Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The heartlessness trap of the meritocratic rhetoric

The meritocratic rhetoric works well in cultivating an ideal of providing opportunities for those with merit.

The very notion that if you have merit you can move through social structures is seductive.

In extolling the virtues of merit as individual ability and sheer hard work, the meritocratic rhetoric obfuscates the structures that constitute merit.

Merit, however, does not exist in a vacuum.

It is produced in societal structures, amid overarching inequities and differentials in distribution of power that define what is merit and then reward certain forms of merit.

Merit is a product of social networks and circles of influence. The ability of an individual is cultivated in relational ties, and in socially held bonds. These socially held bonds are further cultivated in schools of merit-making. For instance, the sites of educating merit are themselves further sites of producing elite networks of the meritorious that can then leverage these networks for a wide variety of implicit benefits in the future. From jobs to referrals to health services to education of children, elite networks cultivate and pass on the privilege of merit.

In other words, these implicit benefits of merit networks get passed down through generations. The children of those with merit get further access to sites of merit-making, cultivated in the habits of merit since early childhood. Children of the meritorious trained in such-and-such school miraculously find seats for themselves in such-and-such school.

The power of the rhetoric of merit, however, lies in obfuscating all these spheres of influence that constitute merit, somehow then cultivating the belief that success is one's individual achievement.

The rhetoric of individually-driven success, having erased the powerful role of social structures, cultivates the heartlessness trap. 

The elite start believing in the seductive appeal that they have earned the privileges they have. They also become convinced that those that are less fortunate deserve their less fortunate positions in society, that somehow this is all a part of a naturalized social order of things.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Culture as reproducing structures

Structures often reproduce their oppression through the trope of culture.

The concept of context is brought about to justify another oppressive policy or another disenfranchising aspect of the status quo. For the status quo, culture is a tool, one that conveniently allows the powerful to bypass critical interrogation.

To the extent that structures can render structural oppression as culturally situated, the conversation on transforming structural inequities is deflected. There are no basis for the organizing of social change as the structurally constituted inequity is constructed as cultural. The explanatory framework of culture thus emerges as a tool that reproduces the marginalization of the disenfranchised, consolidating power in the hands of the status quo.

One such example of the reproduction of the culturalist narrative to justify and reproduce violence is the "Asian cultures" frame. The depiction of "Asian cultures" as justifications for structural inequities works through the logic that Asia is different.

The argument goes somewhat like this "Because Asia is different, the interplay of power is shaped by Asian logics."

Such culturalist explanation would be fine if it served as an entry point then for organizing work that sought to transform the inequities that are perpetuated by these logics. Instead, the work of academics becomes one of reproducing these inequities by simply describing and interpreting Asian difference. Asian difference then becomes a trope for explaining the inequities in distribution of power, appealing to some Confucian or Hindu logic to justify oppressive arrangements.

For the powerful in cultural contexts, the culturalist trope serves the agendas of power. Hence, the widespread interest among the powerful in cultural articulations, framing these articulations as projects that reproduce the instrumental logics of the status quo.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The conservatism of behavior change: The limits of health communication as persuasion

The bulwark of health communication is built on the premise of communication as a tool of behavior change.

Since the invention of film, communication scholars, practitioners, and policy makers have been obsessed with the power of media technologies to transform behaviors of audiences that can be targeted through messages. Mass media as tools of propaganda are invested with miraculous powers of transformation.

The power of communication to bring about magical transformations in the behaviors of those it touches forms the mainspring of the lay obsession with magic bullet theories of the media. The media effects literature over the last four decades has robustly debunked the magic bullet ideology.

These magic bullet theories have been witnessing a catalytic return since the advent of social media in the form of the renewed interest in behavior change theories, now packaged in big data analytics, nudge, and behavioral insights. What these renewed fascinations with media technologies (in this case, with the latest version, digital media) often overlook is the empirical evidence that aptly captures the limited effects of communication technologies in bringing about behavioral transformations.

Why then this ongoing obsession with health communication as persuasion?

Amid the large scale global inequalities and the effects of these inequalities on human health, policy makers and academics in the status quo find in the premise of behavior change the hope for improving health while keeping the status quo intact. As long as communication technologies can nudge individuals to change their behaviors, large scale inequities and the structures that constitute these inequities can be left intact.

In other words, the system can be left to perpetuate itself, maintaining the status quo to the extent that health outcomes can be framed in the premises of behavior change. Hence, the growing interest in these age old communication-driven persuasive processes in economics and business schools.

Essential to the logic of behavior change is an overarching conservatism that reproduces the inequities in existing structural configurations. The moral question of inequalities in health outcomes is shaped by an emphasis on individual responsibility, placing the onus of health on the individual.

Behavior change reifies the neoliberal ideology of health, where policymakers and health communicators continue to see health as a product of individual behavior.

The neoliberal ideology of health communication fundamentally limits conversations with empirical evidence, with the body of work on media effects that is humbling in terms of the degree of faith we ought to put on the promises of behavior change. Economists and business researchers jumping into behavioral insights and nudge theories with gusto would do well to begin with the vast body of media effects literature instead of clinging to the seductions of an ideology that has largely proven detrimental to human health and wellbeing.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

No, I can't just roll over and lend you my solidarity.

We need all the solidarity we can have,
you say,
Now is the time
to stand up
Brown, black, yellow, White
All together
Voices raised together.

You say,
Now is not the
Time for critique Within
As the power must be checked
We need all the solidarity
We can have.

But solidarity
Can't be dictated you see.
I don't trust you.
Don't trust
your brand of imperialism
that stinks of
its colonial overtones
and undertones.

Your solidarity
doesn't stand by me
I remember
In your liberal glory
I become
another victim,
a relic of incivility.
But now,
You want my solidarity?

No, I just can't roll over
and lend you
my solidarity.
For solidarity
is won
shoulder to shoulder
through struggles fought
and bodies on the line.

The parochialism of the White liberal

The White liberal is in essence an interventionist that fundamentally believes in the God-ordained American right to intervene in the World to spread the message of democracy.

She comes in many colors, White, Brown, Black, Yellow. But in her heart, she is White.

Her Whiteness is epitomized in her unshakeable faith in her American values of democracy that must be spread the world over.

She is the defender of democracy. Spreading democracy is her moral responsibility.

The dazzling glare of Whiteness leaves no room for critique or reflection.

For the White liberal, the colonial nature of Whiteness must be erased as it is an inconvenient truth. Any conversation on democracy and the imperial mission is a distraction, we are told.

To retain the hegemony of Whiteness therefore is to place your unquestioned faith in the pillars of White liberalism and its uplifting message that saves dark souls. The parochialism of Whiteness is in essence the tool that perpetuates the hegemony of Whiteness.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Elitism and the gutting of the human soul

Elitism guts human soul.

As a way of dis-engaging from the world of the people, elitism defines the beings of experts, who, sitting from their elitist positions, make evaluative judgments and decisions about the "people," the population.

Essential to these judgments are value positions that accord legitimacy to elite expertise.

The elite class knows best.

The elite must decide policies and programs.

These decisions must be removed from the people to give them the legitimacy of expert knowledge. The elite vantage point is one of distance, cultivated through strategies that put up walls, distinguishing expert knowledge from populism, the way of the people.

The first step to elitism is the exhumation of the human-ness of connecting to people.

To become an elite, one must first be disconnected.

To be an elite is to stand out, to be different, to climb the established ladder of hierarchy to the desired position of power.

Essential to this climbing to a position of power is the erasure of human soul, the ability to connect with the people. Detaching from people is a cultivated strategy infused in schools of training and professionalization.

This turning away from people is the first step toward becoming an elite.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Culturally centering dialogue: When conversing across differences is the only way out

I have been struck by how often we call for dialogue only to silence difference.

The call to dialogue is usually from power. Dialogue, or the performance of it, thus is a strategic tool for the powerful in such instances.

As a strategic tool, dialogue is inherently un-dialogic.

It is un-dialogic because it is strategic.

Cultural centering of dialogue is a radical departure from this strategic notion of dialogue as a tool of the status quo.

To culturally center dialogue is to open to the idea of dialogue as difference.

Dialogue as difference is articulated "from" or "with" the margins, recognizing the human agency of those at the margins as participants in production of truth.

The recognition of margins as legitimate sources of producing truth claims inherently turns dialogue as a site of difference.

Rather than serving as an instrument of the status quo to reproduce truth claims as seen from the vantage point of those in power, culture-centered dialogue begins with conversations at the margins of social systems.

To dialogue in the spirit of the CCA then is to open up to conversations across differences.