Tag Archives: democratic citizenship

The Paradox of Community

Conceptually, community is distinct from neighborhood.  A community can be in a neighborhood, but it might instead consist of widespread people who share some commonality (the community of PPE scholars, for example).  A neighborhood, for its part, may merely be a place people live, not knowing those that also live there. 

Take communities to be groups of people bound together by traditions. Traditions are essential to community. They also vary by community. They might be matters of language, religion, commitment to country, behaviors, holidays, heritage, or any number of other things, some requiring more strict abidance by group norms, some requiring less. Traditions necessarily (but, importantly, not always problematically) hold us back, keep us limited—for the simple reason that people are committed to them. When people are committed to one way of doing things, they are resistant to changes to it. A commitment to car culture, for example, makes it less likely that a group would find (or even look for) an alternative means of transportation. (Or accept such if offered. Think of Segways—why aren’t these available for long distance use? or sealed from rain and cold?)

While traditions hold people back, they also provide a foundation for change.  From the security of being able to interact with others in accepted ways, one can develop new ways to do so—and new ways not to do so.  Because they have traditions, communities make it possible to innovate. Innovation, though, can cause the community to change or even disintegrate. Tradition and innovation are symbiotic even while they simultaneously threaten each other.  Call this the paradox of community (it’s at least a significant tension).

The paradox of community—the fact that a community’s traditions make innovation possible while simultaneously trying to prevent innovation (because innovation could bring the end of the tradition)—makes life in community … interesting.

Another fact about communities is that they either grow or die; stasis is illusory. Communities grow as their members change (some join, some exit, some change themselves), innovate, bring about changes to the traditions (adding some, altering others, ending still others). This is why the paradox is so important.

Some within a community can become so committed to a particular tradition(s) of the community that they work to slow the pace of the community’s growth in order to prevent the altering or ending of their favored tradition(s) or the inclusion of others.  They may do this by trying to encourage newcomers to learn and accept the existing traditions of the community or by actively working to create an environment whereby those seeking change are limited. If they succeed too much—preventing any change in the community’s traditions—they attain stagnation rather than stasis.  This is because absence of change in a community (as for an individual person or any animal) brings the end of the community.  It means no new members–and with no new members, it dies as it’s members die.  Change—innovation—is essential to community.

Of course, new people may attempt to join the community. When they do, they would bring their own histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals. They could (and perhaps should) learn about the community’s ways of doing things. That is consistent with their bringing their own ways of doings (and their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals). It is consistent, that is, with change. But if those within the community seek to limit change, they may try instead to indoctrinate the newcomers into the community’s traditions so that they live as those in the community now live, rather than bringing anything different. Indoctrination thus treats newcomers as having nothing of their own to contribute, as if their histories, cultures, beliefs, and ideals have no place in the community. Newcomers would thus not be allowed to bring their ideas and preferences into the community’s traditions–those traditions would not be allowed to change. Such newcomers are, then, likely to exit the community. (Notice that this does not mean they physically move away or drop their official membership–remember, communities are not the same as neighborhoods (or associations)).

To build community, change must be permitted. This means that all in the community must listen to each other, open to hearing new things that might be incorporated into the web of community activity and the traditions that shape them. This does not mean jettisoning everything previously held dear, but it does mean being open to the possibility of doing so (likely not all at once). Long time members of the community can teach newer members how things were or are done, but that counts no more than what newer members bring to the table. Importantly, those whose ideas are rejected out of hand have no reason to participate in the community. Ignoring this–thinking that all learning here is in one direction–will simply give rise to factions, splintering what was a community, killing it while perhaps giving birth to new, smaller, communities as those factions continue to grow.

So, both tradition and innovation are essential to community. What this means, in part, is that while change is necessary, the pace of change may be too much for some people within a community, at least those committed to one or more of its traditions. Still change can’t be stopped; a successful attempt to stop it, kills the community. The question for those in a community is thus whether their favored tradition(s) and it’s (or their) history are more important than the community itself. To side with a tradition is to side with those no longer present; to side with community is to side with those currently constituting the community—including those who wish to see change.

Of course, those siding with a tradition may take that tradition to have independent value and thus to be worth protecting. They may take this to be a principled defense of preventing change in the community. It is not. The community from which a defended tradition stems, like all communities, must be able to change. (Again, stagnation means death.) Indeed, all surviving communities have what can reasonably be called traditions of change–ways that change takes place. So when defenders of one tradition seek to prevent change, they are pitting one part of the community and its traditions against another and claiming that one of the traditions should be defended at the cost of another—their favored tradition at the cost of the community’s tradition of change. That, though, is just a preference. One cannot just assume that one favored tradition is more valuable than another. After all, those seeking change may rightly claim to be defending a tradition of change within the community.

Putting the last point differently, those seeking change are defending the community as the community currently is and is growing with its current members and their preferences. Those seeking to prevent change, by contrast, are defending only part of the community—some specific tradition(s) they happen to prefer—and, by seeking stagnation, killing the community.

Lest I be thought too critical of defenders of particular traditions, I should note that I do not think there is a good principled reason for either protecting particular traditions or for changing or jettisoning them. In either case, on my view, further considerations are necessary. What we need to determine, on my view, is when interference is justifiably permitted–what principles of interference we ought to accept rather than simply what traditions we happen to prefer. (I discuss some such considerations here and in my 2014.)

Moralism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics

In a previous post, I began discussing moralism, which I take to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the community qua a somehow unified group (I had said “general populace,” but this is clearer), or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them.

I have been seeing, once again, posts on social media about the loss of national identity (and praise for a few places that seem to still have such). My response to such posts is always the same: why would anyone value a national identity? That is the same response I have to those who seem to identify with a political party, ideology, racial or cultural groups, groups with the same sexual preferences, etc. I always wonder why anyone thinks that a group has any independent substantive value rather than just being a set of people that happen to share something in common.

Identifying with a group could just be recognizing that one has something in common with others (those also in the group), but it—or “taking a group identity”—has become something more. It is, we might say, an entryway into valuing that group for its own sake—that is, it’s the starting point to thinking of the group as having some value above and beyond the value of the individuals in the group. Nationalism is no exception—the whole point (it seems to me) is to encourage people to think of the nation as an entity of moral value all its own. Granted, that value is meant to be somehow good for the people within the nation, but how that works is mysterious. (But not to the point here.)

What do those who bemoan a loss of national identity (or who seek to revive such) want? They want to convince others to live as they think all ought to live. Or at least how all who live here ought to live. This looks like the first sort of moralism—they believe those who act differently are somehow acting wrongly. But what is it that they do wrong? So far as I can tell, it is nothing more than the refusal to live as the advocates of nationalism want.

Why are advocates of nationalism so concerned about people acting differently? This is where the second sort of moralism comes back in: what nationalists want is to be assured their group will survive; they thus fear anyone not going along with them as it means their national group does not have the allegiance of everyone and is thus threatened. It is the survival of the group that matters, after all, not the survival of the individuals within the group.

To be clear, so far as I can tell, nationalism is no different from any other form of political identity. Each group wants all of its members to “fall in” and be what the group is self-portrayed as. Those who act differently or in any way challenge the supposed identity of the whole are a problem to be dealt with, perhaps excised from the group, excommunicated, shunned, cancelled, or deported; perhaps (the topic for a future post) jailed or killed. Here I note only that I prefer the liberal ideal: I like that we live in a society with people who have different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, heritages, skill sets, etc. 1000 flowers blooming is far more attractive than 1000 clones.

Fact-Checking and the Conditions of Responsible Citizenship

The history of classical liberal thought is replete with (empirical) arguments that run basically this way: If the government increases its involvement in X, then ordinary people will stop seeing X as their responsibility. Instead of being concerned about X and working to advance X, they will leave care of X to the state, which will do a worse job at it.

Perhaps the most frequent context in which this argument is invoked involves care for the less fortunate. To wit, if we take it that the government bears responsibility for caring for the poor and downtrodden, this will predictably (and unfortunately) undercut support for mutual aid organizations that can often leverage local knowledge to be more effective at alleviating problems than large, centralized bureaucracies like states. Here’s Wilhelm von Humboldt in a characteristic passage (from The Limits of State Action).

As each individual abandons himself to the solicitous aid of the State, so, and still more, he abandons to it the fate of his fellow-citizens. This weakens sympathy and renders mutual assistance inactive; or, at least, the reciprocal interchange of services and benefits will be most likely to flourish at its liveliest, where the feeling is most acute that such assistance is the only thing to rely upon; and experience teaches us that oppressed classes of the community which are, as it were, overlooked by the government, are always bound together by the closest ties.

https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/humboldt-the-sphere-and-duties-of-government-1792-1854

My fellow blogger Andrew (J.) Cohen recently advanced a similar argument in the case of state-provided education: the more we see the education of children as the state’s responsibility, the less we (particularly parents) see it as something that we ought to look after.

There are many worries one might have about such arguments. First, is the empirical claim that state solutions crowd out non-state solutions even true? Second, even if the empirical claim is true and private individuals and mutual aid organizations are more effective in some ways, still their help can be bad news for freedom insofar as it can be withheld unless recipients meet oppressive conditions. Third, decentralized efforts to address public problems lack mechanisms for ensuring competence and fairness. Even if fully supported, perfectly fair, and much more effective where they operate, such organizations may under-provide needed services elsewhere. And so on.

One thing my own work has forced me to think about lately are the increased calls for fact-checking and labeling of misinformation by social media giants.

My previous posts (here and here) have briefly touched upon reasons for worrying that social media censors and fact-checkers are bound to be fallible. (Indeed, fact-checkers have long shown troubling signs of fallibility, see here, here, here, here, here and here—though also here and here for some reasons for optimism that these shortcomings might be overcome by more thoughtful fact-checking strategies.)

But set aside these issues with the quality of the fact-checking and the political power it might or might not involve. Suppose that the fact-checkers do a decent enough job. Still, the old classical liberal argument above provides reason to worry that widespread fact-checking of this kind might undermine conditions of epistemic responsibility. In short, if we come to expect others to do the hard work of fact-checking for us, we will lose the skills and sense of responsibility for doing it ourselves.

Of course, fact-checking and labeling misinformation is often proposed as an alternative to outright censorship, and it’s likely that it is indeed better than outright censorship. After all, it allows individuals to access and assess the mistaken content for themselves, rather than blocking it from view altogether. Moreover, labeling false or misleading content in this way might well improve our epistemic situation by stopping the spread of misinformation that might otherwise “go viral”. But even if we accept that these benefits of the practice reliably obtain, they need to be weighed against its costs. And one set of costs I’ve heard little about involves those associated with the kinds of people an over-reliance on fact-checking might produce. I’m wary (I think reasonably, but maybe not) of anything that will encourage average people to be more lazy regarding their epistemic duties than they already are.

Now, social media giants are not states. Accordingly, it might be that their efforts to take greater responsibility for fact-checking the content they host is best-interpreted as an instance of voluntary organizations doing what the state is not now doing (better than the state could do), rather than a threat to voluntary solutions for misinformation. And it is clear to me that it is preferable to have non-state entities in charge of fact-checking than to empower the state to do it. In general, it’s healthy to have lots of different institutions with lots of different norms surrounding what kinds of content they tolerate in their jurisdictions.

Still, lots of people get their information on social media platforms. Many have argued this means that they have certain state-like powers. Though I’m skeptical of the strongest of these claims, it’s reasonable to be concerned that, under conditions of wide-spread fact-checking across platforms, users might come to be disposed to accept what they read in these spaces somewhat uncritically. After all, people might develop the reasonable expectation that someone is looking out to ensure that nothing misleading is to be found there. And even if we ignore the fact that, in practice, fact-checking will be “gappy” (with much factually inaccurate information making it through the filters) is difficult to overstate the dangers associated with allowing other people to do our reading and thinking for us.

It’s fair to object that, because the impetus for further fact checking is itself the fact that people are bad at processing information, likely to believe lots of foolish nonsense for bad reasons, and so on, there’s nowhere to go from our present situation but up. Still, this seems to admit that the root of the problem lies with how individuals are trained to evaluate information and its sources. Widespread, public fact-checking can at best ensure that the worst of the problem’s consequences are averted. But it does nothing to address the problem itself–and indeed, it may even make it worse.

In a provocative passage in The Conflict of the Faculties, Immanuel Kant reminds us that many calls to “take human beings as they are” rather than “good-natured visionaries fancy they ought to be” ignore the role that political institutions play in making people the way they are. The lesson is that, if we find that we are bad at discharging our epistemic duties, it is worth asking whether this because of the incentives we face or whether it is it a fixed feature human nature. If the former, then, other things equal, we should avoid strengthening those bad incentives and should rather work to improve them.

For various reasons, I suspect that the trend of increased reliance on independent fact-checkers is here to stay. If I’m right, we must take care to avoid a situation in which we become complacent, off-loading the difficult work of responsible citizenship to strangers with their own sets of interests (which might not track our own). It is true that this is demanding work. But if we can’t figure out how to do what it takes (or if indeed failure is inevitable given deep features of human nature), then it is harder to gainsay the increasingly popular (but in fact ancient) claim that there might be more attractive alternatives for governance than democracy (CE*).

(Thanks to Andrew Cohen for his thoughts on a previous version of this piece.)

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