Author Archives: Peter

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

social education as learning to improve models

Some theses for consideration:

  1. Everyone who acts to change society has a mental model that represents portions of the social world.
  2. It is better for our models to be explicit in our own minds, so that we can be clear about what we are assuming and open to changing our assumptions.
  3. Our models must be sufficiently complex. (For instance, if you think that the Israel-Palestine conflict has just two parties, that is unacceptably simple.) But a model cannot be as complex as reality. Modeling is a matter of judicious simplification.
  4. Our models may include causal elements: e.g., “This phenomenon affects that one.” But they also inevitably reflects values. It is better for the value components to be explicit. They may take the form of ideals, goals, specific injustices, and other objects. Or they may be normative connections among objects, such as: “This situation merits that response.”
  5. A model may be an application of a more general framework to specific circumstances. In that case, we are obliged to have a good framework and to apply it correctly.
  6. We must check our models against events, observations, and other kinds of information from the world.
  7. We must compare our model to other models (and our framework to other frameworks) and constantly reconsider whether the alternatives offer insights. The assessment of social models is comparative: it’s a question of choosing the best model for the situation, given the alternatives. If we don’t seriously consider other models, we are not thinking hard about our own.

I think that educating for responsible civic participation is substantially about developing the skill of forming and improving social models. I am very skeptical of curricula–at any level–that offer students one model. That is not even a satisfactory way of understanding the model that is presented, because full understanding requires comparison. And it discourages the essential civic skill of critically assessing one’s model.

See also: making our models explicit; decoding institutions; a template for analyzing an institution

recent changes in tolerance for controversial speakers

In July 2020, I wrote a post showing that the proportions of Americans who thought that several types of controversial speakers should be allowed to talk in their own communities generally increased between the 1970s and 2010s. The categories of speakers mentioned in the General Social Survey have been gay people, opponents of “churches and religion,”* communists, advocates of military dictatorship, racists, and Muslim clergy “preaching hatred of the United States.”

I have now looked at the GSS data from 2021 and 2022. Here are the updated trends:

I still perceive a general upward trend from the 1970s until 2018. The exception is that tolerance for racist speakers did not rise--nor did it fall--during that period. Since 2020, levels of tolerance for both racist and militarist speakers have declined very noticeably.

Interpreting such attitudes is complicated because a person can express tolerance for a given kind of speech for at least two reasons. One might be a civil libertarian, believing that bad speech should be allowed and countered with more speech. Or one might not see the speech in question as bad in the first place. The graph shows that tolerance for racist speech did not rise while other forms of tolerance increased. I am pretty confident that the population was generally turning more civil libertarian, yet also more opposed to racism, partly because Americans were becoming more demographically diverse.

The recent dropoff in tolerance for racist speakers is driven entirely by people who place themselves on the left side of a liberal-to-conservative spectrum. I presume it is a result of the antiracist movements of recent years.

The modest decline in tolerance for anti-religious speakers seems to be driven by a five-point drop on the political right.

The decline in tolerance for proponents of military dictatorship has been similar on the left and right. I presume this is a critical response to Jan. 6, and I'm glad it has been bipartisan.

For what it's worth, I am consistently opposed to governmental censorship of political speech. I think that some other organizations may choose which speech to favor or exclude, but they should generally be reluctant to use bans or retroactive penalties for speech. I don't think it's obvious whether racists or proponents of dictatorship should be "allowed" in one's community. The First Amendment prevents legal sanctions to their speech. But if the question is whether they should be given prominent invitations to speak, then I am skeptical.

*For no good reason, I omitted attitudes toward anti-religious speakers in my 2020 post. See also: there has been no decrease in toleration of differences; a civic approach to free speech; what sustains free speech?

a case for liberalism

Prominent people like Cass Sunstein and Samuel Moyn are publishing manifestos for–or at least about–liberalism, evidently responding to heightened critiques from both right and left.

The word “liberalism” has many meanings and is applied retrospectively to authors who lived before it was even coined; therefore, it lacks a clear and detailed definition. Instead, it names a field of debate with debatable outer bounds.

But most classical liberal texts are at least about the same topic: how best to design authoritative institutions, such as governments or schools. Typically, liberals argue that the individuals most affected by such institutions must hold enforceable rights and entitlements–cards that they can play to obtain things or to block actions against themselves.

Liberalism is biased in favor of making such rights extensive and equal. Although not everyone can hold the maximum conceivable rights, liberals are skeptical about goods that could compete with rights in general, such as religious values or the intrinsic worth of the state or the group.

In order to make rights enforceable, liberals advocate a mix of institutional safeguards, such as limited powers for leaders, rule-of-law, and universal suffrage–with varying recipes, depending on the flavor of liberalism. Another major dimension of debate within liberalism is whether to include positive rights or entitlements, and if so, what they should be.

Liberal ideas are sometimes grounded in ambitious philosophical views, such as a Kantian notion of autonomy. But liberals’ philosophical premises vary, and one can also arrive at liberal principles pragmatically, believing that rights must be safeguarded to avoid disaster.

I often think about the case of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). At first it advocated equality and a certain kind of freedom in a very radical way, eschewing individual rights and constitutional limits as obstacles to revolutionary change. While retaining its official charter and passing power from fathers to sons within the party, it evolved from radical egalitarianism to rapacious capitalism and then to a kind of statist corporatism, all during my lifetime. Chairman Mao’s successor belongs to a family with $300 million in personal assets. This shift happened because goals and missions hardly ever trump institutional design. Liberals recommend the fundamental design-principle of using individual rights to limit rulers. Since the CCP’s leaders were never limited by rights, they altered their values to advance their interests.

My sense is that when people are focused on designing or reforming authoritative institutions, many are attracted to liberal design principles. Not everyone: for example, Maoists are explicitly opposed, as are Catholic integralists. But quite a wide range of thinkers and activists, when they consider institutional design, will endorse limited powers and enforceable rights and will envision individuals as the literal bearers of rights, even if they are concerned about structural injustices against social groups and even if they aim for social or economic equality.

However, many people do not think about the design or reform of institutions. To some extent, this is understandable. There are other ways to change the world. Social and cultural movements often seek to alter people’s beliefs, values, and identities. That work can be effective and important. If it is your main mode of political action, then you may not naturally think about who should hold which enforceable rights against whom. Although your own civil rights may be helpful, similar rights for other people can pose obstacles to your cause. Thus we see lots of people endorsing freedom of speech for me but not for thee. A charitable interpretation is that they are not focused on designing or running institutions that establish general rules about speech; they are using their own speech to change mentalities.

If you are deeply invested in a social movement that aims to change hearts and minds, then perhaps constitutional issues are not your problem. You’re not asking to be a federal judge. Likewise, no one says you have to be the Dean of Student Affairs, deciding which forms of protest are allowable on a campus. You can just protest.

On the other hand, we may be called upon to make decisions that are primarily about institutional design. For example, the outcome of the 2024 US election may cause dramatic changes in rights, enforcement mechanisms, and powers. When the question is whether or how to change the basic rules, our answers should be relevant to those rules. And I believe that the good answers fall within the broad boundaries of liberalism.

Some activists may be skeptical that institutions will change for the better, or optimistic about social transformation through informal channels, or so anti-authoritarian as to be against institutions and leaders per se. They may see rules as mainly constraints to be wielded against themselves, or they may feel morally superior to the people who hold offices and make compromises and decisions with limited resources.

In the US context, pessimism is understandable; our system is remarkably static and resistant to change. Many people have long experience with being mistreated and have learned to be skeptical. But such attitudes can be self-reinforcing and disempowering–they can block people from pursuing strategies that involve institutions and can dissuade them from trying to lead institutions. In any case, liberalism does not require trust; quite the contrary, it is a way of institutionalizing mistrust.

See also: introducing republicanism; from classical liberalism to a civic perspective; the core of liberalism; what defines conservatism?

people are not points in space

This is the video of a lecture that I gave at the Institute H21 symposium in Prague last September. The symposium was entitled Democracy in the 21st Century: Challenges for an Open Society, and my talk was: “People Are Not Points in Space: Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas.” I’m grateful for the opportunity to present and for the ideas of other participants and organizers.

My main point was that academic research currently disparages the reasoning potential of ordinary people, and this skepticism discourages efforts to protect and enhance democratic institutions. I think the low estimate of people’s capacity is a bias that is reinforced by prevalent statistical methods, and I endorse an alternative methodology.

See also:  individuals in cultures: the concept of an idiodictuon; Analyzing Political Opinions and Discussions as Networks of Ideas; a method for analyzing organizations

spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.