Archive for the ‘Sociopolitical’ Category

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds – The New Yorker

May 8, 2017


Liberal arts

January 28, 2017

Over the past year, I have had a few different ideas about how to save the world and get a Phd simultaneously. This combination of world-saving and self advancement is perhaps not intuitive, but I won’t go into a critique of capitalism at the moment. What I will go into is my long-held belief that education, done well, could help to address a lot of the sociological and cultural problems that sprout up locally, nationally and globally. My initial thoughts on dialogue across boundaries (social, religious, economic, ethnic, political, etc.) was that it was best begun in schools…partly because attendance is compulsory, but mostly because we would want to instil in young people the skills, abilities and habits to critically assess their own and others’ statements and beliefs, and external input generally.

I then began thinking about other aspects of education, particularly liberals arts. There had been some chat in the media about threats to funding for liberal arts in schools and universities, which I had registered but not engaged with. In fact, I hate to admit it, but my two degrees and journal publication not withstanding, I have never seriously thought about why anyone should study literature. Neither can I remember any teachers, from Kindergarten to university, expounding on why we were reading literature or what it could possibly do for us. The closest I got was a vague sense that this was (in a phrase I never heard as a student) cultural capital, and was just stuff that people would expect me to know. In fact, along with the occasional music lesson, it felt more like a process of getting students up to speed on what was going on in western society to date, with critical viewpoints or contextualisation left up to the historians. For me personally, I just enjoyed it.

When I did start thinking about whether education could help in a long-term overhaul of the polarisation and isolation evident in American (and other western) societies, I was reminded of a couple articles I had read about the power of novels to increase readers’ empathy or emotional intelligence (see here and here). Wanting to know more, I read Empathy and the Novel, which ties a lot of research in the field together. And I realised that part of the reason that I was so intrigued by this idea was that, when considering different issues that I have been confronted with, I often draw on the immersive experience of reading. It helps me to understand why people do ethically or morally troubling things; it helps to understand the lived experience of poverty or abandonment or war; it helps to simply remind us that everyone has a complex interior life.

So I thought about a longitudinal project that studied undergraduates’ levels of empathy throughout a literature course and what other factors came into play (reflection, discussion, etc.). But this idea was a bit too tangential for me in my increasingly alarmed state (as 2016 progressed, and I use the term in the temporal sense only). I wanted something that would get closer to what I wanted to achieve (and involved fewer privileged white students reading primarily privileged white authors, etc.), so my thoughts moved on. But as a concept, I had come to have much more respect for literature as doing something in society. I also began to consider how the approaches learnt in what might be considered esoteric subject like philosophy and Classics were transferrable to life generally–critical attitudes, ability to discuss different opinions with others, integrity, research, etc.

These are the qualities and skills sought by employers recruiting our students (the aforementioned predominately white and privileged ones) to management-track jobs in London. But there seems to be a shift–whether or not it’s related to the reported threats to liberal arts generally (and the actual cutting of some A-levels)–toward less nuanced job-focussed bachelor’s degrees. Alarm bells rang for me when I read JISC’s visions for HE in 2020 and 2030. There was a prevalent theme that suggested that the purpose of education is to directly prepare a student for a job. The idea that a university education was preparing students for Life–civic, personal, cultural and global as well as professional–was almost absent. Instead, it was imagined that every student would do a work placement as part of their degree, and every employer would be able to see a detailed portfolio of the student’s progress through the degree. So we’re back to capital.

I’m not so concerned about what came first (the increasing prioritisation of job-focussed education or the sidelining of liberal arts), but what it will mean if it keeps on going. Will this be another example of slow migration from whole-person education to machine-cog production? Has the term ‘liberal’ doomed us already?

Oblivion or Canada

January 21, 2017

New York Daily News 

The above cartoon and many like it have given me a quick laugh, and a sense of collegiality with whoever posted them on social media. But it was this one in particular, which appeared a few days ago, that started me joining up a few threads.

Leisure to care

Having never listened to Rush Limbaugh personally, I don’t know what he meant by ‘limousine liberal’. But I think this is a hint of it. In the cartoon is a well-to-do white man, obviously a wealthy city-dweller, who is so horrified by the new president that he will lose four years of his life to escape from the grim reality. This means that 1) He can afford to not work for four years while maintaining his vitals, and 2) Any of the bad things that he fears will happen during the new presidency will not affect him personally. He has no fear of waking up with a revoked marriage certificate (see wife); he has no fear of waking up in his (or his parents’ or grandparents’) country of origin; he has no fear of his job being lost in another recession; he has no fear of waking up in prison; he has no fear of war (it might create a business boom); he has no fear of waking up in a detainment camp because of his religion or ethnicity.

In other words, he’s pretty much like me. Few of the immediate threats that were made explicit in the election rhetoric would affect me personally. Of course this is especially true because I’m not resident in the US and have dual citizenship. But if our family were in the same jobs and house (and skin, etc.) in the US, the threat to my quality of life–in the short term anyway–is pretty limited.

And yet the man in the box and myself are sincerely and deeply emotionally affected by this turn of events. This is a good thing–we are not selfish creatures who ascribe to social Darwinism. But it’s not a good thing if we simply cannot handle being emotionally affected by bad stuff and therefore attempt to treat our emotions rather than their causes.

I’m not suggesting that me and Boxman pretend our emotions aren’t there, and sometimes a brief smile at a cartoon or a wry laugh with Trevor Noah is exactly what we need to carry on. But we’ve got to carry on and do something, not merely let this stuff be another indication that we’re right and they’re wrong. Because there are people–our friends, total strangers on the other side of the country, our neighbours, those whose neighbourhoods we fly over–who don’t have a choice about whether to ‘engage with politics’ or just ignore it, and who may very soon have cause to be much more emotionally involved in election outcomes than Boxman or I could imagine.

You’ll never walk alone

I think the ‘we’re right and they’re wrong’ meme (although I guess it’s a gene, which I’m not going to stop and research) is something else that encourages the secondary rather than primary view of political change. ‘I believe government is not responsible for x, y and z’ and ‘I believe government is responsible for x, y, z’ (for example) turn us into die-hard fans of Our Team. We get pushed by media, friends, social groups and our own desire for things to be binary into being a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan. Of course party politics (much bemoaned for centuries) has a lot to answer for. But regardless of why this happens, and regardless of whether we actually belong to a political party or not, the polarisation makes us ideologists (and sometimes package-deal ideologists).

It then makes us feel good to root for Our Team, and we are very passionate about Our Team. We follow them faithfully and scrutinise whether their choices will help them win or not. We discuss how well they are doing in recruiting players to help them win. If asked, we only want Our Team to win because it’s morally and ethically right. But I would argue that the line between our personal convictions, and even our own self-interest, and Our Team blurs to such a degree that me and Boxman no longer know whether our emotional reactions are based on righteous indignation about social injustice…or because Our Team lost the pennant.

As long as the Queen is on the money

I can’t avoid mentioning the ‘let’s all move to Canada’ meme, which is basically Boxman with free health care. While it was quickly deemed better to stay and fight in the US, those of us who were already gone bear witness to the fact that this does not solve the problem any more than cryogenics. Yes, we’re safe from what might happen domestically. But the rest of the world does not see America like many Americans see the rest of the world. America is perceived as both a material and metaphoric example/mirror/premonition. American exclusionism might make sense to Americans without passports, but the introvert at the party…is still at the party. Plus, I still rather like you guys.


Not even close. I’ve barely entered the depression stage.


  1. The one obvious thing that distinguishes me from Boxman is that he has a woman who is going to soldier through and look after him and the house while he escapes into nothingness. I imagine that there is a sociological term for that.

We just finished watching 13th. Contributing significantly to secondary emotions. This track played over the credits: