lessons from a large youth service program

I’ve previously posted a link to my evaluation of Points of Light’s ServiceWorks program, which engages thousands of disadvantaged teenagers and young adults in service projects. In addition to yielding good outcomes for the participating youth, the program also suggests lessons of general interest to anyone who promotes youth civic engagement. This is a summary of four issues, taken from the CIRCLE website:

  • Scale vs. Depth: Programs that aim to provide compelling positive experiences for young people must weigh the competing goals of reaching many youth and deeply affecting the participants, particularly those who are highly disadvantaged. ServiceWorks sought to reach 25,000 youth over three years with a medium-dosage program (more sustained than a one-time service project, but less intensive than a full-time opportunity lasting months such as YouthBuild, City Year, or the National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe program). Although ServiceWorks has found a reasonable balance between size and depth, this demonstration project reinforces that trade-off. Pushing for large numbers may have shifted at least some ServiceWorks sites toward enrolling not-as-disadvantaged youth or lowering expectations for how much each Scholar would accomplish. Focusing resources on fewer youth might produce higher impact and increase the proportion of participants who are particularly disadvantaged.
  • Demonstrating Skills for the Labor Market: Although the evidence collected here shows that ServiceWorks Scholars gain skills, particularly project-management skills that would help them in the workforce, prospective employers may not always recognize the value of these skills. ServiceWorks and similar programs should consider offering reliable certificates or credentials for participants who demonstrate job-relevant skills (and not automatically for those who complete the program). The challenge of connecting youth who have 21st century skills to jobs will require shared understanding and partnerships between youth-serving nonprofits and employers.
  • Incorporating Youth into Diverse, Intergenerational Teams: At least some ServiceWorks sites bring youth of diverse backgrounds together with adults to collaborate on social issues. Youth contribute distinctive knowledge and talents, as do the VISTA members, unpaid adult volunteers, program staff, and professional educators. The atmosphere is one of mutual respect, shared learning, empathy, and collaboration. Scholars value that atmosphere and find it atypical in their lives. ServiceWorks and similar programs should give explicit attention to creating such climates.
  • Youth Voice: ServiceWorks encourages Scholars to choose issues and strategies for their service projects. Scholars often identify very difficult issues, discuss these topics with sophistication and nuance, and then struggle to implement projects that would address the underlying causes that they have identified. Although giving young people choice and voice is important, asking them to plan and implement a whole social change initiative in a short period may produce frustration. Possible solutions include structuring deliberations so that young people are more likely to choose successful projects, connecting youth to ongoing initiatives, or recognizing that they have natural talents and affinities for awareness-raising, media-production, and policy advocacy, and highlighting those activities (along with conventional community service). That would mean viewing programs like ServiceWorks as a potential space for youth-driven media-literacy education or Action Civics (a recent movement that emphasizes youth voice in policy) as well as examples of service-learning and workforce education.
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Josh Patten’s satire

I’m very amused by Josh Patten’s project: replying to President Trump’s tweets as if they were texts for him personally:

Imagine going back to 1990 and trying to explain the humor here. “We have a president, you see, who makes a fool of himself daily by tweeting inane remarks to about 34 million followers. Yes, the President of the United States. A tweet? Well, it’s a short message that you type and anyone who wants to read all your ad hoc thoughts can subscribe. Yes, lots and lots of people do this all the time. OK, so a comedian imagines that the president’s tweets are messages just for him. (We all get these ‘texts’ on fancy phones that we carry everywhere.) The comedian responds in the banal way you might answer a friend’s texts, imagining that he’s part of the president’s private circle instead of a mass audience. And this is funny because … I guess you’d have to live in 2017.”

A serious point is buried in Patten’s humor. Companies and governments have long sought to infiltrate private spaces in order to increase their influence. FDR arrived in Americans’ living rooms during “fireside chats.” The TV screen brought “Friends” into your house. To various degrees, most people have protected their real lives from these infiltrations by drawing distinctions between actual and fake friends, authentic and artificial messages. Now that we lead a lot of our private life online, where anyone can “follow” it, and now that almost all leaders (popes and Dalai Lamas as well as heads of state) broadcast messages through the same media that we employ for social purposes, the borders are harder to police. Donald Trump is intruding–often counterproductively, but still pervasively. Patten’s satire pushes back.

See also: protecting authentic human interactionDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?Habermas illustrated by Twitter.

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deliberation depends on social movements

Why would people deliberate? Here I’ll argue that citizens will only come together to exchange reasons if they are empowered to make decisions. In turn, it often takes a social movement to  change institutions so that any particular group of citizens has power. And social movements cannot be (fully) deliberative.

In an important passage in Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen argues that it’s an error to assume that speakers “enter [any] deliberative forum already mutually well-minded toward one another.” She writes, “If they do so enter, the battle to achieve a reasonable policy outcome is already 75 percent won. The hard part is getting citizens to that point of being mutually well-intentioned.”

Allen proposes rhetorical solutions to this problem: ways of communicating that encourage other people want to hear your reasons and respond with good arguments, rather than walk out or shout you down. For example, you can begin a conversation by making an unsolicited sacrifice, which is “the most powerful tool for generating trust.” You can also “aim to convince 100 percent” of the audience instead of trying to build a mere majority, and you can look for ways to “ameliorate the remaining disagreement and distrust” after a decision has been reached. These are techniques for creating the conditions under which people will exchange reasons about what is right to do.

The rhetorical techniques that Allen suggests manifest political friendship, in Aristotle’s sense. First you act like a friend; then people will trust you enough to deliberate with you. The good news is that many people exhibit a desire for such friendship that makes deliberation possible. In 1982, my friend James Youniss, a developmental psychologist who had studied with Habermas, wrote:

Persons enter discussion, debate, negotiation, and so on … to clarify uncertainties, check doubts, receive criticism, justify views, gain different opinions, or explore novel ideas. But that is not all. Persons who respect one another seek to maintain their relation, and they communicate voluntarily for this purpose. They want to understand and to be understood. They want to show that they care and want to be cared for in return. In the reciprocal cooperation epitomized in friendship, each retains freedom of thought by acknowledging freedom in the other and, thus, communication is essential so that the respective parties do not lose the opportunity for truth seeking in common. [“Why Persons Communicate on Moral Matters: A Response to Shweder,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 28, no. 1, 1982]

These relational motives make deliberation seem plausible. Talking can be its own reward, if and when people value friendship. However, the mode of discussion may have to be emotional and personal and may have to involve speech-acts like making sacrifices. Abstract arguments will fall on deaf ears unless trust has been built.

Allen’s rhetorical suggestions are valuable as long as relevant citizens have chosen to gather together at one time and place in order to communicate. But most people allocate their time and energy to purposes other than meetings. Those who stay away may be foolishly renouncing their influence, or selfishly free-riding on others’ efforts–but both behaviors are predictable.

If group exists, we can try to invite, entice, cajole, or reward people to participate. But we cannot just assume that a group exists that has the capacity to make decisions. To be sure, once a group forms, then (almost regardless of its assets) it can empower itself by creating goods that it allocates. A Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) raises money at a bake-sale, which gives it a budget to deliberate about. In such cases, the deliberation depends on a prior solution to a collective-action problem: getting parents to contribute goods for the sale.

In many circumstances, the problem is more difficult than that. It’s not just a matter of generating a resource that can be discussed, but of capturing it from someone else. For instance, if the municipal government sets the city budget, then a public meeting about priorities is not really a deliberation; it is just a forum for talking to power. Forcing or persuading the city to share ts power would require an organized political effort that would precede a citizen deliberation about taxing and spending. But how to get people involved in that political effort is again a problem of motivation and coordination.

The broader point is that any reasonably decent conversation depends on rules, which must not only cover the speech itself (e.g., by giving everyone an equal chance to talk) but must also create groups that have the power to make decisions that are worth talking about. Since power rarely yields voluntarily, the main way to change unacceptable rules is to organize social movements. Such movements may harbor some internal deliberations, but they cannot be deliberative fora. They must aim for specific reforms that then create groups that are worth deliberating in.

This is why I think that “Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we need.” See also: Habermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II) and how to get a deliberative democracy.

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varieties of neoliberalism

Jonathan Chait laments the use of the word “neoliberalism” to denounce Democratic Party leaders like President Obama and Hillary Clinton–even Elizabeth Warren–from the left. Chait tells a story that begins in the 1980s, when the word “neoliberalism” was “the chosen label of a handful of moderately liberal opinion journalists, centered around Charles Peters, then-editor of the Washington Monthly.” Chait began his own career with Peters and shares at least some of this group’s views. He feels attacked by those who call neoliberalism “the source of all the ills suffered by the Democratic Party and progressive politics over four decades, up to and (especially) including the rise of Donald Trump.”

The word “neoliberalism” was virtually unused before 1950 and has rapidly become popular of late. But what does it mean?

“Neoliberalism” as a percentage of all the words in all English-language published books, 1950-2016, from NGram

In a reply to Chait, Mike Konczal distinguishes three kinds of neoliberalism, of which Chait’s is the first. Konczal argues that the left critique–a valid one–is against the second and third versions. All three have developed since 1980, probably contributing to the trend shown here.

Konczal’s three-fold distinction is better than the two-fold one I was going to propose before I read his piece, so I’ll follow his scheme.  This is how I would define the three versions:

Neoliberalism I

In the 1980s, certain leaders of the Democratic Party (Charles Peters, Bill Galston, Bill Clinton, and others) argued that if you seriously evaluated social programs, you’d find that many didn’t work. Spending scarce resources ineffectively did the recipients no good and reinforced the voters’ sense that Democrats just threw money at problems. Some of these people were centrists, arguing with their party’s left. They called themselves “neoliberals” to assert a break with the positions of people like Walter Mondale, the supposed “paleoliberals.” However, in principle, their argument could appeal to leftists, who would reallocate funds from poorly performing programs to better ones. I can easily imagine a version of this agenda flourishing within a socialist system. It’s about measurement, accountability, managerial expertise, and innovation, which are features of modernity that have been quite influential on the left. If you “see like a state,” you will be interested in measuring impact and allocating resources to the most effective uses. The reallocations will be made by state agencies, which actually centralizes power.

Neoliberalism II

In the 1950s and 1960s, Keynsian economics reigned pretty much supreme on both sides of the Atlantic. Then stagflation delivered an intellectual blow, and soon Chicago School economists were making increasingly influential proposals for tax cuts, deregulation, and monetary responses to recessions. Their arguments were welcome to political and economic interests that never liked the taxes and regulations of the New Deal. The economists didn’t call themselves neoliberals, but that label made some sense in a global context, where “liberalism” typically means laissez-faire–what Americans call economic conservatism. Reagan and Thatcher were neoliberals in this sense, many continental European countries also moved in that direction, and the shift was dramatic in the Global South, partly because of pressure from the IMF and World Bank. The arguments tended to be utilitarian: if you cut taxes, then you will see more total wealth for the whole population. An authoritarian state, such as Pinochet’s Chile, could endorse these policies, in which case there would be a dramatic gap between political liberties and neoliberal economics. Indeed, some critics hold that this form of neoliberalism is mostly about using militarized state power to promote corporate economic interests.

Neoliberalism III

Since Victorian times, a social philosophy has been available that says market exchange is natural, whereas states are artificial; that exchanges of goods or labor for money manifest freedom; that success in a market reflects virtues (thrift, industry, creativity) rather than vices like greed; that governments are coercive, whereas market exchanges are voluntary; that people should be individually responsible for the consequences of their actions; that markets embody collective wisdom, whereas centralized planning is subject to massive error, etc. That philosophy was called “liberalism” ca. 1850. It gained momentum and picked up the name “neoliberalism” in the 1980s, although most actual proponents called themselves “libertarians,” “classical liberals” or (in America) “conservatives” rather than “neoliberals.” I have mentioned a lot of different ideas in this paragraph, and proponents need not endorse them all. However, the thrust here is neither pragmatic experimentation (as in Neoliberalism I), nor utilitarianism (Neoliberalism II), but a set of normative views about society and character. One of the greatest thinkers of the left, Michel Foucault, expressed some support for neoliberalism in this form, seeing it as potentially emancipatory. Foucault certainly wouldn’t have appreciated Neoliberalism I or II.

Put together, these three movements invoke a long list of ideas, and most people would refuse to endorse them all. Hardly anyone calls himself a “neoliberal”; it’s an epithet coming from further left on the political spectrum.

It’s not clear that we’ve really moved in a Neoliberal II direction. The federal government spends about 3 percentage points more of GDP today than it did in the 1960s, when the Great Society (and the War in Vietnam) were in full force.

However, there has definitely been a shift of rhetorical emphasis. The 1948 Democratic Party platform on which Harry Truman ran was unabashedly pro-government and critical of business. No modern Democrat would sound like that. They all order some of their dishes from column I, II, or III of neoliberalism’s menu.

Specifically, the Obama Administration loved concrete new policy interventions that could be rigorously evaluated. In 2o13, for instance, the administration proposed $200 million in a competitive pool for state governments that cut energy use and expanded HOPE (Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation and Enforcement scheme), which had performed well in evaluations. But they proposed to cut Social Security by $130 billion and Medicare by $380 billion. They didn’t like these cuts; they felt forced to offer them in a budget battle with Congress. But the result of expanding evaluated social programs while cutting entitlements would be Neoliberalism I.

Similarly, when modern Democratic leaders tout their superior economic management–Look at the GDP growth and stock market increases when we’re in charge!–they are making a utilitarian case for voting Democratic. It’s not exactly Neoliberalism II, because it doesn’t say: “Less government produces more net wealth.” Instead, it says: “A combination of competent management, fiscal prudence, targeted investments, and free trade produces more net wealth.” That claim may be true and reasonably popular, but it leaves a lot of space to its left, particularly when it carries a whiff of Neoliberalism III in the form of admiration for business leaders. It isn’t surprising, then, that a substantial number of people would want to criticize mainstream Democratic policy, and the word “neoliberalism” works pretty well for their purpose.

See also:  Foucault and neoliberalismEdmund Burke would vote Democraticthe core of liberalism, and what defines conservatism?

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Anachronist review

The Anachronist is my interactive novel. Several readers have posted reviews of it on the Interactive Fiction Database. (If I may say so, the one person who gave it a low quantitative rating had a complaint about a technical issue that I’ve fixed since then.) A reviewer called CMG makes some helpful and valid critical points, but in the interest of blatant self-promotion, I’ll quote from the good parts of the review, which nicely summarize my intent:

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire — temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. …

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. …

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen.

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the laughter of the gods

The laughter of the gods is asbestos:
Unquenchable. It’s genuine, hearty,
Unselfconscious. Wet eyes shut to slits; lungs
Heave the mountain air. A shaky finger points
To the god who started it off: Nice one.
He’d mentioned some mortals’ pratfall end:
Sinkhole swallowed family car, gas main blew,
Drunken, laid-off father shot wife, kids, dog, self.
Mirth subsiding to satisfied chuckles,
They take sweet foamy sips from the nectar’d bowl.
Then someone starts it up again. What about
Heart attacks, yes, or slow wasting sicknesses?
The joke is contagious; they’re all chiming in.
Plagues, famines, lonely singles quietly
Ending it. Civil wars! Firing squads!
They keep it going to maintain the mirth,
Each relishing the others’ pleasure:
No pretense, no competition, no critique,
Just a nice way to pass the endless time.

(see also a poem should and voices)

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“Is this stupidity, or is it treason?”

In the Russian State Duma, Nov. 14, 1916.

Pavel Miliukov [moderate constitutionalist politician]: It is said that a member of the Council of Ministers, – and this was correctly heard by Duma Member Chkheidze – on being told that the State Duma would on this occasion speak of treason, exclaimed excitedly: “I may, perhaps, be a fool, but I am not a traitor.” (Laughter) Gentlemen, the predecessor of that Minister was undoubtedly a clever Minister, just as the predecessor of our Minister of Foreign Affairs was an honest Minister. But they are no longer in Cabinet. And, does it matter, gentlemen, as a practical question, whether we are, in the present case, dealing with stupidity or treason? When the Duma keeps everlastingly insisting that the rear must be organized for a successful struggle, the Government persists in claiming that organizing the country means organizing a revolution, and deliberately prefers chaos and disorganization. What is it, stupidity or treason? (A voice from the left: “Treason!” Adjemov: “Stupidity!” Laughter)

According to Wikipedia, Miliukov “highlighted numerous governmental failures, … After each accusation – many times without basis – he asked “Is this stupidity or is it treason?” and the listeners answered “stupidity!”, “treason!”, etc. (Milyukov stated that it did not matter: “Choose any … as the consequences are the same.”) [Prime Minister] Stürmer walked out, followed by all his ministers.”

Of course, this all ended very well …

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David Brooks/Pierre Bourdieu

David Brooks’ column on Tuesday (“How We are Ruining America“) has attracted a vast wave of criticism, generally from his left. He argues that upper-class Americans preserve economic advantage primarily by using “cultural signifiers” that exclude others. To preserve their advantages, upper-class Americans demonstrate that they “understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.”

That this behavior determines relative economic advantage is a contentious thesis–although Brooks is pretty careful to cite other explanations for the lack of mobility in America. His short and slight newspaper column hinges on a cringey anecdote. But it occurs to me that if you make this argument as a pundit labeled as a conservative, you risk ridicule. If you make essentially the same points as a trendy French cultural theorist, you will find yourself cited by 566,786 scholarly articles, according to Google Scholar.

I refer to Pierre Bourdieu: “Cultural capital can be acquired, to a varying extent, depending on the period, the society, and the social class, in the absence of any deliberate inculcation, and therefore quite unconsciously. It always remains marked by its earliest conditions of acquisition which, through the more or less visible marks they leave (such as the pronunciations characteristic of a class or region), help to determine its distinctive value.”

Bourdieu says that he developed this concept to “explain the unequal scholastic achievement of children originating from the different social classes by relating academic success …  to the distribution of cultural capital between the classes and class fractions.” Materialist economists take “account only of monetary investments and profits, or those directly convertible into money, such as the costs of schooling and the cash equivalent of time devoted to study.” They miss “the whole set of educational strategies” used by upper-class parents, “the system of reproduction strategies,” and the “domestic transmission of cultural capital.”

Brooks: “Over the past few decades, upper-middle-class Americans have embraced behavior codes that put cultivating successful children at the center of life. As soon as they get money, they turn it into investments in their kids. … Upper-middle-class parents have the means to spend two to three times more time with their preschool children than less affluent parents.”

Bourdieu: “Ability or talent is itself the product of an investment of time and cultural capital. … It can immediately be seen that the link between economic and cultural capital is established through the mediation of the time needed for acquisition. Differences in the cultural capital possessed by the family imply differences first in the age at which the work of transmission and accumulation begins.”

Just because Bourdieu says something, it isn’t necessarily right. On the other hand, just because Brooks says something, it isn’t necessarily wrong. And if they both say it, maybe it should be taken seriously.

See also: Bourdieu in the college admissions officeChua and Rubenfeld, The Triple Package; the “fit” between cultures and the labor market

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science, law, and microagressions

We live and work in settings that are diverse but unequal. Opportunities and outcomes can often be predicted on the basis of race/ethnicity, culture and religion, gender and sexual orientation, and class background. In these settings, we communicate constantly. Some of our communications are blatantly inappropriate, threatening the recipients or intentionally and obviously making them feel unwelcome and inferior. Some are acceptable or even helpful. And in between, some are arguably problematic. They are being called “microaggressions“–“aggressions,” because they are wrong; and “micro-” because they are not blatantly or clearly objectionable when taken one at a time.

One problem with them is that they may combine with many similar statements to create an overall environment that prevents people from flourishing and succeeding. Another problem is that they are simply unethical. Even if a given aggression contributes no harm at all, it is not what a person should say to another person.

Our culture is uncomfortable with ethical distinctions. Even children are taught that ethical claims are opinions in contrast to facts. We are quick to see explicitly ethical claims as subjective and biased. To criticize another person’s expression on ethical grounds seems arrogant, judgmental, and a possible threat to liberty.

In contrast, two major forms of reasoning are confident and widely viewed as legitimate: science and law. So there is a constant temptation to convert an ethical discussion about what is right into a science-like or law-like analysis.

For instance, in Aeon recently, the psychology professor Scott O Lilienfeld wrote that all policies and programs that target microagressions

hinge on one overarching assumption: that the microaggression research programme aimed at documenting the phenomenon is sound, and that the concept itself has withstood rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is not the case. Microaggressions have not been defined with nearly enough clarity and consensus to allow rigorous scientific investigation. No one has shown that they are interpreted negatively by all or even most minority groups. No one has demonstrated that they reflect implicit prejudice or aggression. And no one has shown that microaggressions exert an adverse impact on mental health.

Lilienfeld concludes, “Until the evidence is in …, I recommend abandoning the term microaggression, which is potentially misleading. In addition, I call for a moratorium on microaggression training programmes and publicly distributed microaggression lists now widespread in the college and business worlds.”

I agree that it would be useful to know more about the consequences of definable categories of communication. The consequences of any form of speech will vary depending on the situation, the speaker, the recipient, etc. There won’t be one empirical finding about microagressions, but there may be many useful findings.

Still, note the assumptions that underlie this call for a scientific approach:

  1. A given act (in this case, a speech-act) should be criticized if, and only if, it causes a measurable harm. Moral philosophers would call this assumption “consequentialism.”
  2. Categories of behavior can be usefully abstracted from contexts and defined with necessary and sufficient conditions. This reasoning uses what Jonathan Dancy [in Moral Reasons, 1993, p. 65] calls “switching arguments”–arguments that isolate a given feature of a situation and assume that if it has a moral significance in its original context, it must have the same significance when the context is “switched” to another one. 

These are controversial positions. Kantians, virtue-ethicists, and others dispute consequentialism for various reasons, holding that an act can be right or wrong regardless of its causal impact. And particularists deny the validity of “switching arguments,” on the basis that a given feature can change its moral significance depending on the context. They criticize what Alfred North Whitehead called the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

I don’t want to litigate those debates here, but merely to suggest that a scientific investigation of microaggressions makes strong assumptions about what should matter ethically. Those assumptions violate many ordinary people’s intuitions and ways of reasoning about what is right.

Meanwhile, legalistic reasoning influences the discourse of microaggressions. It’s not that critics want to make these acts literally illegal, but they introduce legal-sounding analysis. A microaggression deserves some kind of disciplinary intervention–perhaps not a punishment, but at least an authoritative statement that the speech is inappropriate in its context. A teacher or other authority figure who fails to intervene can be held responsible for creating a hostile environment.

But disciplinary responses threaten other values: freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, authentic expression of privately held views, and freedom from arbitrary judgments. Jesse Singal thinks that “microaggressions are being defined so broadly and so subjectively that students who are exposed to them are likely to come away very, very confused about what constitutes acceptable speech on campus — and campus disciplinary systems could get seriously gummed up in the years to come.” Thus we feel the pressure to introduce regular rules and policies that strike the appropriate balance and are predictable. Rule by people is to be replaced by rule of law.

Jürgen Habermas laments the tendency to “juridify” or “judicialize” what he calls the “Lifeworld.” For instance, when well-intentioned governments seek to protect pupils and parents against unfairness in testing and discipline, he writes, fairness “is gained at the cost of a judicialization and bureaucratization that penetrates deep into the teaching and learning process,” depersonalizing the school, inhibiting innovation, and undermining relationships [Theory of Communicative Action, vol. 2, p. 371.] Habermas reads the New Social Movements that have arisen since the 1970s–both on the right and the left–as efforts to protect the authenticity of the everyday Lifeworld from both the market and the intrusive welfare-state. It is an ironic outcome when these movements ultimately “juridify” such contexts as classrooms by turning ethical judgments into legalistic arguments. For example, some people cut their teeth in liberatory social movements but end up as diversity & inclusion specialists inside institutions, writing empirical papers (science) and establishing policies (law).

I am inclined to agree with Habermas that the underlying process is specialization. In large and technically complex modern societies, it pays to differentiate one’s expertise and authority. Constantly increasing specialization is thus a fundamental process of modernity. [Ibid. p. 374]. Science and law are two categories of specialization, each endlessly ramifying into sub-specialties. They seek legitimacy and often obtain it. Lilienfeld’s review of psychological research is an example of a scientist asserting authority on the basis of expertise.

Science and law are sometimes in tension. Behavioral scientists may argue that laws lack empirical basis; lawyers may block empirically justifiable rules on constitutional grounds. But these two systems also easily interlock. For instance, both disciplines need to categorize behavior and draw causal implications. 

Science and law offer important checks on the kinds of judgments that we may reach intuitively in ordinary life. When we assert that a given statement has (or does not have) effects on specific individuals, that is a causal claim that must stand up to scientific scrutiny. When we make a judgment about an individual’s speech, we should check it against general principles that would block favoritism and arbitrariness.

But these two limited forms of reasoning can distort or block ethical judgment–as when Lilienfeld uses the lack of scientific evidence to support a “moratorium” on the use of the word “microagression,” even though that is ultimately an ethical category. The imposition of law and science can overwhelm the following values:

  • Responsibility: We are obligated to make judgments about speech, our own and others’. We can’t offload responsibility onto bureaucratic or scientific systems.
  • Judgment and discretion: There is no algorithm that can settle subtle cases. It is up to the moral agent to decide, under circumstances of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. Discretion cuts two ways, sometimes requiring us to excuse behavior that violates policies or that has negative effects, and sometimes requiring us to condemn behavior that is allowable and inconsequential.
  • Holism: Good judgment requires concern for the whole individual, the whole situation, and the whole community.
  • Relationships: Ultimately, what matters are relationships among differently situated human beings. Relationships are affective as well as rational, embodied as well as communicative, implicit as well as explicit, and prolonged over time.

See also: morality in psychotherapy; insanity and evil: two paradigmsprotecting authentic human interaction;  is all truth scientific truth?free speech at a university; and don’t confuse bias and judgment.

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Arendt, freedom, Trump

This passage, from a previously unpublished 1966 or 1967 lecture by Hannah Arendt, is a rich text for the week of Independence Day while Donald Trump is president:

The first elements of a political philosophy corresponding to this notion of public freedom are spelled out in John Adams’s writings. His point of departure is the observation that “Wherever men, women, or children are to be found, whether they be old or young, rich or poor, high or low . . . ignorant or learned, every individual is seen to be strongly actuated by a desire to be seen, heard, talked of, approved and respected by the people about him and within his knowledge.” The virtue of this “desire” Adams saw in “the desire to excel another,” and its vice he called “ambition,” which “aims at power as a means of distinction.” And these two indeed are among the chief virtues and vices of political man. For the will to power as such, regardless of any passion for distinction (in which power is not a means but an end), is characteristic of the tyrant and is no longer even a political vice. It is rather the quality that tends to destroy all political life, its vices no less than its virtues. It is precisely because the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction that he finds it so pleasant to dominate, thereby excluding himself from the company of others; conversely, it is the desire to excel which makes men love the company of their peers and spurs them on into the public realm. This public freedom is a tangible worldly reality, created by men to enjoy together in public—to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others. And this kind of freedom demands equality, it is possible only amongst peers. Institutionally speaking, it is possible only in a republic, which knows no subjects.

Note, first of all, that Arendt, like John Adams, views “the desire to excel another” in public life as a virtue. She could be thinking pragmatically: by encouraging people to excel in debates, we motivate them to enter public life and do their best. We give them a reason to “love the company of their peers and [spur] them on into the public realm.” But I read Arendt as making a second point as well. She sees political excellence as an intrinsic virtue, as constitutive of a good life. Her theory differs from views of democracy that emphasize humbleness, self-abnegating service, or the dispassionate pursuit of truth or consensus. She admires people who effectively advocate their own views and obtain recognition for their special eloquence.

Excellence of this sort “demands equality.” As a matter of logic, you cannot display the virtue of persuasiveness unless the people whom you seek to persuade are your equals, free to agree or disagree with you. Thus anyone who develops a love of political virtue will fight for political equality. Helping other people to be equal is not just good for them; it’s a necessary condition of one’s own “public freedom,” meaning the freedom “to be seen, heard, known, and remembered by others.”

The corresponding vice is “’ambition,’ which ‘aims at power as a means of distinction.’” For John Adams, virtuous citizens seek to distinguish themselves by demonstrating excellence and receiving the free respect of peers. This makes them fundamentally sociable; they seek company. In contrast, “the tyrant has no desire to excel and lacks all passion for distinction.” He tries to “dominate” or exclude others, seen as threats rather than peers. That leaves him alone, “exclud[ed] from the company of others,” with only his power over them as a connection to his fellow human beings.

Examples of civic virtue in Arendt’s sense are not terribly rare, but as a well-known case, I will cite our last president. Barack Obama is not self-abnegating. He demonstrates confidence and strives for excellence. He attempts to win arguments. But he never denies his fellow citizens’ standing in the public sphere or claims arbitrary power over others. On the contrary, almost every significant speech by the former president explicitly invites opponents into the conversation. Although President Obama is sometimes described as reserved or even mildly introverted, he “loves the company of peers” in the sense that he evidently appreciates the give-and-take of ideas in public forums.

In contrast, our current president understands speech as the mere display of power. Criticism is by nature a threat. A successful statement is one that demonstrates greater power. Trump doesn’t strive for eloquence–he doesn’t even spell-check his tweets. He demands loyalty to his person and shows no interest in differences of principle. He “thereby [excludes] himself from the company of others” and is fundamentally lonely in a way I don’t think we have seen in the White House since the last days of Richard M. Nixon.

I do not mean to imply that Donald Trump is a tyrant in Arendt’s sense. He lacks sufficient constitutional power for that; his incompetence provides an additional barrier. His efforts at domination tend to be more pathetic than terrifying. A tyrannical personality without tyrannical authority verges on a laughing-stock. Because the constitutional order creates independent peers for the president–members of Congress, judges, reporters, foreign leaders, and courageous citizens–a president who talks like a tyrant just loses friends and allies. Still, Arendt’s portrait fits, and if an extrinsic factor like a terrorist attack suddenly confers power on our national laughing-stock, the patterns she observed in 1789 and 1917 will become frighteningly relevant.

See also: Hannah Arendt and Lin-Manuel Miranda and notes on Hannah Arendt’s On Revolution.

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