The Problem With Wokeness: David Brooks

Valid, and good recognition that this is an issue for both the right and left, as are labels such as snowflake and virtue signalling:

A few weeks ago, I mentioned on “Meet the Press” that for all the horror of the recent school shootings, we shouldn’t be scaremongering. There’s much less gun violence over all in schools today than in the early 1990s. Four times as many students were killed per year back then than in recent years.

This comment elicited a lot of hatred on social media, of a very interesting kind. The general diagnosis was that I was doing something wrong by not maximizing the size of the problem. I was draining moral urgency and providing comfort to the status quo.

This mental habit is closely related to what we now call “wokeness.” In an older frame of mind, you try to perceive the size of a problem objectively, and then you propose a solution, which might either be radical or moderate, conservative or liberal. You were judged primarily by the nature of your proposal.

But wokeness jams together the perceiving and the proposing. In fact, wokeness puts more emphasis on how you perceive a situation — how woke you are to what is wrong — than what exactly you plan to do about it. To be woke is to understand the full injustice.

There is no measure or moderation to wokeness. It’s always good to be more woke. It’s always good to see injustice in maximalist terms. To point to any mitigating factors in the environment is to be naïve, childish, a co-opted part of the status quo.

The word wokeness is new, but the mental habits it describes are old. A few decades ago, there was a small strain of Jewish radicals who believed that rabid anti-Semitism was at the core of Christian culture. Any attempt to live in mixed societies would always lead to Auschwitz. Segregation and moving to Israel was the only safe strategy, and anybody who didn’t see this reality was, in today’s language, insufficiently woke.

This attitude led to Meir Kahane and a very ugly strain of militancy.

In 1952 Reinhold Niebuhr complained that many of his fellow anti-communists were constantly requiring “that the foe is hated with sufficient vigor.” This led to “apoplectic rigidity.” Screaming about the imminent communist menace became a sort of display art for politicians.

These days we think of wokeness as a left-wing phenomenon. But it is an iron law of politics that every mental habit conservatives fault in liberals is one they also practice themselves.

The modern right has its own trigger words (diversity, dialogue, social justice, community organizer), its own safe spaces (Fox News) and its own wokeness. Michael Anton’s essay “The Flight 93 Election” is only one example of the common apocalyptic view: Modern liberals are hate-filled nihilists who will destroy the nation if given power. Anybody who doesn’t understand this reality is not conservatively woke.

The problem with wokeness is that it doesn’t inspire action; it freezes it. To be woke is first and foremost to put yourself on display. To make a problem seem massively intractable is to inspire separation — building a wall between you and the problem — not a solution.

There’s a debate on precisely this point now surrounding the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is, of course, well known for seeing the problem of racism in maximalist terms. The entire American story was and continues to be based on “plunder,” the violent crushing of minority bodies. Even today, “Gentrification is white supremacy.”

Coates is very honest about his pessimism and his hopeless view of the situation. But a number of writers have criticized his stance. Cornel West has argued that it’s all words; it doesn’t lead to collective action. In The New York Review of Books, Darryl Pinckney argues, “Afro-pessimism threatens no one, and white audiences confuse having been chastised with learning.”

I’d add that it’s a blunt fact that most great social reforms have happened in moments of optimism, not moments of pessimism, in moments of encouraging progress, not in moments of perceived threat.

The greatest danger of extreme wokeness is that it makes it harder to practice the necessary skill of public life, the ability to see two contradictory truths at the same time. For example, it is certainly true that racism is the great sin of American history, that it is an ongoing sin and the sin from which many of our other sins flow. It is also true that throughout history and today, millions of people have tried to combat that sin and have made progress against it.

The confrontation with this sin or any sin is not just a protest but a struggle. Generalship in that or any struggle is seeing where the forces of progress are swelling and where the forces of reaction are marching. It is seeing opportunities as well as threats. It is being dispassionate in one’s perception of the situation and then passionate in one’s assault on it.

Indignation is often deserved and always makes for a great media strategy. But in its extreme form, whether on left or right, wokeness leads to a one-sided depiction of the present and an unsophisticated strategy for a future offensive.

via Opinion | The Problem With Wokeness – The New York Times

Respect First, Then Gun Control: Brooks – The New York Times

An interesting approach to bringing people together, despite their ideological or other differences:

This has been an emotional week. We greet tragedies like the school shooting in Florida with shock, sadness, mourning and grief that turns into indignation and rage. The anger inevitably gets directed at the N.R.A., those who support gun rights, and the politicians who refuse to do anything while children die.

Many of us walked this emotional path. But we may end up doing more harm than good. If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that guns have become a cultural flash point in a nation that is unequal and divided. The people who defend gun rights believe that snobbish elites look down on their morals and want to destroy their culture. If we end up telling such people that they and their guns are despicable, they will just despise us back and dig in their heels.

So if you want to stop school shootings it’s not enough just to vent and march. It’s necessary to let people from Red America lead the way, and to show respect to gun owners at all points. There has to be trust and respect first. Then we can strike a compromise on guns as guns, and not some sacred cross in the culture war.

So I’ve been thinking about a group that’s in the trust and respect business. Better Angels is a nonprofit led by David Lapp, David Blankenhorn and a prominent family therapist, Bill Doherty. The team members travel from town to town finding members of the Red and Blue Tribes and bringing them together for long, humbling conversations.

My Times colleague April Lawson has gotten involved with Better Angels and has been reporting back on its techniques.

One of the most successful parts of the structured conversations is built around stereotypes. Doherty, the head moderator, asks the people at each gathering to name five major stereotypes that the other side throws at them. The Republicans invariably list “racist” first, followed by, say, “uncaring,” “uneducated,” “misogynistic” and “science deniers.”

In a session Lawson attended, a Trump supporter acknowledged that the G.O.P. has had a spotty record on racial matters, but it’s important to him that Blues know that’s not why he holds his opinions.

Doherty says that the Reds feel shamed by the Blues to a much greater degree than the Blues realize. Reds are very reluctant to enter into a conversation with Blues, for fear of further shaming, but they often come to the table when they are told that this will be a chance to “de-monsterize” themselves.

At that session one Blue said she was really grateful to hear a Red acknowledge the Republican history on race. When Blues are asked about the stereotypes thrown at them, they tend to list “against religion and morality,” “unpatriotic” and “against personal responsibility” among their responses. They, too, relish the chance to clear the air.

After the stereotypes are discussed, the room feels different. As one Red in Ohio told Lawson, “I think we are all pretty clear on one thing: Don’t tell us who we are and what we think.” Another Red was moved almost to tears by the damage categories do. “We’re not just cookie-cutter people; we’re individuals. Just because you don’t like something, you don’t have to ridicule it — you probably don’t understand it,” she said. “When someone’s heart is full up with something, and then you demean it without even listening to them — I hate that.”

The discussions reveal other sensitivities. Some Blues didn’t want to enter a venue that had a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on the wall. To Reds that was a neutral flag from American history, but to Blues it carried all sorts of nasty associations. Reds were offended by the lawn signs that said, “Hate Has No Home Here.” The implication: Hate has no home in my house, but it does in yours.

In another exercise, Reds and Blues ask each other honest, nonleading questions. Blues may ask Reds, “Name a safety-net program you can support.” Reds may ask Blues, “How do you balance having a heart with keeping health care costs under control?”

By the end of the conversations, the atmosphere has changed. Nearly always somebody will say that the discussion was easy because only moderates were in the room, not the people who post crazy stuff on Facebook. The staff tries not to smile, knowing that some of the people were selected precisely because of the intense stuff they posted on Facebook.

“This is not a civility organization,” Blankenhorn told Lawson. Better Angels is aiming to build a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage in the political system.

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

via Respect First, Then Gun Control – The New York Times

ICYMI – In Praise of Equipoise: David Brooks

Good piece by Brooks on the need to get out of one’s bubble and the risks of attachment to a single identity:

Group victimization has become the global religion — from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran — and everybody gets to assert his or her victimization is worst and it’s the other people who are the elites.

The situation might be tolerable if people at least got to experience real community within their victim groups. But as Mark Lilla points out in his essential new book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” many identity communities are not even real communities. They’re just a loose group of individuals, narcissistically exploring some trait in their self that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.

How do we get out of this spiral?

The first step is to just get out. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, confront your opponent with aggressive love.

Martin Luther King is the obvious model here. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” he argued. “And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. … Just keep being friendly to that person. … Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. … They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.”

The second step is to refuse to be a monad. Maalouf points to the myth that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters.” Some people live this way, hanging around just one sort of person, loyal to just one allegiance and leading insular, fearful lives. In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.

The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. The more interesting her own constellational self becomes. The world isn’t only a battlefield of groups; it’s also a World Wide Web of overlapping allegiances. You might be Black Lives Matter and he may be Make America Great Again, but you’re both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets.

The final step is to practice equipoise. This is the trait we should be looking for in leaders. It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.

The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony. “A good character,” James Q. Wilson wrote, “is not life lived according to a rule (there rarely is a rule by which good qualities ought to be combined or hard choices resolved), it is a life lived in balance.” Achieving balance is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.

Today rage and singularity is the approved woke response to the world — Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.

We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo. – Recode

Of all the commentary written about Google’s firing of James Damore, this long read and assessment of the science and evidence appears to me the most comprehensive and convincing one given the range of studies cited.

Most of the op-ed type commentaries – Jon Kay’s The Google Manifesto contained truths that we can’t say, Debra Soh’s No, the Google manifesto isn’t sexist or anti-diversity. It’s science, David Brooks’ somewhat hysterical Sundar Pichai Should Resign as Google’s C.E.O. – tend to be overly simplistic and selective in their presentation of the issues involved.

I am also less than convinced by free speech arguments, perhaps reflecting my time in government where it was clear that any public comment should not undermine, or appear to undermine, the government. While the rules may not be so ironclad in other organizations, employees in all organizations need to be mindful of the impact of their public commentary on the overall reputation, image and policies of their employer.

For the account of the Google board deliberations, see How CEO Sundar Pichai made the decision to fire James Damore was just as hard as Google’s all-hands meeting today will be which highlights the superficialiity of Brook’s piece in particular:

James Damore, 28, questioned the company’s diversity policies and claimed that scientific data backed up his assertions. Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that Damore’s 3,300-word manifesto crossed the line by “advancing harmful gender stereotypes” in the workplace. Pichai noted that “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.”

Damore argued that many men in the company agreed with his sentiments. That’s not surprising, since the idea that women just can’t hack it in math and science has been around for a very long time. It has been argued that women’s lack of a “math gene,” their brain structures, and their inherent psychological traits put most of them out of the game.

Some critics sided with Damore. For example, columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times found his scientific arguments intriguing.

But are they? What are the real facts? We have been researching issues of gender and STEM (science, technology engineering and math) for more than 25 years. We can say flatly that there is no evidence that women’s biology makes them incapable of performing at the highest levels in any STEM fields.

Many reputable scientific authorities have weighed in on this question, including a major paper in the journal Science debunking the idea that the brains of males and females are so different that they should be educated in single-sex classrooms. The paper was written by eight prominent neuroscientists, headed by professor Diane Halpern of Claremont McKenna College, past president of the American Psychological Association. They argue that “There is no well-designed research showing that single-sex education improves students’ academic performance, but there is evidence that sex segregation increases gender stereotyping and legitimizes institutional sexism.”

They add, “Neuroscientists have found few sex differences in children’s brains beyond the larger volume of boys’ brains and the earlier completion of girls’ brain growth, neither of which is known to relate to learning.”

Several major books have debunked the idea of important brain differences between the sexes. Lise Eliot, associate professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School, did an exhaustive review of the scientific literature on human brains from birth to adolescence. She concluded, in her book, “Pink Brain, Blue Brain,” that there is “surprisingly little solid evidence of sex differences in children’s brains.”

Rebecca Jordan-Young, a sociomedical scientist and professor at Barnard College, also rejects the notion that there are pink and blue brains, and that the differing organization of female and male brains is the key to behavior. In her book “Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences,” she says that this narrative misunderstands the complexities of biology and the dynamic nature of brain development.

And happily, the widely held belief that boys are naturally better than girls at math and science is unraveling among serious scientists. Evidence is mounting that girls are every bit as competent as boys in these areas. Psychology professor Janet Hyde of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has strong U. S. data showing no meaningful differences in math performance among more than seven million boys and girls in grades 2 through 12.

Also, several large-scale international testing programs find girls closing the gender gap in math, and in some cases outscoring the boys. Clearly, this huge improvement over a fairly short time period argues against biological explanations.

Much of the data that Damore provides in his memo is suspect, outdated or has other problems.

In his July memo, titled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber: How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” Damore wrote that women on average have more “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas.” And he stated that women are more inclined to have an interest in “people rather than things, relative to men.”

Damore cites the work of Simon Baron-Cohen, who argues in his widely reviewed book “The Essential Difference” that boys are biologically programmed to focus on objects, predisposing them to math and understanding systems, while girls are programmed to focus on people and feelings. The British psychologist claims that the male brain is the “systematizing brain” while the female brain is the “empathizing” brain.

This idea was based on a study of day-old babies, which found that the boys looked at mobiles longer and the girls looked at faces longer. Male brains, Baron-Cohen says, are ideally suited for leadership and power. They are hardwired for mastery of hunting and tracking, trading, achieving and maintaining power, gaining expertise, tolerating solitude, using aggression and taking on leadership roles.

The female brain, on he other hand, is specialized for making friends, mothering, gossip and “reading” a partner. Girls and women are so focused on others, he says, that they have little interest in figuring out how the world works.

But Baron-Cohen’s study had major problems. It was an “outlier” study. No one else has replicated these findings, including Baron-Cohen himself. It is so flawed as to be almost meaningless. Why?

The experiment lacked crucial controls against experimenter bias, and was badly designed. Female and male infants were propped up in a parent’s lap and shown, side by side, an active person or an inanimate object. Since newborns can’t hold their heads up independently, their visual preferences could well have been determined by the way their parents held them.

Source: We’ve studied gender and STEM for 25 years. The science doesn’t support the Google memo. – Recode

The Thought Leader

A somewhat weird column by David Brooks of the NY Times, a mix of a wonderful takedown of “thought leaders” (and pundits), while trying, not completely successfully, to work this into a life journey format. But for those of us who have been seduced, either with the thought of becoming a thought leader or following thought leaders (e.g., LinkedIn suggestions), a good read and worthy of reflection:

The Thought Leader is sort of a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler. Each year, he gets to speak at the Clinton Global Initiative, where successful people gather to express compassion for those not invited. Month after month, he gets to be a discussion facilitator at think tank dinners where guests talk about what it’s like to live in poverty while the wait staff glides through the room thinking bitter thoughts.

The Thought Leader – NYTimes.com.