Think of that old story about the blind men and the elephant. Each one of those blind men, when experiencing the elephant, is asking a different question based on his individual perspective. What is this broad thing? What is this ropy thing? It doesn't occur to the man feeling the ear that there might be another body part that is thicker. Thus, he seeks to answer the questions his experience brings forward … and then he answers them with the facts he gathers. Ditto the man feeling the broad side of the elephant. Each of the men apply that same intuitive epistemology, and none of them gather all the information they need. It begs the question why they didn't ask each other what they experienced so they could gather all the facts.
Now, imagine this happening times X number of Americans … or Y number of humans. We all have different cultural backgrounds, lived experiences, and thus values that arise out of them. The questions I come up with as a liberal white female in America are inevitable going to be different than, say, Xi Jinping's questions. Is it any wonder that we all end up with different sets of facts that we then use to (at times) to disagree with one another?
Why I picked it up:
Last year, when the Mueller Report was released, I came across a new term: intuitive epistemology. It described how two different people could read the Mueller Report and come to two different fact-based conclusions, largely because they were asking different questions of it.
Major light bulbs went off in my head. Because I was seeing the exact same tendency when it came to people's examination of the past. That is, those who want a more inclusive history were asking one set of questions about the past, while those who want a more traditional (and perhaps conservative) history were asking a totally different set of questions. And, of course, those two groups were then finding very different accounts of the past that, at times, conflicted.
And then I started to see this in other parts of my work and daily life. Climate change. Vaccines. Immigration. Race. Gender. All topics that museums cover, and thus all topics ripe for conflict in our exhibitions and programs.
I needed to know more, so I went to the source of intuitive epistemology, and dug in.
What you need to know:
There are two big concepts, and two big things to understand
Concept 1: Intuitive Epistemology. Epistemology is the process and study of establishing facts, but intuitive epistemology acknowledges how individual values and life experiences deeply affect the questions individuals ask of a subject, and thus the answers (facts) they find. That is, when I, as a human, approach a subject, my values around that subject affect my approach, what I choose to accept as valid information on that subject (and what I ignore and/or reject), and how I make sense of it. And this often leads to …
Concept 2: Dueling Fact Perceptions. As individuals approach a subject from their own value-laden lens, they find the facts that tend to support their already-formed values. Since two people thus approach the same subject in different ways, and find different facts, those facts can lead to conflicting conclusions, or dueling fact perceptions. (Think elephant ear and elephant body … if all you know is the ear, the facts you know about elephants will conflict my facts about the body.)
Which leads us to two big things to understand.
Understanding #1 - We all practice intuitive epistemology. It is human nature. Conservatives and liberals do it. Those who are deeply religious do it as well as atheists. Scientists do it (valuing the scientific method is, of course, a value). We. All. Do. It.
Understanding #2 - Since we all do it, finding middle ground is practically impossible. There is no neutral. And because it is entrenched, it is exceedingly difficult to practice radical curiosity and courageous empathy to understand how others might come to their (opposite/different) conclusions.
Implications for museums:
Museum-goers are coming to museums with different sets of values … and that affects how they engage with the content museums share. It also affects how open they might be to hearing information that conflicts with their world view (answer: not as open as we might like).
That's why understanding peoples values, attitudes, and beliefs is so crucial when it comes to discussing big issues that matter. Such as inclusion and DEAI. Climate change. COVID-19 (and especially wearing masks). Vaccines. By understanding how they are approaching the subject, we can work to reframe questions with visitors that may allow new information to be considered thoughtfully. Because making that incremental shift in thinking matters. (And the results from the 2020 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers will look at this carefully … as well as how museum professionals approach content from different value sets than many of our visitors.)
Read or skip?
It took me, a motivated reader, 6 months to get through this book. Granted, I was a little busy … but still. That being said, there is a lot more in the book of value. If you want my running (and unpolished) notes on the subject, email me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com and I'll send them along.
Full citation: Marietta, Morgan, and Barker, David C. One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com
Why I picked it up: My sister is angry. As a liberal, she is angry that conservatives have taken patriotism away from her. She's angry that the values that conservatives have imbued patriotism with are not, in her mind, easily reconciled with what she believes America can and should be … the values she associates with this country. She loves our country, but is angry that conservatives thinks liberals like her are trying to destroy it. And she wants to reclaim patriotism.
I understand how she feels. While I am not as angry as she is (despite being, if anything, even more liberal), I am grieved that the conservative/liberal divides have deepened so much that liberals feel they can't embrace patriotism … and that conservatives could even think that liberals don't love the ideas and ideals of this country.
Yet this assessment, both from other sources as well as in my research, generally holds true. In particular, my research has yielded evidence about how strongly some conservatives feel that liberals are anti-American … even going to so far at time as to explicitly say liberals are actively working to destroy this country. And liberals, on their part, feeling a bit of bewilderment that their positions come across as anti-American while at the same time calling out conservatives for clinging to a romanticized view of the founding of this country … a view that also excludes any history that disagrees with that romanticized view. After all, an America that isn't just to everyone isn't really living up to its ideals.*
While this divide in America is rooted in many things, one of the things my research indicates it is rooted in is history and the different ways people approach, and question, the past. But, when I look deeply, my research also indicates hints of common values that may bring us together … not to agree, but to perhaps find common ground and a common path forward.
Which brings me to why I picked up this book. I'm searching for insights, ideas, and hypotheses about the work that needs to be done to bridge our differences in productive ways … and the role of museums in being that bridge. I want to have hope. And I'm hoping that Eric Liu's "civic sermons" on the ideas and ideals of America, and our civic life, will help.
What you need to know
The focus of the book is civic religion, which Liu defines as "the creed of ideals stated at our nation's founding and restated at junctures of crises (like today), and the deeds by which we and those before us live up to the creed."
The book is comprised of 19 civic "sermons," which are very much like a sermon you might find in a house of worship … except the texts are primary sources related to American founding and identity, and the sermons focus on what it really means to be an American.
Liu is a liberal, and many of his sermons spoke of his heartache at what he sees happening in this country -- not only the actions of our national leaders but also the implosion of civil discourse and responsibility. He wants Americans fight for what they know to be just and good through a context of American history and values, and to promote social justice as part of our American creed. I find that fascinating because history is such a crucial part of this. It is all about the relevance of history to today's public discourse and the social challenges facing us today.
The overriding emotion that comes out of the book, however, is fear. For Liu, a thoughtful fear, but still fear. And a diagnosis of a citizenry that is also full of fear.
I think the fear that Liu diagnoses is correct … I've seen it in my recent research on American attitudes towards inclusive history. Fear is real and palpable. This fear comes from both liberals and conservatives, is sometimes rational, and often isn't.
But if we are to find any common ground we have to use cognitive empathy to understand the fears that others have. Not necessarily agreeing, but understanding. We have to rehumanize American society, which begs the question of how we recognize our shared humanity in this polarized age. What can bring us together?
Implications for Museums:
Given how intertwined American identity is with history (and vice versa), and how conservatives and liberals thus approach history with different questions and ideas, it seems self-evident that history museums and historic sites are, whether they like it or not, political players in our current polarized society. And as trusted sources for history, that makes it incumbent on us to be a forum for civil discourse, whether the public explicitly wants us to do this or not (data on this forthcoming). We have a critical role to play in understanding what it means to be an American now and in the past … and bringing us all together through the shared values we do maintain, creating a future for us and this country.
This doesn't mean it will be easy. But if not, us, who?
Additional things of interest:
There are a number of themes that emerge that are relevant to history and American discourse today, including:
I also had three primary issues with this book:
Read or skip?
Read … slowly. If you want to practice being a American, and consider how your museum can be more proactive in helping visitors practice being an American, then you should pick it up. Just take your time reading it!
*As a liberal, of course I have a liberal bias in my beliefs. It is a bias I am aware of and try to mitigate in my research in order to present alternative viewpoints fairly. With that in mind, I have endeavored to fairly represent the research findings I share in this review … and to make clear when my opinion is being shared.
Full citation: Liu, Eric. Become America: Civic Sermons on Love, Responsibility, and Democracy. Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 2019.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com
Why I picked it up: As I wrap up a project on American attitudes towards inclusive history, I've been giving a lot of thought to the deep divides in this country, and how they are rooted in history. Understanding the perspectives of those who don't value inclusive history, and who I personally disagree with, is crucial if we are going to find common ground that can move us forward into a future that is full of uncertainty. (Senator Cory Booker calls this "courageous empathy," and I agree).
Thus, I want to practice radical curiosity and courageous empathy, as it is only by understanding those perspectives that are different than mine that I can understand how we can work towards making our society more just and inclusive. When I saw a review of this book (it was released only two weeks ago), I jumped on it because I wanted to better put my research findings in better context.
What you need to know: This book is an excellent primer on empathy and how it works in humans in today's society. It also explores how our society is shifting in ways that don't support empathy, with empathy levels generally decreasing. But it also shares that, like most traits, empathy isn't fixed. With practice, we can all become more empathetic, which benefits our collective fate.
Museums as empathy gymnasium.
OK, Zaki didn't write about museums at all. But if empathy is a skill that can be practiced, what is the role of museums in helping people practice it? Zaki discusses that empathy helps people recognize their "common humanity with others." That phrase jumped out because I see comments from museum-goers all the time that say museums help them do just that. (I tweet these types of comments daily at #imaginenomuseums; take a scroll through and you'll find examples.)
While museum-going may not be doing extremely focused training like psychologists do when they run their studies, it does appear that museums are a viable empathy gymnasium for flexing empathy muscles over a lifetime … especially for cognitive empathy.
There's a hitch, though. When it comes to opening people's minds to other perspectives (especially if they are resistant), reason and evidence are not great tools. Yet my research indicates that, at least when it comes to attitudes around inclusive history (and likely contentious science or social issues today), those who resist it the most are also most likely to say that museums should only present facts so they can make up their own minds. They tend to look for certainty, and this type of rigidity, according to Zaki, inhibits compassion. This doesn't mean we abandon facts (we can't), but instead consider how we present those facts in ways that reassure that we are presenting the truth while also opening the door, even if only slightly, to different perspectives that can engender empathy.
Empathy for "the other"
While I've studied this quite a bit in my work, this book helped me crystallize my thinking while also producing some new research and evidence that pushed me to stretch and grow to consider new insights.
In psychology, contact theory is basically the idea that the more we rub up against one another, the easier it becomes to accept one another and feel empathy. In some cases it isn't true (think alt-right responses to demographic change happening around us), but when contact is meaningful, it can help.
To some extent, I see this in my research as well. Over and over, museum-goers share that museums are important for exposing them to other opinions, ideas, perspectives, and experiences. That museums broaden minds, and that these experiences lead to prosocial outcomes (including empathy).
But I think we need to be honest about how museums do that because the exposure is typically indirect, through stories and interpretation and not through person-to-person experiences. That means it is likely more superficial than person-to-person experiences, and that's OK. Instead, museums appear to provide a fundamental first step towards exposure and acceptance, laying groundwork for deeper empathy in real life. In fact, if museums play a role in doing that for a lot of people (and my research indicates they do, as do some other informal learning activities), then that is a significant contribution to a kinder society. Helping move people from ambivalence to starting to care should never be undervalued.
Another way that museums help with this opening of the mind is by how we position our content. Zaki notes that sometimes for change to occur people's impression of their community's beliefs have to shift, and then their own beliefs catch up. If, for example, we think everyone believes blue is a horrible color, then it is easier to believe that too. But if we learn that all we are hearing is a very vocal minority of blue-haters, it is easier to shift our opinions to say blue is perfectly fine color.
This suggests that when museums mainstream content, such as a more complete and inclusive history, visitors better contextualize detractors as outliers. That shift of perspective can help create those initial exposures and contact shifts that are so crucial for eventual acceptance, tolerance, and understanding.
Zaki cites a study where white Americans were asked to read about the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of Europeans. Afterwards, "they doubted that Native Americans could feel complex emotions such as hope and shame." Why that result? Apparently, when people cause suffering, empathy begins to erode. It isn't so much that people choose to harm others, but instead adapt to the choices they have made. That is, they rationalize the harm in ways that suppress emotional empathy. In this example, whites today were rationalizing what whites did long ago.
Let's contextualize these results with my own findings around historical empathy. Numerous studies (some reviewed on The Curated Bookshelf) have shown that whites tend to downplay racial discrimination or rationalize it differently in ways that support who and what they are today. To support the status quo, that is. When it comes to inclusive history I suspect the same thing is happening. Those who are more resistant to that more complete and inclusive history are doing so as a defensive mechanism to protect their identity. So as a white-dominated society did, objectively, a considerable amount of harm to people of color in the past, whites adapted in ways to rationalize the harm, which suppresses empathy towards people of color today. This would, of course, extend to harms happening today (which are often products of the past).
But I would go further than that because in my work I find that many history museum-goers claim they have high levels of historical empathy … but, most crucially, who they have empathy for varies. Those that are more historically conservative tend to believe they exhibit more empathy for people of the past because they don't judge them by today's mores and values. Of course, that can also be interpreted as a way of letting whites off the hook for grievous harms to people of color (as well as women, LGBTQ, those with different religious beliefs, etc.). Based on what Zaki shares, this tendency of historical conservatives is likely a defense mechanism they use to rationalize the past and who they are today. (My research findings on historical empathy will be coming out in fall 2019.)
This doesn't necessarily mean that historical conservatives don't feel any empathy for those harmed in the past, however. But their empathy scale is likely out of whack, heavily weighted towards empathy for that white perspective. Zaki writes that when this type of imbalance occurs, sometimes the goal is to reduce empathy towards the in-group so that a better balance can evolve, thus improving empathetic concern towards the out-group. In my example, that would mean that whites with the most imbalanced empathy scale would need to pull back on empathy for whites in the past in order to have a greater relative empathy for people of color. Realistically, I'm sad to say, that is a very tall order.
Final thoughts: When it comes to something like inclusive history, or climate change, or vaccinations, I believe what I believe to be rational and right, and the most kind to the most people. But those beliefs are wrapped up in my identity and emotions (also making it harder for me to admit I might be wrong), and we see how that is playing out for everyone in our modern, and polarized society.
So I'm thinking carefully about how we effect change in ways that we can come together for a kinder world. And that means using radical curiosity and courageous empathy to better understand how those who I disagree with come to their conclusions. Especially when they think their beliefs are rational, right, and kindest.
This means listening and understanding beliefs and fears. It means considering how we can drive the biggest impact … and that small shifts in perspective can make a much bigger difference than we think. It means giving far more thought to the appropriate pacing than we may have anticipated so that we bring people along with us for the long-term good. Because not deploying that courageous empathy likely means alienating those we most need to reach … and losing them as an audience altogether. We can't risk that.
Read or skip? This book is an excellent introduction to empathy in today's world. For that, yes, it is a great read. If you are really deep into empathy work already, it is likely mostly review, but there is enough new content that you may want to at least skim it to find those spots for closer reading. I've read a lot on empathy, and I picked up new thinking to help me in my work.
Note: if you have ever had an infant in the NICU, I strongly encourage you to skip chapter 5. I powered through it (and then took my dog for a long walk). You don't need to do the same as it is the least relevant to museums.
Full citation: Zaki, Jamil. The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. New York: Crown Publishing, 2019.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
"The Field of Prosocial Behavior: An Introduction and Overview" - from The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior
Why I picked it up: I am delving deep into prosocial behaviors, as I want to understand the role of museums in promoting empathy, compassion, understanding, and tolerance. So, in my totally geeky way, I got very excited when I discovered this book that has no fewer than 17 articles that appear relevant. I'll be plowing through it as long as my inter-library loan lasts (thank you, University of Wyoming for sending it to me in Seattle!).
Overview of prosocial behavior: Prosocial behavior is exactly what it sounds like: behaviors of people who act to benefit other people. It can come in many different forms, from rendering aid to volunteering to sharing resources (basically, all forms of generosity, as covered in American Generosity - reviewed here). But while it is easy to identify, it is much harder to understand the nature and source of that behavior. Why do some people choose to help, to be generous?
Since prosocial behavior is "the glue that holds the social fabric of society together," the more we can understand its source and how to develop it, the better.
This introduction lays out :
My goals for reviewing the rest of the book: Most of the introduction talked about prosocial behaviors from developmental and heritable perspectives, which I agree are important in understanding the why behind those behaviors. But aside from developing exhibitions and programs that are developmentally appropriate, they are not the focus of my lines of inquiry.
Instead, I am more interested in the cognitive component that underlies behaviors. That is, what is it that we learn (knowledge gained) that broadens our minds and permits perspective taking, thus cultivating empathy, compassion, tolerance, and greater understanding? Or, to paraphrase His Holiness the Dalai Lama, how can we be more warm-minded?
But I want to also back it up even further to what motivates people to learn in the first place (in particular, curiosity). So as I wade through the 787 pages of academic explorations on prosociality, I'll be thinking about the links between curiosity, knowledge, and empathy and compassion, thus making us more warm-minded … and in ways that make this world a kinder, more just place for everyone.
Coming up: The book is broken up into four sections; I'm likely going to do a review or each chapter, selecting relevant essays and findings. These include:
And let's be honest. The stuff is dense, so it is going to take me some time to read and review!
Full citation: Schroeder, David A. and Graziano, William G. "The Field of Prosocial Behavior: An Introduction and Overview." The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior, edited by David A. Schroeder and William G. Graziano, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 3 - 34.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.