New Frontiers Await

When I chose “Posts from the Frontier” as the title for this blog, it indicated my desire to use the blog to explore leading-edge issues in Christianity and American culture on the chronological frontier between the present and the future.  Nevertheless, in recent weeks, when I’ve found myself thinking about the future, I’ve thought much less in terms of big-picture religious and social change and much more in terms of upcoming personal changes in my own future.

This summer will include a number of significant changes for me:  At the end of June, I’ll be marrying my lovely fiancée Allie.  The following month, we’ll move to Ripon, WI, where in August, I’ll begin a new job as the first-ever Pieper Family Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.  All of these transitions are happening as I work on revisions to my dissertation in preparation for finishing my degree late this coming fall.

I am grateful for and excited by all of these changes, but I find that they absorb the majority of my mental attention nowadays and expect that they will continue to do so for some time.  Therefore, I have decided to suspend writing this blog in order to concentrate on these other projects.

I have found blogging an enjoyable and informative experience.  Blogs have proven to be a useful format in which to explore what I’ve found to be interesting intellectual topics.  Therefore, I intend to return to the genre at some point in the future.  If and when I do, I will be sure to let readers of this blog know.  Until then, I thank you all for your interest, support, and comments on the blogs.  I hope what I’ve had to say has made you think.  I know it has made me think.

How my dad has helped me be a better historian

Last week, I talked about how Garrison Keillor has served as a (perhaps unlikely) influence on my work as a historian.  This week, I’d like to talk about another non-historian to influence what I do as a historian: my dad.

My dad has been a local reporter in one way or another for much of his career.  Currently, he runs a news website for my hometown,  Before that, he’d worked in radio and TV reporting (along with other aspects of radio and TV) for years.  While my dad has worked in larger towns such as La Crosse, WI, much of his reporting has been conducted in small towns such as Mauston, WI, and Decorah, IA.

One of the things I enjoyed about my dad working as a reporter growing up is that he knew almost everything that was going on in town, which is easy to do in a small town.  Certainly, he knew whatever news he had reported on the radio or internet, but even better, he usually knew parts of the back story that didn’t get reported.  I learned from hearing the “rest of the story” from my dad in the kitchen.  So in addition to growing up listening to Garrison Keillor tell stories about the goings-on in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, MN, I also grew up listening to my dad tell stories about the real town of Decorah, IA.

As a reporter, dad’s style is much different than Garrison Keillor’s – much shorter and to the point.  But like Garrison Keillor, Dad taught me something about stories.  He taught me to pay attention to not just what’s happening, but why it’s happening and how people react to it.  Many histories focus a lot on events: this happened and then this and then this and then this.  It’s possible to write interesting histories that are mainly about events.  But Dad taught me that what’s really interesting is not just the events themselves but the people involved in the events.  These people have motivations, thoughts, and feelings, and it’s those human aspects of what happen that are usually the more interesting part of the story.  Therefore, I’ve tried to write histories that are not just a catalogue of events, but an explanation of why events occur and how they affect those involved.

My dad also taught me that when talking about the humans involved in events, it’s best to be fair but honest.  Being fair means that you don’t attack people personally in what you say publicly, you don’t report rumors as truths, and you don’t report unflattering things just for curiosity’s sake.  There are historians out there that seem to take delight in making their historical subjects out to be monsters, and I don’t aim to be one of them.  Being honest, however, means that if it’s a matter of public record that someone has done something and there’s a reason for the public to know, then you should report that, even if it does put the person involved in a negative light.  As much as I’m not interested in historical smear campaigns, I aim to avoid hagiography as well and instead be forthright about the good and bad things my historical subjects did.

My dad’s academic background, in addition to journalism, is in political science and sociology, two of the social sciences.  I’m sure that’s where I get some of my interest in the social sciences from, since I’m pretty sure I didn’t get it from my humanities mother.  What Dad really taught me, though, is to pay attention to people, whether as groups or individuals.  And that’s a lesson I try to implement as much as I can in my work.

How Garrison Keillor has helped me be a better historian

I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a historian for the past month or so, especially in light of several conversations I’ve had in a doctoral discussion group of which I’m a part.  Some of my colleagues were affirming my ability as a historian to write about a particular topic but make that topic speak to wider issues.  I was honored to receive the compliment, and it made me think about the influence Garrison Keillor has had on me as a historian.

Garrison Keillor, for those not familiar, is the host of the public radio show “A Prairie Home Companion”.  As part of each show, Keillor does a segment called “The News from Lake Webegon”.  Lake Wobegon is a fictional small town in Minnesota filled with lots of Norwegian Lutherans and German Catholics and other good Midwestern folks.  Having grown up in a similar small, Midwestern town, I’ve listed to a lot of “News from Lake Wobegon” segments over the years.

In each segment, Garrison Keillor tells stories about the activities of Lake Wobegon’s residents over the past week, sometimes branching out in time to tell larger stories.  The stories vary – some are funny, some are sad, some are poignant, some are hopeful, many are a mix of these.  Although each of the stories is about particular details of the lives of particular people in a particular town in a particular part of the world, I have come to realize that Keillor’s gift as a story-teller is that through these particular stories, he’s able to talk about universal aspects of what it means to be human – what it means to love and to experience loss, to laugh and to cry, to lose and to win, to hope and to be disappointed, to live and to die.

I’m sure I’m able to appreciate these stories a bit more coming from a similar cultural background, but I’ve never thought that Keillor’s stories were only for small-town Midwesterners.  Keillor may talk about what it means to be a Midwesterner, but I think for him, that’s only part of a larger picture of what it means to be human.  Part of humanness is particularity, even if that particularity is being a Norwegian bachelor farmer in Minnesota.

While by no means a historian himself, Keillor has provided for me a model to which I’ve aspired in my historical writing.  In my scholarship, I may be writing about particular people in a particular place and time, but I aim to have the history I write really be about what it means to be human.  Even when I’m writing about Methodist missionaries in Singapore in 1885, for instance, I try to find what about those people in that situation reveals something broader about the shared human experience.

And it’s realizing Keillor’s influence on me that has finally convinced me that history really is one of the humanities.  I’m a social historian, and so I draw on the work of sociologists, economists, anthropologists, and other social scientists in my history, and so for some time I’d thought there was an argument to make that history belonged in the social sciences.  I’ve changed my mind, though.  I have accepted for a while now that history is story-telling.  It’s story-telling with some rigorous research and well thought-out methodology behind it, but nonetheless, good history is story-telling.  And I think the best history is telling stories about what it means to be human, just like Garrison Keillor does.  Hence, if history is really about what it means to be human, where else would we put it besides the humanities?  Historians may not be poets or novelists, but if we’re fortunate, we can learn something from our more inventive storytelling colleagues like Garrison Keillor.

Is paying for things you find objectionable a violation of conscience?

The question in the title of this blog has been on my mind for the last week or so in the wake of the health care/birth control debate.  I’m not interested in weighing in on that debate per se, but in linking it to broader questions about individual conscience and the public good.

To review the birth control debate, under President Obama’s new health care plan, churches could be exempted from certain provisions of the law for religious reasons, most notably the requirement to provide insurance that covers contraception, but church-run hospitals, schools, and other institutions that employed people beyond the members of that church were not exempt.  Catholic bishops complained that forcing Catholic schools and hospitals to provide insurance that covered contraception was a violation of Catholic social teaching.  President Obama offered a compromise: insurance companies serving such hospitals and colleges would be required to provide contraception coverage, but church-related institutions would not be required to pay for it directly.  Catholic leaders still protested that they would still be paying for contraception indirectly through higher insurance premiums.

This debate has raised for me two questions: First, is paying for something you find objectionable a violation of conscience?  Furthermore, does it matter how directly you are paying for it?

Certainly Catholic bishops did regard it as a violation of conscience to be forced to pay for contraception, even for non-Catholic employees.  Let us be clear, Obama was never trying to force Catholics to use birth control, nor were Catholic bishops really trying to stop non-Catholics from using birth control.  The debate was over money, not behavior.  When we think about violations of conscience, we usually think about coercion of behavior, but this case is somewhat different.  Paying for something is different than doing something.  It’s providing resources that may enable others to behave a certain way, but it is different than behaving that way one’s self.

To draw an analogy from the opposite side of the political spectrum, part of our tax money goes to support the military.  For those from pacifist religious traditions, war is an immoral activity which violates their conscience.  There are legal exemptions from military service for religious pacifists.  Nevertheless, pacifists are still expected to pay their taxes, some of which support war.  By requiring pacifists to pay taxes that support the military, is the government violating their conscience?  It’s not coercing behavior, but it is requiring them to pay money that enables behavior to which they are opposed.

The issue becomes more interesting when the method of payment becomes less direct.  The higher insurance premiums which the Catholic bishops feared were not a direct means of paying for contraception.  They were indirect.  Yet the bishops still found these objectionable.  This same logic undergirds many politically-motivated boycotts of companies.  Whether it’s a call for boycotting the Beijing Olympics because of China’s human rights record or divesting one’s self of investments in companies that did business in apartheid South Africa back in the 1980s, the goal is to not lend indirect financial support to actions one finds morally reprehensible.

I recognize that the issue of indirect financial support of immoral behavior is up for debate, but I think there are dangers in assuming that any time we give money to an organization that is in any way connected to something we find objectionable, we are violating our conscience.  Ultimately, we’re connected to so many companies, individuals, and organizations in modern society that we can’t assume that everyone supports the moral (or immoral) actions of every other person and group with whom they interact.  To do so would both be ridiculous and lead to a form of moral absolutism that could only result in withdrawal from the rest of society.  If we want to maintain an inter-connected, inter-dependent society (and all of us who drive on public roads or buy things that we didn’t make ourselves do), we must be willing to do business with people who may do things we disagree with, even if they take some of the money we’ve paid them and use it to do those disagreeable things.  We may, of course, decide in some cases to not do business with them to influence their actions (as in boycotts as a political strategy rather than a moral statement).  Yet I don’t think we should assume all association with people with opposing morals represents moral compromise.  We may not be happy that some of our money is indirectly support things with which we disagree, but it seems to me to be a better alternative than the absolute breakdown of social, economic, and political interdependence that is the alternative.

Want a more tolerant, united world? Make some friends.

As those who have been reading this blog for a while may remember, I wrote a long series of blog posts last summer discussing the problem of unity in The United Methodist Church.  I think unity is a problem in the church, but I also think it’s a general problem in society.  How do we stay together and stay talking to and working with each other when we’re so divided by politics, religion, race, ethnicity, class, culture, and a whole host of other characteristics?  I think figuring out how to balance diversity and unity or diversity and cooperation is one of the foremost challenges of the world of what comes next.

Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which I’ve been blogging about for the past few weeks offers an answer.  It’s an answer that Putnam put forth in his earlier book Bowling Alone.  Putnam, like me, is worried about social disunity.  As a political scientist, he’s worried about Americans becoming divided and atomized in ways that cause the civic arena to suffer.

In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell set out to answer a question: How are Americans able to be so religiously devout and religiously diverse, while avoiding large-scale religious conflict?  Sure, there are tensions around religion, as reflected in many of the culture war issues.  But religion is not the source of violence in this country in the way it is in many places around the world.  Putnam and Campbell set out to figure out why.

The main answer that they provide is that we’re able to tolerate religious diversity despite being serious about religion because we know people of other religious backgrounds who are part of our friends and our family.  Putnam and Campbell talk about “Aunt Sue” and “My Pal Al”, both of whom are hypothetical people of other religious traditions who are nonetheless good people and important parts of our social networks.  Because we’re willing to accept Sue and Al, we’re more willing to accept people of other religions in general.

Putnam and Campbell don’t have the data to determine whether or not knowing someone of another political persuasion will make you more tolerant of people of the opposite political persuasion.  I tend to think so, though.  I know a number of people with conservative politics whom I respect and/or consider my friends, and it’s helped me be more understanding and tolerant of conservatives.  Research by others has shown that knowing people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds helps people be more accepting of other races and ethnicities in general.

So it turns out that the solution to the problem of balancing diversity and cooperation may be simple: making friends.  If you want the world to be a better, more tolerant place, make friends with someone who is not exactly like you.  Of course, friendships work better when people have something in common, but friends need not have everything in common.  Indeed, it may be a good source of personal growth as well as facilitating social unity to learn from a friend who is different from you.

This prescription to make friends also highlights one of the dangers of contemporary American society.  As niche marketing, exclusive neighborhoods, and social sorting of all sorts proceeds, it becomes ever more possible for us to be friends only with those who are already like us.  There is a real danger in this, as well as a loss.  The loss is a personal one, that we may miss out on knowing wonderful people who nonetheless differ from us in some regards and that we may miss out on learning from them.  The danger is social and political – that if we do not learn to get along with others who are different from us as friends, it will make it more difficult for us to get along with them as neighbors, co-workers, fellow church and association members, and fellow citizens.

Why being young, liberal, and devout makes me weird

Robert Putnam has convinced me I’m weird.  Of course, I have been convinced of this on any number of occasions for a whole host of reasons, but reading Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us has demonstrated to me that I represent a combination of religious, political, and social characteristics that has become, well, weird in contemporary America.

Putnam and Campbell chronicle the state and configuration of religion and religious belief in American society at the end of the first decade of the 21st century.  Some of their findings (probably including those I’ll mention in this post) won’t surprise anyone, but the book is still quite interesting and compelling, and some of their findings do surprise.

One of the things Putnam and Campbell talk about is the process by which religion and politics have become aligned over the past thirty years.  This is the much talked about “God gap” in politics, wherein more religious and more devout people are much more likely to vote Republican while the unreligious or non-devout are more likely to vote Democrat.  There is one major exception for this, which is African-Americans, who are among the most devout and the most Democratic groups in the country, but as a general trend, this correlation holds fast.

Putnam and Campbell are certainly not the first to point out this correlation, but they do point out that it has not always been a given in American history.  Fifty years ago, there was almost no correlation between one’s religiosity or level of devotion and their political affiliation.  Putnam and Campbell also explain that the current alignment of religion and politics results almost entirely from the salience of abortion and gay marriage as political topics.  Putnam and Campbell also interestingly demonstrate how Americans as individuals have changed their religious views to fit their political views (rather than changing their political views to fit their religion).  The politically liberal have become less religious, while the politically conservative have become more religious.  Finally, Putnam and Campbell comment on the strength of the correlation.  I heard Putnam speak last week, and he asserted that he could tell a whole host of political and other factors about the audience member just by their answer to the question of how often they said grace before meals.

So this is the first reason I’m weird, according to Putnam and Campbell: I’m religious and devout, but I’m politically liberal.  Abortion and gay marriage are not the political topics that drive my voting habits.  Whatever predictions Putnam may have made about me last week when I raised my hand to indicate that I say grace daily were largely incorrect.

What makes me weirder, though, is that I’m young.  While there’s been a general trend within the US population for religion to come to coincide with politics, that process has been hyper-accelerated among young Americans.  A third of Americans in their twenties (a category I just miss being in) now claim no religious affiliation, an astoundingly high number by historic standards.  Many of those disaffiliated are young people who have been turned off by the equation of religiosity with Republicanism and, being averse to Republicanism, have opted out of religion as well.

All of this leaves me as something of an oddity in the country right now: a young, liberal, devout Christian.  I’m a bit sad about this situation: sad that people have allowed their politics to dictate their religion instead of the other way around, sad that young people especially have been driven away from faith because of political reasons, sad that there are so few voices standing up to point out the ways in which the gospel opposes unjust systems.

Yet I know that, although I may be weird, I am not alone.  Indeed, many of you reading this blog post are probably also young, liberal Christians.  Furthermore, I know that God does not call us to be in the majority.  God calls us to be faithful.  So, if I have to be part of a faithful minority in society, that’s not the worst thing.  It may at times be frustrating to repeat, “No, really, it is possible to be young, liberal, and religious – See?  I’m doing it!” but being a faithful witness that the Spirit does not always blow in conservative directions is a ministry, too.

So leave a comment below and let me know what you think:  Am I weird?  Are you weird, too?  What are the prospects for being young, liberal, and religious in America?

Christian Community and the Kingdom of God

I’ve read two interesting books recently, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness by Bryan P. Stone, and American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell.  I’d like to combine insights from both in today’s post.

Putnam and Campbell’s book is about the state of religion in contemporary America.  There’s a lot of interesting stuff in the book (I recommend it highly), but one finding from their research that I found particularly interesting was that people who are more connected to their faith community were more generous, “neighborly”, and engaged civically.  Putnam and Campbell found that people who had larger religious social networks (that is, connections with other people through their religious congregations) donated more money to both religious and secular causes, volunteered more for both religious and secular causes, were more likely to work with others to solve a community problem, attended more public meetings, and were a member of more organizations and more reform groups.  What was important factor was not just showing up at church (or synagogue or mosque), but being connected to others once one is there.

Putnam and Campbell found that this finding held consistent regardless of variations in age, income, education, gender, area of the country, and other control variables.  They also interestingly found that this result held true regardless of theology.  They made the intriguing point that even if an atheist had a lot of connections in a church community, that atheist would (statistically speaking) be more likely to volunteer, give, and work for the good of the community than an atheist who was not involved in a church community.  Putnam and Campbell concluded that regardless of what else was true about a person, having church friends would make them more likely to give, volunteer, and work for the civic good.

I’m not saying that people who don’t have church friends are necessarily bad people (though Putnam and Campbell suggest that getting new church friends tends to make one a nicer person), nor that people who have a lot of church connections are perfect.  Putnam and Campbell don’t make those assertions, largely because they’re talking about statistical averages, not iron laws, so I’m not asserting those things, either.  Nevertheless, the correlation between being connected to others in a congregation and these aspects of “good neighborliness” was strong and consistent in their research.

This finding made me think about Bryan Stone’s book.  In his book, Stone argues that the church, by being the site at which God’s kingdom is expressed in the world, is the primary venue and means of evangelism by being an embodiment of the good news that Christ proclaims.  Christ says that we should live as an expression of God’s new creation of love and justice, and, while the church is imperfect, it is the best glimpse into what God intends for the world.  In its “already but not yet” way, the church is the expression of God’s kingdom coming, God’s will being done, on earth as it is in heaven, and that this is what should attract people to Christianity.

While Putnam and Campbell’s findings applied to all religions, not just Christians, the findings still made me think of Stone’s contention that the church should be where people see the kingdom of God breaking in to this world.  I thought to myself, “If those people who are heavily connected to others in church communities are the ones who are giving, volunteering, and working for the common good more than others, isn’t that evidence that the church as a community really is where God’s kingdom is coming on earth?”  Giving, volunteering, and working for the common good may not be a comprehensive list of what it means for God’s kingdom to come, but they do certainly seem to be aspects of living out love and justice.  And any such expression of love and justice seems to me to be good news indeed.

Blogging vs. Academia

I have been blogging for nearly a year now.  I wrote my first real blog post on Feb. 26, 2011.  Since then, I’ve tried to write about once a week, sometimes coming closer to that goal and sometimes less so.  In the last year, I’ve also been reading other people’s blogs much more than I ever had before.  There are a number of blogs I’ve read on a regular basis and a number more that I’ve read occasionally or for a single post.

After this year of blog experimentation, I’ve come to the conclusion that topical blogging is a lot like publishing in the academic world.  I use the term “topical blogging” intentionally.  There are a lot of personal blogs out there dedicated to relating what the author had for lunch, ranting about various pet peeves, or telling the sad/hilarious/hopeful story of the author’s lives.  Some of these can be quite entertaining or engrossing; others are just self-absorbed.  None of them count as topical blogging, however.  Topical blogging is blogging about a subject other than the author.  It’s not blogging as diary; it’s blogging as opinion piece/reporting/philosophical musings/theology/commentary.  This blog is a topical blog, and so are most of the blogs I read on a regular basis.  It’s this class of blogs that I find to be quite similar to academic publishing.

There are, of course, important differences.  Blogging is a much more democratic enterprise with fewer entrance requirements.  There are a limited number of academic jobs and academic journals in which to publish, but a relatively unlimited number of WordPress accounts that can be created.  No one needs a Ph.D. to be a topical blogger.  Blogs aren’t regulated or peer-reviewed by societies or publishing agents like academic publishing is.

Yet the similarities are striking.  Just as academics spend a lot of time reading other academics’ work and responding, so bloggers spend a lot of time reading other bloggers’ work and responding.  Sure, bloggers also respond to the news, things they’ve experienced in their lives, things they’ve read in non-electronic form.  Academics also respond to their research subjects.  But for both bloggers and academics, to be successful, it’s not enough to just interact with your subject.  You also have to interact with others who are interested in your subject.  Sometimes this interaction is constructive and collaborative; sometimes it involves a lot of invective and snark.  That’s also similar across blogs and academic publishing.  But interaction is necessary.

Just like most successful academics, most successful topical bloggers have a set range of interests they write about.  Academics are encouraged to focus their interests by the structure of academic disciplines (chemistry, English, sociology, etc.).  They’re also encouraged to focus by the amount of training needed to be accepted within the scholarly community.  It’s hard to know enough to be taken seriously in music and literature and science, as some 18th century polymaths were.  For bloggers, the pressures to have set interests are slightly different, but still present.  The background requirements for blogging about a subject are much lower than those for academia, but there’s still a certain amount of knowledge of and familiarity with one’s subject required that places some practical limits on the number of topics one can follow.  Furthermore, if one cares about readership, readers like blogs with a relatively well-defined set of interests.  It’s not the same as a discipline, but readers like knowing what they can expect from a certain blog.

Furthermore, within both academia and blogging, there’s a tendency for one’s subject to become defined in rather interest-specific ways such that the community of fellow scholars or bloggers with whom one is interacting is actually rather limited.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  It would be several full-time jobs just to read a portion of the blogging on religion, for instance.  There are even more blogs than I can read thoroughly that deal just with The United Methodist Church.  In order to have a manageable community of scholarship or blogging community among whom issues can be identified and debated, it’s necessary to narrow one’s focus.  In many regards, that’s just a feature of our (post)modern society, but it plays out in similar ways in both blogging and scholarship.

Despite the interest-specific nature of both blogging and scholarship, there are some famous or important figures in both areas that are read more widely and get discussed outside their interest-specific bubbles.  These famous academics or bloggers are a mix of those who have especially compelling ideas, those who are able to write well especially well or entertainingly, those promoted by influential institutions (such as Harvard University or, for instance), and those who have just caught a lucky break.

Most bloggers and most academics want to be like these famous people.  But most of them aren’t.  Most just toil away, focusing on whatever their specific interest is, talking with the manageable set of other people who also share that specific interest.  Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  But I think it’s worth noting the ways in which topical blogs and academic publishing reflect each other because I think it says something about how knowledge, information, and society are structured in our times.  Perhaps someone who shares my specific interests will write a blog about it, and our little piece of the conversation will continue.

Hipsters and the death of sincerity

My fiancée and I went out to eat at the Friendly Toast in Cambridge, MA, recently.  While there, we were talking, of course, about hipsters.  (For those of you who have never been to the Friendly Toast, it both serves tasty, innovative food and is swarming with hipsters.)  Specifically, we talked about hipsters and irony, and I thought that conversation was worth rehashing here and connecting to postmodernity.

Allie and I agreed that irony is often a way for hipsters to enjoy clothing, beer, music, and other bits of culture that they actually kinda like but are afraid to say so in a straight-forward way lest they be mercilessly mocked.  Instead, if someone challenges them on the validity of whatever they’re into, they can just shrug off any criticism by explaining that they are only into that thing “ironically”.  The implication is that of course they don’t really like whatever it is, because they’re aware of whatever shortfall you have just pointed out, and they’re only pretending to be into it in some sort of high-brow, meta-level, lived-out jest.

Yet I think few if any hipsters are ironically into things they actually hate.  No one puts themselves through unpleasantness just to make a joke, or at least not on a habitual basis (unless perhaps you’re a slapstick comedian, but that’s a very different art).  Thus, we may assume that most things hipsters do are things that, whatever they may say about the intended irony, they actually enjoy.

If that’s the case, then why go through the elaborate process of ironic posturing?  Isn’t it a bit much just so you can drink PBRs and wear flannel, if that’s what you like to do?  Perhaps, but I think that hipsters are not without reasonable motivations.  Sure, some of it involves competition for status, but I think there’s also more going on culturally.  Hipsterism is generally an upper-middle class white phenomenon, which is also the social milieu in which postmodernism is perhaps most progressed.

Postmodernism is nothing if not critical.  And critical of just about everything.  Postmodernism isn’t content to just let you drink a beer or wear a shirt without telling you how you are participating in systems of symbolic and economic oppression by doing so.  It can get old feeling like your every move is up for criticism and deconstruction.  It takes a lot of mental and emotional work to justify (to) yourself [in] all of your decisions.

So, hipsters come from a social setting in which this sort of constant criticism is a real danger.  Irony then is an adaptive response that allows hipsters to escape the predatory criticism of postmodern culture.  As soon as someone starts to sink the jaws of criticism into a hipster’s cherish brand of suds or style of clothing, hipsters can escape from the social attack by playing ironic.

Yet the cost of such a strategy is the death of sincerity.  If you’re only ever ironically into something, then you’re never sincere about anything.  I think this death of sincerity also manifests itself in upper middle-class white people’s constant search for authenticity.  White people are always looking for authenticity (usually in contexts other than their own) because they’ve discovered that being sincere or authentic in postmodern culture is a good way to attract attacks.  Yet all things being equal, I think humans like to experience genuineness; hence the search for areas in which that is still possible.

I don’t blame hipsters or white people looking for authenticity for the death of sincerity.  I think they’re making reasonable responses to their social and intellectual environment.  Thus, rather than condemning hipsters, I think we should instead bewail the aspects of postmodern culture that make sincerity an unsuccessful model of relating to other humans.  Deconstruction and criticism are useful tools to correct things that have gone wrong.  Yet they cannot help us build hospitable habitats in which to live.

Competition vs. Conflict

In another Parker Palmer-inspired post, I’d like to talk about a distinction Palmer draws in his book, The Courage to Teach.  While discussing the process of learning in community, Palmer draws a distinction between competition and conflict.  He writes, “Competition is a secretive, zero-sum game played by individuals for private gain; conflict is open and sometimes raucous but always communal, a public encounter in which it is possible for everyone to win by learning and growing.”  To elaborate upon Parker’s description, a competition mindset believes that in order for one side to win, the other (or all others) must lose.  A conflict mindset recognizes that not all sides want the same things, but also understands that one side’s win is not necessarily another side’s loss.

Palmer applies this distinction between competition and conflict to the world of learning and education, but I think it has wider applicability.  I think many of the problems our nation faces stem from a mindset of competition between individuals or interest groups in society rather than a mindset of conflict.  In so many areas, we see dualistic, competition-based logic: politics, culture war issues, economic issues, church policies, etc.  The list could go on.

In order for us to disagree more productively, I think we need to move past a competition mindset to a conflict mindset.  To do so requires not only changing how we think about disagreement, but how we think about a couple of other things as well.  There are two additional assumptions upon which I think competition thinking rests that I’d like to point out today.

The first assumption is a scarcity mindset as opposed to an abundance mindset.  Here, all resources are assumed to be scarce and limited.  When we assume that we’re fighting for a slice of a pie of a fixed size, then our win must be someone else’s loss.  I know I’ve written posts in the past critiquing modernity’s assumption that there are no limits to anything, but there are pitfalls to assuming there’s only a limited amount of desirable things to go around.  Of course, for some things there are only a limited amount: there are only a certain amount of government jobs or seaside properties.  But in many other cases, there are more than enough things to go around: sense of security, satisfaction, prestige, etc.  If we reject a notion of scarcity and believe instead in abundance, then our win need not be someone else’s loss if instead we find a way together to make the pie bigger.

The second assumption is a closed mindset as opposed to an open mindset.  This is a “if you’re not for us, you’re against us” attitude.  In a closed mindset, one is not receptive to being enriched by other sides in a debate.  One assumes one knows all that’s necessary to know and there’s no possibility of learning from or getting insights from others.  If one makes this assumption, then there must be competition rather than conflict because either your ideas prevail or the other side’s ideas do.  There’s no possibility for both sides learning and coming to a deeper understanding or finding a plan that incorporates positive aspects and insights from all sides.  Yet if one instead embraces a position of openness, it is possible to generate solutions to social positions that are better than any of the initial proposals because they use different approaches to refine one another.  Another way of saying this might be that a closed mindset takes an all-or-nothing approach, whereas a more open mindset is willing to seek compromise.

Compromise, it used to be said, is the spirit of American democracy.  You don’t hear that phrase thrown around as much anymore.  I wonder if that’s because we have become too stuck in a competition mindset, where we are not open to benefitting from other positions, instead seeing them as competitors for portions of fixed economic, social, and religious pies.  Yet we need not take such an attitude.  Another path is possible.  This other path is not without conflict, for that is endemic to the human race, but does believe that not all conflict need end with only one winner and all others as losers, that mutually beneficial compromise is possible.