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There Is No Us Without A Them
How Toxic Inclusiveness Is Destroying Intimacy
Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s Whenever-I-Have-The-Time-To-Write magazine on the intersection of community, society, web3, F&B and more — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick and how tech is changing it, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team. Maxwell is building a new type of social club in Tribeca, check out the photos on Instagram.
When I was interviewed about Maxwell a couple months ago a reporter led me down a line of questioning I’ve become accustomed to:
“So this is an exclusive establishment, it’s not accessible to everyone?”
“So no one from the community can just walk in and have a drink, you guys will only be letting in a certain clientele.”
Am I understanding correctly that Maxwell isn’t for everybody?
I had to chuckle — the questions were so leading, us VERSUS the local community and in favor of a certain EXCLUSIVE group of people that it was clear there was an agenda.
I countered that we were providing a very affordable service when you factor in our price was the same as Soho House but you pay for your drinks and food as if you were at home, that our trusting model was only possible if you kept it to a small intimate community that bought in, and made sure to stress that it wasn’t about excluding others but about including a small intimate group and making them feel like they belong.
When I pointed out that anything with a cost is engaging in its own de-facto exclusivity, i.e. price discrimination — it’s not like Nobu or Balthazar was accessible to everyone — he insisted that no, no, when he was younger, even at the swankiest spots he could go in and just buy a cocktail and sit at the bar and be “part of that community.”
I had to contain a heavy eye roll.
To start, the tone deafness of the comment — the cocktails at a spot like Balthazar are still $25 and there are plenty of people living in poverty who aren’t shelling out that kind of money for a drink.
People tend to draw the line of what is acceptable inclusiveness right around where they can afford to engage and forget about anyone else.
It’s a facade of inclusiveness that bothers me because it’s disingenuous, “you can come . . . if you want to spend a day’s wage on a dinner.” Being theoretically possible is a flimsy defense if something is de-facto impractical.
But the bigger issue was that it reflected a gut reaction I’ve noticed in American society in particular — a rejection of any sort of private space that isn’t *technically* open to everyone and an obsession with making everything inclusive and “for everybody.”
This dogma prevents the creation of intimate social spaces by castrating the central tenet that all communities need to thrive — active curation.
By equating all explicit active curation with discrimination, by casting anything that is intimate as inherently elitist, we’ve created a toxic inclusiveness that prevents us from truly engaging in real community building.
But there is no us without a them — if everyone is family, no one is family — so why do we equate curation with discrimination?
Because throughout history they essentially HAVE been one and the same.
Our Traditional Organizing Principals - Class, Ethnicity, Sex & Belief
Most community institutions can be traced back to one or a combo of organizing principals that most of us currently find unacceptable but that made more sense 50+ years ago.
In the early 1900’s it was common for recent immigrant communities to congregate together in local ethnic social clubs — people forget that Italians and Irish used to not be considered “white” at one point in our society, and these clubs were “safe spaces” for many recent transplants who had to deal with rampant discrimination in their new home country.
But as many of these ethnicities became part of the “in group” the clubs became, at best, unnecessary, archaic or quaint and at worst simply served to enshrine power to a new segment of the elite.
Class systems similarly went out of style — in any capitalist system with a price of admission there will always be groups of similarly wealthy people congregating together, but it’s worth noting that at one point it didn’t matter if you were wealthy and accomplished if you were new money, “nouveaux riche.” Breeding, background and pedigree ruled the day.
Religious communities have also become less and less popular because their inclusivity was often an inclusivity of conformity — you are welcome as long as you are not gay, you are welcome as long as you live a traditional lifestyle, you are welcome as long as you accept the place of the man as head of the family. It’s a whole can of worms to open, and I realize there are more liberal and accepting denominations and I’m painting with a broad brush here, but I think it’s undeniable that the rise of secularism in urban areas has meant religion is no longer the center of many communities in the way it used to be.
And lastly . . .
From fraternities and sororities to all men’s social clubs it was common to divide the sexes based on assumptions that at their most innocuous assumed men and women just couldn’t be friends and at their most toxic that power was the arena of men. Not much more to say here, the very phrase “boy’s club” encapsulates it.
Many of these beliefs were often mixed and matched but they were almost always part of the way society proactively curated their communities — at old school British social clubs not only did you have to go to Eton and Oxford (class) but you also had to be male (sex) and white (ethnicity) . . . many of the “fraternal organizations” like Elks and Moose required you to be male and “believe in a higher power.”
So curation’s branding problem is that the vast majority of institutions that engaged in active curation actually DID discriminate based on class, sex, religion or ethnicity at one point — in some cases that was literally their entire point — so it’s not ridiculous to assume curation is just discrimination covered up.
But we still curate, we’ve just switched mechanisms to ones that aren’t so odious, and that, well, give us plausible deniability that that isn’t in fact exactly what we are doing.
The Switch to Self Curation
Instead of making curation rules explicit and actively choosing our communities, we’ve just started making them implicit and relying on people to self-sort based on time and money.
NFT “clubs” are a reaction to class — full of nouveau riche crypto millionaires who were not included in past “cool kids” groups that needed money + some other sort of pedigree, you are “selected” based purely on being able to afford a million dollar JPEG.
This allows them to say “all are welcome” with a straight face while glossing over the fact that well, not just anyone has $1,000,000 in disposable income . . . but they haven’t EXPLICITLY prohibited you from buying it (your bank account has!) so hey, they are inclusive.
Burning Man and festival culture, with its emphasis on inclusiveness and rituals is a reaction to religion, with a similar self-curation mechanism — work to build your art car, go put up with the dust for a week and you’re a “member.”
These curation mechanisms work to some extent — I haven’t been to Burning Man partially because I don’t really want to spend what little time I have off every year in the hot dust for something that is not really my vibe. I can’t afford a Bored Ape so I’m not part of that club.
But these institutions aren’t inclusive, they are simply relying on me to exclude myself because I can’t afford the commitment in time or money they require to be included.
When I wrote about Soho House I gave some begrudging credit to Whites, the oldest social club in London, for at least being honest:
"It’s easy to criticize those old school clubs. White’s, the all-male private club in London that has been around since the end of the 1600s is royalist, classist, regressive and sexist.
It’s not beyond the pale to imagine they are likely insufferable elitist assholes, but on one very specific and important metric White’s is honest — they are providing a real sense of community and intimacy and curation to a specific group of people.
And this is where I get frustrated with the (predominantly American) self-delusion — while I think the move AWAY from selecting on sex, class and race is undoubtably a POSITIVE thing, it’s not like selecting on having a ton of free time or a ton of money is exactly virtuous.
How many poor people can take a week off of work to build an art car in the desert? How many poor artists can buy into the Bored Ape Yacht Club community? How many single mothers of 5 who live in the Bronx make it down to Balthazar for a $25 cocktail?
We delude ourselves into thinking we aren’t selecting at all when in reality we’ve just offloaded the curation onto an external force so we can wipe our hands of responsibility for it.
But there is nothing wrong with active curation. We were just doing it wrong.
How We Make Friends
What does actively choosing your community in a non-discriminatory way look like?
It’s a scary idea, but we do it everyday — it’s called . . . wait for it . . .
If you’re doing it right, you select your friends for various reasons that have very little to do with time and money — maybe you resonate with one because of a shared sense of humor, another because of a shared history, another because of a shared activity, yet another because of a shared career or a similar sense of ambition.
If you’re doing it right, you don’t choose your friends simply because they could afford to make it to the yearly Cabo trip, or because they are free every Thursday or because they make enough money to afford fancy meals. Being rich doesn’t guarantee you aren’t an insufferable asshole, and having the time to show up to something doesn’t guarantee you are an interesting person (in fact, as we’ve elaborated in past articles, sometimes the two are inversely correlated!).
No. We explicitly and actively curate the group of guys grabbing beers on a Friday night based on who we like, and we don’t feel bad for not inviting that guy who makes fun of you at work even if he has the time to show up and the money to afford drinks — you have a right to spend time with people you love.
Explicit curation wasn’t ever the issue, it was the criteria we were using — actively rejecting friendships with anyone who wasn’t your own ethnicity or requiring those friends to have ancestors that got off the Mayflower.
There Is No Us Without A Them
It’s not a surprise that a society still reckoning with institutional discrimination based on how we looked or the way we were born isn’t comfortable discussing this. But you don’t have to be an elitist douchebag to not want a place that is for everyone, but just for us, and “us” can be defined by more variables than race, religion, sex or class.
By avoiding the issue, thriving communities often struggle to reach sustainability because self curation can work at the beginning of a community but rarely sustains it.
When something is unknown or niche enough, like Burning Man or the Crypto communities when they began, community members often have enough in common by simply having found the thing that they often come to the conclusion that self-curation is enough — everyone interested in crypto actually cares deeply about decentralized authority and everyone at Burning Man actually cares about art, expression and freedom.
But if a community is at all attractive it eventually grows out of self-curation — the luxury camps & tourists invade Burning Man, and the get-rich-quick schemers take over crypto.
Our inability to talk about how to actively tend to these communities leads to their demise — too scared of our own cultural history of active discrimination we insist to the last breath that we’re inclusive until no one wants to be included anymore.
In order to level up our communities we need to believe that we have evolved enough as a society to actively tend to a community without discriminating on the basis of sex, orientation, religion, race or class. In order to build new communities we need to embrace the complexity of a changing society instead of avoid it.
Maxwell embraces our role as an active curator — by keeping the community small and consistent, we unlock a level of trust that allows for self-serve honor code fridges and liquor lockers, allowing us to keep our staff costs 5x lower than a normal club and creating an environment that is more financially accessible for the people we determine are part of our “us.” Throwing open our doors to “everyone” would drastically affect our ability to provide that good experience to “us.”
And we don’t shy away from the difficult choice of figuring out who our “us” is — while it will not be based on race, sex, religion, orientation or class, showing up or being able to pay is also far from our only criteria for membership and we are interviewing every single member, twice.
If you can appreciate that, I hope you’ll take the time to figure out if we are part of your “us.”
David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle, Cara