Featured

When I Was a Social Justice Warrior

This essay is Part Two of two essays about liberalism. In the first, I describe the moment – during an argument with a fellow student while studying abroad in France – that I became a liberal. In Part Two, I describe the progression of my political beliefs through graduate school. I suggest that liberals move away from identity politics and toward a more inclusive, economic platform for social justice. 

In the fall of 2015, I was one year into my first master’s degree – an interdisciplinary social science and humanities degree with an emphasis in social justice. 

I spent my first year learning about inequality in the U.S. and around the world. I took women and gender studies courses, critical race theory courses, and courses that problematized things like technology and globalization. Also, as I stated in Part One, I was exposed to social and political philosophies that influenced my political identity and strengthened my already fierce commitment to lessening the suffering of others.

As I was choosing my courses for Spring 2016, I came upon a flyer shared by my academic advisor about an intriguing course in the education department. The course was called Problematizing Whiteness, and the flyer read,

WANT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT RACISM?
TIRED OF NOT HAVING THE VOCABULARY TO EXPLAIN YOUR RACIAL EXPERIENCES?
EVER WONDER, WAS THAT RACIST?
PROBLEMATIZING WHITENESS: EDUCATING FOR RACIAL JUSTICE

Admittedly, I was a bit turned off by the flyer at first. The course’s logo was a red, solidarity fist, holding a pencil, and surrounded by ears of corn. Looking at it now, I still don’t quite understand it. Maybe the corn was a nod to Marx – I don’t know. 

Either way, I liked the idea of a pencil-in-hand denoting power. What I didn’t like was the blatantly ideological message the flyer seemed to be sending:

Take this course and become a fighter for racial justice.

My other courses had taught me about identity and inequality, particularly as they relate to race and gender. Yet, in my opinion, none of them seemed quite as unabashed in their mission to persuade or prescribe political beliefs as this one.

I believed, and still believe, that we all have a moral responsibility to learn about cultural, historical, political, or institutional oppression (and attending universities can give us that opportunity). Yet, I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of a college course marketing itself as a sort of “training ground” for political activism. 

Despite my discomfort, I reached out to the professor and asked for a copy of the syllabus. I spoke with a friend that said the professor was intelligent, warm, and friendly, so I decided to enroll in the course.

That decision changed my life forever. 

When it started in January, I learned that the course was really about critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness studies is an offshoot of critical race theory. It studies “whiteness” as a problematic and often harmful identity that is inculcated through white supremacy. 

It is where we get the now ubiquitous term “white privilege.” And it shares roots with many of the books recommended by racial justice activists today, such as White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kindi. 

Despite my initial hesitation, just a week into the course, I was hooked. 

Remember my story in Part One, where I describe – after the conflict with my Turkish friend – how dumbfounded I was to learn that I may not be one of the “good guys”? That either I, or people with whom I share an identity, may be responsible for others’ pain? 

Well, reading and learning critical whiteness studies was the antidote to my guilt. It was my social justice crack. I could finally do something about the mistakes of my group. (In this context, “my group” was “white people.”) 

I might not have been able to assuage my Turkish friend’s anger, or take back the wars waged by my country in the Middle East. But, by learning to be an anti-racist and a white person fighting for racial justice, I finally felt like I could do what I didn’t have the tools to do back then. 

I could become one of the good guys, and I could stop the bad guys – even if all of the bad guys looked like me.

For most of the next year, I fully adopted the identity of “anti-racist.” I was a white, twenty-something young woman with a social justice mission. I’m not sure if the term “social justice warrior” was as prevalent back then as it is now, but either way, I wore my “SJW” hat with pride. 

I posted anti-racist memes on Facebook and participated eagerly in the debates that ensued. I joined a group called “Showing Up for Racial Justice,” a local activist group made up mostly of white people who were attempting to simultaneously respect activist spaces of color and participate in anti-racist activities themselves.

I brought critical whiteness studies into my Core Composition classroom – the writing class I taught (and the one “everyone has to take”). Outside the classroom, I continued to “educate” anyone that attempted to contest my anti-racist beliefs, no matter how blatant or subtle their objections were.

I was high on self-righteousness. I was drunk on Truth. I finally had a guidebook, a set of rules for how to be good. To many of us, racial injustice feels like the social, political, and moral issue of our time. And I finally felt like I was on the “right” side.

Then Came November.

When November 2016 came along, I was eleven months into my anti-racist crusade. As I hope is clear from my last post – and even by the presence of this blog – my desire “to make the world a better place” has always been strong. 

For as long as I remember, I have identified as a liberal. This is because, to me, a liberal means “open to change.” That’s it. It exists in contrast to “conservative,” which, in my opinion, simply means that one wishes to “preserve” or “protect” what already is

In my experience, if we become knowledgeable of pain, suffering, or injustices in the world, we typically develop liberal views because, by learning about this pain and suffering, we decide that what is isn’t good enough. 

I know that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” have come to mean so much more these days. It’s as if assuming one of these identities means that you must also assume a laundry list of opinions, beliefs, values, and ideas along with it. 

“Either you’re with us or against us” seems to be the dominant message from both camps.

Well, from childhood until November 8, 2016, I was “with” liberals through and through. And with my newly-acquired knowledge from critical whiteness studies, I finally had moral certainty and self-righteousness on my side. 

On the evening of November 8, I joined a small group of friends on the couch as we watched the U.S. presidential election unfold. With every passing minute, we saw the red numbers tick upward, while the blue numbers stood still.

And then we watched Donald Trump win the election for President of the United States. 

Keeping true to my anti-racist training, I quickly shared an article that argued his election was a “whitelash” against a black President Obama. I ordered a Black Lives Matter sticker for my laptop case. I started crafting new anti-racist lesson plans in my head. 

Yet, after a few days, I calmed down. I processed. Donald Trump had won. Despite bragging about “grabbing pussy.” Despite threatening to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico to keep “rapists” and “criminals” out. Despite touting anti-Muslim rhetoric. Donald Trump had won. 

Either almost half of my country was downright racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, or something else was going on here. 

I knew I disagreed with the Right. I knew that I never, in a million years, could support Donald Trump. Yet, for the first time in years, I questioned the validity of my side, the Left.

And my ironist sensibilities roared.*

We need to do better.

As I described in Part One, I have always been skeptical of “once and for all” explanations of “the way things are” – of unquestionable, impenetrable, ideas about what’s true. 

I’m not sure if it’s because my father was such an outspoken individualist – a man who passionately rejected anyone’s attempts to control or define him – but I grew up always being wary of strict rules, rigid institutional structures, or people who claim to have all the answers.

I know that’s why I was suspicious of the critical whiteness studies course. It offered me answers to one of my life’s greatest moral dilemmas: what to do when you’re on the side of the oppressor. 

As someone who grows quite exhausted from constantly questioning society and myself, certainty is a tempting refuge. 

Yet Donald Trump’s election, again, made me hit the pause button.

It didn’t make me question that the systemic oppression of people of color, women, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others is a plague that has captured our nation for far too long. I have seen too much, read too many books, and met too many people to take seriously any suggestions to the contrary. 

After all, as a white woman, I went through my own process of liberation when I discovered the historic oppression of myself and others that look like me. 

Yet, Trump’s election did make me question the ways liberals are attempting to remedy this situation and who – in our quest to help the oppressed – we might be leaving out. 

“What About Poor White People?”

At one point during the critical whiteness studies course, we read an article by Ricky Lee Allen, a critical whiteness scholar, called “What About Poor White People?” In it, he describes this question – “What about poor white people?” – as a defensive tactic that middle- or upper-class whites use to avoid conversations about racism.

He argues that, while it may be valid to ask about the condition of poor white people in social justice circles, that often isn’t the true intention of those who pose it. It is, instead, a way to deflect responsibility.

Non-poor whites who ask, “What about poor white people?” are really saying, Look at those white trash/hillbilly/redneck racists over there. Why don’t you talk to them about race and leave us alone?

Non-poor whites talk down to poor whites, painting them as the “real” racists that need to be snuffed out. Meanwhile, poor or working class whites, seeing themselves as “temporarily disenfranchised millionaires,” remain politically loyal to upper-class whites. 

They think, With just a little more freedom, a little less government intervention, I can attain the American Dream, too. They overlook the experiences they share with poor or working class people of color, blame the “other,” and continuously vote against their own economic interests.

Sound familiar? 

I’m not suggesting that liberals stop fighting for racial justice, immigration reform, LGBTQ rights, or gender equality. I am suggesting that liberals consider how we may be ostracizing another oppressed group: economically disenfranchised white people.

I wonder, what are our motivations for characterizing working class Trump supporters as ignorant, uneducated buffoons? Is it because we think we’re helping people of color? Is it because we think, by posting memes on social media, we’re helping Democrats win? 

Or is it because, in painting poor white people as morally apprehensible, we can feel a little bit better about ourselves?

I suggest that we start crafting a new version of liberalism, one that transcends identity politics. 

This means that we recognize the immense importance of identity in shaping the trajectory of our lives, but we work to diminish the importance of those identities, rather than cling to them. We also stop assuming that one’s racial, ethnic, gender, or other social identity predetermines that person’s values, morals, or political beliefs.

We need only mention conservative, anti-BLM activists like Candace Owens, or anti-feminist commentators like Tomi Lahren, to know that being black doesn’t mean you care about racial justice, and being a woman doesn’t mean that you’re a feminist.

I argued in my master’s thesis that identity divides, but economics unites. That’s because, as a white woman, I might not understand your particular plight as a black, Chicana, or Native American woman. But, like everyone else, I need to put a roof over my head. I need to support my family. 

We all bleed, and we all need to eat. 

Wealth inequality on national and global levels has increased dramatically since the 1970s, and some of the world’s greatest democracies are being threatened by Right-wing populism in response

The American Left’s answer to fascism cannot be limited to reactionary bids for police reform or short-sighted responses to Trump’s immigration policies. We need to develop our own answer to growing inequalities – one that speaks to the interests of the vast majority of Americans.

In addition to policy reforms that enhance the dignity of black lives, we need an economic agenda that speaks to the needs of the “new poor,” the losers in the fight to stay within a shrinking middle class

On a national scale, liberals need to show how inequality in education affects poor, rural whites just as it affects inner-city blacks. And we need to consistently show how we are all hurt by rising housing costs, shrinking wages, and inadequate healthcare.

Many of us who are educated about social justice know that the impacts of these societal problems are not felt equally. But what we need now is not a reminder of our differences.

What we need is a reminder of how we are all the same. 

What being liberal means.

As I mentioned here and in Part One, to me, being a liberal means that we never accept any proposition as indefinitely, undeniably true. We are always open to questioning the righteousness of our own or others’ beliefs. 

I learned a lot in my critical whiteness studies course. I learned how global white supremacy functions. I learned how, whether we’re individually racist or not, racial inequalities are perpetuated unless they are addressed and remedied. I even gained some tools for confronting systemic racism and reflecting on my own, problematic behaviors and beliefs. 

Critical whiteness studies is important because it shows the “other side” of critical race theory. It shows not just who is being oppressed, but who is doing the oppressing and how. It shows a more holistic picture of racial inequality in the U.S. and the world. 

Yet, it also has serious flaws. It’s not just a brazenly ideological field of study; it has a tendency to advocate moral dogmatism, almost indoctrinating its students into an, ironically, “black and white” view of the world.

“Good guys” and “bad guys” become decipherable by skin color, and to “do the right thing” often means to simply do what you’re told.

We veer off course when we start to cling to one lens through which to view the world. When our acceptance of one group means the rejection, humiliation, and criticism of another, we are partaking in identity politics, not real politics.

I challenge liberals to think about what world they wish to build and who they might be omitting from that vision. Poor and working class whites, even those who may have voted for Obama in 2012, were Trump’s ticket to the presidency in 2016

Come November, I would hate for liberals, like me, to be jolted awake and realize that, in their quest to be the “good guys,” they really endangered us all. 

*As defined in Part One, an “ironist” is a term coined by Richard Rorty that refers to someone who is constantly questioning the verity of one’s own beliefs or the beliefs of one’s group.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to subscribe to e-mail updates from Creating the Good Life blog.

Public Philosophy in the Trump Era and Beyond: An Interview with Andrew Light

Since Donald Trump won the presidential election in 2016, academics have turned inward to reflect on the role the academy might play, or has played, in politics. Most notably, a series of lectures given by Richard Rorty in 1998 have resurfaced in both the academic and popular eye in which he critiques the “academic Left” for retreating from national politics.

This retreat from engaged scholarship would contribute to the rise of a right-wing, populist “strongman,” resulting in immeasurably disastrous consequences for the country and the world.

At the time a master’s student in a program committed to social justice, I took Rorty’s critique of academia seriously. I also took it personally when my country voted for someone who embodied everything I was committed to standing against.

Thus, this interview is my attempt to look through the mess, rather than look away, and attempt to gain some insight from one of the most accomplished public philosophers of our time.

My goal was to learn how academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, might participate more proactively in public life. How might we avoid what Rorty calls the “observer role” and assume our responsibilities as “participants?”

Andrew Light has held various academic appointments throughout the U.S. He was Assistant Professor of Environmental Philosophy at New York University, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle, and he currently runs the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University. 

In 2008, he took his first official steps into the public policy arena as an International Climate Policy Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.  Shortly after, he joined the Obama Administration in the State Department as Senior Adviser and India Counselor to the Special Envoy on Climate Change.  There, he played a crucial role in the development and signing of the Paris Agreement in 2016. 

Since then, his work inside and outside academia has earned him numerous awards, including the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy’s Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy in 2016.  The International Society for Environmental Ethics has also created a award in his honor called the Andrew Light Award for Public Philosophy. 

The following is a transcript of a discussion I had with Dr. Light that took place via Skype in March 2017. I wanted to give other graduate students a chance to learn from Dr. Light’s experiences and potentially forge their own paths towards publicly engaged scholarship.

Due to my own interest in the subject, I focused on Light’s connection to American pragmatism, a philosophical tradition committed to ideas that “work.” Other topics explored are the limits of academia and engaged scholarship in the Trump era and beyond.


E: You recently won the Alain Locke Award for Public Philosophy.  When did you realize that you wanted to do publicly engaged work?  And how heavily influenced were you, if at all, by pragmatism or American Philosophy?

A: I think my emerging desire to do something other than academic work evolved in graduate school.  I didn’t have a doctrinaire education in the American pragmatists.  I never took a seminar in the pragmatists or an undergraduate class in the pragmatism.  But I knew there was something there in the ethos of it that was of interest to me. 

I got exposed to Richard Rorty who of course is a very controversial figure in philosophy, especially among people who do classical American philosophy. I wrote one of my graduate school papers on this long debate between Rorty and Tom McCarthy, who was then the chief interpreter of Habermas in the United States.

It was a very long paper on that – terribly written.  But what’s interesting about it was that they struggled with this whole issue of what is it to do philosophy that has impact?

What is it to do philosophy that has impact?

And Rorty had this really great insight which he more fully developed in the book Achieving Our Country years later.  There you begin to see this notion that some of the substantive, normative work that will be done in public life will not be done by philosophers but by journalists, novelists, artists, that kind of thing. 

It really resonated with me, and I think when I landed at A&M was the first time I had actually met people who were working on Dewey and James and Peirce and all that, and it wasn’t so much exposure to what they were doing with the classic texts, but just their sensibility, which they might have seen as quite different from Rorty’s because they all hated Rorty’s interpretation of the great masters. 

But the sensibility was very similar.  I think the one most important to be there was John McDurmott, who I’m friends with to this day.  He once said publicly about certain ways of doing American philosophy – that too many people do it like they’re atomists. They’re just so focused on the text when of course that’s so antithetical to the spirit in which these books were actually written.

“Too many people do [American philosophy] like they’re atomists. They’re so focused on the text, when that’s so antithetical to the spirit in which these books were actually written.”

So I found that that is something I had picked up from Rorty as an appropriate aspiration for someone in philosophy and something you could do.  What I took from Rorty is to communicate not in the ways that we, philosophers, are trained to communicate. 

You have to learn to communicate in a completely different way, and it took me years to put myself in a position where I was slowly building the capacity to do it. But there was no substitute for being thrown in the deep end of the pool. You just gotta swim. And you just start writing that way and communicating in that way, and if you don’t then nobody pays any attention to you. 

E: I’ve been so confused the past couple of years because it seems like a lot of what philosophers are doing, particularly those that study American pragmatism, seems kind of antithetical to pragmatism itself.  I think if Jane Addams knew that philosophers were scrutinizing her texts behind closed conference room doors rather than using them to engage with the world in a new way, I think she’d be really mad.  I know how other philosophy has been known to have a detached attitude, but pragmatism was always different to me. Can you talk more about how you’ve channeled academic philosophy toward solving public problems?

A: Well I started working on these other issues: restoration ecology and urban sustainability and I eventually worked around climate change.  But if you look at the evolution of my work, a lot of stuff that I was writing in the State Department earlier on, I was saying, “Here’s the problem, here’s the literature on citizenship” and then I applied it to ecological restoration or something like that. 

But by the end I wasn’t talking about philosophical literature at all, I was analyzing the problem.  The philosophy stuff is kind of there, it’s just buried way down deep. It’s in terms of the approach to the problem, what I describe as the problem that needs to be addressed. 

One example is when I talk about reconciling the United States and India in the Paris Agreement – two of the biggest, most important major parties who needed to agree to the text going in. I worked for years just trying to get these two parties to understand where they were coming from and why they could in fact get to an agreement. 

Now that’s ultimately an exercise in moral pluralism, but of course there’s no theory of moral pluralism in anything I was writing.  It was more like this: how do you structure these occasions where these two parties can understand that they do in fact have something in common with respect to the moral dimensions of the problem, and that there are some practical ways in which they can get to the same ends?  I think there’s pragmatism in all of that, but you don’t structure it that way when you’re working on the actual problem.

E: Do you have any other examples where you had to pull on your philosophy training while you were working at the Center for American Progress or on the Obama Administration?  Or is it more just a general approach you take?

A: Yeah, but it wasn’t about pragmatism, it was really about what we’re trained to do.  What we’re trained to do is analyze arguments, separate the valid from the non-valid, the true from the false – it’s the basic understanding of what it means to be a philosopher of any strain.

Most of the people working in the policy realm in the United States are non-practicing lawyers, and they’re not trained to do international climate change negotiations in law school for the most part.  But they’re trained how to think.  And how to work through problems.  And I think that’s the same kind of things that philosophers are trained to do. We just do it for longer and I think we’re trained in a much better way than they are.

“They’re not trained to do international climate change negotiations in law school, for the most part.  But they’re trained how to think.”

What we’re not trained to do is how to take that sensibility and those skills and go sit in a room and do something completely different that has nothing to do with texts on a shelf and abstract philosophical problems.

So, I think the root training is perfect for this environment, but we’re never encouraged to go try it out.  And then when we do go to those environments, too often we think, “Well, we have to find the philosophical problem here.” The moral problem. And I think that’s the problem.  Because what we should be doing is figuring out how to solve the problems themselves while bringing our sensibilities to the table.

E: Why don’t you think philosophers are encouraged to do this kind of work?  Or do you think it’s accessible and people just don’t take advantage of it?

A: In some ways, publicly engaged scholarship is accessible.  But philosophy in many ways has become an elite practice within academic institutions.  It’s also a stable and fairly insular world that one can have a career in.  And the people who are training graduate students are people who by default have had careers in it.  What they know how to do is teach people to do what they do.  They don’t know how to teach people to do other things. And that’s a part of it. 

The question we need to answer is: What are the skills and experiences of people who are engaged and responsible for training graduate students?

There’s a kind of unfortunate conceit in the philosophical world that “the purer the philosophy the better philosophy.”  The more removed it is from the world – the harder it is and the more rigorous it is – the more it is in the paradigm of decent philosophical thought.  And so you get applied ethics as sort of second-class philosophy at best.

You don’t need to go into dispute with those folks to see that that’s incredibly limiting.  And the reason it’s completely limiting is ultimately in a situation where the language of values in the policy realm is almost completely owned by economists. 

“The language of values in the policy realm is almost completely owned by economists.”

And now they’re making it much more interesting by adding behavioral economics that has added all these new dimensions to economic theory and economic approaches.  And so it’s getting much more robust.  But at the same time, it can’t possibly be the case that this collection of thinkers captures all of what counts as values in these realms that affect every single person and most life on this planet. 

Philosophers have things to say to that, but we simply don’t try to offer up anything for people except in this very second or third degree of separation.  We’ll write stuff that maybe people in the philosophy realm might get inspired by.  And if we’re lucky, they read it and then they’ll translate it and then sort of make it work in the real world. 

Unfortunately, the ideas that we are working on are often nothing more than ideals. But the hope is that, at some point, someone will be able to look at something concrete like the new health care law or the Paris Agreement, and say, well, it doesn’t match the ideal, but “the ideal” doesn’t do a hell of a lot of good when what you want to do is create something that is just better than what might have been created otherwise.

And by ceding all that responsibility to the economists, we are giving up valuable contributions that we could be making to public life, broadly construed.  This doesn’t have to be policy, it could be advocacy, it could be anything.  That conceit of purity and the idea that philosophy is better when it’s more disconnected from the world is limiting.

I think it’s changed a lot, even since I was a graduate student.  It’s getting more interesting especially in fields like cognitive science and other places that philosophers have been able to work with people in other fields.  For the most part though, it’s still extremely limiting. I think we’re just comfortable in the little world that we’ve created for ourselves. 

And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, right? Because philosophers don’t interact in those worlds, people who are hiring in think tanks or policy institutions don’t recognize an advanced degree in philosophy as something that can add something to the teams that they’re assembling to do something in the world, to solve some kind of problem.

People just don’t say, “Oh we don’t have enough philosophers, we have to go hire more of those.” It doesn’t come up.  Part of my success in the policy world is that most people in the policy world don’t know me as a philosopher at all.  They’re surprised when they learn it.  And it’s because I worked very, very heard to establish myself and my credibility independently of that world.

L: Some people argue that academic institutions in general encourage the detached, “ivory tower” approach to knowledge, so much so that doing engaged work is even discouraged.  So, a new professor gains prestige by going to conferences, by publishing papers in reputable journals, but if you do things that are more engaged you’re at a professional disadvantage. 

There’s an example of a professor who developed a curriculum for sexual assault on college campuses that’s being used at the majority of college campuses across the country, yet he struggled throughout his whole career to move up in the way academics are expected to move up, via promotions, tenure, honorable designations, etc. 

Do you think that the disconnect you’re talking about is happening more than just in philosophy departments?  Do you think that there are actual structural mechanisms that maintain the separation between academia and the “outside world?”

A: Yeah, I think absolutely there are. It’s a broader problem, but I do think the different disciplines are handling it in better or worse ways. And they’ve figured out ways to acknowledge public utility at work. 

I think a lot of people chafe at the idea that philosophers should be going out and getting grants.  But at the institute that I run at George Mason University, everyone’s expected to go out and raise a portion of their salary.  And the reason is because it’s not just a way of bringing revenue to the university, it’s a way of demonstrating that the work that we’re doing does have utility for something outside the university. And that’s part of our proof that the concepts we’re pursuing do have some purchase and do have an audience. 

It’s a pretty big spectrum out there in general I would say that in the humanities and social sciences, not in schools of public policy but in, you know, a department of sociology or history even, we’re pretty bad at structuring the reward systems so that people get credit for doing stuff that doesn’t wind up being a book or a journal article which are the normal, typical thing. And that’s a problem.  And I think different universities are struggling with it, to do that.  But if you don’t build that in in the beginning, it’s very difficult to introduce later on. 

E: Would you say that philosophy departments are struggling even more than other social science or humanities departments in rewarding people for doing non-traditional or publicly engaged work?

A: Philosophers have a problem with it, but I think that even a traditional department of economics or a department of sociology or a department of history has trouble with that as well.  Schools that do more applied work have a better way of rewarding those kinds of things.

What I mean by that is that a school of natural resource management or a school of forestry or a school of marine sciences usually have something built in that acknowledges that kind of work and encourages it and even requires it.  But it’s harder not just for philosophers but among the core social sciences and humanities when they’re not connected to a mission.  It becomes difficult to introduce that if it’s not already there. Its changing but I think it’s still slow. 

People have come to me and asked, “How can I do what you do in terms of international climate policy?” and my first answer is, “First step is don’t get a PhD in philosophy.”  It’s a very difficult route from there to being a climate change negotiator for a major party. There are much more direct ways of doing that. But now I have a better sense that academics could be doing that from an earlier stage, depending on what they are willing to accept in terms of their relationship to the university and their conditions of employment.

E: What do you mean by “an earlier stage?”

A: I think that it’s certainly possible starting as a junior professor or post-doc, even a graduate student, you can begin to do publicly engaged work and then overcome the limitations of how most of us are trained.  And then you can build a career like that.

But it takes determination and it takes a very different set of expectations.  It may not be the surest road towards a tenure-track job at a PhD-granting institution, but it definitely might be the road towards having a hybrid career where you’re doing some work in the university and some work outside the university and you are very fulfilled and secure.

E: Do you think that there is some value that academics add when they’re not engaged? Do you think that there is value to the traditional approach to scholarship?

A: Absolutely.  I’m not one of those people who thinks that there’s a necessity for any individual person to do publicly-engaged academic work or publicly-engaged philosophy or something like that. There are some people who think that all environmental philosophy or all applied ethics needs to be publicly engaged.  I don’t think that’s true at all.  I think you can do purely, more theoretically-oriented stuff in those fields.

Again for me, the argument is, there’s a need out there in the policy world, broadly construed, from formal policy to informal institutions, NGO’s, activism, etc., a real need in that realm for the kinds of assessments of values and norms that our various traditions have been discussing for 10s, 100s, 1,000s of years, and it doesn’t exist there for the most part because that world is being dominated by a fairly narrow range of value models. 

“There’s a need out there in the policy world, a real need for the kinds of assessments of values and norms that our various traditions have been discussing for 10s, 100s, 1,000s of years.”

And they’re not bad ones.  I don’t think that cost-benefit analysis is all bad and that we shouldn’t do it or it’s corrupt.  I think it’s extremely valuable and very important. But I also think that it’s limiting if that’s the only thing that’s driving the discussion of value sets in these problems. 

Now do I think that pure philosophical research is important and valuable?  Absolutely.  I think that some of the most technical, analytic philosophy that many people in the applied world think is completely useless is extremely interesting and needs to be done. It’s just not what I want to do.

E: So what do you think that “publicly engaged” even means?  Or what we even mean by “the public?”

A: I try not to theorize those kinds of problems. I just take a very instrumental view of this.  “The public” is the people who aren’t in the academy and I think public philosophy is simply trying to find a role for philosophers outside of the academy. 

And I know that’s not interesting theoretically, but I think that we can get too caught up in these things.  I mean it is an interesting question!  What is the public? There are multiple publics.  All of that stuff is incredibly interesting.  But I haven’t yet found a situation where I really needed to answer those questions in order to do the kind of work that I’m doing. 

E: I think some academics might argue that they really are reaching “the public” or that they’re doing publicly engaged work just by teaching and by engaging with their students.  Would you agree?

A: Sure, they are, but I think it’s a very limited sector of the public. You might be shaping people who are going to make big decisions in some period of years after they go to law school.  But for me, the goal was in addition to that – could you actually have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made?  And what would it take to do that? What would it take to arrange that kind of career or that kind of life?

Now I think a good exception to this would be someone like Bill McKibben who is an activist and an amazing writer and journalist, staff writer for The New Yorker, wrote important books, and was teaching at Middleburry College and with some students founded the activist organization 350.org. And now it’s the most important youth organization in the climate world. 

But that wasn’t just Bill saying, ‘I’m going to sit in this classroom and I’m going to teach these students and that’s my contribution.’ He wanted to get out of the classroom with these students out into the world and protest the Keystone XL pipeline and all the other great stuff that 350.org has done.

E: In the Trump Era and in the future, how do you think graduate students or anyone in any stage of their academic career could start to engage with public problems?  In other words, what would you tell a philosophy student like me who, when Trump got elected, felt like, “Oh crap, everything I’ve been doing isn’t enough?” 

A: I’ll say this: It’s not your fault.  It doesn’t invalidate anything that you were working on. It means that there was a deeper problem in society that no one really understood.  I’m not even sure Trump understood it or even the people around him understood it.  There were deeper problems there that we saw bits and pieces of but we didn’t understand well enough to produce a different outcome. Trump represents a problem but also an opportunity, and this opportunity starts with people who are looking for something new.

What is it that we overlooked?  What is it that we didn’t know that could have helped us to prevent the election of someone who seems to have complete disdain for the institutions of civility and the norms of international comity?  I don’t want to say order, just the idea that in this world, you can’t just go it alone and expect your own people to be safe.  We do actually have to work together and work to common ends and it’s not enough to just get in there and throw your elbows and say “America First” and stuff like that.  It’s not a nationalist versus globalist framing, it’s just that the approach that this administration is taking is fundamentally bad for Americans.  

I think that the opportunity here is that people are looking for something that can be a different message, that can be a different way of thinking, that can break through. Instead, we have what appears to be a concerted effort to sell a very narrow vision of what counts as “the good society” for Americans.

“We have what appears to be a concerted effort to sell a very narrow vision of what counts as ‘the good society’ for Americans.”

This is the time when we have to try to take the kind of stuff that we were trained to do and the kind of work that we’ve done and the traditions that we come from and translate them into something that people can look at as potential solutions to these problems. 

I think that’s sort of what Rorty was talking about in Achieving Our Country. The problem that Rorty looks at there is the problem of academic leftists. He says that we’re observers, we’re not participants. And it’s not just the academic leftists that were the problem, it was the “New Left” that was the problem.  They disengaged from the world and went off in a particular direction and stopped thinking that America could be a good place.  They weren’t trying to celebrate and work on it in the same spirit that you see in Whitman or others.

I re-read that book and I substituted in my head “academic leftist” for “environmentalist.”  How are we going to convince people that Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement was a really bad thing? And I think that Rorty’s book holds up because the environmental community can easily slip into what Rorty was calling the “observer” role rather than the participant role.

People complain and say, “Oh, it’s so messed up, humans are just greedy, they’re egotistical, they don’t care about the planet,” and that’s it.  And you can slip from there even worse to misanthropy – all humans are bad, they’re awful, they’re a cancer on the planet and we need to get around them.  And that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of solving the problems and living up to our responsibilities as a species or as a country.

So it’s not just a problem of academic leftists, it’s a problem with anyone in America who wants to see this country be better.  We’ve, at a certain point, lost our ability to communicate with a big swath of the population and demonstrate to them that they could have a future, that the future that we were building was not one that was necessarily going to leave them with nothing. 

One example is with the people of Appalachia.  It’s astonishing there.  Both of my grandfathers were coal miners in West Virginia, so this is a part of the country that I know. And what outrages me is that Trump is selling these people a basket full of lies and saying he’s going to bring all these jobs back by bringing back coal. He’s not going to do either of those. 

Now, Hilary Clinton, the first – and this isn’t an argument for Clinton, it’s an argument for what you need to do – so the very first position paper that the environmental team on Clinton’s campaign produced was a giant basket of programs for Appalachia.  Half of it was stabilizing the social safety net for the miners and the other people…this was an 80 million dollar plan, half of it was retraining, shoring up the social safety net for people in Appalachia.  Another half was creating new jobs and creating training programs for the next generation so they could do something other than coal mining and other fading industries.  And you think about this, this is aimed squarely at a set of states that Hilary Clinton was never going to win.  And to me that means it’s not a left versus right policy.  It was a policy that was good for this country because there’s a lot of pain and suffering there.

It also represents a symbol for this divide between different parts of America. For example, on climate change, climate change is branded as a war on coal. So that justifies people ignoring the problem and trying to roll back all the solutions that we created in the Obama Administration both domestically and internationally because somehow it’s going to further harm these people who are already suffering so much.

So you can’t get to a national consensus like there is in almost every other country in the world that we need to do something about this problem until you can get rid of this “war on coal” narrative. 

So, just take that problem alone, and it shows that we need to figure out how to do everything from shape the right narrative to create the right policies to deal with that problem in a real way rather than the fake way that Donald Trump is dealing with it. 

That’s the opportunity that Trump has created because he’s simply lying to these people who he claims to care so much about. Trump has got a real close connection in his head with the mining community and he’s not doing a thing to help them. So that creates the opportunity. That’s what Trump has given us. 

And now, I don’t think the way you approach it is by saying, “The problem is that you’re not listening to philosophers.” That’s not going to work. What is going to work is to take our ideas, our substantive ideas, and turn those into usable proposals and usable narratives that convince people that we can help.

E: In Achieving Our Country, Rorty argues that one of the problems with the academic “New Left” is that they don’t interact with labor unions anymore.  I would argue that the New Left is actually ignoring more than labor unions; it’s alienating poor whites in general and the white working class. Is that the group that you’re referring to when you talk about Appalachia?

A: I think it’s one example, but I wouldn’t say that that’s the problem in America now, that that’s the only community that hasn’t been reached. It’s not just non-college educated, white working class folks that won the election for Trump.  It’s the people who didn’t vote, it’s all the communities that didn’t come out in the numbers they did before. So it’s not just the fact that Hillary lost that segment.  It’s also that there wasn’t sufficient motivation in some of the other segments. 

I think that the campaign did not do nearly enough to capture the youth vote using climate change as the argument.  I travelled a lot before the election and I would go to college campuses and people would say, “We don’t even know what the difference is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on climate change!” And they didn’t bother to look.

There was one big rally in the summer with Al Gore in Florida that Clinton did and a lot of organizing done by a political action committee set up by Tom Steyer, which is good, but it wasn’t enough.  You needed to have the candidate out there talking about this to the youth.  And that didn’t happen not because Hillary Clinton doesn’t care about climate change, it was because the campaign started running against the person, not the policies.

We need to speak to the needs of millennials in a way that I think neither candidate was. And that’s its own set of problems.  And I think it opens up this world of possibilities once we realize that whatever traditional basket of policies and stories and approaches and disciplines we were using before is insufficient. 

There’s a deeper problem going on when the youth vote for Clinton was virtually the same as the youth vote for Obama, but that segment of the electorate was actually much larger in 2016 than it was in 2008.  And the growth of the electorate was not reflected in the total proportions of that vote that Clinton got.  So that means we didn’t capture the demographic advantages that were created between 2008 and 2016.  I think that happened with a lot of other parts of the population. 

E: Thanks for that analysis.  I agree that it’s important to not focus on one section of the population and consider all the groups Clinton’s campaign may not have reached. We have time for one more question.  Since this interview is tailored towards graduate students, what would you say to a PhD student or a perspective PhD student who wants to be a publicly engaged scholar but isn’t sure that an academic career is the right path? 

A: First of all, I would say that it’s good to have doubts. I think that anyone who’s absolutely certain that they want to have an academic life and an academic career is probably setting themselves up for disappointment. 

“I think that anyone who’s absolutely certain that they want to have an academic life and an academic career is probably setting themselves up for disappointment.”

It’s like the undergraduate that says, “It’s all Nietzsche!  Nietzsche solved it all!” No, you’re going to figure out that that’s just not true at some point. So I think that the most important thing is to get a variety of experiences.  Even if it’s an investment that you have to make. It’s critically important to do that.

I think that the way to do that is to take some time, it could be a summer, it could be an academic year, where you’re doing internships, you’re doing some other jobs in the realm of public life that you have an interest and a passion for.  And see if you like that day-to-day. 

Academic life is incredibly seductive, and we’re introduced to the cloistered world of academia when we’re graduate students, mostly doctoral students, when we’re teaching assistants or whatever.  And we see this kind of life where you’re an independent operator, you don’t really have a boss. 

So I think the important thing is to get out there and have experiences and internships where you can see other ways of expressing the passions that you have other than in academic forums.  And part of that could just be that you don’t need to be in a rush in the steps from undergraduate to masters and masters to doctoral work.  That there is time in there to do other things and that in fact, if you decide to be an academic, you’re going to be a better academic if you had some of those experiences along the way.  So, it does actually work out for the better in the long run.  Spreading it out can actually be a good approach.

The other thing is, whether you have a traditional academic career, or one that’s sort of a hybrid, or one that’s outside of the academy, becoming extremely well versed in an area of public life that you care a lot about is going to be important just to be a good citizen, let alone a good whatever-you’re-going-to-be, academic or non-academic.

Too often people will give up on that or they let it happen by default. But they don’t realize that they can be an informed voice on some issue of public health without going to get a graduate degree in the school of public health. You can.  It can be something that you make meaningful contributions to. And I think that the good part of having some training as a philosopher is that you have these fundamental skills that will help you do it better than most people can do it.

How Positive Psychology Changed My Life

In his book, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty argued that intellectuals should not spend their time exploring the meaning of suffering and cruelty.

He argued that, with so many people needlessly suffering, trying to define their suffering is wasting time that could be used to end it.

Although I appreciate his pragmatic attitude, I contend that not only are definitions of cruelty worth exploring, but so are meanings of happiness, joy, and what we call “the good life.” Exploring the positive aspects of the human experience is well worth our time, and doing so will ultimately help us reduce cruelty and suffering. 


While I was going through the hardest time of my life, I looked frequently to spiritual teachers, self-help books, and therapy to help me to overcome my struggles.  Each of these things helped a bit, but it wasn’t until I discovered the field of Positive Psychology that I really started to make positive changes in my life and start to heal. 

“It wasn’t until I discovered the field of Positive Psychology that I really started to make positive changes in my life and start to heal.

At that point in my life, I trusted science much more than spirituality, and I also trusted in my ability to critically read and review scientific literature.  Positive Psychology was research on well-being and happiness, and I was severely lacking in both. 

So, I started volunteering in the Positive Psychology lab at my university, and I started devouring scientific articles on experiments they were doing to try to answer the question:

What makes us happy? 

Some of the answers I got were overblown by the media, some articles totally inflated their findings, and I even read Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of the Positive Psychology movement, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, in order to sharpen my critical eye. 

Some of the things I learned worked for me, and some of them didn’t.  For instance, some psychologists, especially in the beginning of the movement, relentlessly promoted “seeing the bright side,” even going so far as to encourage a slight sense of delusion over coming to terms with hard realities. 

For me, no matter how hard I tried, I could never delude myself into thinking things were better than they were.  Further, I felt unethical trying to convince myself that things really were good when they weren’t.  I felt like I was lying to myself.  And I felt like people were lying to others to try and make them feel better about their situations.

Although “seeing the bright side” didn’t work very well for me, many of the other things I learned did.  

For instance, psychologists have conducted many studies on “subjective well-being,” self-assessed feelings of happiness that are measured in the moment, not in retrospect.  An example of this was a large-scale study done with a cell phone app that rang at random times throughout the day, asking participants what they were doing, who they were with, and how happy they felt in that moment.

They have also done studies over long periods of time, finding that most people are happiest when they are married; their happiness decreases when they have kids; and it doesn’t return to baseline until the kids leave the house!

Further, when they looked at people from around the world with the highest level of life satisfaction, it was consistently found that people with strong and meaningful relationships, people with the most supportive social ties, were the happiest. 

The number of social ties didn’t matter, rather the quality of them did.  So having a strong connection to friends, family and community was the strongest predictor for happiness.

“Having a strong connection to friends, family and community was the strongest predictor for happiness.”

This finding, which was not just a result of one study but hundreds, was life changing for me.  Until that point, I had lived my life largely cutting people out and keeping people at a distance.  I thought that once I reached certain goals, or went to France, or went to college, or got older, or got somewhere, life would be great for me. 

But I kept getting to these places, these different milestones that were supposed to promise me happiness, and nothing seemed different.  I was exactly the same person with the same problems, the same insecurities, just perhaps surrounded by different people or in a different city. 

I felt like everything I had been told by my parents, the media, and my culture had been a lie. 

A ton of money wasn’t going to buy me happiness (as long as I had enough to provide for my basic needs with a little extra.)  Personal success and achievements weren’t going to get my happiness (rather, I learned, the process and personal growth would).  Most of all, cutting people out of my life because I told myself I didn’t need them was not going to make me happy. 

When I started to heal, I decided to be much more deliberate about my choices.  I started to pay attention to my own wellbeing in each moment.  I would check myself, stop in the middle of doing something and think, “How am I feeling right now, 1-10?”

My culture had told me for so long that happiness was a goal, the pursuit of an award that was out there.  But what I had learned after so many times of reaching a goal and getting to a point “out there” and feeling miserable, was that happiness is about the process. 

Having mental and emotional fortitude, having the ability to enjoy life, depended largely on my ability to maintain and nurture strong relationships.  Further, happiness is not about the goal, or stuff, or money, or success. 

Happiness is in the doing.  It’s about building and creating oneself, becoming something by achieving my goals. 

Commenting on Foucault’s social theory, Theile wrote, “Humanity must create itself socially, culturally and historically.  Like Nietzsche, Foucault understood that the alternative to passive nihilism entailed an artistic perspective.”

“The alternative to passive nihilism entailed an artistic perspective.”

In other words, in order to have meaningful lives, we have to make them meaningful.  And we do that by creating ways to see life’s struggles as opportunities for growth. 

As I accumulated more wisdom from positive psychology, I started to really take hold of the idea that my life is not going to reach some perfect end or offer a panacea.  I realized that what I have are an accumulation of moments, and I want to spend them working to make myself and the world around me better in some way. 

Not only did psychological research support my hypothesis that living this way would give me more meaning and happiness, but so did my personal experience.  The process became more important than the end.  And this approach to life has made me happier, healthier, and better at everything that I do.    


So how does this tie back to my original point, that exploring ideas of “the good life” is important?  Because what I found, and what many people find when they work on their own mental or emotional wellbeing, is that they need less stuff.  They hurt people less.  They are more loving. 

They go hiking instead of embezzle money because they start to see evidence that spending time hiking actually makes you happier than having millions of more dollars to spend!  People start to volunteer and donate their time because they learn that being involved in their communities makes them happier than sitting at a corporate desk all day!

We can work to create the world we want every day that we get up in the morning.  And if we’re starting to see that the things that are good for the world are actually good for ourselves, what kind of beautiful coincidence is that?  That the things that actually make us feel connected and happy are the things that require the least amount of resources, the least amount of cruelty, and the greatest amount of love?  

“If we’re starting to see that the things that are good for the world are actually good for ourselves, what kind of beautiful coincidence is that?”

People have been saying for ages.  Spiritual leaders preach this.  Hippies were singing it.  Jesus said it.  But for some reason our cultural messages get diluted and twisted to serve other ends.  Yet, if spiritual leaders, philosophers, and scientists are starting to talk like this, I really have hope that these ideas can start to permeate the culture. 

The poor aren’t the only people that are looking for happiness. 

The rich, the greedy, and the powerful are all looking for it, too.  But what a novel and age-old idea that we need to create it, rather than find it, and we do so by living less cruel, more caring lives?  

Why I Started CTGL

I started this blog when I started working for a socially and environmentally-conscious real estate development company in February 2020. I had just finished two master’s degrees: one a Master of Social Sciences (with an emphasis in Social Justice and Women and Gender Studies) and the other a Master of Public Administration.

My interest in community development started much earlier than my career in real estate development. In a broad sense, I think it started when I fulfilled my life’s dream of studying in Paris (and ended up being miserable). That is the first time I really started questioning my values, priorities, and the life that I was attempting to build for myself.

In a narrower sense, I think it started when I read this article by Nick Smith called, “Poverty, Money, and Happiness.” Smith’s article problematizes how we tend to think about economic growth and wellbeing. Essentially, it examines these questions:

If money doesn’t equal happiness, then what does? And how do we make sure our policies enhance wellbeing on a local, national, and international level?

Smith’s article was one of the first that made me question the moral implications of standard community development practices. It made me think about the values, beliefs, and priorities that guide the work of civic professionals, social workers, activists, and organizers as they work to improve communities.

People who work in development typically focus on its practical aspects. Whether they’re working to alleviate extreme poverty in Africa or trying to curb the deleterious effects of gentrification in the United States, the strategy is typically this: eradicate poverty now, ask questions later.

Yet, as so many thinkers, researchers, and policymakers have realized,

the formula for thriving communities is more complicated than economic growth = happiness.

What’s more, the earth cannot sustain unfettered economic development on a global scale.

We need to think more critically about what we’re doing when we invest in communities and develop neighborhoods. We need to be more imaginative with our economic development strategies. And when we are working to improve people’s lives, we need to reflect on our own values and question our own beliefs – particularly the normative ones that tell us that one type of community is better than another.

Whether we’re neighborhood activists fighting for our own lives or the lives of those we care about – or civic or non-profit professionals guided by our moral obligation to help others – we need to think philosophically, culturally, politically, and scientifically about all that do.

The purpose of Creating the Good Life is to intellectually inform community development efforts by providing a space for progressives to debate ideas, exchange values, and engage interested members of the public.

Because progressive action should be guided by pragmatic progressive thought.

Creating the Good Life’s Values

I recently published a supplementary “About” page for Creating the Good Life, describing the values that this publication operates within and what we work to support. You can view that page here or read the contents of the page below.


Creating the Good Life’s essays, interviews, features, and resources serve the following core values:

Engaged Scholarship

Many of us view academic research as impractical and disconnected from the “real world” – and a lot of it is. But at CTGL, we believe that academic (or “scholarly”) research can be useful and practically applied to solve real life problems.

One of the reasons academic research isn’t used by non-academics is because most of it resides in scholarly journals that are inaccessible to the general public. Another reason is because academics are typically trained to write, speak, and create knowledge with and for other academics.

At CTGL, we believe that a lot of academic research is useful, it just sometimes needs to be translated, unpacked, or taught by a good teacher. Engaged scholarship is academic research that is applied to every day, “real life,” or non-academic problems.

In the words of Jane Addams, “We forget that the accumulation of knowledge and the holding of convictions must finally result in the application of that knowledge and those convictions to life itself.

Interdisciplinary Research

Many people think that the disciplines – psychology, philosophy, economics, biology, chemistry, physics, etc. – are natural. They think that disciplines have always been a part of education or that they happened by accident. In actuality, most universities didn’t recognize the formal disciplines that we know today until the nineteenth century.

With each discipline comes its own epistemology, or theory of knowledge that includes methods and assumptions about what can be considered “truth” and how we might arrive at it.

Interdisciplinary research uses two or more disciplines – such as philosophy, psychology, or economics – to solve problems. It is also unique (and particularly useful) because it focuses first on a problem and then utilizes multiple disciplines and approaches to try to solve it.

We believe that interdisciplinary scholarship, as opposed to scholarship that only utilizes one discipline, is the more practical approach because it worries less about methodological purity and more about using as many tools as possible to solve a complex problem.

Liberal Arts Education

At CTGL, we understand (and highly value) the practical skills gained from applied disciplines or trade schools. Yet, we believe that a liberal arts education – which explores the ideas and methods across the humanities, the arts, the natural, and the social sciences – is essential to maintaining individual freedom and a functioning democracy.

Currently, a liberal arts education is only accessible to those that can pay the high price of a university education. And even at universities, the liberal arts are currently under attack for being “impractical” or not providing a high enough “return on investment.”

A practical education, or learning how to do something, is extremely important and helps one acquire the skills needed to get a job, earn a living, and contribute to society in the 21st century economy. Yet, it is just as important to learn how to think – how to read critically, write cogently, and think broadly. This is what a liberal arts education teaches one to do.

We believe that a liberal arts education should be available to everyone, not just those that have the ability to pay for a college degree.

Progressivism

One of the missions of CTGL is to provide a platform for political Leftists (or liberals, or progressives, or whatever you want to call them) to reflect, debate amongst ourselves, and propose and further define Leftist political thought.

In deciding between the many terms that denote “Leftist,” we have decided on the term “progressive” to best define what we value at CTGL. Our definition of progressive relates closely to the progressive movement in the beginning of the twentieth century, when organizers, intellectuals, and political leaders fought for a more fair and just economy, less government corruption, and policies and programs to protect the most vulnerable.

There were many weaknesses to this movement – its most glaring is that it did not speak enough to the needs of women or people of color. But 100 years later, with the help of a new liberalism that speaks almost exclusively to the needs of these groups, we are confident that we can do better.

Critical Pragmatism

Some scholars have developed visions of a critical pragmatism, but at CTGL, we have our own definition – one that combines the best of critical theory and pragmatism.

Using Foucault’s definition, critical theory is “an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

Over the second half of the twentieth century, critical theory grew to include identity-based studies of oppression, including but not limited to critical race theory, feminist theory, and colonial studies. Most importantly, critical theory helps us see how power functions more like a web than a hammer, and oppression as society-wide, systemic, and sometimes self-imposed or invisible.

Pragmatism, on the other hand, is often considered the philosophical basis for the early twentieth century reform movement. Many of its writers engaged directly with their contemporary social or political issues and wrote for a general, educated public. Pragmatism’s thought leaders include Charles S. Peirce, William James, Jane Addams, and John Dewey.

Using Charles Peirce’s pragmatic maxim, we can define pragmatism’s epistemology (or theory of knowledge) as this: “Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then, our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object.”

Pragmatism, then, is less concerned with understanding how things “really are.” Pragmatists don’t want a bird’s eye view of reality because, one, they think it impossible to grasp, and two, even if one could grasp it, it’s not very useful anyway. Knowledge, to pragmatists, is found in engaging directly with reality. And only ideas that improves one’s reality are considered true.

Importantly, when pragmatism is used to address social and political problems (as it was during the Progressive Era), it insists on three things: (1) that we advocate for reform rather than revolution, (2) that we engage socially and emotionally with the problems we are trying to solve, and (3) that we clearly define our values – our vision that we are working towards. Without clearly articulated goals, we will have no way of measuring what ideas, laws, or methods “work.” Since true ideas are those that take us closer to our goals, truth is irrevocably enmeshed with value.

Critical pragmatism, as defined by CTGL, works to transform oppressive systems and ideologies while also working within them to promote piecemeal reform and tangible change.

Social Justice

The term social justice has taken on much meaning in the past couple decades. To some, it has come to denote a fiery belief in equal rights and reparations for past harms. To others, it has taken on a pejorative tone, denoting a dogmatic, intolerant movement that restricts free speech and demands “wokeness.”

At CTGL, we view social justice as both an aim and a method – an end and a means. When we work towards social justice, we work towards a society (an end) where one’s background or identity does not determine one’s fate; where all people are free to develop themselves to the greatest extent that they can; where economic participation results in economic stability; and where “the good life” is accessible (though not given) to all. Social justice is also a means because it informs how we define progress and how we work towards it politically, socially, and economically.

Social justice does not equal punishment. Social justice, in its simplest form, means to make a social wrong, right.

Democracy

Like social justice, a well-functioning democracy is a means and an end. It is an end because a democratic society has the highest likelihood of securing individual rights, preventing authoritarianism, and promoting social equality. It is also a means, or a method, because a democracy is maintained only through well-functioning democratic systems and institutions.

In a democracy, each person is able to participate in and help shape the decisions, laws, and policies that affect them. And while many modern democracies were formed through revolutionary acts of violence, democracies are best maintained through nonviolent methods, such as public education, protest, and the freedom to express and circulate ideas of dissent.

Importantly, one of the greatest threats to democracy is excessive inequality: social, political, or economic. The more connected and empathetic we are to each other, the stronger our democracy.

Class Cluelessness or Class Callousness?: An Interview with Joan C. Williams

The following is an interview that I conducted with Joan C. Williams. Dr. Williams is Distinguished Professor of Law and Hastings Foundation Chair at the University of California, Hastings College of Law. She is the author of numerous books, including What Works for Women at Work and Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It.

The interview is about her book, White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America. Williams explores Trump’s 2016 election in the context of growing income and wealth inequality. She argues that the rise of populism and nationalism in the U.S. are due, in part, to the liberal elite’s cluelessness about the white working class’s struggles.

It remains to be seen whether this crucial group of voters will remain loyal to Trump in 2020. From where I’m standing, it’s not lookin’ good.

The interview took place on July 10, 2020.

E: On my blog, I wrote an essay about the Left’s focus on social identity. We’re coming up an another election, we have the risk of another Trump presidency, and I argued that liberals are missing the boat when we’re degrading and demeaning poor or working class whites. You seem to make a very similar argument in your book White Working Class.

W: Thank you. Lord send me patience. “I believe in social inequality, except for this kind!” I understand it, but I don’t excuse it.

E: So, why do you think liberals do it?

W: It’s hard to give up privilege, everyone knows that. But class privilege is one of the hardest kinds of privilege for white people to give up, because the silver spoon crowd tells themselves that what got them to where they are is their own hard work and their own merit.

They tend to get and accept that things suck for people of color. They totally get that. But the idea that there are a whole bunch of white people that work just as hard as they do and have very little to show for it – that would cause them to ask if, maybe, one of those people that is on this invisible escalator of social privilege is them – not just by race but also by class.

It requires them to give up really cherished beliefs, like that people who go to college are smarter than people who don’t, that people who talk articulately are smarter than people who don’t, that the smart creatives are the masters of the universe. It’s a very uncomfortable truth and many liberals just don’t want to go there.

E:  My blog starts most essays with a personal story. Do you have a personal experience that led to you writing the book?

W: I have been thinking about social inequality since I was standing in front of a gold plated altar in rural Peru in 1961.  I was looking at all of the farmland owned by the church and the people working in the high terraces and thinking, “Wow, this is really messed up.”

I was an American kid who lived in South America for two years from ages 8 to 10, and the social inequality was inescapable. In the US, we didn’t have people sleeping on our streets then. The U.S. has now turned into Peru in the 1960s.

“We didn’t have people sleeping on our streets then. The U.S. has now turned into Peru in the 1960s.”

I was also greatly affected by gender bias. Basically my whole career was affected by it. So I started studying gender bias, but, also, at 26 I married into a white working class family. My mother-in-law thought I was so weird.

They were visiting us in Cambridge where we were going to Harvard. We were cleaning up after dinner and she asked me, “Where do you keep the butter?” I said, “Under the bed.”

I was thinking, Who asks that question? And she went and put the butter under the bed! That’s how weird she thought I was. And on some level that’s how weird I thought she was! We were like Martians to each other.

I’ve been married for 42 years and she’s probably one of my closest friends. So I have been bridging the class/culture gap for almost half a century and I have a lot of respect for working class people. I’ve learned a lot from them. I don’t excuse racism in white people, period. That’s just not in my job description. But a lot of the class anger against my crowd (the silver spoon crowd) that these people hold has been turned into racial anger.

That’s not okay, but it distresses me that the PME [professional managerial elite] responds to this class anger with such distain and dismissiveness. It basically drives decent people into the arms of irresponsible populists. My attitude is, “How’s this working for you, folks?”

The PME just says, “These people are racist.” Yeah, they’re white people. They’re racist, you’re racist, get over it. Let’s work on racism, together, with other white people and people of color. Working on racism does not preclude working on social class distain.

E: How have you been reacting to some of the events in 2020 such as the pandemic or the Black Lives Matter movement? I know that I’ve seen from my own social crowd – the academic, liberal crowd – a lot of disturbing images, memes, posts and things that people are making about working class white people, particularly in response to the pandemic.

W: I avoid this stuff like the plague. What kinds of things? Are these like, “Let them die” or “They’re incredibly stupid” things? Or both?

E: I keep screenshotting them. You know the “Don’t tread on me” flag with the snake? Well educated liberals in my crowd are sharing a similar picture, except it says, “I don’t understand epidemiology.” Memes that send the message that people are just stupid.  

That really worries me when we’re talking about really major societal problems. I think about climate change and how liberals send the message, “Believe in science or you’re an idiot.”

Yet they’re dismissing some people’s concerns about the implications of some of our policy decisions that are based on science. They’re not even attempting to empathize with people who might lose their jobs if we shut down a coal mine or ban fracking or things like that.

I guess I’m seeing a lot of similarities between how the liberal elite is talking about coronavirus and how we have been and will continue to talk about climate change. It’s this weird way that science has been politicized and has been used to call people stupid, essentially.

W: It’s so ironic that science has been turned into a religion. Science isn’t a religion, it’s simply a method. I am really married to the method; I love the method. But it’s not a religion!

“It’s so ironic that science has been turned into a religion. Science isn’t a religion, it’s simply a method.”

I stopped writing about class about a year ago because I wrote so many op-eds that were rejected. Basically, in order for me to get something about class published – this isn’t universally true but largely true – it has to be a class migrant who’s reading it.

So if I get another person of my background, a “golden spoon” person, who reads my op-ed, they reject it. So I stopped writing about class because it was unpublishable. But I’m very persistent.

What I want to write next is a piece basically asking, “How did the present pandemic turn into a culture war?”

I think a nice twist that I’m playing around with now is that the PME has faulted the non-college graduates on the climate change vector for not understanding the nature of risk. In the climate change context, it’s that we under-calculate small risks. But the PME is doing a similar miscalculation now.

E: How so?

The PME is being completely unrealistic about risk. I just talked to a friend of mine that has basically not been in a store since March. And I tried to say to her, “Hey, yes, coronavirus is horrible, we’re in the middle of a pandemic and it really sucks. But the fact is, for people our kids’ age, the chances of dying are less than 1%.”

She’s has been sending me all of these articles saying that it’s so risky, but that’s not the point. The point is we’re hyper-salient on the tiny percentage of children who are tragically getting that syndrome and dying, we don’t give that kind of hyper-vigilance to driving a car or to other things.

So the PME are being equally unsophisticated in how they’re assessing risk all at the same time that they’re being all pompous about how much they believe in science.

Climate change deniers are making a mistake in their risk assessment with respect to climate change. The PME are making a mistake in their risk assessment with respect to coronavirus. They’re different mistakes, but it’s not like one is enlightened science people and the other are ignorant idiots. People make mistakes about risk assessments unless they use this little methodology that I happen to be very attached to, called science.

E: This liberal tendency to dismiss economic concerns as they relate to COVID-19 or climate change really worries me. It makes me think that climate change will start to be articulated as only an “elite” issue.

W: It already has! I was talking to a reporter that was covering the yellow vests in France and in his story he quoted White Working Class (it’s been translated into French because this is happening all over). One of the yellow vest folks said, “They’re focused on the end of the world, we’re focused on the end of the month.”

“They’re focused on the end of the world, we’re focused on the end of the month.”

I think that the end of the world affects the end of the month, but if people were respectful in recognizing that cultural difference – which is a structural, class difference – they would be more effective in addressing climate change.

I’m pretty conventional, and I’m totally conventional when it comes to policy. I think climate change is the single largest issue that we face right now. And one of the reasons I’m completely ticked off about class cluelessness is that, ironically, it’s making it completely impossible to address it.

So I am not the one to say, “If you only understood class you would value coal jobs.” Coal is dying. Period. But that should be an seen as an economic challenge for a very important group of people rather than a cause for celebration.

“Coal is dying. Period. But that should be seen as an economic challenge for a very important group of people rather than a cause for celebration.”

E: I’ve been concerned with the rhetoric that says that people who are concerned with the shut downs or concerned about losing their jobs or losing their small business are just evil or they’re grandma killers or that they’re stupid and don’t understand science.

I think that that’s really dangerous, and it reminds me of that quote about “the end of the world” versus the “end of the month.” A lot of people are very concerned about reaching the end of the month and their entire lives and livelihoods being uprooted by shut downs.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have shut downs, but I think we need a different type of rhetoric that acknowledges people’s economic concerns as we make the policy decisions that we are forced to make. I don’t think liberals are doing that very well.

W: And we’re paying the price. Let’s be sensible here. It all comes down to risk. You cannot eliminate the risk. We cannot keep you safe. Let’s talk about eliminating the risk in a way that balances the risk of economic pain with the risk of grandma dying.

That’s a horrible trade off, but that is actually where we are. Nobody talks about that because they’re all busy performing their identity of purity.

E: I’ve been following Dr. David Katz, and he’s been talking about sensible risk mitigation from the beginning. He runs a program at Yale and perfectly fits the liberal elite stereotype.

In an interview with Bill Maher, he was laughing about how he was featured on Fox News and he never thought that would happen.

I also don’t know if you’ve heard of Thomas Piketty…

W: Everyone in my crowd has heard of Thomas Piketty.

E: Well, I’ve been reading his new book, Capital and Ideology. In the last section, he distinguishes between what he calls the Merchant Right and the Brahmin Left.

W: Oh, I love that.

E: He says that what we have in the U.S., France, and Great Britain is a double elite system. The Left has elites and non-elites. And the Right has their elite and non-elites.

In one section, he argues that liberal elites are scared to make economic reforms because that means they’ll probably have to lose something since so many of them are benefiting from the current system.

W: Yeah.

E: He argues that the reason the Left has moved away from economic issues and economic reform is because, since the fall of communism, there hasn’t been a convincing economic alternative to neoliberalism proposed by the Left. The Left has been kind of floundering trying to propose a post-communist framework for economic justice.

W: I think that it has to do with performing identity. I don’t buy that there’s no model. There is a model. It’s Denmark, it’s Sweden. That’s the model. I don’t spend much time trying to invent utopias. That’s easy. What I’m interested in is what you can actually accomplish. And you can actually accomplish that. I don’t think it’s a failure of imagination.

I haven’t read the book. I will definitely pick it up now. But I think this is what happened, and this is well-documented by political scientists in the United States by the way – I wrote about it in an academic book I wrote called Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.

In the 1970s you had this fundamental realignment – because of my generation, because of us hippies – and we basically broke the New Deal alliance where the performative identity of liberal elites was focused on support for unions and blue collar people (typically men – it was very gendered).

Instead we basically invented the culture wars by focusing our liberal identities on these cultural issues like being able to sleep with our boyfriends, using birth control, and environmental issues.

So there was this fundamental shift in power in the Democratic party – and this is paralleled in other countries – from the focus on blue collar and a true cross-class alliance to focusing on cultural issues.

“There was a fundamental shift in power in the Democratic party from the focus on blue collar and a true cross-class alliance to focusing on cultural issues.”

Then non-elites began to be really resentful and what happened is that the business elite – which really only cares about tax cuts – says, well, we don’t really care much about these cultural issues. So we’re going to give the blue collar whites these cultural issues to make sure they vote for our tax cuts.

And liberals for some reason – it has to do with, again, identity – they don’t get it. They don’t understand how they’re being played. Also, the college-educated elite (and it’s begun to change, and this is what Bernie Sanders represents), they were doing fantastic economically. So their attitude is, “What’s the problem?”

Yet these cultural issues were really important to them – you know, sexual freedom, the self-development ethic I write about. So those did seem to them to be the important issues and they didn’t care much about the end of the week, because they got that covered.

They cared about the end of the world. How dare you mess with my world which is working so well for me?

So that’s what happened. And it was extremely savvy on the part of the business elite to capitalize on the shift to cultural issues. What is obscure to me is why the Brahmin Left doesn’t seem to get it.

E: I’ve heard arguments that since the 1960s or the Civil Rights movement the Left has become all about cultural issues, but I’ve never heard it placed on hippies.

W: There was a sharp shift in the Democratic party from blue collar to college-educated in the 70s. They don’t want to give up the power. They don’t want to stop talking about – and I’m one of them –about abortion rights and talk only about jobs or blue collar issues.

I’m a little different because I think that if you’re so dismissive of social inequality that you don’t care about jobs for blue collar people, I don’t think you’re a liberal much less a progressive. But it also just doesn’t work. Look what happens. Everything turns into a freaking culture war.

E: So what do you think about the liberal push to abolish the electoral college? Is that one way they’re trying to get around the blue collar shift to the Right?

W: That’s never going to happen, and I’m not interested in things that aren’t going to happen. How are you going to get all of the people in states that the Electoral College benefits to agree to that? You’re not. It’s science fiction.

E: I think it’s interesting how many liberals are pushing for it, because I think that it might reflect their desire to quiet those voices and to maintain class privilege and political privilege.

W: Yeah, I think it’s complicated because it’s also true that the over-weighting of rural votes, which was not such a distortion when it was invented, is now an unbelievable distortion. I think it should happen, I’m just not interested in trying to make it happen.

E: So we’re here in another election year, what do you think is going to happen? What do you think liberals need to do from here until November to make sure that Trump doesn’t get elected again?

W: First of all, liberals have already done the main thing they’ve needed to do, which is swallow their pride and rally behind Biden. I was really worried for much of the primary season that we were going to have a divided convention and a sort of Left circular firing squad.

And more power to them. Joe Biden is a nice man. He does not stand for the policy positions that my crowd really cherishes, yet they are going to vote for him. So I think that’s what they need to do.

Now, could the Biden campaign be better at messaging in ways that would heal the class divide? Yes, I think they could. But the Biden campaign – and I’m not a political strategist – but their campaign is basically to let Trump hang himself. And I think that’s probably pretty wise in this context.

Trump has finally met a fact of life that he can’t explain away just by controlling a small group of people. The virus is not like a cold. The virus has killed almost 200,000 people. So, I’m not a political campaign adviser, I’m more of a cultural critic. But if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

E: I have an elite liberal friend that pushes back on me when I critique Democrats and says that what I’m critiquing is culture, not policy. She says that Democrats, in terms of policy, support working class whites more than Republicans do.

Maybe we don’t talk about it as much, but in 2016 Clinton had these plans for Appalachia and Trump didn’t. My friend says that Trump’s policies don’t help working class whites as much as the liberals’ policy. Would you agree with that?

W: Partly, that’s really true and it’s really untrue. It’s true in the sense that the Republican’s policies reflect the interests of big business. Now he’s also taken huge amounts of money and thrown it on the farmers. But by and large, Trump is just really terrible for workers – unbelievably bad.

We’re in the middle of a global death scene and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is not doing anything to protect workers. So in that sense, it’s right that Republicans are generally terrible for workers.

It is not exactly true that Democrats are good for workers. They’re definitely better. But all you have to do is go to the heartland and see those desolate, hallowed communities and look at the sharp rise in the number of people in poverty. Democrats were an integral part of that.

And it’s so ironic that – and I’m now going to steal the term – that the Brahmin Left believes in income inequality absolutely and completely unless you’re talking about the white working class. Then somehow they don’t believe in it anymore? How does that make sense?

Income inequality has been under Democrat administrations as well as Republican. And Democrats as well as Republicans have been wrapped in neoliberalism and the thought that you have to de-regulate and the market is going to solve all the problems until quite recently.

“Income inequality has been under Democrat administrations as well as Republican. And Democrats as well as Republicans have been wrapped in neoliberalism and the idea that you have to de-regulate and the market is going to solve all the problems.”

We only have two institutions really that we’ve ever invented in the world: one is the market and the other is government. And they both suck. The Left is entranced with government and hates the market, and the Right is entranced with the market and hates government.

These institutions are kind of like everything else human. They are so flawed. All we can do is try to put a balance between them and patch up the worst egregious errors that government will inevitably make and the market will inevitably make.

It’s about trying to patch together these two crappy institutions in a way that doesn’t lead to 40% of the American public not being able to survive a $400 expense. I’m not asking for perfection, but that sucks. And that’s on Democrats as well as Republicans.

So your friend is right in that Republicans do not help workers, but she’s a little bit wrong in saying that Democrats do.

E: Well I think we’ve come up on the end. Thank you so much for being available to talk today. I really admire your ability to write for an academic audience as well as a more general one.

W: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I almost never get the chance to talk about this stuff anymore because there is just crashing silence. So thank you, I’ve enjoyed it.


Booklist: A New Economy

Many of us don’t realize that capitalism is by no means “natural”; just like every other social, political, or economic system, it was created by humans, can be revised by humans, and can be undone by humans.

To understand capitalism, we need to examine the values that underpin it. Likewise, to change or reform capitalism, we need to propose new values to guide our laws, policies, and individual behaviors.

These are some books that put capitalism in context and/or present hopeful visions for a new economy.

1. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith

To understand something, you first need to examine the values that underpin it. The Wealth of Nations – or as I like to call it, the “Bible of Capitalism” – is important reading for anyone that wants to understand our current economic system.

As you can see from the following quote, self-interest and competition are essential to capitalist ideology.

2. Beyond Growth by Herman E. Daly

One of the fundamental tenants of capitalism is that “growth is good.” Beyond Growth is one of the first books I read that problematizes that notion. The Earth’s resources are finite, so indefinite economic growth is not just unsustainable; it’s impossible. (Unless, of course, we start to colonize other planets; but we’ll explore that on a later date…)

Daly proposes that we move towards a “steady-state economy” rather than a “growth economy.” The purpose of the “steady-state economy” is to provide people the amount of resources sufficient for a good life.

Note: It’s our job to determine what “sufficient” and “good life” mean in this context.

3. The Story of More by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren is an award-winning scientist, scholar, and teacher, yet she writes in a very accessible, colloquial manner. The book is primarily about climate change, with chapters about fossil fuels, renewable energy, food systems, and the environmental damage already caused by human-induced climate change.

Ultimately, her argument transcends environmentalism. She argues that we need to reform our global political economy so that the world’s resources are more equally distributed. We need to share more and horde less.

4. Measuring What Counts by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, and Martine Durand

Joseph E. Stiglitz is a Nobel-prize winning economist. His book differs from Daly and Jahren’s books in that he does not challenge the fundamental assumption that growth is good. Importantly, though, he shows that growing inequality constricts growth in the long run, and a more equal society translates to stronger economies.

5. Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, Edited by Michael Jacobs and Mariana Mazzucato

This book is a collection of scholarly articles that challenge the fundamental assumptions of capitalism. It includes articles called, “The Costs of Short-Termism,” “Decarbonisation,” and “Investment-Led Growth.”

Its essays are informed by the argument that unfettered capitalism and economic growth are not just environmentally unsustainable – they cause social, political, and moral problems that far transcend their benefits.

6. The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s work is essentially to understanding the broad impacts of capitalism and inequality. They argue that more equal economies lead to better societies – making everyone better off through better governance, greater public trust, and even better public health outcomes.

Importantly, they show that inequality is even harmful to the better-off – that “luxury” and “extravagance” do not always translate to greater wellbeing.

7. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity, and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

Wilkinson and Pickett’s work is so good, I had to include two of their books. The Inner Level discusses the unforeseen consequences of inequality, but instead of looking at broader societal issues, it examines inequality’s impact on the individual level. They argue that things like social anxiety and self-doubt are more prevalent in unequal societies, and improving the socioeconomic equality of societies will increase everyone’s psychological wellbeing.

Bell Hooks Changed the Way I Think About Love

The first time I remember seriously thinking about love and its meaning in my life was the summer going into eighth grade. My best friend at the time was in a relationship with a guy that was a year older than us and going into his freshman year of high school. For being so young, their relationship lasted quite a while; I think they dated for 2-3 years.

We spent that summer hanging out at my friend’s boyfriend’s house, going to local “emo” shows at the VFW or a nearby church (why did churches host rock shows in their basements, anyway?) or swimming at our friends’ pools.

I can’t remember exactly where we were or what we were doing, but my friend and her boyfriend had just gotten into a particularly nasty argument. I think he had gotten jealous over something (that was common in their relationship), and she had responded to his insecurities with anger.

Their relationship was the first time I had witnessed screaming matches between lovers or heated expressions of jealousy. At home, my parents’ relationship had its own problems. They, like many married couples, struggled to keep their love alive.

Yet, in my family, problems tended to fester quietly, insidiously corroding trust and diminishing affection. I’m not sure which was harder to witness: my friend’s almost violent eruptions of emotion with her boyfriend, or my parents’ caustic comments – tossed back and forth like a resentful ping-pong match.  

Either way, both experiences clearly influenced the way I viewed romantic love. With no romantic relationships of my own to pull from, I was thirteen and trying to make sense of why something that seemed to make people so miserable also seemed to occupy so much of our time.

Anyway, I can’t remember what prompted it, but I said to my friend,

“I’m never going to have a boyfriend. They only get in the way or tie you down. No one will ever stop me from doing what I want to do with my life.”

That was my view on love: it was a threat to my freedom and happiness that needed to be avoided or stomped out, nothing more.

———

It’s been a long time since that summer, and my views on love (among other things) have changed. A lot has also happened in my life since then:

  • I lost my virginity.
  • I got my first real boyfriend.
  • I broke up with my first boyfriend.
  • I endured 10 months of an emotionally-volatile and unhealthy relationship.
  • I ended that relationship.
  • I met my current boyfriend.
  • We have been together for 4 years, we got engaged, and he is now my fiancé.

I wish I could say that my views on life and love evolved naturally, that they were an inevitable progression or a normal part of growing up – but that’s not true.

Like most bouts of mental, spiritual, or moral growth in my life, the evolution of my views on love – and the way I practice it in everyday life – was a result of a lot of reading, personal reflection, and hard, emotional work.

One of the books that has greatly influenced my views on love – and taken me from a cynical, avoidant 13-year-old to an optimistic, healthy(er) 29-year-old – is bell hooks’ All About Love. In it, she challenges our culture’s dominant notions of love, including the idea that love is so powerful and mysterious that it transcends definition.

On the contrary, hooks argues, we would all be better off if we concretely defined love and used that definition to guide our actions. Defining love gives us power to create the lives and the relationships that we want.

She writes, “Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination. What we cannot imagine cannot come into being. A good definition marks our starting point and lets us know where we want to end up.”

Here are some other things hooks has to say about love:

Love should be defined as a verb, not a noun.

Typically, our culture talks about love as a thing, something that happens to us or something that we “fall into.” Sometimes we talk about it as a feeling, other times a mystical phenomenon. Rarely, though, do we use love as a verb.

Love, hooks argues, is an action and a choice. Love is defined by how we engage with the object of our love – how we treat that person, how we nurture them and help them grow.

As M. Scott Peck says, “Love is as love does.” You can only love another as much as you demonstrate that love through conscious behavior.

Genuine love begets accountability and responsibility.

One of the most powerful consequences of redefining love as an action is that it presupposes accountability and responsibility. Hooks writes,

“We are often taught we have no control over our ‘feelings.’ Yet most of us accept that we choose our actions, that intention and will inform what we do.”

It is harder to accept responsibility for our feelings than for our actions, especially when we are taught that our feelings are out of our control. Even the expression “falling in love” denotes a sort of powerlessness. Love is something that happens to us; it’s not something we choose.

When love becomes a choice, something expressed through action, we assume more responsibility for our behaviors within our loving relationships. Saying “I love you” and then treating someone poorly, or worse, harming or abusing them, is oxymoronic.

You can’t love someone and treat them poorly because love cannot exist apart from loving behaviors.

Love is a mixture of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, honesty, and open communication.

I love that hooks openly defines love as a mixture of caring and nurturing behaviors. It is so far from our culture’s typical definition of romantic love that tends to focus only on intense feelings or sexual attraction.

To hooks, love is a mixture of care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, honesty, and open communication, but it is not limited to these things. Ultimately, hooks favors M. Scott Peck’s definition from his book called The Road Less Traveled:

Love is “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”  

Cynicism is typically a shield for hurt and disappointment.

Maybe this one goes without saying, but hooks insists that even the most cynical among us want to believe in and hope for love. Love (as Peck defines it, not just romantic love) is one of the most powerful forces at our disposal. It is the driving ethic behind countless social justice movements. It is the primary motivator of so many of our decisions.

Yet, so many of us are pessimistic about it because we are clueless about how to actually practice it. In the context of marriage, that might be because, for most of humanity’s history, marriage was mostly a political decision, not a romantic one.

It’s no wonder, then, that most of us feel lost about how to find someone to love, let alone maintain that love for the majority of our lives.

There are no schools for love, and the cultural products that do exist to teach us about love so often lead us astray.

True love requires surmounting sexist gender roles and stereotypes.

One type of cultural product that can teach us about love is the self-help book. Unfortunately, too many self-help books about love reinforce gender roles and sexist stereotypes; think Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus or The Rules.  I love hooks’ response to this:

“[These] authors suggest love should mean something different to men than it does to women – that the sexes should respect and adapt to our inability to communicate since we do not share the same language.

This type of literature is popular because it does not demand a change in fixed ways of thinking about gender roles, culture, or love.

Rather than sharing strategies that would help us become more loving it actually encourages everyone to adapt to circumstances where love is lacking.”

You would think these authors could acknowledge that millennia of patriarchy won’t dismantle itself, even within intimate relationships. Perhaps men and women feel so emotionally disconnected because they have largely lived in separate emotional, mental, and physical universes for most our species’ history.

Yet so many self-help books about love and relationships take the easy way out. Instead of helping couples surmount these challenges, they offer “strategies” for dancing around them, preserving them, or worse, actively manipulating them.  

True love, in which we foster the spiritual growth of another, necessitates transcending patriarchal gender roles because those roles are inherently oppressive to both women and men.

Most of us do not learn how to love in our families, and that’s OK.

Hooks writes in detail about her relationships in her family of origin, and how difficult it was for her to admit that the relationships she had with her parents and siblings were not loving.

She admits that there was care and affection, yes, but not love. She recounts enduring verbal and emotional abuse as a child, and how that impacted her ability to give and receive love as she got older. Remember, according to hooks’ own definition of love, abuse and love cannot coexist.

It is important for us to admit to ourselves the realities of our primary relationships, if only to have integrity as we move forward and enter into relationships and build families of our own.

If we didn’t receive love from the families we came from, that does not mean we are not worthy of love. We are capable of learning from our families’ mistakes and cultivating relationships on our own terms.

———

It has been sixteen years since that summer before eighth grade. I wish I could say that those feelings never creep back in – that I’m never scared of losing myself or missing out on opportunities because I have chosen to prioritize another person’s well-being and future as much as my own.

For me, the primary takeaway from hooks’ work is this: as long as loving my significant other is a choice, not an emotion that I get lost in or a feeling I “give in” to, I will always have my freedom.



Bell hooks is an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist. You can learn more about her book, All About Love: New Visions, here.


This Book On War Will Make You Rethink Modern Society

A few weeks ago, my fiancé and I were hanging out with two of our friends, another couple (let’s call them Dave and Tania), at our apartment. The clock was pushing 2am, the alcohol was flowing, and three of us – me, my fiancé, and Dave, were sitting on the couch while Tania went into the kitchen to grab a snack.

I’m not sure what the subject of our drunken conversation was as the three of us sat on the couch waiting for Tania to come back. We were probably watching YouTube videos or playing a messy game of Jenga when, all of a sudden, Tania walked back into the room – a clear look of terror in her eyes.

She was standing in the doorway to our kitchen, waving her arms around with her eyes wide. Her mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. Almost like she was drowning, she started gasping for air and pointing to her mouth, her eyes getting bigger and her gestures more aggressive. 

I had never seen it in person before, but I knew what was happening. 

She was choking. 

The three of us – me, my fiancé, and her boyfriend, sat there silently on the couch trying to make sense of what was happening. I think about two seconds went by, though they felt like minutes. Finally, the dots connected. I turned to my fiancé and shouted, “Sean! Go!” I was pointing at Tania, clearly giving Sean an order to do the Heimlich Maneuver. 

Sean jumped up, grabbed Tania, and pumped his fists three or four times into her stomach. Whatever she was choking on was dislodged, and she quickly gulped in air and breathed a sigh of relief. 

A few minutes later (after making sure she was OK), we were already laughing about it and lounging, all four of us on the couch. I’m not sure whether Dave felt embarrassed because he didn’t give her the Heimlich Maneuver himself, or whether he was still a bit shocked and trying to make sense of what had happened. I know Tania was grateful for Sean’s quick reaction.

And I just sat there, smiling and wondering to myself, 

“Why in the world, in the face of this life-or-death situation, was my response to tell my fiancé to do something about it?” 

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book written by war journalist Sebastian Junger and published in 2016. In it, he argues that modern society has produced many benefits: we have access to life-saving medicine, we don’t have to kill or even come into contact with the origins of our food, and most of us have some form of reliable shelter. 

In general, those who live in modern societies have had many of life’s physical demands removed. For the first time in human history, most of us rarely have to come face-to-face with our own mortality. Rather than regularly confronting life-or-death situations, many of us can live our whole lives and never know how we might respond to such challenges.

Junger argues that this disconnection from our own mortality, and the realities of modern life that have allowed us to live in general safety and comfort, have taken away something essential from our existence. 

For many of us, voluntarily joining the military is our last option to live a life closer to the realities of our ancestors. Some other options, also highly unlikely scenarios, are living in a war zone, surviving a natural disaster, or working in a high-stress, high-danger job like law enforcement, firefighting, or emergency medicine. 

His book, while focused primarily on wartime and military service, examines what modern society loses when we progress technologically, politically, or economically. Above all, he examines what we lose with more safety and security and what we might gain by throwing them away.

1. Humans are meant to live communally and contribute to a group. Most modern societies deprive us of that opportunity.

Junger argues that one of the most valuable aspects of wartime – and why many soldiers mysteriously find themselves missing war when they return home – is that it forces you to almost completely enmesh yourself with your fellow soldiers or platoon. “War Makes You an Animal” is the title of the second chapter, yet perhaps it would be more aptly called, “War Makes You Truly Human.” 

High-stress, life-or-death situations that are common in war-time force us to completely subvert our self-interest in service to others. Common struggle unites us and we subconsciously know that our own well-being is tied to the well-being of the group. 

Junger writes, “Self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” 

He makes us wonder: is this type of empathy and group cohesion possible in modern, capitalist societies that often encourage self-interest, competition, and material wealth above all else?

“First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about the human experience. The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives, and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good. And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group. A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

War may be brutal, but for many, it returns them to a pre-civilized human experience where they can feel, as the late Marina Keegan calls it, the opposite of lonely.

2. Destruction begets equality. 

Many of us envision life-or-death scenarios, such as a militarized attack, an earthquake, or a car pile-up, as complete chaos marked by reeling individuals acting on the ethos of “every man for himself.” We often think that coming face-to-face with our own mortality makes us fearful, selfish, and masochistic. In reality, Junger argues, it’s the opposite:

“The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that – for a while at least – everyone is equal. Disasters…create a ‘community of sufferers’ that allows individuals to experience an immensely reassuring connection to others. As people come together to face an existential threat…class differences are temporarily erased, income disparities become irrelevant, race is overlooked, and individuals are assessed simply by what they are willing to do for the group. It is a kind of fleeting social utopia that…is enormously gratifying to the average person and downright therapeutic to people suffering from mental illness.”

It’s hard for most of us to imagine this sort of social utopia because we are lightyears away from actually experiencing it. In the modern, Western world, we are so far removed from the consequences of our actions that “existential crises” feel more distant and philosophical than immediate and tangible. 

Many of us have no idea what we would do when facing death because very few of us are ever given the chance. Because most threats to our existence are not immediate – they are more often political or economic – our fear drives us apart rather than binds us together in a struggle for the common good.  

Yet, we can still find examples of differences of class, race, and identity disappearing when one is immediately faced with a threat: think of the homeless man that pulled people out of burning cars in Colorado or the Malian immigrant that saved the child dangling from that balcony in Paris.

As both of these men explained, they didn’t have time to think. They saw a threat to their fellow humans, and they reacted.

Crises, as Junger argues, have a way of making us forget our petty differences and remember our humanity.

3. Courage is not possible without a threat, and it often looks different for men and women. 

From a young age, many of us are taught the values of courage, loyalty, and selflessness. Yet, many of us fail to grasp this fact: the extent to which we are able to demonstrate courage is directly correlated with the level of threat we are able and willing to face. 

Junger writes,

“What you would risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves. The vast majority of people in modern society are able to pass their whole lives without ever having to answer that question, which is both an enormous blessing and a significant loss.”

For those of us who are tested – who, at some point, find ourselves in a life-or-death situation, our reactions are often codified by our gender. Junger writes that, in a study based on a century of records in the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, more than 90 percent of spontaneous rescues of strangers were performed by men. 

The researchers theorized that “greater upper-body strength and a predominantly male personality trait known as ‘impulsive sensation seeking’ lead men to overwhelmingly dominate this form of extreme caretaking.”

Women, on the other hand, tend to “act heroically within their own moral universe, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it.” For example, women donate more kidneys to nonrelatives than men do. Women also outnumber men in the Righteous Among the Nations records that represent non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews during the Holocaust. 

Junger explains, “The greater empathic concern women demonstrate for others may lead them to take positions on moral or social issues that men are less likely to concern themselves with.” Women demonstrate something called “moral courage” that requires less brute strength and more long-term, thoughtful convictions. 

Interestingly, in single-sex groups (groups of all women or all men), these roles hold up but are not determined by gender. In other words, in groups of all women, women are just as likely as men to physically and impulsively react to save another. Likewise, in all-male crises, men will step into the “female” role and be the moral compass for the group. 

I’m not sure this explains my clear impulse to demand that my fiancé perform the Heimlich on our friend. But it does help explain why, in a mixed-gender group, I felt more comfortable putting the onus of heroism on my very athletic and physically competent male partner.

“For whom, or what, are you willing to die?”

Like many important thinkers, Junger puts aspects of our society under the microscope and challenges us to think about the implications of how we choose to – individually and collectively – organize our lives. Too many societies fit his sterile description of safety and security that too often correlates with disconnection, loneliness, and depression. 

At the same time, it is important to remember that many modern societies do not take safety and security for granted. Even in “developed” countries, many people lack the food and shelter that Junger assumes is so abundant and widespread. We need to be careful not to idealize the past, especially when there are so many people still living in it.

Our great moral task, then, is to consider what aspects of “progress” actually help us and which hold us back. Junger shows us that, in our quest to create a better world – one free from violence, warfare, disaster, and tragedy – we may be depriving ourselves of the experiences that make us feel most alive.

When I Was Called a Terrorist

The following is Part One of two essays about liberalism. In Part One, I describe the emotional and philosophical reasons that I identify as a liberal. In Part Two, I will offer some constructive criticism for liberals as well as suggestions for how we might better live up to our own ideals.

When I was 16, I studied abroad for the first time in La Rochelle, France.

I was there for four weeks, living with a host family (who was really just a single empty-nester). My French language classes took place at a school for foreigners about fifteen minutes outside the city center. 

Since the school was for international students, I spent my month in France not with French students, but with students about my age from all over the world. My closest friends were from the U.S., Denmark, Spain, and Mexico. 

The study abroad trip was my first time away from home and away from my parents. So, as many 16-year-olds would do, I drank Sangria on the beach, stayed out late with my friends, and frequented bars whose bouncers showed no concern for my age. I was 16, but to my teenage ego, I was 25. 

Every night at 9 p.m., a group of students and I would meet at “la grande horloge,” the “big clock” downtown near the port. We would eat dinner and drink more than our under-developed bodies could handle, often ending the night at a Moroccan hookah bar, passing the hose in a circle while seated on plush, decorative pillows and sipping hot tea. 

The hookah bar was our favorite place to unwind. We would talk too loudly and touch each other too much, our postures getting lazier and our inhibitions weaker as we relaxed and eased into the night. 

One of my schoolmates and fellow bar-hoppers was in the Level 1 class with me. He was from Turkey. He was a few years older than me, a couple inches shorter than me, and quite good looking. He was one of those people that always wanted to entertain, buying entire trays of shots for us, passing them around and expecting nothing in return except a smile and a “santé!” 

He also displayed, to be frank, a subtle sexism that came out mostly in jokes or after a couple glasses of wine. 

During one exercise in class, we each had a personal white board where we had to draw what the other person was describing to us in French.

I was partnered with him, and I’m not sure if this was before or after the exercise (or during, for that matter), but I remember that he wrote, “I’m with stupid,” on the board with an arrow pointing to me. 

He thought this was hilarious. I didn’t want to come off as uptight, so I laughed along. Our other classmate even took a picture of us, and I pointed to the “I’m with stupid sign,” smirking and feeling slightly embarrassed. 

Honestly, I didn’t really care for the teasing. I still don’t. I’ve only just recently learned how to handle light teasing without taking it personally. 

I know, it’s a character flaw.

But one of the reasons I put up with it – smiled and went along even if I was annoyed on the inside – was because I felt slightly embarrassed around him, like I did around many of my classmates, but especially those from the Middle East. 

The year was 2007, George W. Bush was president, and the U.S. was still waging a war that I didn’t quite understand.

Depending on the person, my level of shame when I introduced myself as an American while abroad ranged from minor embarrassment to full-blown guilt. With my Turkish friend, I felt guilty. 

I felt guilty because of my country’s imperialist reputation in the world. And I felt embarrassed because his subtle remarks and backhanded compliments made it clear to all of us that “American” to him meant “joke.” 

One night when we were all out, after meeting at “la grande horloge” and trying out our drunken French on way too many unfortunate locals, we made it, again, to our favorite Moroccan hookah bar. We ordered some hot tea, gathered around the table on our favorite cushions, and started passing around the long, thin pipes full of flavored tobacco. 

I wish I could remember the context, or what prompted what ensued. But alas, most of my memories from that night are just as cloudy as the smoky air that filled that room. All I remember is that, seemingly out of nowhere, my Turkish friend locked eyes with me from across the table and said firmly,

“America deserves another September 11.”

Excuse me?” I responded.

“You heard me! America deserves another September 11!” he shouted back, this time letting anger flourish under his skin and sweat coalesce in his pores. 

I’m not sure how long it took for me to move from outrage to tears. Maybe I was already somewhere in between. Either way, I remember half crying, half yelling back at him, 

“How could you say that?! How could you wish that on innocent people?! How does that solve anything?!”

Now, he was ready to fully let loose. He stood up and postured towards me, showing no sign of concern for my emotional distress. His voice rose and his hands were shaking with anger. 

He yelled, “You Americans call us the terrorists?! You’re the terrorists! You drop bombs every day in my backyard!”

I didn’t know what else to say. I just sat there confused and bewildered. It was the first time I had ever felt that I may not be one of the good guys. 

It was also the day I became an ironist.

———-

In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, philosopher Richard Rorty describes an ironist as a person who is always questioning the truth or morality of his or her own beliefs. 

Ironists either don’t believe, or aren’t interested, in attaining the Truth (with a capital “T”). They aren’t interested in the “intrinsic nature” of things or who they “really are” as people. Such questions, to them, are usually a waste of time.  

They also think that our definitions of vital terms like “justice,” “democracy,” or “freedom” are limited to our available “vocabularies” – the language and values of the time, place, or culture in which we find ourselves.

This isn’t to say that all definitions are equal, as a relativist would. It is to say that humans are incapable of transcending their own contingency, their own “luck” of being born in a certain place and time. 

Because ironists don’t believe they can ever grasp the true nature of things, they spend their time worrying that their beliefs are, well, wrong:

“The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being.”

That night in La Rochelle was the first time I seriously questioned not only the values with which I was raised, but also the ideas that I was taught by my school, my social groups, and my culture. 

I realized that some people’s experiences are so utterly different from mine, that they are outside my realm of imagination. I realized that there is so much pain in this world that I am unaware or unexposed to. 

And I realized that sometimes I, or people with whom I share a connection, are responsible for that pain. 

I became an ironist because never again have I assumed that the dominant narrative told by my community, my culture, my political party, my friends, or even my family is the good (or right) one. 

Even though my Turkish friend’s opinions were problematic, the fact that someone could have a perspective so entirely different from mine – one that I had never even heard of, that I had never even imagined – was enough to plant an enduring seed of doubt within me.

That general disposition – one of constantly questioning the certainty of my own beliefs – has thus far guided my life.

What Irony Has To Do With Liberalism

For some reason, in his book, Rorty argues that personal irony – that is, constantly doubting one’s most fundamental beliefs – contradicts liberalism. 

Rorty uses Judith Shklar’s definition of liberal to mean someone who believes that “cruelty is the worst thing we do.” 

And many liberals I know would agree with this definition. Being a liberal, to them, means trying to diminish pain and suffering, especially if that pain is due to factors outside of one’s control, such as one’s race, class, gender, or LGBTQ status. (More on this in Part Two.) 

To me, Rorty’s contention that private irony has nothing to do with political liberalism is ludicrous. My recognition of the contingency, happenstance, or imperfection of my own beliefs is at the very core of my liberal identity.

But that is because, to me, being a liberal means that you are open to change. You believe things can be better. We might not know exactly what we mean by “better,” but we do know that “the way things are” isn’t good enough. 

So, that night in France almost thirteen years ago, I didn’t insist on the correctness of my own views or the wrongness of my Turkish friend’s views. As an ironist, I saw his pain, his frustration, and his anger and decided, instead, to reflect. 

I am an ironist and I am a liberal. I am a liberal because I am an ironist. And I believe that all progress begins with the recognition that we will never know it all.

Like what you’re reading? Click here to subscribe to e-mail updates from Creating the Good Life blog.