Category Archives: Social Norms

Make America Bowl Again

American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.

Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).

Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.

Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).

None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.


Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.

Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.

Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

 

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Civic Hospitality

I recently returned from three days at the annual conference of the National Communication Association. I attended a lot of great panels and enjoyed some enriching, thought-provoking conversations.

I was particularly struck by a comment from Debian Marty, who served as respondent for an engaging panel on “Using Dialogue and Deliberation Practice, Research, and Pedagogy to Shape Society and Social Issues.”

Marty argued that hospitality should be championed as a civic virtue.

This idea received some criticism from the room – most notably for the gendered connotation of the word “hospitality.”

To me, that word also implies a certain artificialness which I don’t think Marty was going for. Indeed, it was a little surreal staying at a Philadelphia hotel just days after the election. While nearly everyone I interacted with was generally gloomy and/or angry, the hotel staff – almost entirely people of color – were professionally upbeat and enthusiastic.

They were very hospitable, and their enthusiasm didn’t even feel forced – but their happy-presenting exteriors were a notable contrast to the general climate.

But, semantic details aside, Marty makes a strong argument. Hospitality – “the welcoming of the stranger as a guest,” as she described it – is a worth championing as a civic virtue.

In Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of EducationDanielle Allen advocates for a somewhat similar approach of “political friendship.” We don’t all have to agree in a democratic society. We don’t even have to all like each other. But we do need to respect each other, care for each other, and make personal sacrifices that support the common good.

It’s a fine line that Allen walks – we should pretend to like each other, but in a way that’s not entirely fake and disingenuous. We need to be hospitable.

Now, this sounds all well and good in a perfect world where we can all just put our differences aside and learn to work together across disagreement – but I worry that this line of reasoning does too little to acknowledge the real and persistent sacrifices that some groups of people have been forced to make for too long.

I want to be hospitable, and I want to champion hospitality, but there are some things – hate speech in particular – which I simply cannot abide or respond to warm smile. As a society, we cannot let such behavior stand.

Allen is well aware of this challenge – indeed, she starts her book with the inexcusably treatment of the Little Rock Nine. But the idea of “niceness” of not saying the things that need to be said out of a misplaced since of politeness, still plagues broader conceptions of “friendship” or “hospitality.”

But civic hospitality or political friendship is something much more subtle than this – something much more important. It is welcoming the stranger as a guest; it is listening intently and thoughtfully, and it standing up for what’s right: it necessarily entails calling out injustice and working against hate.

I don’t know the best phrase for this spirit; our language is so diversely burdened with subtle connotations, but I do know that whatever it is – civic hospitality, political friendship – we sure could use more of it. Fast.

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Humanistic Data Visualization

Yesterday, I participated in “Visualizing Text as Data,” the inaugural discussion series from Northeastern’s NULab for Text, Maps, and Networks. We discussed Data Visualization in Sociology, by Kieran Healy and James Moody and Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display, by Johanna Drucker, though most of the conversation focused on the piece by Drucker.

Drucker writes:

…Graphical tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity. So naturalized are the Google maps and bar charts of generated from spread sheets that they pass as unquestioned representations of “what it.”

Data visualizations – just like statical techniques – are an interpretation of the data, not a realization of the data. In the statistical world, there are known problematic techniques such as p-hacking where you find something significant only because you tried so many thing something (randomly) had to be significant. This is part of the art of data analysis – data fundamentally needs to be interpreted, but we should always be clear on what we’re interpreting, what assumptions we’re making in that interpretation, and what biases go into that interpretation.

Using a humanist lens, Drucker seems to apply a similar argument to visualizations. We are too accustomed to taking a visual representation of data as a ground Truth of what that data can tell us and to unaccustomed to thinking of visualization as a interpretation.

That’s not to say that visualization has no purpose, or that the fact that visualizations are interpretation is irreparably problematic.

There’s a great classic example of from Francis Anscombe – Anscombe’s quartet, as it’s appropriately called. Four data sets which appear comparable from their basic statistical properties, but which are obviously different when visualized.

But I don’t think that Drucker wants to throw visualization out all together. I read her article as a provocation – a reminder that visualizations, too, are interpretations of data.

Arguably, this reminder is even more important when were talking about visualizations rather than narrative or statistical descriptions. Those later modes almost inherently force a user to engage – to think about what they’re reading and what it means. Though there’s still plenty of misleading interpretation in the statistical world.

The real concern – and the one Drucker highlights so poignantly – is that we accept visualizations without question – we don’t spend enough time thinking about what boundaries a visualization should push.

In many ways this makes sense – we expect a visualization to be quickly and easily interpretable.  But we are at risk of letting our biases run wild if we don’t question this. It may be easy for someone to interpret gender in a visualization if colors indicate pink for women and blue for men.

But please, please, don’t use this color scheme to encode gender. It may be interpretable, but it carries with it too much baggage of social norms. Far better to shake things up a bit.

Drucker pushes this argument to the extreme. Changing the gender color scheme is a relatively minor act of subversion, what happens if you take this questioning further? Make the user really work to understand the data?

This argument reminds me of the work of Elizabeth Peabody – who created intricate mural charts which could only be understood with a significant amount of time and energy. These visualizations were not “user friendly,” but at a time when women had few rights, they pushed the boundary of who gets to create knowledge.

This also reminds me of the arguments of Bent Flyvjerg, who argues that social science should stop trying so hard to be computational and should instead focus on phronesis – emphasizing a humanities, rather than computational, approach.

I’m not sure the two approaches are as mutually exclusive as Flyvbjerg fears, but his argument, like Drucker’s, raises a crucial point: it is not enough to ask “what is,” it is not enough to take computation as ground truth and – in terms of visualization – to take what is easy as what is good.

Regardless of field, we should be hesitant to put humanistic concerns aside, to think that facts can stand isolated from values. Values matter. Our assumptions and interpretations matter, and it may not always be most appropriate to try to bury our biases and try to pretend that they don’t exist.

Rather, we should bring them to the fore and examine them critically. Instead of asking “do I have any biases?” perhaps we’d do better ask ourselves, “do I have Good biases?”

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Civic Humility

As I’ve written before, I am generally annoyed by the concept of the so-called “confidence gap” – or perhaps just annoyed by the common prescription. If you’re not familiar with the term, the confidence gap refers to a gendered divide in individual confidence levels. Or more precisely, the idea that women are less confident than men.

Various studies reinforce the existence of this phenomenon, indicating that – while of course there is a great deal of individual variation – women are generally socialized to believe that their voices and perspectives don’t matter. In an interesting correlation, this is probably because, for many women, it is continuously made clear to them that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.

 

Numerous programs aimed at increasing the confidence of these wayward women seek to address this problem.

In my mind, I imagine the advertisement: you too, can be an arrogant blowhard.

These efforts are well intentioned, no doubt, but I always have to greet them with a sigh.

First, the existence or non-existence of an individual’s confidence is mostly likely a complex interplay of a number features, among which gender is one. To the extent that it is a gendered phenomenon, it is related not only to the socialization of women, but to the socialization of men.

Rather than asking “how can we increase women’s confidence?” I’m more interested in the deeper question, “how can we ensure [all people’s] voices are actually heard?”

But more fundamentally, the idea of confidence just annoys me. I don’t want to be confident in the way many confidence gap enthusiasts talk about confidence. Sometimes I wish the confident person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about would just shut their mouth. I want it to be okay to not know an answer.

More importantly, I want it to be okay for people to make space for each other’s ideas.

In many deliberative settings there’s a concept of “step up/step back.” This expression captures both what one might call confidences as well as what I can only call civic humility.

If you haven’t added your voice and perspective you have a duty to do so. I’ve you’d added a lot of your voice and perspective, you have a duty to create space for others.

Civic humility, though, is more than simply stepping back from dominating the verbal space. It is the active mentoring and nurturing of the voices of those around you – creating space for them and actively seeking and valuing their participation.

I call this humility civic, because I see it as an intrinsically associated phenomenon. In the Good Society, people don’t just try to yell their ideas loudest, constantly preening for attention; they work together, co-creating something better than they could have developed through a mere aggregation of opinions.

Civic humility, I would argue, is needed beyond the scope of any current systemic injustice. In a perfectly egalitarian world, there will still be people who are faster to speak while others take time to process. There will always be power imbalances – between people of different ages, or people of different technical expertise.

The art of associated living is not only one of speaking up and making your voice heard, but it is fundamentally one of making space for the contributions of those around you.

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On Bad Public Meetings

There are two divergent visions conjured by the idea of a “public meeting.”

First, there’s the ideal: a rich discussion of views and values; a robust exploration of a problem and collective reasoning about solutions; diverse communities thoughtfully engaging together in the hard work of associated living. Such a public meeting is not unlike an idealized college seminar – everyone contributes, everyone grows, and the co-created output of this public work is far better than anyone would have created on their own.

Then there’s the all too common reality; the reason so many of us avoid public meetings in the first place. The inefficient use of time, the yelling, the talking over and past each other, and – if you have the same pet peeves I do – the people who seem to feel the overwhelming need to hear the sound of their own voice, who feel compelled to speak before taking the time to consider what value they are adding to the conversation.

My friend and civic colleague Josh Miller recently pointed me to one such epitome of terrible public meetings, captured in the Milwaukee Record under the headline Lake Park’s Pokemon Go Meeting Was Boring, Livid, and Gloriously Absurd.

To be fair, those adjectives could easily be used to describe many public meetings on a wide variety of topics.

As author Matt Wild described, “Yes, last night’s meeting was the sound of a ridiculous situation taken to its ridiculous extremes. It was the sound of two sides possessing both reasonable concerns and defiant inabilities to listen to one another. It was the sound of privileged people droning on and on and on. It was the sound of people who always seem to have obnoxious Qs during Q&As asking those obnoxious Qs.”

I can’t tell you how many public meetings I’ve been to in my life which fit that description.

So perhaps it seems strange that I cling to the ideas of collaborative public work, of productive public dialogue. Perhaps such an idyllic vision is too much to ask for and far too much to expect: after all, let’s not pretend that those leafy college seminars always go off without out a hitch.

And I make no denials that such a vision of public collaboration is hard. It is very hard. That is, perhaps, why Harry Boyte’s term of public work seems so apt even for the process of dialogue. Real deliberation is work.

But I find it a noble effort; a work worth engaging in even if the results come up short.

We must then ask ourselves – why do so many public meetings go so horribly awry?

For one thing, we must think carefully about the structure of such meetings. The common structure of most public meetings is designed to maintain the power of public officials. Public officials discuss, deliberate, invite expert testimony, and finally, in a nod to democracy, allow for public comments. Then the officials discuss and deliberate further – putting the matter to a vote or requesting further study of the issue at hand.

“The public” does not attend with the role of deliberator or authority, but is relegated to 60 minutes of anecdotes no one really wants to listen to.

There are reasons this structure might be good – society must be protected from the “trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” as Walter Lippmann wrote. Perhaps it is wise not to give “the public” too much power.

And while I would far prefer to see public meetings which truly embraced the role of the public – which invited residents as stakeholders and experts to talk together and collaborative address public problems – the current model seems like possibly the worst of all worlds.

Wild describes the many failures of the Pokemon Go meeting:

The meeting was clearly flawed, with far too much time given over to the panel members, and precious little time given to concerned Pokemon players. If more minutes had been dedicated to audience remarks and general Q&A, perhaps the pro-Pokemon contingent would have gotten their cries of “I LOVE POKEMON AND THIS IS BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER” out of the way and focused on the main problem at hand: How does a residential park that wasn’t designed to handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight suddenly handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight?

Urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg argues that “power is knowledge,” that “power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.” This observation comes precisely from his work in public space planning: decisions are made, implicitly or explicitly, behind closed doors and public information is shaped and shared in such a way as to create the illusion of public participation while ensuring the outcome preferred by those with power.

This dynamic creates a self-enforcing cycle of public disaffection and civic defeat. As Lippman argued in 1925, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”

And thus we find ourselves with disastrous Pokemon Go meetings, with enumerable public meetings in which a disaffected public rouses itself to share various concerns, where some find it to be their duty to speak out, to try to engage in the process, while the rest of us sitting at home – reading the recap in the local paper, rolling our eyes, and wondering with a discontented sigh, where did it all go wrong?

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Safe Space and Civil Society

I’ve been thinking a lot about safe spaces.

Perhaps it’s because the school year is starting that the debate over safe space and intellectual rigor has become top of mind. But this issue is core to civil society in general: we’re seeing the debate play out on college campuses, but it gets deeply to questions of who gets to participate – and how – in civil society and what that participation (or absence) means for social outcomes.

And as a side note, let’s not forget that half of all young people in this nation do not receive any of the benefits of a college education or experience.

The debate over safe space strikes me as being about far more than safe spaces. No one who advocates for safe spaces wants students to be coddled, and no one who advocates against safe spaces wants students to be tormented. So in some ways, the debate – or talking past each other, if you will – seems misaligned to the actual issues at play.

A few years ago my former colleagues at Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a study on how American teens use their out-of-school time.

One of the top level findings of this report was a striking difference in how teens of different social classes used their time:

Research so far suggests a wide variation of after-school time use based on social disparities: three out of ten children in low-income households do not participate in any organized activities, while just one out of ten middle-class or wealthy children do not. Not surprisingly, affordability of extracurricular involvement varies greatly by income level. Furthermore, parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds may view priories in time use differently.

The study reinforced the 2003 work of sociologist Annette Lareau: there are not only financial reasons for different people’s experience, but cultural class reasons as well.

In general, wealthier kids benefit from organized out-of-school activities: they develop leadership skills, self-confidence, and college application material through formal athletic, artistic, and academic opportunities.

Children of lower socio-economic status benefit from unstructured, unsupervised time. They learn self-sufficiency, resilience, and independence by taking care of themselves and siblings after school.

The normative values of lower socio-economic families may prove problematic to social mobility – those kids may not have as much flare on their college applications – but the reality is that there is value in both approaches, and negatives in taking one approach too far.

This may seem tangential to the topic of safe spaces, but I actually think it’s related. I don’t know that the divergence of views breaks down along social classes, but there do seem to be normative differences in what people expect out of a civil society – at large or in a campus microcosm.

Some opponents of safe spaces revel in pushing their view to the extreme. It’s a sort of tough love approach: say the most offensive things possible in order to make kids develop a thick skin. My sense is that some of these folks aren’t simply trying to express their own view, but they’re actively trying to antagonize people in the hopes of helping people grow more accustomed to such things. (And/or to draw attention to themselves?)

Surely, they have a right to do so – but it also kind of makes them a….well, you can choose your own descriptor here.

On the other side, there’s no shortage of horror anecdotes about students claiming safe space protection for something absurd. Like the guy who sued for coffee being hot – there’s always some one out there making the system look bad.

I don’t think the majority of people are in either of these extremes, though people tend to lean towards one view or another.

Some people have experienced positive growth by being strongly challenged – and it has helped them go strong in return. Others have been silenced by society and are looking for supportive spaces through which they can regain their voice.

Depending on your own experience, you might have a different view on which of these norms is more important and which you’d rather see fostered in civil society. But as with out-of-school activities: there is value in both approaches.

The problem that I see is that there is systemic inconsistency in terms of who falls into each group. If half the population was randomly assigned to feel one way and the other half was randomly assigned to feel the opposite…that would be a very interesting study. But when race, class, gender, sexual identity, or other demographic factors line up so closely with how people feel about this issue – that’s something we need to pay attention to.

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Freedom, Justice, and Civil Society

I have been thinking a lot recently about a number of related topics: civil society, of course, but also freedom, self, and justice. I suppose none of these are particularly new, but I’ve but been thinking about their intersection in new ways.

Last week, for example, the University of Chicago made headlines when the Dean of Students expressed the following sentiment to its incoming Freshman class:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wider range of ideas.

What’s interesting about these two paragraphs is the totally divergent visions from people on different sides of this issue. Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces – I’ll leave invited speakers aside here because I see that as a different issue – see exclusivity, reverse discrimination, and coddling. Proponents see tools which serve precisely that priority the University seeks to advance: welcoming people of all backgrounds and encouraging rich intellectual exchange.

It seems almost strange that such orthogonal interpretations can co-exist.

This is where, it seems to me, that different conceptions of core issues such as freedom, self, and justice come into play – with striking repercussions for how we organize civil society.

These terms are by no means clear or consistent. For example, my friend and colleague Peter Levine once listed at least six different types of freedom. Does freedom mean freedom to act? Freedom to create? Or, perhaps, freedom is a “negative liberty” – freedom is freedom from constraint.

Applied to civil society, the question is no longer what it means to be free, but rather: how do we live freely together?

This question is important because inevitably, our individual freedoms will come into conflict. Social norms as well as laws can be seen moderators of our various freedoms. Murder is illegal because most of us would rather give up our own freedom to commit murder in order to reduce the possibly that someone else will exercise their freedom to murder us. Alternatively, we could argue that one person’s freedom to live outweighs another’s freedom to murder.

Taking freedom in this way, much of our civil infrastructure can be interpreted as a process balancing freedoms: is one person’s freedom to speak more important than another’s freedom to not hear? How hateful or harmful does speech need to be – if indeed there is such a line -before the freedom of the listener outweighs the freedom of the speaker?

These are important questions, but they cannot be separated from questions of self and justice.

First of all, such a concept of freedom only really makes sense if you think of ‘self’ as a discrete, individual unit. If, on the other hand, your concept of ‘self’ has less well-defined boundaries – or perhaps no boundaries at all – then the very idea of freedom becomes less clear. What does it mean for me to be free, if ‘me’ is little more than a “a psychological and historical structure,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote.

And, importantly, there is the issue of justice. Or, more precisely, the issue of systemic injustice.

Too often, this topic is missing or sidestepped in discussions of civil society.

The question of balancing freedoms is most easy to answer when the people in question are essentially the same. If you think of society as a game where we each have an equal number of points to spend on expressing our defending our freedom, then it seems entirely fair to say that – major issues such as murder aside – we should leave each person to spend their points as they may.

The idea that trigger warnings and safe spaces coddle some students at the expense of other students seems to tacitly rely on this idea: one person’s freedom of speech is too precious to sacrifice another’s comfort.

But such a view disregards the effects of systemic injustice. Safe spaces, for example, are not primarily about exclusion or shutting some perspectives down – it’s about creating space, just a little space, for those people who live their lives inundated with the message that they are bad, inferior, or unalterably wrong. A safe space needs to be created precisely because no other space is safe.

This is an issue far beyond college campuses. We see this issue on campus for precisely the same reason college campuses have seen so much activism: we are training young people to be engaged members of society. We are teaching them to not simply accept the world as it is, but to engage in the hard work of continually working to make the world better.

I once heard a university professor tell young students of color that the world is full of racism and discrimination – so a university which shields its students from those realities is doing them no favors.

The students – justifiably, in my opinion – were shocked.

They each knew all too well that the world is full of discrimination. They each experienced it personally and painfully again and again and again each day. They weren’t asking to be coddled, they weren’t asking to be shielded. They were asking for the opportunity to learn with the freedom their white peers seemed to enjoy.

And they were demanding their own freedom of speech; their own freedom to protest and speak out and to engage fully in the hard work of bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

 

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Authenticity and Social Selves

A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.

As author Adam Grant argues, our “authentic selves” would most likely do and say things that we – and everyone around us – would regret in the morning. Being true to yourself becomes rather ignoble if your authentic self is deeply flawed.

Rather than being authentic, Grant urges that we aim to be sincere. “Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them…Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.”

This is an interesting argument, but I’m not convinced there’s an inconsistency in being true to your authentic self and having a malleable social self.

First, dismissing the value of an authentic self seems to very much come from a position of privilege. If being authentic means nothing more to you than blurting out every thought that passes through your head, then your authentic self does not need to be found.

In Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino examines the disproportional social and legal pressures some people face to hide their authentic selves. And this ‘covering’ can do real, psychological damage. Our laws have come to protect people from certain overt forms of discrimination – you can’t fire someone because of the color of their skin or because of their gender. But, Yoshino points out, you can force them to cover.

You can forbid certain hairstyles, for example. In fact, it’s perfectly legal for employers to ban hairstyles predominately worn by African American women. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell banned service men and women from expressing their sexual identity for nearly 2 decades. Yoshino provides numerous other examples of legal precedent which supports the suppression of minority identities in favor of the norms of white, straight identity. (Yoshino also argues that women face the particular challenge of being told to “act like men” in the workplace while also being told to be ‘feminine’. Employers can even mandate that women wear makeup or otherwise alter their appearance.)

This is what I think of when I hear ‘authentic self.’ I don’t imagine there’s some isolated island of ‘me’ that I need to discover and remain statically true to in order to be virtuous. It means there are some elements of my identity which are fundamental to who I am, and losing those elements or having them submerged by society is harmful to me.

I don’t see such an idea as being in conflict with the idea I’ve been writing about much of this week: that a ‘self’ is more a reflection social interactions than it is an isolated entity.

A self can be co-created and still have distinctive qualities which are worth being authentic to.

I can joke with one group of friends and be serious with another; I can show different sides of myself and express myself in different ways. I can have different types of relationships with different types of people – and I can sometimes even keep my mouth shut so as to not say something inappropriate. None of that is inconsistent with being authentic. None of that is inconsistent with striving to be the best person I can be. And none of that is inconsistent with the idea that the core of who I am is formed, not as some Athena sprung from my head, but mainly by my interactions with others.

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Symbols, Stereotypes, and Power

Walter Lippmann was very concerned about the inaccessibly of Truth. “The facts we see depend on where we are placed and the habits of our eyes,” he wrote in his 1921 work, Public Opinion.

He repeats this concern numerous times. “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

Lippmann, an American journalist with an intimate familiarity with propaganda and war-time rhetoric, had reason to be concerned. “Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.”

Lippmann’s concern is perhaps most concisely expressed as Bent Flyvbjerg’s more recent axiom: power is knowledge.

We each have a unique experience of the world, and we each filter our experiences through our constructed stereotypes of meaning.

Lippmann, in fact, coined the word stereotype. Writing in Public Opinion:

In untrained observation, we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset, rather we notice that the thing is a man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subject.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question…Modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead, we note a trait which marks a well-known type and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a ‘Southern European.’ He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man. He is a regular fellow. He is a West Pointer. He is an old army sergeant. He is a Greenwich Villager: what don’t we know about him then, and about her? He is an international banker. He is from Main Street.

These stereotypes – helpful heuristics which help us make sense of a busy world – are comforting. “They are an ordered, ore or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves,” Lippmann writes. “We feel at home there. We fit in there. We are members. We know our way around.”

It is perhaps because of this comfort that we cling so desperately to our stereotypes.

Lippmann remarks that what matters is “the character of the stereotypes and the gullibility with which we employ them.” That those who hold the wise philosophy “that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas,” are more likely to “to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly.” But this is easier said than done.

Our stereotypes are such a familiar comfort 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.”

Thus, even the wise intellectual, aware of their own stereotypes and open to altering them, may easily make the mistake of taking individual truths to be universal truths; and to take those individual truths to be self-evident.

“What is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes. We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account. Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy,” Lippmann warns.

These stereotypes, “loaded with preferences, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope” can then be evoked by manipulative elites through the use of symbols.

“The detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges the symbol,” Lippmann writes, “…but the leader knows by experience that only which symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out.”

Lippmann is widely considered to be an elitist – marked by his fear of how easily the “bewildered heard” of the masses are manipulated – but I’ve tended towards a kinder reading. If the public cannot be trusted, it is because elites are corrupt, because those with power actively seek to shape the knowledge and beliefs of the public at large.

Flyvbjerg’s warning “power is knowledge” gets at exactly that point. Power defines reality. Power determines what knowledge enters the public domain and how that knowledge is presented. As  Flyvbjerg writes in a detailed urban planning study, “Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading – for politicians, administrators, and researchers alike – to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent.”

So perhaps it is to be expected that those with power will deploy symbols to keep the masses in thrall, and perhaps it is to be expected that such magic tricks have great effect. It is not, inherently, the people who are flawed, it is the system. Power is knowledge and power defines reality.

 

 

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