Friday, October 18, 2013

Some Speed Blogging, October 18, 2013: On Education in the US

I had to travel last weekend and into late Tuesday.  Not having had much of a real break (even snakes need them), my writing well is running on empty of energy even though there are important topics to tackle.   Perhaps early next week...

What's fascinating about traveling inside the US is that one skips from culture to culture to culture, even over shorter distances.  This is not really one country but a large chunk of a continent, and even houses and streets and nature look different between the lunch stop and the dinner stop en route.  To take a more extreme example, Louisiana and Massachusetts are two different countries in everything but name.

And that diversity may be the reason why the politics in the US is so very violent in tone.

Some of that "diversity" is visible in this article about the percentage of poor students in the southern and western parts of the United States.  I'm not an expert in judging studies about education, but it is certainly true that funding schools largely from local property taxes exacerbates existing income inequalities and passes them on to future generations, and if the majority of children live in poorer areas getting the future workers (including teachers, physicians and nurses) we all need may become more difficult.  I have long advocated compensatory funding:  More money should go to poor areas.

But the paradox of "diversity" that article reflects is perhaps in the fact that the winning political party in the southern areas of the United States is not interested in spending money on education.  Very sad, because they are eating their seed corn by ignoring the long-term negative effects of short-term tax savings.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

If You Read Nothing Else Today, Read This

An article by Joseph Stiglitz on global income inequality and what it means to all of us.  A snippet:

Of the advanced economies, America has some of the worst disparities in incomes and opportunities, with devastating macroeconomic consequences. The gross domestic product of the United States has more than quadrupled in the last 40 years and nearly doubled in the last 25, but as is now well known, the benefits have gone to the top — and increasingly to the very, very top.
Last year, the top 1 percent of Americans took home 22 percent of the nation’s income; the top 0.1 percent, 11 percent. Ninety-five percent of all income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1 percent. Recently released census figures show that median income in America hasn’t budged in almost a quarter-century. The typical American man makes less than he did 45 years ago (after adjusting for inflation); men who graduated from high school but don’t have four-year college degrees make almost 40 percent less than they did four decades ago.
American inequality began its upswing 30 years ago, along with tax decreases for the rich and the easing of regulations on the financial sector. That’s no coincidence. It has worsened as we have under-invested in our infrastructure, education and health care systems, and social safety nets. Rising inequality reinforces itself by corroding our political system and our democratic governance.

I see this as one of the major longer run problems,  right after climate change.  And what is worst about it is that it does, indeed, corrode our chances of democratic governance.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Don't Drink And Rape

That's a clickbait headline if there ever was one.  I'm trying to learn this game, my dear readers, because it IS the game when talk turns to the so-called "wimminz' issues."

Such as the women's astonishing ability to get raped.  Emily Yoffe at Slate has written an article on that, and many responses to her omit the link to reduce its clickbaitiness.  I don't think I can omit the link because I want to look at some direct quotes from the piece.  This makes me sad, as I'm contributing to the game.

At the same time, Yoffe's piece has a few pearls in it, scattered among the pig dung, and I want to spend some time separating the two, if I can.

Let's see what the pearls might be in Yoffe's piece:

She points out that binge drinking is not good for you.  It's not good for your health and it's not good for your safety.  Bad things can "happen" to you if you are too inebriated to take care of yourself, and bad things can "happen" to other people if, say, you decide to get behind the wheel of a car while drunk out of your mind.  Yoffe also suggests that binge drinking can turn you into a rapist, and she certainly states that binge drinking can make you a victim of a rape.  Or perhaps a mugging?  Or a beating?  A theft?

But Yoffe's main argument is about rape and young women.  Here's what she says:

In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped.    As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.

Bolds are mine.  I use them to point out how Yoffe's foggy writing hides the pearls and covers them up with the pig dung.   We begin with "awful" high-profile cases where a young girl "ends up" being raped.  Note that the active voice is about a girl going to a party.  Then the passive voice takes over and she "ends up" getting raped.  Bad things "happened" to her, because she was drunk and went to a party.

The pearl in her story:  That we should all take care of ourselves and make sure that we are not the slowest zebra in the herd running away from the hungry lions.  The pig dung in the story:  The lions* will still chase the zebras and the slowest one gets eaten.  Yoffe pays little attention to that aspect of the story.

Let's repeat that quote and bold a different part of it:

In one awful high-profile case after another—the U.S. Naval Academy; Steubenville, Ohio; now the allegations in Maryville, Mo.—we read about a young woman, sometimes only a girl, who goes to a party and ends up being raped.    As soon as the school year begins, so do reports of female students sexually assaulted by their male classmates. A common denominator in these cases is alcohol, often copious amounts, enough to render the young woman incapacitated. But a misplaced fear of blaming the victim has made it somehow unacceptable to warn inexperienced young women that when they get wasted, they are putting themselves in potential peril.

Is this truly the case?  That young people are not taught about the dangers of being too drunk to take care of themselves because it would come across as victim blaming?  Or is Yoffe arguing that young men are warned about the dangers but not young women?   Or is this all about the presumed behavior that will trigger a rape event and get a woman (or a man) raped, using the passive voice Yoffe did herself earlier in the quote?

The borderline between "rape prevention" of the kind Yoffe advocates (don't be the slowest zebra) and victim blaming (why did the zebras graze so close to the lions?) is a fuzzy one. 

Think of other examples from different types of crimes:  Should someone parking an expensive car in a poor neighbor be told that doing so was just inviting car theft?  What about a man or a woman wearing large diamond rings and fat gold chains in the subway late at night?  Yet avoiding those forms of behavior probably does reduce a person's chances of getting eaten by the human equivalent of lions.  But we tend not to blame the victims for their "bad choices" after a crime has taken place.  There's something different about rape as a crime, almost a whiff of it being "natural."

I quite like the lions-and-zebras parable (initially suggested by Yoffe herself, in " Sometimes the woman is the only one drunk and runs into a particular type of shrewd—and sober—sexual predator who lurks where women drink like a lion at a watering hole"), because it also serves to show that Yoffe seems to think that rape is either committed by alcohol or that the small percentage of hard-core rapists out there will always be on the lookout for the slow zebras. In either case the onus is on the victims to protect themselves by not drinking too much.  By running faster, really.

So the pearl in the story is that taking care of oneself is an important skill and women and men should both be encouraged to practice that self-love. 

I didn't find a pearl about how we should teach our children to take care of others, too,  to not let a friend get raped or get behind the wheel drunk and so on, and I didn't find a pearl about teaching young people that when an "inexperienced young person is wasted" perhaps we shouldn't see whether that person gets exploited or "ends up" exploiting someone else but instead make sure that they get safely home.

And I didn't find the pearl about the reason why victim blaming matters.  Nothing about the long history of rape victims being blamed for the crime, because of the time of the day they were out, because of the part of the town they were found in, because of the length of their skirts or the visibility of their arms or because they smiled at a stranger or didn't smile at a stranger and so on and so on.  This is not just history, either, but a current undertow in the stream of public debates about sexual violence both in the US and abroad.  If you read enough comment threads on events such as the recent gang rapes in India, you will find opinions which suggest that women, by their very existence anywhere outside their locked homes, are the real cause of rape.

That's what is tricky about Yoffe's arguments.  There will always be the slowest zebra, and teaching zebras how to run faster will not change that.

Which does NOT mean that I advocate getting drunk out of your mind for anyone or that it would be a good way to stay safe.

Finally, to the part of Yoffe's article which is both untrue and pure clickbaiting:  Female binge drinking is the fault of feminism!

The text under the attached photograph says:

Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue.
Funny, that.  I've never read a single feminist book which would have advocated binge drinking or matching men drink for drink.  Now who is it that has distorted the feminist message?

 Yoffe says more about this:

I’ve told my daughter that it’s her responsibility to take steps to protect herself. (“I hear you! Stop!”) The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster. I tell her I know alcohol will be widely available (even though it’s illegal for most college students) but that she’ll have a good chance of knowing what’s going on around her if she limits herself to no more than two drinks, sipped slowly—no shots!—and stays away from notorious punch bowls. If female college students start moderating their drinking as a way of looking out for their own self-interest—and looking out for your own self-interest should be a primary feminist principle—I hope their restraint trickles down to the men.

Knowing your own limits is good advice.  Suggesting that this restraint trickles down to the men is rubbish, because the lure of drinking a lot in college has its roots in very different and more masculine places than whatever the chicks might do.

To summarize, feminism shouldn't be just about how not to be slowest zebra in the herd running away from the lions, and neither should the concept of rape prevention be about that, even though Slate advertises this article by "The Best Rape Prevention: Tell College Women to Stop Getting So Wasted". 

And there's a very real need for us all to teach our children not just how to take care of themselves but also how to take care of others.  At the minimum, we should teach that "don't drink and rape" slogan to the general society.
*The term "lions" does not refer to all men here.  I use it in Yoffe's sense as some proportion of the male population who she thinks will always predate on vulnerable people.  The term "zebras" should be interpreted as applying to all women and men who are viewed as prey by the "lions."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


CONTENTS:  Sexual Violence, Rape

When I read this story about the freshman week events at Leeds University, in England, I remembered something similar happening in Canada this fall.  A chant used in at least two Canadian universities in freshman initiations goes like this:

Students told CBC that the chant — led by a group of SMU orientation leaders during "frosh week" — has been a tradition at the school for years. The video shows a group of men and women saying, "SMU boys we like them young ... Y is for your sister, O is for oh so tight, U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that a**."
A spokesman for SMU told Global News that the chant differs every year, and this year's version "was more sexually charged than earlier chants" and that it's "certainly the last year the chant will be sung."
"Sexually charged???"  Perhaps in the sense that cannibalism is a cuisine.  A 2010 newspaper article casts light on what might be happening to terms such as rape among the young that makes them see it as "sexually charged":

Not long ago, Professor Lise Gotell, an expert on sexual assault law at the University of Alberta, was taken aback to hear her 15-year-old son describe his football team’s crushing defeat as being “totally raped.’’
She wasn’t sure whether to call the coach, or the cops.
“Can’t you just say that you were humiliated? I asked him,’’ she recalls on the phone from her Edmonton office. “He explained that he meant to convey that ‘They turned us into their bitch.’’’
As if that were any better.
“There’s something about this sexualization and the use of rape as a colloquial verb that is really startling,’’ Gotell says. “Culture is a terrain that we should take very, very seriously.’’

The terms and idioms about rape and sexual violence  have been domesticated.  This does not mean that they have been tamed, but that they have been brought into general conversations like wolves in sheeps' clothing.

And the result?  If you watch the YouTube video in the above link you notice that the people chanting about "no means yes" are not thinking about what they chant.  These rape idioms serve to normalize one-sided sexual aggression or violence as simply normal sex, sex as it is supposed to be, sex as it is served to many on some pornographic sites.  Or at least something worth joking about in the sense of sexual titillation.

 For example, in Leeds:

An investigation into a student club night has been set up by Leeds City Council, after it received complaints from a local councillor and individuals. The investigation comes as over 2,000 students sign a petition to close the night down.
The club night, called Freshers Violation is run by Tequila at Mezz club in Leeds. Students on social media have complained about a video posted on the club's Facebook page which, the objecters say, "promoted rape culture".
The video, which has since been taken down, included a presenter asking a student: "How are you going to violate a fresher tonight?" The student replied: "She's going to get raped."
The text under the video, which can still be read on the Facebook page despite the video's removal, reads: "Fu*k me I'm a fresher! Another huge night at Tequila with pole dancers, a violation cage and lots of second and third years seeking out new freshers."

Mmm.  Hard to see how those messages wouldn't  promote rape culture.  After all, these are messages used to lure students into the club.  And notice how the event has the flavor of happening in a "gentlemen's" club! 

But note, also, the fact that all the events I linked to provoked strong and swift opposition and a shutting-down of the phenomena.  Still,  we need to understand much better what causes this idea that rape is at least funny if not what sex should be all about, on the level of popular culture and inside some sub-groups.  What drives this thinking?  To what extent has it become more common?  What are its ties to popular music, pornography, movies?  And what are its consequences in terms of sexual aggression in actual relationships?

Monday, October 14, 2013

The More Things Change... A Quote from Woolf's Three Guineas.

During my flu I read again Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas.  It is a fascinating book, almost oracular at places and much ahead of its time (especially the end-notes*), yet the basic tie-in of pacifism and women's status is, I think, weaker than it should have been to make the argument convincing.

I'm not going to amble on those by-roads, because what I really want to point out here is one of her end-notes, this one.  (Woolf was writing at the eve of World War II):

Even at a time of great political stress like the present it is remarkable how much criticism is still bestowed upon women.  The announcement "A shrewd, witty and provocative study of modern woman," appears on an average three times yearly in publishers' lists.

The author, often a doctor of letters, is invariably of the male sex; and "to mere man," as the blurb puts it (see Times Lit. Sup. March 12th, 1938), "this book will be an eye-opener."  Presumably the need for a scapegoat is largely responsible, and the role is traditionally a woman's.  (See Genesis.)  It is a curious fact that although the "practical obliteration" of her freedom is assured if certain characteristics generally if erroneously associated with aggravated masculinity remain unchecked, the educated woman not only accepts criticism, but if publishers' lists are to be taken as evidence, makes no attempt to return it....

This struck a bell.  Think of all the writing about how women are now supposed to be less happy than in the good old days when they had fewer choices,  think of the (discredited) stories about how educated women can't find partners, think of some of the popular evolutionary psychology studies about the "basic nature" of women as coy and submissive and monogamous and ultimately home-bound, think of the way feminism is blamed for a Pandora's box of evils in this world, ranging from the hookup culture, women's alcohol use, the plight of boys at school, all the way to the destruction of the Western civilization and even its churches!

Gender-reversed articles on similar issues are not so common.  This may be because of the default setting of men as the human beings.  If that is how we view the world, then the sub-group or special group of "women" sticks out like a sore thumb and almost begs for analysis, but such aspects as violence tend to be seen largely as human problems (in, say, stories about crime) and not gendered problems, even if they show a big percentage difference by the perpetrator's sex.   But problems coded as female (however small their actual percentage is)  are treated as if they apply to all women or at least to all uppity women or all poor women and so on.

*I love footnotes and end-notes in books and always read all of them.  Am I the only person who does this?