Category Archives: Citizens & Civil Society

Crime and Hate

Ally Lee Steinfeld had been missing since early September. Her body was found recently, mutilated and burned. She was 17.

Her death made Steinfeld at least the 21st transgender person killed in the United States this year. A record high of 22 murders were captured by the Human Rights Campaign last year.

We have to do better.

Steinfeld’s case is not being pursued as a hate crime. The sheriff overseeing the case told the Associated Press: “You don’t kill someone if you don’t have hate in your heart. But no, it’s not a hate crime.” That talking point was echoed by the prosecutor in the case, who told Time: “I would say murder in the first-degree is all that matters. That is a hate crime in itself.”

Perhaps this is accurate in a practical sense – in Missouri, where the crime took place, first-degree murder is punishable by execution or life imprisonment. A hate crime charge would be unlikely to add penalty.

Such comments, however, miss the point. A woman is dead. We have to do better.

Some advocates have even started to question whether hate crimes prosecution is an effective strategy. As one ACLU lawyer put it, “I worry that what hate crime laws do is narrow our focus on certain types of individual violence while absolving the entire system that generates the violence.”

And that’s the thing – it is a problem with the entire system. We are all culpable in perpetuating the gross transphobia of our society – through violent transphobic acts, through subtle jokes and misgendering, or by being complicit through silence while such hateful acts take place.

We have to do better.

Personally, I’m not prepared to abandon hate crime legislation just yet – whether adding to a punishment or not, ignoring the hate of a crime seems to implicitly indicate that while the crime may be punishable, the hate itself is sanctioned. But I’ve met a lot of good, smart lawyers who tell me that sometimes you have to sacrifice framing in the legal system – you go for the toughest penalty you can go for.

I do not know whether we can best accomplish our work through hate crime legislation or through other modes of advocacy. I only know that we have to do better.

We tell young women that they can be anything, that they can do anything. That they should shut down the haters and embrace their true selves. We tell women that it is their right in the 21st century to be the person they want to be. We tell them this is America. We tell them they are free.

Three months before she died, Steinfeld posted to Instagram: “I am proud to be me I am proud to be trans I am beautiful I don’t care what people think.”

We have to do better.


The Uses of Anger

“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” says Audre Lorde in The Uses of Anger, her 1981 keynote talk at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference.

I have been thinking a lot about this piece recently. It feels sharply relevant today, 36 years after it was written.

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger. An arsenal built from fear; from the constant slights and dismissals; from living and functioning in a world which takes us for granted, insists we are not enough, and half-heartidly feigns distress over the violence used against us. Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger.

I know I do.

Lorde argues this anger is a strength, that it has powerful, transformative uses. Anger, she argues, leads to change.

Importantly, in conflicts between the oppressed and their oppressors, there are not “two sides.” The anger of the oppressed leads to growth while the hatred of the oppressors seeks destruction. As Lorde writes:

Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.

Anger is the grief of distortions between peers. Anger arises when you and I fail to understand each other, when we fail to listen genuinely and to acknowledge each other’s experience. Anger arises when the world insists that your perceptions and experiences aren’t real.

It’s gaslighting on a societal scale.

But anger has it’s uses, Lorde says. “Anger is loaded with information and energy.”

Anger, articulated with precision and “translated into action in the service of our vision and out future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”

Anger at the distortions between peers creates space for us to clarify and remove those distortions; to genuinely accept the experiences of others.

This is particularly important in the context of gender because the experiences of women vary radically across numerous dimensions of race, class, and identity.

In order to successful use our anger, we must “examine the contradictions of self, woman, as oppressor.”

Lorde is diplomatic on the topic, recognizing that she, too – a lesbian woman of color – has at times taken on the role of oppressing other women. But drawing on my own identity, I’m inclined to be more direct here: white women, and particularly white cis women have played a long and important role in building and maintaining systems of white supremacy and cisnormativity.

We have suffered our slings and arrows, no doubt, and with good reason our personal arsenals are well-stocked with anger. Yet we, too, are oppressors. We have oppressed our sisters directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. Recognizing this is, as Lorde describes, a painful process of translation. But is a process we must undertake; a process we must engage in order to radically change the systems of power, privilege, and oppression we are embedded in; the systems which oppress us and our neighbors.

Furthermore, Lorde argues that anger can bring out this change – guilt at our own complicity does nothing:

I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.

Guilt is a proxy for impotence; for inaction. But anger is transformative. As Lorde writes:

…The strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform differences through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.


Labor and Civics

Earlier this week, we celebrated Labor Day in the United States – a day which only became a national holiday in the wake of the Pullman Strike; a dark ordeal in which 30 American workers were killed by U.S. Federal Troops.

Of course, most of the world celebrates the contributions of labor on May 1 – International Worker’s Day. But that was a bit too radical for the American palate, so sensible moderates – such as President Grover Cleveland, who authorized the use of force against American civilians during the Pullman Strike – consolidated on the September date.

And now, as Americans celebrate the unofficial end of summer and try to remember rules about when it is appropriate to wear white, they are encouraged to also remember the contributions of the American worker and the progress made by labor unions. The 8-hour work day, the 5-day work week, safety in the work place; these are just a few of the things which labor unions have given us.

But the contributions of unions run deeper than that; indeed they are at the very core of our democracy.

In classical Greek thought, laborers could not be citizens. While there was surely an elitist air to this view, it was driven more directly by a practical belief: citizenship is work.

To be a citizen in the classic sense was not merely to be the recipient of certain guarantees and protections – e.g., rights of safety, security, and redress – it was to contribute wholly to the improvement and wellbeing of your society.

In a practical sense, a citizen could not engage in physical labor because he (yes, “he”) must devote his time and energy to the real work of citizenship. Any other vocation would reduce and ultimately remove his ability to work as a citizen.

Of course, such a view was also elitist and absurd – a society cannot function without laborers and a system in which laborers are excluded from citizenship automatically creates an irreparable class system.

But, on the other hand, the Greeks had a point: citizenship is work, and one cannot engage in that work if they are wholly consumed with other responsibilities.

Neither a person who has to work 3 jobs just to make ends meet nor a high-powered executive who responds to emails in the middle of the night will be in a position to contribute to the work of citizenship.

Labor unions provide protections for workers. They serve as collective bargaining units which give the collective of workers more power than a single worker alone. They provide a vital role in ensuring safe, just, and productive workplaces.

But more deeply, they provide the foundation for democratic engagement – both as a venue where every day people are empowered to share their voice, and as a tool for ensuring that people who work – most of us, quite frankly – have the space to engage in the hard work of citizenship.

In short, our democracy would not function without labor unions, and when we weaken them, we weaken our democracy.


In Defense of DACA

“On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal,” reads the website for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, has narrow guidelines as to whom is eligible: to qualify, you must have arrived in the US before the age of 16; you must have continually resided in the US for the past 10 years (since June 15, 2007); must be a student, high school graduate, or an honorably discharged veteran of the US armed services, and must not “pose a threat to national security or public safety.”

In short, DACA applies to people who have gone to American schools, contributed to American society, and who came to this country before they were even old enough to have a choice in the matter. They are students virtually indistinguishable from their classmates.

Many don’t even remember a time when they weren’t living in the U.S.

This is their home country.

There are many reasonable debates to have around immigration policy. We could talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which opens with the shockingly straightforward line:

Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof…

The Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur, represents the first time ethnic exclusion was explicitly stated in U.S. immigration law; justified merely by the flimsy fear of colonizing Europeans that Chinese residents endangered “the good order of certain localities.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed as the Geary Act in 1892 and made permanent another decade later. Incidentally, the Geary Act also expanded the language used; targeting any “Chinese person or person of Chinese descent.”

In 1943, in the midsts of World War II and after 60 years of virtually banning Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act allowed for limited Chinese immigration and provided a path to citizenship for persons of Chinese descent living in the U.S. It did nothing, however, to address issues such as California’s Alien Land Law, which barred non-citizens from owning property. The full repercussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act weren’t legally addressed until the Magnuson Act itself was repealed in 1965; after eighty-three years of explicit discrimination.

In relaxing restrictions on Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act brought Chinese immigration guides inline with another U.S. immigration bill, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act.

This act, which introduced national-origin quotas, was designed to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” according the U.S. State Department’s Office of Historian. This act greatly restricted immigration of Italians, Eastern European Jews, and people from other Asian countries, most notably Japanese. Quotas were calculated in such a way as to have little effect on immigration from Western Europe.

The point of this history lesson is simple: the United States has a long history of racist, exclusionary immigration policies designed to favor that amorphous group of “people like us.” For all our talk of a melting pot and the American dream, where any child – any child – can grow up to succeed – we have long merely shrugged while endorsing policies with the clear message, we conquered here first.

There is so much I would change about U.S. immigration policy if I could. I find myself generally inclined to agree with Peter Singer’s argument that it is time to abandon the constructed narrative of a national community in favor of conceptualizing ourselves as members of a global community.

But the plan to end DACA, to end legal protections for over 800,000 people who have grown up in this country, goes beyond philosophical debates about what immigration is or ought to mean. It is straight up unconscionable. These are our friends and neighbors. They are members of our community.

Quite simply, in the most robust sense possible: this is their country, too.


On Politics and Blame

Perhaps one of the few things that can be widely agreed upon these days is that the state of U.S. politics is less than ideal. Whether your side is winning or losing, it seems, the fight sure is ugly.

Of course, hindsight bias makes it challenging to accurately quantify the depravity of current affairs relative to past political struggles. Things seem pretty bad now, sure, but our vice president hasn’t shot any political rivals, and this isn’t even the first time the world has found itself on the brink of a nuclear showdown.

So perhaps things have always been terrible.

It is both interesting and depressing to read older political science literature; to see the long history of fake news documented by digital humanities scholars, or to read Lippmann’s blistering arguments for why the public will never be capable of taking on the tremendous task democracy has set out for them.

It is remarkable how little has changed; how much those old arguments still ring true.

Lippmann, for example, decried people’s steadfast commitment to their stereotypes – a word he coined. These mental short cuts may serve many useful functions, but they cause deep disfunction in the political domain, as people cling desperately to their fabricated understandings.

Stereotypes offer such familiar comfort, Lippmann argues, that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Lippmann would hardly be surprised by the current state of political polarization.

Perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the critiques of our democracy have remained relatively stable over time. The details have changed and the voracity of certain view points ebb and flow, but, in the broadest sense, the contours of the critiques stay the same.

If our democracy doesn’t work as well as we might hope, there is always someone to blame.

We could join with Lippmann in being skeptical of the average person’s capacity to carry out this work. Perhaps the great majority are simply too lazy, stupid, or distracted to properly engage in democracy.

We could blame the media – they are too caught up in ratings, too interested in sensation and not interested enough in the truth.

We could blame the school system – why haven’t they better prepared their students for the work of democracy?

We could blame whichever Others we find most distasteful. Perhaps people like us and the institutions we’re a part of are smart, capable, and doing everything right. It’s just those Other people, the people not like us, who hold us back from achieving the full vision of our democracy.

Note that these criticisms could come from any portion of the political spectrum – no party has a corner on this market.

And the truth, I would argue, is that all these actors and institutions are to blame. If our democracy is broken – and it certainly seems to be less than ideal – it is a collective challenge which we all must address and which we all must accept responsibility for.

Blame gets us nowhere.

Habermas argues in favor of what he calls “discourse theory” as a middle ground between systems theory and rational discourse theory. Our society is neither a hierarchical network of institutions nor an unstructured blob of autonomous individuals. It is something in between.

As Habermas describes:

The lifeworld forms, as a whole, a network composed of communicative actions. Under the aspect of action coordination, it’s society component consists of the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relationships. It also encompasses collectivities, associations, and organizations specialized for specific functions. Some of these functionally specialized action systems become independent…spheres integrated through values, norms, and mutual understanding.

“The media” and “the public” – even “the left” and “the right” – are such spheres, internally cohesive with their own norms and grammar, but still very much integrated into the entire deliberative system. We can’t just tell one sphere to go fix itself – the solution requires a more holistic perspective that considers broader network.

The solution requires all of us.

I am not interested in blame. I’m not interested in post-mortems on political campaigns or past policy initiatives. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but ultimately I more interested in the future.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this earth together. We have to find ways to work together, to co-create our world together. We can’t put all our energy into passing blame. “Fixing” politics begins with each one of us.

…Or, perhaps, we’re all going to die.


Freedom of Speech

While I was offline for most of the weekend, there was a bit of excitement generated by a 10-page, misogynist manifesto published internally by a male employee at a certain well-known tech company. The employee has since been fired.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the entire controversial post. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I need to. I’ve heard it all before and I have better things to do with my time than read 10 pages of arguments for why I’m unfit to do the type of work that I do.

The short version of his argument is that women aren’t cut out for STEM fields, but the strategic message of his post is that we collectively shouldn’t silence “uncomfortable” arguments just because we happen to disagree with them. A virtuous society should welcome dissenting opinions whether they are distasteful or not.

I have no interest in engaging with the misogynist message of his post. I flatly reject his arguments, and others – such as in this post by Yonatan Zunger – have already done detailed refutations of his point.

But I study citizens and civil society; I am interested in the ways we work together or don’t work together to co-create the world around us. So I am much more interested in the broader questions: in a society (or company) with many different people with many different views, what is the role of dissent? To what extent must speech be safeguarded? What social or institutional responses are appropriate regulators of speech, if any?

These are all important questions with non-obvious answers. I certainly don’t have any simple answers today.

I am inclined to agree with J. L. Austin, though, that words can be actions. Performative speech acts or rhetic acts are not mere sounds or words without meaning: they have real impact. As Austin writes:

Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…

Words have consequences, and thus we must take them seriously.

Words can do real harm.

So I think it’s unfair to say that anyone who feels harmed by another’s words should simply toughen up; they are not just words.

But the power of words to do harm also emphasizes why their freedom is so essential: words and ideas can be dangerous to corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Words have real power for harm and for good and their silencing should not be taken lightly.

But here’s the thing that’s struck me about this particularly case – the details of which are obscured and a bit fuzzy:

Was this employee a good worker and teammate who got a long just fine until one day he unleashed 10-pages of thought he knew his colleagues would hate?

That’s entirely possible, but I imagine a somewhat different scenario.

In his post, Zunger expresses pure distain at the views of the employee, writing “What I am is an engineer, and I was rather surprised that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is.”

How did someone make it this far, indeed? I can’t help but wonder: was this really the first sign that the employee held so many of his colleagues in such low esteem? Was it the first indication that he had an entirely backwards view of what engineering really is?

I suspect not.

I have to admit I am disappointed, though not surprised, that he was so quickly fired. It just feels petty. It feels small.

It feels like the action to take to clean up a PR mess which comes at the same time your company is being investigated for systematically underpaying female employees.

And that’s the thing – words do matter. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t wish the thoughts away. Sure, this one employee whose notable outburst went public can be swept under the rug and tidied up for a discerning public; but his words don’t go away. The culture that spawned those words, which allowed them to flourish, doesn’t change much as a result.

That’s not to say all vitriol should be labeled speech and allowed to run rampantly free; as noted, these words do harm and that harm should be taken seriously. But that’s why it’s important to have allies. Real allies, who will speak out when they hear something, who won’t laugh at bad jokes, who will pick up on the small things and provide constructive criticism.

We can’t pretend that a misogynist manifesto is the product of one guy at one company and we can’t pretend that his wrong and offensive views will just go away. The misogyny in tech is rampant, the misogyny in our culture unbearable. We should talk about these news scandals, sure, but the real work must be done at the ground level, every day. The real work begins long before it escalates to 10-page manifestos.


Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”


Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.


The ego of public life, part II

Almost exactly four years ago I began writing publicly every day.

In recent months, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of leniency in the “every day” portion of that commitment. But, in the broadest possible sense, I have developed and maintained public writing as a habit.

It has never been easy.

People often ask me what my greatest challenge is: How do I find the time? Where do I get ideas?

Those are challenges, to be sure, but they are the mere details; the logistical flourishes that transform theory into action. The greatest challenge, I think, is one which I outlined in my first post:

…my struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” 

…I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There’s something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.

This is not to say that egoism is bad – but it should be acknowledged as a capacity required for engagement in public life; a capacity which is spread heterogeneously throughout the population. Some people, you may have noticed, have far too much ego; while others, I’m afraid, have internalized from consistent silencing the perspective that their voices do not matter.

I once was one of those people. I suspect I still am in many respects.

But a lot has changed for me over the last four years.

When I started this experiment in public writing, I had built a career out of shadow writing; using my words and my efforts to make other people look good. I was reasonably satisfied with this path: I enjoyed the art of word craft and the strategy of presentation, but I preferred to hide behind those who were eager to take the credit. Acknowledging my contributions just ruined the magic; and I was a nobody anyway.

Four years ago I was just beginning to emerge from the year-long stupor that followed my father’s death. I was just beginning to think about graduate school; just beginning to realize that, yes, I just might be a human person capable of pursuing a Ph.D.

A lot has changed since then.

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

So public writing seems more egotistical, but also less necessary – I declare every day that my voice has value.

And then, of course, there are the practical concerns. Writing does take time, and it requires a sort of mental energy I now need more for my daily work. Many days, I just don’t have it in me.

For now, I plan to continue public writing. Perhaps not with the daily fervor I committed to when I was four years younger; but with a similar sense of rebelliousness for choosing to share my voice with the world.

And that, of course, is the thing; why I choose to share my private journey with my public voice. Because too many people are convinced that their voices and perspectives don’t matter; too many people are taught to believe that through slights and silencing faced every day.

I consider myself a deliberative democrat: I believe that we – every single one of us – has a role to play in collectively and collaboratively building our shared world. You may find something annoyingly optimistic in that vision; but I see something radical and rebellious – a bold truth-claim regarding who has the right to govern and the capacity to participate.

That is to say, I choose to share my public voice because, ultimately, it is not at all about me. I am still just a nobody; a particle picked at random. I share my voice not because it is my voice that matters, but rather because all our voices matter.


Gendered Creative Teams: Confidence and Collaboration

I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:


I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:

– My name is Sarah
– I know nothing.

Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
– I really don’t know anything.

Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.

But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.

Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.

If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?

Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.

I don’t intend to answer this question for you.

But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.

My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?

Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.


Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.

I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.

Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.

The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.

Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.

As Arendt (1958) describes:

To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.

This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.

By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.

Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.

The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.

Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?

Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:

The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?

This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.

As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.

Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”

Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”

Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.

Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”

Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be

Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.

Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.

Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.

One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.

Across the world:

  • Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
    • And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
  • Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)

And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:

  • The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
  • And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)

What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.

  • In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
  • Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)

Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.

One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.

There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:

Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women.  (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))

Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))

And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.

As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:

Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.

And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.

There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?

I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.

But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself

The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.

In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”

And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!

Such advice is problematic.

First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.

In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”

Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.

By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.

…And some of those people may even hold elected office.

Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))

That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.

To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.

So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.

Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.

Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
And when:
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion.  (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))

Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.

The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.

Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.

Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.


Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.

Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.

But it was more than that.

It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.

Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”

Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”

This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.

The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.

But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.

The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.

The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.

I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?

Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.

This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.

William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”

For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.

We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.

Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.

And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.

While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.

Here is one of my favorite political cartoons:

It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.

Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.

In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))

Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))

These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))

So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.

The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.

On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.

On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.

This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.

My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.

I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.

I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.

You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.

Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.

It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:

If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.

Thank you.