nine general but contradictory truths

My recent post about Native American youth demanding respect makes me think that we must keep several principles in mind, even though they conflict with each other:

1. The odds are against constructing a full and flourishing human life unless you have a secure home and neighborhood, health care, nutrition, and educational opportunities–including informal learning experiences, such as the ability to buy books or afford some occasional travel.

2. Yet the most important aspects of a full and flourishing human life (relationships, cultural expressions, understanding the external world, developing a complex inner life, and having self-respect) must be created by individuals and networks. They cannot be provided by outsiders. Further, individuals and communities can flourish fully on very low incomes, whereas some wealthy communities are hollow.

3. Yet relationships, cultural norms, and the grounds of self-respect are also often the causes of tragedies and injustices. Some cultural norms are just bad–such as discrimination. Others are commendable but have costs because they do not fit with the norms of a broader society. For example, working-class American parents have attractive parenting styles and expectations that do not prepare children well for white-collar careers.

4. To change human behavior on any large scale requires shifting the incentives, the penalties and benefits. We need to get laws, markets, and entitlements right.

5. Yet people are smart enough to subvert and compromise any system of incentives if they do not want to comply with its objectives. Even without incentives, people sacrifice when they motivated to do so and when peers expect them to do so.

6. Wise leadership requires a breadth of experience and knowledge. If you want to influence public affairs, you are obliged to challenge yourself by listening to people who are different from you, by visiting remote places (in person or through media), and by studying difficult topics.

7. Yet communities that cannot afford education or interactions with diverse outsiders still have the capacity for wise leadership. Highly educated people sometimes make the worst leaders.

8. Repressive power is not monopolized by official institutions (governments, armies, corporations) but is diffused through all human interactions and often exercised unconsciously in ways that wound both the ostensibly powerful and the putatively powerless.

9. Yet every venue of human interaction (even the limiting cases, like prisons and psychiatric hospitals) are also sites of creativity, collaboration, and a deepening of human subjectivity.

Because these principles are all true and yet they produce dilemmas when combined, I am especially interested in practices such as Positive Deviance, asking The Right Question, Power Cube analysis, social accountability, and public deliberation (all briefly described here) that start with local knowledge and assets while also developing and challenging people to do better.

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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.