One of the most intriguing sessions as last week’s Frontiers of Democracy Conference was on “democratic reading and writing,” a topic inspired by Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration.
I’ve only just begun reading Allen’s book, but I am struck by the core of her argument.
“The achievement of political equality requires, among other things,” she writes, “the empowerment of human beings as language-using creatures.”
This seems like something of a bold statement. Not that language is explicitly not required, but there are so many great barriers to political equality, it is easy, perhaps, to dismiss language as the least of our problems.
But words do have power.
In How To Do Things With Words, J.L. Austin argues that words can, in the fullest sense, be actions. The performative act of an utterance goes beyond the physical action of speaking; something is actually accomplished by the words themselves.
“Saying something will often, or even normally, produce certain consequential effects upon the feelings, thoughts, or actions of the audience, or of the speaker, or of other persons,” Austin argues, “and it may be done with the design, intention, or purpose of producing them…”
Not all utterances are performative acts, but some words do have this power. Words may bind one into an agreement, or may have a real impact on the listener.
The American Declaration of Independence, which Allen close reads in her book, is one example of the power and action of words. It “brings to light the incandescent magic of human politics: the fact that it is possible for people, with ideas, conversations, and decision-making committees – both formal and informal – to weave together an agreement that can define our common life.”
The process of reading and writing democratically is messy, frustrating, and hard. But from it, Allen argues, emerges a greater whole, something better and stronger than would have existed otherwise. “The source of sturdiness is solidarity,” she writes.
The Declaration, Allen finds, “is as much about how to solve the central conundrum of democracy – how to make sure public actions can count as the will of the people – as about anything else. It is about how to ensure that public words belong to us all….I believe the Declaration succeeded, and succeeds still, because it took on the task of explaining why this quantity of talk, this heap of procedures, these lists of committees, and this much hard-won agreement – such a maddening quantity of group writing – are necessary for justice. The argument of the Declaration justifies the process by which the Declaration came to be. It itself explains why they art of democratic writing is necessary.”
In short, as Allen argues: this country was built on talk.
Undergraduate Certificate in Civics Teaching
The Civics Teaching Certificate will provide pre-service teachers with
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Pre-service teachers enrolled in the Social Science Education B.S. major will
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The Ben Franklin Circles (BFC) is a collaborative project of 92nd Street Y (92Y), the Hoover Institution, and Citizen University. BFC reflects a shared commitment to fostering civic participation, open dialogue, and ethics-based leadership. Ben Franklin Circles are based on the idea of a mutual improvement club started by Benjamin Franklin. Franklin gathered a group of peers once a week to hash out projects to improve their community and also, to discuss and debate 13 virtues that Franklin saw as the basis of personal improvement and civic life — qualities like justice, humility and resolution. This mutual improvement club became the jumping off point for projects like the post office, the volunteer fire department and the lending library.
92Y – in partnership with Stanford’s Hoover Institution and Citizen University — is now reviving this idea. We’ve created the tools and resources any community will need to start their own Ben Franklin Circle, with the goal of creating a network of Circles dedicated to hosting conversations about what matters most. The Ben Franklin Circles are a fun, innovative way to build and strengthen community in an increasingly disconnected and digital world. They are about asking two simple questions:
- How can I improve myself?
- How can I improve the world?
Please contact Julie Mashack, senior producer at 92Y’s Belfer Center for Innovation & Social Impact: jmashack[at]92y[dot]org.
The organization, founded in 1874, is a center for innovation and the visual and performing arts; a convener of both people and ideas; and an incubator for creativity. 92Y is built on a foundation of Jewish values: the unparalleled capacity of civil dialogue to change minds; the unlimited potential of education and the arts to change lives; and the eternal commitment to welcoming and serving people of all races, religions and ethnicities.
About Hoover Institution
BFC is a program within the Mary Jo and Dick Kovacevich Initiative at the Hoover Institution, Educating Americans in Public Policy, that seeks to provide citizens with accurate facts, information, and an analytic perspective to enable them better perform their civic duties, hold their elected leaders accountable, and, as expressed in the Constitution, “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Founded in 1919, the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, is a public policy research center devoted to the advanced study of economics, politics, history, domestic and foreign political economy, and international affairs.
About Citizen University
Citizen University is a national nonprofit based in Seattle that works to help Americans cultivate the values, systems knowledge, and skills of powerful citizenship. Programs and initiatives include the Civic Collaboratory, a civic leadership network; Sworn-Again America, a project on civic rituals; programs and resources to teach civic power; and a new initiative, the Joy of Voting, that aims to reinvigorate a culture of participation and engagement around voting. The Citizen University National Conference features hundreds of change makers, activists, catalysts, and students from across the country, an annual civic gathering unlike any other. This is a time when citizens are solving problems in new ways,
Resource Link: http://benfranklincircles.org/
This resource was submitted by Julie Mashack, the Senior Producer at 92nd Street Y via the Add-a-Resource form.
I often refer back to this post about a disagreement with Leigh Johnson over the role of critical engagement in philosophy. Using Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise and Hannah Arendt’s account of it in her Lessing Prize address, I described what I took to be the pleasure of disagreement in our profession:
Even when we retreat to our armchairs for solitary thought, we are not alone: we are drawn to each other because we share a commitment to these inquiries no matter where they may lead, and because we need the support of a community of fellow inquirers. The corollary is that, among philosophers, it is considered honorable to take on the position of devil’s advocate in order to introduce needed pluralism and distinction into a discussion. Among us, holding unfashionable views is needed and strangely satisfying. When we find ourselves at odds, when we begin to take what Dr. J calls ‘friendly fire,’ it is a reason to rejoice: our friends have arrived!
Johnson’s phrase has stuck with me over the years. I’ve often used it when welcoming correction, or when explaining why my own critical engagement with a friend is meant to be a sign of respect.
Is Polite Philosophical Discussion Possible?
I was reminded again of that exchange by Noma Arpaly’s excellent discussion of politeness (and rudeness) in philosophical debate. As Arpaly tells it, philosophers tend to violate two interrelated conversational norms, without distinguishing them: we are frequently rude, and we frequently engage in disagreement and correction. Among civilians, there is a strong non-correction norm that tends to go along with other norms like not hypothetically threatening or actually sneering at our colleagues.
Yet Arpaly wants to endorse violations of the non-correction norm, while preserving other norms of civil behavior. She creates an analogy to soldiers: the military requires soldiers to violate a widely held norm of pacifism–not-killing. But they must discipline soldiers not to thereby justify other norm violations–killing civilians and committing war crimes.
Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against killing people, some soldiers find themselves shedding other moral inhibitions—and committing war crimes.
Having lost, of necessity, the inhibition against correcting people, some philosophers find themselves shedding other social inhibitions—and being terribly, terribly rude.
That’s just the nature of inhibition loss.
It’s a real problem. Arpaly counsels us to make the relevant distinctions and discipline ourselves all the harder on civility given that we’re already engaged in an unavoidable violation of the norm of non-correction. This seems exactly right.
Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong
On the Daily Nous thread on Arpaly’s piece, “Sam” writes:
Excellent post. I think there’s another, corresponding virtue worth cultivating here which could (cumbersomely) be called: “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong,” the disposition to feel exhilaration when corrected by a polite (even if “frightening”) objector. The reason we should try to feel pleasure in being (politely and civilly) corrected, rather than embarrassment or humiliation, is simply that, as the author points out, this kind of correction improves our positions in ways that are nearly impossible to achieve by other means. In a sense then, objectors (provided they are not hostile or rude) are really just assisting the presenter towards a goal they both share (doing good philosophy). Of course, it’s essential that the objectors appreciate this shared goal as well, and present their objections accordingly. If all parties view successful objections as pleasurable, mutually beneficial exchanges rather than humiliating losses or merciless victories, there will be fewer frightened presenters and fewer rude objectors.
What I liked about Sam’s comment was that it seemed to endorse and extend the Arpaly analysis by saying, “Here is a way that we can endorse a norm of correction without endorsing rudeness.” That this is actually my view (I like to be corrected so I can be correct) made me doubly happy to see it percolate up in a comment from another person.
This is not to put the victims of philosophers’ rudeness on the hook for responding gladly to their behavior. The “glad to be (shown) wrong” norm applies equally to objectors and presenters; more to the point, it applies even more to rude objectors than to anyone else, who must prove they really do mean to correct and not just to humble the presenter. Arpaly endorses violations of the norm of non-correction: she is no pacifist, as she says.
But describing an attack (of the “What if I slap you?” variety) is rude in part because it puts vulnerable others in an uncertain position: they’re required to pretend that disembodied philosophers never would do what they say. But this goes well beyond violating basic civility: discomfiting one’s interlocutor does nothing productive at the level of correction and even interferes with shared inquiry. It’s not that we must sometimes violate basic civility in order to violate the norm of non-correction: it fails on both counts.
Many philosophical practices must be rethought in this light: interruption, for instance, is pretty obviously a violation on her view and on the “glad to be wrong” view. You don’t interrupt someone if you’re engaged in mutual beneficial exchange, because that assumes that you already know the outcome of that exchange. Nor do you ask questions that are really just coded assertions of error: you actually engage with the interlocutor about whether there are corrections to the (shared) position within the evolving inquiry.
We must, we must be friends!
For Arendt, the philosopher needs disagreeable friends in order not to be lost to the crowd’s violent enforcement of the non-correction norm. Philosophers need to disagree with each other so that we are not isolated by our disagreement. Thus, the norms of disagreement arise from the intrinsic good of intellectual friendships. As Arendt put it:
“[Lessing] was glad that… [truth] if it ever existed, had been lost; he was glad for the sake of the infinite number of opinions that arise when men discuss the affairs of the world.”
We wrestle with hard questions–take detours into difficulty–because it is our excuse to spend time together. For Arendt, the philosophical project may have some or another goal–to think what we are doing, for instance, or prevent nuclear war–but its true function is to give we disagreeable ones an excuse to reach out to friends like ourselves (alike in the virtues of agreeable disagreement.) It’s thus primarily a practice of friendship in homonoia, like-mindededness. This is what makes “friendly fire” palatable: that we have deeper bonds that salve the blows when we do not pull our punches.
My friend and former colleague Joseph Trullinger comments further:
Arpaly undermines the point with the war analogy, because it doesn’t go deep enough into the psychology informing the mood of the rude dude. Really, I think Arpaly is proposing something more like a “gentlemanly” duel in contrast to “unsportsmanlike” war, when it’s the martial virtues themselves that are the problem here. I think patriarchy instills in us (where by “us” I mean especially men, such as myself) this idea that the defense of one’s honor legitimates the use of aggression, but it is really putting lipstick on a pig. The fighting done to regain or steal away social standing is like sweeping leaves on a windy day, and it may in the first place be wrong to do. Philosophy has for too long patterned itself after polemos, war, and been polemics; I think there’s a reason Nietzsche’s depiction of the philosopher as warrior of ideas appealed to me more when I was a reedy hormonal teenager, as these sorts of self-descriptions appeal to men undergoing a crisis of masculinity. The issue is not that we have been “too soft” with ourselves and need someone from the outside to be “hard” on us. The issue is that we worship hardness itself at the expense of what we tell ourselves we’re defending with it. Here I draw a lot of insight from Simone Weil’s essay, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” (h/t Joan Braune). Yeah, Achilles looks cool, and he takes offense over something trivial, but don’t get carried away with that pretext for allowing or gloating over more violence. Briseis is not the issue here, dude. Nor is it actually Achilles’ honor, or Agamemnon’s honor. It’s the idea that life is all about enforcing one’s life in the push and pull of force and counterforce. The intellectual “battlefield” is not the Iliad, nor should it be. Instead, we should foster the hospitality we see so many good examples of in the Odyssey.
TL;DR: less andreia, more xenia
Trullinger goes on to recommend that we replace my ideal of Arendtian “friendly fire” with a related one: “fiery friendship.”
It seems like an important point: too often in praise for “agonism” we tend to treat the conflicts as if they are self-justifying. We somehow need the agon to achieve the intrinsic goods of flourishing; we wrestle to develop strength and skill, which is the real function. We argue not because we are engaged in a collective project but because honing the arguments themselves is supposedly tied to the good life.
Trullinger reminds me that the “Pleasure in Being Proved Wrong” attitude requires more than just contention for the fun of it. Correction requires correctness; we cannot bracket truth for the sake of the infinite conversation and hope that that conversation will have the same character. Indeed, bracketing a shared commitment to truth-seeking leads to just the kinds of hurtful “games” that Arpaly rightly refuses to play.
Fiery Friendship and Philosophical Hospitality
In the backdrop here is the status of women in the profession. Arpaly suggests that the rudeness may be particularly off-putting to vulnerable participants, and that a move civil tenor will make the profession more welcoming. At least some of the masculinist norms of epistemic arrogance (interruption and “Well actually” and so on) have non-pathological roles to play in parts of our social lives. The really unprofessional thing is when we treat conference presenters the same way we treat our buddies or teammates.
Women, Arpaly suggests, are just as “glad to be wrong” as men. They too can violate the norm of non-correction in service of a shared inquiry. But the profession still doesn’t welcome them, and it demonstrates this inhospitable demeanor by treating philosophy as a game whose rules are constantly changed, or perhaps like hazing: where jocular rudeness and dishing out and receiving contempt are a part of how the game is played. This has the effect of protecting the space as a region of rough play–and certainly many women and other diverse practitioners can survive in such spaces, and many men cannot–but what would it mean to make it welcoming and inclusive?
Trullinger’s view seems to be that we ought to endorse the spirit of “glad to be wrong” by being particularly welcoming to those who are unlike us: those who are most likely to find the space of rough play unwelcoming, with whom we lack homonoia. True strangers are those who can offer us grounds for disagreement much stranger than mere contradiction.
I sometimes joke that we only ever hear calls for ideological diversity in political matters, and never Thomistic approaches to quantum mechanics or a nurse’s eye-view on bioethics. But Trullinger means what he says: he actually does want to see an expansive ideological diversity in non-political matters, to study Mexica metaphysics, queer philosophy of time, Byzantine logic, and Confucian epistemology.
Some desiderata: fiery friendship should allow joyful disagreement and also charitable agreement; it should offer opportunities for world-traveling and loving perception. It should be an avid fan of the unfamiliar. It should be glad to be proven wrong and it should be receptive–not just to correction but–to a complete redirection of our projects. It should welcome the vulnerable and make them strong. It shouldn’t punch down, or slap down, or suggest hypothetical down-slapping. It might even entertain actual pacifism, which need not be weak.
In a session on “The Politics of Discontent” at this year’s Frontiers of Democracy conference, democracy scholar Alison Staudinger proposed considering “discontent” as a common pool resource. I am deeply intrigued by this idea, and interested to understand just what that might mean.
In 1968, ecologist Garrett Hardin popularized the concept of the “Tragedy of the Commons,” describing the game-theoretic prisoner’s dilemma which communities of people face when utilizing some common resource:
Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.
As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain….the rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.
This idea has been applied to a wide variety of resources which can be broadly categorized along two spectrums: excludable and subtractable. As the names suggest, excludable indicates whether or not people can be easily excluded from a resource while subtractable indicates whether use of a resource by one person restricts use of the resource by another.
The clothes I am wearing are both excludable and subtractable – I can prevent your use of them, and you cannot use them while I am using them. Wikipedia is non-excludable and non-subtactable – I cannot prevent your use and my use does not diminish yours. If Wikipedia added a paywall or if a State blocked its use, it would become excludable.
Seen as a common pool resource, discontentment would seem to fit in this non-excludable, non-subtactable category. I cannot stop you from feeling discontent, and I can be discontent without infringing on your ability to also be discontent.
Yet, this is perhaps not the most helpful framework. The political challenges we face today are not so much that people feel discontent – rather the challenge is the causes and repercussions of that discontent.
It is a fundamental aspect of a pluralist society that not everyone will agree all of the time. We each have different needs and wants, and our desired outcomes will at times be in conflict. We can’t all get what we want.
Under a simple definition, then, a person is discontent if they do not get their way. Since not everyone in a pluralistic society can simultaneously have their way, it is intrinsic that some portion of people will be discontent with any given issue.
This presents at least two possible social challenges connected to discontent. If discontent is inequitably and systemically distributed, those who have more discontent with have reason to see the system as unjust. If people experience the system as treating them unjustly, they will have reason to try to change the system – minimizing their own discontentment while making someone else more discontent.
Here, discontent seems to no longer be a resource – rather can be better interpreted as the absence of a resource.
The word that comes to mind here is power.
People with power can get the outcomes they desire, minimizing their discontent; people without power are subject to the whims of those with power – increasing the likelihood that they will not get the outcomes they desire and increasing their discontent.
Power, I would argue, is an excludable and subtractable resource. Those with power have certainly been known to exclude others from acquiring power, and if I have power, it does, I think, diminish your ability to have power.
This model unites people from all sides of the political spectrum who feel discontent under current systems and institutions. Some may feel they are losing power, some may never of had much power in the first place.
And the highest elites may feel most secure in the continuance of their power if everyone else is busy fighting over who gets whatever scraps are left.
Elinor Ostrom, the brilliant economist who argued that the drama of the commons need not be a tragedy, traveled around the world empirically studying communal and institutional management of common pool resources.
In Covenants, Collective Action, and Common-Pool Resources, Ostrom argues that conflict and destruction arise when “those involved act independently owing to a lack of communication or an incapacity to make credible commitments.” On the other hand, if members of a community “can communicate, agree on norms, monitor each other, and sanction noncompliance to their own covenants, then overuse, conflict, and the destruction of [common pool resources] can be reduced substantially.”
Managing common pool resources, then, is difficult but not impossible.
“If those who know the most about local time-and-place information and incentives are given sufficient autonomy to reach and enforce local covenants,” she argues. “They frequently are able to devise rules well tailored to the problems they face.”
In addition to this autonomy of the people, communication is essential:
“When symmetric subjects are given opportunities to communicate and devise their own agreements and sanctioning arrangements, then the outcomes approximate optimality,” Ostrom writes. “These findings are surprising for many theorists, because the capacity to communicate without an external enforcer for monitoring and sanctioning behavior inconsistent with covenantal agreements is considered to be mere ‘cheap talk’ having no impact on the strategic structure of the game.”
In seeing the rise of populism, in watching discontented people making bad political decisions, in seeing the mismanagement of a common pool resource, the liberal impulse is often to solve the problem through stronger regulation – to create institutions nominally managed by the people which can step in with rules and authority in order to overcome the destructive self-interest and poorly-informed actions of individual actors.
But perhaps Ostrom’s work on common pool resources ought to give us pause – “the people” may not collectively be wise, but they have the ability to surprise us; to work out their differences and to successfully self-manage in ways that external enforcing institutions could never accomplish.
In case you missed it, we wanted to share an announcement that the Interactivity Foundation – an NCDD organizational member – shared last month about a program they’re piloting with local libraries to host community discussions on important issues. IF is looking for help connecting with more of these key infrastructures for supporting our field’s work, and we encourage NCDDers to help if you can. You can read more in the IF blog post below or find the original here.
In partnership with a few, select local libraries in Wisconsin, the Interactivity Foundation is developing a pilot program to support community-based discussions. Under this initiative, the Foundation will work with participating libraries to:
- Plan and facilitate an initial or demonstration discussion on a topic of local interest and/or concern,
- Train interested staff, volunteers, or other community members to organize and facilitate future discussions, and
- Provide on a continuing basis thereafter additional discussion materials and consultation to support partner libraries and local facilitators in organizing and facilitating ongoing discussion programs in their communities.
Based on the experience gained from this pilot program and its library partners, the Foundation will develop this initiative further and, if promising, may expand it to other regions.
The Foundation is now in the planning stages of this initiative and working to identify yet a few interested library programs and communities in Wisconsin and the upper Midwest that could be effective partners in this effort. If you would like more information about this pilot program, please contact IF Fellow & Projects Administrator Pete Shively.
You can find the original version of this Interactivity Foundation blog piece at www.interactivityfoundation.org/library-partnership-program.
There’s a certain, reasonable narrative of the Brexit vote which sees it as a democratic victory – even if you disagree with the outcome, it does represent the will of the British people.
As I wrote yesterday, there are also plenty of good reasons to find this popular vote a democratic failure, but today I want to focus on a different piece of the issue: whose voice matters?
72.2% of UK’s registered voters cast a ballot in last week’s referendum, with 17,410,742 (51.9%) going to Leave and 16,141,241 (48.1%) favoring Remain. While this is a rather narrow victory, the result ostensibly embodies the collective will of the British people.
This story is complicated, however, when you look at the breakdown of the results. Voters 18-24 voted overwhelmingly (73%) for Remain while voters over 65 largely voted (60%) Leave. All age groups under 44 favored Remain, while those over 45 voted Leave.
Citizens under the age of 18 weren’t allow to cast a ballot at all.
So while the vote may represent the will of (some) people, younger voters, who will likely bear the brunt of the fallout from the decision, had their will overturned and may not have even been allowed to vote.
Furthermore, there is the broader question of exactly which people ought to have input into this kind of decision.
I would consider democratic systems to be those in which the people most affected by an issue play a role in shaping the response to that issue.
That role may be mediated by elected officials or other mechanisms of indirect democracy, but ultimately, the democratic spirit is one which gives weight to the voices of those whose interests and rights are most at stake.
A 2015 report from the UK Office for National Statistics found that nearly 3 million (2,938,000) people living in the UK are non-British EU nationals – about 5% of the UK population and 7% of the workforce. These residents have suddenly found their legal status in jeopardy – as their EU citizenship may no longer be sufficient.
Another 2,406,000 UK residents hold neither British nor EU citizenship.
Of these nearly 6 million residents without British citizenship, those who are migrants from Commonwealth countries – essentially former British territories – were allowed to vote. This includes the UK’s large population of Indian (793,000), Pakistanis (523,000), and Irish (383,000) nationals; but notably excludes the UK’s 790,000 Polish residents and 301,000 German residents not to mention many others from non-Commonwealth countries.
So those people who are now facing threats to “go home” and slurs of “no more Polish vermin” were not allowed to vote. They had no say.
Of the 1.2 million UK-born people living in other EU countries – who may also face residency issues if they lose their EU citizenship – only those who have lived abroad for less than 15 years were eligible to vote.
And none of this is to mention the broader population of 443 million other EU citizens whose economic and political infrastructure is deeply at risk following the vote, nor the millions of other people around the world who are feeling the expansive repercussions from this vote.
Around 33 million people cast a vote; 17 million expressed the “will of the people;” and yet so many, many more who had no vote and voice will suffer the lasting impacts of this historic election.
The “voice of the people,” indeed – but only if “the people” are British nationalists.
I’m on vacation this week and most of next, so I’m not blogging. However, a piece of mine has just appeared in Aeon, entitled “The lack of diversity in philosophy is blocking its progress.” It begins:
Philosophy is a remarkably un-diverse discipline. Compared with other scholars who read, interpret and assign texts, philosophers in the United States typically choose a much higher percentage of their sources (often, 100 per cent) from Europe and countries settled by Europeans. Philosophy teachers, too, look homogeneous: 86 per cent of new PhD researchers in philosophy are white, and 72 per cent are male. In the whole country, only about 30 African-American women work as philosophy professors.