Joho the Blogpolitics Archives - Joho the Blog

October 25, 2017

[liveblog] John Palfrey’s new book (and thoughts on rules vs. models)

John Palfrey is doing a launch event at the Berkman Klein Center for his new book, Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education. John is the Head of School at Phillips Academy Andover, and for many years was the executive director of the Berkman Klein Center and the head of the Harvard Law School Library. He’s also the chairman of the board of the Knight Foundation. This event is being put on by the BKC, the Law Library, and Andover. His new book is available on paper, or online as an open access book. (Of course it is. It’s John Palfrey, people!)

[Disclosure: Typical conversations about JP, when he’s not present, attempt — and fail — to articulate his multi-facted awesomeness. I’ll fail at this also, so I’ll just note that JP is directly responsible for my affiliation with the BKC and and for my co-directorship of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab…and those are just the most visible ways in which he has enabled me to flourish as best I can. ]

Also, at the end of this post I have some reflections on rules vs. models, and the implicit vs. explicit.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

John begins by framing the book as an attempt to find a balance between diversity and free expression. Too often we have pitted the two against each other, especially in the past few years, he says: the left argues for diversity and the right argues for free expression. It’s important to have both, although he acknowledges that there are extremely hard cases where there is no reconciliation; in those cases we need rules and boundaries. But we are much better off when we can find common ground.

“This may sound old-fashioned in the liberal way. And that’s true,” he says. But we’re having this debate in part because young people have been advancing ideas that we should be listening to. We need to be taking a hard look.

Our institutions should be deeply devoted to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our institutions haven’t been as supportive of these as they should be, although they’re getting better at it, e.g. getting better at acknowledging the effects of institutional racism.

The diversity argument pushes us toward the question of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are crucial in the same way that every human needs a place where everyone around them supports them and loves them, and where you can say dumb things. We all need zones of comfort, with rules implicit or explicit. It might be a room, a group, a virtual space… E.g., survivors of sexual assault need places where they know there are rules and they can express themselves without feeling at risk.

But, John adds, there should also be spaces where people are uncomfortable, where their beliefs are challenged.

Spaces of both sorts are experienced differently by different people. Privileged people like John experience spaces as safe that others experience as uncomfortable.

The examples in his book include: trigger warnings, safe spaces, the debates over campus symbols, the disinvitation of speakers, etc. These are very hard to navigate and call out for a series of rules or principles. Different schools might approach these differently. E.g.,students from the Gann Academy are here tonight, a local Jewish high school. They well might experience a space differently than students at Andover. Different schools well might need different rules.

Now John turns it over to students for comments. (This is very typical JP: A modest but brilliant intervention and then a generous deferral to the room. I had the privilege of co-teaching a course with him once, and I can attest that he is a brilliant, inspiring teacher. Sorry, but to be such a JP fanboy, but I am at least an evidence-based fanboy.) [I have not captured these student responses adequately, in some cases simply because I had trouble hearing them. They were remarkable, however. And I could not get their names with enough confidence to attempt to reproduce them here. Sorry!]

Student Responses

Student: I graduated from Andover and now I’m at Harvard. I was struck by the book’s idea that we need to get over the dichotomy between diversity and free expression. I want to address Chapter 5, about hate speech. It says each institution ought to assess its own values to come up with its principles about speech and diversity, and those principles ought to be communicated clearly and enforced consistently. But, I believe, we should in fact be debating what the baseline should be for all institutions. We don’t all have full options about what school we’re going to go to, so there ought to be a baseline we all can rely on.

JP: Great critique. Moral relativism is not a good idea. But I don’t think one size fits all. In the hardest cases, there might be sharpest limits. But I do agree there ought to be some sort of baseline around diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’d like to see that be a higher baseline, and we’ve worked on this at Andover. State universities are different. E.g., if a neo-Nazi group wants to demonstrate on a state school campus and they follow the rules laid out in the Skokie case, etc., they should be allowed to demonstrate. If they came to Andover, we’d say no. As a baseline, we might want to change the regulations so that the First Amendment doesn’t apply if the experience is detrimental to the education of the students; that would be a very hard line to draw. Even if we did, we still might want to allow local variations.

Student: Brave spaces are often build from safe spaces. E.g., at Andover we used Facebook to build a safe space for women to talk, in the face of academic competitions where misogyny was too common. This led to creating brave places where open, frank discussion across differences was welcomed.

JP: Yes, giving students a sense of safety so they can be brave is an important point. And, yes, brave spaces do often grow from safe spaces.

Andover student: I was struck by why diversity is important: the cross-pollination of ideas. But from my experience, a lot of that hasn’t occurred because we’re stuck in our own groups. There’s also typically a divide between the students and the faculty. Student activitsts are treated as if they’re just going through a phase. How do we bridge that gap?

JP: How do we encourage more cross-pollination? It’s a really hard problem for educators. I’ve been struck by the difference between teaching at Harvard Law and Andover in terms of the comfort with disagreeing across political divides; it was far more comfortable at the Law School. I’ve told students if you present a paper that disagrees with my point of view and argues for it beautifully, you’ll do better than parroting ideas back to me. Second, we have to stop using demeaning language to talk about student activists. BTW, there is an interesting dynamic, as teachers today may well have been activists when they were young and think of themselves as the reformers.

Student: [hard to hear] At Andover, our classes were seminar-based, which is a luxury not all students have. Also: Wouldn’t encouraging a broader spread of ideas create schisms? How would you create a school identity?

JP: This echoes the first student speaker’s point about establishing a baseline. Not all schools can have 12 students with two teachers in a seminar, as at Andover. We need to find a dialectic. As for schisms: we have to communicate values. Institutions are challenged these days but there is a huge place for them as places that convey values. There needs to be some top down communication of those values. Students can challenge those values, and they should. This gets at the heart of the problem: Do we tolerate the intolerant?

Student: I’m a graduate of Andover and currently at Harvard. My generation has grown up with the Internet. What happens when what is supposed to be a safe space becomes a brave space for some but not all? E.g., a dorm where people speak freely thinking it’s a safe space. What happens when the default values overrides what someone else views as comfortable? What is the power of an institution to develop, monitor, and mold what people actually feel? When communities engage in groupthink, how can an institution construct space safes?

JP: I don’t have an easy answer to this. We do need to remember that these spaces are experienced differently by different people, and the rules ought to reflect this. Some of my best learning came from late night bull sessions. It’s the duty of the institution to do what it can to enable that sort of space. But we also have to recognize that people who have been marginalized react differently. The rule sets need to reflect that fact.

Student: Andover has many different forum spaces available, from hallways to rooms. We get to decide to choose when and where these conversations will occur. For a more traditional public high school where you only have 30-person classroom as a forum, how do we have the difficult conversations that students at Andover choose to have in more intimate settings?

JP: The size and rule-set of the group matters enormously. Even in a traditional HS you can still break a class into groups. The answer is: How do you hack the space?

Student: I’m a freshman at Harvard. Before the era of safe spaces, we’d call them friends: people we can talk with and have no fear that our private words will be made public, and where we will not be judged. Safe spaces may exclude people, e.g., a safe space open only to women.

JP Andover has a group for women of color. That excludes people, and for various reasons we think that’s entirely appropriate an useful.

Q&A

Q [Terry Fisher]: You refer frequently to rule sets. If we wanted to have a discussion in a forum like this, you could announce a set of rules. Or the organizer could announce values, such as: we value respect, or we want people to take the best version of what others say. Or, you could not say anything and model it in your behavior. When you and I went to school, there were no rules in classrooms. It was all done by modeling. But this also meant that gender roles were modeled. My experience of you as a wonderful teacher, JP, is that you model values so well. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of your students talk with the precision and respectfulness that you model. I am worried about relying on rule sets, and doubt their efficacy for the long term. Rather, the best hope is people modeling and conveying better values, as in the old method.

JP: Students, Terry Fischer was my teacher. May answer will be incredibly tentative: It is essential for an institution to convey its values. We do this at Andover. Our values tell us, for example, that we don’t want gender-based balance and are aware that we are in a misogynist culture, and thus need reasonable rules. But, yes, modeling is the most powerful.

Q [Dorothy Zinberg]: I’ve been at Harvard for about 70 yrs and I have seen the importance of an individual in changing an institution. For example, McGeorge Bundy thought he should bring 12 faculty to Harvard from non-traditional backgrounds, including Erik Erikson who did not have a college degree. He had been a disciple of Freud’s. He taught a course at Harvard called “The Lifecycle.” Every Harvard senior was reading The Catcher in the Rye. Erikson was giving brilliant lectures, but I told him it was from his point of view as a man, and had nothing to do with the young women. So, he told me, a grad student, to write the lectures. No traditional professor would have done that. Also: for forming groups, there’s nothing like closing the door. People need to be able to let go and try a lot of ideas.

Q: I am from the Sudan. How do you create a safe space in environments that are exclusive. [I may have gotten that wrong. Sorry.] How do you acknowledge the native American tribes whose land this institution is built on, or the slaves who did the building?

JP: We all have that obligation. [JP gives some examples of the Law School recently acknowledging the slave labor, and the money from slave holders, that helped build the school.]

Q: You used a kitchen as an example of a safe space. Great example. But kitchens are not established or protected by any authority. It’s a new idea that institutions ought to set these up. Do you think there should be safe spaces that are privately set up as well as by institutions? Should some be permitted to exclude people or not?

(JP asks a student to respond): Institutional support can be very helpful when you have a diversity of students. Can institutional safe spaces supplement private ones? I’m not sure. And I do think exclusive groups have a place. As a consensus forms, it’s important to allow the marginalized voices to connect.

Q [ head of Gann]: I’m a grad of Phillips Academy. As head of a religious school, we’re struggling with all these questions. Navigating these spaces isn’t just a political or intellectual activity. It is a work of the heart. If the institution thinks of this only as a rational activity and doesn’t tend to the hearts of our students, and is not explicit about the habits of heart we need to navigate these sensitive waters, only those with natural emotional skills will be able to flourish. We need to develop leaders who can turn hard conversations into generative ones. What would it look like to take on the work of developing social and emotional development?

JP: Ive been to Gann and am confident that’s what you’re doing. And you can see evidence of Andover’s work on it in the students who spoke tonight. Someone asked me if a student became a Nazi, would you expel him? Yes, if it were apparent in his actions, but probably not for his thoughts. Ideally, our students won’t come to have those views because of the social and emotional skills they’re learning. But people in our culture do have those views. Your question brings it back to the project of education and of democracy.

[This session was so JP!]

 


 

A couple of reactions to this discussion without having yet read the book.

First, about Prof. Fisher’s comment: I think we are all likely to agree that modeling the behavior we want is the most powerful educational tool. JP and Prof. Fisher, are both superb, well, models of this.

But, as Prof. Fisher noted in his question, the dominant model of discourse for our generation silently (and sometimes explicitly) favored males, white middle class values, etc. Explicit rules weren’t as necessary because we had internalized them and had stacked the deck against those who were marginalized by them. Now that diversity has thankfully become an explicit goal, and now that the Internet has thrown us into conversations across differences, we almost always need to make those rules explicit; a conversation among people from across divides of culture, economics, power, etc. that does not explicitly acknowledge the different norms under which the participants operate is almost certainly going to either fragment or end in misunderstanding.

(Clay Shirky and I had a collegial difference of opinion about this about fifteen years ago. Clay argued for online social groups having explicit constitutions. I argued
for the importance of the “unspoken” in groups, and the damage that making norms explicit can cause.)

Second, about the need for setting a baseline: I’m curious to see what JP’s book says about this, because the evidence is that we as a culture cannot agree about what the baseline is: vociferous and often nasty arguments about this have been going on for decades. For example, what’s the baseline for inviting (or disinviting) people with highly noxious views to a private college campus? I don’t see a practical way forward for establishing a baseline answer. We can’t even get Texas schools to stop teaching Creationism.

So, having said that modeling is not enough, and having despaired at establishing a baseline, I think I am left being unhelpfully dialectical:

1. Modeling is essential but not enough.

2. We ought to be appropriately explicit about rules in order to create places where people feel safe enough to be frank and honest…

3. …But we are not going to be able to agree on a meaningful baseline for the U.S., much less internationally — “meaningful” meaning that it is specific enough that it can be applied to difficult cases.

4. But modeling may be the only way we can get to enough agreement that we can set a baseline. We can’t do it by rules because we don’t have enough unspoken agreement about what those rules should be. We can only get to that agreement by seeing our leading voices in every field engage across differences in respectful and emotionally truthful ways. So at the largest level, I find I do agree with Prof. Fisher: we need models.

5. But if our national models are to reflect the values we want as a baseline, we need to be thoughtful, reflective, and explicit about which leading voices we want to elevate as models. We tend to do this not by looking for rules but by looking for Prof. Fisher’s second alternative: values. For example, we say positively that we love John McCain’s being a “maverick” or Kamala Harris’ careful noting of the evidence for her claims, and we disdain Trump’s name-calling. Rules derive from values such as those. Values come before rules.

I just wish I had more hope about the direction we’re going in…although I do see hopeful signs in some of the model voices who are emerging, and most of all, in the younger generation’s embrace of difference.

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June 30, 2017

Hallucinating, not lying?

If we listen to what Donald Trump is telling us in plain and strong language, we should conclude that he is suffering from hallucinations — hallucinations of women bleeding.

Twice now he has claimed that blood was pouring out of women he feels were antagonistic of him: Megyn Kelly and Mika Brzezinski. We all saw that Kelly in fact was not bleeding. Brzezinski flat out denies her face was bleeding and says there are photos to prove it.

Then there’s this new story about Trump telling twenty Congressmen about seeing blood coming out of Brzezinski’s eyes and ears on another occasion.

These comments are so weird that the best explanation the media has put forward is that they are metaphors that illuminate Trump’s dark, dark reaction to being challenged by strong women.

But I think we should seriously consider that he was not talking metaphorically. He saw blood coming out of their faces.

At least the question needs to be asked of him. And then we need to re-read the 25th Amendment.

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January 16, 2017

The maximalist approach to removing Trump

The list of ways Trump’s term might be cut short ranges from impeachment, to the invocation of the 25th Amendment, to personal blackmail, to a Fact Ex Machina that is so awful and indisputable that it picks him up by his ill-fitting suit and kicks him into the Loser’s Suite of his new DC hotel.

But if this past year has taught us anything — and I’m open to the possibility that it has not — it’s that we are very bad at making predictions about specific events that result from complex circumstances. We can’t know if and how Trump’s term might come to early end. For all we know, he might exeunt chased by a bear. (Hint: The bear is Russia.)

Which suggests that the most effective action ordinary janes and joes like us can take is to create the conditions under which several paths are easier to be trod.

For example:

  • Demonstrate the depth and breadth of the opposition by loyal, patriotic US citizens, to embolden Congress to oppose and remove him.

  • Extend and deepen the bonds among his opponents — emotional as well as political bonds

  • Expose as many of his lies as we can

  • Call him on his bullshit and attacks on the Constitution

  • Make heroes of his opponents, no matter what party they’re in

  • Frame him as an outsider to the American tradition and to both political parties

  • Do what we can as citizens, techies, parents, businesspeople, creators, activists, mimes — whatever is our excellence and our joy — to pursue a particular path towards Trump’s removal…and, not incidentally, to repair the damage his administration causes to our neighbors and communities.

When the future is so unknowable, we have no choice but to make it more possible.

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January 13, 2017

My conspiracy theory

My conspiracy theory: The purported dossier on Trump says the Russians have been cultivating him for five years. Suppose they were pressuring him to run. As a true patriot, Trump knew how disastrous it would be to have a Russian puppet as President. So, Trump did everything he could as a candidate to make himself unelectable: in his announcement speech he called Mexicans rapists, he made fun of the disabled, he called McCain a loser for being captured. He just kept upping the ante. And then we elected him.

Put differently, let me pitch a movie idea to you. It’s The Manchurian Candidate meets The Producers.

The Manchurian Producers
No Puppet. No Puppet. You’re the Puppet.

Starring Seth Rogen.
with James Franco as “The Toup”

Opening nationwide on Jan 20.

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January 11, 2017

[liveblog][bkc] Kishonna Gray

Berkman

Kishonna Gray [#KishonnaGray] is giving a Berkman-Klein [#BKCHarvard] Tuesday lunch talk . She’s an ass’t prof and ML King Scholar at MIT as well as being a fellow at BKC and the author of Race, Gender and Deviance in Xbox Live. She’s going to talk about a framework, Black Digital Feminism.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by saying, “I’ve been at a cross roads, personally and intellectually” over the Trump election, the death of black civilians at the hand of police, and the gaming controversies, including gamergate. How did we get to this point? And what point are we at? “What matters most in this moment?” She’s going to talk about the framework that helps her make sense of some of these things.

Imagine we’re celebrating the 50th birthday of the Berkman Klein Center (in 305 yrs or so)? What are we celebrating? The end of online harassment? The dismantling of heteronormative, white supremacy hierarchy? Are we telling survivor narratives?

She was moved by an article the day after the election, titled “Black women were the only ones who tried to save the world Tuesday night,” by Charles D. Ellison. She laughed at first, and retweeted it. She was “overwhelmed by the response of people who didn’t think black women have the capacity to do anything except make babies and collect welfare checks.” She recalled many women, including Sojourner Truth who spoke an important truth to a growing sense in the feminist movement that it was fundamentally a white movement. The norms are so common and hidden that when we notice them we ask how the women broke through the barriers rather than asking why the barriers were there in the first place. It’s as if these women are superhuman. But we need to ask why are there barriers in the first place? [This is a beautifully composed talk. I’m sorry to be butchering it so badly. It will be posted on line in a few days.

In 1869 Frederick Douglass argued that including women in the movement for the vote would reduce the chances of the right to vote being won for black men. “White womenhood has been central in defining white masculinity. ” E.g., in Birth of a Nation, white women need protection. Self-definition is the core of intersectionality. Masculinity has mainly protected its own interests and its own fragility, not women. It uses the protection of women to showcase its own dominance.

“Why do we have to insert our own existences into spaces? Why are we not recognized?.” The marginalized are no longer accepting their marginzalization. For example,look at black women’s digital practices.

Black women have used digital involvement to address marginalization, to breach the boundaries of what’s “normal.” Often that is looked upon as them merely “playing around” with tech. The old frameworks meant that black women couldn’t enter the digital space as who they actually are.

Black Digital Feminism has three elements:

1. Social structural oppression of technology and virtual spaces. Many digital spaces are dominated by assumptions that they are color-blind. Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name are attempts to remind us that blackness is not an intrusion.

2. Intersectional oppressions experience in virtual spaces. Women must work to dismantle the interlocking structures of oppression. Individuals experience oppression in different ways and we don’t want a one-size approach. E.g., the “solidarity is for white women” hashtag is seen as an expression of black women being angry, but it is a reminder that feminism has too often been assumed to be a white issue first.

3. The distinctness of the virtual feminist community. Black Digital Feminism privileges women’s ways of knowing. “NotYourAsianSidekick” is rooted in the radical Asian woman tradition, insisting that they control their own identity. Black women, and others, reject the idea that feminism is the same for all women, disregarding the different forms of oppression women are subject to based upon their race, ethnicity, etc. Women have used social media for social change and to advance critical activism and feminism.

The tenets of Black Digital Feminism cannot detach from the personal, communal, or political, which sets it part from techno- and cyber-feminism.

These new technologies are not creating anything. They are providing an outlet. “These groups have never been voiceless. The people in power simply haven’t been listening.” The digital amplifies these voices.

QA

Q: With the new administration, should we be thinking differently?

A: We need to identify the commonalities. Isolated marches won’t do enough. We need to find a way to bring communities together by figuring out what is the common struggle against structural oppression. Black women sacrificed to support Trump, forgetting the “super-predator” stuff from Hillary, but other groups didn’t make equivalent sacrifices.

Q: Does it mean using hashtags differently?

A: This digital culture is only one of many things we can do. We can’t forget the physical community, connecting with people. There are models for doing this.

Q: Did Net Neutrality play a role in enabling the Black community to participate? Do we need to look at NN from a feminist perspective…NN as making every packet have the same weight.

NN was key for enabling Black Lives Matter because the gov’t couldn’t suppress that movement’s language, its speech.

Q: Is this perceived as a danger insider the black feminist movement?

A: Tech isn’t neutral, is the idea. It lets us do what we need to do.

Q: Given the work you’ve done on women finding pleasure in spaces (like the Xbox) where they’re not expected to be found, what do you think about our occupying commercial spaces?

A: I’m a lifelong gamer and I get asked how I can play where there aren’t players — or developers — who look like me. I started the practice of highlighting the people who are there. We’re there, but we’re not noticed. E.g., Pew Research showed recently that half of gamers are women. The overwhelming population of console gamers are black and brown men. We really have to focus on who is in the spaces, and seek them out. My dissertation focused on finding these people, and finding their shared stories: not being noticed or valued. But we should take the extra steps to make sure we locate them. Some people are going to call 2016 the year of the black gamer, games with black protagonists. This is due to a push from marginalized games. The resistance is paying off. Even the Oscars So White has paid off in a more diverse Golden Globes nominees set.

Q: You navigate between feminist theory and observational work. How did the latter shape the former?

A: When I learned about ethnography I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever created — being immersed in a community and let them tell their own stories. But when it came time to document that, I realized why we sometimes consider ethnography to be voyeuristic and exploitative. When transcribing, I was expected to “clean up” the speech. “Hell no,” she said. E.g. she left “dem” as “dem,” not “them.” “I refer to people as narrators, not ‘research participants.'” They’re part of the process. She showed them the chapter drafts. E.g., she hasn’t published all her Ferguson work because she wants to make sure that she “leaves the place better.” You have to stay true to the transformative, liberatory practices that we say we’re doing.” She’s even been criticized for writing too plainly, eschewing academic jargon. “I wanted to make sure that a community that let me into its space understood every word that I wrote.”

Q: There’s been debate about the people who lead the movement. E.g., if I’m not black, I am not best suited to lead the movement in the fight for those rights. OTOH, if we want to advance the rights of women, we have to move the whole society with us.

A: What you’re saying is important. I stopped caring about hurting peole’s feelings because if they’re devoted to the work that needs to be done, they’ve checked their feelings, their fragility, at the door. There is tons of work for allies to do. If it’s a real ally dedicated to the work, they’ll understand. There’s so much work to do. And Trump isn’t even the president yet.

Q: About the application of Black Digital Feminism to the law. (Intersectionality started in law journals.)

A: It’s hard to see how it translates into actual policy, especially now. I don’t know how we’ll push back against what’s to come. E.g., we know evaluations of women are usually lower than of men. So when are we going to stop valuing the evaluations so highly? At the bottom of my evaluations, I write, “Just so you know, these evaluations are filtered through my black woman’s body.”

Q: What do we get things like”#IamMichelle”, which is like the “I am Spartacus” in the movie Spartacus?

A: It depends on the effect it has. I focus on marginalized folks, and their sense of empowerment and pride. There’s some power there, especially in localized communities.

Q: How can white women be supportive?

A: You’ve to go get your people, the white women who voted. What have you done to change the thinking of the women you know who voted for Trump? That’s where it has to begin. You have to first address your own circle. You may not be able to change them, but you can’t ignore them. That’s step one.

Q: I always like your work because you hearken back to a rich pedigree of black feminism. But the current moment is distinct. E.g., the issues are trans-national. So we need new visions for what we want the future. What is the future that we’re fighting for? What does the digital contribute to that vision?

A: It’s important to acknowledge what’s the same. E.g., the death of black people by police is part of the narrative of lynching. The structural and institutional inequalities are the same. Digital tools let us address this differently. BLM is no different from what happened with Rodney King. What future are we fighting for? I guess I haven’t articulated that. I don’t know how we get there. We should first ask how we transform our own spaces. I don’t want the conversation to get to big. The conservation should be small enough and digestible. We don’t want people to feel helpless.

Q: If I’m a man who asks about Black Digital Feminism [which he is], where can I learn more?

You can go to my Web site: www.kishonnaGray.com. And the Berkman Klein community is awesome and ready to go to work.

Q: You write about the importance of claiming identity online. Early on, people celebrated the fact that you could go online without a known identity. Especially now, how do you balance the important task of claiming identity and establishing solidarity with your smaller group, and bonding with your allies in a larger group? Do we need to shift the balance?

A: I haven’t figured out how to create that balance. The communities I’m in are still distinct. When Mike Brown was killed, I realized how distinct the anti-gamergate crowd was from the BLM. These are not opposing fights. They’re not so distinct that we can’t fight both at the same times. I ended up working with both, and got me thinking about how to bridge them. But I haven’t figured out how to bring them together.

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January 8, 2017

Make policies, not deals

We can argue about whether president-elect Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at Carrier?—?ten years of tax breaks and other incentives worth $7 million to the company?—?was a good one or not. We can get riled up about Trump taking credit for keeping open a Ford plant that wasn’t closing. But our real concern should be about deals substituting for policy.

A deal results from a negotiation between the contesting parties. Policies result from decision-making processes by an institution that does not directly benefit or suffer from the outcome; those who do are supposed to recuse themselves.

Deals differ depending on those negotiating them. Policies are the same for all concerned.

Deals are therefore unpredictable. It is usually a good practice not to state honestly what your expectations or limits are. That’s why deal-making can be called an “art.” Policies aim at predictability. They announce their intent and the mechanisms for achieving that intent.

Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators.”Deals are negotiated using techniques that play upon the personality quirks of the negotiators. Because policies apply more broadly, they are not predicated on individual weaknesses, although the tactics used for achieving policy objectives might.

Deals can fail. One side or both can walk away from the table. The conflict of interests then continues, often without a fallback for how to resolve it. Policies can fail to achieve their goals, but they survive particular failures. They may even be amended and improved based on cases where they proved themselves inadequate.

Deals are done by individuals. Policies are created by institutions.

Donald Trump fancies himself a deal-maker. He has exhibited no interest in or aptitude for policy.

This is dangerous.

On the positive side, because deals deal with particulars, they can hew more closely to the precise needs of both sides. Policies can steamroller the particularities of a case the way a law can be applied evenly but unjustly if there are extenuating circumstances. That’s why we amend policies, and hand their implementation to dedicated career professionals?—?people candidate Trump has disdained as stupid and corrupt.

But even that positive attribute of deals does not scale. As others have pointed out, president-elect Trump has gotten widespread praise for intervening to save 800 jobs, while President Obama has gotten little credit for policies that have contributed to the creation of 15 million jobs. If President Trump made one 800-job deal a day, he would have to be president for 51 years to equal President Obama’s achievement.

Most dangerous of all, a government that works by making deals is a government in the pocket of a strongman who thinks that he alone can save us. “A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.”A deal-driven government is all exceptions all the time.

President Trump’s experience in office is unlikely to teach him the weakness of governance by deal-making, for he is going to spend his time making deals and repeatedly exulting in his successes, while excusing his failures by excoriating those who did not accept his terms.

We can only hope that the American public sees through this. The Art of the Deal is in this case indistinguishable from the Ego of the Despot.



I’ve posted this also at Medium.

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December 21, 2016

Pushing back against Trump: The techie meetup

I’m at an open meeting held by Maciej Ceglowski, co-hosted by Heather Gold, for techies to get together to think about how we can ameliorate the Trump Effect. It’s being held under the Chatham House Rule. It’s a packed house of 100+ people. Most are programmers. Probably under 15% are women. Almost all are white. We know from a show of hands that a healthy number were not born in this country. Few thought Trump would win. I seem to be the oldest person in the room. As usual.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Maciej says that we have a month before the inauguration and we shouldn’t waste it. “…hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize”He characterizes the recent meeting of Silicon Valley CEOs with Trump as a knuckling under by the participants. We should be pushing from below, he says. Maciej says we are here tonight also to hear from people from outside of our community who know how to organize and have an effect.

The first speaker is Bruce Schneier, who gave me permission to name him; no Chatham House Rule was harmed with this entry. (Bruce’s comments are drawn from a recent post.) The election was so close that you can’t draw conclusions, but the outcome sure changed the narrative, he says. Bruce talks about four things to do in the Trump years: 1. Fight the fights. That means playing whack-a-mole. We’re going to lose a lot of those battles, but our goal should be to lose as few and as little as possible. 2. Prepare for the fight. “The more we can convince corporate America to disarm, the safer we’ll be.” 3. Prepare the groundwork for the future. 4. Solve the actual problems — the ones that are coming despite or because of Trump. “If things go really bad really fast, a lot of this becomes irrelevant.,” he notes. “The hardest thing is to not fall into despair…The election exposed some really deep problems in society.” We need to address those problems now. “Treat this as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox”“Treat this [Trump’s presidency] as if the nation caught cowpox, not smallpox,” i.e. a disease that inoculates us against the fatal version.

The second speaker is a refugee advocate. There are about 400 sanctuary cities/towns/states. “Not Massachusetts. Not yet.” Sanctuaries limit police collaboration with ICE. The fight is at the state level, and many states are ahead of Massachusetts in this. It now becomes more important to provide tuition to any student who graduates from HS no matter their immigration status. Mass. Gov. Baker in June aligned himself with Pres. Obama’s massive deportation policy. There’s a Boston initiative to provide public defenders for people in immigration court. People should contact their local legislators and ask them to support the TRUST act.

The third speaker is a civil liberties activist. S/he agrees with the first two speakers that the action is going to be in the states. Her/His TL;DR: “We’re fucked.” The Mass. legislature is Democratic but conservative. S/he urges us to send messages to our legislators. Especially important: Call them on the phone. “Pick one thing that matters to you a lot. Get people in your neighborhood together, and have a meeting” with your legislator. S/he suggests we support the CCOPS
(“Community Control Over Police Surveillance”) bill that Cambridge is considering. She ends by saying that while federal action will primarily be defensive, we can still build power. Also, support the ACLU.

The fourth speaker is from a domestic workers activist group. S/he has us say as one that we’re ready to fight. “It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be.”(It’s good to remember how mopey privileged people like me allow ourselves to be. Of course, as a stalwart introvert I could not bring myself to join the chant. But anyway.) S/he works on building alliances between labor and tech. “This is a moment when we can really come together.” Massachusetts has the most advanced bill supporting domestic workers. S/he wants to know how many of us have friends, actual friends, who are undocumented. If so, we should understand the forces that cause people to uproot themselves. “The day after the election, everyone was crying, because hope had been taken away from them.” Over 60% of undocumented workers pay income taxes on their own, with no help from their employers. “We need your help because tech is everything. Also, you’re white.” [Laughter] “It’s really important for tech to lead, and to represent Mass as a kind of liberation zone across the nation. We have to build an alternative to the tech CEOs who normalized Trump. We need to be building alternative leaders and reps and not cede the ground of who is speaking for tech. We need distributed resistance across the country, and where’s the infrastructure for that? “We need you guys to do that.” E.g., How do we make our membership lists and databases secure?“ Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?” Should we be talking about sanctuary companies where people feel safe when they come to work?

Maciej: How do we build tools that let people organize without being weapons that can be used against them?

The fifth is a labor lawyer. Three pieces of good news: 1. The national labor laws will survive Trump. 2. Because Trump says he’s a champion of the working class, it will be hard for him to attack unions. 3. Tech workers have more knowledge and power than most workers; it’s harder to replace them. S/he explains how you can form a union. You should be able to have an election within a month of filing. S/he also talks about whistleblowing: If you can find a statute being violated, you can assert that and refuse to do it. “This is a good time for people to start joining unions.”

Now there are lightning talks, introduced by Heather Gold (See TummelVision). I’m not going to try to capture them with any completeness. Some points made:

  • A union organizer says that the only way forward is to have in-person conversations. “We’re motivated by emotions…It’s about the relationships.”

  • “Make sure that the people working on tech in govt are in part of this conversation.”

  • The rubber hits the road with the local immigrant worker groups

  • “Rally to the defense of workers.”

  • Support SURJ
    : Showing Up for Racial Justice. From the site: “SURJ is a national network of groups and individuals organizing White people for racial justice.”

  • “A lot of work gets hindered by well-meaning white people who want to help but don’t know how to do it.”

  • Support ActSecure, helping activists learn how to secure their information and communication.

  • “Run for town meeting. Run for town clerk.”

  • Before you build the great idea you have, engage with tech activist communities to learn what they’ve done already. When you don’t, “honestly, it hurts.”

  • Onion Browser
    for iPhone and VPN for iPhone are on the way.

  • Most of the progress in Trans* rights have been done through executive actions and can thus be rolled back. Much of Trump’s cabinet comes from “what I call anti-LGBTQ hate groups.”

  • Most computer systems were designed by people who weren’t thinking about trans people, and it shows in profile choices, etc.

  • Go to a monthly CryptoParty

  • Engineering Activism: Tech training for organizers, and organizing training for techies.

Now there’s open conversation, ably and actively moderated by Heather, which I will not record.

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December 20, 2016

Obama's legacy: A defining president

JFK for my generation — I was 13 when he was murdered — set the image of what a president should be. Whether or not he actually embodied those virtues doesn’t matter as much as the archetype he created.

President Obama has done that for the millennials. That should be a source of hope for us all.

The presidenct as defined by Barack Obama is

  • Engaged. He cares about issues.

  • Smart.

  • Informed.

  • Emotional.

  • Unselfish. Not in it for himself.

  • Patriotic.

  • Incorruptible.

  • Funny.

  • A whole person.

  • A loving parent.

  • A loving, respectful spouse.

  • Dignified in his bearing.

  • Treats all others with dignity.

  • Has a sense of the movement of history.

  • Thoughtful.

  • Unflappable.

  • Fallible.

  • Appreciative of diversity.

  • Appreciative of the arts.

  • Evidence-based.

  • Cool.

  • Hopeful.

  • Not necessarily Yet Another White Man.

We can argue about whether Obama actually embodies these virtues, much less whether he acted upon them sufficiently. That doesn’t matter for a generation that will measure all candidates against this new prototype of a president.

I do well remember that the country elected Nixon twice after JFK’s death, so I’m not saying that the next presidents will live up to this model. But if not, then the next presidents will fail to live up to this model.

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December 16, 2016

How hackers became political

Biella Coleman has a terrific piece exploring an excellent question: How did hackers become political actors? I’d say “activists,” but that implies a less hands-on approach to the machinery of politics.

Biella combines the virtues of academic rigor with the skills of a writer who knows how to talk about ideas through narrative … sometimes a conventional story, but also through the gradual unfolding of ideas. I’m a fan.

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December 4, 2016

Trump, Taiwan, and peace through fiction

I have a friend whom I cherish who loathes Donald Trump, but who thinks that Trump’s missteps with Taiwan were actually a good thing. My friend’s sole hope for Trump is that he will follow through with some of his campaign rhetoric and address China’s predatory trade practices. For my friend, Trump’s blunder — and he calls it that — has burst the bubble of “disingenuous and silly” lies that the Chinese have taken advantage of for thirty years.

I don’t know nearly enough about our economic relationship with China to be entitled to have an opinion about it, but even if it was good to pierce the mutual fiction about the relationship of the two Chinas (I’d put scare quotes around one of those two words, but I can’t figure out which), it’s not good to do so with no plan or strategy. Trump sent a strong, consequential signal to China that is only de-stabilizing. In fact, Trump then denied that it was a signal at all when, in the face of criticism, he tweeted that Taiwan “called ME!”. So, the phone call was merely ignorant, pointless destabilization that Trump then destabilized.

My friend likes the idea that the phone call destroyed a fictitious international relationship. But blowing up a relationship simply because it is disingenuous and silly is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The world’s constituencies are so different in their interests and understandings that we often can only maintain a difficult peace by finding language structurally ambiguous enough — each side knows that the other means something different by it — that we are not forced to bring an irresolvable disagreement to an unambiguous resolution.

None of this touches my friend’s larger and more important point about the possibility that Trump could address China’s predatory economic practices. Even Cheeto Hitler might get something right. But not this time or in this way.

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