The Limits of Freedom: Seeking a Better Balance in America - Oklahoma Center for the Humanities
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The Limits of Freedom: Seeking a Better Balance in America

The first lecture of the 2022-23 school year gets right at the heart of this year’s theme of “Freedom.” The Oklahoma Center for the Humanities is pleased to welcome Victor Tan Chen, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, whose interests explore the intersections between individual freedoms and social obligations, between meritocracy and social equality, between civic engagement and economic participation, and disenchantment, despair, and doubt. At its most broad, Chen’s work investigates the relationship (and often the distance) between American ideals and American realities.

As an extension of the concept of freedom, Chen’s talk will be focused on the values and beliefs that undergird American conceptions of fairness and of identity. Foremost in this vein, Chen will discuss the American Dream as rooted in meritocracy, while also paying particular attention to the consequences and trade-offs of those beliefs—what is gained, what is lost, and how various facets of the Dream are inherently at odds with others. Chen uses the phrase “cultural contradictions” to describe tensions that are inherent within meritocracies and contemporary politics, writing in a recent essay “If meritocracy promotes personal growth and self-actualization, it can also worsen inequality… If fraternalism fosters feelings of solidarity and community, it can also feed bigotry and nepotism.”

How do these contradictions play out on a collective, national level? How do they play out for individuals and families? While Chen is interested in the complications and that emerge from the American Dream, he also offers a vision for a better, more sustainable and ethical future—one that is rooted in “grace,” a concept that for Chen involves building and fostering communities based on empathy rather than income or status. Part dissection of American culture and ideals, part hope for the future, Chen’s talk promises to be a fascinating one.

Join us Thursday, September 8th at 7pm to hear Chen’s lecture “The Limits of Freedom: Seeking a Better Balance in America between Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” This event is hybrid, and will be live in-person and simultaneously streamed. Join us in person at the Tyrrell Hall auditorium on the University of Tulsa campus, or online at this Zoom link.


Victor Tan Chen is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies economic inequality. He is the author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, a study of long-term unemployment in America and Canada. Chen’s latest book, co-edited with Katherine K. Chen (no relation), is Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy, a peer-reviewed collection of cutting-edge scholarship on worker cooperatives and other decentralized and collectively owned enterprises. Chen is also the author of The Missing Class: Portraits of the Near Poor in America, written with Katherine S. Newman, named by Library Journal as one of the best business books of the year. For more information about the author and his work, visit his website.