Sunday, November 19, 2017

Handed Over

The current sexual abuse/harassment scandal that is floating around the American entertainment, political and business establishments kind of reminds me of discussions that I used to have with people about race when I was younger. Both of them seem to be driven by an understanding of Power that allows Power to be unmoored from human choices.

I don't know when it first occurred to me, but one day I had the realization that the the Black community in the United States had abdicated a lot of control over its own destiny to other people - people who had their own lives and priorities to worry about. "We" (not that it was a unanimous decision) had done this because we had learned to be afraid of the power that the White community wielded. I feel that I sound like a broken record in this, but we learned to fear what White people thought of us, and never sought to have them be concerned with what we thought of them. Sometimes, the relationship between the genders seems the same way. Women fear the power that men wield, and this manifests itself in women fearing what men think of them, but men don't generally have that same concern.

You can see this, I think, in understandings that: "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," or "Men need to have conversations with men about sexism and sexual harassment." But I've always been dubious about the idea that the best way for a group to advance itself is for other people to talk about them. Racism and sexism have always struck me as being, to some degree about incentives. And so racism will go away when it starts to cost more than it's worth, and the same with sexism. For me, as a Black person, we, as the Black community in the United States have to make racism cost more than its worth, because we're the ones who want that and will be major beneficiaries of it. We're the ones who are going to have to create the conditions that mean that not being a racist is more valuable than being a racist. The issue that I've always had with the idea that "White people need to have conversations with White people about racism," is that it presupposes that Black people don't have anything of value to bring to the conversation. It's that perceived lack of value, I think, that sustains racism.

I am of the opinion that our overall concern with the Power that White people wield, and our unwillingness and/or inability to see our own role in giving them that Power puts us into the role of supplicants. And supplicants, like suckers, never get an even break.

Sexism, I think, operates on a similar dynamic. And while gender issues may be having a moment in the light at the time, I'm unsure that it will last. And if it doesn't, we may see the same pattern play itself out again. Which would be a shame.

Friday, November 17, 2017


There is this picture of a wolfpack that's been making the rounds on the Internet. It's been floating around for the past couple of years, from what I understand, but I just encountered it earlier today. Somewhere along the line it acquired a description that makes it out to be a marvel of teamwork and leadership in the animal world, and, of course therefore a model that we humans should be emulating.

I found the picture, with its new description, on LinkedIn. Which doesn't surprise me. LinkedIn has something of a low-grade obsession with leadership. If someone can create a flashy graphic or pithy meme that claims to explain the secrets of leadership, it's a safe bet that someone will post it on LinkedIn. So of course, the wolfpack photo, with its description that was all about wonderful leadership, made it there.

As you may have already guessed, if you didn't already know, the new caption that the photograph had acquired was completely bogus. Someone had attached it to the the photograph along the way, and it bore no resemblance to the original caption that the photograph had been published with. I found this out fairly quickly - a former co-worker of mine had come along and posted the Snopes link to the debunking. But it had been posted, and reshared, by a couple of people before that. I tend to be dubious of the leadership tropes that finds their way onto LinkedIn. A lot of it looks suspiciously like virtue-signalling. And to be honest, this wolf photo caption did to. More than likely, if my old co-worker hadn't posted the Snopes link, I'd have simply gone right past it without a second thought. But if it had been something that I found more interesting, or more compelling, would I have been taken in? I like to think that when information that just happens to align with my prejudices and preconceptions finds me on the internet, that I tend to fact check it. After all, everyone's inclined to fact check the things they suspect (or want) to be false - it's the things that one wants to be true that get you. But I don't have time to fact-check everything, and a lot of things slide.

And so I wonder if that's the secret to how things spread on the internet - being seeing plausible, and not too good to be true. The internet is a deep well of information, and that very depth is what makes it unreliable - there's so much information that it's difficult to check the provenance of it all.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

To Do Right

Millions of Americans have, in recent weeks, discovered that their favorite movies and shows were made by men now accused of sexual assault or harassment. This presents a dilemma for those who would prefer to watch art by people who haven’t built their careers on the sexual exploitation of those around them. But how can moviegoers avoid supporting such institutions and individuals?
Is There Any Way to Be an Ethical Moviegoer in the Post-Weinstein Era?
That's easy. Make your own movies and television shows.

Because in the long run, if your ethics demand that your never support anyone who's done something that you find reprehensible, you're going to start having to do a lot of things yourself. Consider it a corollary to "If you want something done right..." If you want something done by someone who has never done anything you have ethical qualms with, well, sometimes, maybe even doing yourself won't cut it, but it's likely to be as close as you'll ever get. Because, for the most part, other people's lives are invisible to us. The surveillance apparatus that would be needed to ensure that the people who make the goods and services we use would be pretty much unacceptable to anyone who would have to live under it, and to a lot of people who wouldn't.

And pretty soon, the compromises would have to begin. Kevin Spacey has effectively had his career ended by a single drunken incident of propositioning an underage young man way back in the day. Not a trivial offense to be sure, but also, unlikely to be the worst thing that the people who run the businesses that supply us have done. There are likely much worse crimes hiding in the broad expanse of the corporate world. Given the rate at which new accusations of sexual misconduct come out, it's likely a very safe bet that some of the money that each of us is spending on a day-to-day basis is going into the pockets of someone who, were their life a completely open book, would have faced felony charges for something at some point along the way. There comes a point where "innocent until accused" may be a practical stance to take, but hardly an accurate one.

I think that part of the problem that society faces in looking for ranks of people with clean hands to run the world is that bad behavior isn't the exception. It's the rule. And it's the rule in part because there isn't a single objective standard of bad behavior. A decade or so ago, here in the Seattle area, a young entrepreneur managed to stir up a teapot tempest with a wonky scheme that came to be known as "bumvertising(" At it's core, it was simply a means of getting a message out by paying panhandlers a small amount to display a corporate message alongside their own. But for advocates for the poor and homeless, it was travesty. Bad enough that one wouldn't want to support any business that engaged in it? For some people yes, for others, not so much. And it's that subjectivity that means that businesses are going to have to be selective about who they appease and who they decide to ignore.

But bad behavior, I've come to think, is also the rule because behaving well often means doing without. Up and down the scale. One thing that I've noticed coming to the fore over the years is a greater focus on the idea that more of us than are willing to admit to it are living in poverty. And that mindset of deprivation is catching on. And I'd be willing to bet that some combination of "I want this," "I need this" and "I deserve this" is at the core of the vast majority of ethical compromises, small and large, that people make, whether or not the rest of us really understand what drives a given person to want, need or feel they deserve whatever it turns out to be. And this isn't to say that all transgressions are the same - it's to point out that our broader society, despite the fact that it often preaches doing without rather than doing wrong, does a really poor job of actually instilling that value in people.

And so, in the end, it's highly unlikely that the people who have risen to the top of the food chain are going to be the ethical paragons that people might want them to be. Few people anywhere else in the food chain would manage it, either.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

You Know You're Wrong

He could have confirmed that he harassed women, that he is sorry, and that he did it even though he knew at the time that it was wrong.
Wasted Reckonings
The article is subtitled, "What do we really want out of public apologies from alleged sexual harassers?" But I suspect that it could be applied to any form of apology for anything. Because I think that Ms. Waldman puts her finger on the one thing that people often want from those who they feel have transgressed against them - an admission of willful wrongdoing that reinforces the idea that whatever expectation was violated was, in fact, the way things were supposed to be. And in this, it becomes a reinforcement of the idea that good and bad, right and wrong, are objective and fixed qualities that everyone knows - and that everyone knows to obey.

I think that it may be especially important in situations like (but not perhaps limited to) sexual harassment and assault, where the survivors often spend a good deal of time wondering if they had done something wrong, but I suspect that this reaffirmation of a singular truth (and that we understand what it is) would be welcomed in any number of other circumstances.

From my own point of view, it's a difficult thing to obtain because people don't do things that they understand are wrong when they are doing them. They may understand that their behavior isn't acceptable or appreciated, but I don't think that the understand it to be ethically out-of-bounds. As much as I can't fathom what would possess someone like Louis C.K. to masturbate in front of a woman who would rather that he didn't, I do suspect that, at the time, he had some sort of sincerely-held justification for that action.

Ms. Waldman notes that, "Apologies are supposedly about acknowledging our mistakes, but in practice they can permit us to disown them." But is doing something that one understands to be wrong when you are doing it really a mistake? Perhaps in the broader theological sense, it can be ascribed to "error," but in everyday parlance a mistake is something that's done out of ignorance, carelessness, misperception et cetera. An act of deliberate wrongdoing is not a "mistake" in that sense.

And perhaps that's the fundamental problem; the difficulty of speaking to an action, or a group of actions, in two different ways that are at odds with one another at the same time. Acknowledging a mistake is a different beast than acknowledging a deliberate misdeed. And I think that society treats them differently. There is a tendency to ascribe mistakes to to a given figure when a person wants to forgive them. But when someone wanted to close the door to forgiveness for a figure, they tend to ascribe deliberate, and malicious, wrongdoing. You see this all the time in politics, where partisan divides tend to make the differences is reactions stark, but it's present in any number of other facets of society.

Regardless of how reasonable one might find such an admission, the expectation that someone will openly call themselves out as a bad person strikes me as a bit much to expect. But that's never stopped anyone before, and so I doubt it will now.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Too Young To Know

#MeAt14 Reminds Internet 14-Year-Olds Are Innocent, Immature, Unable To Consent. Sounds legit. But it's interesting in that when you read through the NPR article, you're presented with pictures of young white women; photos that are clearly selected to show them as childish. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway. Because it's a reminder of the children that I used to work with, in a past life. For them, being "innocent and immature" wasn't a fact of biology, it was a luxury that they didn't have. They needed to have a clear-eyed and practical understanding of how the adult world worked, because they couldn't rely on their parents to shield them well enough that they could manage to be unfamiliar with it.

And it left many of them in a difficult position, because they were legally unable to consent to anything. And this has nothing to do with sex. many of the children in the residential treatment center I worked in chafed under the rules there, but they had no legal right to chose anything else for themselves; the state had made the choice for them, and that's all she wrote. And this isn't to say that they should necessarily have been allowed free rein to determine what their living situations were going to be. It wasn't difficult to see how the choices that many of the kids would have made (or even had access to) would have ended badly. But that didn't erase from many of them the understanding that they'd been able to manage more or less for themselves for some time before state social workers had shown up and decreed that they were going to live in a big brick building miles away from their friends, communities and whatever family they still had.

And so, even though the youth in our center generally ranged from 5 to 14, to survive in the world, one had to understand that for many of them, innocence and immaturity were not their native state, but one that we were attempting to restore them to, despite the fact that those particular children were much more streetwise than most of us staffers and some even had better housekeeping skills. (In all honesty, some of the children I worked with were better cooks then than I am now, some two decades later.) This isn't to say that I would have condoned them being in relationships with adults twice their age or other. We didn't condone them being sexual at all. But many of them had needed to learn to navigate sexuality before they'd come to treatment, and they'd developed differing levels of skill at it. And again, our goal was, as much as we could, dehabituate them from using those skills.

In modern parlance, the fact that some teenagers can afford to be complete naïfs in a world where that carries such serious consequences for others is considered a privilege. When I was growing up, it simply made one lucky to one degree or another. I hadn't realized how fortunate I had been in my own childhood until I was faced with stories of how other childhoods had gone horribly and irreparably wrong. I don't know that those stories have a place in the narrative being woven by "#MeAt14." I suspect they don't, if for no other reason that they'd be seized upon by people looking to justify relationships we commonly consider to be some combination of criminal and perverse.

But I do think that it's important, at some point, to make sure that we remember that the extension of childhood through adolescence is not ordained. We worked to make it that way, and there are people who were missed in that work.