Tag Archives: Social Criticism

Community, Selfish Miscreants, and Civil Discourse

In my last post, I discussed the paradox of community. Recently, I was reminded of one standard way that paradox is ignored and debates within communities are badly framed.  Its worth considering this as a way not to proceed if one wants to improve civil discourse.

Typically, one of the parties in a dispute about the way the community should move—and this could be newcomers or long time members, though it’s more likely to be the latter simply because they likely have some cohesiveness as a group—is to claim they represent the overall community while the other side is simply selfishly representing themselves.  The dialogue might be explicitly put in terms of those who are selfish and those who are selfless or in terms of those interested only in themselves and those interested in the community as a whole. 

Here is an example: One group might say they are seeking to add a pool to the community (at the expense of all community members) because it would be good for the community as a whole, giving community members a location and activity in which to foster discussion which is good for encouraging community (by strengthening the relationships of community members) while also (of course) providing a form of exercise to keep community members healthy. Advocates of the pool might then say they’ve talked to many of the others in the community who also want the pool and so those who advocate for the pool are really the “we” while those arguing against the pool are selfishly concerned only with their own finances and not with the health of their community members or the community itself. 

The pool issue is thus framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—anyone arguing against the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” getting the pool would be good for them! This, of course, is nonsense. (See Isaiah Berlin’s statement about “positive liberty” on pages 22-24 here.)

Consider a different way the issue might have been framed if those opposing the pool started the discussion.  They would insist they have the community’s interests at heart, worried that the added expense will be hard on community members, that some may genuinely fear a pool (perhaps a sibling drowned in in a pool), and that all community members will have additional liability, not merely financial, moving forward.  In short, on their view, the addition of a pool puts a strain on community members, and thereby strains the community.  They then insist that those advocating for a pool are selfish, interested in something only a few swimmers will benefit from, while all share the costs.  

Again, the pool issue is framed as one between those concerned with “we, the community” and those concerned with “the me”—this time, anyone arguing for the pool is portrayed as being selfishly concerned only with their own interests, unable to suppress their selfishness for the greater good of the “we” that is the whole community. They don’t even understand that as part of the “we,” not getting a pool would be good for them!  This, of course, is again nonsense.

In both scenarios—one where pool advocates control the terms of debate and one where anti-pool folks control the terms of the debate—the other side Is said to be selfish, each on that side only concerned with the “I.”  The possibility that they are genuinely concerned with the entire community is disregarded in the normal Orwellian move to use language to one’s advantage regardless of truth. (If it’s old-timers arguing for one side, they might even try to “explain”—Orwell style—that those arguing against it are newcomers who don’t understand the importance of the “we” in this community because they are still embedded in the “me” culture.  They may even believe this.)*

This way of engaging in discourse with others—whether in a small community or a large polity—is misguided at best.  Once again, what we need is open and honest discourse where all realize that disagreement is possible (even likely) and useful and that those we disagree with can be honest and well meaning.  Insistence on labeling those we disagree with “selfish” is a more likely indication that one is a miscreant than being so labeled.


*For my part, I wish people would get over thinking there was something wrong with being concerned with one’s own interests. If people would really concern themselves with their own interests (and that of their own family and friends), they would spend less time bothering others (see this). They might even be more receptive to open and honest dialogue.

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.

Schools, Teachers, Parents, and a Bad Assumption

In my last post, I discussed the problems surrounding opening schools and, importantly, how we discuss them. In this post, I want to raise an issue about schooling more generally that is rarely discussed at all. I want to show how our current system encourages a false belief about parents and teachers that has pernicious results.

I begin by noting that my wife is a public school teacher and, given how Georgia is handling the pandemic, I have a clear preference for her to not teach in her school building. I also have a school age child who was, until a month ago, in a private school. The administration of that school is, I think, approaching the situation far better than most, but we still worry about both health and pedagogical risks. Thinking about both returning (or not) to school has me once again wondering about fundamental social problems—especially regarding schooling and parenting.

I think most of us are pretty bad at parenting. (Philip Larkin understood this well, but I should be clear that I think there are a huge variety of ways that we are bad at it—some are overbearing and some are entirely too loose, for opposing examples.) Worries about increased child abuse with school closures are therefore not at all surprising. On the other hand, I also think most K-12 schools are pretty bad at educating. Having served on committees for two charter schools and volunteered and watched at my son’s schools, I’ve been amazed at how unwilling school administrators can be to make use of evidence about best educational practices. (This is sometimes true even when they clearly know the evidence—in such cases, they tend to point out that they are constrained by budgets, politics, etc.) Schools don’t, in my view, offer enough music or art or time to relax, run, and breath outside. They also tend to start too early in the morning, foolishly insist children sit still and at desks, force students to maintain logs of reading, and even penalize students that read unassigned books at the wrong time. Worries about children being stifled and losing their innate curiosity because of school rules are therefore also not surprising.

Many parents are aware of problems with their children’s’ schools. Some even work to correct them. Most, though, seem to “mind their own business”—as if the education of their children were not their business. Indeed, many parents seem to think that because schools are provided and mandatory, they are themselves absolved of the responsibility for educating their children. (As schools feed and medically nurse children, parents may feel absolved of even more responsibility.) Even the best of parents tend to assume their children are being well taken care of at school. Unfortunately, too many parents assume their children are the school’s responsibility during the day. Interestingly, the pandemic helped some see that their school was not working for them. (See this interesting NY Times piece.)

I do not think any of this is surprising or unexplainable. We live in a society wherein government has encouraged parental abdication of educational responsibilities. Parents often rightly feel that they cannot opt out of government run schools. Where they can, they usually are constrained to choose either the local government school or a nearby private school. Only in some locales is there a simple and straightforward process through which you can legally educate your own child. (The option is, I think, available everywhere in the US, but with more or less red tape involved.) Encouraged is a belief that I suspect drives the problems that beset schools: that parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct and must be kept separate.

Our system of K-12 education relies on the idea that parents are not teachers. Indeed, some homeschooling parents have been condemned for thinking they could teach their own children. Parents, on this view, are supposed to feed, clothe, love, and maybe socialize children. Schools, on the other hand, provide teachers to educate children, too often including moral education (and might also provide food and healthcare for the children). And schools—or the administrators thereof (or, worse, politicians)—decide where a child will learn and how. A parent that tries to send her child to a better public school than the one closest may face jail time—because the school system decides, not the parent. (See this and this.) Parents, after all, don’t know about education.

Two problems emerge when people believe parenting and teaching are necessarily distinct. The first, I’ve discussed above: schools operate with a variety of problems and parents don’t work to change them or do so but face insurmountable difficulties in the attempt. When they don’t try, it is likely at least partly because thinking that parents aren’t teachers makes parents think teachers have an authority they do not. And, of course, they assume teachers run schools. The second problem is a corollary: because parents are led to believe schools and teachers have an authority they do not themselves possess, parents don’t think they need be active participants in their children’s education. In short, parents take less responsibility for raising their children, leaving more and more to schools. What society gets, too often, is school graduates who learn to do as they are told, conforming to societal requirements. If parents were more active, we’d get more diversity in how children are educated, resulting in many benefits (though admittedly also costs in terms of equity). I think we are seeing some of this already and hope to see more. We’d get more people contributing in more and more varied ways to society, creating more and more varied benefits for all.

In short, the all too common belief that parents and teachers are necessarily distinct lets parents off the hook for too much and grants schools too much leeway. Challenging that belief would encourage parents to challenge their children’s schools, thereby either improving the schools or having the schools lose students to other alternatives.

The pandemic has forced us to re-evaluate many things. Hopefully, one positive outcome will be a healthier view of the relationship between parenting and education–one that emphasizes parental responsibility and acknowledges the limits of career educators (especially those in what might be called “educational factories”). One might even hope that this would help make parents better at parenting.

(Conversations with my wife and with Lauren Hall, JP Messina, and Kevin Currie-Knight inspired, and helped me with, this post.)