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16.8.05

Freedom From Mascots

The second paragraph of my previous post brought to mind some ideas that are well-known in the literature on environmental decision-making. Communities are typically not too keen on having toxic facilities, such as nuclear plants or landfills, nearby. When a government or company wants to site such a facility, they are faced with the problem of overcoming local opposition. The first strategy is usually exhortation -- telling the local people that they're ignorant and that the science shows that the facility is harmless. This does not usually go over well, even when done in the nicest way. The next approach is to "sweeten the deal." The facility proponents reason that the local people think (incorrectly, but incorrigably) that the risks from the facility outweigh the benefits. So they offer to increase the benefits, through cash payments to people or the town, or infrastructure projects. However, this strategy likewise often meets with limited success.

Yet there are some approaches that seem to work well in gaining community acceptance of initially unwanted facilities. One is to give the community veto power over the facility's operations, for example by forming a citizens' council that can order operations stopped if, in their judgment, the facility is presenting a high risk. Another is to involve several communities (such as all those whose trash will be going in the proposed landfill) in the planning process to debate whose town is best suited to host the facility. Both of these may result in the community accepting a plan not much different from the original proposal. Involving the affected community, not sweetening the deal, is the key.

The difference can be understood as an instance of the distinction between two conceptions of freedom -- freedom as opportunity and freedom as non-domination. Freedom as opportunity is a substantive criterion. The more desirable things you're able to do, the freer you are. Freedom as non-domination is a procedural criterion. The less you're subject to the decisions and discretion of another person (in Fiskean terms, the less you engage in Authority Ranking relationships), the freer you are. In my view, both types of freedom are necessary.

Elites and other privileged groups tend to focus on freedom as opportunity, whereas oppressed and disempowered groups are also concerned about freedom as non-domination. When a policy controversy arises, the elites look to increasing freedom as opportunity as the method to resolve it. They think "if we can just make our dictatorship benevolent enough, things will be OK." But to the disempowered groups, the very fact of the dictatorship is a problem, because it infringes on their freedom as non-domination. But the elites set the terms of the debate, and they're only interested in hearing questions about the substance of the decision. The disempowered groups are forced to talk about what the decision is when their real concern is how it was made.

We see this pattern also in the case of Native American mascots. To tell Natives that the mascots are meant to honor them is (even if true) beside the point, because the problem is that a bunch of non-Native people are continuing to make the decisions about whether and how Natives should be represented and honored. Likewise, to tell Natives how much they will benefit from archaeological and physical anthropology discoveries is beside the point, because the problem is that a bunch of non-Natives are producing authoritative knowledge about Natives. But when Native Americans are involved in the decisionmaking -- as has been the case with a number of schools who negotiated with a local tribe over the design of their mascot, and with many archaeologists who have worked with their site's descendants -- the substantive decision may remain more or less the same.

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