Monthly Archives: August 2017

Adversary Democracy

There’s a long tradition in computer science, largely originating from cryptography, of designing with a generic adversary in mind.

Code should be able to handle the mistaken input of a thoughtless user and should remain robust in worse-case scenarios. The motivation for this approach is simple: programming for ideal users and ideal cases will quickly go awry in the messy world of practical applications. Programming against a malicious or incompetent adversary will make your code better.

This presents an interesting divergence from deliberative theory, where participants are arguably hoped to be as close to ideal as reasonably possible.

If people can be thoughtful, open-minded, and eager to discover the truth through debate, then deliberation can be transformative. If they enter discussion as “tolerant gladiators,” to borrow a phrase from Huckfeldt, and argue with the goal of convincing others and being convinced when it is appropriate, as Mercier and Landemore write, then we can have a rich and robust society.

Skeptics respond that this is too idealistic a vision. People are just not that virtuous and unbiased. At least, not in the numbers required for a functioning deliberative democracy.

Deliberative democrats continually rebuff this claim. Mansbridge, for example, draws a distinction between adversary democracy and unitary democracy. Adversary democrats not only have hesitancies about the capacities of humankind, but more fundamentally, they believe political life can only exist as a zero-sum game.

In every community decision, in every group interaction, someone wins and someone loses. With this epistemic frame, any shortcomings of humanity are actually besides the point: the best you can do is try to make the distribution of wins and loses as just as possible.

Mansbridge and others strongly argue against this framing. Political life – associated living – is not zero-sum. By engaging in deliberation, by reasoning together, people can collectively build new approaches and solutions which remain out of reach in the adversarial paradigm.

It is not about winning or losing; it is not even about compromise. Deliberation transforms the values and beliefs of participants and gives them space to co-create their worlds together.

I believe whole heartedly in this vision. Politics isn’t zero-sum – or at least doesn’t have to be – and deliberation can serve as a powerful vehicle for collective leadership.

But I am left wondering – do adversarial models have no place at all?

This seems somewhat unlikely, given the current inundation of adversarial political relationships. Yet, the prevailing wisdom among deliberative democrats is that current democratic failings result primarily are primarily epistemic in nature – that if we collectively shift how we think about politics we can build the unitary systems Mansbridge describes.

It seems, though, that the computer science model might have some value here. Imagine an adversary who is wholly uninterested in dialogue. Engaging them in deliberation is more challenging than overcoming their biases or social power, rather they actively engage in trying to make deliberation fail.

There are a lot of great frameworks for deliberation, there’s a lot you can accomplish with structure and moderators.

But if someone is deadset on being adversarial – if they actively don’t want to participate and threaten the wellbeing of other participants – I don’t see how deliberation can survive.

That’s not necessarily fatal to deliberation, though – I still believe strongly in the critical role this work has to play in our democracy, and I would still fancy myself a deliberative democrat who sees this approach as the cornerstone for a healthy democracy.

But sometimes you have adversaries who don’t want to play by the rules. Who don’t want to co-create or reason with others. They just want to destroy.

And for that you need a whole other approach of advocacy, protest, and resistance.

To Charlottesville, With Love

I have to admit that up until this past weekend, I’ve paid little attention to the Virginia city of Charlottesville. I had a vague sense of the city, thanks to posts from Facebook friends who live there, but I had little knowledge of the city, its people, or the controversies it was struggling with.

When the city was suddenly catapulted into the news this weekend as the site of a white supremacist rally, I began to notice how little everyone else seemed to know about the city as well.

“Charlottesville” became a hashtag, a name synonymous with violent acts of hate. “After Charlottesville” became shorthand for our national angst. How do we move on, what do we do, “after Charlottesville”?

Such language is unfair to the city and does too much to distance ourselves from the situation. Charlottesville isn’t some remote backwater disconnected from the rest of American life. It is a vibrant, diverse, and loving city.

What happened in Charlottesville this past weekend could have happened anywhere.

The Southern Poverty Law Center – which incidentally, you can donate to here – is currently tracking over 917 hate groups all across the US. White supremacist rhetoric isn’t isolated to Charlottesville, and it isn’t isolated to the South. It is a national challenge we all most grapple with and stand against.

It’s been a few days since the rally in Charlottesville, and just this morning I caught a piece of the story I had missed before. I had known that neo-nazis descended on Charlottesville in response to the city council voting to remove a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. But what I had missed is that vote came in part as a response to a petition started by a 15-year-old Charlottesville high schooler: Change the name of Lee Park and Remove the Statue.

In the petition, Zyahna B. shares a letter to the editor that she wrote explaining her motivations. First, the statue represents something abhorrent: “When I think of Robert E. Lee I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery. Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind.”

But perhaps even more importantly, this message “doesn’t represent what Charlottesville is all about.”

“There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters,” she writes. “There is more to this city that makes it great.”

This fifteen-year-old girl wanted the statue removed because she loves her city and she wants her city to celebrate love.

As we collectively reflect on the terrible events of this past weekend, it is too easy to forget this aspect of the story. Charlottesville is full of amazing, passionate, dedicated people who literally put their lives on the line to stand against white supremacy and hate.

Confronting our legacy of slavery and our ongoing systems of oppression is a national endeavor; no city, state, or region is absolved from this task.

It is facile to point to Charlottesville as a symbol of everything that is wrong with this country. Rather, I can only hope that in confronting this national blight, my neighbors and I can be as courageous, committed, and full of love as the people in Charlottesville. They leave me in awe.

Is Dialogue Enough?

There’s a certain narrative about deliberative democrats which paints them as hopeless idealists.

John Dewey is perhaps the quintessential example of this – he writes passionately about the “great community,” and was steadfast in his belief that humanity could and would achieve this sublime state. While broadly agreeing with critics such as Lippmann as to the modern problems of civil society, the optimism of Dewey’s solutions is notably divergent.

The problem, he argued, was not that average people did not have the capacity to properly govern themselves, but rather that civic infrastructure did not fully allow them to exercise this capacity. Given robust civic education and institutions which genuinely encourage and incorporate citizen participation, humanity could achieve great things. In short, we have the capacity to self govern, we simply need to trust ourselves.

This optimism is echoed in the works of Habermas, who writes prolifically about the power of ideal dialogue to build ideal societies. He envisions salons and coffeehouses where citizens engage in passionate debates about what is right and just. “Moral argumentation,” he writes in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, “serves to settle conflicts of action by consensual means.”

In short, citizens engaging in meaningful debate about moral issues will eventually come to agree on what is right. The solution which emerges from such a process is intrinsically moral thanks to the collaborative filtering of discussants and it is bolstered by the rich process of debate which led to the consensus.

The enthusiastic visions of Dewey, Habermas, and other pragmatists may be inspiring, but they rightfully earn a lot of skepticism. Is such ideal dialogue even possible? Perhaps our moral divisions are ultimately intractable.

Most troubling to me are the concerns raised by Sanders, Frasier, and others. These visions of the Great Society, and the roadmap for how we get there do not give proper care to the role of power.

In an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy – to borrow a phrase from bell hooks – it is not enough to encourage people to enter deliberation with an open mind. It is not enough to teach core civic values. The structural inequality of society will pervert deliberation amongst even well-meaning participants.

I am particularly fond of this critique from Sanders: “If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators.”

Such false deliberation – which leaves those in power with a claim to moral consensus when none was achieved – is arguably even worse than a state with no deliberation and no appearance of legitimacy.

Fraser builds off Habermas, arguing that these rich conversations don’t happen merely in a single, mainstream public sphere. Rather, the public sphere as we encounter it is deeply restrictive – despite claims to the contrary, not everyone gets a voice. Thus, we also have counter-publics – smaller communities where those who are blocked from the mainstream can engage safely and fully in the sort of discussions Habermas envisions. The counter-publics can and do influence the mainstream, but they are constantly pushed to the fringes by a society which doesn’t want them.

These critiques of deliberation also point to a deeper challenge: dialogue only works when all parties are willing to enter and participate in good faith.

You can’t engage in dialogue with someone who wants to destroy you.

This concern is never satisfactorily addressed by Dewey or by Habermas. They both engage deeply with questions of manipulation, force, and instrumental action, but they seem content to believe that such problems can be dealt with effectively and are not too deeply interwoven into our social fabric.

A skeptic would argue that these concerns point to a sizable gap in their philosophy – if dialogue only works in ideal conditions, then dialogue necessarily cannot be enough.

In the face of racist, anti-semitic, and other harshly vitriolic rhetoric, other tactics are necessary. Dialogue could never be enough.

I imagine Dewey wouldn’t give up on his Great Community so easily, though. Perhaps he under appreciated the danger of hate groups, but he would have believed in humanity’s ability to navigate these waters. He would have believed that even the worst among us could learn to participate thoughtfully in productive dialogue.

Dewey’s vision seems impossibly far off these days. Few, if any of use, seem prepared to be citizens capable of constructing the Great Community. There are good reasons by skeptical of his claims.

But I’m not ready to give up on dialogue just yet, and here I think is where a network perspective can be valuable. As long as we have connections between all elements of our communities, dialogue may be possible. Perhaps every person cannot – and should not, for their own self-care – engage in dialogue with every other person. But if allies serve as the bridges, if those positioned to do have the difficult conversations with the hate-filled fringe, if we truly believe that no one is born to hate, perhaps then we could build the Great Community and, inch by inch, bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

On Hate and Love

It has been a difficult few days. Following the violent white supremacist rally which took place this weekend, I am angry, heartbroken, ashamed, unsurprised, and resolutely full of an overwhelming sense of love.

There is too much hate in this world; I choose love.

To be clear, love is not a passive emotion. It is not a empty gesture intended to claim allyship. As Dr. King teaches us, love is not “emotional bosh.” Rather “a strong, demanding love…is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.”

In the face of a world that knows such terrible hate, love is a defiant act. It is a way of living, being, and interacting. Love is a way of fighting. Love, as Dr. King says, is how we “implementing the demands of justice.”

I choose love.

Elie Wiesel, too, spoke to the transformative power of love when, nearly 20 years after Dr. King, he noted that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

Indifference is a passive act. It is the quiet comfort of moderates who enable the deep injustices of the status quo with their silence and complicity while patting themselves on the back for staying beyond the messy fray. Indifference is to cede your power, to abdicate your responsibly, to accept things as they are with a half-hearted shrug, but what could I do?

Indifference is to give up on love.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the hateful acts our country saw this weekend could have happened in any American city. Our problems are not restricted to a single party, a single region, or a single demographic. The blistering hate we saw on display was merely the articulation of a wound we have collectively let fester far too long.

All of us who benefit in some way under the current status quo bear responsibility for these atrocities. We may hate the perpetrators and everything they stand for, but we haven’t done enough to respond. We’ve chosen for too long the smooth path of indifference.

It is time to choose love.

It is not an easy road. A passionate dedication to the type of love Dr. King espoused requires strength, courage, and heartbreak. There’s a reason civil rights educator and activist Myles Horton titled his autobiography The Long Haul.

There is so much work to be done, and on dark days like to today, the entire task can feel hopeless. Love may be right, but it is far easier to settle in to indifference.

When confronted with hopeless tasks, I like to remember Camus’ inspired description of Sisyphus, the Greek man mythically condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain” for all eternity.

It is the quintessential futile task. His work will never be accomplished. Yet despite the dreadfulness of his fate, Camus describes Sisyphus as proud and unbroken; despite it all, he is impuissant et révolté (powerless and rebellious).

That is how I feel on days like today. There is so much to do, and so little I can hope to accomplish. I am utterly powerless, an insignificant piece in the larger social machine. There is nothing for me but the thankless strain of rolling a boulder, or the foolish optimism of tilting at windmills. The task we face is just too great.

Yet, despite this powerlessness, despite my own petty insignificance, I remain steadfastly rebellious. I remain committed to love.

And I will send that love into the world with everything I’ve got. I will speak out against hate, and I will love passionately, radically, and unapologetically. I will not be broken by the enormity of the task. Hate is too great a burden to bear; indifference too superficial a comfort. Amidst the pain, the hate, and the fear, the greatest thing I can do is this:

I choose love.

Now We Are All Sons of —

On July 16, 1945, 35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico, the world’s first nuclear weapon was detonated at 5:29 am.

The test was code-named Trinity by J. Robert Oppenheimer. There is no definitive explanation for why Oppenheimer chose the name, but it is widely believed to be a reference to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets: Batter my heart, three-person’d God.

Oppenheimer had previously been introduced to Donne’s work by his mistress, Jean Tatlock, before she committed suicide the year before Trinity.

Donne’s poem reads:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to another due, 
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Upon witnessing the detonation, Oppenheimer recalled being inspired by a line from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

It is unclear whether Oppenheimer actually uttered those words in the early morning hours of July 16, so perhaps the most memorial line from that day goes to another scientist on the project, director Kenneth Bainbridge:

Now we are all sons of bitches.

In a letter to Oppenheimer, Bainbridge later tried to clarify his words:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

In the May 1975 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Bainbridge shares Oppenheimer’s reply:

Years later [Oppenheimer] recalled my words and wrote me, “We do not have to explain them to anyone.” I think I will always respect his statement, although there have been some imaginative people who somehow can’t or won’t put the statement in context and get the whole interpretation. Oppenheimer told my younger daughter in 1966 that it was the best thing anyone said after the test.

In the same article, Bainbridge describes the detonation in careful detail:

The bomb detonated at T = 0 = 5:29:45 a.m. I felt the heat on the back of my neck, disturbingly warm. Much more light was emitted by the bomb than predicted, the only important prediction which was off by a good factor. When the reflected flare died down, I looked at Oscuro Peak which was nearer Zero. When the reflected light diminished there I looked directly at the ball of fire through the googles. Finally I could remove the goggles and watch the ball of fire rise rapidly. It was surrounded by a huge cloud of transparent purplish air produced in part by the radiations from the bomb and its fission products. No one who saw it could forget it, a foul and awesome display.

A few weeks later, the United States dropped atomic weapons on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki; shaking the world with their devastation.

The U.S. won the war, but the horrors unleashed by humanity that day can never be put back in the box. We made something great and terrible; a remarkable tribute to the accomplishments of science and tragic testament to the destructive power of mankind.

Now we are all sons of bitches indeed.

On Politics and Blame

Perhaps one of the few things that can be widely agreed upon these days is that the state of U.S. politics is less than ideal. Whether your side is winning or losing, it seems, the fight sure is ugly.

Of course, hindsight bias makes it challenging to accurately quantify the depravity of current affairs relative to past political struggles. Things seem pretty bad now, sure, but our vice president hasn’t shot any political rivals, and this isn’t even the first time the world has found itself on the brink of a nuclear showdown.

So perhaps things have always been terrible.

It is both interesting and depressing to read older political science literature; to see the long history of fake news documented by digital humanities scholars, or to read Lippmann’s blistering arguments for why the public will never be capable of taking on the tremendous task democracy has set out for them.

It is remarkable how little has changed; how much those old arguments still ring true.

Lippmann, for example, decried people’s steadfast commitment to their stereotypes – a word he coined. These mental short cuts may serve many useful functions, but they cause deep disfunction in the political domain, as people cling desperately to their fabricated understandings.

Stereotypes offer such familiar comfort, Lippmann argues, that “any disturbance of the stereotypes seems like an attack upon the foundations of our universe, and where big things are at stake, we do not readily admit that there is any distinction between our universe and the universe.”

Lippmann would hardly be surprised by the current state of political polarization.

Perhaps most remarkable in all this is that the critiques of our democracy have remained relatively stable over time. The details have changed and the voracity of certain view points ebb and flow, but, in the broadest sense, the contours of the critiques stay the same.

If our democracy doesn’t work as well as we might hope, there is always someone to blame.

We could join with Lippmann in being skeptical of the average person’s capacity to carry out this work. Perhaps the great majority are simply too lazy, stupid, or distracted to properly engage in democracy.

We could blame the media – they are too caught up in ratings, too interested in sensation and not interested enough in the truth.

We could blame the school system – why haven’t they better prepared their students for the work of democracy?

We could blame whichever Others we find most distasteful. Perhaps people like us and the institutions we’re a part of are smart, capable, and doing everything right. It’s just those Other people, the people not like us, who hold us back from achieving the full vision of our democracy.

Note that these criticisms could come from any portion of the political spectrum – no party has a corner on this market.

And the truth, I would argue, is that all these actors and institutions are to blame. If our democracy is broken – and it certainly seems to be less than ideal – it is a collective challenge which we all must address and which we all must accept responsibility for.

Blame gets us nowhere.

Habermas argues in favor of what he calls “discourse theory” as a middle ground between systems theory and rational discourse theory. Our society is neither a hierarchical network of institutions nor an unstructured blob of autonomous individuals. It is something in between.

As Habermas describes:

The lifeworld forms, as a whole, a network composed of communicative actions. Under the aspect of action coordination, it’s society component consists of the totality of legitimately ordered interpersonal relationships. It also encompasses collectivities, associations, and organizations specialized for specific functions. Some of these functionally specialized action systems become independent…spheres integrated through values, norms, and mutual understanding.

“The media” and “the public” – even “the left” and “the right” – are such spheres, internally cohesive with their own norms and grammar, but still very much integrated into the entire deliberative system. We can’t just tell one sphere to go fix itself – the solution requires a more holistic perspective that considers broader network.

The solution requires all of us.

I am not interested in blame. I’m not interested in post-mortems on political campaigns or past policy initiatives. We can learn a lot from history, of course, but ultimately I more interested in the future.

Like it or not, we’re all stuck on this earth together. We have to find ways to work together, to co-create our world together. We can’t put all our energy into passing blame. “Fixing” politics begins with each one of us.

…Or, perhaps, we’re all going to die.

The Sleep of Reason

I recently ran across Francisco Goya’s 1799 etching, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos: “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”

The piece is housed by the Met, where it is described as follows:

This is the best known image from Goya’s series of 80 aquatint etchings published in 1799 known as ‘Los Caprichos’ that are generally understood as the artist’s criticism of the society in which he lived. Goya worked on the series from around 1796-98 and many drawings for the prints survive. The inscription on the preparatory drawing for this print, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid, indicates that it was originally intended as the title page to the series. In the published edition, this print became plate 43, the number we can see in the top right corner. Nevertheless, it has come to symbolise the overall meaning of the series, what happens when reason is absent. Various animals including bats and owls fly above the sleeping artist, and at the lower right a lynx watches vigilantly alerting us to the rise of monstrous forces that we are able to control when sleep descends.

It feels deeply appropriate for modern times, an apt critique of our current world.

The sleep of reason produces monsters.

Freedom of Speech

While I was offline for most of the weekend, there was a bit of excitement generated by a 10-page, misogynist manifesto published internally by a male employee at a certain well-known tech company. The employee has since been fired.

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the entire controversial post. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I need to. I’ve heard it all before and I have better things to do with my time than read 10 pages of arguments for why I’m unfit to do the type of work that I do.

The short version of his argument is that women aren’t cut out for STEM fields, but the strategic message of his post is that we collectively shouldn’t silence “uncomfortable” arguments just because we happen to disagree with them. A virtuous society should welcome dissenting opinions whether they are distasteful or not.

I have no interest in engaging with the misogynist message of his post. I flatly reject his arguments, and others – such as in this post by Yonatan Zunger – have already done detailed refutations of his point.

But I study citizens and civil society; I am interested in the ways we work together or don’t work together to co-create the world around us. So I am much more interested in the broader questions: in a society (or company) with many different people with many different views, what is the role of dissent? To what extent must speech be safeguarded? What social or institutional responses are appropriate regulators of speech, if any?

These are all important questions with non-obvious answers. I certainly don’t have any simple answers today.

I am inclined to agree with J. L. Austin, though, that words can be actions. Performative speech acts or rhetic acts are not mere sounds or words without meaning: they have real impact. As Austin writes:

Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons: and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…

Words have consequences, and thus we must take them seriously.

Words can do real harm.

So I think it’s unfair to say that anyone who feels harmed by another’s words should simply toughen up; they are not just words.

But the power of words to do harm also emphasizes why their freedom is so essential: words and ideas can be dangerous to corrupt, authoritarian regimes. Words have real power for harm and for good and their silencing should not be taken lightly.

But here’s the thing that’s struck me about this particularly case – the details of which are obscured and a bit fuzzy:

Was this employee a good worker and teammate who got a long just fine until one day he unleashed 10-pages of thought he knew his colleagues would hate?

That’s entirely possible, but I imagine a somewhat different scenario.

In his post, Zunger expresses pure distain at the views of the employee, writing “What I am is an engineer, and I was rather surprised that anyone has managed to make it this far without understanding some very basic points about what the job is.”

How did someone make it this far, indeed? I can’t help but wonder: was this really the first sign that the employee held so many of his colleagues in such low esteem? Was it the first indication that he had an entirely backwards view of what engineering really is?

I suspect not.

I have to admit I am disappointed, though not surprised, that he was so quickly fired. It just feels petty. It feels small.

It feels like the action to take to clean up a PR mess which comes at the same time your company is being investigated for systematically underpaying female employees.

And that’s the thing – words do matter. Pretending they don’t exist doesn’t wish the thoughts away. Sure, this one employee whose notable outburst went public can be swept under the rug and tidied up for a discerning public; but his words don’t go away. The culture that spawned those words, which allowed them to flourish, doesn’t change much as a result.

That’s not to say all vitriol should be labeled speech and allowed to run rampantly free; as noted, these words do harm and that harm should be taken seriously. But that’s why it’s important to have allies. Real allies, who will speak out when they hear something, who won’t laugh at bad jokes, who will pick up on the small things and provide constructive criticism.

We can’t pretend that a misogynist manifesto is the product of one guy at one company and we can’t pretend that his wrong and offensive views will just go away. The misogyny in tech is rampant, the misogyny in our culture unbearable. We should talk about these news scandals, sure, but the real work must be done at the ground level, every day. The real work begins long before it escalates to 10-page manifestos.