Sunday, April 06, 2014

Social structure and group identity: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks

A little spat over group identity (and stereotypes and prejudice) in my family inspired a semi-formalization of some ideas that I have about how we organize our society.

My impression is that people commonly think in terms of three organizational ideals: cliques, hierarchies, and open networks.

Clique: This is probably most common among traditionalists -- our social position is defined by membership in a few closely knit groups: family, religious congregation, fraternal organizations, neighborhood, school, etc. To the "cliqueists" These groups are the basic organization of society, and the higher levels of organization could themselves be cliques (e.g. religious communions, cities), but not necessarily.

The cliquists often criticize other forms of organization as "atomistic"

Hierarchies: Our role is defined by dominance/subordinate relationships (e.g. employer/employee). All other relationships are secondary and readily broken in response to changes in that primary relationship (e.g. when we move to new cities due to job assignments). I think that this is the primary target of the "atomistic" criticism.

Open network: Our role is defined by a large number of one-to-one relationships, which are typically in flux. The realities of life introduce some structure onto this network (e.g. neighborhoods, families), but we tend not to think of the relationships in terms of these structures. This is closer to being the cosmopolitian/individualistic ideal. The risk is that this structure may not be stable and devolve into hierarchy if a single relationship (e.g. the job) develops excessive importance and other relationships ore not organized in a way to provide alternatives to that dominant relationship.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

blaming the victim

Joe Biden said:
"No one ever asks the person who got robbed at gunpoint in the street — why were you there, what were you doing, what were you wearing? What did you say? Did you offend someone? "

I'm baffled at why people feel the need to exaggerate the situation like this. When I read something like this, my immediate thought is "you are wrong; we do 'victim blame' for other crimes", and my opinion of the speaker immediately drops, and I consequently am more skeptical of their claim. This obsession with combating victim blaming also inhibits having a conversation about how our society allocates responsibility to protect people from crimes.

Back to the first point -- we do expect people to take responsibility for their own safety, and there is always a bit of resentment from others who feel that they are having that responsibility shoved completely onto them. For instance, whenever items are stolen, cops regularly ask whether they had been secured. I remember being taught to be discreet if I'm carrying more than a few bucks in cash, and to always lock up anything valuable. More explicitly, I remember a high school teacher talking about a student who had been mugged, and saying that he (a middle class suburban kid) had no business being in "that neighborhood". Same goes for getting mugged while staggering home drunk. I can also recall situations where a victims' suffering was dismissed due to the perception that he had offended his attacker (though racism may have played a part in that).

Given the reality of victim blaming outside of sexual assault, we should be more careful to indicate how victim blaming is more excessive and less reasonable for sexual assault than for other crimes.

We also need to distinguish between victim blaming as a way to excuse the criminal (which is always vile) and 'victim blaming' as part of a discussion of who has responsibility to prevent crime. The latter is  a legitimate discussion, though it needs to be handled in a tactful way with the understanding that the victim is probably already obsessing over what they could have done to avoid the crime (especially if it was an assault). Reflexively hiding behind the 'victim blaming' accusation can have some perverse effects, such as when neo-conservatives used it to shut down any consideration of whether the actions of the US government could have contributed to the 9/11 attacks. As with how 'victim blaming' is used in the sexual assault debates, the neo-cons conflated the victim-criminal relationship with the victim-protector relationship, and acted as though blaming someone for failing to prevent the crime is equivalent to excusing the criminal.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking to kids about race


The recent bullshit brouhahas about race ("Is Santa Clause white?") have gotten me thinking about how to explain it to kids. I'm sick of words like "black" and "white" being treated as meaningful categories, when they are just the remnants of an system of exploitation.

I found several websites providing advice on how to speak to kids about racism, and describing scenarios about how the discussion might come up:
katie couric
Hand-in-hand parenting

One thing I will not do is tell my kids that "we're all the same on the inside". I find that idea to be demeaning; we are different, and it is our differences that make society work by allowing us to complement each other's strengths and reducing the competition that occurs when we all seek the same thing.

I'm hoping I'm lucky enough to get a straight-forward question from my kids, like "Joe says he's white, what does that mean?"

My answer might go something like this...

"Long ago, a group of greedy people wanted to steal from other people. They labeled their victims "black" because of how they looked and called everyone who looked like themselves "white". They said that it was okay for whites to steal from blacks. These greedy people were in charge for a long time, so they convinced everyone else to use labels like "black" and "white". They aren't in charge anymore, but people still use those labels because they've gotten used to the labels. Now those words are just a quick way to describe how a person looks, but they are sloppy words and you should be more detailed when describing what a person looks like."

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Freedom vs. Security vs. Profit tradeoff

People often parrot the "freedom vs. security" as though this were a self-evident dichotomy. Leaving aside the fact that a slave has no security, the most glaring omission here is that security can often be attained through just putting a little effort into it. However, at the end of the day, someone doesn't want to absorb the costs of securing their facilities, so they turn to the state to assure security through strategies that impose on everyone else. All too often, this "someone" is some corporation whose bosses are just looking for a way to funnel billions of extra dollars to a bunch of people who already have more money than they could ever spend. This is how the ruling class works.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

goodbye cruel blogosphere

I know I've said it before, but real life beckons, and I must go. I'm serious this time; I think that things will just get more intense for the next decade or so. I'll come back some day, when the family and the job aren't so demanding of my attention. It's been fun. I've learned a lot from you all.

See you on the other side...

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Prissy old-money: the WSJ editorial board

This video-editorial from the WSJ is absurd. The woman who complains about NYC's new bike sharing program is the perfect stereotype of the prissy old-money matriarch. I'm no fan of Bloomberg, but I'm glad he's pissing off entitled bigots like this woman:

tip to In Media Res.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

The "moral" vs "rational" basis of political authority

A few weeks ago, I blogged about my interest in Michael Heumer's new book The Problems of Political Authority. A comment from rulingclass emphasized the difference between the "moral" arguments for political authority and the "rational" arguments, noting that a rationalist argument will be seen as irrelevant to those who focus on the moral basis of political authority. I am not sure exactly what Heumer's arguments focus on -- the book is now sitting on my nightstand, awaiting my attention (and competing with Gulag: a history as my next read).

Before reading the book, I wanted to get a better sense of the distinction that rulingclass made. In his comment, rulingclass equated "moral" with "communitarian" and "rational" with "liberal". He followed by asserting that most people/Americans are communitarian rather than liberal, so the "rationalist" arguments (often favored by liberal academic philosophers) are not persuasive in public discourse.

I'm going to rephrase these comments in my own words (and connect them to the work of others), hoping that rulingclass, will tell me if I'm interpreting him correctly. I consider "moral" arguments for political authority to be those asserting that submission to authority is intrinsically good, whereas the "rationalist" arguments emphasize how submission to authority enables us to achieve pre-existing goals. Having that interpretation, I came across an essay "Man the Political Animal", in which the author (Michael Hannon) argued that political community is an intrinsic good rather than an instrumental good. I think this is the same distinction being made by rulingclass, but I like these terms better than "moral" and "rational", so I will use them for the rest of this post.

When rulingclass first mentioned that most Americans have a "moral" view of political authority, I contemplated exactly how that would manifest. I figured that for conservatives, the authority would essentially be patriarchal in nature -- that we obey the state for the same reason we obey our parents/father; while for progressives, this would be the authority of the community. However, Hannon's essay (in a conservative publication) focuses on the authority of the community, not parents. Of course, in a republic (unlike a monarchy), state authority cannot really be conceived as a manifestation of patriarchy. Conservative American patriarchy is limited to the family, and the authority structure binding households is more egalitarian. This authority can be idealized as arising from a union of heads-of-households who coordinate their actions to establish more effective governance over the other members of their respective households.  This ideal could account for Lackoff's "strict father" perception of governance. I'm not sure how one can philosophically arrive at the "nurturant parent" perception of government that Lackoff attributes to the American center-left, but it clearly depicts political authority as an extension of an intimate and instinctual authority relationship, not some sort of contract or engineered relationship.

I am put into a bit of a bind by the acknowledgement that most Americans are communitarian and see political authority as an intrinsic good. For as long as I can remember, I have viewed politics as a problem of coordinating individuals for their mutual good. When people use moralist assertions to justify policy (e.g. drugs must be prohibited because their use is wrong), I clench my teeth and disengage from discussion with them -- I basically write them off as dangerous fanatics. The problem is that most people think like this, even if they are not as adamant in their opinion. So how to discuss politics with these people?

One approach is to target the authoritarianism in culture, whether by developing non-authoritarian methods of child-rearing and education, or attacking authoritarian institutions and ideologies that are not blatantly political. This sometimes conflicts with the political libertarian impulse to target political authority in isolation and profess that personal beliefs and voluntary institutions are separate from the political movement (I suppose this is rehashing the thick/thin debate).

The other approach is to dissect political authority and demonstrate that it is incompatible with their primary moral goals. For instance, during the Cato Unbound discussion of Anthony de Jasay's ideas (which I've only skimmed), one of the authors responds that "[The welfare state] reigns supreme because in the eyes of most citizens it conforms to the egalitarian fairness norms that have evolved with humans.” When the standard attitude is that state policies should "try" to achieve fairness norms, the proper libertarian response is to argue that the state is antithetical to such norms (in contrast to the elitist response that often masquerades as libertarian). Here we see how the "instrumental" view of political authority often has a strong moral component; when a state policy or power is not being justified on the grounds that it promotes fairness, it is being justified as a way to prevent free-riding. If we show that the state creates a free-rider problem (i.e. rent-seeking) and facilitates exploitation of the poor, then we have an argument that turns the intrinsic good of political authority against other fundamental values that people may give priority to. Through it all, I think the problem is that most people view the state as an extension of "us", rather than as an exploitative "them". The trick is to retain a notion of "us" (allowing for secession) while rejecting authority relationships that can be corrupted by "them".