Monthly Archives: October 2015

Habermas on Consensus

While there continue to be debates around the ideal outcome of deliberation, a common conception is that deliberation ought to arrive at consensus.

That is to say, when issues arise in a democratic society, citizens ought to come together, share and discuss their knowledge, arrive at consensus, and collectively take action to address the issue. While this is, of course, no small task in a pluralistic world, coming to consensus is a worthy endeavor.

I was struck, then, by Habermas’ framing of consensus in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action

By entering into a process of moral argumentation, the participants continue their communicative action in a reflexive attitude with the aim of restoring a consensus that has been disrupted. Moral argumentation thus serves to settle conflicts of action by consensual means. Conflicts in the domain of norm-guided interactions can be traced directly to some disruption of normative consensus.

This is different from how I typically think of consensus. I take for granted that people have different views and experience – that is, I never imagined there would be consensus to begin with.

Habermas, on the other hand, sees consensus as the norm. This has implications subtly different from seeing consensus as an ideal: Rather than a tool to achieve the seemingly impossible, dialogue is simply a tool for restoring the expected state.

This has further implications for the value of deliberation and consensus. Habermas continues:

Agreement of this kind expresses a common will. If moral argumentaion is to produce this kind of agreement, however, it is not enough for the individual to reflect on whether he can assent to a norm. It is not even enough for each individual to reflect in this way and then register his vote. What is needed is a “real” process of argumentation in which the individuals concerned cooperate. Only an intersubjective process of reaching understanding can produce an agreement that is reflexive in nature; only it can give the participants the knowledge that thy have collectively become convinced of something.

Or more simply, as Habermas writes earlier in Moral Consciousness:

“Real argument makes moral insight possible.”


St. Frances X. Cabrini Scituate parish

I heard a story this morning which I had somehow missed or accidentally ignored. But it seems a story worth telling, so I wanted to share it here.

In 2004, the Catholic Archdiocese closed the St. Frances X. Cabrini Scituate parish. The parish was one of many to be closed in the upheaval following the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church.

In announcing the closures, Archbishop Sean O’Malley – then just 6 months into his tenure in Boston – tried to paint an optimistic picture of the reorganization.

Right now, the main task on the minds of most of us, clergy and laity, is the process of reconfiguration of parish resources. This is a process that will affect all 357 parishes in the Archdiocese. This process is not just about closing parishes; it is about building a framework to strengthen and revitalize as we go forward together as a faith community. Yes, some parishes will close. Others will welcome parishioners from nearby areas. Still others will work to renew themselves as places of spiritual renewal and evangelization.

I was living near Boston at the time, and I remember it as difficult and emotional period for Catholics in my community. Not only were they coming to grips with the grim reality of abuse in their church, the reorganization forced many parishioners to leave the congregations they called home.

Many were not happy. Some communities fought back. I have a vague recollection of protests and court cases, but I hadn’t given it any thought for some time.

But the parishioners of Scituate haven’t forgotten. They are still protesting, now almost exactly 11 years later.

When I first heard that, I imagined some half-hearted protests. A fence full of protest signs, perhaps, or an occasional gathering of organizers strategizing protest tactics.

I would be wrong.

The partitioners in Scituate have been maintaining a 24-hour a day vigil continuously since their parish was closed. They have not backed down.

And, importantly, they have been doing this while maintaining a steadfast commitment to the practice of their spiritual beliefs. They continue to help those in need, supporting the local food pantry, collecting funds for communities facing crisis, making gift baskets for the sick, and more.

This action, impressively sustained for over a decade, is everything that a protest should be: clear in its purpose and enhanced by its tactics. These partitioners aren’t just arguing for the kind of community they want – they are showing the kind of community they can be.



I am not sure, but I think I may be developing a sense of confidence.

I came to this conclusion through a somewhat different observation: I’ve started to spend a not insignificant amount of time concerned that I sound like an a-hole.

I’m pretty sure that’s what confidence sounds like.

And before you start to offer any words of encouragement, let me clear – this post is hardly about me. There has been much research done around imposter syndrome, especially its disproportionate impact on women. As a study by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes describes:

Women who experience the impostor phenomenon maintain a strong belief that they are not intelligent; in fact they are convinced that they have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise….In our clinical experience, we have found that the phenomenon occurs with much less frequency in men and that when it does occur, it is with much less intensity.

Recently, the clinical diagnosis of “imposter syndrome” has been generalized and popularized as the confidence gap – perhaps not a pathological condition, but still a challenge that many – if not most – women face.

I myself have always been skeptical of the solution that those who lack confidence should simply work to develop it. Particularly given the gender discrepancy of the problem, this solution reads more plainly as an argument that women should just be more like men – a problematic argument in itself which is only further weighed down by the stereotypes of a gender binary.

The real question, then, is how much confidence ought a person properly have?

The answer is trivial if you assume a transparent, universal metric for one’s ability: a person ought to be confident in the skills and knowledge they have mastered, and not confident in the skills and knowledge they do not.

Of course, life is not that easy. There is no universal metric and my perception of what I haven’t mastered may be quite different from your perspective of what I have mastered.

Certainly, there are tests and reviews and other accomplishments that may help us put our own ability into a standardized context. But all such metrics seem strangely unsatisfactory. It is well documented, for example, that test score correlate to parental income, so while a high test score may indicate that you’ve had lots of opportunity, it doesn’t intrinsically follow that you have lots of ability.

I think of this challenge partially in terms of Wittgenstein’s concerns over the inaccuracies of language in conveying a unique experience:

If I say of myself that it is only from my own case that I know what the word “pain” means – must I not say the same of other people too? And how can I generalize the one case so irresponsibly? Now someone tells me that he knows what pain is only from his own case!

No matter how many proxies indicates we surround ourselves with, we cannot determine an appropriate level of confidence because ultimately, there is no way to accurately determine our competence.

One might assume that a good person will do their best to have a level of confidence appropriate for their capacity to tackle the task at hand, but the inescapably reality indicates that we will inevitable err – either on the side of under confidence or over confidence.

From there I can go no farther. I do not have a perfect solution, and even if I did, I would not be so bold as to assume it would be perfect for everyone.

Perhaps it is best to err on both sides equally – averaging out your moments of overconfidence with appropriate bouts of under confidence.

Perhaps it is fine to just embrace under confidence – accepting the feeling without letting it hold you back.

I am most skeptical of always erring on the side overconfidence. It may get you far in life, but – I’m pretty sure that’s what makes you an a-hole.


My Social Network

Below is a network of my Facebook friends. Each node is a friend of mine and each link indicates mutual acquaintances (friends who are friends with each other). Node are sized by degree – so a bigger node is someone who I have more metal friends with.

The network is colored by modularity – showing some of the distinct communities within my network. I have labeled many of the larger communities below.


This shows a lot of interesting things. For one thing, at my first job out of college, I worked with a woman who had graduated from my college a year before me. She was a great connector and brought many groups of people together. The result is a segment of my network which is a mashup of people I went to college with and people from my first job. Not all of them know each other, but the connections are dense enough that this stands out as a community.

Another friend from my first job was once – totally coincidentally – roommates (in Boston) with someone I went to high school with (in California). The result is a weak link between my “young professional” network and my high school network.

Before high school, I went to school in the wonderful community of Canyon, CA. A few of us “Canyon critters” went on to the same high school as me – creating connections between the Canyon community and my high school network. Additionally, I had cousins who went to Canyon and others in my family are close friends with many in the Canyon community – linking Canyon to my California family.

My California family is connected to my Massachusetts family (my in-laws), which in turn connects to the rich network of my Somerville community. There are many connections between Somerville and colleagues from my last job at Tisch College, and there are connections between Tisch College people to Civic Studies people.

So, that’s a little tour of my Facebook network.


Reflections on a Month in Grad School

I’ve officially been a doctoral student for a month now and I’m starting to settle in.

I’ve met a bunch of new people and can even remember most of their names. I know what my class schedule is and no longer have to actively navigate trying to find the classrooms. I’m getting a sense of the culture, the expectations, and how to manage my time. I have organized my desk.

I am having so much fun.

People keep telling me to hold on to that feeling: that flush from the first year of grad school where everything is exciting, commitments are minimal, and I just feel so privileged that this is how I get to spend my time.

I imagine someday I’ll be the one advising first year students to hold on to that feeling, but for now I’m just savoring every moment.

I couldn’t sleep last night, so at 2am I got up and worked a bit on my homework. It was so much fun. Even when it’s hard its fun.

But the little things are remarkably disorienting. This week I had a different commute every day – different buses, different trains – all varying by where I needed to be and when. On more than one occasion, I got momentarily “lost” on commutes I’ve done many times. Where am I? Where am I going? The answer is not always clear.

It’s hard to compare the pace of school to the pace to work. From work, I’m used to long days, working all the time, and constantly having to put out fires. In school, I have long days and work all the time, but the overall stakes seem much lower (for the moment!). I haven’t had to deal with a single crisis. There’s something amazingly luxurious about that. I’m savoring that for sure.

But at work, I knew what I needed to do. I could put out fires because after 8 years I’d developed the skill I needed, the connections I needed, and the knowledge and experience to troubleshoot effectively. The pace was intense and the hours were long, but I could accomplish an amazing amount in a relatively short amount of time.

School is very different. I’m still developing the skills, knowledge, network, and experience – in fact, developing those is precisely why I’m here. The pace is slower, but it’s by necessity – each task takes significantly longer. I have to figure out what I am trying to do before I can figure out how to try to do it.

I have been particularly tired for the last month. Tired in a specific way that is different from usual. Interestingly, it’s the kind of tired I felt the whole time I was living in Japan. At first, I’d thought it was the jet lag, but after six months I was still just tired. I was tired then because I was constantly processing – mentally translating Japanese into words I could more familiarly understand, learning new cultural skills, and continually inundated by unfamiliar input.

So I guess that’s kind of what grad school has been like. There’s been a lot of new sensory input. I am learning a lot, but there is always more to process. It’s like I can feel my neural pathways forming.

It’s a slow, deliberate and incredibly exciting experience.

Hold on to that feeling.



Institutional Personality

I’m very interested in understanding what defines the character of an institution. I come at this question from a particularly civic angle, so I think not only of office cultures, but of government institutions and informal associations.

The institutional character of a book club is no doubt different than that of a Fortune 500 company, but are there common continua of typology they can be placed on?

In a book club, the individual participants – I imagine – have more agency. The club may have rules and norms, but each person participating is likely to have relatively equal voice. The stakes  for exit are generally pretty low – so if a book club becomes an unpleasant experience, the sensible thing to do is leave.

A work environment is not quite the same. While quitting is always an option, leaving a job can be a very stressful, high stakes experience. The alternative is not necessarily better, so sometimes it’s easier to suffer through a moderately annoying workplace.

There are plenty of management experts who could present no end to models of group dynamics in a work environment, but I think my question is slightly different than that.

An institution – whether a book club or company – is more than the sum of people in a room. A community of people takes on its own personality – separate, though intimately linked to the characteristics of the people who make it up.


Cranky Commuters

After nearly 8 years of having a leisurely half-hour walking commute, I’m back to regularly commuting downtown. This ritual is reacquainting me with a being I’d very nearly forgotten: the cranky commuter.

I don’t mean to make too light of this state – I have certainly been a cranky commuter on more than one occasion. But there’s a certain disagreeableness one finds only amid the packed walks of a subway train.

It reminds me of all the self-important adults in The Little Prince. I commuted largely by public transit in high school, and it always amused me to watch the people in business suits frantically racing for the train. And this was in the Bay Area, so there really was another train coming soon. What could possibly be so important that it was worth that much stress?

I told myself I would never run to catch the train. No matter how important I thought my journey was, I could always wait for the next one.

Update: I have often run for the train.

And when I’m packed into sardine cars, thinking about all the things I need to do and all the places I’d rather be, it’s easy to get grumpy. And when someone gets annoyed that I accidentally bumped into them after someone accidentally bumped into me, it’s easy to get annoyed back.

But that’s where I try to catch myself. Life is hard enough, and far too short for such simple misery. All things considered, this isn’t that bad.

So when I see a cranky commuter on the train, my instinct may be to judge or get annoyed, but really – I mostly just feel bad for them. What hardships are going on in their life, I wonder, that makes this moment the last straw?


On Incomplete Thoughts and Blogging in Grad School

I’ve recently been finding it harder to blog than usual.

At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

When I really stop to think about it, though, I realize that I’m always imaging the present as an aberration to the norm. As though there were some time in the past when every day the words just flowed naturally.

It’s one of those tricks I taught myself, I suppose. Just as I often tell myself – it’s always busy this time of year. Of course, the truth is – its always that time of year. It’s always busy and blogging is always hard.

The writing itself isn’t so problematic, and finding the time to write isn’t as challenging as it once was. But putting a coherent thought into words – figuring out what to write about. That’s the hardest part.

This challenge has come into focus in the last few weeks. In the past, I’d occasional decide against tacking a topic if I felt like I wasn’t well enough versed in the broader context of that topic. If I knew that my thought or idea was just a tiny strand leading to a rich field I knew nothing about – it seemed wiser to leave that area to the experts. Or, at least, to wait until I’d developed more expertise.

But in school, nearly everything is like. There are so many thoughts, all leading in different directions and all wonderfully enmeshed in their own intellectual architecture. There is just so much to learn.

The challenge to the student is to use your time well. To identify a narrow focus, to allow sufficient time to delve deeply into that thought.

But such focus quickly becomes tiresome for a blog.

Over the next five years, you will watch me narrow my research focus. I’ll articulate a dissertation topic and no doubt spend a great deal of time exploring it in this space.

But, as someone reminded me today, it is good to have hobbies. And that’s exactly what this space is. My writing here will frequently cross the bounds into my “work” of graduate school, but ultimately it is a space separate from that:

A public space for incomplete thoughts.


On Politeness and Harassment

I saw a meme the other day that said, “women do not need to be polite to someone who is making them uncomfortable.”

Perhaps I found that particularly memorable since hours after reading it I found myself sitting at a train station at night, politely but firmly telling a man over and over again that I wasn’t interested.

“…Yeah, but do you like me?” He’d ask in response.


I would never claim that (all) women need to do anything, much less be polite, but perhaps it was that remark which got me to notice my own persistent politeness, especially in the face of such an undeterred interlocutor.

And then this morning I found myself feeling badly for being particularly brusk with a gentleman who seemed somewhat desperate to make my acquaintance. And by brusk, I mean I still returned his hello.

To be clear, I don’t think I felt badly because of any outdated ideas as to how a woman ought to behave in society – but rather…it seemed a shame for civil society.

I am a big proponent of talking to strangers. Of course, most of the strangers who talk to me are creepy random guys on the street, but in general – I think there’s a lot we can learn from interacting with others outside our set social circle. I think society can benefit a lot from those unexpected civic encounters.

But its hard to maintain the energy for them. Most of the women I know actively avoid these encounters which, if I had to venture a guess have a 95% creep to 5% civic ratio. Any reasonable person would plug in their headphones and tune out with those numbers.

But it seems a shame. I’d like our communities to be better than that.

Perhaps the interesting thing here is that there’s still a certain politeness to headphones. Oh sorry, I couldn’t hear you.

And there’s a certain safety in politeness – you never know when a stranger will fly off the handle if they think you’re being rude.

But none of those are convincing arguments for politeness. It should be more than a defense mechanism.

In Japan, they taught us to yell if someone groped us on the train – the publicity was usually enough to make someone stop. In the States, we’re bombarded by the idea that we can yell if we want to, but no one will care.

So, no, women don’t have to be polite. They don’t have to be anything.

But how a woman reacts to a person who’s harassing her – well, that’s hardly the problem, is it?



Revitalizing a Stagnant Democracy

Our communities face seemingly intractable problems. Headlines blare with stories of injustice and corruption. There is no neutral ground in our increasingly polarized world: even the facts have become contested. Citizens seem powerless to bring about real change. Congress certainly can’t get anything done.

Pick a strand from any great issue and it will soon lead to a jumble of civic problems. Our democratic institutions are dysfunctional, our citizens and representatives divided. Democratic legitimacy lies in the engagement of citizens, and yet neither citizens nor institutions are equipped to engage in the hard work of civic life.

It is not uncommon for activist to turn to democratic engagement when seeking to tackle a great civic challenge. Protests, boycotts, teach-ins – they are all tools to engage the people in an issue, to show that an issue is of legitimate public concern.

But perhaps this approach is backwards. Perhaps democratic engagement is more than a means for achieving elite attention to an issue. Perhaps it is the ends – our most powerful tool in transforming our stagnant democracy, in revitalizing a government that is truly of all the people, for all the people, and by all the people.

One of the fundamental challenges of political theory is how to best capture “the voice of the people.” Aggregative measures, such as voting, may play an important role but are insufficient to rely on entirely. Balloting is too prone to the conundrums of social choice theory and impersonally lacks a certain democratic essence. A vote without deliberation means nothing.

At minimum, there ought to be the appearance of idea exchange before a vote – speeches by candidates, arguments for or against, town halls or public hearings. But true democratic engagement demands more: ongoing, genuine deliberation among the people.

That may sound like an impractical demand in our busy, detached, modern world. But I’m not convinced its infeasible – and the effort may well be worth it.