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10 July 2021

Public Municipal Journalism, a Proposal

I've been thinking about the role of news media in the growing partisan divide and social instability in the US over the last few years. I think it would be an oversimplification to claim that news media have caused these issues, but it seems clear that they at best failed to moderate them and at worse amplified them. Part of the issue undoubtedly is that journalism in the US is predominantly for-profit. We've had a public discussion recently about the problems that arise when we allow profit motives into other essential institutions, like education and healthcare, but we haven't yet addressed the same concerns with the press. The à la carte nature of journalism in the US has fragmented the national narrative to the point of near-collapse, and that fragmentation is largely the result of the capitalistic pursuit of niche markets, selling a branded story that resonates with a particular worldview or identity. This has been particularly disastrous for local newspapers. How might we correct this?

I'm reminded of the idea of the fourth estate. What if we reimagined a free press as being free not only of governmental control but also of capitalist manipulation? I can imagine news organizations that are chartered with very specific operating constraints. What if news media were cooperative firms, owned and controlled jointly by the journalists-workers and the communities they serve? What if they were funded by local millage or bond? What if journalists finally abandoned editorials and the op-ed page?

Across Western Europe, public news media are widely used and trusted sources of news. Most other advanced, industrialized nations have public journalism which serves as the preferred news source, is trusted more than private news media, and is trusted far more than distrusted. While there are populist and ideological divides, the divides are generally far smaller than you'd guess and do not reverse trust (Spain being an outlier). Regardless, we can certainly do better in the US.

09 July 2021

Zero- and Non-Zero-Sum Advantage

I've been thinking a lot recently about "privilege," what I agree is more sociologically termed advantage.* Specifically, I've been wrestling with the practice of publicly forcing people to acknowledge their advantage. I think this crescendoed last summer during the BLM protests. On whole, I think that these kinds of correctives are good. Part of advantage, after all, is not having to recognize that advantage so making advantaged folks see and address their advantage opens the opportunity for social change.

Along the way, however, I think there has been a shift from making people aware of their advantage to shaming and stigmatizing that advantage. As an example, imagine a white woman posting a picture of the new home she just purchased to Facebook and her friends commenting on the post that she is blindly demonstrating her privilege. It is a fine line between rightly problematizing her ignorance of her privilege and problematizing the purchase of a new home per se. I propose that it is better to think of two kinds of advantage/privilege, zero-sum and non-zero-sum.

By zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one benefits at the expense of another. Generational wealth is a good example of this since, under capitalism, one's economic fortunes are tied to the current and/or historic exploitation of others. Because of this, corrective actions are necessary beyond just consciousness-raising (e.g. reparations or redistributive taxation). My advantaged economic standing is systemically linked to the standing of others, which requires the reduction of my advantage.

By non-zero-sum advantage, I mean those kinds of situations in which one's benefit is not directly linked to another's disadvantage but is instead a comparative or relative advantage. Interactions with the police are a good example of this since the fact that whites are less likely to have negative interactions with the police does not explain the increased propensity for police to target (intentionally or otherwise) blacks. The disprivilege of BIPOC folks to be disproportionately mistreated by the police does not mean that whites should be exposed to more mistreatment; instead, the "advantage" of being treated fairly and humanely should be expanded to the disadvantaged.

In other words, non-zero-sum advantages should be extended to those who are disadvantaged, while zero-sum advantages should be removed from those who are advantaged. I think this distinction will be helpful in both the public discourse about advantage/privilege as well in its treatment.


* - See here for a note about this.

04 April 2021

Easter Exercise: Theories of Atonement

 I stumbled on this video in my For You page on TikTok:


Karen learns a thing! Inspired by Robert Myallis’ peeps atonement videos (YouTube). 😊#progressiveclergy #progressivechristian

♬ Hip Hop Story (Instrumental) - Swagg B & PBL

It got me thinking, and appropriately enough, I spent Easter morning going down a bit of a bunny rabbit hole on the internet. I'm putting this down here mostly for my own reference later.

  • Ransom Theory
    • 2nd century
    • Early Church Fathers
    • God warned you to stay away from the edge of the pier, but you didn't listen and fell into the water. The lifeguards will gladly save you, but they require payment, and you won't come close to earning enough money—even over your entire lifetime—to pay them for their services so Jesus steps in to pay the bill for you.
    • Is God not big enough and loving enough to forgo the ransom? If God is omnipotent, who is receiving payment?
  • Satisfaction/Substitution Theory
    • 11th century
    • Anselm
    • God told you to stay away from the edge of the pier, but you didn't listen and fell into the water. God's honor has been besmirched by your disobedience. You are incapable of restoring God's honor as a meer mortal so Jesus takes your place because, you know, someone has to drown.
    • Why is god so petty?
  • Penal Substitutionary Theory
    • 16th century
    • Reformers
    • God made a law that you have to stay away from the edge of the pier, but you didn't follow the law and fell into the water. God is just, and justice demands that someone must be punished. Instead of punishing you by leaving you to drown in the water, Jesus takes your place.
    • Is God not big enough and loving enough to forgive a crime? "Justice" seems to be bigger than God.
  • Moral Influence/Example Theories
    • unclear (arguably 2nd century but goes in and out of style)
    • Social Gospel folk et al.
    • You find yourself floundering in the water, quickly becoming exhausted. Jesus jumps in the water and saves you from drowning, but in rescuing you, Jesus himself succumbs to the waves.*
      • Jesus' death is an example of perfect, sacrificial love for all of humanity to which we should aspire.
    • Is this atonement at all? Do people earn their own salvation by doing good works?
  • Christus Victor
    • 1931
    • Aulén
    • Jesus will lead a cosmic war at sea to make it impossible for anyone to ever fall into the water again.
    • If God is omnipotent, who would he even fight with?

* - I borrowed this from Andrew Springer and forced all the other metaphors based on his. Here is the original:
Imagine sitting safely on a pier, in a deck chair, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a man flings himself into the ocean and drowns. You later learn he did this because he loved you. You would probably think the man was a lunatic. But if, on the other hand, you yourself were drowning in the ocean, and a man came out to save you, succeeds, but drowns himself, you would understand, yes this is love.

10 December 2020

Student Evaluations, Equity, and Advantage

I posted the following tweet this morning: 

There is an unfortunate irony to my tweet in that I am, to some extent, able to ignore my evaluations because of the advantages conveyed by my identities and tenure. Literally everything about my identity grants me structural advantage (a/k/a privilege*) relative to those with identities different from mine, and there is no way for me to opt-out of it or to compartmentalize it. On the one hand, this is unfair to me in that I will never know to what extent my successes were earned or were a product of those advantages. (Cue world's smallest violin.) More troublingly, it is unjust to those who are not like me who are less likely to have successes in the first place.

I followed up with a comment linking to the press release (9/9/19) from the American Sociological Association (ASA) on Reconsidering Student Evaluations of Teaching. I, however, don't fully agree with the ASA recommendations. Confusingly, they argue that "SETs [student evaluations of teaching] are weakly related to other measures of teaching effectiveness and student learning" and that:
A scholarly consensus has emerged that using SETs as the primary measure of teaching effectiveness in faculty review processes can systematically disadvantage faculty from marginalized groups. This can be especially consequential for contingent faculty for whom a small difference in average scores can mean the difference between contract renewal and
but then continue nonetheless with recommendations on how to include SETs as "part of a holistic assessment." If the evidence suggests that SETs are inherently inequitable, they should have no role in the faculty evaluation process. 

Imagine forcing students to wear glasses in certain professors' classes that make everything look blurry and unfocused and then asking them at the end of the semester to accurately describe the professor's physical attributes. We should not be surprised when the students are unable to give anything approaching an accurate description. Now imagine arguing that if only we asked the right questions, we would be able to suss out a fair characterization. This would be ridiculous! One cannot reconstruct data from a concept that was obstructed from the data in the first place. No, the only way to accurately measure the professor's physical attributes would be to remove the glasses from the students' eyes before taking the classes.

Likewise, I don't see a way that we can reconstruct an accurate measure of teaching effectiveness that is hopelessly clouded by culturally imposed implicit biases short of eliminating the source of these biases before students enter the classroom, which, while a worthy project, is one beyond the scope of colleges and universities working alone.

The non-expert, naive opinions of students are of little utility, regardless, but that's best saved for another blog post.


I prefer not to use the term "privilege." For a good explanation of why, see Kaufman and Schoepflin's discussion on the topic