Category Archives: Social Policy/Social Science

Monday’s Mtg: Is human nature best grasped by science, philosophy, or religion?

Everybody is all science-y about human nature these days. Insights into how and why people are the way they are gleaned from cutting edge neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and other hard sciences have captured the public’s imagination. Pop science mags/websites are chock full of articles on the latest findings about the biological basis of human nature. The social sciences keep plugging away on the matter, too, trying to untangle the role that environment and upbringing play and whether there is such a thing as a common human nature that spans different eras and cultures.

When CivCon discussed the existence of a universal human nature in 2015 our discussion focused mostly on the science, if I recall right.

The idea behind Monday’s revisit is to make sure we don’t shortchange the 3,000 years of thinking about human nature that came before 21st century cognitive science. There are the major philosophers like Plato and Hume and their heirs. Political philosophers, including Madison and Jefferson, rooted their theories in particular views of human nature.

There is also religion. Don’t all of the major faith traditions have a conception of basic human nature? What is the Ten Commandments if not a statement about how people naturally will act if not deterred by authority? Isn’t Jesus saying that human empathy is malleable and expandable? Buddhists claim our nature is to suffer because we crave too much. You get the idea. And, yeah, the science is pretty cool, too.  Maybe some of us know more about it than I do (It would be hard to know less).

Our meetings are getting pretty crowded these days. This is great in many ways, but maybe a bigger group needs to discuss a broad topic like this one within some sort of loose structure. So, after a brief intro I will ask sequentially about:

  1. You: What personal experiences have given you insights into human nature?  Education.  Family.  Marriage/relationships.  Parenting.  Work. Worship/spirituality?  Personal crises?
  2. Science: Anything cool you’ve read on biology etc. of human nature?
  3. Social science: Sociology, economics…
  4. Religion: What do religions assume about human nature and can faith/spirituality change it?
  5. Philosophy: Insights of major thinkers + different schools (like East/West or essentialist/nomological)
  6. Art:  I forgot this one.

Here are some (optional as always) background things to ponder.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Hail Me! If you were our dictator what would you decree?

Monday’s Mtg: Are kids made or born?

In Civilized Conversation we’ve done a fair number of romance- and relationship-related topics. We’ve done others concerning changing cultural norms and issues of personal morality.  We have several more of these in our new August – December schedule, which Jenn and Rich and I are working on and which will be posted this weekend and in hard copy on Monday.

But, we never do topics related to parenting. This is kind of an omission, I‘ve always felt, since raising children is the biggest endeavor of most people’s lives. It is true that some of us have had kids and others haven’t. Either way, most of us have some personal experience in dealing with children and the mysteries of how they turn out in spite of their parents’ best (or worse) intentions. Some of us may even have been children ourselves.

So, this topic is for everybody. We can focus on either our opinions about how kids turn out in ways that are surprising to those that raise them, based on our personal observations. Or, we can talk about the psychology, biology, sociology, etc., of the nature versus nurture debate.

Link hunting, especially on topics that are way outside of my knowledge base, is time consuming. So, here are a few that seemed interesting, plus some specific discussion questions that I will use in the meeting to keep us focused on the topic.

I’ll see you Monday with new topics.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. How often in your personal experience have you seen children turn out in ways that surprised you, given their parents and upbringing? To what did you attribute these differences?
  2. What about you? What do you think caused you to be the way you are? Were you born to be a certain way or raised to be? Were there pivotal influences or events? Were you lucky or unlucky?
  3. Science and social science: What do they say about nature v. nurture? Are there new findings you’ve heard about or debunked CW? Is some of the pop science about nature v. nurture wrong?
  4. Specific traits’ origins: Nature/nurture effects on –
    a.  Intelligence?
    b.  Judgment?
    c.  Talents and abilities?
    d.  Sociability and anti-social behavior?
    e.  Morality, ethics, empathy?
    f.  Sexuality?
    g.  Success in life and in relationships?
  5. Traumas: How crucial are childhood traumas to development? What have you observed/experienced + what does the science say?
  6. What is your advice to new parents – and to ex-children?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Affordable housing in California.

Monday’s Mtg: Pros and Cons of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

The idea of replacing (or augmenting) some or all of America’s social safety net programs with a single, large cash payment has been around for a long time. Today, there are several different versions of the proposal, usually referred to as a Universal Basic Income (UBI). Some countries and a few U.S. cities have experimented with UBI on a small scale.

Part of the impetus for this is that UBI has been slowly growing more popular among the policy wonk crowd in recent years. Some progressive experts see it as the best solution for a future of mass unemployment and low wages caused by widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and other advanced means of automation. They also hope that adopting a single, universal to everybody income support program could finally drain some of the resentment many Americans feel towards welfare, especially in an increasingly diverse nation. Other liberals strongly object to a UBI. (FWIW, DavidG opposes a UBI, mainly because I don’t think it would ever be politically viable.)

Some conservatives are UBI converts, too. They usually argue that a UBI would consolidate the plethora of low-income programs, some of which they say are of dubious value, eliminate welfare’s perverse incentives, and be more administratively efficient. Other conservatives hate the idea.

Here are some background readings. I will open our meeting with a brief explanation of the ABCs of a UBI and the main arguments for and against it.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

USA need a UBI –

No, UBI is a bad idea –

NEXT WEEK: How will longer lifespans change society?

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? 

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?