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Jun 28, 2020

The quarantine and the relational self

Today I stumbled across a fascinating 2002 paper, The Relational Self: An Interpersonal Social–Cognitive Theory, by Andersen and Chen. The theory goes like this: we do not have a unified knowledge of our own self. Rather, relationships with various significant others create “possible relational selves.” We cannot activate all of them at the same time, because the body of self-knowledge is so huge. Something in the immediate situation triggers a recall of a particular version of the self. “For example, cues in one’s workplace are likely to elicit the set of cognitive, affective, motivational, and behavioral responses associated with one’s “professional self,” whereas cues in a party setting elicit knowledge reflecting one’s “partying self.”” This explains a lot about our situation at the quarantine. We all are missing the cues of the workplace, which makes it difficult to “wake up” our professional selves, and all the associated abilities, attitudes, habits, and motivation. This is why it feels so awkward to teach, write, think, and communicate from home. In the absence of these cues, we are literally not quite ourselves. The home environment triggers a more domestic version of the self, one inclined to rest, be entertained, or do brainless domestic or yard work. Doing more complex work for work requires an extra effort. Even recalling the right information takes a little longer. Writing a simple memo takes twice as much time. I can only admire my colleagues who have to teach online. Good teaching requires mobilization of the very specific version of the self that can be dramatically different from all others.

I was working in my office for a couple of hours last week, and the two large screen on my desk just felt amazing. It was as if someone just cleaned my foggy glasses, and the big world became suddenly visible. That says something about the importance of these visual cues for finding the right frame for my mind. Seeing what I see around me actually tunes up my brain in a particular way. It is just nice to understand that our problems are not a sign of weakness or laziness, or lack of willpower. And I am pretty sure it is not just me. Signals I get from others are similar. People struggle with something undefinable and invisible and feel guilty that they cannot put their fingers on it. On the surface of it, the transition should be easy. And yet, weirdly, it is not. People try to hate Zoom, but it is just a lightning rod. Something larger is going on. The thousand details that went missing from our worlds together sucked the oxygen out of us. If you believe the Andersen and Chen, other people make the most powerful cues. We need them – not necessarily to communicate, but just to be there, in the same building, on the same campus. We can still call or zoom any time, but somehow it is not the same.

We may have underestimated the difficulty of the transition to the distant work. In the wake of the crisis, with all the adrenalin going, we all did really well. When the routine settles, one can usually expect that things get easier. But in this particular case, the routine brings new challenges. As we are planning for four more months of this new normal, I worry just a little. Of course, humans are creatures of adaptation, not just of habit. We always adapt, find ways around the obstacles, rewire our brains, and find different kinds of cues to call up our professional selves. I just want to convert my general optimism into a more specific help we can provide to each other. Maybe the first step is not to ignore or trivialize the problem. It is indeed difficult to work remotely in the industry like ours. And it is even more difficult to do it for extended periods of time. I usually at least pretend to have a solution, but in this particular case I have none. Tell me if my worry is misplaced. And if it is not, we need to figure out what to do.

Jun 22, 2020

Regulatory Paroxysms or How to Control the Uncontrollable

Universities have largely been successful in transitioning to the online environment, much more than almost any other industry. Victims of their own success, university leaders have been asked to stay online in the fall to reduce the overall rate of infections. The other industries had to bу allowed to reopen sooner, because they suffered relatively more. K-12 schools got the worst possible deal, where they were allowed to half-reopen. That is what I was afraid was going to happen to us. It did not, but it happened to schools, and let us all empathize. From the logistical point of view, it is the most complex and daunting task. Our K-12 partners deal with three sets of contradicting guidelines AND with enormous pressure from parents. As a colleague put it today, “Where will that kindergartner go twice a week, if both parents work?” This half-reopening for K-12 creates significant problems for teacher training programs, but does not affect the rest of the university.

OK, we got it relatively easy, with mostly online instruction. All we need to do is figure out how to deliver online instruction a little better, and create a health and safety plan for the campus while letting a small percentage of classes to be f2f. The latter part turned out to be more difficult than we all expected, and to be completely honest, is not working out that well. The paradox of the situation is that the campus requires some staff, students and faculty to be on campus, and at the same time forbids others to be here. How do you require and forbid something at the same time? Normally, a thing is either a good people want, or an obligation people don’t want, but must do. It is rare that the same thing could be a good and an obligation.

The only thing burecracies know how to do is regulate. We have developed an application process, that treats f2f presence as a scarce quasi-good, as something you can get only if you ask nicely. But if you create a barrier, a scarcity, you encourage people who really need to be here to do their job better to NOT apply, and stay home, while damaging the quality of their work. At the same time, people who need to get out of the house must now prove they are deserving this great privilege of coming to campus. For example, program faculty as a group have decided that a certain class will really be damaged if taught online, because it trains students to read body language and non-verbal cues. However, one of the faculty members has personal health concerns and still wants to teach it online. That’s creates a weird tension – we just begged for a permission to teach f2f, and argued it was impossible to teach online, but now we still want to offer one section f2f. Awkward! The bottom line is – people need different things, and making the application process equitable and fair is very hard. You may be concerned about getting infected. But I may have a home full of kids, and may go crazy if I have to teach another class from home. For me the quiet of the office is an equally compelling health need.

In general, do not regulate anything you don’t have to regulate. We saw over the course of the quarantine, that voluntary compliance along with strong messaging gives results comparable to strictly enforced rules. If there is enough trust and understanding of the dangers, people tend to make mostly reasonable choices. I think it will work with us as well. Give faculty and staff general guidelines, establish a set of norms, but trust people to figure out what is it they need to do and how to do it without endangering others. We have the most educated and reasonable workforce in the country. If anyone can do it, they can do it.

Th issue with over-regulation is that it is (a) very expensive, and (b) has a lot of side effects. It is expensive because of the transaction cost for all the applications, reviews at multiple levels, the cost of time for highly paid managers, etc. The side effects may include, paradoxically LOWER levels of compliance in comparison to voluntary regimes. Establishing a rigorous procedure remove the internal locus of control, and encourages cheating, hoarding, and other undesirable behaviors. Once you signal people that they cannot make good decisions, you undermine the power of conscience. We do not have police cameras to check who is and who is not in their offices. We have to rely on self-policing anyway, and that can only start with trust.

Jun 15, 2020

Racism, the Old Deluder

One can slice racism in several ways, but at a minimum, it has the overt and the covert parts. The former includes explicitly racist policies and practices, as well as openly discriminatory behaviors. That is what Martin Luther King called “social sin.” It is the most outrageous, but also most easily identifiable plane of existence for racism. Because it is so open, eliminating is is actually not difficult once the political will exists to change racist policies and laws. Despite an occasional flair up, most progressive communities in this country have been fairly successful in beating it down.

Th covert racism is much more difficult to pinpoint. It includes laws and policies that may look neutral, but in fact affect minorities disproportionately. For example, in NYC, only 9-10% of those subjected to the “stop and frisk” were White (and let’s not forget, almost 90% of those stopped were innocent). In 2011, NYPD stopped a whopping 686 thousand people; in one year, Carl! But those who invented and implemented the policy had never admitted the policy was racist, and most of them are probably still convinced it was not. If you look at policy’s consequences rather than stated intent, it is no doubt racist. It is very difficult to read the minds of those who design and implement these kids of policies and practices. None of them will admit the intent was racist, but the effects speak for themselves. The wide spread practice of de facto immunity from prosecution bargained by police unions is one of those weird racist-by-effect outcomes. Designed to protect Black and White police officers equally, it disproportionally and intolerably affects the Black communities. Yet if there is a specific policy, it is possible to track down its effects, and change it. He diddle stratum of racism is like that – still very visible if you look the right way.

And now we get to the lowest stratum of racism that operates on the periphery o human awareness. Those include implicit biases and acts of micro-aggression. Sometimes perpetrators are aware of them, sometimes they are not, and very often it is somewhere in between. This stuff is still all over the place, even in progressive places like Sac State, in the most progressive state like California. The only real way to control these is a kind of self-discipline, a habit of checking one’s own words and deeds for bias. Like music or martial arts, it takes daily practice for years, and trained awareness. I know many White people who have mastered it, and even more of those who did not. I am definitely still an apprentice.

The unconscious or semi-conscious covert racism is very difficult to eradicate through the instrument of explicit policies. People quickly learn to comply formally, check all the boxes, and go on with their unaware lives. Moreover, formal compliance breeds complacency and resentment. Solutions must match problems, or else some hasty solutions may unintentionally make problems worse.

The covert racism is difficult to deal with, because its roots go deep, all the way into the fundamental human nature. It is an old, old disease. Those who expect a quick fix do not know much about the human kind. Christians call it the original sin, Freudians call it Id, and evolutionary biologists may call it innate xenophobia. Our civilization already took thousands of years to overcome it. One kind of resolve is to go to battle right away. Another kind is to plan and execute a long siege. Depending on what we are dealing with, we need both.

Jun 1, 2020

Manufacturing racism

28 years ago, I was watching the Rodney King riots in LA, in a living room of a Notre Dame dorm. I was in this country for about 8 months, and had only the vaguest idea about what is going on. Few of us, international students, could comprehend the events. We all tried to apply the various frameworks we learned in our own countries. 28 years later, I see similar pictures on TV. It is a bad kind of déjà vu. The US have made a lot of progress confronting its homophobia and gender bias. However, the country seems to be completely incapable of addressing the police violence against its African-American community. The very lack of progress makes the crises we are witnessing now almost inevitable.

The Black-White race conflict is very difficult to explain to people who do not know the US context. I tried many times, with very mixed results. The closest analogy I could find is this: Imagine a foreign occupation. The occupation can be brutal or gentle, and you can have a better or worse trained army. Yet every occupation will result in abuse and violence towards the occupied population. There were literally no exceptions in history that I know of. Why? – because the occupied population does not accept legitimacy of the occupation, which is why the occupying army will always operate in a hostile environment. The soldiers’ attitudes will inevitably harden. A soldier must have a way to dehumanize the occupied in order to justify his presence there, and explain away the hostility. Of course, some do and others do not, but the pressure is in the wrong direction. Any number of biases including racism will be reinforced among the occupation soldiers. Yes, we must hold individual soldiers accountable for any atrocities. Yet deep down you know, that if you put regular flawed human beings in a chronically stressful situation among hostile locals, many of your soldiers will become callous and some will become abusive. The ultimate responsibility lies with those who commanded the army to occupy.

The attitude of African-American urban communities is not exactly like that, but somewhat similar. They do not fully acknowledge the legitimacy of the predominantly White police forces for a number of historical and practical reasons. They rightly suspect that there is a larger effort to suppress their community through invasive policing that other neighborhoods do not experience. The stop-and-frisk practices evoke the images of foreign occupation. I am not sure if it is effective, but it is certainly humiliating. A White man, I have never been stopped and frisked, never been pulled over for little or no reason. I have a luxury to presume the police will be generally on my side if anything happens. None of these assumptions are shared by African-Americans. The mistrust is definitely justifiable. By the way, there are a number of other communities, including some White ones that deny police its legitimacy (watch, for example the Murder Mountain series). And of course, the longer the “occupation” lasts, the more it is reinforced. Hence, we are caught in a vicious circle: the population’s distrust will push police to be more racist, and the racist police will make their acceptance more difficult. Under the situation of a structural conflict, appeals like “support the police” and “don’t be racist” are only of limited utility.

Many progressive police departments understand the dilemma, and apply major efforts to build strong connections between the police force and African-American communities. The Flint police chief recently has shown what can be done. The smart chiefs figure, if you reduce distrust, you remove the major cause of racism among your officers. It does work to some degree. However, I will betray my structuralist bias: look deeper. Perceptions are not all local; they also shaped by the national agenda. Those people in Minneapolis wear uniforms similar to those your local cops do, so the trust is fragile and never universal. Similarly, American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan tried to build stronger ties to local communities, but in the end, the local people wanted them out. Ultimately, unless the major gaps in wealth, housing, health and educational opportunities are closed, the gentle police will be perceived as a gentle occupation force. It is better than the brutal police, but it is still a force that protects a perceived unjust world order.

This is why we are stuck. This is why we are watching the rerun of 1992 LA, which was a rerun of 1980 Miami, which was in turn a rerun of 1968. The society at large does not want to make difficult political decisions that includes significant equalization of income and opportunities. We failed to deal with the economy that no longer creates good jobs in sufficient quantities. We the public have sent our police to defend the indefensible, and then are eager to blame everything on individual racist cops. Every politician has condemned the bad apples; because it is so easy to do. But the individual racism, as inexcusable as it is, is only a symptom. Urban police departments do not recruit racists. Let us acknowledge, at least some of them become more racist in the course of their work. And we the voters and our political representatives are responsible for that. Either we invest in the disadvantaged communities, or keep cleaning up the broken glass every few years.