One Thing Leads to Another – or Not

Thanks to my pal Jason Nelson-Seawright for sharing this interesting article in the Boston Review about the intellectual history of the term “culture of poverty.” I’m not entirely convinced by the intellectual history part, but that’s much less important than the substance of the arguments at play – pushing back against the idea that behaviors displayed by poor folk are the reason for their poverty. Effects of poverty (dysfunctional forms of behavior) are mistaken for causes.

As Sally Kohn has perceptively noted, disagreements on this point are one of the main things that distinguish conservatives and progressives (the whole piece is worth a read):

Recently, during an appearance on Fox News, I was asked to defend my belief that rich people are not rich simply because they are inherently more talented than nor work harder than everyone else. This belief is the essence of the progressive worldview — the notion that, yes, each of us is different and uniquely talented, but our situations in life are as much defined by our individual effort as by the structures and social conditions of the world around us.

“As much by our individual effort as by social conditions” – that balance is appealing to me. Because it’s one thing to look at macro trends, it’s another to consider individual cases, and even as you’re working to reverse harmful policies that make climbing the ladder of social mobility harder, you want to send a message that it’s still worth trying even if the deck is stacked against you. People need the hopey-changey thing along with their dose of reality.

But the thing I really want to talk about is some of the perspectives that show up in the comments section of the Boston Review article. A steady stream of commenters, a surprising number of them behaving in a civilized fashion, point out that they observe in their daily or even professional lives poor people behaving in ways that contradict their economic or long-term self-interest. “If behavior isn’t culture, then what is?”

I have a few things to say about that, but what strikes me initially is the abstractness of these types of conversations. People seem so ready to opine about the lives and choices of people they’ve never met, and in whose shoes they’ve never walked. Or if they have walked in those shoes, to be even more punitive in mindset (“if I did it, why can’t they?”). The commenters talk about observing individual examples in their daily lives – but systems work in ways that are hard to discern at the individual level. You have to look at patterns over time to see structures at work. But that takes sustained effort, patience, empathy, and imagination, which are in short supply in the public discourse these days.

And what I’m wondering is whether social media paradoxically don’t make such structures harder for the average person to detect. On the one hand, data visualization tools make all kinds of patterns more evident. But the mechanisms behind those patterns, the linkages between individual micro action and aggregate macro trends, are not often elucidated. Part of the genius of Adam Smith, even as troubling as I find market fundamentalism in its various extreme and unfortunately popular forms, is that he laid out the mechanisms.

But I worry that social media are training us to favor the outliers even more than we already do – the driver of virality is the exceptional, the uniquely individual. Or with the “It Gets Better” project, it’s the overwhelming mass of individual expression suddenly aggregated. But where’s that in-between space, where we see the linkages between the individual and the aggregate? I worry that it’s getting crowded out by the modes of viewing, thinking, and perceiving that social media are training us in. Again, not to reverse cause and effect, but there’s a reinforcing dynamic going on here that I find troubling.

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One Response to “One Thing Leads to Another – or Not”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » The Song Remains the Same Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « One Thing Leads to Another – or Not […]

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