Disagreement and citizenship, collecting and collections

What makes politics work

I’m back to taking classes: exploring User-Centered Design, the way that we represent meaning online, and learning why we have court cases like United States of America v. $63,530.00 in United States Currency. I’m also exploring survey research methods, trying (with limited success) to understand DeFi (distributed finance), Web3, and NFTs, and enjoying winter in Colorado.

Politics, disagreement, and citizenship

One of my former professors hosts a weekly roundtable for people to just ... listen to each other. It sounds a little gimmicky, but the core idea is to establish a space for people to make a good faith attempt to understand each other’s views on controversial topics. The topics vary, but are typically political and polemical: voting rights, trust in science, and charter schools have been some of the more recent ones.

Politics, especially among young people, seems to have devolved into Tweeting about the latest spat in Congress. Eitan Hersch has a name for this (hint: it’s not “politics”!). Hersch calls this “political hobbyism,” which looks like reading lots of news, slacktivism, and generally getting outraged. This, argues Hersch, is distinct from “politics,” which aims to create and wield power by influencing how people vote, lobbying politicians, campaigning for politicians. Hersch argues that political hobbyism feels easy; politics is hard.

Which brings me back to these weekly dialogues: they’re not soothing and they’re—refreshingly—not performative: everyone agrees that nobody’s individual views leave the room. Through Hersch’s eyes, I’m not sure if this is “politics,” but it certainly isn’t political hobbyism.

One of the fascinating parts of these dialogues is that almost nobody is truly aligned with a particular political party line. At least among this group, people have strong opinions about issues and about people, sure, but much less so about parties. (Granted, this group is clearly non-representative and self-selecting. Not everybody wants to go to this type of event, and these aren’t generalizable observations.)

I spoke with one of the statewide elected officials in Colorado recently about this type of forum and they mentioned that understanding people who disagree with you is part of what it means to be a citizen. And while I don’t think of myself as very politically involved, these opportunities to think hard about my perspective on a given issue, discuss it with people who often disagree with me, and understand people’s divergent values and viewpoints has made me feel more civically engaged, and perhaps even connected to some sort of American tradition, than I feel doing just about anything else in my day-to-day life.

Collecting, not collections

I like to collect things. Specifically, I like to “collect” music and second-hand clothes. Why? Two reasons: (1) I like the process of searching and (2) there are rich communities around these interests.

Music has a rich community of artists, (radio) DJs, promoters, sound engineers, and hobbyists. It’s simultaneously universal (everyone has listened to music before) and intimate (everyone has their own tastes). There’s a deluge of new music released daily and new artists, labels, and genres waiting to be discovered.

Clothing is similar—everyone wears it, but everyone has their own style, taste, and wardrobe. It, too, is universal yet intimate.

Both of these interests also afford a surface-level interest (Hey, that’s a nice jacket!) and deep dives into a specific genre or brand. If you’re really curious, you can develop an eye for dating clothes based on their stitching patterns and labels or train your ear to identify different guitars.

These processes take time. Take music, for example: I used to have a show on my campus radio station where I would find new music for and share new music with my listeners. I would sift through songs from promoters, online sources, new releases, and friends. I would listen to a lot of mediocre music. But occasionally I’d find a gem! And finding something good, something worth sharing, makes the mediocrity of the search worthwhile.

The little economist that sits on my shoulder is complaining: Why spend an hour at a thrift store searching for a t-shirt you might not even buy? Isn’t there a more efficient way to find a shirt you’d like? Doesn’t the opportunity cost of your time make the search a wasteful endeavor?

This line of reasoning is sound if the search has negative value. But—for me—the whole exercise is just as much about the search as it is about the finds. The opportunity to go with friends to somewhere new and search for the strange, the absurd, the entertaining clothing in that place is valuable in and of itself, even if we come up emptyhanded.

This applies to all sorts of collections—comic books, model trains, foreign films—actually enjoying the items is great, sure, but a substantial portion of the appeal is about the community and the act of hunting; for me it’s not just about saving the perfect song, it’s also about the process of discovering it.

A couple last things:

This post was lightly edited in June 2023.

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