Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Is a Thug Just a Thug? Or Is a Thug a Child of God?

It's been an eventful few months in communities around the country as we try to come to grips with issues of race, poverty, violence, and policing. Tragic deaths of both civilians and police have become touchpoints for national conversations, which is (kind of) a good thing. Not all communities have problems between police and population, but too many do.

As is typical, the "public" conversation - by which I mean the conversation carried in major media outlets among "the chattering classes" - has been largely polarized along political lines. While there was some hope that the choking death of Eric Garner might rally some conservatives/Republicans to the cause of tamping down excessive use of force by police, the shooting death of two cops in NYC on the heels of a Democratic mayor's participation in anti-violence protests largely destroyed that prospect. For the most part, what I see is self-identified conservatives lining up to defend the police while self-identified liberals to varying degrees call for police reform and justice for recent civilian victims (Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, John Crawford).

Media coverage, of course, doesn't help our broader understanding. Cameras pan tight on crowds of protesters, which makes them look large by removing any context around them. We see lots of politicians speaking at podiums, which is what politicians do when given the opportunity to get in front of cameras. We see plenty of insta-punditry to criticize politicians on the other side for saying the wrong thing, for saying anything, or for saying nothing at all. All of this, it seems to me, is 100% heat and 0% light.

In the last couple of days I have run across two items, completely disconnected from each other, that I think represent important but ignored ideas. They help pull back the cameras so we can think about the broader questions important to all of us: what kind of society do we want, and how do we get there?

The first is a blog post I had been meaning to read for some time, titled "In Defense of Violence". The blogger writes a variety of thoughts about the use of force and self-defense, topics near and dear to my heart (as readers of this blog will know). But most importantly, she makes a central observation that lies at the root of many of the problems in our current national conversation (paraphrasing here from her article):
We teach ourselves and our children that violence is always bad. As such, we don't teach ourselves and our children about violence - when it is appropriate and in what forms, and when it isn't.
This is true both for police violence as well as for civilian violence. We're actually badly divided within ourselves as a culture - we both deplore and worship violence. In the case of police, we take government use of force as a "professional" matter rather than what is should be in a democratic society: a universal concern for all of us. Police shouldn't write their own rules of engagement; they should hold to rules written by society at large. Certainly they should have input into those rules, and I've seen police with some extremely thoughtful ideas on the subject. But police forces themselves answer to us - they can't be the final word.

Likewise, we have a bizarre relationship with guns and violence in the hands of civilians. John Crawford is dead because he picked up a pellet gun from a Walmart store and carried it casually, which someone apparently found threatening enough to summon police and which the police apparently found threatening enough to shoot him for. Tamir Rice is dead because he was carrying a pellet pistol. In other parts of the country, gun owners take great pride in openly carrying weapons (real weapons!) in public places and stores, and they don't get shot. Yes, race matters here. So does class, and so does local culture. In a country as large and diverse as ours, we have to expect local differences. But the range of those differences shouldn't include innocent people being gunned down, by police or anyone else.

So we need to have a serious conversation about violence and its uses by civilians. I've blogged before about guns and self-defense (posts too many to mention; here and here are a couple to start with). But that conversation is stuck in a quagmire of memes and bumper-sticker slogans and a lot of shouting by the rabid few. If the "In Defense of Violence" post has a point, it is that we need to take that conversation back from the self-interested ideologues and talk seriously to each other as people - not as "liberals" or "conservatives" or anything else.

The second item that sparked my thinking was from one of the many ideological talking heads "contributing" to the ongoing "debate" about police violence and the protests in NYC, Ferguson, and elsewhere. In this case, an avowedly conservative show (The O'Reilly Factor) trotted out an avowedly conservative commentator (Ben Carson, who happens to be black) to defend the police against attacks (both physical and verbal). You can see a synopsis and a link to the interview here. But what really caught my eye was this particular snippet by Carson, which the Fox News site picked up in the summary and the headline:
"The community has to recognize that a thug is a thug. When people do bad things, there are consequences," Carson said.
This struck me because of something I've been wrestling with lately: a framework in which, rather than "picking a side" and dehumanizing the people on the other side, we can engage in conversations with people we disagree with, about serious and even tragic subjects, while continuing to recognize the humanity of each other. The phrase that keeps coming to mind: each of us is a Child of God.

By this I don't mean something primarily theological, or even theologically coherent. What I am looking for is a mental frame of reference in which I can continue to recognize the worth and humanity of every person, whether I agree or disagree with their thoughts or actions.

Carson's glib bumper-sticker statement, of course, runs in completely the opposite direction. He wants to put white hats and black hats on everybody so that he can defend the virtuous and punish the wicked. I guess it must be comforting to play God like that. But I think it's the wrong approach.

To be clear: there are people in the world who, despite their humanity and inherent value, will try to hurt others unjustly. Some of these people are civilians, and if they're lower class we call them "thugs". Some of them are wealthy and wear suits and they usually get treated pretty well, even when the damage they cause is far more widespread than any thug could dream of. And some of them carry badges and wear uniforms and are called police officers. None of this should be surprising - if you change clothes and circumstance, some people will still do bad things to other people.

But if we actually want to things to get better - if we want to work towards a society where fewer police are killed in the line of duty, and where fewer civilians are shot by police, and where fewer people are terrorized and assaulted by either strangers or those close to them - we need to stop pretending that we can draw neat boxes around people and label some of those boxes "good people" and others "bad people". We need to treat violence and the use of force seriously - not as some Hollywood fantasy exercise and not as something that can be contained to only a few. We need to acknowledge everybody's legitimate need to live in peace, and think about what we do when that is violated - by anybody. And above all, we need to listen to the collected wisdom of many centuries: treat others, and view others, as we ourselves would be treated and viewed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Both Right But Everything's Wrong: Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Race, and Police Shootings

To the surprise of very few people, a grand jury failed to return any indictments against Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year old black man, in Ferguson, MO. As has been widely reported, grand juries almost never indict police officers for shootings, for a host of reasons.

I am willing to believe the authorities that in this case, the grand jury carefully examined every piece of evidence available. I am also willing to believe that they were correctly instructed as to the law, and that a reasonable person would, given the law and the evidence available, determine that there is insufficient cause to believe that Officer Wilson committed a criminal act when he shot and killed Mr. Brown. In that sense, Officer Wilson's defenders and those who have lined up on his side (including a host of wealthy white conservative commentators) are right - within our system of criminal justice, no crime was committed here.

On the other hand, I also believe that both the shooting and the legal structures surrounding it represent a gross injustice not only for Mr. Brown and his family, but for a community of African-Americans living in Ferguson (and elsewhere). Mr. Brown was not armed, did not seek out a police officer for the purpose of attacking him, and had (so far as anyone knew at the time) committed no crime more serious than walking down the middle of a street. That anyone in such a situation should have to fear for his life gives lie to the boastful claim that America is a "free country", much less a land of equal opportunity. So while breaking windows is a terrible way to make a point, the protesters (most of whom have been peaceful) are right to voice their anger and their sense of injustice. They, too, are right.

So if both sides are right, why is everything wrong? Because we continue to ask the wrong questions. We build up a set of laws and practices and procedures for police that make it almost impossible for them to commit a crime, and then we continue to ask whether what they did was legal, as if "legal" is the highest standard. But laws are made by human beings, and can be flawed, skewed, stacked. Martin Luther King Jr. knew this well and spoke about it passionately. So did many before him. But today, we don't hear those voices much anymore.

We see the same debate taking place over immigration. The debate is about whether immigrants - 20 million, by some counts - are here in the US "legally" or not. TV pundits argue about whether President Obama had the legal justification to issue the executive orders he did. Nobody is talking about what is right.

I'm not arguing that laws are unimportant. Law that is truly fair and just and evenly applied is one of the greatest moral inventions of humankind. It holds out the promise of righting the wrongs that we have known about for as long as there has been civilization. Law promises to elevate the good over the powerful - something every civilization, in its highest moments, has sought for.

But we have made law an idol and enshrined whatever laws happen to be on the books at a given moment as the highest good. We forget that there were Jim Crow laws; that Japanese-Americans were rounded up and sent to camps in perfectly legal fashion; that only a generation or two ago, blacks and whites could not legally marry in many parts of this country. We look back on those laws now and wonder, how could we have done that? Wasn't the wrongness of those laws obvious? But apparently, it wasn't - not to the people who wrote them and lived under them and defended them at the time.

So arguing about whether something is or is not legal at a given moment in time misses the point. The overuse of force by police, while apparently legal by nearly all measures (vanishingly few cops are even tried, let alone convicted), is wrong. Racial profiling (setting aside whether that's what happened in Ferguson or not) is wrong. Looting and destroying shops because you're angry is also wrong.

As a culture we tend to turn to violence early and often as a solution to problems. Our public policies and our TV shows alike are full of attempts to force the outcome we want on the "bad guys". And we shape our laws to support the kinds of violence we want to use. On TV, this works great; in real life, much less so.

But violence itself is the problem, the question we should be asking. Why is it that the kinds of shootings we see here - police shooting unarmed, often minority, mostly poor citizens - almost never happen in other developed countries? Why do we permit our police not only to arm themselves with an array of weapons but to use them with impunity? What role should violence have in our society - when is it right to take the life of another, and when is it not? And when is violence not the answer? (hint: it very, very rarely is)

I doubt very much that any of these questions will be asked in the next few days or weeks. The protests will eventually die down and property will be put back together. Politicians and pundits will give empty speeches that accomplish nothing. Everyone will retreat back into their own corners, confident that they are right and ready for the next time when they can try to prove their rightness to others with shouting and threats and, yes, the use of force.

Is this what we would do if we actually wanted to change things? If we really wanted a society where people can walk the streets without feeling threatened? If we wanted to make sure that - "legal" or not - encounters like that between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown never happened again? Law cannot guarantee that - only we can. But that would involve setting aside our fetish of the law and our lust for force and trying something very different.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Bullying and Self-Defense for Kids: The Schools Have It All Wrong

On my Facebook feed, I found the following (posted by a prominent internet persona):

Caveat: Like all things internet, this one hasn't been verified. I don't know whether this kid's story is true or false. It was posted by a source I have otherwise found to be reliable, so I think it's likelier true than not. But ultimately, I'm not as interested in this particular story as I am about a specific aspect of it.

There's a lot about this story that rings true. Kids that "look gay" are harassed and bullied all the time. Schools frequently don't do anything about it, either because of pressure from the other parents or because the bullies are very good at not getting caught. That's one of the survival traits of a bully - the ability to sense when adults are watching and switch behavior.

The particular aspect of the story that caught my eye is in the middle:
I got 2 days out of school suspension for overcoming the bully, defending myself.
Schools obviously want to discourage fighting among their students. This is more a function of cultural behavior than anything else - where my kids go to school there are virtually no fights, because physical violence just isn't in the local culture. I'm sure that there is bullying of other kinds, some of which can be horrific. But kids hitting other kids? Not so much.

But this kid's school may well be different. And here's where the schools get themselves in trouble and end up teaching the wrong lessons. What most of us want schools to do is punish the aggressor in any physical altercation. Someone who defends themselves, within reason, should be either lightly punished or not punished at all. Personally, I'd lean towards the latter, because we want to teach kids that it's OK to defend yourself if someone attacks you. Otherwise, we're raising potential victims.

But schools don't do this - not because they don't want to, but because it's hard. Usually by the time an adult gets involved, the altercation is well underway (if not over), and there's no way of knowing who started it. Schools used to try to sort that out by interviewing both the fighters and witnesses, but discovered that that's a tricky arena. It takes real skill and judgment to take a bunch of biased witness statements and figure out what really happened.

In today's world, judgment is not encouraged. Schools prefer rules that can be uniformly applied by anybody, so there won't be any charges of bias against a particular teacher or administrator. "Zero Tolerance" policies fit this mold exactly. It doesn't matter if you're carrying stolen oxycontin or a couple of aspirin - a drug is a drug, and off to detention you go.

So if you want a universally enforceable rule on who to punish in school fights, but you can't know who the aggressor is, what do you do? Here schools adopt a rule with terrible consequences: they pin guilt on the winner of the altercation. Teachers will assume that, if you're winning the fight, you must have started it.

This is, of course, patent nonsense. Kids start fights all the time that they then lose, often badly - just search YouTube for dozens of filmed examples. Sometimes, the innocent victim really does know how to defend themselves, and does. Sometimes, the bully gets a nasty surprise.

My guess is that teachers, like most adults, have little to no experience with interpersonal violence themselves and so don't realize how silly the assumption is. Unless they have training, the most likely exposure they would have had to fighting was being a victim of bullies - in which case, they may well have been on the losing end. They may also make the mistaken assumption that violence is rational - that a bully wouldn't start a fight he couldn't win. All of this, of course, is wrong.

Unfortunately, the results of this error are that schools teach kids to be victims. If the only way I can avoid punishment by the school is to lose the fight, I have an institutional incentive not to defend myself. The authority figures around me are telling me: if you want to be a "good kid", if you want to get good recommendation letters to college and good grades and the approval of your teachers, don't fight back. Let yourself get hit, pushed, kicked, picked on. Trust the adults to deal with it.

Except, of course, that the adults don't deal with it. The story in the picture above rings true because it happens all the time. Teachers are powerless to stop bullying, and they know it. So do the bullies.

I don't have an easy solution. Allowing free-for-all combat would shift the balance of power to the strong, not necessarily the virtuous. Right now, that balance lies in the hands of the sneaky and unethical, which is probably worse. But I certainly don't think that having all kids "fight it out" is the answer.

The best answer, unfortunately, is messy. There has to be room for judgment on the part of teachers and administrators. I have many teacher friends who have seen situations where they and their colleagues know who the troublemaker is. But because of the "universal rules", the kid gets away with it time and again. And all students learn the same lesson: the one who cheats best, wins.

Readers of this blog know that I'm an ardent self-defense pacifist and a passionate believer in the use of force to defend oneself. There are thousands upon thousands of teachers, dojos, workshops, and classes all over this country teaching people how to defend themselves when they're attacked. Much of that effort involves undoing the damage of the K-12 years, where kids are methodically taught not to engage in any self-defense at all. For the sake of the kids in our schools and the adults they will become, we need to find a better way.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Post-Election Musings: Was This Really the Seinfeld Election?

It's the day after Election Day, and lots of folks are poring over the results to find meaning. Most, of course, will see what they want to see. Republicans will see this is a mandate - that the majority of the US agrees with them (whatever that means) and hates the President. Democrats will dig deeper to find rays of hope - overwhelming support for raising minimum wage laws, for example. Republicans have to decide whether they want to govern for substance and work with the President, or govern for symbols and spend two years trashing him. And everyone is looking already to 2016.

I have friends who are disappointed in yesterday's results and friends who are pleased. Some of this really is rooting for the tribal team - if you don't live in Kansas, who the governor is there doesn't really matter to you. For me, the "national scorecard" isn't very interesting for much the same reason that fantasy football isn't interesting - it's a made-up scoring system for something that doesn't really exist.

We also put FAR too much faith in the ability of any of these politicians, or all of them together, to actually make things better for the country. Does what Congress does matter? Of course. But if you think that one-party control of both chambers is going to usher in the new Golden Age, you need a reality check. Congress' ability (with or without the President) to affect things right now is pretty minimal.

[And yes, I know some folks will offer counter-examples - the Federal Minimum Wage being one. But those are exceptions, and most of the time these days Congress doesn't act anyway.]

At their best, elections serve as a kind of national conversation - a big (if imperfect and messy) discussion about the stuff that matters. The fact that we have to conduct those conversations through politicians, PACs, and media outlets is frustrating, but it can also be helpful. Ross Perot's surprisingly good third-party run at the White House in 1992 helped put the budget deficit and the federal debt on the map as an issue. Reagan's 1980 campaign was about America's place in the world and general vision for its future. Obama's 2008 run was fueled by a broad sense of post-racial and even post-partisan optimism (both now dashed hopes, which helps explain his approval ratings).

Midterm elections are usually NOT these kinds of conversations, although they can be. In 1994 the Republicans ran on the Contract with America, which put forward a broad set of ideas about what government should or shouldn't do. But that was the exception - usually midterms are about jockeying for power.

In this sense, 2014 was not the Seinfeld election (an "election about nothing", for those who don't get the reference), but it was the latest in a series. There were few if any defining issues - mostly just the same motley set of divides that we've been fighting over for years.

More important to me than what the candidates and PACs did talk about was what they didn't. Minimum wage laws are important, but that's a small stand-in for a much larger issue: the fast-growing and massive inequality in both income and wealth among Americans. That's a serious issue that shouldn't be a partisan one; most thoughtful conservatives I know (and yes, for my liberal friends - there are such people) don't want to live in a Russian-style oligarchy any more than anybody else. But nobody wants to talk about it.

Global climate change has also been buried as a live issue. Here we've so tribalized the issue that we are failing to ask the questions that need to be asked: how do we adapt to a changing planet? On the local level, coastal communities are already doing so, often in broadly bipartisan ways. But nationally our collective head is stuck deep in the sand while otherwise-grown people scream at each other.

I'm sure we can think of a few more such issues - things that broadly affect everybody in significant, even life-altering ways. Ebola isn't one of them; neither are Benghazi, ISIS, or most of the other claptrap that dominates the daily headlines. This isn't just the media's fault; it's their job to cover day-to-day news, to focus on what's changed since yesterday. But somehow, somewhere, we need to talk about the big stuff. I have no faith in either political party's ability or desire to do so. Somehow, the rest of us will have to figure out how without them.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Administrative Growth: More Complicated Than It Appears

I've written before about "administrative bloat" - the ongoing complaint (often from faculty, sometimes from state legislators) that universities have added too many administrators in recent years and not enough faculty. There are numbers to support this contention, so the general trend is not in doubt. The real question is why this is happening.

Faculty of a certain bent are wont to attribute this to the general greed and tribal affiliation of administrators - that administration breeds more administration and that administrators don't care about the faculty. While good for whipping up the masses, this argument lacks much in the way of evidence. Yes, there are administrators here and there who see themselves as a breed apart from faculty and who take an adversarial position. But a great many don't, and many are more than happy to add more faculty lines when they can find the resources to do so.

My contention has been that there are forces outside of higher education entirely that help to drive the growth in administration. Today's Chronicle has an excellent example of just such a force:
Overseeing Sex-Assault Cases Is Now a Full-Time Job
Hiring people to take the lead on Title IX compliance and put together good, effective responses to sexual assault cases that protects both victims and accused is an important thing. In today's climate, with folks on both sides lawyering up, it's probably a necessary step to get out in front of the issue. But it also costs money. That's one more administrator on many campuses - money that could, under other circumstances, fund a faculty line.

So to my faculty colleagues - please, the next time you get the urge to complain about administrative bloat, look carefully at who's being hired to do what. Where there are positions your university really doesn't need, make that argument. But don't paint administrative motives too broadly. Sometimes, those new administrative positions can help make the world a better place.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Why I'm Not Watching Football Anymore

I have been, for most of my life, a football fan. Specifically, I have been a fan of the NFL, and of the Pittsburgh Steelers in particular. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s when the Chuck Noll-led dynasty was legendary. I can't not root for the Steelers - it's programmed into my autonomous responses by now, like Pavlov's dogs.

I had less interest in college football until I attended Ohio State for graduate school. Even there, I never went to a game, and I've remained diffident about big-time college football. Yes, I have rooted for the Buckeyes, but as a lifelong faculty member and administrator in higher education I have some sense of how much sports cost, how few programs actually make money, and how much other people get rich off the backs of the players and the rabid loyalty of the fans. I've blogged about this before (here, here, and here). Suffice it to say that what interest I had in BCS football has been waning for some time.

But now I find that I just can't watch the sport at any level anymore. I've come to this realization after a long accumulation of issues that just won't go away. The science on concussions, which started to get significant public attention a few years ago, is stark: a LOT of football players, especially NFL players who play for a number of years, are essentially damaged for life. Some of them go on to damage the lives of others around them. And while I appreciate that the NFL is putting a small portion of its vast wealth into studying the issue, I don't think there's a solution short of "don't play football". Maybe someone will invent the miracle helmet that can change the laws of physics, but so long as our brains can move within our skulls I think the problem is going to persist.

Then there is the issue of domestic violence, brought to light this season in a couple of very high-profile cases. An op-ed in the NYT recently - written by somebody who is still a genuine fan of the game - had a poignant take on the issue of violence and pro football. These men engage in violence - controlled and structured, true, but violence nevertheless - for a living. For many, that has an effect on the psyche just as it has an effect on the brain - and there are complex interactions than can make it worse.

Then in this past weekend's paper came this story about injuries in the NFL. Across the 32 team rosters there are roughly 1700 players (some proportion of which don't see a lot of action - kickers, third-stringers, special teams players, etc.) By this point in the season, less than 1/2 way through, some 200 of those players have been injured severely enough to be taken out for 6 weeks or more. Injuries include torn-up knees and muscles, broken legs and collarbones, strains and sprains of all kinds - and, of course, a few severe concussions. By this point, roughly 1/8 of the workforce has gotten hurt. Short of soldiers in a very active war zone, I don't know a lot of professions with that kind of casualty rate.

At some point, I just can't watch this anymore. I still appreciate the supreme skill and artistry of the game played at the highest level. Some of what these players do is remarkable to behold. But the cost which that artistry is exacting on those same players is nearing the horrific. That knowledge sits in my head, demanding attention, any time I try to watch a game. I just can't enjoy it anymore, knowing that I may well be watching the ruining of another man's future life for my entertainment.

Let me be clear - this is a personal conclusion, which so far as I'm concerned affects only me. I have lots of friends who are still fans of the game at both the college and pro levels, and I don't ask that they change their habits or demand that they think the way I do. I wouldn't dream of calling for a boycott on watching football, nor would I make the argument that football should somehow be banned. Making such arguments would be an attempt to bully or harangue my views onto others. I'm not interested in that.

So if you enjoy football, great - I hope you watch for as long as it brings you enjoyment. But as for me - I've had enough. All the damage being done - voluntary or not, consciously chosen or not - is just too much. I have plenty of other things demanding my time. Time to try a football-free fall.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Guns and Safety: The Missing Human Dimension

A case that (on its surface) pits free speech against gun rights has been making the rounds. A female scholar invited to speak at Utah State University cancelled her appearance there after receiving death threats. In explanation she cited Utah laws allowing people to carry guns on campus, and the campus police's inability to regulate the presence of guns at her talk. She also criticized the university for not doing enough to insure her safety.

Since the speaker fits the profile of the Left (a feminist scholar engaged in cultural critique of misogyny in video-game culture) and the thing she complains about is one of the banner issues for many on the Right (the right to carry firearms freely), this pretty much guarantees this story plenty of airplay. And while there will be some thoughtful discussions, for the most part this will generate a great deal more heat than light in the coming days.

In an effort to promote the former and try to avoid the latter, I want to pick up on one particular aspect of the larger argument here: the discussion about guns and personal safety. This is a subject on which I have written quite a few times in the past (do a search for Gun Control or Stand Your Ground on this blog and you'll find plenty of references). Readers will note that I am not a purist on the issue, insofar as I have written that there are circumstances under which the carrying or employment of personal firearms can protect someone.

But here is where a dose of wisdom from my academic field - the study of conflict at the international level - comes in handy. Because "security" is really two things: whether you are secure, and whether you feel secure. It is both objective and perceptual. And these two aspects are not at all the same thing.

Objective security is often knowable only after the fact: you either are attacked or you aren't. If no one attacks you, you are objectively secure. However, you may not feel secure. If you feel that an attack is imminent or even possible, you may perceive yourself as being insecure even when, at that particular moment, you are not being attacked. And that's where the trouble lies.

Advocates of concealed-carry or open-carry rights talk a lot about how guns make people more secure. Setting aside the tactical question of whether, and how often, having a gun will actually help you protect yourself, I have no doubt that for these folks, carrying a weapon makes them feel more secure. So they're being sincere when they talk about guns increasing security - meaning their feelings of security.

The problem is that when you carry a gun, you make people around you feel less secure. You present yourself as a potential threat for lethal violence. When you carry a weapon - especially if it's openly visible - people are likely to assume that it's loaded and that you're willing to use it. If I don't have a gun - or, for that matter, even if I do - that may decrease my security substantially insofar as I am now aware that there is someone in my vicinity who is both willing and able to kill me.

In my field, this is called the security dilemma - efforts to increase my security decrease the overall security of the system, and may make me less secure in the long run. This dynamic is just as real at the interpersonal level as it is among nations. We just don't understand it very well in our individual lives.

Ardent gun-rights supporters tend to respond to this observation with, "well, they shouldn't feel that way" - or "well, I have a right to carry my gun anyway". At that point, it becomes clear that you don't really care about security - yours or anyone else's. You're carrying the gun because it makes you feel powerful, or because it's a part of your identity, or because you feel the need to show "them" (whoever "them" is) what you can or can't do. It's an ego thing.

People who are genuinely interested in security should be able to realize that security is not only individual, it's collective. That when one individual carries a gun, it make lower the level of security in the room. Just ask John Crawford III how that works. Funny - I haven't noticed any NRA members picketing because his 2nd amendment rights were violated.

So if you have genuine concerns about security, that's fine - take the legal steps you feel are necessary to make yourself feel more secure. But recognize that by so doing, you may be making everyone else around you less secure. And while that may not be illegal (in Utah or elsewhere), it is reprehensible. Perhaps what we need to seek is not so much personal security as mutual respect and concern for our neighbors. That's a value I would think everyone (Red, Blue, Purple, or otherwise) could get behind.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Student Safety and Assault Prevention: There's Got To Be a Better Way

There's a lot of attention these days to the topic of sexual assaults on college campuses. This has been a good thing in that institutions and students are becoming much more aware of the issues. I hope that all of this attention will reduce the number of assaults, sooner rather than later. Young women (and men) deserve a college experience free from fear for their personal safety.

I have blogged on these issues several times, including a response a couple of years ago to a highly-publicized case from Amherst College. More recently there was the hashtag battle between #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen, which served to illustrate some of the battle lines in the ongoing struggle to redefine the culture of sexuality and relationships on our campuses. This is a fluid discussion in which there are stops and starts, advances and retreats. Overall I think progress has been made, but there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

One of those challenges is the tendency for people who are really on the same side of the issue to get in fights with each other. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than the continuing battle between what might be called the "don't blame the victim" perspective and the self-defense perspective. An article in today's Inside Higher Ed showcases an excellent case of this:
U. of Wisconsin faces criticism over list of safety tips
Because I work in higher education but am also involved in the self-defense community, I can see both sides of this issue. The "don't blame the victim"/sexual assault awareness folks have a point: historically, rape and sexual assault have been protected by a culture that tolerated arguments such as "she was wearing X" or "she was flirting" or "she was drunk" or "she had it coming, what did she expect to happen when Y". Many a rapist has walked free because our culture took these kinds of arguments seriously. That is changing, which is good. But these kinds of arguments still need to be rendered entirely off-limits and illegitimate, much as we have done with "boys will be boys" and drunk driving.

So I understand both the legitimacy of concerns about victim-blaming, and the sensitivity to the issue. This can be a very touchy subject because real victim-blaming has been used to mask and protect rapists in much the same way that the Confederate battle flag was used to mask and rally racists in the 1950s and 1960s.

The problem is that this sensitivity is being turned against a different point of view altogether - the self-defense community. From the self-defense perspective, nothing that was on the now-removed U. Wisconsin website was problematic or controversial. Advice about awareness ("keep your head on a swivel") and forethought ("don't look like a victim", "make yourself a hard target") are stock in trade for a community of people who, in my experience, are both extremely well-meaning and extremely knowledgeable about what they deal in.

These are folks who study the problem (interpersonal violence) closely and understand it in ways the rest of us don't. Their advice is practical and effective. And many of them dispense this advice for free out of a sense of wanting to help people lead lives free from fear and victimization. In other words, they're on the same side of the issue as their critics - both sides want the incidence of sexual assault and rape to be reduced to zero.

Certainly there are elements of context which can help. Sexual assault awareness campaigns often point out - quite rightly - that the strong majority of such assaults are committed not by strangers attacking while you are out walking in the dark, but by acquaintances who are known to the victim and who gain the victim's trust first. That kind of assault calls for a whole different set of responses, chief among them teaching college men not to engage in assault and rape (and their peers to punish them when they do).

That said, there are sexual assaults and rapes by strangers, just as there are muggings and robberies by strangers. The kind of advice that the UW police put out is standard anti-mugging advice, which nobody questions. And while we also want to engage in other strategies that reduce the incidence of such stranger-based attacks, it makes sense to educate students about how to avoid them. With other kinds of crimes, this is not a controversial idea - but then, other kinds of crimes don't have the history that rape does.

This seems to be the real crux of the matter: how can we encourage women (and men too!) to learn to be smart and take basic steps to protect themselves without sending the message that we are blaming victims for what happens to them? This is a political and linguistic problem, not a real contradiction. There is no logical way to get from the statement "I am learning self-defense in order to better protect myself and my friends" to "it's my fault if someone else attacks me". In my field we call this a conflict of perception rather than a conflict of interests.

There's a side point here that illustrates the gap in perceptions and cultural misunderstanding between these two communities. It shows up nicely in this quote from the Inside Higher Ed article linked above:
Referring to the post's suggestion that a student should keep his or her "head on a swivel," one Jezebel commenter asked, "So literally live every moment like I'm an Army Ranger deployed to Afghanistan?"
I have heard this same reaction from some folks I've trained in self-defense. They take advice about awareness to mean that they need to be afraid all the time in order to protect themselves. That's a real turn-off, and I can understand why untrained civilians would run away from that kind of "advice".

But the truth is very different. I do live with my "head on a swivel" most of the time, in that I try to be aware of the people around me at all times - where they are, which direction they're moving in, and some basic impression of who they are and what they're up to. The fact that I do this - and the fact that I have some physical training in the martial arts to receive and counter attacks - means that I am not afraid. Awareness doesn't create fear, it dispels it. It is part of a package of living in confidence that, I think, is a goal shared by nearly everybody.

But I also get that, until you have undergone some training and experienced this kind of confidence, it's counterintuitive. People outside that circle mistake awareness for hyper vigilance and decide they don't want any part of it. And because it is an experience that is difficult to convey solely with words, the words that the self-defense community (including the UW police department) uses are often inadequate to the task.

This is where we need something else I've written about recently: mutual respect. Rather than attacking each other, I hope that the self-defense community and the sexual assault awareness and advocacy community can come together for an open and honest dialogue that starts from a simple premise: they are both on the same side and they both want the same thing. Both sides need to understand the other better, and both need to recognize that the other has something important to bring to the table. If that happens, perhaps we can overcome this particular challenge and find a way to incorporate the wisdom of self-protection into our larger societal response to sexual assault and violence.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Confederate Flags and Aggressive Identities: When Did "Just Being Me" Become an Offensive Game?

Another conflict over the display of the Confederate Flag has cropped up on a college campus. That's not particularly remarkable; such conflicts occur all the time. What's interesting about this one is that it has stirred up an institution north of the Mason-Dixon line generally thought of as a more liberal/progressive place - Bryn Mawr College.

Despite its unusual location, the conflict has played out predictably as an argument between those asserting their rights to display their heritage under the basic doctrines of free speech, and those asserting their rights to learn in an environment free from coercion or oppression.

As usual, almost everyone is disappointed in the outcome. The students who displayed the flag eventually took it down, likely disappointed that their rights to free speech and to their cultural identity had been trampled on. On the other side, many minority students were disappointed that it took so long to affect that outcome, and are now blaming the college for being insensitive to their needs and voices. I feel bad for the college administration - if ever there were a higher ed version of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, this is it.

What interests me about this story is not so much where it takes place, or the predictable nature of how it has unfolded. It is the origin of the conflict itself - the decision by two students (unnamed, at least in the story above) to put the flag up in a public space in the first place. That's a decision I both understand and find puzzling.

I understand it, in that college students do a lot of things out in public as a means of asserting and experimenting with their identities. Clothes and hairstyles change; attitudes and arguments are adopted, often loudly; posters and flags put up in decoration. This is the time of life when students are growing into their own identities. As southern young women in a predominantly northern institution, it doesn't at all surprise me that these two would choose to assert their southern-ness. I imagine that they, too, felt the pinch of being in a cultural minority (which they undoubtedly were).

I also get the "they have every right to" argument. Yes, we all believe in free speech, even speech that offends. But we see what happens when the argument turns only on rights. It bogs down in anger, recrimination, and division. Rights are important, but they are not the highest good here. They are necessary but not sufficient if the goal is building real human community.

Given that, what I don't understand is why these two young women chose to assert their cultural identity in a way that they must have known would cause pain and anger in others. It's possible that they might argue naiveté - that they didn't see this reaction coming. I find that hard to believe; even relatively sheltered young women from the south must know how incendiary the Confederate Flag is as a symbol. So I can only imagine that this was done deliberately - not necessarily to cause anger but indifferent to whether it bothered others or not.

And there lies our great failing. 150 years after the Civil War and 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, we have not yet found a way for two important identities - African American and White Southerner - to coexist. The two groups pose no existential threat to each other anymore, yet they continue to behave as if they do.

Some of this, of course, is the difficulty of coming to terms with history. But this far removed from that history, that is an obstacle that should be overcome. Most White Southerners who fly the Confederate Flag today don't want to enslave African Americans, and many of them have overcome the racism of their ancestors. They, and their African American colleagues who are generations removed from slavery and Jim Crow, are free to forge their own identities for themselves.

The problem is not that we can't fashion identities that are both true to their roots and yet coexist with others. The problem is that we don't know how. We know what doesn't work - flags and snarky memes and "in your face" combativeness don't get us where we want to go. Sadly, that's a lot of what these young adults see the rest of us doing - we're no better at it then they are.

But there is a better way. Its details vary from context to context, but it starts in the same place every time: I am who I am. You are who you are. I respect you for who you are, and I ask that you do the same for me. After that, everything else is conversation. If I respect you, I don't demand that you change who you are. But if you respect me, you may change anyway. Everything begins and ends with respect.

If I act out of both identity and respect, I don't throw my symbols in your face. I don't put up flags I know you hate and mark the floor with tape to cordon off "your side" from "my side". I hope that out of this latest kerfuffle at Bryn Mawr, a few of their students - some of the best and brightest we have - will figure this out.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Blame Game: America's National Pastime

The headline on today's New York Times Magazine screamed at me this morning:
Every Hour an Acre of Louisiana Sinks Into the Sea. Who is to Blame?
Interestingly, in the online version the title changes to "The Most Ambitious Environmental Lawsuit Ever". That's an interesting shift, but I'm not sure what to make of it.

What grabbed me about the in-print headline was not the declarative statement of fact. That Louisiana's coastline and wetlands are slowly being drowned is not news; Hurricane Katrina but a big red exclamation point on a process that's been going on for years. The really interesting part is the question: Who is to Blame?

This is a reasonably accurate representation of the article, which is about a lawsuit (or a movement to create one) to pin responsibility for the encroaching water on the oil and gas companies, and thereby get them to pay for remediation. The details of that fight I leave to others to get into. I doubt the lawsuit will go anywhere, but I could be wrong.

But the broader "Who is to Blame?" question seems to me emblematic of our culture today. We are so tribalized and balkanized into different subgroups that there is no more "we", only "us" and "them". Every problem that confronts us becomes a battle over whose fault it is. Pay attention to Tea Party News (or even Fox News) for a week and play Bingo with how many of the world's problems they blame on Obama. I doubt it would take you seven days to win that game. E pluribus unum indeed.

"Who is to blame?" has become our default question, the first response to every issue. Coverage of the lone Ebola case in the US has focused to a large extent on whose fault it is that the patient was turned away from a Dallas hospital the first time he visited. Don't get me wrong - that's an important question if you run that (or any other) hospital. For the other 99% of us, however, it's irrelevant next to the information we need to know about Ebola and the kinds of collective action we need to take to protect ourselves.

Organizations that are perpetually engaged in blame-fights almost never do well; many a business has gone under in a blaze of blame-throwing. Why should we expect a country to be any different? Problems don't get solved by asking whose fault it is; they get solved by coming up with solutions.

Some will say, but don't you have to diagnose the causes of the problem? Of course you do. But diagnosis and blame are not the same thing, as any good manager knows. It's one thing to identify mistakes and errors; it's another to engage in punitive witch-hunts. The former is productive, the latter is not.

Don't get me wrong - there ARE bad actors out there, and maybe the oil and gas companies are among them. But many of those actors are "bad" (in that they pursue their own self-interest to the detriment of everybody else's) precisely because there is no "we" anymore. They are not "part of us", they are their own tribe looking out for their own interests and screw the rest of the world. The Wall Street hubris kings who broke the financial system a few years ago suffer from the same problem - they think of themselves as a breed apart, not as Americans or citizens or even New Yorkers.

I have no idea how to fix this, of course. I have a small blog read by maybe three dozen people. The New York Times is rather bigger, and they're hardly the only one feeding the Blame beast. But somewhere I would like to see people start to ask not "Who is to blame?" but "How do we fix it?"

Friday, September 12, 2014

Why the Debate Over Guns Doesn't Make Me Angry - It Makes Me Sad

I've written plenty of blog posts about gun control over the last couple of years, including a number on the relationship (a complicated one) between guns and self-defense, and the toxic nature of the politics that surrounds the issue. Yesterday I saw yet another Facebook meme that pushed my thinking in a new direction:

It would be easy to lampoon this piece for its obvious logical fallacy. I cannot prove a point by finding a single instance of somebody who does something differently. Looking around the world, there is no obvious correlation between the number of guns and the safety of citizens. Australia banned many weapons a number of years ago, and remains (so I understand) a pretty nice place to live. The UK is so devoid of guns that half the time the cops don't even have them, but also seems to remain a civilized place. Somalia and Afghanistan are awash in guns, and I wouldn't want to live in either. Switzerland has military weapons in nearly every household (albeit under lock and key) and remains one of the safest places on earth.

We can go round and round with such examples; all we prove is that the correlation between "gun control" (however defined) and individual safety is weak if not non-existent.

But that's not what really caught my eye here - the internet is full of memes that don't make any logical sense. What strikes me here is the almost fierce joy with which the facts above are presented. The possession of half a billion guns is offered as something to be celebrated, a source of rejoicing. And that bothers me deeply.

In our argument about gun regulations and the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, we have lost sight of the main point: guns themselves. With a few exceptions, small in number overall (hunting rifles, shotguns), guns are devices designed and built for a single purpose: to injure and kill other human beings. They are, in fact, by far the most effective tools we have ever devised for that purpose.  They are small, portable, cheap, ubiquitously available, and lack the collateral damage problems of high explosives and nuclear devices. From a strictly technological and economic perspective, they are a marvel of engineering.

And that should bother anyone, at least a little bit. It is a sad thing - if not a tragedy - that one of the greatest achievements of the human species is our ability to devise such an efficient and widespread means of killing each other. And that killing - which takes place at extraordinary rates all over the world - is very nearly always senseless and unnecessary.

People of all political stripes and persuasions talk about leadership and the need for a vision. Ronald Reagan was famous for his "morning in America" speech; Bill Clinton had his "bridge to the 21st century". We know from almost all realms of human endeavor, from politics to business to culture, that people respond best to a positive, uplifting vision of the present and the future.

So what kind of vision is it that celebrates the possession of half a billion devices for killing other people? Is this what the NRA, or the "Right Wing" (the meme above was posted by a group called "Right Wing News"), wants to trumpet as the highest ideal of humanity? Is this what the "city on a hill" looks like - an armed camp?

In this regard, some of the comments posted in response to the meme above are nearly as instructive. Here are a few examples:

    "All you gun haters move to Iraq an try living there without being a target"

    "OK Pilgrim I think it's time to play COWBOYS & MUSLIMS" (accompanied by a photo of John Wayne carrying a rifle in one of his westerns)

    "First they take your guns, then they take your freedoms, then they take your life. Fools, stay armed and buy more guns."

    "America was built on God, guns and guts ... leave it that way or leave!!"

For me, this is why I cannot understand or find much sympathy for the hard-core 2nd Amendment tribe. I can understand logical arguments about guns as a necessary evil for defense (civilian or otherwise) in a dangerous world. And to some degree I can understand the pleasure of firing guns in sport (though recent events have shown that this can be a deadly exercise). But to celebrate the possession of large numbers of guns as good in and of itself strikes me as not so much politically problematic as both tragic and morally misguided - even fundamentally uncivilized. I wonder what vision of God allows such a close relationship between the divine and killing machines.

This, I think, may be why we have such a hard time having conversations about guns. It isn't because we disagree about facts, or about the analysis of those facts, or about policies, or even about the Constitution. It's because we have vastly divergent views about what human beings should aspire to, what the ideals of "civilization" should be, and what "good" looks like. The really difficult differences are not so much between Americans and foreigners (ISIS or otherwise) as they are among ourselves and within our own communities.

For myself, I value peace and harmony. I believe that the highest ideal of humanity is working together for the good of all - not because we are forced to by a central power, but out of love and mutual respect for one another. I recognize that many of the problems of the world are tragic obstacles to this goal, and that those problems call forth solutions that are less than ideal. But I also believe that nearly all of those problems can be overcome among people who hold to a similar ideal of peace and harmony. Whatever our other differences, if that is our common goal we will find common ground and the means to pursue it together.

If, on the other hand, your highest value is the possession of tools to kill other human beings than I am afraid we simply have nothing to say to each other. And I find that a very sad thing.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Blood on our Hands": Moral Responsibility and Modern Life

It has become characteristic of a certain kind of political protest to demand that some institution - the US government, a university, your local town, a company - take extraordinary steps to disconnect, divest, or otherwise disassociate itself from a political situation or conflict. Institutions that fail to take such steps are, in the eyes of the protestors, "morally responsible" for whatever atrocities or horrific crimes are being committed elsewhere. And since the crimes in question often involve a lot of bloodshed, this tends to lead to some pretty hyperbolic protest language.

A student at Ohio University treated her university, and the world, to an especially silly version of such a protest this week. You can read a full news account of the incident here. The original video has unfortunately been taken down, but you can watch the debate it set off on the OU campus here.

It is worth noting that the student body president did recant and apologize for her silliness and appears to have recognized the error of her ways. But I would guess that this is an argument that will linger for a while on the OU campus.

While dramatic (turning the Ice Bucket Challenge into a bucket of blood will certainly draw attention), the argument that this student made is a familiar one. It's worth noting her statements, captured in transcript from the video:
In the video, posted on Vimeo, Marzec states, "I'm sending a message of student concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state. I'm urging you, and OU, to divest and cut all ties with academic and other Israeli businesses and institutions," she said during in video. "This bucket of blood symbolizes the thousands of displaced and murdered Palestinians atrocities which OU is directly complacent in your cultural and economic support of the Israeli state."
Now, I assume that she meant "complicit" rather than "complacent", but you get the drift. Because OU's investment portfolio and international activities include ties to Israel in some fashion, the university itself has "blood on its hands" for all of those innocent Palestinian deaths.

There is a practical silliness to this, of course: OU could do as this student asked tomorrow, divest itself of every investment connected to Israeli companies, cut all ties of cooperation with Israeli universities, and not a single thing would change in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, if every last university in the US did this, it still wouldn't change a thing. This seems like the opposite of the Peter Parker Principle - if great power brings great responsibility, shouldn't no power absolve one from responsibility?

But the real reason for such protests isn't the practical impact of the actions demanded (though protesters often delude themselves into thinking that they will in some fashion change the world). What these folks are primarily after is the self-righteous rush of feeling that, whatever evil happens in the world, their hands are clean.

This is, of course, an absurdity in the modern world, especially if your standard for "bloody hands" is "any financial connection to the perpetrators". Do you pay taxes to the US government? Do you participate in the international economy? The reality of modern trade and global production is that nearly any economic activity is likely tied, in some fashion, to some questionable behavior that you probably wouldn't like to be associated with.

It is the merging of these impossibly high moral standards with the obvious (if unintended) hypocrisy of those who promote them that makes the whole thing fall apart. What starts as impassioned moral protest degenerates quickly into cheap theater, screaming, and useless diatribe that accomplishes nothing.

If you are truly concerned about the great moral issues of the day, whether they are in Missouri or Israel, the appropriate response is much harder. Rather than trying (fruitlessly) to disassociate ourselves and our institutions from whatever side of a conflict we don't like, what we need to do is engage with the issues and the people involved. Talk to all sides and hear their stories. Listen to their humanity, their dreams, their aspirations. Understand their weaknesses and failings - and how little you may be able to change them.

You cannot end an intractable conflict by dumping blood on your head. But you may be able, in a small way, to heal some of the damage that conflict causes, even if it's far away from the bombing and the killing. And in the process, you will discover something far more valuable than angry self-righteousness. If you're lucky, you may just discover the peace that comes with connecting with another human being.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Why Are We Excommunicating Each Other?

I have written before on the corrosive effects of tribal identities in American politics. Far too many folks have adopted exclusive identities that increasingly shut everyone else out and label them enemies (often in dehumanizing and even violent terms). A couple of recent examples of such posts are here and here; you can also search this blog for the label "tribalism".

My hunch that this is an accelerating phenomenon was reinforced this morning by not one, but two stories in Inside Higher Ed:
Southern Utah Removes Senator's Name From Building
Public School District Drops Ties to Gordon College
The first case involves classic party labels. Utah is a pretty conservative state, dominated by Republicans. Apparently the fact that the one Southern Utah University alumnus to rise to the prominent position of Speaker of the House was a Democrat was too much for these folks, demonstrating that party loyalties outweigh alumni loyalties. The University claims that that's not why Harry Reid's name was taken off the side of a building, but I'll bet those local Republicans will crow about their "victory" in getting a hated Democrat's name removed from the public square.

The second case comes from the other side of the aisle, and appeals to the same tribes without the party labels. The president of Gordon College, an avowedly Christian liberal arts school in the Boston area, had signed a letter asking for an exemption from a new federal Executive Order on hiring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Like many conservative Christian organizations, Gordon College argued that it should be exempt from the law on the grounds of religious liberty. In response, a local school district which had partnered with Gordon for years ended their relationship - presumably because the school district disagrees with the college's position on employment discrimination and sexual orientation. Like the Utah case, no doubt there is plenty of self-righteous congratulatory feeling going around.

Both cases illustrate a fundamental tribal behavior: separate yourself from The Other as much as is humanly possible. Have nothing to do with them. Do not allow their names to adorn your buildings. Do not allow your students to mix with theirs. No cooperation, no compromise, and no recognition of shared interests. They are to be excommunicated, cast out, and considered Unclean.

Humans, of course, have been doing this sort of thing for as long as there has been human behavior. But there had been a general sense that, all other things being equal, the less of it we engage in the better we are. This drive to unite rather than divide is one of the founding principles and aspirations of American politics. It used to be that E pluribus unum was widely understood. Today it seems to be more often translated, "I'm right and you're wrong, so go to Hell."

These small acts of excommunication have very little practical effect. Southern Utah will raise money to build more buildings (with or without Reid's name), and I'm sure the school district in Lynn will find a source of student helpers. These are symbolic gestures - and that is why they are so important.

Are we as a people really so consumed with our tribal self-righteousness that we need to fight over whose name goes on a building? Can Harry Reid's life and contribution be reduced to a single label, overriding everything else he may have ever done? Are the students of Gordon College all the same because their institution's president signed a statement, and does that statement overshadow the good they might be able to do in a classroom?

In the end, of course, these symbolic gestures aren't really about their intended targets, whether they be House Speakers or college students. They're about the egos and identities of the self-righteous who want to stand on the street corner and trumpet their virtue to the world - or at least, to the members of their own tribe. They would rather beat their chests and shout their own praises than engage in real conversation with someone they might disagree with.

The real danger of such conversations, of course, is not that the participants will be made Unclean. It is that they might discover they have more in common with their "enemies" than they thought, and be forced to regard them as valuable human beings rather than as foils and talking points. I, for one, would rather live in a society of people than a Balkanized collection of warring factions shouting at one another.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are Racism and False Accusations of Racism Equal Problems?

I was struck by a cartoon circulated on the internets today:

This appears to be a classic case of "argument" by false equivalence. Both statements are true, in a sloppy linguistic sort of way. Racism does suck, and being falsely accused of it sucks too.

But surely these things aren't the same? Racism runs the gamut from brief social encounters to deadly violence. But for those who experience it, it is a constant and life-altering force. Read, for example, this piece written for CNN by an educated black professional living near (but not in) Ferguson, MO. Even minor forms of racism, repeated day after day after day, can ruin a life.

On the other hand, if I (being white) am falsely accused of racism, is that going to ruin my life? Will it happen to me every day? Will it make me wonder whether my children will come home safe at night? Am I likely to be killed because of a false accusation of racism? In all likelihood, a false accusation of racism in my life would lead to an uncomfortable day or two until I have a chance to explain myself and reconcile with my accusers. And even if I am unsuccessful in that, I will likely leave the incident behind and go on with my life largely unchanged.

So why engage in this kind of false equivalence? I can speculate but I really don't know. I suspect that, at root, this is a classic example of dog whistle politics. It's not really a message intended for me, because I'm not in the tribe this is speaking to. And like all tribal messages, this one isn't concerned with logic or argument - it's about identity, in this case an exclusionary identity more interested in circling the wagons than in engaging with people outside their own boundaries. It's the kind of speech that divides rather than unites.

And that sucks.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why is Police Use of Force Different from Other Violence?

Another year, another month, another week, another killing of an unarmed young man in America. Other bloggers (Will Moore in particular) have been much more diligent about covering excessive use of force by police than I have. But the incident this week in Ferguson, Missouri has ignited a national conversation, at least briefly.

That conversation has gone in a number of directions, all of them important and meaningful. There is, of course, the race relations problem - Ferguson is an overwhelmingly black town with a nearly all-white police force, and many black residents have indicated that they have faced harassment from their "own" cops of years. A generation after the Rodney King riots, it is a national tragedy that this problem remains with us.

Then there are the twin problems of excessive force and over-militarization within the police. Scads of photos from Ferguson showing police with assault rifles, helmets, body armor, and large armored vehicles have been plastered across the internet. Some sites have stacked those photos side by side with photos of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visual similarities are striking, making Ferguson look to the world like a war zone. "Is this what we want our police to look like?" is an appropriate and urgent question. "Shock and awe" was designed as a means of warfare for distant lands, not a means of keeping the peace in American suburbs. Clearly there's something badly out of kilter here.

What I haven't seen much about yet - probably because we're waiting for facts to emerge from an impartial investigation - is an understanding of the actual shooting death of Michael Brown. The few facts there are seem to be undisputed:

- Brown was unarmed at the time of his killing.
- Brown was walking down the street, during the day, when he walked by a police car.
- Brown was killed by multiple gunshot wounds, including one or more to the head.

As a student of interpersonal violence and self-defense, I struggle to imagine ANY scenario under which this is OK for the police officer involved. This seems like a gross overreaction to almost any conceivable "threat" this young man might have posed.

This is where I am left baffled. Every year there are numerous incidents in which police shoot and kill unarmed people and are determined, by police inquiry, to have operated within "proper police procedures". In many of these cases, the victim dies of a great many gunshot wounds, often fired at some range. Police will say that they were operating within their standard procedures - which suggests that the rules and procedures themselves are the problem.

I'm willing to accept that police, because they put themselves in harm's way to protect the community, may be given some latitude that the rest of us don't have. But how much? And shouldn't they be accountable to the public, both for what those rules are and for how they are used?

I can only imagine that, whatever the nature of the opening confrontation between Brown and the police, there were several ways to deal with it that didn't involve the drawing of a firearm. Why are THOSE not "common police procedure"? Introducing a deadly weapon, as every self-defense instructor I know will tell you, should be the absolute last resort. Yet some police, like Ted Nugent and Wayne LaPierre, seem to think that guns in the hands of "good guys" can solve all problems. Where is the NRA now?

Ultimately, I don't really have the right words about this tragedy. An encounter that started out as, at worst, a modest verbal conflict ended in someone brutally killed. That is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter what kind of bureaucratic crap you slap on top of it in the name of "professional policing". Clearly, at least in some places, our police forces have gotten a badly skewed notion of what force is supposed to be for. Perhaps it's time that we as a society took that decision back, both from "professional police" who are too enamored of their military toys and from gun-culture folks who think the solution to everything is to threaten to shoot it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Toxic Identities: The Corrosive Effects of Tribal Identities and Enemy Thinking

Imagine a land in which two groups exist side by side. They don't mix much and increasingly segregate themselves and live among their own kind. Each has a narrative about the evil of the other group, how the other is out to destroy everything worth fighting for, and how there can be no real co-existence. They may inhabit the same space, but they are worlds apart.

Sound familiar? This could describe the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Or between eastern and western Ukrainians. Or Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

But it's also here in the United States.

True, we don't have people shooting each other in the streets. And the majority of Americans don't really think this way. But there are some among us who do - members of our own society who have drawn their own identities in so extreme a fashion that their rhetoric looks a lot like Hamas, or the rebels in Donetsk, or the leaders of the Islamic State.

Who are these Americans? They exist on various ends of the ideological spectrum. But today the loudest, most vocal, and most numerous are hijacking the title of "Conservative". And they are becoming increasingly shrill.

To be clear, the majority of Americans who identify themselves as conservatives don't think this way. But there is a minority - a splinter group, if you will - who are working hard to hijack the label. And like all revolutionaries, they will turn on their own kind as readily as on their ideological enemies.

This is an identity battle fought to a large degree in social media, the great public conversation of our day. Here are a couple of recently-circulated examples:

The message here isn't subtle. For these to make any sense at all, you have to believe that there are "Conservatives" and "Liberals" in the same way that there are "Israelis" and "Palestinians", or "Sunnis" and "Shiites" - that is, that these are essentially fixed groups with nothing in common. Both memes are broadly and vaguely disparaging, the latter in the kind of screaming-tantrum-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sort of way. Really, I'm surprised there isn't a Hitler reference in there somewhere.

If you happen to identify as a Conservative who thinks along these lines, and you've read this far, your reaction might be, "Hey, Liberals do this too! Why aren't you picking on them, you commie?" Recognize that "the other guy does it too" is the defense of the three year old who knows he's wrong. Grow up.

I don't much care about whether people hold conservative or liberal political ideas. I have found many times that when people engage in real dialogue, they often find that they have far more in common than otherwise. And I know many folks of various stripes (but of late, especially conservatives) who have abandoned politics because of precisely this kind of rhetoric.

We are, or ought to be, better than this. We are not Palestine, Ukraine, or Iraq. One of the great contributions of the United States to the world in the last 200 years is the ongoing experiment, however fitful and imperfect, in creating a national identity out of so many different kinds of people. The folks who spread the memes above apparently want to undo all of that, and return to some kind of "purer" politics where only they and their ilk are in charge. When they see "E Pluribus Unum" perhaps they think it means "I'm right, you're wrong".

Whether you engage in this kind of rhetoric in the name of Conservatism or Communism is immaterial. It is the one kind of politics that is fundamentally un-American.

So if you're passing this kind of nonsense unchallenged (or even approvingly) on social media, please stop. You are neither better nor worse than your fellow Americans. And "they" are not the Enemy. Walt Kelly was right - we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Administrative Capability and "Hard Choices"

I ran across this story in today's higher education press, which caught my eye:
Female provost is accused of repeatedly touching her male colleagues
I was initially intrigued since this turns the usual sexual-harassment dynamic on its head. We are apparently progressive enough now that it's just as OK for women to harass men as it is for men to harass women (which is to say, not).

Actually, that turns out to be the least interesting part of the story. Slightly more interesting is that this particular administrator, hired to be provost at Montana State University-Northern, had left her previous position under a cloud after stirring up trouble there. That, too, is not much of a surprise although it's a sad story. Senior-level search processes seem incapable of figuring out that the reason why a given candidate is on the market may also be a reason why you don't want to hire them. I once worked for a provost hired after having reportedly been ousted from a previous position (and under circumstances that were, at the least, obviously suspicious). It didn't go well.

So I could turn this into an appeal for universities to do their darned homework on senior candidates and stop hiring other people's problems. But by itself that, too, would be old news.

What really interested me in the story linked above was not that MSU-Northern had hired a bad apple, which they probably shouldn't have. It's that both the provost's lawyer and (more importantly) the university's senior administration defended their hiring decision on the grounds that really good administrators often piss people off. Here are a couple of good quotes from the article:
Kevin McRae, a spokesman for the Montana State University system, said it’s not unusual to hire administrators who have “distinguished themselves with tough decision-making in the past."
“Through the advent of Google, just about any time a recruitment is done, people can come to us with controversies,” McRae said.
Templeton’s lawyer said provosts make hard choices and people naturally don’t like someone who comes in and makes hard decisions.
I've heard this "tough decision-maker" defense before. It is, of course, patent nonsense: there is no necessary correlation between having to make sometimes difficult trade-off decisions and alienating people. What matters is how the decisions are made and what the relationship is between those making those decisions and those being affected by them. Genuinely good administrators do this all the time - they make tough calls in an inclusive and transparent way, and although people sometimes don't like the outcome they don't turn on the administrator who led the process.

I call this the "hard-ass school of administration". It's a theory propounded by people who don't actually have any political or diplomatic skills, or any desire to share control with others, as an excuse for bad behavior. Or, as in this case, it's often brought up to justify past bad decisions, a sort of CYA exercise. The statement that since "the advent of Google" everyone is dogged by controversy is ridiculous on its face.

Tragedies occur when universities only find out about these power-hungry tendencies after the hire is made. If you're on a campus doing a senior administrative search, demand transparency and accountability. Research the candidates thoroughly. Be fair about it - I have colleagues whose past is deemed "controversial" even though a thorough examination shows they did nothing wrong. Don't jump to conclusions either way - research, and research, and research, until you get as close to the truth as you can. And don't take the "tough decision-maker" argument at face value.

In other words, we should apply the same diligence to our administrative search processes that we do to our academic careers. Shame that there are universities that can't seem to make that connection.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Another Look at Administrative Bloat in Higher Ed

I've written various pieces before (see here, here, and here) about the real issues of cost in higher education, and how the public debates seem to miss the point in their desire to hawk one ideological view or another. A lot of things drive up the cost of higher ed. One of my favorite bogey men is the story of "administrative bloat".

Now, on its surface "administrative bloat" is real insofar as universities and colleges today employ a lot more non-instructional staff than they did in past years.  Some of this is technology driven - 50 years ago universities didn't have IT departments with groups of computer programmers. Faculty like to believe that administrative bloat is a fundamental product of administrative motivations - that administrations (assumed in subtext to be greedy and selfish) will grow and metastasize in much the same way that Thomas Piketty argues capitalism produces inequality. There are certainly cases of this kind of "frivolous bloat", although it is not as common as some of the faculty hawks believe.

Often unnoticed in these discussions is a third force driving administrative bloat: mandates from the outside world. Some of these mandates are from the marketplace - parents and students want universities with certain kinds of amenities and services (how many schools, for example, have done away with their Career Center in this job-focused age?) And some of those mandates come from the government.

It is into this category that a story in today's Chronicle titled "Why Colleges Are on the Hook for Sexual Assault" falls. The meaning and mandate of the Federal Title IX statute has been expanded significantly in the decades since it was founded, and recently especially in the realm of rape and sexual assault. Universities now find themselves essentially having to set up professional criminal justice systems, with top-quality capabilities to investigate, handle due process, and render verdicts which will stand up to both legal and public scrutiny. In other words, universities now need their own court systems.

This is a series of tasks which universities are ill-suited to do. Even a decent-sized institution like my employer only has a handful of people on campus who have anything resembling professional competence in these areas. To do this and do it right, the university would have to hire a number of people, some of them pretty highly-paid professionals with experience and credentials. In other words, more bloat.

The price of not doing this for any university is twofold. If a student has a bad experience and blames the institution for it, that school may find itself the subject of a Federal investigation - never a good thing. Moreover, the bad press generated will almost certainly drive students away, which in today's lean times can be catastrophic. So anybody not moving in this direction is gambling with the future of the university.

Most of us agree that sexual assault is a terrible thing and needs to be stamped out. I don't object in the slightest to building improved systems to treat victims better and, hopefully, reduce the incidence of rape and assault. But we have to understand that there is a cost to doing so, and that cost is being imposed on universities - which will mean, ultimately, higher tuition and all the rest of it. Somebody has to pay, and the broader public (through their state legislatures) has long since decided that it isn't going to be the taxpayers. So students are, in essence, being told to fund their own solution to the problem. And there will be a few more highly-paid administrators on every campus for faculty to complain about.

Another University Shooting: What Does It Mean?

Another week, another seemingly senseless shooting in a public place. This week's entry took place at Seattle Pacific University; you can find news all over the net. The first version of the news story I found was here.

What interested me about this story was not the particular details, which are in some ways depressingly familiar but in some ways inspiring. I am tempted to use this case, once again, to add to the mountain of evidence that Wayne LaPierre was wrong in his infamous formulation that, "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." I've blogged before on this point, and will leave it here only by pointing out that the "bad guy with a gun" was stopped in this case by a good guy with a can of pepper spray and the will to act. Courage and perceptiveness are the first and most important weapons, without which nothing else matters.

But what really interested me about the story was this quote given in the aftermath of the shooting:
"The actions of the subject in this case do not define Seattle Pacific University nor the city of Seattle," Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh said. "The actions of the students and staff on site, those are the things that define Seattle Pacific University."
This is why we spend so much time talking about violence and why the subjects of guns, murder, and the like are so prominent in our public conversations. Violence isn't just about the damage that it causes. While significant, there are lots of other things that cause similar amounts of damage. Nearly as many people died in Hurricane Katrina as died on 9/11; which one has gotten more attention?

We give violence the attention that it gets because of what it says about who we are. When somebody kills others, whether it be with a gun, a knife, or a plane, that act says something about both the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s). And how we respond to that act also says something about us. What it says, of course, is in dispute. We argue about it all the time. It is a, if not the, central question of our lives: who are we?

Recently a friend re-posted an op-ed piece from late 2012, after the Sandy Hook shootings, titled "Our Moloch". In it the author makes a strong argument, not about the tactics or the laws surrounding guns, but about the kind of identity that has been constructed around what might be termed the "gun rights movement". Whether you agree or disagree with his portrait, he is pointing to the right question. It's not about the guns. It's about us.

In times of crisis we look for meanings that uplift. That's why firefighters were so revered in the wake of 9/11 - because of the self-sacrifice they made to try to save other's lives, that noblest and most blessed of pursuits. That's what Assistant Police Chief McDonagh is invoking here. We are not the guy who pulled the trigger on innocent people. We are the guy who jumped on him, who disabled him and took him to the ground, who saved lives. That's who we want to be.

I've blogged a lot before (search the site on the "Use of Force" label; here's one of my favorites) about the intersection of violence and ideas. I think that one problem we have is that people spend both too much and not enough time thinking about violence and its relationship to who we are. We allow Hollywood fantasies about violence to shape our understandings of what it's useful for and how it works (just as we do about sex). At the same time, we don't spend enough effort thinking about who we want to be and where we want violence to fit into that picture. The extremists who carry assault weapons into Target and Home Depot have become a caricature, a grotesque parody of what we would regard as a good and civilized life.

So as we mark another senseless shooting in the headlines (alongside the many hundreds of senseless shootings that go unremarked because they are done in "those parts of town" among "those people") let's try just a little bit more to think. Not about the details of gun control, or the political clout of the NRA, or the best tactics for self-defense. Let's think instead about who we are and who we want to be. And let's talk about that together. Because in the end, that's the only question that really matters.