The Consumption of Guilt

I’m currently reading Jennifer Jacquet’s Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015), a book that distinguishes shame from guilt in ways that make guilt seem less valuable for societal change than we commonly think it is.

For example, we tend to respond to environmental problems by assuaging our guilt about them via consumption choices. We buy organic, dolphin-safe, free-range, etc. By doing this, we buy into the free-market concept of choice, which allows the wealthy and concerned to buy their way out of environmental degradation, while the use of pesticides, the killing of dolphins, and the mistreatment of chickens scarcely changes. The alternative is government regulation, which removes choice and ensures much less harm to animals and the environment.

Consumption choices can even make things worse, in two ways. One is that people who assuage their guilt through making choices that are good for animals or the environment more easily justify other sorts of misbehavior. The second way is that labeling standards that allow for choice undermine the possibility of serious regulation. To get a price premium, organic, dolphin-free, free-range products have to be the exception, not the rule. Therefore, the companies involved have extra incentive to oppose regulation.

Jacquet asks us to consider what would have happened to the ozone layer if CFC-free products were voluntary and expensive. The ozone layer was protected by government regulation worldwide, not by choice.

Another consideration is that even small changes by big institutions can make a big difference, while changes among some individuals make very little difference. It is better to shame companies and governments into action than try to instill guilt among individuals.

Jacquet argues that “we should not be encouraged to engage with our guilt as disenfranchised consumers, capable of making a change only through our purchases, and instead encouraged to engage as citizens.” Note the “only.” It is not wrong to make these purchases, only to stop there, to think that this is enough to salve our consciences and, therefore, fail to engage as citizens.


Different Sorts of “Activism”

From Grace Yukich, “Who Gets Left Out When We Talk About ‘Activism’?” Mobilizing Ideas, Sept. 2, 2015

Though activism could be broadly conceived as work for social change, in social movement scholarship, it is typically defined as public, disruptive action involving “collective claims against outsiders.” In my book One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America (Oxford, 2013), I examined how interfaith coalitions are working for immigration reform and for greater acceptance of immigrants in the nation’s religious communities and wider culture. I studied social movement organizations who did a lot of things. Some were easily identifiable as “activist.” They organized public protests, public vigils, and press conferences. But they also met to pray for immigrant families being split up by deportation. Group members accompanied undocumented immigrants to their check-ins with immigration officials to prevent their detention. They held interfaith religious services, and group members babysat the children of immigrants while they attended group meetings.

In other words, many of the things they did were private acts with no megaphones, microphones, or police officers in sight. Taken by itself, babysitting would not typically be defined as activism. Should it be, in this case, simply because it is part of the work of a social movement organization? Or should it be “activist” because those involved are doing it with the intention of creating social change? According to dominant definitions, praying, accompaniment, joint worship, and babysitting are not “activism” because they are not “disruptive.” But might they, in fact, disrupt the status quo? Can seemingly everyday activities do that by changing the hearts and minds of others just as effectively in some situations as a peaceful march or even a violent riot? This is what the activists in my book, many of whom had long histories with movements and marches, believed and explicitly intended to do. They targeted not only the state but also the hearts and minds of their own neighbors, friends, and members of their religious communities in seeking to create social change.

Of course, I am using the term “disruptive” differently from how it is typically used. Here, it is more individual and communal rather than societal. In babysitting the children of an undocumented immigrant, perhaps a U.S. citizen’s emotional status quo is disrupted enough to force that person to see immigrants differently, to treat their immigrant neighbors differently, to correct their relatives’ misconceptions of immigrants, and so on. Yes, it might also change how they vote. It might ultimately change immigration policy. But most scholars now agree that the state is not the only target that matters. It is not the only set of institutions and relationships that shape people’s lives on a daily basis. So, in that sense, disruption on an individual and communal level might be significant if the result is a shift in the balance of power in relationships and communities.

Comparison Between Dialogue and Debate

In this especially divided moment, it is valuable to think about the differences between dialogue and debate, how they are based on completely different value systems. It’s notable that, in his presidential run, Senator Ted Cruz made such a big deal about his success as a debater. It is hard to imagine him in dialogue with someone else. He needs to win, and feel superior.

Click below for a comparison between dialogue and debate that was put together by a Hartford organization that focuses on dialogue, Everyday Democracy.


(this document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License)

You’re More Powerful than You Think – III

[A third post on Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017), the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times.]

Some of the most exciting stories that Liu tells involve movements to change the way workers gain power. Their leaders accept that certified unions and collective bargaining are not the framework of the future. One of the new organizations preparing for this future is The Workers Lab.  The lab is supporting tools for workers in the modern workplace, for example, an app called WorkerReport that gives workers a direct channel to local worker centers so they can document wage theft issues or health and safety violations they think need to be dealt with. In this project, the lab is working with New Haven’s own SeeClickFix.

More depressing is Liu’s view of the typical conservative narrative:  Paradise, Paradise Lost, Paradise Redeemed. Things were better, but those things were attacked from without and betrayed from within, and we need to fight to get it back. Trump knew how to use this narrative effectively.

Beyond a narrative, movements need “a concrete conflict in a defined arena with a binary possible outcome.” Climate change isn’t enough to get people to act; in fact, it can seem like an intractable problem, leading to paralysis. Better to stop the Keystone Pipeline or to get universities to divest from companies involved with fossil fuels. Unfortunately, this often means a focus on less important solutions that can best be handled by public protest.

It is also important to have defining fights, which can be extreme (e.g., on the right, campus carry) or moderate (e.g., on the left, the Dreamers). What is important in such fights is crystallizing the broader conflict and defining it in one’s own terms.

Movements also require networks, to amplify power “not incrementally but exponentially,” power that is based not on control but rather on invitation. For example, #Giving Tuesday took off globally due to a counter-commercial value system that led people to want to make a positive statement against the commercialization of the holiday season. Networks set off “contagions of attitude and action,” as well as “webs of knowledge.”

Liu says that the practitioner of civic power should not just try to nudge a network, but be the network. “Society becomes how you behave. … Small actions (and omissions) compound.”

Liu is big on networked localism, working with a variety of solutions to the needs of the poor while giving them a sense of agency. He gives the example of the Family Independence Initiative, which began in Oakland, and bypasses or preempts the state “in ways that don’t fit easily into a left-right framework.” It has experimented with such things as matched savings accounts and lending circles.

Liu’s final strategy for opening up power is acting reciprocally, building systems of mutual aid and opening up opportunities for cooperative self-government, what Liu calls “power-as-sociability.” Power with rather than power over. He found that the ecosystem of groups and leaders focused on issues or constituencies is “separated by invisible fences of habit and culture.” He created an institution, the Civic Collaboratory, that would help develop relationships across the whole ecosystem.

Mutual aid requires trust, but it also creates trust:  you can best earn trust by giving it. Cooperation also changes the locus of responsibility, so that others’ problems are shared rather than just someone else’s problem. With great responsibility can come great power.

Liu reminds readers that although democracies are governed by majority rule, every significant civic change is moved by minority will. “It always takes only a few.” This is why we are more powerful than we think. And this is especially true at the local level.

For Liu, the enemy is not conservatives, but cynicism, which undermines trust, and denies responsibility and the possibility of remedying situations.

There is a lot of wisdom in this book, and the many stories that are told are both inspirational and provide valuable models to emulate. I highly recommend this new book by the founder of Citizen University, whose most local manifestation was this February’s Yale Civic Leadership Conference.

You’re More Powerful than You Think – II

A second post on Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017), the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times

Organizing, Liu tells us, is the awakening, the activation, of dormant power. A boycott has impact because a lot of people are willing to stop giving their power away to the boycotted business. Liu quotes a billboard he once saw, “You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.” We are politics, we are consumption; we’re not stuck in them, we can change them.

Liu argues that seeing in systems is essential to making change. This means focusing on how things connect, understanding networks (and not just those online). He feels that our systems are in decay, that we need new systems to provide us with more dignity and more control over our lives. This is why, I would add, progressives need to be careful not to manipulate individuals who want to get involved, that is, not to create new systems by employing the values of the systems we are trying to replace.

The largest section of the book is on how to respond to power, and how to take and use power. Liu says that we must change the game (interrupt the cycle of self-perpetuating power), change the story (depict an alternative story and use it as the basis for organizing), and change the equation (design experiences of mutual aid that remind people of the power they have, and act on this power). Each of these three changes has three strategies, but that’s too many strategies for one blog post. However, here are a few quotations from this section:

“All civic life begins in the imagination.”

“The resizing of the arena of activism is perpetual.”

“In everyday civic life, the rules are often overlooked or simply considered fixed. They are not fixed. They can be remade”

“If the game is rigged, don’t say so generally; say so precisely. And show precisely how to unrig it.”

“You have to expand the public’s sense of what’s possible—by asking what if questions; by describing a better way in detail; and by offering a new values-based definition of what ought to be considered ‘normal.'”

“Don’t try to beat your adversaries at their own game. Paralyze, bypass, and undermine their strategy instead. Even a dominant power is only as strong as its strategy.” An example of this is how, because the NRA works through legislatures, a pro-gun control organization won locally via a ballot initiative.

[To be continued]

You’re More Powerful than You Think – I

Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen (Public Affairs, March 28, 2017) is the perfect accompaniment to thinking about what you might do to make a difference in these troubling times. It is better for today than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (1969). This book is a primer on power — how we think of it, what it actually is, and how we can wield it. This book is designed to close the gap between the rhetoric of revolution and the actual changes in values, systems, habits, and skills that are needed. Liu’s goal is to help people make better demands and then make them a reality.

In his prologue, Liu suggests that we ask the question, “Who runs this place?” It’s a question that is too rarely asked and even more rarely answered thoughtfully. He suggests that we widen the lense from government (where the answer is often harder than we think) to include the businesses and other institutions that dominate the local economy, and who in those busineses has a real say. Wider, to include who makes the deals — the fixers and the enforcers, the groups that usually get their way. Who do you have to target to get things changed, to make things the way you want? Who decides?

Liu calls the time we are in the Great Push Back, the revolt of those who feel they lack power. But what is “power”? Liu’s definition is “the capacity to ensure that others do as you would want them to do.” Power is as often about persuasion or contagion as it is about coercion. It takes the form of force, wealth, state action, ideas, social norms, and numbers. It’s not just about the making of laws, but also about the making of relationships, and about biases and slogans.

It is a problem that most people ascribe power to others rather than to themselves. The left ascribes power to business and the right to government, but there is also power in numbers, in ideas, and in changing the way we see things. Think how quickly a minority movement for gay marriage changed the way most Americans think. When we give in to others’ power, we let their kind of power, based on their values, prevail.

Liu argues that power doesn’t corrupt character as much as reveal it, and that power is a gift, a special form of privilege that we can redeem through our deeds and pass on to others. It is a gift because “every person and institution with power in our society today has it because we give it to them.” Unfortunately, most of the time we give power away by not participating. “No one can wield power except as others yield power.”

Liu goes the usual route of setting out the laws of power, but they are useful to understanding what it is and how it works. The most important things to take away from these laws is that power is legitimized by the stories those with power tell to justify their power, and that power is not zero-sum:  it can be bypassed, displaced, and even upended.

In fact, what is special about our time, Liu says, is that legitimizing myths have lost their grip. People across the political spectrum have rejected justifications of the status quo. But there is still not a good vision of the future, especially on the left. “Resist” does not accomplish this. This is something progressives need to discuss and work toward. It is one reason I think that alternative institutions are so important, even if they are not activist in nature, because they are an essential part of a future that we need to make more positive and more concrete.

[To be continued]

Connecticut and Regionalization

A lot of Connecticut’s problems are due to a prejudice against regionalization. This is made crystal-clear in an op-ed in today’s Hartford Courant by the executive director of the Capitol Region Education Council, a former superintendent of Cheshire schools, Greg J. Florio.

The topic of the op-ed is desegregating Hartford’s schools according to the Sheff v. O’Neill decision. He writes that “Connecticut communities value the concept of local control, especially of their schools. This will never change.” This love of local control is especially powerful because CT is one of the only two states in the U.S. that has no counties. Nothing but the state can stand up to Connecticut’s cities and towns.

However, Florio says that he sees “a willingness to come together to address these concerns of providing quality integrated education to all students with a regional approach: not regionalization, but regional thought and regional solutions.”

If he’s right, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. But there can be no fairness in education (and much else) in our state without the support of the suburbs surrounding our cities.

Too much activism in our state is also focused on the cities. They are where the problems are most acute and where it is easiest to organize. But the best solutions will come only with the support of those who live in and manage the suburbs. They have the money and the power in Connecticut. Not only are they thrifty, but they don’t like to spend any money that will go outside their towns (they still haven’t swallowed state income tax, which is only 25 years old).

It’s going to take a lot of work to bring the suburbs on board. This is something that progressive seniors, with a history in their towns and time on their hands, will be best at. It’s something worth including in strategic planning discussions.