How to argue with people on the internet

2016-01-23 20.36.21I have been struggling quite a bit as the election and the aftermath have unfolded. Since losing my mum I’ve made a consistent, deliberate effort to connect with her side of the family and they are almost universally Mormon, Republican and old-school Conservative. This election has been hard to navigate when to speak up and when to stay quiet, who will listen and when it isn’t valuable to pursue. I love these people, especially these women, and I am so grateful for the ways they have welcomed and accommodated me. At the same time, we disagree profoundly about so many things. We come from the same place and yet we have taken such different paths across multiple generations. Remaining in connection is important to me and yet… it can be hard. I know that any conversation we have is visible to wider communities and reflects on us both.

Where I come from is this:

This country (and the world) has had problems that we have used band aids and smokescreens to avoid solving. My liberal-bias-side would say that in the 1960s the world evolved and there is a group who doesn’t want it to be that way. They find the changes (dare I say ‘evolution’) threatening for lots of reasons and are unwilling to compromise what they feel are core identity issues. But, being fair, I think there are also some good points buried in what they are saying too. Globalization has been displacing, diversity is difficult to navigate at times, and we have not supported our entire community to reap the benefits of ever-increasing-productivity.

I had the opportunity to witness a Mormon ward and although it was closed and ideologically driven, it was also the most committed, supportive community I have ever witnessed. In many ways it was a time warp to when we lived in communities close enough that our neighbors helped care for the ill and the less fortunate. It was also a beautiful thing. I think we have all had some situation when we didn’t want to face reality, or when we believed a good thing was under threat. We rarely think about the fact that even the space to contemplate ‘I don’t want it this way’ is a privilege.

Trump voters (and Brexit voters) are insecure enough (across economic, social and psychological measures) that they don’t have the capacity (or believe they don’t) to adapt to a post-structural order. That is my generous interpretation. All of these things don’t make their beliefs and narratives ok with my value-system, but it does allow me a higher level of empathy with their suffering and their attachment to their position.

In terms of approach:

I remember my first debate training ‘aha’ moment. I was 19 at the time with no formal training so I had a slightly different (read less effective) approach to argument. It was like a Klaxon bell for me. Nick Bibby taught me that in a real debate you will never be able to convince the other side, you can only hope to convince the audience. Your opponent is spending all their energy on trying to prove you wrong, regardless, so they are not particularly open to saying ‘oh, I guess I was wrong’. I’ve learned over time that if you believe you are in a fight to win you have no brain-space to contemplate anything other than how ‘they’ might be wrong.

My friend Ross K Allan is special because he is rare. He’s nuts (and he thinks I am), but he is open to the possibility he might be wrong and enjoys the argument as much to learn as to win. There are only a few people in the world who really enjoy arguing for sport and to find someone who loves the activity and disagrees almost entirely with the things that inform my personal ideology is only one of the ways I am lucky. When we were both at the LSE we had coffee and argued for fun for hours and never cared who ‘won.’ Another friend joined us once and immediately moved the goal-posts so he could ‘win.’ He never joined an argument again. I know how much privilege went into those afternoons of arguing and how much generosity I owe to anyone who hasn’t had the time to hone those skills.

I start from the premise that the other side is not ignorant or dumb (it is not my job to educate them), but instead that we have different core values. I use the information provided from previous interactions, or from the conversation itself to decide if that person is open to alternative information, and/or views. I state my views as simply as I can, accounting for their context/ language and use things that are easily googled for evidence. I try to respect what they come back with to the greatest extent possible and with the most generosity I can afford. If they are open, I pursue the conversation, if they are not, I invest less, but don’t dismiss them.

At the point when they become angry, hateful, or dismissive I’m happy to walk away from the conversation without needing to leave judgement and almost always happy to leave the door open if they want to re-engage. Examples can be seen both on this blog and on my Facebook page.

I always, ALWAYS try to take the high road, mostly so when I look back I feel good about my actions. I don’t think the important thing is how they respond to me, but how I respond to them, and what I can learn from the situation; about them, about me, about the world in which we co-habitate.

I try to use as much nuance in our interactions as I can, including using public or private communication, timing (if I see red I wait until I’m calm again to respond), directed or undirected comments. I respond and point out inconsistency or flaws to other’s posts, but I try to be positive as much as possible in my own. If I know I will hurt someone’s feelings or upset them, depending on how important they are to me, I will try to soften that blow or remind them that despite our disagreement, we still have areas in common. I’m happy to drop a topic if requested and don’t need someone to justify why. I try to stress things to balance where I call them out because it is hard to be wrong and everyone has pride. I think about our common links and the impact of our dialogue on the wider group. I choose when to engage in debate pretty carefully and practice observing in new spaces or if I am unsure of the majority opinion of a group. I check in with myself often.

Our advanced state of capitalism, poor education system, and marketing sophistication combined with a history that many don’t know and common narratives that are often simulacra (papering over previous generations of suffering), all contribute to a fully divided American polity. I know that it is my own privilege that lets me pass back and forth, even while my gender disenfranchises me in many places. This allows me to see both sides in many discussions.

I try to bring love, and hope and clarity as much as possible because I think fear, division and blame are the real dangers of our current political direction. I think these issues have been festering for centuries (or longer); our constitution has our original, unresolved, race-debate enshrined in its text. We amended the document (with a civil war) but the emotional labor to fully knit us together has never been done. Instead, there are regularly figures who exploit these tensions for their own gain. Exploitation for personal gain is not rare or unique, it is also buried in our national narrative.

Discerning what is a topic for rational discussion and what is a matter of emotion or faith is important to know where your valuable energy is worthy of use. Also helpful to know which battles are important (ones with large audiences who might be open to alternative ideas) and which are not (you and a douche in a coffee shop or supermarket queue with no one else around.)

It is a hard boundary to know how much to be kind to others during a period of ‘awakening’ and how much one’s kindness is used to help an intransigent avoid dealing with real issues. This is where reversing the burden of proof can be helpful. Instead of trying to prove them wrong, I ask them questions to make them support their racist point, or critique from a meta perspective (gently) things like lack of evidence, an assertion with no argumentation, poor sources of citation, etc. My goal is not to prove them wrong, but to engage in a Socratic dialogue to help them see my point. It could easily be argued that I am using my own privilege of intelligence and education to marginalize them, but I try to be aware of that and use it as much as possible to increase my own capacity for patience and empathy.

I try to remain engaged in the debate and avoid it ever being about a person. ‘I’ statements help, and remaining on issue (including steering back that direction) are helpful in that.

My mum used to say “the way in is usually a question but it’s rarely ‘have you thought of this?'”

I’ll usually follow a conversation through one cycle of dismissal, vitriol or ad hominem attacks and then I’ll let it drop. The point is more to plant seeds than to win battles. Change takes a long time, and Inception is a great strategy for large societal shifts.

Many people disengage or attack because they know they can’t win and it’s a way of avoidance. I won’t let them get away with that, but I won’t be mean about it either. Humility is important to me, and so I also remind myself that everyone has something to teach me, albeit sometimes it’s more about them as an object or a catalyst.

All of this is grounded in HUGE time devoted to doing my personal work and remaining balanced and grounded intrinsically.

This is meaningful to me: “People don’t want to be immediately dismissed because they might have a view that you consider wrong or even vile; they want to feel heard. And once that happens, it’s a lot easier for them to make mental space to understand other people’s problems.” (

It does take time, and stupid amounts of emotional labor. I think an unwillingness to do one’s own emotional labor is at root for a lot of this current aggression. In traditional Western societies, women do emotional labor and men fight the wars. Feminism has spent 50+ years attempting to upend this dichotomy. It is threatening and messy and complicated and scary when those simple binaries don’t exist. That is the root of much social conflict that I see today. Binaries always include and exclude and currently those inclusions, exclusions and boundaries are all under dispute.

I think honesty and deliberation are important personally and in relationship and the sensationalism of our media and the schism created by so much diversity so densely packed is both a new conflict and the same war we have been fighting since agrarian times. Intersectionality helps, but also just being candid about one’s own limitations, perspectives and biases.

So many people are scared for so many reasons. I have always marveled at things like the stock market and sovereignty as both are premised on a slightly unfathomably large group just agreeing to a concept, or having confidence in a system. It is all governed by how a huge number of people feel.

Politics is about power, but more importantly it is about people, relationship and community. Most people follow the law because it is the law, not because they will be punished if they don’t. People want to get along with others and fighting always must end at some point.

I spent a lot of time at the LSE thinking about the continuum between coercion and convincing. I understand the Realist drive to coercion and I agree there are many gangsters out there. But to believe in democracy is to believe that the power of more people, applied deliberatively and with love, can make the tide rise for all boats. US history is a mix of both gangsters and idealists and we must acknowledge both to be able to move forward.

The more someone pushes my buttons, the more I realize I have something important I can learn from them. Sometimes I also realize its ok to just take a break.

A constant source of comfort for me is the thoughtful, intersectional, feminist responses I see from young people around the world, and especially my peers from the debating community. International competitive debate has changed drastically since I was an undergrad. When I started competing I was a member of the most patriarchal, misogynist, xenophobic, chauvinist society you could imagine. When I got to international competition I thought it would be better but I took on the job of Women’s officer after a Women’s Forum that was… underwhelming in nature. No discussion of systemic inequality that impacted women and other marginalized group’s chances of doing well in the competition. The sea-change from then to now is amazing and was a series of tiny steps over almost 15 years.

My first act as Women’s Officer to WUDCouncil was to introduce an equity officer. I received so many concerns that first year, but only a portion were about gender equity and a great number about religion, accent, LGBTQ issues and access. We introduced the equity officer to better serve the needs of the whole community. That was a first step but it would be a further four years before Org Com had an equity team with any actual power. Those were a difficult and often impotent four years of constant battles large and small. It was worth it. This week I have had exquisite joy as the LSESU Open announced its equity team directly after announcing the CA team. It isn’t perfect, but it’s SO much better than it was and that gives me hope. We each impact a few people deeply, but if they are improved by it, and impact a few more people, those ripples can really make a difference.

If a single person sees my words and examines one belief more carefully then I consider my efforts valuable. I may be tilting at windmills still, but hope for greater understanding and more nuanced resolution is ultimately the only real strategy I have.

Political Debates 9: (She said)

This was a difficult debate to find coherent themes for and I wanted to try to draw it back to some specific points of crystallization so I’ve grouped by theme below.

Individual v. Collective

I think you are mischaracterizing part of my argument, but for the sake of discussion I’ll engage with your comments about the individual unfettered or within a collective governance structure. I see the difference caused because she, the individual, isn’t simply left alone in isolation without any governance structure. She is placed in a situation that incentivizes rampant individualism acted out against others. That is the point, that our governance structures are created as a result of the need to contain individual self-actualization, protecting the rights of those who would otherwise be exploited, and protecting the majority from destructive forces that benefit the few by harming the many. My argument is not fully for one or the other but that there must be a balance between the two. That’s why I believe in sensibly regulated private exchange. I think regulation is pretty important though to create a more level playing field and ensure competition, maintain quality and protect consumers, protect the environment and our economy. (full disclosure: I copied most of these benefits of regulation directly from the Wikipedia article but that doesn’t make it any less relevant.)

I don’t disagree with your points about individual self-interest demonstrated by the VA case (actually, they kind of help make my point), but I also wonder what engenders the level of fear that would let people die instead of owning to a mistake? What allows someone to abandon a basic sense of morality? How close to disaster are they? What happens if they lost this job? How desperate must one be to sacrifice another? And why are they in that space? Surely if the government pays them enough, and they don’t fear unemployment the only reason they could sacrifice those others is because they are somehow evil. And yet- they took a job intended to help someone else. There must be powerful social forces at work that help engender this result, or we must write off whole groups of people as evil or subhuman.  I choose to believe there are forces at work, so I don’t have to write off other humans.

My perception of the individual is specifically not anarchic, I agree that people are naturally social and often come together voluntarily, but I think that Capitalism and Democracy are necessary correlates and serve to balance the dangers inherent in each. Democracy, when properly functioning, restrains the potential for human exploitation, and Capitalism encourages innovation and supports a vibrant and dynamic public sphere. Liberalism is an important third pillar, and ensures we navigate the dangerous path around majoritarianism and chauvinism, but it is important we are careful to maintain the bonds that unite us. People are both social and self-interested (for profit or to avoid danger), we need to take into account both possibilities, and structure society in such a way to help allow for and contain the opposing tides which means a discussion about a cohesive social fabric is highly germane! J

Also, I think I might totally agree with about moral relativism, although I think it might be a beginning, not an ending. I totally understand why it seems scary, but I think our government was founded as a first attempt at allowing for a high degree of difference while still making tactical decisions about matters of common concern. It would seem like maybe we should try to continue that project?

Power Imbalances/ Inequality

At the point you admit we have a major problem when income is concentrated year after year I think you kind of concede much of the argument we are having. I honestly thought you might be joking for a minute there.  I’m not ruling out completely movement within the 1%, or even some movement within the top 3%-10% (I think this is pretty generous, but why not indulge slightly), but pretty much all evidence points to stagnant social mobility across the country, and decreasing potential for those not already wealthy to become so. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when we take away the things that used to provide a basic safety net, and we are unable to grow our way out of our current societal ills, we need to rethink our equation.

I also think it’s pretty obvious that disproportionate levels of education in this country, as well as different access to health care, mental-health care, socio-communal acceptance levels, etc engender inherently unfair contract negotiations. There are clauses in contracts written specifically because if you went to law school the clause is meaningless and if you didn’t you are somehow automatically at a disadvantage (because- y’know, not having gone to law school wasn’t hindrance enough for the highly paid lawyers to beat them in any kind of negotiation) You can even put metrics against it- there are high levels of variability in the infant and overall mortality rates. Sure, overall we all live longer- but there is a widening gap. Inequality in our society is bad and getting worse and that’s a problem for all of us.

If you believe in any positive rights, but the government is not the agent who should be concerned with their provision, I would be interested in what actor is responsible instead?

‘Structural unaddressed violence’ is specifically not a debate term. It encompasses the idea that there are structural issues within our society- things like access to basic human-rights-based services- that unfairly advantage and disadvantage other groups; access to things like good schools, an education in the things necessary for functioning as a citizen and securing future basic provisions, or access to basic childhood preventative health care.

It also encompasses a similar argument from a different discipline. The idea that violence is executed sometimes by specific actors against others, and sometimes inflicted in such a way that the individual internalizes that violence and continues the harm against themselves. We don’t address it for a variety of reasons, but our choice to remain with the status quo should not be taken as proof that inherent power relations are ok. Also, I think it’s important to note that we are beyond any notion of patriarchy and exclusions that could ever be mistaken for vague.

I’m also a little confused about your statement about non-discrimination as I read news pretty regularly about how SCOTUS keeps making judgements that specifically discriminate access to basic health care based on gender. And specifically in ways that demonstrably lead to economic, educational and other forms of discrimination and disproportionality (a woman’s ability to plan her family has long-term material consequences for both her and her society. You can say she can ‘just go buy it herself’ but when many families live hand-to-mouth an additional $250/ year can be overwhelming)

I would actually love to hear your arguments about the ‘check your privilege’ brigade. I don’t believe in cutting off avenues of debate- if you think there is something to be said there that adds to your overall argument, or is in some way an answer or foundation I would say that is totally germane.

 What’s to be done?

I think what we both definitely agree on is that what we are doing now isn’t working. The problem with your charter schools example as the alternative is an age old question in research: what happens if they fail? What happens to that group of students- failure for them becomes a lifelong issue, that we either will pay for in forms of social insurance, crime, or the further moral decay of whatever relativistic place we inhabit?

I have to disagree with your premise that ‘despite enormous sums of money’ education is failing. That assumes that the only thing that impacts the education of our young people is the overall aggregate amount of material resources over a long period of time. This is a problematic statement on a lot of levels- a) not sure it really is all that much money when it all shakes out, and b) unfortunately isolating specific parts of social infrastructure, alternately funding and defunding them, subjecting them to huge outside pressures and then blaming them for failure seems a little like a thumb on the scale to me. There was an Economist article a few years ago about the importance of respect and parental involvement in the overall success of children. How well respected are our teachers when parents struggle to name their childrens’ teachers instead of reality TV stars?

I agree we need to try something else, because what we are doing isn’t working. But we also need to ensure that we do not lose more generations of students in our experimentation. I would also posit that there have been successes as well as failure. So my question is why scrap instead of reform? Why do we have to throw out everything and treat something that really shouldn’t be subject to market pressures in the same way we treat any other commodity for trade?

Also, as an aside (and with gratitude to my brother the policy-smart-guy) The argument that government size is related to income inequality “is absurd for a few reasons. First, the size of government has grown both under times of growing and shrinking inequality. Government grew a lot from 1930-1960, yet inequality shrank. The better indicator for inequality is marginal tax rates. As they have shrunk over the last 40 years, inequality has skyrocketed. Also, there is zero evidence that trickle down, supply side or minimalist government reduces inequality. In fact, the laisse faire 1920s saw a massive rise in inequality.”

On utopian socialism, it is, and I don’t advocate it, but it seems like almost every other industrialized country of the world has somehow gotten the balance better than we have. They oscillate between spectrums, but there are mechanisms to try to avoid barbarism, and a total denial of huge classes of people as people. I don’t believe all people will be totally equal and neither should they be. But I think we lose something as a society if most individuals are not allowed to at least have a fighting chance to reach their full potential. But for that to happen it takes a balance of functioning democracy and capitalism- we need both. I see your point re: xenophobia in Europe but I also don’t see furnaces, and the redirection of scarce resources to exterminate marginalized groups. I would still say we are doing better than we have.

I think I agree a little more with the Canadian system than you- there is both a letter and a spirit of the law, and to ignore the spirit completely is as foolish as believing we know what The Framers would think about politics today. Again, balancing the history and context, why they were writing, is as important to reading what they wrote. Sadly, writers almost always assume that audiences will understand their context- because they inhabit the same temporal space, or because they will inevitably be minor students of history. We know this, it’s demonstrated in literature critique and critical theory and cognitive psychology. We have to impute something of why they wrote what they did, as well as just the literal text. That is specifically the job of the judiciary, to interpret. If they were smart enough to know that interpretation was such an important piece of the functioning of law, they had to also expect that their intentions would be considered, as well as the letter of the laws they were drafting.

Also, do you honestly believe that we have the possibility of civil discourse at this point to deliberate on Constitutional amendments? Do you think if those in power even tried that there is even the slightest chance of an actual debate on the issue? In the chamber? With actual evidence? And would any of the media outlets actually respect the importance of the debate? The system is broken. I sincerely hope we all realize that and converse from within that context.

Laws aren’t usually created in abstract. At times they predate the actions they are designed to contain, when a large enough majority is afraid of the potential of something to make that decision. I would posit that more often however laws are made in specific response to needs within society. A harm that is large enough governors decide that action must be taken to curb or contain that harm. More than that, usually laws are created to protect those in society least able to protect themselves. I totally agree that in the last 30 years unfortunately some of that execution has shifted and the willingness of private interests to subvert the good of the people has taken hold. But it doesn’t negate the fact that we have to find a solution to the problems that face us, and that so far, some form of effect government has been the most successful means of doing that.

Honestly, that might be part of my difficulty. I still believe in an old-fashioned idea of government. In which it contains people of integrity- who see their job as a responsibility to be completed with honor. When did that change? When did we come to distrust those who stand up to take that responsibility? Does our slide into a never-ending political race mean we think only those driven by ego will put themselves up? Governance and its correlate government are specifically mechanisms of individuals trying to make efficient the mechanisms of our collective life. There are major issues in the manifestation we have, but I’m struggling to understand where the heart of your argument is. For example, you have many instances where our current bureaucracy is ineffective- is the issue that government should not be the mechanism for delivery of basic positive rights? Or do you truly believe that not all people have a right to a life unencumbered by preventable diseases?

The article you sent on positive and negative rights was a great one. (I mostly ignored the rhetoric at the beginning J) I mean, my basic and possibly simplistic answer is that it might just be easier if we viewed basic health provision as a positive right best ensured by government, and businesses paid higher taxes instead of purchasing the means for enacting that right privately (i.e. redirect the funds they pay one entity and pay another instead). The government could more effectively negotiate with large insurance companies and private citizens wouldn’t have to subject their negative rights to public negotiation. That way private groups wouldn’t have to be agents of the state and everything would be a bit easier? (I am awaiting your argument about the waste in government providing health care with great joy!)


I think that is plenty for us to be getting on with. But I can’t believe I forgot to talk about use-value and symbolic-exchange! Use value and symbolic-exchange-value are some of the best things I learned in my studies! It’s the spectrum between which something has value for the actual material resource it is/ can be used for and value based on the symbolism it invokes in us. A car is a car- but a branded car gives me a meaning and identity far beyond taking me to the store for milk. This is relevant because the concepts through which we understand society are becoming more and more abstract and difficult to negotiate. I think we need to reground ourselves in what we think matters, what we can agree on, and an attempt- however impossible it might seem- to agree to a process to negotiate difference in a way that leads to meaningful compromise and progress.

Always lovely to hear your ideas!

Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.


Reaching out and touching someone


So the issue of respect and relationship has been on my mind still. Pas pointed out, quite rightly, that some people want respect despite a lack of relationship. There are individuals who just want people to like and respect them, and that it usually has to do with empathy. I think empathy is key. Just key in almost everything.  If we could find a way to expand peoples’ capacity for empathy I think it could be an antidote to fear, shame and anger. The thing is, the more we see ourselves in others, and them in us the more we want a relationship and want respect. But what is it that instills empathy, why do some people have it and some people don’t? What is it that allows empathy to expand once the seeds are sown? More importantly, what causes it to wither and die?I’ve been reading (listening to) a book about Ayn Rand and the development of her individualism. I think its interesting, because if you subscribe to the idea that most debates can come down to ‘first principles’ and that most of those principles are related to a self/ other, individual/ group divide, the question of why people lean one way or the other becomes paramount.I’ve been thinking about why some people find the ‘group’ to be oppressive, or why they fear the group denying their individual freedoms that guarantee their safety. Why do some people feel that individualism is the only route to safety? (in a totally self centered thought- why do I think the group is more important in that regard?)

I was told recently that I have found myself amongst a group of intellectual refugees, banded together to explore ideas that they were unable to pursue elsewhere. I think thats interesting, especially because my interpretation of why they couldn’t think their thoughts in those places is because they challenged the extant hierarchy in those places. Now my dilemma is this: I think it is important that they think those things, that they be allowed to think those things. I take away important lessons from them thinking those things. So my question is, why do I not feel a part of that community? Why do I try so hard to fit in to the ideology of the dominant group? In all honesty, I think I try to fit into both, but I find it much harder to fit into the challenging paradigm, despite the fact that I’d like to think I spend a lot of time doing that. It would seem that I don’t find the group excessively oppressive enough that escape is the only recourse to intellectual freedom. Or, perhaps I think that total escape is less important than intellectual freedom within the situation as it is only there that one can affect changing that specific system. This feels like a very messy entry, the second such and quite self-centred. Hopefully I’ll become more coherent when I am not myself an intellectual refugee…

What do you tell a kid with no lunch?

So why do we think about education as having a specific monetary gain at the end? How is this part of the collusion I was talking about earlier?

I think we all attempt to make reasonable assumptions about the causes and effects of phenomena as a way of choosing different courses of action. It seems like most of social science, or academia more generally is about what causes things to happen, what might happen if you did it a different way etc. You have the more philosophical ‘meta’ schools that think about whether or not we should cause it to happen another way, or the seriously academic, what I consider to be a little navel gazing (although obviously important) activity of are we studying it the right way- are we wrong in our conclusions etc. Either way, this is an extreme version of what we all do all the time every day. We weigh up the costs to ourselves and the benefits it will bring while thinking about ways we could reduce our risk to achieve what we want. This is not only a product of capitalism. In prehistoric times the dude with the spear thought ‘This took me a long time to carve and that bison is really far away. should I throw it? Or wait?’ Anything is involved with the extent to risk versus the safety of just staying put. (or a cost benefit analysis if you will).

IMG_0076This is true of education as much as any other large undertaking in life. Is it worth the expense (the time, money, pain of revision or changing a world view) to get out of it what you expect to? What is it precisely that you expect? I think the way that we talk about education somewhat reflects our neo-liberal worldview but also an unexpressed enlightenment ideal that says if we understand something better, or can think about it in a different way we can do it better (or that there is a ‘better’ way more generally) and that our ability to think can overcome a number of other problems.

The difficulty and part of the collusion that I talk about is that in reality there is only so many ways that thinking can overcome something. I told a friend the other day that I believe the only thing we ever have total control over is our own perspective on a situation. Of course this is tempered by so many other things that shape us and that perspective. I recognise that, but I also think problems come in 2 types, the kind that can be resolved with resources and those that can’t. (or as my mother would say “there are problems you can throw money at and problems you can’t) Sometimes you will have resources to fix those first type (or money to throw), sometimes you won’t. The second category is more educational though as they are the kind that in reality you really don’t have much ability to fix at all. It might be an illness, it might be being stuck in a place that you have no control over getting out of- money can’t help, brains can’t help, the getting out or not is arbitrary and decided by someone or something so far beyond your control that you have no hope of influencing that. In that second category the attitude you have towards that situation is the only thing you can change about it. Do you find someone to blame? Try to get them to change it? (they may or may not be able to either) Do you blame yourself? Assuming it was your fault, or if you had done it differently you would not have found yourself where you are. Do you endure it? Thinking God or the universe or something has a reason for you to experience this unfortunate situation as a test, or a lesson, or a random event. In any event, its about a loss of control, something I think many of us find difficult.

So, we’ve been taught that we can control many things, and that our intelligence is what gives us better means to achieve that control. Obviously, education improves our ability to control our own destinies and the world around us, so the better educated we are and the more intelligent the more control we can have. (or thats the unstated theory)

A second part of this is related, but slightly different. People who attend higher education end up largely middle class. Even a large number of those who entered higher education not a part of the middle class achieve middle class professions upon graduation. This has been true as higher education is opened to a wider cross section of society but it is also important to note that at the same time the middle class itself was expanding in the North (economic) and West. The middle class in these places was expanding because individuals from other places (primarily asia) became a new working class with the international division of labour (supported by cheap oil that allowed for international supply chains- not a rant, just a fact). So the appearance was: enter higher ed, get a better paid job and higher standard of living regardless of social position of origin.

The thing is, the majority of people entering higher ed were middle class to begin with. Higher ed for them (us) is a refinement of skills that we have been developing for a long time some of which are about thinking and knowledge and large number are totally unrelated to academic intelligence. (Read the book Privilege I put in the reading list for more about this because its fascinating).

So we go to college/university (US/UK) and come out having networked and learned some more specific skills to take our place as the next generation of middle class managers following in the foot steps of our middle class parents.

There have been a smaller percentage of people who were not from the middle class, clever enough, and hard working to ‘prove’ that they too could learn and follow those rules, despite not being trained from birth (random fact, by age three, children from privileged families have heard 30 million more words than children from poor families– the education gap begins that early). So those hard working, clever people entered higher ed not middle class and emerged middle class, furthering the idea that higher ed was what made the difference. Maybe it does. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it is materially impossible for all people to be middle or upper class. We are all living longer (and I do mean all, whether living longer is an indication of quality I don’t know. There is enough food in the world for all people to eat, if it could get delivered to where it needs to be). That does not mean we can all have iPads and eat steak for dinner. The problem of saying everyone can get to higher ed, is that its really a promise that everyone could get to come out of it middle class. The assumption is that everyone goes in unequal, and comes out both equal and better off. Thats impossible! It just is. Its a lie that we tell and believe for myriad reasons, largely because although we realise life isn’t fair we don’t like to focus on that. It makes some of us uncomfortable, existentially wondering why we get to be where we are, recognizing the arbitrary nature of where someone happens to be born in social stratum. It makes others unhappy, wondering why they are/ got screwed in the lottery of birth. Allowing ourselves to believe that there is a potential for large scale class reassignment, and that shift can be all people moving upwards helps us deal with that thing that we can’t control and is uncomfortable to deal with. This is also very important to the underlying assumptions for functioning liberal democracy. (more about that later)

This is a similar fudge to the ‘students are all doing better than they used to’. A friend pointed out to me a long time ago, that if students were all doing better than students in the past, the tests themselves would be getting harder, not that there would be a higher proportion of ‘A’s. As we’ve seen with grade inflation in the US, the mark itself and the numbers of students receiving them are not a testament to the quality of education they are receiving or the abilities they have developed. The fact that we equate the two is similar to the way we equate higher education and the eventual earning potential of individuals in a society.

So, this again is only partial, but long already, so I will come back (sooner and more regularly) to finish this part of my argument. Thoughts are always appreciated although I also have a soft spot for lurkers- especially those taking care of the next generation…

Education 101 or The Somali ladies sewing circle

IMG_0024-4I’m starting with this because my flatmate and I were talking about it yesterday so its a little on the forefront of my mind.

I have been struck recently (and I use that term very loosely) by how the education debates in this country (the UK) seem to both miss the point, and go for an easy political solution that replicates past cleavages but ignores the unpolitical reality currently facing this country and to a greater extent to more global reality in which we find ourselves.

Commodification of Education

Having observed both the UK and the US education I find that there are positives and negatives in each, but that the biggest problem is the classification of education as a commodity that has value to its primary possessor and very little value beyond that. The labelling of education as a good mostly for employment purposes and not for the potential to open minds, to explore the world or to contribute in unquantifiable ways to a fuller integrative civil society is problematic. I understand that this classification allows for a more egalitarian perspective that attempts to overcome entrenched social strata/expectations. I think thats important. Very important. But, if we are going to attempt to see education in any other way than functional we have to accept that life, and society is just going to not be fair. Thats not to say that it shouldn’t be fair. Of course it should, and it is very easy for me to accept that it isn’t fair because I am one of the incredibly lucky and very very few people who aren’t getting screwed by the fact that things aren’t fair.

That being said, there are greater and lesser degrees of getting screwed and the people who are able to finish secondary school, or university without having to dodge bullets, or leave their homes because of natural or man-made disasters are also doing pretty well. I think if you make it to 18 and have some choices in life you should recognise that you too are pretty lucky. I think there are a lot of people who don’t make it to age 5, or by 18 have had some pretty horrific experiences well beyond home-leaving so all of this discussion needs to be bracketed by that pretty stark reality. (sorry bit of a side rant there, should have made clear that as we get going there might be side notes to let you know more clearly the basics of where I come from)

So, where were we? Right, social strata and education. There are some people who are lucky enough that their parents are able and willing to support them studying things and completing degrees that are not strictly useful. Often they have no vocational outlet (and I include things like law, medicine, engineering in vocations). That is to say that there is no specific job waiting at the end for which they have gained the specific skills to fulfil.

There have been, and continue to be those for whom a specific scholarship or fellowship is available because they are just too obviously smart to put their brains to a specific task, but need to be free to pursue academic aims for which we may not yet understand the value. For a time, as a society, we had enough surplus (again, largely because we were ignoring those less fortunate than us who were not within close geographical proximity) that collectively we could endow a greater proportion of people who were not off the charts smart but at least relatively clever to pursue not strictly functional educational ends. Unfortunately as the geo-political reality changes our ability to command a large part of the super structure will decrease and the numbers of bright-but-not-genii who are publicly supported to pursue higher education will necessarily drop as well.

This does not HAVE to be a bad thing. It could be, but it is contingent on how it is done. Fewer people in higher education does not have to mean worse education. I heard a very few voices several months ago talking about the ways education could change to accommodate young people gaining the skills they need without incurring large debt to themselves or to the public. Industries could make better use of apprenticeships- teaching young people specific skill sets and knowledge bases while paying them, albeit a small salary, but a small salary is still better than a debt. This would be possible in a number of skill based fields from technology to service industries. There are a number of incredibly important jobs that are better learnt by doing than studying in a classroom and then learning by doing afterwards anyway. I had a friend who completed a general degree in English at St Andrews, spending 4 years and incurring huge debt for both him and his parents. After graduating he returned home and got the exact same job he had prior to leaving for university. After a few months he was able to start as a cash register person in a book shop and worked his way up to becoming a book buyer. I could be wrong, as I am not the people involved, but it seems from the outside, in this instance, that working his way up from the inside and demonstrating that he kept up with the current book market had as much to do with the position he now occupies as the piece of paper that said he did a mediocre degree in which he read a lot of books he could have read anyway. Wow. That was much harsher than I meant it to be, and I could edit it, but I am trying to be true to the stream of consciousness writing style I’m trying to adopt here.

I think its wonderful he was able to study english, to have intelligent people explaining things to him that he might not be able to figure out on his own, to have lecturers and tutors share insights gleaned from generations of intelligent people thinking about these same texts and their authors and the contexts in which they were written. All people should be able to benefit from that knowledge, and when I say benefit I mean both have access and have the personal resources to understand it. But, if we return to the original premise of this discussion the point was the commodification and the value of the possessor of a degree. The point in this instance was that the piece of paper, the ‘education’ he received from a place of higher learning was not as useful to his future employment as a keen interest in the Guardian’s book review and a quick mind that was interested in the world. In this instance education had personal benefit to him, and will probably help him in choosing good books to stock and recommend, but that he paid a lot of money (and his parents as well) to get a job that he most likely could have gotten anyway and that all that debt did not enhance his earning potential as much as promised.

A question then becomes: what is the value to seeing education in these terms? (as in, who does it serve to do so?)

A question I will continue to answer tomorrow. I have just realised that if I try to completely address each topic as much as I want to all at the same time I will be here writing for a very long time and you are likely to get bored/ overwhelmed. So, I’ll try and let you know where I’m going next. Tomorrow I want to look at/ talk about why I think we are all a little part of the colluding to see education in these terms as it serves us all. I know that most of you have just gone ‘say wha?’ in a cliched 1990’s sitcom sort of way, some because you think ‘I’m not the straw-man bad guy everyone paints me as?’ and some because you think ‘I’m totally against the spread of capitalism to a last bastion of common sense and civil society’ but I challenge you, I think we are all a part of the collusion that leads to the position we are at. So, more tomorrow on that (and hopefully we can start some conversation going/ disagreement having)!

Below are my current thoughts on where this is eventually headed. They seem a little cryptic or a little cliche right now, but I promise, it will be interesting if you stick with me.

Future directions:

The LSE effect (or the inevitable results of the commodification of education)

‘Results’ (what does it mean that everyone is ‘doing better’ than they have in the past?)

‘Class’ (How is our education system a microcosm of an entrenched class system? I want to look at this both in terms of how its happened, but also how its informed our expectations and how it is these expectations, bound up with huge political implications, that are part of the root of our problem now.)

After that we may move on from education and actually dive into politics, but I may be all about theory then, or some of you may want to know more about where I’m coming from, so we will have to see.