what does it mean to say democracy is in retreat?

According to Freedom House, “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.”

This statement deserves unpacking if we want to understand in what ways democracy (or “freedom”) is declining worldwide. The statement combines several ideals that may not fit neatly together in practice. It’s not obvious why Freedom House mentions some rights instead of others. For example, if the key concept is “democracy,” we might look for equality of voice, power, and status. Finally, the statement never defines the alternative to democracy: what is gaining at the expense of the basket of values that Freedom House endorses.

I think what’s gaining is authoritarianism, meaning a system that relies on the arbitrary will of leaders. It is a government by rulers without (many) rules. An authoritarian leader can say “Do this” and can evade any explanation other than, “Because I said so.” Authoritarian leaders typically undermine precisely the values that Freedom House lists: fair elections, minority rights, a free press, and rule of law.

The opposite of authoritarianism is “non-domination,” in Philip Pettit’s influential sense. A system without domination is one in which, although citizens must follow rules and face restrictions, nobody can simply tell anyone else what to do. Pettit argues that non-domination was the core value in the long tradition of civic republicanism that began in antiquity and flourished in the Italian city states, the English Revolution, and the American founding. His framework suggests a spectrum that runs from an absence of domination (republicanism) to pervasive domination (authoritarianism).

Evidence like the material I collected recently shows that republican institutions are in decline in many countries. Republicanism is in retreat.

Within the republican tradition, there is room for debate about democratic processes. Do democratic institutions (such as popular voting) prevent domination or create opportunities for majorities to dominate? There is also room for debate about liberal rights. For example, do property rights prevent or enable domination?

I’ll leave liberal rights aside for this post, although they are important. If we focus on democratic participation (lively debate, mobilized citizens, and a strong scope for elections), then we can view it as theoretically distinct from republicanism. Below, republicanism is on the horizontal axis; democracy on the vertical. Quadrant A stands for a system in which the people rule, yet majorities or popularly elected leaders dictate results without having to justify themselves. B is a society with equal voice and power, where everything is open to debate and no one can dominate anyone else. C is classic authoritarianism: no rules, no voice. And D is a system in which the government is limited and rule-guided and obligated to explain itself, but the people don’t have much of a voice. (Austria-Hungary in 1890?)

It is then an empirical question whether democratic processes tend to accompany republican safeguards. Is B common? Is it even possible?

In the V-Dem database, in 2016, for nations that held elections at all, there was a correlation of 0.4 between the degree to which the executive branch honors constitutional constraints and the degree to which free elections were held without intimidation.

There was a stronger correlation between respect for the constitution and robust public discussion (.53). (This means that that “large numbers of non-elite groups as well as ordinary people … discuss major policies among themselves, in the media, in associations or neighborhoods, or in the streets”).

I show here the correlation between respect for the constitution and whether the government consults with a broad range of stakeholders before making decisions (0.6).

These results are consistent with the hypothesis that elections and a strong public sphere help to check arbitrary power. Perhaps limited governments are forced to permit elections, to consult with stakeholders, and to accept robust deliberation.

There are no examples in the world today of strongly rule-guided governments that don’t deliberate at all, nor are there any governments that consult and deliberate widely but pay no attention to constitutional safeguards.

However, the correlations are far from lockstep. Countries do fall in all of the four quadrants, albeit not deeply into A or D. If your values are strongly republican, democratic methods seem to be helpful–but they won’t get you all the way to non-domination. And if your values are strictly democratic, republicanism may get somewhat in your way.

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notes on John Ashbery, Paradoxes and Oxymorons

A “plain” is a level place. Some plains are places that were leveled. Isaiah 40:4: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”

A “level” is a device for seeing whether things are flat. It helps us put different objects on the same level or on the same plane.

If you “level” with people, you give them the plain facts, no playing around.

“Play”: an activity conducted for enjoyment, not for a practical purpose. It is activity without an end. Two people can play, which requires cooperation as well as competition. You can be played. “To play”: to turn written music into sound. A play is also a thing with an opening and an ending.

“Attitude” is the orientation of an object, such as an airplane, relative to the level ground. A level would be needed to measure a plane’s attitude. If you were trying to hit a target with a plane, a level would help you keep the attitude right so that you wouldn’t miss it.

If you Google “division of grace,” the first hit is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Question 111, “The division of grace,” which begins, “Whether grace is fittingly divided into sanctifying grace and gratuitous grace?” Part of his answer: “gratuitous grace … is bestowed on a man … not to justify him, but rather that he may cooperate in the justification of another …” Aquinas proves this point with authorities and reasons.

John Ashbery didn’t have Google. I have no idea whether these obscure puns that I found by searching the Web were on his mind. But he already lived in a world of words, excessive words, words that referred to each other, that demanded attention, that bored, that confused. “It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.”

(“It?” There is literally a missing word “it” in the phrase “And before you know /It gets lost …” What gets lost? “It” is so lost that it’s not even printed in the poem.)

A poem is just a string of words. That is all it is at a “plain level.” We are deluged with words. Most text is not poetry, but even poems are enormously common, and most of them are worth very little. To write something that qualifies as a poem is easy–you just type. You make a keyboard chatter until you have rows of words. Unless your name is John Ashbery, chances are low that anyone will read those lines.

Still, if you’ve poured yourself into those words, you want someone to follow them, to play with them, to concentrate on their levels of meaning, including the levels that were plain and the ones you never noticed. You don’t want them looking out a window and fidgeting. (Let alone pretending to fidget! Who pretends to fidget?)

A poem and you are like possible lovers, but the poem doesn’t have much of a chance; there are so many other words that you could notice instead. The poem will be sad if you don’t play with it.

But suddenly, in the final stanza, you and the poem are joined by a third party. “And the poem / Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.” Who is this “me”?

As long as the story is about a poem wanting to connect and feeling sad, it’s all fun and games: wordplay. But when you realize that the poem is the voice of a human being who wants to connect with you, suddenly it’s not just play but also love.

“Paradoxes and Oxymorons” from Shadow Train by John Ashbery. Copyright © 1980, 1981 by John Ashbery. Source. See also “signal” and “a poem should.”

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register and propose sessions for Frontiers of Democracy 2018

Frontiers of Democracy is an annual conference hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University since 2009. The 2018 conference will take place from June 21 (5pm) until June 23 (1 pm) at Tufts University’s downtown Boston campus in Chinatown.

Partners for the conference in 2018 include the Bridge Alliance, the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, the National Conference on Citizenship, and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

2018 Theme: According to Freedom House, democracy has been in retreat worldwide for twelve years. Many people are pushing back, including activists and organizers who are nonviolently struggling, using tactics like strikes, boycotts, and mass demonstrations against entrenched power. Other individuals and groups take different approaches, some seeking a greater degree of neutrality and emphasizing deliberative dialogue, particularly when they work within institutions such as schools, public agencies, and newspapers. This year, Frontiers will bring people from these communities of scholarship and practice together to ask how they can learn from and complement each another.

You can now register and pay to hold a spot. Please note that speakers and session organizers must purchase tickets.

You may propose sessions using this form.

For best consideration, please submit your proposals no later than March 16, 2018.

Three kinds of proposals are welcome:

  1. A presentation by you (or by you with a colleague) that the conference organizers can combine with other presentations to create a session.
  2. A panel that you organize with several other confirmed presenters. Or …
  3. Another other kind of session that you organize, such as a design workshop, deliberation, debate, planning meeting, training session, etc.

Individual presentations are limited to 10 minutes. Sessions last 90 minutes and must use interactive formats. The submission form will require the names and contact information of your confirmed co-presenters. You may propose more than one idea using the same form.

You may add your name to the conference mailing list to receive updates.

Frontiers of Democracy immediately follows the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a selective 2-week seminar for scholars, practitioners, and advanced graduate students. Applications for the Summer Institute are being received until March 16, 2018.

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insights on police reform from Elinor Ostrom and social choice theory

Elinor Ostrom was my favorite scholar. Her research was empirically rigorous and methodologically innovative. After working with Vincent Ostrom on water management, she turned to a series of studies of police. Her findings are pertinent today, when crime has fallen but we are (and should be) deeply concerned about racial bias in the criminal justice system.

The topic of policing scrambles ideological lines. Progressives who are otherwise favorable toward governments and unions get leery of police forces and police unions, for good reasons. Some conservatives who are normally concerned about limiting the state suddenly get enthusiastic about the police.

Placing Elinor Ostrom on an ideological map is also tricky. She was deeply influenced by works like James M. Buchanan’s and Gordon Tullock’s The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy, a foundational text of neoliberalism. She opposed centralized control and could be skeptical about redistribution, thus aligning with libertarians. At the same time, she was a committed environmentalist, a defender of indigenous cultures (many of which are not individualist or freedom-loving), and a theorist interested in moving “beyond markets and states”–the title of her Nobel lecture. She was a great proponent of commons and common-pool resources, which are popular on the left. To bring her ideas into the debate about policing offers insights that both sides may be prone to overlook.

Ostrom saw police as consumers and providers of a whole set of “services” (training, forensics, traffic control, patrol, arrests, pretrial detention, investigation, and more). Each unit within the world of policing–whether a forensic lab, a police station, or a specialized investigative team–negotiated with many other units to do its work. Some negotiations were formal, e.g., a town’s police department paying a different city’s forensic lab for services. More often, the negotiations within and among police systems were informal. Citizens were also organized in numerous overlapping ways–towns, counties, states, voluntary associations, juries–that influenced the police.

Ostrom analyzed all this complexity from the perspective of individuals, some of whom might happen to be police officers or other kinds of “professionals.” Citizens–meaning all individuals concerned with solving problems–would generally benefit if: 1) there were many potential providers of services, so that they had some choice, 2) the scale and boundaries of problems matched the scale and mandate of organizations, and 3) they could influence the goals and priorities of the police.

Her main empirical finding was that consolidating police departments reduced the quality of policing–as defined by citizens. Consolidation limited the choice available for services like training and forensics. It reduced the leverage that local police had over larger entities. It kept front-line professionals from being able to define goals and priorities, because they got slotted into larger systems. It kept them from addressing local problems (e.g., dangerous streets) because they had to meet targets, such as numbers of arrests, that came down from bureaucracies. And it blocked citizens in diverse communities from defining what “good policing” should mean.

Public safety (with a dimension of fairness to all) is a common-pool resource. Everyone benefits when it’s provided, but anyone can degrade it by illegally harming others; and lots of people must actively contribute to make it available. Lin Ostrom and her colleagues developed eight design principles that help with the management of common-pool resources, writ large. I  list them below (from this summary) and offer some thoughts about how each applies to policing in the USA.

1. Define clear boundaries. Most police forces and organizations do have clearly defined jurisdictions. The fact that the geographical boundaries around police departments,  sheriffs’ departments, state police, federal agencies, etc. form a complex pattern is probably an advantage, not a source of inefficiency or damaging conflict, according to the Ostroms’ “polycentric” theory. Thus our police systems do OK on this first design principle.

However, if we move beyond “clarity” and use other criteria to assess the boundaries, we see problems. For example, at the time of Michael Brown’s killing, the government and police force of Ferguson, MO were dominated by Whites even though the majority of the city was Black, and the metro area as a whole was better aligned with the Black population than the city was. To put it another way, the borders around Ferguson were unrelated to real patterns of settlement.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions. In the US, criminal justice works poorly by this standard. The laws governing citizens–and policies for the police–are set by state legislatures and Congress. Their decisions are not helpful in many specific contexts. For example, criminalizing drugs might have some benefits for reducing drug abuse, but it is harmful in the neighborhoods where drugs are sold.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules. Most Americans have a vote and free speech. But we exercise those forms of influence at inappropriate scales and within unhelpful boundaries. A citizen of Baltimore gets a vote in Maryland statewide elections but is outvoted by suburbanites. The police are more accountable to the city and the state than to the specific communities where they work.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities. Here again, mandates by state and federal authorities clearly interfere. In fact, community members are hardly involved at all in making rules in the domain of criminal justice. Common-pool resources rarely survive when this principle is violated.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior. We have police review boards and other tools for monitoring police. There are some interesting and valuable examples, like Community Policing in Chicago Beat Meetings. Still, my sense is that monitoring is underdeveloped.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators. The general principle is that violations of rules should carry highly predictable costs, but the costs should start low. If punishment begins at a draconian level, not only may the perpetrator be unduly harmed, but the community is likely to excuse some violators entirely. A first-time offender should be able to pay the price and then be completely embraced by the community. Although penalties should start low, they should rise steadily with repeated infractions. For both law-breakers and police, this principle is almost uniformly ignored in American criminal justice.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution. In the context of criminal justice, that would mean helping citizens to resolve disputes without necessarily involving the police. It would also mean allowing citizens to resolve their disputes with the police without filing federal lawsuits. Both opportunities seem sorely lacking, despite important exceptions.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system. We do the opposite. Mandates flow down from states to cities to neighborhoods; and Congress influences the whole system without much accountability.

In short, criminal justice in the United States is a commons problem that we manage in ways that violate almost every principle for the management of common resources.

Because my concern is with racial injustice, I have no interest in marginalizing racial analysis of policing. However, it is important to structure institutions well. If we assume that the majority population is prone to treat minorities unfairly, that is an extra reason to design the rules right. We should also work on reducing racial bias, but we’d have to be awfully optimistic on that front not to give primary attention to institutions. The design principles are particularly important when we have good reason to mistrust some key actors.

I think restructuring criminal justice in line with common-pool management principles is a promising alternative to “abolition.” To be sure, we should ask the critical question, Why do we employ armed and uniformed paramilitary organizations to keep the domestic peace? The idea of abolishing police is worthy of debate. However, wholesale social transformation has a pretty poor record of success. Restructuring is a better place to start.

By the way, this approach is compatible with recognizing that American police serve many people in many communities very well. We needn’t reorganize everywhere, and we may be able to learn from the better examples.

Finally, this approach has the great advantage of viewing public safety as the job of many actors, of which the police are only one. There is growing evidence that voluntary citizens’ efforts are important for reducing crime. In an American Sociological Review article, Sharkey, Torrats-Espinosa, and Takyar find that “every 10 additional organizations focusing on crime and community life in a city with 100,000 residents leads to a 9 percent reduction in the murder rate, a 6 percent reduction in the violent crime rate, and a 4 percent reduction in the property crime rate.” That finding fits very nicely with the Ostroms’ theory. Vincent Ostrom told my friend Paul Aligica:

We do not think of ‘government’ or ‘governance’ as something provided by states alone. Families, voluntary associations, villages, and other forms of human association all involve some form of self-government. Rather than looking only to states, we need to give much more attention to building the kinds of basic institutional structures that enable people to find ways of relating constructively to one another and of resolving problems in their daily lives.*

The problem with policing is that we have not built structures that allow people to relate constructively across lines of race (and class) in order to resolve the problems that they define as important.

*V. Ostrom to P. Aligica, 2003, in Vlad Tarko, Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography, p. 49. See also: Ostrom, Habermas, and Gandhi are all we needHabermas, Ostrom, Gandhi (II) or this video that explores Ostrom along with other “Civic Studies” thinkers.

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the moral significance of instinct, with special reference to having a dog

When dogs and their human owners look into each others’ eyes, oxytocin, a hormone involved in the maternal bond, rises in both creatures. When dogs are given oxytocin via a nasal spray, they want to look in their humans’ eyes (source). I find this result interesting, but equally interesting is my reaction to it. Why is this scientific finding heart-warming? Is it evidence of something good?

As members of an evolved natural species, we human beings have instincts. Maternal bonding is an example. Domesticating dogs may be one as well.

Instincts are not universal, nor are they necessarily desirable. For example, we presumably developed an instinct for violence against people outside our own kin groups. Yet many individuals never exhibit that instinct, it is generally bad, and we can create contexts in which it becomes marginal. To say that humans have an instinct for violence is a little like saying that bees sting. It’s true even though most bees never actually sting. It’s not a statistical generalization but a claim about the way we were designed through the process of natural selection. It’s about what’s “built in” to us, for better or worse.

One pitfall is to replace moral evaluation with such talk of instincts. To say that anything we are hard-wired to do is right to do is to commit the naturalistic fallacy. It excuses, for example, violence, exploitation, and dominance.

Another error is to romanticize the human species by defining only the good drives as our authentic instincts. An example would be claiming that we are naturally peaceful and made violent only by civilization. This seems implausible if it’s a testable claim; and if it’s meant to be true by definition, it’s an instance of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

A third error is to ignore the natural characteristics of the species entirely when making moral judgments. Perhaps ethics is species-independent, and we can first define the good (in general) and then use it to assess the actual behavior of human beings. What is right for us would also be right for angels, elves, Klingons, God.

One problem with this approach is that it’s unrealistic. A deeper problem is that it fails to demonstrate love for the species. To love an oak tree is to appreciate it for what it naturally does. And to love humankind is to appreciate us as the evolved natural species that we happen to be. To wonder whether we would be better without sex would be like wondering whether oak trees would be better off without acorns. (But then we shouldn’t wish that we had no proclivity for violence, because violence, too, is part of being human.)

Again, this doesn’t mean that there is a list of characteristics that are innate because of natural selection, and everyone should (or does) demonstrate those characteristics. Sex, for example, is an instinct that admits of great variation: some people want it and some don’t; various people want different kinds of it; and it can be good or bad for the people affected. Still, sex is not just a desire that some people happen to have, and it is not merely good if the net benefit happens to be positive. Sex is intrinsic to the species and is something we should encompass when we value human beings.

Back to dogs and people: It appears that these two species co-evolved very early, each taking its modern form under the influence of the other. I’ve even wondered whether guard dogs allowed our distant ancestors to sleep deeply; and deep sleep permitted cognitive development. Dogs certainly allowed us to spread into vast regions that had been dominated by big mammals with teeth. It’s not clear that we could have become who we are without dogs–or vice versa.

To say “Because having a dog is natural, it must be good” would be an example of the naturalistic fallacy. We can live without dogs. Some people much prefer to. Some communities bar them. And maybe those are the right decisions. Whether or not to have a dog is an ethical question. The rights and welfare of all affected people–and the dog–should be considered.

But it would also be a mistake to interpret (some) people’s bond with dogs as just another preference, a choice that happens to have hedonic value for them and that should be weighed against other desires and interests. Loving a dog is an instinct that influences human perceptions (we are good at interpreting dogs’ behavior) and even our hormones. That means that if you happen to love a dog, I think you are justified in believing that you are acting naturally. And if you happen not to like dogs, you should still recognize the impulse in others as a human capability. Like other capabilities, it is something that people should be able to choose to exercise so long as that is compatible with other important goods.

See also: latest thoughts on animal rights and welfare; my evolving thoughts on animal rights and welfareKorsgaard on animals and ethics; and introducing the Capabilities Approach.

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analyzing Donald Trump’s speech patterns

Just before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote:

Donald Trump’s speaking style is extraordinarily paratactic. That is, he utters declarative sentences without any of the explicit transitional words that can explain why sentences fit together. No “therefore’s,” “on the other hand’s,” or even “well, I think’s.” He just plunges in. Many listeners perceive the content of his various sentences to be logically unrelated. However, he is remarkably repetitive when he speaks at any length, so the unity of his speech derives from his returning to the same phrases. Finally, he uses “I” sentences overwhelmingly, plus “you” when he’s talking to someone in particular. He makes relatively rare use of the third person. We could name his style “paratactic/egocentric.”

I have no expertise in linguistics. To the extent my observations were based on any disciplined research, I was thinking of attempts to model discussions as networks of ideas. I’m interested in how different network structures may allow people to deliberate better or worse with others. I implied that Trump’s “paratactic/ egocentric” style was bad for deliberation.

Unlike me, John McWhorter is a linguist, and he has an interesting analysis in The New York Times. He confirms my observation that Trump’s speech is “paratactic,” “repetitious,” and “subjective.” He also shows that Trump’s style has changed. When he was young man, Trump was much more hypotactic (favoring subordinate clauses and logical connections), more explicitly organized, and less emotive. But McWhorter does not think this is evidence of cognitive decline. Rather, everyday spoken English is much like Trump’s public speech nowadays. Most people most of the time produce disconnected, repetitive bursts of speech, linked by body language and other emotional cues rather than logical connectives. McWhorter thinks that young-man Trump spoke in an unnatural, elevated, formal way because he still thought he had to work at being accepted. Today, Trump thinks he can talk naturally in public forums, so he does. And for some audiences, it works.

This seems plausible. I would only add a normative question: what kind of speech do we have the right to expect from public figures in public forums? Hypotaxis is artificial for all of us; it’s how schools teach us to talk and write in public, to strangers. But it could be that people should talk that way in formal settings, just because the logical connections allow the listener to assess our arguments critically. Skipping over them is normal for private speech among people with strong affective ties, but it’s a way of evading accountability among strangers.

See also: Trump’s rhetorical style and deliberationDoes Twitter “smoosh” the public and private?  it’s not just what you think, but how your thoughts are organizedtracking change in a group that discusses issuesnetwork dynamics in conversation; and assessing a discussion.

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what is cultural appropriation?

Matt Walsh, who writes from the perspective of the religious right, garnered widespread attention after sharing his dismay that Christians indulge in “Hindu worship” like yoga. … It’s worth noting that he’s not necessarily wrong. Yoga derives from ancient Indian spiritual practices and an explicitly religious element of Hinduism …. Modern practice has been commodified, commercialized, and secularized, and has been as controversial among Hindu scholars of religion as it has among members of the Christian right. Last week, Shreena Gandhi, a religious studies professor at Michigan State University, published an academic paper critiquing how the modern Western yoga industry is a form of “cultural appropriation … intimately linked to some of the larger forces of white supremacy.” —Tara Isabella Burton, in Vox.

“Appropriation” is bad. But we have other vocabulary for such cases: “imitation,” “borrowing,” “exchange,” “influence,” “confluence,” “mashup,” even “admiration.”

No culture is pure and free of influence, nor is purity desirable. Just for example, the word “Hinduism” derives from Greek. Traveling from the Mediterranean to explore or conquer the subcontinent, Greeks had to cross the River Indus, which defined India and its many systems of belief for the them. Later, similar words and meanings suited Arab and Western European imperialists who also arrived from the same direction. “India” and “Hindu” were then creatively appropriated by South Asians to promote religious unity from the immense diversity of the region. Thus to say that yoga is an appropriation of Hinduism is to use a European concept that Indians have powerfully appropriated for their own purposes.

I’m not suggesting that there is no problem with cultural appropriation: just that we need a sophisticated apparatus for distinguishing appropriation from other forms of interaction that we should celebrate.

One issue is respect. If you imitate a practice or aesthetic from somewhere else, do you demonstrate appropriate respect for the people who originated it? Are you making fun of them and treating their work as easy? Or are you striving to appreciate its excellence? (By the way, respect is not always merited; there is also room for satire.)

Another issue is quality. In borrowing a cultural product, are you making something excellent or are you cheapening the original? That judgment involves some subjectivity, but there are clearly wonderful examples of cultural imitation–and very poor ones.

And a third issue is the right of ownership. To “appropriate” often means to profit from something that should not be yours. If, for example, a group of people have been using a medicinal herb for centuries until a pharmaceutical company learns of its benefits and patents the compound, I would say that their intellectual property has been appropriated. Although intellectual property is a social construct (not a law of nature), the indigenous people get a raw deal in such cases. Likewise, if Western yoga somehow supports the economic exploitation of South Asians, that is bad. But this is a causal thesis that needs evidence. When a community converts to Christianity, they are not “appropriating Western culture,” and they owe nothing to the West (although some missionaries have thought that they do). Who owes what to whom depends on the context of power.

A deeper question is: What is a culture, anyway? And to whom does any culture belong?

Per the Oxford English Dictionary, “culture” can now be a “count noun,” a noun that makes sense in the plural. In that form, it means “the distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.”

This usage is not old. It is first attested in English in 1860, and since then, related uses have emerged, such as contact among cultures (since 1892), the idea of cultural gaps or boundaries (since 1921), culture clashes (since 1926), and the culture of an organization (since 1940).

These uses reflect a profound shift in the way English-speakers see the human world. For many centuries in Europe, it was assumed that there was one best way to do the most important things in life. A good building should have pointed arches and stained glass in 1400, baroque ornaments in 1700. “Culture” was not a count noun: there were not many cultures.

The word had originated in the middle ages with agricultural meanings, but it evolved to mean the cultivation of the mind or spirit–e.g., Sir Thomas More in 1510: “to the culture & profitt of their myndis”–and then a state of refinement. In 1703: “Men of any tolerable Culture and Civility must needs abhor the entering of any such Compact.” The world was divided between those who had Culture and those who did not.

To be sure, some authors, such as Herodotus and Montaigne, were fascinated by the diversity of human customs and beliefs. Still, to be cultured was to do things right, and differences either reflected superficial variations or the unfortunate fact that some people were uncivilized.

However, an alternative theory had emerged in Europe by ca. 1750. On this view, there were many cultures, each reflecting the spirit of a particular people or an age. A person could thus be assigned to a culture as a descriptive category.

I am not qualified to discuss whether other communities across time and space have viewed culture as singular or plural. I suspect that singular views have prevailed in some other places, e.g., in China and Islamic civilization before modernity. In any case, the shifting European theory of culture had global significance because of European colonialism.

One consequence of modern view is a distinction between authentic and borrowed culture. If you are actually English, then to behave like an Indian is inauthentic (and vice-versa). That framework depends on the premise that there are multiple and distinct cultures in the world, and each person really belongs to one.

Another consequence is a marked anxiety about whether we are doing anything right. If there are many cultures, then our cultural norms are local and perhaps arbitrary. Just as Europeans were beginning to understand styles of art and architecture from around the world, they stopped having a normative style of their own. Almost all 19th century European and American architecture is revivalist: it borrows (or “appropriates”) styles from other times and places: Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Gothic, Mughal, and countless others. High modernism is then a revolt against revivalism that seeks new universals–heroically, but without lasting success. And postmodernism is often revived revivalism with a layer of irony.

In this context, it’s important to remember that there are no cultures. Each person has a large set of more-or-less related beliefs, values, and habits that change over her lifetime. The person next door typically shares most but not all of these components. If you examine the components carefully, you’ll find that the come from all over the world and they fit together imperfectly.

A culture is a handy shorthand for this array of components. It’s useful for generalizing about groups of people but always risks overgeneralization. For almost any population, it is possible to draw the cultural boundaries in different places. Nothing they do and believe is completely original or immune to change. Everything is impure–wonderfully so, as a testament to the interconnectedness and avid interactivity of human beings.

Putting up walls and blocking out influences is foolish. But that is not to say that particular acts of borrowing are always respectful, excellent, or fair. When and how to imitate is a hard question for ethical and aesthetic judgment.

See also: when is cultural appropriation good or bad?cultural mixing and powerMaoist chic as Orientalismhorizon as a metaphor for culturewas Montaigne a relativist?is a network a good representation of a person’s moral worldview?are religions comprehensive doctrines?is society an artifact or an ecosystem?; and avoiding the labels of East and West.

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pseudoscience and the No True Scotsman fallacy

I’m sure the point has been made before, but it occurs to me that to describe shameful episodes like racial eugenics as “pseudoscience” risks the “No True Scotsman” fallacy.

This is an early (possibly the first) telling of the No True Scotsman story, by Anthony Flew:

Imagine Hamish McDonald, a Scotsman, sitting down with his Glasgow Morning Herald and seeing an article about how the “Brighton Sex Maniac Strikes Again”. Hamish is shocked and declares that “No Scotsman would do such a thing.” The next day he sits down to read his Glasgow Morning Herald again; and, this time, finds an article about an Aberdeen man whose brutal actions make the Brighton sex maniac seem almost gentlemanly. This fact shows that Hamish was wrong in his opinion, but is he going to admit this? Not likely. This time he says: “No true Scotsman would do such a thing.”

It would similarly be fallacious to say, “No scientist would claim to assemble evidence for white supremacy. Ah, I see that a whole raft of highly distinguished scientists argued for white supremacy, and a few still do. Well, they are not true scientists.”

If “Racism is pseudoscience” is just a way of saying “racism is false,” then I agree with it. But if it’s meant to imply that the actual practice of science–science as a real human activity–would never support racism, then it’s false. Science did support racism, and that tendency lingers in some quarters. Racist scientists are truly scientists in the sense that they practice that occupation and participate in that social institution. They’re wrong, but that shows that science is susceptible to error–both empirical and moral. It’s not helpful to try to evade the problem by definitional fiat.

See also: is science republican (with a little r)? and is all truth scientific truth?

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22 million new voters by 2020

With The LAMP, a New York City nonprofit that works on media and digital literacy skills, my colleagues at CIRCLE are launching the 22×20 Campaign, which has the tagline “22 million new voters by the year 2020.”

For the night of the State of the Union, 22×20 helped organize Action Parties in “New York City, Washington D.C., Austin, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco with partners such as Austin Public Library, Mikva Challenge, DoSomething.org, KQED, OZY, Sony, and YVote.” Students were encouraged to discuss, analyze, and share their reactions. More information about how to organize such events is here.

The campaign also provides educational resources. For example, you can find lesson plans on media literacy and tutorials on how to create videos using news clips. I thought the guide entitled “Ten Easy Steps to Fact-Checking” was a perfect resource for viewers of the State of the Union.

More events are coming up. Follow the campaign on Twitter (@22millionVotes) or by using the hastag #22×20CIRCLE also has an explanatory blog post on “Teens and Elections” with valuable background data. 

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echoes

In home movies and fading Polaroids,
They look funny, their lapels wide and garish,
Their facial hair risible, movements jerky.
They look naive–fools, ignorant of what came next.
But I report: the grass felt just the same
When you raked your fingers though its crisp stems.
On a suddenly warm January day,
Wafting over sodden drifts, the air smelled
The same, and laughter sounded the same
Filtered through traffic thrum and cicadas.

[edited on Feb. 4, 2018]

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