The phenomena of judging people is fascinating.

In face-to-face conversation, for example, I find it common to say things like, “this is a judgement-free zone.”

And I think that’s important.

After all, I’m in no position to judge anybody for anything. I have my own faults, my own quirks, my own self; any of which could easily be put under scrutiny and fall short of someone else’s perfection.

So I don’t judge.

Except when I do.

Let’s be honest: if I’m out on the street, surrounded by strangers, I judge the hell out of everybody. That girl who pushed the “walk light” button and crossed the street without waiting –  I judged her. That guy wearing – what is he wearing? – I judged the hell out of him. The person who wrote an article about her gentrifying love for my home town – you better believe I judged her.

I judge people all the time. Faceless, nameless people. Anybody I actually know – real people – get a pass. After all, we’ve all been there, right? Who am I to judge?

I imagine there must be something healthy about judging. Something satisfying to the soul.

A friend told me today that she “hates everyone.”

I say the same sometimes.

Except, of course, I don’t really hate everyone. It’s just a general sense of antagonism towards the world.

It’s the kind of thing you say when the world is just too much.

And we all know the world can be too much some times.

And I suppose that’s how it is with judging. You can be open minded. You can be accepting of all types of people doing all sorts of things. You can refuse to sit in judgement of the real people you meet.

But you still need that outlet. That general feeling of superiority over something. Even if it comes from silently judging a stranger for something you know you’ve done before. There’s something cathartic about it, I suppose.

The real task, then, is to find the appropriate time to judge, the appropriate way to judge. When it’s solely an internal experience completely divorced from the reality of another person.

Is that possible, I wonder? Is it then okay to judge?

Either way, it’s all good, I suppose. After all – I don’t judge.


religious liberty and discrimination

If we set aside the invidious motivations for–and the details of–the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it does raise some fairly complex constitutional questions. Here are five theories that one might adopt in response:

1. The law should ban private discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. To deny a regular service to a citizen because she or he is gay is hurtful and cruel and reinforces a whole system or culture of domination that also has serious economic and civic consequences. Therefore, such discrimination can and should be banned.

I endorse the whole premise. The questions are (a) whether the state and law are the appropriate instruments for remedying this problem, and (b) whether a conflicting interest (religious freedom) should be given any weight. We must allow individuals to do some things that we are certain are bad and wrong in order to limit government in the interest of liberty. It is not a free society that permits only good actions. Not any liberty counts, but the establishment and free exercise of religion are two explicit freedoms named in the First Amendment. To deny their relevance not only ignores the constitutional text but suggests that other forms of religious discrimination should also be illegal–for instance, that the Catholic Church should be required to ordain women. This seems a problematic implication.

2. The law should ban private discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, with a special exception for religious freedom. The defendant in a discrimination suit would be required to demonstrate that her or his religion was clearly and stably committed to such discrimination. The defendant’s denomination would then be revealed to hold discriminatory views, with a potential cost to its reputation. If other members of the denomination were moved to contest its position on gay rights, that would be a benefit. Yet the religious liberty of the defendant would be honored.

I endorse some of this argument, but a lot rests on the definition of religion. It seems unjust to give special rights to people who believe in the existence of one or more deities. Just yesterday, the First Church of Cannabis declared its interest in selling marijuana in Indiana under the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Why not? Also, this approach will involve the state in inquiries into religious doctrines and traditions. Is it really wise to ask a secular court to decide whether, for example, discrimination against gays is rooted in the Talmud or in some specific Protestant tract?

3. Jacob Levy’s suggestion: “private businesses should be free to refuse customers, subject to two categories of exceptions: (a) if the firms are common carriers or (in the common law sense) public accommodations rather than ordinary private retailers and (b) in the United States, due to the constitutional and historical distinctiveness of Jim Crow and its melding of public and private discrimination, discrimination on the basis of race.”

This is a more libertarian view, more protective of individuals’ rights to choose their own contracts and relationships. It carves out a special exemption for racial discrimination in the US. (Levy teaches in Canada and is thinking about these issues globally.) I am not hostile to his position, because liberty is a very high principle and because the state is not our only instrument for changing private behavior. I would also agree that race is a unique case in the US. But a lot hangs here on the seriousness of discrimination based on sexual orientation. It’s easy for me–a straight man–to write as if religious freedom can simply be balanced against equality. If I were gay and denied a service on that basis, I would probably feel that my very personhood had been assaulted, not merely as an individual act but as part of a system or culture of oppression that also costs lives. Homophobia is a deadly problem, and perhaps the state should intervene even in private contracts to address it.

4. Forbid discrimination in certain kinds of business. Levy hints at this kind of solution when he mentions “public accommodations,” about which there is a large body of case law, legislation, and scholarship. The basic idea is that McDonald’s should be forbidden from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation (both in hiring and in service), because it operates a mass, transactional enterprise. You pay your money; you get your burger and fries. But Elane Photography (a small New Mexico business) is not running a public accommodation. A more-or-less solo photographer may choose whom to photograph. If she chooses only to photograph opposite-sex weddings, that is allowable under the First Amendment.

I find this distinction somewhat helpful, but there is no bright line between Elane’s and McDonald’s. Furthermore, the mere fact that Elane is a small business does not make its discrimination any less hurtful.

5. Honor the small-r republican principle that the people should govern themselves by deliberating and making law. Let the people decide whether or not to ban discrimination.

I am a small-r republican and believe that collective political freedom is too often overlooked. But who is “the people?” You will get very different laws if Bloomington can decide, if Indiana decides, or if Washington takes up the issue (and probably deadlocks, leaving the status quo in place). Also, the most important reason to restrain the rights of the people to govern themselves is to protect individuals’ rights. But then again, both non-discrimination and free exercise are individual rights. The republican principle doesn’t say which one should trump popular rule.

The post religious liberty and discrimination appeared first on Peter Levine.

NICD Helps Build a “Caucus of the Whole” in VT Legislature

NCDD members are doing vital work to improve the political climate in our country every day, and we recently heard about a special example of that kind of work being done by the good people at NCDD member organization the National Institute for Civic Discourse.

NICD_logo3Earlier this year, NICD’s Ted Celeste – an NCDD supporting member and one of our 2014 conference mentors – convened one of NICD’s Next Generation workshops aimed at helping legislators in Vermont develop better communication and more collaborative relationships. It was met with rave reviews and yielded some exciting results!

Here’s what a local Vermont news outlet had to say about this innovative dialogue effort:

When it comes to rancor between the two major parties at the Statehouse, Vermont has it pretty good compared to other parts of the country. But there is always room for improvement. That’s why 20 lawmakers – Republican, Democrats, and Progressives –  sat down Wednesday to clear the air and learn to communicate better. It’s part of a national effort aimed at improving civil discourse in politics.

“There’s a real spirit and enthusiasm for trying to find the common ground,” said Ted Celeste, facilitator.

Celeste, a Democrat and former member of the Ohio Legislature, is on a mission. Working with the University of Arizona’s Institute For Civil Discourse, he crisscrosses the country to help lawmakers get along. Many, he says, have similar issues.

“There’s not enough time to get to know each other. The partisan politics gets in the way of finding common ground, so we cover a lot of the same issues,” said Celeste.

Members at the workshop say that unlike the old days when lawmakers would live and socialize in Montpelier during the session, many now commute every day and that collegiality has suffered. For others it’s pressure to toe the party line that’s a problem.

The article continued with thoughts from legislators who participated in the workshop. But what we found most interesting was the development of a “caucus of the whole”:

Vermont is still a long way from Washington, D.C. where members of the opposite parties won’t applaud during a presidential speech or talk past each other in sound bites, but Ted Celeste says it’s a good place to start… It’s a new effort at the Statehouse to rise above partisan politics.

Efforts to improve civil discourse at the Statehouse have resulted in a new “caucus of the whole.” While party members will continue to meet or caucus separately with their individual parties, the caucus of the whole is an opportunity to work together.

We salute NICD’s continued efforts to improve dialogue and collaboration among our nation’s political leaders, and we hope that, as with the emergence of Vermont’s “caucus of the whole,” their work continues to be successful.

We encourage you to check out the video of the news piece done on NICD’s workshop by clicking here, or you can read the full version of this WCAX.com story by visiting www.wcax.com/story/27964801/vt-lawmakers-learn-to-communicate-better-at-statehouse.

JJ Baskin, Public Agenda Board Member, 1966-2015

We're saddened to share the news that Public Agenda Board Member JJ Baskin passed away last week. With JJ's passing, the country has lost a great man and a force for good. JJ's deep commitment to improving education was matched by his boundless energy, and that energy stayed with him to the end.

We first met JJ two years ago down in Austin, Texas -- his home state. JJ's energy, dedication and optimism inspired us, and we invited him to join the Public Agenda board soon after.

JJ had so much faith in the Public Agenda mission and team. He was constantly working to advance our mission by contributing ideas and cultivating relationships. As JJ's obituary points out, he was a world-class connector who took enormous joy in serving others.

While we didn't know him long, it was long enough to know he was one of the finest people we'd ever meet. His dedication to good work and his fellow humans was a genuine inspiration, and we were lucky to experience his creativity and kindness firsthand. We at Public Agenda hope we can honor JJ's memory by capturing and channeling a little bit of his spirit, goodness and commitment to making the world a better place.

When JJ was first diagnosed with cancer, not even a year ago, he formed JJ's Fight Club. He called it a "team of optimists" and asked its members to "inspire us and remind us of what we are fighting for."

We may have lost JJ, but he will continue to inspire and remind us of what we are fighting for.

Read more about JJ and his life's work.

The Dangers of Empathy

Today I attended a talk on “Generative Empathies,” part of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities hosted by Tisch College.

The talk focused on exploring the question, “What does empathy produce?”

While you might imagine possible answers to that question – empathy produces shared understanding, it acknowledges another’s experience, it expresses our shared humanity – I was most taken with some of the concerns raised about empathy.

That is to ask, is empathy always “good”?

What if you are empathetic towards someone or something that is justifiably “bad”? What if you choose the wrong side of an issue because your empathy is misguided?

Perhaps more fundamentally – does feeling empathy relieve you of further ethical work? Does empathy soften a critical eye?

I am reminded, for example, of a recent story in Slate about the research efforts of a group of women incarcerated in the Indiana Women’s Prison to look at that institution’s history.

The traditional story of the prison’s 1873 founding went something like this: after shocking allegations of sexual abuse in a unisex prison, two angelic women fought for the creation of the first all-female prison in the country to protect their incarcerated sisters.

In this simple retelling, the two well-to-do women felt empathy towards wayward women, establishing a women’s prison to rectify their tragedy.

Of course, the story is much more complicated than that.

And empathy is more complicated than that.

There is evidence that the two women each had moral failings of their own. That it was their virtue of wealth more than anything that kept them on the right side of the law. By modern standards their crimes were worse than some of the inmates they oversaw.

There are indications that terrible things happened in their prison. That at least one of the women knew about and even instigated abuse.

Yet they are remembered as angels who saw fit to save the fallen women of their day.

Just who should one feel empathy for in this story?

And importantly, was it appropriate for the prison’s founder’s to claim empathy towards the inmates?

Their empathy was a resource of privilege. Left unjudged for their own crimes, it was easy for them to find empathy for those “less fortunate.”

And perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story that I’m left with little doubt that those two women thought they were doing the right thing. Regardless of their own failings, they thought they were doing what was best for incarcerated women.

Enshrined in empathy, they thought they were the angelic saviors history remembers them to be.

And that is, perhaps, one of the rockiest shoals of empathy – that it might be treated as a free pass, an escape hatch, an all-encompassing rebuttal to any challenge:

I can do no wrong, because I truly care.

Perhaps empathy can be used as such a shield, but it shouldn’t be.

Empathy does not relieve the need for a critical eye, does not lessen the burden to constantly question what is right and what is wrong, does not change your moral obligations.

It simply helps you see more…by demonstrating that you understand nothing.

As one speaker put today, quoting Leslie Jamison in the Empathy Exams, “Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”

All we can ever really understand, all we can ever really know, is our own experience. Empathy helps us feel around the edges of what we know, comparing our own experiences to others, touching the similarity and feeling for the differences.

Assuming nothing, knowing nothing. Just groping for common ground across a dark chasm of difference.


bad does not imply worse

Christopher Jencks makes a characteristically wise point (after displaying a graph that shows that real poverty has declined a lot since 1959, and a bit since 2009):

The equation of “bad” with “worse” is so tight in American political discourse that when I tell my friends or my students that “there is still a lot of poverty, but less than there used to be,” they have trouble remembering both halves of the sentence. Some remember that there is still a lot of poverty. Others remember that there is less than there used to be. Few remember both.

I observe the same phenomenon constantly. The problem, for example, with our students’ civic knowledge is not that it has declined. Scores on civics tests have been remarkably stable over a long period. It’s just that civic knowledge is (and used to be) too low. The same is true of voter turnout: quite flat since the 1970s, but at a problematically low level. I offer additional examples from social policy in “why do we feel compelled to argue from decline?” It seems that you cannot get attention for a problem unless you pose it as a recent and alarming deterioration from a previously superior state. That is an obstacle to taking our most stubborn problems seriously.

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Universities, Public Spaces and the Democratic Way of Life

Recently, Thomas Ehrlich, former president of Indiana University, co-founder of Campus Compact and a key figure in the higher education engagement movement, with his young colleague, Ernestine Fu, wrote in Forbes magazine about recent attacks in Arizona, Wisconsin and North Carolina on higher education.

In all three cases, those slashing funding for public higher education and the firing of a public university president of a different political party claimed that politics has nothing to do with their decisions. But this is hard to swallow. Rather, it appears that proponents of these actions are part of a growing band of politicians who want partisan politics to shape public higher education. In doing so, they refuse to acknowledge that nonpartisan preparation for democracy is an essential task of colleges and universities.

A recent trip to the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and Campus Compact at Elon brought home to me the potential for higher education to respond to these attacks in constructive ways, moving from the defense to a public mission which can engage the broad majority of Americans. North Carolina is at the center of current controversies. Tom Ross, the president of the University of North Carolina, was recently fired by the system's board, reportedly for political reasons.

To respond effectively requires moving beyond partisan politics to reinvigorate aims far larger than education as simply a path for individual success. It also means a much bigger view of democracy, now usually seen as elections. And, finally, it points to a crucial strategy: A movement to strengthen higher education's capacity to create and catalyze public spaces in classrooms, on campuses and beyond them, which connects disconnected worlds of private life and public life, where people of different partisan views, interests and backgrounds can find common ground.

Here, it is worth recalling that public universities, as they adapted to the modern world, had much this mission. James Angell, president of the University of Michigan at the turn of the last century, believed that UM needed to embody and help shape the dynamics of the changing democracy with a "democratic atmosphere" full of debate, discussion, experimentalism, the play of different views and wide engagement with the society. William James (Harvard), founder of experimental psychology, urged scientific approaches to understanding human behavior based on science as democratic practices -- cooperative, open inquiry, free exchange of ideas and testing of ideas in practice, not "value-free" methods. A democratic view of higher education's purpose was central to President Truman's Commission on Higher Education in 1947.

Meanwhile, it is also important to remember that a view of education's purpose as cultivating the capacities to work across differences means democracy as a way of life, not simply elections. The view once voiced by Jane Addams that education should "free the powers" of each person and connect them to the larger democracy was widely shared. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King described the Civil Rights Movement as bringing the country "back to the great wells of democracy." Students called for "participatory democracy" everywhere, including schools and colleges.

We need many stories in this vein, especially stories led by students, about the work of actually building and sustaining public spaces. These stories are present, but they are now overshadowed by news about students' negative behavior, from racism to sexual violence.

Public spaces allow for expressions of higher education's best democratic values -- free exchange of ideas, thoughtful discussion, appeal to evidence and respect for different perspectives. Such spaces can engage people's private interests and identities -- "private worlds" of personal stories, subjective experiences, identity politics and the like -- and bring them into a larger public context. They also can engage the public world of "Big Data" and "evidence-based solutions" in ways that ground such knowledge production in relational public cultures, transforming the detached informational cultures based on abstraction about human beings which have come to dominate in expert systems.

In North Carolina at UNCG and Campus Compact, I was struck by the strong and positive faculty responses to concepts of deliberative practices around issues like "the changing world of work." There was much interest in new developments in complexity science such as infant development science and Executive Function, which emphasize the central importance of human agency to children's flourishing. Faculty, students, staff and community members expressed enthusiasm for the concept of public spaces which help to build civic agency, people's capacities to work across differences on common challenges.

Such spaces are not about harmony. They are full of tensions, negotiated truths and different kinds of evidence. They require "lowering the temperature" of public discussion, and developing skills of listening and working together. They also help people break out of their bubbles.

I came away convinced that a movement for public spaces is possible and that higher education is central to its development. Such a movement can revive the "democratic atmosphere" at the center of a democratic way of life. Remembering this idea of democracy and revitalizing its atmosphere have never been more important.

Harry Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, recently published by Vanderbilt University Press.