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.

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May 15, 2010

Six Steps to Improve Urban Education

Filed under: policy,social justice — ononehand @ 1:11 pm

We’ve heard from teachers and policy advocates about what doesn’t fix the achievement gap in public schools. Programs designed to fire teachers who have low-scoring students is an example of a wrong approach to education. I’m sure you’ve heard teachers unions saying it’s because teachers are already doing all the work they can, which – whether or not that is the case – is probably not the politically effective argument. The real reason I think these policies are counter-productive is that they create animosity between teachers and low-performing students who drag scores down, and discourages teachers from working in the very schools that are hardest to recruit in. In other words, it stigmatizes troubled schools and, in particularly, troubled students. (more…)

March 10, 2010

The Current Debate Over American Education is Classist

Filed under: culture,social justice — ononehand @ 9:29 pm
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You can’t convince me how you believe in the potential of kids from low-income, failing schools, and then in the same breath argue that people who grew up in those schools are bad candidates to be teachers.

But that’s what a recent article in Newsweek seems to do, in a discussion of the need to fire teachers whose students underperform, and the need to recruit new teachers who came from more prestegious colleges.

I don’t dispute the article’s sentiment towards bad teachers, but this quote from a sidebar in the Newsweek article caught my eye: in “2000, 37% of teachers [came] from colleges with SAT scores in the lowest 5%,” explaining that this happens because teaching is an “undesirable” fall-back job.

The SAT, like the ACT and every standardized test, does not measure intelligence: it measures the value of your pre-college education. So if the public education system is flawed – and the Newsweek article argues yes, it is – it seems ridiculous to be judging students or their colleges on what their SAT scores were or what their school’s average SAT scores were. Consider also that a college with SAT scores in the lowest 5% are not representing the lowest 5% of students, but rather, the lowest 5% SAT-scoring colleges, which still select from higher-performing high school graduates and represent closer to the 50th percentile of all students.

Essentially, the statement in Newsweek is like saying low-income people who graduated from urban schools with average test scores and worked their way through school at the city college are a black stain on the educational system as teachers, compared to students who went to major universities and lived in the dorms. This is a prime example of the politics of privilege.

Yes, there are myrad problems with schools in America, which is why, as Newsweek itself cites, kids who grow up in low-income households underperform middle-class students, and black and hispanic kids underperform white kids in public schools year after year. It has been a permanent problem plaguing the country and proving that some injustice is taking place. And while teacher incompetence might be a factor in school districts everywhere, it does not explain the fullness of this disparity.

Poverty is one of the most obvious unaddressed factors here, but here’s something else that stands a chance of explaining much of this issue. The vast majority of teachers are white and come from middle-class backgrounds. In schools where the majority of students are Hispanic or black, the white teachers are a “ruling class” of sorts in an intrinsically sensitive situation as the ones making crucial decisions for and wielding authority over people who are different from them. We know that to grow up white in America is to be instilled with subtle and overt cues that your own culture, values and experiences are superior; considering the power a teacher has over her or his students, it would be so easy for conscious and unconscious biases to affect the students. Teacher training programs often pay some lip-service to diversity, but cannot be truly effective unless they are led and organized by people from diverse backgrounds who aren’t afraid to “go there.”

Perhaps the fact that white, middle-class people who have not been thoroughly trained in anti-racism dominate the American teaching class is responsible for some of the following facts: (more…)

October 30, 2009

Newsflash: Blue Collar People Work Just as Hard as Bankers

Filed under: opinion,social justice — ononehand @ 3:22 am
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Obama’s message of “change” has swept America – Wall Street traders are now society’s welfare collectors, and for the first time in our lives it’s “uncool” to be a member of the investing class. Fivethirtyeight.com creator Nate Silver posted a defense of bankers describing a personal friend of his who worked on Wall Street, but used a pseudonym to save his friend embarrassment.

People used to be ashamed of working at 7-11 or Walgreens, but now its the AIG executives who blush to mention what they do. I admit I get a twisted pleasure out of the role reversal.

It’s not that rich people or their character offends me. I, like most Americans, grew up expecting that someday I’d be in the upper ten percent of earners. I’ve encouraged friends and family to seek better-paying jobs when they got the chance. I admire skyscrapers, symbols of accumulated power and corporatism. I don’t hold anything against successful people, say Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates, for creating things of value and profiting from that.

What embitters me – this is my biggest beef with the upper-classes and economic conservatives – lies in the presumptions their world makes about the rest of us. Or rather, the presumptions that all of us make about the stratification of society. The cultural mythology is that upper middle class and rich people got to where they are because they worked harder than everyone else, or that poor people are poor because they did not work as hard.

It’s more than a presumption – it’s a lie, because I know most people secretly know better.

I’ve had friends who are business majors, marketing majors, business-engineers and law school aspirants. As an undergraduate I had many, many peers who grew up wealthier than I could imagine being. I’ve lived with some as roommates, known some as boyfriends, met many as acquaintances and known others as close friends.

There’s a wink-wink nod-nod paradigm in upper-class youth culture, one that its members never even made secret – that the world is theirs if they want it. They know, and brag, about the power their parents have, and how they’re virtually guaranteed to get a good job unless they’re grossly incompetent. I’ve heard business majors talk about their internships, how they made $25 an hour in a position they didn’t even have to interview for, and all they have to do is type numbers into a spreadsheet a few hours a day and still be paid for full days when they left three hours early. They brag about how much they make for so little work or how easy their lives are. All because their dads knew somebody. All because of their trust funds. All because they grew up with private tutors who cultivated them for Ivy League graduate schools and taught them the language of power.

I know there are moneyed people who do work hard – who spend 14 hours a day in the office, who push themselves to the limit to get the promotion, who use cocaine or adderall just to stay awake and alert enough to get farther ahead in that world. But the fact is that it’s quite motivating to know that every extra mile you run is almost guaranteed to pay off with a truckload of money.

For a low-income person, taking the extra second job often means going from $300 a week to $450 a week in earnings. And when you can either make the lower sum, struggle and eventually have to collect welfare or declare bankruptcy, or alternately, work harder making $450, struggle and still be seen as a “low-class” person all your life, I’m sure you often find yourself wondering why bother avoiding food stamps or bankruptcy.

Lets be honest: you and I who are middle class and above – not even rich, just middle class – we didn’t go to college in the “spirit of hard work.” We went to college to work less hard in life, to ensure that we’ll get a moderate, comfortable salary someday for a moderate, comfortable amount of effort. After that, the only direction we have to go is up. Having a degree guarantees us that we’re worth $25 an hour instead of $9.

Most of us who went to “good colleges” (myself included) got a lot of help from our parents. We knew we could get same degree from a less-expensive college but went to the one we did because, though the only main difference is that it costs more money, it is more reputable so will ultimately put is in a place of privilege. We knew our parents cover what we couldn’t pay for, help with groceries from time to time, buy our books, or if we couldn’t make rent, they’d float us a loan so we don’t have to pawn our stereos.

My parents were slightly stricter about what they’d help with than most at their income level. Their deal was, if you work part time, and get good grades at school, we’ll cover the rest. I worked an average of fifteen hours a week through college. I lived cheap – I always found the lowest rent in town and there were days I ate nothing but a jar of peanut butter – but I never needed any kind of loan. And I never feared eviction or needed the government’s help, because of my parents.

People of the middle class knew, from the time we were children, that all we had to do was make a decent effort to complete the schoolwork put in front of us, and we’d get into a respected school and coast comfortably into white-collar jobs that pay at least the same as what our parents made. We can even comfortably coast a higher income if we choose the right profession. We’ll rarely spend more than 8 hours a day at school or work. We’ll have weekends off. We can still get drunk on Friday and sleep in on Sunday. We’ll never be up till 4am working the night shift – unless that’s our choice. If we save wisely, we’ll live comfortably and have enough money to retire comfortably.

But we’ll still entertain the myth that we “worked hard” to be middle class.

The hardest work I’ve ever done in my life was canvassing door to door with the Service Employees Union, alongside low-income people who said it was the easiest job they’d ever had. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I was personally invested in being a part of history, and winning the election, but beyond that, it was thankless; people aren’t wowed by you saying you were a canvasser, it doesn’t set you up for a solid career, it’s temporary, and people I saw in the field cussed at me and slammed doors in my face.

The easiest work I’ve ever done was writing for a local newspaper with a circulation of 30,000 – a job I could be proud of. The internship was unpaid, and I spent a lot of hours and plowed through a lot of beginner’s anxiety, true. But it was easy because I knew that every word I typed was going to be read by thousands of people. Knowing your work is meaningful is a huge motivator. I didn’t have to apply for the internship – my school made a phone call and scooted me in just because I was a Journalism major there.

Flipping burgers at McDonals, being in doubt that you’ll ever move beyond that, is not so rewarding. I’ve worked in fast food before. It’s a lot harder to stay on task, and it’s a lot harder to live on such a meager wage. Your aspiration: become manager? Maybe, but there are seven people at your level and only one can get that job. You dread going to work each day, and never feel proud to be there. I can only imagine still doing that at the age of 23 – working 40 hours a week with no benefits and irregular shifts that absolutely suck, thinking, if I were more wealthy I’d be binge drinking on weekends – where did my youth go? Other people get to enjoy their 20s. The young white teenager who works at Wendys knows he’s moving on, but the unspoken knowledge is that his coworkers still working there at age 40 aren’t going anywhere.

I know that many low-income people work hard. Mearly showing up to work under such depressing circumstances is hard. The education system fails them – it’s all aimed at the college-bound student, but doesn’t always teach you simple things like the necessity of savings accounts and how to write a resume. It doesn’t teach you the language of power. It doesn’t feed you anti-depression pills when you get discouraged the way the rich kids get those things. It doesn’t teach you hope and the art of self-promotion.

In other ways poor people fail simply because they aren’t part of the networking chummy I-worked-with-your-father culture that lands you good jobs. We know there’s a such thing as class prejudice, we assume upper-class people are genetically more intelligent, we assume having money says good things about you (why do we expect people to wear nice clothes to an interview?) and knowing somebody comes from a wealthy background means they have to do just a little less to prove themselves.

That’s my beef with the “Country Club Republican,” full of people who genuinely believe their big homes or fancy cars are true status symbols; an attitude that is even harder for me to cope with than those of socially-conservative Evangelicals. I truly honor the capitalistic idea that if you have something people want, and they’re willing to pay it, you’re entitled to your earnings. And I’m open to pragmatic arguments about the impact of the corporate tax rates, or working the tax code so that the carrots and sticks are in the right place to make it run smoothly. Hell, I’m even open to corporate bailouts if they’re necessary to avoid major economic collapse.

But do I beleive the upper class is a bastion of brilliant talent? Are they born with outrageous IQs or gifts indispensible to our world? Do they glow like rising suns, successful because of outstanding character, sweat and tears? Do they really back up the sense of superiority and giftedness I sense coming from that direction?

Not in your life.

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