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Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by JH on November 26, 2014

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by JH on January 18, 2014

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person’s] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

Posted in History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by JH on November 26, 2013

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Existing levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

* * *

Related Situationist posts:

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

Posted in Altruism, History, Ideology, System Legitimacy | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“Ordinary Men” in Evil Situations

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 3, 2013

ordinarymenA few excerpts from an outstanding 1992 New York Times book review by Walter Reich of Christopher Browning’s remarkable book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland“:

We know a lot about how the Germans carried out the Holocaust. We know much less about how they felt and what they thought as they did it, how they were affected by what they did, and what made it possible for them to do it. In fact, we know remarkably little about the ordinary Germans who made the Holocaust happen — not the desk murderers in Berlin, not the Eichmanns and Heydrichs, and not Hitler and Himmler, but the tens of thousands of conscripted soldiers and policemen from all walks of life, many of them middle-aged, who rounded up millions of Jews and methodically shot them, one by one, in forests, ravines and ditches, or stuffed them, one by one, into cattle cars and guarded those cars on their way to the gas chambers.

In his finely focused and stunningly powerful book, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,” Christopher R. Browning tells us about such Germans and helps us understand, better than we did before, not only what they did to make the Holocaust happen but also how they were transformed psychologically from the ordinary men of his title into active participants in the most monstrous crime in human history. In doing so he aims a penetrating searchlight on the human capacity for utmost evil and leaves us staring at his subject matter with the shock of knowledge and the lurking fear of self-recognition.

* * *

In the end, what disturbs the reader more than the policemen’s escape from punishment is their capacity — as the ordinary men they were, as men not much different from those we know or even from ourselves — to kill as they did.

Battalion 101’s killing wasn’t, as Mr. Browning points out, the kind of “battlefield frenzy” occasionally seen in all wars, when soldiers, having faced death, and having seen their friends killed, slaughter enemy prisoners or even civilians. It was, rather, the cold-blooded fulfillment of German national policy, and involved, for the policemen, a process of accommodation to orders that required them to do things they would never have dreamed they would ever do, and to justify their actions, or somehow reinterpret them, so that they would not see themselves as evil people.

Mr. Browning’s meticulous account, and his own acute reflections on the actions of the battalion members, demonstrate the important effect that the situation had on those men: the orders to kill, the pressure to conform, and the fear that if they didn’t kill they might suffer some kind of punishment or, at least, damage to their careers. In fact, the few who tried to avoid killing got away with it; but most believed, or at least could tell themselves, that they had little choice.

But Mr. Browning’s account also illustrates other factors that made it possible for the battalion’s ordinary men not only to kill but, ultimately, to kill in a routine, and in some cases sadistic, way. Each of these factors helped the policemen feel that they were not violating, or violating only because it was necessary, their personal moral codes.

One such factor was the justification for killing provided by the anti-Semitic rationales to which the policemen had been exposed since the rise of Nazism, rationales reinforced by the battalion’s officers. The Jews were presented not only as evil and dangerous but also, in some way, as responsible for the bombing deaths of German women and children. Another factor was the process of dehumanization: abetted by Nazi racial theories that were embraced by policemen who preferred not to see themselves as killers, Jews were seen as less than people, as creatures who could be killed without the qualms that would be provoked in them were they to kill fellow Germans or even Slavs. It was particularly when the German policemen came across German Jews speaking their own language, especially those from their own city, that they felt a human connection that made it harder to kill them.

The policemen were also helped by the practice of trying not to refer to their activities as killing: they were involved in “actions” and “resettlements.” Moreover, the responsibility wasn’t theirs; it belonged to the authorities — Major Trapp as well as, ultimately, the leaders of the German state — whose orders they were merely carrying out. Indeed, whatever responsibility they did have was diffused by dividing the task into parts and by sharing it with other people and processes. It was shared, first of all, by others in the battalion, some of whom provided cordons so that Jews couldn’t escape and some of whom did the shooting. It was shared by the Trawnikis, who were brought in to do the shooting whenever possible so that the battalion could focus on the roundups. And it was shared, most effectively, by the death camps, which made the men’s jobs immensely easier, since stuffing a Jew into a cattle car, though it sealed his fate almost as surely as a neck shot, left the actual killing to a machine-like process that would take place far away, one for which the battalion members didn’t need to feel personally responsible.

CLEARLY, ordinary human beings are capable of following orders of the most terrible kinds. What stands between civilization and genocide is the respect for the rights and lives of all human beings that societies must struggle to protect. Nazi Germany provided the context, ideological as well as psychological, that allowed the policemen’s actions to happen. Only political systems that recognize the worst possibilities in human nature, but that fashion societies that reward the best, can guard the lives and dignity of all their citizens.

* * *

Read the entire review here.  Read more about the book here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Conflict, History, Ideology, Morality, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2013

First Published on July 3, 2007:

Battle of Lexington

With the U.S. celebrating Independence Day — carnivals, fireworks, BBQs, parades and other customs that have, at best, only a tangential connection to our “independence,” — we thought it an opportune moment to return to its source in search of some situationism. No doubt, the Declaration of Independence is typically thought of as containing a dispositionist message (though few would express it in those terms) — all that language about individuals freely pursuing their own happiness. Great stuff, but arguably built on a dubious model of the human animal.

Declaration of IndependenceThat’s not the debate we want to provoke here. Instead, we are interested in simply highlighting some less familiar language in that same document that reveals something special about the mindset and celebrated courage of those behind the colonists’ revolt. Specifically, as Thomas Jefferson penned, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Part of what made the July 4th heroes heroic, in our view, was their willingness to break from that disposition to suffer evils. They reacted, mobilized, strategized, resisted, and fought because they recognized that their suffering was not legitimate — a conclusion that many in the U.S. and abroad vehemently rejected.

Situationist contributor John Jost has researched and written extensively about a related topic — the widespread tendency to justify existing systems of power despite any unfair suffering that they may entail. As he and his co-authors recently summarized:

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people – regardless of their own social class or position – accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world.”

If we truly want to emulate and celebrate the “founding fathers” of this republic, perhaps we should begin by taking seriously the possibility that what “is” is not always what “ought to be.”

Happy Fourth!

* * *

To read a couple of related Situationist posts, see “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!

Posted in History, Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

The Gendered Situation at Harvard Law School – Part III

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 15, 2013

harvard law library

The Harvard Crimson‘s Dev Patel has an outstanding series of articles last week on gender inequality at Harvard Law School. Here are some excerpts from the third article, titled “Female HLS Graduates Enter a Job Market Dominated by Men” in the series.

The law firm Brune & Richard is an anomaly. In a world where female lawyers represent fewer than 20 percent of partners in private practices, women make up 12 of the 18 lawyers at Brune & Richard.

And for founder Hillary Richard, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1988, that number makes a difference.

“What it presents for female lawyers, particularly younger lawyers, is an array of possibilities that they don’t see at other firms,” Richard said. “Women who come to work here know that being a woman is certainly not going to hold you back, is not going to be an impediment to partnership, and is not going to be an impediment professionally in any way.”

But when female students graduate from the Law School, most must grapple with the large gender gap in the legal profession, especially at the level of the most prestigious positions. According to a Feb. 2013 report by the American Bar Association, fewer than one-third of federal and state judgeships are filled by women, and only 15 percent of equity partners in law firms are female. Just 21.6 percent of general counsel at Fortune 500 companies are female lawyers, and women make up barely one-fifth of all deans in U.S. law schools.

Harvard Law professor David B. Wilkins ’77, an expert on the legal profession, said he thinks this severe gender disparity creates a vicious cycle that prevents many women from moving up in the field.

“I think it’s true as in many other places in society,” he said. “If people see people like themselves succeeding, they are more likely to succeed.”

At Harvard Law School, where fewer than one in five professors is female and women are regularly outperformed in the classroom by their male counterparts, graduating students are not immune to the pressure of entering a field dominated at the top by men.

A “FEMINIZED” PROFESSION, BUT NOT AT HARVARD

“Law is becoming a feminized profession, by which I mean the majority of the entrants to the profession are women,” said Wilkins, who described the breakdown in the United States as “50/50,” whereas worldwide “women make up the majority.”

Yet one would never get that sense from the campus of Harvard Law School.

More than six decades since the first women were admitted to the school, female students have never made up 50 percent or more of a class, according to Assistant Dean and Chief Admissions Officer Jessica L. Soban ’02, a former Crimson business editor.

A gender disparity is especially apparent in the most prestigious extracurricular activities, where women succeed in smaller numbers than their male peers.

According to Yvonne L. Smith of the Dean of Students Office, twice as many men as women made it to the semi-final round of the Ames Moot Court competition, a prestigious mock trial held annually by the school, and only nine of the 44 most recently elected editors on the Harvard Law Review have been women.

Valerie Duchesneau, director of student organizations on the Student Representative Board, pointed out that while most journals at the Law School have many women on staff, the Law Review is different.

“For me that’s why that statistic says something about there being a real problem,” said Duchesneau. “Somehow the Law Review gets a lot of the prestige that these other journals don’t carry.”

The gender gap at the Law Review is nothing new.

“When I was a student here from 1994 to 1997, I took the Law Review competition in the spring of 95, and of the 40 to 42 people who made the Law Review that year, only nine of us were women,” said visiting professor Laura A. Rosenbury ’92 in a video released by Shatter the Ceiling, a new coalition to address gender disparities. “I assumed when I came back to the faculty this year, that the Law Review would be close to 50/50. And it’s not.”

Students and faculty said there is no clear answer as to why certain extracurricular activities end up disproportionately male. The Harvard Law Review this year implemented a new gender-based affirmative action policy in an attempt to counteract the gap.

“There is, for lack of better terms, a hierarchy in terms of extracurriculars on campus,” said third-year Harvard Law student Stephanie E. Davidson, outgoing president of the Women’s Law Association.

TROUBLE AT THE TOP

And while the problem might start with student activities, it extends into the job market. Many in the Law School consider certain activities like the Law Review and Ames Moot Court to be important lines on the resume when securing top jobs after graduation.

Female graduates at the Law School find positions at private law firms less often than their male peers, according to Assistant Dean for Career Services Mark A. Weber. At the same time, he said, women tend to enter public interest work in greater numbers than men.

Nationwide, women make up 19.9 percent of partners in private legal firms, according to the American Bar Association.

Visiting professor Daniel R. Coquillette said that part of this disparity can be attributed to the fact that large law firms have “never made the accommodations they should make to family life.”

“I was an associate in a big law firm and I’ll tell you, it really is a very, very tough existence,” he said. “You might say that they treat men and women equally. And that’s true, they make it difficult for everyone, but under the conditions of modern society, it impacts women more.”

Wilkins agreed that typical legal careers, particularly at law firms where the key years in which lawyers become partners coincide with the time when many choose to start a family, are “not just made for a man but made for a man whose wife doesn’t work.”

“In a profession in which human capital is at its core, we are systematically losing out on the talent of very talented female lawyers who are leaving the profession altogether sometimes,” he said.

Wilkins helped co-author a study entitled “After the JD,” in which researchers surveyed lawyers in 2008 who had entered private practice in 2000. They found that at large law firms of 250 or more, men were five times more likely to have been made equity partner than women.

Weber said that while the statistics at the level of the top positions might paint a troubling picture, firms who hire HLS graduates soon after graduation treat candidates equally regardless of gender.

“What we’ve seen on the output side is that employers just want to hire smart, talented students,” he said. “It’s never an issue of gender. I’ve never seen employers say ‘We want to hire men.’”

Nevertheless, Wilkins said he thinks “unconscious bias and stereotypes” may play a powerful role.

“Whether they be clients or partners, when they think about a successful lawyer they are less likely to think of a female lawyer,” he said.

Richard said she thinks this issue is rooted in the low number of female partners. With a small number of women at the top, female job applicants find it harder to imagine their own success.

“I think with anything else, the more diversity that you have, whether its gender or race or what have you, I think the more it opens your mind to the possibility no matter who you are that there are jobs and careers open to you,” said Richard.

In lower courts, women fill more clerkship positions than men, according to Weber. But that dynamic changes at the level of the top positions. Among HLS graduates, far more men secure clerkships at the Supreme Court than women, a statistic often cited by the Shatter the Ceiling coalition.

“The higher you go in the profession, whether its Supreme Court Justices, partners in law firms, or deans of law schools, the number of women is smaller,” Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow said. “It’s not just Harvard Law School’s problem, it’s the legal profession’s problem.”

Read the article here.

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The Gendered Situation at Harvard Law School – Part II

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 11, 2013

the hark 1953The Harvard Crimson‘s Dev Patel has an outstanding series of articles last week on gender inequality at Harvard Law School. Here are some excerpts from the second article, titled “In HLS Classes, Women Fall Behind” in the series.

Among the top students in their graduating classes, men and women entering Harvard Law School earn similar undergraduate grades and LSAT scores. But as soon as students step into Wasserstein Hall, a dramatic gender disparity emerges.

Indicators suggest that female students participate less and perform worse than their male counterparts over the course of their three years at the Law School.

“For better or worse, when women come to law school, they feel their gender more strongly than they may have in undergrad,” said third-year law student Stephanie E. Davidson, outgoing president of the Women’s Law Association. “I still barely have words to describe why that is or what that means. But you feel like a female lawyer instead of a lawyer.”

Davidson is not alone. Hundreds of students and faculty gathered this spring for Shatter the Ceiling, a new coalition whose goal is to address gender disparities at Harvard Law. The issue of imbalance in the classroom has emerged at the forefront of their discussions, prompting reactions across the campus and the nation over how women and men stack up.

IS SOCRATES SEXIST?

Harvard Law student Jessica R. Jensen hates the Socratic method. “It’s the worst thing in the world,” she said. “It forces you to talk like a man.”

“It made me feel really uncomfortable and incompetent at first, and it really impacted my performance in classes the first year,” Jensen said. “You feel like you don’t know the material really well because you feel like an idiot in class.”

Employed in some form across most classrooms at Harvard Law School, the Socratic method, a teaching style that relies on cold-calling, lies at the heart of the debate over gender issues and serves as a focal point for the Shatter coalition.

Today, many students and faculty have raised concerns over the teaching method, saying that men are more likely to participate voluntarily in Law School classes than women.

In a 2004 study on gender issues at Harvard Law School, a then-third-year law student Adam M. C. Neufeld found that men were 50 percent more likely than women to volunteer at least one comment during class, and 144 percent more likely to speak voluntarily at least three times. The study also showed that 10 percent of students accounted for nearly half of all volunteered comments in first-year law classrooms.

“I think the big point is that many men weren’t talking too,” Neufeld said. “There was a small number of people who account for most of the comments.”

More recently, according to a 2012 study at Yale Law School, men made 58 percent of comments in the classroom, while women made 42 percent.

Yet the root cause of this disparity remains contested, as professors, students, and administrators debate whether the Socratic method—the traditional form of legal pedagogy—needs to be adapted to account for gender disparities in the classroom.

For many in the Law School, the Socratic method is an outdated teaching style that reinforces gender imbalances in academia.

“Women take longer to process thoughts before they feel comfortable to say them out loud than men do,” Jensen said, adding that men feel more natural in that kind of classroom atmosphere.

Because of this disparity, the Shatter coalition hopes to encourage changes to the Law School pedagogy.

“If you can show that the Socratic method makes us better lawyers, then fine, but we need to see that data,” said Lena M. Silver, a third-year Law School student and the co-chair of the Shatter the Ceiling coalition.

Harvard Law professor Lani C. Guinier ’71, who has authored several articles on legal pedagogy, said that the problems described by Silver and her group highlight potential issues with legal education today.

“In short, women’s reaction to law school is an important warning sign, but a warning sign that the problem will not go away simply by focusing on helping the women think more like their male counterparts,” Guinier wrote in an email, saying that the faculty should reevaluate their pedagogical techniques.

Others suggested that the pressures of the classroom environment contribute to women not raising their hands as often as men. “Women are more likely to be called ‘gunners’ or ‘teacher’s pets’ if they participate in class,” said Jean N. Ripley, second-year Law School student and co-chair of the Shatter coalition.

In his study, Neufeld, who said he supports the Socratic method, found that women assessed themselves significantly lower than men did, suggesting that different confidence levels may account for the disparity in classroom participation.

“Volunteering is a fairly socially aggressive act,” he said. “You are making all the other students listen to your comment, you think it is unbelievably important and something that no one else has thought of.”

Yet supporters of the Socratic method discount the existence of inherent gender disparities and argue that it is an essential part of the legal education.

“It’s an extreme form of sexism to say that essentially women in general aren’t capable of dealing with the demands of the Socratic method,” said Harvard Law professor Alan M. Dershowitz.

Dershowitz noted that some of the best Socratic students in his classes have been women. “You cannot generalize about men and women when it comes to their ability to be law students or practice law,” he said. “We have to keep inquiring as to why this disparity exists but we have to do it without divulging into stereotypes.”

Dean of the Law School Martha L. Minow pointed to an ongoing debate over the possibility of gendered dimensions of certain forms of argument and reasoning, saying that it “can’t be the case” that “certain types of reasoning are beyond the reach of a group of students.”

And many professors, including Dershowitz, defend the Socratic method as a critical component of the Harvard Law School education.

* * *

Though Minow has refused to release data on the gender breakdown of grades, professors said that indicators point to a dramatic disparity between men’s and women’s performance despite blind assessment.

Neufeld’s 2004 study found that women earned lower grades in first-year courses across three years of data, though the disparity varied in part with the content and gender of the professor. The form of assessment, by contrast, did not increase or decrease the grade disparity.

In the study, men were also more likely to receive graduation honors than women, a disparity frequently cited by the Shatter coalition.

“We haven’t created a situation in which women are doing as well as we’d like them to be,” Law school professor Christine Desan said. “Part of that is surely societal, both social and political.”

But the gender grade disparity is not the same at other law schools, according to visiting professor Laura Rosenbury.

“It’s interesting because I’ve been teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, and we don’t have this problem,” said Rosenbury in a video released by the Shatter coalition. “In fact, women outperform their male colleagues both in terms of grades and in terms of law review competition. And so what makes Harvard different?”

Faculty and students alike have struggled to find an answer.

Minow said there is “unequivocally” no difference in undergraduate grades or the LSAT scores of men and women coming into Harvard Law.

“They are at some level puzzling, because the grading in the big classes are completely anonymous,” Tushnet said. “And yet there must be something about the style of a writing or arguing that the faculty prefers that tilts in favor of men.”

Others said they believe that levels of confidence and self-perception may play a role.

“The main argument for this one is the stereotype threat,” Neufeld said. “If you are a high school girl who’s taking a math class, and there’s a general perception that women do worse, you, no matter what your inherent ability, are going to be more anxious because you don’t want to do poorly and reflect that stereotype, and you will end up doing worse because you can’t relax and focus.”

While the cause of these issues remains unknown, in many ways the extent of the problem is also uncertain.

No new grade data has been released since the administration changed the grading system from the standard letter grades to an honors, pass/fail system. A key goal of the Shatter coalition has been access to that data, but Minow has declined to share it.

“We don’t need to have a study, we need to work on making this better,” Minow said. “Do I think there are issues about whether or not Harvard Law School or any law school is conducive to learning for any student? Yes. Might there be gendered dimensions? Possibly. You don’t have to prove anything to me; I’m already committed to addressing these issues, as is the faculty.”

Desan said that as long as she and her colleagues continue to grade, they must take responsibility for the marks they give.

“If those grades suggest that there may be a problem with our teaching or our testing, then we should try to figure out what that problem is,” she said. “We have data that we haven’t explored yet, and I think it’s time that we explored it.”

While Minow said she hopes to diminish the role of grades in the community, some students have raised concerns that beyond the Harvard Law campus, grades remain critical to success.

“I think that potentially a barrier Dean Minow has to face in deemphasizing the prestige of those things is that the legal profession and the academic world still values them,” President of the Student Representative Board Lisa M. Lana said.

Read the entire article, which includes an extensive discussion about the socratic method and links to the other articles in the series, here.

Related Situationist posts:

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The Gendered Situation at Harvard Law School – Part I

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 8, 2013

men and woman in Langdell Library 1959The Harvard Crimson‘s Dev Patel has an outstanding series of articles this week on gender inequality at Harvard Law School. Here are some excerpts from the first article, titled “Once Home to Kagan and Warren, HLS Faculty Still Only 20 Percent Female” in the series.

Just 20 percent of U.S. senators are female. Women make up a mere 21.6 percent of the lawyers who serve as general counsels to Fortune 500 companies. Only three of the nine Supreme Court Justices are women.

But these figures are still higher than the proportion of women within the ranks of the Harvard Law School faculty.

At Elizabeth Warren and Elena Kagan’s former place of work, women constitute fewer than a fifth of all professors and assistant professors of law—a disparity that Harvard Law School Dean Martha L. Minow called “absolutely inadequate.” With only 17 women among 92 tenure-track faculty members, according to the Law School’s online directory as of May 6, the gender imbalance of Harvard Law School’s faculty is comparable to that of other elite law schools, yet still among the most severe of the approximately 200 law schools nationwide.

Concerns about gender inequality have spread throughout campus as a new student-run coalition called Shatter the Ceiling draws hundreds of community members together to address these issues, faculty members pursue research on gender disparities, and the administration pushes for new strategies to level the playing field. Amidst this growing movement, some have raised questions about the impact of gender inequality within the ranks of the faculty, in the classroom, in student organizations, and in life after Law School.

Among their top concerns is the small proportion of women on the faculty, an issue they say is rooted in the Law School’s history and today impacts hiring decisions, faculty conversations, and topics of intellectual inquiry.

“It’s an issue that matters to me, an issue that matters to the Law School, and an issue that matters to the profession,” Minow said.

BURDENED BY THE PAST

Portraits of tenured professors arranged in chronological order line a wing of the Law School’s new student center, looking down on students as they walk to class each day. But students cannot see a woman’s photograph until they pass the 1972 mark, and can only count a handful more in the next few decades.

More than 20 years after female students first stepped foot on campus, the Law School in 1972 granted tenure to its first female faculty member, Elisabeth A. Owens. But she did not attend faculty meetings, and her appointment “was widely regarded as not genuine,” according to Daniel R. Coquillette, a visiting professor and the former dean of Boston College Law School.

Coquillette is currently working on a history of Harvard Law School that will devote a significant section to the history of gender at the school. He said that the Law School’s progress on gender issues came relatively late, after other law schools across the country had already taken significant steps towards welcoming women.

“The appointment of women to the tenured faculty is so recent that many of the pioneer women are still right there as active faculty members,” Coquillette said, referring particularly to Law School professors Martha A. Field ’65 and Elizabeth Bartholet ’62, two of the first women to successfully complete the tenure process.

Field recounted that when she first joined the faculty as a tenured professor in 1979, the Law School had “such a terrible reputation” among women in the field.

“It used to be a nice male club,” she said. “It really did sort of mess up the boys’ club when women came on.”

Field said that in the early years, the hiring of female faculty members was slowed by concerns about tilting the political direction of the school leftward.

“For a while, you sort of had the feeling that it was hard to hire women because people had one idea of what a woman should be,” Field said. “They assumed that if you pushed for women or minorities that you were leftist, radical, and pushy.”

Since that time, acceptance of female faculty members has improved—a development highlighted by the appointment of two female deans, Kagan in 2003 and Minow in 2009. But Minow herself acknowledges that these changes are still not enough.

“Now we have women serving as partners at law firms, on the Supreme Court, making a difference in all walks of legal life,” Minow said in a March interview. “On the other hand, the small relative number of women who are partners at law firms, sit on the bench, and are tenured professors shows that there’s still lots to be done.”

Harvard Law School ClassroomADDING MORE PORTRAITS

At less than 20 percent female, Harvard Law School’s tenure-track faculty is the least diverse of its kind in the Ivy League. At Columbia Law School, about 25 percent of faculty members are female, while women make up about 29 percent of the faculty at Yale Law School. The law schools at Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania count even more female faculty members among their ranks, with percentages of about 30 and 33, respectively.

Outside the Ivy League, female law professors are represented in even greater numbers. According to a report released by the Association of American Law Schools, women accounted for 34.4 percent of law school faculty nationwide in the 2008-2009 academic year.

“In terms of our peer [top-ranked] schools we are not so different,” Minow said, noting that the Law School does not fare as well when compared to a broader group of schools. “So it’s again the same pattern you see all over the profession. The higher the prestige, the more elite, the fewer women are there.”

Since she took the helm of the school four years ago, Minow has worked to change these numbers. Her first step: hiring equal numbers of men and women for entry-level faculty positions since 2009. This year, the Law School has made two hiring offers, one to a man and one to a woman.

Annually, the entry-level hiring committee conducts about 40 interviews, which are balanced in terms of gender breakdown. From these initial interviews, the hiring committee whittles down the pool of potential candidates, who must present to a faculty workshop, secure the recommendation of the hiring committee, and finally secure the approval of the faculty as a whole before they are hired. All the while, the hiring committee is careful to retain an equal number of male and female candidates, according to Law School professor David J. Barron ’89, chair of the entry-level committee.

The goal of having more female faculty members is “very much part of the consciousness, and consciousness matters,” said Barron, a former Crimson president. “There’s no reason that our faculty should not be more diverse.”

Despite this progress, Field said that gender stereotypes still remain in the Law School’s hiring process.

“The more you present yourself as the old traditional type, the more likely you are to get in,” Field said.

Field said that “for [the faculty] to take you seriously, it’s nice to have a good male subject, what they think of as hard law subjects”—constitutional law­, for instance. She said female applicants fare better when presenting a “‘touchy-feely’ subject”—for example, family law or other “soft law” topics.

Others, including professor John F. Manning ’82, chair of the lateral hiring committee, contested Field’s characterization of the hiring process, saying that they do not see any correlation between the topic presented during the workshop and a candidate’s ability to be hired.

“Some of the most successful presentations I’ve had have been on subjects that have been regarded as sort of soft law,” said Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who said that his own subjects were typically regarded as softer. “I welcome more people in those subjects.”

The Law School has also taken steps to accommodate faculty members—both male and female—who want to balance both their personal life and their professional careers.

Law School professor David B. Wilkins ’77, who is an expert on gender issues in the legal profession, said that an important obstacle to women’s success is the simultaneous timing, in many cases, of pursuing a tenure-track position and choosing to raise a family.

To this end, Harvard Law School offers a parental leave program and allows faculty members to extend the period necessary to be considered for tenure, Minow said.

“I’m a woman, I’m a mother,” she said. “It’s a priority for me to allow people to have meaningful lives, work, and family.”

A GENDERED FEELING?

Before she came to Harvard in 2010, Law School professor Vicki C. Jackson taught and held associate deanships at Georgetown University Law Center. At Georgetown, she said, the more gender-balanced faculty created a remarkably different environment.

“It felt different just in terms of more women, more women at the workshops, and more women at the faculty,” she said, acknowledging that many other factors contributed to her perception.

For some professors like Jackson who have spent time at other law schools, Harvard’s gender disparity creates a distinct atmosphere around lunch tables and faculty workshops.

“For a variety of reasons, including the gender disparity, the faculty culture does have what I think scholars of this topic would describe as a masculine attitude, a way of presenting yourself and your arguments that has gender associations,” Law School professor Mark V. Tushnet ’67 said, adding that “assertive, outright statements” take precedence in faculty conversations.

Field said that as a result, engaging in faculty discussions becomes much more difficult for professors who are less outgoing.

“The first thing you have to learn how to do here is how to interrupt,” she said. “I think you’re considered smarter if you are showing off.”

Read the rest of the article, which includes range of opinions from a variety HLS faculty members on the question of gender disparity at Harvard Law School, here.

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Frontier Tort – Selling Beer in Whiteclay

Posted by The Situationist Staff on April 15, 2013

Alcoholism Cover Small

At Harvard Law School in the fall of 2012, the 80 students in Professor Hanson’s situationist-orient torts class participated in an experimental group project in their first-year torts class. The project required students to research, discuss, and write a white paper about a current policy problem for which tort law (or some form of civil liability) might provide a partial solution.  Their projects, presentations, and white papers were informed significantly by the mind sciences. You can read more about those projects, view the presentations, and download the white papers at the Frontier Torts website.

One of the group projects involved the sale of alcohol to members of the Oglala Sioux in Whiteclay Nebraska outside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Here’s the Executive Summary of the white paper.

Native American Alcoholism: A Frontier Tort

Executive Summary


Since its introduction into Native American communities by European colonists, alcohol has plagued the members of many tribes to a disastrous extent. The Oglala Sioux of Pine Ridge have especially suffered from alcoholism, enabled and encouraged by liquor stores just outside the reservation’s borders. Despite the complexities of this situation, media outlets have often reduced it to a pitiable image of dirty, poor Native Americans, degraded by the white man’s vice.

Upon further analysis, however, it becomes evident that there are a variety of factors influencing the situation of Native American alcoholism. While neurobiological, psychological, and genetic factors are often thought to offer plausible internal situational explanations as to why Native Americans suffer so much more potently from this disease than the rest of the nation, high levels of poverty in Native American communities, a traumatic and violent history, and informational issues compound as external situational factors that exacerbate the problem.

Unfortunately, the three major stakeholders in this situation (the alcohol industry, the State of Nebraska, and the Native Americans) have conflicting interests, tactics, and attribution modes that clash significantly in ways that have prevented any meaningful resolution from being reached. However, there are a variety of federal, state, and tribal programs and initiatives that could potentially resolve this issue in a practical way, so long as all key players agree to participate in a meaningful, collaborative effort.

The key to implementation of these policy actions is determining who should bear the costs they require: society as a whole through the traditional federal taxes, the alcohol companies through tort litigation, or the individuals who purchase the alcohol through an alcohol sales tax. Ultimately, an economic analysis leads to the conclusion that liability should be placed upon the alcohol companies and tort litigation damages should fund the suggested policy initiatives.

You can watch the related presentations and download the white paper here.

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Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, History, Marketing, Morality, Neuroscience, Politics, Situationist Contributors | Leave a Comment »

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Situationism

Posted by JH on January 21, 2013

mlk1.jpgThis post was originally published on January 22, 2007.

* * *

Monday’s holiday provides an apt occasion to highlight the fact that, at least by my reckoning, Martin Luther King, Jr. was, among other things, a situationist.

To be sure, King is most revered in some circles for quotations that are easily construed as dispositionist, such as: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Taken alone, as it often is, that sentence seems to set a low bar. Indeed, some Americans contend that we’ve arrived at that promised land; after all, most of us (mostly incorrectly) imagine ourselves to be judging people based solely on their dispositions, choices, personalities, or, in short, their characters.

Putting King’s quotation in context, however, it becomes clear that his was largely a situationist message. He was encouraging us all to recognize the subtle and not-so-subtle situational forces that caused inequalities and to question (what John Jost calls) system-justifying ideologies that helped maintain those inequalities.

mlk2.jpgKing’s amazing “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is illustrative. While being held for nine days, King penned a letter in response to the public statement of eight prominent Alabama clergymen who denounced the Birmingham civil rights demonstrations. The prominent clergymen called King an “extremist” and an “outsider,” and “appeal[ed] to both our white and Negro citizenry to observe the principles of law and order and common sense.”

Regarding his “outsider” status, King insisted that the us-and-them categories were flawed, and that any meaningful distinction that might exist among groups was that between persons who perpetrated or countenanced injustice, on one hand, and those who resisted it, on the other:

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. . . .”

“Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

mlk3.jpgIn describing the injustice itself, King sought to remove the focus from individual behavor and choice to the situational forces and absence of meaningful choice that helped to shape that behavior:

“You deplore the demonstrations taking place In Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.”

In terms of his methods, too, Dr. King was a situationist. He understood that negotiating outcomes reflected the circumstances much more than the the disposition, of negotiators. The aim of demonstrations was to create a situation in which questions otherwise unasked were brought to the fore, in which injustice otherwise unnoticed was made salient, and in which the weak bargaining positions of the otherwise powerless were collectivized and strengthened:

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused tocivil-rights-protest.jpg negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood. The purpose of our direct-action program is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

In the letter, King expressed his frustation, not just with the egregious racists, but also — no, moreso — with the moderates who were willing to sacrifice real justice for the sake of maintaining the illusion of justice. King put it this way:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’ . . . .”

mlk4.jpgAnd King recognized the role that laws could play in maintaining an unjust status quo. Of course, he criticized the laws that literally enforced segregation, but he didn’t stop there. He criticized, too, the seemingly neutral laws, and the purportedly principled methods of interpreting and applying those laws, that could serve as legitimating cover for existing disparities:

“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First-Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”

King explained that many churches, too, were implicated in this web of justification — caught up as they were in making sense of, or lessening the sting of, existing arrangements:

“So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.”

mlk5.jpg

So, yes, Reverend King urged us all to help create a world in which people were “not . . . judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But King said much more. He recognized and tried to teach those who would listen that getting to that world would mean examining and challenging the situation — including our beliefs, our laws, our ideologies, our religious beliefs, our institutions, and existing allocations of opportunity, wealth, and power.

Judging those who are disadvantaged by the content of their character is not, taken alone, much of a solution. It may, in fact, be part of the problem. As Kathleen Hanson (my wife) and I recently argued, the problem “is, not in neglecting character, but in attributing to ‘character’ what should be attributed to [a person’s] situation and, in turn, to our system and ourselves.” Or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, far more effectively: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

* * *

For a sample of related Situationist posts, see

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Marion Nestle on The Situation of Our Food

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 28, 2012

Related Situationist posts:

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America.  For a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Deep Capture, Environment, Food and Drug Law, History, Marketing, Video | Leave a Comment »

The Deeply Captured Situation of Sugar

Posted by The Situationist Staff on November 25, 2012

Mother Jones has a superb new article on the deeply captured situation of sugar.  It begins as follows:

ON A BRISK SPRING Tuesday in 1976, a pair of executives from the Sugar Association stepped up to the podium of a Chicago ballroom to accept the Oscar of the public relations world, the Silver Anvil award for excellence in “the forging of public opinion.” The trade group had recently pulled off one of the greatest turnarounds in PR history. For nearly a decade, the sugar industry had been buffeted by crisis after crisis as the media and the public soured on sugar and scientists began to view it as a likely cause of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Industry ads claiming that eating sugar helped you lose weight had been called out by the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration had launched a review of whether sugar was even safe to eat. Consumption had declined 12 percent in just two years, and producers could see where that trend might lead. As John “JW” Tatem Jr. and Jack O’Connell Jr., the Sugar Association’s president and director of public relations, posed that day with their trophies, their smiles only hinted at the coup they’d just pulled off.

Their winning campaign, crafted with the help of the prestigious public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates, had been prompted by a poll showing that consumers had come to see sugar as fattening, and that most doctors suspected it might exacerbate, if not cause, heart disease and diabetes. With an initial annual budget of nearly $800,000 ($3.4 million today) collected from the makers of Dixie Crystals, Domino, C&H, Great Western, and other sugar brands, the association recruited a stable of medical and nutritional professionals to allay the public’s fears, brought snack and beverage companies into the fold, and bankrolled scientific papers that contributed to a “highly supportive” FDA ruling, which, the Silver Anvil application boasted, made it “unlikely that sugar will be subject to legislative restriction in coming years.”

The story of sugar, as Tatem told it, was one of a harmless product under attack by “opportunists dedicated to exploiting the consuming public.” Over the subsequent decades, it would be transformed from what the New York Times in 1977 had deemed “a villain in disguise” into a nutrient so seemingly innocuous that even the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association approved it as part of a healthy diet. Research on the suspected links between sugar and chronic disease largely ground to a halt by the late 1980s, and scientists came to view such pursuits as a career dead end. So effective were the Sugar Association’s efforts that, to this day, no consensus exists about sugar’s potential dangers. The industry’s PR campaign corresponded roughly with a significant rise in Americans’ consumption of “caloric sweeteners,” including table sugar (sucrose) and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). This increase was accompanied, in turn, by a surge in the chronic diseases increasingly linked to sugar. Since 1970, obesity rates in the United States have more than doubled, while the incidence of diabetes has more than tripled.

Read the entire article and related items here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Deep Capture, Food and Drug Law, History, Ideology, Life, Marketing, Public Relations | 1 Comment »

Thanksgiving as “System Justification”

Posted by JH on November 21, 2012

This post was first published on November 21, 2007.

The first Thanksgiving, painting by Jean Louis Gerome Ferris

Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.

But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.

Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.

Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.

Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.

Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:

“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”

Bush - Times OnlineExisting levels of prosperity, by this account, reflect the merciful and omniscient blessings of the “beneficent Author” of all that is good.

More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:

“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”

The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.

Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.

A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:

your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”

Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”

If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?

A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”

That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.

quotation-thanksgiving-3.pngYet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:

[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?

* * *

No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.

If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Related Situationist posts:

 

To review the full collection of Situationist posts related to system justification, click here.

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The Historical Situation of Situationism at Harvard Law

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 24, 2012

Tito Rendas has just posted his terrific paper, “Mind Sciences in the Harvard Law School Curriculum: Tracing the History, Proposing the Proliferation” on SSRN.  We hope to post excerpts from the paper in time.  Here’s the abstract.

This paper explores the contours of the relationship between the mind sciences and the Harvard Law School curriculum, in particular, and the law curriculum more generally. Rather than using a conceptual definition of “mind sciences”, the paper will be based on an illustrative and fairly loose definition thereof. Any discipline that delves into the mechanisms that explain the functioning of the human mind and the reasons behind human behavior is considered a mind science for purposes of this study. Psychology, psychiatry, cognitive science, and neuroscience are examples of the disciplines that fit under the scope of this definition. The paper is divided into three parts.

Part I discusses the ideological sources of the relatively recent law and mind sciences movement at Harvard. Particular consideration will be given to the role played by the legal realists in questioning assumptions that would otherwise prevent the mind sciences from permeating law and policy-making.

Part II conducts an extensive historical review of the law and mind sciences courses in the HLS curriculum from 1957 to 2013. Six trends, and a predicted future trend, were identified.

Part III is normative in its essence, making the case for the expansion of the law and mind sciences curriculum. This argument is predicated on the answers to two other questions: Who should decide whether this expansion should be carried out? And, assuming its desirability, how should we go about it?

You can download the paper for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

Posted in Abstracts, Behavioral Economics, Education, History, Law, Legal Theory, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Independence Day: Celebrating Courage to Challenge the Situation

Posted by The Situationist Staff on July 3, 2012

First Published on July 3, 2007:

Battle of Lexington

With the U.S. celebrating Independence Day — carnivals, fireworks, BBQs, parades and other customs that have, at best, only a tangential connection to our “independence,” — we thought it an opportune moment to return to its source in search of some situationism. No doubt, the Declaration of Independence is typically thought of as containing a dispositionist message (though few would express it in those terms) — all that language about individuals freely pursuing their own happiness. Great stuff, but arguably built on a dubious model of the human animal.

Declaration of IndependenceThat’s not the debate we want to provoke here. Instead, we are interested in simply highlighting some less familiar language in that same document that reveals something special about the mindset and celebrated courage of those behind the colonists’ revolt. Specifically, as Thomas Jefferson penned, “all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Part of what made the July 4th heroes heroic, in our view, was their willingness to break from that disposition to suffer evils. They reacted, mobilized, strategized, resisted, and fought because they recognized that their suffering was not legitimate — a conclusion that many in the U.S. and abroad vehemently rejected.

Situationist contributor John Jost has researched and written extensively about a related topic — the widespread tendency to justify existing systems of power despite any unfair suffering that they may entail. As he and his co-authors recently summarized:

Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people – regardless of their own social class or position – accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world.”

If we truly want to emulate and celebrate the “founding fathers” of this republic, perhaps we should begin by taking seriously the possibility that what “is” is not always what “ought to be.”

Happy Fourth!

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To read a couple of related Situationist posts, see “Thanksgiving as “System Justification”?” and “Patriots Lose: Justice Restored!

Posted in History, Ideology, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Corporations, Cars, the U.S.A., and Us

Posted by The Situationist Staff on June 1, 2012

Benjamin Levin just posted his excellent article “Made in the USA: Corporate Responsibility and Collective Identity in the American Automotive Industry” (forthcoming Boston College Law Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, p. 821, 2012) on SSRN.  Here’s the abstract:

This Article seeks to challenge the corporate-constructed image of American business and American industry. By focusing on the automotive industry and particularly on the tenuous relationship between the rhetoric of automotive industry advertising and the realities of doctrinal corporate law, I hope to examine the ways that we as social actors, legal actors, and (perhaps above all) consumers understand what it means for a corporation or a corporation’s product to be American. In a global economy where labor, profits, and environmental effects are spread across national borders, what does it mean for a corporation to present the impression of national citizenship? Considering the recent bail-out of the major American automotive corporations, the automotive industry today becomes a powerful vehicle for problematizing the conflicted private/public nature of the corporate form and for examining what it means for a corporation to be American and what duties and benefits such an identity confers.

By examining the ways in which consumable myths of the American corporation interact with the institutions and legal regimes that govern American corporations, I argue that the advertised image of the national in the global economy serves as a broad corporate veil, a way of obscuring the consumer’s understanding of corporate identity and corporate accountability. With these overarching issues and questions as a guide, this Article will historically situate the identification of corporate nationality within a broader framework of debates on corporate social responsibility and interrogate the way that we conceive of the American corporation and corporate decision making.

Download the article for free here.

Related Situationist posts:

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The Evolutionary Biology of Obesity

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 13, 2012

Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, speaks about the evolutionary origins of today’s obesity epidemic.

For more on the situation of eating, see Situationist contributors Adam Benforado, Jon Hanson, and David Yosfion’s law review article Broken Scales: Obesity and Justice in America.  For a listing of numerous Situaitonist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here.

Posted in Choice Myth, Evolutionary Psychology, Food and Drug Law, History, Life, Video | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Looking for the Evil Actor – Reposted

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 10, 2012

Five years ago Jon Hanson and Michael McCann wrote and published the following post about Joseph Kony as part of a series on the the situational source of evil.  In light of the attention Kony is now getting (see Youtube video, “Kony 2012,” here or at bottom of this post), we thought it might be worth posting again.

* * *

In Parts I, II, and III of his recent posts on the Situational Sources of Evil, Phil Zimbardo makes the case that we too readily attribute to an evil person or group what should be, at least in part, attributed to situation. This was a key lesson of Milgram’s obedience experiments as well as Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment. And that lesson, unfortunately, seems similarly evident in far too many real-world atrocities.

Lords Resistance ArmyThere are numerous reasons, some of which those earlier posts highlighted, why the situationist lesson is an unpopular one. This post suggests another.

Think for a moment about the sort of evil that is so grotesquely apparent right now in The Sudan and Uganda, both of which are in the midst of civil wars–wars that have featured indescribably horrific acts, such as villages ravaged by soldiers who chop off limbs of children. Perhaps most harrowingly, the “evil-doers” are often children themselves, many of whom are kidnapped and then conscripted into bands of mutilating marauders.

Joseph Kony’s Lord Resistance Army, for example, is comprised mainly of abducted children who roam northern Uganda, where “many families have lost a child through abduction, or their village . . . [have been] attacked and destroyed, families burned out and/or killed, and harvests destroyed by . . . . the Lord’s Resistance Army.”

The plight of Ochola John, pictured below, exemplifies an all-too-common story: his hands, lips, nose, and ears were cut off by members of the Lord Resistance Army. It is a difficult image to take in (note, we opted against many other more graphic photos).

Such atrocities have led many in Uganda toOchola John question how children could become evil incarnate:

We don’t understand how Kony could have a child soldier slash a fellow child abductee with a machete or make a group of children bite their agemate with their bare teeth till he bleeds to death.

In searching for answers, some have turned to situationist factors:

It is easy to assume that the person who commits such an atrocity is deranged or even inhuman. Sometimes it is the case. But not always. It is possible for a normal individual to commit an abnormal, sick act just because of the situation s/he finds him/herself in, and the training s/he is exposed to.

How could this happen? Zimbardo’s ten-factor list suggests some of situationist grease that no doubt lubricates the wheels of evil. Kony’s methods and ideology are extreme, to be sure, but they are familiar: saving his country from evil by building a theocracy.

In that way, dispositionism can give way to a weak form of situationism, but only up to a point — a tendency that has elsewhere been called selective situationism or naive situationism. Kony’s evil disposition is the “situation” influencing the impressionable young boys. In the end, we place evil almost exclusively in one or a small number of actors — usually human, but sometimes supernatural. No doubt, Kony is immensely blameworthy, so much so that we, the authors, can scarcely bring ourselves even to suggest that the horrors might have multiple origins, beyond the gruesome actions of the most salient actors involved.

By locating evil ultimately in a person or group, we avoid a disconcerting possibility that there is more to the situation beyond the bad individuals. When evil comes packaged within a few human bodies, it is rendered more tractable, identifiable, and perhaps, in a way, less threatening — very “them,” and very “other.” Such a conception undermines the unsettling possibility that, because of the situation, there may be more “evil actors” behind those that we currently face. Get rid of the bad apples, we imagine, and the rest of the batch will be fine. Perhaps more important, it permits us to ignore the possibility that the barrel may be contaminating. We need not confront any apprehensions that our systems are unjust, the groups we identify with are contributing to or benefitting from that injustice, or that we individually play some causal role in it.

Joseph Kony is said to have abducted 20,000 kids in the last 20Joseph Kony years. But he has done so with minimal resistance from Uganda’s government, and with virtually no intervention from foreign powers.

Is there any line at which we non-salient bystanders of the world, including Americans, begin to bear some share of responsibility for suffering such as that endured by Ochola John? Maybe the answer is “no,” as most of us apparetly presume. But maybe it is “yes,” and maybe that line has already been crossed.

We are not making a foreign policy recommendation here. We are simply highlighting a form of blindness that we suspect influences all policy. That is, dispositionism (and motivated attributions generally) helps us push that line of responsibility toward, if not all the way to, the vanishing point — even if it does little to reduce the atrocities themselves. Dispositionism helps us to see the apple, or perhaps the tree, and to miss the orchard and the liberty-trade-centers-911.jpgforest and, perhaps, ourselves.

There are other examples of that tendency of allowing our attributions toward salient (and often despicable) individuals to eclipse any possibility of a more complex, far-reaching causal story. Our criminal justice system is partially built upon it. Consider, also, the widespread response to Susan Sontag’s infamous New Yorker essay, in which she described the of 9/11 terrorism not as

a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed super-power, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions. . . . And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.

Regardless of the veracity of Sontag’s claims, many Americans did not want to hear such a non-affirming interpretation in the wake of the terror. She not only implicated American policies but suggested that perhaps the attackers were not as “beneath us” as many had portrayed.

As one of us summarized in another article (with Situationist contributors Adam Benforado and David Yosifon), many conservative commentators responded to Sontag and her claims with predictable rage and disgust (while most moderates and liberals took cover in the safety of silence).

Charles Krauthammer called Sontag “morally obtuse,” while Andrew Sullivan labeled her “deranged.”John Podhoretz claimed that she exemplified the “hate-America crowd,” that out-group of Americans who are “dripping with contempt for the nation’s politics, its leaders, its economic system and for their foolish fellow citizens.” And Rod Dreher really drove home the point saying that he wanted“to walk barefoot on broken glass across the Brooklyn Bridge, up to that despicable woman’s apartment, grab her by the neck, drag her down to ground zero and force her to say that to the firefighters.”

We see ourselves as “just,” and don’t like being “implicated” by clear injustice, a discomfort that is often assuaged by looking for the Evil Actor. But when evil continues, even after the evil individuals have been stopped, perhaps we glimpse one reason why, as George Santayana famously put it, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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Related Situationist posts:

One series of posts was devoted to the situational sources of war.

To review a larger sample of posts on the causes and consequences of human conflict, click here.

Posted in Conflict, History, Ideology, Morality, Politics, Social Psychology, System Legitimacy, Video | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Situation of Choice

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 23, 2012

From the APS Monitor (excerpts from a terrific primer on “The Mechanics of Choice”):

* * *

The prediction of social behavior significantly involves the way people make decisions about resources and wealth, so the science of decision making historically was the province of economists. And the basic assumption of economists was always that, when it comes to money, people are essentially rational. It was largely inconceivable that people would make decisions that go against their own interests. Although successive refinements of expected-utility theory made room for individual differences in how probabilities were estimated, the on-the-surface irrational economic behavior of groups and individuals could always be forced to fit some rigid, rational calculation.The problem is — and everything from fluctuations in the stock market to decisions between saving for retirement or purchasing a lottery ticket or a shirt on the sale rack shows it — people just aren’t rational. They systematically make choices that go against what an economist would predict or advocate.Enter a pair of psychological scientists — Daniel Kahneman (currently a professor emeritus at Princeton) and Amos Tversky — who in the 1970s turned the economists’ rational theories on their heads. Kahneman and Tversky’s research on heuristics and biases and their Nobel Prize winning contribution, prospect theory, poured real, irrational, only-human behavior into the calculations, enabling much more powerful prediction of how individuals really choose between risky options.

* * *

Univ. of Toronto psychologist Keith E. Stanovich and James Madison Univ. psychologist Richard F. West refer to these experiential and analytical modes as “System 1” and “System 2,” respectively. Both systems may be involved in making any particular choice — the second system may monitor the quality of the snap, System-1 judgment and adjust a decision accordingly.7 But System 1 will win out when the decider is under time pressure or when his or her System-2 processes are already taxed.

This is not to entirely disparage System-1 thinking, however. Rules of thumb are handy, after all, and for experts in high-stakes domains, it may be the quicker form of risk processing that leads to better real-world choices. In a study by Cornell University psychologist Valerie Reyna and Mayo Clinic physician Farrell J. Lloyd, expert cardiologists took less relevant information into account than younger doctors and medical students did when making decisions to admit or not admit patients with chest pain to the hospital. Experts also tended to process that information in an all-or-none fashion (a patient was either at risk of a heart attack or not) rather than expending time and effort dealing with shades of gray. In other words, the more expertise a doctor has, the more that his or her intuitive sense of the gist of a situation was used as a guide.8

In Reyna’s variant of the dual-system account, fuzzy-trace theory, the quick-decision system focuses on the gist or overall meaning of a problem instead of rationally deliberating on facts and odds of alternative outcomes.9 Because it relies on the late-developing ventromedial and dorsolateral parts of the frontal lobe, this intuitive (but informed) system is the more mature of the two systems used to make decisions involving risks.

A 2004 study by Vassar biopsychologist Abigail A. Baird and Univ. of Waterloo cognitive psychologist Jonathan A. Fugelsang showed that this gist-based system matures later than do other systems. People of different ages were asked to respond quickly to easy, risk-related questions such as “Is it a good idea to set your hair on fire?”, “Is it a good idea to drink Drano?”, and “Is it a good idea to swim with sharks?” They found that young people took about a sixth of a second longer than adults to arrive at the obvious answers (it’s “no” in all three cases, in case you were having trouble deciding).10 The fact that our gist-processing centers don’t fully mature until the 20s in most people may help explain the poor, risky choices younger, less experienced decision makers commonly make.

Adolescents decide to drive fast, have unprotected sex, use drugs, drink, or smoke not simply on impulse but also because their young brains get bogged down in calculating odds. Youth are bombarded by warning statistics intended to set them straight, yet risks of undesirable outcomes from risky activities remain objectively small — smaller than teens may have initially estimated, even — and this may actually encourage young people to take those risks rather than avoid them. Adults, in contrast, make their choices more like expert doctors: going with their guts and making an immediate black/white judgment. They just say no to risky activities because, however objectively unlikely the risks are, there’s too much at stake to warrant even considering them.11

Making Better Choices

The gist of the matter is, though, that none of us, no matter how grown up our frontal lobes, make optimal decisions; if we did, the world would be a better place. So the future of decision science is to take what we’ve learned about heuristics, biases, and System-1 versus System-2 thinking and apply it to the problem of actually improving people’s real-world choices.

One obvious approach is to get people to increase their use of System 2 to temper their emotional, snap judgments. Giving people more time to make decisions and reducing taxing demands on deliberative processing are obvious ways of bringing System 2 more into the act. Katherine L. Milkman (U. Penn.), Dolly Chugh (NYU), and Max H. Bazerman (Harvard) identify several other ways of facilitating System-2 thinking.12 One example is encouraging decision makers to replace their intuitions with formal analysis — taking into account data on all known variables, providing weights to variables, and quantifying the different choices. This method has been shown to significantly improve decisions in contexts like school admissions and hiring.

Having decision makers take an outsider’s perspective on a decision can reduce overconfidence in their knowledge, in their odds of success, and in their time to complete tasks. Encouraging decision makers to consider the opposite of their preferred choice can reduce judgment errors and biases, as can training them in statistical reasoning. Considering multiple options simultaneously rather than separately can optimize outcomes and increase an individual’s willpower in carrying out a choice. Analogical reasoning can reduce System-1 errors by highlighting how a particular task shares underlying principles with another unrelated one, thereby helping people to see past distracting surface details to more fully understand a problem. And decision making by committee rather than individually can improve decisions in group contexts, as can making individuals more accountable for their decisions.13

In some domains, however, a better approach may be to work with, rather than against, our tendency to make decisions based on visceral reactions. In the health arena, this may involve appealing to people’s gist-based thinking. Doctors and the media bombard health consumers with numerical facts and data, yet according to Reyna, patients — like teenagers — tend initially to overestimate their risks; when they learn their risk for a particular disease is actually objectively lower than they thought, they become more complacent — for instance by forgoing screening. Instead, communicating the gist, “You’re at (some) risk, you should get screened because it detects disease early” may be a more powerful motivator to make the right decision than the raw numbers. And when statistics are presented, doing so in easy-to-grasp graphic formats rather than numerically can help patients (as well as physicians, who can be as statistically challenged as most laypeople) extract their own gists from the facts.14

Complacency is a problem when decisions involve issues that feel more remote from our daily lives — problems like global warming. The biggest obstacle to changing people’s individual behavior and collectively changing environmental policy, according to Columbia University decision scientist Elke Weber, is that people just aren’t scared of climate change. Being bombarded by facts and data about perils to come is not the same as having it affect us directly and immediately; in the absence of direct personal experience, our visceral decision system does not kick in to spur us to make better environmental choices such as buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.15

How should scientists and policymakers make climate change more immediate to people? Partly, it involves shifting from facts and data to experiential button-pressing. Powerful images of global warming and its effects can help. Unfortunately, according to research conducted by Yale environmental scientist Anthony A. Leisurowitz, the dominant images of global warming in Americans’ current consciousness are of melting ice and effects on nonhuman nature, not consequences that hit closer to home; as a result, people still think of global warming as only a moderate concern.16

Reframing options in terms that connect tangibly with people’s more immediate priorities, such as the social rules and norms they want to follow, is a way to encourage environmentally sound choices even in the absence of fear.17 For example, a study by Noah J. Goldstein (Univ. of Chicago), Robert B. Cialdini (Arizona State), and Vladas Griskevicius (Univ. of Minnesota) compared the effectiveness of different types of messages in getting hotel guests to reuse their towels rather than send them to the laundry. Messages framed in terms of social norms — “the majority of guests in this room reuse their towels” — were more effective than messages simply emphasizing the environmental benefits of reuse.18

Yet another approach to getting us to make the most beneficial decisions is to appeal to our natural laziness. If there is a default option, most people will accept it because it is easiest to do so — and because they may assume that the default is the best. University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler suggests using policy changes to shift default choices in areas like retirement planning. Because it is expressed as normal, most people begin claiming their Social Security benefits as soon as they are eligible, in their early to mid 60s — a symbolic retirement age but not the age at which most people these days are actually retiring. Moving up the “normal” retirement age to 70 — a higher anchor — would encourage people to let their money grow longer untouched.19

* * *

Making Decisions About the Environment

APS Fellow Elke Weber recently had the opportunity to discuss her research with others who share her concern about climate change, including scientists, activists, and the Dalai Lama. Weber . . . shared her research on why people fail to act on environmental problems. According to her, both cognitive and emotional barriers prevent us from acting on environmental problems. Cognitively, for example, a person’s attention is naturally focused on the present to allow for their immediate survival in dangerous surroundings. This present-focused attitude can discourage someone from taking action on long-term challenges such as climate change. Similarly, emotions such as fear can motivate people to act, but fear is more effective for responding to immediate threats. In spite of these challenges, Weber said that there are ways to encourage people to change their behavior. Because people often fail to act when they feel powerless, it’s important to share good as well as bad environmental news and to set measurable goals for the public to pursue. Also, said Weber, simply portraying reduced consumption as a gain rather than a loss in pleasure could inspire people to act.

References and Further Reading:

  • 7. Stanovich, K.E., & West, R.F. (2000). Individual differences in reasoning: Implications for the rationality debate.
  • Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 23, 645–665.
  • 8. Reyna, V.F., & Lloyd, F. (2006). Physician decision making and cardiac risk: Effects of knowledge, risk perception, risk
  • tolerance, and fuzzy processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 12, 179–195.
  • 9. Reyna, V.F. (2004). How people make decisions that involve risk: A dual-processes approach. Current Directions in
  • Psychological Science, 13, 60–66.
  • 10. Baird, A.A., & Fugelsang, J.A. (2004). The emergence of consequential thought: Evidence from neuroscience.
  • Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 359, 1797–1804.
  • 11. Reyna, VF., & Farley, F. (2006). Risk and rationality in adolescent decision making. Psychological Science in the Public
  • Interest, 7, 1–44.
  • 12. Milkman, K.L., Chugh, D., & Bazerman, M.H. (2009). How can decision making be improved? Perspectives on
  • Psychological Science, 4, 379–383.
  • 13. Ibid.
  • 14. See Wargo, E. (2007). More than just the facts: Helping patients make informed choices. Cornell University Department
  • of Human Development: Outreach & Extension. Downloaded from http://www.human.cornell.edu/hd/outreach-extension/loader.cfm?csModule=security/getfile&PageID=43508
  • 15. Weber, E.U. (2006). Experience-based and description-based perceptions of long-term risk: Why global warming does
  • not scare us (yet). Climatic Change, 77, 103–120.
  • 16. Leisurowitz, A. (2006). Climate change risk perception and policy preferences: The role of affect, imagery, and values.
  • Climatic Change, 77, 45–72.
  • 17. Weber, E.U. (2010). What shapes perceptions of climate change? Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1,
  • 332–342.
  • 18. Goldstein, N.J., Cialdini, R.B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate
  • environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35. Downloaded from http://www.csom.umn.edu/assets/118359.pdf
  • 19. Thaler, R.H. (2011, July 16). Getting the Most Out of Social Security. The New York Times. Downloaded from
  • http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/business/economy/when-the-wait-for-social-security-checks-is-worth-it.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&adxnnlx=1322835490-9f6qOJ9Sp2jSw4LKDjmYgw

More.

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Choice Myth, History, Ideology, Neuroscience, Public Policy | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

RADIOLAB on the Situation of Badness

Posted by The Situationist Staff on January 19, 2012

From RADIOLAB:

Cruelty, violence, badness… This episode of Radiolab, we wrestle with the dark side of human nature, and ask whether it’s something we can ever really understand, or fully escape.

We begin with a chilling statistic: 91% of men, and 84% of women, have fantasized about killing someone. We take a look at one particular fantasy lurking behind these numbers, and wonder what this shadow world might tell us about ourselves and our neighbors. Then, we reconsider what Stanley Milgrim’s famous experiment really revealed about human nature (it’s both better and worse than we thought). Next, we meet a man who scrambles our notions of good and evil: chemist Fritz Haber, who won a Nobel Prize in 1918…around the same time officials in the US were calling him a war criminal. And we end with the story of a man who chased one of the most prolific serial killers in US history, then got a chance to ask him the question that had haunted him for years: why?

Go to the RADIOLAB website to listen to the podcast.

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Posted in Classic Experiments, Conflict, History, Morality, Podcasts, Social Psychology | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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