Moral minimalism and addressing social issues

In the 1989 study The Moral Order of a Suburb, sociologist M. P. Baumgartner argued that suburban order rested on what she called “moral minimalism”:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

In a later description of moral minimalism, she writes:

Moral minimalism entails a considerable degree of indifference to the wrongdoing of others…If people in such places cannot be bothered to take action against those who offend them or to engage in conflicts, neither can they be bothered to help those in need. (131)

Most residents do not want to involve third parties when conflict arises (unless it involves strangers) – it would be better to do nothing at all.

The pervasive moral minimalism found in the suburbs contrasts sharply with claims that American society is particularly violent or litigious. However true such characterizations may be for other settings, they do not reflect suburban reality. Residents of suburbs like Hampton rarely aggress against one another physically, and for them, law remains primarily a theoretical option for handling grievances that arise in their everyday lives. They are happy to have police at as their champions in preventing and resolving trouble that unknown persons might cause, but beyond this, they have very little use for law. When problems occur, most people do not seriously consider recourse to legal officials, and, in fact, they generally act as if law did not exist at all. In this sense, suburbia is a king of limited anarchy. (127)

In conclusion:

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

All of this does not lend itself to addressing social issues or community problems. If people are used to leaving each other alone and avoiding conflict, what happens when legitimate structural issues arise? Or, what happens when others make the case that addressing a structural issue is necessary or helpful? Or, if there is need, how do people used to moral minimalism respond? Convincing suburbanites to move on from moral minimalism, particularly when it seems to “work” in wealthier, whiter communities where people have the resources and agency to generally do what they want (having a single-family home, a good life for their kids, etc.), is a difficult task.

Repost: race matters in American life until we can show it does not

Watching police brutality and the response from all sides reminds me of a post I made on a similar topic on September 28, 2011:

I like how Harris-Perry flips this objection: looking at the broad sweep of American history, from its days of more overt racism to more covert racism today, why don’t we assume that racism plays a role in everyday life in this society? Can we really assume, as many seem to do, that the issues with race ended at some point, either in the Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s or in the election of minority politicians or the ending of segregationist society in the South? With plenty of indicators of racial disparity today, from online comments from young adults to incarceration rates to homeownership to wealth to residential segregation, perhaps we should we see racism as a default feature of American society until proven otherwise.

I would argue the story is not any different in 2020. The disparities are still present, police actions repeat themselves, and there are predictable disagreements about what it all means (with the calls to choose between opposing police violence and “law and order”).

Maps, distortions, and realities

Maps do not just reflect reality; a new online exhibit at the Boston Public Library looks at how they help shape reality:

desk globe on shallow focus lens

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The original topic was to do an exhibition of a classic category of maps called persuasive cartography, which tends to refer to propaganda maps, ads, political campaign maps, maps that obviously you can tell have an agenda. We have those materials in our collections of about a quarter million flat maps, atlases, globes and other cartographic materials. But we decided in recognition of what’s going on now to expand into a bigger theme about how maps produce truth, and how trust in maps and other visual data is produced in media and civil society. So rather than thinking about just about maps which are obviously treacherous, distorting, and deceptive, we wanted to think about how every map goes about presenting the world and how they can all reflect biases and absences or incorrect classifications of data. We also wanted to think about this as a way to promote data literacy, which is a critical attitude towards media and data visualizations, to bring together this long history of how maps produce our sense of reality…

We commissioned a special set of maps where we compiled geographic data about the state of Massachusetts across a few different categories, like demographics, infrastructure, and the environment. We gave the data to a handful of cartographers and asked them to make a pair of maps that show different conclusions that disagree with each other. One person made two maps from environmental data from toxic waste sites: One map argues that cities are most impacted by pollution, and the other says it’s more rural towns that have a bigger impact. So this project was really meant to say, we’d like to think that numbers speak for themselves, but whenever we’re using data there’s a crucial role for the interpreter, and the way people make those maps can really reflect the assumptions they’ve brought into the assignment…

In one section of the show called “How the Lines Get Bent,” we talk about some of the most common cartographic techniques that deserve our scrutiny: whether the data is or isn’t normalized to population size, for example, will produce really different outcomes. We also look at how data is produced by people in the world by looking at how census classifications change over time, not because people themselves change but because of racist attitudes about demographic categorizations that were encoded into census data tables. So you have to ask: What assumptions can data itself hold on to? Throughout the show we look at historic examples as well as more modern pieces to give people questions about how to look at a map, whether it’s simple media criticism, like: Who made this and when? Do they show sources? What are their methods, and what kinds of rhetorical framing like titles and captions do they use? We also hit on geographic analysis, like data normalization and the modifiable area unit problem…

So rather than think about maps as simply being true or false, we want to think about them as trustworthy or untrustworthy and to think about social and political context in which they circulate. A lot of our evidence of parts of the world we’ve never seen is based on maps: For example, most of us accept that New Zealand is off the Australian coast because we see maps and assume they’re trustworthy. So how do societies and institutions produce that trust, what can be trusted and what happens when that trust frays? The conclusion shouldn’t be that we can’t trust anything but that we have to read things in an informed skeptical manner and decide where to place our trust.

Another reminder that data does not interpret itself. Ordering reality – which we could argue that maps do regarding spatial information – is not a neutral process. People look at the evidence, draw conclusions, and then make arguments with the data. This extends across all kinds of evidence or data, ranging from statistical evidence to personal experiences to qualitative data to maps.

Educating the readers of maps (and other evidence) is important: as sociologist Joel Best argues regarding statistics, people should not be naive (completely trusting) or cynical (completely rejecting) but rather should be critical (questioning, skeptical). But, there is another side to this: how many cartographers and others that produce maps are aware of the possibilities of biased or skewed representations? If they know this, how do they then combat it? There would be a range of cartographers to consider, from people who make road atlases to world maps to those working in media who make maps for the public regarding current events. What guides their processes and how often do they interrogate their own presentation? Similarly, are people more trusting of maps than they might be of statistics or qualitative data or people’s stories (or personal maps)?

Finally, the interview hints at the growing use of maps with additional data. I feel like I read about John Snow’s famous 1854 map of cholera cases in London everywhere but this has really picked up in recent decades. As we know more about spatial patterns as well as have the tools (like GIS) to overlay data, maps with data are everywhere. But, finding and communicating the patterns is not necessarily easy nor is the full story of the analysis and presentation given. Instead, we might just see a map. As someone who has published an article using maps as key evidence, I know that collecting the data, putting it into a map, and presenting the data required multiple decisions.

Of the urban residents fleeing for suburbs, how many of them are living in dreaded McMansions?

McMansions have attracted the criticism of many (examples here and here). However, what if some of the wealthy urban dwellers fleeing COVID-19 hotspots end up in a suburban McMansion?

Wealthy New Yorkers, who once looked down on anyone quitting the vibrant city for a McMansion and manicured lawn, are doing exactly that.

Egads! The horror! Even worse, what if those urbanites in suburban McMansions decide to stay for a while and come to enjoy parts of their new suburban lives?

high angle shot of suburban neighborhood

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It is easy here to connect the critiques of McMansions to the broader concerns about suburbs expressed by numerous critics since the early twentieth century. McMansions have multiple issues of their own but suburbs are connected to conformity, ticky-tacky houses, provincialness, middle-class lifestyles, unnecessary consumption, and more. For some urbanites, the suburbs represent the opposite of dynamic, diverse, cosmopolitan, and engaging cities or urban neighborhoods.

Another way to think about this is to consider how much of city life city-dwellers pre-COVID-19 might bring to suburbs. Are the suburbs such a totalizing place that any vestiges of life in New York City disappear? And vice versa: if these residents end up back in New York City, will they bring suburban expectations and values to the city? How many McMansions are there in s the numerous single-family home neighborhoods in many American cities?

The same writer thinks the move to the suburbs is relatively short-lived as the city has many advantages:

The old trade-offs involved in moving to the exurbs or suburbs aren’t going to disappear overnight. France’s Gilets Jaunes stormed Paris precisely to protest the decaying quality of life outside cities. The typical U.S. city resident lives near almost three times as many jobs as a typical suburbanite, according to the Brookings Institution. Those jobs pay better, too, with average wages per worker in urban areas some 46% higher than lower-density suburbs. So it’s likely that making the move will mean trading subway rides for car commutes. And when journeys get longer, there’s generally less inclination to travel to enjoy the fun stuff — the so-called “friction of distance.”

And make no mistake, the fun stuff will be around as long as cities can keep attracting people, money and ideas. In the 1980s and 1990s, metropolises like London and New York reversed decades of decline by focusing on services such as finance and leisure rather than factories. While it’s true that excessive property speculation turned them into playgrounds for the rich, threatening their draw as diverse and creative melting pots, things could change for the better. The next reinvention, according to urbanism expert Laurent Chalard, will be about making cities less dense and more livable: More cycling, fewer cars, bigger homes. Outside the city, life may end up less green and less convenient.

Given the long-term preferences many Americans have for suburban life, this may continue to be a hard sell.

Internet shaming vs. shaming with silent disgust

Internet shaming is popular but is it effective? One writer suggests private shame is a better route:

apps business cellphone cellular telephone

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Internet-based outrage nearly always gives way, like most mob action, to what the sociologist Randall Collins calls “forward panic”—a mad dash in which individual shamers efface their own identity in the rush to attack a single individual. Last night, the object of this rush was a white woman who, in a short video clip, appeared to be threatening an innocent black bird-watcher while inadvertently strangling her own cocker spaniel. If the goal was to make her pay for her misdeeds with her reputation, her guardianship of the cocker spaniel, and perhaps her job, it was accomplished within the first 60,000 retweets; for her detractors, the subsequent 100,000 (and counting) have been pure gravy. But other tools are available—precision tools that save us from the indignity of the pile-on and allow us to spread the outrage more effectively.

Silent disgust: Have you tried it recently? The effect is potent. In his 2010 book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah describes a two-step process by which historic moral changes swept over societies. The first is to decide that some practice (dueling, say, or foot-binding) is wrong. But that is not enough. Practices that are wrong can be honorable. Dueling, for example, was widely considered murder—but an honorable form of murder—until the real moral revolution happened and English gentlemen decided that it was wrong but also dishonorable, and the practice ended in the 18th century…

The nature of silent disgust is that you don’t hear about it. There are no viral videos of people not accepting invitations to a cookout. The lack of public shaming may seem like a disadvantage, but it is in fact an advantage—and more so now, in the era of trolling, than before. A troll is someone who gets a thrill from provoking a mob, and who prefers to provoke a mob by violating a rule that the mob holds dear. In fact, the dearer the better: that is the diseased psychology of much of public life now. Private shaming removes the transgressive joy that the troll seeks. All the confrontation happens in muttered comments, in invitations that never come, in expulsion from society without the courtesy of a notice.

And the troll, having failed, has a chance to repent, if the shaming is private. Eventually the offender notices the embarrassment of former friends—and because the disgust is silent, she can hold out hope for an equally silent restoration of social status. One day she shows up at the grocery store with a tasteful homemade mask. Or the neighbor who went to the Ozarks announces casually that he is quarantining for a couple of weeks, just to be on the safe side.

As a sociologist, the first thing that sticks out to me about the description of private shaming above is that it relies on social interactions between people who know each other or within specific communities. Internet shaming allows people far and wide to weigh in. Private shaming takes place within existing social bonds. People today may have fewer social bonds or communities but they still have some and are not just people floating around social media or the Internet without anchors to other people.

A second sociological feature of above: there is an opportunity to repent or restore those social bonds. The surrounding people or community register the disgust and then the actor has an opportunity to respond. They may still disagree with the shame they received but since it is done within existing bonds, it may be harder to completely sever the relationship.

Two other quick thoughts:

1. Shame these days is complicated. In some instances, we would not want to provoke shame, such as within children. In other instances, promoting shame is seen by many as good to prompt change.

2. If you want to read more about the earlier days of Internet and social media shaming, I recommend Jon Ronson’s 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Adapting “What Do People Do All Day?” for COVID-19

Spotted on Facebook the other day: an alternative version of Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All D Richard Scaarry’s What Do People Do All Day?

It is relatively easy to focus on the big-picture issues with COVID-19 without thinking too much about how so many daily routines have changed. Kids tend to like routine and children’s books help explain what kids and everyone else do.

Additionally, Richard Scarry’s original connected daily activities to a number of larger schemes including how people make money, various modes of travel, the construction of roads and houses, and the production of food, water, energy, and wood.

Maybe this is part of why I am a sociologist: these quotidian activities all add to something as well as reflect larger social forces at work. If culture is “patterns of meaning-making” as sociologists of culture argue, then even the mundane things are worth something. When these daily patterns change, they might signal something momentous, whether it is through personal maturation or changed life circumstances or global pandemics. Similarly, a big question coming out of COVID-19 is how much the disruptions from several months of shelter-in-place stick with people. For example, will people want to commute as much? Return to an office for work? Consume as much? And children who have new routines may carry these changes through many years and subsequent experiences.

Returning to a traffic-filled world – or moving to reduce traffic in the future

With activity picking back up, traffic and driving is trending up. Will people go back to accepting the typical commute at just over 27 minutes one way? Or, will people get behind options that might reduce traffic?

Here are a few alternatives:

  1. More working from home would reduce traffic. This seems popular and limits the need for commuting. (Bonus: no one is changing roadways like some of the below options.)
  2. Closing streets to allow more space in cities could extend further. Indeed, cities have already tried this in small doses before COVID-19.
  3. Road diets try to limit the lanes available to drivers. Fewer lanes means more congestion which could discourage driving.
  4. Continuing to close major highways in urban areas (like Seoul and Seattle) and instead devoting the land to pedestrians, bicyclists, and local users.
  5. Promoting more mass transit options and/or coverage throughout regions.
  6. Providing more opportunities for pedestrians and bicyclists – or at least trying to keep them safe.
  7. Providing more housing close to jobs so that commutes do not have to be so long.

Americans like driving yet COVID-19 does provide an opportunity to rethink how much driving Americans do on a daily basis. Is this the system people want or is it more of what happened given American interests in suburbs and single-family homes?