we must be able to disagree about pandemic policies

The social media and news sources that I follow are full of strong statements about masking rules, vaccine mandates, school closings and other pandemic policies. Some people argue that proponents of loose policies are callous, scientifically ignorant, or even racist because morbidity and mortality rates have been disproportionately high among people of color. Others argue that mandates reflect the arrogance of elites or the creeping power of state bureaucracies. On that side of the argument are some libertarians who would usually be placed on the right, but also some leftist thinkers who are skeptical of science and state power, in the tradition of Horkheimer & Adorno, Michel Foucault, Bruno Latour, Giorgio Agamben, et al. There is also a partisan layer in this debate, with caution about the pandemic being coded as Democratic, and skepticism about its seriousness as Republican.

I rarely depict “both sides” in US politics as equally extreme and polarized. I generally believe that the left wing of the Democratic party represents valid perspectives within a constitutional order while the Trumpian right presents a threat to that order. Still, a recent survey finds, “Nearly half (48%) of Democratic voters think federal and state governments should be able to fine or imprison individuals who publicly question the efficacy of the existing COVID-19 vaccines on social media, television, radio, or in online or digital publications.” This statistic comes from a right-leaning pollster. I don’t have any reason to doubt the concrete result, but I would have investigated possible intolerance on the other side of the debate as well. I would guess that significant numbers of respondents would support locking up school boards that mandate masks and prosecuting Dr. Fauci. Meanwhile, some serious writers on both sides reject the legitimacy of disagreement and use opposing arguments about COVID-19 as evidence that our whole political system is fundamentally broken.

Our system may indeed be close to breaking down, but not because individuals have the temerity to disagree about COVID-19 policies.

A caveat: it is not clear that the real debate is as hot, personalized, and divided as my media feed suggests. Twitter attracts controversialists with strong, ideological perspectives, whereas many Americans are apolitical. The news media covers controversy and gives little attention to routine decision-making. Outrageous threats at a school board meeting can attract national attention while a boring agreement will draw low-key local coverage, at most. However, there are plenty of serious people who publicly deny the legitimacy of disagreement about COVID-19, and they require a response.

I would start with a general view of politics. All types and layers of governments and other institutions–including firms–constantly make grave decisions. They imprison people, fire them, and give or deny them crucial services. Even routine decisions, such as zoning regulations or the development of new products, can profoundly affect people’s welfare. Although some decisions are simply good or bad, many are debatable. They have both winners and losers, they involve conflicting values, and their consequences are unpredictable. Nor is it safe to do nothing, for that can sometimes be a harmful failure.

Americans don’t particularly like disagreement, especially when it involves conflicts of principle and identity under conditions of uncertainty. Therefore, we place many consequential decisions out of view. For instance, we have dramatically reduced the number of jury trials (which require regular citizens to make choices) in favor of plea-bargaining. And decisions about matters like zoning are made in forums that draw very little attention.

COVID-19 has forced such decisions into the open. Like other issues, it involves conflicting values and interests under uncertain conditions. Yes, vaccines are highly effective and safe, and critics do themselves no credit when they doubt such findings. A large, randomized, double-blind experiment with a mass-produced chemical product presents an exceptional opportunity to resolve empirical uncertainty. However, there is plenty of room for doubt about the empirics of other matters, such as school closings and masks, and even about mandates for vaccines.

Indeed, the evidence about the effects of policies on the pandemic is murky. You can tell it’s confusing just by glancing at the ten states with the highest per capita cumulative death rates so far, which include Mississippi and Oklahoma but also New Jersey and New York. (Among the best-off so far: Utah and Nebraska as well as Vermont and Hawaii.) Of course, one should control for factors other than state policies. A typical study that uses controls finds small effects: e.g., mask mandates reduce the growth of cases by 2 percentage points. I think that finding counts in favor of a mask mandate, but with many caveats; it certainly does not neutralize all concerns or close the case. For one thing, the virus itself keeps changing, as do other circumstances, such as the percentage of people with immunity. Also, the pandemic has rolled out in regional waves, which means that the same methodology will yield different results depending on when the study is conducted. We won’t have a clear picture until it is clearly over.

If you believe in democracy, you should be glad that people can influence public decisions. If you believe in pluralism or polycentricity, you should be glad that there are many different forums for decision-making: federal, state, and local governments; executive, legislative, and judicial bodies; corporations and nonprofit institutions; professional and scientific bodies; and transnational organizations. You should see disagreement as evidence of liberty, diversity, and participation.

But you won’t get the policies you want. If you’re fortunate, you may be aligned with public opinion and the decision-makers in your own community. Then you will appreciate local policies and will probably observe reasonably high levels of voluntary compliance. However, in a polycentric world, you will not see the policies you support enacted or obeyed everywhere else. Communities will vary. Yet the policies adopted in other places may affect you. So the variation will be frustrating and even angering.

People are entitled to strong views and emotions, including anger. But it is important to distinguish process from outcomes. State and local governments in the US may decide whether to require masks or not. Some decisions may be wiser than others, but the unwise ones are still legitimate. If some people have to wear mask when they don’t believe in them–or attend schools where masks are absent even though they do believe in them–that is democracy at work. The health risks may be serious, but governments constantly make decisions that affect health, and even life. People walking around in mandatory masks are not serfs to a tyrannical state, but communities that have eschewed masks are not idiotic. We disagree. Decisions must be made. It is good that we the people can make them.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Don’t threaten or bully individuals. Certainly, do not try to jail them for their opinions.
  • Obey politically legitimate policies even if you disagree with them unless they violate your core principles, but be careful about mistaking your opinions for sacred principles. Usually, decisions require some to compromise what we want and believe.
  • If you are on the winning side, acknowledge that the losing side is being asked to sacrifice.
  • Protect others’ freedom of speech, not only from censorship but also from the tyranny of majority opinion.
  • Pay attention to equity and structural forms of injustice, but don’t assume that you know what people believe (or what is good for them) based on their demographics.
  • To address scientific issues, look for the most recent and rigorous scientific publications. Googling around for opinions is not “research.” On the other hand, do not overstate the policy significance of specific scientific papers, and do not use empirical findings to squelch normative disagreements. For instance, if mask mandates reduce the spread of COVID-19, it does not automatically follow that a state’s governor should require masks in all public schools.
  • Hold onto your general political and philosophical views (if you wish), but don’t use the pandemic as an opportunity to score debating points on behalf of your philosophy. We should be trying to do the right thing here and now. Besides, the current pandemic may prove more of an exception than a proof-point for several leading ideologies. Libertarians should recognize that libertarian thinkers have often endorsed restrictions during epidemics. Critics of mainstream science should acknowledge the enormous value of the corporate-produced vaccines. Progressives (like me) should ask why well-funded public scientific agencies have performed so poorly in several respects.
  • Keep an eye open for arguments and evidence that trouble your own assumptions, but don’t give up on trying to decide what’s really best to do under the circumstances, with the evidence that we have at hand.

See also: collected posts on the COVID-19 pandemic, and in particular, vaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; why protect civil liberties in a pandemic?; and theorizing democracy in a pandemic.

modeling a political discussion

In 2015, students at my university, Tufts, and at Kansas State University discussed the same topic–the social determinants of health–in online forums. Colleagues and I analyzed the text in a novel way. The underlying theory is that conversations can be modeled as networks, where the nodes are specific ideas and the links are reasons and other connections that people assert. Specifically, we sought to use Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA) to model and compare the conversations. ENA is now very easy to use online and I have been playing with it for other purposes. One of its distinctive features is its ability to locate specific ideas at meaningful locations on a two-dimensional graph so that you can see dimensions of agreement and disagreement.

Our results are now published as Peter Levine, Brendan Eagan & David Williamson Shaffer, “Deliberation as an Epistemic Network: A Method for Analyzing Discussion,” in Barbara Wasson and Szilvia Zörgo (eds.), Advances in Quantitative Ethnography, proceedings of the Third International Conference, ICQE 2021 Virtual Event, November 6–11, 2021 (Springer Switzerland, 2022), pp. 17-33.

The image I reproduce with this post shows one particular ENA visualization of the discussions. The one at Tufts is in blue; the one at KSU is in red; and the one in the middle shows the difference between them (literally, the Tufts network subtracted from the KSU network).

You would have to read our paper to get a full explanation, but here is a glimpse. Basically, the Tufts students tended to connect inequities in health with race and class. Some of the KSU students also made those connections, but some of them drew connections between bad health outcomes and personal behavior, for which they blamed individuals’ upbringings. Thus the KSU discussion roughly looks like a triangle with three corners (race and class, personal choices, and health outcomes), while the Tufts discussion omits one of those corners.

The same result might have been clear enough from a conventional approach–reading, interpreting, and (possibly) coding the transcripts. However, we argue that the plausibility of the ENA findings validates the method, which can then be used to model other discussions.

CIRCLE’s 2022 Election Center

CIRCLE’s 2022 Election Center is up. Watch that page for all kinds of research and data on youth in this year’s campaigns. To begin, CIRCLE has posted their rankings of the 10 senatorial and 10 gubernatorial races where youth are poised to make the most difference to the outcomes, due to the likely turnout in each state, the distinctiveness of the youth vote compared to older voters, and the projected closeness of the race, among other factors. Pennsylvania tops both lists.

Candidates, parties, activists, and reporters should pay attention to youth voting in all states, districts, and small localities, but CIRCLE’s Youth Electoral Significance Index (YESI) encourages people who want to influence politics at least to pay attention to the pivotal states for the youth vote.

Hush

Thin stands of bare-limbed maples and pines
Barely hide cinder-block buildings and signs,
But snow, fresh snow, wet snow: snow drapes all. 
Each twig or needle bears as many crystals
As could possibly be piled upon it,
Becoming a slender line under white,
Each just a tiny part of the lacy whole.
Trees are huge versions of their own branches;
Branches, like their own ornamented twigs;
Drifts, composed of delicate, gem-like flakes. 
No shortcuts. No “Paint that whole section white.”
Even in the densest thickets, each branch
Is intricately decorated with snow.
What superfluous generosity,
What quiet power. The road, too, is hushed. 
Cars file through, wheels whispering, as if
Reminded of what they have done, although
The storm does not mean to chide or console.
It is not meant for us; it simply is.

See also: More Temperate; Tangled Beauty; and “Notes on Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall” 

individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon

In linguistics, a language is a whole system of communication used by a group, encompassing its semantics, grammar, and pragmatics. A dialect is a particular form of a language typical of a specific region. A sociolect is like a dialect, except that it is used by a dispersed social group, such as a profession or a class. A register is a form of a language used in a particular situation or context, such as by lawyers in court. And an idiolect is the distinctive way that an individual speaks: that person’s active vocabulary, grammar, accent, and preferred forms and style of speech.

Previous authors have used these distinctions from linguistics to inform models of culture. Language offers a useful model or example for understanding culture because we are familiar with explicit efforts to learn second languages, to list components of a given language in a dictionary, and to invent a writing system to represent a language (Goodenough 1981, p. 3; Goodenough 2003). I am especially interested in the aspects of culture that involve value-judgments: ethics, politics, aesthetics and religion.

I believe the following ten points from linguistics are relevant to thinking about culture (in general) and specifically about values:

  1. Registers, dialects, sociolects, and languages all encompass variation. Each person talks and understands differently from others and evolves as a speaker over time. Therefore, the same body of communication by real human beings can be carved up in many ways. For instance, we can draw a dialect map of the USA that shows more or fewer regions, and we can declare the same material to be a language or a dialect depending on whether we prefer to accentuate differences or similarities.
  2. Idiolects do not nest neatly inside dialects and sociolects, which do not not nest neatly inside languages. They are more like complex Venn diagrams. An individual may draw on several dialects or languages. In cases of code-switching, the individual sometimes uses one register or sociolect and sometimes switches to a different one. Or people may consistently use a mix of influences from multiple sources. For instance, Spanglish is characterized by Spanish influences on English–and there are several different regional Spanglish dialects within the United States today. On the other hand, imagine an elderly American whose speech reflects some influence of Yiddish from the old country. Her idiolect is then not part of any dialect but is a unique mix of two languages with which she may successfully communicate even though no one else nearby sounds like her.
  3. Nobody knows all of any given language, dialect, or sociolect. An effort to catalogue an entire language describes a body of material that none of the users know in full. For instance, nobody knows all the meanings of all the words in an impressive dictionary (which is, itself, an incomplete catalogue of the entire language). Instead, people share sufficient, overlapping portions of the whole that they can communicate, to varying degrees.
  4. Each of us knows our own entire idiolect. (That is what the word means.) However, we could not fully describe it. For instance, I would not be able to sit down and list all the words I know and all the definitions I employ of those words, let alone the grammatical rules I employ. If I were presented with a dictionary and asked which words I already know, I would check too many of them. The dictionary would prompt me to recall words and meanings that are normally buried too deep in my memory for me to use them. That brings up the next point:
  5. Language is dynamic, constantly changing as a result of interaction. A language constantly borrows from other languages. A person’s idiolect is subject to change depending on whom the person talks to. The best way to characterize an idiolect or a language (or anything in between) is to collect a corpus of material and investigate its vocabulary and grammar. That is a worthwhile empirical exercise, but it requires a caveat. The corpus is a sample taken within a specific timeframe. The idiolect or the language will change.
  6. It is possible to make a language (or a smaller unit, like a sociolect) relatively consistent among individuals and sharply distinguish it from other languages. For instance, a government can set rules for one national language and encourage or even compel compliance through schooling, media, religious observance, and even criminal penalties. Law schools teach students to talk like lawyers in court. However, there are also language continua, in which local people speak alike, people a little further away speak a little differently, and so on until they become mutually unintelligible. Before the rise of the nation-state and modern mass media, language continua were much more common than sharply distinguishable languages. Linguistic boundaries require exercises of power that are costly and never fully successful. Meanwhile, at the level of an idiolect, individuals may strive to make their own speech consistent and distinctive or else let it change dynamically in relation with others. People vary in this respect.
  7. Language is–in some way or degree–holistic. That is to say, the components of a language depend on other components. For instance, a definition of a word uses other words that need definitions. I leave aside interesting and complicated debates about holism in the philosophy of language and presume that some degree of holism is inescapable.
  8. Therefore, it can be helpful to diagram an idiolect, a dialect, or a language as a network of connected components rather than a mere list. I am not saying that language is a network; language is language. However, semantic network diagrams are useful models of idiolects, dialects, and languages because they identify important components (e.g., words) and connections among them. A semantic network diagram for a group of people will capture only a small proportion of each individual’s language but may illuminate what they share, showing how they communicate effectively.
  9. While words and other components of language are linked in ways that can be modeled as networks, people also belong to social networks, linked together by relationships of influence. A celebrity influences many others because many people receive her communications. The celebrity is the hub of a large social network. At the opposite extreme, a hermit would not influence, or be influenced by, anyone (except perhaps by way of memories).
  10. Whole populations change their languages surprisingly quickly, and sometimes without mass physical migration. The same population that spoke a Celtic language (Common Brittonic), transitioned partly to Latin, then fully to Germanic Anglo-Saxon, and then to a mixture of Anglo-Saxon and French without very many people ever moving across the sea to England. Today about 33 million people in South Asia also speak dialects of it. A few people can strongly influence a whole population due to their network position–which, in turn, often reflects power.

The point of this list is to suggest some similarities with other aspects of culture. Like a language, another part of a culture can be modeled as a shared network of components (e.g., beliefs, values, or practices) as they are used by people who are organized in social networks, which reflect power.

Such a model is a radical simplification, because each individual holds a distinctive and evolving set of components and connections (e.g., linked moral values); but simplifications are useful. And we can model culture usefully at multiple levels, from the individual to a vast nation.

There are precedents for this kind of analysis. The anthropologist Ward Hunt Goodenough encountered the concept of idiolects in the 1940s, while studying for a doctorate in anthropology (Goodenough 2003). By 1962, he had postulated the idea of “each individual’s private culture, if we may call it that, [which] includes his conception of several wholly or partially distinct cultures (some well elaborated and others only crudely developed in his mind) which he attributes to others individually and collectively, both within and without his community. A person’s private culture is likely to include knowledge of more than one language, more than one system of etiquette, more than one set of beliefs, more than one hierarchy of choices, and more than one set of principles for getting things done” (Goodenough, 1963, 261)

Later, Goodenough named a private culture a “propriospect” from the Latin words for “private” and “view” (Goodenough 1981, p. 98). Harry Wolcott summarizes: “Propriospects … are networks of sense-making connections created and constantly being reformulated by each of us out of direct experience. As we develop and refine our competencies, simultaneously we ‘construct” (and continually ‘re-model’) our individual propriospects” (Wolcott 1991, p. 267).

Individuals may actually share fundamental characteristics of a group, they may perceive themselves to share those characteristics, and they may be viewed by others as sharing them–but these perceptions do not necessarily align, because every group encompasses diverse propriospects. For instance, you might think that believing in God is essential to a culture; and since you believe in God, you are part of that culture; but someone else may define the culture differently and view you as an outsider.

In a review of Goodenough, Mac Marshall (1982) wrote, “While some may disagree with the finer points of his argument, his position on these matters represents the dominant orientation in American anthropology today.”

A different precedent derives from the Polish tradition of humanistic sociology, founded by Florian Znaniecki in the early 1900s. In the 1980s, a Polish sociologist named Marek Ziolkowski (later a distinguished diplomat) wrote interestingly about “idio-epistemes” (presumably from the Greek words for “private” and “knowledge”) meaning “not only … the cognitive content of an individual’s consciousness at a given moment, but … the whole potential content that can be activated by the individual at any moment, used for definite action, and reproduced introspectively.”

Ziolkowski called on sociologists to “enquire into the social regularities in the formation of idio-epistemes, seek relationships among them, establish basic intragroup similarities an intergroup differences.” He acknowledge that any individual will have a unique mentality, “yet every individual shares an overwhelming majority of opinions and items of information with other definite individuals and/or groups.” Those similarities arise because of shared environments and deliberate mutual influence. Ziolkowski coined the word “socio-episteme” for those aspects of an idio-episteme that are shared with other individuals. As he noted, these distinctions were inspired by concepts from linguistics.

Even earlier, in 1951, the psychologist Saul Rosenzweig had coined the word “idioverse” for an individual’s universe of events” (Rosenzweig 1951, p. 301).

An analogous move is Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s influential redefinition of “religion” from a bounded system of beliefs (each of which contradicts all other religions in some key respects) to a “cumulative tradition” of thought and behavior that varies internally and overlaps with other traditions (Smith 1962). According to this model, everyone has a unique religion, although shared traditions are important.

These coinages–idioverse, propriospect, idio-episteme, and cumulative tradition–capture ideas that I would endorse, and they reflect research, respectively, in psychology, anthropology, sociology, and religious studies. However, none of the vocabulary has really caught on. There may still be room for a new entrant, and I would like to emphasize the network structure of culture more than the previous words have done. Thus I tentatively suggest idiodictuon, from the classical Greek words for “private” and “net” (as in a fishing net–but modern Greek uses a derivation to mean a network). An individual has an idiodictuon, a group has a phylodictuon, and a whole people shares a demodictuon.

These words are unlikely to stick any better than their predecessors, but if they did, it would reflect their diffusion through a social network plus their utility when added to people’s existing networks of ideas. That is how all ideas propagate, or so I would argue.

A final point: “culture” encompasses an enormous range of components, including words, values, beliefs, habits, desires, and many more. Given this range, it is useful to carve out narrower domains for study. Language is one. I am especially interested in the domain of values, so I would focus on the interconnections among the values that people hold.

Note, however, that there is no neat way to distinguish values from other aspects of culture, such as desires and urges or beliefs about nature. In his influential empirical theory of moral psychology, Jonathan Haidt identifies at least five “Moral Foundations,” one of which is “sanctity/degradation.” I would have treated this category as a powerful human motivation, akin to sexual desire or violence, but not as a moral category, parallel to “care/harm.” Maybe Haidt is right, or maybe I am, but the evidence isn’t empirical. People actually see all kinds of things as the basis for action and make all kinds of connections among the things they believe. They may link a moral judgment to a metaphysical belief, or a personal aversion, or an aspect of their identity, or a belief about prevailing norms. When we carve out an area for study and call it something like “morality” or “ethics” (or “religion,” or “politics”) we are making our own claims about how that domain should be defined. Such claims require philosophical arguments, not data.

So the steps are: (1) define a domain, a priori, (2) collect a corpus of material relevant to that domain, (3) map it as a network of ideas, and (4) map the human relationships among people who hold different idiodictuons.

For me, the ultimate point is to try to have better values, and the study of what people actually value is preparatory for that inquiry. Clifford Geertz concludes his famous “Thick Description” essay: “To look at the symbolic dimensions of social action–art, religion, ideology, science, law, morality, common sense–is not to turn away from the existential dilemmas of life for some empyrean realm of de-emotionalized forms; it is to plunge into the midst of them. The essential vocation of interpretive anthropology is not to answer our deepest questions, but to make available to us answers that others, guarding other sheep in other valleys, have given, and thus to include them in the consultable record of what man has said.” 

References:

  • Geertz, Clifford, “Thick description: Toward an interpretive theory of culture.” In Geertz, The interpretation of cultures. Basic books, 1973. (pp. 41-51).
  • Goodenough, Ward, Cooperation in change : an anthropological approach to community development. New York, Russel Sage 1963
  • Goodenough, Ward H. In Pursuit of Culture, Annual Review of Anthropology 2003 32:1, 1-12
  • Goodenough, Ward H. Culture, Language and Society (Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings, 1981)
  • Mashall, Mac, “Culture, Language, and Society by Ward H. Goodenough” (review), American Anthropologist, 84: 936-937.
  • Rosenzweig, Saul. “Idiodynamics in Personality Theory with Special Reference to Projective Methods 1.” Dialectica 5, no. 3-4 (1951): 293-311.
  • Smith, William Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), Fortress Press Edition, Minneapolis, 1991
  • Wolcott, Harry F. “Propriospect and the acquisition of culture.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly 22, no. 3 (1991): 251-273.
  • Ziolkowski, Marek, “How to Make the Sociology of Knowledge Sociological?.” The Polish Sociological Bulletin 57/60 (1982): 85-105.

See also individuals’ ideologies as networks; ideologies and complex systems; judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory, etc.