Off the Playground of Civil Society

In future blogs I will describe stories that "integrate the three C's" -- college, career, and citizenship -- as I recently proposed. But it's useful to begin by describing some of the blinders.

The western intellectual tradition conceives of public life as democratization of aristocratic leisure, contrasting civic activity with work. As Benjamin Barber, a leading participatory democracy theorist, puts it, "To the Greeks, labor by itself defined only mere animal existence, while leisure was the condition for freedom, politics, and truly 'human' forms of being."

In his book, A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong, Barber translates the Greek view into modern times. Civil society, he argues, is the alternative to work. He sees the voluntary sector as home for democracy, unlike the constraints of work and the workplace. He advances community service with civic reflection as a way to cultivate the identity of citizen, as alternative to "producer" and "consumer."

Similarly, the great political theorist Hannah Arendt viewed work as had the Greeks, part of the apolitical world. While she valued "work" more than menial jobs, she believed that work did not belong in the public arena of "deeds and action," and specifically of politics. Producers remain private: "homo faber, the builder of the world and the producer of things, can find his proper relationship to other people only by exchanging his products with theirs because these products themselves are always produced in isolation."

Theorists of civil society join Arendt and Barber in separating work from public life. Thus in Civil Society and Political Theory, Jean Cohen and Andrew Arato revise the classical notion of civil society as it descended from Hegel and the Scottish Enlightenment, which had included large institutions and commerce. Cohen and Arato argue for "a reconstruction [of the concept] involving a three-part model distinguishing civil society from both state and economy." They see this definition as the way to "underwrite the dramatic oppositional role of this concept under authoritarian regimes and to renew its critical potential under liberal democracies."

For Cohen and Arato, civil society, the arena of citizenship, is "a sphere of social interaction between economy and state, composed above all of the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication."

Such ideas may seem academic. But in fact the idea of civil society illustrates the power of framing concepts to structure resources, define the meaning of citizenship, and organize education.

Major foundations allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to voluntarism. The congressionally mandated National Conference on Citizenship uses indicators from civil society to define America's "civic health," with nothing about work. Beyond civics courses, civic education largely emphasizes service and service-learning in both K-12 and higher education.

Bringing work back in

Yet work has a way of coming back in. In John Steinbeck's 1930s classic In Dubious Battle, a union organizer is asked what he gets from organizing farm laborers despite low pay and constant danger. "It's an important job," he replies. "The thing that takes the heart out of a man is work that doesn't lead any place."

In her book, Working Together: How Workplace Bonds Strengthen a Diverse Democracy, New York University law professor Cynthia Estlund shows that work and workplaces create opportunities to bridge differences and build civic ties often missing in community and associational life.

Estlund brings together theoretical perspectives, social science research, and examples from popular culture in order to remedy what she sees as the neglect of work and the workplace by civil society theorists. Estlund makes a compelling case that, despite continuing patterns of hierarchy and discrimination, workplaces are the only environments where most people are likely to have sustained encounters with people of differing racial, cultural, and ideological backgrounds. They engage in such experiences with relative civility, and around practical, goal-directed tasks, making them relatively conducive to sustained experiences of collaboration.

She shows that these features of work and workplaces enable people to develop respect for others, reduce prejudices and stereotypes, build trust, develop civic skills, and create cross-group networks. "It is not just the friendship potential of workplace relations that makes it a promising source of interracial contact," she argues. The work process itself "is generally cooperative and directed toward shared objectives; much of it is sustained, personal, informal, and one-to-one."

Workplaces further democratic equality by "convening strangers from diverse backgrounds and inducing them to work together toward shared objectives under the aegis of the societally imposed equality principle."

Estlund also shows how social movements such as union organizing efforts in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, and the feminist movement made the workplace more public. Thus, Section 7 of the Wagner Act, growing from New Deal organizing, created "a kind of rudimentary system of civil liberties within the workplace" which in turn allowed further action by workers. Though the effort is not completed, it advanced democratic purposes.

Focusing on the public possibilities of work generates hope for change. As the intellectual historian Thomas Bender has described in a recent study, "Historians in Public," we may be seeing the reemergence of locally grounded public intellectuals who act as citizens, joining with other citizens on matters of concern. "With the collapse of the mass communications model of the public sphere," writes Bender, "the historian who wishes to influence the public sphere need not long for acceptance on the op-ed page of the New York Times. She can go on the local radio station or contribute a column to the still remaining local papers or even start up a local web site."

New developments like the Scholars Strategy Network, encouraging scholars to use their knowledge in public, clearly point in this direction.

As George Mehaffy, vice president of leadership for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities puts it, "once you start looking at work with citizenship in mind, many things start becoming visible."

Harry Boyte is Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

National Dialogue

Since the Connecticut school shooting, we’ve heard many people call for a national dialogue around mental health treatment in the U.S.  (We’ve also heard calls to action about gun control reform, but I haven’t heard the word dialogue in that one).  I also remember with the Arizona Giffords shooting there was a call for national dialogue on civil discourse and a return to civility in public and political discourse.

My question is, is it possible to have these national dialogues?  Are we in fact having them?  If we are, is it happening in our lifeworlds and is that transferring to the public sphere?  Have there been examples in the past where there have been true national dialogues around important matters facing us?  What facilitated these occurring or made them possible?  It is possible for our society to have conversations about issues dealing with power, privilege, and/or oppression without tragedies facilitating these events?

I’ve been working for the past two months as a community organizer around tax equity and the fiscal cliff.  I’ve been having house meetings, organized a town hall forum, and have been talking with community members one-on-one across my state about the fiscal cliff.  Some might say there has been a national conversation going on about the fiscal cliff, though I think the term dialogue may be a stretch to use.  I guess it depends who needs to be part of the dialogue for it to be one that is meaningful in creating policy or civic change.


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What should we say when we talk about guns? (continued)

Some people will say that they’re unnecessary and dangerous. Others will say that they’re a tool for self-defense and self-sufficiency. That’s usually where the debate rests, except that the 2nd Amendment privileges the second group. If we want to make progress, we can offer better reasons, reasons that will be superior precisely because they are responsive to the reasons of our interlocutors. That means honestly trying to find the overlap in what appears to be an incommensurable set of assumptions.

Here’s Dan Braman and Dan Kahan, in an article on how to have a better gun debate:

For one segment of American society, guns symbolize honor, human mastery over nature, and individual self-sufficiency. By opposing gun control, individuals affirm the value of these meanings and the vision of the good society that they construct. For another segment of American society, however, guns connote something else: the perpetuation of illicit social hierarchies, the elevation of force over reason, and the expression of collective indifference to the well-being of strangers. These individuals instinctively support gun control as a means of repudiating these significations and of promoting an alternative vision of the good society that features equality, social solidarity, and civilized nonaggression.

As a result, Braman and Kahan propose a “big trade”: those who oppose guns should offer to recognize and respect the rights of gun ownership, effectively normalizing it, in exchange for universal registration. By emphasizing the responsibility and civic spiritedness of most gun owners, Braman and Kahan believe that we can better reach an agreement what that responsibility entails.

For Braman and Kahan, this is an extension of their cultural cognition work, but I’d put it a little differently, in terms of the interaction between esteem and social norms: rather than depicting gun owners as dangerous hicks, we give them esteem in exchange for esteem-worthy performances of self-abnegation and sacrifice, like giving up assault weapons and semi-automatics. Since less than 0.004% of all guns are used on other human beings in any given year, we should acknowledge that most people’s guns are not the problem.


by Flickr user deepwarren

It’s tempting to stage a cultural showdown around guns, to line up a set of  statistics and international comparisons and arguments: i.e. that carrying a gun probably increases the likelihood that you will be shot and killed. Lots of resources already go into advertising this fact, along with others. From a public health perspective it makes perfect sense to discourage gun ownership, but so long as many Americans treat guns as a central part of their identities, such discouragement will only have limited impact. Research suggests that our prior beliefs on guns will have an significant impact on the way that we process new data on gun deaths. That’s more evident in my Facebook and Twitter feeds, where tragedy and group polarization rule, but very little cross-cutting bipartisan dialogue takes place.

In “More Statistics, Less Persuasion: A Cultural Theory of Gun-Risk Perceptions,” Braman and Kahan offer evidence that risk perceptions are derivative of social norms and cultural-loaded meanings:

The risks that we face in our daily lives are far too vast in number and diverse in nature to be comprehended in their totality. Of all the potential hazards that compete for our attention, the ones most likely to penetrate our consciousness are the ones that comport with our norm-pervaded moral evaluations: it is easy to believe that ignoble activities are also physically dangerous, and worthy ones benign. Thus, “moral concern guides not just response to the risk but the basic faculty of [risk] perception” as well.

What this means is that how we process school shootings or firearm-related suicides will be largely dictated by our prior views on the social importance of guns. That’s why our responses differ so drastically: it’s not that some of us are dumb and some smart, some indifferent to suffering and some caring, but that we can only understand tragedy within a cultural framework, and that framework partially dictates which elements of the tragedy pop out as salient.

In particular, those concerned primarily with hierarchical forms of status and authority will relate to gun crimes differently from those egalitarians who abhor social statification, while those who favor individual autonomy will take up a different yet a third approach to evaluating and prioritizing risks than those who favor collective action. What Braman and Kahan show is that the facts and statistics that seem salient to us depend largely on where we fall on both the hierarchy-egalitarian axis and the individualism-solidarism axis.

Here, then, is the problem: most of the prohibition-type solutions are only going to receive support from those of us who are both egalitarian and in favor of collective action. This creates the potential for a coalition of interests between those who favor guns as a traditional prerogative of American citizenship, and those who see them as a symbol self-sufficiency and of man’s mastery of nature. You can’t simply eliminate those value profiles and risk-assessments from the electorate, and it’s important to acknowledge that they do see some facts more clearly we do. Instead, we should seek solutions that are more widely satisfying to traditionalists. Politicians understood this long ago and captured it in the canard that gun safety regulations should respect the rights of “hunters and sportsmen.”

But what kinds of policies does this respect entail?

In my last post, I emphasized the importance of taking full prohibition off the table for safety reasons, and I linked to two kinds of suggestions for gun control that seem like reasonable accommodations with the many civic-minded gun owners in the country: the federal legislation recommendations from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the Op-Ed by Craig Whitney, “A Way Out of the Gun Stalemate.”

To this, let me add the state and local initiatives suggested by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which are in many ways more important, such as better mental health reporting and ammunition controls and licensing. Many of these are things that need not be resolved nationally to be effective: for instance, California single-handedly improved ballistics recognition by requiring guns sold in the state to “micro-stamp” their serial numbers onto shell casings. That program should be expanded to other states.

A lot of the pushback I received last week was tied to the fact that places like Japan and Great Britain have had reasonable success with prohibitions. Certainly this is true, but it seems to ignore both that those places started off with a very different gun culture, and that they are geographic anomalies, islands of dense populations with a lot of ethnic homogeneity. We have 310,000,000 of the damned things, and we’ve had many failures over the years trying to curb that numbers’ growth. We should try something different.

(Always a good reminder: Timur Kuran’s and Cass Sunstein’s “Availability Cascades and Risk Regulation.”)

When we finally start talking about gun control, what should we say?


I love policy discussions, but the demands for policy discussion on gun control after the shootings in Newtown today are terribly wrong-headed.

The problem is that demanding a policy discussion is not the same thing as having a policy discussion. At this point, we’re just talking about talking about gun control. It’s all “mention” and no “use.” It’d be nice if folks would actually start proposing laws. Like: limits on magazine size. Ammo taxes. Closing the gun show loophole. Or even…


I’d love to talk about gun prohibition. (Notice, this isn’t even the same policy debate as “gun control.”) Unfortunately, if we start talking about gun prohibition, then we will be forced to confront how badly prohibition is working in other markets. There are three hundred and ten million guns in the US. (Yes! 310,000,000!) What does prohibition look like under those circumstances?

Reflecting on that question, ask yourself this: how many people will be killed in no-knock police raids trying to root out the black market in guns? Will they be mostly white or mostly black? (Notice that gun control laws have tended to be stricter in majority black areas rather than majority white areas. Both DC and Chicago, the battleground states for the 2nd Amendment claims, are disproportionately black.) How many of those killed by police will be kids? How many kids’ deaths will be prevented?

On reflection, I suspect that many gun control regimes and all possible paths to gun prohibtion are more likely to increase the number of people hurt and killed by guns.  So when we do finally start talking about gun control and gun prohibition, let’s be very, very careful.

  • Something must be done.
  • Prohibition is something. 
  • ∴ ????

Also, let’s remember that the violent crime rate, including gun crimes, is the lowest it’s been in 20 years. That doesn’t make what happened today any easier to handle, but perhaps it will allow us to focus on what happened, and the people it happened to, instead of replaying Jon Stewart’s Monday night monologue. Something terrible has happened. It didn’t happen to you or I, so we have the ability to ask whether it could have been prevented. We should ask whether it could have been prevented. But we should also ask: at what cost? Then we should follow that calculation of lives lost and lives saved wherever it leads.

Craig Whitney’s July New York Times Op-Ed on the Aurora shooting is still apropos here:

Liberals should accept that the only realistic way to control gun violence is not by keeping guns out of the hands of as many Americans as possible, but by keeping guns out of the hands of people we all agree should not have them.

Read the whole thing.

“The purpose of law enforcement, with respect to transactional crimes, is to make sure that they have ‘good’ criminals.”

Keith Humphreys shares this interview with Vanda Felbab-Brown. There are no dull moments, but here’s one I think should give us lefties pause: what will replace the underground marijuana economy? Felbab-Brown explains:

Most of the time governments tend to fight illicit economies and not think about what will replace them. Policies are often premised on the erroneous idea that simply suppressing a particular part of the illicit economy will mean that legality will emerge. Frequently that does not happen, especially when large segments of the population cannot participate in the legal economy and are dependent on illegality for their survival. In those cases in particular, the propensity towards shifting to other forms of illegality is very high. On the other hand, if you have a finite supply of traffickers and a large segment of the population that does not depend on illegality, then it is quite possible that suppression alone will be sufficient, and no replacement economy will arise. In the case of global networks that have large societal dependence and participation in illegality, it is almost impossible to make sure that if you suppress one illicit economy, another one will not emerge.

So it mostly depends on the setting. There are some illicit economies that need to be the priority when it comes to suppression—smuggling nuclear materials, for example. This is an economy that is rather minimal in scale but nonetheless the consequences could potentially be so exorbitant that suppressing it needs to be a priority. The priority, in my view, should be to think about which illicit economy is the most dangerous and poses the greatest harm, and to focus on methods to minimize that economy.

The interpenetration in criminology of economic themes of cost-benefit analysis, unintended consequences, and public choice problems with the epidemiology of violence and an ethics of harm reduction is now almost complete. (What’s missing? Daniel Levine‘s work-in-progress operationalizing care ethics in peacekeeping.)

Cultural Cognition is Not a Bias

Some recent posts by Dan Kahan on the subject of “cultural cognition” deserve attention:

(Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.)

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, it is not correct even to describe cultural cognition as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mental “shortcut”—an alternative to the use of a more effortful, and more intricate mental operation that might well exceed the time and capacity of most people to exercise in most circumstances.

But there is no substitute for relying on the authority of those who know what they are talking about as a means of building and transmitting collective knowledge. Cultural cognition is no shortcut; it is an integral component in the machinery of human rationality.

Unsurprisingly, the faculties that we use in exercising this feature of our rationality can be compromised by influences that undermine its reliability. One of those influences is the binding of antagonistic cultural meanings to risk and other policy-relevant facts. But it makes about as much sense to treat the disorienting impact of antagonistic meanings as evidence that cultural cognition is a bias as it does to describe the toxicity of lead paint as evidence that human intelligence is a “bias.”

Look: people aren’t stupid. They know they can’t resolve difficult empirical issues (on climate change, on HPV-vaccine risks, on nuclear power, on gun control, etc.) on their own, so they do the smart thing: they seek out the views of experts whom they trust to help them figure out what the evidence is. But the experts they are most likely to trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their values.

What makes me feel bleak about the prospects of reason isn’t anything we find in our studies; it is how often risk communicators fail to recruit culturally diverse messengers when they are trying to communicate sound science.

The number of scientific insights that make our lives better and that don’t culturally polarize us is orders of magnitude greater than the ones that do. There’s not a “culture war” over going to doctors when we are sick and following their advice to take antibiotics when they figure out we have infections. Individualists aren’t throttling egalitarians over whether it makes sense to pasteurize milk or whether high-voltage power lines are causing children to die of leukemia.

People (the vast majority of them) form the right beliefs on these and countless issues, moreover, not because they “understand the science” involved but because they are enmeshed in networks of trust and authority that certify whom to believe about what.

For sure, people with different cultural identities don’t rely on the same certification networks. But in the vast run of cases, those distinct cultural certifiers do converge on the best available information. Cultural communities that didn’t possess mechanisms for enabling their members to recognize the best information—ones that consistently made them distrust those who do know something about how the world works and trust those who don’t—just wouldn’t last very long: their adherents would end up dead.

Rational democratic deliberations about policy-relevant science, then, doesn’t require that people become experts on risk. It requires only that our society take the steps necessary to protect its science communication environment from a distinctive pathology that enfeebles ordinary citizens from using their (ordinarily) reliable ability to discern what it is that experts know.

New Hampshire Public Conversations on School Redesign and Student-centered Learning: Pittsfield, NH

The Pittsfield School District discovered they needed to re-vamp their school systems. With a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation they started research into how they could transform their schools. The main focus was designing a community conversation to help uncover the underlying issues and develop possible solutions. Many thought the issue was the design of the school was catering to faculty, teachers, and parents rather than the students. This was the beginning of what plans to be a long-term plan of change.