Monthly Archives: February 2017

Nevertheless, she persisted

One can only imagine that Senator Mitch McConnell had no idea of the sort of reaction he would get when he said of his fellow senator, Elizabeth Warren:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

Warren, as Slate explains, had been “reading aloud from a scathing 1986 letter Coretta Scott King wrote opposing Sessions as a potential federal judge, when McConnell interrupted her mid-sentence to invoke a rule that prevents senators from ascribing ‘unbecoming’ conduct to another senator.”

The vote to silence Warren fell upon party lines, highlighting the fact that while the rule itself may be good, it’s applicability to Warren’s statements is debatable.

And McConnell’s comments afterwards only serves to emphasize the deeper divide: generations of women who have lived their whole lives being silenced and belittled by men hear a ringing truth in his mansplaining poetry:

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.

I want to write that up and put it on my wall. Right next to my other pseudo-inspirational sign from Camus’ the Myth of Sisyphus:

They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

It’s the kind of statement that inspires the powerless to rebelliousness; that encourages resistance and strengthens resolve. Those with power will do everything they can to punish you, to silence you, to eliminate you – but no matter how many times that boulder rolls down, you keep pushing it back up. Because when you’re on the side of justice, the darkness cannot prevail.

She was warned.
She was given an explanation.
Nevertheless, she persisted.



Protest / Life Balance

There’s been so much going on in the world that it’s been hard – if not impossible – to keep up. And this is not strictly in terms of news, though there’s a lot of that too. But there are so many rallies, protests, phone calls, and other important forms of resistance, that doing them all is definitely impossible.

But that’s okay.

Engaging in civic work is a marathon, not a sprint. You got to hydrate along the way.

John Dewey argued that democracy is a way of living, and I like to think that this is partly what he meant. That is – it’s not just a question of how many protests you go to, it’s how you integrate protests into your life.

When people talk about “resistance fatigue” or argue that protest participation will slowly dissipate, this is what they’re referring to – if civic engagement isn’t part of how you live your life, it will always feel like this awkwardly tacked-on thing that’s holding you back from the real business of the day.

We have lives, families, jobs; responsibilities that make a life of nothing but full-on political engagement impossible no matter what the political climate. The trick, I think, is making civic engagement – whether through protest or otherwise – one of these core pieces of your life.

You can’t do it all; none of us can do it all.

But democracy as a way of living means embracing civic duty as a core value; it means showing up and creating space for others’ to have their voices heard. It doesn’t mean sporadically and  frantically throwing  some civic actions into your day; it means living in a democratic way: engaging as a way of life.


Noncooperation and the Latency of Weak Ties

As Centola and Macy summarize, the key insight of Granovetter’s seminal 1973 work (Granovetter, 1973) is that ties which are “weak in the relational sense – that the relations are less salient or frequent – are often strong in the structural sense – that they provide shortcuts across social topology” (Centola & Macy, 2007). While this remains an important sociological finding, there are important reasons to be wary of generalizing too far: such ‘weak ties’ may not be sufficient for diffusion in complex contagion (Centola & Macy, 2007) and identification of such ties is highly dependent on how connections are defined and measured (Grannis, 2010).

Furthermore, recent studies probing just how far ‘the strength of weak ties’ can be taken allude to another underexplored concern: the latency of ties. For example, Grannis points to the oft glossed-over result of Milgram’s small world experiment (Milgram, 1967): 71% of the chains did not make it to their target. As Milgram explains, “chains die before completion because on each remove a certain portion of participants simply do not cooperate and fail to send the folder. Thus the results we obtained on the distribution of chain lengths occurred within the general drift of a decay curve.” Milgram and later Dodds et al. (Dodds, Muhamad, & Watts, 2003) correct for this decay by including in the average path length an estimation of how long uncompleted paths would be if they had in fact been completed. For his part, Grannis argues that the failure caused by such noncooperation is exactly the point: “it calls into question what efficiency, if any, could be derived from these hypothesized, noncooperative paths” (Grannis, 2010).

I call this a problem of latency because one can imagine that social ties aren’t always reliably activated. Rather, activation may occur as a function of relationship strength and task burden, or may simply vary stochastically. In their global search email task, Dodds et al. find that only 25% of self-registered participants actually initiated a chain, whereas 37% of subsequent participants – those who were recruited by an acquaintance of some sort – did carry on the chain (Dodds et al., 2003). They attribute this difference to the very social relations they are studying: who does the asking matters.

In their survey of non-participants, the authors further find that “less than 0.3% of those contacted claimed that they could not think of an appropriate recipient, suggesting that lack of interest or incentive, not difficulty, was the main reason for chain termination.” Again, this implies that not all asks are equal – the noncomplying participants could have continued the chain, but they chose not to. In economic terms, it seems that the activation cost – the cost of continuing the chain – was greater than the reward for participating.

One can imagine similar interactions in the job-search domain. Passing on information about a job-opening maybe relatively low-cost while actively recommending a candidate for a position may come with certain risk (Smith, 2005). In many ways, the informational nature of a job search is reminiscent of ‘top-of-mind’ marketing: it is good if customers choose your product when faced with a range of options, but ideally they would think of you first; they would chose to purchase your product before even being confronted with alternatives. In the job-search scenario, unemployed people are often encouraged to reach out to as many contacts as they can, in order keep their name top-of-mind so that these ‘weak ties’ – who otherwise may not have thought of them – do forward information when learning of job openings. Granovetter does not examine the job search process in detail, but his findings – that among people who found a new job through a contact, 55.6% saw that contact occasionally while another 27.8% saw that contact only rarely (Granovetter, 1973) – imply that information was most likely diffused by a job-seeker requesting information. In this case, the job seeker had to activate a latent weak tie before receiving its benefit.

Arguably, the concept of latency is built into the very definition of a weak tie – weak ties are weak because their latency makes them easier to maintain than strong, always-active ties. Yet, the latency of weak ties, or more precisely, their activation costs, are generally not considered. In his detailed study of three distinct datasets, Grannis finds that a key problem in network interpretation is that connections’ temporal nature is often over looked (Grannis, 2010). I would argue that a related challenge is that the observed relations are considered to always be active. Using Grannis’ example, there is nothing inherently wrong with the suggestion that ideas may flow from A to C over the course of 40 years; the problem comes in interpreting this as a simple network where C’s beliefs directly trace to A. Indeed, in the academic context, it’s quite reasonable to think that an academic ‘grandparent’ may influence one’s scholarly work – but that influence comes through in some ideas and not others, it comes through connections whose strength waxes and wanes. To consider these links always present, and always active, is indeed to neglect the true nature of the relationship.

Ultimately, Grannis argues that the core problem in many network models is that the phase transitions which govern global network characteristics are sensitive to local-level phenomena: if the average degree is measured to be 1, there will be a giant component. Given this sensitivity, it becomes essential to consider the latency of weak network ties. A candidate who doesn’t activate weak ties may never find a job, and a message-passing task for which participants feel unmotivated may never reach completion. In his pop-science article, Malcolm Gladwell argues that some people just feel an inherent motivation to maintain more social ties than others (Gladwell, 1999). Given such individual variation in number of ties and willingness to activate ties, it seems clear that the latency of weak ties needs further study, otherwise, as Grannis warns, our generalizations could lead to “fundamental errors in our understanding of the effects of network topology on diffusion processes” (Grannis, 2010).


Centola, D., & Macy, M. (2007). Complex contagions and the weakness of long ties. American journal of sociology, 113(3), 702-734.

Dodds, P. S., Muhamad, R., & Watts, D. J. (2003). An experimental study of search in global social networks. Science, 301(5634), 827-829.

Gladwell, M. (1999). Six degrees of lois weisberg.

Grannis, R. (2010). Six Degrees of “Who Cares?”. American journal of sociology, 115(4), 991-1017.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology, 1360-1380.

Milgram, S. (1967). The small world problem. Psychology today, 2(1), 60-67.

Smith, S. S. (2005). “Don’t put my name on it”: Social Capital Activation and Job-Finding Assistance among the Black Urban Poor American journal of sociology, 111(1), 1-57.


On Violence and Protest

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of violence in social movements. Such violence could take many forms, from punching nazis to property damage.

Conventional wisdom among the mainstream left is that such violence isn’t a good tactic: not only is morally problematic, it is typically unsuccessful.

In his biography of Gandhi, Bhikhu Parekh describes Gandhi’s utility argument against violence, which went hand in hand with his moral argument against violence:

Gandhi further argued that violence rarely achieved lasting results. An act of violence was deemed to be successful when it achieved its immediate objectives. However, if it were to be judged by its long-term consequences, our conclusion would have to be very different. Every apparently successful act of violence encouraged the belief that it was the only effective way to achieve the desired goal, and developed the habit of using violence every time ran into opposition. Society thus became used to it and never felt compelled to explore an alternative. Violence also tended to generate an inflammatory spiral. Every successful use blunted the community’s moral sensibility and raised its threshold of violence, so that over time an increasingly larger amount became necessary to achieve the same results.

There are some compelling points in that argument, but it fails to address the larger question: is violence never a justifiable means for social change, either morally or pragmatically?

After all, Gandhi’s level of commitment to non-violence may not be the example we want to follow. In an extreme example of pacifism, Gandhi wrote of Jews in World War II Germany:

And suffering voluntarily undergone will bring [Jews] an inner strength and joy which no number of resolutions of sympathy passed in the world outside Germany can…The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the godfearing, death has no terror. It is a joyful sleep to be followed by a waking that would be all the more refreshing for the long sleep.

In contrast to Gandhi’s view, there are many reasons to think violence in response to genocide may be permissible – or should even be encouraged.

My friend Joshua Miller recently reflected on this question, writing:

…in many ways, the canonization of Gandhi and Martin Luther King have served to create an artificial standard of non-violence that no social movement can ever really achieve and that neither the Civil Rights movement nor the Indian independence movement actually achieved. Plus, if violent repression by the police goes unmentioned in the media but activist violence becomes a regular topic of debate, then it will appear that the only violence is coming from the activists. 

I particularly appreciate his insight regarding the ‘canonization’ of Gandhi and King – they both deserve praise for their work and impacts, but we tend to enshrine them as peaceful activists who could do no wrong; who should be emulated at all costs. Malcolm X, on the other hand, is pushed by the wayside, his story is less told. Yet he did have an important and lasting impact on the American civil rights movement; could King’s pacifism have succeeded without Malcom X’s radicalism?

I have no easy answers to these question; indeed, such easy answers do not exist. But I think we owe it to ourselves to think through these questions – is violent protest ever morally justified? If it can be morally justified at times, is it ever pragmatically justified? Do our collective memories of history really capture what happened, or do we tell ourselves a simpler, softer story – do we only remember the way we wish it had happened?

Perhaps, as Camus wrote, there is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night.



We Will Not Stop

There have been a lot of theories floating around that some of the most egregious actions of the Trump administration – such as the confusion over whether the executive order banned green card holders – was intended to promote protest fatigue. So by the time all the really horrible stuff started happening, we’d all be too worn out to resist.

It’s reasonable to think that such a Machiavellian tactic would work – after all, the balance of fighting back and continuing life as normal is a precarious one. We still have bills to pay and work to do.

But if that’s the aim of the administration, I think they underestimate the outrage their policies cause; I think they underestimate the American commitment to democracy and pluralism. There may be a white supremacist serving as a senior advisor to the President, but we will not allow his vision for America to become what America is.

We are better than that and we will not stop fighting.

Perhaps I am naive to have such optimism – and goodness knows I am generally not one for optimism – but…today marks the 5 year anniversary of my father’s death. He was a radical, and he taught me to be a radical. I can think of no better way to mark this date than by attending a rally to make Massachusetts a ‘sanctuary state.’

At that rally, they warned of the danger of protest fatigue while the crowd chanted, “we will not stop. We will not stop.”

And, indeed, we won’t. We will not stop; there is so much work to do.