Category Archives: Social Norms

Civic Humility

As I’ve written before, I am generally annoyed by the concept of the so-called “confidence gap” – or perhaps just annoyed by the common prescription. If you’re not familiar with the term, the confidence gap refers to a gendered divide in individual confidence levels. Or more precisely, the idea that women are less confident than men.

Various studies reinforce the existence of this phenomenon, indicating that – while of course there is a great deal of individual variation – women are generally socialized to believe that their voices and perspectives don’t matter. In an interesting correlation, this is probably because, for many women, it is continuously made clear to them that their voices and perspectives don’t matter.


Numerous programs aimed at increasing the confidence of these wayward women seek to address this problem.

In my mind, I imagine the advertisement: you too, can be an arrogant blowhard.

These efforts are well intentioned, no doubt, but I always have to greet them with a sigh.

First, the existence or non-existence of an individual’s confidence is mostly likely a complex interplay of a number features, among which gender is one. To the extent that it is a gendered phenomenon, it is related not only to the socialization of women, but to the socialization of men.

Rather than asking “how can we increase women’s confidence?” I’m more interested in the deeper question, “how can we ensure [all people’s] voices are actually heard?”

But more fundamentally, the idea of confidence just annoys me. I don’t want to be confident in the way many confidence gap enthusiasts talk about confidence. Sometimes I wish the confident person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about would just shut their mouth. I want it to be okay to not know an answer.

More importantly, I want it to be okay for people to make space for each other’s ideas.

In many deliberative settings there’s a concept of “step up/step back.” This expression captures both what one might call confidences as well as what I can only call civic humility.

If you haven’t added your voice and perspective you have a duty to do so. I’ve you’d added a lot of your voice and perspective, you have a duty to create space for others.

Civic humility, though, is more than simply stepping back from dominating the verbal space. It is the active mentoring and nurturing of the voices of those around you – creating space for them and actively seeking and valuing their participation.

I call this humility civic, because I see it as an intrinsically associated phenomenon. In the Good Society, people don’t just try to yell their ideas loudest, constantly preening for attention; they work together, co-creating something better than they could have developed through a mere aggregation of opinions.

Civic humility, I would argue, is needed beyond the scope of any current systemic injustice. In a perfectly egalitarian world, there will still be people who are faster to speak while others take time to process. There will always be power imbalances – between people of different ages, or people of different technical expertise.

The art of associated living is not only one of speaking up and making your voice heard, but it is fundamentally one of making space for the contributions of those around you.


On Bad Public Meetings

There are two divergent visions conjured by the idea of a “public meeting.”

First, there’s the ideal: a rich discussion of views and values; a robust exploration of a problem and collective reasoning about solutions; diverse communities thoughtfully engaging together in the hard work of associated living. Such a public meeting is not unlike an idealized college seminar – everyone contributes, everyone grows, and the co-created output of this public work is far better than anyone would have created on their own.

Then there’s the all too common reality; the reason so many of us avoid public meetings in the first place. The inefficient use of time, the yelling, the talking over and past each other, and – if you have the same pet peeves I do – the people who seem to feel the overwhelming need to hear the sound of their own voice, who feel compelled to speak before taking the time to consider what value they are adding to the conversation.

My friend and civic colleague Josh Miller recently pointed me to one such epitome of terrible public meetings, captured in the Milwaukee Record under the headline Lake Park’s Pokemon Go Meeting Was Boring, Livid, and Gloriously Absurd.

To be fair, those adjectives could easily be used to describe many public meetings on a wide variety of topics.

As author Matt Wild described, “Yes, last night’s meeting was the sound of a ridiculous situation taken to its ridiculous extremes. It was the sound of two sides possessing both reasonable concerns and defiant inabilities to listen to one another. It was the sound of privileged people droning on and on and on. It was the sound of people who always seem to have obnoxious Qs during Q&As asking those obnoxious Qs.”

I can’t tell you how many public meetings I’ve been to in my life which fit that description.

So perhaps it seems strange that I cling to the ideas of collaborative public work, of productive public dialogue. Perhaps such an idyllic vision is too much to ask for and far too much to expect: after all, let’s not pretend that those leafy college seminars always go off without out a hitch.

And I make no denials that such a vision of public collaboration is hard. It is very hard. That is, perhaps, why Harry Boyte’s term of public work seems so apt even for the process of dialogue. Real deliberation is work.

But I find it a noble effort; a work worth engaging in even if the results come up short.

We must then ask ourselves – why do so many public meetings go so horribly awry?

For one thing, we must think carefully about the structure of such meetings. The common structure of most public meetings is designed to maintain the power of public officials. Public officials discuss, deliberate, invite expert testimony, and finally, in a nod to democracy, allow for public comments. Then the officials discuss and deliberate further – putting the matter to a vote or requesting further study of the issue at hand.

“The public” does not attend with the role of deliberator or authority, but is relegated to 60 minutes of anecdotes no one really wants to listen to.

There are reasons this structure might be good – society must be protected from the “trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd,” as Walter Lippmann wrote. Perhaps it is wise not to give “the public” too much power.

And while I would far prefer to see public meetings which truly embraced the role of the public – which invited residents as stakeholders and experts to talk together and collaborative address public problems – the current model seems like possibly the worst of all worlds.

Wild describes the many failures of the Pokemon Go meeting:

The meeting was clearly flawed, with far too much time given over to the panel members, and precious little time given to concerned Pokemon players. If more minutes had been dedicated to audience remarks and general Q&A, perhaps the pro-Pokemon contingent would have gotten their cries of “I LOVE POKEMON AND THIS IS BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER” out of the way and focused on the main problem at hand: How does a residential park that wasn’t designed to handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight suddenly handle thousands of people congregating in a relatively small space seven days a week for three months straight?

Urban planner Bent Flyvbjerg argues that “power is knowledge,” that “power defines what counts as knowledge and rationality, and ultimately…what counts as reality.” This observation comes precisely from his work in public space planning: decisions are made, implicitly or explicitly, behind closed doors and public information is shaped and shared in such a way as to create the illusion of public participation while ensuring the outcome preferred by those with power.

This dynamic creates a self-enforcing cycle of public disaffection and civic defeat. As Lippman argued in 1925, “the private citizen today has come to feel rather like a deaf spectator in the back row …In the cold light of experience he knows that his sovereignty is a fiction. He reigns in theory, but in fact he does not govern…”

And thus we find ourselves with disastrous Pokemon Go meetings, with enumerable public meetings in which a disaffected public rouses itself to share various concerns, where some find it to be their duty to speak out, to try to engage in the process, while the rest of us sitting at home – reading the recap in the local paper, rolling our eyes, and wondering with a discontented sigh, where did it all go wrong?


Safe Space and Civil Society

I’ve been thinking a lot about safe spaces.

Perhaps it’s because the school year is starting that the debate over safe space and intellectual rigor has become top of mind. But this issue is core to civil society in general: we’re seeing the debate play out on college campuses, but it gets deeply to questions of who gets to participate – and how – in civil society and what that participation (or absence) means for social outcomes.

And as a side note, let’s not forget that half of all young people in this nation do not receive any of the benefits of a college education or experience.

The debate over safe space strikes me as being about far more than safe spaces. No one who advocates for safe spaces wants students to be coddled, and no one who advocates against safe spaces wants students to be tormented. So in some ways, the debate – or talking past each other, if you will – seems misaligned to the actual issues at play.

A few years ago my former colleagues at Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a study on how American teens use their out-of-school time.

One of the top level findings of this report was a striking difference in how teens of different social classes used their time:

Research so far suggests a wide variation of after-school time use based on social disparities: three out of ten children in low-income households do not participate in any organized activities, while just one out of ten middle-class or wealthy children do not. Not surprisingly, affordability of extracurricular involvement varies greatly by income level. Furthermore, parents of different socioeconomic backgrounds may view priories in time use differently.

The study reinforced the 2003 work of sociologist Annette Lareau: there are not only financial reasons for different people’s experience, but cultural class reasons as well.

In general, wealthier kids benefit from organized out-of-school activities: they develop leadership skills, self-confidence, and college application material through formal athletic, artistic, and academic opportunities.

Children of lower socio-economic status benefit from unstructured, unsupervised time. They learn self-sufficiency, resilience, and independence by taking care of themselves and siblings after school.

The normative values of lower socio-economic families may prove problematic to social mobility – those kids may not have as much flare on their college applications – but the reality is that there is value in both approaches, and negatives in taking one approach too far.

This may seem tangential to the topic of safe spaces, but I actually think it’s related. I don’t know that the divergence of views breaks down along social classes, but there do seem to be normative differences in what people expect out of a civil society – at large or in a campus microcosm.

Some opponents of safe spaces revel in pushing their view to the extreme. It’s a sort of tough love approach: say the most offensive things possible in order to make kids develop a thick skin. My sense is that some of these folks aren’t simply trying to express their own view, but they’re actively trying to antagonize people in the hopes of helping people grow more accustomed to such things. (And/or to draw attention to themselves?)

Surely, they have a right to do so – but it also kind of makes them a….well, you can choose your own descriptor here.

On the other side, there’s no shortage of horror anecdotes about students claiming safe space protection for something absurd. Like the guy who sued for coffee being hot – there’s always some one out there making the system look bad.

I don’t think the majority of people are in either of these extremes, though people tend to lean towards one view or another.

Some people have experienced positive growth by being strongly challenged – and it has helped them go strong in return. Others have been silenced by society and are looking for supportive spaces through which they can regain their voice.

Depending on your own experience, you might have a different view on which of these norms is more important and which you’d rather see fostered in civil society. But as with out-of-school activities: there is value in both approaches.

The problem that I see is that there is systemic inconsistency in terms of who falls into each group. If half the population was randomly assigned to feel one way and the other half was randomly assigned to feel the opposite…that would be a very interesting study. But when race, class, gender, sexual identity, or other demographic factors line up so closely with how people feel about this issue – that’s something we need to pay attention to.


Freedom, Justice, and Civil Society

I have been thinking a lot recently about a number of related topics: civil society, of course, but also freedom, self, and justice. I suppose none of these are particularly new, but I’ve but been thinking about their intersection in new ways.

Last week, for example, the University of Chicago made headlines when the Dean of Students expressed the following sentiment to its incoming Freshman class:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own

Fostering the free exchange of ideas reinforces a related University priority – building a campus that welcomes people of all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and background is a fundamental strength of our community. The members of our community must have the freedom to espouse and explore a wider range of ideas.

What’s interesting about these two paragraphs is the totally divergent visions from people on different sides of this issue. Opponents of trigger warnings and safe spaces – I’ll leave invited speakers aside here because I see that as a different issue – see exclusivity, reverse discrimination, and coddling. Proponents see tools which serve precisely that priority the University seeks to advance: welcoming people of all backgrounds and encouraging rich intellectual exchange.

It seems almost strange that such orthogonal interpretations can co-exist.

This is where, it seems to me, that different conceptions of core issues such as freedom, self, and justice come into play – with striking repercussions for how we organize civil society.

These terms are by no means clear or consistent. For example, my friend and colleague Peter Levine once listed at least six different types of freedom. Does freedom mean freedom to act? Freedom to create? Or, perhaps, freedom is a “negative liberty” – freedom is freedom from constraint.

Applied to civil society, the question is no longer what it means to be free, but rather: how do we live freely together?

This question is important because inevitably, our individual freedoms will come into conflict. Social norms as well as laws can be seen moderators of our various freedoms. Murder is illegal because most of us would rather give up our own freedom to commit murder in order to reduce the possibly that someone else will exercise their freedom to murder us. Alternatively, we could argue that one person’s freedom to live outweighs another’s freedom to murder.

Taking freedom in this way, much of our civil infrastructure can be interpreted as a process balancing freedoms: is one person’s freedom to speak more important than another’s freedom to not hear? How hateful or harmful does speech need to be – if indeed there is such a line -before the freedom of the listener outweighs the freedom of the speaker?

These are important questions, but they cannot be separated from questions of self and justice.

First of all, such a concept of freedom only really makes sense if you think of ‘self’ as a discrete, individual unit. If, on the other hand, your concept of ‘self’ has less well-defined boundaries – or perhaps no boundaries at all – then the very idea of freedom becomes less clear. What does it mean for me to be free, if ‘me’ is little more than a “a psychological and historical structure,” as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote.

And, importantly, there is the issue of justice. Or, more precisely, the issue of systemic injustice.

Too often, this topic is missing or sidestepped in discussions of civil society.

The question of balancing freedoms is most easy to answer when the people in question are essentially the same. If you think of society as a game where we each have an equal number of points to spend on expressing our defending our freedom, then it seems entirely fair to say that – major issues such as murder aside – we should leave each person to spend their points as they may.

The idea that trigger warnings and safe spaces coddle some students at the expense of other students seems to tacitly rely on this idea: one person’s freedom of speech is too precious to sacrifice another’s comfort.

But such a view disregards the effects of systemic injustice. Safe spaces, for example, are not primarily about exclusion or shutting some perspectives down – it’s about creating space, just a little space, for those people who live their lives inundated with the message that they are bad, inferior, or unalterably wrong. A safe space needs to be created precisely because no other space is safe.

This is an issue far beyond college campuses. We see this issue on campus for precisely the same reason college campuses have seen so much activism: we are training young people to be engaged members of society. We are teaching them to not simply accept the world as it is, but to engage in the hard work of continually working to make the world better.

I once heard a university professor tell young students of color that the world is full of racism and discrimination – so a university which shields its students from those realities is doing them no favors.

The students – justifiably, in my opinion – were shocked.

They each knew all too well that the world is full of discrimination. They each experienced it personally and painfully again and again and again each day. They weren’t asking to be coddled, they weren’t asking to be shielded. They were asking for the opportunity to learn with the freedom their white peers seemed to enjoy.

And they were demanding their own freedom of speech; their own freedom to protest and speak out and to engage fully in the hard work of bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.



Authenticity and Social Selves

A few months ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed titled, Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice.

As author Adam Grant argues, our “authentic selves” would most likely do and say things that we – and everyone around us – would regret in the morning. Being true to yourself becomes rather ignoble if your authentic self is deeply flawed.

Rather than being authentic, Grant urges that we aim to be sincere. “Instead of searching for our inner selves and then making a concerted effort to express them…Pay attention to how we present ourselves to others, and then strive to be the people we claim to be.”

This is an interesting argument, but I’m not convinced there’s an inconsistency in being true to your authentic self and having a malleable social self.

First, dismissing the value of an authentic self seems to very much come from a position of privilege. If being authentic means nothing more to you than blurting out every thought that passes through your head, then your authentic self does not need to be found.

In Covering: The Hidden Assault on our Civil Rights, legal scholar Kenji Yoshino examines the disproportional social and legal pressures some people face to hide their authentic selves. And this ‘covering’ can do real, psychological damage. Our laws have come to protect people from certain overt forms of discrimination – you can’t fire someone because of the color of their skin or because of their gender. But, Yoshino points out, you can force them to cover.

You can forbid certain hairstyles, for example. In fact, it’s perfectly legal for employers to ban hairstyles predominately worn by African American women. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell banned service men and women from expressing their sexual identity for nearly 2 decades. Yoshino provides numerous other examples of legal precedent which supports the suppression of minority identities in favor of the norms of white, straight identity. (Yoshino also argues that women face the particular challenge of being told to “act like men” in the workplace while also being told to be ‘feminine’. Employers can even mandate that women wear makeup or otherwise alter their appearance.)

This is what I think of when I hear ‘authentic self.’ I don’t imagine there’s some isolated island of ‘me’ that I need to discover and remain statically true to in order to be virtuous. It means there are some elements of my identity which are fundamental to who I am, and losing those elements or having them submerged by society is harmful to me.

I don’t see such an idea as being in conflict with the idea I’ve been writing about much of this week: that a ‘self’ is more a reflection social interactions than it is an isolated entity.

A self can be co-created and still have distinctive qualities which are worth being authentic to.

I can joke with one group of friends and be serious with another; I can show different sides of myself and express myself in different ways. I can have different types of relationships with different types of people – and I can sometimes even keep my mouth shut so as to not say something inappropriate. None of that is inconsistent with being authentic. None of that is inconsistent with striving to be the best person I can be. And none of that is inconsistent with the idea that the core of who I am is formed, not as some Athena sprung from my head, but mainly by my interactions with others.


Symbols, Stereotypes, and Power

Walter Lippmann was very concerned about the inaccessibly of Truth. “The facts we see depend on where we are placed and the habits of our eyes,” he wrote in his 1921 work, Public Opinion.

He repeats this concern numerous times. “We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. And those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception.”

Lippmann, an American journalist with an intimate familiarity with propaganda and war-time rhetoric, had reason to be concerned. “Rationally, the facts are neutral to all our views of right and wrong. Actually, our canons determine greatly what we shall perceive and how.”

Lippmann’s concern is perhaps most concisely expressed as Bent Flyvbjerg’s more recent axiom: power is knowledge.

We each have a unique experience of the world, and we each filter our experiences through our constructed stereotypes of meaning.

Lippmann, in fact, coined the word stereotype. Writing in Public Opinion:

In untrained observation, we pick recognizable signs out of the environment. The signs stand for ideas, and these ideas we fill out with our stock of images. We do not so much see this man and that sunset, rather we notice that the thing is a man or sunset, and then see chiefly what our mind is already full of on those subject.

There is economy in this. For the attempt to see all things freshly and in detail, rather than as types and generalities, is exhausting, and among busy affairs practically out of the question…Modern life is hurried and multifarious, above all physical distance separates men who are often in vital contact with each other, such as employer and employee, official and voter. There is neither time nor opportunity for intimate acquaintance. Instead, we note a trait which marks a well-known type and fill in the rest of the picture by means of the stereotypes we carry about in our heads. He is an agitator. That much we notice or are told. Well, an agitator is this sort of person, and so he is this sort of person. He is an intellectual. He is a plutocrat. He is a foreigner. He is a ‘Southern European.’ He is from Back Bay. He is a Harvard Man. How different from the statement: he is a Yale Man. He is a regular fellow. He is a West Pointer. He is an old army sergeant. He is a Greenwich Villager: what don’t we know about him then, and about her? He is an international banker. He is from Main Street.

These stereotypes – helpful heuristics which help us make sense of a busy world – are comforting. “They are an ordered, ore or less consistent picture of the world, to which our habits, our tastes, our capacities, our comforts and our hopes have adjusted themselves,” Lippmann writes. “We feel at home there. We fit in there. We are members. We know our way around.”

It is perhaps because of this comfort that we cling so desperately to our stereotypes.

Lippmann remarks that what matters is “the character of the stereotypes and the gullibility with which we employ them.” That those who hold the wise philosophy “that each man is only a small part of the world, that his intelligence catches at best only phases and aspects in a coarse net of ideas,” are more likely to “to know that they are only stereotypes, to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly.” But this is easier said than done.

Our stereotypes are such a familiar comfort 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.”

Thus, even the wise intellectual, aware of their own stereotypes and open to altering them, may easily make the mistake of taking individual truths to be universal truths; and to take those individual truths to be self-evident.

“What is alien will be rejected, what is different will fall upon unseeing eyes. We do not see what our eyes are not accustomed to take into account. Sometimes consciously, more often without knowing it, we are impressed by those facts which fit our philosophy,” Lippmann warns.

These stereotypes, “loaded with preferences, suffused with affection or dislike, attached to fears, lusts, strong wishes, pride, hope” can then be evoked by manipulative elites through the use of symbols.

“The detached observer may scorn the ‘star-spangled’ ritual which hedges the symbol,” Lippmann writes, “…but the leader knows by experience that only which symbols have done their work is there a handle he can use to move a crowd. In the symbol emotion is discharged at a common target, and the idiosyncrasy of real ideas blotted out.”

Lippmann is widely considered to be an elitist – marked by his fear of how easily the “bewildered heard” of the masses are manipulated – but I’ve tended towards a kinder reading. If the public cannot be trusted, it is because elites are corrupt, because those with power actively seek to shape the knowledge and beliefs of the public at large.

Flyvbjerg’s warning “power is knowledge” gets at exactly that point. Power defines reality. Power determines what knowledge enters the public domain and how that knowledge is presented. As  Flyvbjerg writes in a detailed urban planning study, “Rationality is penetrated by power, and it becomes meaningless, or misleading – for politicians, administrators, and researchers alike – to operate with a concept of rationality in which power is absent.”

So perhaps it is to be expected that those with power will deploy symbols to keep the masses in thrall, and perhaps it is to be expected that such magic tricks have great effect. It is not, inherently, the people who are flawed, it is the system. Power is knowledge and power defines reality.




Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5

It was 1858 in San Fransisco, California. Gold had been discovered at nearby Sutter’s Mill just ten years before. Initial planning for the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was underway, and Congress had recently authorized funding for any company which could ensure stage coach delivery of mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days.

Following San Fransisco’s first great fire of 1849 and a series of destructive fires in the early 1850s, the booming port town formed a volunteer Fire Department and, in 1858, installed its first fire hydrants.

As one San Fransisco museum describes, “The men comprising the first volunteers of the Fire Department consisted of some of the most influential men of the community.  None were so high in office or so proud of position that he was not honored by a membership in the early fire brigade.”

While the volunteers put pride aside when a fire was particularly serious, individual fire companies were notoriously competitive, always seeking to put “firs water” on a fire – a competition which “led to many physical combats, and some of the fights reached riot proportions.”

Following the alarm bells one afternoon, the poorly under-manned Knickerbocker Engine Company No. 5 was falling behind, much to the mockery of rivals Manhattan No. 2 and Howard No. 3. A fifteen year old child from a locally prestigious family saw the Knickerbocker’s plight while walking home from school. The teen immediately jumped into action, helping to man the fire truck’s ropes and shouting, “Come on, you men! Everybody pull and we’ll beat ‘em!”

The teen was no man. She was Lillie Coit, who continued to play an important role to Company No. 5 and San Fransisco firefighters for the rest of her life.

As a woman, she never officially occupied the same role as her male counterparts. She was elected an “honorary” member of the Knickerbockers in 1863 and is commonly referred to as the “patroness” of San Fransisco’s volunteer fire companies. But throughout her youth, she played an active role in the company – always dashing off at the sound of the alarm and otherwise engaging in activities unseemly for a young lady of her standing.

As an adult she was known for having a number of shocking habits such as wearing trousers, smoking cigars, and gambling. Stories say she often dressed as man in order to participate in the latter activity. And she always remained involved and supportive of her beloved fire company.

Upon her death in 1929, Coit left one-third of her fortune to San Fransisco, “to be expended in an appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved.”

In 1933, those funds were used to build the Lillian Coit Memorial Tower, which stands 64 m tower atop Telegraph Hill. A notable sight along a city’s skyline. And while the story is said to be apocryphal, one can’t help notice the similarity between the tower’s design and the popular story: that in honor of the remarkable Lillie Coit, the tower is shaped like the nozzle of a fire hose.


Open Carry in Ohio

With the Republican National Convention taking place in Cleveland this week, and on the heels of deadly police shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge, the Cleveland Police Union is pushing for a temporary ban on that state’s open carry gun law:

“We are sending a letter to Gov. Kasich requesting assistance from him. He could very easily do some kind of executive order or something — I don’t care if it’s constitutional or not at this point,” Stephen Loomis, president of Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, told CNN. “They can fight about it after the RNC or they can lift it after the RNC, but I want him to absolutely outlaw open-carry in Cuyahoga County until this RNC is over.”

In preparation for the convention, the City of Cleveland has announced a ban on at least 72-items within the “event zone.” The list includes tennis balls, ice chests, metal-tipped umbrellas, and locks. The ban also includes a general provision against “any dangerous ordinance, weapon, or firearm that is prohibited by the laws of the State of Ohio.”

There’s just one thing: there’s not that much banned by the state of Ohio.

While the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed,” the Ohio State Constitution takes a somewhat differs tact:

The people have the right to bear arms for their defense and security; but standing armies, in time of peace, are dangerous to liberty, and shall not be kept up; and the military shall be in strict subordination to the civil power.

While there are some restrictions on the use of firearms within a motor vehicle and establishments with a liquor license, Ohio State law generally allows for the open carry of firearms and does not require a permit or license for purchase.

For his part, Governor Katich declined to implement a temporary ban, arguing through a statement from his spokeswoman Emmalee Kalmbach:

Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws as suggested. The bonds between our communities and police must be reset and rebuilt – as we’re doing in Ohio – so our communities and officers can both be safe. Everyone has an important role to play in that renewal.

On the surface, I am inclined to agree. It may seem absurd that tennis balls are banned as dangerous while firearms are permitted, but state law is quite clear in this area. The City of Cleveland explicitly banned only those weapons which are banned by state law because they don’t have the power to ban anything further.  The Governor may have state-wide purview, but he still doesn’t have the power to suspend the state constitution.

There’s an interesting argument that was made by gun rights activists during the debate on whether to prohibit people on the terror watch list from buying guns: the terror watch list is notoriously bad. Using it as a filter creates a dangerous precedent for arbitrarily restricting citizens’ constitutional rights.

If the government proposed restricting the 1st amendment rights of citizens named by some poorly formulated, clearly imprecise list that it is nearly impossible to get off of, I would be justifiably upset.

Quite frankly, when it comes to the 1st amendment and conventions, I’m not even a fan of so-called “free speech zones,” areas where protestors are pushed off to the side, hidden from media, and delicately repressed in the name of safety.

A temporary ban on firearms seems constitutionally quite similar to this – though the danger posed by free speech is quite less.

Interestingly, Cleveland was planning a Free Speech Zone around the convention, but following a suit from the ACLU was forced to minimize restrictions on 1st amendment rights.

Also interestingly, firearms are explicitly banned within the arena itself – this area falls under the jurisdiction of the Secret Service which, from what I can tell, has the purview to ban whatever it wants.

All of this, however, relies on the argument that the 2nd amendment is the same as the 1st amendment.

If I would have a problem with the temporary suspension of the 1st amendment, I should logically have a problem with the temporary suspension of the 2nd amendment – or any other amendments for that matter. Just because I have a personal distaste for a certain amendment doesn’t give the state the right to treat the amendment differently.

This all makes sense and sounds rational on paper, but – here’s the thing: the 2nd amendment isn’t the same.

The Bill of Rights exists to protect me, to protect citizens, from an overbearing, centralized government. The Bill of Rights stands as a testament to the ideal that this government will never be able to strip be of my fundamental rights.

But the 2nd amendment doesn’t make me feel empowered, it doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me feel scared of my fellow citizens.

I have to image that those who uphold the 2nd amendment feel much differently – that they genuinely see themselves as part of a well-regulated militia, ready to jump into action to ensure the freedom of the State.

But to me, the 2nd amendment is very different. I worry about a government which can strip our right to protest. I worry about a government which can have secret trials and which can unreasonably search its citizens.

I don’t worry about a government which restricts the ability of people to keep and bear arms – I’m more worried about the functioning of a government which can ban tennis balls but not weapons.


Democracy of Manners

Listening to an interview with historian Nancy Isenberg, author of the new book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I was struck by Isenberg’s reference to the United States as a “democracy of manners” – an idea, she says, which came from an Australian writer.

“We accept huge disparities in wealth while expecting our leaders to cultivate the appearance of not being different,” Isenberg argues. Our democracy is all about manners; success is all in the performance. I highly doubt this is a unique American phenomenon, but in building off Isenberg I will keep this post in the American context.

From Andrew Jackson to the current presumptive Republican nominee, populist candidates have been successful by showing themselves able to play the part of a poor, white American – to eat the right foods, to say the right things with the right mannerisms. These are the candidates you want to have a beer with.

Importantly, the actual background of these candidates is not particularly relevant. Jackson did grow up in rural Appalachia, but more recent populists have come from among the upper tiers of society. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is the act.

Embracing a democracy of manners is a failure of genuine democracy. It encourages citizens divest their civic responsibilities to actors who can merely play the part of representing them.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read Isenberg’s book, but I get the impression this democracy of manners is a core challenge which creates a self-perpetuating cycle along several dimensions. In dismissing the fundamental human value of the white poor, white elites create a class they can scapegoat for all of society’s ills. Obvert racism among white poor allows upper classes to pretend as though racism only exists among the uneducated poor. It creates a class who will protect themselves by tearing down any other groups poised to breach elite power.

And, through the democracy of manners, it creates a class that will continually vote against their own self-interest, supporting candidates who look like them and talk like them, but who ultimately serve elite interests.




I have complained before about the common solution to the so-called “confidence gap” – that those with less confidence (typically women) should simply behave more like their confident (typically male) peers.

There’s a whole, complex, gender dynamic to this conversation, but even putting that issue aside, I have a hard time accepting that the world would be better if more people were arrogant.

Of course, those advocating for this shift don’t call it arrogance, preferring the positive term of confidence, but there is a fine line between the two. If a person lacks the confidence to share a meaningful insight, that is a problem. But it is just as problematic – perhaps even more problematic – when someone with unfounded confidence continually dominates the conversation.

Confidence is not intrinsically good.

Thinking before you speak, questioning your own abilities – these are good, valuable traits. It’s only at their extreme of paralyzing inaction that these traits become problematic. Similarly, confidence is appropriate in moderation, but quickly becomes tiring at its own extreme of arrogance.

Finding a balance between the two is the skill we all ought to work on becoming good at.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a good word for the opposite of over-confidence. Modesty is one, but it doesn’t quite capture the concept I’m trying to get at. Modesty is a trait of accomplished people who could reasonably be arrogant but manage not to be. Can you be modest while sincerely unsure of yourself?

I’ve started using the term self-skeptism; a sort of healthy, self-critique.

The word skeptic has a somewhat complicated etymological history, but is derived in part from the Greek skeptesthai meaning, “to reflect, look, view.” This is the same root as the word “scope.”

It implies a certain suspension of belief – an ability to step back and judge something empirically rather than biased by what you already believe. And, it implies that skeptical inquiry is a valuable process of growth. The skeptic neither loves nor hates the subject they are skeptical about – rather, they hope to get at a better, deeper understanding through the process of inquiry.

Applied to one’s self, then – though perhaps more typically called by the general term of self-reflection – self-skepticism can be seen as the process of trying to become a better person through healthy skepticism of yourself as you currently are.

This, to me, lacks the judgement implied by “lacking confidence,” while embracing that we are all flawed and imperfect in our own ways – though we can always, always work to become better.