Toward a Saner Society? Part 1

Segregation, Filter Bubbles, and What We “Deserve”


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They started in May of 1961 with 13 men and women, black and white, boarding two interstate buses to ride from Washington, D.C., into the Southern states, challenging Jim Crow segregationist practices. The Freedom Rides escalated through episodes of violence and anger directed against these firm but nonviolent activists, into the willingness of hundreds of students, professionals, workers, clergy, people in all walks of life to travel away from what was comfortable and ride to sentences in Mississippi’s Parchman Farm, and training for some of the most critical moments in the American civil rights movement.

It was a period of extraordinary unity rising out of some of the worst inequality the United States experienced in the 20th century.

In the past couple weeks, this contrast seems to have been trying to make itself heard to me, in a series of “happenings.”  One was the airing on American public television (yes, we actually do have “national,” government-funded television) of the movie Freedom Riders, a powerful film documenting the experience of the anti-segregation activists who legally rode into the divided and divisive South of the early 1960s to challenge racial barriers and assert the equality of all Americans. It is history I knew, but not in such depth, nor with such personal testimony.

I hope my readers outside the United States are able to access and see it in full.

Another was the posting of a recent TED talk about the algorithms that increasingly govern what we see on the Internet. Eli Pariser, author of The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You, beautifully summarizes both the hope of the Internet – what I have always felt is the great strength of this technology, its ability to connect us across national, racial, religious, ethnic, and political boundaries – and the increasing “taste segregation” that it enforces. This idea is not wholly new; law professor Cass Sunstein explored it in 2002 and recently updated his work to 2.0, exploring the effect on democracy of citizens’ ability to screen out what they don’t want to hear and see.

Pariser extends the concern beyond the workings of government into the challenge of understanding a world in which our searches and advertising content are thoroughly tailored to our habits and (interpreted) tastes. From Facebook ads and post deletions to Google and other search-engine delivery of “what you’re comfortable with,” the attempts of (probably) well-intentioned tech developers to please the “customer” and market their products are diminishing the range of what it is even possible to see.

It’s all very well for me or others to criticize “the media” – but the media are now the impersonal mathematical codes that we employ daily, and we ourselves as we use these technologies.

I also had two conversations with “people of the opposite political persuasion” this week. One went badly; the other went well. And the one that went well was the one without the intervention of technology.

I like conversation, but I do not like “politicking.” I do not like the “us against them” polarization that occurs in every talk about the future of the U.S. or the global economy, of health care, of college education, of foreign affairs. I am tired of the silly bigotry of the Tea Party’s birthers, with their echoes of the Jim Crow South, and of the confusion of empowerment and enabling that takes place in liberal circles when no one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings so everyone ends up feeling abused. I can engage disagreement, but I won’t tolerate clichéd political disrespect.

In the technological exchange, on Facebook, I chose to “shake the dust from my feet” (Matthew 10:14) and depart both the forum of the conversation and the practice of contemplating serious issues on a social network. The eagerness of people to use Facebook and like technologies to make their points, regardless of the details in the conversation they interrupt, bears an unpleasant similarity to the antics of the Westboro Baptist Church cult. But this is another particular hazard of the technology: the inability to demonstrate a context by tone of voice, or glance, or body language. Without confrontation by a human presence, a riled-up individual can hop from an inflammatory talk show to reading news-page comment boards, then charge into Facebook to engage real people as if they weren’t, in fact, human. The conversation partners too often are left to pleading, departure, or vituperation to convey their displeasure.

The personal exchange had a certain tension as well – and it took place in a setting where I might have had more reason to be concerned that asserting my position could get me in trouble (as opposed to having posts screened or being “unfriended,” which is no great discomfort). My conversation partner is conflicted over the idea that government should promote the general welfare in any economic fashion, and that securing the blessings of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all should not be guided by decisions on “who deserves” and “who doesn’t.” In contrast, I believe this sense of deserving, as distinct from the sense of inalienable rights attaching to one’s humanness, is exactly what isn’t government’s business. It is not for a party or a government to decide, “These people deserve, because they have worked hard, are business owners, are successes; and these people don’t, because they aren’t.”

The nuances of that judgment reverberate with the echoes of a history that, from Nazi Germany to the Deep South of most of the 20th century to the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, found it too easy to equate “deserving” with what a certain group found comfortable.

In our self-esteem-focused era, “I deserve” has come to apply to everything from basic human respect to a healthy relationship to a good job. And yet, in its etymology, the word is inseparable from “complete service.” Service is inherently directed toward another or others, not toward oneself, and is not measured by success or earnings or the ownership of a business.

I find the current equation of “wealth,” “comfort,” and “deserving” utterly bizarre, because there are those who have done nothing to earn their wealth or comfort and who have performed no service, yet are deemed deserving by (for instance) subsidies, tax laws, and the like. By contrast, there are those who have worked hard, and uncomfortably, their whole life, who have not accumulated wealth, and who are being told by certain groups in the global landscape that “that’s just the way it is” and they “deserve no better.”

The word desservir, the French root of “deserve,” does not expose who judges the person worthy by their service. In countries that I find quirkier, yes, but saner than the United States, that judgment has simply been suspended economically, rather than having factions swing from determining one group deserving, then another. These countries also have a conflicted cultural tradition of “Jante law” – janteloven (Norwegian/Danish) or jantelagen (Sweden) – that, I think, underlies the unwillingness to pass that judgment, as opposed to America’s continuous bickering over the subject. (I will discuss janteloven in greater detail in the next blog.)

My conversation on social welfare, equality, and the questionable relationship between success and deserving went better than the one on Facebook for several reasons. Chief among them was the face-to-face encounter, which disallowed any hiding from the humanity of the other. Also important was the fact of some knowledge of the other person and a service relationship with the individual: the sense of reciprocity and a shared direction.

If society is to move toward a more balanced, “saner” state in these troubled economic times, I think the lessons of the Freedom Riders and the caution of the Filter Bubble are necessary to keep in mind. The Freedom Rides succeeded because people were willing to encounter each other, learn from each other, and present their human dignity even to abuse by those who hated them. The Filter Bubble diminishes that connection with others as human by screening information, tailoring it to what we want to or are accustomed to hear, avoiding the face-to-face challenge with its real, human vulnerability.

And as we see worldwide, the need to travel outside comfort zones and make the encounter is increasingly urgent.

Watch the full episode. See more American Experience.