Tag Archives: democratic citizenship

What happened?

It’s a bad week. Polarization has lead to a federal truth commission (thank you Dems) and the likely removal of federal protection for reproductive freedom (thank you Reps). Neither of these, so far as we know, is popular. A working democracy of Americans would be unlikely to bring about either. But we don’t seem to have that—or at least not to the extent that we might have thought. In part, this is because of the way discourse in our society has deteriorated. Discourse in our society is, to say the least, strained.

Given how strained our discourse has become, some would prefer to have less of it, walking away from those they disagree with and encouraging others to do the same. In Choosing Civility, P.M. Forni, cofounder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, finds it encouraging that roughly 56 percent of Americans seem to believe it “better for people to have good manners” than to “express what they really think” (76) and claims that civility suggests meals are “not the best venue for political debate” (79). On my view, by contrast, people too frequently censor themselves rather than engage in conversation with someone they think wrong about an issue. I think this horribly unfortunate, even if understandable. I think it is understandable because of the way many of us are raised. I think it unfortunate because it leads predictably to a loss of discourse that would promote a more civil society. When people don’t engage in civil discourse with each other, it’s too easy for people to live in ideological bubbles, too likely that people will be unable to even engage with those they disagree with, and too easy for those with power to ignore the wishes of the rest. I want to suggest one cause and possible corrective of this situation.

As children, when we visit extended family or friends, many of us are told not to mention religion or politics, Uncle Bill’s drinking, Aunt Suzie’s time in prison, or any number of other family “secrets” or disagreements. Those subject to these parental restrictions learn not to discuss anything controversial, including serious social issues and our own values. The lesson many seem to take from this is that it is impolite and disrespectful to disagree with others. It is hard for me to think this has not contributed to the polarization and rancor in our society. Because we are trained, from an early age, to censor ourselves and repress conversation about a wide array of topics, it’s not surprising that many are shocked when someone disagrees with them—we are taught not to disagree or even suggest a topic of conversation about which there is likely to be disagreement, so people are naturally surprised when others do precisely that. They think it rude. Given the surprise, moreover, many make no attempt to provide a reasoned response to someone who says something they disagree with or find distasteful. This is a mistake.

The problem may be worse than simple parental limits. As a culture, we seem committed to social separation. Not only do we actively and explicitly discourage children from having honest conversations (which join us with others), but we also seek to set up our lives so that we have more distance from each other—even our immediate family members. People complain about the rising cost of homes, but in real dollars, the cost per square foot of a home has not increased that much (see this). Home costs have increased largely because we insist on larger homes—homes where we have our own bathrooms, our own bedrooms, our own offices. With all of that space, we are away from our loved ones, leaving us able to avoid difficult conversations with even our closest intimates. We don’t have to negotiate for time in the shower, for use of the television, or much of anything else. We don’t have to discuss things we disagree about. (And, of course, Americans tend to think that once a child graduates from high school they ought to move out—again, allowing that those almost-adult children can avoid dealing with their parents, learning how to deal with them when they disagree. And when they “talk,” they now do so by texting—furthering the distance from what would be allowed by face to face, or at least, phone, conversations.) In all, we insist on and get more—more space, more privacy, more isolation. We also sort ourselves—moving to neighborhoods and jobs where others that agree with us live and work. We spend less and less time with people we disagree with And then we are surprised that we don’t know how to deal with such people.

So much for the social criticism. That is, I submit, one of the causes of our current lack of civil discourse (and thus increased polarization). If that is right, the solution should be straightforward: stop taking steps that discourage children from engaging in honest discussion. Make children share a bathroom so that they at least have to negotiate its use with a sibling. Maybe have them share a bedroom too! Really importantly, stop telling children not to discuss certain topics with others. Let them learn from others, let others learn from them. (And obviously, those of us teaching in college should seek to promote discussion of ideologically diverse views, even views that some find offensive.) We need to be offended when young so that we don’t refuse to engage with others we find offensive when we are adults. We would then be prepared for honest civil discourse.

Employment, Coercion, and Voting

Sally works for a big corporation.  She works 9 to 5, with a half hour lunch, Monday through Friday.  She often brings work home with her and on Saturdays, she takes a class, hoping it will help her receive a promotion and raise.  On Sundays, she cleans her home and preps for the following week.  This is her schedule every week unless she manages to get a vacation day or two (or if she gets sick)—in which case, work backs up and her return is hard.

Sally does not like her job but there are no other jobs available that she would like.  She wishes she didn’t have to work. Some will say she only takes the job because of coercion. This would be “circumstance-based,” “background,” or “situational” coercion (for discussions, see chapter 7 of Scanlon or chapter 4 of Cohen-Almagor). In this sort of coercion, there is no individual person or clear corporate entity that does anything coercive. There is no one to blame for Sally’s situation and no one to interfere with to help Sally.

Some will insist that what is described is not coercive at all—that without a coercer, there cannot be coercion.  They might also insist that Sally consents to the the employment.  They might even say Sally consents to the social system within which she is employed.  Some of this is true—Sally does, I think, consent to her employment. What about the claim that there is no coercion?

Generally speaking, we think of coercion as one agent, P, acting to get a second agent, Q, to do some action, A, typically by threatening to do something Q does not want to happen (firing Q, harming Q’s relative, etc).  When P does this, it is reasonable to think P is responsible—or at least partly responsible—for Q’s (coerced) actions and that P is subject to justifiable interference.  In Sally’s case, there simply is no P acting to get Sally to keep working.  There are only the facts of the social, political, and economic world which jointly make it such that if Sally does not work, she will not be able to afford to live. The circumstances are what matters and circumstances aren’t agents that do things.

Does this mean it makes no sense to say Sally is coerced?  I’m skeptical.  Sally is not doing as she wants to do.  She acts counter-preferentially because of the way the social, political, and economic world she (and we) inhabit is set up.  While there is no particular agent to blame or interfere with, we can still think there is something unfortunate going on.  If you don’t want to call it coercion, call it shcoercion.  The important point is not one of conceptual analysis but of the morality of the situation.

Some think that the situation is not merely unfortunate but that it is so unjust we ought to change things in the political and economic order so that Sally (and the rest of us) would not be coerced (or shcoerced) by circumstances to work a particular job.  Marxists and others on the left might even say the situation is so unjust that we ought to have the government act to make it such that Sally would not have to work at all.  (See, for example, Van Parijs.)

While I would deny that the world should be set up in such a way that anyone can choose not to work at all if they prefer that, it seems clear that a situation where many people have to work at jobs they don’t like at all is at least unfortunate. (I’m also OK with saying it is coercive or shcoercive, but would note that not all coercion or shcoercion is bad).

A world in which most people work is good for all of us.  A world in which many have to work at jobs they don’t like is, obviously, less good than one in which all of us could work at jobs we like.  This is not a Marxist or socialist claim.  Indeed, I believe the most reasonable way to actualize such a situation—where all or most can work at jobs they like—is to move far more toward a free market (or freed market—see, for example, Carson) than we have.  I’ll keep further thoughts about that for a possible future post. 

In the meantime, here’s what really strikes me as odd: the same people that think they are unjustly coerced into working will often also say that voting in a democratic system—including a democratic system like ours—is indication of consent to the system.  This strikes me as completely incongruous with the view that they are coerced into working.  I didn’t have any part in making our democratic system and I deny that when I vote within that system, I am thereby consenting to it.  I vote, when I do, thinking “I wish we had a better system, but I want to vote now even though I am participating in what seems to me a clearly illegitimate system.”  No one asked for my consent to a two party system.  Or a system within which the majority can ruin the lives of a minority.  Perhaps this system is less coercive than the employment system—but if so, its because I can choose simply not to vote at all.  I’m not, that is, coerced into voting.  I am, though, coerced into voting in a bad system if I wish to vote at all.  Its not like I can go out and vote in a good system—that option is not possible for me.

If it’s true that others made impossible the option of Sally not working at all—or not working at all given the system we live in (I doubt it)—then the coercion there would be on par with the coercion that leaves me only able to vote in what seems to me an illegitimate system. It strikes me as more likely that it is circumstance-based coercion (or shcoercion) in both cases. In both cases, I think, there is no specific agent to blame or interfere with. In neither case does this mean we should rest comfortable with the social-political-economic order. If we ought to think of changing things for people like Sally, we ought to think of changing things for people like me. But many people seem to think Sally is treated unjustly and I am not. Why? That is, why do people believe that voting in a system they had no part in making constitutes consent to that system but working for an employer in a system they had no part in making does not?

Three News Items to Rally Around

Since I spend a good bit of my time thinking about polarization and ways to combat it, I thought I would bring attention to three recent news items that should help reduce polarization but seem to mostly go unnoticed.

First, there is this from WaPo 10/24/2021, about a police chief in a town in Georgia, seeking to have police officers shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill (so, shooting in the legs or abdomen, for example, instead of the chest).  Of course, it would be best if no one had to be shot at all, but those that (rightly) complain about police violence should be embracing this as an improvement as it would presumably mean fewer killings by police.  And those who worry endlessly about “law and order” would seem to have to choose between that and saying “yeah, we don’t mind it if the police kill people.”  Since the latter would likely be seen as including some nefarious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine why they, too, wouldn’t embrace it.

Second, from NYT 11/3/2021, is a short about a Swiss company literally taking CO2 out of the air and making soda with it. Why everyone isn’t talking about this ecstatically is beyond me. I know folks on the (pretty far) left who worry endlessly about global warming and claim we have to stop this and stop that to at least slow it down before we all die. I know folks on the (pretty far) right who claim, more or less, that global warming is fake news. Either way, this should be good news. If global warming is fake, then this sort of technological advancement may be uninteresting in the long run—but those on the right should be happy to say “OK, we know you’re worried, why don’t you invest in this to help?” If its not fake news (fwiw, it’s not), this may be the way to save us and the planet. Those on the left (assuming they don’t want simply to be victims and keep fighting about “green new deal” sort of regulations) should be embracing the possibilities, declaring “yes, we need more of this as a good way forward without killing the economy and making everyone worse off.”

Finally, from Axios 11/5/2021, is a story on the jobs report.  In a nutshell, “America has now recovered 80% of the jobs lost at the depth of the recession in 2020. … Wages are still rising: Average hourly earnings rose another 11 cents an hour in October, to $30.96. That’s enough to keep up with inflation.”  I know that some question the specific numbers.  That’s no surprise.  What is surprising (even given how bad Dems usually are on messaging) is that Biden and the Dems haven’t been touting this at every chance.  It should please Reps a well except that it may make some swing voters less likely to go to their side.  

The above three stories are pretty clearly good news for everyone.   The third is perhaps better for Dems than Reps, but somehow they haven’t decided to hype it up or use it as a way to convince moderate legislators or voters to help them.  The first and second are good for everyone.  Yet it doesn’t seem like many are talking about any of the three.  It’s almost as if both sides of our political divide want to remain divided.  And to alienate those of us who refuse to take either side.  Or perhaps they want to clearly demonstrate that neither side should be taken seriously and it’s high time for a party to emerge in the middle. 

The “middle” here might be interesting.  What party consistently opposes state coercion and force against civilians?  What party consistently opposes the state looking the other way when negative externalities become worse and worse?  What party consistently favors policies that grow the economy so that all will do better?  There is such a party, even if it has its own problems.

The Paradox of Community

Conceptually, community is distinct from neighborhood.  A community can be in a neighborhood, but it might instead consist of widespread people who share some commonality (the community of PPE scholars, for example).  A neighborhood, for its part, may merely be a place people live, not knowing those that also live there. 

Take communities to be groups of people bound together by traditions. Traditions are essential to community. They also vary by community. They might be matters of language, religion, commitment to country, behaviors, holidays, heritage, or any number of other things, some requiring more strict abidance by group norms, some requiring less. Traditions necessarily (but, importantly, not always problematically) hold us back, keep us limited—for the simple reason that people are committed to them. When people are committed to one way of doing things, they are resistant to changes to it. A commitment to car culture, for example, makes it less likely that a group would find (or even look for) an alternative means of transportation. (Or accept such if offered. Think of Segways—why aren’t these available for long distance use? or sealed from rain and cold?)

While traditions hold people back, they also provide a foundation for change.  From the security of being able to interact with others in accepted ways, one can develop new ways to do so—and new ways not to do so.  Because they have traditions, communities make it possible to innovate. Innovation, though, can cause the community to change or even disintegrate. Tradition and innovation are symbiotic even while they simultaneously threaten each other.  Call this the paradox of community (it’s at least a significant tension).

The paradox of community—the fact that a community’s traditions make innovation possible while simultaneously trying to prevent innovation (because innovation could bring the end of the tradition)—makes life in community … interesting.

Another fact about communities is that they either grow or die; stasis is illusory. Communities grow as their members change (some join, some exit, some change themselves), innovate, bring about changes to the traditions (adding some, altering others, ending still others). This is why the paradox is so important.

Some within a community can become so committed to a particular tradition(s) of the community that they work to slow the pace of the community’s growth in order to prevent the altering or ending of their favored tradition(s) or the inclusion of others.  They may do this by trying to encourage newcomers to learn and accept the existing traditions of the community or by actively working to create an environment whereby those seeking change are limited. If they succeed too much—preventing any change in the community’s traditions—they attain stagnation rather than stasis.  This is because absence of change in a community (as for an individual person or any animal) brings the end of the community.  It means no new members–and with no new members, it dies as it’s members die.  Change—innovation—is essential to community.

Of course, new people may attempt to join the community. When they do, they would bring their own histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals. They could (and perhaps should) learn about the community’s ways of doing things. That is consistent with their bringing their own ways of doings (and their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals). It is consistent, that is, with change. But if those within the community seek to limit change, they may try instead to indoctrinate the newcomers into the community’s traditions so that they live as those in the community now live, rather than bringing anything different. Indoctrination thus treats newcomers as having nothing of their own to contribute, as if their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals have no place in the community. Newcomers would thus not be allowed to bring their ideas and preferences into the community’s traditions–those traditions would not be allowed to change. Such newcomers are, then, likely to exit the community. (Notice that this does not mean they physically move away or drop their official membership–remember, communities are not the same as neighborhoods (or associations)).

To build community, change must be permitted. This means that all in the community must listen to each other, open to hearing new things that might be incorporated into the web of community activity and the traditions that shape them. This does not mean jettisoning everything previously held dear, but it does mean being open to the possibility of doing so (likely not all at once). Long time members of the community can teach newer members how things were or are done, but that counts no more than what newer members bring to the table. Importantly, those whose ideas are rejected out of hand have no reason to participate in the community. Ignoring this–thinking that all learning here is in one direction–will simply give rise to factions, splintering what was a community, killing it while perhaps giving birth to new, smaller, communities as those factions continue to grow.

So, both tradition and innovation are essential to community. What this means, in part, is that while change is necessary, the pace of change may be too much for some people within a community, at least those committed to one or more of its traditions. Still change can’t be stopped; a successful attempt to stop it, kills the community. The question for those in a community is thus whether their favored tradition(s) and it’s (or their) history are more important than the community itself. To side with a tradition is to side with those no longer present; to side with community is to side with those currently constituting the community—including those who wish to see change.

Of course, those siding with a tradition may take that tradition to have independent value and thus to be worth protecting. They may take this to be a principled defense of preventing change in the community. It is not. The community from which a defended tradition stems, like all communities, must be able to change. (Again, stagnation means death.) Indeed, all surviving communities have what can reasonably be called traditions of change–ways that change takes place. So when defenders of one tradition seek to prevent change, they are pitting one part of the community and its traditions against another and claiming that one of the traditions should be defended at the cost of another—their favored tradition at the cost of the community’s tradition of change. That, though, is just a preference. One cannot just assume that one favored tradition is more valuable than another. After all, those seeking change may rightly claim to be defending a tradition of change within the community.

Putting the last point differently, those seeking change are defending the community as the community currently is and is growing with its current members and their preferences. Those seeking to prevent change, by contrast, are defending only part of the community—some specific tradition(s) they happen to prefer—and, by seeking stagnation, killing the community.

Lest I be thought too critical of defenders of particular traditions, I should note that I do not think there is a good principled reason for either protecting particular traditions or for changing or jettisoning them. In either case, on my view, further considerations are necessary. What we need to determine, on my view, is when interference is justifiably permitted–what principles of interference we ought to accept rather than simply what traditions we happen to prefer. (I discuss some such considerations here and in my 2014.)

Moralism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics

In a previous post, I began discussing moralism, which I take to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the community qua a somehow unified group (I had said “general populace,” but this is clearer), or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them.

I have been seeing, once again, posts on social media about the loss of national identity (and praise for a few places that seem to still have such). My response to such posts is always the same: why would anyone value a national identity? That is the same response I have to those who seem to identify with a political party, ideology, racial or cultural groups, groups with the same sexual preferences, etc. I always wonder why anyone thinks that a group has any independent substantive value rather than just being a set of people that happen to share something in common.

Identifying with a group could just be recognizing that one has something in common with others (those also in the group), but it—or “taking a group identity”—has become something more. It is, we might say, an entryway into valuing that group for its own sake—that is, it’s the starting point to thinking of the group as having some value above and beyond the value of the individuals in the group. Nationalism is no exception—the whole point (it seems to me) is to encourage people to think of the nation as an entity of moral value all its own. Granted, that value is meant to be somehow good for the people within the nation, but how that works is mysterious. (But not to the point here.)

What do those who bemoan a loss of national identity (or who seek to revive such) want? They want to convince others to live as they think all ought to live. Or at least how all who live here ought to live. This looks like the first sort of moralism—they believe those who act differently are somehow acting wrongly. But what is it that they do wrong? So far as I can tell, it is nothing more than the refusal to live as the advocates of nationalism want.

Why are advocates of nationalism so concerned about people acting differently? This is where the second sort of moralism comes back in: what nationalists want is to be assured their group will survive; they thus fear anyone not going along with them as it means their national group does not have the allegiance of everyone and is thus threatened. It is the survival of the group that matters, after all, not the survival of the individuals within the group.

To be clear, so far as I can tell, nationalism is no different from any other form of political identity. Each group wants all of its members to “fall in” and be what the group is self-portrayed as. Those who act differently or in any way challenge the supposed identity of the whole are a problem to be dealt with, perhaps excised from the group, excommunicated, shunned, cancelled, or deported; perhaps (the topic for a future post) jailed or killed. Here I note only that I prefer the liberal ideal: I like that we live in a society with people who have different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, heritages, skill sets, etc. 1000 flowers blooming is far more attractive than 1000 clones.

Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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