Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Social Contract Breaks

Great religious awakenings tend to be associated with major social fabric breaks, particularly morality and its relation and applicability to different group levels.  One way to look at this is via social exchange theory.

The basic idea here is that there are tacit agreements between different parties.  I'll scratch your back here, if you scratch mine there.  In effect, you get non-explicit contracts which are largely mediated by intention rather that legalisms.

As a moral institution in bureaucratic wrappings, education has a lot of social exchange contracts (tacit contracts).  This is neither good nor bad.  It just is.

But, one implication is that major disturbances to social exchanges create hyper-sensitized dynamics. Things that were once a minor ask (arrive early to work) can quickly take on sacralized proportions (how dare they make me watch students on my free time).

The interesting thing is that once social breaks start to occur they have significant feedback effects.  We're seeing this in the states with intersectional post-modern activism and popularist nationalism.  Education is no different.  Social exchange breaks in school systems can lead to "great religious awakenings".  Teachers and staff now have the ability to question hitherto implicit social exchange contracts.  "Why do I need to arrive early?"  "What does all this marking really get me?  What does it get my students?"  Of course, these are great ways to rationalize norm-breaks (freeloading).  But this is exactly how the moral unfreezing associated with social fabric breaks proceed.  There is no guarantee that once the break occurs, that you will be able to control it or stop it.

Unfortunately many people associated with educational change are naive to large group dynamics and the quasi-religious behaviour that occurs in moderately moral institutions like education.  Well intentioned reforms can quickly escalate into "breaking-the-back of the resistance".  Business model approaches to education have had a very poor track record of success.  They tend only to succeed in break away factions that have a large enough population base to produce self-selected groups with a critical mass size.

There are a few more things interesting about a "great religious awakening lens" to social exchange contract breaches:

  • Some groups will be fine with superficial orthopraxy in order to free up some operational space.  Contrived compliance (individual and group) is all but guaranteed.
  • Groups will fight using moral language.  "Othering" is likely.
  • Relative minor acts are interpreted as strong signals.  Did you just mark papers on your "non-assigned" time?  "Did you just question the value a student might get from the sacrifice of your personal time to tutor them?"
  • Rational exchanges on sacred values are interpreted as highly offensive.  Do you know the sacred values of the other side?  If not, watch out!
  • It creates a high pressure selective landscape (in the ephemeral Darwinian fitness sense).  This creates all sorts of complex group arrangements and re-alignments. But group cohesion increases rather than decreases (just at a smaller group size level).  Everyone eventually needs a group for protection.  Alliances and micro politics increase tremendously.
  • As per social exchange theory, those who are the most committed to an ideal are often the most disillusioned once it breaks.  Your top teachers will usually flee en masse (if they can).
  • Old grievances and obscure history will get rehashed.  Ex post facto rationalization tendencies go wild.  "Look how evil that other guy is.  Remember is 1889 when...."
  • People tend to harken back to personified historical figures.  "Well John Dewey did....".  If things have really gone to pot, look for the emergence of devil and saviour figures.  If you see this, things are probably on the road to getting screwed.  One school system I know had as their school's panic word, the name of an old superintendent.  Expect to see names and obscure histories like these re-emerging as memetically fit insider jokes which are hard to challenge.
All in all, when social contract breaks reach the point of moral unfreezing, reformers often feel like their job is all but done.  In reality very few people are able to manage "breaking-the-back of the resistance" within a moral enterprise with any degree of control.  Such thinking is illusionary and misconceived at best.  You don't get to tell people what "religion" is best for them.  The "religions" people chose tend to be the ones specifically designed to resist control.

Of course education is a large, multi-nested system which exhibits has non-linear pressure to return practice to normal operation.  Only the most die hard martyr-like ed reformer can make much headway.  This is good and bad.  The fatalistic signals of martyrdom are usually easy to pick up.  
  • They are sacrificing "for the good of all".  
  • They are the only ones who really understand what needs to happen.
  • Everyone is just resisting.
  • Sunken cost heuristics kick in (need to go "all-in").
  • Burnout is detectable under the surface.
  • Planning worries less and less about actual logistics. "It doesn't matter anyway".
  • Resistance actually begins to energize them.  They are addicted to stress and the fight.
  • Proposed compromises and appeals for empathy are castigated as dangerous.
  • Negative sum thinking (even if it's bad for me, as long as it is worse for the other guy, I'm OK with it).
To learn more, keep an eye on the states Trump and antifa dynamics, social justice college cult dynamics and see if you can find any good civil war books that get into the mind of southern rebels (I particularly liked this one)

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