Judged By Mischaracterized Intentions

One of the greatest pathologies of public life today is its pervasive gang mentality. We are constantly labeled by others — and at the same time do that very same labeling. By our actions, we divide ourselves up into tribes, Us and Them. It’s our hatred of Them that continually leaves us far, far short of our ideals.

When one enters the public square, when one speaks up, others listen and judge. Who is this person? What tribe are they with? Are they on my team or the other team? Are they friend or enemy?

Sometimes without realizing it, we give clues to answer those questions. Whether I refer to “Barack Hussein Obama” or “President Barack Obama” says a great deal. Whether I link to a CNN or a Fox News story does too. It all adds up and within thirty seconds a first impression has been set. 

Trouble is, most people aren’t really like their stereotypes. Think about the stereotype the “other side” has about your own tribe. How fair is it? How correct is it?

  • Maybe you’re “liberal.” It’s probably not only unfair but also incorrect to say that you favor a move to socialism, or that you care more about redistributing wealth than you do about personal morality.
  • Maybe you’re “conservative.” It’s probably not only unfair but incorrect to say that you are only interested in furthering the interests of the rich, or that you are just a mean-spirited person.

Yet these are the labels we smack on the other side.

My point: This is not only corrosive to public life — but it’s plain dumb. By allowing these incorrect stereotypes to persist in our own mind, we live in a delusional world. We don’t understand other people, which means we don’t really know what is being said in the public square.

I saw this play out in an ironic way just a couple of days ago. I noticed a derisive comment in a liberal avenue about some “stupid conservative’s” article that contained a misspelling. I went to go take a look.

Sure, the article was angry (conservatives feel quite besieged at the moment) — but it was thoughtful. More to the point, it was sincere. And it contained this complaint, describing what it’s like to be a conservative in the current environment:

“My intentions are mischaracterized, and then I am judged by those mischaracterized intentions.”

Actually, that’s an apt description of the public square as a whole. We can do so much better . . . because we are so much better.

The New Anti-Panopticon

My friend Lars Hasselblad Torres (who may have the coolest name I know) pointed out a really fascinating project.

It’s “The Intellectuals Circle” — a circular bench designed to encourage “a clear form of verbal communication without visual cues or theatrics between participants.” As it has been a long time since I’ve been a to a meeting with no irksome theatrics, I am intrigued!

I am even more introgued by a comment embedded in some of the design notes. The designers (MIT, natch) see this as a sort of reverse Panopticon. 

I have always been fascinated by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. What is it? Here’s a description from an earlier article I wrote:

In 1787, one of the great thinkers of English history, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a new design for a prison. He called the design the Panopticon. The idea was simple: from one point in the center of the building, a single guard could see any inmate at any time. All of the inmates knew this, but could not tell when, or whether, they were being observed. The concept was intended to promote the moral development of the prisoners, as the constant possibility of scrutiny would serve to make them less likely to behave badly. The Panopticon was a leap forward in its day. Designed to replace the infamous Botany Bay, it was among the first prisons to incorporate the idea of rehabilitation rather than punishment. Instead of being seen as beasts, prisoners were now assumed to be able to regulate their own behavior. Bentham’s design would have provided the motivation for them to do so.

What does it mean for soemthing to be the reverse of the Panopticon? The designers: “Instead of using a centralized theme of observation as a means of control, the Intellectuals Circle allows participants to converse freely on the periphery, without direct visual contact with each other. There is no center at all, only 4 ways in which to enter, sit and exit at will.”

The intended effect of the Panipticon is not punitive but moral. It is designed to foster a positive morality and correct a lack of morality. What effect will the Intellectual’s Circle have? Surely it won’t be the converse!

Our Nation's Uncomfortable History With Race

As many of my readers know, I write “issue guides” — discussions of difficult public issues designed to elicit small group dialogue. In my work on such guides, sometimes I develop fragments that are useful but just don’t fit into the ultimate publication.

I came across an old passage I wrote that outlines our nation’s difficult relationship with people who are “different.” For reasons of space, it is not going to make it into a publication I am now working on, so I thought I would share it. It’s a good reminder of where we’ve been — and how far we have to go.

An Uncomfortable History

America does not have a good record when it comes to the treatment of ethnic and cultural difference. Slavery of African Americans is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in reviewing this history. It began as early as 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, when Africans arrived at the first English settlement in the New World. At that time there was no law yet allowing for the ownership of people as slaves, so they were instead indentured servants. In 1808, importation of slaves was officially banned, but it continued unabated — the slave population in the United States rose to 4 million slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census. Slavery ended officially with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865.

Slavery, of course, is not the only marker along the path of our nation’s poor treatment of different cultures and ethnicities.

Almost from the outset of the colonization of America, killing of the Native American Indians began. An early example is the genocidal Pequot War of 1637. Hostilities lasted in various forms throughout the westward expansion and lasted until at least 1890 when the western frontier was closed. Thousands of people were killed and whole tribes were forced to relocate as America grew. Many argue that, though the wholesale violence may have ended in 1890, the taking of Native American land and water rights, which continued for years, was just as damaging.

The Mexican-American War ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which held that Spanish and Mexican land grants were legitimate. But the immigration of anglo settlers brought about, according to historian Richard Vogel, “widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. . . . Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches.”

Later in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrant labor built one of the key drivers of the settlement of the Western United States – the railroad system – but this influx of Chinese people was ended when the Chinese Exclusion Act placed a moratorium on immigration by any ethnic Chinese in 1882. This act was in force until its repeal in 1943 – at which time an annual quota of 105 was put in place. This quota was not lifted until 1965.

Anti-Semitism – hatred of Jews – has also been a part of our nation’s history. In 1915, it was the lynching by prominent area citizens of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia that led to the creation of today’s Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism.

And, during World War Two, Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced to relocate in 1942. Those who did not make their own way out — approximately 110,000 – were placed in a number of internment camps. Only in 1976 was the order establishing the camps – Executive Order 9066 – rescinded, though the camps themselves were terminated in 1946. This particular episode was viewed as so shameful that the United States made official reparations in 1988 to all who had been relocated or placed in camps.

All these share in common the taking of what may begin as a simple mistrust of difference – and, over time, turning it into a set of policies and attitudes that together work a grave injustice on one or another culture. Certainly, many newcomers to America or people who were otherwise seen as marginal had a difficult time of it. But, in some cases, this poor treatment became more than that and instead became racism.

The national story of race, then, continues. Many point with pride to the significant strides made in the Civil Rights era and to the praiseworthy expansion of opportunity over the last few decades to include more and more Americans. But others say that this issue of ethnicity and culture continues to be difficult for America — that the same trends that have played out over history are at work today.

Today, in the twenty-first century, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, against the backdrop of a citizenry that is on track to become one in which no ethnicity holds a majority, America remains a nation that has difficulty addressing racial and ethnic tensions.

Our Nation’s Uncomfortable History With Race

As many of my readers know, I write “issue guides” — discussions of difficult public issues designed to elicit small group dialogue. In my work on such guides, sometimes I develop fragments that are useful but just don’t fit into the ultimate publication.

I came across an old passage I wrote that outlines our nation’s difficult relationship with people who are “different.” For reasons of space, it is not going to make it into a publication I am now working on, so I thought I would share it. It’s a good reminder of where we’ve been — and how far we have to go.

An Uncomfortable History

America does not have a good record when it comes to the treatment of ethnic and cultural difference. Slavery of African Americans is perhaps the first thing that comes to mind in reviewing this history. It began as early as 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia, when Africans arrived at the first English settlement in the New World. At that time there was no law yet allowing for the ownership of people as slaves, so they were instead indentured servants. In 1808, importation of slaves was officially banned, but it continued unabated — the slave population in the United States rose to 4 million slaves in the 1860 U.S. Census. Slavery ended officially with the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865.

Slavery, of course, is not the only marker along the path of our nation’s poor treatment of different cultures and ethnicities.

Almost from the outset of the colonization of America, killing of the Native American Indians began. An early example is the genocidal Pequot War of 1637. Hostilities lasted in various forms throughout the westward expansion and lasted until at least 1890 when the western frontier was closed. Thousands of people were killed and whole tribes were forced to relocate as America grew. Many argue that, though the wholesale violence may have ended in 1890, the taking of Native American land and water rights, which continued for years, was just as damaging.

The Mexican-American War ended in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which held that Spanish and Mexican land grants were legitimate. But the immigration of anglo settlers brought about, according to historian Richard Vogel, “widespread oppression that sparked mass exile and repatriation. . . . Besieged refugees abandoned their farms and ranches.”

Later in the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrant labor built one of the key drivers of the settlement of the Western United States – the railroad system – but this influx of Chinese people was ended when the Chinese Exclusion Act placed a moratorium on immigration by any ethnic Chinese in 1882. This act was in force until its repeal in 1943 – at which time an annual quota of 105 was put in place. This quota was not lifted until 1965.

Anti-Semitism – hatred of Jews – has also been a part of our nation’s history. In 1915, it was the lynching by prominent area citizens of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia that led to the creation of today’s Anti-Defamation League, an organization that combats anti-Semitism.

And, during World War Two, Japanese Americans on the west coast were forced to relocate in 1942. Those who did not make their own way out — approximately 110,000 – were placed in a number of internment camps. Only in 1976 was the order establishing the camps – Executive Order 9066 – rescinded, though the camps themselves were terminated in 1946. This particular episode was viewed as so shameful that the United States made official reparations in 1988 to all who had been relocated or placed in camps.

All these share in common the taking of what may begin as a simple mistrust of difference – and, over time, turning it into a set of policies and attitudes that together work a grave injustice on one or another culture. Certainly, many newcomers to America or people who were otherwise seen as marginal had a difficult time of it. But, in some cases, this poor treatment became more than that and instead became racism.

The national story of race, then, continues. Many point with pride to the significant strides made in the Civil Rights era and to the praiseworthy expansion of opportunity over the last few decades to include more and more Americans. But others say that this issue of ethnicity and culture continues to be difficult for America — that the same trends that have played out over history are at work today.

Today, in the twenty-first century, decades after the Civil Rights Movement, against the backdrop of a citizenry that is on track to become one in which no ethnicity holds a majority, America remains a nation that has difficulty addressing racial and ethnic tensions.