Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Self-Righteousness


A couple of weeks ago, when I attended the annual meeting of the Georgia Sociological Association, I ran into a familiar challenge.  It was discouraging, but not overwhelming.  Don’t get me wrong; I love the organization and most of its members.  Nevertheless my colleagues left-leaning attitudes can be discomfiting.
Let me explain.  This year I came in a bit late to a workshop on applied sociology.  Those in the room were already discussing the best ways to bring social activism into the classroom.  For them, this meant figuring out how to promote social justice.
Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but this is not my style.  All too often, I am a provocateur.  And so I raised my hand and suggested that many liberals tend to be self-righteous.  In doing so, it was as if I had thrown a bomb into their midst.
All of a sudden everyone rose to his or her feet to tell me I was wrong.  The decibel level rose to unseemly heights for an academic gathering, as I was vigorously instructed about the error of my ways. 
My response was that the vociferousness of their reaction proved my point.  Had they not felt threatened by the potential truth of my words, they would not have been as emotionally aroused.
Of course, no one heard what I said.  They were too busy making certain that I was not allowed to continue my remarks.  In other words, self-righteous people do not want to be confronted with their self-righteousness.  Just check-out the mainstream press.
In sociology, the left-leaning consensus is so all-encompassing that people regularly expect their opinions to be reinforced.  So frequently is this the case that they regard dissent as evidence of a mental shortcoming.
Mind you, most of us think we are right.  We do not welcome criticism because we are sure it is undeserved.  Whether we are liberal or conservative, we would not believe what we do if we did not assume it was correct.
Nevertheless, there are degrees of certitude.  Some people are far more rigid in their viewpoints than others.  As it happens, many liberals and progressives are today especially inflexible in their perspectives.  They seldom brook principled disagreement.
To hear some leftists tell it, they are never wrong.  Whenever one of their programs fails to live up to the advance billing, they blame it on the opposition.  Whether this pertains to the economy, foreign affairs, or Obamacare, it is conservatives who obviously prevented success.
As far as these progressives are concerned, every social problem is created by privileged oppression.  Some elite group has selfishly harmed the poor, minorities or women.  The proper corrective is therefore to counteract these bad guys.  Often this entails purging of them from the community.
Those, who are so convinced, are blind to the myriad complications of human endeavors.  They do not see the subtleties.  Be they proponents of social justice or religious fundamentalism, they cannot accept alternate explanations.
Oliver Crowell, when he was disputing with the Scottish Presbyterians, declared “I beseech thee, in the bowels of Christ, think you may be mistaken.”  Of course, his opponents came to no such conclusion.  The result was a war that left Scotland badly damaged.
Crowell, on the other hand, although he could be stiff-necked, was frequently prepared to modify his course as the circumstances demanded.  This made him effective on the battlefield and in Parliament.
Being ready to imagine that others have a valid point is essential to correcting our errors.  We don’t have to agree with these folks, but there is generally a reason they believe as they do.  Being prepared to recognize this often enables us to see where our own position might be strengthened.
Nowadays the extent of our collective confusions is such that our anxieties have stimulated a rash of moralistic posturing.  Many of us are not sure of the answers so we conceal our discomfort by pretending that we know everything anyone needs to know.  This is a dangerous form of self-delusion.
Strong people can accept their limitations.  They can live with their inability to understand or control events.  This furnishes them with the flexibility to roll with the punches.  Too bad political suppleness is currently in short supply.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Complete Georgia: Completely Mistaken


The pressure is less than it once was, but Georgia colleges and universities are still being asked to graduate students as quickly as possible.  One of the measures of success is the percentage of students who complete their degrees in four years.
This is a mistake.  Indeed it is a profound mistake.  Part of the impetus is to save money, yet another is apparently to improve the quality of education.  Unfortunately in the long run it does neither.
As is well known, there is a robust correlation between economic success and a college degree.  As a result, this credential is often regarded as magical.  It is thought to be especially useful to students who come from straitened circumstances.  This is to be their ticket to social mobility.
This, however, confuses a piece of paper with an appropriate education.  As I have been telling my students, the three most important things they should get from college are an ability to read, to write and to organize.  These will later enable them to be self-directed in the workplace.
Nonetheless, these abilities are not acquired merely by sitting in classrooms.  Unless students have the proper orientation, many do as little reading, writing, and organizing as they can.  Only with time, do some of the least prepared among them go through the necessary emotional transition.
Let me be blunt.  Students who are the first in their families to go to college are entering an unfamiliar world.  The values to which they are being exposed may be very different from the ones they experienced at home.  This, in part, requires an adjustment in deeply entrenched attitudes.
Few personal transformations are as difficult.  This one often requires a major reorganization in self-identity.  Huge shifts in dealing with others are also in store.  These are not just cognitive modifications.  For many, they involve emotional traumas.
If this is true, a rigid timetable is an impediment to change.  It forces students to work at a pace with which they may not be at ease.  The upshot is additional anxiety that can slow their personal growth.
Sometimes people imagine that the only thing happening on college campuses is a transfer of information from professors to students.  At least as important is the interaction between students.  Especially when they are from different backgrounds, these voluntarily exchanges can herald a crucial modification in their approach to life.
Why would we want to stop this from happening?  What is gained by artificially speeding up the learning process?  Will graduates be better equipped for life because they finished their schooling a semester or two earlier?
This world can be confusing.  There are so many moving parts, it is difficult to keep track.  Moreover, it is often impossible to predict when a critical insight will arrive.  Why then do we want to put our students in a straightjacket?  Shouldn’t they be allowed to decide when they are ready to move forward?
The irony is that it is the poor and minorities who are hurt most by undue haste.  As Sander and Taylor, the authors of the book Mismatch, discovered, when students feel uncomfortable they are least likely to live up to their potential.  They begin to doubt their abilities and withdraw from the fray.
Colleges are bad at fostering emotional development.  This was never their historical mandate.  But in a society encouraging social justice, growing up may be more important than learning calculus or becoming proficient in French.  It may be what the young need if they are to compete on an even footing.
Richard Nixon was much maligned when he recommended “benign neglect” in dealing with race relations.  Nonetheless, his point was that if we don’t know how to fix something, it might be better to stand back and permit those involved to figure out what needs to be done.
Maybe the same is true for our colleges.  Given that academics don’t always know how to facilitate learning for every student, perhaps they should stand back and permit many of their charges to do this for themselves.
The ancient Greeks warned of the dangers of personal hubris.  Perhaps there is also institutional hubris.  When colleges imagine that they are able to control more than they can, they accomplish less than they might.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Washington versus Marx


When liberals decided to tear down the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville Virginia, conservatives wondered where it would end.  Would anyone who had anything to do with slavery also be subjected to historical revision?  It did not take long to find out.
The slippery slope they feared turned out to be remarkably slick.  They had speculated about whether national icons such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would be excised from the panoply of American heroes.  The answer was Yes!  Within, what seemed like hours, Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln likewise joined the ranks of the dispossessed.
Columbus, of course, was blamed for every atrocity ever committed against Native Americans.  Not a word, however, was spoken against those once called Indians because they were regarded as innocent victims.  That the Aztecs slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Mesoamericans, while the Lakota virtually wiped out the Mandan, was passed over in silence.
As for Lincoln, he was insufficiently pure on race relations.  Despite freeing the slaves, he had the temerity to believe blacks were inferior.  The question was consequently who would be virtuous enough to satisfy the champions of political correctness?
Some suggested we needed to look to Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  Yet this would never do.  Erecting public statues to them would violate the separation of church and state.  So would monuments dedicated to Mohammed or Moses.
So what about a largely unacknowledged liberal hero?  Should likenesses of Karl Marx be set on pedestals once reserved for Stonewall Jackson?  Should a plaque praising his colleague Friedrich Engels be placed in the Alexandria church that considered one commemorating its former parishioner George Washington too offensive?
I doubt this will happen once opposition researchers dig into Marx’s actual legacy.  People will discover that although Marx’s family had originally been Jewish, he was a virulent anti-Semite.  He also had a lower opinion of black intellects than did Lincoln.
What then of other political leaders?  We can immediately rule out most conservatives.  Leftists will point out that they are mean-spirited and lacking in compassion.  This removes Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from the realm of possibles.  And forget about Richard Nixon.
So what about liberals and progressives?  Sorry!  Franklin Roosevelt cheated on his wife.  So did John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton.  Consistent feminists should therefore find them unacceptable.  As for Harry Truman, he did not have a college degree and, what is worse, once flirted with the KKK.
Does this mean we will be forced to celebrate the likes of Susan B. Anthony?  Many women may not object, but was she such a decisive figure in our shared past that she merits top billing?
So how about Martin Luther King?  Oh, I forgot, he also cheated on his wife.  When then about Booker T. Washington?  Too bad he is often regarded an Uncle Tom.  Meanwhile W.E.B. DuBois took himself out of the running when he became an ardent Stalinist.
This is getting to be ridiculous.  Where are the perfect people?  Where are the ones, who are so beyond reproach, as to be worthy of commemoration?  A colleague of mine believes he found one.  He wore a Che Guevara t-shirt to school on the assumption that he was an uncontaminated hero.  I guess the thousands Che murdered do not warrant sympathy.
The point is that historical figures—if they are human—are invariably flawed.  If we require the airbrushed pulchritude of a Playboy centerfold, we will be looking a long time for someone better than Washington.  For goodness sake, in addition to establishing the foundation for our democracy, he liberated his slaves in his will.
The trouble is that many political activists know next to nothing about history.  Indeed, they remind me of a majority of college students.  I recall one who, after I discussed Jack Kennedy, informed me about that other Kennedy president, namely John Kennedy.
History is complicated.  Those who populated it were not saints.  Nevertheless, we do not honor outstanding figures because they were.  Rather, we commemorate their accomplishments.  They are symbolic of the deeds to which we would like our children to aspire.
Shouldn’t that be enough?
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University

Lessons from Cordele


Race relations are churning.  Scarcely a day goes by when some white person is not accused of white supremacy.  Although many people are tired of the racial backbiting, they are also afraid of the repercussions of being totally candid.
This reality is what made my attendance that the recent Georgia Sociological meeting at the Blackshear Lake Resort so refreshing.  It exposed me to what many black college students are thinking.
But first let me say a few words about the virtues of candor.  Almost everyone is aware that troubled race relations are endemic to America.  Even most Southerners are anxious to solve this lingering dilemma.
The trouble is that political correctness prevents us from discussing embarrassing issues.  Whenever we come upon a topic that might be construed as making African-Americans look bad, we are required to hold our tongues.  Instead of dealing with difficult questions, we sweep them under the rug.
Nevertheless, as should be obvious, that which is unseen remains unremedied.  The dirt that lies hidden below the carpet does not go away.  It attracts bugs and mold that compound the nastiness.  The same is true of social problems when we pretend they do not exist.
This is why my experience in South Georgia was so rewarding.  Aside from the ever-present gnats, the conference attendees from a historically black college made the trip worthwhile.  They renewed my faith in the courage of the young.
Let me begin by laying out the problem.  Today nearly half of all American children are born out of wedlock.  In addition, single parents raise the vast majority of them.  This is problematic in that youngsters so raised are at a disadvantage.  They are less well educated, prone to health difficulties, and eventually unemployed.
To make matters worse, these offspring are concentrated among the poor and minorities.  As a result, they inherit the disorganized lifestyles of their parents.  They too have difficulty creating stable families and, as a result, are prey to emotional instability.
Unfortunately, these disagreeable consequences disproportionately afflict the black community.  Here nearly three out of four children are born to unmarried parents, while divorce and cohabitation are rampant.
The black students I met in Cordele understood this all too well.  They were quite familiar with the communities from which they sprung.  Most were similarly aware of the struggles inherent in being raised by a lone parent.
In fact, one of the main reasons they were attending college was to rise above this.  They were convinced that a college education would help, and also mindful that a stable interpersonal relationship might ease their path and that of their offspring.
Moreover, because they were immersed in the dating scene, they could not help but wonder how to establish a committed heterosexual bond.  How were they to choose the right partner or develop long-lasting attachments?  All too cognizant of the way sexual promiscuity undermines faithfulness, could they avoid the pitfalls?
As a result, the students I talked to were investigating the campus hook-up scene.  They were also asking what it took to find a loyal mate.  More specifically, they were exploring the nature of sexual dishonesty.
In this, they introduced me to the phase “slut shaming.”  I knew freshmen women were often pressured into having sex.  But as a college professor I also knew the word “slut” was a feminist no-no.  Among themselves, however, these students did not care.  This was what was happening and hence they were prepared to acknowledge it.
They were also honest enough to admit the level of distrust between African-American men and women.  In addition, they knew first-hand that this was a barrier to achieving steadfast unions.  Pretending it was not so would not help overcome this difficulty.
It takes courage to confront unpleasant obstacles.  It takes even more courage to scrutinize one’s participation in maintaining these impediments.  The students I met possessed this bravery.  They were prepared to forgo blaming others for imposing problems they were responsible for correcting.
What about the rest of us?  Will we ever be honest about race?  Will we ever get beyond the blame game?  There is more than enough culpability to go around, but this will not fix what is broken.  Only a clear-eyed admission of what is wrong can begin that process.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D.
Professor of Sociology

Kennesaw State University