Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg (5/21/18): Do the various genders communicate differently?

Remember Men and From Mars Women Are From Venus? It was a huge best-selling book in the mid-1990s, and it was only one of many books in the last 30 years or so that tried to explain differences in the psychology and biology of men and women. Today, a lot of the well-known pop science explanations of innate (or even socially determined) differences between the genders have fallen out of fashion. Maybe as equality in the workplace and personal relationships has edged closer to reality people are less inclined to believe that men “are” one way and women “are” some other way.

Still, we have all noticed characteristics that appear to be more common in women than in men, haven’t we? I think I have observed some differences in communication styles, if in nothing else, over the years in professional and personal settings.  This includes the more than 600 Meetup-like meetings I’ve presided over or attended (CivCon = 50 mtgs per year x 9 years alone!).

What about you? Have you observed that men and women have distinct communication styles? In which aspects of life do they manifest – at work, in romantic relationships, in child-rearing, at certain ages? If men and women communicate differently, why? Is it a gender thing – either due to genetics or socialization and discrimination? Or, is it the product of other factors, like social class, education, media exposure, parental or peer pressure, etc.? To me, separating reality from stereotypes and gender socialization from other causes will be the challenge (and the fun) for us.

The links below are…my best guess at background readings that cover some of the major theories and points of view on gender communication differences. See if they add any useful information or perspective for you.

See you on Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK on Memorial Day:  Nuclear war: Will it stay unthinkable? 

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Monday’s Mtg (5/14/18): Status anxiety as a social and political force.

This is one of those topics that has no particular design or agenda lurking behind it. It was spurred by all of those studies and surveys that show that many Trump voters were motivated by anger at losing economic and/or social status in a 21st century economy an culture that (allegedly) devalues people like them. But, there are a number of different ways our discussion could go.

We could talk about the role that social status and social rank play in psychology and society. We could discuss the purported recent rise in generalized anxiety in the United States and try to relate it to social status concerns, especially those of Trump voters. We could even get into the role anxiety plays in say, adolescence, or examine anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia and PTSD.

Maybe some of you know something about these or other aspects of social status that are non-political. I don’t.  So after some reading (including the ones below) I will turn what I learn into a short introduction to open our meeting.

Also, I added some new meetings from our schedule to the Meet-up site. The dates for two meetings in June have been switched to accommodate someone who knows a lot about one of the topics and really wants to be there. The new order is:

  • June 18th – Brinksmanship as a foreign policy tool.
  • June 25th – Power and privacy in an age of Big Data corporations.

Trump’s meeting with North Korea’s leader is supposed to happen on June 12th, so that works out well. Revised hard copies will be available Monday.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Basics –

Is status anxiety on the rise?

Trump voters –

  • Loss of social status was their main motivator. Or was it?
  • Yeah it was, albeit in a complex way that deserves some sympathy. Recommended.
  • Unfairness: It was his voters’ sense of the unfair way their security and status were taken from them that was the motivator.  Long but a great read.

NEXT WEEK: Do the genders really communicate differently?

Monday’s Mtg: #MeToo – What does sexual harassment mean now?

This is an overdue topic. As everybody knows, in 2017-18 dozens of high-profile American men were accused of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. We all know the big names: Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, comedians Aziz Ansari and Louie C.K., journalist Mark Halperin, and even former President George H.W. Bush. A new social movement arose out of it all – the #MeToo phenomenon – as thousands of women were moved to share their personal stories. We’ve seen the Oscar speeches and saw/read endless opinion pieces on #MeToo. And, if surveys are any guide, some of us probably have direct personal experience with sexual harassment or assault.

But, what if anything has really changed? Are we at a cultural inflection point on sexual harassment and misconduct, or have we just cleaned house in some industries that get a lot of media attention (entertainment, politics news media)? A backlash against #MeToo has sprung up. Do these critics have a point, or are they just revanchist? What turns a moment into a movement? What turns a movement into permanent social change?

Public opinion, for one thing. On cultural change, it’s the whole ball game in the long-run. So, I thought Civilized Conversation could talk about what sexual harassment means now in the workplace and in our personal lives. Our group will never win any awards for its diversity. But, the differences we do have on gender, age, and experience will make for an interesting discussion.

Here are some optional background readings. Thanks to Scott for finding the ones on public opinion and to Gale for suggesting we use the Aziz Ansari incident as case study.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

What and how much –

Case study: Aziz Ansari incident –

What Americans think about –

Critiques of / future of #MeToo –

NEXT WEEK: Deportation nation: Will Americans really let millions be ejected?

Monday’s Mtg: How should government incorporate scientific advice?

I think we need more science topics in the future, too. We have done a number of them over the years, from climate change to cloning. All of them involve government policy – and therefore politics.  Luckily, Penny suggested Monday’s topic, a bigger picture look at how government incorporates scientific advice.

Most Americans probably think science policy is all about either public funding of scientific R&D or of specific policy areas that rely heavily on hard science, like environmental policy and medical research. Plus maybe patents and university funding.  But, in the modern world, just about everything government does requires listening to scientific advice and technical experts. For hard science, there is environmental policy, public health, criminal justice, and agriculture, just to name a few. If you include economics and other social sciences, you can throw in practically everything else governments do, from financial regulation to education to welfare policy. This “science in policy and politics” issue is more what I had in mind for Monday.

Why is this worth discussing? Shouldn’t politicians and bureaucrats just “let the science decide” by “listening to the experts?”  As I will explain further in my opening remarks, not exactly.  For starters, scientific study does not always point to a single, optimum policy.  Uncertainty can be high and scientific consensus can change. More importantly, optimum for whom?  Science cannot tell us which values and whose interests should matter the most. Scientists can’t weigh all of the non-scientific (like legal and diplomatic) considerations and their recommendations are not always practical, politically viable, or affordable. These are all political decisions, and rightly so.

I guess this topic requires us to dig into (sigh) Trump and his Administration’s policies. The overt hostility to expertise and scientific advice of the Administration that invented the term “alternative facts” has received a lot of press attention. Experts on federal advisory committees have resigned or been fired in droves. Government reports and websites have been altered to downplay (suppress?) experts opinion on climate change, family planning, and even terrorism. Climate policies re being reversed. What’s occurred is not as dire as many progressives say – at least not yet. Nor can it all fairly be called, “anti-science,” IMO. Yet, something more or less systematic is being done and it’s only going to accelerate.

I will open our meeting by explaining what I know about how scientific advice gets incorporated into government decision-making. There are structures and processes. Then, we can talk about general principles, Trump’s machinations at the EPA or wherever, or anything else related to this topic. We have a number of scientists and other technical experts in Civilized Conversation, and I am looking forward to hearing what they think.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What should all Americans know about the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?

For some reason this group never does parenting or children-related topics, except indirectly via some of our education discussions. So, I am glad Bruce thought of this one. We can ask Bruce, but I believe concern over “gender-neutral” parenting styles is of concern to many conservatives and traditionalists. Some kind of worry about messing up kids with liberal social engineering theories, undermining biologically-determined gender norm, and/or devaluing masculinity, I think.

I guess it depends on what raising kids in a “gender-neutral” way means. I don’t think very many people are actually trying to rear their children without a gender identity. But, a lot of young parents seem to be interested (at least rhetorically, to researchers and pollsters) in raising their kids in a more gender neutral environment in the sense of:

  • Not passing on harmful gender role stereotypes.
  • Not hooking their kids on gender-stereotyped clothing, toys, play activities, etc.; and
  • Not instilling sexist cultural norms.

I am in a mood lately to broaden the range of topics we discuss. Our political discussions are very high-quality, IMO. But, maybe next schedule (TBD, for March – June or July) we can experiment with some new areas. Here is a little introductory material on what gender-neutral parenting can entail and a few pro and con discussions.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

 

NEXT WEEK: How should government incorporate scientific advice?

Monday’s Mtg: Does the “paranoid political style” dominate U.S. politics now?

American politics seems to be gravely afflicted these days with an old virus: The paranoid political style. The term “paranoid style” was coined in 1964 by historian Richard Hofstadter, first in a speech and then in an essay in Harper’s Magazine that later became a book. I wanted us to explore the extent to which that style now dominates our American politics, why it has returned with such a vengeance, and whether it will persist. I think it’ here to stay.

Hofstadter wrote that:

“American politics…has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds. Today this fact is most evident on the extreme right wing, which has shown, particularly in the Goldwater movement, how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. Behind such movements there is a style of mind, not always right-wing in its affiliations, that has a long and varied history. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

“…[To] the modern right-wing wing…America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors discovered foreign conspiracies; the modem radical right finds that conspiracy also embraces betrayal at home.”

Sounds familiar? Hofstadter’s explanation has been used for years to explain right-wing (but NOT all conservative) politics. Lots of commenters are using it today to try to make sense of Trumpism and its capture of the Republican Party.

The theory of the paranoid political style has its critics. In the 1960s it was pointed out that it fails to take conservative philosophy and ideas seriously and comes close to defining conservatism as a mental aberration. (Hofstadter said he was not using the term paranoid clinically.) Also, Hofstadter suggested that the paranoid style is only a feature of right-wing politics American politics. Subsequent events in the late 1960s showed that the American left-wing can appeal to rage, paranoia, and conspiracy theories, too.

Fast forward 50+ years to first the Tea Party and now Donald Trump, and I think we have to ask hard questions. Is this a triumph of the paranoid style we’re seeing, or something else? If so, who or what is to blame and will it outlast Trump’s presidency?

As you know, I have my chief culprits. Fox News and right-wing talk radio have exploited fear and resentment and pushed conspiracy theories for 20 years straight. If you have avoided paying attention to what gets repeated every day in these forums, you really should take a look. Just skim some of the daily output of Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Seann Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Coulter, Malkin, D’Souza, and Alex Jones. If they are not pushing the paranoid style, then the term has no meaning.

Or is that too easy? Surely we cannot just blame right-wing media for creating all of this fear and anxiety out of thin air. In the last 15 years the USA has experienced the worst attack on U.S. soil since Pearl Harbor and a continuous, seemingly permanent state of war against shadowy and frightening new enemies that target U.S. civilians. The worst recession in 80 years trashed the economy and the folks that cause it got off with barely a slap on the wrist. Our government is paralyzed and helpless – or just bought off by special interests. Social media amplify and spread every fear and crazy rumor and allow the angriest among us to organize more easily. Maybe some of people’s fears are grounded in reality.

What do you think?

Here are some of the questions I hope we can wrestle with on Monday, plus some background readings. Hofstadter’s original essay is long and a bit dated, but I’ve included it. I will explain a little bit more about the paranoid political style to open our meeting.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is the “paranoid style” in American politics? Is it a theory of politics, sociology, or psychology?
  2. Critiques of it, then and now?
  3. Is the paranoid style in vogue now? Who uses it? Who is it used on and why are they vulnerable?
  4. Causes: Why is this happening? Traumatic events? Economic stress? Changes in news media or political institutions? Growing fear of national decline? Racism/xenophobia?
  5. Fixes: What would calm public anxiety? Fixing our big social problems? Reducing immigration? Tax cuts?
  6. Future: Is any resurgence in paranoid style politics just temporary? Will it survive Trump’s presidency?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

The “paranoid style” and its critics –

 

Return of the Paranoid Style –

Future of the Paranoid Style –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “Third Way” between capitalism and socialism?

Monday’s Mtg: Is it hard to be a man these days?

This will be a fun one. Gale’s topic relates to both the political and the personal. The political, obviously includes that to man people Donald Trump personifies the most toxic form of masculinity. His Alpha male bravado and obsessive need to dominate everyone and everything. His personal history with the trophy wives and the boasting of sexual conquests (and assaults). The way Trump belittles the manhood of anybody that challenges him, unless they are women, in which case the insults are highly sexualized.

Of course, we can’t know precisely how much Trump’s macho act helped him win the presidency. He got 42% 46% of the female vote and there were other large forces at work. Still, I think it is really important to try to understand the role that politicized male grievance played in getting us to where we are now and how powerful a force it might remain going forward. Partisan news and social media make it easier than ever to organize the rage-filled, as the rise of the “men’s rights movement” described in the links below demonstrates.

Luckily – and to Gale’s relief I’m sure – this topic is much broader than politics and our Dear Leader. Maybe it really is hard to be a man these days. Consider:

  • The personal financial status of non-college educated men have all but collapsed in recent decades;
  • Family structures have evolved to be more egalitarian and less centered on men and their needs;
  • Men’s cultural status arguably has eroded, as popular media celebrates female empowerment and expects men to conform to a new and more egalitarian standard of manhood;
  • Many non-White men bear the additional burden of fearing encounters with law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Lots to chew on. On Monday I will briefly introduce our topic and then give Gale an opportunity to do the same.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Reality / Changes –

Standards –

Politics –

NEXT WEEK: North Korea – Now what?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Social Security Need to be Reformed?

New member Penny suggested this topic. It’s a good one. We have discussed retirement issues and entitlement reform before. But, except for this meeting on Social Security’s disability insurance program we have not focused on Social Security recently.

Too bad. Social Security may be the single most successful U.S. government program of the 20th century. This wage insurance program lifts about 22 million retired, disabled, widowed, and other Americans out of poverty. Sixty million Americans – one in five! – receive SS benefits and 120+ million pay into it. It is wildly popular with the public and the bedrock of the 20th century social welfare state. Progressives are even beginning to congeal around proposals to expand Social Security benefits to help offset the huge growth in financial insecurity that so many Americans face these days.

But, not so fast. Contrary to myth, Social Security is on a sound financial footing. But, it does face a funding shortfall starting in 2034 (latest projection). If no changes are made to close the gap before then, SS will only be able to pay about 75% of promised benefits. The need for reform is real. The links below explain some of the options for shoring up Social Security and the different impacts they would have if implemented. The choices are pretty straightforward.

What is harder is to counter the many alarming myths swirling around this issue. . For example, Social Security is not going “bankrupt” and its trust fund (pool of money from which benefit are paid) is not fake or nonexistent. Nor does Social Security, per se, increase the budget deficit. Myths like these are so widespread that two-thirds of Americans believe Social Security faces a major crisis and more than one-half believe they personally will never see a dime in benefits!

So, maybe I will start our meeting with a quick rundown of how SS works (inc. its trust fund), who it benefits and who pays, and why it may face a funding shortfall. Some of you know all about this, so I will be brief so we have time to focus on solutions and broader issues. One broader issue might be the general merits of social insurance, since progressives want to expand multiple forms of social insurance and conservatives seem (to me) to have turned against the very concept. So, it might be useful to discuss the pros and cons of various types of national, mandatory social insurance.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. ABCs: How does Social Security operate, who pays and who benefits, etc.? How important is Social Security to Americans’ financial security?
  2. Global comparison: How generous is SS compared to public pension systems in other wealthy countries? Is SS different in other ways?
  3. Solvency: How sound are SS’s finances? How big is the projected shortfall and how certain are experts that it will occur at all?
  4. Fixes: Pros/cons of various ideas for closing the financing gap.
  5. Public confidence: Why do so many Americans treasure Social Security but doubt it will be there for them? How can their confidence be restored?
  6. Social Insurance: What are the pros and cons – inc. long term affordability – of mandatory universal social insurance, like SS and others?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are we near the end of paper currency?

Monday’s Mtg: What do today’s movies and TV shows say about us and our future?

Ali’s topic idea is interesting I think, for several reasons. Obviously, a society’s fiction reflects its zeitgeist. Popular culture like TV and movies can mirror back our moral values, our gender and racial expectations, our political beliefs, and so forth. TV/movies can influence culture and public opinion. A few months ago we talked about science fiction in this context. I thought I found some cool background readings for that meeting, like this one and this one. In 2014 we did comedy’s affect ton U.S. politics, in which we focused on the Stewart/Colbert effect. Extending our sci-fi conversation to TV/movies in general sounds like fun.

There are way too many angles to the topic for us to discuss them all (much less for me to find readings on). So, depending on what you all want to do, we might want to focus on some aspects TV/movies’ influence to the exclusion of others; e.g., politics, religiosity, gender roles, racial attitudes, or effects on children. We could focus on specific genres, like reality TV or war movies; or on specific influential shows. After I do the reading I’m sure that I, like you, will think of other ways we could slice the salami.

One other thing I want us to get into.  The entertainment industry is on the leading edge of the digital technology revolution that will sooner or later transform every other industry and corner of our economy. New technology affects how media is enjoyed/consumed (on mobile devices, on demand whatever/whenever we want), and manufactured (on a global scale for a global audience). The industry is decentralizing and centralizing simultaneously as power shifts from producers to consumers, but also to a tiny handful of distributors. Can we see the future of our entire economy in what’s happening to Hollywood?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Are corporate monopolies hurting America?

Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?