Category Archives: Social Norms

A Moment in History

Last night, Secretary Hillary Clinton made history by becoming the first female to be the presumptive presidential nominee of a major U.S. political party.

Republican commentator Ana Navarro commented on Twitter, “Confession: Thought woman thing wouldn’t mean much to me, but yes, feel something I can’t quite articulate seeing 1st woman nominee #History”

Among my own circles, I saw mothers and fathers alike thrilled to be able to share the moment with their daughters. Who watched with pride and hope as Secretary Clinton declared “tonight’s victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.”

It’s a historic moment for women in this country, and I’m glad that many are finding it so moving and powerful.

But, for me…it feels oddly flat.

Ezra Klein posits that many have met this moment uninspired because Secretary Clinton is “winning a process that evolved to showcase stereotypically male traits using a stereotypically female strategy.” Or, more generally, “there is something about us that makes it hard to appreciate the magnitude of her achievement.”

In Klein’s view, the strength of a candidate is traditionally measured by how rousing their speeches are; how fiery their rhetoric. But those aren’t Secretary Clinton’s strengths. Not only is she “not a natural politician,” but – as a woman – she would be socially penalized for being too loud; too outspoken.

Instead, Secretary Clinton’s strength is that she’s a relentless coalition builder; “arguably better at that than anyone in American politics today.” This relationship-building is a critical political skill, but it’s also what makes her seem so establishment. She seemingly had the primary locked up before it even began – establishment, perhaps, but the result of decades of painstaking relationship building.

Klein argues then that if Secretary Clinton’s victory feels hollow it is because of the norms we’ve imposed – because we undervalue the traditional feminine skill of relationship building while overvaluing traditionally masculine oratory.

This argument is intriguing, but still somewhat misses the mark. I’m skeptical of Klein’s gendering of rhetoric and relationship building – do those really break down as a masculine/feminine dynamic?

Of course, this in part is what makes patriarchy so intrenchant – the nuances of sexism and double standards are so subtle as to be commonly overlooked entirely. The biases are so pervasive that I honestly couldn’t tell you how these misguided norms warp my own view.

Yet, as I reflect on my own dispassion for Secretary Clinton’s victory, I like to think that it’s neither personally nor politically motivated. Indeed, I have a great deal of respect for Secretary Clinton.

Instead, as we mark this historic moment, as Americans declare their pride at finally selecting a female nominee, I’m reminded of the many, many, many women who have served as heads of governments and heads of state around the world.

Despite what several articles have written, Secretary Clinton is not the first woman to be nominated by a major political party – rather she is the first in the U.S.

Not to downplay the significance of that achievement, but I suppose I’m having a hard time feeling the thrill of a liberal victory when the fact that we’re just now getting to this moment highlights just how painfully un-progressive our country can be.

As Steven Colbert cleverly quipped, electing a female candidate “is something you could only see in a sci-fi novel…or any other country in the world.”

So while I suppose that later is better than never – this momentary breath of parity seems like little to preen ourselves over.

And while there may be important symbolism in this moment, I can’t help feel that symbolism does me little good if nothing really changes.

Just last week a white man was given a light six month sentence for the violent rape of a woman while the perpetrator’s father complained that even that minimal sentence ruined his son’s life for “20 minutes of action.” You can read the woman’s own powerful statement here.

And this story is just one of far too many incidents of rape and sexual assault which occur regularly across this nation. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) estimates that 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. And nearly 2 out of 3 rapes go unreported.

So forgive me if I find myself unmoved by symbolism; if I want more from my country.

Following the election of President Barack Obama, there was much hope that entering an era where a black man could indeed become president meant we had entered an era where we could truly confront and dismantle our country’s deep racism.

Unfortunately, over the last eight years the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray, Eric Garner, and far, far too many other people of color show just how little progress we have truly made. There is so much work to be done.

I am satisfied with the nomination of Secretary Clinton, and I am optimistic that come January we will finally have a woman in the white house. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking this moment means as much as we would like it to mean.

This is a historic moment, perhaps, but one that is scandalously far past due. And with the deep, entrenched and often violent misogyny unrelentingly still faced by women in our country today, it is a moment which highlights not how far we have come – but how shockingly further we still have to go.


Embracing Behinity

Throughout the week, I’ve been reflecting on Sándor Szathmári’s great work of social satire, Voyage to Kazohinia. The work critiques a number of social institutions, but largely seems to focus on a broader question: is an ideal society one at equilibrium or one which embraces extremes?

Szathmári presents this question by introducing us, through the shipwrecked Englishman Gulliver, to two contrasting societies: the brilliant, efficient and loveless Hins and the backwards, chaotic, and destructive Behins.

Given the Hin’s complete lack of love, art, and unique character, one might be inclined to favor the mad but passionate world of the Behins, though Szathmári clearly seems to favor the ordered society of the Hins.

Following the principal of kazo – mathematical clarity – the Hins naturally act “so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.” The Behins, on the other hand, are “kazi” – a term for the irrationality which captures everything not kazo.

While I have commented this week on the arguments favoring both types of communities and on reasons why we might want to force a choice between the two rather than just rejecting the premise all together, I have yet to actually answer the question for myself.

On this topic, I have found myself greatly torn.

On the one hand, the peaceful, equitable, and rational world of the Hins is clearly the more reasonable of the two societies. Nearly every logical thought argues in its favor.

Yet the Hin’s lack of art, of passion, of love seems too much to bear. It nearly seems worth sacrificing peace and equity for these peculiarities that make us so deeply human.

Furthermore, being generally inclined to favor unpopular opinions makes me want to argue for the Behinistic perspective on principle. If the kazo world of the Hins is so clearly the rational choice, the troublemaker and contrarian in me just has to push against it.

This instinct is quite clearly kazi.

Additionally, that proud desire to be kazi in the face of all reason strikes me as potentially little more than an arrogantly American trait.

One of my Japanese teachers once told me that she couldn’t understand why Americans took such pride in being individualistic. We fancy ourselves as standing up against the crowd, as being brave radicals willing to boldly buck conventional norms. My teacher just laughed. You think doing what you want is hard? Doing what’s best for others is harder.

As something of an aside here, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in addition to being a clever critique of western society at large, Szathmári’s novel brilliantly satirizes the west’s Orientalism.

The Hins – whose philosophy I previously compared to Lao Tzu‘s – encapsulates everything “the west” thinks of “the east.” They do not, of course, reflect any real culture existing in the world, but our English Gulliver views them exactly as he might if he had found himself among any of the real peoples of East Asia.

Gulliver comments that “the Behins respected the Hins very much even though they loathed them,” a sentiment which perfectly encapsulates Gulliver’s own attitude. He is impressed by their efficiency and technological innovations, but hates their uniformity and dispassion.

This duality epitomizes the sentiments of Orientalism, and is particularly resonant of western views of Japan around the second world war, when Kazohinia was written. It is no accident that Gulliver was being deployed to Japan when he was shipwrecked.

The Behins, on the other hand, represent the west as it is, disrobed from the vain glory in which it sees itself. One could also make a strong argument that the Behins represent eastern views of the west, but either way Szathmári seems to write in the hopes of convincing his Behinistic western audience to be a little less kazi – using our own stereotypes to highlight our failings and the true ideal we neglect.

And thus I come to my final conclusion. While I put little stock in the gross over-generalizations of cultures, whether as a product of my culture or a product of my experiences, I find myself irreparably kazi. I know rationally that the kazo life is better, but I cannot accept it; I could not survive.

Like Foucault, I’m inclined to find that madness is little more than a social construct and, like Lewis Carroll, I’m inclined to believe we are all mad here.

The whole world is kazi, and – while I’d like to work to make the world a little more kazo – I’m no less Behin than anyone else.

Ironically, it would be kazi to assume otherwise. Throughout Gulliver’s time among the Behins he finds people who rightly mock the foolish beliefs and invented norms of their kazi peers. The greatest error comes, though, when these Behins don’t recognize the same foolishness within themselves. They simply substitute one kazi belief for another.

To not recognize one’s own Behinity, then, seems the height of madness.

At the end of the novel, Szathmári tells as about a certain kind of Behin “whose only Behinity is that he doesn’t realize among whom he lives; for it could not be imagined, could it, that someone aware of the Behinistic disease would still want to explain reality to them?”

I take this as a direct appeal to the reader: having been enlightened as to the Behinistic disease and possibly identifying Behinistic traits within ourselves, we are urged to move beyond our kazi instincts and embrace the better path of kazo. The Hins, we learn, were once Behins themselves.

This is, perhaps, a wise argument, but, in typical fashion, I find myself siding with Camus. The world is indeed absurd and the only thing left is to embrace that absurdity.


Equilibrium, Madness, and Utopia

Is it possible to have the good without the bad? Does beauty create ugliness and does love beget hate?

These questions are often explored in dystopian fiction, but Szathmári Sándor’s Voyage to Kazohinia is notable in its resounding answer. Yes, these opposites endlessly create each other, Szathmári argues, and thus is it better to have neither.

It is better to leave passion and madness behind in favor of the calm stability of reason.

Perhaps this seems like not such a bold claim. Reason is certainly favorable, and ugliness and hate should be gladly left behind.

Yet, it is not quite as simple as that. The premise of the question finds that to abandon hate is to give up love, that defeating all the ills of society can only be accomplished by relinquishing the passion and spirit we hold most dear.

The perfect society is the monotonous society. Ideal and unchanging.

In making this point, Szathmári introduces us to the Hins. Technologically advanced, the Hins suffer no hunger or conflict. They live in equilibrium and harmony, through the mathematical clarity of kazo. They have no need for police or money; no need for government institutions regulating behavior. They each behave perfectly and have, quite sincerely, a perfect society.

But there is, perhaps, something unsatisfying in their existence.

We meet the Hins through Gulliver, our proud English protagonist. And while we might join the author in snickering at his cultural absurdities, there is one element of Gulliver’s impression of the Hins which resonates.

It starts with small observations. The Hins, we learn, “have no expression for taking delight in something.” A crowded beach is bathed in silence; among the Hins, “everybody was a stranger; not a single greeting was to be heard. Each simply did not exist for the other.”

Our hero begins struggling against this dispassionate view. He is impressed by the technological advancement of the Hins, but distraught by their seeming lack of feeling and soul. He desperately seeks to explain his culture to his Hin acquaintance, Zatamon, who interprets his words through the core Hin concepts of kazo, mathematical perfection, and its opposite, kazi.

After Gulliver carefully explains a number of concepts – friend, hatred, wife, happiness, theater, art, and political parties – Zatamon expresses his disappointment:

In your country the kazo is considered to apply to certain groups only, which, however, already means that it is not kazo as you do not observe it where others are concerned. Because you imagine some persons closer to yourselves and favor them, this can only be done at the same time you offer less or nothing to others. That is, both the things you give your friends and those you do not give others bear all the marks of the kazi concept. These friends do not receive out of need, or on the basis of a general state of equilibrium – at least this is what I gather from your words – but purely because you have invented the kazi idea of ‘friendship.’

…And as for the word ‘love,’ it seems to me you wish to indicate with this that people outside an exclusive circle are to be treated beneath the merit of their existence. But why do you call the same thing hatred on other occasions?

The Hins have no love or beauty or friendship because the mere conceptualization of such things existing indicates the existence of their opposites. They throw society out of balance, bring disharmony where harmony would exist otherwise. This might seem a tragic loss to our own kazi sensibilities, but giving up the extremes in favor of equilibrium is clearly the logical thing to do.

It should be noted, of course, that the philosophy which Szathmári advances here is by no means unique to the fictional Hins. Consider this eloquent passage from Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.

“Practice not-doing,” Lao Tzu advises, “and everything will fall into place.”

That is kazo.

This way of thinking is in bold contrast to the conclusions of others who have pondered this challenge of duality.

In 1959 – eighteen years after Kazohinia, but before it was translated to English – American author Robert Heinlein comes to a different conclusion in his novel Starship Troopers.

Heinlein similarly sees a tension between an idyllic but mundane society and a passionate society of hardship and growth.

Writing in the early years of the Vietnam War, Heinlein imagines a paradise planet called Sanctuary. Life is easy on Sanctuary, a tempting home for weary soldiers. But, while Szathmári genuinely advocates for the lifestyle of the Hins, Heinlein is clear that he sees such an appealing ideal as a trap.

The descendants of Sanctuary colonists will not evolve. “So what happens?” Heinlein asks. “Do they stay frozen at their present level while the rest of the human race moves on past them, until they are living fossils, as out of place as a pithecanthropus in a space ship?”

For Heinlein, it is not problematic that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are inextricably intertwined – both are a necessary part of human existence. Indeed, it is the challenge of living which truly makes us alive. Life on Sanctuary is no life at all.

This is the view of our Gulliver among the Hins. While Szathmári seems to advocate for the ideal society of the Hins, he knows such a view is unlikely to be adopted easily. Becoming fully acquainted with the dull, effortless, efficiency of Hin life, our hero finds himself filled with despair.

A feeling of terrible powerlessness came over me. I was buried alive among the dead in this island in the suffocating atmosphere of which the life-thirsty lung panted in vain. And there was no escape. I was to wither away here, without air and life…

Thus finding the Hins to be efficient but lifeless automatons, and painfully deprived of the passions he deems living, our hero makes his escape. He goes to live amongst the Behins, those  beings which the Hins find to be incurably kazi. 

Life amongst the Behins is so mad as to be hardly worth relaying. Gulliver is relieved to leave the colorless world of the Hins, only to find his new home “the most terrible bedlam in the world.”

Of course, the Behins are hardly more mad than we are. They greet each other with meaningless phrases and useless physical contact. They follow a convoluted set of social norms which are constantly changing and entirely unpredictable. They divide themselves into constantly warring factions that fight over nothing more than whether the circle or square is a more perfect geometric shape. They create work that doesn’t need to be done in order to enforce an arbitrary system in which the rich earn more than the poor. They are embarrassed to speak of basic physical processes (such as eating). They use metaphors which don’t in any way relate to the actual objects they are discussing. Women pay to have their faces mutilated in the name of beauty.

Yes, the Behins are quite mad.

This then, is the price of accepting the extremes. Of taking in love, hate, joy, and despair. It does, indeed, disrupt the unchanging world of the Hins, but while Heinlein sees these extremes as the essence of life, Szathmári argues the opposite – such madness is not life at all.

And while you are pondering which type of life makes you more alive, there is one more element of Szathmári’s deeply amusing satire worth mentioning.

In Behinistic society, people who speak the truth, who exercise reason, are frequently burned at the stake. Therefore, as Gulliver explains:

If one wanted to say something particularly sensible and dangerous he put a cap and bells on his head and put his fingers into his mouth. And the Behins listened to him with great amusement…

These makrus, as they were known, are the only ones who are free to speak the truth; at the cost that they are laughed at and never understood.

While “some openly described how stupid and wretched the Behin life was,” listeners always believed the words of a makru to apply only to their enemies. “…It never occurred to them that all the vile words the makrus wrote also applied to their own lives.”

In fact, while living amongst the Behins Gulliver begins writing the travel diary which we are ostensibly reading. His friend discovers the text and, finding his own name frequently amid the list of mad occurrences, asks out loud who that name is supposed to represent.

Yet this same friend guffaws moments later finding distasteful but accurate descriptions of a local dignitary. The friend encourages Gulliver to publish his comical work, assuring him that he need not fear the dignitary’s wrath: “How do you imagine that he would recognize himself?”

Considering the opportunity to publish his work among the Behins, our Gulliver reflects:

The proposal was enticing but after some thinking I realized that for the very same reason there was no point in publishing it. How could it be imagined that reading it would make them even one iota cleverer or would render their lives one jot more endurable with such a lack of comprehension? Should I publish the account of my travels? It deserved a lot better than to be object of idiots’ imbecilic guffaws.



I recently finished reading Voyage to Kazohinia by Hungarian author Szathmári SándorIt’s a great book, and I highly recommend picking up a copy. As it turns out, the full English text is also available online. So you really should go read it.

I have a lot of reflections after reading this striking social satire and expect to be posting more about it throughout the week. But, as a simple start today, I share the concept of kazo.

Kazo is a core element of the novel and, quite frankly, one of those terms that I’m not sure how I’ve managed so long without having in my lexicon.

But, let’s back up a bit.

It is 1935 and the world is on the brink of a second great war. Our hero, whose travel diary we read, is a respectable British Naval officer. While on en route to be stationed aboard the Invincible off the coast of Japan, our intrepid traveler – Gulliver – is shipwrecked and finds himself among a strange people in a strange land.

You have no doubt grasped that this presents an indelible opportunity to satirize western culture, and Kazohinia does not disappoint.

In the land of the Hins – as its people call themselves – Gulliver marvels at the lack of police force:

Human life and freedom seemed to have no protection here, at least until then I had seen no policeman, nowhere was there anybody with pistol or bayonet. How could they sleep at night?

Our hero finds himself similarly confused by the Hins’ inability to differentiate between ‘crime’ and ‘punishment.’ While the proper Englishman tries to explain to a hapless Hins why social order demands that a crime be met with punishment, the Hin simply shakes his head and remarks:

It is not enough that you commit crimes, you even punish as well.

In a discussion about private property, one Hin explains that such a thing cannot exist – the only thing which belongs to a person is their body. Gulliver objects:

There are certain cases when citizens must sacrifice their lives for their country, so at such times the fatherland has our bodies at its disposal. But let us not stray too far from the point. Clothes are private property that other people cannot take away.

While our hero ironically misses the conflict in his statements, he does at first find the Hins to be a near perfect culture.

I may say, it was very strange to my European eyes, seeing this society whose every member was rich without having a single penny. As if the whole society had formed a single household in within which there were no financial problems, no written regulations, no prohibited areas, and no work status problems, but where the members of the family went about freely, helping each other with the housework, and helping themselves from a dish in the middle of the table. I felt a warm, friendly, and intimate atmosphere that I had never before felt among any such people.

And how is this peaceful synchronicity possible? Kazo.

As our author explains:

Kazo is somewhere between chivalry, impartiality, patience, self-respect, and justice. It connotes a general rightful intention but cannot be translated with any of these words…Kazo is a strict mathematical concept for equality of service and counterservice, similar to the principle of action and reaction in physics. If someone who does more strenuous work also eats more, that is kazoo to them. If somebody eats more because his stomach requires it, then that is also kazoo. And if an invalid who does no work wishes to have finer food, then this, too, is kazo.

…The more talented, the stronger, produce more. To us this appears to be an injustice, but to the inhabitants of this land it is as natural as to expect a bigger output with less fuel consumption in the case of a more efficient machine.

Quite simply:

Kazo is pure reason that perceives with mathematical clarity, in a straight line, when and how it must act – so that the individual, through society, reaches the greatest possible well-being and comfort.

You might wonder how such a thing is possible. How could a whole society of people possibly effortlessly coordinate their efforts in such a way?

A Hin has a perfect parable to explain this to us:

There is a species of ant, for instance. If one ant finds honey, it will take its fill. Now, if it meets a companion that has not found honey and is hungry, it will stick its mouth into the other ant’s mouth and thus the full any will transfer honey from itself until each of them is equally satisfied. How does the full any know that the other is more hungry, and how do both know when each of them is as satisfied as the other? …They know because the fuller ant gives honey to the hungrier one, and they will be equally satisfied when they part.

Kazo, then, can perhaps best be described as the natural path towards perfect equilibrium. The ants don’t need to discuss when enough honey has been shared, nor do they need to ‘know’ in our common sense exactly how much to share. They simply do what is right. Naturally. It is kazo.

It is this principle which allows Hin society to function so smoothly. Without government or economy, without wars or hunger. As we’ll see more tomorrow, our hero is impressed, but distraught, by the functionings of the Hins:

It came to light that everything took place entirely without money. Factories turned out goods but nobody received payment. Goods, on the other hand, lay in warehouses for one and all, and indeed everyone took as much as they wished. I could not imagine how maintaining order was possible in this chaos. 


Is Diversity Enough?

I’ve been reading Manin’s critical Democratic Deliberation: Why We Should Promote Debate Rather Than Discussion.

At the core of his argument, Manin complains that liberal theorists traditionally conflate “diversity of views” with “conflicting views.” Holding that a necessary and sufficient condition for good deliberation is “that participants in discussion hold diverse views and articulate a variety of perspectives, reflecting the heterogeneity of their experiences and backgrounds.”

To be clear, Manin isn’t suggesting that diversity of thought isn’t critical to deliberation – rather, he argues, it is not sufficient.

“Diversity of views is not a sufficient condition for deliberation because it may fail to bring into contact opposing views,” he writes. “It is the opposition of views and reasons that is necessary for deliberation, not just their diversity.”

There are many ways in which the mere presence of diversity may not result in the articulation of divergent views. Social psychology research has well documented the challenges of confirmation bias, where people “systematically misperceive and misinterpret evidence that is counter to their preexisting belief.” Or even avoid conflicting evidence all together.

To make matters worse, Manin points to research which further finds that “groups process information in a more biased way than individuals do, preferring information that supports their prior dominant belief to an even greater extent than individual people.”

More broadly, diverse experiences and views may not always translate directly into divergent opinions or perspectives on a given topic. Manin asks us to imagine a community facing a very reasonable and rational fear: say, a serial killer is on the loose. Discussing a proposal to expand police powers at this time of crisis, “the variety of perspectives and dispersion of social knowledge among them will ensure that many arguments, each deriving from the particular perspective, experience, or background of the speaker, are heard in support of expanding the prerogatives to the police.”

That is, the diverse reasons may all support the same view.

And finally, in a large heterogenous society, diverse opinions and experience may become polarized as fragmented, separate communities. That is, “a variety of internally homogeneous communities will coexist, each ignoring the views of the others.”

And, of course, there is the deep problem of power. Divergent perspectives will often go unspoken in situations where one group or groups have been systematically oppressed and silenced. Where even explicit invitations to freely share their views are rightly perceived as hollow or out-right disingenuous. This is a dynamic which John Gaventa documents powerfully in his study of poor, white, coal miners in the Appalachian Valley.

The damaging impact of this dynamic cannot be understated, as Gaventa argues, “power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining.”

Finally, there is the simple social challenge that “encountering disagreement”, as Manin writes, “generates psychic discomfort.” People don’t really like to argue.

(Of note here, there is little cross-cultural consideration in Manin, so while mainstream America’s distaste for argumentative discourse is well documented in numerous places, I’m not sure how broad a claim this properly ought to be.)

The solution to this seems simple: argue more. Take “deliberate and affirmative measures” to ensure lively debate and critical discussion. Don’t just assume that if diverse people are present, diverse voices will be heard. Seek out divergent views and conflicting arguments. If no one else says them – argue for them yourself.

This last point, I think, is particularly critical in looking at deliberation through a power-lens. If you are a position of power you are responsible for ensuring that diverse view be heard. This can mean working to create a safe space where people genuinely feel welcomed to share their views – or it can mean saying the unpopular thing yourself, putting it out there as a valid idea, worthy of further consideration.


Deliberative Democracy and Who Gets to Speak

There is a radical idea at the core of deliberative theory: every person’s voice is important.

I say this idea is radical because it’s the kind of thing one generally feels they ought to say without necessarily being the kind of thing one is genuinely inclined to believe.

Believing every voice is important has the virtuous quality of implying an egalitarian sense of justice and equity. Being in favor of the continued oppression of the oppressed is hardly popular in most circles.

But making this claim, truly believing this claim, goes beyond the nobel argument that those who are most vulnerable, who are most silenced should, too, have a voice in our collective creation of the world.

Believing that every voice – every voice – is important means supporting blowhards and bigots, the ignorant and the idiots.

That is a difficult belief to bear.

One can try to resolve this conflict through imposed norms of consideration and inclusion, but such measures fall short of being deeply satisfactory. For one thing, it raises complex normative questions as people’s core identities conflict – cries of religious discrimination and reverse racism are sure to follow; arguably trading one person’s silence for another.

More deeply, while such norms importantly shape the safety of an otherwise hostile environment, they do little to eradicate the deep, systemic issues underneath. Being ‘color blind’  may have made overt racism impolite, but it has done little to resolve the structural racism of our society.

These are, of course, meaningful topics to debate – perhaps it is entirely worthy to ask a person of privilege to step back so that someone else has the opportunity to step up. Perhaps the harm done in silencing a bigot is little compared to the harm done in letting them speak.

But such discourse also highlights the deeper, theoretical tension: who gets to speak? whose voice is important?

So in this sense, believing that every voice is important is indeed radical.

That’s not at all to say that deliberative theorists want to support bigots and idiots, but it’s a narrow path to follow.

In most deliberative discussions, participants begin by setting their own ground rules. Sometimes rules are suggested to get them started, but this is the group’s first critical task of co-creation.

Because no one else can set these rules for them. No facilitator or outside person can tell them what to think or how to behave. The members of the group need to think about what kind of conversation they want to have and they each need to agree to the rules collectively set out.

Respect is typically among the first of these values – respecting the voice and experience of every person; those you agree with and, importantly, those with whom you don’t.

This is the only way out of this tangle.

Because to believe in the value of every voice means also to believe in the power of deliberative dialogue. To believe that when every person is truly valued, when diverse perspectives are thoughtfully exchanged – that it is this collective experience which truly has the power to transform us and move us towards the ideal democracy we all separately seek.

It is radical, this belief, and – despite the possible complications – ultimately the greatest benefit to those who have been silenced; who have been deeply taught to believe that their voices, minds, and experiences don’t matter.

After all, you cannot believe that every voice is important if you don’t first find your own.


Education, Democracy, and The Establishment

Last week, drawing on the work of Walter Lippmann, I raised several concerns about the about inclusion of popular voice in democracy.

In some ways, these concerns seem at odds – what is democracy if not the free governing of the people by the people? To reduce the voice of ‘the people’ in any political system is to draw it away from democracy and, perhaps more critically, to violate democratic ideals.

It cannot be denied that there is a tension here. A tension between the noble goal of empowerment of every day citizens and the truly hard work of governing itself.

What good is allowing the people to govern if ‘the people’ are not truly fit to govern?

At its core, this debate boils down to one of education versus problem solving. Myles Horton, educator, organizer, and long time director of the Highlander Folk School, spoke about this debate through the lens of organizing:

If the purpose is to solve the problem, there are a lot of ways to solve the problem that are so much simpler than going through all this educational process…But if education is to be part of the process, then you may not actually get that problem solved, but you’ve educated a lot of people. You have to make that choice.

If you’re a community organizer whose goal is to solve a problem in the community, you may need ‘the people’ in the sense that you need the strength of their support; you need the power that comes from numbers. Any good community organizer would also want the identification of the problem and definition of a solution to come from the community; but this is still a somewhat shallow form of engagement.

An organizer, working in partnership with the community they are organizing, guides the direction of action; provides professional feedback and support on what strategies and tactics are most likely to succeed. This type of organizing is more empowering than what community members might experience otherwise and can lead directly to much-needed positive outcomes in the community.

But it is not education.

Horton describes a particularly memorable scene in which, gun to his head, he refused to tell a community member what action to take. “Go ahead and shoot if you want to, but I’m not going to tell you,” he recalls.

In recollecting the moment, Horton explains his reasoning. If he had told what to do “all would be lost.”

He saw himself not as an organizer, trying to work towards a just system, but rather as an educator, developing citizens capable of building their own just systems.

From this, I find that theorists such as Lippmann are right: if we want a political system which most fairly distributes resources, which is just and thoughtful in its approach, the broad and unfiltered inclusion of the mass of public voices is not the best way to accomplish that goal.

But such a concern overlooks a critical point: is that indeed our goal?

If instead we want a political system which empowers every person to participate; which truly believes that all people – all people – have a right and responsibility to engage in public work; if we want a society that truly values the input, insights, and voice of every single member – that is a different goal to work for.

And, indeed, such an educational approach is not the best way to achieve immediate political goals.

If you want to change policy, engage the people; if you want to change systemic structures, educate the people.

Of course, all this hardly settles the debate: if no amount of education and preparation could prepare ‘the people’ to govern, such efforts would find long-term as well as short-term failure.

As a matter of practicality, one can argue this course without degrading the people too much. That is, to say that ‘the people’ are unalterably unfit for the lofty task we set them to is not intrinsically to claim that commoners are too stupid, lazy, or uncaring for this task.

The world is a complicated place. With the constant influx of information and the deep histories that have brought us to the societies we have today, no individual person could hardly be expected to have all the knowledge and expertise needed to justly rule.

Considering that this task would be deeply challenging for even an idealized world leader, whose sole task is to consider such issues and whose efforts are supported by a staff of experts – you can hardly expect an average person, whose time and worries are reasonably devoted to other matters, to be up to the task.

Arguing this path isn’t an insult to the common man; it is rather a recognition of impossible goal society’s ideals have set for them.

The challenge that I see is that we find ourselves caught between these two paths. It is a sort of pseudo-democracy, in which we comfort ourselves that we, the people, are the ones to govern, but in which we each deem the majority of our peers as unfit for the task.

In this way, we can always blame the “them”: if political engagement were only restricted to those who are correct (like us), than we could have the ideal government we long for. Such disenfranchisement would be the most efficient way to achieve our ends, but – knowing how unjust it would be if “they” were to disenfranchise “us” – we instead settle into a deep melancholia for the world.

And, if one thing is certain, such political ennui fulfills its own unfortunate goal – to maintain the status quo and cement the standing of those with the most power; effectively disenfranchising both the “us” and the “them.”


Populism and Democracy

Yesterday, I discussed some of the concerns Walter Lippmann raised about entrusting too much power to “the people” at large.

Such concerns are near blasphemy in a democratically-spiritual society, yet I consistently find myself turning towards Lippmann as a theorist who eloquently raises critical issues which, in my view, have yet to be sufficiently addressed.

At their worst, Lippmann’s arguments are interpreted as rash calls for technocracy: if “the people” cannot be trusted, only those who are educated, thoughtful, and qualified should be permitted to voice public opinions. In short, political power should rightly remain with the elites.

I find that to be a misreading of Lippmann and a disservice to the importance of the issues he raises.

In fact, Lippmann’s primary concern was technocracy – the governing of an elite caring solely  for their own interests and whose power ensured their continued dominion. Calling such a system “democracy” merely creates an illusion of the public’s autonomy, thereby only serving to cement elites’ power.

I do not dispute that Lippmann finds “the public” wanting. He clearly believes that the population at large is not up to the serious tasks of democracy.

But his charges are not spurious. The popularity of certain Republican candidates and similarly fear-mongering politicians around the world should be enough to give us pause. The ideals of democracy are rarely achieved; what is popular is not intrinsically synonymous with what is Good.

This idea is distressing, no doubt, but it is worth spending time considering the possible causes of the public failures.

One account puts this blame on the people themselves: people, generally speaking, are too lazy, stupid, or short sighted to properly execute the duties of a citizen. This would be a call for some form of technocratic or meritocratic governance – perhaps those who don’t put in the effort to be good citizens should be plainly denied a voice in governance.

Robert Heinlein, for example, suggests in his fiction that only those who serve in the military should be granted the full voting rights of citizenship. “Citizenship is an attitude, a state of mind, an emotional conviction that the whole is greater than the part…and that the part should be humbly proud to sacrifice itself that the whole may live.”

Similarly, people regularly float the idea of a basic civics test to qualify for voting. You aren’t permitted to drive a car without proving you know the rules of the road; you shouldn’t be allowed to vote unless you can name the branches of government.

Such a plan may seem reasonable on the surface, but it quickly introduces serious challenges. For generations in this country, literacy tests have been used to disenfranchise poor voters, immigrants, and people of color. And even if such disenfranchisement weren’t the result of intentional discrimination – as it often was – the existence of any such test would be biased in favor of those with better access to knowledge.

That is – those with power and privilege would have no problems passing such a test while our most vulnerable citizens would face a significant barrier. To make matters worse, these patterns of power and privilege run deeply through time – a civics test for voting quickly goes from a tool to encourage people to work for their citizenship to a barrier that does little but reinforce the divide between an elite class and non-elites.

And this gives a glimpse towards another explanation for the public’s failure: perhaps the problem lies not with “the people” but with the systems. Perhaps people are unengaged or ill-informed not because of their own faults, but because the structures of civic engagement don’t permit their full participation.

Lippmann, for example, documented how even the best news agencies fail in their duty to inform the public. But the structural challenges for engagement run deeper.

In Power and Powerlessness, John Gaventa documents how poor, white coal miners regularly voted in local elections – and consistently voted for those candidates supported by coal mine owners. These were often candidates who actively sought to crush unions and worked against workers rights. Any fool could see they did not have the interest of the people at heart…but the people voted for them anyway, often in near-unamous elections.

To the outsider, these people seem stupid or lazy – the type whose vote should be taken away for their own good. But, Gaventa argues, to interpret that is to miss what’s really going on:

Continual defeat gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action but also to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness, that may affect the consciousness of potential challengers about grievances, strategies or possibilities for change….From this perspective, the total impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts. Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness.

In the community Gaventa studied, past attempts to exercise political voice dissenting from the elite had lead to people loosing their jobs and livelihoods. If I remember correctly, some had their homes burned and some had been shot.

It had been some time since such retribution had been taken, but Gaventa’s point is that it didn’t need to be. Elites had established their control so thoroughly, so completely, that poor residents did what was expected of them without hardly a thought. They didn’t need to be threatened so rudely; their submission was complete.

Arguably, theorists like Lippmann see a similar phenomenon happening more broadly.

If you are deeply skeptical of the system, you might believe it to be set up intentionally to minimize the will of the people. In the States at least, our founding fathers were notoriously scared of giving “the people” too much power. They liked the idea of democracy, but also saw the flaws and dangers of pure democracy.

In Federalist 10, James Madison argued:

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.

To give equal power to all the people is to set yourself up for failure; to leave nothing to check “an obnoxious individual.”

Again, there is something very reasonable in this argument. I’ve read enough stories about people being killed in Black Friday stampedes to know that crowds don’t always act with wisdom. And yet, from Gaventa’s argument I wonder – do the systems intended to check the madness of the crowd rather work to re-inforce power and inequity; making the nameless crowd just that more wild when an elite chooses to whip them into a frenzy?

Perhaps this system – democracy but not democracy – populism but not populism – is self-reinforcing; a poison that encourages the public – essentially powerless – to use what power they have to support those crudest of elites who prey on fear hatred to advance their own power.

As Lippmann writes in The Phantom Public, “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…”


Hard Work and/or Intelligence

In early 2015, a team of researchers released intriguing findings from their study on gender distributions across academic disciplines.

They were curious why there is so much variation in gender representation across academia – disparity which is far from restricted to the STEM disciplines.

Women make up “approximately half of all Ph.D.’s in molecular biology and neuroscience in the United States, but fewer than 20% of all Ph.D.’s in physics and computer science.” Furthermore, women earn more than 70% of all Ph.D.’s in art history and psychology, but fewer than 35% of all Ph.D.’s in economics and philosophy.

So the problem is not simply one of raw representation.

Trying to get at the root causes of these variations, the team surveyed faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students from 30 disciplines across the United States – asking what qualities it takes to succeed in the respondents field.

Ultimately, they found that “women are underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success.”

There is, of course, no reason to believe that women have, on average, less raw talent then men – but rather that women fail to advance in fields where raw talent – rather than hard work – is seen as a key factor for success.

It’s beyond the scope of this study to explain why the “extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor” of gender representation. Though they do offer a few potential explanations:

The practitioners of disciplines that emphasize raw aptitude may doubt that women possess this sort of aptitude and may therefore exhibit biases against them. The emphasis on raw aptitude may activate the negative stereotypes in women’s own minds, making them vulnerable to stereotype threat. If women internalize the stereotypes, they may also decide that these fields are not for them. As a result of these processes, women may be less represented in “brilliance-required” fields.

In some ways, these explanations evoke the so-called “confidence gap” – the idea that women are more likely to attribute their success to good fortune or especially hard work; not to real achievement.

As the authors of The Confidence Code write, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions, they predict they’ll do worse on tests, and they generally underestimate their abilities.”

Perhaps women shy away from these “brilliance-required” disciplines because – regardless of their actual talent – they simply don’t have the confidence required to pursue them.

….Or maybe they get pushed out by overbearing, patriarchal peers.

It’s hard to say. But I’ve been thinking about this 2014 study recently because I’ve found – as a first year Ph.D. student – that I am now constantly attributing my classroom success to hard work.

I’d hardly say that I’m brilliant, but I can work hard and figure stuff out along the way. I’d generally be inclined to attribute that sentiment to my working class background, but it’s interesting to think there may be a gender component there as well.

This all comes, of course, with an important word of caution: Too often, the solution to the confidence gap is seen as somehow “fixing” women – getting them to have the same high levels of confidence as the most self-aggrandizing of their male peers.

This is hardly a solution.

So let me be clear: it is not women who are broken, it’s the academy.


Palimpsestic Time

I learned a great new term today.

I had the opportunity this morning to hear from Northeastern postdoctoral fellow Moya Bailey, who brought up the concept of Palimpsestic Time.

Used largely in the seventh to fifteenth centuries, a palimpsest is a manuscript page “from which the text has been either scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused, for another document.”

In her prose work Palimpsest, early 20th century poet H.D. adopt the term to apply to history.

As scholar Margaret M. Dunn explains in her excellent article on the “Altered Patterns and New Endings” of the works of H.D. and Gertrude Stein:

H.D. had long been fascinated with the idea of the palimpsest, literally a parchment on which earlier writing is partially visible underneath present writing. As a symbol for recurring patterns of human experience, the palimpsest is an image that occurs frequently throughout her work. 

Recurring patterns of human experience.

History isn’t as neatly linear as we might be inclined to make it. We build on the past, but never fully erase it. It’s truth and legacy are always there, bleeding through and affecting the present.

We wipe clean the palimpsest, attempting to reset past norms of gender, race, class, sexuality, identity…

But the palimpsest is a rough tool; the marks of the past always linger. The slate is not so easy to wipe clean.