Wednesday, July 31, 2013

We're all mad here

I'll be offline the rest of the week as the OPENAIR Circus season wraps up.

A non-profit, volunteer-run organization, it's been my privilege to work with the circus for over 10 years.

Every summer, this community comes together in parks and fields, teaching, sharing, and learning a range of circus and performing skills.

Everyone is welcome at the circus, and everyone has something to offer.

Every year, there are many new faces and many returning faces. I've seen families grow, watched kids become people, and made many friends along the way.

The circus is a special place. And a true community.

The tent goes up tomorrow, followed by four performances Friday-Sunday. Here's to Circus 2013!

Rising of the OPENAIR Circus tent! from Sarah Shugars on Vimeo.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Extended youth and the myth of adulthood

I had today off work, but I woke up with a long list of to-dos.

First, I'm off work because I'm working for the OPENAIR Circus. So I should have spent the morning working on the program book for the performances this weekend.

Second, there's still a few work-work related things percolating on my mind, so I thought about working on some of that.

After that comes a long litany of tasks from following up on emails to cleaning the house to weeding the yard.

And all I really wanted to do was stay in bed and read.

I ended up doing a little of all the of the above. And while I was out in the yard, pulling up the weeds that have been slowly encroaching on every possible inch, I thought about how hard it is to be an adult.

I mean, there's just so much to do.

Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, from my alma mater Clark University, studies what he calls "emerging adulthood" - roughly that period between 18-29 when you're kinda an adult, but kinda not, because you're getting older but you don't really have your life pulled together.

Well, that's how I would define it.

There's all kinds of research from Arnett and others on this "new" stage in life development.
  • The key to becoming an adult is accepting responsibility for yourself (50% parents/36% emerging adults).
  • The longer road to adulthood is both positive and negative (44% parents). Or just mostly negative (43% parents).
  • Young people receive little to no financial support from their parents (69% emerging adults).
Now, this is all well and good, but with all the talk about how kids are taking longer to grow up and how 30 is the new whatever, I can't help but wonder - what does it mean to be an adult anyway?

I mean, I'm more or less pulled together. I moved out of my parents house (and across the country) when I was 16. I have a job, a mortgage, and a retirement plan.

But I don't really think of myself as an adult.

I'm not that grown up.

I'm no doughty, dull, matron overly concerned with the habits proper for a lady. Growing up hasn't made it be beneath my dignity to climb a tree.

And more than that. Despite being mostly pulled together, I'm still kind of a mess.

Among the causes of declining social capital, Robert Putnam laments that entertaining guests in the home has fallen by 30-40 percent.

Putnam blames this on TV.

I blame it on my messy house.

I'd be ashamed to admit that, except the reality is that every adult I know struggles to get to everything. Everyone's a mess.

We're all frantically trying to pay our bills on time, keep our houses and yards looking neighborly, and stay on top of a million other little tasks. All while working, living, and, in most cases, caring for family members.

As a youth, or in my emerging adulthood, I kept waiting for this moment when I'd suddenly become June Cleaver (or something?) and suddenly be able to handle everything that was thrown my way. Lacking such an ease of dealing with things, I assumed that I was just not an adult yet.

I still managed to renew my passport, show up places on time, and not bounce any checks. But it continually felt like a struggle. It never magically got easy.

And now that I'm officially an adult, I've come to more fully appreciate the truth. We're all just emerging adults - whether we're 25 or 52.

We're all just doing the best we can to be as pulled together as we can. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.

But most of the time - we're all just pretending to be grown-ups.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Kudzu Causes

There's a lot wrong with the world, and unfortunately much of it is systemic.

And the systems that are in place are self-reinforcing.

So as time goes on, the systems just gain strength.

As activists and educators we challenge people to think about root causes - as if a hand trowel and a strong yank is enough to get the job done.

And it is a challenge to think about root causes.

Because it's so much easier to paint over the problem in front of you. That's a manageable task. And then you've accomplished something.

Isn't that nice?

So we encourage people to go deeper. To not only feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, but to ask - why are people hungry and why are people homeless?

To address the root cause.

But what if even that is not enough?

Because systemic issues are so much deeper. So much tougher.

Systemic issues take in five, or six, or seven root causes. All tangled together and spreading like weeds. Growing up all over everything. Strangling all the other vines.

Peter Buffet - son of multibillionaire Warren Buffet - recently called for an Unger-smashing of how we think about global philanthropy:

"Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market," he wrote in a NY Times op-ed.

A few days later, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff delved into the science of stress and status:

"[Neuroscientists] talk about the 'biological embedding' of social status. Your parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work, affecting your vulnerability to degenerative disease decades later."

Whether it's "philanthropic colonialism," as Buffet calls it, or issues of entrenched socio-economics, for me, the systemic issues covered in both articles feel much deeper than root causes.

After reading those articles, root causes seem easy.

Maybe it's a matter of semantics. 

Or maybe it's about pushing hard while leaving room for hope.

But I, for one, feel like we need to start thinking broader and deeper.

I'm the first to admit that when I try to push past root causes in my own thinking, I am quickly overwhelmed by the scope.

Everything's so complicated. And entrenched. And seemingly impossible to deal with.

And that may be true to some extent.

But I know I can't address a problem if I can't even conceive of it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Unger Smash!

In addition to my made up rule that I should blog every weekday, I have a made up rule that no post should take me more than 20 minutes to write.

I have to write about something that's speaking to me enough that the words flow naturally from my thoughts with minimal editing and rejiggering.

But it's Friday. And I'm tired.

I started a post about defining the good life.

But I wasn't really thinking about the good life. I'd been thinking about it earlier, but didn't get around to writing it down.

And by the time I started writing, all I was thinking was that it's Friday. And I'm tired.

I tried to get energized and get back in to it, but that doesn't seem to be a successful strategy at the moment.

So I'm going to cheat a little bit, and instead of writing, I'll just share this image of Roberto Unger, whom I've blogged about before, smashing contexts.  Well, this isn't really him smashing contexts, but this is how I like to imagine it:

Happy weekend, friends.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

How much do you care?

This morning there was a 7-alarm fire in Somerville. The Somerville Patch estimated 45 displaced with 8 homes damaged.

I saw the story on the news before I left the house. I saw the helicopters as I headed to the gym. Everyone at the gym was talking about it. I smelled the smoke as I walked to work.

When I saw that the good folks over at the Somerville Homeless Coalition were collecting donations to support people displaced from this and other fires, I felt the need to donate. To support these neighbors I'd never met.

And if you feel the same need, go ahead and donate. The purpose of this post is not to dissuade you otherwise.

But my impulse to support people whom I felt connected to, even though I'm not (?), made me think back to one of the readings from the Summer Institute - a chapter from Peter Singer's One World.

Singer points to a common dissonance of reasoning: proclaiming that all human life is equally precious, yet feeling a stronger obligation to some people over others.

While he logically ticked through the partiality people feel towards their family, friends, neighbors, countrymen, etc., proclaiming some okay and others unfounded, I found the dissonance of the question still resonating.

His ultimate point - that everyone should donate 1% of their annual income to the world's poorest citizens - doesn't strike the same nerve that the neighborhood fire stuck this morning.

My immediate response to the dissonance is one of efficiency and impact - I am confident that the Somerville donation will make a significant impact, while I feel less confident about the impact of an international donation. While that logistical concern may be well founded, it feels hollow in comparison to my genuine reactions.

My next response is one of capacity - I could give up everything I have and still not fix the terrible, global inequality or make a dent in global poverty.

That feels more authentically close to my concern - when I start to think about the world's problems on this scale, my mind quickly spirals out of control. I can't figure out where the line is - how much should I reasonably give? What low level of giving makes me a terrible person?

Singer's 1% suggestion is meant to alleviate this anxiety, but the arbitrariness of that number leaves me empty.

It also seems to come from a wildly different understanding of the cost of living.

But it does make me think.

Maybe the amount doesn't matter so much. Maybe it is just arbitrary. But maybe we should all do just a little bit more to make the world more equitable.

Support those in your community and support those abroad.

But do what you can to do just a little bit more.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Inclusion and Efficiency

I think one of the biggest tensions I run into - or at least one I think about a lot - is the conflict between inclusion and efficiency.

In high school, my government teacher was an aid for a State Rep. in California. (I took this class at a community college rather than at my high school). He talked a lot about how the state government worked, and sometimes complained about how long it took to get anything done.

But what I remember most is that even in complaining about the inefficiency of the system, he was quick to point out:

The system is inefficient, but it was intentionally designed that way.

The inefficiency ensures time for discussion. For deliberation. For ensuring that what seemed like a good idea actually is a good idea.

The inefficiency is good.

In my currently life, practicing the dark arts of marketing - even for the power of good - I find I'm often trying to create the illusion of inclusion while secretly plotting for the power of efficiency.

That is to say, I often need buy-in from people whom I don't really have the time to get buy-in from.

When I plan a project, I try to think about who needs to know what when or how to generate buy-in and a sense of inclusion among core constitutents.

But I tend to think in terms of impediments which make the process inefficient, rather than as valuable insights that make the end product better.

Now, to be fair, it depends on the project, the people, and the context I'm working in - sometimes I really do need people's input. But sometimes - just sometimes - I include people because I'm thinking that ultimately I need them to be on board and talking to them now will create the impression they were consulted.

It's no wonder I generally assume public processes are a sham.

I'd be a terrible city planner.

Sure, I'd listen intently to the input of the average citizen, but really the process of asking for their input is there just so they feel like they were involved. So they're not surprised by the end result. So they feel, falsely, that they were part of the process.

And making them feel that was restores efficiency, because when the project is being implemented, they have less room to complain. After all, they were part of the process.

In case you're wondering, my devotion to efficiency is roughly reason #46 that I'm a terrible person.

But the good news is that the first step is admitting you have a problem

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Don't trust me anymore (or, the value of youth engagement)

As I officially age out of the "youth" demographic (seems to go on a while, doesn't it?), I wanted to take a moment to say that young people are actually kinda important and we should go ahead and listen to them from time to time.

And if you think young people don't care, aren't informed, or whatever other negative stereotype you want to throw out there, you're mistaken.

In the 2012 presidential election, young people 18-29 (that was me!), had a 45% turn out rate. Folks 30 and up, on the other hand, voted at rate of 66%. Okay, let's dig into those numbers a bit.

About half of all young people have no college experience. Half. The 2012 turnout rate among folks with no college experience was 28.6%. That compares to the 55.9% turnout of their college-educated peers.

I'm getting these numbers from my brilliant colleagues over at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Go ahead and check it out.

Add to that the fact that it can be more complicated to vote when you're first registering, and those numbers start to look a little different.

When I first tried to vote, I registered in my home state of California and requested an absentee ballot be sent to my Massachusetts address. The absentee ballot arrived about a month after the election.  So, then I decided to vote from Massachusetts. I registered through some group that was canvassing on campus. And name wasn't on the voter rolls. Special thanks to the poll workers who let me cast a provisional ballot, though.

I haven't had any such complications since.

With a flurry of new - or discussion of new - voting laws in many states, registering and voting is getting more complicated then ever.

It doesn't seem that hard to figure out when you're already registered and just have to roll up to the same polling place twice a year or more, but trust me. It really is kind of complicated.

But, what I really want to talk about is the half of the population that has no college experience.

Now, I don't mean to turn this into a discussion of whether or not everyone should go to college, but the reality is that college provides a significant amount of resources, skills, and social capital that is not generally available to people outside it's walls.

So you end up with a system where folks who have some resources get themselves in a ton a debt for more resources, while folks who have few resources...still have no resources.

And worse, yet, those folks with few resources are systematically shut out of civic life. Not just voting - compared to their peers with some college experience, youth with no college experience have lower rates of being involved in a community project, being contacted by a political party, reading the newspaper, attending public meetings, and being a union member. (CIRCLE again).

Not only are they not asked to participate, the system makes it pretty clear that their participation is not wanted. And besides all that, they've got serious shit to do.

And having a bunch of grown-ups calling them ne'er-do-wells and scoundrels really doesn't help too much. You should be encouraging them to have their voices heard.

Genuinely encouraging.

So next time you wonder why the youth in this country play their music loud and don't care as much as you did when you were their age, please stop and ask yourself - what are the institutional structures perpetuating that activity and what have you done to combat them?

Young people really do have important things to say.

But don't trust me -- I'm over 30.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Forest and the Trees

I tend to be a very action-oriented person. I don't really know what that means, but it sounds like a good approximation of my reality.

I've recently noticed that I'm continually saying things such as, "Yes, this IS happening," or "No, that's NOT happening," or even, "Let's MAKE this happen." As if sheer force of will alone is enough to determine the future.

Generally, I think being action-oriented is a good thing. There are, after all, many things that need to be acted upon.

But there's a danger in this, too. The danger of diving too deep into the weeds, of focusing on the tactic not the strategy, of neglecting thinking in the face of doing.

I've blogged every weekday for the past two weeks as I participated in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. At lunch time, I'd run back to my office and ask myself - of all the thoughts jostling around in my head, which seemed the most compelling, the most coherent?

It wasn't always easy to pick out the line of thinking that could be quickly translated into a blog post, but there was always something there to choose from. Today, after a staff meeting and a 2 hour conference call to kick off my first day back to normal life, lunch time rolled around and I stopped to ask myself what I should post about.

All I could think of was my half-formulated to-do list. All I could think of was action.

Now, to be fair, today was my first day back and I am definitely feeling wiped out after the last two weeks. But I'd like to continue blogging and using this a venue to process my thoughts.

So this is the challenge to me: to make time for the thinking as well as the doing. To appreciate the forest as well as the trees.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Google Searches

In honor of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which ended yesterday, here are just a few of the things I've Googled over the last few weeks:

P. T. Barnum, Jumbo the Elephant, and the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts University
Robert Putnam
Political Psychology
Center for Civic Media
Civic Boston
Federalist Papers
Habermas tandem bike
Hardin commons
How many continents are there
Hulk smash
Petty bourgeois radical
Pirate democracy
PT Barnum Tufts
Reasons to be cheerful
Roberto Unger
The Good Society Journal
The ones we've been waiting for
Unger smash 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Solutions for an Innovative Society

As our country, it seems like innovation is a core part of our goal. We want to advance technology and understanding. To build faster machines, more efficient machines, and, one can hope, more sustainable machines.

But innovation is hard. Not only because of the education and cost that goes into creating the innovation, but because of the human cost associated.

Manufacturing is out, the tech sector is in. Old tech is out, new tech is in.

If you can't keep up, that's your problem - you should just retrain for another job. Assuming you have the option to retrain. And assuming you can find someone to hire you if you're over 50 and spent your whole career working in a now dead sector of society.

So good luck with that.

As we rethought a Constitution in class yesterday - ours, incidentally, put human well-being at the center - I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way.

Could we as a society support innovation by providing for people who are innovated right out of work?

I don't know. But it would be interesting to map out how that would work.

I think of it as something of a Social Security system, but I'm not sure if the today's workers pay for today's retirees would work.

I also wonder what sort of regulations would be in place to moderate who benefits. Would you get support if you lost your job at any point over a certain age? Or only if you'd been working a specific, recently downsized industry?

Just some questions to ponder on this ridiculously hot day. Give me a shout if you have any solutions.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

When Worlds Collide

(Or checking in at Life World with Jürgen Habermas and 2 others)

A few months ago, I was watching the morning news and the anchor made a terrible pun. I don't remember what it was, just that it was really, really bad. And cheesy. I love bad puns, but this one was a little much for me.

But then then anchor screwed up his face and said, "Sorry guys, that's just what it said on the teleprompter."

It was kind of refreshing. I sometimes wonder how much of the morning news banter is scripted and how much of it is the actually personality of the anchors coming through. Most of the time, I honestly don't know.

Whenever it comes up that the president of the university where I work is very active on Facebook and Twitter, that observation is usually followed by the impressed comment, "And, he actually posts himself!"

No one's ever impressed that I post myself.

So what is it about these types of situations that I find interesting?

The news anchor and the university president are both examples of what German sociologist Jürgen Habermas would call the "system" - essentially the structures and institutions we interact with. I would probably call it "The Man" but "The System" is a nice, gender neutral alternative. I can dig it.

So when you have a brand on Facebook, or a person who is institutionalized to some degree, you don't necessarily expect them to post to Facebook themselves. President Obama...probably doesn't update his Facebook status. not sentient and can't update it's status. 

But my relationship with both of them is the same. They are the system.

I, meanwhile, am living in what Habermas would call "the Life World" - the "world" we inhabit in our day to day lives.

More and more, there is a blurring between the Life World and the System. The fact that Coke is on Facebook at all is a sign of that blurring.

Sometimes it's clear where the line is, and sometimes it's not.

When Red Bull first launched - this is one of my favorite stories - they wanted to be known as a cool, hip, brand (that could dangerously be mixed with Vodka). So, like any good industrious company, they went out too all the coolest clubs in the wee hours of Saturday mornings and left empty bottles of Red Bull around the bar.

The System invaded the Life World.

And folks who were busy partying away in their Life World, saw that presumably somebody cool had been drinking Red Bull in their cool club. And so they started drinking Red Bull, cause clearly that's what the cool kids did.

Except that's not what the cool kids did. At least, not until the System convinced them it was.

This is not entirely relevant, but it is a picture of my class all pretending to be Habermas, wearing, if you will, Habermasks.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Smashing Context

It seems to be common knowledge that there is something (or many somethings) wrong with our society, but how would you fix those issues?

Perhaps one issue is that of poverty - that some people have so much while others have so little.

Perhaps another is systemic injustice - that some groups of people are systematically ignored, disempowered, or afflicted by the very institutions that make up or society.

I could go on, but I'll pause there to ask again, how would you fix those issues?

No, let me ask differently - how would you go about fixing those issues? What types of things need to change?

When thinking of poverty, for example, do you think of solutions such as a progressive income tax or increased welfare benefits?

If those are the the types of solutions you're coming up with, social theorist Roberto Unger would say you're thinking too small.

Unger decries most social theories as presenting "man as the product of an evolutionary logic, or of deep-seated economic, organizational, or psychological constraints, that he is unable to alter."

But what if we can alter those deep-seated constraints?

Instead of making the income tax more progressive, what would happen if we got rid of income?

What would that look like? How could we try to make that work? If that doesn't seem like a good solution, maybe there's something else we could do. Get rid of property rights and inheritance? Ensure that economic benefits are provided to everyone by the government?

To be fair, Unger is possibly a little too radical even for me. He pushes changes to the system more deeply than I've had time to think through and the examples above are quite probably examples of terrible ideas.

But I think it's good to ask those questions.

Rather than just accept that we live in a capitalist, commercial society where supply and demand and the invisible hand quietly dictate all that we do, we should push ourselves to think deeper. To think differently. To "smash context" as Unger would say.

We should really ask ourselves, what is possible?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Petty Bourgeois Radicals and the Freerider Problem

Roberto Mangabeira Unger, among other things, spoke about the value of petty bourgeois radicals - essentially, as he says, "the coexistence of a large number of relative equal small-scale productive enterprises as the mainstay of economic organization."

I liked this expression, not only because it sounded funny, but because I think there is a lot of value in having an economic system composed not of only large, conglomerated corporations, but of small businesses - of petty bourgeois, if you will.

Local businesses are critical to the character of a community. The Welcome Project's YUM initiative, for example, focuses on immigrant-owned restaurants as important cultural institutions. Somerville Local First (SLF), more generally, focuses on maintaining Somerville's economic stability and funkiness by supporting local businesses.

But sometimes it can seem challenging to "go local." Groups like SLF provide helpful tools for finding and connecting with local businesses, but when you've already fallen into set buying patterns and you're constantly inundated with advertising from major corporations, it can be hard to change your habits.

But surely, if local businesses are so important, other people will take care of supporting them - making it less critical what you, yourself do?

That's what Elinor Ostrom, theorist of common pool resources, would call the "freerider problem." If you think local businesses are good, but you don't go out of your way to support them, then you're just hopping a free ride and hoping everyone else takes care of it.

That can be a dangerous approach to take. If everyone free rides, the system falls apart.

Beyond the economic benefit, Unger indicates that the petty bourgeois are critical to social change:

"Historical research has produced mounting evidence of how much of the radical challenge to the emerging dominant forms of governmental and economic organization, throughout nineteenth-century Western history, came from skilled workers and artisans, technicians and professionals, shopkeepers and even petty manufacturers..."

Economic independence translates into political independence. Having a decentralized (small business) economic structure allows a community to have more flexibility, power, and agency. When one commercial interest dominates a community, that community must necessarily be beholden to the interest of that commercial interest. When the big factory in the factory town threatens to close, the community itself loses it's agency in order to protect, or attempt to protect, the interests of the factory.

So I leave you with this, my friends - when was the last time you shopped local?

Saturday, July 13, 2013


What does it mean to ask good questions?

Can you guide someone's thinking through questions?

Can you influence the way they're thinking about something? Help them consider a perspective they hadn't considered before?

What does it look like to do that? How do you shape a conversation to go from infinite possibilities to a specific idea? Or to go from one direction to another?

Do you just keep asking questions? Gently pushing the point? Do you make a specific suggestion in the form of a question, so when they think of the answer it seems like their idea?

What do you think about that?

Could that work?

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Value of Work

What would it look like to put "work" at the center of democracy?

This question came up in class yesterday, and someone commented, "That's capitalism. It's all about your work and what you produce."

I marinated on that for awhile.

Is that what capitalism is all about?

I thought about my master's classes, where we didn't talk about people, and definitely didn't talk about citizens. We talked about consumers. And how to build consumers. And how to encourage consumers.

And I thought, "Is your value in a capitalist society really the work you produce, or is your value really in your the fact that working (and earning) allows you to consume?"

And when you think of it that way, work can become very disenfranchising.

Your value, the value of you as a person and individual, is nothing. Your work means nothing. Only what you consume.

You're not powerless at work because its a non-democratic system where your decisions can be overruled. You're powerless as work because the system as a whole deems that you have no power.

To me, that feels like what John Gaventa would call the "third dimension of power." You're so used to be disempowered, that you don't even think that you're disempowered. It's just the way the system works.

The way things have been and the way they'll always be.

But is that the way it should be?

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stop and Talk to Strangers

While I am definitely skeptical of much of Robert Putnam's work, I am fascinated by one of his core theories: the root cause of many of our social ills is a decrease in what he calls "social capital" - the value created by human interaction and association.

One reason our social capital has decreased, he says, is that people's time is increasingly privatized - instead of doing social activities, we spend time alone.

So I couldn't help but think of Putnam this morning when, while waiting for the bus and reading for class, a strange man decided that was a good opportunity to strike up a conversation with me.

Like, I would guess, many other people, I was happy to tell him that, no, the Metro on the seat next me wasn't mine and he was welcome to take it. But once that pleasantry was out of the way, I rather thought our interact was over.

But, he wanted to talk about Tsarnaev. And he wanted to talk about the T driver who was recently suspended for sleeping on the job. And he wanted to talk about the tragedy of the recent plane crashes in Alaska and San Fransisco.

My immediate reactions were that 1) I really did want to get some reading done and 2) I probably should be a little leary of chatting with strange men.

Then I remembered that interactions with strangers can provide just as much value as reading and that I was a bus stop, in daylight, at a busy place and it wasn't like I had to tell him all my personal information. So I decided, sure, let's chat, stranger.

He read over my shoulder that I was reading "The Nature and Intentions of the Argument" (which is actually a subheader, but that's neither here nor there).

"Aww," he said. "I never argue. If you argue, you'll just lose."

"What you got to do," he explained, "Is sit down with someone - really talk face to face - and say, 'this is the way shit is, how are we going to figure out how to make this work?'"

That was much more succinctly articulated version of what was essentially the thesis to our reading earlier this week - Roger Fisher and William Ury's Getting to Yes.

So as I sat there, thinking about Putnam saying we're anti-social, thinking of Saul Alinsky who successfully organized with a stranger at a bus stop, and wondering how this kind of dialogue would fit into what Jürgen Habermas would call the "Life World," I thought, "Okay, this is a nice chat. Thanks, Billy."

That's right, I learned his name.

So I guess we're not strangers any more.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Looking out for #1

Political economist Elinor Ostrom posed the question, "Fundamentally, are people motivated by self-interest or concern for others?"

Please take a moment and think about the question. What do you think? I mean, what do you really think?

When I think about that question, I feel like I'm supposed to say that people are motivated by concern for others - I mean we're not all terrible, right? But that answer feels pretty naive and idealistic - in a though situation, when the chips are down and you're acting on instinct, are you really going to act from concern for others or will self-interest kick in?
I remember clearly being an angsty teen, disillusioned with the world, and arguing strongly that even altruistic acts were ultimately motivated by self-interest - such as wanting to feel good about yourself. I could hardly conceive of a world where people fundamentally acted from concern for others, and it seemed childish that I had ever thought such a thing.

In Nina Eliasoph's Avoiding Politics, she reflects on her experience embedded with a variety of community groups. In private settings, she finds, activists talk about the effect of the issue on others in their community. They talk about the structural inequities and the injustice of the situtation.

Then they have a public action and talk to reporters.

"I'm just a mom," they say. "I want to protect my kids."

Their concern for others vanishes and they self-promote as individualistic, average people.

Yesterday, Boston Mayor Tom Menino touted the value of his summer job program for teens. "Summer jobs help us reduce violence in the city," he said, citing a new study from Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies.

From the TV news coverage this morning, it was clear that they wanted me to know that giving teens summer jobs was ultimately good for me - that it made me safer and protected my interests.

But isn't it also just good for teens to have summer jobs? Isn't that enough?

Are people really self-interested, or do we just act that way because we expect them to be self-interested?

There seems to be some evidence that people do, or can, act from concern for others.

But in my world, as a marketer, perception is everything. It almost doesn't matter what is true - we act and react based on our perceptions and that shapes the world around us, often reinforcing our initial perceptions.

So the next question becomes, how do we change the expectation that people are self interested? How do we make it the norm that people care about others? And of course, how do we avoid losing everything when we start looking out for others and they keep looking out for themselves?

And there I go again - assuming everyone else is acting from self interest.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The ego of public life

For a long time, I've thought that I should start blogging. Indeed, I have started and stopped many times in the past.

With the start of my participation in Tisch College's Summer Institute of Civic Studies I saw an opportunity to start blogging again. Rather than jumping at the opportunity, I forced myself to commit to blogging at least once a day over the next two weeks (weekends are under negotion).

I like the concept of blogging because I find writing helps me transform the muddled medleys in my head into somewhat coherent thoughts. Doing so in a public forum (rather than, say, a personal journal) is beneficial because it forces me to really own my opinions and, ideally, opens up an opportunity for broader deliberation and dialogue. Rather than talking to myself in some dark corner of my room, I can hear what other people think and use that as a mechanism for strengthening my own thinking.

So why is blogging such a challenge?

The obvious reason is that it's very stressful to have to present oneself publicly. My tendency is to fall into worrying about fully formed sentences, completed thoughts, and fully researched and understood facts. All of those are good things, but it turns a "quick update" into a process that takes too much time and thought to complete.

But more deeply, my struggle with blogging is many ways, it requires a lot of ego. Well, I would say ego, but another may generously say "agency." It requires standing up and saying, "I do have something to say, and I believe it's worth your time to listen."

And that can be a lot to muster.

I see this challenge more broadly in the idea of being an active citizen, of truly engaging in public life. People wonder why so many politicians seem to be so full of themselves - I wonder how someone starts out thinking, "I could govern others."

Even in smaller acts of engaging. To actively contribute to your community means believing that you have something to actively contribute. There's something fundamentally egotistical about that belief.

That's not to imply that egotistical is bad. I only mean to say that you need to have some faith in your capacity to act (a sense of agency, perhaps?) before you can do so publicly.

I'm not so good at doing that. I prefer to work on the sidelines, move behind the scenes. I like to take it all in, helping where I can, but ultimately acting in private, rather than in public, to make change.

So, I'm going to try to change that. I'm going to start blogging. Forgive me my bad grammar, misspelling, and occasional misstating of facts. Forgive me my half thoughts, poorly structured sentences, and endless narrative. And forgive me my ego when I say that yes, I write for myself, but I also write for you.

From the Republic of Conscience

For the first day of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, one of our readings was From the Republic of Conscience by Seamus Heaney. The poem describes the possibly utopian Republic of Conscience, a communal place of thought and feeling, where “you carried your own burden and very soon / your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.

I say possibly utopian because while for me the poem evokes a feeling that the Republic of Conscience is place of equality and little conflict, it also sounds like a rather dry and desolate place.

Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.

It later goes on to explain the origin of all this salt and seawater:
all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

As beings, our solitude is endless. We’re blessed with the capacity to be self-aware, yet cursed with the understanding that ultimately we are alone – our consciousness is our own and we can never truly share that with another. So it seems we become restless, lost souls, fumbling blindly for a sense of shared experience, for even a hint that we truly understand – or are truly understood – by another.

Fortunately, this state seems to not be permanent in the Republic of Conscience. As mentioned above, “lightning spells universal good.” We may be alone most of the time. But every once and a while we there is a rare flash of understanding and insight. A shockingly brilliant moment when our connection to another becomes clear. And then it goes dark again.

There’s something about the tenor of this poem that reminds me of T.S. Elliot’s The Hollow Men:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Elliot’s poem references Guy Fawkes, infamous from the Gunpowder Plot aimed at blowing up Parliament.
Regardless of how you feel about their actions, The Hollow Men evokes the endless sorrow of those who risked everything to attempt something they considered just – and failed. 

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Failed and exiled, these beings are truly alone. Unable to communicate. Together, but alone.
The Republic of Conscience, on the other hand, offers hope that deeper communication and understanding is possible.

He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

As people, we may not share a collective conscience, but we can still work together, sharing words and looks as venues for passing thought and feeling. And we can attempt – in what little, passing way is possible – to affirm that we are all conscience and together, all alive and connected.

Unless, of course, you prefer to take a more somber look at the world, as from Elliot:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.