Three Miles

A couple of years ago I ran into a gentleman in the business section of Vroman’s.  He was looking for a copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. We started a discussion about economics and inequality. A few minutes into the conversation he asked me if I ever listened to This American Life. He recommended that I listen to the Three Miles episode.

I listened and re-listened to the episode a number of times. The story involves a group of public school, University Heights High School, kids from a lower class neighborhood who visit an elite private school, Fieldston, just three miles from their neighborhood. What I heard sounded familiar. However, I was having a hard time analyzing the stories.

What initially struck me was this quote from Melanie, a University Heights High School student who disappeared after visiting the private school:

When we went there, we looked like a bunch of hooligans. I would say we looked like the goonies walking in a Wall Street building. I felt like you knew we weren’t from there. Like, who are these ghetto kids walking in? We just– we knew we didn’t fit in. We didn’t look like the rest of the students.

I recognized the signs of structural violence in the story. One of the most important ideas I have in analyzing structural violence is the economic concept of information asymmetries. Signaling, which is the idea that parties convey information to each other and screening, which allows one party to discriminate toward appropriate parties, are considered strategies to combat information asymmetries. They are also useful in imposing information asymmetries and conducting structural violence.

The private school, Fieldston, was certainly signaling class and status to the visiting students from the public school with its “18-acre campus on a hill” and “landscaped paths.” The screening is most certainly the $43,000 tuition. It was also noted in the program that Fieldston’s student body is 70% white.

The University Heights High School students were certainly signaling, going back to Melanie’s quote “we looked like a bunch of hooligans.” It appears that the signaling from Fieldston and its students was certainly overwhelming to the University Heights students based on another quote from Melanie, “I felt like a ratchet ass girl from the hood. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I just felt like I have no business in this building.”

The idea about signaling and screening is reinforced in this quote about Raquel, a young woman from University Heights High School who attended and graduated from Bard College, “Raquel has to not look at the mountain of evidence that what she’s working toward will not be possible, and instead has to repeat to herself, you do deserve this. You deserve this. You do deserve this.” Her boyfriend Jonathan suffered from a similar sense of self-doubt; his reaction upon learning of his acceptance into college, “My main thing was, who am I to be accepted into a college?”

There is also the implication of profound positive conditioning that affects the Fieldston students:

A lot of Fieldston students do go on to be politicians, and run Walt Disney and the New York Times, and host evening news programs, and design major American cities. And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.

It has been difficult for me to understand why this profound negative conditioning has been so difficult for the University Heights High School students to overcome. I have had some academic success personally, so I found this story particularly frustrating; especially considering that I could not quite put my finger on why this was happening.

Then I found this quote from Dr. David Hernandez of Mount Holyoke College:

My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues … about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves … It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them … It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.

I have visited elite private high schools here in Southern California. I have noticed that the students of these schools seem to be praised for even mediocre work. I graduated from a public high school in a poor neighborhood where it seemed that you could only win praise by outcompeting other students; only winners were celebrated. So the idea of pedigree is starting to make sense to me as an explanation for these phenomena.

I found an analog to this idea in the writing of William Deressiewicz. In his article The disadvantage of an elite education he writes:

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out; At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy of another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity–lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.

I am starting to see the whys and wherefores of this conditioning I am writing about, and the role of pedigree. It will take much more research and analysis to truly understand. I will have to stop before I end up writing a preliminary thesis statement; I could go on and on.

An Introduction to Maya

Maya is a big deal for me. I discovered maya years ago when I was taking a comparative religion class. Maya is a Hindu concept that loosely translates as “illusion.” However, as is true with many religious concepts, there is far more to maya than mere illusion. I will now attempt to make the case for why maya is a concept I use to make sense of the world we live in.

Ellwood & McGraw (2002) define maya thusly, “Brahman manifest in the world of forms; illusion when these forms are seen as other than Brahman” (p. 500). In this definition, the illusion mentioned is maya. To understand this definition you have to know that “Brahman (always with a capital b)” is tantamount to existence and reality. We humans have imperfect perceptions of reality and thereby we misunderstand our existence. The patterns and belief and experiences we possess trap us in this state of illusion. Consequently, we do not see the world as it is.

John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live provides an adequate representation of the concept of maya. In the film, a drifter played by (Rowdy) Roddy Piper discovers a box of sunglasses that allow him to see aliens when he wears them. The sunglasses allow him to pierce the veil of illusion that exists around him. While wearing the glasses, he also discovers the consumerist messaging hidden within advertising.

I reiterate that this is an adequate representation. The issues that the movie explores: class, social control, consumerism, colonialism, and others are all fodder for consideration of maya, but do not completely explain its scope. The forms that Ellwood & McGraw reference in their definition encompass everything in our lives and experience: childhood, education, socialization, that is, everything that we do and say in order to live our lives as comfortably as possible.

There are aspects of maya that seem easily discernable; propaganda and marketing being prime examples. However, propaganda and marketing are only discernable if we realize what they are. If we view them as types of information, such as news and entertainment, what motivation exists for us to seek out their meaning?

The context of maya that I find most relevant is in its role as a deceiver or a limiter of knowledge. A Christian theologian might link maya to the works of Satan. I think this is reasonable but misses the point; maya as a concept is based more on self-deception than the evil intent of outside beings. This is also the weakness of the They Live analogy.

However, I cannot argue that outside intent precludes one from labeling something as an aspect of maya. Consider the field of agnotology, which is the study of the cultural production of ignorance. This ignorance can be produced as a result of what we are told by the media or in our education. The technical term for this type of ignorance is an information asymmetry. One of the biggest reasons that information asymmetries exist is that they can be exploited for profit. Advertising is a prime example of this; if two products are indistinguishable then branding can help push a consumer to buy one over the other.

Anyway, this is meant to be an introduction to the concept. It is important because I intend to reference maya often going forward. I don’t want to just spring it onto people whilst I write on other topics, so, here it is. This explanation is woefully incomplete, but it is enough to allow you to know what I am talking about when I do mention it in the future.

References

Ellwood, R.S., & McGraw, B.A. (2002). Many people, many faiths: Women and men in the world religions, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

The Story up to now …

I have been thinking about how I got to this point. I discovered the idea of information asymmetries while I was  working on my blog The Digital Guerrilla Project. I thought it was a perfect way to describe the situations I was trying to write about: where one party is able to take advantage of another party due to a lack of information on the part of the latter party. This worked for a while.

Then I started working on a master’s degree. There I discovered structural violence, which is a system with information asymmetries built in so as to protect a particular interest. The study of structural violence worked out for me because it is in line with my idea that I would like to help people learn how to overcome power asymmetries and, as I later found out, structural violence as well.

As it stands, this is a thoroughly academic interest as far as I know. When I say academic interest I do not mean to imply that there is much interest in my chosen subjects in academia; I mean only to say that there seems to be zero interest in these subjects outside of academia as far as I know. I am studying obscure subjects hoping to unlock some secret that might help someone overcome power asymmetries and structural violence, or in other terms, oppressive and/or dictatorial powers. I feel very much like I am alone in this interest, but not really sure about that solitude either.

I know the work I do has academic merit. One of these days I will get published. Later, I will be used as a reference in the work of some other academic, and we will all be able to pat each other on the back. This is not my interest, however.

I want to write something that will inspire people to fight back, overcome, change the world. I want to write something that people can use to get them through tough times, to make decisions that help them toward their goals. I do not want to write some self-help crap urging people to believe in themselves, I want to write the self-help book that urges people to stand up and fight for themselves. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for, does it?

The point of all this is that I think I finally see a way forward that could be useful to people outside of the world of academia. I am trying to figure out how to make it come together in a coherent fashion. I am enthusiastic about the possibilities, in a way that I haven’t been before.

I will keep you posted.