Thursday, September 21, 2017

Wheaton and the Challenge of Modelling Christian Community in Higher Education

This story crosses two of my interests - higher education and Christianity:
Wheaton Gives Community Service to Players Facing Felony Charges
Wheaton is an avowedly Christian school. It advertises this widely, makes its identity clear on all of its communications from its website to the signs on its campus, and presumably recruits students for whom living in a Christian community is a part of what they want in a college. The college also has a code of student conduct rooted in Christian theology and ethics.

The behavior described in this article is thus doubly disturbing. This would be unacceptable on any campus, and at a state school would likely lead to suspensions from the football team if not expulsion from the university as a whole. Due process must be followed, of course, and it would be appropriate for any college or university to follow that process before deciding on consequences for the perpetrators.

It appears that Wheaton has already followed whatever on-campus process they are going to follow, and has chosen to mete out what looks on the surface to be a fairly minimal punishment: the students in question have been assigned to write an essay, and to some hours of community service. This seems pretty minor even in a secular context.

There are obviously a lot of details missing here, but the optics are terrible for an institution that claims to be an intentional Christian community. This kind of assault, in that context, is a fundamental violation of trust and a gross offense against any reasonable sense of Christian ethics. Because of the nature of the community, it is an offense not only against the assaulted individual but against the entire community. And it sends a signal to the rest of the world: those "Christians" over there aren't any different from anybody else. Their faith doesn't mean anything.

If you were particularly inclined to be uncharitable, you could conclude that they have revealed their true religion: football. In that sense, they're not very different from the rest of the world.

Here's another unfortunate comparison: some avowedly Christian colleges (not Wheaton, but schools with a similar identity) have been known to expel students for having (consensual) sex outside of marriage, or for declaring a different sexual identity. Those things are unacceptable, but kidnapping and assault is OK?

What would a Christian response look like? It's not so much about the punishment - if anything, a Christian response should leave far more room for forgiveness than the world usually wants. But it is about repentance, examination, and transformation. And since the offense was against the community, some parts of that should be visible to the whole community.

Administrators at Wheaton will undoubtedly cite FERPA and a range of other laws and regulations protecting privacy and due process. Those regulations are good things, but they are not the only thing.  What the college chooses to do in terms of its community process is up to it. At minimum, student offenders can be offered a choice: based on a finding of facts, participate in a process of repentance and reconciliation - one that is visible - or leave.

Sometimes, Christian communities come together and behave in ways that really do show the world that faith matters. Several years ago after a tragic shooting in the Amish community of Nickel Mines, the community came together and publicly forgave the perpetrator and his family. The process of that conversation was difficult but also moving. They did it in public, not because they cared about the publicity or what anyone else thinks of them (the Amish are famous for being indifferent to what we English think), but because it was the right thing to do.

I think Wheaton missed a real opportunity here to live out its faith in public. Perhaps they will reconsider, as I suspect they're going to be facing negative publicity for a while.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Denouncing Nazis is easy. Living together is hard.

Facebook reminded me that a year ago I posted a piece titled There Are No Enemies.

It's not the most popular piece I've ever published, not by a long shot. It did pretty well - a little over 200 hits - but nothing special.

Re-reading it today, I think it may be one of the most important and difficult things I've ever written. And it helped me codify something that's been bugging me ever since the violence in Charleston and the political fallout that ensued.

In the aftermath of the Charleston violence, nearly everybody took to the airwaves and social media to condemn the assortment of white supremacists, Nazis, and KKK types who instigated the violence. This was easy to do: their brandishing of hateful symbols, their chants against Jews, blacks, and others outside their tribe, their obvious anger and aggression - all these put them squarely against core American values.

President Trump, of course, took tremendous political flak for his response. He tried to lay blame for the violence on "many sides" and seemed to go out of his way to serve as an apologist for the white supremacy movement. They themselves clearly saw it that way, judging by their reactions, especially after his Tuesday press conference. For this, Trump was roundly criticized by pretty much everyone across the political spectrum. The few people in his own White House who didn't distance themselves from this view now no longer work there.

That's all a pretty pat and easy story: Nazis and white supremacists are bad, we're the good guys, etc. Trump aside, almost everyone else will jump on this bandwagon.

But then I come back to my piece from last year: there are no enemies. And I also recall a lesson learned from decades of studying conflicts: conflict only ends when the different sides learn to live with each other.

Yes, white supremacy is morally wrong, and yes, Nazism is a horrible set of ideas. But because we say these things, however forcefully we may say them and however many of us "stand up" to do so, we are stuck with two unavoidable realities:

1) Some people will continue to hold to these ideas, despite (or even because of) our efforts to shout them down.

2) Those people are still our fellow Americans. And, if you hold to the Gospel of Christ, they are still Children of God.

We sort of know these things, deep down, though we don't know what to do with them. These are the reason why so many supporters of Hillary Clinton cringed when she made her famous "basket of deplorables" gaffe. She said in public what we wanted emotionally to say but know is morally wrong: that there are groups of people who are bad people.

In the language of revivalist Christianity, we failed to separate the sin from the sinner.

The problem with that logic, of course, is the conclusion to which it leads. If there are people who are irreducibly bad, then they must be either eliminated from society, driven out, or contained. It is, in fact, exactly the same logic that white supremacists operate under. They're just more open about it.

Lots of political movements - from the Nazis to the Khmer Rouge to the Interahamwe to the founders of Republika Srpska - have taken this idea that those people need to be gotten rid of and tried to put it into action. Every single of one of them failed. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, "purifying" the nation - it never works. It creates a lot of pain and a lot of dead bodies, but in the end you still end up living in a diverse society, and you tend to end up poor and miserable to boot.

That's an easy argument to make when confronting Nazis. But we need to think beyond confrontation, because confrontation itself isn't going to resolve anything.

We thought we had gotten rid of Creationism, until we discovered in the 1990s that it never went away. Most of us read Inherit the Wind in high school and saw it as an historical tale about the last gasp of Young Earth Creationism. Creationists read it and saw it as inspiration. We didn't notice until they started to take over school boards again.

White supremacy isn't going to go away simply because we shout at it, and it isn't going to go away because it's wrong. People are quite capable of holding morally abhorrent beliefs for generations, as our own history with black slavery shows. That some of those beliefs are still in circulation should surprise no one.

So while I applaud people who stand up against Nazis, who show up in Boston to demonstrate that there are far more of us who believe in diversity than there are in them who don't, that's just a band-aid. If the rest of us are vociferous enough, or if we elect a President less inclined to say supportive things about white supremacy the next time around, they may go back into the shadows. But they'll still be there, living among us as fellow citizens.

If we really want to move beyond endless demonstrations - if we really want to seek peace - demonstrations and taking down statues won't get us there. At some point, we're going to have to talk to the people we think of as our enemies. That can't happen in large groups, it certainly can't happen while people are carrying torches and clubs and shields, and it probably can't happen in public with TV cameras rolling. But in the end, it's the only way.

Years ago in graduate school, I wanted to start an article with what I thought was a clever observation: "everyone wants peace, they just want it on their own terms." My advisor stopped me and argued that I should get rid of that sentence. Not everyone wants peace, he pointed out. And he was right.

It's easy to look at those who march with Nazi flags and say, they don't want peace. But do we? We are comfortable in our knowledge that we're right and they're wrong and there are more of us anyway - just as they are comfortable in their understanding that they are right and we are wrong, even though there are fewer of them. Moral righteousness is addictive.

None of this means that we have to "meet them halfway" or adjust our beliefs in a racist direction. That's a red herring. But it does mean that we have to take the time to listen to our fellow human beings, and hope that they in turn will listen to us.

I don't know how to go about that, because all sides prefer the conflict we have to an uncertain peace in the future. But I know that, for myself, we are missing a piece of the moral puzzle: the piece that recognizes the common humanity of our "enemies" and seeks the seemingly impossible task of reconciliation. We have to live with "those people", like it or not. We might as well try to live together well.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Violence in Charlottesville: The Dangers of Painting with a Broad Brush

The national conversation is filled with discussion of the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend. The death of one woman is both a tragedy and a crime, as is the injury of nearly two dozen others. Our justice system has much to do to address these terrible acts, and I have faith that it will.

As is often the case, I am more interested in the broader conversation and the conflict that it represents. I have a couple of points I want to make; because of the raw nature of recent events, we'll see how well I can make them.

First, the supporters of White Supremacy often like to wrap their political activities in the flag of Free Speech. The right to peaceably assemble is sacred to all, whether we agree with their views or not. This much is true.

But it is debatable whether "peaceable assembly" includes showing up with shields, helmets, body armor, and sticks. That's not a "peaceful" demonstration, it's intimidation and preparation for combat. So I'm not buying the "peaceful assembly" line. There was never any intention for this to be "peaceful". This is not a movement much interested in peace.

Second, at some point - probably already happened by now - some apologist for the marching racists will argue that it's not fair that they all be blamed for James Alex Fields' actions. He acted alone, they will say. You can't all paint us with the same brush just because of one violent man in our midst.


The entire White Supremacist movement relies on painting with broad brushes. All blacks, all Jews, all gays, all Muslims, all Latinos - "they" are all the same. This is the entirety of their "argument". They don't care about individuals, only about groups. All of "them" are always the same.

If you marched on Friday night, tiki torch in hand, and you don't think this describes you, get the heck out now. You have taken up with a violent movement. Perhaps the icons of knives and axes might give you a clue. Or the hardware your fellow marchers are carrying.

So fine. Your group - each and every one of you - is violent to the point of being murderous. And we, the rest of civilized society, are justified in rounding you up and prosecuting you under the law.

Finally, this is the really key thing that these White Supremacists, neo-Nazis, and various KKK hangers-on don't yet realize. They've already lost. The vast majority of American society - including whites - rejects them, rejects their ideas, and most especially rejects their murderous attachment to violence. To borrow Ronald Reagan's memorable phrase, they are already consigned to the Ash Heap of History.

They just aren't smart enough to know it yet.

Let us not forget that it was the forebears of these rampaging rage-monsters that slaughtered 168 Americans, including 19 preschool children, twenty-two years ago in Oklahoma City. The mix of rage, incoherent fear for their white identity, and rejection of government authority has killed before.

I hope that the death of Heather Heyer will serve the same purpose as the deaths of those many innocent victims in 1995: a wake-up call to the nation and the start of another effort to drive this kind of violent hatred back underground. Given the current occupant in the White House, I'm not holding my breath, but I hope at least that his fellow Republicans will see the Faustian bargain they have struck and repent.

Many people have been quoting MLK's "arc of history" line. In this case, he is absolutely correct. The men (and yes, they are mostly men) who have bought into this violent insanity have been brought out into the light. But they have already lost. The nation unites in horror against their dystopian rage. They cannot win, not even a little bit, anything that they hope to achieve. They can't even keep the statues they are so keen to protect standing in the public square. All they can do is shriek helplessly as the arc of history leaves them behind.

Or, they can repent and join the rest of us. I, for one, would be happy to have them back if they can find a way to set aside their rage, fear, anger, and hatred. We need people working together to build a more perfect union for all of us.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Missing the Key Issue on Affirmative Action

I wrote last week about the Department of Justice memo regarding a new effort to "crack down" on "reverse discrimination" against whites (and Asians) in college admissions. As I explained in that piece, this effort is entirely about symbolic politics, with little to no practical impact on either college admissions or on most people's lives. I urged my colleagues in higher education, most of whom are dedicated to the ideal of diversity, not to panic, because most of our universities aren't going to be affected no matter what DOJ does.

Since most people don't read my blog, however, the ongoing conversation has continued as one might expect. People of color and their allies are understandably concerned about any effort to "target" affirmative action, which they see as a step towards turning back the clock towards a more openly racist past. Given all of the other openly racist things that have happened in the last six months, this is a reasonable concern even if this particular effort is of no consequence.

I have a number of friends in this group, and it is to those friends that this post is addressed. My argument is simple: we're missing the boat. This DOJ initiative on "reverse discrimination" is distracting us from something much more important.

Affirmative action in higher education is a big deal for those who want to advance the cause of underrepresented minorities, because higher education has tremendous potential as a social equalizer. For folks who have been permanently stuck in the economic and social underclass, getting a college degree can be a ticket to a better job, a better neighborhood, a better life. It can break the cycle of poverty and put families on a completely different trajectory for generations to come.

I'm a big believer in the transformative power of higher education, which is why I've devoted my career to it. I've watched single mothers with little support system go on to become Vice Presidents at Fortune 500 companies. I've seen how exposure to educated African Americans and Latinos changes white attitudes about who belongs and who doesn't. Access to higher education is one of the most important tools we have to help people help themselves, and to lift our entire society in the process.

But here's the reality: the kind of "who gets in and who doesn't" arguments about affirmative action and college that the Right wants to fight about don't have an impact on the broader societal problems we want to solve. If you want to lift families of color out of the cycle of poverty, having a different set of rules about who gets into Harvard or Michigan isn't the way to do it.

What's the real barrier? Money.

The vast majority of college students in the United States attend public regional universities. These aren't the schools that the New York Times writes about, but they are where people actually go. In particular, they are the primary recipients of first-generation students who are the key to altering family trajectories.

These universities don't have an affirmative action issue. Most of them accept 90%-95% of their applicants, and those they don't accept aren't decided by race but by basic capability factors (generally, high school GPA and ACT or SAT score). The Wright States and Millersvilles and SW Missouri States and Wisconsin-Green Bays of the world will take any and all students they can get who qualify. They are truly race-blind in admissions.

(As an aside, this is also true of a lot of private schools, who struggle to get the number of students they need to keep themselves going. Even the University of Dayton, a very good Catholic research institution, admitted as much recently - if they get two applicants, one white, one black, both equally qualified, they'll take them both.)

What keeps minority students from attending regional public universities isn't that they can't get in. It's that they can't afford it. And while there are lots of arguments about what is driving the cost of higher education, for regional publics the primary barrier to affordability has been the long, slow, inexorable march by most state legislatures to defund their higher education systems.

Case in point: 25 or so years ago, Wright State (a very typical regional public institution) got $2 of subsidy from the state for every $1 they collected in tuition from their students. Students had "skin in the game", but the amount they had to pony up was significantly decreased by state investment. Today, that ratio has flipped: WSU now gets less than 50 cents from the state for every dollar they get in tuition.

If you believe in higher education as a pathway to success for families of color, this is the battle you need to be fighting. Forget about admissions rules and arguments about whether race can or can't be included in deciding who gets in to college. If you want to really move the needle on societal equality, and lift millions of disadvantaged people out of the poverty trap, get more public money put into higher education.

I don't for a minute believe that this is an easy task. But as folks are marshaling political resources for a mostly symbolic battle of little practical significance, I ask them to consider focusing those resources instead on the battle that has the greatest impact on people's lives. Don't fall for the bait of arguing about Harvard's admissions practices. Harvard isn't going to solve our problems. But more money in public higher education just might.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Affirmative Action in Universities: Don't Panic

There has been a lot of buzz in the last couple of days about an internal Justice Department memo seeking lawyers for a new initiative to go after universities for "reverse discrimination" in admissions. This is an old conservative argument that claims, to whit, that white students (they now add Asians to this group) are denied admission to universities in favor of less-qualified black or Latino applicants.

In a country with thousands of universities and millions of university students, I'm sure that there are a few cases where this can be credibly argued to have happened. It is hardly an epidemic, or even a problem of any significant size, judging by the racial profiles of pretty much every university (outside the HBCUs) in the nation. On its face, this is a non-problem.

The political utility of the argument, however, is easy to see. It feeds a broader narrative of tribal white resentment. It also plays well to the more conservative philosophical point of view that everything is about the individual, that the individual is sovereign, and that when the rights of a single individual are trampled that's a terrible thing (though that argument seldom gets extended to individuals of color...)

Setting aside whether this sort of initiative within the DoJ is a good or a bad thing - people can form their own opinions on that subject - I can say from inside higher education that this effort, if it ever gets off the ground, will be far less significant than it might appear. There are relatively few institutions vulnerable to this kind of investigation. Most universities will be ignored, because admissions works very differently in different kinds of places.

The wealthy private elite institutions - the kinds of places that the NY Times writes about whenever it talks about "higher education" - have long ago insulated themselves from this charge by adopting very complex wholistic admissions practices. Race is but one consideration among many, and so much of their process is subjective that being able to credibly argue that any given student was turned away primarily because she is white will be impossible. Yale, Harvard, Amherst and Williams turn away thousands of students every year who are just as qualified as the ones they admit - that's the nature of the game. No investigating lawyer is going to wade into that world, because there is no victory to be had there.

Over in the public university area, the vast majority of public institutions are regional and desperate for students. Two that I have worked for, Wright State and the University of Toledo, will take any and all qualified applicants. They and a host of similar schools - Youngstown State, SE Missouri State, Millersville University, most of the SUNY campuses, Central Florida, and a thousand more - are enrollment and tuition-driven. The notion of having to select some students over others on the basis of race - or anything else - is irrelevant to these schools. When you're admitting all qualified applicants (and often, many who are marginally so), there's no danger that you're discriminating against anyone. Keep in mind, too, that these schools are where the vast majority of university students in the United States go.

That leaves only two classes of schools - small second and third tier private schools, and public flagships. The former are unlikely to be targeted in part because they, too, tend to be enrollment and tuition driven and are therefore less selective than their elite counterparts, and in part because nobody outside of their immediate area has heard of them. Regardless of the merits or demerits of affirmative action processes, any investigative effort is going to want to go after universities or colleges with national name recognition, because they're trying to make a political point. No investigator is going to focus on Lebanon Valley College (sorry, LVC!) They and several hundred of their brethren can rest easy.

The for-profit sector, of course, is immune to this kind of charge for the same reason regional publics are - they'll take anybody who qualifies to get in and is willing to pay (or borrow). Phoenix doesn't have an affirmative action problem.

That leaves only the flagship public universities like Michigan and UT-Austin. It's no coincidence that the major affirmative action cases in the last two decades came from those two schools. These schools, and a handful of others around the country (Ohio State, Missouri, Alabama, Georgia, Florida or Florida State, Ole Miss, Penn State, Minnesota, UW-Madison, etc.) have enough cache and status that they get a lot more applicants than they can accept. They do care about diversity (which, according to the Supreme Court, they are allowed to do), and they do take race into account. Because of the Fisher case and others, all of them have long ago adopted admissions procedures that stay well within the boundaries of what the court says is Constitutionally permissible.

So we're really talking about a small handful of universities here - maybe 30 in all - that are potential targets of any kind of DoJ effort. And all of them have spent years making sure that their admissions processes can withstand legal challenges. They don't get caught up in the kind of accusation leveled against UT-Austin so many years ago.

In other words, this "effort" is unlikely to affect 99% of America's universities, and it is unlikely to actually change much even in the few that might be targeted. This is pure symbolic politics - sound and fury signifying nothing, to borrow from the Bard. To my colleagues in higher education: don't panic. This, too, shall pass.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can We Ignore North Korea?

A good friend of mine posted this question to FB today. Since a decent answer requires more than should be put into a FB comment section, I'm writing out my thoughts here.

OK, honest question for the many people in my feed who are smarter about international stuff than I am. 
Hypothetically, what if the US were to just ignore North Korea? No threatening, no assisting, no engaging, nothing? Just maintain our relationship with South Korea and nothing else?
Would that still create an unacceptable risk for South Korea? Would it destabilize our relationship with China?
There are obvious humanitarian reasons not to follow this course, so I'm not advocating anything -- I just want to better understand how the cogs fit together. Smart people, please educate me.

Like all questions of foreign policy, answering this one depends very much on what your goals are. The Trump administration hasn't been very clear in articulating its goals towards North Korea, but my sense is that they haven't shifted very much from where past administrations have been. Those goals reasonably include, or could include, the following:

1) Avoid war in the Korean peninsula (which would be horrendously catastrophic for everybody, and would result in millions of deaths).

2) Prevent North Korea from attacking the United States with a nuclear weapon.

3) Prevent North Korea from developing a deployable nuclear weapon. Barring this, prevent it from developing such a weapon that can be delivered to the United States.

4) Bring about regime change in North Korea, with a possible eye towards reunifying the peninsula.

#4 is, for all intents and purposes, out of bounds. The Kim regime in Pyongyang desires its survival in power above all else, and it has had a credible conventional deterrent against Seoul and South Korea for decades. We may say we don't like their government very much, but no US administration has openly flirted with actively trying to change it - as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reinforced just yesterday.

#3 is also essentially off the table. We have tried under the past three presidential administrations (both Democrat and Republican) to use various carrots and sticks to get the North Koreans to forgo their quest for nukes. None of this has worked, largely because there are no sanctions or offers of aid big enough to eclipse the value the Kim regime sees in having a working nuclear deterrent to the United States. Anything more aggressive than what we have tried threatens to run afoul of #1, which nobody wants. So while nobody in the US government can admit it out loud, we're essentially stuck with a nuclear-armed North Korea with a limited strike capability against the United States.

That leaves us with Goals 1 and 2. These are indeed achievable using the same tool we've been using in Korea and elsewhere for the past three generations: deterrence. A basic deterrence posture does, in a sense, look a little like what my friend suggested: "ignoring" North Korea. They have weapons, we have weapons, we each make it clear to the other under what circumstances we will use them, and then we settle down and watch nothing happen. The Kim regime wants to deter an attack on its regime; we want to deter an attack on South Korea, Japan, and ourselves (the Chinese can take care of themselves). With both sides possessing a devastating strike capability, neither is likely to attack the other.

Of course, completely ignoring North Korea by  having essentially no relationship isn't really an option. There is always a need for contact to avoid misunderstandings, to facilitate basic interactions, to jointly govern the DMZ, and so on. Most of the time this kind of contact takes place well below the public's radar screen. Banning Americans from traveling to NK will probably help keep it there.

The longer-term danger which we, Seoul, and Beijing all recognize is: what happens if the North Korean system collapses economically? An internal crisis would likely spark a mass exodus of refugees, some of whom would be shot while fleeing but many of whom would wash up on South Korean and Chinese shores. A serious crisis could also lead to internal unrest, especially if the North Korean military begins to doubt the wisdom of backing Kim's rule or, worse, factionalizes. There is no viable political infrastructure or civil society in North Korea, so any crisis could lead to chaos for a long time before order is restored. And given the level of weaponry in the hands of the North Korean military, that chaos could lead to a lot of damage, both inside the country and in its neighbors.

Unfortunately, neither engagement nor disengagement can have much effect on the North's internal dynamics. If we see a food crisis coming, we can flood the country with food aid, which staves off the crisis at the expense of propping up the Kim regime. We should certainly maintain enough engagement to be able to see what's happening - any warning at all that a crisis is brewing is better than none.

In the absence of a serious internal crisis, North Korea is a significant priority for US foreign policy but probably not a very active one. Beyond deterrence and some level of engagement (in which we may want to follow the lead of our South Korean allies, since they bear the immediate consequences), there's really not a lot to be done. Even the Trump administration seems to have figured out that, while it's easy to criticize your predecessors for "not doing enough" on North Korea, the reality is that we don't have any other options and we do what we do because there is nothing else to be done.

Interestingly, China more or less shares our goals with regard to North Korea. They don't want war, they don't want an attack on the US (which would cause a war), and they would probably prefer that North Korea not have nukes. To the extent that we want to find areas to cooperate with China, North Korea is a promising field. But we should not suffer from the illusion that China can force the Kim regime to do things that we can't. If China squeezes North Korea by cutting off trade, that could well precipitate the kind of internal crisis that no one wants. In essence, the Kim regime has at least two forms of deterrence: it can cause unacceptable damage with its military, and it can also cause unacceptable damage by its own untimely death. It's a modern state version of a dead man's switch.

The best we can hope for, therefore, is a North Korea that is stable (if poor and a human rights disaster) and contained. There is actually a fifth goal, which we and China also share: preventing North Korea from sharing its nuclear or missile technology with other actors elsewhere in the world. That's an area where we can fruitfully cooperate. Export proliferation is also not a big priority for the Kim government, which cares for its own survival and not at all for anyone else in the world.

So the answer to the question of whether we can ignore North Korea is "yes, sort of". Energetic and engaged diplomacy is unlikely to change the Kim regime's behavior. Starving it (beyond the current levels of sanctions) could trigger a disaster. And so we sit, and wait, and hope to contain the damage when change eventually comes.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Expertise: The Knowledge of Things Unseen

I've written before about the value and importance of expertise. We used to believe, especially in the realm of science, that experts really did know more than the rest of us. Now, in a world of echo-chamber social media and fake news and "alternative facts", a lot of us (meaning here Americans) have chucked this notion out the window. Many of us now believe that we and our friends know the real truth, and that everybody else is either a dupe or a liar.

One reason why it's easy to fall into this trap is that we feel good about our echo chambers - they make us feel powerful and affirmed, a sort of antidote to the fear we've been taught is the proper response to the modern world. That part of the psychology that leads people to reject expertise and accept otherwise wacky ideas is pretty clear.

But there's another aspect to expertise that actually contributes to its widespread rejection. The nature of expertise is that people who are experts see things that non-experts can't see. They perceive things in the universe that are, quite literally, invisible to the rest of us.

This phenomenon has been well-documented in all sorts of arenas. Elite athletes, for example, have been studied extensively. It turns out that, while they tend to be in excellent health and have certain physical gifts, they're not especially more physically gifted in general than the rest of us. It's that the tens of thousands of hours of practice they put in have rewired their brains so they can perceive things other's can't. That's why the best hitters in professional baseball actually stand a good chance of hitting a baseball thrown by a professional pitcher, traveling at more than 95 miles per hour. He can see things about that ball that are invisible to the rest of us.

The same is true in medicine. An experienced doctor will see in a list of symptoms, or the way a patient answers a question, possible diagnoses that we know nothing about. Nor can we understand the connections between those little bits of information and the much larger issue. Doctors carry around a whole world of knowledge in their heads that is inaccessible to non-experts.

So it goes for nearly every field of human endeavor. Architects see things in buildings that the rest of us miss. Musicians hear things in music we can't hear. Engineers, lawyers, designers, auto mechanics - in almost any human endeavor involving expertise, experts are privy to a world out of reach of the rest of us.

Unfortunately, this makes it easy to dismiss expertise. It's easy to assume that everything you see is everything there is to see. We're pretty good at accounting for the data coming into our senses, but generally terrible about accounting for what's not there. Arthur Conan Doyle immortalized this in his story "Silver Blaze", in which Sherlock Holmes solves the otherwise unsolvable case by observing that a dog didn't bark.

I encounter this all the time in my own area of expertise - politics - because, as John Stewart Mill put it over 100 years ago, politics "is a subject which no one, however ignorant, thinks himself incompetent to discuss". In the political realm, we all think that we can see everything there is to see. And when "experts" come along and try to point out what we can't see, we often dismiss them because, well, we can't see what they're pointing at. We think they're just making it up.

There are two conclusions here. First, humility is not only a moral virtue, it's an intellectual necessity. We all need to know what we don't know (the height of Aristotle's wisdom). Second, we need to make an effort to determine where real expertise lies - not in who shouts the loudest or in who says things we want to believe, but in who has really put in the time and effort to establish a track record. Anybody can claim they're an expert - evaluate those claims carefully, especially when the supposed expert is simply confirming your own biases.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why "Fear for your Life" Isn't a Reasonable Standard

There's a lot of reaction this week to the verdict in the case of Philando Castile's shooting last year. Naturally, a lot of it has centered on race and the officer's defense that he was "afraid for his life".

As part of this conversation, a friend of mine posted a video to Facebook along with a request for thoughts. The video showed a white man resisting arrest by two police officers (both also white). The man, who is a pretty big guy, puts up quite a struggle, at one point seeming to reach for one of the officer's guns (though he does not obtain it). Eventually the police wrestle him to the ground and pin him. At no time did either officer reach for any of the weapons on his belt. While he was on the ground, they did not continue to strike him in punishment; they simply held him still.

Commentary attached to the video by the original poster suggested that this was evidence of white privilege, if not white dominance: that whites who struggle against police don't need to fear for their lives, while blacks who are compliant with police do. It was this contrast which my friend was seeking comment on.

In response, I wrote the following, more less as a stream of consciousness:

"Fear for your life" is a subjective state of mind. My fear is mine - it is based on the judgments and expectations I have in my own head about is going on around me. 

Juridical standards of "reasonable fear" assume that we can take an average of what
 "most people" would fear given a certain set of circumstances. In some cases, this is in fact "reasonable" - most people will fear if suddenly confronted with a rattlesnake, for example. Most people will also experience fear if a gun is pointed at them.

To believe that we can do this kind of "reasonable averaging" without taking race into account is folly. If I get pulled over, it would not be reasonable for me to fear that the police officer is going to shoot me. Were I black, it would be very reasonable to fear that outcome.

This isn't "White Supremacy", at least not in the sense that there is a conscious, guiding ideology that drives these differences. Rather, there are unconscious and semi-conscious biases that exist in people's heads. We tried to call these biases "racism", but that falters because most people think racism is a conscious thing, a set of beliefs I consciously hold.

We all make judgments in the face of ambiguous evidence. Those judgments are driven by our beliefs, our expectations, and our emotional responses to things around us. This is why negative media portrayals of black men, for example, are so problematic. TV shows don't turn people into conscious racists. But they build up in our mind unexamined expectations about how other people are likely to behave.

Our laws and judicial procedures were developed with an underlying assumption that all people are equal. And so we wish ourselves to be. But in our minds, we are NOT all equal to each other. To pretend otherwise is to deny reality.

The simple answer to this particular problem is rigorous, continuous, serious police training. You can train officers to respond the same to everyone, regardless of color. But you have to recognize that such training has to overcome the differences already existing in their own heads. It takes a lot of work, and a lot of practice, to overcome those mental differences. Some - I suspect many - police officers already have, and many have probably never been seriously tested on the street. I am surprised, in the light of these continuing tragedies, that no one is talking about how we support, train, and discipline our police forces, and what expectations we have for the way they do their jobs.

It seems to me that the legal question we keep asking in these cases - would a "reasonable person" be afraid for their life under a certain set of circumstances - is the wrong question, because there is no singular "reasonable" viewpoint. Our experiences, especially around race, are so vastly disparate that most of us cannot understand what "reasonable" looks like to someone who has a different race, a different background, a different set of experiences than we do.

We will never make progress in our national conversations until we recognize this basic truth: that "reasonable" is not an objective standard, and that fear is based on many things including prejudices. Just because someone is sincerely afraid does not make their actions in response to that fear reasonable.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mourning Conservatism: The Loss of the "Coarsening of Culture" Argument

Conservatism - at least, as it was understood during my formative years in the 1970s and 1980s - is dead. This is not a new observation, but its passing has been largely ignored such that I think it worth at least a brief obituary.

Not all parts of conservatism, of course, have died. Ideologies don't die so much as evolve and change over time. But at some point that evolution proceeds so far from its ancestry that one could usefully talk of a "new species". In that regard, what passes for "conservative" today is fundamentally different from the conservatism of a few decades ago. The old species of conservative I used to know have mostly died out, at least on the public stage.

In particular there's one aspect of that older conservatism that I always found had some appeal. Conservatives used to be concerned about a problem they sometimes called the "coarsening of culture" - that is, the flouting of social norms and common values that, in their view, led us towards a less-civilized society.

Sometimes this argument took on somewhat shrill overtimes, like Robert Bork's Slouching Towards Gomorrah. (One can only imagine what Bork would make of Donald Trump.) But at its heart lies a fundamentally conservative, and sympathetic, idea: that the norms and cultural practices that bind us together in community should not be taken lightly. Sometimes these norms and practices are bad and need to be changed - much of the classic argument between liberals and conservatives (think Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke) was about how such change should be effected, and how quickly.

But many of the norms we take for granted are in fact good ones, and necessary to the functioning of a civil society. Among these are respect for the rule of law and respect for other individuals, including some level of tolerance of differences that inherently occur in all societies. At the root of all of this is the need to prevent diverse societies from devolving into anarchy, chaos, and violence - Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all.

This is the sort of thing that conservatives used to worry about, comparatively more than liberals. Yet, except for a few pious words in the wake of last week's shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field, today's "conservatives" are by their actions apparently no longer interested in conserving the core civility that was once the hallmark of their brand.

A minor but telling case in point can be found in this story:
Threats For What She Didn't Say
Here is a classicist - a field once staunchly defended by conservatives as necessary for the promotion of "Western Civilization" - being attacked by avowed conservatives, in most un-civil ways. What concerns me about the story is not so much the reactions by white supremacist internet trolls, who are by and large keyboard cowards wrapped in their own dark fantasy worlds. We have come to understand that these are a byproduct of the information age, the empowerment of hate in the midst of change.

More troubling, from the standpoint of modern conservatism, is the eagerness with which seemingly respectable conservative publications like the National Review engage in bomb-throwing behavior that is decidedly un-conservative (at least, by previous standards). The National Review has ceased to be conservative in its behavior or its outlook, adopting instead a sort of hyperventilating tribalism in which anything that plays to a particular set of prejudices, or against another, should be framed so as to maximize its controversy. It's all about creating heat, not light.

I understand why this is: because heat sells, and light does not. A once-conservative publication is now perfectly happy to engage in reckless playing with fire, and will undoubtedly denounce anybody who tries to draw a connection between them and the internet trolls they are stoking. But in doing so they - like many others, on all sides of our ideological divides - have traded their soul for money.

Heat - that is, emotionally charged controversy - used to be seen as the byproduct of the process of producing light - that is, truth. Conservatives spent decades, even centuries, pointing out to liberal revolutionaries that the heat produced by attempts to produce light could often burn down the building we're all standing in. It was one of the best arguments conservatives ever had to hold the moral high ground.

Now, it appears that the modern conservative movement has become corrupted by the same thing they always accused liberals of: moral relativism. There is no point in trying to hold the moral high ground if there is, in fact, no more moral high ground. Everything is simply a power struggle, a clash between sides to produce winners and losers. Donald Trump is a product and symptom of this shift, which existed long before he came along.

Conservatives used to argue that there were fundamental moral principles of right and wrong on which we could all agree. Among these were the rule of law and the maintenance of social order against the forces of chaotic violence that hover just outside our gates, never very far away.

I miss those conservatives. I wonder what happened to them. Now that they're gone, I think they deserve at least a decent burial.

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Pathology of "Terrorism"

In the last three days we have seen headlines for two horrific incidents of violence:
7 killed in London Bridge attack
Disgruntled ex-employee kills 5 in Orlando
Both are appalling reminders of the violence which individuals are capable of. Both have made national and/or international news. Both involved the deaths of innocent citizens going about their daily lives.

One attack was a "terrrorist" attack. The other was not. And our differential responses say a great deal about us and our tolerance for violence.

The London attack immediately became part of a larger narrative when the self-styled Islamic State claimed responsibility. In the minds of many, particularly politicians with self-serving agendas, this immediately made it part of a larger global "war on terrorism". Tweets were sent, heated words flew almost immediately as we rehashed yet again the now-tired argument (at least in the US) between tribal Republicans who decry "political correctness" and tribal Democrats who defend the value (or the reality) of a multicultural society.

The Orlando case, on the other hand, falls into a much more isolated narrative, the "disgruntled ex-employee". President Trump has not tweeted about the attack in Orlando, preferring apparently to argue with the Mayor of London. There will be no calls from national politicians to do anything in particular. The headline quote from the local sheriff after the incident was this:
“We have no indication that this subject is a participant in any type of terror organization,” Demings said during the news conference.
That's our main response: well, at least it wasn't terrorism.

If it were my spouse, my child, my parent killed in that business in Florida, I doubt that would come as any comfort at all. The very idea seems absurd. And yet, our public conversation treats the deaths of innocents completely differently based solely on who killed them. We can live with the deaths of innocents, so long as they're shot by disgruntled ex-employees rather than stabbed or run over by terrorists.

We have become pathologically obsessed with terrorism. In any given year, far more innocent Americans are killed by disgruntled ex-employees than by terrorists. That's not just statistics - it's lives ruined, communities wounded, productivity lost. Every one of those lost lives leaves an impact, a hole where a person used to be. They all hurt. They are all children of God.

And yet, we act as if only those lucky enough to have been killed by terrorists matter. Those deaths get the attention, the large public ceremonies with politicians and media attention and stern promises of "This bloodshed will end"!

No one will go to Orlando and console the survivors of that attack with promises of action and praise for how strong they are to go on living in the wake of tragedy. There will be no mass gatherings of funds for those families. I imagine the local community will gather around the wounded and the fallen, and that's as it should be. But for the rest of the nation - and in particular, for our public "leaders" - the lives of seven people in London are far more important than the lives of five people in Florida.

There was an attack in Orlando that garnered a great deal of attention - because the attacker could be described as a "terrorist". We all came together united in the wake of the nightclub shooting. Yet just a few years before, we tore each other apart over an incident in which 20 six and seven year olds were gunned down in their school. No unity there, just spite and hate (even people who want to deny that it ever happened.) Our own children don't even matter unless they're killed by terrorists.

I understand why all of this is. I get the politics, the use of narrative, the incentives that drive politicians to use events for their own ends, the tribalism that divides us from our common humanity, even our common national identity. I understand all of that far too well, having studied it for too many years.

What I can't shake is a fundamental conviction: that this is Wrong.

Many American politicians piously call themselves Christians (Vice President Pence has famously said that he is a "Christian first"). Under what reading of the Bible does one set of innocent deaths matter more than another? If you think your job as a public servant is to protect innocent lives, why do you lavish hundreds of billions of dollars to protect some and nothing to protect others?

In the years immediately following 9/11/2001, we had a national conversation - not a great one, but the best we could do - about what constitutes "winning" for terrorists. We told ourselves that if we allowed the terrorists to drive us into fear, to change us, to make us something we're not, then they would in fact have won. We argued about where exactly those boundaries were, but for a while we shared a general sense: as long as we go on being Americans, they have not prevailed.

We are now so enthralled, so bewitched, so addicted to the idea of "terrorism" that I begin to think that perhaps they have won. Not too many years back, it seemed that tragedy brought out the best in us. We came together after 9/11, but also when the Mississippi flooded its banks and inundated the midwest; when New Orleans disappeared under water; when Hurricane Andrew struck Florida. In between disasters we argued and bickered, but when the chips were really down we seemed to have each other's backs. That's probably a simplified version of the past - but if so, it's an aspirational one.

Now, each new tragedy divides. Terrorist attacks are simply grist for more division and arguing and spite, while other incidents - like this morning's attack in Orlando - are ignored.

As usual, I don't have any solutions - only a conviction that we have all of this badly wrong. And I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi's famous saying:
What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans, and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Why I'm Still Not Afraid of President Trump

As we lurch from one bizarre episode in the Trump Administration to another (Russia! Twitter! Covfefe! Special Counsel! Ethics rules! Fire the FBI Director! Paris Climate Accord!), I am repeatedly brought back to something I wrote just a little over a year ago:
Why I'm Not Afraid of President Trump
This was written well before the election, and before Trump had technically sowed up the nomination (though by May it was pretty clear he would likely have it). One can quibble on a few details, but on the whole I think it's held up pretty well.

A significant part of my argument a year ago rested on this earlier piece, in which I pointed out that the US Presidency is in many ways a profoundly limited position. I think that the Trump Administration is actually providing a series of excellent illustrations of this point:

• Trump came out firing early with Executive Orders (long derided as "Presidential overreach" by suddenly-silent GOP Congressmen, but that's a topic for another day). But most of his Executive Orders have been words only. The one on "freedom of religion"? Actually changed almost nothing in practical terms. He's made two runs so far at trying to take unilateral action on immigration, only to have both of them blocked by the courts. Most of the stuff he's signed so far has been effective at generating a lot of press and buzz, but almost completely ineffective in actually changing anything (which isn't a bad description of Trump's career in show business).

• At the end of April, Congress faced a significant deadline to put together a budget for the remainder of FY17 for the Federal Government. The Trump Administration released a blueprint of what it thought Congress should do, including recommendations for massive cuts in a wide range of domestic programs and massive increases in defense spending. Though there was again a lot of press and public attention, in the end Congress pretty much ignored everything that Trump said and hammered out their own plan, which the President quietly signed. His impact on that process - perhaps the most important thing the US government does - was near zero. Early indications are that his FY18 budget proposal is going to get roughly the same treatment.

• His most recent action, on the Paris Climate Accord, is far less consequential than it appears for at least two reasons. First, "withdrawal" is not an instantaneous thing. By the terms of the Agreement, the US can't actually leave for three or four years - long enough to make this an issue in the next Presidential election cycle, and subject to being reversed by the next President. Second, the response from states, cities, and the corporate sector has been massively in the other direction. A great many entities that were going to have to take action under the Paris Accords are going to take those same actions anyway - up to and including giant oil companies, which are already coming under fire from their investors for not getting ready for a low-carbon future.

This is not to say that Trump's attempted actions don't matter. The most significant impact, as my colleague Dan Drezner has pointed out, may be that the US is largely abandoning leadership on the international stage to Europe and China. That's not the outcome that Trump or his supporters wanted, but it's the one we're getting. So I am not arguing that Trump's actions have no consequences.

I am, however, sticking to my pre-election conclusion: one man, no matter how ill-informed, arrogant, or unqualified, cannot destroy the United States or the world. The United States Presidency is far more limited in its scope and influence than we tend to give it credit for in our public discussions. Moreover, everything that Trump has done so far has had the effect of weakening the office still further, whether by appointing ill-prepared department heads who will spend their time fighting their own bureaucracies, taking extreme positions that mobilize resistance, or making policy proposals so absurd that he gets excluded from the important conversations. That's not the world I would like to see, but it's one I can live with.

I am often reminded of one of Fred Rogers' most famous quotes, worth repeating in this context:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
Things look scary now. But there are many people out there who are helping. Look for them. If you can, be one of them.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Terrible Temptation of "Christianity and..."

Years ago, C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters warned against the dangers of what he called "Christianity and":
The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. 
My Facebook feed (because of a comment by a friend) served up a striking example of this phenomenon today - a graphic accompanied by the following text, posted by a FB group called "Our President and Savior":

Of all the sacred institutions upholding our democracy, none is as important as loyalty to the President. What better way to show your loyalty than by making a formal pledge in the sight of GOD, for all to know? Voluntarily pledging in the comments will demonstrate superior integrity than if you wait for the pledge to become mandatory. Don't delay; pledge your loyalty to President TRUMP today!

The Donald J. Trump Presidential Pledge of Loyalty:

"I swear to GOD this sacred pledge that to the President of the United States and people, Donald J. Trump, supreme commander in chief of the armed forces, I shall render unconditional obedience and that as a brave patriot I shall at all times be prepared to give my life for this pledge."

In the (unsurprisingly extensive) comments section came this particular addition from the poster of the original:
Our President and Savior ATTENTION LIBERALS: This is a CHRISTIAN page and foul language will NOT be tolerated. We permit you to be here for your own benefit, but cussing and profanity are strictly FORBIDDEN. You have been warned!
I am baffled. Under what reading of the Christian Bible does it become "mandatory" to pledge allegiance to an earthly ruler? What kind of theology allows you identify as a Christian and call Donald Trump (or any other President) "Savior"? Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light" - I'm pretty sure he didn't make mention of the President of the United States, or the Emperor of Rome, or the Governor of Syria, or Pilate, or anyone else.

I'm also not sure what understanding of "democracy" regards "loyalty to the President" as one of the "sacred institutions" that upholds the system. Our government was founded on disloyalty to a ruler, and is clearly designed to protect the rights of anyone who wants to speak out and oppose those elected to office.

Somewhere, Screwtape is laughing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Ideological Purity and the Loss of Tolerance

I've written before (here and here) about the dangers of trying to create an ideologically "pure" environment. Our politics are problematic in part because there are some folks on both the Left and the Right who refuse to have anything to do with anything that smacks of the other side. These people are doomed to live frustrated lives, since they will never achieve what they seek.

In academia, the forces pulling in this same direction can be even stronger. There is something about academic training, about dedicating a large portion of your life to seeking truth in a particular area, that seems to engender in us the need to Be Right and to vanquish all of the Wrong Thinking in the world. Academics are not much known for humility.

In this context, the latest wave of opposition to campus speakers has become particularly fertile ground for this sort of quixotic quest for purity. In the minds of some, to host an outside speaker on campus is to allow anything and everything that person has ever said to taint you. The institution itself becomes unclean by their presence, requiring rituals of purification. You could write these sorts of strictures up in Leviticus and they would fit right in.

One of the latest of these incidents involves a kerfuffle surrounding an invitation extended to James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist who, along with Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, discovered and articulated the structure of DNA. He had a hand on one of the signature scientific achievements of the 20th century, on which a vast amount of biological and medical knowledge has been built. He is, as the saying goes, one of the giants in the field.

He has also, at various points, expressed some outdated views about race, gender, and other social issues. He has expressed concern that people in Africa are less intelligent than people in other parts of the world. He has said various things about women, about body types, and about homosexuality which most people these days don't agree with. He has also apparently been a supporter of eugenics, at least at the individual level. He is, from many points of view, on the wrong side of history on a number of social issues.

So here we have a man who has led a stellar scientific career, contributing to some of the most impactful scientific advances of the modern age, who also apparently holds some retrograde views on issues of race, gender, and sexuality - views not that uncommon, it should be noted, for white men born in the 1920s.

In other words, James Watson is a human. He has done things that are laudable, and he has done things that are condemnable. He has said things we wish he hasn't said, and he has done things we are extremely grateful for.

So when he is invited to give a talk about science - about the thing for which he clearly deserves praise - and then is disinvited because of things he has said unrelated to his scientific research, I not sure what the standard is. Can we only invite speakers who have led exemplary lives and have been saints since birth? Can we only host speakers who have never said anything that might offend someone's point of view? If so, our list of campus speakers will be very short indeed.

From a Christian point of view, this kind of intellectual purifying of the academy is nonsense. We are all sinners, and there is no coherent theological justification to suggest that some sins (racism, for example) are more egregious in the eyes of God than others (pride, or lust, or greed). People love to read the Beatitudes, but the rest of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 makes us profoundly uneasy (Cut off your hand! Tear out your eye!)

I am therefore a little perplexed when people write "I am ashamed to be faculty at Illinois" because some part of the university - which is a large, complex organization with many parts, not a unified whole - has decided to host Watson for a talk about his research. Such a person must be perpetually ashamed of many things, because we are all connected to institutions and social structures that do things that we find objectionable.

None of this is to defend racism, or sexism, or homophobia. When Watson argues that one "race" of people is inherently less intelligent than another, he is doing so on the basis of prejudice rather than careful scientific study. The bases of intelligence are complex and multifaceted, and it is entirely likely that his own intelligence is a result of the nurture of his upbringing and circumstances (of having "won the ovarian lottery", as Warren Buffet puts it) rather than what's in his genetic code. As we seek the roots of intelligence we find a very complex web indeed. We would also do well to carefully untangle judgments about intelligence from judgments about moral value, lest we fall into the trap of moral elitism - "smart" people do not have a greater inherent moral value than "dumb" ones.

But it is one thing to disagree with an argument or a point of view. It is another thing entirely to assert that, by inviting a speaker to talk on one topic, you are in some sense endorsing his views on others - an assertion that, when brought to light, is clearly silly. It is still another thing to claim that, by that person's presence on campus in some kind of invited capacity, the institution as a whole is morally tainted - a modern version of the Levitical code of purity.

Ultimately, I think our problem is that we are confused. We see ourselves as individual moral agents - as responsible for our own moral choices. Yet we also imbue our institutions - which are, after all, simply collections of individuals - with a sort of moral status of their own. In itself, this can be useful,  because we want to feel that we belong to and contribute to something greater than ourselves. But we are unclear about the moral rules surrounding our institutions. We seek to hold our institutions to the same standards as ourselves - forgetting that we are not alone, and that others may have different ideas about what is appropriate or inappropriate.

All of this, of course, is just a description of what it means to live in society. My concern is that we are forgetting this - we forget that one of the chief qualities that enables us to get along with each other and improve our individual and collective lives is tolerance for difference and ambiguity. The quest for purity is really just the reduction of the moral world to a zero-sum game: either I win, or you do. Either we are not racist, or we are. We are either a conservative place or a liberal place. Throughout the history of humanity, this approach has always led to suffering, and never to the victory that its adherents sought. Maybe we should step back and look for a better way to listen to each other without so much throwing of stones and slurs and signs.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Limitations of Surveys

In perusing the higher education press this morning, I came across this story:
Americans see value in higher education, survey finds, but are unhappy with current system
The results of this survey are likely to be seized on by various constituents and interests. No doubt state legislators will see it as further evidence of the need for "reform" in higher education.

I don't intend to argue here about whether universities need to reform or not. In a certain sense, that's a silly question - all universities at all times can do things to make themselves better, and should. We can all find ways to better serve our students, to help our students learn and grow more, to be more efficient and cost-effective, and so on. This is the normal state of affairs.

One thing state legislatures and the general public don't often realize is that, despite our desire for simple answers, the kinds of change needed are usually university-specific. Even within one state or public university system, the issues and challenges facing any two universities within that area are likely to be very different. I have recently made the transition from one public university in Ohio to another. Both are sizable comprehensive universities serving metropolitan areas that in many ways are mirror images of each other. Both need reform. The kind of reform each needs, however, is radically different.

So a survey that says "things need to change!" isn't useful at all. Very few doubt the need for change on any campus, and those who do tend not to be in positions of authority or influence. Yes, there are rear-guard actions by groups of faculty or (less frequently) staff, but these are increasingly ineffective. Most good faculty leaders I know understand the need for reform. We just need to agree on what kinds of reforms are needed.

But the survey referenced above isn't just useless because it makes an obvious point. The observation that "58% believe colleges put their own interests ahead of students", or that "just one in four respondents feel higher education is functioning fine the way it is", reflect genuine opinions. But where do those opinions come from? As has famously been said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.

Legislators or others with an agenda will argue that these opinions are evidence that things have gone wrong in higher education, that there is a "crisis". They assume, in other words, that people's opinions reflect reality. Unfortunately, that's not true.

If you call me up and ask me what I think of the nature of the health care system in the US, I have to construct an opinion on the spot. Like most Americans, I don't spend a lot of time thinking about "the health care system". I occasionally interact with that system, because (like most Americans) I tend to be generally healthy. Moreover, even if I like my particular doctor, I may not see that one data point as representative of the system as a whole. I'm likely to simply think that my doctor is a good fellow, or that my doctor's office is a nice and reasonably well-run place.

So where does my opinion come from? If I read stories all the time about how health care is "failing", how people can't get treatment, how drugs are too expensive, how hospitals are terrible, and so on - those things are likely to be "top of mind" for me when the pollster calls. We have known for a long time that in public opinion polling, people base their answers on the most recent relevant information in their memory banks, even if that information isn't that representative or even all that relevant.

So when somebody does a poll of 1600 people nationwide and asks their opinions about college, I know that the vast majority of those respondents are unlikely to have had a significant interaction recently with a college. Moreover, even if they have, we tend to differentiate the individual cases we know from the broader "system" we're being asked about. This is the same dynamic that leads most Americans to despite Congress, yet like their own individual representative. So the "raw material" we're likely to base our opinion on when asked about "the higher education system" is the general stream of stories and headlines we're exposed to in media coverage and our social media streams.

Polls like this, in other words, are self-fulfilling prophecies for politicians who have been railing against higher education for years. They don't reflect the reality of higher ed; they don't even reflect the reality of individuals' experience with higher ed. They reflect the narrative we have constructed of a "system in crisis" - a narrative that has been built to serve specific interests, mostly in service to political ambition.

The media (including the higher ed press and the social media sphere - bloggers included!) play into this. A handful of stories about interrupted speeches on college campuses created a narrative that we have a "crisis" of free speech on campus. Stories of free speech rights being appropriately exercised and protected don't make the news or the blogs, although I have personally seen more of that than of the "bad" cases. In my own small way, I'm guilty of perpetuating the problem here.

None of this is news. We know this is the way public opinion works, and have at least since John Zaller published The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion back in 1992. But polls make good headlines, which then further feed narratives.

For those of us in higher education: we need to stop playing defense and responding to specific charges, and build a different narrative. We have the tools and we have the facts. The reality is that American higher education is the envy of the world, which is why the United States brings in far more students from overseas than any other country. We need to tell that story, and enlist allies to help us tell it broadly and publicly.

For the broader public: we need to develop the skills that everyone keeps saying we need - critical thinking. The level of education needed to develop a little critical distance and not swallow a particular story wholesale is not unattainable. It probably doesn't even require a bachelor's degree. What it does require is training and practice (which higher education are designed to provide), and a willingness to think a little. That latter point is up to the rest of us.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Political Conflict on Campus Today

I write a fair amount about academia and higher education. I also write a lot about conflict. Sometimes, I get to cross my realms of expertise and write about both.

It was in that conjunction that this article from this week's Chronicle struck me:

From Video of Campus Forum, Virtual Venom Flows

The Reader's Digest version of the story is this: some folks at Northern Arizona University decided to have a public campus form titled "The Specters of Fascism?" It's the kind of thing that universities do - bring their expertise to bear on questions of public interest and hold open discussions about them.

In this case, the forum was mostly about Fascism in Europe, with the added question of whether there were lessons from those historical experiences that might be applicable to the United States today. It's the sort of question that historians, political scientists, sociologists, and others have discussed for decades - interesting, relevant in a high-level sort of way, and amenable to scholarly inquiry. In today's highly polarized political and tribal environment, however, it attracted a different sort of attention than one might expect when academics hold a scholarly forum.

A NAU student affiliated with a group called Campus Reform filmed the event and shared that video with the organization, which posted a segment of it on their website. Campus Reform, which bills itself as "America's leading site for college news", is a conservative project that "exposes bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses". It is an offshoot of the Leadership Institute, an avowedly conservative organization whose mission is "to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process".

Needless to say, university professors speculating about whether European fascism has any parallels in American politics today proved to be red meat to conservatives, who boiled the whole thing down to "liberals equating Trump with Hitler". Abusive and threatening emails started flying almost immediately, aimed at faculty members associated with the event (often for things that they didn't say, as the video was apparently unclearly labelled).

Interestingly, the student who took and posted the video also came in for a fair amount of online abuse and some pushback from people on her campus, some of whom accused her of being a racist and of belonging to the "alt-right". She characterized her treatment (perhaps a bit hyperbolically) as "full-on bullying from the university".

The usual frame by which these kinds of stories are viewed is the "academic freedom/freedom of speech" frame. In this view, everyone has the right to say what they like and to express the views that they like. The forum was an exercise of free speech, as was the taping of the forum and posting it online. The subsequent abuse and death threats are merely an unfortunate byproduct of our exercise of our free speech rights.

While correct in itself, this frame is largely useless for understanding what's going on here. What this episode shows is one manifestation of a much larger conflict taking place across society, on campuses as well as in other ways. Once we place this in a conflict frame, we have the chance to make progress towards both understanding and mitigating if not resolving these issues.

Like all conflicts, this one has at least two sides, each of which is a coalition of actors and entities that agree with each other to varying degrees. What holds the sides together is not agreement about facts or ideas, but a sense of common identity - "us" versus "them". The student who posted the video may not like being lumped in with the alt-right, but she's planted her flag on that side and so, in the eyes of her adversaries, she's one of "them".

Like all tribal conflicts, the dynamics are pretty predictable. Each side defines the other as both monolithic and defined by its own worst actors. Each side is reduced to simplistic, usually dehumanizing, epithets by the other ("libtard", "redneck", etc.) Each side has only a vague notion of its goals and objectives - though individual actors may have specific plans - but in broad terms, the conflict is seen as zero-sum - either "we" win or "they" win.

It is this last point that gives rise to the deplorable kinds of behavior that we see - the online bullying, dehumanization, and threats. Because people the conflict is perceived as zero-sum, each side focuses on "winning". There is no notion of compromise or accommodation - such thoughts are heresy, and those who entertain them usually branded as heretics and forced to recant or tossed out of the tribe. In the terms of my own research, each side is pursuing a Unilateral strategy.

Sometimes in international conflict, Unilateral strategies make sense. One thing my research has turned up is that Unilateralism is contagious - if one side gets it, the other side pretty much has to follow suit. It's very difficult for me to try to reach accommodation with you while you're trying to kill me. This is why Zartman has spent so much time researching the notion of "hurting stalemates", because once you're locked into Unilateralism on both sides, it's very difficult to get out.

Some of the rhetoric within our domestic political conflict has taken on this sort of flavor. Dig around a little bit and you can find conservatives (often of the alt-right variety) talking about a "genocide" of liberals, while on the Left you have liberals talking openly about secession (Calexit?) from the rest of the country. Both of these assume a universe in which members of both tribes cannot coexist, at least not in the same political space, giving rise for the need for one or another kind of "final solution".

All of this, of course, is ridiculous. My partner-in-crime on secession research Steve Saideman recently pointed out that Blue State secessionism is nuts and anti-democratic. And the idea that "conservatives" can somehow identify and remove (via death or forced migration) all "liberals" is both wildly unrealistic and horrifying.

The reality is that within the United States, Unilateral strategies are a waste of time. They will never succeed. The only thing they are good for - and this goes a long way to explaining their popularity - is helping some politicians get into power and stay here. The side effect of this political strategy, of course, is that the body politic as a whole suffers. And so a college professor and a college student are both made to suffer so that demagogues who have no interest in resolving conflicts can go to Washington.

The Atlantic recently ran an article covering research that suggests that one side effect of Americans drifting away from organized religion (in particular, the many branches of the Christian church) is that they are become less tolerant of each other. While Christianity is often associated in the public mind with intolerance (towards gays, Muslims, single mothers, and others, mostly because of particularly vocal denominations), it turns out that the universalism within Christian theology (a universalism reflected in most major theological systems around the world) does tend to make adherents less rigid than we usually think. You can only sing "In Christ there is no East or West" so many times on a Sunday before it starts to occur to you that maybe God really does love everybody, even the people you disagree with.

The flight from religion is particularly pronounced on college campuses, both among academics and faculty (who tend to share a culture of cosmopolitan secularism) and among students (who tend to share the young adults' gravitational pull away from the religion of their parents, who increasingly don't have one anyway). So it's not surprising that when the broader conflict surfaces on campus, its manifestation tends to be particularly intolerant. Each side, of course, uses this to accuse the other of hypocrisy, thus making the whole thing worse.

The thing about viewing this as a conflict is that it helps us think about the important questions. What would a "resolution" look like? What is the conflict about, and what kinds of solutions to those problems are possible? Because we tend to think that the conflict is about "ideas" ("liberal" ideas versus "conservative" ideas), we then erroneously think that the solution is for our ideas to "win". That is not, of course, how the "marketplace of ideas" works. Change tends to come evolutionarily. Nothing "wins" or "loses" in whole, but the interaction changes all sides and produces new (and hopefully better) ideas. Hegel was right - the conflict between Thesis and Antithesis produces, at its best, Synthesis.

As long as people are sending death threats to each other, of course, this kind of progress is going to be very slow. And as long as students (of whichever tribe) think that they need to help their side "win" - whether by posting videos of views they don't like to like-minded websites or by shouting down speakers they don't like at public events - not much is going to change.

When you're in a conflict, you should be thinking about how to end it - about what realistic conclusions are possible and about how to get from where we are to one of those, as fast as possible and with the least cost. Right now, people on all sides aren't thinking this way. They're trying to "win" an unwinnable war. If you don't like the idea of strangers flinging death threats around, heed the advice of Joshua: the only winning move is not to play: