One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.
This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.
Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.
Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!
Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.
The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 28, 2017
Somebody with aptitude and conviction should buy the FAKE NEWS and failing @nytimes and either run it correctly or let it fold with dignity!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 29, 2017
Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.
The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.
But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.
Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.
It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.
Where was all the outrage from Democrats and the opposition party (the media) when our jobs were fleeing our country?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 30, 2017
But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.
Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.
Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)
The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.
That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.
There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.
Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!
As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.
The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.
In early December, I spoke at the inaugural conference on Constructive Journalism hosted at Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands. The conference is the brainchild of my friend Cathrine Gyldensted, who has been developing the powerful idea that journalism can’t just inform us about the problems of the world, but must help us take action and transform the world for the better. The venerable Christian Science Monitor is refocusing its work around constructive journalism, and ideas like solutions journalism, put forward by David Bornstein at the New York Times are gaining recognition and traction.
My speech followed one by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of The Guardian, who talked about his decision to engage his newspaper in the “Keep It In the Ground” campaign, partnering with 350.org to advocate divestment from fossil fuel companies. My talk intersected inasmuch as I’m also deeply interested in how different organizations can make social change, and what news organization might choose to do at this surprising and scary moment in time.
This is a near-verbatim transcript of my talk, made using rev.com (which I highly recommend.) I’ve touched it up a bit so I sound slightly less stupid. If you want to see me give the talk, or ogle my exciting slides, the video of the talk is available here. (This was fascinating to edit, by the way. I like to think that I write the way I talk – I don’t. I suspect very few of us do…)
Even before I got here and discovered that the theme for this conference is “What nu?” I had titled my talk “What Now?” It’s a sincere question – I really don’t know what we do now. This is a very strange moment in time. Many people have been surprised by what’s happened in 2016, starting with Brexit, but unfolding outside the Anglophone world as well.
I’ve been spending a lot of time these days in Colombia. We just watched a country have a referendum on whether to end a 52-year civil war that completely transformed and destroyed a beautiful nation. People voted “no”, which doesn’t make much sense on its surface until you realize that my country just elected as president a man who has absolutely no interest in governing, no interest in politics, no interest in really anything other than ego and his own power.
What I want to suggest is that this is a moment that is shocking, but it’s not actually surprising for anyone who’s been paying attention. What’s actually going on is the continuation of a number of trends that have been happening for at least a decade now or perhaps significantly longer. The person that I found most useful in trying to navigate this moment in time is, weirdly enough, a television commentator. His name is Chris Hayes, who is on MSNBC in the U.S. He wrote a very good book a couple of years ago called “Twilight of the Elites”.
In the first chapter of this book, he says, “Look, let’s forget about this whole notion of left and right. It’s not actually very helpful at this moment in understanding the world. What’s much more helpful is thinking about institutionalists and insurrectionists.” Institutionalists are people who say, “Look, these big structures of society that we’ve built, whether they’re governments, corporations, or universities, they mostly work. They mostly get the job done. We need new, smart people involved with them. We need to make them stronger. We need to make them more modern, but the basic structures work.”
I would say the institutionalists have been winning for a very long time. Perhaps since World War II, the institutionalists have been firmly in control. Now there’s a new camp of people who are insurrectionists. The insurrectionists basically say, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Have you looked around lately? Do you really think these structures are working? Do you really think government is doing what we want it to do as people? Do you really think unfettered capitalism the way that we have it in the world right now is working especially well? You must be nuts. It is time to knock these things down.”
That’s the tension. More than the tension between left and right is the tension between people who want to make improvements and tweaks to existing systems, and people who largely believe it’s time to pull those systems down, and try something else. I want to make the argument that over the last couple of decades, the institutionalists have gotten quite weak, and the insurrectionists have gotten quite strong.
This is a graph of responses to a question that the Gallup Polling Organization asks American roughly every six months. The question is very simple: “Do you trust the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time?” This graph peaks in 1964 at 77%. If we go back to ’64, the enormous majority of Americans felt like the government is doing the right thing all or most of the time. The most recent version of this poll was at 19%. Now, I would point out that’s a moment of very high popularity in the Obama presidency. It’s actually been down to 9% or 10% over the course of his time in office.
I was born in 1973, and the only time that the majority of Americans have said that they had great confidence in the government in Washington during my entire 43-year lifetime was shortly before we invaded Iraq… which just shows what the American people know. The point is we have had massive decay in confidence in our government. We’ve also had massive decay in confidence in all sorts of other institutions. Asking similar questions about the police, organized religion, the medical systems, public schools, banks, organized labor, and of course newspapers and television news, we’ve seen collapses in confidence, particularly over the last 20 years.
This is not just not happening in the United States. The Netherlands, as it turns out, shows up as a fairly trusting country in Edelman’s Eurobarometer Trust Index. They’ve gone out and asked very similar questions about confidence in government, in NGOs, and all sorts of different sectors. The Netherlands is at the very high end of trusting countries. Trust seems to be increasing in the Netherlands, but it’s worth noting that the Netherlands and Scandinavia are quite rare within democracies. Within most mature democracies, trust is low and it’s going down.
Oddly enough, Northern Europe is in the same bin as autocracies. China, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, those for the most part are the only countries that seem to have very high trust in government. But even in the Netherlands, faith in democracy seems to be waning. Here’s a set of graphs from a forthcoming paper by Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. This graph shows people’s answers to the question, “Is it essential to live in a democracy?”
These graphs are pulled apart by birth decade. Of people in the Netherlands born in the 1930’s, more than 50% said it was utterly essential to live in a democracy. You get down to people born in the 1980’s, it’s much closer to about 35%. You haven’t had the staggering fall that we’ve had in the United States, where we’ve gone from 75% down to the students that I teach, where fewer than 25% tell you that it is essential to live in a democracy.
Something has happened. Our confidence in these institutions has been badly shaken. You could make the argument that it’s been badly shaken, because frankly, these institutions are not doing a very good job right now. In my country at least, our democracy is highly dysfunctional. For the most part, we are not managing to come together and compromise. For the most part, we have oppositions between two parties who will absolutely not see eye to eye, and they end up spending an enormous amount of time and energy blocking each other and not getting very much done.
If you’ve been watching this for the last 20 or 25 years, it’s very easy to understand why people would become frustrated and alienated with this situation. If that’s bad news, I have worse news for us, because we are in the media field and people really don’t like us.
This actually became a common thing at Trump rallies. I’d like to remind you one more time: the person who we somehow have elected as the president of the United States, a common feature of his public appearances are his supporters standing up and chanting specifically about a fairly neutral to conservative media network, and their utter distaste for it. There is incredibly low confidence in our institution, that institution of journalism, very low confidence that we are doing our jobs without fear or favor, without agenda, that somehow what we are saying can be trusted. Instead what ends up happening is in an environment where it’s very, very easy for people to publish almost anything, we start seeing news that looks like this:
I wouldn’t expect you to be following the intricacies of U.S. politics, but about five days before the presidential election, the well known and highly celebrated Denver Guardian published the story stating that an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton had committed suicide and burned his house under the incredible pressure that he had come under from Hillary’s sinister forces. This turned into people putting forward memes about Hillary Clinton being responsible for the deaths of dozens of people in her long and sordid career.
As it turns out, this story is entirely fake. There is no Denver Guardian. There has never been a Denver Guardian. The Denver Guardian is a website that someone put up because this was a way to get attention, and frankly a way to make money. Many of the most popular websites in the United States leading up to the election are run out of Macedonia. They are not run out of Macedonia as a giant Macedonian conspiracy to take over the U.S. government. They’re run out of Macedonia because it is a great way to make money.
It turns out that one of the best ways to make money as a Macedonian teenager right now is to aggregate links to pro-Trump, anti-Clinton content. It doesn’t matter whether they are true or false, so long as you put them together in a believable form. Run some Facebook ads on them and watch the money roll in. There are more than a hundred of these websites that are turning out to be a very robust media environment that people are paying an enormous amount of attention to.
My colleague Yochai Benkler over at Harvard is going to release some research in the next couple of weeks. He graphed links within the media environment in the United States leading up to the 2016 election. There are two major clusters to his map. We’re used to thinking of there being a left-wing cluster and a right-wing cluster. In one of these clusters in 2016, there are those noted left-wing sources like the Nation, the Guardian, The New York Times, also those noted left-wing sources like the Wall Street Journal, the National Review, the Independent. Actually, all mainstream media ends up in one cluster.
In the other cluster is Breitbart and all of this stuff being run out of Macedonia, all this stuff that’s basically been made up for internet consumption. We’ve ended up in a moment where there’s very low trust in media, and frankly, there’s a lot of media that we would need to be very worried about trusting. Now, if you feel like this young woman here feels, you’re probably not alone. This is what happens with mistrust. Mistrust is designed to breed helplessness.
If you’re looking for some of the political systems that have tried the hardest to create mistrust, you can look to the media environment in Russia, which is trying very hard to build up a culture of conspiracy theory which makes it very difficult to figure out how to organize and mobilize. In the wake of high mistrust, the natural instinct is to look towards charismatic individuals, anyone who can stand up and say, “I will find you a way through this,” because when you have very low trust in institutions, it’s very hard to mobilize people to participate within those institutions.
If, as in my country, you have a 9% approval rating for Congress, trying to get excited about electing new Congresspeople is not a very easy thing to do. Those Congresspeople will tell you that if they get elected, there’s almost nothing they’re going to be able to do since so little legislation gets passed. In high mistrust societies, you see falling participation rates. You see falling voting rates. You see falling number of people running for political office, because they don’t feel like they can make change that way.
Weirdly enough, you may also lose the ability for protest to have change, because when you protest, you are almost always trying to influence someone who is in power. When you go on a march, when you go to the Capitol, you are marching in the hopes that your leaders will listen to your demands, will listen to your concerns, will take you seriously. Once you lose trust in those institutions, you may even lose some of the most popular avenues for dissent.
I want to suggest that we can understand these strange moments: this decision of our friends in the UK that the EU is not something they were particularly excited about anymore, the decision of my fellow citizens that we wanted a radical change in who is leading our country. You can understand this in terms of efficacy. If people don’t feel like they can be effective, if they don’t feel like they can make change through existing institutions, they will look for ways that they feel like their actions matter. If you look at Brexit, people who were very angry, very frustrated and concerned about directions in which their country was going managed to have an effect.
Will it be the effect that they were looking for? Probably not. It’s probably not going to magically save the UK healthcare system. It’s probably not going to change some of the demographic transformations that the UK is going through. Is the US magically going to become great again because we elected Trump? Almost certainly not. It’s almost certainly going to become more racist. It’s almost certainly going to become very difficult to compete in the global economy, but people felt so alienated, so pissed off at these institutions that being able to make this change felt powerful.
This idea of helping people feel power, helping people feel that they can make an effect on the world, this is the essence of what we try to talk about when we talk about this field of Constructive Journalism.
I’ve been showing this slide for almost 10 years now, before Cathrine was even really building up this idea of Constructive Journalism, but this has been my fear about how media works most of the time. We are very good at documenting things that people should care about. We get them riled up. We get them informed. We get them interested. We get them invested, and then we don’t tell them what to do, because frankly, most people are not as brave as Alan Rusbridger is. Most people are not willing to say, “We’re going to go a step further, and not just tell you what’s going on in the world, but we’re going to tell you ways that you could be effective as a citizen in doing something about it.” The best journalism thinkers out there have been urging us to do this for a while.
If you read one essay coming out of this conference, let me urge you to read this wonderful essay by Michael Schudson, “Six or Seven Things the News can Do for Democracy”. Schudsonbasically says, “Look, some of these are very familiar to us. We know we’re supposed to inform each other. We know we have to do these deep investigations and analysis. We know deep in our hearts, we forget it every time we look at a comment thread, but we know deep in our hearts that we have to provide public fora for people to discuss difficult issues.”
Many of us know that media at its best is about social empathy. It’s about helping us understand what people are thinking and feeling, but these last two get really radical. Most of us are not used to thinking of journalism as a tool for mobilization, but sometimes when an issue is as big as climate change, then we actually have to step up and say, “You know, there isn’t a meaningful debate about this. What there is is a failure of efficacy, and we have to help people figure out how to be effective in the action that they’re taking.” We have to help readers figure out how they would divest, how they would avoid these companies that stand to profit on an unsustainable way of moving into the future.
Then perhaps the most radical thing that Michael says is that we have to help people understand the value of participatory democracy. This is the place where I want to suggest that Michael doesn’t have it entirely right. That’s because I think we no longer know what we’re talking about when we talk about civics.
When we talk about public participation, we encourage people to participate in the ways we know are “right”. We urge people to inform themselves on issues. We urge people to go out and vote. Sometimes, we urge people to think about issues and potentially go out and protest. Remember, I’m making the argument that at a moment of very low trust in institutions, these things may be valid things to say to the institutionalists, but they do not help you with the insurrectionists.
As for the people who have already concluded these structures just don’t work, when you urge them to participate this way, they lose what little faith they had in you. They end up saying, “You’re part of the system that clearly isn’t helping and clearly isn’t going anywhere. You’re urging us to waste our time, waste our energy on these efforts that we know aren’t going to do anything.”
Here is how I want to suggest the world works these days. This guy is Larry Lessig. When he is not running for the U.S. presidency, he is a pretty good legal scholar. He wrote a book in 2000 called “Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace”. For people like me who study online media, this became something of an almost prophetic text for us. A lot of us read this and said, “Finally, someone actually understands that technology can control our behavior as much as laws do.”
Larry made this case that while we’re used to thinking about passing laws that determine what we can and can’t do, any number of technologies – which he refers to as “code”- can constrain us or enable us to do certain things.
You have all sorts of codes in the Netherlands that enable certain behaviors. You seem to have a fetish for bicycles. They’re rather well supported in your infrastructure. You have lanes for them all over the place. You have parking lots for them all at the train stations. You have a set of social norms that seem to prevent people from stealing them, but it’s a combination of norms and code that make these behaviors possible. Laws help create this environment, but a lot of Holland’s bike-friendliness has to do with the actual technical architectures.
Lessig makes this case that we actually use four different levers to make behaviors happen. We pass laws to make certain things legal and illegal. We use markets to make things expensive or cheap. In my country, gasoline is a whole lot cheaper than it is over here, which is probably why you guys end up riding bicycles.
We have social norms, where in the U.S., we get pissed off with people in bicycles because they’re taking my damn lane, and we take a swipe at them and so on and so forth. That’s not a particularly good thing if you’re a bicyclist. Social norms have a lot to do with how we govern behavior. Then we havetechnological architectures, codes that enable certain behaviors.
Here’s something I call “the inverted Lessig”. All of these ways that we control society turn out to be paths to social change. If we want to make the world a different place, we can pass laws, yes, but that’s really hard these days. At least in the U.S., trying to make change through laws has become highly professionalized and it’s become incredibly difficult. For many people, their chance to be effective, their chance to make social change happens through these three other levers.
Here is what it looks like: Most people note that the people in the US are not actually interested in the rest of world. We are in fact deeply interested in the rest of the world. We’re just interested in the secrets that you’re sending to one another, and because of our deep interest, we’ve been reading your mail, listening to your phone calls, and generally paying quite a bit of attention to the rest of the world, because it’s possible that you’re all terrorists. You may not even know it.
Our National Security Agency provides the helpful service of reading an enormous number of your communications to keep you safe. I as an American are not particularly thrilled about this. I’m rather deeply embarrassed by it. I’m pretty unthrilled that my allegedly progressive president Barack Obama has done very little to change this situation, and there’s not a lot that I’m going to be able to do in a Trump administration to try to provide privacy to all the digital communications that flow through the United States.
However, there are some awfully good hackers out there who are building things like Tor. They’re building things like Signal, which I use every day, a very good encrypted voice and SMS platform. There’s lots of people looking at technological structures that may be able to protect privacy even if we can’t make those protections through law. This is a way to try to make change when you can’t make it in one fashion. If you can’t somehow put surveillance back in the box under U.S. law, is there a way that hackers and coders can come out and make change through other different means?
It turns out there absolutely is. Then the question becomes, “How did people adopt it? How did people pick it up?” Allen [Rusbridger, of the Guardian] has been looking for change through markets. How do we get a group like Gates, like the Wellcome Trust to essentially say, “These large companies cannot to burn the fossil fuels that they’re pulling out of the ground?” There’s other ways to make massive change through markets. Consider a company like Tesla, which is trying to make electric vehicles, not only practical but dead sexy, and trying to figure out how to make solar power, something that everyone is using with power walls in their houses.
This is a way to make change even if governments aren’t willing at this point to pass laws, aren’t willing to sign on to international treaties, aren’t willing to set carbon goals that would help keep us at two centigrade degrees of global warming. A lot of my work centers on this idea that some of the most powerful change that we make is through social norms.
One of the things that’s happening in the United States is that unfortunately, our police shoot a lot of people. In particular, they shoot a disproportionate number of Black people. This is not a matter of law. It has been illegal to shoot people for a whole long time in the United States. It’s been illegal to shoot Black people for at least 100 years or so. We don’t need particularly new laws around this. What we do need is a set of social norms. What ends up happening is that people in the United States have a strong tendency to see people of color, particularly young men, as a threat, and this gets reinforced by the media.
When Michael Brown – a young man in Ferguson, Missouri – got killed by police, the media ended up using a particular mug shot for him. They took this image over to your left off of his Facebook page. Now, what does Mike Brown look like in this image? Just shout something out. What do you see about Mike Brown? How does he look?
Audience member: “A thug.”
Yes, he looks like a thug. He looks tough. Why does he look like a thug? What in that photo is making him look so tough? He shot from below, which makes him look taller. It makes him look bigger. This is a Facebook photo. This is an 18-year-old kid. Of course, he wants to look tough. I want to look tough. He’s put this photo up there to make himself look as badass as possible, and this is the photo the media has grabbed to discuss Michael Brown.
This is another picture of Michael Brown taken around the same time. What does Michael Brown look like in this photo? He’s sweet. He’s a baby. He’s got these baby cheeks. He’s a cute kid. He’s a nice kid. That’s a very different image of who this young man is. Activists looked at this disparity and said, “Let’s go into our Facebook feeds. Let’s find the photo that makes us look at our worst, and the photo that makes us look at our best.”
You look at this young man here, and in one of those photos, he looks like a guy you don’t want to mess with. In the other photo, this looks like a man who you very much want to celebrate about what’s best about America. Over the course of three days, this turned into a national campaign of people taking this on, writing essays about it, writing about why they want to participate in it. Within three days, this was on the front page of the New York Times, and more importantly, it’s very hard to find that first photo of Mike Brown anymore. You simply don’t see it.
Media got the point. They got the point that the way that we portray these victims of police violence has a lot to do with our norms about whether we see Black men and boys as dangerous or not. What’s our role in all of this? As practicing journalists, what should we be doing about this? The first thing I want to say is that if you buy my theory that these are the ways that we make change now, very different people have power than we’re used to thinking about.
Yes, politicians are powerful. They’re really important as far as making change through law, and they have a lot of power in terms of force of norms, but they’re probably not the most powerful actors in terms of norms. Celebrities are much more powerful, but not necessarily just the Angelina Jolie-type celebrities. Celebrities in terms of people who have lots of followers, whether it’s on YouTube or whether it’s on Facebook, people who are able to mobilize large networks of people to work together on an issue or to help people change their thinking have great sway over norms.
Who’s powerful in markets? People who already have money. It’s easier to be Elon Musk when you have millions of dollar to go and start a company. But also powerful are people who are able to raise money through different means, people through crowdfunding, people who are able to get different amounts of money together.
It’s possible to make a great deal of change through code. Platforms like Facebook end up being very powerful at this moment in time, but code is wonderfully asymmetrical, and you have individual hackers who have found ways to put strong encryption into software, proof an individual can make change.
We as journalists need to understand how power is working, who is powerful, and try to figure out how we tell and celebrate those stories. We also need to try to figure out how we get critical and careful about how power works in this news space. The project I’ve been working on for the last decade or so tries to figure out this question of how much influence media really has.
Alan [Rusbridger] told a brilliant story that involves running a campaign, getting it seen by millions of people, and at the end of it, the guy that he was targeting did the thing that he wanted him to do. That’s the best type of story that we can tell about the impact of media, but most stories aren’t that simple. Most stories don’t go from, “I wanted A, I ran a campaign, and I accomplished A.” Most are much more complicated.
Here is one of those complicated stories, and I’ve been trying to figure them out with a tool that we build in my lab called Media Cloud. Media Cloud looks at about half a million media sources, grabs every story that comes out of them, and then allows us to search them and analyze them.
What we wanted to search and analyze is how does English language media talk about people of color in the United States who were unarmed and killed by police. Like I said, there’s a lot of these people. We ended up looking at everyone from 2013 to 2016 to figure out what sort of media coverage they got after they were killed by police. We put a marker in this graph of Mike Brown’s death, because shortly after Mike Brown’s death, we’ve seen the emergence of the social movement called Black Lives Matter.
One of the big foci of Black Lives Matter has been paying attention to police violence against people of color. Before Black Lives Matter, if you are an unarmed person of color shot by the police, the most likely thing that happens is nothing. No one reports it. There are zero media stories. That’s that thick bit at the bottom of the curve. There is a small number of people who get a small number of stories. They basically get a small amount of regional coverage. There’s almost no one who makes it up to the top and becomes the object of national debate.
After Mike Brown, that curve’s very different. There are a lot fewer people who are invisible. Basically, if you get shot by the police as an unarmed person of color, there is going to be a story about it, whether or not it makes it up to the national level, that invisibility starts going away. In fact, that invisibility goes away in such a big way, or to quote my new political leader, “So bigly, so hugely,” that you have 10 times as much coverage shortly after Mike Brown’s death for the average person of color killed by police than you did before.
We see an even bigger effect on Facebook, when we looked at how these stories got shared on Facebook. These stories get shared. They get propagated. They get talked about. Unlike with the media, where frankly we’ve gone back down to ignoring unarmed people of color, on Facebook, we’re still at about four times as much attention as we were before Mike Brown. Audiences are telling journalists, “We still want to see these stories. We still care about this.”
What’s come out of it? Well, we’ve actually seen in most police departments in the United States a willingness to adopt body cameras. We’re up to the point where 95% of police departments are actively working on a program to put body cameras on all of their police. Now, is this as easy saying we had a movement around Mike Brown’s death, and then we paid attention, and then journalism changed, and we got body cameras? No. It’s really complicated. It’s really messy, but if you are working on a movement like Black Lives Matter, and your goal is to change the social norm, this is some pretty good evidence that those sorts of campaigns can work, and that they can work by modifying media and changing what we pay attention to.
I want to ask us to think about these things. Think about can we communicate how power works now, not just in terms of politics and law, but in terms of markets, in terms of technologies, in terms of social norms? Celebrate the successes of people who are doing this work well. Then finally, as Alan made the case, figure out how we link these stories to meaningful action.
So many of us have written stories where we’ve ended up saying, “Now that you know about this, please take action. Write to your senator or congressman. Sign this petition.” Stop doing that. For the insurrectionists, that doesn’t work. That’s a signal that you’re not serious.
Think about the other changes people are trying to make. Think about things that people are trying to do in markets with code, with norms. Think about how we link people to those actions as well as to legal actions.
One final thing: we have this tendency in journalism right now to feel very sorry for ourselves. This is a field that we are all enormously proud to be part of. This is a field that is harder and harder to make a living in, and I see more and more news organizations essentially saying, “You’re going to miss us. We’re going away. I just want to warn you.”
I’m not saying this isn’t true. I think this probably is true, but I also think it’s a lousy way to market ourselves. I think it’s happening in part because people are looking at what we’re doing, and saying, “You’re not helping me. If you were helping me, if you were helping me get over that moment of hopelessness, if you were helping me figure out how to be effective and how to make a change, I would find a way to be there for you.” I want to end with this idea. I don’t think it’s the public’s job to save journalism, but I do think it’s journalism’s job to help save civics.
I think we have to figure out how these changes are taking place, and whether we reach out to the institutionalists and say, “It’s time to make those institutions stronger and better than they ever were before,” or whether, and this is what I’m urging you, we reach out to those insurrectionists, and say, “We hear you. We know why you feel powerless. We want to help you become powerful.” If we can figure out how to save civics, how to get more people who are alienated deeply engaged with this, that’s the first step towards saving journalism. If we help the citizens who rely on us become more powerful and more effective, they’re going to step in, and then try to find a way to be there for us. Thank you.
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I spoke this afternoon at a rally in Pittsfield, Massachusetts my (almost) hometown (I live one town north, in Lanesboro.) The rally honored the four freedoms, articulated in his 1941 state of the union address by FDR: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Along with a range of Massachusetts politicians – Senator Ed Market, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer – I was part of a group of community leaders invited to reflect on the four freedoms and our particular moment in time.
We had a remarkable turnout for the event. The Reverend who hosted us told me the church held 1400, and it was filled to capacity, with people sitting in the aisles, and 300 in an overflow seating room. The population of Berkshire county is only 129,000, so the folks who came out to march and listen to speeches total more than 1% of our total citizenry.
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the four freedoms in his 1941 state of the union address, the world was at war, and the president wanted Americans to support the government in spreading these freedoms around the world. We’re in a very different world now, where decades of international cooperation and unification are giving way to isolationism, nationalism and the demonizing of migrants and marginalized groups. These scary trends aren’t limited to the US – we see them everywhere from Britain to Hungary, France to Russia, Poland to South Africa.
Roosevelt saw the US government as the guarantor of these freedoms around the world, first through war with Japan and Germany, then through the Marshall Plan and through decades of American hard and soft power. That’s another way in which we’re in a different world. In the 1960s, when you asked Americans if they had trust in the federal government to do the right thing, more than 75% said that they did. These days, that number is under 20%. The four freedoms matter more than ever, but even despite the hard work of our representatives here on the stage, many of us don’t believe the government can bring them about. Instead, it’s up to us, individually and collectively.
When Norman Rockwell painted Freedom of Speech, he depicted an Arlington, VT man standing up to dissent at a local town meeting. That’s about as public as most speech could be in the 1940s. But now, every one of us has the power to speak, potentially to a global audience, using nothing more than the phones in our pocket. If you don’t like how the media covers this march, film a video, write a blog post, make your own media.
Our challenge now is not just to speak, but also to listen. When everyone is speaking, it’s too easy to listen just to the people we want to hear. We’ve got to listen deeply and widely, to people in other countries and to people in our own who we don’t agree with.
We’ve got to listen, because people are scared: children whose parents brought them to the US who discover they are not citizens when they apply to college, our Muslim brothers and sisters who are unfairly blamed for acts of terror, human rights defenders who are threatened and challenged around the world. The way we achieve freedom from fear is through solidarity, through listening hard to what people have to say, then using our speech to support them, defend them and stand with them.
This is a scary moment, a time where it looks like the progress we’ve made around the world might reverse, where we go from a world that’s gotten much bigger to one that shrinks. The good news is that we get to decide how big a world we want to live in. We get to decide how to speak, how to listen and how to stand together against fear.
Some research from our lab, the Center for Civic Media, because it’s fun and something I’m glad we produced.
In the US, NFL football is more than a sport – it’s a stage on which broader national dramas play out. In the past years, the NFL has brought to national attention conversations about domestic violence, about cheating and fairness and about the ethics of loving a sport that is likely killing its players. With Colin Kapernick’s decision not to stand for the singing of the national anthem during a pre-season football game, starting a wave of similar protests by athletes, a national debate about endemic racism in the US has now become a debate about race, protest, politics and NFL football.
Some years ago, journalist and activist, the late Dori Maynard posed a question to the Media Cloud team: Does sports media use different language to talk about black and white athletes? The question, Dori told us, came from basketball player Isaiah Thomas, who had observed that journalists often described black athletes as physically talented but talked about the intelligence of white athletes. While both descriptions are laudatory, they focus on different aspects of a player’s talents, and enforce long-standing racial stereotypes about intellect and physicality. Could Media Cloud, Dori wondered, put some numbers to these anecdotes?
This isn’t a new research question. Scholars have analyzed the language play-by-play announcers use and have seen the patterns in which white players are praised for intelligence and black players for physical attributes. (See also Rainville and McCormick, 1977 and Rada 1996) Media Cloud gives us the chance to analyze a different corpus, sports stories written after the game, and to examine this possible phenomenon on a different scale. We focused our study on the attention paid to and language used to discuss NFL quarterbacks, the most highly paid and most discussed players on the field.
So do we talk about white quarterbacks as intelligent and black quarterbacks as athletic? Well, like almost everything involving media and race, it’s complicated.
First, we talk a great deal about football in the US media. We analyzed tens of thousands of stories from 478 publications (including US sports websites like NFL.com as well as national and regional sources) over 4 months of NFL regular season coverage in 2015.Despite the prominence of stories like , the vast majority of writing about football discusses this week’s results, next week’s matchup and teams’ strategies for success. As a result, the table of word frequencies when we talk about quarterbacks is heavy on two kinds of words: words that describe gameplay, and words that describe injuries.
We’ve classified each of the 53 quarterbacks who played in NFL games last season as white, black or hispanic (using data from the besttickets unofficial NFL player census, acknowledging that these categories are socially constructed, complex and overlapping.) We then examined what words are associated with coverage of white QBs and QBs of color. In general, white QBs were slightly more associated with action words – ran, threw, leapt – and non-white QBs with words about their health and bodies, their off-field lives and descriptive words, like “dominant” or “judgement”. (Our handcoding of the top 250 words associated with QBs, and synonyms for those words, is here.)
We further examined what words were disproportionately associated with white and non-white QBs. For instance, the words “Heisman” and “trophy” were more than three times as likely to appear in stories about black QBs than about white QBs, likely because Heisman winning black QBs Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston played more last year than white Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. Some of those terms do suggest a focus on the physicality of black QBs:Word used more with black QBs Usage note “Mobile” 2.48x “Threat” 2.46x (aka: “dual threat” to run or pass) “Legs” 2.03x “Runner” 2.00x “Scrambling” 1.97x “Rushing” 1.92x “Sliding” 1.87x “Speed” 1.84x “Balance” 1.84x (may refer to a “balanced offense” as well as to the physical characteristic)
Words disproportionately associated with white quarterbacks tend to characterize specific scandals and controversies. In most cases, these words describe only one or two quarterbacks, whereas the words disproportionately associated with black QBs often describe multiple players:Word used more with white QBs Note “Deflated” only associated with Tom Brady “Charter” only associated with Ryan Mallett missing a charter flight “Court” “Hormone” “HGH” “Jazeera” An Al Jazeera story about possible use of human growth hormone in the NFL
Words associated with both white and black quarterbacks, but disproportionately with white QBs also include “domestic” (ie., domestic violence) and partying.
Before concluding that US media is somehow biased against white QBs and their scandals, it’s worth keeping in mind that these terms disproportionately associated with white QBs are highly idiosyncratic – they’re more the portrait of a single player’s struggles than the way a whole group of players are characterized. Moving down in the frequency table to words that appear 1.5x to 5x more with white QBs than black QBs, we find some evidence to support the “white brains, black bodies” hypothesis, but less than we expected.Word used more with white QBs Usage Note “Slipped” 4.3x “Slow” 4.2x “Prepared” 2.3x “Practice” 2.1x “Caller” 1.9x (“signal caller”) “Steady” 1.7x
If there’s no racial smoking gun in looking at word frequencies, it may be because, as John Caravalho put it, “No broadcaster or sportswriter this side of Rush Limbaugh is so self-destructive as to blatantly muse on the suitability of a black quarterback.” Reporters may be increasingly sensitive to issues of word choice. But the amount of attention paid to white versus black QBs tells a somewhat different story.
We analyzed how much media attention each of the 53 quarterbacks in our study received. To adjust for the fact that some quarterbacks in our set played very few minutes, we calculated words per minute played, a statistic that ranged from 25.5 words/minute for Titans backup Zack Mettenberger, to 471.4 words/minute for the Cowboys Tony Romo, who suffered a shoulder injury and missed most of the season, to the great dismay of the Dallas press. While Romo is the largest outlier in the set, five other quarterbacks – all white – received unusually high words per minute scores: Brandon Weeden, Johnny Manziel, Landry Jones, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady. The first three – Weeden, Manziel and Jones – played very few games – Jones was a substitute in a single game, while Weeden and Manziel started fewer than 3 games in a 16 game season – skewing these counts. Manning and Brady are “name-brand” quarterbacks, who received additional attention in 2015, Brady for the ongoing “Deflategate” saga and Manning for winning the Super Bowl and retiring.
Comparing a quarterback’s passer rating to his words of coverage suggests that “name brand” quarterbacks are at a distinct advantage in terms of media attention. Six quarterbacks – five white, one black – appear as outliers in this chart. (Romo, who we code as “Hispanic”, didn’t play enough minutes in 2015-16 to have a QB rating.) Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady are all elite quarterbacks who are also recognizable public figures, endorsing products and commanding media attention. (All receive more than $6m in endorsements per year, and rank #1, #4 and #5 in the list of QBs ranked by endorsement money in 2015.) Manziel’s disproportionate attention springs from notoriety – he was benched after videos surfaced of him partying during a bye week – while Andrew Luck had an injury-plagued season that was both poor and widely discussed. The only black quarterback who is an outlier in this set is Marcus Mariota, who outperformed expectations for the Titans, and generated widespread hand-wringing in Tennessee when he was injured late in the season. Notably, the year’s best-rated quarterback – the Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson – is black, and received significantly less attention than worse-rated “brand name” quarterbacks, though average attention for his rating as predicted by our model. Like Manning, Rodgers and Brady, Wilson makes more than $6m a year in endorsements, but his financial success doesn’t lead to disproportionate coverage. Nor does it lead to overcoverage of Drew Brees and Eli Manning, white QBs who were #2 and #3 on the endorsement list in 2015.
Given the messy relationship between performance and attention, we asked whether a naive hypothesis – that sportswriting coverage tracked actual performance – might help answer Dori and Isiah’s question. If black quarterbacks tend to be described as “athletic”, might it be in part because their athleticism is more impressive than that of white quarterbacks?
We looked at two statistics to try to calculate “athleticism”: the 40 yard dash and rushing yards gained by the quarterback. White quarterbacks averaged a little over 4.8 seconds on the 40 yard dash, while black quarterbacks averaged a little below 4.6 seconds. In the NFL, that .25 second gap is an eternity – black quarterbacks, on average, run nearly as fast as receivers, the fastest players on the field, while white quarterbacks are closer to linebackers. That speed apparently matters, as black quarterbacks averaged a little over 200 rushing yards in a season, while white quarterbacks generally had fewer than 50.
This finding about differences in athletic ability by race is obviously heavily loaded, given the long history of racist speech that portrays blacks as fundamentally physically different than whites. We note that the system that results in the presence of more athletic black quarterbacks than white quarterbacks in the NFL is a highly complex one that is deeply embedded in the racial mores of our society. This piece on how modern NFL quarterbacks are made finds that the top 15 quarterback prospects in the 2016 draft overwhelmingly: started playing quarterback by age 9, came from stable families in homes worth at least the median home value, had outside coaching starting in high school, and participated in year round formal 7v7 programs. This kind of intense, adult driven athletic experience is much more common in suburban communities than urban communities. For one example, his piece on the “Hidden Demographics of Youth Sports” lists the five states with the lowest rate of high school sports participation, and four of those five are among the states with the most black households. All of this is to say that this data on the athletic advantage of black over white quarterbacks may or may not say anything about inherent athleticism of black people but almost certainly says something about the deeply racially infused cultural systems that produce modern professional athletes.
Given all of the above, there’s an argument that black quarterbacks are genuinely more athletic – at least in terms of foot speed – than white quarterbacks, and the differences we see in language about quarterbacks may correlate to their performance. That may run counter to suspicions that led Dori to ask her question. But we did find a way in which there’s an apparent racial disparity in coverage: sheer attention.
Only eight quarterbacks broke the 40,000 word barrier in our set, two black, one hispanic, five white. Set the bar at 50,000 and we’re down to four white QBs and Tony Romo. At the highest levels of attention, four “name-brand” quarterbacks (Rodgers, Brady, Manning, Romo) and one screw-up (Manziel) dominate discussion of football in 2015-6. Elite black QBs – Russell Wilson, Marcus Mariotta, Cam Newton – received more attention than mediocre quarterbacks, but less than name brand, endorsement laden white QBs, despite in Wilson’s case, significantly superior performance.
Is there a racial bias in sportswriting about the NFL? Probably.That bias may be related to which NFL players gain endorsement contracts and widespread celebrity, and which ones fall short of expectations to reach that elite level. It’s difficult to entangle causality, though – all but one of these “name brand” QBs are white, and we may pay attention to them because of their celebrity, which correlates only partially to their superior athletic performance, and may correlate more closely to their race.
We will be updating our study at the close of the 2016-7 NFL season, and are looking forward to seeing whether Kapernick’s protest challenged the attention patterns we saw in the previous season.
This post was written by Ethan Zuckerman in collaboration with Allan Ko, Rahul Bhargava, and Hal Roberts. Allan Ko produced the graphics and conducted the quantitative research.
Two week ago, I wrote an op-ed for CNN.com on Steve Bannon, the “alt-right” and white nationalism. It got the reaction I usually get when I write on CNN – passionate wishes for my speedy demise, helpful reminders that I am overweight and smell bad, and calls to my employer to fire me immediately.
The most interesting response I received came from an alum of Williams College, the small college in western Massachusetts I graduated from. My op-ed raised questions for him, and he wanted to buy me lunch to talk about them if I was willing to dine with a Trump supporter.
I was. Not only was he paying, but I’m acutely aware that I’m ideologically isolated and that I have almost no Trump supporters – or, perhaps, no _out_ Trump supporters – in my work and personal circles.
We had lunch earlier this week, and we spent an hour getting to know each other – our families, our paths to the jobs we hold today, our feelings about our alma mater. Basically, we spent an hour becoming friends. I like the guy. I’m going to have lunch with him again, and I’m going to pay the next time.
All of which made it harder to ask the question I needed to ask: Why Trump?
My friend acknowledged that Trump is thin-skinned, erratic, blustery, abusive, that he’s said and done things that were lewd, boorish and abusive, that he has grave doubts about his judgement. But Trump gives him hope on the one issue he cares about: immigration.
The US has approximately 42 million immigrants, or 13.3% of the population, with roughly 1.2 million arriving per year. My friend would prefer we move to a much more restrictive set of immigration policies taking us towards net zero immigration. His reasons surprised me. “What happens to the wages of the average waiter in this restaurant if we end immigration. Labor is more scarce. Wages rise.” If we ended immigration, we’d take steps towards improving the lives of the underemployed and reducing inequality in the US, he argues.
Good progressive that I am, I can think of a lot of other ways to reduce inequality and improve waiters’ lives: a livable wage law, single-payer healthcare, redistribution of wealth via a progressive income tax. I expected a fight over regulated and unregulated markets with my friend, but we ended up in a different place: a fundamental disagreement over who matters.
My friend identifies as a “citizenist”, someone who believes our goal as Americans should be to better the lives of other American citizens. “I don’t care who they are, where they’re from, what they believe – if they’re here and they’re citizens, they’re the ones we should help.” I identify as a globalist. I consider it an accident of birth that I’m an American rather than Nigerian, and I don’t see a strong reason to privilege the economic success of someone who happened to be born here over that of someone who wants to come here. I have great sympathy for Lant Prichett’s argument that eliminating national boundaries would be the best possible step for global economic development.
During my first year of college, I roomed with a devout Christian from a small town in Pennsylvania. We were both philosophy majors, we both loved to argue, and we became dear friends despite the fact that our worldviews diverged radically on many subjects. A few months into our friendship, we learned that certain of our arguments simply reduced to a fundamental moral disagreement that neither of us would budge from. Finding the roots of these disagreements was surprisingly satisfying – it allows you to look at someone you respect and say, “Oh, THAT’s why you believe that apparently absurd thing.” When my Trump-supporting friend and I reached the citizenist/globalist split, I feel like we’d found bottom in that way. I believe he’s fundamentally wrong, but I can see how he got from his underlying principles to his otherwise incomprehensible conclusion.
My friend’s question for me was far more specific than why I opposed Trump. He quoted the final line of my CNN op-ed: “If we can’t agree that Richard Spencer and Steve Bannon are beyond the pale, what can we agree on?” Was it fair to put white supremacist Spencer and activist publisher Bannon in the same category?, my friend probed.
The question mattered to him because he finds himself siding with Bannon on many issues. More critically, he saw Breitbart, the site Bannon published, as one of the few that gave voice to his perspectives on immigration. “If Bannon is beyond the pale, and Breitbart’s beyond the pale, does it mean that my views on immigration are beyond the pale? And what about the millions of Americans who agree with me?”
And so, here it gets complicated. My friend and I agree that political dialog in the US is often too narrow. He’d like the sphere of legitimate controversy to include discussion of net-zero immigration. I’d like to see the dialog expand to include elimination of national borders. The rise of the internet as the dominant public sphere has led to an expansion of opinions we can encounter online, giving voice to perspectives that are still in the sphere of deviance for most media. For the most part, I think this is a good thing.
But here’s the catch. When Breitbart comes on the scene and pushes the sphere of legitimate controversy to the right, we start hearing points of view that probably should remain in the sphere of deviance. Bannon gives voice to the net-zero immigration point of view, but also to the ethnonationalist point of view. I’d argue that’s a point of view that should remain in the sphere of deviance due to the damage it’s caused over the years. (There’s clearly points of view on the left that I’d put in the sphere of deviance as well. For me, black bloc protests that focus on property destruction as a way of challenging global capitalism probably push into the deviant sphere. And I’m happy putting the anti-vaxxers there.)
My friend is with me… sort of. We both agree there’s points of view that we’re best not giving airtime to. But we’d draw the line differently. He wants to exclude “the guys in the sheets”. I propose a line that excludes Milo Yiannopoulos, who has promoted misogynistic bullying online during Gamergate, but my friend is a reader and fan of Milo. And the more I talk about the issue with him, the more I realize I’m uncomfortable both with where that line should be placed and, more broadly, with placing lines.
Psychology professor Peter Coleman wrote a book called The Five Percent about apparently intractable conflicts. One of the key stories he explores is tension between pro-choice and pro-life activists in Boston. In 1994, John Salvi III opened fire in two abortion clinics in Brookline, MA, killing two and wounding five. Coleman describes how a group of six women, some ardently pro-life and others ardently pro-choice, began meeting in secret over the course of six years.
Over the years, the women became deeply fond of one another. But rather than coming to agreement on issues of abortion, they became more polarized over time. Through years of explaining their positions respectfully to someone who deeply disagreed with them, the women became stronger and clearer in their convictions.
Is this a success or a failure? If you’re in the camp that believes that careful, fact-based deliberation leads to compromise and new solutions, it’s disappointing. But for Dr. Coleman, this is as good as we could hope for. The vitriol and anger that characterized the dialog between these two groups evaporated as these core activists began to know each other as people. And this may be the best we can hope for with controversies that reduce to fundamental conflicts of values.
Sitting down with my friend was made easier by the fact that we have a lot in common. We’re both hyper-privileged white males, we had enough time and flexibility to schedule the conversation, we both felt comfortable in the setting he’d chosen for the conversation. We had a great deal of common experience through our time at the same college. Neither of us felt personally threatened by recent political events in the way an undocumented immigrant or a Muslim American might. And even with all this going for us, it wasn’t an easy conversation – we circled around it for an hour before diving into it.
At this point, my friend isn’t comfortable revealing his identity, for fear that being identified as a Trump supporter will hurt his chances at working in academia. That, too, is an obstacle to these conversations, and some of that blame goes to me and friends on the left who are working to ensure that no one believes that President Trump has the approval of a citizenry united behind him. But I’m looking for ways to fight the excesses candidate Trump has promised while finding a way to keep open dialog with the people who supported him.
Postscript: I talked through the diagram I offered above with my friend and colleague Nathan Matias. He noted that, while helpful, the diagram does little to shed light on the current question d’jour: fake news. He’s right. The diagram above presumes good faith, and much of the media that’s created around the 2016 presidential election was not disseminated in good faith.
Stories in good faith often work to push the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy. As a result, they make some people uncomfortable, since they bring in perspectives and views we’re not comfortable entertaining. But that’s different from two categories of news that are being lumped into the idea of “fake news”.
Some “fake news” is propaganda. It’s weaponized text, designed to make our side look good and the other side look bad. Much propaganda isn’t fake – it’s simply heavily biased, and offers an incomplete view of events to have a persuasive effect. The medium term effect of propaganda is polarization, as we stop seeing our political opponents as reasonable people we disagree with, but as people who are so wrong and misguided that we couldn’t possibly find common ground with them. In the long term, propaganda destroys democracy, because it silences dissent and calcifies the parties currently in power.
A small amount of “fake news” is better described as disinformatzya. Its goal is not to persuade readers of its truth so much as it attempts to raise doubt in the reader that anything is true. We’re not used to disinformatzya in the US, but it’s been quite common not only in Russia but in Turkey, where Erdogan has manufactured fake news designed to reduce Turkish trust in Twitter, trying to disable it as a vehicle for organized opposition to his leadership. The long-term effect of disinformatzya is reduced faith in institutions of all sorts: the press in particular, but government, banks, NGOs, etc. Who benefits from this doubt? People who already have power benefit from a population that’s disempowered, frustrated, confused. And highly charismatic leaders who promise guidance away from failed institutions benefit personally from this mistrust.
My friend and I didn’t directly engage with issues of propaganda and disinformatzya versus boundary-pushing in good faith, but the subject came up more than once by accident. Trying to demonstrate Breitbart’s pushing of subjects beyond the pale, I referenced an article, “Are Jews White?”… which of course proves to be an Atlantic article asking questions about whether Breitbart is raising questions like this, not an actual Breitbart article. Yep, I’m a communications scholar, and I’m still susceptible to confirmation bias.
NB: I asked my friend to review my blog post and offer corrections and clarifications to ensure that I’m portraying him fairly. This post reflects his corrections and amendments.
Hundreds of thousands of articles will be written this week trying to explain what happened in the 2016 US presidential election. One of the best explanations was written four years ago by television host and cultural commentator, Chris Hayes.
In his book, Twilight of the Elites, Hayes explains that left/right divisions in the US are no longer as relevant as the tension between institutionalists and insurrectionists. Institutionalists believe the institutions of our society – government, media, education, healthcare, business – are fundamentally sound, but need the ongoing engagement of good, energized people to keep them healthy and functional. Insurrectionists believe that these same institutions have failed us and need to be torn down and replaced.
We just experienced a presidential election between a consumate institutionalist and a radical insurrectionist. Clinton’s notable qualities – her deep understanding of the way Washington works, her experience in the State department, the respect she receives from powerful people domestically and internationally, her ethic of hard work – are the calling cards of the institutionalist. She understands the system and is ready to make it work better.
Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the systems he’s just been given the keys to. That’s okay, since he’s not promising to steer it well, but instead to crash it into a wall. The people who elected Trump did so not because they thought his business expertise would translate into good governance. They did so because the American system wasn’t working for them, and Clinton promised only fine-tuning of a system that’s failing them. Crashing the bus is a stupid move, but when you believe it’s been driven in the wrong direction for the past few decades, it can feel like progress.
Well before Trump announced his unlikely candidacy, institutionalists were starting to feel the earth shift under their feet. For decades, American trust in government has been shrinking. In 1964, 77% of Americans told pollsters that they believed the government in Washington would do the right thing all or most of the time. Now, that number is under 15%. And who can blame us? Trust started falling with Watergate, accelerated under 8 years of Reagan telling us that government couldn’t do anything right, was reinforced by the failures of the war in Iraq, our national failure to protect the poor after Katrina and the financial crisis of 2008. If you’re not at least a little mistrustful, you’re not paying attention.
When people start to mistrust systems, two things happen. They stop participating within them, and they look for someone – a single person who they can relate to – who promises a way out of or around the system. Mistrust leads both to low political participation, as we saw in this election, and to the rise of authoritarians and demagogues.
Someone always runs as the outsider, the rebel who’ll shake up the political establishment. The Republicans – in spite of themselves – nominated a genuine outsider this year, someone who neither understood or respected the process. When the nation – and the world – is in an insurrectionist mood, the normal rules of politics don’t apply. For his insurrectionist supporters, every time Trump trampled on another norm – threatening to prosecute his rival, banning reporters from his events, encouraging violence in his rallies – it was evidence that he was genuinely outside the system, genuinely willing to challenge the status quo. When we on the left celebrated Clinton’s self-control, leadership, competence and experience, it read as us reassuring our insurrectionist neighbors that we institutionalists were committed to ensuring that nothing major would actually change.
I work with thousands of people on dozens of civic projects, all of whom are asking, “What now?” I don’t know, and I distrust anyone who thinks s/he does. But here’s a start:
This would be a good time to take insurrectionists seriously. When we dismiss all Trump voters are racists or misogynists, we run the risk of ignoring those who hated Trump, hated what he stood for, and voted for him anyway, because they hate their dead-end jobs, they can’t afford health insurance, and they see things getting worse, not better, for their children.
Don’t get be wrong – some genuinely hateful people voted for Trump because they see him as making America Hate Again. Protecting marginalized people – immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQI, people of color – has to be the top priority for the next four years for anyone outraged and dismayed by Trump’s election.
But progressives need a new vision for an economy where workers, not just entrepreneurs, have a bright future. And I’m pretty sure that future isn’t built around the gig economy. Yes, GDP is up, but when inequality is as high as it is, that doesn’t mean a thing for most workers. Yes, unemployment is reasonably low, but the quality of jobs has dropped for many of the workers who are demanding change. Understanding that many people feel their future slipping away, and that people who feel threatened tend to treat those they see as “other” very badly, is an important step anyone who works on social change needs to take.
Not all insurrectionists are conservative. Occupy was a progressive insurrectionist movement, as was Podemos. So is the Pirate Party in Iceland, which came close to capturing power last month. Insurrectionism doesn’t have to mean a return to the political dark ages (though under Trump, it likely will.)
Progressives need to understand an insurrectionist moment as an opportunity to push for structural change. Trump wants to “drain the swamp”, and make fundamental changes to how Washington works. Conveniently, so do I – Washington hasn’t worked very well for many people for a long time now. When Trump’s incoherent and insane ideas don’t pan out, it would be a very good thing for progressive insurrectionists to offer some structural changes we’d like to make. An electoral college bound to the popular vote, larger congressional districts with rank-order voting to lessen tyranny of the majority, bans on dark money? Those are hard for with an institutionalist, who’s been put into place by that system, to fight against, but they could be the platform for a progressive insurrectionist.
If you can’t make change through law, make in another way. For the past couple of years, I’ve been preaching the idea that elections, laws and court decisions aren’t the only path to social change. I’ve done so because I’ve seen many progressive-leaning insurrectionists become frustrated with their inability to pass laws and elect leaders to advance their priorities.
Law is a powerful way to make social change, but it’s far from the only way. Deep changes like the acceptance of gays and lesbians in society is a norms-based change that unfolds in popular culture and social media far before law catches up and protects rights. Changes in technology are leading to a change in how we understand and protect privacy, allowing citizens to respond to government surveillance by hardening their personal privacy. Changes in markets, where social enterprise is emerging as an alternative to conventional enterprise, is an area where disruptive, insurrectionist practices are celebrated. We’re starting to see successful examples of change using levers other than law as the primary lever of change. This challenging moment is a good time to learn to use those non-legal levers better.
Help people feel powerful. Insurrectionism results from the understandable feeling many people have that they are powerless to change the systems that govern their lives. Anything we can do to help more people feel powerful undercuts the insurrectionist argument. Alternatively, anything that helps people make change by combatting and replacing dysfunctional institutions with ones that work better harnesses insurrectionism for positive ends. What doesn’t help is any outcome that leaves people feeling powerless and alienated, as that’s the circumstances that’s led us to this dark moment.
I didn’t want to see a Trump presidency, and the rise of insurrectionism to the highest levels of the American government scares the crap out of me. But scarier is the endless blame game I hear my allies engaged in, figuring out whether we blame the media, the FBI or anyone other than ourselves for this loss. We have a brief opportunity to figure out how to make social change in an age of high mistrust and widespread insurrectionism. It would be a shame if Donald Trump figured out how to harness this power and the progressives lined up against him failed to do so.
I hadn’t found space yet to cry this week.
As the election results came in, I was out bowling with my students, and as they got more despondent, I told them ways Clinton might still win. When I woke to a Trump presidency, I knew there would be crying people in my office (I didn’t expect some would be faculty!) and I started sharing my sincere, but carefully chosen, feelings that this was a chance to build a new, stronger progressive, anti-racist movement. I spent Friday in a day-long workshop with Marshall Ganz, working on sharpening my skills so I can be a better leader and a better coach to those I work with. Saturday, I marched with friends in the cold, protesting in a town where almost everyone agrees with us because I thought it was important to show my face, to lend my body to a mass of people standing up and resisting.
I didn’t cry until this morning when a friend posted this Kate MnKinnon Saturday Night Live video.
Yep. That did it. So I’ve spent the last hour in bed sobbing, which I really needed. And once I was ready to stop crying, Dave Chapelle’s monologue was a good way to get up and face the morning.
And so, later today I’m off to London to see friends who’ve been trying to find the way forward after Brexit. On stage Tuesday, we’re going to talk about how the US, the UK and much of the world have gotten to a place where people feel so alienated and mistrustful that they’re willing to try anything in the hopes of seeking a change. We’re going to look for ways that progressives can play defense, to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, while looking for ways that massive change could lead to massive growth.
I’m wiping my eyes, packing my bags and getting back to work. However you’re feeling this week, I hope you’re able to do so too.
I spent yesterday in Bogota, Colombia, as the invited guest of the Premio Nacional de Periodismo Simón Bolívar, offering a speech on the future of civics and the future of journalism. It’s a wonderful event – roughly 1100 people came to celebrate Colombia’s equivalent of the Pulitzer prize. I had a great time meeting the amazing Colombian journalists who served as the jury for the award as well as the team behind the event.
My friends on the jury pointed out something that they found amazing – this year’s winners offered stories about the environment, gay adoption, teenage parties, sexual identity… and almost nothing about the country’s 52 year long civil war. As one of my friends put it, “Maybe we can now focus on the problems any normal nation has.” Fingers crossed that, despite the no vote on the peace deal with the FARC, this positive trend continues.
Here’s what I shared with the audience in Bogota:
I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about a deep change that I think is occurring in the world we share. Since I’m a professor at MIT, you are probably expecting me to tell you about a technological shift – the rise of synthetic biology or of quantum computing. But please don’t worry – I don’t understand that stuff either. Instead, I’m here as a journalist and a publisher, and I want to talk about a social and political shift I’m seeing in my lab and in my reporting work. It’s a shift that helps explain what’s happened in recent events both in Colombia and in the US. And it’s a shift that’s changing what it means to be a journalist and what our industry needs to do.
I was last in Bogota in August, just three months ago. Talking to friends and colleagues, I felt the great hope many people had that the 52 year civil war might be coming to an end, that the amazing transformation of cities like Bogota and Medellin would become what Colombia was known for globally, instead of years of violence. I also got the strong sense that peace was hard, that achieving a solution that Colombians thought was fair and just was going to require much more than an agreement and a referendum.
In the wake of the vote on October 2, Colombia looks like a nation divided, with 49.8% voting sí and 50.2% voting no. I want to suggest that Colombia is divided in a much more serious way, between 62% who didn’t vote and 38% who did. The group that won in the referendum was not Uribe supporters, not those who wanted to see more FARC leaders prosecuted. Those who won the vote were the 62% who had so little faith in the democratic process that they didn’t vote.
It’s very fashionable to beat up on the people who didn’t vote – they were too lazy, they weren’t educated enough about the issues, it was raining and they didn’t care enough about their civic duty to go out and get wet. I want to suggest that it’s dangerous to dismiss this group as lazy or uneducated.
Let me give you an example from the United States. In our elections, we see a great difference in turnout between old people and young people – retired people vote at almost twice the rate of people in their twenties. People read these statistics and declare that we have a crisis in civics! Young people are so selfish, so obsessed with their phones and music and media that they aren’t paying any attention to the world around them.
But there’s other data that contradicts this. Young people in America are volunteering at higher rates than they ever have. Huge percentages of people are active online in political discussions about racism and about sexual harassment, writing online and sharing stories of their experiences. Most of my students aren’t going into politics or into government service, but they are starting businesses that have the twin goals of making money and of making social change, building products and services around alternative energy and organic farming. They may not be voting, but they are profoundly active in their communities and in civic life.
So what’s going on here? This isn’t a crisis in civics, it’s a crisis in confidence, specifically a crisis in confidence in institutions.
The Gallup Research survey asks Americans the same question every year: do you have confidence that the government will do the right thing all or most of the time? In 1964, 71% of people said yes, they had confidence in the government. Last year, the answer was 13%. And who can blame them? The US congress passes fewer laws than ever, there’s less compromise between our two parties, and it’s so difficult to accomplish everything that the government periodically shuts down, and is in danger of defaulting on its debt, not because we are out of money, but because we can’t agree to sign the check.
But Americans aren’t just losing confidence in government – the same survey asks about confidence in other institutions: the church, banks, big business, universities, the health care system, the police. In the US, confidence is down in every large institution with the exception of the military.
So I have some bad news – mistrust is on the rise around the world, not just in the US. The research firm Eurobarometer looks at these same questions of trust in institutions around the world, and they find that trust is diminishing in most democracies. There’s two places trust is increasing – the most successful democracies in Scandinavia and Northern Europe and in autocratic states, like China and the United Arab Emirates.
What happens at times of high mistrust? People stop participating in the political process. If you don’t trust that the government can or will carry out the will of the people, why bother to vote? Why run for office or support the campaigns of those who do? Elections continue, but the people who are elected know that they lack a strong mandate – they were elected by a plurality of voters, and they know the majority may not support anything they do. The people who continue to participate are those most passionate… and most extreme. We end up with paralysis, because the most passionate participants are not willing to compromise. And this paralysis leads to more disengagement from voters – they were worried that government couldn’t accomplish anything, and this paralysis simply proves they were right.
When we lose confidence in institutions, we tend to transfer our trust to individuals. In the US, that’s leading to one of the strangest elections in history, where a man with no experience governing, a history of business failures and a track record of offending nearly everyone in our country stands a chance of becoming our president. But mistrust in institutions doesn’t have to lead to demagoguery. It can lead to all new ways for citizens to participate in civic life.
Around the world, I am seeing citizens look for ways to make change outside the political system. My students don’t want to go into government, but they do want to go into business. Last week, I met with two students from India who’ve invented a pollution control device that filters particles out of exhaust. You can attach it to a car, a generator, a motorbike, and not only does it reduce your emissions, but their technology can turn those particles into ink. So you can drive your car or run your generator, and fill the toner cartridge for your laser printer at the same time. They’re convinced that they can help people make money and reduce emissions at the same time, and they might be right.
Making change through technology and markets is a great way for individuals to try to make change when they lose faith in their ability to pass laws. But perhaps the most powerful way people can make change is by trying to shape social norms, the unwritten rules of how we interact with each other in society. In the US, you may know, we’re having very serious problems with African Americans being killed by police. This isn’t a problem of law: it’s illegal for the police to kill someone unless their lives are at risk. It’s a problem of social norms: due to America’s tragic racial history, many white people perceive young black men to be dangerous. Ending the violence means changing this deep-seated perception.
Activists involved with the Black Lives Matter movement have used social media to call attention to this crisis of police violence – they’ve demanded the news media do a better job of covering cases where black people are killed by police by making victims famous. Our lab did a study of these efforts and found there were ten times as many stories about black victims of police violence after the movement started than before it began.
This form of social change is uncomfortable for us as journalists. For one thing, the press is an institution that’s subject to almost as much mistrust as government. And now activists are telling us that we’re not doing our jobs right, that we need to cover this story and not that one. They are telling us that we’re not always living up to our own ethical standards, that our reporting sometimes makes complicated situations more confusing.
I want to invite you to look at the situation a different way. Activists have realized that making media is a way of making change. What they’ve realized is what we do as journalists is powerful, and that they can do this work, too. We have a natural tendency to defend our territory, to complain about these interlopers invading our profession as we struggle to keep doing the important work we do. But I believe that they way forward is to cooperate with people who are making media to make change. I believe activists and citizens can make news that is fair and trustworthy, and that we can learn new lessons from them as well.
My friend Michael Schudson has an essay called “Six or Seven Things News Can Do For Democracy”. Some of what he asks the press to do is familiar to us – to inform, investigate and analyze the events that take place in the world around us. These are tasks everyone who proudly calls themselves a journalist knows how to do well, and we can help citizens learn to do this work as well.
But Schudson asks the news to do things we’re less comfortable with. He argues that it’s news’s job to make us empathize with stories of people who are unfamiliar to us. That the news needs to provide a public space for discussion of the issues of the day. That sometimes the job of news is to empower people to mobilize and take political action. Some of these are places where we can learn lessons from activists, from citizen journalists, from people who are using the media to make change and to feel powerful even when they feel deeply disempowered by the institutions around them.
Schudson ends his essay by suggesting that news can help people understand and appreciate our democratic system and how it works. Here I want to suggest that our job isn’t to explain how we think democracy is supposed to work, or how democracy used to work. Our job is to help people understand how democracy works – and doesn’t work – now.
Often, people are right to be mistrustful of institutions – our job is to discover and reveal institutions that are broken or corrupt. But we cannot stop there, or we leave our readers informed but disempowered. We have to help citizens – our readers – understand how they, personally, can make change in the world, at the ballot box, as consumers, as entrepreneurs, through social media, through technology. We have to document where the levers of power are in society today and help people learn how to move them.
Maybe it’s not fair to put this challenge on the media, an institution that’s going through its own struggles to be financially sustainable. But I believe the answer to our future as an industry begins with ensuring we are relevant as a civic actor. And the brilliance and bravery of the journalists in Colombia we are honoring today and who have done groundbreaking work through years past gives me great confidence that you are all up to the task. Thanks for listening to me and thank you for the work you do.
Reading Facebook before bed last night, amidst the Halloween costumes and candy haul photos, I saw this headline: “How to choose between the most corrupt, least popular candidates of all time”. Given that I’m researching a book on mistrust and its effects on politics and civic life, this seemed like something worth reading.
Alas, instead of examining the peculiarities that have led us to an election between two candidates that might have otherwise been unelectable, the article is a humor piece. It offers “offensive and misdemeanors” for each candidate and advises you to use your own moral compass to make the choice. For Clinton, it lists “Poor email server management”. For Trump, there’s a list of 230 sins. I made it through about 90 before falling asleep.
So… I voted for Clinton. I did so because I think Trump is an especially hideous human being, and voting for Clinton lets me vote against him twice (denying him my vote, and voting for the candidate most likely to beat him, instead of for Stein, Johnson or my favorite, Vermin Supreme.) And while I feel great about voting for our first female president, I voted for Clinton with some misgivings. I’m not thrilled about how little access she’s given the press through formal press conferences. I’d like to understand her relationship with Wall Street better and how this might affect support for the sorts of consumer protections Elizabeth Warren has fought so hard for. And I’m really pissed off about the ways in which the Clinton Foundation appeared to use access to the State Department to raise money.
Weirdly enough, despite 18 months of non-stop election coverage, I feel like these stories are somewhat undercovered. But it’s not actually coverage – it’s a shortage of attention. While there’s been good reporting on them, these stories haven’t taken over the news cycle in the way we would expect them to. There’s three reasons for this, and none are that the mainstream media is in the tank for Clinton.
First, the sheer amount of shit and scandal that Donald Trump generates every time he opens his mouth has overwhelmed the mainstream press to the point where it’s surprisingly difficult to pay attention to any specific piece of it. Scandals that would sink another candidate – a personal foundation that doesn’t actually give any money, for one – simply become part of the noise and the haze.
Just today, the New York Times is reporting that Trump used tax avoidance strategies that have subsequently been ruled improper, and were deeply dodgy when he engaged in them. Slate reports on speculation from the computer security community that a server run by the Trump Organization may have had secret communications with a server owned by a bank connected to Russian oligarchs, raising the possibility of a secret email channel between the Trump campaign and Russian groups. (There’s good arguments that the evidence discovered isn’t a smoking gun, but evidence that email is weird and wonky.) And while Democrats wonder why James Comey chose Friday to reopen an investigation of the Clinton email scandal based on emails found in an investigation of Anthony Weiner’s solicitation of a 15-year old girl (if you wrote this stuff for telenovelas, you’d get fired), Mother Jones wonders whether there’s video evidence of Donald Trump at a Russian orgy that gives the FSB leverage over Trump in a kompromat operation.
The sheer flood of craziness makes it hard to focus on any single issue. If this is the result of brilliant oppo research from the Clinton campaign, they should just fucking stop already. A Trump orgy tape, or Trump saying the “n-word” (the other rumored November surprise), isn’t going to persuade undecided voters (though it might contribute to the collective demoralization of staunch Republicans and keep them from the polls.) But the flood of negativity is also giving ammunition for those who support Trump because they believe our electoral system and media are rigged and that he faces a massive political and media conspiracy that’s keeping him from the presidency.
The sheer volume of Trump scandals means that journalists have to answer questions about false balance and equivalency when they look into Clinton scandals. Report on concerns about the Clinton Foundation and you face reasonable questions about whether the sins of the Clinton Foundation are as rotten as those of the Trump Foundation, or whether influence peddling rises to the same level of importance as sexual harassment.
Report on Clinton missteps and you also run the danger of being lumped in with the vast right wing conspiracy that’s been generating “Hillary is the Devil” stories since the late 1990s. These stories have reached truly astounding levels of complexity and paranoia – Google “Clinton Death Count” for a quick dive into the world where the Clintons have ruthlessly killed dozens of friends and associates who’ve had the misfortune to cross their paths. When you report on a “legitimate” Clinton scandal, you run the risk of being considered one of those who believes Hillary strangled Vince Foster with her bare hands to satiate her naked blood lust, and you know the story you’re publishing gives more ammunition for those who blame Clinton for everything from Benghazi to the lack of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7.
With the death of Blackberry, Clinton has moved to Apple products and is worried that the phone jack leaves her vulnerable to FBI tapping. So she pressured Tim Cook into a product change he knew would tank the business so she could protect her nefarious communications. (I just made that up, but I expect to see it on Infowars by this evening.)
The net result of this batshit crazy election cycle is a Distributed Denial of Service attack on democracy. Like a webserver brought to its figurative knees by an endless flood of malformed requests, we are beginning to melt down under the avalanche of craziness. We’re left with the impression that this is an election between the possibly shady but unfairly attacked versus the truly unhinged… or between the thoroughly corrupt insider whos managed to undermine both government and the media versus the rough, offensive and often outrageous outsider who’s the only man she couldn’t bring down. We can’t move beyond those impressions because we are drowning in controversies and conspiracies, with very little help in understanding which matter and which we should take seriously.
That’s not good for us in the long run. I anticipate that Clinton will win the election, not in a landslide, but in a surprisingly close race. Almost immediately after taking office, she will be impeached, both because it’s a great way for the right to slow down any policy steps she might take (“Obviously, we can’t consider a candidate for the Supreme Court while the President is being impeached!”) and because there’s tons of data from Wikileaks and elsewhere that raises uncomfortable questions about the Clintons’ foundation and her service as secretary of state. Given the increasing polarization and paralysis of the government combined with the three ring circus of impeachment, the Hillary Clinton presidency will be historically unproductive, giving the Republicans a great chance to reposition themselves as the party of revolution, promising to blow up a broken system and replace it with something new that works. And this time around, they probably won’t nominate a serial molester who dodges taxes.
We need an oppositional press that vets candidates before we get this far in an election cycle. We needed investigations of Trump and Clinton’s foundations many months before the election. And we need new strategies, both as press and as voters, for navigating political cycles in which information is in surplus and attention is scarce.
After the last presidential debate, I wrote on Twitter that the whole experience had left me wanting to take a shower… in sulfuric acid. Looking for an anger beyond fear, anger and despair, I made four donations – to a US NGO, an international NGO, a progressive candidate for the US House of Representatives, and a libertarian Republican candidate for the North Carolina state senate. I wrote about my decision to do this on Twitter and Facebook, urging my readers to find a way to do something that made them feel positive and affirmative about this increasingly terrifying and alienating election cycle.
A smart, considerate friend who is deeply informed about North Carolina politics took me to task for my support of Greg Doucette, the Republican I’d given the princely sum of $50 to. Doucette, she explained, is challenging a Democrat with a record she sees as admirable. Beyond that, the North Carolina GOP, as a whole, is taking terrible steps to limit the rights of transgender people. How could I provide any support to such a horrific party?
I’m not sure she’s right, nor am I sure she’s wrong. I was frustrated that my gesture towards personal friendship and bipartisanship suddenly put me in a position to justify the collective actions of a party I’d never vote for. And I felt embarrassed that I’d made a simple, quick personal gesture without consideration of the larger political implications, or without educating myself about Doucette’s opponent in his race.
I had some of the same feelings again today. In response to the horrific firebombing of a GOP field office in North Carolina, a group of progressive and democratic friends raised over $13,000 to help rebuild that space. On a mailing list that these friends and I frequent, a debate is now raging about whether this lovely gesture just creates fungible funding for the GOP, who almost certainly have insurance, and who will use this gift of progressive money to further conservative agendas. Again, I feel lousy – even though I wasn’t quick enough to join the campaign, which raised the money in 40 minutes! – and I wonder whether there’s any way to make even a symbolic kind action at this angry, bitter and partisan moment.
I decided that I’m going to try to shape my thinking with three rules to help me make decisions on questions like this over the next few weeks.
Action over inaction
My deepest fear over the 2016 election is not of revolution or armed uprising by angry Trump supporters, but merely a continuation of the long, slow process of disengagement with civics and politics as a whole. I’ve been writing and speaking for months now about my sense that the dominant trend in politics globally is mistrust of institutions, and that mistrust leads naturally to disengagement and a sense of disempowerment. Because the default is inaction, engagement over disengagement is a good rule to try and follow.
It should go without saying – though, this crazy year, nothing goes without saying – that I am advocating non-violent action, whether that’s protest, volunteering, canvassing, donating, making media, etc. It should also go without saying that informed, careful, considerate action is better than thoughtless, spontaneous action without considering the consequences. But it’s easy to fall into a cycle of critique that leads to paralysis.
People over party
I desperately want Donald Trump to lose this upcoming election. And I believe Hillary Clinton will be an excellent president. But I’m deeply frustrated that our political system gave us two candidates who are so widely disliked, guaranteeing a best case scenario in which a Clinton presidency is dogged at every turn by an angry, recalcitrant Republican house. I’m sick to my stomach thinking of another four years of paralysis, and frustrated that I have no answer for friends who wonder when will be the election cycle that we break out of a two party system and consider a wider range of alternatives.
I’ve voted Democrat all my life (with the notable exception of supporting William Weld over John Silber in 1990), but have always tried to understand the positions my Republican friends have taken. A foundational experience for me was visiting a Republican friend who’d been named chief of staff for Kansas senator (now governor) Sam Brownback in his new office in the Capitol. I intended for us to have a friendly visit, crack a few political jokes at each other’s expense and move on. Instead, my friend said, “Do we have any business to discuss?” I laughed and asked what issues Sam Brownback and I might possibly have common ground on. My friend immediately came up with two – increasing H1-B visas for high-skilled immigrants, and seeking increased funding to protect against violence in Central Africa. It was an amazing lesson that people can find things to agree on even when parties can’t.
I supported Greg Doucette because he’s a decent human being who shares many of my positions and values, especially around issues of criminal justice. But I supported him also because he’s running as a Republican, and I was thrilled to see an opportunity where I could support someone on “the other team”. Even if Clinton wins in a landslide, at least 40% of the US voting public is going to feel frustrated and alienated. I believe that building ties with people of like minds and good hearts across the aisle is work worth doing and has importance far beyond whoever wins or loses individual seats in this election.
Kindness over everything else
If you are a sentient being, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, this has been a tough election cycle. Many of my conservative friends are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, and some are growing frustrated that their failure to support Hillary Clinton has lumped them into a basket of deplorables. Many of my progressive friends are angry at being told to support Clinton less apocalypse occur. Many women who are survivors of sexual abuse are triggered by Trump’s persistent and casual misogyny and bullying. African American friends are still reeling in anger from the continued stream of unarmed black men and women killed by police.
This is an ugly moment in time. Being kind to one another is one of the few things that’s unambiguously the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean just being courteous and polite. It means actually stopping to try and understand why people hold the beliefs they do. This excellent piece – provocatively named “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” – is a good start, at least as regards understanding why people in rural areas of the US are feeling so forgotten and disrespected.
It’s also possible that kindness is the single most important and powerful thing you can do to make change in the world. Consider the story of Derek Black, who inherited a leadership role in the White Nationalist movement from his father, the founder of the Stormfront message board community. A fellow student at New College in Sarasota, Florida reached out to Black, inviting him to an interfaith shabbat dinner, not to confront him about his beliefs, but simply to reach out and include him. This kindness proved transformative – at great cost to his relationships with his family, Black has forsaken white nationalism.
Kindness works. I’m less sure that anything else does.
I have not been writing much about my divorce on this blog – I’ve kept most of that discussion on Facebook. I thought this post, wrestling not only with the divorce, but unwanted change more generally, might be helpful for a broader audience.
I have been coming to grips with the uncomfortable realization that I am a conservative.
Not a political conservative – if anything, this election is hardening my identity as a progressive insurrectionist. Not a social conservative – that the world around me is more colorful, diverse and fluid by the day is a major source of joy. Personally conservative.
I don’t like change. I’d go as far as to say that I hate it.
I live in the same house I bought almost twenty years ago. It’s painted the same color it was then. It’s in, more or less, the only town I’ve lived in as an adult, the town I moved to for college twenty seven years ago. I’ve had the same damned non-hairstyle since I was sixteen.
Given my lived preferences, it appears that I would be happiest if everything in my immediate personal life could stay the same forever.
That, of course, isn’t an option.
Earlier today, my wife of seventeen years and I divorced in a ceremony she designed. It began with a blessing over wine in the battered, tarnished cup someone had given us at our wedding, engraved with the date. My beloved ex took the wine blessed in that cup, poured it into two red plastic Solo cups, and we each drank from our own. As the wine moved from a beloved relic into the table settings for a game of beer pong, I couldn’t help seeing this as a downgrade of a life together into two uncertain, lesser futures.
Which is, of course, wrong. Our lives are both already changing in ways that are healthy, unexpected and often delightful. I just need to get over hating the process.
What I’m learning – slowly, awkwardly, painfully – is that the changes I fear and dread have often already happened. By the time Rachel was ready to tell me she needed to end our relationship, it had changed a long time ago. We had stopped being the center of each other’s personal universes, had disengaged from the others passion and work, had begun sharing and confiding in other friends. My instinct was to fight these changes, to try and bring things back to the comfortable stability we had once enjoyed. I am grateful that Rachel fought to embrace the change, to step into the unknown, believing that things could be different and better.
My reaction to the end of my marriage with Rachel was to frantically reach out to old friends and demand they reassure me that they still loved me and that our relationship would never change. Some did. Some didn’t. In a few cases, friends took the opportunity to point out that we weren’t as close as we had been, that our friendship had already changed, or even ended, sometimes years before. They are right, too, and the onus is on me to discover what those friendships might be now, and what new spaces may have opened in my life as other friends have departed.
The problem with hating change is that it doesn’t stop it from happening. It just assures that change will happen to you, rather than allowing you to choose to make a change.
I am slowly learning to see the upside of my old nemesis. Some of what’s happened to me in the past year has been unbelievably wonderful. Those marvelous parts happened when, faced with a change that was already underway, I made a choice and made a change. My challenge now is to overcome my instinctive fear, this desire for everything to remain static and comfortable – despite its imperfections – and learn to love the changes. They’re coming anyway.
Yesterday, prisoners around the US began a strike protesting unpaid, underpaid and forced labor. Maybe. We think.
Led by prisoners in Alabama and Texas, incarcerated activists planned a nationwide labor strike yesterday, with prisoners refusing to report for jobs essential to run the prison, as well as for jobs for companies who contract jobs to prison labor. Scheduled for the 45th anniversary of the Attica Prison uprising, organizers announced that this would be the largest prison protest in US history.
Was it? I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone does.
It’s hard to tell what’s going on inside US prisons. While prisoners can reach out to reporters using the same channels they can use to contact friends or family members, journalists have very limited rights of access to prisons, and it would be challenging for an intrepid reporter to identify and contact inmates in prisons across a state, for instance, to determine where protests took place. Wardens have a great deal of discretion about answering reporters’ inquiries and can choose not to comment citing security concerns. Reporters who want to know what’s going on inside a prison sometimes resort to extraordinary measures, like becoming a prison guard to gain access. (Shane Bauer’s article on private prison company CCA is excellent, but the technique he used was not a new one – Ted Conover’s 2000 book Newjack is a masterpiece of the genre.)
Because it’s so hard to report from prison – and, frankly, because news consumers haven’t demonstrated much demand for stories about prison conditions – very few media outlets have dedicated prison reporters. One expert estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen dedicated prisons reporters across the US, an insane number given that 2.4m Americans are incarcerated, roughly 1% of the nation’s population.
So what happened yesterday?
Prisoners associated with the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC), in cooperation with the End Prison Slavery in Texas movement, the Free Alabama Movement and others announced a coordinated strike on September 9th. While different movements have different demands, a common thread is opposition to unpaid and underpaid labor. Nearly 900,000 inmates work within US prisons. Some produce goods for sale by corporations, a process called “insourcing”, but most work in the prison laundry, kitchens and janitorial services, keeping prisons running. Alex Friedmann, managing editor of the indispensable Prison Legal News observes that, “If our criminal-justice system had to pay a fair wage for labor that inmates provide, it would collapse.”
In most states and in federal prisons, inmates are paid a small fraction of the minimum wage for their work. In Texas and Arkansas, they are not paid at all. Activists point out that forced labor for unfair or no wages is tantamount to slavery. And while good students of American history know that the 13th amendment abolished slavery, not everyone knows that slavery continued to be permitted “a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. In her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander points out that after slavery was abolished, southern states began aggressively arresting and imprisoning African Americans, then leasing convicts as hired labor to the plantation owners who previously kept slaves. Since the start of the war on drugs, the US prison population has quadrupled, and African-Americans have been disproportionately imprisoned for drug crimes. Much as Jim Crow and convict leasing reproduced much of the control structures of slavery, the war on drugs, Alexander and others argue, is producing a system that looks like contemporary slavery.
Organizers called on inmates to refuse to report to work, hoping to paralyze prison operations and force guards to take on essential jobs. It’s unclear how many inmates were willing to risk punishment and retribution by participating. Some facilities may have preemptively locked down their facilities to prevent strikes from occurring. Holmes Correctional facility in Florida announced a lockdown after a reported riot the day before the general strike. Subsequently, two other Florida facilities have been in lockdown starting during the strike, and others report “disturbances”. The spokesperson for the Florida prison system reported that Friday’s disruptions included everything from a few inmates failing to report for work to “major” revolts.
Ar Holman Prison in Alabama, where some of the movement organizers are based, prison authorities report that 45 prisoners refused to work on Friday. IWOC, the organizers of the strike, report that South Carolina prisoners have issued a list of demands before they return to work and that as many as 30 prisoners are striking. Perry Correctional Institution in Greenville, SC is reported to be on lockdown in response to the protests. Some of the news reported on the IWOC feed is less optimistic – they report the few prisoners who’ve decided to strike in North Carolina are outnumbered by those who did not participate.
And that’s basically what we know.
It’s possible that the protests have been disappointingly small. It’s exceedingly hard to organize a nationwide movement given the barriers to communication prisoners face. Wired published an intriguing article on the role of social media in organizing the strike, but no one should conclude that inmates with smuggled mobile phones have the level of internet access protesters in Tahrir had, for example. (Still, the Free Alabama Movement manages to maintain a YouTube presence with videos filmed from inside prison.) It’s also possible that the protests are more widespread that we know. That’s what IWOC organizers predicted, suggesting that it will be at least a week before we know what actually happened on the 9th. It’s likely that many protesters will be cut off from mail and phone, unable to report on what’s going on within their prisons.
I’ve been writing lately about situations in which readers can have power by calling attention to events in the world. This is one of those situations. If the prison strike becomes a nationwide story, it’s likely that some wardens will be more cautious than they otherwise would in taking punitive action against strike participants. And while it’s hard for anyone to report on conditions in prisons, large media organizations like the Washington Post, the New York Times, NPR and others may be able to reach out to existing contacts and provide a more detailed view of events – and none of those three have done significant reporting on this strike thus far. Especially if you are a subscriber or supporter, this would be an excellent time to write a note to the public editor asking for close coverage to this topic.
Perhaps the call for the nation’s largest prison strike has failed. Or perhaps we’re seeing the beginnings of a long action that will change incarceration as we know it. It’s a problem that we don’t – and can’t – know. A nation that imprisons 1% of its population has an obligation to know what’s happening to those 2.4 million people, and right now, we don’t know.
Here are some of the resources I’m leaning on to follow the strike. Isabelle Nastasia is keeping a list of reports on strike actions at Mask Magazine. IWOC’s Facebook page is sharing reports as they come in from individual prisons.
There’s been some exemplary work done reporting on the strike ahead of time. The American Prospect published my single favorite text piece… though it’s from 2014… and The Nib features Sofie Louise Dam’s graphic briefing on the strike, which is a must-read.
At the end of the Rio Olympic men’s marathon, silver medalist Feyisa Lilesa did something extraordinary, important and dangerous. As he crossed the finish line, he crossed his wrists in front of his forehead in a gesture that’s halfway between “hands up, don’t shoot” and “X marks the spot.”
The gesture is sign of defiance that has become a symbol of Ethiopia’s Oromo rights movement. An unprecedented wave of protests in Ethiopia by Oromo and other ethnic rights groups is rocking Ethiopia, which is one of Africa’s most repressive states. By showing support for the protesters in his native Oromia, Lilesa has brought international attention to a movement that’s been violently suppressed by the government, with over 400 civilians killed.
He has also put himself and his family at risk. Defiance of the Ethiopian government can lead to imprisonment or to death. Ethiopian colleagues of mine at Global Voices served eighteen months in prison for the “crime” of learning about digital security, so they could continue to write online about events in their country. Fearing arrest or worse, Lilesa has decided to remain in Brazil, and may seek asylum there or in the US. A GoFundMe campaign has raised almost $100,000 to contribute to his legal and living expenses. But the real challenge may be reuniting Lilesa with his wife and children, who remain in Ethiopia.
The Olympics have an uneasy relationship with protest. While states threaten boycotts of each others’ games – and occasionally follow through on those threats – athletes who bring politics into the arena have been sharply sanctioned. When Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute after winning gold and bronze in the 200 meters in 1968, both were suspended from the US Olympic team, expelled from the Olympic village and sent home. (Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist, who supported their gesture and wore a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity, was not sanctioned, but was shunned by his country’s Olympic committee and never raced again.) While the Olympic movement does not appear to be taking action against Lilesa, unfortunately, that’s likely the least of his problems.
I wrote two weeks ago about my fears that attention to the Olympics and the endless US political campaign would distract people from these protests in Ethiopia. I argued that international attention may help protect the lives of Ethiopian activists, as the government will be forced to face the consequences of how they treat their dissenting citizens. Lilesa has helped ensure that the Olympics would include a healthy dose of Oromo rights. Now it’s time to do our part and ensure that Lilesa and his family don’t pay for his actions with their lives.
I gave to support Feyisa Lilesa’s relocation fund, and encourage you to do so as well. Here’s hoping he can return home someday soon to an Ethiopia that makes space for dissent. Unfortunately, that’s not the Ethiopia the world has now.
As an advocate for Americans to pay more attention to international news, I often get the question, “Why bother? What can I do?”
It’s a good question. Most of the time, there’s very little actionable in international news. Understanding the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff might be useful if you’re an investor in emerging markets, but it’s unlikely that your attention can change the shape of events in Brazil.
That might not be the case in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is Africa’s third most populous nation, and is near the top of the league table in repression as well, with at least ten journalists in prison for exercising their rights to report freely. The former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, ruled from 1995 to his death in 2012, and his successor, Hailemariam Desalegn, looks awfully secure in his job as the ruling EPRDF and its allies won all 546 parliamentary seats in the last election.
Oromo protesters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
While Ethiopia is populated by dozens of ethnic groups, most senior members of the ruling party are of Tigray origin, a group that represents about 6% of the population, but which led the guerrilla war that defeated the Derg, the communist military junta that ran Ethiopia from 1975 to 1991. Many Oromo (34% of the population) and Amhara (27% of the population) feel marginalized by the Tigrayan government, a situation that has grown more tense as the government has announced plans to expand the capital Addis Ababa into traditional Oromo lands and farmers feared their lands would be seized.
Protests have been ongoing since November, but they turned bloody this weekend as the Ethiopian security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds, killing as many as 100. (This, unfortunately, is standard procedure in Ethiopian crowd control – sadly, I’ve been writing about it for more than a decade.) Human Rights Watch reports that up to 400 have been killed by the government and tens of thousands arrested in protests thus far.
Of course, it’s hard to know what’s actually going on in Ethiopia. As protests have heated up, Ethiopia shut down the internet in provinces where people have taken to the streets, hoping to disrupt organizers. (This isn’t hard, as there’s one ISP and one telephone company in Ethiopia.) A shutdown earlier this year, which coincided with protests spreading into the north of the country, was evidently done for the benefit of university students, to keep them from cheating on exams. Given the government’s tendency to arrest reporters or bloggers and imprison them for years (Ethiopian bloggers affiliated with Global Voices were held for 18 months in prison), the exact details of what’s happening in Ethiopia can be very hard to pin down.
So here’s where you ask, “So what? What can I do?”
Well, international opinion actually matters to Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a military ally of the United States, and we send nearly a billion dollars in aid, mostly development and food aid per year. Shamefully, Addis Ababa is the diplomatic capital of Africa, home to the African Union. As human rights abuses get out of hand in Ethiopia, the US has limited aid in the past, and the AU occasionally threatens to grow a spine. The UN is now asking to put observers in Ethiopia, which the government is resisting.
The biggest help the world can give the Ethiopian government is ignoring what’s going on. It’s summer, it’s hot, the Olympics are on, and Trump says something insane every other day. There’s not a lot of space in the daily newspaper for a crackdown in Ethiopia. But international attention is one of the few ways to keep Ethiopia’s insanely repressive government in check.
So please follow what’s going on in Ethiopia. We’re writing lots about it on Global Voices. OPride offers moment to moment updates on protests in Oromia. NPR, BBC and Al Jazeera are all actively covering the story, even if most US media has adopted the “all Trump, all the time” format. Reward their stories with your attention, talk about Ethiopia on social media and help other people pay attention to this story. There’s not much you can do to prevent Ethiopia from crushing a rebellion, but you can make it hard for them to do it silently, unwitnessed by the rest of the world.
Global Voices author Endalk is mapping protest deaths in Oromia on this interactive map. Warning, some of the images are disturbing.
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The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me… or Can we design sociotechnical systems that don’t suck?
Note: Shane Snow wrote a long and thoughtful email to me about this post. While we agree to disagree on some substantive issues, primarily our thoughts about the future of VR, we also found quite a bit of common ground. He noted that my essay, while mostly about the ideas, strays into the realm of ad hominem attacks, which wasn’t my intention. I’ve removed one comment which he accurately identified as unfair.
I am deeply grateful to Shane for taking the time to engage with my piece and to make changes to his original essay.
I found Shane Snow’s essay on prison reform – “How Soylent and Oculus Could Fix the Prison System” – through hatelinking. Friends of mine hated the piece so much that normally articulate people were at a loss for words.
A real person thought it would be a good idea to write this and post it on the Internet. pic.twitter.com/rj8viJr1HQ
— Susie Cagle (@susie_c) January 30, 2016
With a recommendation like that, how could I pass it up? And after reading it, I tweeted my astonishment to Susie, who told me, “I write comics, but I don’t know how to react to this in a way that’s funny.” I realized that I couldn’t offer an appropriate reaction in 140 characters either. The more I think about Snow’s essay, the more it looks like the outline for a class on the pitfalls of solving social problems with technology, a class I’m now planning on teaching this coming fall.
Using Snow’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to consider a problem that’s been on my mind a great deal since joining the MIT Media Lab five years ago: how do we help smart, well-meaning people address social problems in ways that make the world better, not worse? In other words, is it possible to get beyond both a naïve belief that the latest technology will solve social problems and a reaction that rubbishes any attempt to offer novel technical solutions as inappropriate, insensitive and misguided? Can we find a synthesis in which technologists look at their work critically and work closely with the people they’re trying to help in order to build sociotechnical systems that address hard problems?
Obviously, I think this is possible – if really, really hard – or I wouldn’t be teaching at an engineering school. But before considering how we overcome a naïve faith in technology, let’s examine Snow’s suggestion a textbook example of a solution that’s technically sophisticated, simple to understand and dangerously wrong.
When smart people get important things really wrong
Though he may be best know as co-founder of content marketing platform “Contently”, Shane Snow describes himself as “journalist, geek and best-selling author”. That last bit comes from his book “Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators, and Icons Accelerate Success”, which offers insights on how “innovators and icons” can “rethink convention” and break “rules that are not rules”. That background may help readers understand where Snow is coming from. His blog is filled with plainspoken and often entertaining explanations of complex systems followed by apparently straightforward conclusions – evidently, burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity is a poor idea, so oil companies should be investing in solar energy. Fair enough.
Some of these explorations are more successful than others. In Snow’s essay about prison reform, he identifies violence, and particularly prison rape, as the key problem to be solved, and offers a remedy that he believes will lead to cost savings for taxpayers as well: all prisoners should be incarcerated in solitary confinement, fed only Soylent meal replacement drink through slots in the wall, and all interpersonal interaction and rehabilitative services will be provided in Second Life using the Oculus Rift VR system. Snow’s system eliminates many features of prison life – “cell blocks, prison yards, prison gyms, physical interactions with other prisoners, and so on.” That’s by design, he explains. “Those are all current conventions in prisons, but history is clear: innovation happens when we rethink conventions and apply alternative learning or technology to old problems.”
An early clue that Snow’s rethinking is problematic is that his proposed solution looks a lot like “administrative segregation“, a technique used in prisons to separate prisoners who might be violent or disruptive from the general population by keeping them in solitary confinement 23 hours a day. The main problem with administrative segregation or with the SHU (the “secure housing unit” used in supermax prisons) is that inmates tend to experience serious mental health problems connected to sustained isolation. “Deprived of normal human interaction, many segregated prisoners reportedly suffer from mental health problems including anxiety, panic, insomnia, paranoia, aggression and depression,” explains social psychologist Dr. Craig Haney. Shaka Senghor, a writer and activist who was formerly incarcerated for murder, explains that many inmates in solitary confinement have underlying mental health issues, and the isolation damages even the sound of mind. Solitary confinement, he says, is “one of the most barbaric and inumane aspects of our society.”
Due to the psychological effects of being held in isolation, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has condemned the use of sustained solitary confinement and called for a ban on solitary confinement for people under 18 years old. Rafael Sperry of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility has called for architects to stop designing prisons that support solitary confinement as they enable violations of human rights. Snow’s solution may be innovative, but it’s also a large-scale human rights violation.
Snow and supporters might argue that he’s not trying to deprive prisoners of human contact, but give them a new, safer form of contact. But there’s virtually no research on the health effects of sustained exposure to head-mounted virtual reality. Would prisoners be forced to choose between simulator sickness or isolation? What are the long-term effects on vision of immersive VR displays? Will prisoners experience visual exhaustion through vergence-accommodation, a yet-to-be-solved problem of eye and brain strain due to problems focusing on objects that are very nearby but appear to be distant? Furthermore, will contact with humans through virtual worlds mitigate the mental problems prisoners face in isolation or exacerbate them? How do we answer any of these questions ethically, given the restrictions we’ve put on experimenting on prisoners in the wake of Nazi abuse of concentration camp prisoners.
How does an apparently intelligent person end up suggesting a solution that might, at best, constitute unethical medical experiments on prisoners? How does a well-meaning person suggest a remedy that likely constitutes torture?
Make sure you’re solving the right problem.
The day I read Snow’s essay, I happened to be leading a workshop on social change during the Yale Civic Leadership conference. Some of the students I worked with were part of the movement to rename Yale’s Calhoun College, and all were smart, thoughtful, creative and openminded.
The workshop I led encourages thinkers to consider different ways they might make social change, not just through electing good leaders and passing just laws. Our lab examines the idea that changemakers can use different levers of change, including social norms, market forces, and new technologies to influence society, and the workshop I led asks students to propose novel solutions to long-standing problems featuring one of these levers of change. With Snow’s essay in mind, I asked the students to take on the challenge of prison reform.
Oddly, none of their solutions involved virtual reality isolation cells. In fact, most of the solutions they proposed had nothing to do with prisons themselves. Instead, their solutions focused on over-policing of black neighborhoods, America’s aggressive prosecutorial culture that encourages those arrested to plead guilty, legalization of some or all drugs, reform of sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, reforming parole and probation to reduce reincarceration for technical offenses, and building robust re-entry programs to help ex-cons find support, housing and gainful employment.
In other words, when Snow focuses on making prison safer and cheaper, he’s working on the wrong problem. Yes, prisons in the US could be safer and cheaper. But the larger problem is that the US incarcerates more people than any other nation on earth – with 5% of the world’s population, we are responsible for 25% of the world’s prisoners. Snow may see his ideas as radical and transformative, but they’re fundamentally conservative – he tinkers with the conditions of confinement without questioning whether incarceration is how our society should solve problems of crime and addiction. As a result, his solutions can only address a facet of the problem, not the deep structural issues that lead to the problem in the first place.
Many hard problems require you to step back and consider whether you’re solving the right problem. If your solution only mitigates the symptoms of a deeper problem, you may be calcifying that problem and making it harder to change. Cheaper, safer prisons make it easier to incarcerate more Americans and avoid addressing fundamental problems of addiction, joblessness, mental illness and structural racism.
Understand that technology is a tool, and not the only tool.
Some of my hate-linking friends began their eye-rolling about Snow’s article with the title, which references two of Silicon Valley’s most hyped technologies. With the current focus on the US as an “innovation economy”, it’s common to read essays predicting the end of a major social problem due to a technical innovation. Bitcoin will end poverty in the developing world by enabling inexpensive money transfers. Wikipedia and One Laptop Per Child will educate the world’s poor without need for teachers or schools. Self driving cars will obviate public transport and reshape American cities.
Evgeny Morozov has offered a sharp and helpful critique to this mode of thinking, which he calls “solutionism”. Solutionism demands that we focus on problems that have “nice and clean technological solution at our disposal.” In his book, “To Save Everything, Click Here”, Morozov savages ideas like Snow’s, whether they are meant as thought experiments or serious policy proposals. (Indeed, one worry I have in writing this essay is taking Snow’s ideas too seriously, as Morozov does with many of the ideas he lambastes in his book.)
The problem with the solutionist critique is that it tends to remove technological innovation from the problem-solver’s toolkit. In fact, technological development is often a key component in solving complex social and political problems, and new technologies can sometimes open a previously intractable problem. The rise of inexpensive solar panels may be an opportunity to move nations away from a dependency on fossil fuels and begin lowering atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, much as developments in natural gas extraction and transport technologies have lessened the use of dirtier fuels like coal.
But it’s rare that technology provides a robust solution to a social problem by itself. Successful technological approaches to solving social problems usually require changes in laws and norms, as well as market incentives to make change at scale. I installed solar panels on the roof of my house last fall. Rapid advances in panel technology made this a routine investment instead of a luxury, and the existence of competitive solar installers in our area meant that market pressures kept costs low. But the panels were ultimately affordable because federal and state legislation offered tax rebates for their purchase, and because Massachusetts state law rewards me with solar credits for each megawatt I produce, which I can sell to utilities through an online marketplace, because they are legally mandated to produce a percentage of their total power output via solar generation. And while there are powerful technological, market and legal forces pushing us towards solar energy, the most powerful may be the social, normative pressure of seeing our neighbors install solar panels, leaving us feeling ike we weren’t doing our part.
My Yale students who tried to use technology as their primary lever for reforming US prisons had a difficult time. One team offered the idea of an online social network that would help recently released prisoners connect with other ex-offenders to find support, advice and job opportunities in the outside world. Another looked at the success of Bard College’s remarkable program to help inmates earn BA degrees and wondered whether online learning technologies could allow similar efforts to reach thousands more prisoners. But many of the other promising ideas that arose in our workshops had a technological component – given the ubiquity of mobile phones, why can’t ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones? Given the rise of big data techniques used for “smart policing”, can we review patterns of policing, identifying and eliminating cases where officers are overfocusing on some communities?
The temptation of technology is that it promises fast and neat solutions to social problems, but usually fails to deliver. The problem with Morozov’s critique is that technological solutions, combined with other paths to change, can sometimes turn intractable problems into solvable ones. The key is to understand technology’s role as a lever of change in conjunction with complementary levers.
Don’t assume your preferences are universal
Shane Snow introduces his essay on prison reform not with statistics about the ineffectiveness of incarceration in reducing crime, but with his fear of being sent to prison. Specifically, he fears prison rape, a serious problem which he radically overestimates: “My fear of prison also stems from the fact that some 21 percent of U.S. prison inmates get raped or coerced into giving sexual favors to terrifying dudes named Igor.” Snow is religious about footnoting his essays, but not as good at reading the sources he cites – the report he uses to justify his fear of “Igor” (parenthetical comment removed – EZ, 6/29/16) indicates that 2.91 of 1000 incarcerated persons experienced sexual violence, or 0.291%, not 21%. Shane has amended his post, and references another study that indicates a higher level of coerced sexual contact in prison.
Perhaps isolation for years at a time, living vicariously through a VR headset while sipping an oat flour smoothie would be preferable to time in the prison yard, mess hall, workshop or classroom for Snow. But there’s no indication that Snow has talked to any current or ex-offenders about their time in prison, and about the ways in which encounters with other prisoners led them to faith, to mentorship or to personal transformation. The people Shane imagines are so scary, so other, that he can’t imagine interacting with them, learning from them, or anything but being violently assaulted by them. No wonder he doesn’t bother to ask what aspects of prison life are most and least livable, which would benefit most from transformation.
Much of my work focuses on how technologies spread across national, religious and cultural borders, and how they are transformed by that spread. Cellphone networks believed that pre-paid scratch cards were an efficient way to sell phone minutes at low cost – until Ugandans started using the scratch off codes to send money via text message in a system called Sente, inventing practical mobile money in the process. Facebook believes its service is best used by real individuals using their real names, and goes to great lengths to remove accounts it believes to be fictional. But when Facebook comes to a country like Myanmar, where it is seen as a news service, not a social networking service, phone shops specializing in setting up accounts using fake names and phone numbers render Facebook’s preferences null and void.
Smart technologists and designers have learned that their preferences are seldom their users’ preferences, and companies like Intel now employ brilliant ethnographers to discover how tools are used by actual users in their homes and offices. Understanding the wants and needs of users is important when you’re designing technologies for people much like yourself, but it’s utterly critical when designing for people with different backgrounds, experiences, wants and needs. Given that Snow’s understanding of prison life seems to come solely from binge-watching Oz, it’s virtually guaranteed that his proposed solution will fail in unanticipated ways when used by real people.
Am I the right person to solve this problem?
Of the many wise things my Yale students said during our workshop was a student who wondered if he should be participating at all. “I don’t know anything about prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.”
Talking about the workshop with my friend and colleague Chelsea Barabas, she asked the wonderfully deep question, “Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem?”
On its surface, the question looks easy to answer. We can’t ask infants to solve problems of infant mortality, and by extension, it seems unwise to let kindergarden students design educational policy or demand that the severely disabled design their own assistive technologies.
But the argument is more complicated when you consider it more closely. It’s difficult if not impossible to design a great assistive technology without working closely, iteratively and cooperatively with the person who will wear or use it. My colleague Hugh Herr designs cutting-edge prostheses for US veterans who’ve lost legs, and the centerpiece of his lab is a treadmill where amputees test his limbs, giving him and his students feedback about what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change. Without the active collaboration of the people he’s trying to help, he’s unable to make technological advances.
Disability rights activists have demanded “nothing about us without us”, a slogan that demands that policies should not be developed without the participation of those intended to benefit from those policies. Design philosophies like participatory design and codesign bring this concept to the world of technology, demanding that technologies designed for a group of people be designed and built, in part, by those people. Codesign challenges many of the assumptions of engineering, requiring people who are used to working in isolation to build broad teams and to understand that those most qualified to offer a technical solution may be least qualified to identify a need or articulate a design problem. Codesign is hard and frustrating, but it’s also one of the best ways to ensure that you’re solving the right problem, rather than imposing your preferred solution on a situation.
On the other pole from codesign is an approach to engineering we might understand as “Make things better by making better things”. This school of thought argues that while mobile phones were designed for rich westerners, not for users in developing nations, they’ve become one of the transformative technologies for the developing world. Frustratingly, this argument is valid, too. Many of the technologies we benefit from weren’t designed for their ultimate beneficiaries, but were simply designed well and adopted widely. Shane Snow’s proposal is built in part on this perspective – Soylent was designed for geeks who wanted to skip meals, not for prisoners in solitary confinement, but perhaps it might be preferable to Nutraloaf or other horrors of the prison kitchen.
I’m not sure how we resolve the dichotomy of “with us” versus “better things”. I’d note that every engineer I’ve ever met believes what she’s building is a better thing. As a result, strategies that depend on finding the optimum solutions often rely on choice-rich markets where users can gravitate towards the best solution. In other words, they don’t work very well in an environment like prison, where prisoners are unlikely to be given a choice between Snow’s isolation cells and the prison as it currently stands, and are even less likely to participate in designing a better prison.
Am I advocating codesign of prisons with the currently incarcerated? Hell yeah, I am. And with ex-offenders, corrections officers, families of prisoners as well as the experts who design these facilities today. They’re likely to do a better job than smart Yale students, or technology commentators.
The possible utility of beating a dead horse
It is unlikely that anyone is going to invite Shane Snow to redesign a major prison any time soon, so spending more than three thousand words urging you to reject his solution may be a waste of your time and mine. But the mistakes Shane makes are those that engineers make all the time when they turn their energy and creativity to solving pressing and persistent social problems. Looking closely at how Snow’s solutions fall short offers some hope for building better, fairer and saner solutions.
The challenge, unfortunately, is not in offering a critique of how solutions go wrong. Excellent versions of that critique exist, from Morozov’s war on solutionism, to Courtney Martin’s brilliant “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”. If it’s easy to design inappropriate solutions about problems you don’t fully understand, it’s not much harder to criticize the inadequacy of those solutions.
What’s hard is synthesis – learning to use technology as part of well-designed sociotechnical solutions. These solutions sometimes require profound advances in technology. But they virtually always require people to build complex, multifunctional teams that work with and learn from the people the technology is supposed to benefit.
Three students at the MIT Media Lab taught a course last semester called “Unpacking Impact: Reflecting as We Make”. They point out that the Media Lab prides itself on teaching students how to make anything, and how to turn what you make into a business, but rarely teaches reflection about what we make and what it might mean for society as a whole. My experience with teaching this reflective process to engineers is that it’s both important and potentially paralyzing, that once we understand the incompleteness of technology as a path for solving problems and the ways technological solutions relate to social, market and legal forces, it can be hard to build anything at all.
I’m going to teach a new course this fall, tentatively titled “Technology and Social Change”. It’s going to include an examination of the four levers of social change Larry Lessig suggests in Code and which I’ve been exploring as possible paths to civic engagement. It will include deep methodological dives into codesign, and into using anthropology as tool for understanding user needs. It will look at unintended consequences, cases where technology’s best intentions fail, and cases where careful exploration and preparation led to technosocial systems that make users and communities more powerful than they were before.
I’m “calling my shot” here for two reasons. One, by announcing it publicly, I’m less likely to back out of it, and given how hard these problems are, backing out is a real possibility. And two, if you’ve read this far in this post, you’ve likely thought about this issue and have suggestions for what we should read and what exercises we should try in the course of the class – I hope you might be kind enough to share those with me.
In the end, I’m grateful for Shane Snow’s surreal, Black Mirror vision of the future prison both because it’s a helpful jumping off point for understanding how hard it is to make change well using technology, and because the US prison system is a broken and dysfunctional system in need of change. But we need to find ways to disrupt better, to challenge knowledgeably, to bring the people they hope to benefit into the process. If you can, please help me figure out how we teach these ideas to the smart, creative people I work with who want to change the world and are afraid of breaking it in the process.
My friends at Data and Society ran an excellent conference today in NYC. A speaker dropped out at the last minute and I got asked less than 48 hours ago to give a talk… a very specific talk. Here’s what I came up with, more or less.
I’m pinch hitting here, as we had a speaker who couldn’t join us, so I apologize for an unpolished talk without slides. To make my life easier, our friends at Data and Society asked me to tell a story I’ve told before. As I thought about it, I realized I wanted to tell that story very differently. So here’s a story that starts with one of the most embarrassing moments of my professional career and ends up on one of the most experimental and difficult projects I’ve ever worked on. Basically, it’s a story about the gap between ambitions, intentions and the compromises we make to bring ideas to life.
Twenty years ago, in 1996, I was 23 years old, and somehow was the chief tech guy for Tripod.com, which thought it was a lifestyle site for recent college graduates, but was actually one of the world’s first user-generated content sites. By 1999, we were hosting free webpages for 15 million users, which made us the 8th biggest website in the world. But in 1996, we were trying to figure out how to pay for the massive bandwidth bills we’d suddenly incurred by letting thousands of people publish whatever they wanted on our server.
Advertising was the business model everyone else was using on the internet, and so we joined in – we put banner ads on top of the pages users hosted with our service. Great! Until we got a call from one of our ad sales guys, who giving a demo to the Ford motor company, and found a Ford banner on top of a page enthusiastically and visually celebrating the joys of anal sex. (Lesson one – don’t let ad guys give live demos. Lesson two – don’t ever program a “show me a random page” button, no matter how easy it would be to implement.)
Yes, I invented the pop-up ad. And yes, I’m very, very sorry.
In reflecting on my sins, I’ve publicly decried advertising as the original sin of the web. Not all advertising – I have a soft spot for advertising targeted by user intent, like ads matched to search engine queries. But the ads we use to support the services we use everyday, our social networks and webmail, are almost necessarily going to fail – they’re trying to distract us from seeing our our friends’ baby pictures or hear about the weekend’s debauchery. And so these ads have become deeply surveillant, encouraging us to use whatever data we can glean about the context they’re shown in, and anything we can learn about a user’s demographics, psychographics and behavioral data in the desperate hope that we might click on them. And I fear that the rise of surveillant ads may be slowly training us all to expect to be surveilled at all time, a development that’s dangerous for us as citizens, not just as consumers.
But it’s way too easy to beat up on advertising. It’s a really tough problem to figure out how to support services that require network effects to be effective. Facebook wouldn’t be the useful behemoth it is today if it were a hundredth or a tenth the size. It’s useful because there’s the reasonable assumption that anyone you know will be on the service, even if they use it fairly rarely. it’s the universality that makes it so useful, and universal services require near-zero cost of entry.
Yes, we eventually could have supported Tripod with paid subscriptions… and Facebook could and should offer a non-surveillant, paid service for power users. Gmail should agree not to surveil the email of anyone paying for disk space. YouTube shouldn’t track the users who pay for ad-free RedTube. But there’s got to be a way for me to be findable by my high school friends, even if I don’t want to use the tool everyday. For the activist in Egypt to put up a webpage calling people out into the streets in a way where she doesn’t need to pay with a credit card and reveal her identity. Advertising is problematic solution, and it’s led us some troubling places. But I’m starting to worry about a bigger problem.
The mistake we made with Tripod was deeper than the pop-up ad. In retrospect, I feel like our whole business model – the business model I spent two years persuading my boss to adopt – is starting to destroy the web, this strange and beautiful creature I’ve been in love with for the past 22 years.
What Tripod did was take something that was possible for technically sophisticated users – to put up a webpage – and make it possible for orders of magnitude more users. and that was a good and important thing to do, much as letting people share photos and videos with each other, or send 140 character messages to each other is a Good Thing. But the way we did it sucked. We took the great genius of the web – the idea that everything could live on its own box, but be connected to everything else by the wonder of the hyperlink – and replaced it with a single server, controlled by a single company. This made it vastly easier for someone to put up a webpage without learning how to install apache and to write HTML, but it also meant that we had control over what you wrote. If you wanted to share your enthusiastic love for anal sex, too bad, because Tripod banned almost all nudes, and enforced the ban aggressively, with a combination of automation and human filtering. And so if you find yourself with certain types of speech – wanting to share information on breastfeeding on Facebook, for instance – you’re going to face the complicated reality that our digital public spaces are owned and controlled by corporations that we have little control or influence over.
A few years ago, cyberutopians of my generation, people who weren’t dumb enough to believe that the internet would automatically make the world a better place, but were dumb enough to believe that the values and tendencies of the internet would lead us towards a better world, started to find ourselves in crisis. One of the great hopes we’d had was that the internet inherently fights centralization. That barriers to entry are so low that there will always be competitors, always be options. When Amazon is eating all retail, Facebook all communication, Google all discovery, it’s hard to believe this anymore. And so it’s time to stop being so enthusiastic and uncritical about the internet and to start thinking hard about the downsides of this approach we’ve adopted.
My friend Rebecca MacKinnon encourages us to think of ourselves as citizens, not just as consumers, and to demand basic rights on these platforms. Others have proposed that we start thinking about how we regulate these platforms as if they were utilities, recognizing that they provide essential services and that we need to ensure everyone can access them. I want to suggest something even more radical.
I think the future of the web – the future I want for the web – comes from radical decentralization. The really radical version of Tripod – impossible at that point in time, but maybe possible now – would have been building tools that helped people publish their own content on their own servers they control under their own rules.
Here’s what I’m working on now – in all the classes I teach, students turn in their work on blogs. But I control those blogs, and at the end of the semester, I end up controlling their work. What I want is a system in which students have their own blogs, share the appropriate posts with me for the semester so I can aggregate them into a class site, but they end up owning their words and coming away from their time with a portfolio of work on their sites. This is not a new idea – The University of Mary Washington has a project called A Domain of One’s Own where there are accounts on a shared wordpress install. But I’m trying to solve this problem in a ludicrously convoluted way
I’m trying to build a system where my students use a tool that’s as beautiful and easy as Medium, but stores the data on multiple places all over the web using IPFS, the IP file system. Rather than keeping an index of the students in my classes and where those blogs are located, the system uses the bitcoin blockchain to register contracts about where I can find their writings for class. I’m building this in an insanely complicated way because the same architecture lets me build a distributed but compatible version of Twitter – if I decide I don’t want Twitter having control over my tweets anymore, I can start publishing my own twitter-like feed on a website I control, then register contracts that say that’s where my tweets live. If you use a compatible client, and you decide to follow me on Twitter, your client will check the blockchain to see if I’ve registered a contract to publish my updates off twitter and then subscribe to that RSS feed. If not, it will look for me on Twitter and subscribe to that feed. Basically, I’m trying to build a system with as few centralized points of control as possible, in the hopes of making it both easy for anyone to publish and disseminate information, and difficult for anyone intentionally or inadvertently to act as a censor or gatekeeper.
But it’s really hard. We didn’t design Tripod centrally because we were censorious control freaks. It’s way, way easier to build a single, central database than to distribute a directory of users across a distributed hash table. The sort of system I’m describing is probably 1000 times less efficient than existing centralized systems. That inefficiency has consequences, of cost, and for the environment. And there are enormous problems with managing content in a system like this one – it may not be possible to demand deletion of content in a truly distributed system, so what do we do with truly offensive content, like revenge porn.
And yet, it’s probably what we need to do. Because giving control over public spheres to private companies isn’t just a bad idea for us as citizens – it’s an impossible set of responsibilities for the corporations in question, and they’re already starting to strain under the load. And so we need to start thinking about how we build systems that aren’t just new and innovative, but that are architected in ways that support the generativity and creativity of the web in the long term. This isn’t a brave new world – it’s a rescue mission. It’s a return to the past, to the way the web used to work. And while building a decentralized web didn’t work the first time around, because the easy solutions won out against the right ones, we can do it right now, because we understand the dangers of centralization. We’ve seen how the story plays out.
To be clear, I’m not the only one trying to build these new systems. From the bitcoin libertarians to the openhearted cyberhippies like Brewster Kahle, people are building new ways to publish, discover and pay each other for content in ways that don’t require a gatekeeper standing in the middle of these transactions. But we need a much bigger group of people taking on this challenge, deciding to build a web that works in a way that empowers rather than imprisons us. As you’ve figured out, I’m not very smart – I’m the dumbass that thought that pop-up ads were a good solution to internet pornography. I need you, whether you’re motivated by curiosity, by ideology or by opportunity, to join me and take on this task. It’s hard to do, but it’s also right.
Two years ago, I wrote a blog post, “Life, only moderately messed up: understanding (my own) high-functioning depression” that was widely shared and appreciatively received. This is a somewhat overdue update to that post, and intended very much in the same spirit, both as a way to process some challenging experiences in my life through writing, and as a way to signal to people that I’m someone they can talk with about these issues.
Writing that post two years ago is one of the most important things I’ve done, because it’s opened conversations with friends, family and students that would not have happened otherwise, allowing people to approach me to talk about depression and allowing me to share my experiences with them and add them to my support structure.
The TL:DR; of that post is as follows:
– I’ve been a high-functioning depressive most of my adult life
– I wanted to come out as someone living with depression so friends would know and help me cope, and so students and others could approach me to talk about these issues
– High functioning depression is hard to recognize because it often isn’t externally visible, leading people to live with it, instead of seeking treatment.
It’s that last point I want to talk about here.
Part of the reason I wrote that post was to make it more likely that I’d seek counseling or try antidepressants the next time I felt moderately depressed. That’s not what happened.
In October of 2015, my wife Rachel told me that she wasn’t happy in our marriage and that we needed to seek counseling. We did, but by late November, it was clear that our problems weren’t easy ones to fix, and that we were in for a rough road ahead. Other factors intervened – my promotion process at MIT took a major step backward, and I started thinking seriously about leaving MIT. I left the board of an NGO I’d spent a huge amount of time and energy advising in a way that was deeply hurtful to me. With these things happening all at once, the days growing shorter and the winds colder, I found myself – almost overnight – in a very dark place.
In my previous post, I wrote, “…I am deeply fortunate that my depression is something that’s not life threatening. But that’s allowed me to gloss over long stretches of my life when I’ve not been my best, where daily life is a heavy lift.”
This time, and all of a sudden, my depression was life threatening. I started experiencing long bouts of suicidal ideation, detailed thoughts about how I might end my life. I wasn’t especially scared that I was going to act on these impulses, but intense thoughts of suicide are no fun at all, and I recognized that they were a symptom I needed to address before they wore me down and turned into something more dangerous.
And so I got help. My physician got me on an SSRI and, when the first one came with some unpleasant side effects, got me on another one very quickly. A very dear friend, hearing me talk about suicide, gave me the best intervention I could imagine. She told me:
“I love you.
You have been here before and you know you’re not always going to feel this way.
If you decide you need to go, talk to me so that your decision doesn’t end up ruining the lives of the people you love.”
I’m not sure it’s the best generic speech to talk someone off a ledge, but it worked well for me. And, critically, she introduced me to her therapist, who’s the first counselor I have felt understood where I was coming from, that I didn’t want to regress to childhood and heal decades of hurt, but needed some acute, immediate help in coping with the challenges of my life.
I got better quickly. Within a month, I was able to help Rachel through a challenging trip to Texas to visit a sick relative. Within two months, I felt significantly better than I had before my life started to go off the rails in October. By March, I found myself coming to the realization that SSRIs and therapy are probably part of the toolkit – along with walking, weightlifting, and a marvelous circle of friends around the world – that helps me harness my quirky brain (and we ALL have quirky brains) in productive and healthy directions.
I was high functioning before. I am higher functioning now. And that’s important, because life inevitably includes circumstances that are beyond your control.
On April 1st, Rachel asked me for a divorce. We are now in the process of moving her and Drew to a new house and diving our books, our art, and the physical and financial detritus of 23 years together. More importantly, we’re doing so in a way that we hope to break the script of most divorces. We’re committed to staying good friends, to spending time together with our son, and to keeping our many friends in the Berkshires and elsewhere from having to choose between the two of us. We’re trying very hard to stay on the same side, the side that recognizes that people grow and change, and that sometimes you continue to love someone but need not to be partnered with them. It’s hard work, and we don’t always get it right. But I’m starting to have the previously inconceivable thought that there’s life after losing the partner I’ve shared my entire adulthood with, and that the new life that follows divorce could be as wonderful as the life that preceded it.
But here’s the key bit: I would not have been able to handle this divorce if I were still moderately messed up. I would not have the resilience I’ve been able to display, the ability to be kind to someone who’s (understandably, necessarily and unintentionally) hurt me so badly. I would not be able to act with grace, to be the father my son needs me to be, to keep listening to and supporting my students at a time when I need so much support. I would not have survived this transition if I had not – at my darkest moment last year – gotten the help I needed.
And so I have a request. If you read my earlier post on high-functioning depression – two years ago, today or any time in between – and it resonated for you, please get help. Maybe that’s drugs and therapy, which worked for me. Maybe it’s yoga or running or weightlifting. Maybe it’s meditation, or prayer or co-counseling. Maybe it’s a practice of talking with a friend every day about how you’re feeling. What I’m asking is that you don’t continue accepting a reality in which you are high functioning, but far from as whole and resilient as you could be.
I’m asking you not to do what I did for 25 years.
Not just because it’s such a fucking waste of time to lose so many days to that feeling of fighting your way through a vat of molasses to get through the tasks of the day. Not just because being sad and scared and lonely slowly erodes your sense of self and prevents you from seeing yourself as the marvel you are. But because life is going to kick you in the gut sometime, and being able to weather that blow and get up again is hard to do even when you’re whole.
We don’t get to choose what happens to us. We do get to choose how we react to it. And we can choose to prepare ourselves for that kick in the gut, to make sure we’re as strong and graceful as resilient as we are capable of being.
As with my previous post, this isn’t meant as a cry for help – I’m doing pretty well, thanks very much. My family, many of my friends, my students and staff have been wonderful about helping me through this transition… as has my beloved ex, which is something I couldn’t have imagined being part of a divorce. I wanted to share these thoughts because I’m so grateful for the dozens of people who came out of the woodwork to counsel me through my divorce, to tell me that it will get better. I wanted to share with my friends so they know it’s okay to talk to me about what’s going on, that I’m okay – and Rachel’s okay, and Drew too. And I wanted to invite you – whether I know you or not – to reach out if you need someone to talk to about these issues.
Here’s a quick experiment – I’ve been publishing stories on FOLD and replicating the text here on this blog. But FOLD now supports embedding – let’s see how well my blog supports it… Otherwise, please feel free to go read this story on FOLD.cm