Non-Expert Review: Because I Say So, by Nikki Stern


This review originally appeared on the Anthropologist Underground blog. I wanted to feature it here because Nikki's book is still very relevant. Read more from Nikki here.

I just finished reading Because I Say So, the Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority, by Nikki Stern. It’s a thoughtful discussion about the concept of moral authority and whether critical thinking and rationality might be a more effective way forward for America.  Stern believes that the cultural construct of moral authority is not about ethics or morals but is instead an avenue to power1:

“Moral authority is about power - the power to persuade, to influence, and sometimes to force. Such an authority stands above, answers to no one, and relies on being right more than on doing what’s right. [...] This book is part memoir, part cultural critique, and part invitation to dialogue.”

The first section is about the nature of moral authority, and how readily Americans in particular ascribe it and treat it as unassailable. Her second chapter was by far the most difficult for me to read. Stern was unexpectedly thrust into a position of moral authority when her husband died in the attacks of 9/11. She discusses how readily the larger culture ascribes moral authority to certain victims (not homeless people or rape victims-only to ”noble” victims), and in particular to the people who lost family members to the attacks of 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks, news organizations were clamoring for survivors’ unqualified opinions about foreign policy and commercial building engineering. Many anchors deliberately provoked emotional responses from their grieving guests as if that lent credibility to the product.

You may also recall that politicians were then and continue today to make political hay on the event at every opportunity. In my opinion, the use of 9/11 as a tool to bludgeon Americans into line behind a particular political ideology is dishonorable and disgusting. Stern makes a strong argument that our culture’s fetishization of moral authority paves the way for all kinds of abuses and negative economic, political, and social outcomes.  

She describes how everyone seemed to want a piece of the action. I’ve seen this phenomenon described elsewhere as “vicarious identification.” Stern tracks the trajectory of public emotion- how the initial shock of 9/11 evolved to solidarity and compassion, then on to a sense that all Americans were victims in a way, then to vicarious identification and eventually to individuals who were far removed from the event seeking victimhood by proxy2:

“By and large, we [families of 9/11 victims] were shown nothing but compassion. But some of our encounters were odd and occasionally off-putting.

Some people seemed to want attention by proxy; others felt free to confide in us. We received more than our share of calls, letters, and emails with advice, stories, problems, or conspiracy theories to pass along. I’m not certain why distant acquaintances or perfect strangers, for that matter, would believe it appropriate to burden a fragile group of people.”

Stern goes on to detail our tendency to ascribe moral authority, as distinct from expertise, inappropriately. She discusses the intrusion of religion on public policy and quotes Madeline Albright3, “History would be far different if we did not tend to hear God most clearly when we think He is telling us exactly what it is we want to hear.”

There’s also a great discussion about lack of nuanced opinions and rampant false dichotomy in the pubic discourse. Stern discusses the concept of American exceptionalism and the aggressive patriotism that politicians argued exempt America from adhering to international law. She makes a strong argument that rather than clinging to falsehoods and entrenched political ideologies because we have power, we should conduct ourselves and our government with moral and rational and ethical values such as truth, social justice, honesty and compassion.

Stern includes a really interesting treatment of corporate news sources and the decline of credibility as everyone becomes a citizen journalist. The news coverage of 9/11 illustrates how even ethical journalists were4, “ the mercy of some fixed corporate idea about what version of the 9/11 experience would be marketed.” News as marketing means that the narrative is decided in advance of research, and the product is obviously selectively edited. Stern raises the concept of perception management5, “...present the people something you want them to accept or believe, irrespective of whether or not it’s true.” She advocates that we all take a step back and engage in critical thinking regardless of how we consume news. I would go a step further and say that when the news reinforces our established biases, we are at our most vulnerable and even more likely to accept misinformation. It is then that we have an added responsibility to treat the information skeptically and seek out credible primary sources.

There’s also a fantastic overview of some of the ways our neurobiology gets in the way of critical thinking. Stern covers some of the same ground as Brendan Nyhan’s political science research into the persistence of false beliefs. It’s very difficult to get people to change their minds with factual evidence, particularly if the new information contradicts their biases. There are interesting organic and psychological underpinnings for our failure self-correct.

Overall I found the book interesting and engaging. It’s very well-written, and I think Stern lays out a very solid case for rejecting moral authority in favor of rationality and critical thinking. She brings diverse evidence from a variety of disciplines to bear on her argument. Obviously I have long believed that we all need to think more critically, Stern’s book raised the negative influence of moral authority in a way I hadn’t though of. Her argument is nuanced and thoughtful and very compelling. I really enjoyed the way she incorporated her moving personal narrative as well as historical events to flesh out her topic.

Finishing on a hopeful note was a nice way to end a treatment of critical thinking, which is often cast in the public sphere as the realm of dark and cranky people. I unflinchingly recommend the book, and I’m hopeful Stern can take her message to a wider audience. I’m certainly going to pass this book around to friends.

1. Page 3; 2. Page 19; 3. Page 43; 4. Page 85; 5. Page 89

Disclaimer: Nikki Stern pays me a modest salary to write for her at Does This Make Sense. I have also received swag in the form of a very attractive coffee mug and a review copy of this book.