Tag Archives: culture

How evil happens

BOOK REVIEW

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Author: Noga Arikha.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Author: Hannah Arendt.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Author: Simon Baron-Cohen.
Home Fire, Author: Kamila Shamsie.

By Noga Arikha – The ‘sapiens’ in Homo sapiens does not fully describe our species: we are as violent as we are smart.

This might be why we are the only Homo genus left over in the first place, and why we have been so destructively successful at dominating our planet. But still the question nags away: how are ordinary people capable of such obscene acts of violence?

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behavior, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.

The social neuroscientist Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig in Germany defines empathy as the ability to ‘resonate’ with the feelings of the other. It develops from babyhood on – as imitation at first, then joint attention – into the ability to adopt the point of view of another, along with a shift in spatial perception from self to other, as if one were literally stepping into another’s shoes.

This requires an ability to distinguish between self and other in the first place, an aspect of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ that one acquires over the first five years of life.

But while empathy ensures the cohesion of a group or a society, it is also biased and parochial. Revenge thrives on it. more>

Related>

What did Max Weber mean by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism?

By Peter Ghosh – Max Weber’s famous text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is surely one of the most misunderstood of all the canonical works regularly taught, mangled and revered in universities across the globe.

We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’.

More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe. So the ‘spirit’ of capitalism is also an ‘ethic’, though no doubt the title would have sounded a bit flat if it had been called The Protestant Ethic and the Ethic of Capitalism.

Weber supposed that all previous ethics – that is, socially accepted codes of behavior rather than the more abstract propositions made by theologians and philosophers – were religious. Religions supplied clear messages about how to behave in society in straightforward human terms, messages that were taken to be moral absolutes binding on all people. In the West this meant Christianity, and its most important social and ethical prescription came out of the Bible: ‘Love thy neighbor.’

As a guide to social behavior in public places ‘love thy neighbor’ was obviously nonsense, and this was a principal reason why the claims of churches to speak to modern society in authentically religious terms were marginal.

The ethic or code that dominated public life in the modern world was very different. Above all it was impersonal rather than personal: by Weber’s day, agreement on what was right and wrong for the individual was breaking down. The truths of religion – the basis of ethics – were now contested, and other time-honored norms – such as those pertaining to sexuality, marriage and beauty – were also breaking down. more>

Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

BOOK REVIEW

The Tyranny of Metrics, Author: Jerry Z Muller.

By Jerry Z Muller – More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’.

The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivize gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximize the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organization. more>

Why the Red Hen incident so troubles us as Americans

By Mark Penn – The United States of America is creeping toward creating a more imperfect union, one dominated by the power of the online mob that is threatening to disassemble more than 200 years of learning.

It was in “Federalist 10” that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, discussed the human tendency to divide into factions, which he defined as groups of people “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens” and to the community. He warned how the zeal for certain government policies, for passionate leaders and for different religions could lead us to a society inflamed “with mutual animosities.”

Welcome to America 2018. Madison’s solution then was to tame the forces of the moment through a republic as opposed to a pure democracy.

This is done by electing the people’s representatives from across the country who would be more sensible and objective. They would face periodic elections, but were to be freed from the easily inflamed mobs that would be quick to trample the rights of others.

But in the modern age, as I document in “Microtrends Squared,” people are increasingly divided into factions, and whether it is through their news channels or their Twitter feeds, the ability to whip up crowds quickly and with slanted information has never been easier, or more dangerous. Forget about the Russians dividing us, we have to worry about us Americans doing the job of tearing the nation apart. more>

To get a grip on altruism, see humans as molecules

By Ski Krieger – ‘What is life?’

In 1943, Erwin Schrödinger posed this question in a series of lectures at Trinity College, Dublin.

Seventy-five years later, the biophysics revolution is ongoing. Schrödinger’s call to action inspired his colleagues to look at the building blocks of life at all scales, from the diminutive DNA molecule to schooling fish and the construction of anthills.

My research group at Harvard University focuses on altruism, or why creatures sacrifice themselves for the common good.

But rather than relying on psychology or moral philosophy, we approach this problem using thermodynamics – how the laws governing heat and the interaction of microscopic particles might translate into macroscopic behavior. Can we explain altruism by casting humans as atoms and molecules, and societies or populations as solids, liquids or gases?

By studying each of these phases as physicists, we come away approaching a recipe for altruism – rules for certain structures that might foster cooperation.

What we’ve observed so far is that strong local connections enhance altruism everywhere. more>

You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to

BOOK REVIEW

Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know, Author: Daniel DeNicola.

By Daniel DeNicola – Do we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe? This supposed right is often claimed as the last resort of the willfully ignorant, the person who is cornered by evidence and mounting opinion: ‘I believe climate change is a hoax whatever anyone else says, and I have a right to believe it!’ But is there such a right?

We do recognize the right to know certain things. I have a right to know the conditions of my employment, the physician’s diagnosis of my ailments, the grades I achieved at school, the name of my accuser and the nature of the charges, and so on. But belief is not knowledge.

Unfortunately, many people today seem to take great license with the right to believe, flouting their responsibility. The willful ignorance and false knowledge that are commonly defended by the assertion ‘I have a right to my belief’ do not meet William James’s requirements.

Beliefs shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions. Believing and knowing are formed within an epistemic community, which also bears their effects. There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs – and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe.

Some beliefs are false, or morally repugnant, or irresponsible, and some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right. more>

The Fifth Question For BRAVE Leaders: What Impact?

By George Bradt – Environment, values, attitude and relationships all inform behaviors and what impact you and your team make.

Ultimately, you lead with your feet, with what you do, more than with what you say. So focus everything and everyone on those few behaviors with the greatest impact.

Make a plan, identifying your needs and concerns and the other party’s. Get started with areas of agreement. Clarity positions, stating, supporting, listening. Find alternatives.

Gain agreement by studying proposals, making concessions, summarizing and testing. Implement, communicating, delivering and monitoring.

Work through the steps of AIDA (Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action) Broadly build awareness. Engage in conversations with those interested. Jump in with both feet once someone has a real desire.

And then follow through to over deliver once they act. more>

Negotiating With Power?

By Santosh Desai – In most cases, the nature of the intervention was either to ensure that the rules that already existed were followed, or to step in and help break the rules using one’s privileged position.

The legislative and administrative systems in India are subservient to the social ecosystem, and work within its ambit. Power thus becomes a social instrument that needs to be brokered keeping the dominant interests in mind.

The disinterested application of the law is not possible in a context where these interests take priority. Hierarchies are respected, networks are nurtured, money speaks loudly, and settlements are negotiated.

The idea of the ‘settlement’ which finds a measure of mutual self-interest being catered to is only thinly related to abstract notions of justice. The poor and weak ‘accept’ an unfair resolution because the alternative is much worse.

What are otherwise their rights become favors that they seek from the powerful for a price. The powerful build constituencies by creating a cumbersome system and then offering a way to navigate the same.

The ability to negotiate a solution to mutual advantage is a mark of a functioning social system, but when the same occurs under the threat of the use of power, it serves often to perpetuate a skewed and unjust arrangement.

A system of governance must provide instruments of continuity and change. Currently, there is too much of the former and too little of the latter. more>

Leaders Focus on the Trends, Not the Data Points

By Scott Eblin – One of the reasons annual performance reviews suck so much is that they too often deal in data points, not trends. Too many managers don’t provide meaningful performance feedback on a real-time basis so when performance review time rolls around (as it always and predictably does), they find themselves scrambling for points to make in the review conversation. That’s where the data points come in.

In the absence of any meaningful thought or preparation, whatever happened recently suddenly becomes a trend. That meeting you nailed? Good job on that—you had a great year! That presentation you muffed? You know, I’m not sure you’re really a good fit for us.

A data point does not a trend make. It’s a cognitive bias. Don’t fall for it. Great leaders assess on the trends, not the data points. more>

The tech bias: why Silicon Valley needs social theory

BOOK REVIEW

Mapping Israel, Mapping Palestine, Author: Jess Bier.
Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, Author: Charles Perrow.
Living a Feminist Life, Author: Sara Ahmed.

By Jess Bier – Social theorists in fields such as sociology, geography, and science and technology studies have shown how race, gender and class biases inform technical design. So there’s irony in the fact that employees hold sexist and racist attitudes, yet ‘we are supposed to believe that these same employees are developing “neutral” or “objective” decision-making tools’, as the communications scholar Safiya Umoja Noble at the University of Southern California argues in her book Algorithms of Oppression (2018).

In many cases, what’s eroding the value of social knowledge is unintentional bias – on display when prominent advocates for equality in science and tech undervalue research in the social sciences.

Science and tech are viewed as revenue-generating down the line, but the cost-saving benefits of improved social understanding, and the benefits that go beyond costs, tend to go underappreciated.

Ironically, the same discriminatory systems targeted by social theory end up blocking underrepresented groups from getting a toehold in academia, the very seedbed of these ideas. Sexual harassment and racism are much more than individual incidents; they’re institutionalized mechanisms for maintaining systemic barriers. more>