Relativity is a Matter of Perspective

There’s something that seems soft or overgenerous in saying that everyone’s perspective is valid.

It is, I suspect, the kind of thing that everyone feels they’re supposed to say but which nobody actually believes. Perhaps everyone should get a trophy for participation, but at the end of the day, there is only one Truth. There is still Right and Wrong.

And while I am as struck as anyone by the impulse to define an absolute Truth, the answer is clearly elusive. And, indeed, relative.

In physics terms, for example, the relationship between an observer and an object is critical.

Existence doesn’t happen in vacuum, after all, and understanding Relativity is all about understanding how objects appear relative to each other. This, incidentally, is totally different from the Observer Effect, which demonstrates that observing an object can cause it to change.

If one person is moving near the speed of light and the another person is moving at so-called “normal” speeds, they will see some strange things occurring.

Time will appear to move at different speeds for each party. The faster moving object will appear shorter from the perspective of the slower moving observer.

The beauty about this effect from is that it is far more complex than a trick of the eye. Indeed, you can see the effect foundationally in the mathematics of the universe.

The equation for length contraction, for example, looks like this:

Where L is the observed length, L0 is the length at rest, v is the relative velocity between the observer and object, and c is the speed of light.

What you can see here is that there is nothing special about the speed of light per se. That is, there’s not some “normal world” and some crazy “speed of light” world.

Rather, there is a continuous change in length which is entirely dependent on the relative velocity, v.

When an object is moving at the same velocity as an observer, v=0, then the observed length, L, converges to the length at rest, L0. When an object is moving at the speed of light relative to a stationary observer, v=c, then the observed length converges to 0.

It is nonsensical to ask the object’s True length.

There is no such thing as its True length. Only the length as measured by an outside observer moving relative to the object at velocity v.

All lengths, 0 to L0 are equally True.

For every day purposes, we may choose to declare an object’s rest length as its True length. But that is essentially an arbitrary decision. It is the same as declaring that an object’s True length is the length I most typically observe it to be – even if someone else might typically observe a different length.

And here we get back to the challenge of different perspectives in a social science context.

If my observations tell me that one thing is True, and your observations tell you that something else is True, there is nothing at all soft about declaring both perspectives equally valid.

Just like the length of an object, the truth is relative.

Of course, just because the length of an object is variable, doesn’t mean there are no constants to grab hold of.

The speed of light, c, is a constant (in a vacuum) as you may well know.

But c is not a just constant because there is something special about light. It’s not just that there is a maximum speed at which a mass-less object can hurl through space.

Rather, there is a fixed ratio between distance and time. What happens to one effects the other.

If you and I are moving a different speeds and observing some third object, we may see different things. We may observe the object to have different lengths or see time to be passing differently.

But we can understand the difference in perspectives. We can discover the underlying constant and definite the continuum on which both our realities are equally True.

Hosting Former Congressmen

I’m excited today and tomorrow to be hosting a bi-partisan delegation of two former Congresspeople through a partnership between Tisch College and the Stennis Center for Public Service Leadership.

The Congresspeople we are hosting are Ann Marie Buerkle (R-NY 2011-2013) and Bob Carr (D-MI, 1975-1995).

Congresswoman Buerkle was elected to represent New York’s 25th congressional district in 2010, which she served through 2012. She was a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, as well as the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. During her time in Congress, Congresswoman Buerkle was chosen to be the U.S. Congressional Representative to the United Nations.

Congressman Carr currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management where he teaches Ethics in Congress. For nearly two decades, Mr. Carr stood out as a principled, thoughtful advocate in Congress where he focused his energies on the intersection of technology and public policy, including fighting for arms control in foreign policy.

I watched a man get on the bus yesterday and give a nonchalant, “Hey mom” to one of the other passengers.

She didn’t respond.

I assumed I’d misheard.

He turned to me and said hey something, so I said hey back.

You’re going to be my sister, now. He told me.

Okay. I said.

Hi, sister! He said.

Hey! I said.

Then he started quizzing me.

You’re my brother, I told him.

(This answer took a little while because questions like who am I? and who are you? Always throw me off. Who am I? I don’t expect to answer that with a name or a title.)

Who is she? He asked, gesturing to the woman he’d first woman greeted.

Sigh. She’s your mother, too, you know.

Okay, I said.

Who is she to you?

She’s my mother, I said.

Yes! We’re one big family, he said.

Our mother was not amused.

She remained silent, but if she had chosen to speak at this time, I imagine she would have said something like, Why is there talking now?

Who is the bus driver? The man asked me.

I wasn’t sure, but a quick look to the front of the bus told me the driver was an African American man about my age.

He’s my brother, I said.

Right! The man said. We’re one big family.

Yeah, I’d gotten that.

And there’s our family dog! The man added, pointing out the window to a Golden Retriever.

Oh good, I said. I’m glad our family has a dog.

And then it was time for me to get off the bus.

I wished the man a good day and he wished me a good day.

I said thank you to bus driver.

The driver smiled and nodded – Have a good day, sister! He said.

Yeah, you too, brother!

I’m Too Snarky…

I’m too snarky for my life my life my life
Yeah baby
So snarky I might be sick
I shouldn’t be let out in public
I’m too snarky for my shirt
Too snarky for even for snarky shirts
So snarky it hurts
And I’m too snarky for the webs
Too snarky for webs
Snarkier than all the Interwebz (Is that even possible?)
And I’m too snarky for your party
No really I’ll laugh inappropriately at your party
I’m a total snark you know what I mean
And I can’t keep my snarky comments inside
Yeah inside, yeah, inside
I just can’t keep the snarky comments inside
I’m too snarky for my bike
Too snarky for my car
Too snarky by far
And I’m too snarky for my hat
Too snarky for my hat
What do you think about that? (What’s that even mean?)
I’m a total snark you know what I mean
And I can’t keep snarky comments inside
Yeah inside, yeah, inside
I just can’t keep the snarky comments inside
I’m too snarky for my
Too snarky for my too snarky for my
‘Cos I’m a total snark you know what I mean
And I’m always getting myself in trouble
Yeah in trouble in trouble, yeah
Because I can’t keep snarky comments inside
I’m too snarky for my cat
Too snarky for my cat
Good thing there’s no sexual metaphors about pussy cats
I’m too snarky for your pride
I’ve got to share the snark inside
And I’m too snarky for this song

The Right Message vs Effective Narrative

I was struck today by a feminist article pushing back on Emma Watson’s recent UN speech on feminism.

In case you missed it, Watson’s talk has been extremely well received as a powerful and moving declaration of the need to push past old stereotypes. Her speech was so powerful, in fact, that certain anti-feminism vigilantes have threatened retribution, presumably in the hopes of silencing her.

The feminist complaints from renown blogger Mia McKenzie continue an ongoing debate in the feminist world. For example, Watson’s line, “I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters, and mothers can be free from prejudice,” arguably implies that women are only definable insofar as their relationship to men. This male-centric approach ultimately does little to bring about the real change that is needed.

I was struck by this push back – in a sea of praise – in part because it feels like a debate over narrative and style rather than over ultimate substance.

I don’t mean that to demean the debate in any way – I work in communications because I believe that narrative and style are essential. But what I mean is – I suspect that if you put Emma Watson and Mia McKenzie in a room together (which would be amazing) they would generally agree about many things.

They might disagree on tactics and approach, but I suspect they would agree on outcomes.

Perhaps I am seeing something which is not there, but reading McKenzie’s response reminded me of the work of Nina Eliasoph, a sociologist who has done extensive field research with activist groups.

In private, activists would speak passionately about an issue, but in public, they would change their narrative. No longer passionate about the issue, they’d frame their concern as pure self-interest. Suddenly they were “just a mom protecting their kids.”

The reason behind this change in narrative is unclear, but Eliasoph observes this divergence again and again.

I am fascinated by this change in narrative. Whether it was an intentional media strategy or a subconscious shift, it seems to indicate a dissonance between their internal feelings and they way they feel the ought to articulate those beliefs.

In Eliasoph’s case studies, the change seemed to hurt the activists, as their passionate narratives were lost. But, of course, a carefully crafted media message can be beneficial as well.

McKenzie’s arguments are the inner voice of feminism. The voice that speaks with passion about the real abuse, the real trauma, that all women have suffered at the hands of men. The voice that proudly proclaims that the dominant narrative is not the only narrative, that fights back against the idea that women, people of color, LGBTQ communities, and more can only be perceived through this dominant narrative.

Watson’s voice is the public dialogue. The voice that raises critical issues and fights for a cause, but frames it in a way they think they can win.

If Emma Watson had given the speech Mia McKenzie wanted her to give, I’m not sure it would be so well praised. It would be, I think, too radical. Even if it would be right.

As it is, those at the outskirts are horrified to hear a woman share her voice at all. Watson gave a powerful speech, written to embrace the middle, written to welcome every self-respecting person to take arms in this fight.

So, perhaps it is reasonable to think that – even if McKenzie is ultimately right – Watson’s tactic is the right approach.

But Eliasoph’s research gives me pause. The activists who she saw play to the dominant narrative lost something in this shift. Their message was blunted, their passion obscure.

Watson certainly had plenty of passion in her speech, but I can’t but help wonder if she took the right approach in framing feminist in terms of men’s self interest. It feels like the right approach, it feels like the tactical approach.

But it sells humanity short.

And I’m not sure that is the right message to share.

On Hermits and Morality

I’m very concerned about the morality of being a hermit.

I’m not sure why exactly I am so absorbed by this topic, but I find it deeply distressing to imagine that hermits might not be moral.

In case this concern has never crossed your mind, I’ll start with some simplified arguments that being a hermit is indeed not moral.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to care for and support others. You can’t care for and support others when you’re a hermit, so it is not moral to be a hermit.

Perhaps it is every person’s moral obligation to be the best person they can be. Hermitage may have some benefit in this regard – time for silent, isolated meditation is well regarded as a tool for self improvement.

It is only because Siddhārtha Gautama meditated in isolation for 49 days and 49 nights that he reached enlightenment. Jesus wandered the desert for 40 days.

But this isolation of spiritual discovery is a temporary state. A deep breath rather than a permanent state of being.

After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha dedicated his life to traveling and educating. He had an obligation to share what he had learned.

Thoreau returned from the woods.

A temporary removal from society might be beneficial, but a permanent removal means never learning from another person. It means never being told you’re wrong. It means never having that creative tension between others that makes everyone better in the end.

And here we come back to concern of caring for others. Even if you frame that in the negative – a person’s moral obligation is to do no harm – by removing yourself from society you are doing harm. You are depriving others of your voice, your ideas, your perspectives.

The best solutions come from many voices. And every voice in unique.

Removing your voice from the dialogue not only degrades yourself, it degrades  the whole. In this sense, choosing a life of solitude is not moral in two ways – you lose out on the opportunity to improve through the work of others, and they lose out on the opportunity to improve through the works of you.

Thus, in many senses, an intentional choice to remove yourself from society is not moral. It causes too much damage to yourself and those around you.

There’s a lot about these arguments I appreciate. I believe everyone is a special snowflake. I believe that every voice matters. I believe that learning from others can make us our best selves and I believe that sharing our voice can help others, too.

But does it then follow that being a hermit is not moral? That interacting with others is the moral path?

I have trouble making that leap.

Morality implies judgement. Morality implies a Right and Wrong. But I am not prepared to judge those who isolate themselves – physically, socially, or emotionally – from society.

For myself, I am particularly interested in those last two pieces. It may sound odd at first, but anyone whose every felt alone in a crowded room can attest that the latter is indeed possible.

A common reaction to trauma is a sort of emotional isolation – a certain detachment that gives you just enough light to see the world, but enough protection not to face it.

For most of us, this is a temporary condition – the loss of a loved one can invoke an emotional shock which leaves you incapacitated and temporarily unable to process human interaction. You are not so much sad as dead inside.

This is normal.

And it is difficult. But for most of us, this shock fades. These wounds heal.

But I’m not sure the process is so simple – if you’ll forgive that word – for those who have faced deep, lasting traumatic experiences.

If there reaction is to shut themselves off as a result of this trauma. If they find the world and their reality too much to bear, who am I to judge them? Who am I to tell them they are wrong.

Arguably, social integration is the healthiest thing for them, but that’s a far cry from saying it is the moral thing for them.

That feels like to heavy a demand, too high an expectation, too much to ask from someone to whom we should be showing nothing but support.

Everyone has their different paths. Everyone has their different journeys. Life is hard, and I don’t know what’s moral.

I only know we do the best we can.

A Facilitator’s Obligation to Social Justice

I spent my weekend in a facilitation training with an impressive group of people from across my university community.

Over the course of two full days, we were introduced to a specific facilitation method of Reflective / Structured Dialogue.

All of us were there as people. As members of a shared community. As individuals who felt that dialogue is an important groundwork, an important foundation for shared understanding.

And mutual understanding really is the goal of the facilitation technique we studied.

As many in the Deliberative Democracy world have told me, mutual understanding is a critical and foundational goal. People with opposing ideas and opinions may not come to find common ground, they may not come to agree. But well-structured dialogue can help them lower the rhetoric. Can help them humanize each other.

Can help them find mutual understanding.

A common push back to this approach is the question, “is dialogue enough?” For those of us with a bias for action, it can be daunting to imagine having whole series of dialogues organized for no other purpose than to talk.

I mean, I’ve been in many a meeting which seemed to have no point at all, and doing this as a past time doesn’t necessarily seem like an optimal thing to do.

But whether it is “enough” or not, it is clear to me that dialogue is important.

Unlike a meeting that goes off the rails, a well-facilitated dialogue feels like a productive use of time.

You may not plan a boycott or complete a power analysis, but you get to know other people. Really get to know them. As people.

You remember that it’s an amazing experience to be genuinely interested in learning more about someone and to have them genuinely interested in learning more about you.

That can be a powerful experience.

And it’s an important experience. It’s what makes a community a community, and not just a fractured network of factions.

The role of the facilitator in these meetings is intentionally agnostic. They layout a structure, they keep time, they help the group agree to norms and keep the group honest to those norms.

Their role is to serve the interests of the group.

In many ways, this is how we’re used to thinking of a facilitator, and in many ways this structure makes good sense.

When you’re bringing together a polarized group, for example, it seems important that the facilitator be a neutral party, someone who can honestly and equitably enforce the ground rules a group sets for itself. Someone who can generate an unbiased calm and keep the group focused on the seemingly simple task of mutual understanding. Of getting to know each other as people.

And while in theory, that all sounds great, I can’t shake the question: Does a facilitator have an obligation to social justice?

Someone truly committed to the neutral facilitator model would say no. The facilitator has an obligation to the group, to help the group achieve mutual understanding. That understanding will ultimately serve social justice, as people from divergent views learn to humanize each other.

But the facilitator’s primary obligation is to the group, and that requires the facilitator stay neutral.A facilitator might call someone out for not speaking with respect or for not speaking from their own experience, but a neutral facilitator wouldn’t point out the fallacy in someone’s argument or the structural privilege that helped build their view.And in many ways, that seems like the right approach. A well structured dialogue might help someone realize – truly, for themselves – their structural privilege. And that self-realization serves social justice better than any well-intentioned condemnation ever could.But I feel a facilitator’s obligation to social justice goes deeper than this. I think not of polarized groups, but of groups where people’s views are too similar, or where people are too polite.A key step in the Reflective / Structured Dialogue approach is to open with a question that everyone can relate to, that get us all through personal stories, to recognize our common humanity.But recognizing our shared experiences should not lead to an expectation that our experiences are the same.I may have occasionally felt like an outsider. You may have felt like an outsider every day. I may have occasionally felt misrepresented. You may have felt misrepresented every day.Recognizing those common experiences is critical to developing humanized relationships, but social justice means recognizing that a common experience doesn’t imply a comparable existence. It means recognizing that deep systemic inequality, has dramatic outcomes for our different life experiences. It means recognizing that I may able to hide my deviance from social norms, while you may not. And while shared experience is important, the frequency and intensity of those experiences is important, too.I think it’s great to start with a question that everyone can relate to, that opens the door to mutual understanding.But I think a facilitator does have an obligation to social justice and, once commonality is recognized, has an obligation to ask next, how are those experiences different and why are they different? What has shaped our experiences and shaped our world?And, of course, a facilitator must ask, how can we all work together to positively shape the experiences of those who follow ?

Choosing charities

When I decided to be grateful to non-profits for five days, I was faced with the challenge of determining which organizations to support.or

As it happens, I had an immediate sense of which organizations to highlight and in what order to highlight them in. I was surprised by how quickly I made this decision, but I also had a lot of doubts.

My list includes no public health organizations. No cancer research, no domestic abuse prevention, no mental health support. Those are important issues.

My list includes no civil rights organizations – organizations which fight for social justice, sure – but, no organizations explicitly and solely focused on civil rights. That work is desperately important.

My list includes no environmental or animal rights organizations. That work’s important, too.

And only one organization on my list – the last I got to – works on issues of extreme, global poverty – arguably the first cause a person ought to care about. After all, isn’t saving a life more important that improving a life?

I rather felt that I should debate the merits of each organizations and each type of work before making a final determination on which I should highlight.

But just the thought of that made me exhausted.

I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Why not just do it? So I followed my plan and implemented my instinct, but the whole time I wondered if that was Right.

I still don’t have the answers and I still don’t have the energy, but it feels like an important question to keep asking.

I like to support organizations in my immediate community. I like to support organizations whose work I can engage in. I like to support organizations which are terribly small and woefully under resourced. Organizations which could never afford to have me on their staff.

And maybe that is wrong. Maybe that’s not ideal. Maybe I should give all my money to Oxfam or another aid organization. Maybe I should worry first only about saving a life.

But.

As much as that sounds right, it doesn’t feel right.

That work is important. But this work is important. So much work is important.

There is too much, too much, wrong in the world to only focus on one issue. I can’t solve all the world’s problems, but I can try to chip away at a few. And that work is important.

I am reminded of a story someone once told me about a young man who met the Buddha. The young man argued that he shouldn’t give away his money, that he should use it to improve his station, thereby allowing him to give more money in the future.

Perhaps, the Buddha replied. But the people need it now.

Humanitarian work is critically important. We should all give to support that work as much as possible.

But we can’t do just that. We can’t ignore the other suffering in the world. We can’t turn our backs on those who are ‘well-off’ only because they are not dying. We can’t do it all, but we can do what we can.

The work is important, and the people need it now.

Why you Shouldn’t Give Anonymously (even if it makes you feel like a tool)

I’ve been reflecting a lot on philanthropy the last few days – as I’ve been posting about organizations whose work is important to me, I’ve also been making donations to each of those organizations. In case you missed it, here are a few great organizations you may want to donate to:

Like many of you, I try to do what I can to improve my communities. I give time and energy, and I also give money.

But that last bit always seems a bit awkward.

You don’t talk about money in polite company, after all.

I mean, there’s something that feels a bit audacious about philanthropy. As if giving money, even to organizations doing important work, is this wildly extravagant thing. And sharing your donation publicly – well, you might as well just admit that you’re really in it for the glory.

Or, at least that’s what I thought before I started working for non-profits.

Initially, I suppose, I thought giving anonymously was more altruistic.

There is of course, a rich philosophical literature about the nature of altruism and whether such a state even exists, but I’ll neglect that debate here, and simply say that my gut instinct told me that anonymous giving was somehow better. Somehow more noble. The route of those who cared about the work more than they cared about their ego.

So I was somewhat taken aback some ten years ago, when I overheard a development colleague comment that he was trying to convince a donor not to give anonymously.

I was surprised.

A Good person would give anonymously. Why would this fundraiser want to degrade that humility?

I was able to stick around for their reasoning – which I didn’t quite buy at the time – and heard him explain that putting a name to the donation would have a positive impact on other donors and prospects. It would increase the fundraising capacity of the organization, and ultimately, provide better support for the work.

To be honest, that sounded like one of those made-up reasons a corporate type might throw out to cover some deeper motive. Or maybe it was one of those things that only applied to rich, egoist types – if your rich, egoist friends see your name in lights, that will compel them to follow suit.

If that was the case, it still all came down to ego – even if you are one of those rare people who is not motivated by public recognition (or can sufficiently hide their glee at praise) – the reason to not give anonymously was so that you could play on the egos of others for the benefit of your organization.

That’s how I wrote it off at the time, but the incident has stuck with me.

And I think about it often as I make my own non-anonymous gifts to the organizations I care about. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I am just an egoist who really is in it for the glory, but on better days I think of it like this –

Supporting organizations doing important work is not some extravagant thing.

Not everyone has the capacity to do so financially, to be sure, but really, most people do. If you’re not trying to decide whether its the gas bill or electric bill to default on, if you’re not skipping meals because you can’t afford food. If you have the ability to buy something without doing the math on just how much that will leave you with –

Then you can afford to do something. Maybe not much, but you can do something.

Not giving anonymously makes me feel like a bit of a tool. It makes me feel like an egoist who is in it for the glory. But I continue to not give anonymously – not because I hope to manipulate other people’s egos, but because I hope to normalize that behavior.

Supporting organizations doing important work is not some extravagant thing.

It’s not for the rich. It’s not for the self-important. It’s for anyone who has the financial breathing room to spare.

So whatever organizations you support, give. Give publicly. Give at whatever level is meaningful to you, and help us all remember – philanthropy is not an extravagance. It’s an expectation.

Gratitude Challenge, Day 5: Oxfam

I’ve been called to the gratitude challenge, but rather than follow the rules I’ll be posting each day about an organization whose work I am grateful for.

***

I am grateful for the work of Oxfam. You can support this work here if you feel so moved.

One in eight people around the world are undernourished.

An estimated 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.

Of the 2.2 billion children in the world, an estimated 1 billion live in poverty.

That is not okay.

To be perfectly honest, I am most passionate about issues within my geographic community. I get most riled up by systemic injustice and entrenched discrimination within the United States. I put my personal energy towards working to improve the four square miles of Somerville, Massachusetts. And that work feels like an important use of time.

But that doesn’t mean I can just ignore the rest of the world.

For years I did anti-genocide work, particularly advocating to end the genocide in Darfur.

I am all for fruitless yet important labor, but never have my efforts felt so much like banging my head into the wall.

We’d raise awareness, share the stories of Darfuris and hear from Armenians, Jews, Rwandans, and others who had survived genocide. We’d pressure companies to divest and pressure congress to act. My former Congressmen and four of his colleagues were arrested protesting outside the Sudanese embassy.

But nothing ever changed. Not really.

Darfur was just another in a long history of human rights atrocities. An insidious problem from hell that was always surrounded by reasons not to act.

Well. This might be a little Walter Lippman of me, but I actually don’t think I’m in a position to do the best work on global affairs.

I suppose the work I did on Darfur was important, but if raising awareness is the most I can offer – I suspect there are better ways to do that than organizing events which only reach the same hard core activists who already care.

Not to be self deprecating, but I honestly don’t think I have enough expertise on global politics and international affairs to deeply engage in this work.

In Somerville, I work with small, on-the-ground non-profits. I like organizations where I can dive in and do the work, where I can add some experience and expertise, where my efforts can help them meet their goals.

I just don’t have that capacity when in comes to international work.

That might be one of the many things that makes me a terrible person, but I prefer to think of it like this: international work is just not my calling. It’s not where I can add the most value and it’s not where I should dedicate the majority of my time.

But I damn sure better make sure someone is doing that work.

I am grateful to Oxfam because they address on the ground, dire needs, and advocate for better policy to confront the underlying issues.

I am grateful to Oxfam because they do have the expertise to dive into these issues. To find solutions. To keep up the fight.

I am grateful to Oxfam because when a massive Ebola epidemic threatens many in the world, Oxfam can do something about it, while I can just sigh. And give money.

Just donating sounds kind of crass, perhaps, but sometimes it’s the best thing you can do. I’d gladly leave this work in their capable hands.