November 27, 2016

Making Space for Paradigms— 5. Think in the new, work in the old

Hello friend,

It seems that the need for answers is especially pervasive within the cultural zeitgeist right now—or at least the cultural zeitgeist as determined by engagement metrics. That if we don’t have the hot take. Or if we don’t the One True Answer, that we’ll be ignored—especially the last few weeks. And everybody must have an opinion on something, regardless of whether we are educated on the issue. And this culture seems to be growing. As I write this, people with almost no knowledge of Cuban history are fighting over Castro’s legacy. But many seem to be gauging their position not through research, but through reacting to others. What is the position of this person I hate? How about the person I agree with? Nobody is stopping to ask whether having an opinion is necessary. There is no time to do research. No time to fact check or verify. We must react now. We must have answers now. Now. Now. Now.

And sometimes I get into a mood where I have more answers than questions—the last few weeks has felt like that. And the same goes with a lot of things I have to do right now: writing CFPs, applying for jobs, and pitching to clients, they all exacerbate the tendency that I need to talk as if I have the right answers. But when I stop to think about what makes me good at what I do, it’s not that I have good answers, but that I am good at asking questions. When I have more answers than questions, it’s because I’m not thinking hard enough—that I have stopped being critical and am acting more on autopilot. And I’ve felt that in the last couple of letters. So as I try to keep that in mind, today’s letter is less about answer and more about recommitting ourselves to creating and embracing frameworks to ask the right questions.

Normative Connections

The paradigm shift is one of the most overused buzzwords in business speak. It is also one of the most important concepts I learned in college. The idea comes from Thomas Kuhn’s Structures of Scientific Revolutions: The core is that it is really hard for those in one worldview to see or understand the ideas in a new one because they have completely different conceptual underpinnings. Scientific revolutions happen when enough people have shifted to the new framework and the old is left behind.

But paradigms are often mutually incomprehensible, even if two people are using the same words, they are using them in different ways, which means people talk past each other, like two ships passing in the night. Wittgenstein called these language games. How sometimes we will can use chess pieces to play checkers. But if one person is trying to play checkers, while the other is playing chess, neither is really playing either game. Or recreating rock, paper, scissors—Lion eats sassy girl, because he can (in college, my friends and I created ‘purple, hippo, teapot’). But this isn’t only about games, it can have real world policy effects, like scientific imperalism trying to import western agriculture onto Bali rice farming.

We can see a subtle example of this in a recent Smithsonian Mag article “Sexism Sucks for Everybody, Science Confirms”:

“Sexism isn’t just a social injustice,” says Y. Joel Wong, a psychologist at Indiana University Bloomington and the study’s lead author. “It may even be potentially problematic for mental health”—men’s mental health, that is.

For those who live and breath intersectional social justice, mental health—including men’s mental health—is core for feminism and social justice. But for those who aren’t, social justice is abstract and merely an intellectual exercise.

Which gives a good perspective on the flood of (mostly-men) liberals writing about how this race business is interesting and all but the Democratic party should really get back to talking about “working class” issues as if only white people are working class. I won’t bother linking to any of the pieces, but I will note that a certain socialist former-democratic-primary-candidate went so far as the use the word “but” in talking about how economics is the problem, not social justice.

The older generation of white socialists often want to talk about oppression as purely a matter economics. But it’s not.

Racism trumps class. Even middle income African Americans are more likely to live in more polluted neighborhoods — Dr. Richard Bullard

In the US, Black families making $50–60,000 per year, are more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods than Whites making less than $10,000.

On the flip side, I’m also seeing folks rejecting any conversation of the economic impact of political decision making. But neither position is correct, race matters and economics matters. When it comes to political decision making, each shapes the other. Similar examples exist elsewhere, too. White feminist women claiming that gender trumps race. Blatant racism in white queer and trans communities. The list goes on.

As I see people saying that it’s white working class that made the election what it was. Or education. Or race. I fear that our need to have the One True Simple Answer is going to be our end. Because none of these things can be considered alone and divorced from everything else. We have loads of research that shows economic scarcity alters the perception of race, that when people don’t feel secure, they become more discriminatory, that they are more willing to sacrifice liberty for an authoritarian power that promises them safety. That is why white supremacy is rooted in the language of love.

This is why I talk about fighting the kyriarchy and all the interrelated systems of domination and oppression. And that is hard work, because even if you aren’t just a self-serving megalomaniac using hate to expand your own power, it’s really easy to oppress others purely out of ignorance as we fight in our own corner.

As I try to think about the roles and duties of all the various actors in civil society, one thing that obviously seems broken is how poorly-educated we all are about how civic live happens, our place in it, and how we analyze the information that comes to us.

As Facebook finally comes to grasp with the role of its algorithms in spreading fake news (but not—if you will note—their decision to fire the human editors for their trending topics), news of coordinated Russian interference to exploit that (or not), but little coverage of journalism’s complicity in promoting trash, how its goldfish-like attention span robs political dialogue of any depth, and Friday’s fake news about CNN showing porn, I am thinking about this fantastic piece on how journalists were playing chess while Trump was knocking the pieces off the table and rereading Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. In a time where anyone with a blog has the potential to become a fantastic journalist or anyone with a twitter account can spread horrifying lies that get picked up by major news outlets, I am wondering what our role is in our post-Truth future.

To add to my earlier thought on “sexism isn’t just about social justice”, it is increasingly apparent to me that people are honestly ignorant about what is racist or sexist or any other form of oppression. Or to put it another way: privilege is ignorance. And that’s seems to be a huge problem that we’ve failed at fixing.

I still can’t tell if we’re entering a new—horrifyingly shitty—paradigm of civic dialog, or whether it’s the same old paradigm but with emphasis on the worst traits of our system.

In previous letters, I talked about how traditional forms of national organizing have failed us. I believe that deeply, but I don’t see a clear path away from them. And in a time where Trump and the Republicans are posturing to completely remove NASA’s climate research because it ‘politicized science’ and Earth sciences “fits better with other agencies” (and—you know—completely ignoring that the first “A” in NASA is “Aeronautics”).

Looking at how environmental groups are preparing to fight for climate justice in the time of Trump, there is a renewed focus on states and expanding the movement. I feel a tension in wanting to create new projects to try new forms of organizing, and funding those who are already doing the work. On one hand many existing organizations are rather ineffectual at creating change, and having been inside national groups, it’s not hard to see why. On the other, national organizing needs to exist. But all that work is—in many ways—reactive. I have not seen much paradigm shifting work in creating a culture that would be immune to Trump.

One of the questions I find myself constantly returning to is how to create institutions that care for its most marginalized members and grow and adapt to the changing needs of its communities.

To me, looking at how to reshape local communities to be more inclusive and collaborative is a large but much clearer task. Most feel like our voice matters little in civic dialogue. In many cases government can and should have a role in mitigating this problem. One place we can shift this in ways that are felt and appreciated immediately is by bringing more voices in local planning. One example that comes to my mind is looking at who we design our cities for:

In 1999, officials in Vienna, Austria, asked residents of the city's ninth district how often and why they used public transportation. "Most of the men filled out the questionnaire in less than five minutes," says Ursula Bauer, one of the city administrators tasked with carrying out the survey. "But the women couldn't stop writing." How to design a city for women

At their core, cities are physical spaces for people to come together and do things. So what if we thought of our governments not as providers of services but rather as platforms for letting things happen? (btw, this is also a book from the Aspen Institute and the PDF is totally free).

Similarly, I am reminded of the growing body of research that shows how architecture shapes the physical structures of how we collaborate with one another. And Louis Kahn’s Salk institute reminds us that this is not new ground we are treading.

As I think about the role of technologists in the Trump era, even within myself I think about the tension between the urge of creating anew versus supporting what already exists.

I think about all the energy that went into thinking about open source voting systems after the 2000 election and how all those died with little national work, and renewed energy this year (if you’re interested, my friend Emily Gorcenski did some fantastic research on the software quality of voting machines). Will whatever grows out of this round of energy at thinking about better voting systems ignore the complexity of actually having to make sure this technology is usable by volunteers and poll officials of vastly varying skill levels? In precincts that will vary from city hall offices to churches to neighborhood garages? Will they be able to not only build technology but also build a lasting business model that will guarantee that the machines they build update cycles that election officials will actually keep up with? Will they learn from secure voting systems in other countries like Estonia’s i-Voting or Brazil? Or will they do what technologists normally do and decide their ideas are freshest, not bother to look at prior work, and duplicate problems others already know about and have solutions for? Or will these new movements burn quick and hot with energy but fizzle out before anything concrete is produced?

What would it take to make something that works and lasts? What is needed for a lasting national organizing movement? What would it take to make participatory democracy reality in communities everywhere? What would it take to create a national culture that is immune to demagoguery?

It seems to me that our civic education is failing on so many levels: People do not understand how government works or the value of votes. They learn the golden rule, slavery and the fight for civil rights but not how the contemporary fight for social justice fits into that historical context, They learn that overt discrimination is bad but not what systemic discrimination looks like. Nobody bothers to analyze information critically, even our major sources of civic information are increasingly bad at basic fact checking.

As we are working in the current structure of political participation—through calling our representatives and donating to groups and projects that need resources (may I suggest Sacred Stone Camp?), how do we also build out new forms of participation? How do we find the journalists and policymakers who are visionary enough and able to build the bridges needed to create more participatory democracy? It seems to me that as long as the new forms don’t exist yet, we need to still play by the old rules if want to get anything done right now, and in order to bootstrap ourselves to a better civics.

Maybe even though I’m not looking for the One True Simple Answer, I’m still looking for the Grand Unified Answer that can be customized to all cases. And maybe that’s as futile as looking for the One True Answer.

I am not an anarchist, I believe that there is important value in strong central governments, and they do necessary work that cannot be handled merely through confederations of regional governments. But this three part interview with Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, on the role of technology in government and need for culturally cognizant solutions for participatory democracy has given me a much deeper appreciation of the anarchism’s respect of the situated-ness of viable systems of governance.


If you’d like a pay-walled academic article I link to but can’t get to it, let me know, I will help you find a copy to read. And as always replies are welcome with love and hope by me,

p.s. I’ve started using “***” as a note to remind myself I’ve left unfinished fragments that need to be completed. I’m probably going to miss a couple as I write these, so just so you know, they’re not special signifiers of anything except how scattershot my writing process is 😘