Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Are Racism and False Accusations of Racism Equal Problems?

I was struck by a cartoon circulated on the internets today:

This appears to be a classic case of "argument" by false equivalence. Both statements are true, in a sloppy linguistic sort of way. Racism does suck, and being falsely accused of it sucks too.

But surely these things aren't the same? Racism runs the gamut from brief social encounters to deadly violence. But for those who experience it, it is a constant and life-altering force. Read, for example, this piece written for CNN by an educated black professional living near (but not in) Ferguson, MO. Even minor forms of racism, repeated day after day after day, can ruin a life.

On the other hand, if I (being white) am falsely accused of racism, is that going to ruin my life? Will it happen to me every day? Will it make me wonder whether my children will come home safe at night? Am I likely to be killed because of a false accusation of racism? In all likelihood, a false accusation of racism in my life would lead to an uncomfortable day or two until I have a chance to explain myself and reconcile with my accusers. And even if I am unsuccessful in that, I will likely leave the incident behind and go on with my life largely unchanged.

So why engage in this kind of false equivalence? I can speculate but I really don't know. I suspect that, at root, this is a classic example of dog whistle politics. It's not really a message intended for me, because I'm not in the tribe this is speaking to. And like all tribal messages, this one isn't concerned with logic or argument - it's about identity, in this case an exclusionary identity more interested in circling the wagons than in engaging with people outside their own boundaries. It's the kind of speech that divides rather than unites.

And that sucks.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why is Police Use of Force Different from Other Violence?

Another year, another month, another week, another killing of an unarmed young man in America. Other bloggers (Will Moore in particular) have been much more diligent about covering excessive use of force by police than I have. But the incident this week in Ferguson, Missouri has ignited a national conversation, at least briefly.

That conversation has gone in a number of directions, all of them important and meaningful. There is, of course, the race relations problem - Ferguson is an overwhelmingly black town with a nearly all-white police force, and many black residents have indicated that they have faced harassment from their "own" cops of years. A generation after the Rodney King riots, it is a national tragedy that this problem remains with us.

Then there are the twin problems of excessive force and over-militarization within the police. Scads of photos from Ferguson showing police with assault rifles, helmets, body armor, and large armored vehicles have been plastered across the internet. Some sites have stacked those photos side by side with photos of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. The visual similarities are striking, making Ferguson look to the world like a war zone. "Is this what we want our police to look like?" is an appropriate and urgent question. "Shock and awe" was designed as a means of warfare for distant lands, not a means of keeping the peace in American suburbs. Clearly there's something badly out of kilter here.

What I haven't seen much about yet - probably because we're waiting for facts to emerge from an impartial investigation - is an understanding of the actual shooting death of Michael Brown. The few facts there are seem to be undisputed:

- Brown was unarmed at the time of his killing.
- Brown was walking down the street, during the day, when he walked by a police car.
- Brown was killed by multiple gunshot wounds, including one or more to the head.

As a student of interpersonal violence and self-defense, I struggle to imagine ANY scenario under which this is OK for the police officer involved. This seems like a gross overreaction to almost any conceivable "threat" this young man might have posed.

This is where I am left baffled. Every year there are numerous incidents in which police shoot and kill unarmed people and are determined, by police inquiry, to have operated within "proper police procedures". In many of these cases, the victim dies of a great many gunshot wounds, often fired at some range. Police will say that they were operating within their standard procedures - which suggests that the rules and procedures themselves are the problem.

I'm willing to accept that police, because they put themselves in harm's way to protect the community, may be given some latitude that the rest of us don't have. But how much? And shouldn't they be accountable to the public, both for what those rules are and for how they are used?

I can only imagine that, whatever the nature of the opening confrontation between Brown and the police, there were several ways to deal with it that didn't involve the drawing of a firearm. Why are THOSE not "common police procedure"? Introducing a deadly weapon, as every self-defense instructor I know will tell you, should be the absolute last resort. Yet some police, like Ted Nugent and Wayne LaPierre, seem to think that guns in the hands of "good guys" can solve all problems. Where is the NRA now?

Ultimately, I don't really have the right words about this tragedy. An encounter that started out as, at worst, a modest verbal conflict ended in someone brutally killed. That is wrong, wrong, wrong, no matter what kind of bureaucratic crap you slap on top of it in the name of "professional policing". Clearly, at least in some places, our police forces have gotten a badly skewed notion of what force is supposed to be for. Perhaps it's time that we as a society took that decision back, both from "professional police" who are too enamored of their military toys and from gun-culture folks who think the solution to everything is to threaten to shoot it.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Toxic Identities: The Corrosive Effects of Tribal Identities and Enemy Thinking

Imagine a land in which two groups exist side by side. They don't mix much and increasingly segregate themselves and live among their own kind. Each has a narrative about the evil of the other group, how the other is out to destroy everything worth fighting for, and how there can be no real co-existence. They may inhabit the same space, but they are worlds apart.

Sound familiar? This could describe the current conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Or between eastern and western Ukrainians. Or Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq.

But it's also here in the United States.

True, we don't have people shooting each other in the streets. And the majority of Americans don't really think this way. But there are some among us who do - members of our own society who have drawn their own identities in so extreme a fashion that their rhetoric looks a lot like Hamas, or the rebels in Donetsk, or the leaders of the Islamic State.

Who are these Americans? They exist on various ends of the ideological spectrum. But today the loudest, most vocal, and most numerous are hijacking the title of "Conservative". And they are becoming increasingly shrill.

To be clear, the majority of Americans who identify themselves as conservatives don't think this way. But there is a minority - a splinter group, if you will - who are working hard to hijack the label. And like all revolutionaries, they will turn on their own kind as readily as on their ideological enemies.

This is an identity battle fought to a large degree in social media, the great public conversation of our day. Here are a couple of recently-circulated examples:

The message here isn't subtle. For these to make any sense at all, you have to believe that there are "Conservatives" and "Liberals" in the same way that there are "Israelis" and "Palestinians", or "Sunnis" and "Shiites" - that is, that these are essentially fixed groups with nothing in common. Both memes are broadly and vaguely disparaging, the latter in the kind of screaming-tantrum-at-the-top-of-your-lungs sort of way. Really, I'm surprised there isn't a Hitler reference in there somewhere.

If you happen to identify as a Conservative who thinks along these lines, and you've read this far, your reaction might be, "Hey, Liberals do this too! Why aren't you picking on them, you commie?" Recognize that "the other guy does it too" is the defense of the three year old who knows he's wrong. Grow up.

I don't much care about whether people hold conservative or liberal political ideas. I have found many times that when people engage in real dialogue, they often find that they have far more in common than otherwise. And I know many folks of various stripes (but of late, especially conservatives) who have abandoned politics because of precisely this kind of rhetoric.

We are, or ought to be, better than this. We are not Palestine, Ukraine, or Iraq. One of the great contributions of the United States to the world in the last 200 years is the ongoing experiment, however fitful and imperfect, in creating a national identity out of so many different kinds of people. The folks who spread the memes above apparently want to undo all of that, and return to some kind of "purer" politics where only they and their ilk are in charge. When they see "E Pluribus Unum" perhaps they think it means "I'm right, you're wrong".

Whether you engage in this kind of rhetoric in the name of Conservatism or Communism is immaterial. It is the one kind of politics that is fundamentally un-American.

So if you're passing this kind of nonsense unchallenged (or even approvingly) on social media, please stop. You are neither better nor worse than your fellow Americans. And "they" are not the Enemy. Walt Kelly was right - we have met the enemy, and He is Us.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The Myth of Administrative Capability and "Hard Choices"

I ran across this story in today's higher education press, which caught my eye:
Female provost is accused of repeatedly touching her male colleagues
I was initially intrigued since this turns the usual sexual-harassment dynamic on its head. We are apparently progressive enough now that it's just as OK for women to harass men as it is for men to harass women (which is to say, not).

Actually, that turns out to be the least interesting part of the story. Slightly more interesting is that this particular administrator, hired to be provost at Montana State University-Northern, had left her previous position under a cloud after stirring up trouble there. That, too, is not much of a surprise although it's a sad story. Senior-level search processes seem incapable of figuring out that the reason why a given candidate is on the market may also be a reason why you don't want to hire them. I once worked for a provost hired after having reportedly been ousted from a previous position (and under circumstances that were, at the least, obviously suspicious). It didn't go well.

So I could turn this into an appeal for universities to do their darned homework on senior candidates and stop hiring other people's problems. But by itself that, too, would be old news.

What really interested me in the story linked above was not that MSU-Northern had hired a bad apple, which they probably shouldn't have. It's that both the provost's lawyer and (more importantly) the university's senior administration defended their hiring decision on the grounds that really good administrators often piss people off. Here are a couple of good quotes from the article:
Kevin McRae, a spokesman for the Montana State University system, said it’s not unusual to hire administrators who have “distinguished themselves with tough decision-making in the past."
“Through the advent of Google, just about any time a recruitment is done, people can come to us with controversies,” McRae said.
Templeton’s lawyer said provosts make hard choices and people naturally don’t like someone who comes in and makes hard decisions.
I've heard this "tough decision-maker" defense before. It is, of course, patent nonsense: there is no necessary correlation between having to make sometimes difficult trade-off decisions and alienating people. What matters is how the decisions are made and what the relationship is between those making those decisions and those being affected by them. Genuinely good administrators do this all the time - they make tough calls in an inclusive and transparent way, and although people sometimes don't like the outcome they don't turn on the administrator who led the process.

I call this the "hard-ass school of administration". It's a theory propounded by people who don't actually have any political or diplomatic skills, or any desire to share control with others, as an excuse for bad behavior. Or, as in this case, it's often brought up to justify past bad decisions, a sort of CYA exercise. The statement that since "the advent of Google" everyone is dogged by controversy is ridiculous on its face.

Tragedies occur when universities only find out about these power-hungry tendencies after the hire is made. If you're on a campus doing a senior administrative search, demand transparency and accountability. Research the candidates thoroughly. Be fair about it - I have colleagues whose past is deemed "controversial" even though a thorough examination shows they did nothing wrong. Don't jump to conclusions either way - research, and research, and research, until you get as close to the truth as you can. And don't take the "tough decision-maker" argument at face value.

In other words, we should apply the same diligence to our administrative search processes that we do to our academic careers. Shame that there are universities that can't seem to make that connection.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Another Look at Administrative Bloat in Higher Ed

I've written various pieces before (see here, here, and here) about the real issues of cost in higher education, and how the public debates seem to miss the point in their desire to hawk one ideological view or another. A lot of things drive up the cost of higher ed. One of my favorite bogey men is the story of "administrative bloat".

Now, on its surface "administrative bloat" is real insofar as universities and colleges today employ a lot more non-instructional staff than they did in past years.  Some of this is technology driven - 50 years ago universities didn't have IT departments with groups of computer programmers. Faculty like to believe that administrative bloat is a fundamental product of administrative motivations - that administrations (assumed in subtext to be greedy and selfish) will grow and metastasize in much the same way that Thomas Piketty argues capitalism produces inequality. There are certainly cases of this kind of "frivolous bloat", although it is not as common as some of the faculty hawks believe.

Often unnoticed in these discussions is a third force driving administrative bloat: mandates from the outside world. Some of these mandates are from the marketplace - parents and students want universities with certain kinds of amenities and services (how many schools, for example, have done away with their Career Center in this job-focused age?) And some of those mandates come from the government.

It is into this category that a story in today's Chronicle titled "Why Colleges Are on the Hook for Sexual Assault" falls. The meaning and mandate of the Federal Title IX statute has been expanded significantly in the decades since it was founded, and recently especially in the realm of rape and sexual assault. Universities now find themselves essentially having to set up professional criminal justice systems, with top-quality capabilities to investigate, handle due process, and render verdicts which will stand up to both legal and public scrutiny. In other words, universities now need their own court systems.

This is a series of tasks which universities are ill-suited to do. Even a decent-sized institution like my employer only has a handful of people on campus who have anything resembling professional competence in these areas. To do this and do it right, the university would have to hire a number of people, some of them pretty highly-paid professionals with experience and credentials. In other words, more bloat.

The price of not doing this for any university is twofold. If a student has a bad experience and blames the institution for it, that school may find itself the subject of a Federal investigation - never a good thing. Moreover, the bad press generated will almost certainly drive students away, which in today's lean times can be catastrophic. So anybody not moving in this direction is gambling with the future of the university.

Most of us agree that sexual assault is a terrible thing and needs to be stamped out. I don't object in the slightest to building improved systems to treat victims better and, hopefully, reduce the incidence of rape and assault. But we have to understand that there is a cost to doing so, and that cost is being imposed on universities - which will mean, ultimately, higher tuition and all the rest of it. Somebody has to pay, and the broader public (through their state legislatures) has long since decided that it isn't going to be the taxpayers. So students are, in essence, being told to fund their own solution to the problem. And there will be a few more highly-paid administrators on every campus for faculty to complain about.

Another University Shooting: What Does It Mean?

Another week, another seemingly senseless shooting in a public place. This week's entry took place at Seattle Pacific University; you can find news all over the net. The first version of the news story I found was here.

What interested me about this story was not the particular details, which are in some ways depressingly familiar but in some ways inspiring. I am tempted to use this case, once again, to add to the mountain of evidence that Wayne LaPierre was wrong in his infamous formulation that, "Only a good guy with a gun can stop a bad guy with a gun." I've blogged before on this point, and will leave it here only by pointing out that the "bad guy with a gun" was stopped in this case by a good guy with a can of pepper spray and the will to act. Courage and perceptiveness are the first and most important weapons, without which nothing else matters.

But what really interested me about the story was this quote given in the aftermath of the shooting:
"The actions of the subject in this case do not define Seattle Pacific University nor the city of Seattle," Assistant Police Chief Paul McDonagh said. "The actions of the students and staff on site, those are the things that define Seattle Pacific University."
This is why we spend so much time talking about violence and why the subjects of guns, murder, and the like are so prominent in our public conversations. Violence isn't just about the damage that it causes. While significant, there are lots of other things that cause similar amounts of damage. Nearly as many people died in Hurricane Katrina as died on 9/11; which one has gotten more attention?

We give violence the attention that it gets because of what it says about who we are. When somebody kills others, whether it be with a gun, a knife, or a plane, that act says something about both the perpetrator(s) and the victim(s). And how we respond to that act also says something about us. What it says, of course, is in dispute. We argue about it all the time. It is a, if not the, central question of our lives: who are we?

Recently a friend re-posted an op-ed piece from late 2012, after the Sandy Hook shootings, titled "Our Moloch". In it the author makes a strong argument, not about the tactics or the laws surrounding guns, but about the kind of identity that has been constructed around what might be termed the "gun rights movement". Whether you agree or disagree with his portrait, he is pointing to the right question. It's not about the guns. It's about us.

In times of crisis we look for meanings that uplift. That's why firefighters were so revered in the wake of 9/11 - because of the self-sacrifice they made to try to save other's lives, that noblest and most blessed of pursuits. That's what Assistant Police Chief McDonagh is invoking here. We are not the guy who pulled the trigger on innocent people. We are the guy who jumped on him, who disabled him and took him to the ground, who saved lives. That's who we want to be.

I've blogged a lot before (search the site on the "Use of Force" label; here's one of my favorites) about the intersection of violence and ideas. I think that one problem we have is that people spend both too much and not enough time thinking about violence and its relationship to who we are. We allow Hollywood fantasies about violence to shape our understandings of what it's useful for and how it works (just as we do about sex). At the same time, we don't spend enough effort thinking about who we want to be and where we want violence to fit into that picture. The extremists who carry assault weapons into Target and Home Depot have become a caricature, a grotesque parody of what we would regard as a good and civilized life.

So as we mark another senseless shooting in the headlines (alongside the many hundreds of senseless shootings that go unremarked because they are done in "those parts of town" among "those people") let's try just a little bit more to think. Not about the details of gun control, or the political clout of the NRA, or the best tactics for self-defense. Let's think instead about who we are and who we want to be. And let's talk about that together. Because in the end, that's the only question that really matters.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Women, Culture, and Self-Defense: What does #Yesallwomen mean for the self-defense community?

There has been a growing conversation on the internet surrounding issues of rape, sexual assault, and how we should deal with these things both legally and culturally. I say "growing" in the sense that the conversation has been taking up more bandwidth lately - driven both by more stories of sexual assault coming out into the open and by ongoing efforts to get institutions, especially colleges and universities, to do something about it. But it is also a "growing" conversation in the sense that it is getting more sophisticated, with more points of view being circulated. I think that this is a good thing, although like all important conversations it is uncomfortable and heated at times.

I wrote a blog post a year and a half ago in response to one of the early public stories of a rape survivor, this one at Amherst College. At the time, I tried to make what I thought was a somewhat novel argument: that the issue was fundamentally cultural and would require cultural solutions, and that men needed to be a big part of those solutions since the people creating the problem are overwhelmingly men. I summarized a lot of these ideas this way:
I applaud and support the conversations, public and private, that women are having about appropriate boundaries, respecting themselves, and being smart in self-protection. What we need along side those are men's conversations: what is appropriate sexual behavior? What does "respect" mean? What other kinds of attitudes and expectations do we carry around that, let loose in the atmosphere, encourage some men to push (and, ultimately, violate) those boundaries? And when guys do violate those boundaries, what do we do about it? (The answer to that last, historically, as been "nothing". That needs to stop.)
That post remains one of my most-read posts of all time. I guess it touched a nerve somewhere.

Fast forward 18 months - in fits and starts I appear to be getting my wish. The other day I read this excellent article on the Daily Beast calling out Nerd Culture and the kinds of narratives it creates that contribute to an "entitlement mentality" on the part of guys - just the sort of narrative that can lead to assaults. Yes, the UCSB killer is an extreme manifestation of that attitude - but the difference may be more one of quantity than of kind.

And since so much of our modern conversation is in Twitterspeak, we now have a pair of competing hashtags: #Notallmen and #Yesallwomen. The former appears to be a rearguard defense by some men who feel ... unjustly accused? tarred with the wrong brush? ... by a conversation that talks about men as the source of the problem. I actually anticipated that reaction in my 2012 post, so I guess I don't find it that surprising. Regardless, the former hashtag spawned the latter, the best discussion of which I found here (I'll leave aside the question of whether the title is appropriate or not; the article is an excellent one).

So far as I can tell, much of the point of #Yesallwomen is an insistence that women want to be treated decently as human beings, by all men. It is an effort to put the onus back on men to change their behavior so that women can enjoy the kind of basic personal security that most men take for granted. And though I used somewhat different language in my earlier article, I wholeheartedly agree.

But while I support the drive to get men to both behave better and to better police each other's behavior, this raises an interesting question for me from another facet of my life: what should happen to the cottage industry of self-defense training courses for women? I've blogged on this subject before, including here (also one of my most-read posts) and here (my highest hit count of all time). I have been supportive of good self-defense training and practice, and have even offered such courses myself from time to time.

So am I barking up the wrong tree? In light of #Yesallwomen and the focus on changing men's behavior, should we be talking at all about women learning to defend themselves against assault? I am sure that some in the #Yesallwomen camp would accuse me and others who teach self-defense of contributing to the problem by focusing on women, rather than men, as the source of the solution.

But as much as I support the argument that the best solution is to change male culture and behavior, I don't buy the notion that giving women self-defense tools makes matters worse. I agree that women shouldn't have to fend off a guy by yelling at him, much less by well-aimed punches and kicks. But so long as there are men who behave badly - and that will be true for some time - I think women are better off having those tools than not.

Moreover, there is a spillover effect from physical training to mental attitude and ability. There are a lot of variations on this theme in the martial arts world; here are two, from very different practitioner/teachers:

The point here is simple: when you gain confidence in your ability to defend yourself physically, that confidence works backwards to all stages of human interaction. The skill to strike, or throw, or disarm, or lock, is not just the ability to do that one thing. It also carries within it the ability to say "no", the ability to draw boundaries, the ability to walk away from a situation long before there is any need to engage in combat.

As I have argued before, this kind of ability doesn't come from taking an afternoon workshop or two. It comes from long and disciplined study. What art you study matters far less than making it a part of your life. But even a little exposure can have a significant impact on confidence and the ability to exert social control, set boundaries, and say "no" at a much earlier point.

So I believe there is still a place in the discussion for the martial arts and a focus on self-defense. Not all women will choose to make this a part of their own solution - although I think many more should consider it. But until we reach the day when #Notallmen becomes #Nomenatall, I will continue to teach and encourage women (and men) to learn to defend themselves, in body, mind, and spirit.