Sunday, September 21, 2014

Culture of Terror

  • Video blogger Anita Sarkesian leaves her home after threats are made against her and members of her family by someone who knows where she lives.
  • Rebecca Watson is threatened with being sexually assaulted after disputing the idea that male circumcision is just as harmful as female circumcision.
  • Rhode Island student Jessica Ahlquist receives death threats after filing a lawsuit to have an overtly Christian "banner" removed from the wall of her public high school.
  • San Fransisco technology worker Kevin Rose is threatened with mutilation by people outside his home protesting housing, transportation and income disparities.
  • Members the United States House of Representatives who voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are harassed. While there are few outright threats of violence (after all, threatening a member of Congress, as opposed to an everyday citizen, carries the threat of prison time), the implication is often there. Angry people also target the siblings of lawmakers.
  • Snohomish, Washington high school student Brett Karch is badly injured firing a cannon at a school function, nearly requiring amputation of his leg. Fearful that the cannonade tradition would be abolished, schoolmates and parents phone the hospital to threaten him with further harm, including the loss of his other leg, if he or his family cooperate with the investigation into the accident.
As I've noted before:
There's some broken bit of the American psyche that revels in the fear and stress caused by threatening to murder those one disagrees with. [...] We, as a nation, have become host to legions of craven bullies, seeking to frighten one another into conformity from the safety of anonymity.
Launching anonymous death threats at people who threaten something that one feels entitled to - or simply make one angry about something, is such a common activity in the modern United States that, in all honestly, it seems that they're hardly worth taking seriously. If the consequences for someone actually deciding to follow through were not so dire, it seems likely that we would simply ignore them entirely, especially given the fact that despite their apparent frequency, it's likely that most threats are made by a relatively small number of people. I, for my part, agree with Josef Joffe when he observes that: "Real terrorists don't write letters; they just kill you."

While the threats against Ms. Sarkesian have captured the attention of the circles that I move in, the fact of the matter remains that being on the receiving end of threats (of assault, rape or murder) is nearly par for the course for anyone with any level of public notoriety. Ms. Sarkesian's problem is not that there is a culture of threats directed at women in technology. Instead, she, along with Assemblyman Adams, Rebecca Watson, Jessica Ahlquist, Kevin Rose, Brett Karch and several members of the United States House of Representatives all have the same problem - that there is a culture of treating the making of serious threats against other people as trivial to everyone but the person(s) on the receiving end.
On one point Thursday, there was bipartisan agreement: No act of Congress - health care reform or anything else - merits threats of violence against lawmakers or their families.
The Seattle Times "Threats against lawmakers spread after health vote"
What we need is a national agreement: that no act of public life - being critical of the content of video games, voting for tax increases as a Republican, disagreeing with a member of one's own "tribe," insisting that the First Amendment be enacted in accordance with one's own interpretation of it, making significantly more than low income people who want to live in your neighborhood, being injured by a cannon made by students or anything else - merits anonymous attempts to cause feelings of fear, stress and helplessness in anyone, regardless of how seriously we consider the actual threat being made. For a time it was fashionable to sneer down our collective noses at the Moslem world for their rage, than the threats that it engendered, at the publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. The incident was treated in many circles as proof of the backwardness and barbarism of Islam.

Pot. Kettle. Black.

Friday, September 19, 2014

When They Come Again

"First they came..." is a poem derived from a speech by pastor Martin Niemöller. We see it today as an indictment of those who stood by while the Nazis rounded up various groups and took them away to the concentration camps, and as a cautionary warning of the perils of being silent in the face of a clear injustice being done.

But in an early version of the speech, given in 1946, pastor Niemöller raises a point, that while not poetic, is nevertheless important.

Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables. - I remember a conversation I had with a person who claimed to be a Christian. He said: Perhaps it's right, these incurably sick people just cost the state money, they are just a burden to themselves and to others. Isn't it best for all concerned if they are taken out of the middle [of society]?
He follows this up with another important point:
We can talk ourselves out of it with the excuse that it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out.
It's become fashionable to think that when "evil" triumphs because enough "good people" do nothing, the fundamental problem is that being a "good person" isn't enough to prevent people from being cowards. But the first quote of Niemöller's I presented reminds us - in almost all cases of injustice being perpetrated against a group, the silence of members of the group that perpetrated it is also self-interested. When Japanese-American citizens were interred in World War II, people may have very well be afraid to speak out. But they also saw themselves as safer with possible fifth columnists locked up and people in the areas that the Japanese-Americans had been forced to vacate saw, and in several cases availed themselves of, an opportunity to better their material condition through taking the property of the interned.

This tendency didn't end with the Second World War - people are still motivated to look the other way when it may benefit them to do so. And so when people fear that recent injustices, like the second-class citizenship of women or Native Americans, will rear their heads again, they aren't necessarily worried that a majority of White men will actively support such measures. Only that, secure in the belief that no-one will ever come for them, they'll remain silent and simply accept the advantages offered them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Beating the Rush

So... apparently Rush Limbaugh made another comment that people who don't routinely listen to him would find offensive. Which, I'd always thought, was his stock in trade. But it's spurred national Democrats into action, and as someone who went to a fundraiser back in the day, I found multiple e-mails in my inbox, exhorting me to stick it to him.

The basic message was pretty simple:

A rape apologist does not deserve a national platform. Rush’s comments that sometimes “no means yes” are wrong and damaging to our national discourse.

Can you help us get Rush off the air by demanding his sponsors pull their ads??
There’s only one problem. Even if I thought that Limbaugh was actually telling his male listeners that, if they want sex with a woman, that they should proceed despite being told that they should desist, and thus were inclined to denounce him for promoting rape, I don’t know who his sponsors are. The e-mails don't say - they simply offer a link to an online petition. (A link that, judging from its length and cryptic nature, likely has my e-mail address encoded into it...) Maybe this is just because I’m not in the media business, but if someone presented me with a “petition” that was basically just a bunch of people clicking a link, none of whom were likely listeners to the show in question, I’d simply ignore it.

Now, if I knew the names of the sponsors in question, I could make a decision whether or not to place them on my “Do Not Buy” list. Which, by myself, wouldn’t really make any difference. But if a lot of people did it, it could bring about change, as companies tend to be sensitive to things that impact the bottom line. While simply having to click a link makes things much easier for me, it also more or less reduces the whole thing to an exercise in slacktivism, removing any need to.

P.S.: As for Limbaugh, it really doesn’t sound like he’s advocating that men simply ignore any objections from women that they wish to sleep with. He’s mocking a policy that strikes him as overly fussy and falling back on the old trope that sometimes women send mixed messages or don’t say what they really mean. While such comments are often used as cover by people intent on acting in bad faith, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Limbaugh is acting as a “rape apologist.” Instead, what he’s doing, and I suspect quite deliberately, is seeking to undermine “no means no” and cast informed, intentional and unambiguous consent as a standard for sexual activity as part of a feminist/liberal trap for “real men.” Which, honestly, is bad enough on its own. I’m surprised that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee felt the need to trump up the charge from there.

P.P.S.: There seems to be a pretty good database of companies that run spots during Rush Limbaugh's show here. If you’re interested, you can add them to your own “Do Not Buy” list. As I've just done with, as an example, what had been my favorite airline, Alaska.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

What is it Worth to You?

When I was first taking courses in Project Management, one of the classes I had signed up for was one on Ethics. After class one day, I asked the instructor: “Can you ever be considered really ethical if you’re not willing to risk your job, and maybe the rest of your working life?” What followed was an uncomfortable silence and an unspoken agreement. We both knew that the answer was, quite likely: “No.” But we also both knew that it was, quite likely, an untenable trade-off.
I was reminded of my earlier post while reading “Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness” at The Atlantic. When I wrote it, I was commenting on the fact that accountability has costs for the person(s) who enforce it, and not just the person being held accountable. At the time, I noted that this created a rational incentive for us to avoid holding people accountable. When the costs of holding someone accountable for what we have defined as wrongdoing are greater than the cost of not doing so, it may simply be worthwhile to look the other way.

But in reading the Atlantic article, I realized that I'd left out a facet, one that I'd touched on in the excerpt that I quoted above. Courage.
Geneva’s father demanded that she change her speech for the second round, offering less detail, and less of her personal experience, because people would be jumping to conclusions, wondering who she meant when she said “it’s happening in his house, in her house, even in your own bed.” He feared her words could implicate him.
“Rape Culture in the Alaskan Wilderness”
This is not the only instance of a lack of “courage” in the article, but it was perhaps the first, and one that really stood out for me. As a species, we are not courageous unto death. If we were, there would likely be none of us left. And we understand that, and so we do not often demand it. But where before that is the line drawn? And is there even a line? If I make an ethical choice that turns out to result in perpetual unemployability, then what do I do? How do I support myself? If someone takes me in and gives me food, shelter and clothing, it is wise to bring my ethics with me?
For that reason, family members often blame the victims, or the friends of victims, who attempt to report a crime, out of fear of losing material support, or a vital link in a precarious web of familial structure.
In the end, whether it is rape, murder or simple theft, all crime culture stems from the want of a certain level of courage. The perpetrator lacks the courage to ask permission or do without, and the rest of us lack the courage to suffer the consequences of enforcing our own rules. It’s easy to become outraged when the consequences strike us as trivial. Watching football is enjoyable, certainly, but not so much so that we should condone domestic violence simply to watch one more faceless bruiser suit up. But what should we expect of people? Loss of their livelihoods? Their homes? Their families?

There is more to courage than simply someone else standing up to things that we cast ourselves of unafraid of or have some confidence that we can overcome. In the end, courage requires a level of detachment from life that allows us to walk away from everything, even life itself, in the name of doing what we understand to be right, even if nothing comes of it but loss on our part. A friend of mine once remarked to me that “If you’re not willing to do whatever it takes to bring about what you believe in, I question your commitment to it.” By that standard, I am uncommitted, because I don’t know that I am ready to be destitute, utterly alone and/or dead in the name of enforcing my primary ethical conviction - that the costs of an action belong to the actor. As such, I am inclined to forgive Geneva’s father. He may be willing to have the message watered down and, in doing so, perhaps see others suffer sexual assault rather than be thought of as a sex offender himself, but his tolerance for risk is his own, and not subject to my approval.

There is a reason why our tolerance for risk is not infinite, regardless of what one thinks of its origins and utility. And, as our courage can never be absolute, despite the stories we tell ourselves, our ethics can never be so, either. And so, ethics become like everything else - worth only what we are willing to pay for them.

Thursday, September 11, 2014


But the fact of the matter is that many of the students who choose to come to Spelman are coming from communities where they have clearly been in the minority. It is often surprising to the casual observer that if you talk to students, they will often say, "I was one of a handful of black kids in my school. One of the reasons I wanted to be at Spelman was because I wanted to be at the center of the educational experience, not on the margins of it the way that I felt like I was in high school."
Beverly Tatum, President of Spelman College "Why America Still Needs Historically Black Colleges"
It was odd for me to read this, because, even as an African American, I felt being at a Historically Black College in the mid-1980's to be even more marginalizing than the nearly all-white high-school that I had just graduated from the year before. So although I understand it on an intellectual level, I have trouble relating to it.

But what I started learning that year was the politics of "in-group," and it's application to race. For the suburban whites I grew up around, "in-group" was mainly a matter of appearance - in effect, being white required looking white, and that was really about it. But for the more urban black students that I spent my freshman year of college around, there was an added component - to be counted as in the "in-group" you had to look black and to "act black." And while I had the first part of that down, I failed miserably at the second, and so found myself in the "out-group," mainly, and perhaps ironically, because most of my classmates felt that I was rejecting them.