Philosophy and Civic Engagement | MIT Center for Civic Media

Philosophy and Civic Engagement

Last Friday, April 26, 2013, I attended the Philosophy and Civic Engagement symposium at Tufts University. Three speakers looked at different philosophical aspects of civic engagement: Anthony Laden of the University of Illinois at Chicago discussed the importance of reasoning as a social, interactive practice in democratic citizenship, Meira Levinson of Harvard Graduate School of Education investigated the pros and cons of redefining civic action beyond public activities, and Peter Levine of Tufts University and CIRCLE discussed the philosophical aspects of his forthcoming book: We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Below are my notes from their talks.

Tufts Symposium Flyer

Anthony Laden: "Taking the Engagement in Civic Engagement Seriously" 
Laden's talk was a based on a paper of the same name he wrote last year (downloadable here). He began by offering a definition of and function for philosophy which motivates his work. He said philosophers are conceptual optometrists, who switch between (conceptual) lenses to observe the world -- focusing on certain things, occluding others. And he stressed that philosophizing should not be theory construction but lenscrafting.

Then we dug into the civic engagement gap. Specifically, Laden broke this down into four forms of "democratic erosion:"

  1. Indifference: not voting or getting involved in civic orgs
  2. Active Egoism: actively engaged individuals only advancing their own narrow interests, e.g. voting for party that will make me richer, essentially politics becomes competitive lobbying
  3. Empowerment Gaps: some people lacking access to levers of power, which results in unequal or different versions of working toward the common good
  4. Attitudes Failing to Regard Others as Citizens: not thinking of other citizens as coequal with us but rather deserving of our pity or condescension, e.g. kids working in a soup kitchen can reinforce pity rather than thinking about underlying inequalities

He posited that civic engagement is a response to democratic erosion, which can be unhealthy if they don't acknowledge all four forms of erosion. Furthermore, we can fail to teach future generations about how to be citizens if we ignore these forms.

At this point we pivoted to focusing on the quality of engagement, which Laden argued is more than just "action" -- i.e. doing something rather than just learning about laws and democracy. Engagement involves interaction, two things coming together to form engagement. Here Laden draws on the definition of reasoning he developed in his book Reasoning: A Social Picture. There are two activities we can consider "reasoning:"

  1. Calculating, i.e. arriving at judgements, where the aim is to find a conclusion, and where there is nothing inherently social about the practice even if you working with others
  2. As a Mode of Interaction, i.e. cases where we are simply talking to each other, where there is reciprocity, we hear what the other is saying, no goal is necessary.

This second mode is the social practice of reasoning. It's deeply democratic, others are free to disagree with you; we treat each other as citizens.
We reason together by responding in certain ways, both sides are listening and moving from position to position, but not necessarily trying to persuade the other person. The norms of responsiveness in this practice including roaming freely through topics, conversing not lecturing, and not needing to find common ground. Laden said that engagement happens one step beyond this, in "reasoned engagement" where we have a tighter set of norms in which we are trying to find common grand, a place to stand together. The reasons to for engaged reasoning maybe because we want to reach a joint decision or because we care about the topic and what the other person to care about it too, or because we care about the other person and we are eager for them to accept our positions as valid.

For "engaged reasoning" we are focusing on the "we" reasons: finding invitations that the other can accept, looking for that common ground, responding to reactions appropriately, and willing to be vulnerable, to be moved by what the other person says. Laden stresses, "For civic engagement we need to build trust and establish conditions where that trust is safe."

Using this definition of civic engagement as reasoned engagement, engaged citizens are specifically responsive to the four types of erosion. This forces us to think about "civic" differently too, Laden said. Should civic programs focus on politics? Here we can cue concerns about politics in the classroom and its usual fallback on "social" aspects of civics.

Here Laden argued that his definition of civic engagement is holistic. All forms of reasoned engagement are civic because they are democratic -- they involve treating each other as citizens. This means civic education can take the form of not just civics class but "proto-civic activities," which develop the skill of engaged reasoning: Model UN and student government (they look fake but they teach us these skills of reasoned engagement). And most of the traditional liberal arts education, like philosophy, language, and sciences, serve as civic development in these forms because students are taught to be responsive to things other than themselves. Laden argued these are civic lessons and though we do need to go beyond that to actually engaging with other citizens, it starts there.

In this definition, the question "Should we civically engage or not?" is moot. Civic engagement is the process of living with each other. The question is then, "Will we engage democratically or not?"

During the Q&A, Lionel McPherson pointed out that Laden's erosion metaphor suggested that we had a starting point that was on firmer ground in American Democracy. Instead, McPherson said he saw these forms of erosion as different barriers to engagement. Each represent fundamental (structural) inequalities, which means that we shouldn't be optimistic that a different type of engagement will solve these problems. Laden responded by suggesting that the language of "invigoration" of civic engagement is enough without the erosion metaphor. He also pointed out that reasoning offers a certain way of responding to another that other philosophies would suggest is impossible to those that were "beyond the pale," i.e. those unwilling to find common ground. Laden hopes the practice and education of using reasoned engagement might engender the conditions on which this would be successful.

Meira Levinson said she wasn't sure deliberation had a lot to do with certain examples of civic campaigns, for example Gay Marriage over the past several decades. She asked: if you have kids in school for a limited amount of time and are concerned with overcoming these forms of democratic erosion, is it most efficient to focus on this form of engagement than other types of civic actions? And is it fair to teach that to those kids suffering under these problems? Laden responded by saying that teaching skills in school is for engendering those skills that kids wouldn't learn at home. Privileged and underprivileged kids might have different skill needs for ensuring that they can engage with in fully democratic ways. He agreed that he didn't think about Gay Marriage in terms of debates, but he did think it had to do with people coming to see others as equal and worthy citizens. Act Up! was a performance of identity that's an offer to response. Levinson countered that if that counts as engagement, it seems rather attenuated since Act Up! was not looking to move its position or compromise. Laden said it might be in part relative to the nature of the claim.

Another audience member said they were always concerned by the use "We." Who should we be democratic with right now? She didn't want to open the gates to all positions. Also, finding common ground is an important part of social movements (often consensus-based) -- but these cases involve people who are already sharing common principles. This seems like the only viable "we," a kind of "local we." Laden responded that "local we's" are likely test cases, in which we learn to think beyond ourselves and can then help us get to a wider "we" appreciation and respect level.

Carmen Sirianni asked, "How do we build trust?" Bonds of trust are important contexts in which to have uncomfortable conversations. We have 1000s of examples of bipartisan projects built on enough trust for folks to work together. How do we build trust? As a progressive, Sirianni felt we need to generally believe "citizens should pay for what they want." Laden said he was exploring the idea of trust as a form of reasoning, but is not sure it works yet. He gave the example of the Oslo Peace Accords, which were structured such that participants were living, dining, etc. together in and out of negotiations. Laden also cited Danielle Allen's work on Talking with Strangers, specifically the idea of the centrality of sacrifice in democracy.

Another audience member brought up feminist philosophy's failure to adopt Laden's functional definition of cultural optometry. She gave the example of sexual objectification (a term from feminism) that could be sliced into a tree of examples representing different shades of bad (she cited Martha Nussbaum's article on objectification). Laden responded that this was exactly why he doesn't practice philosophy as theory construction. We don't have facts as philosophers, our value is in changing the way we look at facts. The audience member continued by bringing up Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex for its use of thick description with a little bit of reflective shaping as an example of how philosophy could read the world through facts. Laden offered up a similar example, from a Massachusetts Review piece on soldier's suffering "moral injury:" caused by participating in activities you would otherwise morally condemn. Afghanistan and Iraq are occupations, and what we do in occupations is morally different: otherwise friendly actions are now symbols of your overwhelming power in an occupation.

The final question was about implementation, "How are you going to get young people to adopt your reasoning in conversation practice?" Laden's flip answer was by convincing their teachers to do it. His real answer was that this is something that we already do. He cited Danielle Allen's Talking with Strangers again, and said that it's not that you can't have a goal as part of reasoned engagement. You might do it through project that has a goal. And part of how we measure ourselves will be completing the project, and part will be by doing it through this process of engagement.

Meira Levinson: "Redefining Civic Action"
Levinson starts by saying that the goal of the talk is to in some ways undermine the philosophy behind her recent book No Citizen Left Behind and present a question she has been struggling with.

Levinson's book is about how the civic empowerment gap is undemocratic and illegitimate. Schools have a role and responsibility to eliminate the civic empowerment gap and are well placed as public institutions that reach a large population of the US population. And because both public and private schools are quite segregated, they have a powerful role to play in overcoming civic empowerment gap by enabling targeted education for general populations of privileged or underprivileged, white or diverse populations.

Part of that education is developing "double-consciousness," or the ability for students to see themselves as others do. Levinson quickly adds that she still stands by all those bits in her book. However, she feels she that the book blazed through the actual definition of civic engagement, adopting the definition from the Civic Mission of School report (pdf).

To elaborate where she was coming from, she said that she used to call the problem the "civic achievement gap." But that suggests elites and their brand of civic action are the epitome of civic engagement. Also, by using "gap" you are suggesting that undereducated folks are not doing valuable civic work, possibly dismissing other forms of civic action than traditional measures of civic actions. So we miss valuable practices like hip hop, protest, and others.

She's been looking at the Spencer Foundation's definition of civic action for funding projects. But right now has nothing specific to replace the old definition of civic action -- her motivation for the talk. She begins instead by framing the importance of carefully defining civic action.

She argued that defining civic action matters because it shapes:

  1. What we choose to study (popular culture versus democratic principles)
  2. How we choose to enable others to act (community service reqs versus social media reqs)
  3. How we judge others (what is deficit)
  4. How we ourselves are judged (insider/outsider status, i.e.)
  5. Impact on world

Levinson said the "schematic history" of civic action starts with "Politics," which means essentially voting. It later evolved to mean both voting and government. The critiques of civic action simple equaling political action include:

  • prioritizing formal, public spaces over informal, private spaces (feminist critique)
  • offering student conception of levers of power
  • excluding those who can't participate in government
  • reinforcing limited power of individuals and nonpolitical groups (irrational to vote)
  • emphasizing knowledge over action
  • reinforcing the status quo

The educational consequences of civic action political action, she said is "Old School Civics," a not been particularly empowering framing of civics with empty ideas like "You can all become President."

The latest evolution in civic action's schematic history is a definition incorporatined by Politics and Civil Society, to include government, the voluntary sector, economic sector, faith-based work, and other collective efforts. According to Levinson, this counters some of the critiques of the previous civic action = political action formula:

  • Includes both formal, public spaces and informal, private spaces
  • Expands scope
  • Includes those who can't participate in government (felons, minors, etc.)
  • Acknowledges power of individuals and nonpolitical groups
  • Emphasizes action
  • Possible to challenge the status quo

It also leads to a more civically empowering form of education, offering opportunities for power analysis, social activism, media literacy and production, organizing and collective action, and political engagement.

Yet, we are still focus on the public actions and contexts. The Spencer Foundation's functional defintion of civic action is that it "addresses systematic or social issues, or power relations, the action is in some way, public." In this case civic action as public action means either it's 1) conducted in public, or 2) conducted for public purposes.

Here Levinson offered a set of critiques of civic action as purely public actions, insisting that civic action take place in public fails to account for:

  • The civic significance of actions that remain hidden, transgressive, where publicity might result in punishment, failure (e.g. negotiating between groups), or inauthenticity (e.g. artistic and cultural expression)
  • The collapse of public/private distinction brought on by new technologies, i.e. private can be (and is) perpetually publicized or virtual worlds that are both private and public (e.g. civic practices in virtual worlds: teaching community spirit in games)
  • The fragmentation of shared public sphere into self-contained publics, i.e. physical, social, technological segregation, or the invisibility of some publics to others (e.g. Google gives different results to different people based on prior behavior that we don't realize; how do we recognize the role of the old woman that cooks food for others on sundays and has a strong moral role in community that is a public good but isn't a public outcome?)
  • The co-optation of public sphere by private interests

Furthermore, she claimed that insisting that civic action take place for public purposes:

  • Subjects individuals' internal cognitive states to public judgment (e.g. we look at who puts forward a proposal than the substance of it)
    • focusing debate (and attack) on actors' good faith rather than good works
    • rewarding dissembling about intentions
    • devaluing unfamiliar perspectives that are hence seen as partisan or self--interested
  • Privileges elite members of elite groups, thereby
    • reinforcing the need for leisure time to focus on public needs
    • idealizing noblesse oblige like civic actions that address sufferings of others rather than combating injustices faced by self/kin (e.g. we don't credit the Sandy survivor who keeps their nephews and nieces who lost their house to live with them out of the FEMA trailers)

Essentially, public action is culturally specific to non-solidaristic groups and particular definitions of self/kin/other. Rather, we should be respecting things like African-American idea of education that you educate yourself to fulfill your family's vision of racial uplift).

Weaking the the public dimension of civic action has educational ramifications too, said Levinson. On the positive side, it makes civic action more culturally congruent, it promotes solidarity, makes it more "relevant," allows it to be responsive to new technology, it positions students as having assets to share, and helps position education as tool for civic transformation, not simply personal escape. This finaly point is an important research interest of Levinson's, as she worries that we currently position education purely as a way underprivileged youth can escape poverty and heritage.

The negative side of weaking the role of public action includes the possibility of muddling an already opaque concept and leading to a lack of standards. Without a new definition to offer, Levinson worries this could result in no civic education whatsoever, and undermining the importance of public action as the key to civic empowerment that it is.

She concluded by asking us for help. "Assuming my critique is valid, what definition of civic action can/should we adopt instead? What normative, educational, and policy consequences follow? Are these desirable? If not, then what?""

Q&A began with a request from McPherson to Levinson's to elaborate on her concern over the discourse of personal escape surrounding education? She responded that personal escape rhetoric reinforces the assumption that the hood can't be transformed into a safe place. She thinks that to the extent that we educate kids to believe their only option is to escape, we will always have kids coming through who need to escape rather than teaching them the skills to engage in social strengthening and transformation so that one doesn't need to escape from there. Levinson also believes it does violence to kids and families: we tell low income kids of promise that as long as they are willing to leave behind those they love and the places they come from for a place that is unfamiliar, then they can succeed. Levinson thinks as these kids become adults they are permanently stuck between worlds. If they go back religiously and hang out with their mom then tragically they are treated as outsiders. Kids should have aspirations to succeed and not be exiled from their families, friends, and home.

Carmen Sirianni brought up the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, where they construct public policy and civic action at the local level to make a better community. Their civic actions were about trying to instill the value that they can be part of the change in their community.

Peter Levine added that you can have more or less of a public voice, in a way that could be persuasive to someone near to you, citing a paper he wrote for an edited volume (pdf). There are forms of communication that are very narrow and legible, like the ribbons in Dorchester which are quite powerful. We want kids to potentially write a NY Times op-ed, but ribbons are more legible to people than tweets. Levine said when he teaches Habermas, he stresses that Life World tweets are the least legible, whereas public sphere tweets are the most legible (i.e. those with a headline and link). It's important to teach students to not only do the pure life world stuff; there is continuum of what you can do and who you can reach. Levinson responded with curiosity about the role of generalizability.

Another audience member pointed out that some people are drawn to the notion of civic action because there is a certain neutrality of it, and that it seemed like Levinson was interested in actions largely for social change, or collaboration for social change. So what's wrong with change or social change? Levinson replied that she tends to stay away from "change" because it's quite self-satisfying. For instance, the language of the left is justice and the right is freedom. Returning to the FEMA trailers example, she painted the picture of a mother watching my kids asthma get worse, and starting to get angry and fighting against that. It might have a really positive knock on affect that through this, the mother publicizes the air quality in FEMA trailers that helps not only my kids but other kids. It brings on a change. She thinks there is something really powerful in fighting against the injustice that you yourself face.

Attempting to help Levinson answer her talk's questions, Anthony Laden suggested a third dimension to publicity, not just in public or for public but the awareness of public systems and ramifications of actions. They brought up James Tully's work Public Philosophy in a New Key

Carmen Sirianni finished off the session by bringing up the difficulty of defining what is a public good. There are many choices, routes of exits and who is paying for what. The more complex we get as a society, the more sophisticated we have to get with how we define our public goods. Levinson interjected the example of Boston is one of the few districts in the country to offer free pre-K to most applicants. Sirianni continued that in the Hampton, Virginia system of civic engagement he's studied, you have adult practitioners whose job it is to connect one form of civic action to another -- there is a developmental perspective here that might be valuable.

Peter Levine: "The Moral Core of Citizenship: Deliberation plus collaboration and civic relationships" 
Levine's talk had two parts, the first involved challenging social science's relationship with public policy. The second half focused on the role of deliberation in citizenship.

He began by articulating a strawman model of social science and public policy:

  • We try to figure out descriptive and causal truths
  • We all have (unavoidable) biases which limit and undermine the "truth"
  • We add value judgments on top of social science: opinions/preferences/values
  • These result in policy recommendations
  • Someone can take strategic action based on the recommendations
  • And we get change

The problems he identified with this are several and cyclical:

  • Norms are also` truth claims (e.g. I must not kill someone)
  • Data are imbued with norms (e.g. education is related to employment and we measure years in school, but what is that a proxy for?)
  • Empirical information influences our norms (e.g. the problem of ought => can and can => ought)
  • Strategic considerations should influence norms (e.g. everyone has a right to a job could hurt more if we have no normative grounding)
  • Strategy influences empirical evidence

Levine argued that a better model would include Strategy, Normative argument, and Empirical evidence as equal elements in social science for public policy. They key addition here is strategy. He asked what if we took very seriously the question, "What should we do?" and not just with personal and close community change, but rather connecting our thinking to large scale reforms to constitute a civic strategy. Levine believes this is as relevant as normative argument and empirical evidence but much less studied.

At this point, Levine turned to defining citizenship as a particular formula or engagement within a cyclical model of the processes and elements of democracy.

Levine's Model

In the model, citizenship is a combination of deliberation + collaboration + civic relationships. Deliberation means talking to others, making oneself accountable, finding common ground, forming our own views (following closely Anthony Laden's form of reasoned engagement). Self-interest is relevant here, goals and values are open to change, and you can build legitimacy in a way that negotiation cannot. Collaboration is people making things of public value together, and Civic Relationships are the creation relationships based on loyalty trust and hope.

This definition of engaged citizenship should lead to good government and strong communities, and thereby social justice. Here Levine says the empirical task of his book is to show that this form of engagement can lead to better outcomes. Finally, these better outcomes lead in positive cycle back up to a movement for citizenship, comprising grassroots organizing and political reform, which trickles down into citizenship and engagement.

Levine said in the research for his book he estimated 1 million Americans are at work demanding local, effective forms of civic engagement.

Diving deeper on the role of deliberation, Levine brought up the America Speaks model of deliberation, with its neutral goal and representative demography. Levine has sat on their board for years but pointed out the severe limitations of the model:

  • Talk alone rarely improves the world
  • Very few people want to talk and listen unless doing so leads to relationships and action
  • We don't know enough by merely talking
  • Deliberation without collaboration is meaningless, collaboration without deliberation is blind
  • There is lack of motivation to do this
  • It's fragile because the government requesting input is not always reliable (e.g. could be unelected)

Town halls are valuable but are sometimes magnets for marginal viewpoints. In 2009, James Fishkin's proposed to only do town hall by random invitation to avoid the problem of marginal participants overrepresenting themselves in such fora. (The health care debate was the motivation for Fishkin's piece.) But this is undemocratic if our random selection simply eliminates the marginal voices.

Levine said it's important citizens listen to people different from themselves. There is an art to conversation and its continuation is a sign of success (rather than expediancy). One outcome is an appreciation for another after conversing with them and understanding their perspectives. Saul Alinsky and others have always encouraged 1-on-1 interviews with people for this exact reason.

How does this scale? Levine argued that national conversations are not automatic. Conversations must be related to political and civic issues and must be diverse. Diversity problems according to Levine include simply non-diverse groups, diverse groups that avoid issues to maintain harmony, and groups that seek a narrow consensus.

Levine argued that the bridge in deliberation may be through shared moral concepts. He accepted that although moral concepts are indispensable they are not always empirically or morally clear. His solution is the construction and appreciation of concept networks between facts and moral principles.

To construct this network, Levine says you connect beliefs to others in ways that you are able to explain. The idea being that you can't realy engage me if my beliefs are mostly singleton, unconnected (the "beyond the pale idea" problem from Laden's Q&A). Levine felt that there is a lesson to be learned from robust networks that route around problems. And that if world views are more like networks, forming these moral network maps, we might be about to better respond to skepticism, respect the influence of experience, respond to deep diversity, represent deep social embeddedness (current map looks now more like his fathers than his own when he was child), and overcome limits of expertise.

In the brief Q&A, one audience member remarked on the strategy and civic renewal groups, which Levine agreed is (mistakenly) not part of their current model. Meira Levinson commented on how Levine left strategy behind in the second half of the talk for deliberation and civic relationships, and asked if that was because we often think of strategy as "uncivic?" Are there negative feedback loops about how civic engagement is thought about that leads to the disavowal of strategy? Levine responded that the art of community organizing is about strategy without giving up inclusiveness and deliberation; we should scale that up. The last question was about the ability to fight for rights in his framework. Levine responded by saying that he's all for rights but they should come with a full strategy that goes from the local groups of people like those assembled in the symposium's room to enactment of legislated rights.