Category Archives: leadership

Pluralism and Individualism: Links and Videos

Just in time for your weekend viewing: links and videos on leadership, space negotiation, and consumerism in contemporary plural societies.


Inset from Carrol Grady's "Baby Quilt for Samuel Joseph" (2009)

Inset from Carrol Grady’s “Baby Quilt for Samuel Joseph” (2009)

Nilofer Merchant, in Time and Gawker columns on board-level diversity at social technology companies:

Innovation is a direct result of openness to new ideas. The key is to design for differences of perspective and world views so you can have a better chance at new ideas.

“All innovation is a derivative of ideas and especially new ideas,” added Merchant, who serves on the boards of both public and private companies. “What [the companies are] saying is I’m gonna work under my same old, same old. And same thinking leads to parrot ideas, which ultimately leads to failure.” 


Aryeh Cohen explains why he’s conflicted about Israel’s Women of the Wall, a group of observant Jewish women who’ve been protesting their sometimes forcible exclusion from prayer at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (the Kotel ha-Ma’aravi):

This is the beginning of the story of the modern Kotel, out of which grows the story of the women of Women of the Wall, who demand equal ritual access to it. The silences in that historic story prevent me from praying at the Wall and from supporting the women who want to wear tallit and tefillin when they pray there. —Aryeh Cohen

Cohen’s concern reminds me of Native American/Indian and immigrant activists in Canada and the US who argue that new immigrants inherit the settlers’ burden to reckon with the cultures that the emergent United States displaced and that remain marginal here.


Image via Nomad Nation

Image via Nomad Nation

Adam Curtis’ four-part documentary, The Century of the Self (2002), charts the evolution of individualism through the 20th Century by describing the influence of Freudian psychology on modern public relations and politics.

Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew led PR to shift toward correlating commercial products and symbols representing consumers’ emotions, desires, and irrational beliefs about themselves.

Adam Curtis: What Bernays had created was the idea that if a woman smoked, it made her more powerful and independent, an idea that still persists today… It meant that irrelevant objects could become powerful emotional symbols of how you wanted to be seen by others.

Peter Strauss: Eddie Bernays saw the way to sell product was not to sell it to your intellect, that you ought to buy an automobile, but that you will feel better about it if you have this automobile. I think he originated that idea, that they weren’t just purchasing something, but they were engaging themselves emotionally or personally in the product or service… That was his contribution.

This Vimeo link contains all four fascinating episodes, “Happiness Machines,” “The Engineering of Consent,” “There is a Policeman Inside All Our Heads: He Must Be Destroyed,” and “Eight People Sipping Wine in Kettering.”

Run-time is just under four hours, so budget about an hour for each.


The Progressive Adventist and the Surveilled Mind

“There is no such thing as a little freedom. Either you are all free, or you are not free.”—Walter Cronkite cited by former U.S. Ambassador Charles A. Ray, 2010

“What is to save our schools from control of this kind [religious control]? Will constitutional provisions do it? They are at the mercy of the people. Nothing will do it but the belief in the minds of the American people that the State has no concern with things spiritual, and when they do believe that, there is no danger. There is no safety except in an enlightened public opinion, based on individual intelligence. When we have that, we have all we ever can get.” —George Hoadly in Minor et al. vs Board of Education of Cincinnati et al. (1870), cited by Alonzo T. Jones,1889

This year’s news has included several stories on political surveillance including two United States surveillance programs (the National Security Agency’s PRISM and X-Keyscore) and the US’ sponsorship of the United Kingdom’s signal intelligence agency, Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). Inspired by these stories and the recurring conundrum of academic freedom in faith-based institutions, I’ve been thinking a lot about privacy, secrecy, censorship, contemporary or retrospective surveillance, and how each of these operate in interpersonal relationships, religious and professional organizations, and the national security conversation.

One of my current reads is Janna Malamud Smith’s Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (2003). First released in 1997, five years before the US’ domestic terrorism watershed, Private Matters explores the evolution of the personal realm and Western concepts of privacy; the still-shifting impacts of talk, tabloid, and reality television on our expectations of privacy, and how privacy violations affect people psychologically and relationally in the moment and over time.

Four States of Privacy

Citing Alan Westin’s Privacy and Freedom, Malamud Smith describes privacy’s four constituent states: solitude, anonymity, reserve, and intimacy (pp. 37-55). Solitude, she says, permits complete relaxation and self-exploration apart from others. It’s a state in which one can engage one’s own body and psyche without translating either into forms that others can apprehend or evaluate.

Anonymity creates a bubble of free expression in the context of a group—such as “a walker in a city, a member in a crowd.” Thanks to internet comments and the modern phenomenon of trolling, we have come to associate anonymity with “expression without consequence” or sociopathic efforts to goad or control others in a given space. However, as Westin and Malamud Smith describe it, anonymity allows people to temporarily retreat from conventional norms and the restrictions and/or shame that may be linked to them. Anonymity can thus shelter the abused as well as their abusers: while an anonymous abuser may be free to cause others pain, an anonymous survivor may use their invisibility to vent anger or grief that their community would otherwise discourage.

Reserve is a state of restraint that a person exercises when around others who know him or her. It creates some distance between who people are, what they perceive of each other, and what they mutually consent to discuss: “Our state is private simply because we do not choose to reveal the full extent of what we feel, observe, think, or experience. We set aside our immediate perceptions, sometimes our frankest opinions—preserving them (and often us) for the future. Reserve is a house with glass walls, but no one mentions it” (p. 47, emphasis supplied). Examples of reserve include retiring to one’s den or using headphones or reading materials to block out other passengers on public transportation. What counts as “reserve” varies by culture and era, and in excess it can lead to isolation and uncertainty. Malamud Smith describes reserve as a necessary field for the ground of intimacy, the fourth privacy state.

Photo: Two male lions lie next to each other. Their foreheads touch.Intimacy provides for relaxation and mutual knowing with others. It is a state of engagement, interaction, and explicit revelation: “The heart of intimacy, its essence, is that in it one comes as close as one is capable of, or as close as one feels permitted, to revealing oneself to another person… [This] expression is inevitably limited and incomplete” (p. 53). Malamud Smith argues that this “chosen closeness” is also lessened by publicity.

Writing Beyond the Private

The productive acts of teaching, presenting, and writing all push communicators out from private spaces, through an intimate zone in which peers speak only to peers, and into the public arena. Public communication and less private communication thus expand the reach and potential influence of new ideas and emerging conversations: they allow people who would otherwise be separated from each other to connect and access mutual conversation. Creating and participating in less private or public communication spaces is especially valuable for demographics that can’t easily find each other through pre-existing networks offline or face-to-face.

For example, I was once a member of a large public internet forum aimed at Black Seventh-day Adventists. (The site closed about 4 years ago.) Most active members were African-American or Latin@, some were Black and from the Caribbean or United Kingdom, and a few members were White and from North America or Europe. We ranged in age from early 20s through late 50s, and spanned the full family life spectrum during our time together. Most of us were also still active in local Adventist congregations but had found them cool or hostile to questions and stifling of curiosity. Even though the majority of members only knew each other through the forum, we co-created a space of respectful free association and bonded over conversations about our families, faith, beliefs, church life, current affairs, and experiences with the denomination. Eventually, some members also met up offline, during vacations, at regional conferences, or at General Conference sessions.

The forum I shared with my friends was an indeterminate, semi-public space beyond Westin and Malamud Smith’s intimate zone. Such a space might take shape around people who know each other enough to reveal and invite conversation about their inner thoughts—more conversation, certainly, than they would invite in an average Sabbath School class. So a less private space has features of intimacy’s “chosen closeness.” But it is also public in that it takes place in physical or virtual territory that anyone could access, monitor, bookmark, or lurk in. In that kind of space, the four states of privacy may be intermingled or absent. In addition, content consumers often assume a public-sphere level of entitlement to respond whether they’ve established a relationship with the writer or demonstrated understanding of what’s been shared. It’s an odd admixture of norms and expectations.

I wouldn’t have found or entered that Adventist forum at all had it not been publicly accessible. Other members have since said that they wouldn’t have shared so freely had the site required them to use their legal names rather than pseudonyms. By insisting on a censure-free space and allowing for the reserve of a pseudonym, we built a zone in which members could thoroughly dialogue about beliefs and religio-socio-political concerns, building trust through conversation and debate until their pseudonyms became nicknames or were no longer needed. By contrast, on other sites where people are required to use their legal names and mix their social and professional circles in artificially flat ways, I’ve heard users cite two feelings as reasons for speaking a certain way or not speaking at all: surveillance and inhibition.

Surveillance Culture Explored

The internet and our information/revelation culture combine to make more content more public, and once-private-now-publicized content exposes creators to personal or professional consequences that private content never would have. I’ve wondered how these shifts impact how people know themselves, how they evaluate their relationships with others, and how they determine how they’ll participate in public conversation, and how they cope with the fact that increasing visibility means increasing the possibility of others watching and taking action against them.

That possibility has significant effects. Neuroscientists and psychologists note that mass surveillance heightens stress and anxiety; reduces mental well-being, productivity/performance, and creativity; promotes distrust between an “us” that’s distinguished from “them”; and undermines authority influence. If these impacts scale from individual monitoring up through institutional and social surveillance, what does a climate that surveils members and punishes non-conformity cost our religious community?

As an Adventist, I reflected on some of the major church community stories I’ve seen unfold in just the last four years: Science teachers coming under conference observation and armchair review because constituency members complain about their curriculum… University professors and administrators being fired after a recording of their off-duty socializing is distributed to supervisors without their knowledge or consent… A minister losing his church membership and credentials when named as a sexual abuser on another continent, his local congregation and conference struggle to manage the spotlight and expectations about new information for a year afterwards… Another pastor asked to resign because of his interfaith community work and service to sexual minorities… School and college teachers being told not to patronize a documentary screening after hours while at a national conference… Church administrators discouraged from attending a different screening near denominational headquarters—and the palpable repression among those who did quietly attend generated the weirdest “question, answer, awkward silence” post-screening session I’ve ever participated in.

As I recalled these recent stories, I was reluctant to characterize surveillance and threatened punishment as native to or consistent with Adventism. Yet there they are in our recent community record. Some of Ellen White’s “I was shown” material from the late 19th and early 20th Century features references to “Brother ____,” “Sister ____,” and “Elder ______”; comments on individuals’ thoughts, lifestyle habits, relationships, and conversations publicized in White’s letters are now part of the 9-volume Testimonies to the Church series and other compiled White books. Tales told about dominant leaders and doctrinal dissenters during the church messenger’s lifetime were folded into her council and presented as evidence for or against the perspectives under discussion.

At the same time, Ellen White grasped how surveillance could harm the Adventist movement and wrote about that too. In 1888, for instance, a US Senator tried and failed to pass a federal Sunday sacredness law; Adventists, of course, were concerned and sent a conference president to testify against the bill. A few years later, White advised then-GC president O.A. Olsen to tell Adventists in the Southern states not to work on Sundays. White hoped to minimize social opposition to Adventism: were Adventists to be seen working on Sundays, she wrote, “the colored people [sic] everywhere would be placed in a position of surveillance and under cruel treatment to the white people that would be no less than slavery… If the colored people are in any way educated to work on Sunday, there will be unsparing, merciless oppression brought upon them.”

White and the church leaders she wrote to could see how societal surveillance and suspicion of Adventists would degrade relationships between local believers and their neighbors: it would focus an intense disapproval and disproportionate harm on those deemed “outsiders.” Well, at least church leaders had this sensitivity when the church’s external reputation was at stake: their record of relating to individuals within the church was not so clean.

Surveillance Culture and Intellectual Freedom

Xkcd cartoon of 6 views of privacy: philosopher, crypto nut, conspiracist, nihilist, exhibitionist, sage.

“Privacy Opinions” (c)

Where does this leave a progressive Adventist today? What kind of spiritual, political, and intellectual context does she have to work in? How can a progressive think, write, and explore freely in an culture that accommodates top-down monitoring, suspicion, restriction, informants, and backlash for unpopular or contrarian material, all in the name of preserving church unity?

The Adventist statement on Theological and Academic Freedom and Accountability (1987) governs staff at denominational schools and influences the academic freedom statements that institutions develop for themselves.1 The statement defines academic freedom as “freedom to pursue knowledge and truth in the area of the individuals [sic] specialty” and states that “the right to private opinion is a part of the human heritage as creatures of God” (emphasis supplied). It further establishes “certain limits” on public expression, and makes clear that freedom of conscience is (a) to be subjected to denominational loyalty and “the harmony of the church community,” and (b) to be judged by denominational consensus. According to the statement, those who vary from “the historic doctrinal position of the Church [defined by the General Conference in session]” are expected to “exercise discretion in presenting concepts which might threaten church unity and the effectiveness of church action.” Researchers are required to conduct their work with reference to their “faith” and “Christian ethics,” and teachers must advance “the worldview described in the opening paragraph of this document.”

The Seventh-day Adventist Church isn’t the only religious group to operate a private educational system. Nor is it the only academic system that has to negotiate responsibilities to enrolled students, professional staff, denominational sponsors, private donors, and occasionally disgruntled petition-signing stakeholders. Like its peer religions, Adventism holds the right to organize its system exactly as it pleases, and United States religious liberty law recognizes that right.

Stipulating these institutional rights, I question whether the church’s Theological and Academic Freedom statement provides a context that supports the range of information-developing and knowledge-making that progressive members are motivated to do. How can a progressive Adventist expend energy on pushing beyond the known if his environment is designed to bottleneck new ideas, judge them by their potential to be controversial, and accept them (only?) if consonant with the administrative “unity” of an international faith group?

In such a climate, progressives may feel compelled to withdraw from the public spaces of writing, teaching, and speaking, and to exercise a great deal of prudence, reserve, and caution when they venture out at all. As noted earlier, prudence, reserve, and caution are traits native to the third state of privacy that Malamud Smith described in Private Matters. But they aren’t traits naturally paired with progressive energy: they don’t advance a spirit of curiosity or discovery. Again, I’m not arguing that progressive individuals can’t work or teach in a conservative context; of course they can and do and have. I’m only wondering if that context is ideal for them or allows them to fully exercise the progressive gift.

I’d love to hear more from self-identified progressives about the contexts they feel would elicit their best work. I expect some disagreement within this community on how to move ahead, but I don’t believe that freedom to agree with what has already been decided is worth setting off the firecrackers for: as Cronkite said, “There is no such thing as a little freedom.”

Increasing Support for Progressive Minds

A Harvard Business Review column recently argued that it’s the context around an individual that catalyzes or represses his or her baseline abilities: plucking successful people out of environments that helped them thrive doesn’t mean transplanting the successes they were able to create there.

In this article I’ve suggested that Adventism’s knowledge-making culture isn’t a supportive environment for progressives. Given the denomination’s belief structure and history, we might say this is a reasonable conclusion, but the big question for young progressives deciding how to serve their church or if they’ll stay with their church is whether the current context of surveillance and inhibition is inevitable. After all, what’s especially Adventist about introducing private conversations as evidence against members in church or university board meetings? What’s Adventist about reading and evaluating writers in terms of their apparent orthodoxy or supposed satanic deception? Such responses to conversation or scholarship may be authentic expressions of who we are, but I don’t think they’re essential to who we are.

In the last decade, I’ve gone beyond Adventism to learn how to approach progressive thought and scholarship because I didn’t find strong models at work within the borders of the denomination. I found models among Friends (Quakers) so committed to “the light that enlightens every man” and “that of God in everyone” that their bible studies invite participants to assess our personal experience of the bible’s stories and the insights they inspire in us. I also found other models among post-Adventists and never-been-Adventists who were practiced in listening, not merely hearing to formulate rebuttal, and who could therefore create powerfully supportive growth and innovation spaces for me and others like me. These approaches may not be Adventist, but I am still Adventist because of them.

Riffing on the now-clichéd “Be the change you want to see,” director Vikram Gandhi (in character as Sri Kumaré) has said, “Be the strange you want to see.” Progressive Adventism’s strange is not only in the structural or interpretive changes that progressives suggest to the mainstream church. 2 The strange of Progressive Adventism also lies in the fact that progressivism really is foreign to the reactive fundamentalism that has dominated Adventism in 30-year cycles since the 1920s (1920s-1950s, 1980s-present). 3 Many of us like to say “I don’t worship the book; I worship the God of the book!” In practice, however, we are slow to explore territory that the book has not mapped and did not anticipate. An inhibited progressivism cannot teach us how to explore well, and perhaps exploring is something that we progressives need to relearn before we can teach it or share it with others. I don’t know for sure that it’s possible for us to expand the Adventist status quo meaningfully across those boundaries where it’s now constricted. But I am willing to experiment with other progressive minds so we can find out.

1. The statement does not apply to lay members or non-employees as such, but because much Adventist scholarship is tied to denominations paid ministers, teachers, ministry departments, colleges, and universities, this statement and its companion “affirmation” at the Adventist Theological Society both influence the denomination’s scholarship culture.

2. Progressive initiatives may include substantively reviewing all of the contemporary church’s spiritual gifts, how we recognize them through ordination, and how we deploy them in congregations and other local contexts; developing a fact-based and humane approach to sex, gender, sexuality, marriage, and family; generating new epistemologies, modes of inquiry, and wisdom-building tools; resuming and extending Richard Rice’s 1980s work on open theism; evaluating how our bias toward literacy and linear argument influence both how we read the ancients’ oral narratives and render our own; and exploring what Adventism might learn from integral or holist philosophy as we re-associate science and faith and restore coherence to our emphasis on individual health and piety, our contributions to the societies we’re members of, and our stewardship of Earth.

3. I broadly agree with Malcolm Bull and Keith Lockhart’s reading of this timeline; see their 2006 study of the Seventh-day Adventist church, Seeking a Sanctuary.

Sometimes it’s the 400-year-old articles that speak most clearly.

John Milton’s Areopagitica, a treatise from the early days of the English parliament, was inspired by a 1643 law that required new books, pamphlets, and papers to be reviewed and licensed by the new English government before publication and reprinted only when approved. In this tract, Milton, argues that censorship stifles communal debate, learning, and knowledge-making, undermines a people’s search for truth, and binds them to state-authorized conclusions.

via Southern Methodist University's Bridwell Library.

First page of Areopagitica, via Southern Methodist University’s Bridwell Library

When Milton wrote, England was in the midst of its second civil war and developing the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy over the tradition of divinely appointed monarchy. Parliament was controlled by Protestants, Presbyterians specifically, and their chief antagonists were Catholic and Puritan. King Charles I, enthroned at the time, had a Catholic wife and was perceived as unsupportive of the Protestant Reformation in mainland Europe.

Milton references Catholic churchmen and rulers uncharitably throughout Areopagitica, playing to readers’ prejudices in order to increase their support (the Christian epistle to the Romans does the same). But these references also work to describe a particular kind of governance: people of all and no religious background have presided over tyranny and the non-Catholic king was accused of doing so throughout his reign until Parliament had him executed in 1649 as a traitor. The Parliament that passed the Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing was not Catholic, but Protestant, and in this pamphlet Milton describes them as grasping, controlling, and well out of their rightful lane.

In the passages below, Milton explains why open discussion is essential and why prejudging variant opinions and those who are different is both unwise policy and philosophically weak.

Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making. Under these fantastic terrors of sect and schism, we wrong the earnest and zealous thirst after knowledge and understanding which God hath stirred up in this city. What some lament of, we rather should rejoice at, should rather praise this pious forwardness among men, to reassume the ill-deputed care of their religion into their own hands again. A little generous prudence, a little forbearance of one another, and some grain of charity might win all these diligences to join and unite in one general and brotherly search after truth, could we but forego this prelatical tradition of crowding free consciences and Christian liberties into canons and precepts of men…

And if the men be erroneous who appear to be the leading schismatics, what withholds us but our sloth, our self-will, and distrust in the right cause, that we do not give them gentle meetings and gentle dismissions, that we debate not and examine the matter thoroughly with liberal and frequent audience; if not for their sakes, yet for our own? — seeing no man who hath tasted learning but will confess the many ways of profiting by those who, not contented with stale receipts, are able to manage, and set forth new positions to the world. And were they but as the dust and cinders of our feet, so long as in that notion they may yet serve to polish and brighten the armoury of Truth, even for that respect they were not utterly to be cast away. But if they be of those whom God hath fitted for the special use of these times with eminent and ample gifts, and those perhaps neither among the priests nor among the pharisees, and we in the haste of a precipitant zeal shall make no distinction, but resolve to stop their mouths, because we fear they come with new and dangerous opinions, as we commonly forejudge them ere we understand them; no less than woe to us, while thinking thus to defend the Gospel, we are found the persecutors. —John Milton

Howard Chandler Christy's "Scene at Signing of the Constitution of the United States" (1940)

“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” (1940) by Howard Chandler Christy

History is recursive when we fail to learn its lessons. The British aren’t the only people to have faced state censorship; they are again today, and so is the United States. But the United States was born  more than a century after the English Civil Wars and the 1643 ordinance to “regulate” publishing. The US’ founders were no stranger to English history or the religious, political and ideological persecutions that run through it.

So it was no accident that the Western hemisphere’s newest republic diverged from England on its definition of “treason,” provided that “no religious test” could qualify a person for state office, and ranked as fundamental the rights of free speech, free exercise of religion, free assembly, and a free press.

In England, the principle of a free press was not secured until 50 years after Areopagitica, yet there are questions about both individual censorship and press freedom in the UK today. (Also see this summary of the UK’s reach from AP.) And these questions are not just for professional commentators and specialists, but also for every ordinary person who values liberty—their nation’s and their own.

Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties. —John Milton

Disciplines, Discipline, and the Ethics of Correction

I’ve had a few conversations this month about Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist whose research and pronouncements consistently stir controversy. Whether he’s ranking the attractiveness of Black women or analyzing the child-bearing choices of high-IQ women, Kanazawa draws criticism, rebuttal, and disavowals from other scientists as well as the general public.

One friend wrote that Kanazawa shouldn’t be cited as proof that evolutionary psychology is an inherently racist field: the field, he said, shouldn’t be judged by one member:

I agree that one controversial member can’t represent an entire field. I also disagree that a discipline’s internal debates should automatically de-legitimize its unpopular figures: just because there’s disagreement doesn’t mean anyone should be excluded. Misapplications, false positives, and failures are part of what differentiates a profession or discipline from a dogmatic inquisition: dissociating from dissidents, outliers, renegades, and spotlight hunters can’t be the measure of disciplinary status, or the definition of “discipline” would have to be “Borg collective.”

A conference presenter (seated) addresses his audience

At the 2nd Annual Responsible Conduct of Research Conference, Texas Tech University Ethics Center, 2012

So what does make a discipline? A discipline is bounded by common epistemology, common research methods, common credentialing, and common peer review. Sharing a discipline doesn’t bind members to agree on interpretation; and those 4 common areas mean that Kanazawa is still “in” with evolutionary psychology no matter how much his peers distance themselves from his work. His public statements don’t degrade the profession, and peer dissociation doesn’t bolster his field.

My friend suggested that it was nevertheless “important for others in his field to call him out.” So I asked whether he could see a difference between “calling someone out” and challenging their research assumptions, methods, or findings in commentary or further research. If disciplinary “discipline” doesn’t distinguish between the two, then it risks conflating the integrity of field boundaries with that field’s approval of individual members and their personalities.

Furthermore, disciplines are communities of common practice. They’re not personality factories. They’re about what we do, not about who we are. This is why professional codes of ethics tend to focus on activity and inaction, not belief or character. Ethics codes tenets will include reducing conflicts of interest or maintaining confidentiality as these are fundamental actions that guard professional integrity and ensure that clients, customers, patients, and the public at large can rely on whatever professionals do. But those same codes won’t sneak from action guidelines into thought regulations; they won’t police a member’s feelings about his clients or try to fix his cosmological opinions. Those opinions will rarely even become a conversation topic unless they’re perceived to undermine the quality of a professional’s client relationships and performance.

In 2012, 500 Emory students declined to host neurosurgeon Ben Carson as their graduation speaker because of his views on the moral implications of evolutionary science. He saw the controversy as an attack on his personal religious rights, but his critics challenged him “as a representative of science and medicine.” Respondents debated the merits of his position, concerned by his philosophical assertion that “relativism” and amorality or un-grounded morality were the natural consequence of affirming evolution. Other criticism focused on how Carson had represented evolution to the Seventh-day Adventist paper that published his comments (Carson later said that the paper had misrepresented him by not printing complete quotations; I’ve not been able to find any statements from the paper confirming or denying Carson’s claim.)

But even though Carson eventually stepped down as Emory’s speaker, he wasn’t cast out of medicine. The event was extra-curricular, an out-of-work event. He wasn’t sanctioned by his discipline at any point—and wouldn’t have been unless he was found to have breached medical standards of practice.

My friend and I agreed that a person doesn’t have to be a decent human being in order to become an effective professional. Of course clients and customers prefer to work with decent human beings! Professions do shape how we live out our humanity with other people because they structure the spaces in which we practice and the relationships through which we interact with others in those spaces. But while our professional training and practice is based on shared disciplinary knowledge, that training isn’t responsible for professionals’ core sense of compassion or brutality. If a discipline’s members are adults with an intact sense of morality, the discipline’s ethics will lie on top of and interact with individuals’ ethics and the various intersecting ethics of their cultures, communities, and nations.

The consequence of this is an insight shared in an influential technical communication essay (summary) and made during my conversation with my friend: unethical practice and research can still be done with good technique,” and a “good technique” doesn’t change a practice’s fundamental ethical nature. Disciplines might make a person more effective, but they can’t make them “good.”

Some Questions

During this entire conversation I was thinking not just about how disciplines police their boundaries but also how religious groups police theirs. Are you part of a religious group or a professional discipline? What have you noticed about how these groups monitor who’s in, who’s out, and how they resolve conflicts about group identity and group ideas? Do they seem to prioritize the protection of their group brand and their public reputation; how are controversial ideas dealt with? What are that group’s ethics based on? Are those ethics about actions or character?

Beyond the Vote: Political Meta-narratives & Asking the People What They Think

In this talk, Eric X. Li offers a provocative discussion of political meta-narratives—the stories we tell ourselves about our political systems—based on his study of the People’s Republic of China. At 15:08, Li makes some bold predictions about China’s future in comparison to the US and peer nations within the next decade. I hope someone checks back with him in 2023.

I think democracy contributed to the rise of the West and the creation of the modern world. It is the universal claim that many Western elites are making about their political system, the hubris, that is at the heart of the West’s current ills. If they would spend just a little less time on trying to force their way onto others, and a little bit more on political reform at home, they might give their democracy a better chance. China’s political model will never supplant electoral democracy, because unlike the latter, it doesn’t pretend to be universal. It cannot be exported. But that is the point precisely. The significance of China’s example is not that it provides an alternative, but the demonstration that alternatives exist. — Eric X. Li

Li argues that the Chinese one-party system has allowed for greater adaptability and reform than we electoral democracy citizens have acknowledged, and he may be right. A vision of one model operating worldwide betrays a fear of political diversity, a lack of imagination regarding all the ways there are to govern different societies effectively. Why must only one governance model be adopted across the planet or presented as the end toward which we must or will inevitably evolve if we’re mature enough (and by whose standards might we be judged “mature”?

VoteButton_Dallas Observer

Your vote counts… Or does it? | via The Dallas Observer

I think Li is correct on this point: there are different ways to participate in governance, there are different ways for governments to be responsive, and voluntary elections are not the only way to prompt popular engagement or official reception. In the US, only 50-58% of voting-age residents have done so at a general election since 2000, and voter turnout has never been higher than 63%. (The voting age population includes imprisoned citizens and non-citizen residents.) If only 3 out of 5 people will participate in a general election, and 1-2 out of 5 on average in elections for more local levels of government, we can’t honestly call their choices the voice of the people.

The use of survey instruments, focus groups, and similar direct research tools in public sector administration has increased in Europe over the last 15 years along with shifts towards e-government; the UK government’s use of public consultations as it developed controversial bills is a recent example. These methodologies could help to reform electoral democracy here in the US too.

Split Court, Split Future?


With this vote on the case United States vs. Windsor, a divided US Supreme Court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996) as unconstitutional and ended Edith Windsor’s six-year battle with the government. After her wife Thea Spyer’s death, the now 83-year-old Windsor was forced to pay more than $600,000 in state and federal estate taxes—a burden that the government would not have levied had her spouse been “Theo” and not “Thea.” (Read the full Windsor opinion.) The majority held that “violates basic due process and equal protection principles applicable to the Federal Government.” Federal agencies are already adjusting to the ruling.

The justices also ruled 5-4 in the matter of California’s Proposition 8. In Hollingsworth vs. Perry (formerly Brown vs. Perry and Schwarznegger vs. Perry), the Court found that the petitioners did not have standing to appeal the district court’s ruling of unconstitutionality. The district court had ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, and the State of California didn’t appeal that decision; the Supreme Court decided that the civil society organizations who had  promoted Proposition 8 did not have the authority to appeal in the State’s place. (Check out this analysis on SCOTUSblog, and read the full Hollingsworth opinion.)

My Twitter timeline was full of joy about these rulings—yet at the same time these determinations come at the end of a wild week in governance with disappointing impacts nationwide. Section 5 of the Voter Rights Act (1965/2005) was undermined and Section 4 was struck down. The Supreme Court determined that the slavery-era percentage approach to “race” trumped the Cherokee people’s membership rules. And the Court decided that an employer is only automatically liable for workplace harassment if the harasser is a direct line supervisor. (Opinion: Adoptive Couple vs. Baby Girl & Case Files | Opinion: Vance vs. Ball State University & Case Files)

“Volumes of evidence supported Congress’ de­termination that the prospect of retrogression was real. Throwing out pre-clearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” —Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, dissenting in Shelby Co. vs. Holder

So what’s next for the US? Reactions to this week’s decisions have been divided along lines of ethnicity, class, sexuality, and religion or philosophy; many of us celebrate some decisions while being sorrowful about others because we have more concerns than one.

What’s left after our groups sharply disagree, not just on beliefs or ideas, but also on the practical issues of how to treat whole segments of the population? If we sit at a common table (and there are some who, contra the Supreme Court’s Shelby Co. decision, point to sustained and entrenched contemporary discrimination and dispute that the nation’s table is commonly shared), what is it that binds us, demographic and philosophical differences and all?

Will the US hold together over the next few years? How are we One and not merely Many? Is our collective future to be as split as our Supreme Court is today? I don’t think we can afford that. I’m interested in alternatives. You?

Cheers to Steve Claborn for the Fishkin link on Shelby County, and to Carolyn Parson for the OPM statement.

Democracy: Expression and Decision-making

Jon Stewart’s away in Egypt filming (nice work, John Oliver). I just saw Jon talking with Bassem Youssef, host and resident satirist at Al-Bernameg. (Skip ahead to 10:11.)

Skip ahead to 10:11. Jon and Bassem start talking about the role of humor in political commentary and the differences between insults, injury, tyranny, and democracy:

“If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you don’t have a regime… A joke has never ridden a motorcycle into a crowd with a baton. A joke has never shot tear gas to a group of people in a park. It is just talk.

“What Bassem is doing… is showing that satire can still be relevant, that it can carve out space in a country for people to express themselves. Because that’s all democracy is, the ability to express yourself and be heard. You won’t always win, but you can’t confuse tyranny with losing elections. [Democracy] is just the opportunity to be heard and for the majority to respect the minority, whatever they may say, however they may do it.” —Jon Stewart (emphasis added)

A large corporation speaks through a wall of speakers at 3 small people with a bullhorn: "This 'freedom of speech' that we all enjoy is the great equalizer, wouldn't you say?"

(c) Matt Muerker | via Glogster

This comment obviously played well in its context, but I don’t think what it describes is the essence of democracy at all. Free expression is the point at which Jon’s work intersects with US culture; it may be part of the national ideal and of course it’s protected by the constitution as the first element of the Bill of Rights. Free expression may even be what US media and interests export in nation-building and culture-sharing projects elsewhere. Regarding it as the core of democracy is par for the course when thought leaders define democracy in terms of expression rights and occasional leadership selection but not in terms of routine decision-making or authority.

Why is it that popular definitions of democracy do not deal with free choice or access to decision-making, or evaluation of authority? Why do we so often stop short at the right to say as we please, however obnoxious we might be? How does the “it’s just talk” model serve the people? Another satirist, George Carlin, had some cynical thoughts about this. What are yours?

ht: Splitsider and Joi Chadwick