Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Heroes Help Us Elevate Our Own Virtuous Actions


My topic in WKYB this morning.

What are heroes for?

One important role of heroes is as models for us.

Positive psychologist Jonathan Haidt found that when we watch other people do morally uplifting things, we feel elevated - which he reads as the opposite of "ashamed."  Moreover, feeling elevated makes us more likely to want to help others ourselves. When we publicly celebrate real heroes in our midst, it raises the happiness of the whole community.  We share in the good act, and the proportion of those feeling elevated shapes our culture to make good acting habitual.

A study of Carnegie Hero Medal winners - ordinary people who risk their lives to save strangers - found that they were much more likely to just act when they saw another in trouble, rather than carefully weigh pros and cons.  They were empathetic people who were not torn by ambivalence about whether helping others was really wise. These real (not fictional) heroes had a habit of trusting that virtuous action really works in the world - they are not suckers for helping.

Which got me thinking about the current boom in fictional superheroes.  I am not much drawn to superheroes - I am a sociologist because I find real people and real lives fascinating and meaningful.  Still, when hundreds of millions of real people around the world go out of their way to watch and emulate fictional superheroes, that turns the phenomenon back into sociology. Most of the superheroes in movies at the moment are ambivalent about whether they have to be heroes - whether "with great power comes great responsibility."

It was in this mood that I was helped by a review which made clear to me why I really liked the new "Wonder Woman" movie.  Wonder Woman is a hero like the real Carnegie heroes - she knows she has the power to act, and is not ambivalent that her actions are worth doing.

And observing that kind of hero is elevating.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Would You Have Supported the Revolution in 1776?


I audited a colleague's course on the American Revolution this year.  It made me revisit some attitudes I had taken for granted, probably since elementary school.  As an American today I am a patriot. I strongly support republican government.  When I was in Britain and someone offered a toast to the queen I discovered just how visceral my loathing for monarchy is.

I was raised a Quaker in the originally very Quaker town of Plymouth Meeting, PA.  The Revolution was fought in the territory around where I lived.  And Quakers, as pacifists, were mostly opposed to the war.  So what would my position have been if I had been, say, 16 in 1776 (as I was in 1976)?

I probably would have opposed the American Revolution.

Since my 20s I have been a Presbyterian.  Of all the American denominations, Presbyterians were the most responsible for promoting the Revolution. If I had been 26 in 1776, I would have been more moved by the arguments of republicanism. But as a meliorist, I would have thought the arguments for achieving a republic by immediate revolutionary war were dangerous.  I expect I would have pointed to the the bad effects of a previous revolution, the regicide of Charles I and the gross excesses - Presbyterian excesses - of the Commonwealth.

I probably would have supported the aims of independence, but opposed the revolution.

If I had been 56 in 1776, I would have been more confident that justice requires changing the culture, as well as changing the laws.  I would have supported a movement for gradual, negotiated independence from Britain.  But in the negotiation we would firmly push for liberty for all.  Using the power of the crown on the way to an American republic, the United States of America might not have emerged until a generation or two later - without slavery.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Mitch McConnell is the Boies Penrose of Today


I recently read a claim that we will look back on Senator Mitch McConnell, the current majority leader and power broker of the Republican Party, the way we now look back on John C. Calhoun.  I do not think this is the right comparison.  Calhoun was a committed ideologue from beginning to end.  Senator McConnell, by contrast, has no real commitments except staying in power.  This is why his signal achievements have all been obstruction.

I think we will look back on Mitch McConnell the way we now look back on Boies Penrose.  This means:
a) We will think of him primarily as a skilled manipulator of the machinery of politics - a politician, in the pure form; but
b) No one but politics nerds will remember him.

I would guess that very few of my readers will have have ever heard of Boies Penrose.  He was a powerful U.S. Senator of a century ago, the head of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania.  In the words of The American Heritage, he was a "boss" of the gilded age kind, who, "having acquired power, wanted simply to hold on to it instead of parlaying it into something else. ... Among these Boies Penrose of Pennsylvania stood out.  ... he was the biggest boss of his day."

What was notable about Penrose was his cynicism about politics, politicians, and, especially, ordinary voters.  "Their tastes are very simple;" he said, "they dearly love hokum."  And he supplied it to derail reformers and good government leaders.  He stayed in power for more than a quarter of a century, spiting his enemies until death took him.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Non-Profits and Volunteering in the Greenwood Help Fight Recessions


“One extra non-profit per one thousand people added up to a half percentage point fewer out-of-work residents.” 

This is from Melody Warnick's This is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live.  We are reading this for our alumni study group this year.

The finding is based on a running study by the National Conference on Citizenship.  They counted a baseline of non-profits and volunteering per capita in many cities and every county, starting in 2005.  When the recession hit at the end of that decade, the Conference was able to correlate the non-profit rate with the unemployment rate.  

The result:  places with more non-profits before the recession had less unemployment during the recession.

Warnick's reading (following other researchers): places were people show more "place attachment" by volunteering, also show greater local investment in more material ways.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Reading Harry Potter Reduces Prejudice

My topic on WKYB this morning.

For this twentieth anniversary of the release of the first Harry Potter book, I was happy to review the studies of the good moral effects of reading this series.

The central plot of the series pits the racist villains, who believe they are magical "pure bloods," against what they regard as impure "mud bloods" and inferior "muggles." Harry Potter, though himself of a magical lineage, fights heroically with the good guys of all groups against the racists.

Researchers in Italy tested the effects of this story on children. With one group they read and discussed passages in which Harry and friends stood up to the racists.  With another group they read and discussed other passages, not dealing with this conflict.  They then tested the children on their attitudes toward immigrants, a stigmatized group in Italy.

The first group of kids absorbed the message of Harry Potter: they were significantly less prejudiced toward immigrants than the other group.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Helpful Neighborhoods Tend to Stay Helpful

My topic on WKYB this morning.

Neighborhoods differ in how helpful they are.

Robert Sampson studies "enduring neighborhood effects," to take the subtitle of his fine Great American Cities. He did surveys of Chicago neighborhoods, and found that they differ in how trusting or cynical they are.  However, what people say is not always what they do.  So he compared this attitude data with some ingenious studies of behavior in different neighborhoods.

People have heart attacks all over Chicago.  Sampson looked at how likely bystanders were to offer CPR in different neighborhoods.  This gives a map of helpful behavior.

Then, years later, he did a letter-drop study.  He dropped addressed, stamped letters all over the city, then counted how many from each neighborhood were picked up by a stranger and put in the mail.  This also gives a map of helpful behavior.

The two maps are highly correlated.  Helpful neighborhoods tend to stay helpful; unhelpful neighborhoods likewise have an enduring effect.

Sampson then compared these behavioral maps with the survey data. Here, again, there was a strong correlation.  People in helpful neighborhoods said they were trusting, thought local government was legitimate, and were more likely to create civic organizations to do good.

Other research has shown that helpful attitudes and behavior are contagious.  So if you want your neighborhood to be one of the helpful ones, start a viral trend of visible helpfulness.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Centrist Principle: Social Movements Come from the Failure of Meliorism

I write on the principles of centrism at the Gruntled Center whenever I think of one.

Sociology as a discipline celebrates social movements.  We look for the conditions under which people can be roused to activism for social change.

Yet in a centrist social theory, in a well-functioning society there would be no need for social movements.  The daily action of incremental improvement - meliorism - would gradually mitigate social problems and improve social life.  Social life will never be perfect, but the meliorist ideal does believe in gradual improvement.

Meliorism reduces social friction.  Social movements are like earthquakes, which happen when unresolved friction builds up.

The proponents of social movements like the conflict, as well as the social progress.  Centrists, by contrast, see conflict as a danger and a social failure.  We try to engineer a society with gradual progress that removes the need for social movements.