Friday, January 20, 2017

Coates - Between the World and Me

Seeking to understand the political and social dynamics we are experiencing in the U.S.A., U.K. and elsewhere in the world led me to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me (2015). This is an elegantly written book by an African American author who has gained wide recognition for his deep descriptions of the influence of race in America. I needed the personal approach Coates took, written in the form of a letter to his son, primarily because the white privilege that I enjoy makes it nearly impossible to have a deep and full understanding of what Coates describes.

Coates started by saying that race is the child of racism instead of the other way around. In essence, the need to name others as different and thereby characterize or discriminate was the starting place for what American society has come to understand as race. This compulsion to define created ‘a Dream’ that orders the way we interact across groups, creating expectations both within and between groups. “The Dream thrives on generalization, on limiting the number of possible questions, on privileging immediate answers. The Dream is the enemy of all art, courageous thinking, and honest writing.” (33% through digital text)

Raised in Baltimore, discovering the rich diversity within African and African American culture at Howard University (The Mecca), and exploring the metropolises of Chicago and New York, Coates concluded that he was part of a society “that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you (his son) with the club of criminal justice.” In his view, this reflected either a failure to deliver on good intentions or was evidence of the sinister intent that allowed violence in schools, in communities, and in gangs (11% through digital text).

Ultimately, Prince Jones, the privileged son of a female physician and admired by Coates during his years at Howard University, brought Coates to understand the deep vulnerability of his own son. Followed by a police officer across several jurisdictions with no justifiable provocation, Prince was shot to death when he stepped out of his car at a friend’s home; the investigation of the shooting cast more questions on Prince’s character than on the police officer’s judgment. The necessity for a Black father’s discipline of his son was thus underscored in devastating ways - either discipline into submission or sacrifice to the streets and law enforcement officials. The Dream could seemingly only be achieved by telling “black boys and girls to ‘be twice as good,’ which is to say ‘accept half as much.’” (59% through digital text)

A question Coates repeatedly raised was “How can we escape the Dream that confines, limits, and imposes a certain lifestyle seemingly without option to fashion a life that is unique to ourselves?” Eventually Coates began to see argument and disagreement, and the ultimate discomfort they bring, as providing light to the shadowed path of personal fulfillment. Only by questioning could he pursue a unique and freeing way of being in the world. This questioning included rejecting a Dream of needing to be, talk and think as if he was white.

Coates’ book is not easy reading. Some of the images and dynamics he describes are unfamiliar or disturbing. More importantly, embracing the impact of what racism has caused hurts, it hurts because we are all complicit in what people of color experience in America. With imperfect understanding, my empathy has improved, a path toward the changes that must eventually come if we are to live in a more just and compassionate world.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hochschild - Strangers in their own land

One of the greatest paradoxes of the 2016 U.S.A. Presidential election was why so many people seemingly voted against their apparent self-interest. This is the subject of Arlie R. Hochshild’s book, Strangers in their own land (2016). The book is based on a sociological study of the Bayous of Louisiana, an area that is at the bottom of all the measures of a good life – educational attainment, environmental degradation, and life expectancy – yet the vast majority of the people in this area actively identify with the Tea Party.

Hochschild describes her journey as an attempt to scale the empathy wall, “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.” (2% through digital text) Many of those Hochschild met in the Bayou Courne region of Louisiana were poor, although most expressed that they didn’t see themselves that way. They were of various cultural backgrounds including Cajun, Black, White and other.

Bayou Courne residents used to embrace the platform of the Democratic Party but now they are decidedly more Republican or, at minimum, independent and leaning to the right. The cause for the party affiliation shift – a sense of losing opportunity, being left out of prosperity, and having others less deserving than them cut in line ahead of them to receive benefits from the government. In addition, the Great Recession of 2008, the presidency of Barack Obama, and Fox News fanned the exodus with a healthy tailwind from those who advocate the philosophy of “you’re the only one who can save yourself” based on Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.

Hochschild reported that Bayou Courne and other areas such as Lake Charles and Baton Rouge are blighted by years of neglect and exploitation at the hands of corporations. She documented Pittsburgh Plate Glass dumping raw chemicals and oil companies releasing sludge into natural waterways. More recently, sinkholes have swallowed up entire neighborhoods after underground aquifers and caves were pierced by fracking. The residents of these blighted areas resist governmental controls and inspections although many grieve the loss of former pleasures of restive vistas and leisure fishing. Those who live in the most devastated areas have no option to leave polluted rivers and lakes because home value losses have prohibited sale. With all this evidence of abuse by corporations, the Louisiana state government continues to give away tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks to draw corporations back to drill for more oil or frack for natural gas and citizens welcome the job opportunities the corporations will restore.

What the citizens of Bayou Courne grieve is not the sacrifice of clean air/water but the unfairness of government taking tax revenues away from deserving citizens and redistributing them to what they perceive to be underserving leeches on the public dole. This view was widely evident even in the face of evidence that “Voters in the twenty-two states that voted Republican in the five presidential elections between 1992 and 2008 – and who generally call for less government regulation of business – lived in more polluted environments.” (19% through digital text) Regardless of the economic, social, and political devastation Bayou Courne endures, its residents are resilient – pursuing their way of life and often drawing strength from religious beliefs that caused them to thank God for the strength to persist rather than pray for the fortitude to stand up against those who abuse them.

Hochschild offered a ‘deep story’ to capture the sentiment of those she interviewed which was readily accepted when she shared it with them. The story, similar in many ways to narratives proposed by Haidt in The Righteous Mind, started with the idea that the American Dream is one that is in progress for all, requiring each individual/family to wait in line, work hard, and be patient. The violation of this story is what those in Bayou Courne resented most – line cutters who gained unfair advantage in striving for the American Dream, a dream ever-more crowded and competitive due to a globalizing world that is leaving so many behind. The citizens of Bayou Courne had lost the ability to see themselves in the American Dream and they had lost purpose and honor in their striving.

Why would citizens of this ‘deep story’ reject a political agenda calling for governmental assistance? Why would they place their hope in the Tea Party and political figures of vastly different socio-economic means? Because to identify ‘up’ grants pride within oneself for being optimistic, hopeful, and not giving up on the dream that had been part of your upbringing, your church, and the very identity from which you derived worth.

And along came an unorthodox personality (part entertainer, part businessman, part politician) who redefined the run for the presidency as no longer Democrat versus Republican but instead anti-establishment versus establishment. And Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the U.S.A. on January 20, 2017.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Haidt - The Righteous Mind

I’ve continued to search for books that contribute to understanding the contemporary social and political dynamics that have emerged in the politics of the U.S., U.K., and other countries. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) offered particularly helpful insight for those who espouse a more liberal worldview. In fact, one of major points Haidt made was that conservatives are generally more aware of liberal’s views than liberal of conservatives, resulting in blindness that is debilitating in the current climate.

The U.S. Presidential election of 2016 was shocking to many who believed that, regardless of one’s political perspective, the candidate with the greatest experience (Hillary Clinton) would win in a landslide. At the core of this was that the WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) portion of U.S. citizens were talking to themselves and were woefully unaware of how many others were being mobilized by Donald Trump’s candidacy.

One of the most important practical questions to resolve in any social system is the balance between the individual and the group. Most societies tip the priority to the group, resulting in a sociocentric perspective, while a few select societies place the individual at the center, resulting in an individualistic culture. An individualistic focus became more prominent during the Enlightenment period of Western societies. This focus on individualism was accompanied by a rationalistic (reasoning) bias rather than relying on intuitional (emotional/judgment) insight. Haidt characterized this rationalistic bias as delusional and asserted that intuitions come first and strategic reasoning afterward. With intuition as the driver, Haidt described a framework of five initial foundations of morality (p. 125); 1) care/harm, 2) fairness/cheating, 3) loyalty/betrayal, 4) authority/subversion, and 5) sanctity/degradation to which he eventually added another 6) liberty/oppression. His view is that most humans act on their intuition about what is “right” related to these six principles.

Haidt cited a number of research studies and anecdotal evidence that the six foundations of morality are at the core of human inclinations but he also offered evidence that liberal and conservative priorities are somewhat different. For example, liberals tend to place greater value on concerns related to care/harm. In addition, while both liberal and conservatives are concerned about liberty/oppression, liberals express greater concern about harm to vulnerable groups while conservatives are more concerned about the infringement of liberties resulting from government that intervenes too much in their lives. Liberals tend to construct most of their political arguments around the first three foundations while conservatives embrace these three plus add the others (authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation, and liberty/oppression) with relative equal weight across all the foundational moral principles. This is what he asserts as the fatal flaw in the thinking of liberals – they do not recognize, much less affirm, the full range of moral inclinations that are seen as essential to forming and sustaining a righteous society.

Haidt’s perspectives were well documented and his book was organized to continually remind the reader where his argument was headed. While I would not entirely agree with the assertion that conservatives are better informed about liberal causes than vice versa, it is important for both conservatives and liberals to find ways to talk – to seek each other’s perspective, to suspend judgment, and to be open to new understandings. Ultimately, all of us could benefit from striving to create a society where the intuition behind our perspectives is exposed and where this intuitional inclination more explicitly recognizes the moral and ethical practices we observe. Especially at a point in human evolution where we have grown to recognize the need for a common understanding about how we should live in community, it is important to encompass the full range and not just a select number of moral foundations.

Perhaps our evolving communities will have their most powerful influence when “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.” (p. 270) Religion and politics are important ways to create and regulate a righteous society but in order to be successful in the current divisive stand-off, religion, politics, technology and other connective systems need to open rather than close us to each other as we seek to identify solutions that can satisfy all. Ultimately, we need to become bound together across the full range of principles of an ethical society where “… everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences.” (p. 74) Likewise, where good behavior, broadly recognized and enacted, is rewarded.