infantilization, risk (in)tolerance, the western electorate, and mit

this post has the potential to be a doozy but i’m going to try and keep it tight and high-level. let’s see how it goes.

so in the past couple of years, i’ve noticed that people with significant amounts of power are infantilzing people to whom they hold power over, often the very people who gave/give them the power they hold. this has shown up in two different areas of life.

the first is illustrated in the lyndsey stonebridge episode of on being. an extended quote is at the bottom of this post, but the gist of her statement is this: the way that our recent elections in both the uk and the us were really disingeniune in that they infantilized the public and voting populations. “The way both our recent elections were fought were on absolutes.” but any sentient adult knows that uncertainty is a part of life. so by running campaigns based on promises that can’t be kept (or at least promising things (safety, prosperity) that can’t be promised), what the politicians do, in effect, is mask reality from their electorates, hope to win voters over to their side with false promises, and then fight a battle of promises against the other party/parties. this essentially asserts that the electorate can’t handle the truth.

and, unfortunately, the narratives and systems we live in support this behavior.

the second area of life is illustrated by my experiences at mit over the past ten-ish years. i have two examples that i could go into in detail, but to keep it brief, i’ll stay high level. the first example is the general attitute of campus adminstration towards independent living groups. among both fraternities (of which i was an active member and am now an alum), sororities, and other independent groups, campus has taken an increasingly hostile attitude to the autonomy of those groups. imo, what’s happening, in effect is this (spoken from the campus point of view): “our response to you screwing up is a permanent reduction in your freedom. we will do this gradually, slowly enough that our staying power as administrators will outlast your four-year stints as students. we will eventually remove you from campus because you are too much of a risk to our reputation.”

to me, this is a fundamentally asinine approach. basically what they’re saying is that since yougn poeple make mistakes, we should remove their freedoms to the point where they can no longer make mistakes. this is valuable in the short-term, for sure. but what i can’t imagine they’re seeing, is that, over time, they’re creating groups of people who know less and less how to make decisions to advance their own wellbeing in complex, real world situations.

the second example is a bit of a twist on this logic, but it’s embodied in the media lab’s shifting approach to openness.

i watched the new media lab extension get built from my dorm (which the administration has recently shut down). i remember the days when basically anyone could roll into the media lab at almost any time of day. nowaydays there are signs everywhere that say stuff like “only lab faculty, researchers, and students allowed and NO photography.” the logic of global capitalism is one of secrets, scale, and homogeneity. this is counter, imo, to the logic that made mit what it is: openness, connection, relationship, surprise, delight, happenstance.

omg ok i need to stop. this is jumbled, but the thread is there. i should refine this… some day. maybe.

ps - i also think the entire idea of the engine is a distant but related facet of this whole shift, part of which is driven by business logic, logic that feigns risk-tolerance, but only tolerance insofar as it continues to bring increasing returns to capital.

pps - the antidote, imo, to all of this is a healthy dose of reality. change is constant. tomorrow isn’t promised. people make mistakes. learning is possible. actions have consequences. basic truths like these being more deeply embedded into our politices and practices are a way (the way?) to reject infantilization.

extended quote

MS. STONEBRIDGE: And also, my image of Arendt was always, oh she’s kind of really tough and she talks truth to lots of things. What’s this stuff about forgiveness? It sounds a bit meh. And what she means is if you’re going to have a culture that takes risks, if you’re going to embody risks, and if we’re going to get to anything like equal liberty or better — a better political cultural, or at least a culture of ideas, you’re going to have to take risks. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to get things wrong. [laughs] And you’re going to make errors.

And so, a mature political community needs the capacity for forgiveness to accept that things go wrong. People make mistakes. And I think that again if you turn back to your earlier point about the culture in Great Britain and the US at the moment, one of the responses to that loneliness is people to want an alternative, which is a fantasy, where everything will be looked after. “We’re going to we’re going to do this, and it will be fine.” And so the capacity to have a kind of political community based on, well, it’s going to be imperfect. The way both our recent elections were fought were on absolutes.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. There are promises been made that can’t be kept.

MS. STONEBRIDGE: Promises that can’t be kept, and watch and wait. But also a kind of infantilization of electorates which goes — “We will make the world safe.” And you think, “Are you kidding? I’m 52 years old. I know you’re not going to make the world safe. Feed me another line.” [laughs]

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