With an average audience of 18.4 million viewers, Game of Thrones is among the most popular TV shows ever produced. Many are drawn to the show for its grand storytelling of love, betrayal, war and power. However, those who study politics see much more beyond the plot. In this session, we will explore the politics of the show by reviewing select video clips and quotes and asking thought provoking questions. How do the themes of Game of Thrones help to inform us about world events today?
In contemplating the ‘crisis’ in youth voting and the abject failure of Canada’s political system to engage with young people, I’ve been drawn back to political philosophy and the ‘big questions’ of political life, freedom, and rights. Remembering my own university days, I recall with fondness and even excitement the mass mobilization of workers, young people, and politicos against BC’s program of Restraint (we’d call it austerity today) in the 1980s. The Solidarity movement in the province took its cue from Polish workers’ unions’ resistance against communist domination, and the coalition formed in opposition to right-wing restructuring in BC culminated in a series of strikes and actions that potentially would have affected all sectors of the province.
It’s hard to imagine such a movement today. The causes that appeal to young people today, including diversity and identity acceptance, marijuana, GMOs, and a free and open internet, are not trivial or unimportant, but they don’t lend themselves to mass action, and maybe that’s on purpose.
In Western liberal culture, people tend to be predisposed to individualism. Individualism is an idea or approach to political life in which each person is deemed to be rational and free to make their own choices. In taking on board issues like marriage equality and GMO labeling, young people are following this individualistic script.
The idea of the rational and free ‘masterless man’ (and to the extent that rationality was associated with masculinity, a man it most likely was) emerged as an icon during the European Enlightenment, where it was a revolutionary idea. Medieval thinking drew upon an organic and hierarchical vision of social life, in which the focus was on individual responsibilities to the social order. Identities and consummate freedoms, both of nobility and commoners, were always circumscribed by the demands of prescribed social roles.
Since the Enlightenment, almost all political debate in Western countries has been set up as an individual vs. group battle, with ‘freedom’ almost always associated with individual choices, and restrictions on freedom seen to emanate most centrally from the state.
The arguments of those on the side of the common or social good almost always had to concede that some (individual) freedoms had to be curtailed to be able to fulfill the larger social goals. Rather than being able to make a positive case for the social good,claims for group rights had the onus of proving the necessity of deviating from the default of individualism.
Even worse has been the tendency to associate rationality with individuals, and irrationality, or emotion, with the mass and the group (or the mob). People who follow groups, by extension, are irrational or driven by emotion. Our tendency is to re-imagine all social relationships in terms of the individual vs. group battle which shaped Western perceptions since the Enlightenment. But what if the individual vs. group tension is less of a battle of opposites and more of a continuum?
Today, young people emerge into Western culture with an elemental awareness of the importance of individualism in their lives. Parents prepare their children to be rational, self-governing individuals, conscious of their power and freedoms and willing to take on the group in the name of justice and individual freedom. It is necessary to equip young people with the words and ideas of individualism not just to protect them in an individualistic culture, but also to protect individualism as a value in and of itself. Without the inculcation of individualism into young people, the fear is that freedom will be lost to future generations, and the oppression and irrationality of the group will win out. In Western culture, we believe that young people need individualism to understand themselves as free people.
But individualism fails to deliver the freedom it promises. By understanding only the individual as the free unit, and not the group, we fail to protect and preserve freedoms for everyone. Having been told all of their lives that their fates are their own, that responsible and committed people will be able to succeed, and that protecting one’s own freedom of choice is paramount, young people eventually discover that their lives are largely determined by hierarchies, that responsibility and commitment do not necessarily create success and may even be punished, and that exercising their own freedom of choice individually is a limited and essentially hollow way to find fulfillment.
Psychologically isolating and materially disempowering, individualism as a social norm and as a model for communities is empty. It impoverishes democracy by discouraging social action, it reduces political life by disparaging the community, and it enables and empowers the abuses by the powerful by attributing success to individual rather than social factors. In addition to doing all of this, individualism also leaves young people vulnerable to attacks by the state. The Harper government’s efforts to impose stricter penalties on young offenders, to impose mandatory minimums in criminal law, and provincial governments’ efforts to defund education have been met with almost no active resistance by the youth demographic.
The point is not to return to an organic and stable view of social order as the highest value, as it was practiced in the Medieval era, but to reject the false dichotomy of individuals vs. groups, and to recognize that communities are the source of both individual freedom and the pursuit of the common good. To advance a notion of free societies, it is sometimes necessary to question the idea that individual choices are the only way in which freedom can be exercised. Freedom is also exercised when communities choose together, deliberately, to pursue common goals and purposes. Indeed, similiar things have been said by many ancient philosophers to be the truest expression of freedom.
Since 9/11, the wars on terror, economic crises, climate change, and humanitarian emergencies have led decision makers to institute new measures to maintain security. Foreign policy analysts tend to view these decisions as being divorced from ethics, but Unsettled Balance shows that arguments about rights, obligations, norms, and values have played a profound role in Canadian foreign policy and international relations.
Examining a wide range of events in Canada and abroad, the contributors to this volume collectively explore three key questions. What is the meaning of ethics and security, and how are they linked? To what extent have considerations of ethics and security changed in the twenty-first century? And what are the implications of a shifting historical context for Canada’s international relations?
Whether probing how Canada handles the tension between ethics and security when hosting large-scale international events, engaging in humanitarian aid initiatives, or entering into military operations, each chapter provides insight into key decisions in recent Canadian history. In a time of rapid change, this book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how Canada responds to the challenges of an increasingly volatile world and why it responds the way it does.
In my companion post (ahem) a few weeks ago, I mused about the potential for higher education to be vulnerable to the kinds of disruptive innovations occurring in other industries, like newspapers, music, and movies. This time, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. Although it’s sometimes easy to miss, Arts education is much more than attending lectures, writing essays and acquiring transferable and marketable skills. Indeed, as this recent survey indicates, Arts educators would be remiss not to respond to the demands of their ‘clients’ for a greater and more meaningful experience animated by passion, curiosity, and depth.
It’s this complexity that makes Arts education less, rather than more, vulnerable to ‘MOOC-ification’. The study of Humanities and Social Sciences requires an immersive and sometimes life-changing configuration of influences. The expression of complex ideas in simple language, the organization and prioritization of research, and the exploration of the human experience from a range of viewpoints requires a commitment much larger than a given delivery system. Arts education is larger than the acquisition of skills, indeed, referring to the complex processes of critical and creative thought as ‘skill acquisition’ devalues it, and is in many ways beside the point.
None of this is to deny that the institutional mechanisms of Arts education haven’t done some damage to the cultivation of critical and creative thinking. Large lecture-style classes, cookie-cutter tests and formulaic essay-writing are convenient for educators concerned with conveying mass credentials, and have played their part in the past in reducing costs. To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable. However, new means of conveyance cannot yet accomplish the kinds of personal, individualized experience that Arts education aspires to (see the Culture lab as an example of this changing philosophy).
To the extent that Arts education conforms to the industrial practices of other subjects, it remains vulnerable.
In addition, it matters that learners experience different Arts subjects in a manner that allows comparisons of their content. Most Arts undergrads take a few different subjects each term, offering the opportunity for cross-fertilization and meta-learning that can’t be accomplished by taking each subject in isolation, or ‘mixing’ and ‘matching’. For example, my subject of Political Science emerged from a time when the arrival of mass warfare, revolutionary movements, totalitarian governments, and economic dislocations prompted an interest in cultivating citizens capable of making critical judgements based on historical knowledge. This contextual knowledge of the origins of one’s society was believed to be a social good as well as an individual good.
Can Arts education evolve to meet the challenge of new technologies and disruptive innovations? There is alot of synergy between the distributed model of online learning, and the more concentrated model of the classroom. These two learning settings can be complementary. With individual practice, testing and writing done in a distributed or individual setting, blended learning means making more time for group discussion, interactive question and answer sessions, and customized coaching in a personal or group setting. Technologies can aid this process by enabling more time for intensive learning experiences when they are most effective, leaving educators the ability to collaborate and customize courses of study to suit their learners. This can shorten the time necessary to learn. However, making the most of disruptive innovation for the Arts means rejecting the temptation to reduce and narrow the purposes of Arts education to a specific and transferable set of measurable criteria. Self-development and intellectual growth do take time, and for many, these experiences should not be rushed. Blended learning, coupled with open educational resources, can also improve accessibility and bring experiences to new learners who may not otherwise have the opportunity, by reducing the price without compromising the value of the experience.
Disruptive innovations are those that open up new markets by creating a demand using a simpler or different package of attributes from those available in existing markets. Such disruptions tend to emerge in contexts remote from the immediate concerns of an established industry, but ultimately have wide and deep effects that can cause radical shifts. Disruptive innovation is often less about the product and more about the delivery system or point of access to the product. For example, most of us still watch movies or tv shows, but tend to download or stream the content rather than visit a Blockbuster. Most of us listen to music and follow the news, but tend to download or stream music and use the internet to follow the headlines. In the past, we may have opened up our morning newspaper or put a record on a turntable. One of the lessons is that it is not sufficient to rely on demand for the product to drive a given mode of delivery.
While it is difficult to identify industries and firms ripe for disruption, the tendency is to point to large-scale concerns with overpriced products and stilted business models based on industrial-era formats. Higher education has been in the sights of those writing about disruptive innovation for precisely this reason. Its reliance on mass delivery of material through face-to-face lectures, the credit system which offers degrees based on time investment rather than competency, and its increasingly overpriced credential system has the hallmarks of an industry ripe for innovation.
I would argue that higher education is not a perfect fit, however, for the types of analysis offered by Clayton Christiansen and Sebastian Thrun and others concerned with disrupting education and encouraging more radical innovations.
In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience.
In the case of higher ed, the product is less like a song or a movie or even a news article than it is like an extended experience. A better comparison might be with the travel industry, similarly engaged in delivering what might be termed an ‘experience’, and one which operates on the basis of time as an investment [or, in the case of a vacation or an education, a reward for effort].
Experience or even time is a more complex commodity than a book or a song. Although web-based booking has almost completely replaced travel agencies, professors are not like travel agents in that teaching involves a more complex and involved relationship than simply the ‘delivery’ of the material and the ‘reception’ in the mind of the learner. Music and movies are still ‘mass produced’ and streaming a movie or song is virtually the same experience as playing the song on a record or watching a VHS. In those industries, innovation was more disruptive because the experience the products offered were interchangeable. In education as in travel, the experiences are more differentiated and uniqueness is the stock in trade, and increasingly, it is the singular and unique interaction between the ‘consumer’ and the ‘product’ that creates and adds value.
it is for this broad reason that I hesitate to apply the frame of disruptive innovation to higher education. Yes, there are problems with the mass delivery model based on lectures and textbooks and tutorials. Yes, there will be challenges to the delivery model through MOOCs and even peer-led educational models as found on Redditt and other sites. However, a more likely outcome than a full rupture may be a disaggregation of the educational functions of accreditation, time in class, competencies, and resources. In my next blog post, I’ll explore a bit more how I see disruptive innovation affecting Arts education, which some see as particularly vulnerable to disruption. In fact, I will further argue that Arts education is actually less vulnerable to disruptive innovation than the STEM subjects precisely because of its unique character as an experience created by the organic relationship between teacher and student. Education is as much process as product.
After following the news for many years and thinking about world events, I’ve been able to observe some things about news gathering. I’m an advocate of reasoned and dispassionate analysis based on information, but it can be hard to be impartial when so much of the news today is biased one way or another. However, I don’t believe that reasoned thinking about international events is incompatible with advocacy. The strongest and most defensible points of view are those that are supported with evidence and with thoughtful and informed reasoning. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to be informed when the media obscures the truth. The rise of the internet has not made it any easier. In fact, speculation and accusations are given even a wider audience when things go viral. So, here is some advice, feel free to take it or leave it, and try to keep an open mind.
There are angels and devils on both sides, but this doesn’t mean the claims and arguments of both sides are morally equivalent.
In the aftermath of rage over the killing of 3 Israeli teens, many Israelis protected Arabs attacked by crowds on public transit. Many Palestinians have worked inside and outside Israel for peace and understanding between the two sides. Ordinary people on both sides want the same things everyone wants: a chance to live peacefully, make a living, and enjoy some freedom. Nevertheless, the costs of the long conflict have not been borne by both sides equally, and this reflects the large power imbalance between the two sides. This imbalance should be a factor when deciding one’s view. Here is an analysis that puts this conflict in context, and considers the ethical arguments. Here is another.
2. Real life events are [almost] always more complicated than they seem.
Folly, lack of foresight, incompetence and brutality can produce unexpected outcomes for all sides. Indeed, the last few months have seen an unprecedented array of crises emerging in a variety of global locales. In a highly competitive market, so-called ‘hard reporting’ has been replaced with shallowness at best, and inflammatory styles of reporting at worst One consequence is that there are few able to offer a strategic analysis of a event. One must often wait, or dig deeper, to get a better understanding of the big picture. Try to find out about what happened in the immediate weeks prior to the event, or read about the country and regions involved to get a sense of the context.
3. People and systems are distinct things.
Individuals, whether in a leadership position or not, develop cognitive frames over the course of their lives to understand the world and their position in it. Both people and systems will actively protect those frames, but systems take much longer to change course, partly because they are supported by longer generational memories. Systems are more permanent, and every system demands allegiance, but be careful not to identify individuals as symbols for systems, they are not the same thing. People behave differently in a group than they do as individuals.
4. Sometimes good people do bad things, and vice versa.
Beware of the ad hominem argument. An examination of the actor is often insufficient to explain any given behaviour or action. A given actor usually cannot be reduced to a single bad (or good) decision.
5. Opportunism is far more common than planned conspiracies.
It is almost never good strategy to organize and plan an attack on one’s own people in order to gain sympathy. The risks of discovery are high, and the results can backfire. For example, some explanations of the Odessa event of May 2nd 2014, in which dozens were killed in street clashes between pro-federalist and nationalist forces in Ukraine, strain credulity by claiming ‘agent provocateurs’ were responsible. Similarly, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu tried to paint a negative view of the opposition by stating that: “Hamas wants civilian casualties”. Be skeptical of such oversimplified characterizations and convoluted theories. Recognize that different sides will opportunistically use images to elicit anger and sympathy for their cause. Have anger, and have empathy.
6. People don’t like inconsistencies, but these are frequent and often deep in human events.
Cognitive dissonance is a psychological state that happens when information is contradictory. Individuals often go to great lengths to overcome the discomfort, including ignoring contradictory information, oversimplifying the facts, and narrowing the frame of reference. Try to recognize these strategies in yourself and others. Try to become comfortable with contradiction, blurriness, messiness, and complexity.
7. Every report becomes part of a track record, don’t forget the past.
Don’t base your decision on a single report, study, or bit of information. Compare today’s headlines with those of the past. Don’t forget when today’s reports conflict with those of yesterday. Follow stories that are given less attention, so you will know more about them.
8. All sides will try to appeal to emotions. Beware of manipulation.
The internet and television news are eminently malleable, with out-of-context quotes, selective information, and even photo manipulation. Watch for terms like “appears to be” and for leading questions that raise doubt or provoke. Think about what the media is choosing to focus on when preparing a story. Consider the effect of the format and phases of revealing a story.
9. Look deeply, look widely, and compare reports from a variety of sources. Look for hard evidence, not eye witness accounts.
Personal interviews are a mainstay of video reporting. They are ALL edited, and eye witnesses, even when sincere, are unreliable.
10. Beware of appeals to authority.
Even those with inside knowledge, high levels of education, and recognized credentials can sometimes lie. People can also be mistaken in their facts and biased by their education. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other UN agencies have long established track records and can generally be trusted when other sources are more questionable. However, they are also not infallible.
Social science is telling us that morality and generosity decline among the most well-off. Ever since I heard about this study at UC Berkeley I’ve been curious to imagine how these findings might apply to political systems. It seems that material wealth, or even the feeling of wealth, has a greater impact on one’s attitudes towards others than previously believed; possibly even a greater impact than previous political ideology, upbringing, or education! Studies have shown for some time already that generosity is more marked among those who have fewer resources compared to those with more, but now it seems we’re starting to get results that reveal even more about the nature of these differences. There are intriguing hints at the sources of these really surprising findings.
Nick Powdthavee, an author of a study of the effect of lottery winnings, found that greater wins tend to make people more right-wing and inegalitarian. He declared:
“We are not sure exactly what goes on inside people’s brains but it seems that having money causes people to favour conservative right-wing ideas. Humans are creatures of flexible ethics.”
Also in this study, the authors speculate about the effect on democracy, arguing that self-interest trumps morality in decision making.
This last point is where I depart a bit in interpreting the meaning of these studies. Moving to the right may mean supporting an effort to protect one’s own ‘hoard’, but it is only ‘self-interested’ on an individual level, not necessarily on a social level. Democracy is to some degree about keeping these tendencies in check and allowing a public good to emerge from the apparent conflict of interest created between the rich and the poor. The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so (due to their wealth, apparently). As the wealthy opt out of the social contract that makes things better for everyone, they undermine themselves by eroding the means by which the social fabric is maintained.
The paradox, of course, is that the wealthy MUST be on board the project of contributing to the social good at the very point when they are the least motivated to do so…
I assume, of course, that the wealthy are still in some way part of that social fabric. Wealth seems to offer a way out of social obligations and norms [for example, by letting people think they can drive faster with a more expensive car, even if they end up paying a ticket]. But why do people choose to opt out, even if it becomes more expensive, and actually less rational, for them to do so? Why send your kids to private school, pay your taxes to another country, or get your healthcare from a boutique provider, when comparable services can be obtained much more cheaply by paying your fair share to the common pool? It’s not exactly self-interested in the rational, economic sense, to do this.
I’m wondering if the answer has to do with the psychological need to control the environment, something that money provides unequivocally in a capitalist society. What one loses in material cost [private school is more expensive than public, paying a ticket is more expensive than driving according to the rules, for example] is made up for in control over the process. If it is about control rather than about wealth, it has implications not only for what the rich do individually, but how they act toward the political system as a group. For if the tendency to protect one’s own extends to the effort to control the society as a whole, it means the wealthy will make social laws and rules for everyone else that reflect their particular interests.
Fostering empathy in the minds of the wealthy may not be the way to go, as this article in the Atlantic suggests. A considerable amount of energy is spent in encouraging charity among the wealthy, which has had little impact on the mindset. Indeed, what is interesting is that most Americans have experienced poverty in their lives, if only temporarily, at one time or another. This means a significant number of wealthy individuals, and yes, even members of Congress or Parliament, have also experienced poverty. If the above studies are correct, it seems unlikely that this experience can trump the psychological effects of wealth, and the tendency to be less egalitarian or generous, that goes with wealth. It doesn’t seem likely that human nature will change.
Bridging the psychology of the individual with the need for a public good means bolstering institutions that supercede and limit the tendencies of the wealthy to opt out and to control the process. Unfortunately, many democratic institutions have been put in place to do exactly the opposite: to control and limit the worst excesses of the general public [see the Canadian Senate].
Public education, public health care, parental leave, elder care, social services, and even sewers and parks have often been thought of as contingent on ‘affordability’ (Yes I’m looking at you, BC Liberals!) In fact, by highlighting the idea of the public good, these institutions remind us of the vulnerability of the social contract to the psychology of wealth. Now that we know more about the effects of wealth on our thinking (and by that I mean everybody’s thinking) social planners should be better equipped to make the case for the defence of that social contract. That defence should strongly state the need for everyone, but especially the wealthy, to be included in the social project from which we all benefit.
Recent comments about climate change policy from conservative world leaders Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott suggest an important shift in conservative thinking about climate, science, and the role of country governments in tackling the problems of climate change. Having lost the public relations fight about climate knowledge, conservatives now either vacate the field or adopt a discourse of what Stephen Colbert might call ‘truthiness’.
Like the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes, the conservatives under Stephen Harper have ‘called out’ the world over inaction on climate change. This strategy has had some success. Harper stated recently that “no country is going to take actions that are going to deliberately destroy jobs and growth in their country. We are just a little more frank about that, but that is the approach that every country is seeking.”
In this way, conservatives can claim to be the real ‘truth tellers’ who can then freely take the low ground of inaction. By doing this, they make common cause with critics of climate politics while also maintaining a distance from the more extremist deniers [who quite frankly are starting to look rather foolish]. This discursive strategy is nothing new to the Harper conservatives, who have had some success in using it to justify pulling out of the international effort to negotiate a new agreement.
In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, a child is the only one who sees that the Emperor is not wearing rich clothes but is indeed wearing nothing. The child has done what none of the Emperor’s advisors dared to do, and so has credibility because of his/her relative freedom from social constraints. These constraints restrict what subordinates may say to the Emperor, and so make it difficult to oppose his views. The child, unrestricted by expectations, has the ability to speak their own mind without fear of the consequences.
Much is forgiven when a speaker can be said to be ignorant and unsophisticated, and the moral of the story is that wisdom and social value can come from the mouths of innocents not captured by the oppressive dictates of social expectations.
Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations.
However, taking a ‘truth teller’ role in international relations has many more risks and is far more complicated. Peaceful and productive international relations thrive on the mushiness of language in describing aspirations and expectations. Norms are built in the space created by uncertain statements, blurry commitments and nondescript agreements.
Social expectations and norms in other settings can become a straightjacket of nakedness, as the moral of the Emperor’s New Clothes suggests. But international relations is different. In IR, social expectations and common norms are flimsy and weak. The risk of defection from any common enterprise is so high that the appearance alone of cooperation (nakedness) is often the only thing carrying the projects of climate change agreements forward, and making progress possible. Bravery means a willingness to be at least a little bit naked, and aware of one’s own vulnerability.
For this reason, Conservative ‘truth telling’ should be seen for what it is: first, it is an unabashed instrumental rationalist strategy for defecting from a common effort to address climate change. It is not a cowboy-esque statement of independence worthy of respect for its pluck and grit. It is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Second, using ‘truth telling’ as a political tactic obscures the fact that defection imposes costs on all of the other countries seeking a means of fairly distributing the disastrous effects of adaptation to climate change. Defection means cheating. Any common benefits that come from an agreement, such as a reduction in emissions, will be enjoyed by all, whether they have paid any part of the cost of adjustment.
Conservative ‘truth telling’ is not brave. It is not radical. It is not inspirational.
Canada and Australia, as wealthy developed economies, will be enjoying the benefits of the economic adjustments imposed on poorer, less developed economies. Canada is not the weak ‘child’ calling out the powerful Emperor, but rather, Canada is like the Emperor exploiting the helplessness of his subjects for his own vanity.
Any real effort to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change needs to demonstrate a willingness to pay a price for the achievement of real emissions reductions. No one is saying that countries aren’t reluctant to take on that price. To say so is not ‘truth telling’ but a recognition of the difficulty of achieving agreement.
To recognize the difficulty and then back away from it reveals a self-serving policy that celebrates weakness and apathy, not strength and independence. Conservatives are banking that their celebration of ‘do-nothing’ policies will play on peoples’ fatalism and fear about climate change. Let’s not let the Emperor succeed in this vain pretense.