wicked problems, and excuses

Is the following true for social problems?

Will + resources + planning = a solution

A corollary would hold:

If there isn’t a solution, there must be a lack of will or resources or a bad plan.

I think this logic sometimes holds, and it’s the basis for holding responsible parties accountable. They may not have cared enough, or spent enough, or thought well enough about a problem. If not, they should be called on it.

On the other hand, the formula overlooks the power of sheer chance. Sometimes decision-makers are just lucky or unlucky. And it ignores the possibility that some problems may be really hard: “wicked problems,” in the best-remembered phrase from the famous article by Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” Policy Sciences 4.2 (1973), 155-169. (We discussed this article recently in my introduction to public policy course.)

Rittel and Webber write, “Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad” (p. 162). Yet people disagree about what is good.

“With wicked problems… any solution, after being implemented, will generate waves of consequences over an extended–virtually an unbounded–period of time” (p. 163). Since change keeps happening, there is no point when you can definitively assess the impact of a policy (p. 163). Also, there is no agreed-upon criterion for a successful policy (p. 162), and therefore, no way to know whether your solution succeeded.

“Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem” (p. 165). Thus we can endlessly disagree about the center or “locus” of the problem. This is one reason that “There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem” (p. 161).

You can’t learn by trial-and-error, because every time you implement a policy, you change the world permanently (p. 163). You can’t start a social experiment over from scratch and try something different. And because your policy affects real people, you have “no right to be wrong” (p. 165).

There is no way to develop an exhaustive list of all the possible solutions (p. 164). And “Every wicked problem is essentially unique” (164)

One upshot of Rittel and Webber’s argument could be humility: do not overestimate one’s own ability to solve social problems. Another would be decentralization, whether to small governing units or to firms in a market. Decentralization is a way of mitigating damage and allowing local solutions to fit local circumstances. A third upshot would be participation: if problems are deeply contestable, maybe everyone should be involved in addressing them.

Yet another takeaway might be defeatism and tolerance for injustice, but that seems the wrong lesson to draw.

See also: Complexities of Civic Life; qualms about Effective Altruism; The truth in Hayek; trying to keep myself honest.

how political talk relates to its context

— Please don’t talk that way in school.

— It’s a free country; I can say what I want.

Both of these speakers describe the context in which they’re speaking in order to support their goals or values. Even if they’re in the same place, both could be making valid points, because we can operate within several contexts at once. For instance, a classroom can be located within the United States.

These speakers are not completely free to describe their contexts as they wish. Unless the first speaker is actually located inside a school in which certain norms are commonly observed, that statement is odd–perhaps a joke or an idiosyncratic remark rather than an effective intervention. The first statement assumes a real, bricks-and-mortar building that has prevalent norms.

However, these statements are not completely determined by their objective context. They reflect choices: speakers can select which contexts to highlight and can identify preferred features of the contexts.

If many speakers make the same choices, they can influence the context. For instance, if teachers consistently say, “You can’t curse here,” the school may become a place where public cursing is rare. Teachers could decide to begin or to stop describing the school’s norms in that way. They are more influential than their students; as in most cases, power in unequally distributed. However, we only get the speech-context we want to the extent that the norms we advocate are actually observed. If teachers say, “We don’t talk that way here,” but everyone does anyway, they will begin to look foolish. In that sense, everyone influences the context, albeit to unequal degrees.

We can sometimes even use speech to create the context for speech, as in performative utterances like these:

— I call the meeting to order.

— Let us bow our heads in prayer.

(The second statement might change a secular gathering into a spiritual one for a time.)

I’ve recently learned that John J. Gumperz (1922-2013), a founder of interactional sociolinguistics, pioneered the idea that language has a dynamic, two-way interaction with social contexts. I look forward to learning more, especially about the political implications.

After all politics requires good conversation. The definition of good political talk is itself a matter of debate. Who must be included in each discussion? Must the discourse be civil? Must it be public-spirited? Must it aim at consensus? Must it be secular? What counts as appropriate evidence for empirical claims? Which emotions are valuable and when?

Contexts influence what forms of speech actually occur and prove effective. Political speech uttered in a church during a faith-based social movement will inevitably be different from political speech uttered in a faculty meeting, a union hall, or a courtroom. I am skeptical that we need just one type of speech. Pluralism is good.

Speech contexts are shaped by:

  1. The implicit norms reflected in typical speech within each context. For example, if it is common to criticize other participants by name, then that is the norm.
  2. Explicit characterizations of the context. “You really shouldn’t keep citing scripture here–most of us are not Christian” would be such a move. It describes the local norm as secular, and if people accept this description, it may affect their speech.
  3. Other aspects of the institution: Who is permitted and/or recruited to participate? What behavior is rewarded? Who makes key decisions? Even literal architecture may matter. For instance, a bricks-and-mortar school probably consists of many rooms that are designed to hold one adult with 15-30 children or youth. Discourse would be different in a stadium, a prison, or along a forest trail.

We should envision speakers as operating in contexts that they may or may not endorse. At one level, they make ordinary points about what they believe or advocate. How they talk either conforms to the norms of the speech-context or violates them to some degree. Widespread violation can change the norms.

At another level, individuals may seek to change the speech-context, either by moving to another context (exit) or by seeking to alter its norms (voice). They can use their voice to advocate directly for different speech-norms, as in statements like, “Everyone is being too politically correct here–we must tolerate uncomfortable opinions.” Or they may use their voice to support changes in the institution that would likely change the norms. For instance, changing the demographic composition of a school or the balance of power between teachers and students might change the frequency of various forms of discourse in the school.

Discourse ethics is then not exhausted by the question: What kind of arguments should individuals make about policies and issues? It also encompasses questions about how to design, create, choose, and influence the contexts of speech, both directly and indirectly.

This is a mild critique of the idea that one kind of speech is desirable in a liberal democracy and that institutions should enact rights, rules, and procedures that encourage such speech. Instead, I am suggesting that people are embedded in diverse speech-contexts, which they also influence; such pluralism is desirable as well as inevitable; and people need ethical forms of voice and exit that they can use to affect their various speech-contexts.

See also: what sustains free speech?; a civic approach to free speech; this is what deliberative democracy looks like; modus vivendi theory; and judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view.

two good books on Black Lives Matter

  • Lebron, Christopher J., The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea (Oxford University Press, 2017)
  • Ransby, Barbara. Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First century (Univ. of California Press, 2018).

These are two very different but complementary books.

Lebron offers a history of the idea that Black lives matter, describing thinkers who lived well before the current movement and developed its core principles. His book is an extended definition of the movement, a justification of it, and a contribution to it.

Lebron pairs Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells as pioneers of the idea that whites can be compelled to reckon with racial injustice through “shameful publicity.” He pairs Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston as influential proponents of the idea that actual Black lives are rich and variegated and diverse, not defined entirely by oppression. Both authors “counter-colonize[d] the white imagination” by portraying this richness. He pairs Anna Julia Cooper and Audre Lorde, who demonstrated that you can’t value Black lives unless you value all Black lives, which requires appreciation for gender, sexuality, and other forms of diversity. These writers “teach us the lesson of unconditional self-possession.” And he pairs James Baldwin and Martin Luther King, Jr. as proponents of forms of love which–while significantly different–both imply “unfragmented compassion.”

Lebron is a great source of relatively overlooked quotations as well as an original interpreter of texts as familiar as Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” His overall framework is illuminating.

Ransby is an historian and a participant/observer in the current movement. She offers a wealth of detail about who did what, when, where, and why (up to her publication date in 2018). Like Lebron’s, her book is sprinkled with quotations that amount to arguments for Black Lives Matter, but her timeframe is narrower. She mainly traces the intellectual history of the movement from the 1977 Combahee River Collective’s statement (which, of course, had its own influences).

Ransby is attentive to organized structures. Many Black Lives Matter activists are concerned about concentrated power and prefer flat hierarchies. One source of these ideas is Ella Baker: see Ransby’s own book, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (2003).

However, it would not be accurate to describe Black Lives Matter as unorganized or as resistant to formal structures of any kind. Ransby describes “an assemblage of dozens of organizations and individuals that are actively in one another’s orbit, having collectively employed an array of tactics together.” Many of these organizations are autonomous nonprofits; some are companies or programs within organizations that also have other purposes. Ransby emphasizes the importance of local chapters, of organizations whose main purpose is to “weave together” these local groups, and of significant conferences, such as a gathering of more than two thousand organizers in Cleveland in July 2015. Most dedicated activists in the movement have long resumes of roles in formal organizations.

My impression is that resistance to hierarchy is real and valid. It goes back to the New Left and has drawn additional impetus from feminism. However, the major change from the classic era of the Civil Rights Movement is not that leaders then believed in top-down authority, whereas activists today favor looser networks. It is the profound shift in the sociology of American civil society.

The NAACP, the Urban League, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters exemplified a model that was influential in the United States during the first half of the 1900s. National organizations often had state units and local chapters; members paid dues that were shared by the three tiers; and leaders were elected at each level, often at face-to-face conventions. Individuals made whole careers within one of these organizations. One reason that the Sleeping Car Porters’ A. Philip Randolph, the National Urban League’s Whitney Young, Jr., and the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins emerged as nationally famous civil rights leaders was that they headed their respective organizations, and smaller groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference imitated the same structure.

However, this format shrank and weakened dramatically in the United States after the 1960s. Instead, US civil society is now dominated by autonomous nonprofits that rely on donations, grants or contracts. They usually have self-perpetuating boards and relate to each other in networks rather than hierarchies. Many are both led and staffed by their original founders. Individuals typically affiliate with several of these nonprofits and add and subtract affiliations frequently.

Many of the organizations that Ransby describes (and they are very numerous) fit this description. I am not sure that anyone knows how to build new organizations that function as the NAACP or a union did in 1960. I wouldn’t say that philosophical opposition to hierarchy is irrelevant or invalid, but I am not sure that movements have much of a choice today. For better or worse, the way we organize ourselves is to form networks of small nonprofits.

Martin Luther King’s philosophy of time

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. set himself against two false conceptions of time and offered a profoundly original alternative.

One false idea was what he called in the Letter from a Birmingham Jail the “tragic misconception” that time flows inevitably toward justice. This is a linear, progressive theory. It has always been popular in the United States, where the white majority has tilted toward optimism and self-satisfaction. We tell ourselves that although we have faults, “the current has set steadily in one direction: toward democratic forms” (John Dewey). This kind of optimism has also been influential in liberal Protestantism and can even have a metaphysical underpinning: since God is omnipotent and good, things will work out, both in this life and the next.

It can imply that people should calm down and wait for justice. The “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is King’s response to messages like this one, which he says he received “from a white brother in Texas”: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.”

Rev. King answers, “For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never. We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”

King was equally opposed to the idea that time is static, that a society cannot fundamentally change. One version of this idea says that White supremacy is evil but also foundational and highly unlikely ever to yield. A different version is held by white supremacists. George Wallace, for instance, emphasized that history was, and must remain, static. When he cried, “Segregation today . . . segregation tomorrow . . . segregation forever,” Wallace was denying the passage of time. And he presented this stance as nothing new: “we sound the drum … as have our generations of forebears before us done, time and time again through history.”

King’s alternative view had three features.

First, the flow of time is up to us. History is neither a tragedy–with a foreordained evil conclusion–nor a comedy, inevitably moving toward a happen end. Nor are we stuck in a changeless present. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.”

Second, the past is always present. It infuses our own time. In the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King says, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. . … It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check.”

The founding of the republic was almost two centuries in the past, yet the promissory note was still on the books. (And still is today.) That was not quite a metaphor, because King was quite literal about the need for repayment, for reparations. But the idea that the debts of the past are still carried on the nation’s books was one of many tropes he used to convey the continued existence of the past.

Third, we can make the future present. We can envision a better conclusion and pull that vision into our own time. For instance, we can imagine a future when the government founded by Jefferson and Madison pays its debts to the descendants of the people they had enslaved, thus changing the relationship between the past and the present. Once we imagine that moment, we can work to accomplish it.

King’s “Dream” that Black and white Georgians will “sit down together at the table of brotherhood”–while Mississippi is “transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice”–is not a prediction or a forecast. It is an invention whose purpose is to motivate the quarter of a million people who gathered on the National Mall on August 28, 1963.

And it was remarkable that they had gathered there. Popular movements–and especially nonviolent popular movements with idealistic causes–defy realistic predictions. Individuals usually calculate the costs and risks for themselves against the benefits for themselves. To join a social movement, especially in the face of vicious opposition, is costly and dangerous. Any benefits are speculative. It is rational to stand aside and see if other people struggle for justice. If they do, the problem may be solved without an individual’s having to take the risk. And if they don’t, the individual’s sacrifice would have been pointless anyway.

Yet people occasionally defy this logic and rise up together in large numbers in the same time and place. Montgomery in 1955, Birmingham in 1963, the Washington Mall later in 1963, and Selma in 1965 were moments when the future suddenly broke into the present. To delay them would have destroyed them.

In his last speech, “I Have Been to the Mountaintop,” King diagnoses the challenge (oppressed people calculate their individual interests and fail to congeal as a movement) and reminds his audience of the power of acting in concert:

Now what does all this mean in this great period of history? It means that we’ve got to stay together. (Yeah) We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula of doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. [Applause] But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [Applause] Now let us maintain unity.

Note again the analysis of time. Pharoah wants to keep things static, to “prolong the period of slavery.” As soon as the slaves “get together,” the future comes into view.

People sometimes quote King’s line that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” to suggest that progress is inevitable–perhaps because of divine providence. He said those words at the conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery march, which had been fraught, controversial even within the movement, and very nearly a failure. That day, a tragic conclusion was all too easy to imagine. After envisioning a future when “society [is] at peace with itself” and “can live with its conscience,” King says, “I know you are asking today, ‘How long will it take?'” He gives a series of calls and responses, each beginning “How long? Not long, because …” This is the context in which he mentions the arc of the universe. He does not mean that it will surely carry us to justice and that we can confidently wait for that day. No one who had marched with him to Montgomery would have imagined that. He is telling his audience that they can bend the arc, that they can move the future closer.

In short, the past is always still present, the future can break into today, we can move our vision across time, and we can determine how things end.

Wallace had imagined waves of white supremacists standing in the way of justice, one generation after another. King instead invoked a series of prophets, “extremists for justice,” who were able to envision history’s conclusion and thus speak to us from their own times. In the “Letter,” King names five religious prophets–Amos, Jesus, Paul, Martin Luther, and John Bunyan–and two secular democratic ones, Jefferson and Lincoln. He also credits six contemporary white men and women (most of whose names I do not recognize) for writing “about our struggle in eloquent and prophetic terms.”

Prophesy means transcending the present to affect the future. In Stride to Freedom, King had written, “Any discussion of the Christian minister today must ultimately emphasize the need for prophecy. … May the problem of race in America soon make hearts burn so that prophets will rise up, saying, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ and cry out as Amos did, ‘. . . let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.'” As his career progressed, he constantly returned to the nineteen biblical books traditionally called Nevi’im, prophecies. For instance, in the “I Have a Dream Speech,” King again quoted Amos 5:24 along with Isaiah 40:4 (“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain”).

This genre of prophecy typically begins with a moral condemnation of the present, often directed explicitly at the most powerful people: the kings, priests, and rich men:

Forasmuch therefore as your treading is upon the poor, and ye take from him burdens of wheat: ye have built houses of hewn stone, but ye shall not dwell in them; ye have planted pleasant vineyards, but ye shall not drink wine of them.

For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: they afflict the just, they take a bribe, and they turn aside the poor in the gate from their right.

(Amos 5:11-12)

The prophecy may forecast the punishment and fall of these wicked men. “Woe unto you,” says the Lord, through Amos, six verses later. The prophet then envisions a better time, a time of justice. This is not a forecast based on continuing the current trends into the future. Rather, it is moral and hortatory. If the people begin to act righteously, then God will help them make the world better. “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish judgment in the gate: it may be that the Lord God of hosts will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph” (Amos 5:15).

King’s last–and arguably greatest–speech was also his most explicitly prophetic. He had come to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers. A mass march had gone badly from his perspective. It had turned violent, at least around the edges. Film of the event strongly suggests that police instigated the violence. King blamed the press for focusing on some “window breaking” instead of the structural violence against Black workers. Yet he was shaken by his own inability to preserve nonviolent discipline. This was the first time he had joined or led a march in which the protesters had failed to turn the other cheek. He was also exhausted and ill, unwilling to speak or even to travel to the venue in the midst of a thunderstorm. He forced himself to go anyway.

We know that he had one less than day left to live, and we must read the speech with that hindsight.

He starts with the now. He says, “something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world.” From there, he moves immediately out of the linear flow of time. He asks us to imagine him “standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now” and conversing with the immortal Almighty. He traverses history, mentioning some of the high points, and concludes that the time when he would most like to live is the present. Things certainly seem bad, “but I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Once again, he sees the future in the present, taking the form of a voluntary popular movement. “Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up.” At the beginning of his career, he would have emphasized the protesters in his immediate surroundings, but now he sees that the uprising is global. People are “assembled today” in Johannesburg, Nairobi, Accra, New York City, Atlanta, Jackson, and where he stands, Memphis. “The cry is always the same: ‘We want to be free.'”

He rehearses the glorious moments of the movement so far, emphasizing the mightiness of a unified nonviolent struggle. He commends the preachers in attendance for their prophetic voices and quotes Amos as the exemplary prophet. He makes the case for economic pressure. He acknowledges people’s fear and exhorts them not to stop when the time is so critical. He recalls when he was nearly assassinated and gives thanks that he survived, because then he could witness the moments when unified people overcame oppression: sit-ins, freedom rides, Albany, Birmingham, Selma. Interestingly, he includes tactical failures, like Albany, and moments when he was not personally involved.

And then he turns to the future, which we know and which he seems uncannily to foresee with less than 24 hours left to live:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over (Yes sir), and I’ve seen the Promised Land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. [Applause] (Go ahead, Go ahead) And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]

I am influenced here by David Luban, “Difference Made Legal: The Court and Dr. King.” Michigan Law Review 87, no. 8 (1989): 2152-2224. Luban insightfully compares King to Walter Benjamin. See also:  the I and the we: civic insights from Christian theologynotes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; no justice, no peace? (on the relationship between these concepts); Martin Luther King as a philosopher; learning from Memphis, 1968; against inevitability; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era,” etc.

Complexities of Civic Life

Below is an excerpt from a new article of mine in a special issue of The Bridge on “complex unifiable systems.” The Bridge is a quarterly journal of the National Academy of Engineering. The article and the whole special issue are available free. Several other contributions may also be interesting to civic and political people. I would cite this piece as: Peter Levine, “The Complexity of Civic Life,” The Bridge, vol. 50, no. 4 (Winter 2020), pp. 34-6


Imagine that some college students have volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter. They love the experience because they are helping others. During the reflection session after the meal, one student remarks, “Serving the homeless was so great! I hope this shelter will still be open 50 years from now so that my grandchildren can also serve here.”

The progressive educator who has organized this experience is horrified and says, “No! Our goal must be to end homelessness. You must think about root causes, not treat the most superficial symptoms. What are the fundamental causes of homelessness?”

Chastened, the students debate the root causes. Some argue that homelessness results from poverty, which, in turn, is a byproduct of capitalism. Others counter that the root cause is the cost of real estate, which is inflated by -zoning laws. They are deep into a discussion of capitalism and the state when the Brazilian legal theorist and former cabinet minister Roberto Mangabeira Unger happens to walk by.

“Stop this!” cries Unger. “You are looking for fixed, simple, law-like causal relationships. We human beings have made the social world. What we have made, we can also change—not just the components, but also the many ways they fit together and affect each other.”

Unger (who is famous for long speeches) continues, “By looking for root causes, you are limiting your imaginations, assuming that the only important changes are the hardest ones to accomplish. Be more creative. What if we got rid of all zoning and rent control but also gave everyone a voucher for free rent? What if public buildings were retrofitted to allow people to sleep comfortably in them at night? What if houses were shared, and homeless people occupied the temporarily empty ones? What if…?”

The Myth of the Root Cause

I have invented this fable and Unger’s words, but I am paraphrasing portions of his False Necessity (2004) to support a serious point.

root cause is a metaphor. The root is literally the vital part of a plant that is hidden from sight; digging it up will kill the whole organism. The word radical derives from the Latin word for root. The educator in my fable thinks he is radical because he directs his students to the deepest, least visible, and least tractable aspect of the problem, assuming that attacking a root is the way to a permanent solution.

But a social problem rarely has one root cause or leverage point. Many factors combine to determine results. The same variables that are outcomes are also inputs or causes. Virtuous and vicious circles and feedback loops are common phenomena that illustrate a broader point: any society is a complex network of causes and effects. Interventions are possible at multiple points.

Strategies and Skills for Networks of Causes

Like a root, a network is a metaphor (or mental model) for describing reality, but the difference is important. To improve a society viewed as a complex network requires particular skills and strategies—not those favored by would-be “radicals” who insist on focusing only on “the root.”

First, strategies should be tailored to an individual’s or organization’s location in the network. Management scholar Alnoor Ebrahim (2019) argues that organizations differ in how reliably they can predict outcomes in a system as a whole. They also differ in how much control they can exercise over their portions of the system.

These are two distinct dimensions. With low control but the ability to make reliable causal predictions, a wise strategy may be to identify a specific niche where the organization can operate effectively. …

[The rest is here.]

this is what deliberative democracy looks like

We are having a passionate, complex, deeply informed discussion about race in America and related topics, such as policing.

If you believe that a deliberative democracy means one conversation that convenes representatives of all perspectives, who decide, without rancor and recrimination, what they should do next as a unified group, then the current discussion misses the standard. But I never had that ideal in mind. I always assumed that a national deliberation would result from demands and critiques and would unfold in many settings. I always assumed it would be impassioned and challenging.

In the current debate, some prominent people can be interpreted as wanting to silence their opponents. When Barack Obama called “defund the police” a “snappy slogan” that “lost a big audience,” that sounded like advice to drop the slogan. On the other hand, to equate opposition to defunding police with white supremacy could also be interpreted as silencing.

These statements do not worry me much, because they will not actually silence anyone. They are acts of free speech, not restrictions on it. And, by the way, they are probably both true. If we defeated white supremacy, we would not have to consider defunding police. Yet defunding police polls badly among constituencies that should matter, like Black people in the Twin Cities:

Although Barack Obama may not be the best messenger for a certain kind of pragmatic meliorism, telling him not to say what he thinks is just as silencing as his own statement might be. The conversation should continue–and it will. It’s not really in danger of being suppressed by anyone.

Concerns about polarization and echo chambers are valid. When people talk only to others who agree, they can fail to learn, they may weaken their own influence, and they can encourage the spread of false information. However, we wouldn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction. If everyone (or a representative sample of everyone) is involved in the same discussion, then it will have a white, suburban plurality and it will marginalize ostensibly radical ideas, like defunding the police. The conversation is richer if it unfolds in many different settings with different majorities.

If you want to make policing more equitable in the short term, then you are probably better off advocating police accountability plus social services, not defunding cops. But not everyone should promote short-term ameliorative solutions. Some people should pose more fundamental questions, like “Do we need police at all?” Note, however, that if you pose this question, you should expect to hear the answer “Yes, we do” from a lot of people, not just conservative whites. And if Barack Obama tells you that the slogan polls badly–well, surely he’s entitled to that view.

Deliberative democracy was never supposed to be cool and calm, and if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. My only desire would be for more prominent presentations of more concrete and compelling alternatives. How would a safe community without any police actually work? On the other hand, how does an accountable and equitable police force function?

It might feel like a burden to have to spell out alternatives–with tradeoffs, costs, enforcement mechanisms, and contingency plans–but that’s what self-governing people do. The great Ernesto Cortés, Jr. says:

Most people have an intuitive grasp of Lord Acton’s dictum about the tendency of power to corrupt. To avoid appearing corrupted, they shy away from power. But powerlessness also corrupts — perhaps more pervasively than power itself. So IAF leaders learn quickly that understanding politics requires understanding power.

I wonder whether some of the strongest proponents of abolishing the police are actually pessimistic about that ever happening. They may endorse the syllogism: All racist societies have unjust police; America is a racist society; therefore, America police will (always) be unjust. This logic is fundamentally disempowered. If you think that you don’t have to show what a police-free community would look like, then you are acting powerless in a corrupting way. In fact, everyone has the power to envision and present alternatives.

I have been advocating what I call the SPUD framework for assessing movements. In this framework, “S” stands for scale: movements should strive to recruit large numbers of individuals and groups, because they have more power if they are large. “P” stands for pluralism: movements are more effective and learn and react better if they encompass people with diverse perspectives, backgrounds, and social roles. “U” stands for unity: movements must come together behind shared demands at any given time, or else they can’t make effective demands. And “D” stands for depth: movements must help their participants to grow in knowledge, skill, experience, and wisdom.

The Movement for Black Lives has achieved almost unprecedented scale. It also demonstrates impressive depth, at least among its core members. Like all movements, it is pulled between pluralism and unity, and that tension can be fruitful. It would be a mistake to move all the way to the unity pole by excluding a robust and diverse debate about matters like criminal justice. Yet it makes sense to try to project unity and even to try to marginalize certain positions that would undermine the movement’s unity. People are always free to exit if they don’t like the mainstream of a movement; large numbers of exits serve as a form of regulation. Meanwhile, the society as a whole needs an even larger and more plural discussion of the same topics, enriched by more than one social movement.

And all of that is more or less what we are seeing. I take a generally positive view of the present debate as an example of deliberative democracy, even though, like everything human beings do, it leaves room for improvement.

See also: some remarks on Elinor Ostrom and police reform; on the phrase: Abolish the police!; “The Role of Social Movements in Fostering Sounder Public Judgment,” and “Habermas with a Whiff of Tear Gas: Nonviolent Campaigns and Deliberation in an Era of Authoritarianism

Putnam and Garrett, The Upswing

This is a video of Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett discussing their new book, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again in a Tisch College Distinguished Speaker event last night. Our dean, Alan Solomont, introduced everyone and then I interviewed and moderated Putnam and Garrett.

I really do recommend the book and intend to write about it in more detail. It’s methodologically and conceptually interesting. More importantly, it’s a hopeful and patriotic book that comes at an urgent moment.

During our conversation, I proposed a summary of the book’s position that the authors seemed willing to accept. They advocate an appropriate balance between individualism and communitarianism. They believe that a society can be too communitarian, and perhaps that was even true of the US ca. 1960. But now we are far too individualistic. The balance can be restored, as it was in the half-century after 1900. To accomplish that change requires a decentralized and pluralistic effort that encompasses social innovation and social entrepreneurship, organizing and advocacy, cultural work, leadership, and policy changes at all levels of government. This effort should be pragmatic, not ideological, although it can attract people with a mix of ideological views and agendas who overlap on the idea that America should be more of a “we” and less of an “I” society.

An excellent example was the “high school revolution,” a decentralized movement that raised the proportion of Americans who completed high school from less than 10% to more than 70% in a few decades, fueling economic growth and equity. No single law accomplished this revolution; no individual is especially associated with it. It was a “viral” movement that, in turn, contributed to a much broader movement to strengthen American community. I’m guessing that various agendas converged to make this happen, from local boosterism and immigrant assimilationism to ambitious reform agendas, including socialism.

The implication is that we can do the same again, and it might even turn out that leaders as disparate as Barack Obama, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Patrisse Cullors, and Mike Lee–plus countless founders of nonprofits and community organizers–will turn out to be early participants in a new upswing. We certainly need it.

some notes on identity from a civic perspective

In a course on Civic Studies, we recently began a unit on identity. The first readings were the biblical Book of Nehemiah; Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House; and ”Steve Biko, “Black Consciousness and the Quest for a True Humanity.” Here are some notes.

1. The overall civic question is: “What should we do?”  An identity is an answer to the question: “Who am I?” (Or, “Who is he/she/they?”) For instance, Lorde self-identified as “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”

How are these two questions related?

  1. You must consider who you are in order to figure out what “we” you are part of.
  2. Sometimes the “we” is defined badly, and that is the civic problem. People are excluded unjustly or included against their will.
  3. Even when the “we” is right, it may encompass differences of identity that create or reinforce injustices.

2. When discussing Elinor Ostrom and others in the first segment of our course, we were primarily focused on interests. The main solutions included various forms of negotiation and management. When discussing Jürgen Habermas and others in that segment of the course, we were primarily focused on opinions. The main solutions involved various forms of dialogue, deliberation, and communication. Now we turn to identities.

3. Interests, opinions, and identities are interconnected but are not the same. 

  1. Interest: “I want/need …”
  2. Opinion: “We should …”
  3. Identity: “Speaking as a …”

When interests conflict, they can be negotiated, and it is sometimes possible to design and maintain systems to manage interests fairly. When opinions conflict, they can be discussed, and well-structured conversations may (sometimes) convince individuals to converge on the same opinions. When identities clash, it is not clear that individuals should negotiate, compromise, or give reasons for their differences. But it can be controversial whether a given characteristic, such as adhering to a religion, constitutes an interest, an opinion, an identity, or more than one of these. Disagreements about such questions can lead to disputes about whether individuals should be open to negotiation and responsive to arguments, or not.

4. It can be problematic to talk about identity in general terms. Some identities are vastly more significant to social justice than others. For instance, racism is the USA is not just an example of an identity-difference. You can imagine two random groups that don’t happen to like each other and who demonstrate bias or division. That is a challenge, but it is not a good description of the differences that matter to our assigned authors. For Biko: conquest, colonialism, apartheid. For Lorde: 400 years of slavery, terror, and subjugation.

5. Each form of identity has a unique history. It may also have a particular logic. For instance, it’s possible to imagine a society with significant racial diversity that is also equitable. It is not possible to imagine a society with an upper class and a lower class that are equal.

6. Nevertheless, we can also gain some insights into important differences among identities by developing general theories of identity.

7. Two general theories are worth contrasting:

  1. When two groups of people act and think very differently and have little contact, a powerful identity distinction emerges that can be hard to bridge.
  2. When people are very similar, intimately connected, and liable to mix or exchange places, there is a powerful incentive to erect and insist on identity distinctions.

Examples of (a): Europeans encountering indigenous peoples, and vice-versa. Examples of (b): Modern antisemitism in Europe or the invention of race in 17th century Virginia. My understanding of the 17th-century story is that slavery came first; racism followed. The first rationale for enslaving people from Africa was religious: Christians could enslave “heathens.” But once the enslaved people converted, a different rationale was necessary. For a few decades, colonists tried the idea of “hereditary heathenism” (Goetz 2012), but that was incompatible with core Christian doctrine. So they invented, or re-invented, race. Since then, whites and African Americans have been in constant and intense interaction and have exhibited profound similarities. White privilege is a “common pool resource” in the specific sense that it benefits all white people, whether they want it or not, yet any of us can undermine it by promotion equity. All common pool resources are fragile, and it has taken concerted, sustained effort to maintain white supremacy in the face of actual similarities and actual interactions.

8. A synthesis? Identity distinctions are made by people in response to incentives created by institutions (such as states and markets), power differentials, network ties, and path-dependence, among other factors (Wimmer 2008).

9. Identities are made, but it does not follow that they are easily unmade. They become powerful realities. E.g., modern Americans racially classify a photo of a face in less than one tenth of a second and form affective reactions to that classification (Kubota & Ito, 2007).

10. Power influences how identities are created, but it does not follow that identity-creation is necessarily bad. It can be creative and empowering.

Lorde: “Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic.” 

11. Questions from the readings:

  1. Do identity distinctions and boundaries enable collective action? If so, can we solve collective action problems without perpetuating unjust exclusions?

The Nehemiah story is about building a common pool resource and excluding outsiders. (A city wall is a common pool resource. The Jerusamelites have strong social capital. They apply many of Ostrom’s design principles, such as taking turns and enforcing the rules on the leaders) Must self-governance and exclusion go together?

  1. When should we accentuate “many differences,” and when should we look for “solidarity”?

Lorde: “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” Biko uses “the black man” as a category that explicitly encompasses Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas, and South Africans of Indian origin, and implicitly includes black women. He discusses a “strong solidarity” that allows Blacks to “respond as a cohesive group.”

  1. Who has what responsibility for learning and teaching about what?

“Let us talk more about ourselves and our struggles and less about whites” (Biko). Asking oppressed peoples to educate their oppressors “is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” For instance, to say that women of color must educate white women “is a diversion and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought” (Lorde)

  1. How radical a change is needed?

Lorde: tolerance is “the grossest reformism.” We need to “seek new ways of being in the world.”

what if the people don’t want to rule?

The Athenian tyrannicides found a democracy

It should come as no surprise when elites try to undermine democracies and other forms of republican self-government. It is not in their interest to share power. A republic’s founding story is usually the overthrow of a tyrant, an oligarchical cabal, or a theocrat; and many republics have died at the same hands.

But what if the people don’t want to rule? This is an acute worry at times like the present, when some electorates seem to prefer politicians who disparage democratic values (not just Trump in 2016, but also Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi today) and when the only governments in the world that appear to be broadly trusted are in China, the UAE, India, Indonesia, and Singapore.

Meanwhile, influential frameworks or paradigms in political psychology are raising doubts about people’s ability to participate in–and support–democracy.

Evidence that the people don’t want to rule

These concerns were at least as grave between the world wars, when dictators emerged as popular figures, sometimes attaining office through genuine elections, and when theorists like Walter Lippmann and Joseph Schumpeter anticipated today’s academic skepticism about people’s desire and capacity for self-government.

One cluster of research on this problem was the Frankfurt School, whose most pressing original topic was the failure of the European working class to support revolution. I don’t happen to share the founders’ Marxism, but theirs was a species of republican theory: they wanted the people (equated with the workers) to rule themselves instead of being ruled by capital. And they were concerned about a very real problem: workers’ support for right-wing authoritarians like Mussolini. By exploring the hypothesis that popular opinion might affect history and not simply result from historical forces, the Frankfurt School broke from one orthodox currant in Marxism. As Wayne Gabardi writes, for them, “the problem was not one of objective conditions, but rather of subjective states. This required a radical rethinking of the relationship between social structure and character structure, political-economic forces and social-psychological syndromes, the material and the mental.” It is reminiscent of today’s focus on “subjective states” as an explanation of outcomes like Trump’s 2016 election.

Wanting to add an empirical dimension to the research, Max Horkheimer hired Erich Fromm to conduct a survey. Fromm and colleagues collected data from 584 Germans, including items about their objective circumstances, their lifeworlds, and their opinions. Among the questions were: “What do you and your wife think about early sex education for children (birth, procreation, sexual diseases)?” and “Do you like jazz?” Fromm and colleagues concluded that many of the workers who belonged to left parties held authoritarian attitudes in their personal lives and showed other telltale signs of fascism, such as anti-Semitism and admiration for Mussolini.

This study was the main inspiration for The Authoritarian Personality, the major work that the Frankfurt School’s Theodor Adorno and several American colleagues published in 1950. (See my recent post on that book’s methodology.) Given the change of time and place, the question had shifted from “Why doesn’t the working class support Marxist revolution?” to “Why don’t voters support liberal democracy?” But the threat was the same: authoritarianism. “The major concern was the potentially fascistic individual, one whose structure is such as to render him particularly susceptible to anti-democratic propaganda” (p. 1). The conclusion was also similar to Fromm’s: a substantial proportion of Americans appeared to be potential fascists.

A comparable finding emerged much later on from John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (2002). Many Americans apparently believed that political disagreement was a sign of corruption and preferred government by disinterested elites.

And the currently very influential Moral Foundations theory of Jonathan Haidt finds that many people display a latent variable of Authority, which sounds at least potentially undemocratic, especially if it is a predominant factor for an individual. At the same time, Moral Foundations theory implies that people will generally be resistant to sharing political power with other citizens who emphasize different Foundations from their own.

Counter-evidence

Each of these research programs has been criticized.

The authors of The Authoritarian Personality did not field their scales with representative samples of the US population, so they could not estimate the prevalence of potential fascism. They did not attempt to identify pro-democratic personalities or estimate their prevalence. And they did not explore whether there might be left-authoritarians as well as right-authoritarians.

Michael Neblo, Kevin Esterling, Ryan Kennedy, David Lazer, and Anand Sokhey (2010) challenged the Stealth Democracy thesis in a paper entitled “Who Wants to Deliberate – and Why?” For part of their paper, they simply asked questions that were the reverse of those fielded by Hibbing and Theiss-Morse. For instance, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse had tested the proposition: “Our government would run better if decisions were left up to nonelected, independent experts rather than politicians or the people.” Thirty-one percent agreed, which Hibbing and Theiss-Morse considered high. Neblo et al. tested: “It is important for the people and their elected representatives to have the final say in running government, rather than leaving it up to unelected experts.” Ninety-two percent agreed. Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that 86% agreed that “Elected officials would help the country more if they would stop talking and just take action on important problems.” But Neblo et al found that 92% agreed that “It is important for elected officials to discuss and debate things thoroughly before making major policy changes.” Hibbing and Theiss Morse found a majority (64%) in favor of the statement: “What people call ‘compromise’ in politics is really just selling out one’s principles.” But Neblo et al found that 84% agreed, “One of the main reasons that elected officials have to debate issues is that they are responsible to represent the interests of diverse constituencies across the country.”

By asking questions that were opposites of Hibbing and Theiss-Morse’s items, Neblo et al. revealed that even most people who held anti-democratic views also held pro-democratic views. One way to make sense of the apparent contradiction is to think that people wanted real dialog and deliberation, but were unimpressed by the actual debate in Congress.

The other main source of evidence in Neblo et al. is a field experiment, in which people were offered the chance to deliberate with real Members of Congress. People were more likely to accept if they had negative attitudes toward elected leaders and the debates in Washington. Again, that could be because they did not reject deliberation in principle but disliked the official debates that they heard about or watched on TV. People who held those skeptical views were especially impressed by an offer from their real US Representative to deliberate. Individuals were also more likely to accept the offer to deliberate if they were young and if they had low education.

Further, if people showed up to deliberate, their opinions of the experience were very positive. According to the paper, “95% Agreed (72% Strongly Agreed) that such sessions are ‘very valuable to our democracy’ and 96% Agreed (80% Strongly Agreed) that they would be interested in doing similar online sessions for other issues.” These results are consistent with almost all practical deliberative experiments.

Kevin B. Smith and colleagues (2017) cast doubts on three strong claims of the Moral Foundations Theory: that the dispositions labeled “foundations” are stable for individuals over time, that these foundations predict and explain political ideology (and hence explain ideological differences), and that the foundations are inherited–as they must be if they result from Darwinian selection. Surveying twins along with other family members, Smith et al. find that “moral foundations are not particularly stable within individuals across time, at least compared to ideology.” At a given point, individuals’ answers to Moral Foundations questions do relate to their ideologies, but their views change over time. The causal arrow seems to point from ideology to moral foundations, as much as the reverse. Presumably, people are influenced by events, experiences, and discussions to revise their political views, thereby changing their Moral Foundations (which are not actually foundational). Thus the stream of research exemplified in Moral Foundations Theory has been “overly dismissive of the role of conscious deliberation.”

I also believe that we should be careful about generalizing the findings of Moral Foundations Theory to political contexts. Haidt et al. ask individuals to make private judgments about emotionally charged questions that are often related to human biological functions: universals. In completing these questionnaires, respondents do not have to act, make decisions together, preserve relationships with fellow decision-makers, follow procedures for group decision-making, or assess the kinds of complex, changing, and morally mixed institutions that are the main topics of politics–things like the US government, or the neighborhood’s public schools, or Islam. (See Flanagan 2016.) The Foundations may recede in importance once we enter the Public Sphere.

What should we make of the evidence?

So far, I have summarized some empirical evidence that challenges the assumption that people really want to govern themselves, and then some rebuttal evidence. But once any evidence emerges that people may not want to deliberate and rule themselves, the worm of skepticism is already inside the apple. Maybe some studies have overstated the prevalence of anti-democratic attitudes; nevertheless, it’s clear that such attitudes exist, and they may be prevalent in a given time and place. That helps to make sense of the fact that 44% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance in office, even today.

This is the main response I would offer: Some people are authoritarian. It is not wrong to construct a causal theory in which these people help to cause democracies to fail. However, that is not the whole causal story. Something makes people authoritarian. If authoritarianism were inherited or hard-wired, then we could not explain massive changes in attitudes toward democracy within the same populations. In Erich Fromm’s time, many Germans were proto-fascists, which they demonstrated by giving Hitler’s party the largest share of the vote in 1932. Today, their descendants widely support one of the stablest and best-performing liberal democracies in history. Context and experience must matter.

Some combination of centuries of feudalism followed by rapid industrialization, the slaughter and then defeat of World War I, hyperinflation, and sophisticated Nazi propaganda could make people into fascists. On the other hand, living in Angela Merkel’s Germany makes or keeps most people liberal and democratic. As Neblo and colleagues show, inviting people to a well-designed deliberative event with their own elected representatives increases their commitment to democracy. The Tocquevillian argument is that “experience with liberty” and “experience with solving problems directly through collective action” inculcate liberal and democratic virtues (Allen, Stevens & Berg 2018, p. 36)

What should we do?

One conclusion might be that elites–the people in charge of institutions–should create rewarding opportunities for self-governance at many scales, from empowered student governments in middle schools to national deliberations that influence Congress.

That conclusion is true but empty. Elites will not share power because they should. They will do so if they believe it is in their self-interest, and they are more likely to reach that conclusion to the extent that the public organizes to demand self-governance. Unfortunately, such pressure will be weak to the extent that most people have lost experience with, and appetite for, self-governance.

A vicious cycle is certainly possible–and probably evident in many countries today. But the situation is not as dire as it might seem. The good news is that we do not need the active support of a majority of citizens to spread opportunities for self-rule. Some of us can build such opportunities and invite others in, and we can thereby expand the constituency for real democracy.

If we could ask the public–in a truly valid and reliable way–whether they want a deliberative democracy, the results would probably be mixed and ambivalent. Depending on the political context, more or fewer people would agree. Unfortunately, at crisis points, when it’s most important for people to stand up for democracy, their support is likely to be the softest.

But whether a whole society should be a deliberative democracy is not the salient question, anyway. None of us can decide to make it one. The salient question is whether we–you and I and our colleagues and allies–should build and expand opportunities for deliberative democracy in the various contexts where we have influence: our schools and colleges, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, and online venues.

The answer to that question may not always be yes. Values other than deliberation and democracy may be paramount in some contexts, such as a scientific lab, an artist’s studio, or a warship. But there are good reasons for us to build more deliberative democratic opportunities than we find around us today. These opportunities can make their immediate contexts better and can extend the public’s appetite for deliberative democracy at larger scales.

Citations: Wayne Gabardi, “The Working Class in Weimar Germany: A Psychological and Sociological Study by Erich Fromm, Barbara Weinberger and Wolfgang Bonss” (review), New German Critique, No. 41, Special Issue on the Critiques of the Enlightenment (Spring – Summer, 1987), pp. 166-178; Neblo, M. A., Esterling, K. M., Kennedy, R. P., Lazer, D. M., & Sokhey, A. E. (2010). Who wants to deliberate—and why?. American Political Science Review, 566-583; Smith, Kevin B., John R. Alford, John R. Hibbing, Nicholas G. Martin, and Peter K. Hatemi. “Intuitive ethics and political orientations: Testing moral foundations as a theory of political ideology.” American Journal of Political Science 61, no. 2 (2017): 424-437; Flanagan, Owen. The geography of morals: Varieties of moral possibility. Oxford University Press, 2016. Barbara Allen, Daniel Stevens & Jeffrey Berg, Truth in Advertising? Lies in Political Advertising and How They Affect the Electorate (Lexington Books 2018).


du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”

A group can accomplish more than an individual can—whether for good or evil—as long as it holds together. To form and maintain a functioning group is an achievement, requiring individuals to coordinate their behaviors and often to sacrifice for the whole. Only once you have a group can you ask the citizen’s question, which is: “What should we do?”

Because groups have potential and are vulnerable, it can be wise to support less-than-ideal groups in order to maintain them for another day. In Talking to Strangers, Danielle Allen emphasizes that democracy always involves sacrifice, and the amount and type of sacrifice is usually unequal. Therefore, crucial democratic practices include recognizing, acknowledging, and trying to reciprocate sacrifices. This is true at the scale of a nation-state but at least as true at smaller scales.

I recently found a three-word sentence by W.E.B Du Bois that sums it up: “Organization is sacrifice.”

The context is an article in the NAACP’s magazine, The Crisis, that you can read in its original format online. Du Bois is responding to charges that the NAACP is too strongly influenced by Whites. He mentions the 8-to-1 predominance of Blacks in the NAACP’s membership as a whole and in its leading offices. He defends the value of “a few forward looking white Americans” to the organization. And then he suggests that the “real animus back of this veiled and half articulate criticism is the fact that a large organization must make enemies—must create dissatisfaction in many quarters , no matter what it does”

This is where he posits a general principle: “Organization is sacrifice.” And he elaborates:

You cannot have absolutely your own way–you cannot be a free lance; you cannot be strongly and fiercely individual if you belong to an organization. For this reason some folk hunt and work alone. It is their nature. But the world’s greatest work must be done by team work. This demands organization, and that is the sacrifice of some individual will and wish to the good of all.


W.E.B. DuBois, “White Co-Workers,” The Crisis, vol. 20, no 1 (May 1920), p. 8

For someone as fiercely principled and intellectually independent as Du Bois was, this realization must have come hard; but he was right. To be able to ask the question, “What should we do?” implies that all have given—and some may have given much more than others—to create the “we” that acts together. There comes a point when the sacrifice is too high (Du Bois ultimately resigned from the NAACP over a fairly subtle matter of principle), but some sacrifice is necessary to create the conditions for politics in the first place.

See also the question of sacrifice in politics; the kind of sacrifice required in nonviolence; and “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses.”