It’s A Little Late to Develop A Conscience.

Matt “Dean Dad” Reed offers an instructive look at what Jascha Mounck felicitiously describes as the “cage of norms.”  That book is among those stacked to be reviewed.  Maybe this year?
Some of my earliest lessons in ethical behavior, as a child, came in the form of a question: “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” It was reasonably effective because it was simple. I could guess how I would feel, and I didn’t want to make anyone else feel that way. Although I couldn’t have spelled the word at the time, the theory underlying that lesson was reciprocity.

Reciprocity relies on an underlying sense of relevant equality. You and I may be different people in any number of ways, but we’re both fully human, and that entails some basic respect. There’s an implicit politics within the ethical norm of reciprocity, too. I’m no better than anyone else, but I’m no worse, either. Taken seriously, that ethical position tends to lead to a rough egalitarianism. There may be hierarchical roles for various reasons, but the people occupying those roles are just people. They have the same human flaws as everybody else. And the power they’re granted is both a grant—that is, removable—and for a limited purpose. It is not license. Nobody is entitled to abuse anyone else, and nobody deserves abuse.
There’s a lot going on in those two paragraphs.  In that “How would you feel” is the basis for the first rule of interaction in the three Faiths of the Book.  There’s an important corollary, as well: the precocious child might ask Mom or Dad “How would you like being put in time-out?”  Kids don’t like being put in time-out, and the wise parent will note something to the effect that the grown-up version of time-out lasts for days, not minutes, in a place called “jail”.  The concept of reciprocity, though, is a straightforward elaboration of the things that matter that are learned in kindergarten.

The second paragraph appeals to the Framing of the Declaration of Independence.  The “endowed by their Creator” passage vesting rights in individuals is a rebuttal to the divine right of kings: it was not the Hand of God that made the Stuart Tudor Hanover Battenberg Windsor family Defenders of the Faith, Emperors of India, and sovereigns over British North America.  People consented to their rule, and people had the right to withdraw their consent.  Note, dear reader, how the Holy Spirit has been more catholic in identifying popes, a position of power that up to 1978 seemed to be reserved to Italian cardinals.  Ideally, a rough egalitarianism ought to hold in education as well. Yale Law do not hold the franchise on staffing the High Bench, nor is the Southeastern Conference endowed with the right to dominate football.

The issue to which Dean Dad speaks manifests itself in that concluding sentence, “nobody deserves abuse.”  The complications develop in the next two paragraphs.
Reciprocity isn’t a perfect ideal, of course. It can fail through a lack of self-awareness; if my prediction of how I would feel if someone did that to me is wildly wrong, I could draw the wrong lessons. It can also blind people to genuinely different preferences in others. Encountering someone grounded in a religion or culture that isn’t my own, or with a very different personality, may lead to a mismatch between what I would have expected them to want and what they actually want. Reciprocity can also become transactional, or a mechanism with which to attempt control. Without the requisite humility and curiosity, it can become a form of narcissism.

Granting its flaws, though, it has always struck me as a good default position for how to treat others. When in doubt, it’s usually safe to go with “treat others as you’d want to be treated.” Sometimes it’s possible to do better than that, as when you have deep knowledge of the other person. But for daily interactions with strangers, it’s a pretty good starting point. What we call “manners” in the broad sense are how we enact basic respect for other people.
Yes, culture shock is a thing.  A Tom Clancy villain went to the Middle East to learn terrorism from the jihadis, and he discovered that inshallah was mañana without the urgency.  That’s unkind: and yet, there’s reason to investigate different adaptations to time among different peoples in different locations, to understand why in the tropics, the sense of urgency isn’t the same as it is in the temperate zones, and what evolutionary advantage each adaptation confers.

For instance, if you’ve scheduled a clinic appointment for ten a.m., and at 10.30 you’re still flipping through that old issue of Time in the waiting room, they’d better have a good reason for the delay.  Or if you’ve agreed to pick your date up at six, five or ten additional minutes of primping might be fine, but if the getting ready runs into half an hour or more, she’s high-maintenance, no matter what might transpire with the lights off.  Since this post is ultimately about higher education, note also the urban legend about having to wait five minutes for a graduate assistant, but up to fifteen or twenty minutes for a senior professor: it is an oral tradition of long standing, but there’s no evidence of it ever being a policy.  Or consider the behavior of people who show up five or ten minutes late for meetings, ultimately leading to all meetings beginning late, or the enabling behavior of the moderator who will recapitulate all the introductory items for the benefit of latecomers.  I fail to see the evolutionary advantage of those practices.

More relevant to the evolution of his column, as well as to higher education, is the notion of “transactional” reciprocity.  The Faiths of the Book might teach “do unto others as you would have them do unto you;” and Jesus might advise the faithful to love their enemies and offer the other cheek; and yet, when you’ve run out of cheeks to offer, what do you do?

There was a Tragic Version of the golden rule popular among middle schoolers, it took out the “as you would have” part, resulting in “Do unto others as they do unto you.”  Mannerly elicits mannerly, while unkindness elicits unkindness.  If that sounds a little like the tit-for-tat strategy of game theory, or the Grim Strategy when cooperation breaks down, it should.  And the running out of cheeks to turn manifests itself in an observation Auric Goldfinger brought from Chicago.  “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.”

It’s with the breakdown of cooperation that we have to turn.  Of late, Inside Higher Ed writers have been sounding the alarm, perhaps with reason, over the changes Florida governor Ron DeSantis has been attempting at the state-financed colleges and universities.  Dean Dad would have you believe that the breakdown of reciprocity is the governor’s fault.
In politics, reciprocity tends to restrain arbitrary power. If my party is in charge right now, I might be tempted to look the other way when it decides to break some eggs in the name of making the proverbial omelet. But if I know that my party could lose power soon, and the other party might step in and see me as an egg that needs breaking, then suddenly constraints on arbitrary authority start to make sense. Basic ground rules that limit what people in power can do to people who aren’t in power at any given time make it possible for a group to accept defeat when it happens. We’ll get ’em next time. If we accept that we’re all just people, none really better than any others, then basing some ground rules on basic reciprocity makes sense.

All of this is by way of explaining just how deeply disturbing the movement behind Governor DeSantis’s recent proposals is.
I’m not sure which “movement” he’s speaking to.  Governor DeSantis is a predictable response to years of higher education’s leaders disrespecting the people who fund them, and mistreating more than a few students.

For instance, it is inclusive, in the proper sense of the word, to note that there are ways of describing music that don’t involve five-line staffs, and treble, tenor, and bass clefs, and that there are compositional traditions that don’t involve Vienna, Warsaw, or Florence.  Dress that up as “decolonizing?”  That might be happenstance.  Or it might be a way to manipulate people so as to grab control of the canon.  Fortunately, I am not aware of anyone calling out the director of the jazz ensemble for “cultural appropriation” when the performance includes a berimbau.

It might also be inclusive, in the proper sense of the word, to expose mathematics students to the foundations of mathematics ab initio.  That was the idea behind the faddish “New Math” of sixty years ago, and there might be good reason to let students develop mathematical concepts based on their own experience.  Become so inclusive that “getting the right answer” is a form of oppression, though, might be that coincidence.

It becomes enemy action, though, when the reciprocity of showing up on time and taking your turn is a manifestation of whiteness.

If a Governor DeSantis didn’t push back, somebody else would.
The avalanche is the point. And the catalyst of the avalanche is a fundamental rejection of reciprocity.

The animating idea behind all of these attacks is that some people are just better than others. The better ones, in this story, are tired of tolerating the annoying habits of their inferiors, so it’s time to restore order and take the inferiors down a notch or two. In this story, “better” is not a result of behavior; it’s an innate status. The betters are licensed to engage in behavior that would be considered contemptible if the roles were reversed. That’s because they reject the idea that the roles could be reversed.
No. If anything, the poobahs of higher education have been using untested culture-studies theories of social interaction in a way incompatible with the continued fulfillment of the academic mission, or the proper education of the young, and they’ve dressed it up in wordnoise calculated to make Normals feel inferior or to take Normals down that notch or two, and the Normals have recognized the enemy action for what it is, and found a champion.  What Dean Dad writes about the overreach of Florida’s governor could equally well describe the overreach of higher education over the past forty years or so.
In looking at the various abuses of power already enacted and others proposed, I’m struck not only by how awful each one is, but by the apparent confidence that it will never be the other side’s turn again. That’s how deep the rejection of reciprocity goes. Over time, of course, hubris doesn’t usually turn out well. But until it collapses, it can do catastrophic damage.
The poobahs of higher education could have met Allan Bloom or Charlie Sykes halfway, thirty or forty years ago, and I would have been able to write more about things that run on rails. But they did not, and I had their follies to document.  Volokh Conspiracist Keith Whittington might see a Strange Loop in Florida.  “In the name of prohibiting political litmus tests for faculty, the reform will wind up imposing political litmus tests for faculty.”  The hubris of the post-everythingists begat the hubris of the populists.

(Cross-posted to Cold Spring Shops.)

11 thoughts on “It’s A Little Late to Develop A Conscience.”

  1. Here’s just a bit more from Matt Read, idiot:

    We have the luxury of being able to take a long view, and we have the job of clarifying what’s going on so others who are preoccupied with other matters can understand.

    So others who are preoccupied with other matters can understand- define woman, Community College Dean.

    Can you do that? Do you need to consult a biologist? Or a queer theorist?

    This is what our educational system has created, and at great cost- a society with a Supreme Court justice who can’t define woman because she isn’t a biologist, along with mass confusion about gender and much more, along with other moronic ideas such as 2+2= racist.

    As far as I’m concerned it’s too late to meet these people half way. American colleges seem to be nothing more than thousands of tumors eating away at American society- and they need to be cut out if society is going to survive.

    Whatever DeSantis is doing in Florida isn’t nearly enough.

  2. Stephen,

    Well said in response to Dean Dad.

    I will add that reciprocity is like many other traits of civilization in that it needs not so much to be learned as remembered. Reciprocity is built on empathy which is a trait we as fallen creature, either through arrogance or ignorance, tend to overlook. After all it’s a natural human instinct to take advantage of something, especially if someone is so willing to “leave money on the table.”

    I would reciprocity as manifesting itself in institutions as a form of a social contract. We give massive public support in terms of money and prestige to education, especially higher education. In turn we expect some form of social goods in terms of educated citizens, research, intellectual cultivation. We don’t expect to get poorly educated students, postmodern drivel, and in the cases of K-12 having parents seen as part of the problem. The message to Dean Dad and others is that you in education can do those things and we’ll leave you in peace to do so, but we will send our public support elsewhere. Dean Da’ds lament is on par of regional manager who had a great deal of autonomy until the one day he got walked by the central office and received a poor performance review. We trusted you and this is how you repay us. Welcome to the real world. Welcome to the party pal.

    So there are a lot of places where the Left has pushed the envelope: poatmodern curriculum in schools and government, weaponizing the bureaucracy, cancel culture. What to do? There people on the Right such as the National Review or Larry Hogan who believe that “it is better to be dead than rude” or more charitably it is as, if not more, important to maintain polite social discourse than winning political battles.

    That’s a great strategy if the other side is willing to play by the same rules, reciprocity, but is that the case? How polite is a mainstream Left culture that decries traditional American society as white supremacist, pushes child transitioning as a civil right, and calls fascist anyone who disagrees with their march to power? Reciprocity demands that the other side grants you legitimacy and can anyone believe that? If so, then tell them to watch Biden’s Philadelphia speech last year.

    How those “conservatives” view the Left would be as if they encountered a tiger and believed it to be simply a larger version of a house cat, after all tigers and Fluffy share a lot of the same genetic material right? The same way they see the modern-day Left as the same political opponents of the 1990s and 2000s. They see “honorable” opponents and large versions of house cats, the modern Left and tigers see them as prey.

    So while there are dangers in a DeSantis style approach, I think a game-theory solution of retaliation is the only way. The Democrats were only interested in getting rid of gerrymandering once the Republicans gained control of state houses. I am pretty sure the Democrats will see the light on ballot harvesting and other electoral chicanery once the Republicans get good at it. Plus it’s always good for one’s self-respect to stand up to bullies.

    However I am not a big believer in going one rung up a time on the escalation ladder; if I don’t have first-mover advantage then I will take a different approach. I would take the tit-for-tat strategy a step further using the Chicago way as John Malone put it “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.” They break the social contract by turning K-12 schools into a radical left indoctrination machine? Don’t win school board elections, rather effectively abolish the K-12 system by implementing a voucher system. FBI and other security agencies are involved in suppressing American citizens? Don’t just hold hearings, cut their budgets to the bone. Cross me and I will use the proper mechanisms of constitutional government to make sure you pay.

    I think these measures, besides just good public policy, would restore the proper environment for reciprocity

  3. Stephen,

    You mentioned Yascha Mounk’s book. An interesting book and take, but limited. I read it a while back in a single bite during a cross-country flight and therefore it took me a few days to reflect on it. Something struck a nerve and when I went back and it hit me…. basically he provides a neoliberal, managerial approach to managing diverse communities. Think Matthew Yglesias meets immigration policy. If there was an audiobook version, it would be done in that soft, oh-so-reasonable “NPR voice”

    Don’t get me wrong, if you are developing even a short list on issues of immigration and social cohesion I would include it for it asks the right questions. However based on memory and some notes I took from then I would offer 3 criticism:

    1) First he states statistics but doesn’t provide more than a simple citation. Weak

    2) He gives short-shrift to the problems of Asian and African immigration in Europe. He discusses the “far-right” reaction such immigration provokes but doesn’t go into any detail of why such immigration may be considered problematic. Impact of Merkel and the 2015 immigration crisis? What’s that? Problems of assimilation in England, Sweden, and France? Yeah. Oh and anyone who opposes such immigration due to concerns about social cohesion, let alone those such as Zemmour and AfD, are far-right and who wants to be associated with them

    3) He sees such wide-scale immigration only as a positive good because to him the difficult issues of assimilation as resolvable simply through greater access to positions of prosperity and social services. Remove barriers to social advancement and within a generation or two, everyone will be one big happy family.

    Even if you accept this generational argument of assimilation (and I can see value to it) he never asks assimilation to what. He derides the melting pot or cultural model of assimilation (his book is well-lit by the burning of strawmen) within some form of generally-accepted national identity or myth in favor of integration through popular culture so that what will unite is not “My Country Tis of Thee” but rather Tik Tok and Netflix.

    I understand his book is polemic more than a survey so I don’t blame him for ignoring other points of view but there is a wide range of debate on the Right regarding the cultural foundations of national cohesion. I found it ironic that he derides Michael Anton for what he wrote in 2016 but never acknowledges his view of natural rights as the font of the American national character. A little more afield he of course cites Ruy Teixeira’s Emerging Democratic Majority and even mentions how its argument has evolved with the increasing Republican share of the Hispanic vote in 2020 but doesn’t apply any of those or Teixeira’s later thoughts to assimilation.

    His model is not the melting pot or the salad bowl, but the public park where each may come and share public space as they wish. I laughed when I first read it having just come back from Vienna and seeing how a “diverse” community shared their public parks, but more importantly I found such an argument sterile because his model is really 21st Century London where people from around the world can come to inhabit the same space but really not share anything meaningful in common. If there has been one lesson from the past 10 years with the rise of Woke is that the soul abhors a vacuum and that in the absence of unifying national symbols and stories, there will be other, less reputable ideologies which arise to fill the need for connection.

    Like I said a decent, and thankfully quick, read. Always good to get a different perspective

    Oh did I forget to mention that he thinks that Barack Obama is the bee’s-knees?

  4. Reciprocity – when my oldest son was small he said he wanted to receive fair treatment from others of his age. I asked him to define fair treatment and, when he finished, I asked him if that was how HE was going to treat THEM – since it was only fair and proper. Received a very thoughtful expression as a result.
    You never know when a teachable moment will occur, so try to be prepared when they do.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks for those thoughtful comments.

    First, with respect to Mounck’s book: that I like a turn of phrase does not imply agreement with all aspects of his argument. I participate in an online book club at Live Journal and the review of that book is one I hope to write, sometime in finite time. Your impressions tend to align with mine. But that’s for another day.

    As far as restoring a Nash equilibrium when it breaks down (cooperation under tit-for-tat is not Nash, although for some values of the payoff function it’s evolutionarily stable) that’s something people who have thought more deeply about game theory than I struggle with. The current Grim Strategy equilibrium, whether it’s of the social-media dunking on each other form, or the national politics form of securing the Federal Government to impose as much of its preferred policy outcome, probably strikes observers of all ideologies as suboptimal, but how, short of occupying Richmond or Berlin, do you restore that comity? In higher education, the rot has been a long time in coming.

    I’m tempted to include that regional manager passage in this week’s Friday short Takes at my place. Thanks!

  6. With respect to Frank’s observation, I recently purchased a copy of a Little Golden Book, Nature Stories to Read Aloud, that has a lot of very adult concepts, including the sort of poser your son was cogitating on, in it. Authors of children’s books used to have more respect for the intellectual capability of kids!

  7. I may be missing something. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you seems to cover it. This differs, how?

  8. A good question, MCS, and yes, the Golden Rule covers the situation, but the Human Condition is all about the ways in which people deviate from it.

    The prophet, the preacher, the philosopher, or the politician might all have their version of the “Things would all be better if everyone followed the Golden Rule.” It’s a common enough phenomenon that it even sails under a label, the “Everything Would Be Better If Only Everyone Did …” fallacy.

    The Human Condition involves all sorts of circumstances in which the incentive to defect is strong. Spend eternity separated from God? Satan thought it better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven. Swipe a candy bar from your younger brother, or pick a fight in the schoolyard? The cage of norms has to include sanctions for defecting. We’re now into the realm of moral philosophy. Add a few payoff functions and you get evolutionary game theory. If you’ve read Paradise Lost, is Satan the more interesting figure than God?

    And thus we get to that mini-dissertation. Dean Dad is suggesting that the likes of Ron DeSantis are defecting from the Social Contract for short term gain, never mind what follows. I submitted that the universities were defecting from the Social Contract in ways that brought us to where the Normals found in the governor a champion. The defections from convention shall you always have.

  9. The left will not admit that what DeSantis is doing is what they have long done and will go on doing, because it would be a tactical mistake to admit it and for some they genuinely do not believe it to be the same or cannot see it as the same. THEY have been advocating ever more sophisticated teaching methods and uncovering truths, HE is pursuing an ideological agenda. CRT, like all branches of Critical Theory, is an academic position that deserves equal representation AND the only true perspective, not a control mechanism that has goals in mind including the elimination of all other schools of thought. They did not politicize, he did.
    And so on. Now this is obvious and tendentious BS to anyone with a memory that goes back before 2000, but it has already captured the minds of several generations of the unreflective, even if not otherwise sympathetic.
    In the late 80s or early 90s, there was an episode of the sitcom Roseanne in which younger daughter [a sort of angry, grunge Lisa Simpson] rejects Columbus Day because she had learned he was just a racist colonialist murdering slaver. Not in addition to being a daring captain and explorer, even. Entirely. I absolutely believe American schools really became like this starting in that era.
    It is too late to push back.

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