On One Hand

December 8, 2014

Why we need basic understanding of feminism to talk about sexual assault

Filed under: culture,media,policy,social justice — ononehand @ 4:55 pm

I’m seeing a lot of conversations stir up around victim advocacy and feminism in policy and reporting regarding the recent Rolling Stone story about campus sexual assault. A lot of it is the appropriate review of journalistic standards after a story that, at this point, has definitely not gone well for anyone. Some of it is veering into a critique on whether sensitivity to victims should play a role in reporting at all, or responding to a situation in which such sensitivity was misapplied to launch a campaign against victims.

For anyone who’s still confused or anxious about the need for feminist perspectives, allow me to put it this way.

One of society’s challenges addressing sexual assault is that dealing with a real story will almost automatically entail some cognitive dissonance. When you are speaking to and about victims who talk about sexual assault, your presumption (based on overwhelming statistical likelihood) should be that they are being truthful and potentially traumatized — yet when you are speaking to and about offenders, all who are implicated in a crime are presumed innocent until found guilty. Both of these are in some ways “liberal” principles and both are necessary to prevent irreparable harm to people. Yet they are cognitively dissonant. It can be confusing to understand how you can empathize totally with victims and at the same time remain fair on matters of due process.

This is why society needs a mindful and sophisticated system for dealing with sexual assault. That includes victims advocates (who are in a separate role from judge and jury, incorporating some elements of the role of a mental health professional and some elements of the role of a personal attorney) and why the public and media should strive for a similarly mindful and sophisticated attitude towards it.

What else should be part of that sophisticated system? Part of it addresses the bullshit, shaming and contradictory expectations we pile on women regarding their sexuality.

Rape is wrong because it violates a person’s bodily integrity, privacy, and trust in others — it does so in principle, but also with likelihood to do psychological damage. (You’ll notice that this is completely neutral towards a victim’s gender.) In the eyes of traditional society, however, rape is wrong because it tarnishes a woman’s sexual purity and innocence (which is a gendered interpretation). Therefore, society tends to asses harm done to women by sexual assault by evaluating a victim’s state of purity and innocence prior to being sexually assaulted, and continues to question their purity and innocence afterward by evaluating whether they display too much or too little trauma to be trustworthy. Society also tends to be distrustful and patronizing toward women’s memories and interpretations — this can include police, investigators and prosecutors, who are usually men. That’s utterly immoral and damaging to put a victim through.

Identifying these gender-based double standards, and shifting towards gender equity, is feminism. I don’t think society’s approach to sexual assault can be considered sophisticated, or even competent, without universal understanding of feminist perspectives.

Campaigns to change attitudes towards sexual assault are often challenged by skeptics speaking as if there are “two sides” to the issue. Granted, on any topic, every individual has her or his own experience and so there is an unlimited number of “sides.” But I think it’s very ironic when one cause, seeking to improve general understanding of what sexual assault is and the harm it does to victims so that the incidents don’t happen in the first place, are asked to consider the other “side” — the experience of the accused. Mind you, the main goal of anti-rape activists, who are painfully aware that many offenders are said to “seem like nice guys” who for whatever reason fail to register the humanity of a person they victimize, is to change the culture to prevent there from being victims or offenders in the first place.

We are universally educated about due process — yes even feminists are — so we don’t need to lecture women, feminists or victims advocates about due process. They all know what it is. But feminist perspectives, though diverse, still face misunderstanding and resistance. So, yes, you need to learn about feminism to speak competently about sexual assault, because in the absence of that knowledge there is bias. There’s room for different viewpoints when you get there, but you have to have that basic groundwork of knowledge to play a positive role.

April 10, 2010

Journalists: Stop Rolling Over For Your Detractors

Filed under: culture,media — ononehand @ 7:02 pm
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Journalism is an important institution in the free world. Few dispute this. Journalism is an important institution in America, too; one so valuable that the framers of our Constitution chose to codify the freedom of the press in the First Amendment.

We live in a complicated world. Few dispute this. Nobody has time to absorb information found in every corner; ordinary Americans do not have time to resolve, for themselves, the inner happenings of the titans on Wall Street or the troubled alleys in Afghanistan. Ordinary citizens do not have time to investigate potential corruption in government or the potential outcomes of current economic trends.

We the people rely on other people to gather that information for us: we rely on journalists.

People will criticize the press for doing just that. This is not a new or controversial statement. The act of journalism has been imbued with constant accusations of “bias,” since its beginning, and on many occasions in history governments as well as private institutions have tried to shut it down. The way this story is written clearly benefits the Left, or benefits the Right, a detractor will say.

That may be true. But a story is still a story. (more…)

December 1, 2009

Some Conversation-Framing Concepts in Free Discourse

Filed under: media — ononehand @ 11:13 pm
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When we talk about free speech and the media, we often delve into intellectual absurdities and passionate yet bizarre mentalities that derail conversation. Since I talk a lot about talk, about language, oppression, speech and pop culture, I frequently encounter conflicted views on what “free speech” or “discourse” means. The White House vs. Fox News debate is offering up a litany of examples.

That’s because the Fox News agency is just aghast that the President of the United States is opposing their “free speech” by telling the world that Fox News is unfair and unbalanced. Commentators compared Barack Obama to Hugo Chavez, the leftist president of Columbia who shut down newspapers that were critical of his government.

Whenever somebody criticizes the effort or purpose of an entity that is exercising “speech” (such as a news organization, a pundit, or even just a loony person ranting), indignant self-proclaimed First Amendment advocates rise to the surface. “How dare you criticize my argument!” the self-serving defendant will say. “My opinion is my free speech! You can’t oppose it!”

Which brings is to the first component of free speech, as part of a set of three components I think need to be acknowledged by all parties to frame healthier conversations about speech. That component is:

Reciprocity.

You have a right to “free speech,” meaning freedom to make your controversial point or offend somebody, and to express views that are sane, controversial or even forehead-smackingly ridiculous. Inversely, others are allowed to respond to your statements, even to offend you back. People may respectfully disagree with what you say, disrespectfully disagree with what you say, tell you that they don’t like you any more because you said it, tell you that you shouldn’t say it at all or even say that you are a vile scum-sucking cretin and your mother was a lunatic. This is because free speech is reciprocal; their rights are equivalent to your rights, and everyone is allowed to respond to speech with speech.

People have a hard time understanding this. For example, when I posted How to Confront Hate Speech on the Internet on YouTube several months ago, I got comments and personal emails from people essentially saying “how dare you condemn hate speech, that’s so totalitarian!” because I am infringing on a hate speakers free speech by responding disapprovingly, or asking others to respond disapprovingly. They said that my video was one step on the road to a fascist society because hate speech is hard to define so who knows what other kind of views against minorities could be argued against using that very video! I struggled to explain that telling somebody who made a racist comment that her or his comment was racist is hardly an infringement of a racist’s rights and is considerably less antagonistic than racism itself. I also struggled to explain that telling someone her or his ethnic slurs are “not cool” is not to infringe on that person’s right to use them, which I even specifically explained in the original video.

I do think that hate speech should be called out and that public misinformation should be called out and condemned. But that doesn’t mean I advocate censorship; I advocate discourse. Which brings me to point two in the components of discourse.

Saying somebody should stop saying a certain thing is not “censorship.”

Understanding this principle requires your ability to make a distinction between force and encouragement. It explains why telling your mother to go jump off a bridge is just frowned upon but throwing her off a bridge is murder.

Censorship entails the use of force. When censorship occurs, the language being censored is removed from discourse by a moderator on an Online forum, by a publisher, editor, or most critically, by government (government censorship of political speech is the only kind that is protected by the First Amendment). Responding to the comments and saying that they are inappropriate is not censorship, because the original comments are still available.

People have a hard time understanding this. Let me use the following reader comment on an NPR online poll over the White House vs. Fox News debacle as an example:

The “White House” and it’s Czar’s are Socialist….the type of people that I feared most when first learning about this type of government in my junior high social study classes. Limiting our freedom of speech and controlling the news is the first step toward absolute tyranny…

This is an example of conflation at its finest, which seems to epitomize the way wacky people of all strips (I’m choosing not to single out the Far-Right) deal with political conflict. First, the commenter conflates “socialist” (which is an economic system practiced in Norway and Sweden) with the totalitarian governments of Orwell’s 1984 and Stalinist Russia. The two may overlap, but do not coincide. Second, the commenter conflates a political comment from the White House with tyranny.

Shutting down news agencies would be a step towards tyranny. Using laws or coercion to remove certain viewpoints from the public discourse entirely would be tyranny. Those are the things that the Bill of Rights seeks to protect Americans against. Censorship is, acknowledgedly, very problematic.

But the White House never made an attempt to shut down a news agency or to control news content; it issued a public statement that it will henceforth treat the Fox News Channel as a political opponent (because it is) and claimed the Fox channel’s news reporting is often conflated with opinion reporting (which is not outrageous to claim, especially considering that Fox constantly accuses every single other news network of doing that). The people who work in the White House have the right to say and do that because the people who work in the White House are protected by the same right to free speech that everyone else is. You can consider their comments inappropriate if you choose to, but it’s a pretty distant stretch to say it’s “totalitarian” for them to make the comments. The Bush White House did the exact same thing when it maligned NBC’s “liberal bias,” and political leaders have always been free to criticize their critics. Any leader who could not do that would be ineffective. Yet 40% of the comments from Fox News fans on the NPR comment forum seem to carry the assumption that the White House took some form of legal action against the Fox News agency.

What the White House essentially did was say, Fox News can say what it wants, but we don’t find it to be legitimate. As in, we don’t find them credible, and anyone listening is invited to decide whether or not to agree.

Ironically, Fox News, which is up in arms over the Obama White House’s statement, was very supportive when the Bush White House launched similar criticism of NBC. Which leads me to my third and final conversation-framing concept in free discourse.

Reciprocity, revisited.

Other peoples’ rights are based on your rights, and vice versa. Think about whether you would be willing to abide by the rules you call for, or whether or not you are doing exactly what you indignantly oppose somebody else doing. Do you ever criticize people? That means they get to criticize you. It is stupid to call somebody out for being mean when you are both being mean. It is stupid to call somebody out for being violent when you are both being violent. It is stupid to call somebody out for being combative when you are both being combative, and for being critical when you are both being critical. If you want to call a “new rule,” you have to stop doing the thing that breaks that rule before you can even consider holding the other person to it.

Interestingly, conservative commentators who celebrated the Bush White House condemning NBC launched scathing attacks on the Obama White House for condemning Fox News. Keith Olbermann, who had criticized the Bush Administration, defended the Obama Administration and criticized the pundits. These sorts of double standards are rampant in political discourse, and make useful bits of opinion or information particularly difficult to find.

Intellectual reciprocity is an important component of any constructive discourse. It is impossible to force compliance, but for any two sides to come to agreement they must first agree that both parties are allowed to respond to each other in analogous ways. It seems that it is the responsibility of K-12 English and Social Studies teachers to explain this concept, and where they fail, we must pick up the slack. That is why I have written this, as a free exercise of my own free speech, and critique of but not an infringement of the rights of those who claim otherwise.

November 16, 2009

2012: Colonialism Revisited?

Filed under: culture,media — ononehand @ 9:20 pm
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Few would see a movie like 2012 expecting a heartrending story line or touching lesson in human nature. From the onset the purpose of the film is clear: we’re going to blow this place up.

That was certainly the reason I rushed to see it on opening night, after the trailer laid it out for us in telling sneak peeks: Acres of city blocks slide like clods of dirt into the Pacific Ocean. A Buddhist monk rings a sacred bell as a tidal wave the size of a continent washes over the desolate Himalayas, killing him. 2012 boasts itself with scenes that are as awe-strickening as they are disturbingly beautiful.

As far as that goes, the only criticism I can offer is that the film pivots, about a quarter of the way in, from going too slow to suddenly going way too fast. A few mild tremors shake Los Angeles in the first part of the film – during a painfully tedious exposition to let characters reveal their cliche family backstories – and then without warning, Southern California splits itself apart in an abyss as deep as the Marianas Trench. The next thing we know, Yellowstone Caldera is erupting as a supervolcano in a bang so powerful it sends out shockwaves and a mushroom cloud akin to a Hydrogen bomb. (True to action movie form, the explosion rips over the hills at thousands of miles per hour until it approaches our protagonists fleeing in a lumbering motor home, and slows to their pace for their nail-biting escape. The explosion seems to pause or even retreat for several minutes as they scramble out of the vehicle into a parked airplane, but quickly re-accelerates to barely kiss the tail of their plane as it speeds away, churning with black smoke, glowing rocks and lava all the while.)

By the time Yellowstone has erupted, the world is basically over. The skies darken. Subsequent scenes of destruction are posed as an afterthought. “Oh, by the way,” the President’s Chief of Staff explains to aides in Washington, “Rio de Janiero was just destroyed by an earthquake” (cue footage of Christ Redeemer crumbling off its perch), then in a similarly decontextualized scene, we watch St. Peter’s Basilica collapse and kill the entire hierarchy of the Catholic Church along with prayerful masses (we see nothing of the rest of Rome, though). When our protagonists get their airplane to Las Vegas, most of its hotels and casinos have already anticlimactically collapsed into the core of the Earth in a giant earthquake, and we witness the ruins of Las Vegas astride a seemingly infinite abyss. Washington D.C. is next to go, at a pace that is almost too fast to comprehend; an earthquake takes down the Washington Monument, then a gigantic, yawning tidal wave rises out of the Atlantic and looms over the city (which is covered by volcanic ash from Yellowstone), but the film cuts away just as the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, an aircraft carrier, lands on top of the White House.

Scenes such as this will continue through the rest of the film, revealing impending disasters but ending before the actual destruction ensues. Tidal ways loom up, but we cut away before the waves strike, and we assume that the characters who stood watching it are killed. Earthquakes begin but leave the scene before they reach their full strength. In other cases, we happen upon a ruined city that has already been destroyed, as happens with Honolulu, covered by lava. Most often we get even less than this: a military commander tells a diplomat that “Tokyo has been destroyed by an earthquake. Singapore has been wiped out by a wave.” The most dramatic disaster scene of the film remains the drawn-out Los Angeles earthquake from the beginning.

The thing that is notably missing from the film is discussion of the Mayan prophesy (or rather, rumor) of destruction in 2012 that is its impetus and namesake. If the film had the spiritualistic or supernatural overtone, then maybe the rapid succession of perfect coincidences that destroy the Earth’s cities would have a haunting poignancy. Instead, we are left only with science to explain what is going on, and the science falls flat. (According to 2012, solar flares make the lower Earth’s crust melt and the continents slide around through the ocean like leaves on a pond.) We learn that the planets line up in such a way as to lead to these events every 650,000 years, even though there has certainly never been an event like this in Earth’s history, which has been through almost 7 thousand 650-million year periods in its 4.5 billion years. As exposited in the film, the geophysical anomalies leading to the Earth’s destruction cause the continents to shift thousands of miles in the blink of an eye – something that requires them to move at tens of thousands of miles per hour, yet nobody on the ground is flung into space as would realistically happen if that occurred. This all happens magically on the ground without so much as cough of disturbance in the atmosphere, as observers in airplanes don’t figure out that land masses have moved until suddenly what they thought should be Guam turns out to be Tibet.

It is the end of the film that really gets me, though (Spoiler Alert). Beyond all the drama of survivors taking refuge in gigantic futuristic arks (tickets cost a billion Euro, so it is the world’s richest people who survive – our middle-class protagonists are stowaways) that the world’s governments had been building all along for mankind’s survival, the last scene in the movie tells us where humanity will go to rebuild: Africa.

According to the final scenes of 2012, in all the earthquakes and tectonic shifting, Africa has risen in elevation so much that it avoided being washed over by tidal waves that obliterated the rest of the planet. The Cape of Good Hope is now the highest point on Earth, which is, confusingly, where the world’s governments decide to set up humanity again, on the peaks of what will likely turn out to be glaciated mountains (sounds like paradise, right?). Our protagonist tells his children, who mourn the loss of their Southern California home, that they will find new homes where they are going.

But – uh – don’t people already live in Africa? Mayans were the first ethnic group be written out of 2012, Latinos are strikingly absent from the casting, and now the narrative suggests that native Africans are absent from the Earth. Forgive me for my politics, but it seems that having the world’s billionaires land on a dark-skinned continent to “re-build humanity,” as the story explains, is just a tad colonialist. There is no reference to the African governments, which were evidently not even part of the international ark-building program to begin with. I’m confused if the film’s writers see all Africans simply as tribal nomatic peoples, or as so militaristically primitive that it just doesn’t matter whether or not they already own the land you want to take. Perhaps the pending television series will elucidate this further.

I would say that 2012 has the basic structure of a great disaster movie, with awe-inspiring computer-generated explosions akin to Armageddon and Independence Day. But it tries too hard to be something else; if its all about the disasters, then the disasters should follow the same natural arc that any good story line does: subtle at first, but introduced to witnesses (in this case, the world’s population) through a gradual process of discovery, first with small bad news, then in steps to full awareness. In 2012, everyone outside a secretive government agency finds out that the world is ending after it is already well under way. There is no great “pending doom” scenes as occur in the latter parts of The Knowing where the horizon glows red with what is to come. There is no gradual escalation of events like the way small volcanic eruptions and gas emissions precede the big climactic pyroclastic explosion in Dante’s Peak. For the full effect, panic needs to slowly build through political wrangling, small cities taken down, riots, disasters following realistic trajectories, looting and then outright terror before the world’s ultimate demise rather than mundane obliviousness until suddenly your home and city is swallowed by the Earth.

Finally, the end of the movie leaves out bits of information that nerds like me are interested in most. What is the state of natural flora in preserved Africa, or in the rest of the world? The closing scene zooms out to show us a remodeled Africa (with drastically altered coastlines), the lone continent that has not been stripped bare by waves, and its central parts are still green. But what about the rest of the Earth? Does Florida border Argentina now? Is Antarctica to turn into a tropical paradise? The producers were either too lazy or just didn’t think audiences would care enough to want to see what has changed. In a movie that utterly lacks a decent human story, there is too much emphasis on the human story when those of us who did like the film liked it for one reason alone: the awe-inspiring natural world.

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