Interview: Liam Kofi Bright, philosopher
The decorated philosopher offers his philosophy of...well, a lot of things.
If you follow one philosopher on Twitter, you could do worse than to choose Dr. Liam Kofi Bright, an assistant professor at the London School of Economics. Of course, he might not like me saying that, since self-effacing humor is kind of his thing. But that’s just one more reason Liam is great. Another is that he’ll actually answer my random philosophy questions. His public presence extends far beyond Twitter, as he appears on numerous podcasts, writes blog posts, etc.
Of course, his academic work is prestigious as well, as he has recently been awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize, and he publishes lots of papers (Including one in Nature Medicine!), etc. etc. He works a lot on philosophy of science (my favorite area of philosophy), with an emphasis on the social structure of science. One of his big theses is that the hierarchical nature of science hurts its ability to create and disseminate knowledge. He has also worked to incorporate the ideas of Black thinkers like W.E.B DuBois and Ida B. Wells into formal philosophy, and has addressed issues of race and diversity in philosophy itself (Bright himself is British, with Ghanaian and Irish ancestry).
In the very long unedited interview that follows, we discuss many Big and Important Questions — the meaning of life, the nature of truth and bullshit, the future of democracy, whether the U.S. is an oligarchy, culture wars, human empowerment, and how philosophers should interact with the world. Basically, the things I always wanted to ask a real philosopher about!
N.S.: OK, so, like, you're a philosopher. So, what's the meaning of life?
L.K.B.: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
N.S.: Got it. I was always thinking it was something like "pet the fluffy bunnies and watch some anime." But that's not too far off, right?
Well, anyway. Your Twitter handle is @lastpositivist. What is a positivist, and why are you the last?
L.K.B.: Not too far off indeed - readers interested in the full argument for the correct theory of the meaning life should see here.
The logical positivists were a group of early 20th century intellectuals, most famously gathered in Vienna in what we call "the Vienna Circle". They were scientists and philosophers interested in how to interpret breakthroughs in physics and mathematics that they had lived through, such as the discovery of Einstein's general relativity. What's more, they were living in post-world-war-one Vienna, formerly the head of a large empire but now the capital of a small rump state and in the midst of the socialist experiment we now call "Red Vienna". Many of the logical positivists thought that the social changes the world was undergoing were intimately tied up with the scientific and conceptual changes they studied.
Most philosophers take their project to have been an interesting failure, set aside for good reason. But I think the way they combined scientific and social philosophy has much to recommend it, and the arguments against it far less convincing than generally supposed. Hence, I am the last to carry the torch!
N.S.: So how do we need to combine scientific and social philosophy right now, in the world of 2021? What new things have we learned about the world in recent decades -- or what new things have we learned about how to learn about the world -- that tell us about how we should organize our society?
L.K.B.: There's a lot to say here, but I will limit myself to just a couple of examples! One is a relatively new example and the other (alas) perennial.
Red Vienna was an experiment in socialist government, and that led to a lot of interest in how one could use results from the social sciences to help workers rationally plan features of their own society and living arrangements in a way that would be conducive to the common good. Members of the Vienna Circle were interested in this, and indeed their efforts bore some fruit - readers may be interested in this charming story of how the logical positivist philosopher Otto Neurath worked on postwar British social housing.
While many of these very same questions are still relevant, I think nowadays we are faced with an overwhelmingly urgent problem which is of a similar type but whose scale and stakes are much higher. This is coming up with rational social responses to the realities of human caused climate change. Doing this in a manner that has any hope of avoiding much avoidable suffering will require the successful coordination of nations, social movements, and scientific and technical experts. My friend, comrade, and coauthor, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò the younger, for instance, has convincingly argued that we on the left need to do much more to champion the development of carbon capture technologies and think about how they can be integrated into a comprehensive global strategy for dealing with this crisis. This sort of techno-social coordination, towards the end of averting suffering and promoting flourishing, is just the sort of project which the logical positivists can help us think about.
The more perennial issue the logical positivists can help us think about is in avoiding being deceived by propaganda and obfuscatory jargon. The logical positivists were famous for insisting on "verifiability". This amounted to an insistence that if a claim is to be counted as "cognitively meaningful", as in even a candidate for being considered true or false, then there must be some way of gathering evidence (inclusive of mathematical proof) that would help us tell if we should accept or reject it. So a claim like "the bunny is on the sofa" would in suitable contexts be a meaningful claim about the world, since we can look at the contextually appropriate sofa and see whether or not the contextually appropriate bunny is there. But a claim like "the number 7 is furiously green" is not even wrong, it is neither true nor false, since while it has the surface form of a meaningful sentence there is in fact nothing that it is like to gather evidence for or against it.
Thanks to some very recent translation work by Chirstoph Limbeck scholars working in English have recently come to appreciate how Carnap, one of the key members of the Vienna Circle, used this to try and identify propaganda that would serve pernicious social purposes. Very often what those who wish us to take indefensible courses of action do is play upon our emotions by issuing suggestive phrases that predictably give rise to certain sentiments, but fail to actually be verifiable so cannot be subject to serious challenge or examination. Some examples of this are overt - enigmatic "Q-drops" that often don't quite say anything that might be checked against reality in any conclusive manner, but always somehow suggest that former president Trump is working to some good end and that democratic elections which do not go in one's preferred way are not to be trusted. Other examples of this are less often flagged as troubling because they are the normal rhetoric of politics, but in my opinion are just as bad - such as when people defend American imperialism with fine phrases like "America, despite our recent stumbles, still has the DNA of freedom and individual dignity, and can advance these values in the face of a Chinese state" that surely would never admit of serious confirmation. Thinking about how strategic use of unverifiable claims helps propagandists is a project the logical positivists began, and we would do well to continue.
N.S.: Interesting! I've long thought that direct air capture of carbon was the way that rich countries could "atone" for the fact that they got rich burning fossil fuels.
About verifiability and propaganda. In social science, I'm a big proponent of verifiability -- economists need to test their theories, and they didn't always realize that they needed to test their theories, and now they are realizing it which is good. But when it comes to political propaganda, I wonder if this is always a good criterion. It seems to me that most of the values and ideals that actually motivate large numbers of people to take political action are unverifiable. It would be nice if we could get people to storm the battlements of injustice or throw their backs into the building of a new nation by chanting "What do we want? Evidence based science! When do we want it? After peer review!". But I don't think we can. Instead, it seems to me that most of what motivates people to action consists of what Harry Frankfurt would call "bullshit" -- statements whose use-value is far more salient than their information-value. To use your China example, perhaps it's empirically meaningless to say that a nation has "DNA", but if the idea of America as a champion of freedom and dignity stirs us to help Taiwan preserve its independence and India and Vietnam to resist Chinese territorial expansionism, is the rhetoric really so bad?
How might a logical positivist respond to the idea that bullshit is uniquely useful for stirring humans to action?
L.K.B.: Ah I guess it depends on big questions about how much you trust people to reason straightforwardly about their own interests. I think for the logical positivists the Red Vienna context was quite important here. It's not like they just wanted to start throwing economic models at people and expect them to act appropriately. Rather, there was a whole nexus of social institutions dedicated to public edification and opportunities for involvement in self-government that were themselves educational. Some of these (such as a scheme for nightclasses for workers) many members of the Vienna Circle taught in, and others - such as the Visual Education movement - they actually pioneered. So I think it's very much an enlightenment goal they were working towards: a total package of cultural and institutional changes that would give people both the knowledge and ability to not only clear headedly reason about their social situation, but collectively decide what is to be done about and set in motion policies in light of those collective decisions. I think that as part and parcel of building this society, a sort of no bullshit approach to political speech and persuasion is important, as expressive of - and contributing towards - the sort of trust in the public which we are trying to vindicate.
N.S.: One thing I'm noticing here is that your view of philosophy is very real-world-oriented -- it's not about sitting around trying to devise internally consistent ethical rules for solving increasingly abstruse trolley problems, which is sort of what I imagined ethical philosophers doing when I was an undergrad. Instead, it's about making things better for real people and societies that actually exist. I like that.
So my next question is: What do you see as the most important social problems right now that philosophers should be attacking? I guess that could be UK society, or American society, or global society, or all of the above. What are the biggest challenges we need to be tackling, or at least the ones that interest you the most? You mentioned climate change, which seems like an obvious one. What are the others?
L.K.B.: Aye - in some sense that this-worldly focus is one of the main ways in which I take myself to be inspired by the logical positivists. Referring to their own view, they famously ended their manifesto with the line "the scientific world-conception serves life, and life receives it." But fittingly enough I actually prefer a somewhat more down to earth statement of the same sentiment, made in a less famous passage by Otto Neurath: "Men here on earth who flee sorrow and pain and wish to be kind to each other, happiness, friendship, life as it is really lived on earth, these are our concern; speculation concerns us only so far as it helps to shape life and to make it happy.” This is the attitude I try to bring with me to philosophy, and I hope it shapes what I do and say.
Of course, all this is somewhat belied by the fact that I am a useless and socially avoidant nerd. Do as I say not as I do!
As to what is most important for philosophers to do (besides pitching in as part of the global effort to manage climate change), well I think it's a bit silly that we still haven't fully resolved what exactly truth is. We've certainly been given ample time! But I am guessing you mean to ask me about more directly practical matters. Without really being able to claim this is in any objective sense the most important issue that philosophers should be tackling, I am personally worried about the state of democratic institutions and culture.
Even profoundly anti-democratic movements tend to declare themselves for rule by the people. As mentioned, the Q conspiracy theories in the United States, for instance, seem to involve de facto persuading people that an election that does not go their way cannot have been fairly carried out. It thus gives people who are objectively acting to thwart the results of the electoral process the assurance that they are really on the side of true democracy. But such assurances evidently cannot always be trusted. After all, even setting aside these conspiracies, there are countries in the world wherein there is a sort of smoke-and-mirrors democracy - every now and again one may go through the motions of marking an X next to a candidate of your preference, but the relationship between this social ritual and what actually happens is opaque at best.
Thinking about how to identify instances of sham democracy, get out of that state once one is it, and avoid getting there if it is still avoidable, seem to me very important things for social theorists to be engaged in. Doing better will involve knowing about democratic theory, so as to think about the various institutional designs and voting mechanisms that might best guard against pseudo-democracy. And it will also involve being able to understand and see through the propaganda and ideology that can serve to mask or conceal non-democracy behind an illusion of formal democracy. Philosophers should hence be part of that conversation
But, in addition to these external sociological matters, there is something like an underlying spiritual malaise that must be addressed. The worry is not just that we risk slipping into, or retranching, such pseudo-democratic states. And my worry goes beyond the fact that people are deceived by aspects of their social environment that appear to empower them without actually rendering them able to affect the course of things. Worse, I think, is that a great many don't care, or at least have passed a point of cynicism wherein they do not really think things can be otherwise.
I am worried people do not recognise their disempowerment for what it is; harmful and contingent, capable of amelioration. Of all modes of government democracy is, on pain of self-contradiction, most dependent on the population actively buying in. This lack of investment in self rule, and lack of a nourishing democratic culture, must be understood, theorised, and ultimately combatted. We must work towards a renewed faith in the importance and possibility of genuine self-governance. This will be a task for ethics, cultural theory, and, in some sense, existential phenomenology.
I think democracy is of intrinsic worth, as democratic institutions embody and constitute our collective self-determination. I also think democracy has instrumental value, as a means of protecting ourselves against domination and abuse, and also securing peace abroad. These are very great goods, and I do not want the possibility of realising them to slip away from us.
N.S.: I really like that. I've always thought that the word "democracy" should be about much more than elections -- that it should be an ideology, and that that ideology should be about institutions including and empowering and valuing their people. Economists and even political scientists both seem to think of democracy in such narrow ways -- limiting it to the kind of thing you can measure and put in a regression equation. Also, I think George W. Bush's misuse of the idea of democracy to try to justify the Iraq War turned a lot of people in my generation off to that word. But here we are, facing a resurgent if shambolic fascism in the West, and democracy seems like just the ideology we need to counter it.
I think there's a real lesson here from World War 2. If you read the writings of people in the Roosevelt administration, like Henry Wallace, you see that they thought of democracy as this very powerful ideology that could be the banner people rallied to in the fight against fascism -- an alternative banner to what the Soviet communists were offering, as well. And I think we see that democratic ideology embodied in much of the UN, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and lots of the good things the U.S. tried to do in the wake of World War 2, including pushing the European powers to give up their colonies peacefully.
What do you think? Is democracy an ideology that we should value, rather than just a system of choosing leaders? Sorry if I'm rambling on a bit here, don't mean to hijack the interview.
L.K.B.: I don't think you have to apologise for being chatty in your own newsletter! I presume this is what your subscribers are paying for.
I do indeed think that democracy is a broader ethos, and more comprehensive cultural and institutional set, than it is often given credit for, and that we should promote it as such. I'll only add that even (egalitarian) liberal philosophers have recently argued that taking democracy seriously would mean extending its principles to workplace democracy and workers having much more defined rights to participate in governance of their workplaces. And interested readers should check out this fascinating article by Du Bois wherein he argues that the arguments in favour of democracy naturally entail that the franchise should be extended to women; and that this same principle entails we ought support the socialisation of the means of production. (This one is always fun to teach - not only is it very readable, but students at fancy universities tend to nod along and think it's all just obvious when one is saying democracy is good and women should therefore be able to vote, but then find themselves rather taken aback to find they have just agreed to communism! What is to become of their internship at Goldman Sachs?) So while I certainly think democracy is an ideological and social form of great worth and power, I don't think it is a natural opposite to communism at all, perhaps indeed quite the opposite.
(Noah’s Note: In the version of this interview I first posted, I accidentally failed to copy over one of our emails. The omitted email — my question and his response — is now restored below.)
N.S.: Aha! Well I have to tell you, this interview, like most of my posts, will be free, so don't be worried about giving the people what they pay for! ;-)
Riffing on communism...At the time Wallace was writing, and for many decades after, communism as actually expressed in the real world and as advocated by its most prominent political leaders was very much about reducing individual participation and voice in government. The 20th century communist project was a complete authoritarian disaster, at least in the countries it directly controlled. With interest in leftist ideologies now resurging to some extent, how do we prevent leftist ideologies from treading down the same path today? Is Bernie/Corbyn style democratic socialism the answer? Or Medlock/Denmark style social democracy? Or something else?
L.K.B.: Ah - well then at least people are getting their money's worth.
Well to address the background to the question and why I must insist on the matter before getting to the main thing - I would insist that it is very important for those of us who are pro democracy to avoid associating promotion of this social form with 20th Century US anti-communism. The US spent much of its time preaching the virtues of democracy and the free world while being an apartheid state in the South and propping up murderous dictatorships abroad. To this day the US provides diplomatic cover and military support for anti-democratic coups, and evidence suggests that its democratic mechanisms are only really responsive to the will of its wealthy elite. Enemies of democracy, especially local elites in developing nations, have been known to present democracy as hypocritical, corrupt, and simply a cover for western imperialism. We who would support true democracy around the world have to be absolutely clear that we have no truck with this element of the US' history, lest we make the job of oligarchs easier by being fodder for their propaganda.
That said, I would indeed want to avoid USSR style communism! In this I think I follow a long socialist tradition, primarily associated with Rosa Luxemburg, in thinking that the concentration of power in the hands of a vanguard party at the helm of the state was always deeply unwise and liable to end in disaster. How, then, to do better? I do have some respect for both Bernie and Corbyn. I supported both, in fact, since I was in the US for my PhD during Bernie's first run, then back in the UK for the end of Corbyn's era - as well as a member of the Labour party throughout. Likewise, as a good lefty twitter account with technocratic sensibilities I have nothing but respect for *my* President, and his associated Medlock thought. The world in which Medlock and the Bruenigs are the main sources of policy advice is a better world indeed.
But ultimately I think we need to go further than either Bernie/Corbyn or Nordic social democracy. I think that democracy, fully carried out, requires dispersing and levelling power, and to a far greater extent than either contemporary social democrats or the Nords seem to involve. To this end I have been interested in exploring the German council communism movement, and even older radical tendencies found within the English revolution. So in many ways I see democracy properly construed as a decentralising force, and the challenges for me are how to ensure this can be consistent with properly sharing information, distributing resources, and ensuring decisions that must be made at a large scale can be done so in an equitable manner. (This is a link to my published research, which has largely been on the social structure of science - I see its incentive structure and information aggregation mechanisms as well worth studying towards my end!) I'll let you (and your readers) know when I have fully solved how to do democracy right, so everyone can get on with the busy work of making it happen.
N.S.: Aha! Finally, I get to argue about a thing! Thank you, sir, for this wonderful opportunity.
The paper that you cite as evidence that the U.S.' " democratic mechanisms are only really responsive to the will of its wealthy elite", which is a 2014 paper by Gilens and Page, is actually not evidence of this at all! What it shows is that policy outcomes are slightly more correlated with the positions of people making $146,000 a year than with people making median income. Now, I think we can agree that $146,000 a year is a good income, but it's hardly Elon Musk. Nor is correlation necessarily causation; politicians could simply be carrying out the priorities of the class that they themselves were born into, rather than responding to the influence of big money. And finally, Gilens and Page (2014) is highly disputed -- other papers find that the U.S. government's actions are closely aligned with the desires of the middle class.
Which is not to say that the U.S. government isn't an oligarchy dancing to the tune called by the billionaire class, with middle-class American voters getting their wishes only by happy accident. That may be the case! But there does not seem to be solid evidence for or against that proposition at this time.
That said, I like and am intrigued by your ideas for radical leveling of power. Tell me more about your research! As someone who has complained about both the incentive structure and the information aggregation mechanisms of economics for many years, I am greatly interested by this. What are one or two papers you've written that readers should know about!
L.K.B.: Well I don't feel qualified to adjudicate the overall state of the evidence in the back and forth on Gilens & Page, so I guess I will have to let that one drop. Though I will say that I don't find it that reassuring to say that to get the advantage you only need to be making upwards of $140,000 per year! Nor would it be reassuring to know that the cause of this is the shared class interests of the wealthy and the government.
So let's step back from the empirics on correlating legislative outcomes with preferences. It still seems to me that, given knowledge of some of the underlying mechanisms by which much law is made, it would be remarkable if this system were not oligarchic in its effect. This informative write up on lobbying in America (and this informative, brief, and accessible, write up of the write up!) suggests that lobbyists frequently get to draft the actual content of legislation, that you have to be a big player to even enter the game in any serious way, and that there is a Matthew effect here, as past wins are very hard to reverse and can generate future wins. That is not going to advantage all rich people (new money will have a hard time entering) but it does seem to inevitably favour those who are already part of the power elite.
Thanks for giving me a chance to promote my papers, Noah! If there's one thing I want your readers to take away from this interview it's that if they are writing academic papers they should be citing me. And, if they are not writing academic papers, they should start writing academic papers in order to cite me. This is very important for democracy.
I have a motley collection of interests. It mostly centres around trying to understand how it is that scientific inquiry does, could, and should work. But even within this a focus on democracy guides me. I have thought about barriers to participation, how public trust can be earned and retained by scientists, and how scientific reasoning hasbeen or shouldbe applied to hot button social issues around race. All of these, I think, are fairly directly relevant to thinking about how both the internal structure of science, and its external relations with other institutions and aspects of public life, can be made consistent with democratic ideals I think are important. Indeed, my contribution to my most recently published paper, was drawn from a course I teach at the London School of Economics regarding how to integrate scientific expert advice into a further democratised public policy making apparatus.
But if there were one paper of mine that I think people should read to really get my Schtick, it's the paper I wrote with Remco Heesen arguing against pre-publication peer review. (Though I stress once again that your readers should in fact read all of my papers - or, if not that, then at least cite them.) As it stands, in many scientific fields, before a work is considered seriously available for public uptake it must go through a review procedure, wherein scientific journal editors along with peer reviewers they select determine whether it is worthy of publication in their journal. In that paper we try to lay out the case that can be made for deciding what is to be shared in this manner, and compare it to the case for a system wherein we make papers publicly available more or less as and when the authors see fit to publicise them. We conclude that on present evidence, we have no real reason to think the pre-publication peer review system is achieving much good for us, but lots of evidence to think it is costly and time consuming. The style of argument here, the focus on the scientific social structure, and the sheer amount of hate it got me online from scientists - all of these are a pretty good indication of the sort of person I am as a researcher.
N.S.: It's interesting...when I read your paper on peer review, it reads like an economics theory paper. It's all about intuiting incentive structures and extrapolating their effects. That it does this extrapolation in English, rather than math (what your people call "maths"), seems like a mere stylistic difference.
I'm interested to hear about the hate this paper got from scientists. What kind of people pushed back, and on what grounds?
Oh, another question I've been meaning to ask. You said when you got to 20,000 followers, you'd tell us whether the Enlightenment was racist. Well, you're now at 27,000, and all we got was an interpretive dance! Your followers demand more. As one of your elite 20,000 warrior-followers, destined to take my place in the mead hall of the philosopher-gods in the afterlife, I feel I am entitled to a more complete answer! So...was the Enlightenment racist? :-)
L.K.B.: Ah the similarities to economics paper is probably non coincidental! For one thing the argument structure is meant to create, albeit in prose as you say, a sort of weak dominance argument for our conclusion. So we're borrowing the style of reasoning from decision theory. For another thing in some ways this work represented for both of us a culmination of much of our previous work, and that previous work was itself often based on mathematical modelling that was itself more typically economic in style. For a nice example of this, readers should check our Remco's work on the "communist norm" that underlies scientists sharing their work. Remco and I both did our PhD together in the Carnegie Mellon philosophy department, under the same advisor even, and this sort of interdisciplinary approach, in our case often drawing on and working with social scientists in particular, was very much encouraged.
I think there were a few sources of hostility to that paper. I think for one thing many scientists associate opposition to peer review with crankish beliefs in one's own superior insight being quashed by a narrow minded Establishment. For another thing I think many scientists are concerned that without journals the already inegalitarian distribution of attention and esteem in science would become even more lopsided. After all, if I am not deciding what to read based on journal publications, a natural alternative is to allocate our attention based on who we already know and trust - and that will advantage the antecedently famous and the well connected. This could make research far too conservative, and in any case academics tend to be very sensitive to anything that might affect the distribution of credit and prestige, so this is very salient to many in our community. (And in fact in some follow up work we're trying to develop an answer to this worry - watch this space!) And, finally, I think for some people the peer review system is... I don't know, quasi-sacred? It's just a key constituent of this thing, science, that they value and identify with and hold to be of great importance. An attack on peer review is thus to some an extent an attack on their most cherished joys and struggles.
And as to the Enlightenment, in a remarkable coincidence it turns out that all and only the bits I disagree with are racist.
N.S.: Excellent answer. Happens to be mine too, what a coincidence! :-)
OK, one more topic, because we've gone on a very long time and could definitely go on forever if we wanted. Do the "wokeness wars" matter? On one side we have folks like Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo saying we basically need to reorient our society around the identification and correction of racism in every detail of life. On the other side we have folks like James Lindsay and the "intellectual dark web" (a name I still cringe at every time) telling us that this is all a plot by critical theorists to implement a sort of pseudo-Marxism, etc. etc. On Twitter, you've followed and commented on this debate a little bit, mostly to make fun of it. Should we care about this debate at all, and if so, what should we think about it?
L.K.B.: Ah the short answer is "no the woke wars do not matter" but the longer answer is somewhat more complex.
I have said before on twitter that I think to a significant degree many culture war issues are about resolving psycho-social tensions among the white (upper-)middle class in the west. To a significant degree I think many of these things are, well, their problem - there's no real reason for me or many others to care. And conveniently enough for the status quo, at most these disputes could only ever result in personnel changes. By which I mean, in so far as disputes around “wokeness” becomes a central axis on which political life turns, then we are de facto leaving in place all the institutions and economic structures we have now, but simply arguing about who is to staff them, and perhaps in addition whether we should have memorials to victims of the slave trade or speeches about the genius of Churchill given during moments of public solemnity. This is even deployed cynically by defenders of the status quo, since they are always able to find someone who is from a demographically marginalised group to stick up for the establishment, so they can then claim it is bigoted not to support their lackey's career when the left try and challenge their hold on power. Such is the case for "no", and on the whole I think this dominates my thinking on the matter.
But life is more complicated than that. For one thing, psycho-social tensions are important to those who are in the midst of them and I would not wish to diminish that. One hears of families unable to speak to each other, old friendships torn apart, and so on, because of culture war disagreements. In the course of an individual's life such things can be of the utmost importance, and it's inhumane to simply ignore that and give lectures on the priority of the material base over the ideological superstructure. For another thing, the rest of us have to live with the white upper middle class, and they have disproportionate command over resources. Their foibles end up to a large degree structuring the incentives and cultural environments we face. Finally, some of what gets subsumed under "wokeness" really seems to me a matter of basic physical safety and the social bases of self respect for some people, and this is a matter of rights that cannot be ignored. In the UK right now, for instance, there is a sustained assault upon trans people's cultural standing and access to full participation in civic life. In so far as this issue and others like it are thought of as part of the culture war, then I think it would be positively immoral to simply dismiss their importance.
So all in all I think it's hard to say! I just hope that people come to see that corporate diversity trainings, which seem largely to turn white people into insufferably anxious sycophants that I wouldn't want anything to do with, are not going to do much for black people. It's just etiquette training which companies presumably hope will make it less likely they get taken to court on workplace discrimination. Let's focus more on how it is we decide who it is that gets to be in rooms where decisions are made, and less on the etiquette norms that govern their speech while they are there. And while I am all for diversifying reading lists, I can't help but think that, as was once said by Femi Táíwò, if people want to talk about decolonising this and that why don't we start by decolonising Africa. Amidst all our cultural squabbles let's not forget who still owns what and why on the African continent. And so on. I hope that this sort of reorientation of our focus would be consistent with still being compassionate to people's genuine difficulties, and standing up for the rights of marginalised groups to civic equality, as justice demands.
Thanks for the interview, Noah! Make sure you cite my papers, reader.
Wow, this passage really hit me.
"my worry goes beyond the fact that people are deceived by aspects of their social environment that appear to empower them without actually rendering them able to affect the course of things. Worse, I think, is that a great many don't care, or at least have passed a point of cynicism wherein they do not really think things can be otherwise."
We are having a local political issue in Boise, where something is proposed to happen, and a neighborhood doesn't want it to happen, I will not get into the details, because it doesn't really matter which side is right or wrong.
In the past, Boise elections were "at large", in that the whole city voted for candidates who could live anywhere. While this gives the illusion of democracy, the reality is that the wealthy hip neighborhood just had a lot more social capital and time (privilege) to get out the vote in local elections in concentrated numbers that the working class areas of Boise couldn't match.
The current result is Boise's government is literally controlled by a single neighborhood. 5 out of 6 city council members, and the mayor, literally live within a 10 minute walk of each other.
The neighborhood mentioned above has 0 representatives in the city government, so basically have no say in what happens.
I bring this up because someone had read a comment and blog post where I brought this up, and they messaged me, asking if it was really true. When I pointed out the facts, showed her a map of where everyone lived, she was truly shocked. She assumed that she had representation. She had the illusion that her vote mattered, or would matter. It really shocked me, because I assumed it was obvious, I actually felt guilty because I had shattered her illusions
I has also occurred to me that this is one of the problems of conflict in this country. People need to feel like they are in control. And for whatever reason, more and more things and issues are controlled by national policy. Things that you would think would be a local issue, are decided far far away. (I know I am sounding conservative here, but that is not my goal).
I think this effect sort of chips away at people. Leads to frustration or malaise.
I also suspect this is why smaller countries like New Zealand seem to have a lot less conflict. Even if things go against you, at least as 1 out of 5M is more of an impact than 1 out of 300M.
And in the US, it feels like control is moving more and more away from cities to states, states to government, etc... I don't want to bring up a specific policy, because that gets derailed into whether said policy is good or bad. The point is, why can't we let some states have bad policies. The more we nationalize and centralize things, in a big country, this just seems to make people feel like they have less and less power.
Which I suspects is leading them to cling on to these bat shit crazy conspiracy theories. I am not saying its a direct relationship, and maybe its just a peripheral connection. Who knows.
I'm not sure what the solution is. Would a return to more State control fix things? Maybe... maybe not. I suspect its not even possible.
I'm sure a historian or poly sci has all sorts of theories on this.
As far as our local issue goes, the State Legislature passed a law requiring cities of a certain size to have district representation, so next year, all neighborhoods will have a say. Does no good this year though. And because so many city councilors are lame ducks (only 1 out of 5 will survive), there isn't even the incentive of getting votes for reelection to use as leverage.
Anyway... if you made it this far, thanks.
Claudia Sahm made a similar point in your interview . "After all, if I am not deciding what to read based on journal publications, a natural alternative is to allocate our attention based on who we already know and trust - and that will advantage the antecedently famous and the well connected. This could make research far too conservative, and in any case academics tend to be very sensitive to anything that might affect the distribution of credit and prestige, so this is very salient to many in our community."