The Non-Private Society

The NSA spying story highlights an interesting changing aspect of our society. Right now I have no interest in debating the role of information gathering except to note how this controversy illustrates the loss of privacy in our society. Over time technology and social factors have operated to erode the level of privacy we enjoy. Even if we are able to rein in the NSA, it is unrealistic to believe that our privacy will not continue to be eroded. The new reality is that we are all public figures to some degree.

Think about how much can be found about you by someone who wants to help or hurt you. Anything you wrote online, such as this blog or comments to online articles where you have to provide a user name, may be tracked down. Your posts and comments on Facebook are fair game as well as your tweets on Twitter. We know that there is technology that records the websites you visit (Have you noticed how Facebook puts up ads on the topics you searched for on Google?). Anytime you are outside your home or office, you are fairly likely to be filmed by someone’s smart phone or a public camera. Ask Mitt Romney if talks to individuals at private events stay private (remember “47 percent”). There are a variety of ways in which people can gather information about you and not all of that information will be flattering.

It was not too long ago that a person could go around saying and doing stupid things. It is what most of us humans do. But in this day and age doing that will catch up with you as we live in a society where your utterances and actions are recorded for future reference on your character and qualifications. Think of the dumbest thing you have done in your life. How would you like the entire world to know about that? Welcome to our non-private society.

Now I may be exaggerating a little bit. There are a few places where I can have an expectation of privacy. In my house no one should be recording what I say or do without my direct permission. The same goes for my office when the door is closed or any hotel room I am temporarily renting. My personal communications with physicians, counselors, lawyers and my spouse remain confidential. Otherwise everything I say or do I must say or do as if I expect others to be watching me. They may not watch me now but if I write a book they do not like or take a stand in a speech that they dislike, then I would expect that my detractors will gather information on me with some of the techniques described above.

Clearly our technology has greatly contributed to our loss of privacy. Smart phones and internet cookies allow for a degree of tracking that simply was not possible twenty years ago. However, there are also cultural changes exacerbating this trend. The proliferation of reality television indicates a desire for voyeurism that has become part of our societal values. The recipients of this voyeurism are not always troubled by it. When I grew up there were talk shows where some individuals had no problem coming on the show to discuss why they were having an affair on their spouse, lied to their friends or engaged in some other socially deviant behavior. I always wondered if they knew how bad being on those shows made them look and why they would air such dirty laundry. But looking at some of the reality shows we have today indicates that the desire for fame still persuades individuals to do and talk about stupid things in public.

In addition to our inquisitive hunger, we are in a highly polarized society where there is powerful incentive to “dig up dirt” on our political and cultural enemies. This makes our lack of privacy worse since individuals seek to find information to put others in the worst possible light. If you want to make a statement on a controversial issue today you had better be purer than Caesar’s wife. It appears that having a pristine past is a requirement for us to make public comments if those comments are to be taken seriously.

I wish there was a public policy option to pursue that would remedy this situation. But the genie is out of the bottle and there is no way to reverse it now. We have to accept it and work with it to the best of our abilities. I know that in my situation that I am careful with what I put on Facebook or Twitter. I write as if I expect those comments to go public at some point in the future. They likely will not but you never know in a non-private society. I am constantly amazed at what some individuals place on Facebook. They make incredibly intolerant comments or bemoan some ex-lover or family member as if they do not realize the sort of public image they are creating. Word to the wise. When you are mad at the world, or men/women, is not the best time to vent on Facebook. We have to live as the public figures our technology and intrusive society has made of us and be smart in our self-presentation.

Beyond being careful of how we present ourselves is there anything else to take from the lack of privacy we have in our society? I can only speak for myself, but I have become a little more sympathetic to those who are caught making a politically incorrect statement or have done some juvenile action earlier in their life. Let us be honest. We have more tolerance for mistakes for people who support our causes than those who support the causes of our political opponent. Whether President Bush’s or President Obama’s past drug use bothers us is likely correlated to whether we are politically liberal or conservative. So if we can give grace to those we agree with, then can we not also provide grace to those who disagree with us? I try to give people the benefit of the doubt regardless of whether I agree with them or not. Sort of a “but for the grace of God goes I” approach. I hope as more people realize how vulnerable we all are to having our worst actions being used to create uncharitable images of us, that more individuals may become forgiving of the past shortcomings or verbal missteps of others.

Blame the Bus Driver!!!

One of the big stories over the last few weeks has been a video of the terrible beating a white kid received at the hands of three black thugs. There are several different aspects of this event worth exploring but I want to discuss the grief that the bus driver is taking. It is easy to blame someone for how he acted in a given situation when you yourself have not been in that situation. I know because watching that video reminded me of an incident that happen to me about fifteen years ago.

While I was heading home one day after teaching I pulled into a 7-11 type convenience store. As I started to pump my gas I noticed 3 or 4 teenagers menacing a smaller teenager. They seemed slightly younger than the 3 teens in that video. They were not physically attacking their victim but definitely were acting in a threatening manner to the victim. My first honest thought was to get the gas in my car as fast as possible and get out of there. I did not want to get involved. But as I looked around I saw that everyone else was seeing what I saw. There were a couple of elderly individuals and a young woman also pumping gas. It would have been nice if one of them intervened but I knew that they would not do so. If I did not do anything, this young kid was going to be totally at the mercy of the young punks. I finished pumping my gas with the hope that the situation would resolve itself before I was done. But I was not so lucky. The teens were still harassing the kid. So for me it was now or never.

I walked up to the teens and inserted myself into that group. I had no intention of fighting the bullies. Although I outweighed any of them by at least 40 pounds if all of them attacked me, I would have been in trouble. But I told the kids that they needed to leave or I would go into the store to call the cops. My hope was that the fear of the police would be enough to scare them off. At first it looked like my hope would be dashed. The lead thug did not look like he wanted to move. He looked like we wanted to go ahead and jump the boy. If he did would I just abandon the boy to go call the cops or would I engage in an outnumbered battle? Neither option sounded appealing. But I figured it was too late to back down. In for a penny, in for a pound. So I said, “Did you not hear me, you need to leave or I am going in the store to call the police”. That seemed to work. The boys sheepishly backed away and slowly left. The kid who was being picked on quickly thanked me and then went in the other direction. Maybe the bullies will catch up with him later and do what they were going to do. But for now he was safe. When I went back to my car one of the elderly individuals thanked me as well and there was a look of appreciation on the faces of the other customers.

It is easy for me to feel good about what I had done. But look at who I was at the time. I was a fairly young, tall black man in good shape. Those qualities helped me to have an intimidation factor so that the kids would not try to push me around. Even though I was not trying to go Chuck Norris on those thugs, it was important to be a person they could not threaten if I was going to influence them to stop their bullying. It is not fair to expect the elderly individuals or the woman to take a chance to confront those kids. Nor is it fair to expect a 64 year old bus driver to confront 3 fifteen year old punks. This is why so much of the criticism he has faced is unfair.

Even given my physical presence I was afraid as I walked to confront those boys. I did not want to do it. If I had been on that bus I am not sure I would have intervened even though I did fifteen years ago because I know what sort of fear a person has when confronted with such a situation. Those boys were bigger than the boys I confronted and they were already hitting and kicking the kid. To intervene would almost certainly mean some degree of physical contact where I would be at a disadvantage. I am not sure I am brave enough for that. I may have felt limited to what the bus driver did which is to yell at the boys and call the police. I hear people talk about how they would have attacked those three thugs when they attacked that young boy. My response is, how do you know this? Until you have actually had to deal with kids who may turn on you and beat you then you do not know how you will react. It is easy, and more than a little arrogant, to simply state all that you would have done if you were there. I have been there in another circumstance, but I am not sure if I would have had the courage to confront those boys.

So let’s cut the driver a little slack. He is human and if he was fearful then he had every right to feel that way. This was not a movie in which the hero escapes unscathed. He did the best he could in a terrible situation. Let us put the blame where it belongs which is on the three punks who picked on a defenseless kid.

Can George Zimmerman lead to a Productive Conversation on Race?

One of the big issues in the past few weeks has been the criminal trial of George Zimmerman. In the aftermath of that trial there has been a great deal of argument about the rightness of the verdict and of the “stand your ground” law. To be honest I do not want to make comments on either of those issues. I have found a lot of the discussion on these issues to not be very productive. But there is one aspect that has risen after the Zimmerman trial that I do want to consider. After the Zimmerman trial, there has been a lot of talk about having a conversation on race. Some argue that unless we have this conversation then we will soon see more racial tension from another incident. I agree that unless those of different races communicate with each other that racial misunderstanding and alienation will continue. However, I am skeptical that this current call for a conversation will create that channel for communication.

I know something about having a conversation across different racial groups. I worked in the area of racial reconciliation for about fifteen years. I have done my share of the hard work it takes to create an atmosphere where real understanding develops between racial groups. I have seen conversations that helped create the type of racial healing some are talking about. Although I now work in a different research area and towards a calling distinctive from racial reconciliation, I will always have a heart to see our society overcome the racial divide that has troubled us for so long. So I should be very excited at the prospect of an emerging conversation on racial issues.

And yet I am not excited about this possible conversation. I am doubtful that it will do us any good. I am reminded that we have had other attempts to have a conversation on racial issues and those efforts do not seem to have helped. Merely wanting to have a conversation on racial issues is not a guarantee that we will create an atmosphere of racial understanding. In fact some conversations can actually make our racial situation worse. Why am I fearful that these calls for conversations may lead to a worsening racial situation? I believe it is because I have my doubts that these calls for conversations are for honest discourse on racial issues. It is important for parties to be willing to talk and listen to each other. Those consistently calling for a conversation do not talk about listening to others, but seem to focus just on what they want to say. I think this is how they see the talk on race going.

Activist: We need to talk about race
Person of different race: OK
Activist: You need to know A, B and C
Person of different race: Wow, I did not know all of this.
Activist: Since you now know A, B and C we need to do D and F for our society.

Person of different race: You are right. I am so glad we had this talk. You have taught me so much.
This may be the way people see the conversation going, but this is not the way an honest talk on race will go. People from different sides of the racial spectrum have contrasting, and deeply set, ideas about racial issues. They hope that when they tell others their point of view that other people will almost automatically accept their view as truth. What we often do not realize is that while our point of view seems logical to us that it is not that way for all individuals. Other people have their own concerns and interests which do not correlate to ours and if we really want to have this conversation then we had better be ready to honestly hear where other people are coming from. I am not convinced that those who want to have this conversation are ready to provide much respect for what others have to say and thus expect the one side conversation I stated above.

It is not fair that I just critique current efforts at a conversation on racial issues. I should also offer possible solutions that can set us up for this conversation. To that end I am grateful for the chance to have worked with Michael Emerson on Transcending Racial Barriers before I stopped doing research on racial issues. In that book we outlined principles and a process by which a productive racial conversation becomes possible. In that spirit I offer up these points for those who want a real interracial conversation that may result in breaking down racial barriers.

1) Define the problem – First thing that has to be done is that the issue of concern has to be carefully defined. Emerson and I suggest that we have to clarify what we want to discuss and keep our conversation in the context of that particular issue. We all have had discussions where we start on one subject and then jump to other subjects before we really finish discussing the subject at hand. We contend that our conversation on race will require the discipline necessary to stick to a given subject and a one subject at a time approach.

2) Identify what we have in common – There is no use in glossing over the differences between activists from different racial groups. But we also have important values in common with each other. Identifying what we agree on is an important way to start a meaningful conversation. Let us not assume the worst of those who disagree with us. They agree on certain values that we have and knowing this can help humanize those we want to have a conversation with.

3) Recognize our differences – Of course if we agreed on everything then all of this talk about needing a conversation would be meaningless. We have to be honest about why we differ from each other and why. At this point it is important to not only enunciate how we disagree with others, but why we have the concerns that we do. Clearly pointing out why we have developed the concerns we have is important so that all parties have a chance to understand why we have our points of contention.

4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of those we disagree with – Here is where our listening skills become very important. If the only thing we want to do is tell people how we feel and expect them to agree with us then our conversation will break down into yelling at each other. But if we have really been listening to the concerns of others then we will be in a position to articulate ways we can have our concerns addressed that also help those we are in conversation with to know that their concerns will be addressed as well. Of course our proposed solutions will tend to address our concerns more than the concerns of others. That is why we need the last step.

5) Find the compromised solution that best addresses the needs of all parties – If both African-American activists and white conservatives each develop solutions that address the concerns of the other group, those solutions are not likely to be the same. They will each develop solutions that more closely solve their concerns than the concerns of the other group. But they will be solutions more similar than the positions each started out with because there will have been an attempt to meet the needs of those in the other group. This will make it easier to combine those proposed solutions to come up with the compromise solution that they can live with. In any compromise no one will get all that they want, but hopefully all will receive enough so that they can accept and support the solution.

It is not surprising that individuals may not want to use such a system of compromise to set up a conversation. It takes hard work to truly listen to others and attempt to address their concerns. We would much rather try to force them to accept our perspectives as truth and to use political capital to force them to capitulate to our desires. But that is an effort that leads to failure. It will lead to failure because if we force others to capitulate to our plans without working with them to find a compromise solution, then we institutionalize enemies to our approach to racial issues. Those enemies are committed to defeating our approach because they will feel like they did not have a say in constructing the solutions we are implementing. This is why finding a solution through some type of mediated conversation that considers the ideas of all concerned interest groups is vital to creating a solution where everyone has some degree of skin in the game and will work to make the solution a success.

I realize that all of this is theoretical and that I have not offered a concrete example of how such a process can work. Furthermore, the space limitations of doing a blog do not allow me to fully fill in all the details of these steps. In our book Emerson and I do go through these steps with more details and illustrate with an example. My doubts about current calls for conversations emerge from my doubts that those calling for that conversation are willing to make those commitments. But hopefully providing this outline of the process will indicate the sort of commitments that have to be made for a real conversation that will move the needle forward on racial issues.

Conservative Sins, Progressive Sins and Forgiveness

Right now Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford are trying to become Bill Clinton. Not that they are trying to become president of the United States, at least not at this time, but they are trying to overcome past sexual “indiscretions” and renew their political careers. Who can forget the big hullabaloo over the sexual mores, or lack thereof, of President Clinton? Except that we have largely forgotten about it. Clinton today is seen as a respected elderly statesman instead of a lecherous pursuer of young flesh. While part of the Clinton legacy will always include a mention of Monica Lewinsky and his sex scandals, he has largely marginalized those incidents so that now when we think of him we focus on his presidential accomplishments instead of his shortcomings as a husband.

The three men I mention above would love to be in the position Clinton is in today. They deeply desire to create a new image where their sexual infidelities, while not completely forgotten, pale in comparison to their other accomplishments. You know what? I think they have a chance to achieve this. In our society we seem to have a high level of tolerance for these types of sexual immoralities. If they have a solid political career from this point forward, then they will gain that second chance.

This brings me to Paula Dean. Our society is not so eager to forgive her of her immoralities. The best I can see for Dean is that she will maintain a certain core group of fans who will keep making her money. But generally she is always going to be linked to racist comments and seen as a racist by the general public. I cannot see the scenario by which she can get her reputation back. Can you? Has anyone been guilty of making a racist, sexist, or homophobic statement and been able to shake that statement from their reputation to the degree that President Clinton has been able to shake from his reputation the image of sexual infidelity? We like to think of ourselves as a forgiving society, but we are selective in whom we are willing to forgive, or more specifically what we are willing to forgive.

Dean can still be judged to some degree on her culinary skills. Years ago the pitcher John Rocker made a series of racist, xenophobic comments. He did not automatically lose his job. He could still get batters out and that is what matters to a MLB team. But even as he kept his job, his reputation as a racist never went away. So I am not arguing that if a person makes a racist or sexist statement that he or she will lose his/her job or be thrown in jail. But the taint of being a racist or sexist will never leave that person. If you think I am wrong then please provide the name of a person who made such a statement and recovered to the degree that President Clinton has from his mistakes.

Perhaps we should not forgive Dean or Rocker. That is a moral question I am not attempting to address right now. But as a scholar I am curious as to why certain acts of deviance can be forgiven in our society and others cannot. Note that we are not talking about illegalities as most sexual infidelities and intolerant comments are not illegal. What occurs to me is that there are progressive “sins” and there are conservative “sins.” In general sexual infidelities tend to be conservative sins. This is not to say that political and religious progressives do not care about people who cheat on their spouse or visit prostitutes, but generally political and religious conservatives show more concern about such shortcomings. Exhibitions of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia tend to be progressive sins. Once again I am not arguing that religious and political conservatives do not care about those issues, but my observation is that political and religious progressives care more about these transgressions. If I am correct about who tends to care about certain human failings, then I have some insight into why some actions are forgivable and others are not. It seems to me that conservative sins can be forgiven but progressive sins cannot be.

The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among progressives. Why might this be? Research has shown that political conservatives have higher levels of religiosity than political liberals. (This does not mean that atheist conservatives or highly religious progressives do not exist, it is just that they are not the norm within their respective political group). It is possible that forgiveness is a value they learn through their religious beliefs. Thus, if we perform activities conservatives hate, then we have more of a chance to be forgiven due to their religious beliefs. This explanation has potential, but it is not convincing to me. Quite simply, this explanation assumes that all religions emphasize forgiveness. That is an unwarranted assumption. Furthermore, this seems like a surface explanation for what seems to me to be a fundamental difference in how conservatives and progressives understand social reality.

My speculation begins at the basic worldview of conservatives and progressives. I contend that religion matters, but not because religious individuals are taught how to forgive. Since research has shown that conservatives are more religious than progressives then conservatives are more likely to envision the need for supernatural assistance. They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to fail. Forgiveness is an expected response to these failings. This is not to say that forgiveness is always provided. Often conditions placed upon individuals so that they can receive that forgiveness. However, I suspect there is a general expectation to forgive others among religious individuals since they have a religious ideology where those individuals expect to fail themselves and may one day need that forgiveness.

An alternative understanding of human nature is one born out of a more secular, humanist perspective. This perspective is based upon the idea that humans are perfectible. Human reason and ability are the keystones to a healthy society. Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent. This is not only the idea exhibited in documents such as the Humanist Manifesto, but it was an ideology I heard time and again in my interviews with atheists and read in answers to the open ended questions I gave to cultural progressive activists. Our emerging enlightened society is one that will be free of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. So individuals who exhibit these qualities are bridges to a new and better world.

This by itself does not explain the lack of a willingness to forgive progressive sins. Theoretically, we can help those who have engaged in racism, sexism or homophobia to overcome those failings and then forgive them after they have made their transition to a progressive human. But since redemption is not usually given to those who have committed those offenses we should ask why would forgiveness be denied? I speculate that when we have the vision of human perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes. This provides less empathy towards those who participate in progressive sins and thus they are not likely to gain the benefits of forgiveness. The stain of their sins can be linked to their reputation forever. With this theory, forgiveness is tied to whether we think we are likely to engage in future societal sins and thus may need that forgiveness ourselves. If conservatives believe that they are likely to “mess up” while progressives do not have such fears, then it is reasonable that conservatives will be more forgiving of those that violate norms that they hold dear than progressives.

This is speculation as I have no sociological data to back up my assertions beyond the argument of who receives forgiveness in our society. I wish I could say that this is a research direction I would be undertaking in the near future, but alas that is not the case. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to question individuals in an effort to learn why they are more tolerant of certain shortcomings as opposed to others. Whether there are religious differences in how people forgive is also a question of empirical interest. I am not certain if anyone has looked into that question. Finally, one can argue that society is better off not forgiving those who transgress certain moral boundaries. While forgiveness is an important quality for our mental health on the individual level, providing such forgiveness on the corporate level may encourage more transgressions. Exploring whether forgiveness of shortcomings encourages more problems is another fascinating direction for future research.


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