The following post appeared on The Wave blog by BC Council for International Cooperation
Its been a tough time for practitioners of what I’ll call the Social Arts & Sciences, and for analysts of political affairs. For example, reputable pollsters were totally wrong in predicting the election of 2016, pretty much destroying any confidence in the utility of analytical methods like survey research. Of course, most consumers of polling data can’t be expected to know the difference between the use and interpretation of quantitative data for research, and the kinds of reckless extrapolation that posed as expert and authoritative analysis leading up to the election. So, it seems that social scientists have some tasks to do. As a community of thinkers and teachers about social affairs, the Social Arts & Sciences have a unique set of tools for understanding world events that can shed light on important questions. Like any tool, the value of analytical methods is only as good as the use they are put to.
Illuminating who we are as social beings, and why we do what we do, can bring improvements to our shared experience by enabling changes in social behaviour through learning, but only if done carefully and deliberately, and with a great deal of humility and caution. I’d suggest these following lines of inquiry, but what I can’t do is help sounding like a stuffy, elitist, out of touch intellectal to some. This is an occupational hazard, but one I’ll have to live with. Sorry about that. Here are some lines of inquiry suggested by recent events:
1. Political Science
Ok this one’s mine. Please, political scientists, explain clearly the difference between democracy and liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is a paradox, since the rule of law and constitutional protection of human rights necessarily limits democratic rule. Another way to think about it is that minority protections make democracy possible by ensuring that the people do not abuse their power, and in the process, potentially vote themselves out of power. Law needs democracy and democracy needs law. They are inextricably bound together. The rights of minorities are integral to the maintenance of democracy, not an add-on that can be jettisoned in the name of the majority or for the sake of convenience. Protecting minority rights is what enables democracy to function, and to sustain itself. Compromising minority rights inevitably compromises democracy itself. Protecting minority rights protects everyone.
While we’re at it, please explain what polls actually measure, what they don’t measure, and what their limitations are (and I don’t mean margin of error). Everyone: (yes that means you)…I’m sorry, but you have to take statistics. We all did it, so you have to too. There.
I’m throwing questions about the Electoral College to the historians. It makes no sense.
A bonus suggestion for Philosophy: help everyone understand paradoxes better.
I would like to understand better the dynamics of ‘alpha male’ social behaviour. I don’t even know if that’s a thing, but it kind of looks like what we’ve been observing. If I’m wrong, can you please school me in another way of understanding why so many thinking, otherwise respectful people (men and women both) willfully compromise themselves and their values when faced with powerful but flawed male figures? An extra job for sociologists: help us truly understand the centrality of identity to pretty much everything.
Following the 2008 economic crisis, a new subfield of Economic Psychology flourished to help explain why otherwise rational actors made irrational decisions, even against their own interest, and under what circumstances. I think we need more of that. Can psychology help us understand more about the dynamics of voter decision making, the processes of skapegoating, and the emergence of in-group and out-group division? What is the role of emotion as a motivation for decision making? We know that strong emotion can interfere with rational decision making, but how might this dynamic work at a community level?
Please keep telling analogous stories from the past to help give context to the problems of the day. Each generation still generates its own version of problems and solutions, but if people saw their issues as common and not unique, they might be better able to think creatively about how to apply the wisdom of the past to the present. Also, please focus as well on the peaceful, constructive periods of history where nothing much happened. The boring bits are what we can learn from. As well, can you please help us understand better what happens during times of accelerating and rapid change so societies can learn to be more adaptive? I have a feeling we’re going to need that.
Ok so you’ve got lots of work ahead…..propaganda has gone viral, driven not by large organizations but by individual users. Consumers are now transmitters. Conversations are immediate and global. Has the speed of communication outpaced democracy? Please talk to the psychologists about the effects of this on thinking, can we know more about how our social lives and worlds create our reality?
6. Artists and Writers
Please keep reminding us what it’s like to be someone else. Touch our hearts with stories of people and places different from our own experiences, so that we can develop empathy and awareness, even for a minute. Teach the teachers how to convey this effectively. Educate all of the social scientists about the importance of empathy to learning and growing and advancing knowledge about the world and ourselves. Ultimately, this is the only way humans truly learn.
The hearbreaking image of a drowned toddler on the shores of Europe reminded us all of the responsibilities towards others on this planet. Human ties towards distant ‘others’, however, have historically been loose and fickle. Only rarely do people feel closely committed to the needs and troubles of others beyond their immediate family. Distance usually decreases empathy. One of the reasons that states appeared was to deliberately overcome this innate human tendency to prioritize close relatives over strangers. If human settlements were going to work, large communal groupings required closer ties among people who did not interact daily on a face-to-face basis. To accomplish this, national groupings took on the trappings of families (the ‘motherland’, ‘fatherland’, ‘homeland’) and encouraged people to imagine the state as their proxy family writ large.
However, creating states to bond national groups together had a counter-effect, it created a new category of humans: outsiders and ‘others’ who were encountered only when travel (either by explorers sent out from the homeland or migrants coming in) brought them together. Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices to help them classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated. Partly, these rules have emerged from historical experience and are particular to individual societies. For example, the European memory of the mass starvation and refugee crises following World War II has shaped the image of what a refugee is today. Ultimately, because European states had an inordinate influence on the creation of global order in the post-War era, European ideas have heavily influenced international laws. A ‘refugee’ is a classification of people distinct from a ‘migrant’ in two main ways: 1. a refugee has rights to legal process, material support, and protection in the country they are seeking asylum; and 2. a refugee has the right to not be forcibly returned to their country of origin.
Today, states have created an elaborate edifice of laws, institutions, informal rules and practices that help them to classify and categorize how ‘strangers’ are treated.
However, states have jealously guarded their own rights to define someone as a citizen or to keep them out of the national family. In doing so, states have created legal categories that make no sense when applied to real humans, because states’ rights and human rights conflict.
This background helps us to understand more clearly the landscape of political arguments going on now around migrants, as well as the ways in which the rules are being interpreted and applied. It also allows us to recognize the limitations of these rules, in particular the ways in which these rules have arbitrarily divided humanity into categories that systematically de-humanize them and construct them as ‘strangers’, outside of the ‘families’ created by states. The insistence on the application of these rules by state leaders reveals their emptiness. Insisting that migrants register in the first country of arrival, that they be registered in order to apply for further transit, and that they somehow demonstrate and document that their movements are involuntary, are levers designed to ensure that they remain outside of the national family, not that they be embraced by the protections of refugee law. Insisting that the solution to the problem is to ‘solve the Syrian conflict’ or ‘eliminate ISIS’ is similarly meant to distract from the fact that migrants have already waited 4 years or longer for the world to do something to help them, and that many thousands of refugees remain in countries closer to their countries of origin in the hope that they may be able to eventually return. Some of these host countries, including Turkey, have been unwelcoming and hostile to their presence, driving them further afield to find sanctuary. The insistence that migrants be prevented from ever settling in their countries of refuge ignores the legal invocation that they not be refouled back to danger. The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
In light of these realities, it is amazing that some have now decided to re-invoke humanity and the home/family analogy, and have even opened up their homes and lives to help strangers. The defeat of the
The legal distinction between ‘economic migrants’ and ‘refugees’ is increasingly nonsensical, and the insistence on respecting it only reveals the arbitrariness of the categories.
Harper government in Canada is a rebuke of a legislative program designed to reinforce categories of separation and exclusion, to invoke tribalism in the legal guise of statehood. It is understandable, if not totally forgivable, that this welcoming comes late, and that it comes only with the ever-closer proximity of the suffering of others. Maybe that’s the best that humans can do. However, states are another matter. States are created by humans to encourage the embrace of strangers into a larger family. The next step is to build on the initiatives begun by states to encourage the expansion of the national family and to begin to challenge the arbitrary categories that divide humanity up. The human willingness to challenge the separation created by distance has communicated empathy throughout the state system. What remains is to communicate this to states in the future through new laws that strengthen human ties rather than state rights.
In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.
After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another. However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy. The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth. The rise of the internet has not made it any easier. In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral. So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.
There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.
In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit. Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides. Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants: a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom. Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view. Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments. Here is another.
2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.
Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides. Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales. In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event. One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture. Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.
3. People and systems are distinct things.
Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it. Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing. People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.
4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.
Beware of the ad hominem argument. An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action. A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.
5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.
It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy. The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire. For example, some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible. Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”. Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause. Have anger, and have empathy.
6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happens when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference. Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.
7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.
Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information. Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.
8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions. Beware of manipulation.
The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke. Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.
9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources. Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.
Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting. They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.
10. Beware of appeals to authority.
Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie. People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable. However, they are also not infallible.
1Photo Credit: Rangan Halder 500px “Materialism Versus Materialistic Capture” http://500px.com/photo/8540236
In his speech to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers Alan Krueger offered up some food for thought regarding the sources of inequality in American society, and globally. Krueger focused on four factors that help to explain income inequality: technology, scale, luck, and the erosion of social pressures for fairness. In this post, I want to focus on scale, and I’m going to also refer to the Atlantic’s reprint of the key points of Krueger’s talk to expand on a factor that Krueger mentions but does not develop in enough detail, in my view: globalization.
The authors discuss the music industry as an example. As they point out, the music industry creates a ‘star economy’ focused on a few ‘winners’ or ‘stars’ who are able to drive growth in the system. The ‘star economy’ in music has produced a skewed income curve. If you look at incomes across the industry, the greater benefits are concentrated at the top. However, if one considers not just the artists (who are essentially the workers producing the product) but the entire ecosystem of label CEOs, CFOs, managers, R & R people, the marketing department, etc. then one gets a better idea of the scope of the real economy of music. In fact, music industry bloggers and observers have been criticizing the inequality in the music industry for a long time: As Bob Lefsentz points out in a recent post, the corporate labels, the entertainment mega-giants like Sony and Universal, are the real structural beneficiaries of the sharper inequalities imposed upon all musicians, just as the fat cats in the garment or manufacturing industry are the real beneficiaries of inequality in those economies.
The power of the music industry has grown in lock-step with globalization, offering command of larger and larger shares of music consumption. The incomes of the music industry managers have survived the recent purge caused by the technological challenges. They have survived for a reason: it is their machines that generate the wealth, rather than the luck or talent of the artists. Ultimately, as Krueger suggests, ‘luck’ and the perception of popularity have a huge impact on success in the music industry, but ‘luck’ is not some impartial uncertain or random arbiter of fortunes, since success comes through the perception of popularity, which is heavily influenced by these industrial complexes.
As Salganik et. al. have discovered through experimenting with a controlled ‘music market’, social perceptions of the popularity of songs increase the degree of inequality among them (although they don’t make it any easier to predict success). Frankly, no matter the uncertainty caused by the internet or disruption of the industry by downloading, any artist that can command the attention of the marketing machine and the vast resources of a label can succeed beyond their wildest dreams through these social effects. Many high-quality and deserving artists don’t succeed, while a few poor quality and undeserving artists succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Youtube doesn’t ‘make’ you a star, but the attention that Youtube brings can make you popular. Attention from the music elite (increasingly, from successful artists) or from a label with a hyper-marketing machine behind it makes you a star, since you can then marshal the resources necessary to maintain that attention.
Globalization has had one important impact on the 1% that should not be downplayed: it has vastly expanded the freedom to disengage from local economies and impose conditions upon all other economic activities. What matters is the decisions made by the elite to affect the market, and these decisions are not based on luck, fairness, or even on quality. In political science this is termed ‘structural power’: the ability to not only win the game, but to affect the rules of the game for all other players. The inequality of today arises from specific decisions made by earlier masters of the universe in the 1980s to protect the interests of their class. Krueger hints at some of these decisions in his article: the demise of labour unions, the deliberate erosion of the minimum wage policy, and changes to taxation. These factors cannot be explained by the impartial workings of a global market or by luck, rather, these are conscious government policies aimed at expanding the scope and freedom of movement for the wealthy.
I would allow that there is some room in this analysis for what might be termed ‘unexpected’ consequences in the form of a severe recession and political backlash against perceived unfairness. Krueger’s analysis seems to suggest that the erosion of a social commitment to fairness in income distribution is some kind of ephemeral byproduct of historical forces and global and cultural change. However, I would argue that society has always appreciated the importance of fairness. Indeed, when elites overreached in their efforts to influence the public’s perception of fairness, it created the present global backlash and protests against inequality.
Given the true nature and extent of the cultural power that elites have garnered over the last 50 years, their expectation of being able to manage the change to a more unequal society was not unrealistic. And they may still succeed! Leaving out the element of cultural power, and the broader impact of corporate globalization and the effects of structure, neglects one of the key explanations for the continuation of inequality. The perception that success comes from luck or from effort, and not from the structure, is central to the perception of inherent fairness in the system that allows inequality to persist.
So, Krueger’s piece gives us much to think about: technology, scale, luck and the erosion of fairness have played their parts in the rise in inequality. I would put the focus on scale and the rise of globalization, which has fundamentally altered not only the rules for economic acquisition, but also the rules for social, political, and technological relationships. The change in these rules has helped to produce the profound social and economic inequalities we see today.
In Egypt this past summer, former president Hosni Mubarak and former interior minister Habib El-Adly were sentenced to life in prison for complicity in the murder and attempted murder of protesters in the 2011 uprising that removed Mubarak from power. In Liberia, Charles Taylor was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 50 years for aiding Sierra Leonean rebels who raped, maimed, and murdered tens of thousands of civilians (Harper’s Weekly Review June 4th, 2012). In March 2012, the International Criminal Court delivered a guilty verdict against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who was found guilty of the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. At present, the ICC has publicly indicted 30 people, and has proceedings ongoing against 24, including against the top five members of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, including Joseph Kony, for similar crimes.
With human rights increasingly in the news, and the activities of multilateral agencies like the ICC at the forefront, it seems that two distinct pathways to criminal justice for egregious violators of human rights are now becoming evident. In the first pathway, former heads of state are held to account using the bodies of law of the country they once led. Under this pathway, the process can yield successes (as in the case of Mubarak) but it also has flaws. Judges appointed by the former leader may be reluctant to apply the rule of law, or, alternatively, too severe outcomes can actually undermine the rule of law by placing the whole process under suspicion. This is especially true if the society has a history of sectarian violence. In the latter case, for example, I’m thinking of the sham trial of Saddam Hussein following the US invasion of Iraq, which probably set back the rule of law in that country by decades and opened the door to a vicious sectarian war. It should be noted that until recently, with the establishment of the ICC as a legal body, national prosecution of such cases was, essentially, the only available route to justice.
The ICC was established to fill a gap in international human rights law that addressed some of these flaws. The gap lay between the politics of sovereignty and the universal laws of human rights. But the ICC was to be derivative of sovereign law, a supplement, and decidedly not a force for subversion or displacement of national bodies of law. Far from it. International law steps in where national law and politics fail, but fail first they must. It is through this pattern of repeated failure that the full justification and realization of the importance of the ICC to the system of sovereign law will emerge. For this reason, it is entirely wrong to criticize the ICC as toothless or helpless in the face of national power. It also entirely wrong to criticize the ICC for overstepping sovereignty The body of law upon which the ICC draws is the logical and reasonable outgrowth of sovereign law itself. For this reason, every case brought to justice by the ICC strengthens, not weakens, the force of sovereign law to protect human rights and bring violators to justice. Even though there are two pathways to justice, they are heading in the same direction, towards a world where violators will have nowhere to hide with impunity.