The piano-tuning metaphor for social justice

So, as one does, I found myself watching videos on YouTube about how to tune a piano. We moved into this house 10 years ago and I don’t think the piano has ever been tuned since we moved, and I have a good ear and a tuning wrench, so I thought I might give it a shot.

Now, I don’t know how much time you’ve spent staring into a piano, but they’re complex. Up to 12,000 parts to make 88 notes. But those 88 notes are not made of 88 strings. Only the lowest notes have only one string. The higher up you get, the more strings per note. Most of the piano has two or three strings per note.

You can imagine that tuning a beast like this takes a lot of time and careful attention. The strings don’t go out of tune together as a unit most of the time. They slide a little here, a little there. They stretch unevenly.

I’ve always been lucky with this piano that it tends to slide uniformly, so it hasn’t sounded too horrible until recently. But sliding uniformly means that every single string is going to need tuning.

If you follow my blog, you know my stamina is not large. So I’m tackling this an octave at a time. At most, 36 strings to adjust. Even that may be too much to take on at once.

You see, when there are three strings for one note, things get tricky. You can’t tune all three at once. You can’t even analyze the pitch of all three at once accurately, there are too many overtones. While pressing one single key leaves every other key muted… it lets three strings ring at once when the hammer strikes. We literally have to mute two strings to listen to and tune the third.

So I have a piano wrench.

I have mutes on sticks and little wedges and a long felt strip.

In order to fix each string, we must not hear all the other strings. And there’s a conundrum in that my children are noisy, the phone tuner is sensitive, and I can’t even accurately assess the problem with each string until I’m allowed to completely focus on it without distraction.

Fixing each string’s pitch is hard. The tuning pegs are incredibly stiff (they have to be) and hard to move. When they do move, they often move too far in one direction and have to be moved back in the other direction. The minute someone starts talking over (or in the case of one of my kids, absentmindedly singing along to) one of the strings, I have to stop, wait for the interruption to pass and the room to quiet, and then I can go back to work. My hands are not strong, my capacity to do more than a few strings at a time is limited…

But it is impossible to have a piano that sounds good when the strings are out of tune, and often during the process of tuning they sound acutely worse.

This isn’t a metaphor about conformity. It is a metaphor about the impossibility of fixing problems without clearly isolating and hearing what the problems are and taking the time to fix them them properly.

This is why we can’t lean on “All lives matter” when someone says Black Lives Matter. They started the conversation, if we want to fix the problem, we have to listen to them, and JUST THEM for a while. And just because problems of Black people and Asian people and Hispanic people in a racist society may be similar, and we may have to go through a lot of the same steps to fix them, they are not identical and we can’t dismiss one string as fixed just because we tuned a different one.

In the LGBTQUIA community, this is incredibly important. Marriage equality is super important. But it’s not the only string in the bundle, and when someone starts a conversation about Bisexual invisibility or Asexual inclusion, that doesn’t mean its okay to come in and derail that conversation by diminishing the issues at hand.

It means that it is inappropriate to derail a conversation about violence against women with “But men are abuse victims, too!” but we also CANNOT dismiss conversations about male victims of abuse when that topic comes up separately. We literally cannot fix violence against women without addressing violence against men, because it is nearly impossible to get someone to take a problem seriously if we ignore it when it happens to them. And if we have a conversation about domestic violence without specifying genders (which is a good idea!)… the conversation cannot fully address the issue as long as it pretends that the issue has only one string… straight couples in which the man is the abuser and the woman is the victim. There are dozens of strings on this note, and we must listen to them all and find the commonalty and fix them. Issues of abused men are a little different from abused women. Abuse victims in heterosexual relationships have different needs from those in same-sex relationships. Trans abuse victims have different experiences from cis abuse victims and children have different issues from adults.

We want to fix the whole piano. In fact, we NEED to fix the whole piano to achieve harmonious results. But there is literally no way to do it other than one string, one issue at a time.

Humans have an innate tendency to group things together, to categorize and sort. And many problems do lend themselves to grouping. But even so, we cannot assume that what fits one facet of a problem is going to work for every facet of a problem.

And ultimately, since tuning is an ongoing project, that requires frequent checking and adjustment, it means we have our strings… our threads of conversation, over and over again at different times. It’s not a one-and-done process. You will find a topic, a group of people listening to and talking about one issue… and it’s important to remember that derailing that topic slows the progress of everyone.

Does that mean we can’t talk about anything but one topic until that topic is fixed?

Nope. There are lots of us listening to a lot of different strings.

But it does mean that when you come across a group of people tuning a string, it’s an act of overt hostility to start singing another tune over what they’re doing.

You can make another string, another thread.

And you can listen to the work of the people who know the string in question… but if you aren’t in the group and aren’t interested in helping the group, literally anything you say is likely to further discord.

It’s also important to point out that there are a lot of parts other than strings. Hammers. Felt. Mute. Pegs. Soundboard. Keys. (More than that but those are the ones more people understand.) Solutions aren’t always simple. Not every problem that happens with a piano can be fixed by a wrench. If you don’t understand why a note sounds the way it sounds, your ability to improve the sound is going to be limited.

The goal is not to make every note sound the same… it’s to have their unique sounds blend to make a harmonious whole that can rise to the challenges and create music together.


Posted in Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Lessons for my kids, Life, Political.


    • It is extremely unusual for aware human beings to be unaware that there are different problems than their own. But there’s still absolutely no need to go in to “educate” people about other strings when they’re in the middle of trying to figure theirs out. That’s just not productive.

      Don’t assume that if they say, “We’re not worried about that” that it means “That’s not worth worrying about”. Don’t assume that if people say, “This is what we’re focused on” it means that nothing else should ever be focused on.

      There’s a time and a place to address a variety of issues. But coming into a Black Lives Matter group and talking about white people is the exact opposite of helpful.

      In my experience, Black Lives Matter activists are exquisitely aware of intersectional issues, and can and will show up for other groups when other groups are under attack. But they’re absolutely within rights to ask, “Where are you when we’re being killed?”

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