The democratic tug-of-war

In his Op-Ed piece in the 5/24/14 online New York Times, Shadi Hamid presents an interesting quandary: the illiberalism of Islamic religion conflicts with democracy, at least as that term is understood in the more liberal West. While he hints that the political clout of right-wing Christian sects in America represents a similar practical threat to the “inalienable rights” of some subset of American citizens, Hamid’s concern is more philosophical. How does one reconcile the humanitarian assumptions about equality, seemingly fundamental to democracy as we see it, with the political mechanism of democratic rule?

A democratic mechanism for selecting regimes is just that: a mechanism. The composition of the majority is not relevant: angels or devils, the team with the most members wins the tug-of-war. That Hamid would need to somewhat obliquely suggest that our sense of democracy is in fact a value-laden ideology using majority rule as its mechanism says much for how deeply imbued in our thinking that ideology is. Perhaps the implication for us is to beware our current polarizations, since we can expect no quarter from the opposing team if they win the game.

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Gen-Ed Ethics and the Failure of “Alternative Views”

One of the challenges of teaching an ethics class in a non-denominational college is accommodating students who arrive with a particular religious background. Given the demographics of my classrooms this is typically some form of Christianity, and quite understandably some students struggle with disparity of viewpoints when in their minds their particular tradition and its particular scriptural exegesis tell us everything we need to know about ethical decisions and actions. Nonetheless, they have to take the course because it is a gen-ed curriculum requirement.

That raises the more important question: what is the purpose of a gen-ed ethics course in the college curriculum?

The typical rationale, “to expose students to alternative views,” is just plain silly. First, our ethics texts do a far worse job of that than do the syndicated and social media. Second, as teachers we are not in the business of forcing exposure, we’re supposed to be imparting competence and capability. And finally, we’re no more effective at bringing the “everyone is entitled to their own ethics” camp to an adequate understanding of diversity than we are the firmly entrenched doctrinal believer.

Wait, you say, isn’t the “everyone is entitled to their own” position exactly what we are supposed to be teaching? I certainly hope not! It’s an untenable ethical position. The “everyone” camp don’t really believe that sound bite any more than their divinely guided peers do. Just watch their reactions in the classroom to more draconian “alternate views.” Take the “everyone” position completely seriously, and you behave unethically when you get upset with alternative views. You can’t argue that religious or cultural tenet X is repressive towards sub-group Y, at least not from an ethical point of view, because Everyone is Ultimately Justified.

The fundamental problem here is we don’t know what diversity – as an ethical rather than a socialization concept – really means in a college curriculum. To expect the divine law and order students to be tolerant of others despite their religious beliefs is intellectually intolerant, for it essentially dismisses the lived truth of their religion. To uncritically promote the “everyone” agenda is intellectually irresponsible because that agenda is fundamentally flawed.

‘Higher learning’ institutions must decide if they want to teach ethics or teach civics. If the task is to socialize students, be honest and call it a class in civics. If the task is to teach ethics, decide whether that will be an historical survey of ethical theory, or a course in philosophy where ethics is the subject. Put differently, it’s time to decide whether our primary goal is instilling behavioral patterns, or disseminating content knowledge, or promoting critical thinking and reflection. I’m sure you’ve already guessed that my vote is for the philosophy ofethics course. There at least the students can examine these inadequacies and tensions and they can struggle with the challenging, discomforting issues they raise in the personal, educational, societal, and political spheres.

If that sounds like it takes some effort and forces us out our comfort zones, it certainly does. But so do conscience or tolerance or compassion.

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Guinea Pigs in the Climate Change Debate

Valerie Richardson’s report in the Washington Post on the latest testimony before the House Science, Space and Technology Committee illuminates the complex and intractable problems we face in making decisions. On the face of it, the testimony was the typical partisan rhetoric: the conservatives brought in some nay-sayer scientists who attacked the evidence for global warming; the liberals attacked the conservatives for using inexpert testimony to attack “settled science”.

The issues are far deeper than a disagreement over evidence. In fact, evidence is the least of our worries. Let’s look at what is going on here.

First and foremost, there’s an obvious element of confirmation bias. If I am disinclined to believe global warming exists, I will side with the conservatives. But that’s not really a telling argument against any view – confirmation bias is simply filtering on steroids, and we all do it. The liberal objections to the testimony assumed there was a “settled” science of climate prediction. Thank you for playing, please try again.

But suppose that I recognize this innate constraint on our immediate understanding and I want to correct for it. Could I? This is where I think the real issue arises: we just don’t know how to define and manage risks. But for the moment let’s look at what stands in my way if I, Joe Citizen or Joe Congressperson, want to “get to the bottom” of the climate change research and debate.

First, will I actually go do the homework necessary to confirm my opinion that global warming does not exist? Let’s be generous and say I will. Second, and more germane, will I be willing to review the hundreds of published articles and all the data to come to a well-informed and comprehensive view of the available information before I make a judgment? Maybe, and let’s assume I have lots of energy and time and I will do just that. But even if I have the expertise to assimilate all the scientific data, do I have the acumen to critically evaluate the methods used in the research? This is far more demanding than just wrapping one’s head around figures and conclusions; it’s what separates skilled scientists from lab hackers. But again, for the sake of argument, let’s assume I have that expertise.

Third, would I have the access to all the available information? Unlikely, since the corporations that publish the data in the scientific journals know the value of their material, and charge readers for access. If I am employed at a research institution, I may have funds necessary to purchase access to information; if not, I’ll need a huge amount of disposable income and I’ll have to be willing to spend it on the info monopolizers. Fourth, even if I did have access to the available information, and I could evaluate it, would that be all the research that has been done? Possibly not. One of the complaints made by those testifying against global science was telling: journals publish to an agenda, and the “publish or perish” pressures of academe force researchers to develop findings that meet the current agenda, or they won’t get published. As universal claims, both are suspect; but certainly anyone who has rejected miserable papers in peer review, only to find them published anyway, knows there is some ground truth to the complaint.

Richardson’s article ends with a quote from Indiana Representative Rep. Larry Bucshon who expressed his hope that in both testimony and debate “…whatever we believe can stick to science.” The problem is, science is not monolithic. Science is an analytical and predictive methodology not a go-to Wiki of Truths, and it doesn’t make decisions. It only can be used to support them.

The climate changes. Whether we care, or what we should do about that, is based on other criteria: spending money or constraining progress when there is no predictable return for our efforts, or implementing those constraints to limit the risk that what we don’t know for sure may hurt us.

Gee, that sounds like hypothesis testing on a global scale, doesn’t it?

That’s what I meant when I said the real issue was how to manage risks….
( A good synopsis of the scientific issues (not the data), courtesy Steve Davidson at CDN, can be found here. )

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Original Sin and other social diseases

“The civil religion of our nation [is] fundamentally anthropocentric and anti-ecological.”

It was 1992 when William Becker spoke out against both ecological sin and the religious establishment that seemed to be ignoring it. There has been some progress on the theological issues he raised. There has far less progress in addressing the personal aspects of the social disease of original sin.

For Becker, original sin is not just a matter of personal choice; we inherit our choices from our social environment and thus the ‘fallen’ nature of humans perpetuates itself. In his article, Becker singled out those who believe affluence is a measure of success in God’s eyes, saying that they do so because they think success is spiritually good, and they hold that belief thanks to a very Western, and certainly American obsession with progress and technology and control/acquisition. For Becker, this was a perfect example of how “civil religion” eventually trumps received religious doctrines, and how sin subtly exonerates and perpetuates itself.

Becker saw a link between the American view of autonomy and individualism, the church’s emphasis on redemption, and our unwillingness to address our ecological trespasses. The root of the problem lay in the emphasis on redemption. First, a redemption perspective emphasizes Christ as redeemer at the expense of God the creator. Second, it makes the world about us value-less at best, at worst hostile and threatening to our personal composure and development. It also makes us lazy: original sin makes us depraved by nature, inviting us to let God do all the work while we wait for Christ to save us from ourselves.

Becker invoked Thomas Berry’s notion that the universe is based on self-sacrifice, as entities live in order to provide resources to other entities [think of both the soldier’s self-sacrifice and the food chain]. Then Becker says: “The tragic flaw in our industrial-technological civilization, which is at once a moral-spiritual and a biological-ecological flaw, is that it seeks to evade this law of sacrifice and reciprocity.” This was perhaps his most damning charge: it makes ecological sin simply a symptom of a more fundamental spiritual corruption – sloth.

When we make god (any god) a Moral Terminator, when we reduce ethics to a punch clock and set of work instructions, effort and actions we expect in the end to redeem, then we jettison love and devotion and the self-sacrifice that goes with them in favor of an economy of act and reward. That in turn trains us that we can be “ourselves” to whatever extent we choose, so long as we do not cross the line into socially-defined sinful behavior. We can then, in a perverse sense of ‘good conscience,’ complaisantly ignore the effects of our actions on other humans, on the natural world, or on the social environment we live in and in part create. We do not have to sacrifice anything terribly significant to be ‘good’. We can punch the clock and cruise along until we get ours in the end.

That, of course, is exactly what Becker was worried about.

Perhaps we need to take stock of our 2014 civil religions – from atheist to deist to panentheist – and find those attitudes and dicta that, like original sin, have degenerated into expressions of and excuses for despair.

Becker, W. H. (1992). Ecological sin. Theology Today, 49(2), 152-164.

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Sorry it took so long, Jack

Some years ago I was writing a book on, of all things, complexity theory and grace, when I came upon these remarks by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:

“We are always conquering Nature, because ‘Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. … But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our species to the level of mere Nature … the being who stood to gain and the being who is sacrificed are one and the same.”

In context, Lewis was condemning reductionist, mechanistic philosophy and psychology. Whether he also knew that Nature would soon become both more ephemeral and more hypostatized in the various “systems” theories that came to prominence in the latter half of the 20th century, I do not know. Given his treatment of bureaucracy in his writings, I suspect he did. After all, a bureaucracy exemplifies a system: it exists apart from its agents, directing them and constraining them without actually having a tenable existence itself. Political or social complex systems don’t exist any more than does the proverbial City Hall one cannot fight, yet as systems that make us who and what we are, cannot be resisted.

Humans have always exploited things and turned other humans into things when the need arose. But we have always had a sense that we the exploiter had a real and privileged relationship to the world. We were Stronger or More Important or More Justified; our actions appeared to reaffirm that we could in fact alter “nature” to suit our needs and desires.  Take the mechanistic or systems view literally, and that sense of self (however degenerate it may be) is also an illusion. The entire history of the universe leads up to the moment of exploitation, yet the tables are turned. There is no privileged relationship, because “we” had absolutely nothing to do with it. “We” don’t even exist. To echo an earlier post on this blog, we are instantiated rather than vital (in any sense of the word). We don’t strip ourselves of our humanity, it is eliminated for us.

In Abolition, it was clear Lewis believed that relegating ourselves to a purely physical, ‘natural’ object was an abdication of responsibility, a perverse self-sacrifice which promised us greater knowledge and control but left us no reason for either. Perhaps because I grew up in the post-modern, relativistic world, I missed the true significance of that sacrifice until recently when I came across Lewis’s description of Hell in The Problem of Pain: complete isolation in a world never intended for humans, with the Gates locked from the inside.

This is not the Hell of the Inferno, where Evil is a spectator’s sport. This Hell is not the burning lake of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton’s Satan was at least obdurate; hollow as it sounded even to him, there was some human-like valor in his attempt to rouse his newly fallen lieutenants to one final, if doomed, assault on the Almighty. Nor is it the queue of The Great Divorce, full of victims not of Evil but of their own spiritual sloth. Like Diggle at the end of The Last Battle, the self-damned are comfortably constrained and, in a twisted way, safe, for all annoyances remind them how they really do deserve something so much better.

This place, never meant for humans whatever we might take ourselves to be, is unnatural in any sense. Even as natural entities, we violate the ‘natural order’ by being there at all, because we have ignored that intuitive conscience Lewis described in “Why I Am Not a Pacifist.” When we cease to listen, we lock those gates: we abolish what “Man” is, regardless of any scientific or theological explanation of our existence or purpose.

Said Milton’s Satan: “which way I fly is hell, myself am hell / and in the lowest deep a lower deep / still threatening to devour me opens wide / to which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” It is this dread of the lower deep that makes Satan’s temptation of Eve his real revolt against God, not the earlier battle for the Throne. It is this same dread that makes Hamlet sheath his bare bodkin rather than seek the undiscovered country. When we refuse to listen to our selves, when we ignore our own innate sense of vital duty, no matter the reason we possess that sense, we cast our self into that lower deep and its complete, utter, and endless isolation.

The Dane had it backwards: conscience and with it the risk of enduring guilt is precisely what distinguishes us from “cowards,” ensuring we remain true to what we are even as (or, perhaps, because) we struggle to figure out exactly what that is.

Else, the rest is silence.

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Dominating the Conversation

As far as I can tell, much research into ‘digital behavior’ still distinguishes spoken or traditional text based communication from newer forms, lumping together the various modes of smart device communication (email, posts, Tweets, etc.) as if the specific mechanisms didn’t matter. I think they do (or can) and here’s an example from a technical writing course I taught last semester.

I had just finished walking the students through a collaborative project assignment. The groups dove into the project, all the members talking at once, tossing ideas into the air like so many caps at graduation. I was pleasantly surprised. After they actually got to work on the project, they were still all talking at once. I was puzzled. Even when a leader emerged to take down notes and assign roles for the next meeting, they were still all talking at once.  I realized I was watching a new kind of conversation.

We have always adjusted what we say and how we say it to the technology at hand, from    -·-··-·· to auf Wiederhören to  c u l8r. In this case, however, we may be seeing how the dominant technology can alter the nature of conversation itself.

When we converse with someone via email, post, comment, or text message, we don’t expect an immediate response. We don’t have to listen for a reply. It’s not a ‘normal’ conversation in that respect. Moreover, even within these media the communication protocols differ. With email, I do expect an eventual response to what I said. With text messages, posts, and comments, I do not. I may receive a response, or I may not. The response – someone else acknowledging that they ‘got my message’ – is not a requirement of this kind of communication.

The click or tap by which I send my message is, in a very real sense, the end of the conversation from my perspective. I hand control of the rest of the transaction over to the technology.  And it is the technology that responds to me. It is stored in my device, I am alerted to its presence, but I can process it at my leisure. There’s no reply from a real-time, in-my-view human being.

For this particular group of students, communication was primarily text messaging and Facebook posts and comments.  (Indeed, some of them even had trouble using the college’s email app, entering addresses from a global directory search, attaching files, etc.) So am I suggesting that my students spoke over their team members in the classroom just as they would toss their posts or comments into virtual thin air from their smart phones? Yes.

The smart device has become such an integral part of some acts of communication that it has created crosstalk in other communication environments. In text-based, device mediated conversations we rely on its interfaces and its memory.  We take it for granted just as we take our eyes and ears and memory for granted when we are in a real-time conversation.

Not a problem, you say. They simply have to adjust their style of communicating when they are in real-time.  But that is exactly what a dominant technology means – it is the real-time for the user of that technology, it is how conversation happens.

You will not be surprised to learn that some of the teams had trouble meeting the deadline because team members were uncertain about what they had to do by when. More significantly, these teams could not understand how that happened. After all, they’d talked about what to do in class just like everyone else. On the other hand, the teams that did complete the assignment correctly and on time ‘managed’ the schedule and the document itself entirely via Facebook exchanges.

If that doesn’t convince you that a dominant technology can change how we converse, it at least gives you a free alternative to Microsoft Project….

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The Broken Promise, Part 4: A New Promise?

Collectively exploring topographies of information may well solve a problem most colleges face: first year composition/information literacy training. The typical second semester composition course combines instruction in information literacy and in the rhetorical forms of argument and persuasion. We expect students in these courses to ‘demonstrate their skills’ in one or more researched argumentative essays. There are, however, two interrelated problems with this approach.

First, it is very difficult to get students to perform adequate research. The usual explanations for this – lack of training or lack of commitment – obscure the real challenge, the complex cognitive environment of present-centeredness and its symptoms, cognitive economy and satisficing. Second, composition courses enroll students from disparate majors, and many of the enrollees know little about their disciplines or their planned professions. Teaching “general research skills” isn’t practicable: as anyone who has tried to actually teach keyword generation knows, keywords are keywords because they are nodes in a conceptual network established by a discipline or domain. Nor is teaching discipline-specific research always practicable: the typical “comp” instructor is not prepared to introduce students to their fields of study, identify problems practitioners face that can be addressed in research, and to guide the students through that research – student by student, major by major.

Recognizing this, many colleges offer information literacy or professional inquiry courses alongside the composition course. However, this simply puts the students in a Catch-22: they cannot adequately express their findings in Info Lit without the skills of Comp, but they cannot complete their assignments in Comp without the skills acquired in Info Lit.

Wait a minute. I’ve spent the last 5 maybe 10 years of my life as a passenger on the train, and now you’re telling me to get out and push? Mine is a click-acquire world, and yet  you want me to spend 10 hours of homework time a week messing around with keywords and a bunch of databases I’ve never used and if I don’t find anything then I’m gonna have to change topics which means I’m screwed for time cuz now I have to do the whole stupid process all over again and who knows whether that topic will work and even if I do find something I gotta read  a bunch of  18-page, block text, PDF format academic journal articles that read like you sound when you lecture with a head cold???

Little wonder that our Comp students either recycle papers from their high school English classes, even when the assignment explicitly forbids the topic, or write the paper from a single popular internet source and hope we won’t notice.

We need, the students need, a fully integrated writing-researching environment that meets their “get real” challenge. We should recombine the professional inquiry and composition efforts, offering first year, discipline-focused courses modeled after the upper division courses some colleges offer wherein professional writing is integrated into a domain content course. These upper division courses are successful because they combine narrowly focused content, problem-based learning, and genres the students will need in their careers (e.g., the business plan or the scientific report, as opposed to the MLA formatted, Big Issue based, Argumentative Essay).

If we implemented program-tailored seminars, could we still meet the curriculum goal of teaching students the rhetoric of argument and persuasion? Of course. A scientific report, a business plan or proposal, a well-supported editorial, even many blog entries employ argumentative and persuasive rhetoric. Would this prevent students from succumbing to information overload, the equivalent of a Depression in their cognitive economy? Hard to say. Overload is inescapable, but this approach at least might teach them how to limit the amount of input and how to focus the outputs.

Would it prevent satisficing? Not relevant. Satisficing is also inescapable. Whether we are developing a competitive analysis for the next quarterly review or struggling to complete an Op-Ed piece, there’s simply more stuff out there to look at than we have time for. These seminars would, however, show students the difference between judicious satisficing and plain old sloppy work.

OK then, will it provide a more academically satisfactory satisficing? Cynical answer: Anything is an improvement over the current situation in which the dominant “stopping criteria” – the reasons we throw up our hands, close our laptops, and walk away from the project – are despair and lack of time.

Better answer: If I am right, the instructor-coached, problem-probing, collaborative project is our best chance to introduce students to the elusive but essential LOOK WHAT I FOUND! moment. An extended project of that sort emphasizes the act and effort of coming to know, it helps students remain inquisitive; it turns a static and daunting topography of keywords and sources and information into a network of insights and comments and questions and applications. It demands that we individually get out of our seats so we can collectively reassure the future; it is both promise and example of escaping the orphaning now.


Scattered in these four parts are insights from students in my Introduction to Communications and Critical Thinking courses, and from Paul Rechichi’s senior capstone project research in particular. My thanks to all.

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