Monthly Archives: July 2013

When Worlds Collide

(Or checking in at Life World with Jürgen Habermas and 2 others)A few months ago, I was watching the morning news and the anchor made a terrible pun. I don’t remember what it was, just that it was really, really bad. And cheesy. I love bad puns, but this one was a little much for me.

But then then anchor screwed up his face and said, “Sorry guys, that’s just what it said on the teleprompter.”

It was kind of refreshing. I sometimes wonder how much of the morning news banter is scripted and how much of it is the actually personality of the anchors coming through. Most of the time, I honestly don’t know.

Whenever it comes up that the president of the university where I work is very active on Facebook and Twitter, that observation is usually followed by the impressed comment, “And, he actually posts himself!”

No one’s ever impressed that I post myself.

So what is it about these types of situations that I find interesting?

The news anchor and the university president are both examples of what German sociologist Jürgen Habermas would call the “system” – essentially the structures and institutions we interact with. I would probably call it “The Man” but “The System” is a nice, gender neutral alternative. I can dig it.

So when you have a brand on Facebook, or a person who is institutionalized to some degree, you don’t necessarily expect them to post to Facebook themselves. President Obama…probably doesn’t update his Facebook status. Coke…is not sentient and can’t update it’s status. 

But my relationship with both of them is the same. They are the system.

I, meanwhile, am living in what Habermas would call “the Life World” – the “world” we inhabit in our day to day lives.

More and more, there is a blurring between the Life World and the System. The fact that Coke is on Facebook at all is a sign of that blurring.

Sometimes it’s clear where the line is, and sometimes it’s not.

When Red Bull first launched – this is one of my favorite stories – they wanted to be known as a cool, hip, brand (that could dangerously be mixed with Vodka). So, like any good industrious company, they went out too all the coolest clubs in the wee hours of Saturday mornings and left empty bottles of Red Bull around the bar.

The System invaded the Life World.

And folks who were busy partying away in their Life World, saw that presumably somebody cool had been drinking Red Bull in their cool club. And so they started drinking Red Bull, cause clearly that’s what the cool kids did.

Except that’s not what the cool kids did. At least, not until the System convinced them it was.

This is not entirely relevant, but it is a picture of my class all pretending to be Habermas, wearing, if you will, Habermasks.

Smashing Context

It seems to be common knowledge that there is something (or many somethings) wrong with our society, but how would you fix those issues?

Perhaps one issue is that of poverty – that some people have so much while others have so little.

Perhaps another is systemic injustice – that some groups of people are systematically ignored, disempowered, or afflicted by the very institutions that make up or society.

I could go on, but I’ll pause there to ask again, how would you fix those issues?

No, let me ask differently – how would you go about fixing those issues? What types of things need to change?

When thinking of poverty, for example, do you think of solutions such as a progressive income tax or increased welfare benefits?

If those are the the types of solutions you’re coming up with, social theorist Roberto Unger would say you’re thinking too small.

Unger decries most social theories as presenting “man as the product of an evolutionary logic, or of deep-seated economic, organizational, or psychological constraints, that he is unable to alter.”

But what if we can alter those deep-seated constraints?

Instead of making the income tax more progressive, what would happen if we got rid of income?

What would that look like? How could we try to make that work? If that doesn’t seem like a good solution, maybe there’s something else we could do. Get rid of property rights and inheritance? Ensure that economic benefits are provided to everyone by the government?

To be fair, Unger is possibly a little too radical even for me. He pushes changes to the system more deeply than I’ve had time to think through and the examples above are quite probably examples of terrible ideas.

But I think it’s good to ask those questions.

Rather than just accept that we live in a capitalist, commercial society where supply and demand and the invisible hand quietly dictate all that we do, we should push ourselves to think deeper. To think differently. To “smash context” as Unger would say.

We should really ask ourselves, what is possible?

Petty Bourgeois Radicals and the Freerider Problem

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, among other things, spoke about the value of petty bourgeois radicals – essentially, as he says, “the coexistence of a large number of relative equal small-scale productive enterprises as the mainstay of economic organization.”

I liked this expression, not only because it sounded funny, but because I think there is a lot of value in having an economic system composed not of only large, conglomerated corporations, but of small businesses – of petty bourgeois, if you will.

Local businesses are critical to the character of a community. The Welcome Project’s YUM initiative, for example, focuses on immigrant-owned restaurants as important cultural institutions. Somerville Local First (SLF), more generally, focuses on maintaining Somerville’s economic stability and funkiness by supporting local businesses.

But sometimes it can seem challenging to “go local.” Groups like SLF provide helpful tools for finding and connecting with local businesses, but when you’ve already fallen into set buying patterns and you’re constantly inundated with advertising from major corporations, it can be hard to change your habits.

But surely, if local businesses are so important, other people will take care of supporting them – making it less critical what you, yourself do?

That’s what Elinor Ostrom, theorist of common pool resources, would call the “freerider problem.” If you think local businesses are good, but you don’t go out of your way to support them, then you’re just hopping a free ride and hoping everyone else takes care of it.

That can be a dangerous approach to take. If everyone free rides, the system falls apart.

Beyond the economic benefit, Unger indicates that the petty bourgeois are critical to social change:

“Historical research has produced mounting evidence of how much of the radical challenge to the emerging dominant forms of governmental and economic organization, throughout nineteenth-century Western history, came from skilled workers and artisans, technicians and professionals, shopkeepers and even petty manufacturers…”

Economic independence translates into political independence. Having a decentralized (small business) economic structure allows a community to have more flexibility, power, and agency. When one commercial interest dominates a community, that community must necessarily be beholden to the interest of that commercial interest. When the big factory in the factory town threatens to close, the community itself loses it’s agency in order to protect, or attempt to protect, the interests of the factory.

So I leave you with this, my friends – when was the last time you shopped local?


What does it mean to ask good questions?

Can you guide someone’s thinking through questions?

Can you influence the way they’re thinking about something? Help them consider a perspective they hadn’t considered before?

What does it look like to do that? How do you shape a conversation to go from infinite possibilities to a specific idea? Or to go from one direction to another?

Do you just keep asking questions? Gently pushing the point? Do you make a specific suggestion in the form of a question, so when they think of the answer it seems like their idea?

What do you think about that?

Could that work?

The Value of Work

What would it look like to put “work” at the center of democracy?

This question came up in class yesterday, and someone commented, “That’s capitalism. It’s all about your work and what you produce.”

I marinated on that for awhile.

Is that what capitalism is all about?

I thought about my master’s classes, where we didn’t talk about people, and definitely didn’t talk about citizens. We talked about consumers. And how to build consumers. And how to encourage consumers.

And I thought, “Is your value in a capitalist society really the work you produce, or is your value really in your the fact that working (and earning) allows you to consume?”

And when you think of it that way, work can become very disenfranchising.

Your value, the value of you as a person and individual, is nothing. Your work means nothing. Only what you consume.

You’re not powerless at work because its a non-democratic system where your decisions can be overruled. You’re powerless as work because the system as a whole deems that you have no power.

To me, that feels like what John Gaventa would call the “third dimension of power.” You’re so used to be disempowered, that you don’t even think that you’re disempowered. It’s just the way the system works.

The way things have been and the way they’ll always be.

But is that the way it should be?

Stop and Talk to Strangers

While I am definitely skeptical of much of Robert Putnam’s work, I am fascinated by one of his core theories: the root cause of many of our social ills is a decrease in what he calls “social capital” – the value created by human interaction and association.

One reason our social capital has decreased, he says, is that people’s time is increasingly privatized – instead of doing social activities, we spend time alone.

So I couldn’t help but think of Putnam this morning when, while waiting for the bus and reading for class, a strange man decided that was a good opportunity to strike up a conversation with me.

Like, I would guess, many other people, I was happy to tell him that, no, the Metro on the seat next me wasn’t mine and he was welcome to take it. But once that pleasantry was out of the way, I rather thought our interact was over.

But, he wanted to talk about Tsarnaev. And he wanted to talk about the T driver who was recently suspended for sleeping on the job. And he wanted to talk about the tragedy of the recent plane crashes in Alaska and San Fransisco.

My immediate reactions were that 1) I really did want to get some reading done and 2) I probably should be a little leary of chatting with strange men.

Then I remembered that interactions with strangers can provide just as much value as reading and that I was a bus stop, in daylight, at a busy place and it wasn’t like I had to tell him all my personal information. So I decided, sure, let’s chat, stranger.

He read over my shoulder that I was reading “The Nature and Intentions of the Argument” (which is actually a subheader, but that’s neither here nor there).

“Aww,” he said. “I never argue. If you argue, you’ll just lose.”

“What you got to do,” he explained, “Is sit down with someone – really talk face to face – and say, ‘this is the way shit is, how are we going to figure out how to make this work?'”

That was much more succinctly articulated version of what was essentially the thesis to our reading earlier this week – Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes.

So as I sat there, thinking about Putnam saying we’re anti-social, thinking of Saul Alinsky who successfully organized with a stranger at a bus stop, and wondering how this kind of dialogue would fit into what Jürgen Habermas would call the “Life World,” I thought, “Okay, this is a nice chat. Thanks, Billy.”

That’s right, I learned his name.

So I guess we’re not strangers any more.

Looking out for #1

Political economist Elinor Ostrom posed the question, “Fundamentally, are people motivated by self-interest or concern for others?”

Please take a moment and think about the question. What do you think? I mean, what do you really think?

When I think about that question, I feel like I’m supposed to say that people are motivated by concern for others – I mean we’re not all terrible, right? But that answer feels pretty naive and idealistic – in a though situation, when the chips are down and you’re acting on instinct, are you really going to act from concern for others or will self-interest kick in?

I remember clearly being an angsty teen, disillusioned with the world, and arguing strongly that even altruistic acts were ultimately motivated by self-interest – such as wanting to feel good about yourself. I could hardly conceive of a world where people fundamentally acted from concern for others, and it seemed childish that I had ever thought such a thing.

In Nina Eliasoph’s Avoiding Politics, she reflects on her experience embedded with a variety of community groups. In private settings, she finds, activists talk about the effect of the issue on others in their community. They talk about the structural inequities and the injustice of the situtation.

Then they have a public action and talk to reporters.

“I’m just a mom,” they say. “I want to protect my kids.”

Their concern for others vanishes and they self-promote as individualistic, average people.

Yesterday, Boston Mayor Tom Menino touted the value of his summer job program for teens. “Summer jobs help us reduce violence in the city,” he said, citing a new study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

From the TV news coverage this morning, it was clear that they wanted me to know that giving teens summer jobs was ultimately good for me – that it made me safer and protected my interests.

But isn’t it also just good for teens to have summer jobs? Isn’t that enough?

Are people really self-interested, or do we just act that way because we expect them to be self-interested?

There seems to be some evidence that people do, or can, act from concern for others.

But in my world, as a marketer, perception is everything. It almost doesn’t matter what is true – we act and react based on our perceptions and that shapes the world around us, often reinforcing our initial perceptions.

So the next question becomes, how do we change the expectation that people are self interested? How do we make it the norm that people care about others? And of course, how do we avoid losing everything when we start looking out for others and they keep looking out for themselves?

And there I go again – assuming everyone else is acting from self interest.

The ego of public life

For a long time, I’ve thought that I should start blogging. Indeed, I have started and stopped many times in the past.

With the start of my participation in Tisch College’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies I saw an opportunity to start blogging again. Rather than jumping at the opportunity, I forced myself to commit to blogging at least once a day over the next two weeks (weekends are under negotion).

I like the concept of blogging because I find writing helps me transform the muddled medleys in my head into somewhat coherent thoughts. Doing so in a public forum (rather than, say, a personal journal) is beneficial because it forces me to really own my opinions and, ideally, opens up an opportunity for broader deliberation and dialogue. Rather than talking to myself in some dark corner of my room, I can hear what other people think and use that as a mechanism for strengthening my own thinking.

So why is blogging such a challenge?

The obvious reason is that it’s very stressful to have to present oneself publicly. My tendency is to fall into worrying about fully formed sentences, completed thoughts, and fully researched and understood facts. All of those are good things, but it turns a “quick update” into a process that takes too much time and thought to complete.

But more deeply, 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.”

And that can be a lot to muster.

I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life. People wonder why so many politicians seem to be so full of themselves – I wonder how someone starts out thinking, “I could govern others.”

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.

That’s not to imply that egotistical is bad. I only mean to say that you need to have some faith in your capacity to act (a sense of agency, perhaps?) before you can do so publicly.

I’m not so good at doing that. I prefer to work on the sidelines, move behind the scenes. I like to take it all in, helping where I can, but ultimately acting in private, rather than in public, to make change.

So, I’m going to try to change that. I’m going to start blogging. Forgive me my bad grammar, misspelling, and occasional misstating of facts. Forgive me my half thoughts, poorly structured sentences, and endless narrative. And forgive me my ego when I say that yes, I write for myself, but I also write for you.


From the Republic of Conscience

For the first day of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, one of our readings was From the Republic of Conscience by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes the possibly utopian Republic of Conscience, a communal place of thought and feeling, where “you carried your own burden and very soon / your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
I say possibly utopian because while for me the poem evokes a feeling that the Republic of Conscience is place of equality and little conflict, it also sounds like a rather dry and desolate place.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
It later goes on to explain the origin of all this salt and seawater:
all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
As beings, our solitude is endless. We’re blessed with the capacity to be self-aware, yet cursed with the understanding that ultimately we are alone – our consciousness is our own and we can never truly share that with another. So it seems we become restless, lost souls, fumbling blindly for a sense of shared experience, for even a hint that we truly understand – or are truly understood – by another.
Fortunately, this state seems to not be permanent in the Republic of Conscience. As mentioned above, “lightning spells universal good.” We may be alone most of the time. But every once and a while we there is a rare flash of understanding and insight. A shockingly brilliant moment when our connection to another becomes clear. And then it goes dark again.
There’s something about the tenor of this poem that reminds me of T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Elliot’s poem references Guy Fawkes, infamous from the Gunpowder Plot aimed at blowing up Parliament.
Regardless of how you feel about their actions, The Hollow Men evokes the endless sorrow of those who risked everything to attempt something they considered just – and failed.
In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river
Failed and exiled, these beings are truly alone. Unable to communicate. Together, but alone.
The Republic of Conscience, on the other hand, offers hope that deeper communication and understanding is possible.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
As people, we may not share a collective conscience, but we can still work together, sharing words and looks as venues for passing thought and feeling. And we can attempt – in what little, passing way is possible – to affirm that we are all conscience and together, all alive and connected.
Unless, of course, you prefer to take a more somber look at the world, as from Elliot:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.