Nice White Parents and Point Omega

Nice White Parents. I listened to the first three episodes of this new podcast about how a Brooklyn school serving mostly black and brown students was harmed by the arrival of the titular Nice White Parents, who flexed their privilege, proceeded to fundraise $50,000 (compared to a prior raise by the PTA of $2,000) and whose kids provided some truly squirmworthy comments. About how school integration may not be so desirable after all, how schools keep failing to support nonwhite kids, and how entrenched inequalities persist, and might be eradicated. This will be a five part series, and has already met with some dissension and controversy, but I am curious to hear the next episodes and see where it goes. Whether or not you agree with the portrayal of the issues or the conclusions, it’s a fascinating listen.

Point Omega. When reading Don DeLillo novels, I often feel as if I have entered a cold, white, vast, fluorescent-lit space, like a data center, interstellar terminal, or morgue. Point Omega was no different. Beautifully structured though it was, a brief 5 chapters, it was set in both the desert and the mind–unforgiving, spare places beyond time’s horizon. We were promised a glimpse of a bighorn ram, which never materialized, and though there were sunsets and occasional glimpses of earthly loveliness, human connection was absent and human relations were reduced to voyeurism, stalking, staring, predation and self-absorption. Who is and who is not a DeLillo Fan? I try, repeatedly, but am not.

Freedom Colonies

 

As I was reading about Andrea Roberts’ research into “freedom colonies”,  the name bothered me. Freedom ––as I’d always understood it from elementary school, from the Pledge of Allegiance we recited every day, facing the flag and with our hands over our hearts, from Woody Guthrie songs and the Star-Spangled Banner–freedom should be general across the nation, from sea to shining sea, from the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters, one nation, liberty and justice for all–and not confined to a colony. The word “colony” (per my trusty Barnhart) means “a settlement dependent on another country”–though further back it’s found to derive from cultivation, tilling, inhabiting

Andrea Roberts is a Vassar graduate, and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning at Texas A and M University. She is researching the thousands of historically black settlements, often called “freedom colonies,” that emerged across the United States after the Civil War. There are hundreds of these kinds of communities, these colonies, formed for mutual care and support and protection after the Civil War. “These weren’t places where [African American families] were pushed to,” Roberts said. “They were created on purpose and had ‘anchors,’ such as schools and churches and cemeteries around which the settlements were built.” There are hundreds of communities like this, based on race or religion or gender or just shared values–formed by groups distinct from the dominant culture.

And the dominant culture during restoration the Ku Klux Klan also rose during Restoration in the South. The Freedom Colonies rose during this fraught period and protected their inhabitants against the generalized racism, violence and hostility of that time, which is still with us today, and rising. History and the past are not the same, and it’s important to bring them closer together. But when I see efforts like this one to restore a lost past, I think of what Toni Morrison said about racism:

It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art. So you dredge that up. Somebody sats that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. 

If you’re black, or queer, or female, or a member of a group that is not the group controlling the story , you’re used to mentally rewriting or actively resisting/ignoring/correcting history as it is told. History and the past are not the same. Do your work! And if your work is history, and the history shows your kingdoms, so be it. 

A significant fight to preserve African-American history is playing out through the auspices of the National Trust and the National Historic Preservation Act, which through its criteria of “architectural significance” has blocked the preservation of modest buildings such as slave quarters, tenements and cabins. Brent Leggs, director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, is leading the charge on preserving much of this history, including Nina Simone’s childhood home, Joe Frazier’s gym, and John and Alice Coltrane’s home

——————

In my other alumnae monthly, from Smith, I was struck by a related quote from Deborah Archer (Smith ’93): “My parents…understood that access to opportunity meant entering spaces where we were not expected and were not welcome. And, of course, we were met with resistance.” You need to go places you’re not wanted, and say things that the people there don’t want to hear. Archer was a student at Smith a few years after I was–I spent my freshman year there. Even at Smith, Archer had a note slid under her door that said “N—— go home”. She was not surprised. Growing up in Hartford, Connecticut “KKK” was once sprayed on the side of her house.

“This is where people can learn to rely on each other”

An interview with Jyri about Kahvila Siili, the café we run in the summer in our neighborhood in Helsinki came out this week. “Kahvila Siili” means “hedgehog café”–there are a lot of hedgehogs in the neighborhood, though we didn’t see any, as we usually do, at the end of the summer this summer–some people say they are being driven out by the increased heat from climate change.

“Our fortune, in the next decades, will be intricately connected to our community structure,” he says on sunny afternoon in the front garden of the café. “A place like this is not just about vegan food or recycling waste but allowing people to rely on each other as we face the challenges of climate change.”

Spoken like the entrepreneur, investor and sociologist he is. Here are our neighbors coming out for the opening party at the beginning of the summer:

Screen Shot 2019-08-15 at 12.49.10 PM

 

Harassment, Redress & Roman Law

It seems as if, on the internet, harm can be done to others immediately, continuously, thoughtlessly, and unceasingly, and worse, without consequence to the perpetrator, who enjoys only satisfaction, righteousness, and immunity. It seems that a willingness to participate in conversations online is an implicit agreement to be subjected to harassment and abuse. Countless people–let me just say, most people I know with active online lives–have suffered this. People have committed suicide because of this abuse, old and young, but especially the young; countless people have withdrawn from both the online and offline world after having been subjected to online bullying; the victims, most often coming from the most vulnerable, protected groups, continue to suffer and retreat further from the full embrace of the world and its possibilities.

Those who suffer from racism, sexism, harassment and a daily parade of micro-aggressions have no recourse under any company’s Terms of Service, not to mention the law, unless an actual assault has taken place–and as is well documented, few of those cases are prosecuted, and of those, a vanishingly small number result in conviction. The punishments mostly accrue to the victim reporting the crime.

Online, in the various communities I’ve participated in, built and managed, I’ve written a half dozen Community Guidelines, and spent countless hours thinking through this problem. I’ve kicked countless perps off a dozen web sites, banned, muted and used secret troll-thwarting ninja techniques to perma-ban awful people using robust, well designed admin interfaces. I’ve even reported bad actors to the FBI.  I couldn’t think of how, under the law, the people who suffer from these agonies could be protected from, or receive redress from the thugs whose wrongs they had endured.  But today I happened upon an article about sexual harassment and Roman law, which presented a vision of the law that I hadn’t thought possible: Here’s what it said.

From its earliest codification in the Twelve Tables of 450BC, Roman law gave people a right to recover damages for personal injury.

The law expanded over the centuries to protect an increasingly wide range of personal rights by means of an action known as the actio injuriarum (or action for injuries). By the time of the publication of the Digest of Justinian in 533AD, the action protected three groups of rights:corpus (bodily integrity), fama (reputation), and dignitas (dignity).

This is where the major difference lies between our English-based law of torts and Roman law: although the law of torts allows a plaintiff to sue for bodily injury and defamation, it offers no protection for dignity and therefore no right to sue for verbal insult, no matter how offensive.

The actio injuriarum lives on in modern legal systems. A good example is South Africa, whose legal system is based on Roman law. There, the action has been used to recover damages for sexist verbal insults, unwelcome propositioning for sexual intercourse, and unwelcome exposure to pornography. The action also protects privacy, so it has been used to recover damages in cases involving peeping Toms, stalking, and the publication of intimate facts about people’s private lives.

 

Online Communities Gone Bad (and getting them back on track)

After my appearance on the podcast Masters of Scale, a lot of people have written to me for advice on managing their communities. Here’s one request and my response, which I posted with permission, in the interest of making the internet a more civilized place.

Things had gotten so bad in this founder’s community, that even employees were thinking of leaving. The team felt hamstrung by their users. He explains:

When we first started our community I was in there posting every day setting the tone. Over the years as the company scaled I chose to spend time on other things beside posting in the forum. Gradually over time things got bad…then really bad…now horrible. 5-10 members of the community have started berating everyone in between posting useful content. Do you have any principles or experiences I can draw upon to think about how to solve this?

Yes, I wrote back, this community has run amok. A garden needs both fertilizer and weedkiller. But most of all it needs a gardener. Go back in and participate as much as before. Community manage with a heavy hand. Promote good people, respond to them.  Make them shine. Build good admin tools to silence bad actors.

You have to take a “iron fist in velvet glove” approach; warn borderline cases, and discuss their behavior with them. Often they can be rehabilitated. But for those who will not change: ruthlessly delete the accounts of abusive people, irrespective of their contributions. Keeping 5-10 bad people have undoubtedly lost you dozens, even hundreds, that you don’t even know about. They’ve stifled other people who are still participating and darkened the atmosphere of the whole community.

Community management is art, not science. There is no black and white when dealing with people. Choose your community team carefully, and find people with good instincts. Have all members of the team participate in the community. And be present there yourself.

When the internet is over

When the internet is over

“When the Internet is put into storage with the 8-track, things will be different. People will talk about stuff again, or go shopping at a store, or journey to someone’s house to watch a film. Who knows? No one can guess what form it will take, of course, but like Christianity, Wiki-Google’s days are numbered. It is up to us to make sure its time is short.”

– I.F. Svenonius

If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Censorship, Now!

 

Notes from Wendell Berry's Home Economics

Wendell Berry is a great writer on community, the local, and how to organize a life. These  notes are from his collection of essays Home Economics. I also recommend What are people for?.

  • To call the unknown by its right name, “mystery”, is to suggest that we had better respect the possibility of a larger, unseen pattern that can be damaged or destroyed and, with it, the smaller patterns.This respecting of mystery obviously has something or other to do with religion, and we moderns have defended ourselves against it by turning it over to religion specialists, who take advantage of out indifference by claiming to know a lot about it.

    What impresses me about it, however, is the insistent practicality implicit in it. If we are up against mystery, then we dare act only on the most modest assumptions. The modern scientific program has held that we must act on the basis of knowledge, which, because its effects are so manifestly large, we have assumed to be ample. But if we are up against mystery, then knowledge is relatively small, and the ancient program is the right one: Act on the basis of ignorance. Acting on the basis of ignorance, paradoxically, requires one to know things, remember things — for instance, that failure is possible, that error is possible, that second chances are desirable (so don’t risk everything on the first chance), and so on. (p. 4-5)

  • Both the Greeks and the Hebrews told us to watch out for humans who assume that they make all the patterns. (p. 5)
  • Ignorance of where to stop is a modern epidemic; it is the basis of “industrial progress” and “economic growth”. The most obvious practical result of this ignorance is a critical disproportion of scale between the scale of human enterprises and their sources in nature. (p. 15-16)
  • The proper scale confers freedom and simplicity…and doubtless leads to long life and health. I think that it also confers joy. (p. 16)
  • No good thing is destroyed by goodness; good things are destroyed by wickedness. We may identify that insight as Biblical, but it is taken for granted by both the Greek and the Biblical lineages of our culture, from Homer to Moses to William Blake. Since the start of the industrial revolution, there have been voices urging that this inheritance [nature] may be safely replaced by intelligence, information, energy and money. No idea, I believe, could be more dangerous. (p. 20)
  • Everywhere, every day, local life is being discomforted, disrupted, endangered, or destroyed by powerful people who live, or who are privileged to think that they live, beyond the bad effects of their bad work. (p. 50)

Comments Sections: A Clarification

Nick Bilton: One of the realizations I’ve had about startups is that they take on the DNA of their founding fathers or mothers. Caterina Fake told me when they started Flickr that they wanted it to be a pleasant experience and a happy platform. So with the first few thousand photographs that were up there, all the employees at Flickr wrote all these really nice notes. Even if it wasn’t the most beautiful photo, they’d say, This is the most beautiful photo I’ve ever seen. I love the framing. It created, from the beginning, this very happy place.

There are many true things in Nick’s statement in an article about Twitter in Fast Company. We very consciously created the comments section of Flickr, we did want Flickr to be a happy place, and for a long time it was. We wanted people to behave in a civilized way, and they did. We did not want to comments to devolve into glib pronouncements, snarky putdowns and ad hominem attacks as they so often do. We wanted real connection, appreciation and human flourishing.

However, we never exhorted people to say something was beautiful that was not beautiful, and Flickr, and I, and the team were all deeply committed to the idea that you honor the wholeness of people, and that your comments be thoughtful. The team was encouraged to participate in all the conversations, because it is the founding team that determines how the software will behave, who set the tone, define the limits of what is tolerated on the service, which I wrote about in Wired.

The idea was the opposite of blanketing the comments sections with compliments, superlatives or “Likes”.  We tried to think about the photos we were looking at. Say something thoughtful. And that was what we were with great effort building into Flickr’s comments sections, which can easily become transactional, liking, and hearting,”Great!””Beautiful”,”Love it”! and on to more liking and hearting. Thinking about things takes time. It’s a slower internet. It’s a better internet.

Social Peacocking and the Shadow

I’ve long spoken of the idea that much social media has turned into “social peacocking” — showing yourself in a favorable light online, presenting only the happy moments, a “highlights reel” of your life, so to speak, and how this leads to FOMO in others. Look at me: here I am doing cool things, in interesting places, with beautiful people. This has always given me some pause. When I look at Flickr and Findery, two social media companies I’ve built, they are not, I hope, venues for presenting the air-brushed version of one’s life. So many of the new social networks seem to encourage it. They seem pretty, but shallow.

It occurred to me that the real problem was not the showing off. The eminence grise that was Carl Jung showed us what can happen to those who stay on the sunny side, and only on the sunny side of life. Jung posited the idea of The Shadow, the dark side of one’s character. The Shadow is not only what is evil, but what is petty, selfish, childish, annoying, and usually unconscious. The more a person acknowledges his shadow, and brings it into consciousness, the healthier and more whole the person will be. But if driven underground and sent into hiding, The Shadow will take on a life of its own, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ursula LeGuin wrote a magnificent essay, “The Child and the Shadow” (which I collected quotes from last year), in which she discusses the fairy tale “The Shadow” by Hans Christian Anderson. In the story a man allows his shadow to leave him, and the shadow goes on to live its own life, without the positive side of its character. Eventually the Shadow has grown strong, and the man has grown weak, and the Shadow come back and murders the man. LeGuin writes:

If the ego “is weak, or if it’s offered nothing better, what it does is identify with the “collective consciousness.” That is Jung’s term for a kind of lowest common denominator of all the little egos added together, the mass mind, which consists of such things as cults, crees, fads, fashions, status-seeking, conventions, received beliefs, advertising, pop cult, all the isms, all the ideologies, all the hollow forms of communication and “togetherness” that lack real communion or real sharing. The ego, accepting these empty forms, becomes a member of the “lonely crowd”. To avoid this, to attain real community, it must turn inward, away from the crowd, to the source: it must identify with its own deeper regions, the great unexplored regions of the Self. These regions of the psyche June calls the “collective unconscious,” and it is in them, where we all meet, that he sees the source of true community; of felt religion; of art, grace, spontaneity, and love.

Social peacocking is life on the internet without the shadow. It is an incomplete representation of a life, a half of a person, a fraction of the wholeness of a human being. It’s the lonely crowd, the network and society, and not the community, as Tonnies would have it. As Jyri Engestrom observed, it’s implied in Google’s mantra “Don’t Be Evil.” That’s the Yang without the Yin. We have to bring The Shadow back into our technology if we are to live there and find our humanity reflected back to us. In our strivings to be better, we must not forget to be whole.

Parenting, Communities and Crime

I came across a 1995 article by David T. Lykken attempting to make the case – both sensible and crazy – that society should require parents to be licensed before they can have children, an argument propounded by a libertarian, not a totalitarian, if I am understanding the last paragraph. John Stuart Mill is utilized for choice quotes, and a lot of interesting statistics about criminality are bandied about. Blame for the rise in the number of delinquents, punks and desperadoes is put on the shoulders of absent dads, single moms, and incompetent parents, as you would expect. Lykken is known for his work in twin studies, and lie detection.

1995 is the middle of a precipitous decline of crime in America, rather than an explosion of rape and murder, but such things are difficult to see as they are occurring.

crime rates falling 1990s

This graph is from Steven Levitt’s famous article, later developed into the bestseller “Freakonomics”, linking legalized abortion and the drop in crime. With Levitt, the bad-parents-create-bad-children argument is implied.

This is all interesting stuff. However, I found the most interesting part of the Lykken article to be a paragraph in the middle, about the role of community in shoring up poor parenting. It takes a village, after all:

Good parents, who are able to maintain the affection and respect of their children and whose offspring admire them and value their good opinion, can be reasonably certain that their values and ways of socialized behaving will be adopted by the next generation. The children of less effective, less competent parents will be more likely to adopt the customs and values of the peer group. [Small, close-knit] communities will achieve the same result. In urban or suburban communities, the offspring…will be somewhat more at risk…as the community grows in size and in mutual estrangement, the likelihood increases that there will be a few neglected, undisciplined or feral children in the peer group-faux-adult role models to whom a child not closely tied to home and parents may be drawn, and by whom that child will be influenced….we can reasonably conjecture that the relative importance of the peer group in shaping the values and behaviors of a given child is inversely proportional to the competence of that child’s parents.

I am interested in this because I am wondering how a community can grow to be “small and close knit” in an urban setting, since, the future is urban:

urbanization by continent

And it is not only urban, but peer-oriented and media-oriented, rather than family- or community-oriented. I think that Lykken was right about a lot of things – we seem to have created a veritable garden of sociopathy – but wrong about the solution. Licensing parents implies an Orwellian state. Lykken suggests parents who parent without a license would be implanted with antifertility drugs, sent to institutions to learn parenting…No, no.

A less fraught, more effective and scalable way to help society raise healthy, sane children would be to figure out how to support the creation and maintenance of communities.