Sunday, November 05, 2006

Houston's thought diversity

A quick pass-along tonight from Otis White's Urban Notebook at titled "The Fading Urban Marketplace of Ideas." It talks about how we as a society are separating out into our own little non-diverse monoculture bubbles where we no longer debate ideas or learn tolerance. I definitely have noticed this developing trend. My own step-daughter at UT in Austin was stunned that Bush won the last election - she "didn't know a single person that supported Bush" (welcome to the central Austin monoculture - Keeping Austin Weird with a wide array of left-wing upper-middle class Anglos). To be fair, I'm sure the exact same thing was said about Kerry all over the A&M campus.

The good news is that I think Houston has somewhat resisted this trend. Although we are majority Republican regionally, we're suprisingly balanced inside the city - a rarity among central cities in America. I also think the lack of zoning has lead to a "marbled" city of diverse neighborhoods with many different ethnicities, religions, and income classes. We lack the legal land-use/approvals/permitting enforcement mechanisms that are usually used to keep "others" out. Even our suburbs can be surprisingly diverse. Let's hope we can resist the national trend and keep it that way. Keep Houston Weird!

Here it is, posted in-full as usual because there are no permalinks:

An Epidemic of Homophily
The Fading Urban Marketplace of Ideas

If you look back on the novels written about cities since the 18th century, one theme stands out: the young person who moves to a big city to escape the sameness of small-town life. In these books, the appeal of cities was their surprising diversity — of ethnicity, religion and class, of course, but also of thought. You could hear ideas expressed in New York, Chicago, New Orleans or Seattle that were never uttered in Midwestern farm towns, West Coast fishing villages or Southern mill towns. All of which makes the following sentence so sad: Our modern metro areas may be losing their role as marketplaces of ideas.

It’s not that cities don’t still have people who feel passionately about things. There are libertarians, feminists, black nationalists, religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theorists and, yes, even a few communists in every city of size — not to mention lots of plain old Democrats and Republicans. But opportunities for these people to meet and exchange views (or even just hear each other’s ideas) are dwindling, social scientists believe.

Why? Partly because of human nature and partly because technology and affluence are allowing us to separate from those who think differently, a recent article in the Washington Post reported. The human-nature part is easy to understand. We like to be around people who are like us in social class and general outlook. The academic term for this, the article said, is homophily.

In the past, cities and social institutions tempered our homophilic tendencies. In public schools and the workplace, around our neighborhoods, in mainstream churches and synagogues, we came to know (and sometimes like) people who thought differently about things. The media also helped. Whatever their faults, daily newspapers and evening TV shows introduced us to how others looked at events and came to different conclusions. This, in turn, bred tolerance and sharpened our thinking. (There’s nothing like someone pointing out obvious flaws in your argument to make you think more deeply.)

What’s different now? Our sprawling metro areas allow us to live in neighborhoods and suburbs that mirror our opinions (most big metro areas have congressional districts that elect only liberal Democrats and others that send forth only conservative Republicans). Affluence permits many to withdraw from institutions such as public schools that once introduced people to diverse thought. Technology plays a role, too, giving us cable networks, talk-radio shows, blogs and publications that endlessly echo our own opinions.

A result of growing homophily is unthinking partisanship. One social scientist told the Post that, at election time, “I often hear people say with absolute certainty that whoever they are in favor of is obviously going to do well because they haven’t talked to ’anyone’ who supports the other person.” Another result is intellectual poverty. We don’t think about our views because they’re rarely challenged. “Most of us would be hard pressed to provide clear explanations for our political beliefs,” another social scientist told the Post. ”We participate in settings where we don’t have to explain ourselves because everybody else agrees with us. What this means is, I have no reason to challenge or question my own beliefs.”

And yet there are still people who are curious about ideas and willing to consider others’ viewpoints. There could be an opportunity for cities here — if they find new ways of introducing people with opposing opinions to one another in settings that encourage listening and polite argument. But it’s clear that this must be done deliberately. After all, we’re fighting human nature on this one.


At 4:00 AM, November 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly from the perspective of academia, I agree with Tory's idea that Houston's in better shape in this respect than some other places. Academics at Rice or U of H, simply by virtue of living in Houston, are far more likely to know Republicans than academics in, say, Boston are. When I had a conversation with Harvard and BU academics before the 2004 elections, I was really taken aback by just how politically insulated their world was.

At 9:12 AM, November 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a friend who moved here from Paris and complains that Americans don't like having to defend their views on anything. "If you don't agree with them right away, they just want to change the subject!" Maybe with there being so many of us, we *can* self-select (the "homophily" thing).

At 8:20 PM, November 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with all of the previous posts.

However, I think to some extent Houston's "diversity" suffers from being in the middle of an extremely conservative-biased state. For instance, doctors and researchers in the Houston Med Center may wish they had something like a stem cell issue on the ballot, as Missouri and California and possibly other states have or are voting on. But do you think we would actually vote on, let alone approve, something like funding of stem cell research in this state?

My point is not that stem cell research is good or bad, or that we should approve it. My point is that Houston's diversity of thought is not an issue to me - but the state's diversity of thought is, and I can see this lack of progressiveness hurting our city and state, and national reputation, in the long run. We are voting on cultural issues like gay marriage bans while other states are voting on real issues like the environment, energy research, medical research, etc., which might bring jobs and creative people to their cities.

I know the typical conservative Texan response to all this would be "go move somewhere else". Gee, thanks, but no thanks.

Overall I like Houston. And I think that at some point Texas politics will be much more like Illinois or NY, where the concerns of Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio are more of a factor in the state, if not the only significant factor. And I think that all of these cities will become more politically balanced, if not more liberal, over the coming years and decades, as population density and urbanization in Texas continues to grow.

At 8:44 PM, November 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely disagree. First, take a look at this blog. The very format of a blog helps maintain a level of discourse that might often break down to insults in a face to face discussion. We each have an interest in this particular topic and we debate. I personally believe that I have shaped opinions and been shaped myself by participating.

With the exception of national politics I see no area of society that isn't breaking up into smaller and smaller niches that make it easier for people to make small nuanced changes in their opinions within having to pick sides.

500 years ago there was the Catholic Church and hethans. Today there are so many different shades of churches that someone can move from one to another without anyone batting an eye.

100 years ago you had to go to the "Big City" to be exposed to new ideas. Today you can flip on the internet, watch TV, read a magazine, see a bumper sticker or read a slogan emblazened on a T-shirt. We are constantly being bombarded with beliefs that challenge our own. From Billy Graham to South Park, and from Rick Steves to Deal or No Deal we have more ideas presented to us then ever before.

At 11:23 PM, November 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for the post and as a native Texan moving back to Texas after spending time on both coasts, I can say that I share your concerns with the right-wing nature of Texas. I don’t consider myself “liberal” and I am a registered Independent who often votes Republican but I just know that I will be considered “liberal” to the average Texan once I move back next year. I think the “diversity” of opinion within Houston may be more a reflection of the extreme conservatism of the rest of the state, especially on social issues. Your average Democrat or “liberal” in places like Houston would probably been seen as right of center in many other places in the U.S.

I also hope that Texas cities and Texas in general will move back to the more moderate side of the political spectrum in the near future. It would be great and exciting for Texas to be a bellwether like Pennsylvania or New Hampshire. I think as Texas cities draw more new out-of-state residents and the cities continue to develop and urbanize, this will happen. I just hope I can make it through the transition!

At 12:09 AM, November 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

People forget that 75 years ago you had machine politics in major cities where a neighborhood's adult population was practically equivalent to its vote for a certain party, and in "solid South" states like Texas the only competition for an office like governor was between the Democrat and the other Democrat.

Cities offered an environment of diverse thought simply because in an age before the automobile, the difference in population density between city and country was so stark. Many "country folk" like my aunt were adults before they ever left their county, whereas city people lived in close proximity to millions of others from all over the world.

Modern communication is exposing people to countless ideas from all over the world. Certain enclaves exist for certain parties, and always will, but today's youth is much more skeptical of the political views he/she hears than ever before, even when it's their own party. My students at Texas A&M are a case in point - most are Republican, but few really trust anything that Bush, O'Reilly, or anyone else says.


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