they instead went full Oprah and decided, “FREE SHOES FOR EVERYONE!”

The Wing made enough mistakes that what started as exclusivity and curation became something much more pernicious: elitism.

Pro Curation, Anti Elitism

When we first started workshopping Maxwell we continually said we were “Pro Exclusivity, Anti Elitism” and I’d go on to define that Exclusivity in its best form was just the desire to hang out with your people — every time you decide to invite your closest 5 friends out to dinner and not invite someone you don’t really know that well, you are being exclusive.

Elitism is exclusivity with a “I don’t want to hang out with you because I think I’m better than you” angle attached to it. It’s vindictive exclusivity. The worst forms of elitism are racism and sexism.

I felt that exclusivity & elitism had been unfairly conflated, but we’ve since stopped using the word exclusive because we realized that it created too many misunderstandings, and instead shifted our rhetoric in the direction of “curation.

We recognized that there is nothing wrong with curating a crowd for a social club or an organization based on shared interests, motivations, identities, and yes, even ability to pay. As long as we have a capitalist system, we’ve accepted that price discrimination is a valid form of discrimination. If you don’t like it, take it up with Marx.

There is nothing wrong with having a space for your people anymore than buying a house and saying “this is for my family” should open you up to criticism because you are using it “exclusively” for your wife and children. Anything intimate is intimate specifically because there are few people. You can’t have intimacy with some degree of curation or, dare I say, exclusivity.

The Wing played with fire, serving up a fudge sundae of curation with all the coolest women you’d want to hang out with, with the cherry on top of feminist activism so you could rationalize it a bit better and they could go a bit more viral, and when called out on the fact that the cherry on top was disingenuous, threw out the sundae instead of the cherry . . .

It showed, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of what made the whole thing go around in the first place — a sense of intimacy and curation (read: exclusivity). And The Cut article on Greek Life made it clear it seems to be a trend to try to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Anti-Greek Life Crusade

The assault on Greek Life hit more of a personal note from me as it’s one I have a lot more personal experience in — I helped reestablish the ATO chapter at UC Berkeley back in 2006, after rejecting joining an existing fraternity on campus because I didn’t drink (that didn’t last) and I was ethically against hazing (that did). Fun Fact: senior year South Park came out with an episode lampooning greek life with ATO at the center and the external of the house looked shockingly like ours. Our 15 minutes of fame.

I had an overall positive experience, but the problems around racism and sexism they mention in The Cut were real too — in a conversation that still sticks with me I once heard the preference to keep Asian member numbers lower, expressed by the Asian members of our fraternity after they felt we accepted too many Asian pledges. Better looking guys were prioritized for membership because they’d attract the girls in the hotter sororities. And anachronistic puritanical virtues of female purity mean that women aren’t allowed to throw parties in their sorority houses, I was told supposedly to “protect” them, which has a much more insidious effect that just being incredibly patronizing — it gives the men complete control over the social situation. All the parties are hosted by men, and many women decide the social ostracization simply isn’t worth calling out a guy for inappropriate behavior and just roll their eyes and eventually leave the system by junior year once they’ve established a social foothold at school.

I give those examples to just illustrate that I’m by no means a blind Greek life booster but again, the big argument that the women of Zeta Tau made that I disagreed with was that being exclusive, with high membership fees that not everyone could afford, was in itself, inherently just wrong.

It struck me that we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about how we let people gather in intimate, curated ways that foster a sense of belonging. Perhaps it’s because too often exclusive gatherings DO veer into elitism, as both of these institutions have, but I strongly believe that is NOT a forgone conclusion.

Inclusive Exclusivity & Sofar Sounds

Sofar Sounds runs pop-up concerts in people’s living rooms. Each concert is invite only, and as a regular host myself at one point I asked them how they think about driving FOMO and balancing that with the rhetoric around making music accessible to everyone.

They pinpointed a concept they called “inclusive exclusivity”.

At a system level was it was both exclusive — it’s hard to get into one a particular Sofar Sounds, playing off all of our natural FOMO urges, and inclusive —anyone can theoretically get into one and if you try long enough, you will get in.

The individual performance was also both exclusive and inclusive at the same time. It was exclusive because once you got in you felt special because not everyone could have the experience you were about to have THAT NIGHT. They could have a different experience kind of like it, another time. But you were still special. You were one of the select few who got to witness this particular performance, in this particular space, at this particular time.

That MOMENT and that ONE EXPERIENCE was exclusive to the outside, but because of the small nature and the structure of a Sofar Sounds performance (you’re sitting on the floor, there is often crowd participation), it’s very inclusive to people actually participating in it of course.

And on a mission basis Sofar Sounds is actually quite inclusive as well - they want as many people to experience the joy of music as possible.

The mere fact though that we’re mashing up two opposite words here, Inclusive Exclusivity, to convey this feeling that feeling a special sense of belonging doesn’t need to be predicated on literally telling someone else they can’t ever feel that either or don’t deserve to feel that means our vocabulary is truly broken.

Macro Inclusive, Micro Exclusive

It struck me that there is a third way between opening everything up to everyone and simply keeping traditional staid institutions & models — finding a way to have an inclusive system that allows for intimacy & curation (read: “exclusivity”) within it. Sofar Sounds as a system is incredibly inclusive. An individual Sofar Sounds event is incredibly exclusive. Everyone is welcome at Burning Man but people form their own camps.

The best social structures are dexterous enough to allow for both.

At Maxwell we’re trying to reframe social clubs to be around this idea of inclusive exclusivity - you may not be able to get into the Soho Maxwell, maybe it’s full or you just aren’t friends with those people. Or maybe you can’t afford it, but that’s ok because we’re creating a system within which multiple Maxwells can be started at various price points, demographic mixes and more.

I should mention that I actually consider Greek Life to have some of this structure already — there are 28 Fraternities on Berkeley’s campus and every year new ones get added and old ones die — ATO was one of those new ones 14 years ago. That part of the system actually supports diversity. But other parts of the system breed elitism, most egregiously sexism, removing women’s power to control their own social lives.

When it comes to The Wing and individual social clubs in general— at the very least don’t run away from exclusivity but try to find a way to create a system with inclusive exclusivity that doesn’t breed elitism.

Exclusivity/Curation and the Intimacy that comes with it is part of any good social structure, and we’re not changing human nature, so it’s time to stop talking about inclusivity vs exclusivity and start talking about Inclusive Exclusivity.

If you enjoyed our newsletter forward to a friend!

Have a great rest of the week!

David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle, Sidney & Dana