February 2015 Archives

Without Prejudices, We Could Not Make Sense of Anything

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Today’s blog, like many of mine, comes out of synchronicity. I read a piece on the TPM website about an uproar over a course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” to be given at Arizona State University. When I thought about what I read, I could not help but see this through an article I read just last night about how we make sense of the world. The piece was an extract from a Ph.D. thesis on psychotherapy and how it is shaped by a model of the human self. The author was discussing the idea of hermeneutics, that is the process by which we make sense of texts, including conversations. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Swiss philosopher, whose works are widely respected on this subject, he pointed out that psychotherapists need to recognize that whatever sense or meaning they make of their patients talk is filtered through their prejudices or pre-understanding of the meaning of words and signs.

Gadamer argues, I believe persuasively, that the meaning we give to what we read or observe is a melding of what we take in and what we already “know” about what is in front of us. We, in an important way, are our prejudices or presuppositions, another word with, perhaps, less charge to it. As we live, we acquire a story about the meanings of textual objects we encounter in life. Post-modern theorists would include all objects, arguing that whatever meanings we give to them are textual in nature. Because we share common meanings for many words and signs, we take for granted that meaning resides in the object, not in our heads. But a moment’s thought about arguments we have or dither in reading a text should point out the error in such assumptions.

Hermeneutics applies particularly in interpreting texts from previous eras where the historical and cultural context were different from ours. It has been developed as a way of interpreting ancient religious texts or objects like the US Constitution. The present US Supreme Court has several originalists who argue that we must try to understand what the words meant to the framers hundreds of years ago, not what they mean in today’s world.

This requires a hermeneutic exercise. These originalists must get beyond their prejudices to undercover the original meaning, if that is ever possible. The process of understanding is called the hermeneutic circle, a continuous going back and forth between your stored meaning-giving filters and the external object. Each iteration starts with a modified set of prejudices so that the interpretation may move closer to the sense of the external object. If the outside object is a human being, then one can enter into a conversation designed to narrow the gap between the two participants in the conversation. This is obviously much harder to do with an artifact, but each attempt at understanding will start with the last one, coming, perhaps, ever closer to the object’s meaning.

The brouhaha at ASU and other similar situations would appear to arise from a different view of how humans act. The opponents argue “that Bebout’s course was ‘racist’ and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S.” The prejudices that Gadamer is talking about are always part of our cognitive system whether we know about them or not. Without them, the world would be empty and without meaning. We would be no more than animals with only instinct to act upon. The word has taken on a negative meaning in general conversation. The University’s statement is a bit muddled:

The statement said the “problem of whiteness” class would “examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States.” It also defended the course as “designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions.”

If we are to act in a manner than acknowledges the other and his or her understandings of the language being used, then it is essential to know, first, that prejudice is natural and universal and critical to intentional acting, and, second, that consensual actions among people depends on having some ideas of what one’s own prejudices are. This requires a critical look at the culture, in general, and an examination of one’s own experience, in particular. Becoming aware of those presuppositions that shape your actions takes self-reflection and conversations with others. Much of what serves as filters making sense out of whatever world you happen to encounter has become embedded imperceptibly over long periods of time.

The White Supremacists who were protesting wear their prejudices on their sleeves. They act without thinking that their beliefs are not reality, itself, but only a particular story that they believe is true and needs no critical look. I don’t know the details of the ASU course, but the idea of examining our prejudices in a collective setting is always a good one. Our basic moral grounds in the US are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The practical implications of this are that action among people should be consensual. That can happen only when they are on the same page, that is, that the words they are using to coordinate their actions mean the same to all.

Given that everyone has a unique life history, everyone’s prejudices are different. Much of the time, when doing everyday tasks, that does not manner, but when it comes to a subject of race, our culture promises that there be differences of meaning. It is absolutely unavoidable. If we are ever to live peacefully in our multi-cultural, multi-racial country, courses such as these are essential. Our standard model of reality assumes that there is only one, or at most a few meanings for words to be found in a dictionary. It ignores that there are as many meanings as there are people who have encountered the words in their lives. Many will conform to the dictionary, but more will carry a meaning developed out of the idiosyncratic experiences that constitute a single life. Don’t confuse what I am writing about with negotiations. Negotiations are all about cost/beneficial resolutions of differences. There is nothing consensual about them. This subject is more basic and is critical if we are ever to learn how to live together as equal human beings.

Transformational Change Comes In the Cracks

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If you know where home is for me, you will know that I have been inundated (if that’s the right word) with snow. I survived the 1978 blizzard in Cambridge years ago. This winter has matched it in amount of snow on the ground with even more coming. Today, I am home again instead of holding the first class of my HILR course on the self and authenticity. In preparing for the class that will be postponed for a week, I have had a chance to reflect again on the place of beliefs in daily social or cultural life.

One of the key questions I have raised for the class to keep in front of them as they get deeper into the subject is, “Does the belief you/we hold about self matter?” Matter here refers to how it might affect both individual life and the society at large. Of course it matters hugely. The question to the class was rhetorical, but I think about it a lot. I have come to focus more and more on the notion of agent as the key to change and to stability as well. Agents are, in my thoughts, simply people with intentions that they act out. If their actions exhibit routine patterns or habits, we can attribute some belief underlying them. The relation between beliefs and habits was established late in the nineteenth century and is the basis of early pragmatism. But that’s not my interest here.

To understand the meaning and role of agent, we have to hold a model of the system in which agents live and operate. My concern starts with a single society and the clustering of global societies into the whole Earth system. If we take a single society, say the US, I think about it as a machine being run by people doing things that change the societal machine as well as the machine in which it rests, the environment, broadly construed to include the natural world and all other societies. Conventional sociology divides the broadly world into structure and agents and allocates the power on free choice between them according to the theorist. I tend to avoid the allocation problem by calling on the structuration model of Anthony Giddens as my guide to understanding how collectives, ranging from families to societies work.

Giddens model of society posits a structure that shapes action and is in turn maintained and altered by the action. He coined the phrase “the duality of structure” to describe this dialectical relationship, writing, “By the duality of structure I mean that the structural properties of social systems are both the medium and the outcome of the practices that constitute those systems.” The structure he speaks of has four major components, two sets of rules and two types of resources. One of the rules (signification) provides meaning to the actors, converting the phenomenal world into familiar terms. The second rule (legitimation) constrains action to existing norms. The two resources determine the equipment, including information, that can be used in any particular task, and the authority to allocate it.

Actual change in the world, that is the constant conversion from the present to the future, is the result of the actors intentional activities. The undesired conditions that have come to threaten the normative visions of ours and other societies are largely unintended consequences of these intentional actions. They result from the imperfect match of the beliefs that underlie the intentions and the real world. I am not going to go further into this issue here. I have discussed this in this blog and my books. I want to think about how to change the outcomes of these agents such that a new set of normative visions appear and the unintended consequences either disappear or lessened. We can change the agents or the structure or both. Let’s look first at the structure. We can replace the equipment with new things and information. In this era of rapid innovation, this is a major source of societal behavioral change. New norms have emerged. The question whether these changes affect either of the two ends I target above is arguable.

We can change the authoritative structure, that is, alter the power to allocate resources like money, land, jobs. This the stuff of revolutions. Sometimes they work, but many times they eventually fail. One reason is that they leave the rules in place, and the power structure lurking in the background waiting to reemerge.. The rules determine the actors worldviews and normal activities. Both of these are difficult to change even if the resources are altered. We can change the norms, the legitimate way of doing business. But that turns out to be very difficult; the Nike slogan, “Just Do It,” is much harder than the company would like it to be. Returning to Giddens model for a moment, the dualistic nature is inherently very conservative. Change in one of the categories is opposed by the remaining ones.

I recently attended a lecture by Eric Olin Wright, a leading American Socialist with a Marxist bent. His talk was taken from his 2012 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association. He was talking about the same topic I am writing about in this post: how to change the system. He offers four strategies (the first three in italics are quoted from his paper):

  1. Ruptural transformations envision creating new emancipatory institutions through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures. The central image is a war in which victory ultimately depends on decisive defeat of the enemy in a direct confrontation. This strategy has failed in transforming capitalist societies
  2. Interstitial transformations seek to build new forms of social empowerment in capitalist society’s niches and margins, often where they do not seem to pose any immediate threat to dominant classes and elites. Wright calls these “eroding strategies.” This way has produced some changes like worker cooperatives, but has not led to major changes.
  3. Symbiotic transformations involve strategies in which extending and deepening institutional forms of social empowerment involving the state and civil society simultaneously help to solve practical problems faced by dominant classes and elites. This strategy has produced changes in social democracies, but “in ways that stabilize capitalism and leave intact the core powers of capital.
  4. Escape strategies where the participants exit the mainstream culture and create their own, separate institutions. This works for the participants, but does nothing to the mainstream society. The escapees bring their own structure with them.

Wright’s research leaves those that seek transformative change seemingly without a good place to go. Escape is not practical for those who would want to retain significant portions of the existent structure. This is clearly most of present society. I do see one chink in the armor of capitalism, the interstitial strategy of change, a kind of Achilles Heel. Changes in basic beliefs fit the “interstitial” category best. Individuals constantly move between institutions, sometimes finding themselves in situations where the power of the structure to keep beliefs in place is weak, for example at home, or in education programs designed to raise issues about beliefs. New beliefs about the world are more likely to creep in here than in places like business where beliefs are strongly embodied.

I can imagine what might happen if religious or social service institutions began to question the beliefs than humans are merely needy, rational machines and suggest that they are, rather caring creatures, who have the possibility to construct their lives around that value. Simultaneously, these institutions could argue that the goal of people’s lives should be to flourish, rather than acquire material goods. Care has three important aspects, self care, care for others, and care for the rest of the world. People that lack material resources might begin to seek satisfaction via care for and from others. I cannot begin to go much beyond this inchoate vision of how the world might change at this point. Giddens’ structuration model suggest that these beliefs can seep into other institutions and slowly rebuilt them. There is no certainty that the changes will lead to a flourishing world, but, given the lack of success with other strategies, this one seems worth a try.

I found Wright’s work particularly interesting and relevant as it reinforced some of my more naive premises I my first book, Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming our Consumer Culture. Subversive fits neatly with his idea of interstitial. I believe now more than eve than this is the only way transformation can come in our present-day world. The dominant capitalist, institutional structure is too powerfully entrenched. Change must come in the interstices and grow until the structuration process reaches some kind of tipping point, at which point the momentum will force change on the larger institutional structures.