Danielle S. Allen is an American political scientist. A professor in the Government Department at Harvard University, she also serves as the Director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Allen sits on the Pulitzer Prize board and is author of several books.
SLD: With the US’ recent travel ban, thousands of students were affected and unable to return to their schools. On a larger scale – how can academia influence the government’s policy-making?
Allen: It is a challenge, admittedly. You have litigation strategies, no doubt. But you also must work closely with the administration to figure out how to make both the country and the universities happy.
SLD: How then can a university, or even you as a professor, be content with the way this current administration is approaching scientific facts, truths and alternative facts?
Allen: The role of science in policy-making is certainly unnerving. And it is all these scientific processes – fact finding, scientific investigation and hypothesis testing for example – that are at the heart of academic institutions and central to their reaction to Trump. A healthy democratic environment requires strong institutions that serve truth and scientific inquiry; journalism and academia are two core pillars of democracy, and defending those two core pillars is extremely important to civic society as we know it. Some work is political – there is certain data that are sensitive and only few people know how to handle; but some of it is also cultural – how to equip a broad people to see for themselves where good fact-finding practices are being undermined, and for them to develop a taste for valuable insights as opposed to emotionally provoked opinions.
SLD: How has this fact-finding changed due to the internet?
Allen: Let me tell you one of my favourite factoids – in 2004, the majority of Americans with a high school diploma or above read newspaper and news sites on a daily basis. Consuming quality journalism was a cultural practice. Nowadays, the percentage is at best 40%, and we have transitioned from being a text-based culture to a televisual culture. Testing interpretation, removing emotion and using factual evidence on both sides of a debate has decreased incredibly, because it is not as present in TV at all.
SLD: But how does that differentiate itself from within? Surely, within newspaper and TV there is a qualitative difference…
Allen: …it concerned itself with content produced by newspaper, the professional world of journalism pegged to the high standards of text-based information exchange. Today, people are mixing text-based journalism with TV, radio and social media. People are still reading, but the number of Americans who get news from TV is at ~60%.
SLD: So your argument is that Television is less factual and honest than journalism?
Allen: No, but there is a relationship here between democracy and knowledge. In this country, our knowledge production practices, our habits, were tethered to texts. In text-based journalism, you have theses, antitheses, claims and objections. The testing of a logic is spelled out throughout an article. When you switch to the Televisual realm, the structure is not like this at all. High quality vetting of evidence and information is falling away because usually there is no need to portray a balanced argument anymore.
SLD: So if you take that assumption, what do you make of the claim that we live in opinion-specific silos or echo-chambers? Clearly there is quite a polarized TV culture in this country…
Allen: …it would be false to refute that. People are forming different perceptions of reality based on the information they expose themselves to. The issue here is that there’s no touching point between people that have differing points of view, where they can have a debate and a process of vetting and arbitration. It goes back to ancient times, but the way we are programmed as citizens to conduct political debate is orally, by talking to one another. And I’m not seeing any of that happening.
SLD: So if we go with the assumption that the biggest academic institutions are liberal establishments, what can they do to set an example?
Allen: The most important thing here is the human connection. I’m currently on a combined research project with a Military School in South Carolina. It’s a very unusual partnership for me, but I believe that that’s where it starts!
SLD: When we look into this country, or also into other cultures, the interest to co-operate and willingly share ideas seems to be on the decline. Why do we currently see so many isolationist, even secessionist movements?
Allen: You have conversions of two powerful trends – income and wealth inequality as well as unprecedented movement of people around the world. Connect that with current low economic growth rates, the result will be social conflict, which I believe is what we are seeing right now.
SLD: Do we need a new social contract?
Allen: There’s an absence of the sense of common or shared purpose. Individual and shared problems are different, and difficult to pursue. Climate change for example – something that individuals, or even individual countries cannot combat effectively. Once global warming will have reached problematic levels, it will not be our problem anymore, as we’ll be dead.
SLD: So despite the internet, increased world travel and such we have decreasing levels of empathy and long-term interest?
Allen: Empathy is not a thing I believe in. Human beings are social animals and develop their world view depending on the community they grow up in. If there will be shared purpose, you would need interlinking conversations that forge such relationships. Despite that now many people live in several countries in their lifetime, or travel and migrate, most western countries have institutions that are still founded on pre-industrial beliefs.
SLD: What’s an example of that?
Allen: A big one is who is allowed to participate in elections. Because in pre-industrial times, the population rarely changed, there has never been any necessary debate about how immigration and participation in our (the American) political system has worked. In Europe, you are going along those lines, too, with populists such as Geert Wilders postulating over who should be allowed to vote. And this doesn’t have to do only with migration, but more generally with the mobility of people as a whole.
SLD: Asides from political involvement, Is there a breaking point to migration merely on the numbers side?
Allen: I won’t argue for a certain proportion. It depends on the competencies and capacities of given communes, whether that’s in upstate New York or southern Bavaria.
SLD: …surely the culture of a host people plays a big role…
Allen: …yes. Sociologists talk about bonding versus bridging relationships. Bonding relationships are ones you have with people who you share a culture or many common interests with. Bridging is when you have to go on a limb and stretch yourself further. Bonding relationships can be pro-ingroup, celebrating shared values for example, and anti-outgroup, so pursuing active exclusion; however, you can also have groups where you share pro-ingroup views and are neutral towards others. Tracing that back to migration, the host culture with a neutral outgroup view is, naturally, going to be better at making newcomers feel at home.
SLD: Is this finding of commonality the center of co-operation then? Not only on a civic level, ut also in terms of economic integration?
Allen:I think social life is about finding an answer to that question. We find our common values by talking to one another and learning about one another. It sounds lame and corny, but attempting to live together and being empathetic is the best way forward.
SLD: What’s the responsibility of the government to make that happen, then?
Allen: Tough question – I think the government needs to strike a balance amongst three factors. Firstly, an assessment of existing cultures being willing to facilitate newcomers, and to be realistic about that. Secondly, to have a clear view about the infrastructure in the country that involves learning and teaching newcomers. Thirdly, decisions have to be made to allocate resources to move this forward. It’s a tough undertaking, but capacities must not have a permanent limit on this. The best image I have for it is a hydraulic system – you can’t work the system harder than what it can tolerate, but in the case of countries you don’t know that limit in absolute terms.
SLD: Dr Allen, thank you very much for your time!