Morality and the Brain 4 August 2008Posted by Todd in Cognitive Science, Cultural Sociology & Anthropology, Ethics.
Some new research into our innate moral capacity (the ability to think morally is innate, not the rules; although there are some foundational presumptions human brains tend to make, relating to reciprocal altruism, but that’s not what I’m posting about here). In western philosophy, there are basically two kinds of moral arguments, deontological and utilitarian. This is an oversimplification that people who are studying the cognition of morality make to be able to categorize what they are observing. In most simple terms, deontological arguments function on principles or categorical imperatives, and in day-to-day life are made emotionally, without conscious rational thinking. Utilitarian arguments focus on maximizing good outcomes, and in day-to-day life people are able to give their rational arguments for their position, that is, they do invoke their conscious problem-solving brain. Cognitive scientists have thought for about 10 years now that humans use both systems to make their moral judgments, but had until now thought that the two systems worked in tandem or in competition with each other. Some new experiments seem to indicate that the two work independently of each other and do not overlap in brain processes. Very cool. Here’s the article from Scientific American, “Thinking about Morality”.
The Sticky Problems of Ethnic Identity in California 21 February 2008Posted by Todd in Commentary, Cultural Critique, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Inequality & Stratification, Multiculturalism, Race & Ethnicity, Teaching.
Tags: california education, california immigration, children of immigrants, education and race, ethnic enclaves, ethnic identity, racism
NOTE: This is one of those moments when I’m definitely weilding my “hammer”; but I want it clear that I’m thinking out loud. I know that this can be highly charged and controversial; I’m hoping to invite thoughtful and detailed consideration and dialgue about this issue. As an educator, it is of vital importance to me. Edited for clarity, March 1, 2008.
As a university teacher, I often find students resisting me not at an intellectual level, but at the level of identity. Can I, a gay white male, possibly be an effective mentor or teacher to a Mexican American? An African American? An immigrant from India? A straight man? A Christian? A Republican? Are our identities so incommensurate as to dehumanize us beyond mutual understanding, compassion, trust, sharing, and simple interaction?
Sociologically, I have been trying to understand the racial and ethnic dynamics of identity in California since i moved here, mainly because my own values on the topic are from a typical multicultural perspective: celebrate and respect differences. But I’m also of the first Sesame Street generation, so my mulitculturalism is more liberal than radical, and I find myself saddened that what I experience in here in California isn’t the integrated world I was promised by Bob and Susan when I was a child. Now, everyone’s hybrid/creole/mestizo/mixed, but pretending they’re not, and drawing what feel like ever-tightening boundaries around their various communities, reifying differences (in some cases inventing them) for the sake of difference itself.
I have questioned the practice of multiculturalism on this blog in the past, if not its values; and continue to struggle with the lived effects of multiculturalism as it is practiced here in day-to-day life, and that I see in California’s political, social, and educational life. I wonder if there isn’t a need to revisit the ideas of having a shared identity in addition to all these others, in order for a democratic state to function well and for real communities (with caring, sharing, trust, and participation) to form. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, let me start with the huge caveat that I’m saying all of this already assuming for a knowledge of the past, the racism and forced assimilation policies of the U.S. government and the travesties of the dominant culture; meaning to say that I’m not naive. I also understand social privilege and white privilege and how it might be informing my position here.
As a sociologist, I can step back and see California’s ethnic identity intensification relatively dispassionately as a confluence of a) a massive proportion of the population of CA is immigrant; b) immigrants already feel beseiged in their receiving countries; and c) American culture’s reification of cultural differences and fetishization of identity. These three factors have produced since the late 1960s–in addition to the old-style “white flight” (not to mention middle-class of color flight) we’re all used to–an intensification of self-ghettoization of immigrant communities, where living in ethnic enclaves has become the desired norm. Californians, when polled, often prefer it (I’m trying to hunt down the cite for this; it’s been a couple years since I read it); Californians of all colors [seem to] prefer living in segregated (college educated, middle class respondants of all races/ethnicities are the exception). Nearly 1/2 of all immigrants to the U.S. live in California, that is, nearly 1/2 of all people born outside of the U.S. who now live in the U.S. live in CA. [This number was from before 2005, the first year that the majority of Mexican immigrants went to destinations outside of California; I don’t know what the current proportion of total immigrants to the U.S. living in CA is now.]
Immigrants in the past also lived in enclaves, but they were smaller, not constantly fed by new arrivals (in increasing numbers) and they pushed their children to succede in American culture. Most of the civil rights battles of Latinos and Chinese Americans, for example, here in CA before 1970, were about having equal access to the institutions, fair and equal treatment under the law, and about becoming Californian. Now the cultural emphasis is really different: Parents want their children to stay in the enclaves and ‘be’ something else. The civil rights battles seem to have shifted to the right to stay separate, culturally and socially (e.g., the current battles in San Jose over what to name the new “Vietnamese” district). On one hand, I think democratically that the right to free association gives people the right to form enclaves if they want; I’m not convinced, however, that it’s the best decision to make; and I’m pretty sure at this point that it serves to reproduce racist discourses by reifying the racist identifications with cultural identities and communal associations, rather than undercutting and eliminating racism, which in my opinion should be our goal.
This gets even more complicated when you look empirically at how the children of immigrants live. In the past, COIs were “bicultural” and could move easily in “American” contexts. The key here is that all indicators are that this trend continues, even in the larger, more permanent enclaves of today. In other words, COIs still integrate into larger American culture. The one differences researchers are noting is that it may take a bit longer and that COIs retain much more of their parents’ native culture, not because of their parents, but because the enclaves are constantly being fed new immigrants with whom they interact. So I see a contradiction in our insistence on cultural difference and identification with those differences, and the empirical realities that the COIs and 3rd gen are relatively completely integrated into American society. What do we get from the values having shifted to emphasizing the identity difference rather than social justice; or to say it a different way, what are the consequences of this shift, where the right to identify as different seems to have supplanted all other older arguments for real social justice in the law, education, housing, etc.
As an illustration: I have many COI students who grew up in an enclave of (pick an) immigrant community, but who listen to the same music as most American kids, speak English with that irritating California terminal upspeak, are mostly secular, follow American sports, watch American Idol, etc.; but when asked if they are American, they wrinkle their noses and say no. They are filipino/mexicano/vietnamese/chinese/etc. So empirically, they are living lives similar to most Americans of their age, but they refuse the identity.
As a teacher, I often see this manifested in a really destructive way among some of my Latino students, for example, who in the privacy of my office have confided that they are going it alone, because their friends and sometimes even their families think that going to college is “acting white” and that they are betraying their heritage by getting an education.
As an educator, these are symptoms of a problem that is troubling to me. If we are at all concerned about the COIs being able to succeed in American society at school and in the workplace and becoming fully participating members of the American democratic sphere, then it seems we need to revisit how we are doing “identity”. Perhaps the model we adopted from the early 1970s, which has gone uninterrogated for the past 35 years, is no longer adequate or working.** I’m not suggesting anything particularly radical here, just that in addition to our identifications with ethnicities, religions and cultures of our immigrant ancestors, we should also be thinking about what we have in common. The fetishization of difference to the exclusion of what we share has made it increasingly difficult for a more desirable kind of multiculturalism to develop.
Because of our (bad) history of ethnic inequality here in California, we are very touchy about “assimilation” and the dynamics of assimilation, so no one wants to talk about how this might be handicapping the children of immigrants. In a freaky (ironic?) sort of way, we have ended up back in segregation land, but through different social dynamics from the segregation of the past. [And this leaves aside the whole issue of social cohesion so necessary in a democracy (see Robert Putnam’s research from last year on how diversity increases social distrust, depresses social/communal participation, and reduces democratic dialogue).] And so how do we re-theorize this new kind of segregation, where racism is still a factor, but a much more complex and multi-directional racism (i.e., not a simply white v. black racism of 50 years ago); and how do we think about where we want to go from here? Is separatism really the only answer, the only way for people of color and COIs to find meaningful identities in America? Is America really that far beyond redemption? Is the Sesame Street (and for that matter, Barak Obama) version of mutliculturalism really just a lie?
**In a larger sense, and too big for this discussion here, I often find that our theories of race and gender are still based on assumptions that worked well in the 1950s and 60s when they were formulated, but don’t match the world we live in now. I think it’s time for a rethinking of our theories of social inequality and stratification writ large.
Why I Teach 25 January 2008Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Teaching.
The new semester has begun, and as is my habit, I have come back to the question of why I do this. Is it for love or money? In many ways, at a so-called “state teaching university”, where I teach a heavy load in a program that basically services general education (that means: for all intents and purposes, no majors and no grad students), my professorial experience differs from many colleagues, even at my own university. My pre-hire expectations have taken a beating over the past couple years on the tenure-track, both in terms of what my own intellectual life means and what it means to be a teacher in higher education.
I read somewhat glumly PZ Meyer’s post this morning about why he teaches biology. It is interesting to note the different paths that he took as a biologist than I as a social scientist: In the social sciences, you necessarily see yourself as a teacher as well, whereas PZ didn’t see himself as a teacher until after he started his tenure-track job and was slammed into teaching. PZ’s post led me to a couple others, including the original meme on Free Exchange on Campus, which in turn led me to this brilliant post from Dr. Crazy, a community college literature professor.
Reading Dr. Crazy’s post, I was amazed at her (is she a her?) articulation of the main projects of teaching a broad range of students and what they can get out of studying literature, which most of them don’t care about. Although I’m a sociologist, I teach in an interdisciplinary program where I actually have to teach history and humanities in addition to sociology, including a massive freshman level, two-semester course on American culture. In some ways, I feel lucky that I get to branch out into the humanities, into poems and literature and even some music that I love, to get students to engage in questions of meaning that I may not get to in otherwise straight up social science course. In other ways, I regret not having sociology majors, people with at least a minimum level of interest in what I have to offer, people who are sort of junior scholars in my field, exploring the world that turned me on when I was in my early 20s.
So I teach more or less four classes a semester of students who aren’t engaged (in general; there are exceptions) or who don’t care about what I’m teaching. They are there for the basest of instrumental reasons: To fulfill a requirement. One of my jobs, then, is to convince them to care in some way, to entice them to engagement. On good days, I succeed; and it is really a rush. On mediocre days, we get some excitement going and I’m content. On bad days, we barely make it through still liking each other.
Over the first two years of my tenure track, I have slowly been developing a new, more grounded in my actual teaching experience, raison d’apprendre.
a) The Value of a Liberal Arts Education. I have found first that my personality still doesn’t allow me to give up my ideals about education or the material I’m teaching. That is, I discovered last fall that I just cannot give in to the instrumental culture of general education and what my students call “getting a job”. I don’t mean to say that I will spend my career “kicking against the pricks”, as the New Testament says; but rather that I still have to keep my grasp on why I do what I do, even if it doesn’t align with the reasons the students come into my class. I have discovered that I still believe in education as a means to improvement, that knowledge and learning really do afford the chance for students (and myself) to become better people. I still get massive pleasure out of learning, discovery, inquiry, and even argumentation. I still believe that functioning democracies sorely need educated citizens. So on the first day of class this semester, I started by telling the students about the values that drive me to teach, the values that bring me to them each day and why I do what I do. I hope to have started a discussion with my students that, in some way, will continue through the semester, about the value of a university education beyond “getting a job.” Idealist? Yes. But I’m not yet ready to leave behind those ideals. I was relieved that my students actually wanted to talk about this and then excited by the discussion; it seemed to reveal (and this could be wishful thinkingn on my part) that the “getting a job” rationale actually weighs on them and distracts them from learning.
b) Describing the World as It Is, Part One: Complexity. Here I dovetail with Dr. Crazy and, I’m sure, many other professors. One of my chief goals as a professor is to teach a set of thinking skills. I hear a lot of professors talk about “critical thinking”, but in some ways I have found the way we talk about this as professors to have been detrimental to other aspects of teaching. I have colleagues who argue that as long as their students can “think” at the end of the coruse, they have succeeded. What concerns me is that the process of critical thinking requires to actually have something to think about. The skill does not exist without substance. So first on my list is teaching the students to observe the world and to be able to describe it, as best they can, as it is. This involves teaching them to think stochastically, especially in the social sciences, where any social question is so intricately connected to tens, hundreds, even thousands of other phenomena, that explanation requires a suppleness of perception and agility of language. This is, for me, complexity. I want my students to learn to see multiple causalities and multiple and contradictory effects of any given phenomenon and to be able to explain them.
c) Describing the World as It Is, Part Two: Truth. If you’ll excuse a gross oversimplification, my students come to me either with deeply embedded naive relativism or a deeply embedded sense of Eternal Truth. Both sides of this (false) dichotomy are a challenge to teach. Those who believe in Eternal Truth also usually believe that they already know it. That results in a sometimes intractable teaching situation, where there is no way into the student’s head. On the other hand, those with the Kumbaya naive relativism have two problems that contradict each other but to which they are blind: on one hand, they refuse to judge other cultures, societies or individuals, because everyone is “equal”; on the other hand, they are deeply moralizing and constantly judge people who aren’t like them. It’s an odd contradiction. Ironically, the naive relativists actually treat their world view like an Eternal Truth, so at the end of the day, they all have that same problem. My task is to crack through their assumptions about whatever values they are bringing to the classroom vis-à-vis truth and to get them to start to see truth in a completely different way. This is a task that I never complete in a given semester, and for most of my students, I think it is a process that will take them well into their adulthood to fully grasp. In some ways, real-life experience will unconsciously lead them here if they’re open to it. But hopefully something we do in class together will move them toward seeing truth as being both still important and real, but also being always contingent and a process. William James said that truth was a verb, not a noun; it’s something that unfolds in time through experience, through learning and interacting; it is not something that can be possessed and held onto once and for all. The reason this is so difficult is because I’m trying to teach them a seemingly contradictory thing: first, the truth is contingent and highly situated and that it emerges out of interaction with the umbworld (the social and cultural environments); but second, that the truth as we know it at any given time is inextricably connected to how we live our lives, especially how we formulate our values and how we act in the world. Just because we may learn something tomorrow that changes truth does not mean that we do not or cannot act today on what we know right now. Indeed, the realities of life necessitate action, and action is always driven by values, and values are already based on the current state of the truth. At the same time, they have to understand that what they think of as true today, might change tomorrow; that what is true for them, may not be true for anotehr human in another time and/or place. My hope is that learning that truth is situated will bring a humility and a care to their declarations of knowledge and to their value formations; and that seeing that they nonetheless have to act in the world will bring an urgency to getting the best truth possible in any given situation.
d) Value propositions. Arising out of a redefinition of truth comes an awareness of where human values come from and in turn a consciousness of the valuation process. I want to teach students to be aware of their values, and to be able to see where exactly they come from, then to take their best knowledge of the truth at any moment and formulate the best possible value propositions. In otherwords, what I’m trying to teach them is that values are not things-in-themselves, but are always propositions. As such, they are always open to evaluation and scrutiny.
e) Argumentation. Part of what I’m trying to teach is how to make solid arguments in the most basic format: Claim, Reason, Evidence. This goes for all kinds of arguments, from substantive (what, facts, data), to critical (how, why), to interpretative (what does it mean) to evaluative (what is it worth). My hope in the classroom is that building from complexity and truth, as I defined them above, students will be able to make lucid, grounded arguments and at the same time that they will be able to analyze and evaluate the arguments of others.
f) Social. In the end, I have to admit that one of the key reasons why I teach is because I love the students. (With the exception of a few bad eggs and a couple of assholes here and there, that is). I love that time of life when the world is before you and you are free to explore. The trick of my job, however, is that I teach a student body that is driven mostly by the instrumental rationale I discussed above, so I have to awaken that curiosity and openness, that I see as their right to enjoy, in them. It isn’t easy; it can be frustrating; and I fail as many days as I succeed.
Freedom from offense a human right? 5 January 2008Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Islam, Religion, Secular Humanism.
Tags: Cairo Declaration, humanism, United Nations
[Sorry for the second question-form post title in less than 30 minutes.]
Last month, the UN’s 3rd committee passed a resolution against the ‘defamation’ of religion. Not surprisingly, the resolution was written and sponsored by Organization of the Islamic Conference, and names Islam as a besieged religion. Regardless, the resolution makes the classic illiberal mistake of thinking that freedom of religion means that no one can criticize you; that if you’re offended your rights have been violated; and that you have the right to do whatever you want to without scrutiny as long as you do it in the name of religion. I’ve waxed long and hard against this issue before, so I won’t belabor the point. I will, however, point you to a great rebuttal of the UN resolution from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (an international consortium of humanist organizations):
J.K. Rowling and Violence (guest post) 22 October 2007Posted by Todd in Ethics, Gay Culture.
Tags: Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling, violence
My dear long lost friend Christiann wrote an amazing response to my Dumbledore Is Gay posts, and I have asked her permission to post it as a blog entry on the Hammer. Give her a warm welcome and consider her insights into Rowling’s ethical responsibility regarding violence and sexuality in her series of children’s novels.
Hello, Todd. Your blog reminded me of something else that the Rowling books stirred up in me when I was reading them: the problem I had with Rowling’s willingness to write so graphically (and, in a strange way, almost lightly) about violence, and her unwillingness to write about sex.
So, of course I feel ire over her open omission of gay and lesbian characters – as we have discussed, and as you so thoughtfully articulated on your page. (I am wondering now how much of that was pressure from her publishers. If she was bending to a homophobic culture and not just inadvertently expressing her own homophobia, I find her choices even MORE onerous.)
Anyway, but that issue aside, I was actually FINE with her delicate approach to teenage sexuality. I thought it was appropriate for a young readership. But the books were very violent, especially toward the end. I had to skim over a few sections of book 7 where she described torture. So, I found myself thinking, “why the care with sexual material and the total flagrancy with violent material?”
Especially in the last books, I compared her to Tolkien. Like everyone, I was reminded of the LOTR trilogy all the way through her series, but toward the end what I was comparing was the difference in how Tolkien and Rowling wrote about violence. His books were hugely violent and dark and worrisome… but he handled the material so artfully and with true gravitas. Of course he had experienced war, so he wrote with immense insight, care, and true understanding of suffering. In fact, for me, the way Tolkien wrote about suffering may be the most important and moving aspect of his work. The way Rowling wrote about suffering, on the other hand, left me feeling … kind of offended, actually!
I think Rowling is a wonderful author and I loved the series. Of course she isn’t a great writer like Tolkien; she isn’t a great scholar like Tolkien was. She’s some layperson who started writing books. And what she created was delightful! So… you know, I forgive her. But her books have become cultural phenomena. So, the juxtaposition between featherweight sexuality and heavyweight violence becomes more important to me.
Not only did I feel that her descriptions of violence were somehow off – like a Hollywood car chase in a way – but I also felt that when her characters, especially Harry, struggled to COPE with and process the violence and suffering they were enduring, it came off as a kind of trifle – as if Rowling knows that immense trauma deserves a reaction, but that she doesn’t quite know what that reaction TRULY is.
It’s problematic for me because it is something that I think is over-present in popular media. Characters survive horrific events, stand up, brush themselves off, and go have a cup of coffee. So, violence in popular culture has this Looney Tune feel to it. But the even more troubling trend is the rampant graphic programming about raped and murdered women, while the FCC will descend like a ravenous bird of prey when, say, the breast of a live performer appears on the screen. In our culture now, there is tolerance of violence and even sexual violence (or even ESPECIALLY sexual violence) but complete INTOLERANCE of naturally expressed sexuality. And I think that reflects in Rowling’s books.
What a difference it would have made to me if she had toned down the torture, or written it with maturity, and had included fulfilled, loving gay characters. Tolerance, indeed.
Free Speech & Insulting Religion 20 June 2007Posted by Todd in Commentary, Democratic Theory, Ethics, Multiculturalism, Religion.
I have often spoken here on the hammer about a fundamental principle of free speech:
You do not have a right to be sheltered from insult. In a “marketplace of ideas” or a “free public sphere” (however you want to frame it), ideas, all ideas, including insulting, infuriating, degrading ideas, may be expressed; and protection falls to the side of the expressor. Real harm is not “hurt feelings” or “insult to faith” or even “racism”. Harm is in the abridgment of substantive rights.
The recent renewal of the fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie and the whining of people who say he insulted them is childish on its face and an extreme misapprehension of what freedom of speech and rights mean. Although someone may have ethical qualms about “hurting someone’s feelings” and that is a legitimate conversation to have; it is not nor should it ever be part of the debate about free speech. [See Oliver Kamm’s great discussion here.]
This is for the good of society. The radical free expression of ideas allows a society to continually evaluate itself, confront falsehood and dangerous ideas head-on, prevent stupid people from becoming martyrs for their squelched stupid ideas, and allows us to be constantly vigilant against becoming too comfortable in our received beliefs. Radical free speech, in fact, claims that making people uncomfortable is precisely the GOOD that comes from having free speech in the first place.
Do not allow religious or any other kind of fundamentalists reframe this foundational principle of a free and open society. Free speech must be held sacrosanct. Full stop.