Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What we should expect from our colleges.

From time to time, emerging/developing events in my life make me reconsider what I'm about, and why I do the things I do (to the extent that I even know; sometimes I think I'm the last to become aware). One such emergent scenario is upon us, and it strikes me as expedient to reprise a post I wrote some years back, to coincide with the publication of a loooong piece Michael Shermer asked me to write for Skeptic

The post below details literally what I believe we should expect from our news, but to my way of thinking, it applies metaphorically to college instruction as well. The attentive reader will not have much trouble making the appropriate journalism-to-academia replacements where needed. I have written extensively on my feelings about the need for impartiality and/or the absence of agenda in college-level instruction. To me, the goal is critical thinking: to use the classroom as a crucible for any and every idea, from the sublime to the (seemingly?) ridiculous, from the uplifting to the deeply offensive (to most people). As I wrote in one op-ed for the Wall Street Journal many years agothis was before I'd ever looked down at a single lesson plan"College is the great laboratory of the American mind. And as in any laboratory, we must sometimes work with materials that may destroy us." I do not put that line before you as a stroke of genius. It simply suffices to convey my key point: If your classroom is not, at least at times, incendiaryif you look around the room and all heads are nodding; if the political climate is monolithicyou're are probably not doing your job. It should not be the per se goal of a class (or a professor) to build consensus.

Accordingly, it is not the prof's job to cheerlead for social causes; it is pointedly his job to avoid that, because the adoption of causes = the abandonment of critical thinking (and the inherent marginalizing of students who may think/feel differently). My foremost concern as a professor is the intellectual sovereignty of the student, perhaps the nonconforming student above all. He or she may be one of the precious few students in class who is thinking clearly and critically and free of pre(mis)conceptions.

So with that as preamble, here goes. Remember that whenever you come across the terms journalism and journalist, it is probably safe to substitute the terms college and professor, respectively, or some variant thereof.

From time to time since February 2008, when my long article on journalism and the news media first appeared in Skeptic, people have asked me for more specifics on what I regard as the building blocks of valid, serious-minded news coverage.

Journalism must be apolitical.

This line of thought reached critical mass in 2001 with the controversy over Bernie Goldberg and his muck-raking book, Bias*, which savaged the mainstream media for its strong (and unapologetic) leftward tilt. It's a familiar argument by now and there's no need to go into it at any great length. I think we'd get a fairly universal buy-in—at least in principle—on the idea that journalism should never have a specific political agenda, Left or Right. That consensus is likely to crumble a bit when you get to a more pointed discussion of implementation. For example, we'd have no trouble finding a large group of people who think The New York Times reports the news "straight," as well as another large group who think FOX News really is "fair and balanced" in its reportage. In truth, neither the Times nor FOX comes anywhere close to objectivity; and if there are large groups of partisans who think they do, it's only because the tenor of the respective reporting coincides with their own, well, biases.

Journalism should not have a nationality.

Agreement here would be less widespread and/or vigorous, especially from conservatives, self-described "patriots," and others who, for example, still chafe at the multinational** tone of Peter Arnett's coverage during Desert Storm. A "borderless" approach to journalism has profound and far-reaching implications. It means, most conspicuously, that even an epochal event like 9/11 should not be reported as an absolute and inarguable tragedy, because it would not be received as such everywhere. After all, upon hearing of the terror attacks, citizens partied in the streets of Damascus, Tripoli and Tehran—just as Americans might party in the streets if we popped all of Al Qaeda leadership in one big whack-out. To paraphrase and extend Eugene O'Neill's savvy observation about the (deterministic) continuum of life, no event takes place solely in the present moment, but rather is a composite of all that has gone before. As in the case of a revenge killing over an ancient grievance, there is always a history that has shaped what is happening today, even if that history is generally unknown (or even unknowable). Which means that 9/11 did not begin or end on 9/11. Nor is it the journalist's job to report that history; that would be contextualizing, which journalists should never attempt unless they can be sure of doing a comprehensive job. And because that's impossible—even Mike Wallace wasn't around when the earth cooled—it should never be attempted.

It is simply bad journalism to cover an explosion that kills 10 American GIs outside Tikrit differently from a raid on an Afghanistan cave that results in the death of 10 of the world's most fearsome anti-U.S. terrorists. Besides—as a practical matter—even if journalism upholds "Americanism"...whose would it be? The Left's? The Right's? Should journalism revere what America is now? What America aspires to be? According to whom? The problems are evident.

Just report what happened and where.

Journalism cannot and should not use existing law as the basis for its take on a story, because laws are transient, malleable and often arbitrary.

Journalism should never cover man's law as if it were eternal law (assuming any such thing exists), framing illegal activities as if they're objectively wrong or framing legal activities as if they're objectively right. (Lest we forget, Rosa Parks broke the law when she refused to give up her seat.) Historically, in fact, many might argue that journalism has proved to be most valuable when its reporting took a contrarian bent, opposing existing laws and policies. (I don't favor that, either, because journalism isn't supposed to take an active side in things, pro or con. Any changes that occur should occur "by accident," as a result of the public's response to what it hears and sees in the News. Journalists are simply conduits, providing information to a citizenry that will do what it believes needs doing with that information.)

The very foundation of American democracy, the U.S. Constitution, is itself elastic, open to interpretation and subject to amendment. And even the loftiest of ideals embedded in the Constitution and other founding documents are unproven. "All men are created equal"? It's a nice thought, and an uplifting premise for a culture...but its scientific validity remains moot.

Which brings us, finally, to:

Journalism should be amoral.

If by now our consensus on the aims of journalism has become somewhat fragile, this is where it really fractures. A lot of people have trouble with the proposition that journalism should not stand for good or evil, right or wrong. (Which, of course, means that journalism should not have causes.) Realize, for starters, that most political agendas are premised on notions of right or wrong; thus, morally tinged reporting too easily lends itself to political purposes. But it goes beyond that. To filter the news through a moral lens is to presume to know unerringly what the "correct" moral values are in the first place. Perhaps worse, in practical terms, news rooted in "social norms" inevitably tends to promote the notion that majority means validity. A news organization that builds its ethos around the values embraced by "most right-thinking people" is doomed from the start.

"Well wait just a damned second now!" you exclaim. [Hence the exclamation point.] "At the very least, journalism can safely uphold life over death! 'Thou shalt not kill' and all!" To which I would reply: You're kidding, right? We can't even agree as a society on whether "life" is the ultimate value. Think: abortion, capital punishment, right-to-die issues, wars. (We view the wars that we decide to wage as "just" and the loss of life that results as a "necessary evil" or "collateral damage." We forget that bin Laden felt similarly justified in attacking the World Trade Center.)

Clearly all loss of life is not equally tragic to all journalists, all everyday Americans, all Afghani warlords, all practicing physicians (who must make so-called "end life decisions") or anyone else. Thus we are left with the problem of deciding which deaths are "objectively" tragic and which aren't. Those are value judgments, and the media have no business making them. As soon as the journalist starts rationalizing, qualifying, parsing, hair-splitting or performing other ethical gymnastics in order to force-fit some types of death into this moral framework (but not others), he has abandoned objectivity and devolved into the realm of partisan politics and/or religion.

The objective newsperson must start from the premise that there is no absolute right or wrong, at least that we can all know and agree on. In the journalist's world, there is no justice or injustice. There are only events. From my point of view, it is never the media's job to tell us how to think or feel about a story, and it certainly isn't the media's job to "reflect traditional values." Slavery once was a traditional value. So was homophobia. So was the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. And on and on. And I'm not saying those things should be recognized as objectively wrong now. I'm saying that it's not the media's job to weigh in. In the end, the only workable approach is for the news media to project no values at all.

Nor can we turn to "God" for answers here, because the existence and nature of God are controversies unto themselves. Besides…whose God? Osama's? Jerry Falwell's? Joel Osteen's?

In the end, the media must learn to embrace, in practice, the catchy ethic that FOX news disingenuously preaches: We report, you decide. That's all there is to it.

* Interestingly, or maybe sadly, enough, Goldberg then took a job as a FOX analyst and forswore any further pretense to objectivity. That doesn't necessarily taint his book, which was an outgrowth of a highly courageous column he wrote for The Wall Street Journal while still employed at network (CBS), and which I think stands on its merits. It just depresses me to see him trumpeting the party line night after night on O'Reilly or wherever. How does he not feel hypocritical?
** Some prefer the word traitorous, and have never let Arnett (or his bosses) forget it. Here's a typical example.

On volunteering to be raped (UPDATE).

The ad pictured at left is the kind of fare that drives me wild because of the ambiguity. It's part of a public-awareness campaign in opposition to Florida's proposed medical-marijuana law. Although the thrust of the ad, no pun intended, has more to do with drugs than with "date rape" (notice the quotes) per se, it still leaves me scratching my head over its implications.

Does the depiction of the cookies in his back pocket suggest that he's going to "slip her" the pot to render her more tractable?...which I think we'd all agree is rape, period. Or does it simply mean that a woman who has sex after consuming a mind-altering substance has been "raped," even if both the consumption of the substance and the participation in the sex were consensual at the time?

We need to be clearer in what we're saying, even when we're just using rape (really, exploiting it) as an example of the dangers of something else.

Friday, August 15, 2014

On volunteering to be raped.

Let's begin where we must: Forcible rape is always wrong, always criminal.*

And except perhaps in the quasi-fictional world of 50 Shades, a woman doesn't "ask to be" raped.

That said, a woman can be complicit.
In situations where life entails risk of harmthere are, of course, tons of themwe have a legally binding responsibility to mitigate that harm. This means we are obliged to use appropriate caution and avoid the excessive risks that "a reasonable person" would avoid, because said risks are established factors in bad outcomes. You see this principle invoked most often in tort cases, but as a practical matter it applies ubiquitously throughout society. In the same way, even after a harm occurs, we are obliged to take steps to contain the damage done. If you are fired from your job, and you believe the firing was illegal, you cannot just sit home, gleefully unemployed, and wait for your blockbuster lawsuit to wend its way through the system. You must seek other work. You must mitigate the harm.

As a more pertinent example, I'm sure we agree that General Motors should not be selling cars with faulty ignitions or air bags. By the same token, if I leave the bar where I just finished off my seventh mojito, and I'm now barreling down the interstate at 135 mph in my Vette, sexting my waiting honey a pic of my engorging manhood**, Anthony Weiner-like...and I lose control of the car...and the inevitable happens...and my air bags fail to deploy...that is not GM's fault...certainly it is not GM's sole fault. I assumed a high degree of risk via my outrageous behavior, and I should (and almost surely will) bear the lion's share of the liability. If I survive, some hotshot lawyer may nevertheless succeed at helping me extort blood money from GM; the payday, however, will not be anywhere near what I'd collect if I were sober and I were inching my Chevy Cruz home at 55 with my cell phone tucked safely away from my manhood.

Or let me give you another scenario. You're a white guy walking through a very dangerous neighborhood, a very dangerous black neighborhood, and as you saunter along at 2 a.m., you're waving hundred-dollar bills in the air while shouting at the top of your lungs, "I'd like to dig up Martin Luther King and shoot the nigger again!" Do you deserve to be beaten and robbed? Probably not, despite the provocative race-baiting. But are you complicit in your fate? Damn straight you are.

Now, to the topic at hand. Most of us would probably agree that in an ideal world, 16-year-old girls should not be having sex. Surely they should not be pushed into sex. But nor should those same 16-year-old girls be passing themselves off as 22 and drinking mojitos at some party or bar or what-have-you while sitting there in their micro-shorts or painted-on yoga pants, cleavage exposed, flirting with a bunch of macho/asshole jocks and/or other older guys. Am I saying that such a girl is asking for it? Noooo. I am simply saying that she's exponentially multiplying the odds that "it" will happen. She tempted fate. Not only did she fail to mitigate harm, she threw caution completely out the window. Incidentally, she also broke the law on multiple counts, though I've yet to hear of a young rape victim being charged with underage drinking or possessing bogus documents in the aftermath of the crime. 

A man who forces himself on a girl in such circumstances is absolutely guilty of rape. But why is that the only message we hear from feminists? Why don't they tell young girls to clean up their act, to eschew the fake IDs, to stop drinking illegally/excessively, to stop behaving like, well, drunken sluts? Do feminists consider such admonitions disempowering? Sorry, folks, it's the blunt, acrid truth.

What does one say about a case where a teenage girl is so blitzed that she can be carried limply about like a blow-up doll, as took place in the infamous Steubenville episode? Make no mistake, what those boys did was beneath contempt. But the girl assumed an imprudent risk. She did not merely take a few sampling sips from a cup, demur, then keep a vigilant eye on her friends as they got sloppy (since, after all, friends look out for each other). I'm reminded of the Natalee Holloway case. After devoting part of her day to such "empowered" activities as having guys drink jello shots from her navel, the poor girl went off in a car, wasted, with a bunch of strangers. In a foreign land.

Did we hear any acknowledgment of that from anyone covering the case? From the mother, Beth Holloway? Did one single newscaster have the stones to ask Mrs. Holloway, "How do you not even mention Natalee's role in what befell her? For that matter, how the hell do you even let your daughter go off on a trip like that?" Metaphorically speaking, Natalee Holloway was behind the wheel of the aforementioned Vette. And Mama helped hand her the keys.

What we did hear about, over and over, was the evil Joran van der Sloot, who clearly is no  prince of a fellow. Subsequent events have proved this, and let's face it, we knew it even then. But people, please, idealism aside, the Joran van der Sloots are gonna be out there, come what may. We can give our young boys all the counseling in the world and there are still going to be bad apples and bad drunks. And the older a girl gets, and the wider she expands her circle, the more she increases her chances of encountering just such a bad apple and/or drunk. So therefore, precious Natalee, don't drink yourself to near-oblivion and go off in a car with one of 'em.

No doubt, we need to lock up the bad guys. I am not alibiing for sexual predators. (And I hope no one is reading this post that way.) At the same time, instead of emboldening our girls by constantly reinforcing their right to do whatever they damn please at every moment of night or day, how 'bout teaching them not to be so frickin' stupid in their choices? How about just a touch more of that?

Too paternalistic?

What is so wring with telling your high school freshman daughter that maybe it's not an inspired idea to go back to Chad Collegian's fraternity with him for a few private beers? If they get to the room and Chad rapes her, of course he's at fault. He's a rapist! But what was she doing in his room, alone with him, drinking?

I'll tell you what she was doing. She was volunteering to be assaulted. And of all the tragic endings to volunteer for, rape may be the worst.

* At the risk of provoking the ire of some readers, I do make a distinction between forcible rape and other kinds, most notably the sort of ambiguous scenario that develops on college campuses every weekend, wherein both a man and woman are drinking to excess and sex ensues; in such cases, we are told, the woman is unable to give a legally perfect consent, even if she agrees to the activity and thoroughly enjoys herself while it's occurring. The man is supposed to have the presence of mind to say to himself, I cannot interpret her failure to call a halt to the proceedings as consent. In fact, even her explicit 'yes' isn't valid. She's too drunk. As noted in previous posts, I don't know why a drunken man is responsible for overseeing the chastity of a drunken-but-cooperative woman, but such are the times in which we live.
** to the extent that one's manhood could engorge after seven mojitos.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Mean girls. Part 1a (further meditations on the 'gas ceiling').

This is not intended as a full-fledged post in the series. I know I've been remisssome of you have even been kind enough to prod me, expressing eagerness for "round two"but as the old line goes, life got in the way. What follows is relevant to the discussion in its broadest sense, however, so I thought I'd post it as a "filler" of sorts. 

I am struck this morning by the juxtaposition of two crime stories in my local paper. In the first story we have a woman who plunged a knife deep into her boyfriend's chest, clearly intending to kill him, and almost succeeding. She received, in effect, no punishment: "time served" after spending a couple months in jail. In the second story we have a man who was repeatedly/serially abused as a childas one example, when he was 6, his mother set him on fire because he was hungry and complained about the stale sandwich she gave himand he gets up to 44 months for having sex with an underage girl. I am not condoning sexual activity with 14-year-olds. Nor am I even contending that the kind of abuse this man suffered as a child plausibly explains why he now seeks sex with 14-year-olds.

I am simply asking who committed the worse crime, and who received the more severe punishment.

In some cases, it seems, we are willing to consider all manner of periphera, context and mitigating circumstances. In other cases, not so much. Why is Ms. Concepcion's post-partum depression more of a factor in her crime than the almost incomprehensible abuse that Vincent Ritchie apparently suffered as a boy?

Some among you might say, "Come on, Steve, those are two entirely different situations. You can't compare them." Maybe you're right. Thing is, the dichotomy extends well beyond these stories from my morning paper. I have noticed that many of the cases where we're doing all the mitigating involve women. If you think I'm filtering all this through my own male biases, consider the stats on female executions, which I believe bear me out. Regular readers know I'm not a fan of capital punishment, but if we're going to have a death penalty, it should be administered/applied fairly. Though I have jokingly referred to a "gas ceiling"* in past references to women and capital crimes, it exists, and it's no laughing matter. The above-linked site shows that while women are arrested in connection with one about out of every 10 murders, they receive just one in 50 death sentences, and constitute just one in 100 of the convicts presently on Death Row.

Maybe this is just another (albeit ironic) form of paternalism/chivalrywe're condescending to "the weaker sex" even when they murderor maybe it's the "we just can't kill our mothers" ethic. Regardless, in American society we do  not, and will not, punish women as harshly as we punish men. We strain to find excuses to not punish them at all. This currency is aided and abetted by the Women's Movement, which is forever creating new defenses to crimes (especially anti-male crimes) that would never be taken seriously if a man were the perp. Women have post-partum depression, as in the Concepcion case, as well as premenstrual syndrome, battered-wife syndrome, and so forth. Obviously, the excuses that are are rooted in basic biology or biochemistry don't even apply in the case of men. But you know, if we're going to talk about being driven to hurt or kill people by irresistible forces from within, how 'bout the fact that men are walking testosterone factories? This is all the more true of the young men who commit the bulk of the violent crimes. Should there be a blanket "I'm a man, I'm awash in testosterone, therefore what can you expect from me?" defense for violent crime?

Women talk a lot about equal opportunity and equal protection under the law, but a bit more equal culpability under the law would be nice, too.
* Readers under age 30: Once upon a time we used to execute people with cyanide gas; this was the so-called "gas chamber." Lovely way to die.