Use ‘think about the news’ questions to confront societal myths and political paradigms

The questions asked about the Mueller Report over the last seven weeks represent a framework to learn, analyze, and act on social and political issues from a grounded perspective. So often our passion to respond to some immediate injustice takes us off on a journey for which we do not have a map. One of the primary reasons we established the Human Science Institute was a shared commitment to provide a map, or framework, to support the work of scholars and practitioners, activists and advocates, educators, community groups, and others who want to be effective in their efforts to contribute to positive social change. Sometimes a passionate response in the moment is required, but in the long arc of changing systems more considered attention needs to be focused on the roots of the problem. We describe this approach as a framework because it can provide a structure for any topic of inquiry. It can guide an investigation of the context of a problem or issue and reveal what is usually behind the scene: the purposes of individuals, groups, or organizations; the beliefs and values that shape their point of view and fuel their actions; who their activities benefit and who is harmed by their pursuits; and how to develop specific responses to counter both the beliefs and values and the behaviors that impact the well being of people and planet.

I have been applying this framework to the Mueller Report as a case study, so to speak, to show how individuals and their perspectives can be examined to reveal a specific point of view and identify the vested interests being represented. This assessment also revealed what is at stake in how ‘news’ is being reported (or not) and how we might choose to respond. What we have found and are still finding out about the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2018 election is that Attorney General Barr’s summary appears to represent the viewpoint of a specific client – the President. First the Congress said, no thank you to his interpretation, and then a letter written by the actual investigator, Bob Mueller, surfaced suggests that the summary misinterprets the report. This inquiry goes on fueled by small does of ‘noteworthy information,’ (that is real news), further speculation, and assumptions from both sides of this controversy that are turning into actual policies and practices and, for some, a looming constitutional crisis. There is actually no mention of what constitutes such a crisis in the Constitution

I have learned a lot that I did not know about our history and our institutions this month as I used this framework to understand just one controversial issue that confronts us. There are a number of societal myths and political paradigms related to this controversy over the Russia investigation that need further exploration before changes in laws and policies can be pursued. These include the idea of executive privilege, the separation of powers, the autonomy of the justice department, the nature of loyalty to the oath of office, and the work of various agencies whose allegiance needs to be clarified, including the FBI, the Central Intelligence Agency, the courts, etc. In each study the same questions need to be asked: what is the context and background, what is the knowledge, or truth that is claimed, what is the point of view, whose interests are being served, and, finally, what or who is being harmed.

In week one of the “to think about the news: Ask…? series I offered a brief introduction to Human Science, the humanistic social science and philosophical tradition, out of which our approach to creating “a more humane and ecologically sustainable global future” grows. That is the HSI mission statement and to that end we mine the ideas and practices of this approach to knowledge to offer practical tools for engaged scholarship and participation in making the world a better place for more people. I described this approach in week 1 as an approach to research (inquiry) that arose out of the realization that the natural sciences could not tell us much about human ideas, thoughts, and behaviors that were not measureable. A new model of inquiry, qualitative research methods that explore these from the perspective of the experience of individuals. Personally, I think these “research” skills are very much intuitive and we sort of forget them as we become embedded in our ‘in group’ think as we grow up in a family, region, culture, etc. But, without the innate capacities to assess our environment and figure out what is safe and who is going to hurt or help me human beings would not have survived for long. The other set of innate capacities are those related to altruism, much documented by my favorite primatologist, Frans De Waal who you will find me quoting often here.[1] If you want to more about the development of this framework and this kind of analysis there are resources on the HSI website that go into some depth on the lineage of Human Science and a range of social science and humanities disciplines integrate this approach. If you want to know more about putting these insights and tools into practice in the specifically political challenges of the day, visit Still Doing Democracy (https://stilldoingdemocracy.com/), a sponsored project of HSI. Jim Smith and I are applying this lens to the issue of securing our Democracy in a blog, developing a training program, and working on the book Still Doing Democracy: Finding Common Ground and Acting for the Common Good.

[1] Franz De Waal (2019). Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What they Tell Us About Ourselves

JoAnn McAllister

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