Monthly Archives: November 2016

Civic Expertise

In response to my unhelpful guide on how to resist, my friend Joshua Miller responds with his own post, writing:

I think we – we scholars who tackle the civic arena – ought to be able to give advice, and not simply advocate a life of unspecified restless action. Too often we study the politics of governments but we need to practice a different politics: of relationships and of institutions. But I don’t yet know what advice to give. I am still a little bit heeding the instructions: don’t just do something, sit there.

This is a common complaint within the civic domain – ‘talk’ is useless if it doesn’t lead to action, our scholarly leadership is too ivory-tower if it doesn’t translate to practical advice. There’s something entirely unsatisfying if the outcome to all our civic work and scholarship is merely to “advocate a life of unspecified restless action.

I subtitled my guide unhelpful, and Miller reasonably agrees that it is.

Yet, I find something meaningful in this vague, unhelpful result. We don’t know what advice to give because there are no easy answers and we, civic scholars and citizens alike, are in the process of figuring it out.

If we somehow did have answers and we simply doled them out to anyone who would listen, such expertise would interfere with everyone else’s education. Such a process would defeat the goal itself. We don’t have answers because the task before us is to figure it out together.

Miller by no means intended to suggest such a brash professionalism of civic scholarship – saying we should be able to give advice is a far cry from claiming everyone should look solely to us for instructions on what to do.

But while the intentions of those approaches are worlds apart, the practical line between them may be thinner then we’d hope.

I think of the great story from organizer and educator Myles Horton. A group of striking workers he’d been working with comes to him in desperation:

They said: “Well, you’ve got more experience than we have. You’ve got to tell us what to do. You’re the expert.” I said: “No, let’s talk about it a little bit more. In the first place, I don’t know what to do, and if I did know I wouldn’t tell you, because if I had to tell you today then I’d have to tell you tomorrow, and when I’m gone you’d have to get somebody else to tell you.”

One guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a pistol and says, “Godddamn you, if you don’t tell us I’m going to kill you.” I was tempted to become an instant expert, right on the spot! But I knew that if I did that, all would be lost and then all the rest of them would start asking me what to do.

While may feel like we’ve failed to live up to our scholarly and civic duty if our work does not result in practical advice, Horton would argue that the goal of our work should always be education and building the capacity of those around us.

We don’t have to know the answers, we have to create space for people to figure out the answers for themselves. Even when the stakes are high. Especially when the stakes are high.

It’s debatable whether Horton was right to take his commitment to such extreme measures, but there’s always a piece of me that thinks he might be right.

You can’t tell someone what to do when you’re just a person trying to figure out what to do.

And I don’t think accepting that means our scholarship has no value. Our research can help broaden the scope of conversation, shed light on what works in certain time and contexts, but we’ll never have the perfect answer for what we should do now.


Bent Flyvbjerg argued in favor of phronetic social sciences. “At the core of phronetic social science stands the Aristotelian maxim that social issues are best decided by means of the public sphere, not by science,” Flyvbjerg writes. “Though imperfect, no better device than public deliberation following the rules of constitutional democracy has been arrived at for settling social issues, so far as human history can show. Social science must therefore play into this device if it is to be useful.”

Flyvbjerg provides the following specific advice on how social scientists should do this:

  1. Producing reflexive analyses of values and interests and of how values and interests affect different groups in society
  2. Making sure that such analyses are fed into the process of public deliberation and decision making, in order to guarantee that legitimate parties to this process, i.e., citizens and stakeholders, receive due diligence in the process.

This is more specific than advocating for a life of unspecified restless action, but it falls short of offering actual advice. The role of the phronetic social scientist is to add value to the public conversation.

This may feel like too little in times when the questions are big and the stakes are dire. But it is, perhaps, enough…or even exactly what is needed.

Then again, I am certainly not above simply advocating for a life of unspecified restless action.

How to Resist: An Unhelpful Guide

Some days ago, a good friend suggested I write a ‘how to resist’ article to complement the “super-vague or just wrong” articles he had seen circulating in the wake of the recent presidential election.

I’d put off doing so, because I was wholly uncertain of what to say. How to resist? If there was an easy answer to this question there would be no further need of social movement research, there would be no future debate about what types of action are appropriate and effective. If we knew how to resist, there would only be one question left:

When should we resist?

Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good question.

I’ve been seeing a lot of articles recently talking about how we must act to save the Republic or warning why we should be concerned about an impending constitutional crisis. I’ve been reminded more times than I can count how good people stood by while fascism rose in pre-war Germany.  The end, it seems, is neigh.

And it’s not that things don’t look and feel dire, but in an era where President Bush lead us into pre-emptive war and initiated a Muslim registry, where President Obama increased deportations and the use of drone strikes – it feels hard to tell what is divergently bad.

It feels, instead, like this is the new normal – or perhaps the old normal that our collective memory is too young to remember. One side wins and the other side loses its mind. Then we repeat this process every four to eight years. Each time it gets a little worse.

So, perhaps there is nothing to resist at all. Perhaps we’re just caught in a particularly brutal ebb of our side’s power and there’s nothing to do but ride it out as best we can. As a Trump supporter once told me: it is their turn.

But, of course, there are no turns, not really. Otherwise Jeb Bush would have been on the ballot and Bernie Sanders would be long forgotten. There are no turns.

More importantly, accepting such comfortable discomfort reminds me of the powerful words Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Calls not to resist, assurances the President-elect is just one more in a serious of imperfect leaders are surely the calls of the white moderate. And this call makes sense: even a legitimate challenge to the election results threatens to wound our democracy. Secretary Clinton conceded for the election for the good of our democracy; because the peaceful – if distasteful – transfer of power is essential.

But such calls also turn a blind eye to the many people who will suffer under a Trump presidency – who have already suffered under the vile hatred President-elect Trump’s rhetoric has unleashed.

Not everyone has the luxury of waiting for a more convenient season.

Earlier I asked, when should we resist? The answer that comes to me, fueled, perhaps by my upbringing in Oakland, CA, is: always.

Václav Havel argued that politics “cannot be enshrined in or guaranteed by any law, decree, or declaration. It cannot be hoped that any single, specific political act might bring it about and achieve it. Only the aim of an ideology can be achieved. The aim of this kind of politics, as I understand it, is never completely attainable because this politics is nothing more than a permanent challenge, a never-ending effort that can only in the best possible case leave behind it a certain trace of goodness.”

When John Dewey writes of democracy as a way a living, this is what I imagine: the constant battle to build the Good Society, the permanent challenge to work in solidarity for a more just and equitable tomorrow. This is the work of citizenship – the work of all who live in a place and consider themselves part of that place. To issue a permanent challenge to ourselves, our neighbors, and, of course, even our government.

Perhaps this is why I find the question of how to resist hard to answer. Resistance isn’t a postcard campaign or a call to an office. It isn’t showing up at a rally or donating to an important cause. All of those things are good, they each, in their own way have the capacity to fuel your energy play a part in making change.

But if you really want to know how to resist, the answer is more complicated than that. Resistance is a way of life, it’s a form a citizenship. It’s a commitment to speaking out and, importantly, creating space for others to speak out. It’s a bold declaration that all people are created equal and its an unequivocal call that we will not, cannot, rest until that equality is manifest is our society. Resistance comes in every word you say, every action you take.

Resistance means that this moment matters, that every moment matters. And with that commitment to noble action and equitable interaction, with that permanent challenge to fight for the Good, we’re collectively left with just one more question:

What should we do?

Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict

At last week’s National Communication Association (NCA) annual conference, Penn State’s Kirt Wilson gave a moving lecture on Dreams of Union, Days of Conflict: Communicating Social Justice and Civil Rights Memory in the Age of Obama.

Responding to the “civic calling” theme of this year’s conference, Wilson praised the urged to get involved, but cautioned that we must do so wisely – first understanding “the nature of the society we are called to,” and critically interrogating the civic actions we take on its behalf.

We all know that our society is not perfect – indeed, that is why we so acutely feel a civic calling; a need to engage in the hard work of democratic living. But even with the need for such a  “process-model” utopia, as Erin McKenna calls it, the entrenched inequities of our society require more than a moderate amount of collective civic work.

Wilson pointed to the innovative activism of Black Lives Matter, which seeks not only to ameliorate an immediate problem, but to fundamentally disrupt the paradigm which has supported and normalized the perpetual murder of black people.

Wilson quoted Fredrick Douglass: “Slavery has been fruitful in giving itself names…and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next.”

Black slavery still exists today, Wilson argued, but we call it by other names. The school-to-prison pipeline; the new Jim Crow; police-community relations.

When we act, when we respond to the civic calling of our times, we must do so with a critical eye to the institutions which shape our society and the how our actions will affect them.

Black Lives Matter has come under fire for the disruptive nature of their protests; for breaking with the protest approach of their 1960s peers.

But Wilson made a compelling argument for that shift in strategy. The civil rights movement made tremendous advances, but it did not end the insidious remnants of slavery and oppression. Slavery only changed its name.

The only way to truly change this institutionalized oppression is to disrupt the system, to change the paradigm.

Wilson argued that the radicals of the 60s “marched because the only life affirming response to death and to slavery is to resist.” Today’s young activists organize out of a similar need.

“Black life matters,” Wilson said, “because people are dead and they didn’t have to die. And more are going to die tomorrow.”

That is why we resist.

On Calls for Unity and Disturbing Appointments

In his election night victory speech, Donald Trump took on a more moderate tone, proclaiming: “I pledge to every citizen of our land that I will be president for all Americans, and this is so important to me. For those who have chosen not to support me in the past, of which there were a few people. . ..I’m reaching out to you for your guidance and your help so that we can work together and unify our great country.”

The Democratic party also took the high road – conceding the election even though Clinton received at least a million more votes than Trump. There were calls for unity and respectful meetings between the president and the president-elect. While some chose to take to the street in “Not My President” protests, the resounding message from the Democratic establishment was clear: Democrats have a civic duty to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt.

And perhaps we did, but as the work of his transition team gets underway Trump has made it clear what kind of President he will be.

Perhaps Representative Katherine Clark put it best when she wrote: “A ‘President for all Americans’ doesn’t appoint an anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic misogynist as senior advisor.”

I’ve heard from a lot of Trump supporters that his dramatic campaign rhetoric really was just rhetoric. They don’t really expect him to build a wall or undertake any of the more troubling policy proposals. Candidate Trump wasn’t as terrifying as liberals thought because his campaign  commitments weren’t intended to be taken literally.

But even if this argument allays an impression of Trump as a bigot, the appointment of Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist and senior counselor cannot be so easily explained away. As chairman of the alt-right Breitbart News, Bannon has given a voice and a platform to the neo-nazis and extremists of America.

His appointment is cause for grave concern.

There are many great articles detailing Bannon’s more serious flaws, but I’ll quote here from the National Review, a “conservative weekly journal of opinion”:

The Left, with its endless accusations of “racism” and “xenophobia” and the like, has blurred the line between genuine racists and the millions of Americans who voted for Donald Trump because of a desire for greater social solidarity and cultural consensus. It is not “racist” to want to strengthen the bonds uniting citizens to their country

But the alt-right is not a “fabrication” of the media. The alt-right is a hodgepodge of philosophies that, at their heart, reject the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” The alt-right embraces an ethno-nationalism that has its counterparts in the worst of the European far-right…

..The problem is not whether Bannon himself subscribes to a noxious strain of political nuttery; it’s that his de facto endorsement of it enables it to spread and to claim legitimacy, and that what is now a vicious fringe could, over time, become mainstream…No, Steve Bannon is not Josef Goebbels. But he has provided a forum for people who spend their days photoshopping pictures of conservatives into ovens.

This is why I find the appointment of Bannon so horrifying. When true conservatives agree that this is a disconcerting turn of events, it’s pretty clear that something is wrong. Our republic truly is in danger.

Now is indeed a time for unity; but not the unity of blindly supporting the President-Elect. It’s a time for liberals and conservatives alike to unite in denouncing hate in all its forms; of making it clear in no uncertain terms that equality and respect for all people are core American values on which our country will not compromise.

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.

Exit, Voice, and Presidential Elections, Part II

Back in February, I wroteIf elections don’t go the way we like, it shouldn’t be cause to flee, but rather a call to action: our voices would be needed more than ever.

I feel its important to repeat this as comments about leaving the country become more common. Indeed, the Canadian immigration website crashed as election results came in Tuesday night.

Albert O. Hirschman argues that in any interaction, an individual has there options: exit, voice, or loyalty.

Given the rhetoric which came out of the Trump campaign, there are many with good reason to fear for their safety and who may view exit as the only reasonable option. But for a lot of people – for me, for example – I am relatively privileged enough that in practical terms a Trump presidency will mean little more than a few years of disgust coupled with good Alec Baldwin bits.

For me, I think, exit is not a reasonable option – I have a civic duty to stay and fight, to exercise voice in shaping the future of American.

Of course, how one should exercise voice is a different conversation all together.

Should we try for unity or resist from the beginning? Should we wait until there are specific egregious actions we need to oppose, or should we fight now, chanting ‘not my president’ and urging the electoral college to vote differently?

Personally, the later approaches make me uncomfortable – I was distraught by anti-Obama protests which questioned the legitimacy of his presidency and it feels hypocritical to express similar sentiments for someone else. But I’m glad to see these questions being asked and to hear these conversations taking place within the progressive community as we all try to make sense of the world we have found ourselves in.

I have also been thinking a lot about how to be a better ally in the years ahead.  I write a lot about building bridges across our differences and listening to – and trying to understand – people with different perspective from us.

I do think that work is critically important, but it can’t be overlooked that there are fundamental inequities in those opportunities: it’s hard to have a conversation across difference when the person you’re talking to espouses hate for everything you are.

I’ve heard a lot of people saying that they feel like they woke up yesterday as strangers in their own country. It’s a feeling that many of us remember from the election of 2000. And it’s a feeling I heard echoed by conservatives in 2008.

But it’s also a feeling I heard from many people of color when Mike Brown was murdered, or when the Baltimore police officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray were acquitted, or following any of the many, many incident which seemed to say clearly: your life doesn’t matter and this country is not built for you.

And that’s just an insane reality to live in. The idea that at any given time large portions of the country feel disempowered, discounted, and disenfranchised; that some large group of people will always feel like strangers in their own land.

Months ago, a Trump supporter told me that she was miserable under Obama and that it was the Republican party’s “turn.” I may want to find that a questionable sentiment, but I also can’t deny I felt something similar after the George W. Bush presidency. Republicans had a go, and now it was our turn.

In the moment, these emotions and perspectives are reasonable and valid…but this is no way to run a country. There are no “turns.” We can’t just continue to tug-o-war the country, growing more and more polarized as we go.

We need to find ways to work together.

The Road From Here

I think and write a lot about the public work we all must engage in to collaboratively co-create the world around us. I often like to end those posts with a simple maxim: there is so much work to be done.

Never has that call felt more urgent.

Politics isn’t just about elections; it’s about living every day in a pluralistic society full of people with different values, needs, and experiences and it’s about engaging every day in the hard work of equitably creating that society together.

John Dewey argued that democracy is a way of life, that it’s a way of living in the world.

The work goes on.

I cannot pretend that I am not personally devastated by the results of last night’s election; that my heart does not break for all those who wake up with very real reasons to fear for the safety and security of their future. I am sad and scared and confused.

But more than ever I feel the gaping divide between Americans. I feel the growing partisan rift across which we fundamentally can’t seem to communicate.

On Monday, when the polls pointed to a Clinton victory, I wrote that regardless of who won the divisiveness of this election indicated that we all needed to learn to show a little more love; that we needed to find ways to listen.

I stand by that sentiment and I hope people across the political spectrum will join me in expressing it.

For many of us today, the world seems dark. This reality seems untenable. But I still firmly believe that love trumps hate; that the arc of the moral universe – while long – bends towards justice.

All across this great country we disagree deeply on many things. But together we stand by those most fundamental of American values: that all people are created equal and endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Regardless of political party, regardless of who you voted for, we must find room in our hearts for each other. We must find ways of living together and working together to build a just world we all want to live in.

This is not a small task and it is not an easy task, but this is the noble, hard, everyday work of democracy.

And there is so much work to be done.


The Day After Tomorrow

People keep asking me how I feel about tomorrow’s election.

I’m not quite sure how to answer that question.

I feel relieved that the endless cycle of repeating political ads will be finally be broken. I feel excited at the prospect that a woman may be elected president for the first time; 240 years after this country’s founding.

But mostly, I feel an impending sense of doom.

Not so much about the election itself, but about the day after the election – about how we move on after this nasty, divisive campaign season in an increasingly polarized country.

I don’t mean to glorify the past, here – politics has always been messy, scandalous, and far less ideal than we might hope or pretend. But with my limited life time of experience, it seems like things have gotten particularly bad.

In All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid, political journalist Matt Bai tracks the fall of Gary Hart. The dashing young Democrat who in was on the road to becoming his party’s Presidential nominee until a sex scandal took him down in 1987.

Today, that story seems unremarkable – what politician hasn’t been taken down by a sex scandal? But Hart’s story is remarkable because it was the first. As Bai argues, the Gary Hart affair marked a turning point in American political journalism, a moment when public life ceased to allow a private life.

And perhaps this is being over dramatic, but it feels like we are hitting another tide right now. A point where we’re all accustomed to being entrenched in our own point of view, where the line between fact and opinion has become irreparably blurred.

In the field of Civic Studies we don’t just complain about the many failings of civic society, but rather we ask “what should we do?

As I ponder the future on this election-eve, my best answer to that question is to first get out and vote, but to then get out and talk – to your friends, to neighbors, and to strangers. Or perhaps, I should say: next, get out and listen.

No matter who wins this election, the hardest work – the work of reuniting folks across this great land and the work of finding space in our hearts to respect everyone in it – that work will fall to us.

Tomorrow, we perform a small civic duty and vote. The day after that the real work begins.

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?”

Facts, Bias, and Horse-Race Journalism

I’ve been thinking a lot this election season about an argument from Peter Levine’s We Are the One’s We’ve Been Waiting For.

What if, instead of horse-race journalism where pundits try to predict who will win, our media environment was governed by “public journalism” or “civic journalism” – with reporters asking who should win?

This question seems to fly in the face of common understandings of “good” journalism. Good journalism should be neutral, non-biased, and fact based. By tackling an inherently biased question such as “who should win,” a journalist cannot possibly meet appropriate ethical standards.

Yet, that’s not an entirely accurate take on the situation.

I love quoting Bent Flyvbjerg’s modified proverb: “power is knowledge” – that is, as Flyvbjerg argues, those with power define what counts as knowledge and fundamentally shape reality with their power.

In Rationality and Power, Flyvbjerg meticulously documents how power shapes knowledge throughout the planning process for a new transit hub in Aalborg. The initial list of proposed sites indicates one as most promising, numerous studies confirm the promise of that site and the problems with other sites. Yet – that “promising” site was, in fact, pre-selected by elites and all the research in which that option naturally rises to the top as the best choice is carefully, artfully curated to ensure that decision.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa similarly argues that power shapes reality – as people in power get to choose not only what issues are addressed, but also what issues are raised.

Both Flyvbjerg and Gaventa warn about the invisibility of this power – in the most insidious, entrenched power structures, this subtle shaping of what does and does not count as knowledge goes largely unnoticed. It’s just taken as a giving that the issues talked about, and the framing given to them, are the factual, non-biased ways to address them.

And this is what is so dangerous about horse-race politics. It’s presented as neutral, but in fact, it’s not neutral at all. Every decision about what does or does not become part of the conversation shapes the electoral atmosphere. There is no neutral coverage.

Levine provides an example of an alternative approach: in the early 1900s, the Charlotte Observer dispensed with “horse race campaign coverage, that is, stories about how the campaigns were trying to win the election. Instead, the Observer convened representative citizens to choose issues for reporters to investigate and to draft questions that the candidates were asked to answer on the pages of the newspaper.”

In this way, political coverage responds to the interests and priorities of “the people” writ large, without devolving into a mess where no knowledge is taken fact leaving only “mere opinion.”

They may be other, and possibility better, approaches as well.

All I know is that now – one week away from the end of the 2016 Presidential Election – after all the coverage, all the ads, all the sound and fury that has gone on for months…I find myself wishing we’d spent just a little more time not asking who will win, but really examining: who should win?