Everyone is Talented

László Moholy-Nagy, a Hungarian artist who joined the Bauhaus as a professor in 1923, was known for his philosophy that “everyone is talented.”

By this, he meant that, “every human being is open to sense impressions, tone, color, touch,spatial experience, etc. The structure of a life is predetermined in these sensibilities. But only art – creation through the senses – can develop the these dormant, native faculties towards creative action.”

Moholy-Nagy further argued that “any health man can become a musician, painter, sculptor, or architect, just as when he speaks he is a ‘speaker’.”

As Éva Forgács describes in her book, Hungarian Art, this philosophy was similar to the post-expressionist view of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius. In his Bauhaus Manifesto, Gropius argued, that “art cannot be taught.” That’s not to say that art is an intrinsic skill relegated to a select few, but rather that “the world of the pattern designer and the applied artist must become a world that builds again.”

As Forgács argues, both artists’ philosophies replaced the classic concept of “the artist who expresses individual concerns” with “the vision of a new type of creative man who was more of an engineer and designer of the world.”

If art cannot be taught, it not because some people are unable to learn, but rather art should be more accurately seen as a way of living and existing in the world.

This vision is strikingly similar to that of deliberative democrats; of John Dewey’s claim that “democracy is a way of living.” A philosopher and educator, Dewey was an American contemporary of the Bauhaus, which perhaps points more generally to the egalitarian optimism of the interwar period.

After the ruinous war to end all wars, our world needed to be rebuilt – a task that could not be left to the same aristocratic interests which had led us down the path to global conflict. We needed to rebuild the world. And we – each and every one of us – had the ability to do it.

Forgács concludes that “Moholy-Nagy ultimately believed that the world of artistic creation would not remain restricted, and as a natural course of development, every imaginative individual in the future would own it.”

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Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.

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Language and Communication

Exactly what does it take for something to be communicated?

This question gained specific prominence during the second world war when cryptographers, such as Claude Shannon, sought to maximally compress information for transmission. To successfully transmit a message, for example, you don’t have to transmit every letter of it. English – as well as other natural languages – have fairly low entropy. Given a partial string of characters, it’s actually relatively easy to guess which character comes nex_.

So, once you get beyond a certain Wittgensteinian fear that one person can never truly understand the perceptions another seeks to communicate – communication is actually relatively easy.

Recent research from Uri Hasson has found that people’s brainwaves actually sync up when one person is listening to another. The listener’s waves first mimic the brainwaves of the speaker, and then the listener’s brainwaves begin to precede those of the speaker – as the listener begins to predict what the speaker will say next.

I find myself particularly interested in the question of inter-language communication. Of course, sharing a language makes communicating easier, and I’d be incline to agree that common language is required for particularly meaningful exchange.

But at the most fundamental level, I don’t think a common language is required for the most basic acts of communicating.

When I was in my early twenties, I found myself babysitting my bilingual niece with a cousin of hers who was my age and who only spoke Hindi.

And let me tell you – we didn’t need words to determine that my niece was trying to pull one over on us every time she insisted that the other adult had given permission for a given activity. No, neither of us wanted her jumping on the bed.

Sharing a language, of course, makes things easier. But it’s also possible to communicate – in Shannon’s terminology – through compressed signals. Through eye rolls, through questioning looks, and through smiles.

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The ego of public life, part II

Almost exactly four years ago I began writing publicly every day.

In recent months, I’ve allowed myself a great deal of leniency in the “every day” portion of that commitment. But, in the broadest possible sense, I have developed and maintained public writing as a habit.

It has never been easy.

People often ask me what my greatest challenge is: How do I find the time? Where do I get ideas?

Those are challenges, to be sure, but they are the mere details; the logistical flourishes that transform theory into action. The greatest challenge, I think, is one which I outlined in my first post:

…my struggle with blogging is that…in many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say “agency.” It requires standing up and saying, “I do have something to say, and I believe it’s worth your time to listen.” 

…I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life…Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There’s something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.

This is not to say that egoism is bad – but it should be acknowledged as a capacity required for engagement in public life; a capacity which is spread heterogeneously throughout the population. Some people, you may have noticed, have far too much ego; while others, I’m afraid, have internalized from consistent silencing the perspective that their voices do not matter.

I once was one of those people. I suspect I still am in many respects.

But a lot has changed for me over the last four years.

When I started this experiment in public writing, I had built a career out of shadow writing; using my words and my efforts to make other people look good. I was reasonably satisfied with this path: I enjoyed the art of word craft and the strategy of presentation, but I preferred to hide behind those who were eager to take the credit. Acknowledging my contributions just ruined the magic; and I was a nobody anyway.

Four years ago I was just beginning to emerge from the year-long stupor that followed my father’s death. I was just beginning to think about graduate school; just beginning to realize that, yes, I just might be a human person capable of pursuing a Ph.D.

A lot has changed since then.

In some ways, public writing feels even more egotistical than before. Being a doctoral student raises the stakes of self-importance; I’m declaring a value for my contributions through my occupation before I even open my mouth. Doctoral students may be nobody in the fiefdoms of academia; but it remains a fairly fancy calling to the rest of the world. I can hardly consider myself to be a nobody while laying claim to the capacity to someday contribute to human knowledge.

So public writing seems more egotistical, but also less necessary – I declare every day that my voice has value.

And then, of course, there are the practical concerns. Writing does take time, and it requires a sort of mental energy I now need more for my daily work. Many days, I just don’t have it in me.

For now, I plan to continue public writing. Perhaps not with the daily fervor I committed to when I was four years younger; but with a similar sense of rebelliousness for choosing to share my voice with the world.

And that, of course, is the thing; why I choose to share my private journey with my public voice. Because too many people are convinced that their voices and perspectives don’t matter; too many people are taught to believe that through slights and silencing faced every day.

I consider myself a deliberative democrat: I believe that we – every single one of us – has a role to play in collectively and collaboratively building our shared world. You may find something annoyingly optimistic in that vision; but I see something radical and rebellious – a bold truth-claim regarding who has the right to govern and the capacity to participate.

That is to say, I choose to share my public voice because, ultimately, it is not at all about me. I am still just a nobody; a particle picked at random. I share my voice not because it is my voice that matters, but rather because all our voices matter.

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Gendered Creative Teams: Confidence and Collaboration

I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:

___

I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:

– My name is Sarah
and
– I know nothing.

Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
Or:
– I really don’t know anything.

Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.

But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.

Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.

If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?

Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
Or
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.

I don’t intend to answer this question for you.

But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.

My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?

Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.

***

Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.

I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.

Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.

The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.

Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.

As Arendt (1958) describes:

To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.

This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.

By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.

Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.

The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.

Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?

Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:

The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?

This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.

As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.

Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”

Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”

Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.

Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”

Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be

Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.

Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.

Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.

One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.

Across the world:

  • Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
    • And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
  • Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)

And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:

  • The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
  • And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)

What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.

  • In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
  • Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)

Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.

One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.

There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:

Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women.  (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))

Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))

And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.

As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:

Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.

As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.

And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.

There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?

I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.

But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself

The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.

In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”

And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!

Such advice is problematic.

First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.

In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”

Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.

By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.

…And some of those people may even hold elected office.

Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))

That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.

To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.

So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.

Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.

Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
And when:
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion.  (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))

Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.

The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.

Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.

Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.

***

Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.

Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.

But it was more than that.

It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.

Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”

Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”

This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.

The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.

But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.

The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.

The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.

I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?

Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.

This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.

William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”

For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.

We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.

Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.

And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.

While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.

Here is one of my favorite political cartoons:

It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”

I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.

Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.

In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))

Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))

These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))

So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.

The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.

On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.

On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.

This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.

My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.

I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.

I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.

You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.

Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.

It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:

If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.

Thank you.

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The Will of the People

From what I’ve seen, response to last night’s parliamentary elections in the UK has ranged from stunned, to distraught, to bemused. In a tremendous upset for Theresa May – who called the snap vote in the hopes of strengthening her political position – the election resulted in her party losing seats. May’s Conservative Party is still the largest, but it has lost its majority, resulting in what is apparently known as a “hung parliament.”

A looming question is what this result means for Brexit. The people voted in support of Brexit, but the Conservative loss seems to reflect a growing public distaste for the actual implementation of leaving the EU. A BBC correspondent bemoaned the situation – elected officials (ought to) want to enact the will of the people. But with such schizophrenic election results; “what even is the will of the people?”

This complaint reminds me of the vivid imagery of Walter Lippmann, who wrote sternly about how  “The public must be put in its place…so that each of us may live free of the trampling and the roar of the bewildered herd.”

Such strong language of earn Lippmann the label of technocrat – he is generally taken to believe that the public should have a limited role in governance.

But his issue is not with people having a voice in their democracy, but rather with the very notion of “the Public.”

Lippmann writes, “we have been taught to think of society as a body, with a mind, a soul and a purpose, not as a collection of men, women and children whose minds, souls and purposes are variously related.”

If “the Public” seems schizophrenic, if we find we cannot make sense of “the will of the people,” the problem may not be with the people themselves, but with the rude tools we have to engage them. The problem may be in the very concept of “the Public,” in the very idea that diverse communities of unique individuals can form, express, and synthesize their complex reactions through the sporadic, limited snapshots of elections.

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Public Opinion and Social Influence

The presence of homophily is frequently found as a core feature of social networks. The principle that “similarity breeds connection” results in personal networks skewed towards homogeneity along numerous demographic and interpersonal lines (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook, 2001).

Festinger argues that homophily is a direct result of social influence: beliefs are only coherent through a process of social comparison and therefore people “tend to move into groups which, in their own judgment, hold opinions which agree with their own” (Festinger, 1954). The problem of embeddedness  – that people’s attempts at purposive action are embedded in concrete, ongoing systems of social relations – is inherent in this argument.

Reviewing the literature on social comparison, Festinger finds that individuals’ beliefs are malleable to social influence because the beliefs of others serve as guideposts in forming one’s own opinion. Foreshadowing Sunstein’s ‘law of group polarization’ (Sunstein, 1999), Festinger argues that this process of forming beliefs through social comparison is a primary driver of what he calls “social quiescence” (Festinger, 1954). This in turn serves as a driver for homophily, as people self-select out of groups unable to reach social quiescence, instead selecting into groups that more appropriately “satisfy their drive for self evaluation.”

Within the political domain, Lazarsfeld pioneered an understanding of public opinion as a process of social influence: a process driven significantly by personal conversations and everyday talk. While earlier understandings took media to be the primary source of political information and influence (Lippmann, 1922), Lazarsfeld suggests a “two-step flow” of communication: ideas and opinions may originate in media, but they flow first to opinion leaders.

What we call public opinion is then formed in a second step when these leaders disseminate information along lines of social influence. Importantly, opinion leaders generally exert greater social power than media, due to the many “psychological advantages” personal contacts have in exerting political influence (Lazarsfeld, Berelson, & Gaudet, 1948). These advantages include trust, conflict avoidance, and “persuasion without conviction,” e.g., the ability to actually take someone to the polls.

Perhaps most interesting for deliberative theory, however, is Lazarsfeld’s argument that “the weight of personal contacts upon opinion lies, paradoxically, in their greater casualness and non-purposiveness in political matters” (Lazarsfeld et al., 1948). In purposive political talk, individuals engage critically and intentionally, mentally prepared with “armor against influence.” Everyday talk, on the hand, catches us unprepared.

The passive exposure that comes from casual conversations presents a pervasive opportunity for powerful personal influence. We again see this argument manifest in Mutz and Mondak’s study of the workplace as a site for cross-cutting political dialogue. Workplaces may have a smaller proportion of political conversations than other settings, but the sheer volume of casual conversations makes workplaces as a key setting for political contact (Mutz, 2002).

Such public-minded talk ceased to be the sole purview of the Greek agorá long ago: when democracy is a way of living, as Dewey writes, even the most seemingly mundane sites of human interaction become critical elements of the deliberative system.

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Political Engagement and The Busy Work Day

In ancient Greek philosophy, the role of citizen was both noble and consuming. You couldn’t be a laborer and a citizen, you couldn’t engage in mundane work and be a citizen. Being a citizen was a full-time endeavor, it involved keeping up on the news, participating in your community, and being informed enough to wisely rule over all those non-citizens who actually made the world work.

Our sensibilities have grown a bit more egalitarian – engaged citizenship is no longer the sole purview of gentlemen of leisure. Anyone can be a citizen, and furthermore – everyone has the right and responsibility to engage as in the work of collective rule.

But while I fully support this inclusive vision of citizenship, it does come saddled with the jaunty air of trying to have it all.

Citizenship is hard. It is a full time job. Especially now with our 24-hour news cycles and better connected world, it is literally impossible to stay perfectly informed on every subject – much less spend time thoughtfully debating and reflecting on them.

In Michael Neblo’s book “Deliberative Democracy between Theory and Practice,” I was struck by a statistic mentioned near the end of his analysis: in one survey, he finds that 42% of respondents felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session. I’m fairly certain I’ve seem similar statistics around voting and jury participation, though I’m afraid I don’t have the wherewithal to track those down right now.

The current challenge of engaged citizenship isn’t just one of apathetic citizens, too unenthused to exercise their rights – it’s one of under-confidence in one’s own ability to learn, think, and engage critically and productively.

Some of this, I feel, comes from the increasing professionalization within the civic space: why muck up the works when people who really know what they’re doing are involved? But I think some this all comes from this “having it all” notion of citizenship.

Of course, I want engaged citizens to be informed and reflective – but perhaps we need a better bar of what it means to be informed. I watch, listen to, and read the news regularly, and yet I often find myself feeling badly that I am not more informed. Unlike an ideal Athenian, I’ve just got other things to do.

But below that over optimistic bar of ideal citizen and above that disconcerting low of fake news, it’s entirely unclear to me just what the informational habits of a good citizen ought to be in a world that is more crazed than ideal.

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Reputation Mechanisms and the Civics Economy

In my Network Economics class, we’ve been talking about the “sharing economy” (or, arguably, the “so-called sharing economy”). Companies like Uber, AirBnB, even Ebay and the 3rd party seller mechanism of Amazon. While these companies arguably open the door for regulation loopholes and worker exploitation, in their purest, ideal, form, they allow “average people” to benefit from their unused resources: people can make some extra money driving strangers, hosting strangers, or selling miscellaneous items to strangers. In return, other average people can get rides, places to stay, or miscellaneous items.

Personally, I have a lot of questions and skepticism around the “sharing economy,” but that debate isn’t the point of my post today.

One of the core ideas that supports the sharing economy is a reputation system. The sharing economy wouldn’t work without it. It takes trust to get into a stranger’s car, stay in a stranger’s house, or send money to a stranger – and that trust is generated by a reputation system.

These markets are able facilitate exchange between strangers because participants in the system have a reputation – and upholding that reputation is worth more then the temporary gain of ripping someone off.

To be clear, reputation systems aren’t anything new – you trust a bank because it’s FDIC insured, you trust a hotel because it has a certain star-rating, and you trust a company because it, too, has a reputation to maintain in the broader market.

But what’s interesting about the modern reputation systems is that they tend to me much more individual. It is not institutions or brands earning your trust, but real, individual people.

In theory, a service like AirBnB doesn’t even have to be about monetary exchange – with a solid reputation system in place, people could use it as a place to earn and spend hosting credits, or to otherwise barter for a cheap place to stay.

Fundamentally, a reputation system is a way to quickly establish trust between people who wouldn’t otherwise have the personal history required for a trusting relationship.

Regardless of how you feel about the impacts of the sharing economy, I find this particular mechanism fascinating. And, as I am so often inclined to do, that interest immediate makes me wonder: what would this look like in a civic system?

That question could go in a lot of different directions, it it’s interesting to think about how such a system might play out:

A reputation system for good deliberators; where people who listen and provide rational arguments are rated highly while trolls are pushed to the margins.

A reputation system for urban developers; where developers who genuinely listen to community input are rated highlight and those just looking for profit are down rated.

A reputation system for every day, neighborly interactions: don’t know your neighbors but need to borrow a cup of sugar? Find out who in your neighborhood doesn’t mind being asked. …Do people still borrow a cup of sugar from their neighbors? I imagine not because people don’t know their neighbors and don’t know who to ask.

I can imagine other sorts of reputation systems which spill into the sharing economy as it exists today: a reputation system for finding a place to crash or getting a ride from the airport. These systems have the dangerous potential to turn into little more than corporate scheming to evade regulation – but taking primarily as a reputation system with a civic mission, it seems like such organization could have beneficial potential.

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Make America Bowl Again

American civil society has really gone downhill since the 1950s. People used to belong to unions, fraternal societies, PTAs, bowling leagues. Now, self-absorbed and disconnected, they instead go bowling alone. Robert Putnam argues that these metrics of social capital – group membership, trust – even informal sociability – are deeply important to the civic health of a society. He presents a reasonable case that there is some correlation between group membership and civic health, finding that the latter correlates to a wide range of educational outcomes (Putnam, 2002) and that, more broadly, “the quality of public life and the performance of social institutions…are indeed powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement” (Putnam, 1995). This is a deeply important topic and Putnam is right to give it careful attention, yet his analysis continually glosses over questions of what qualifies as civic health and who gets to participate in the creation of social capital.

Perhaps most notably, Putnam’s definition of civic health places a heavy emphasis on social and institutional trust. As Putnam argues, social trust is a deeply beneficial good which is strongly correlated with civic engagement. Intuitively, this correlation makes sense – there’s no reason to participate in a process if you don’t trust the outcome, and you probably don’t want to spend your social time with people you don’t trust. Furthermore, potential eroders of social capital may be ameliorated by trust: both adults in a two-parent household cannot possibly be fully civically engaged if they do not periodically entrust someone with caring for their children.

Putnam, however, brings his faith in ‘trust’ as a positive social determinant too far. He takes for granted that social trust is intrinsically good, that it always serves to build better societies. A Burkean, however, would quickly find a critical flaw in this argument. As Cass Sunstein explains, Edmund Burke, the great conservative traditionalist, objects to “passionate movements that start political or social life from the ground up,” arguing that the “spirit of innovation” is the result of “a selfish temper and confined views” (Sunstein, 2009). In other words, Burke trusts past wisdom at expense of current knowledge. While Putnam values trust in current social institutions, Burke warns that these institutions may become corrupt. Trust in a good government may be good; but trust in a bad government can be devastating. Consider also Shanker Satyanath’s work on the rise of the Nazi party in pre-war Germany. It wasn’t a weak civil society which allowed fascism to flourish, rather it was the very traits Putnam praises. Indeed, as Satyanath et al. argue, it was “Germany’s vibrant ‘civic society,’ its dense network of social clubs and associations” which “facilitated the rise of Hitler by bringing more people into contact with his party’s message” (Satyanath, Voigtlaender, & Voth, 2013).

Furthermore, despite his protestations to the contrary, Putnam’s grim picture of the United States as a once-great civic utopia is deeply misaligned with realities of race, class, and gender. While tracing the tragic decline of civic engagement, Putnam pays little attention to inequities in access to engagement. He should be deeply alarmed to find that people without college experience – nearly half the population, in which people of color are strongly over-represented – are virtually shut out from civic life (Godsay, Kawashima-Ginsberg, Kiesa, & and Levine, 2012), a disparity which likely indicates structural barriers rather than apathy or narcissism. This oversight may affect Putnam’s analysis in two dimensions. First, standard survey measures of “civic engagement” do not always capture the many ways in which poor people support their communities (Godsay et al., 2012). While Putnam sees a decline in positive responses to the General Social Survey question of “How often do you spend a social evening with a neighbor?” (Putnam, 1995), Godsay et al. find that acts of “neighboring,” such as sheltering and feeding other community members, were common among non-college youth. Such civic acts may not register as “social evenings,” and therefore may artificially deflate survey responses. But perhaps the most striking finding of Godsay et al. is that non-college youth did engage in civic life when given the opportunity (Godsay et al., 2012). It was not the case, as Putnam fears, that “deep-seated technological trends are radically ‘privatizing’ or ‘individualizing’ our use of leisure time” (Putnam, 1995). Indeed, the greatest barrier to the civic engagement of this segment of the population was something Putnam hadn’t even considered: they had never even been given opportunities to engage.

Putnam takes for granted that engagement in civil society is a right which all residents have the full capability to exercise. ‘Capability’ here can be understood in Martha Nussbaum’s sense of ‘substantial freedoms;’ capabilities “are not just abilities residing inside a person but also the freedoms or opportunities created by a combination of personal abilities and the political, social, and economic environment” (Nussbaum, 2011). A person may have the ability to eat, but they don’t have the capability unless they have food. Similarly, civic scholars may agree that all people have the ability to engage as productive and valued members of civil society – but all people do not have this capability until they are all equally welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for their contributions. In other words, what Putnam sees as a decline in civil society may have more to do with the broader context; rather than a problem of apathy, the increasing professionalization of civil society may undermine some citizen’s capabilities – may rob them of the knowledge that they, too, can contribute to the shared task of governing. This effect can be seen in people’s doubt of their own civic ability. In one survey, for example, Michael Neblo finds that 42% of Americans felt they “didn’t know enough to participate” in a deliberative session (Neblo, 2015).

None of this is to say that Putnam doesn’t make good points. Whether due to poor survey measures, disparities in civic capabilities, or even changes in mobility, family structure, or technology we should all be concerned with continually building a strong civil society. But Putnam is too quick to bemoan the past, to turn back the clock to a time when women stayed in the home and we all ate at segregated lunch counters. The Elks Lodge may have once been a great bastion of society, but now it’s a dingy reminder of a time when white men smoked cigars and congratulated themselves for saving the world. Perhaps, like Burke, we should put some trust in the wisdom of the past, but we would be blind to follow Putnam in putting that trust in the present. We shouldn’t be shaming people for not participating in survey-ready forms of engagement; we should be reminding them that governance is a shared activity; that we have a right and responsibility to engage; and that resistance is a worthy civic undertaking. But most of all, we need to convince people – perhaps, even, to convince ourselves – that our perspectives, actions, and voices matter. Our engagement matters.


Godsay, S., Kawashima-Ginsberg, K., Kiesa, A., & and Levine, P. (2012). “That’s not democracy,” How Out-of-School Youth Engage in Civic Life.

Neblo, M. A. (2015). Deliberative Democracy Between Theory and Practice: Cambridge University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2011). Creating capabilities: Harvard University Press.

Putnam, R. D. (1995). Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of democracy, 6(1), 65-78.

Putnam, R. D. (2002). Community-based social capital and educational performance. Making good citizens: Education and civil society.

Satyanath, S., Voigtlaender, N., & Voth, H.-J. (2013). Bowling for fascism: social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Retrieved from

Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Going to extremes: How like minds unite and divide: Oxford University Press.

 

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