There’s something you should know about Walker’s proposal on college sexual assault reporting

As the work week wound down, one of the big headlines here in Wisconsin was that Scott Walker didn’t want colleges to report sexual assaults. Highlighted were amendments to ss. chapter 36 in the proposed changes to the state budget and state statutes that would eliminate current requirements for (1) university staff to report to central administration and (2) for the campuses to report to the system the statistic counts of known incidents of sexual assault.

Soon after the story broke, UW System administration and the Governor’s office acknowledged that the System had been asking for the removal of these requirements (conveniently omitted were details on the complex, confusing, and inefficient nature this dual reporting responsibility at the campus level as well as how the request has probably been repeated annually for years).

Jezebel, the first piece I saw on the matter, has already added a mea culpa at the top of its previously published article. I by no means intend to defend Walker. But the public ire on this issue is unfortunately misplaced and misinformed, and that’s good news for Scott Walker right now.

The deletion of the statutory requirements regarding sexual assault are absolutely important, but they are more reflective of bad (and successful) political optics, rather than sound policy.

It is a terrible idea, politically, to appear like you’re soft on the issue of campus sexual assault. If you’re thinking about making a run for national political office, you definitely do not want to risk alienating 50% of the electorate (who tend to vote disproportionately high). But if you can get some media coverage on the issue, while it also distracts from the very real negative outcomes likely from the proposed budget cut and changes to campus governance, you look “unintimidated” in the face of liberal media attacks. Republican voters will only have their positive opinions about you and negative opinions about the mainstream media reinforced because you’re unfairly criticized without all the facts (still underreported) known about the issue! It’s a win-win, politically.

Unless…

When I saw the Jezebel article, it was accompanied with Facebook comments of exasperation and attacks on the governor. Of course, as the internet is wont, the opinions shared had nothing of substance and discussed nothing proactive.

Friday night, I talked with a colleague at another system institution, and we shared the same laugh about how, as a practical matter, the changes to the statutes don’t actually matter and actually do make some of our work more efficient. Here’s how:

UW System is required to annually report the numbers of sexual assaults reported to campus staff, no matter when or where these assaults took place, and categorize them by one of four degrees as defined in state statute, which is also the way our campus policies define sexual assaults perpetrated by students (a terrible way of doing things from a student conduct administration perspective, but that’s a whole other matter).

The Clery Act requires campuses to report sexual assaults as forcible or non-forcible (changing under the updated rules taking effect soon). These two categories had overlap with the state statutes, when they occurred in the reporting years or in Clery reportable locations, requiring university staff at each campus to spend time sifting through each individual report–some anonymous with little detail–to make sure the incidents were categorized correctly and not miscounted or double reported to the respective government entities. Erring in the federal report could result in a fine of $35,000 per miscount, even if you over count. 

Since I began working in the UW System in 2012, I have heard criticisms of the dual reporting structure from numerous colleagues across the System. You can imagine it is challenging to take anonymous reports of disclosures from our confidential reporting sources and cross reference those with known reports through police and other channels, to try and make sure we’re not double counting for each report and that the numbers accurately reflect the information known.

And so, for as long as I’ve been around, which isn’t long I’ll admit, my colleagues from across the state, who do the work day-to-day, have complained (and no doubt advocated up the chain in meetings I’m not invited to) that the dual reporting unnecessarily complicates both reporting to our communities and our overseers. Why couldn’t we at least report using the same definitions of sexual assault, specifically the uniform criminal definition for Clery?

So the message went up to the UW System to lobby the state for change. Clery rules for over 4000 schools aren’t going to change just because our 26 campuses are inconvenienced by our legislature’s rules. And until any change occurs, the System isn’t going to say to the campus leadership to skip the Clery reporting, and of course risk our federal financial aid or substantial fines, in favor of focusing on the state definitions report alone.

Getting back to the budget proposal: Those quick to attack the governor on his proposed changes overlooked other examples of when state government was taken out of the way to make things work best by the people who do the work. In the state statutes granting public authority status to the UW Hospital and Clinics (ss. chapter 233), there is not a single reference to the Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) which guarantees patients privacy of their medical records (note: whether this was the case at any point since the mid-90s when both HIPAA and the hospital were established is not known to me, but it’s not currently referenced today). Does that mean the hospital shirks its federal obligations because its not currently in state law? Of course not. 

Of course the UW System–at least the people on the front lines who are committed to the educational mission and civil rights–are going to work to be better than compliant on the issues of interpersonal violence and gender equity. The real problem is that the budget proposal legitimately undermines our work in ways not discussed in the media.

This story, which when analyzed seems just too perfectly planned to be coincidence, serves Walker’s interests. Once the story broke that his budget proposal cut the reporting requirements, the System, possibly directed by the governor’s office, has to come out and say, “it’s not his fault, we asked for this” and Walker gets to look like his proposed statutory changes to reporting requirements are in the best interest of the system (which is true). He looks fine in the media, Jezebel and other media outlets have to backtrack, and the System has a little egg on their face because the reasons for requesting the change are too complicated for a soundbite or the AP wire. Walker supporters and Republicans generally laugh about this latest media gaffe and feel better about their chances in 2016.

And all of this obscures the real problems related to the Walker’s budget proposal and the issues of interpersonal violence at the UW System schools: The $300 million budget cut for the next two years – amounting to an estimated 2.5% or more of each individual campus’s total budget, and maybe much more for the county extensions – will do real damage to the ability of each campus to adequately serve and support victims of interpersonal violence, as well as to undertake the federally mandated responsibilities to prevent their occurrence in the first place.

Issuing “block grants” to the system forces difficult decisions upon campus priorities including federal responsibilities for compliance, debt obligations, contracts for employees, grant matching for existing research and programs, and staffing, hiring, and benefits. The dollars allocated will closely reflect the value of those priorities. If a campus decides on cuts to, say, victim services or investigative staff, Walker is insulated from the negative consequences of those decisions.

The draconian budget cuts, to shore up Walker’s failed budget of two years ago where his tax cuts failed to lead to increased economic growth and a net gain in state revenue, will further damage the UW System and the state. The collateral damage isn’t just the laid off employees; student victims will bear the consequences as well.

Students will have reduced contact to the remaining overburdened administrators and instructors who will be forced to be more “efficient.”  If you’ve got limited time and have more advisees, students in class, and projects because your colleagues were kicked to the curb, then its perfectly conceivable that even the best teachers will have to cut down on the time they spend one-on-one with students. On our campuses, instructors and staff often have the relationships with students that afford the opportunity to see warning signs of issues of concern.

Students may have felt comfortable reporting interpersonal violence precisely because it impacts their student experience in academics or involvement, or manifests in other behaviors of concern. When our relationships with students are diminished through the limitations of time and space due to the budget cuts, victims have reduced options on how to exercise agency in their own recovery: Imagine a situation where a student is struggling with anxiety from an assault or stalking or an abusive partner, and that anxiety is impacting their academic performance. If they seeks counseling or crisis services as the only course of action, that’s a great start, and the confidential counselor can of course share about reporting options and recommend avenues for academic support.

But if the student feels isolated from instructors due to being unable to see them in reduced office hour availability or because staying after class is not private enough, all the efforts to manage their anxiety through counseling are not going to get them the needed academic accommodations. If that instructor or advisor is buried in their work, it’ll be too late before they notice the student’s decline in performance before the end of the semester. The student is not going to request accommodations for the impact of a sexual assault via email, even if that is technically the most efficient means of requesting them.

Beyond the initial support and reparative measures, overburdened investigators will find themselves unable to resolve cases effectively with fair and thorough investigations, which are already often inconceivably difficult. Perpetrators may be able to continue on without being held accountable. Suboptimal investigations foster distrust in the system. All our efforts to encourage reporting will ultimately fail if students perceive the investigations as ineffective (I would consider optimal investigations to be fair and just in process, even if one of the parties ultimately feels unsatisfied with the specific outcomes).

As long as interpersonal violence affects any one of our students, we can be sure that these budget cuts will negatively impact their success on our campuses and after. And that’s what should really outrage us. It’s not the optics or the politics. It’s how these policies play out in the messy reality that is the college campus.

So if you were up in arms about Walker’s proposed changes to the UW System statutes regarding sexual assault, don’t just let that fire die with the clarification from the System administration where they take responsibility for the amendment to ss. 36.

If you’re not from Wisconsin, advocate for our students by contacting the members of the Joint Committee on Finance who have the most power over the direction of this budget bill and voicing your concerns about these budget cuts.

Wisconsin residents: Direct your concerns at your legislator and the JCF because if they go along with these budget cuts as proposed (to say nothing of the granting of public authority status scheduled to take effect in just over 16 months without any semblance of a System plan in place on how the new governance will be operationalized), then they are complicit in the further marginalization of victims, responsible for the failure to serve these students appropriately.

If you decide to sit on the sidelines, then you’re complicit too.

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There’s No “I” in Tweet

Twitter can be a really selfish place.

It’s where we can add noise to a crowded room, trying to shout above the din, to share our day-to-day or cat pictures, quip about the news, recommend what we’re reading or viewing, or try and get retweets from followers: It’s where we can self-promote.

As much as I hate to admit it, I use Twitter for mostly selfish means. It’s a medium to get authors I follow to retweet my mention of them, as I’m about to start their new book. Or, I’ll hope that my quips get favorited by strangers or followers. I even linked this site to my Facebook and Twitter so real-life friends and total strangers alike can see my writing.

In a practical sense, this last one is fine. But I’ve been tweeting much longer than I’ve been writing, so my previous motivation is something more sinister.

When we get notifications that others interacted with our online activities, through likes, comments, retweets, or favorites, there’s a brief rush–dopamine?–rewarding us for our use. So we repeat, hoping for another rush (though for some reason though I don’t get excited about LinkedIn endorsements).

It feels just like successfully overcoming a challenge in a video game: A digital high.

And like a lot of ways that can lead to a high, social media can lead us to regrettable decisions. And, for me, that’s where this intersects with masculine norms.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve reflected on my use of social media sites, and one particular event stands out as the perfect example worth exploring. I was listening to a recent interview with Jen Kirkman, comic and and author of I Can Barely Take Care of Myself on Citizen Radio. At one point, co-host Jamie Kilstein, who is also a stand-up comic, and Kirkman were discussing the hateful and sexist vitriol tweeted at female comics.

So because I had seen some of the shit people tweet at Rob Delaney, my internal motivation machine went in to action. I thought I could come up with something worth getting a retweet from either Kilstein or Kirkman. I got more than a retweet though. The response, though, was not what I was expecting:

When I initially saw the Connect button light up, the rush was on. But then when I read the reply there was this weird adrenaline/anger combination. I felt like “Trust me” was just dripping with condescension, when I felt like I had made a pretty good point. I responded, trying to be civil, but I was actually in over my head. I was so caught up in my own self-interest that I had missed the whole part of their conversation when they were talking about female comics.

It took me a while to process through all of this and really make meaning of it.

My initial motivation for using social media is inherently flawed. The selfish attempts to fuel my reward centers in my brain caused me to bypass the parts that involve critical thinking or empathy.

But I wouldn’t be writing about this if it hadn’t been for that feeling of anger that arose as a result of how I perceived that initial response. While I was aware of my internal motivation and my genuine belief that my comment was a positive contribution to the discourse, Kirkman called me out and with two words took the whole thing down around me. That opened the door to actually explore the selfishness and arrogance that really was the foundation of my tweet, and how I tried to recover to protect my ego from the dissonance.

When I read Kirkman’s tweets, I felt condescended to, and this did not sit well with me. As a (straight white cisgender American) man, consistently rewarded by society and the education system to believe that I am smart and right, I arrogantly believed that my comments were both relevant to the discourse and important enough for Kirkman or Kilstein to share with their thousands of followers. This is, of course, ridiculous.

When Kirkman essentially said that I was wrong and that I didn’t do my research, I didn’t know how to express my anger. I wisely chose to disengage, because I at least recognized that I was wrong, as I my second tweet was both true and a cover for my ego. But I fumed internally, keeping it concealed that my partner didn’t even know it was in my head until she read a very early draft of this post. And the reason I was angry about it was the same reason I didn’t talk about it: Guilt.

Now, with some time to reflect on what I did and didn’t do in this situation, I realize that my lack of comprehension of the interview or the hateful tweets made my initial comment a tacit approval of those hateful tweets (and depicted me, accurately in this case, as a man who has a long way to go in standing against sexism).

So, what I perceived as condescension was more likely Kirkman’s frustration with Internet asshats like me, because she can’t read my (somewhat) good intentions in my tweet. If she could have seen the irony regarding motivations, I would fully expect her to call me out more directly. It took a while to acknowledge that the blow to my ego was dual: as a person, adding noise to the Internet, and as a man who felt condescended to by a woman.

The Internet is filled with noise, ranging from the mundane and banal life updates to the vitriolic and hateful trolling. Because we are so easily motivated by the attention given to our contributions to the noise, we are all veering dangerously away from the ways in which new technologies can foster dialogue, social justice, progress, and change.

The participation-reward cycle of the digital high no doubt plays a significant role in making these new technologies part of an anti-social media, where anti-social behaviors are rewarded and reinforced, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. What is it when a genuinely held belief about white racial superiority or of appropriateness of female oppression is expressed, if not anti-social?

So we have the option to continue using our tweets and posts as a selfish means to share our wit or the fun in our lives, boosting our egos, indifferent to the ways in which that can reinforce hegemony and oppression.

Or we can realize a greater purpose: Instead of aiming for retweets (or WordPress site views, even…), we can work for quality interactions. We can use these tools as engaging online forums where we dialogue, seeking to understand the positions of others, so that the replies are mutually beneficial. Yes, we’ll still receive the rewards from that little blue dot on our Twitter apps, but by sharing and making mistakes and gaining perspective from others, we’ll be rewarded by learning with and from each other–well, at least 140 characters at a time.

Aside

Our Fearful Response to Boston

Part 2: Sunday I wrote why I thought it was important to break down some of the issues that are absent from the discourse, including why platitudes, condemnations, and consolations should be absent without condemning the author. For more on that, please click over to that post to read the introduction (and the mythologies in the Boston media coverage).

Following the events Thursday night, for nearly 30 hours Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the most important 19-year-old man in America since Michael Phelps won six gold medals in Athens, with people glued to their TVs then (before the advent of Twitter) and their computers and TVs now. I am typically skeptical of the “copycat” argument when the media discusses school shooters, but I think the attention given to this manhunt hasn’t been seen since OJ. We don’t know what kind of impact this particular iteration of the media-going-overboard is going to have on future acts of violence.

As someone who has an affinity for Boston, which I have chosen to minimize in this post because when we describe those things it only serves to feed in to expectation that we need to establish credibility as a critic, I also had the choice to tune out during the day on Friday. It felt completely unnecessary—well, after tweeting a quip about their literal Caucasian background when I woke up and learned about the overnight events before even getting out of bed—to remain transfixed by the internet/cable news cycle. Being indirectly impacted, trusting that friends in the area were safe because of the already problematic lockdown, meant that I had both the luxury, and in some ways maybe an obligation to wait. It made more sense to wait until the evening to get caught up, avoiding speculation and ignoring the news coverage until then.

Rather than stop everything I was doing during the day to follow the manhunt, I was able to turn on the TV at 7:30 and learn that they had the suspect trapped in a boat. Within 30 minutes I was caught up and the suspect was in custody on his way to the hospital for medical treatment (and aggressive interrogation). So as I caught up, and caught snippets if I did click over to Twitter, something that left me troubled was the reported voluntary compliance with martial law (not “marshall,” something Maggie pointed out after seeing quite a few folks ignorant of the difference in the Twittersphere) in a major metropolitan area. By shutting down the entire metro area, even under the guise of citizens voluntarily throwing open their doors to law enforcement, a strange precedent has been set in regard to the use of force and the expansion of police powers. I’m not an Infowars conspiracy theorist, I just find it troubling. My faith in the government to act responsibly has not yet been shaken, despite the repeated abuses of power that we’ve seen in just the last twelve years. Maybe I’m naïve?

But the good people of Watertown had that same faith: there may have been a belief that their search scope will be limited (will they ignore the pound of cocaine on the table?) or the attitude that it’s their civic duty to ensure that their household is safe and can be checked off the list. But what of those who refuse? Are they forced to comply? Is a search warrant at least attained? Do they get ostracized in their community for exercising their rights and potentially jeopardizing the safety of their neighbors? If they refused, are they viewed as collaborators or supporters of the suspects and their motivations? What about homes that were not occupied, did the police just bust in with out warrants to confirm that the suspect wasn’t holding anyone hostage or hiding in the basement? Do they put your dog down if it reacts negatively to the armed masked men storming in to your home?

Some of these questions appear answered through this video shared by Anonymous:

Now granted it’s across the street and amateur video, but that doesn’t exactly look voluntary—with a SWAT team on your porch and firearms in your face, it probably felt pretty coercive. It appears that you get treated as if there’s something to hide if the police judge you didn’t answer the door quickly enough. There’s an embedded level of fear, even with the voluntary compliance. And it should be mentioned, there’s probably a  great deal of fear permeating the police who are responsible for the manhunt. An officer is already killed and another wounded. The bombings on Monday are fresh in everyone’s mind. And they have no idea if the Tsarnaev is armed with explosives, waiting to take more officers out. Even trained officers with years of experience have to have felt some level of fear, every time they approached a door. After each house is successfully cleared, that only means they’re getting closer to a potential confrontation, no doubt heightening the fear or anxiety.

And this fear felt by the people in Watertown—officers and citizens alike—is important. Whether that was the intent of the suspects or not, their acts function as terrorism, prior to the political label being applied through our legal process, two distinct processes, as noted by Michael Eric Dyson on Melissa Harris Perry Sunday morning. This fear operates in conjunction with support for law enforcement (fear of being associated with “terrorists,” fear of the police response for non-compliance, fear of leaving your own home because you may interact with the suspects or police in a heightened state) and stands in stark contrast to the rhetoric that has permeated the news cycle immediately after the explosions on Monday.

Statements Monday and Tuesday in support of the people of Boston and those affected, such as vowing to run the marathon the following year or to walk the final five miles from BC to Copley, are remarkable in light of the fear that was evident in the photos of empty streets, the police presence, and the visible relief and celebration on Friday night when the suspect was taken in to custody. Clearly, by Friday morning as people learned of Thursday night’s events, there was fear, despite the well-intended statements of community courage not three days before. The defiance of the early week was not about showing no fear, but instead about putting that fear to work: Organizing the community to show the bombers that Boston will not be deterred. In fact, whether they see it that way or not, Boston was deterred, and fear was the reason. And now since Tsarnaev’s arrest, the fear of Friday stands in contrast with the recent news coverage of Boston getting back to “normal,” as if the anxiety of further violence is somehow completely behind them now.

Though we still don’t know the motives for acting, if it did include political terrorism, then it stands to reason that bringing the city to a halt and inducing a week of fear was a bonus they may not have anticipated. However, their behavior on Thursday night in to Friday seems so haphazard and poorly (if at all) planned, that it is reasonable to believe that they did not think that far ahead. Hell, the elder Tsarnaev was dead before the lockdown. And carjacking and ATM withdrawals are really easy ways to draw police attention to yourselves, and anyone who watches a season of 24 could have probably put that together. But it does seem like a reasonable panicky reaction from two people who just saw their faces plastered across all media outlets.

Taking a step back from the heightened fear and anxiety of the past week, it’s also important to think about some of the other impacts that the manhunt had. Just like the poor and working class were largely ignored in the election discourse, it seems that they were again not a consideration, because the perception of public safety is paramount. This 19-year-old was so feared that communities beyond the cordoned off area were also on lockdown, though the police were less of a presence due to their focus on Watertown. Unfortunately, shutting down the metro area disproportionately impacts the poor and working class. Hourly workers counting on the 60 dollars for food or rent may have concerns about safety that are competing with the need for shelter and food. These folks are unfortunately usually in the position of having to weigh needs against each other, with those in the lowest economic class often living in the most dangerous neighborhoods, while those of us more privileged do not need to treat our needs as trade offs.

People like me could take the vacation day or just work from home. I wouldn’t have to think about if its safe to go to work because I need money, or prioritize my safety over earning the money to pay rent (or feed my children, if I was a parent). That lost income isn’t coming back to them in some class action lawsuit against the suspect. The knee-jerk reaction to close Quincy, Brookline, or South Boston to commerce and free movement is extremely problematic. I can understand closing the T to limit the suspects mobility. But by suspending taxi service outside the cordon and closing the streets or businesses, when there was no indication of additional people involved, shutting the city down as a precaution disproportionately impacts people who are already forced to balance their needs on a daily basis.

Here’s something else about the underclass that doesn’t get mentioned: Federal (and possibly other) prisons went into lockdown on Monday after the bombings to prevent violence against those perceived to potentially be involved in the bombing, or ethnically related to stereotypes of terrorists. The people who are subjected to the strictest social control in our country end up even more restricted, because that initial level of control is not sufficient to protect the safety of every person within the prison. The fear that one’s loved ones may have been injured or are in danger can be enough to drive even free people to commit tremendous acts of violence. I can’t imagine the additional pressure when that love is the one constant, sustaining hope in a future after prison or a reality outside the walls of control, and there’s nothing you can do about it or know about their well being. That is no doubt a catalyst that would otherwise lead to violence against others, if not for the lockdown. I’m not sure what it says about our society, if the most restrictive environment, intended to keep free society safe, is not restrictive enough, to keep those within the prison safe, in the wake of tragedy.

And finally, I mentioned the vigilantism in my previous post on Boston, but this is a good follow-up to the suspicions offered by Redditors, many of whom probably haven’t been to the Boston Marathon pre-race. Guess what? They sell black backpacks at the marathon. I bought one in 2008. Lots of people have them! I had it with me in Boston in 2009 because, like others, I returned to give it another shot. It’s hardly an identifying characteristic, and maybe why the bombers chose a black backpack in the first place. But an athletic looking dude with a black backpack is probably about 60% of the people running and milling around the finish line.

So now, about one week later, I’ve also reflected on my general disinterest in the events in Boston, manifested in a resistance to the 24 hour news cycle, while maintaining a general knowledge about the events. It forced me to consider if focusing on my day-to-day existence makes me a “bad” person, who is not patriotic or American enough to comment on the events.

I still have a life and work and responsibilities, so I chose to disengage from the media circus. It’s funny to know that CNN sucks but it doesn’t make me a better person to feed in to it.

Instead, I took care of my home and spent time with family, and put my effort at work towards the difficult challenges related to public safety in my job. From the outside it may look like callous indifference to the events in Boston. But from where I sit, where geographical and financial limits constrain my ability to make any difference, I choose to be active in my spheres of influence, pushing forward with meaningful strategies to help the college students on my campus. Rather than spend too much time, at least during the week, thinking about how I can’t do anything about the Boston situation, I’ve directed my energy in to something I can do to improve the community I live in.

The Boston Blood Donor Mythology

Since the events in Boston on Monday, I’ve experienced a variety of thoughts and emotions related to it. My aunt saw the news and thought maybe I had been there, calling my mother, who in turn called me to confirm that I didn’t train for and go to run without sharing that with her, because of two past efforts (both of which I was very clear about training for). A close friend and her father, who was a tremendous help to me and my friend when we were marathon rookies in 2008, were near the second bomb site, and were both thankfully safe. I was intensely affected by one particular photograph, a bird’s eye view of the blood stained blast site near the finish, posted to Twitter soon after the bodies were cleared, and at that point decided to ignore the online reporting and the pictures that I frankly didn’t want to see.

As I’ve reflected on both the bombing and the events I woke up to Friday morning, I began to question much of what’s been presented in the media, what we’re ignoring as a result of the on-going news coverage, as well as how information is being shared. When preparing my thoughts on this whole week to offer comment that I felt was not a part of the discourse, I had to seriously consider how to (or even whether to) include the personal information about my connection with or affinity for Boston. The Internet is a medium where access to the discourse is open, but in order for anyone to publicly state opinions and be taken seriously in that discourse, they may need to first offer support for some group impacted—victims and first responders, Bostonians generally, America!, etc.—or condemning the possible perpetrators, even broadly or vaguely, if they remain unknown.

These platitudes and condemnations provide legitimacy to speech before offering ideas or criticisms. Entry in to the discussion is paid for by your sympathy or support, framing your critiques from a place of allegiance, and in opposition to the perpetrators or their motives. By omitting this, an author risks having his or her arguments and ideas ignored by those who prefer to attack the author’s legitimacy or credibility rather than respond to the ideas on the merits.

But I don’t believe that platitudes should be a prerequisite to participation. The only prerequisite to reasoned debate, even with passionate expression, is for participants to open their minds to that which is shared. The background information on why I care about the Boston bombings, or choose to ignore the coverage, or even criticize the subsequent mythologies, may inform the narrative, a stylistic use of the content, but does not necessarily have to inform the issues being raised. The reasons I shared my personal connection with the events is not to convey my support for victims—it’s all quite selfish—but that doesn’t make it any less valuable to the debate. It informs my perspective. And yes, selfless support and care are important, especially if you have friends and family in the Boston area who have been directly impacted. But choosing not to share it online does not mean that you are not supportive and caring. And it doesn’t invalidate the views shared.

Once the debate is open, where participants are exchanging ideas rather than challenging the legitimacy of the voices sharing them, then we can feel comfortable participating. Unfortunately, if you want to get a sense of the reality of the Internet, just read the comments on news articles or YouTube videos. The hateful expression is surely free, but is it productive? The cacophony of voices, each seeking to carve out a little space for itself, ultimately loses meaning. To confront trolls is to get sucked in to a rabbit hole of lost time and energy. Even searching twitter for a trending hashtag shows the sheer volume of those trolling, those taking advantage of the trending topic to spam or market something, and those whose credible or legitimate views and thoughts are lost in the wake. The speed of access can also be anathema to the free exchange of ideas: The refresh button becomes the enemy of sustained meaningful dialogue.

Now, on to the issues:

(Note: While I initially had another litany of concerns related to this week’s events, I delved in to the blood donation mythology at the end and it ended up being much longer than I planned. Other concerns of mine will be published tomorrow.)

Reflecting on some of the events make it clear that the initial reports related to the bombing informing political and prejudicial positions, and are only enhanced by journalistic decision-making.

Right-wing Mythology

If you Google “Saudi man tackled by bystanders” the first page of results includes one news report by a main stream entity, CBS News, and subsequent references by blogs and right leaning websites, serving to reinforce dual mythologies: the goodness of American bystanders as a testament to our exceptionalism and the badness of anyone who appears to fit our stereotype of terrorist. The New Yorker may have the best deconstruction of the targeting, interrogation, and re-victimization of this individual, and you can obviously apply politics and prejudice to that as well, but it is follows a reasonable course, rather than immediately leaping to conspiracy theories.

Left-wing Mythology

Online vigilantes were hard at work helping to identify the hundreds of people near the finish line prior to the explosion, combing through photos available online. With the targeting of “persons of interest” who were no more threatening than a high school track athlete and his coach, interested in the race’s finish, those of us who place themselves on the left got to pat ourselves on the back as more liberal media outlets took the New York Post to task for their reporting. The errors of the online community, and the way it fed journalism, was most blatant in this case, but not limited to it alone. Throughout the week speculation and erroneous statements have been made by Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, all no doubt rushing to scoop the story and break that exclusive (we’re looking at you John King).

Patriotic Mythology

This one is my favorite, and it has yet to be mentioned anywhere I could find, for example in relevant pages on either Snopes or Wikipedia:

NBC Sports Network tweeted at 3:57 PM that they had reports of finishers heading over to Mass General to donate blood after crossing the finish line. It was such a good story that President Obama included it in his speech Monday night, and it was retweeted or favorited over 160,000 times, with countless modifications not included. Maggie raised the question Monday when we were following the coverage, and I was immediate skeptical about the veracity of this information, initially because of the physical and health implications.

But the more I thought and wrote about it, I realized that the biggest concern is probably that there’s not a single additional news source independently confirming the report, with mentions online only citing the NBC Sports tweet. A Google search for interviews with finishers doesn’t even have stories with an interview with a finisher outside Mass General before or after donating. So just before 4 PM, NBC Sports was reporting that finishers were continuing on to Mass General to donate. But 57 minutes earlier, the Blood Donor Center at Massachusetts General posted to their Facebook page:

Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured at the marathon this afternoon.

The blood needs for those who were injured this afternoon are being met right now. However we encourage whole blood donations this week and next week, beginning at 7:30am tomorrow morning. This will help ensure a safe and adequate blood supply in the upcoming weeks.

Of course, a runner just finishing probably wouldn’t know that. So immediately after the explosion, someone who is both mentally and physically exhausted—because let’s not kid ourselves, Boston is a tough marathon and they don’t call it Heartbreak Hill for nothing—would have to have the clarity of mind and purpose to say, “People are hurt, I’m just gonna keep going up to Mass General.” That’s heroic, for sure. But the reality is, that too is speculation. There are certain realities of the finish area at Boston that lead me to believe that this already unsubstantiated story is a feel-good story that has little grounding in truth.

The first explosion disrupted the finish area, such that many runners stopped heading towards the blast site and finish line, as police and first responders cleared the area to prevent any further injury and tend to the wounded. Ten seconds after the first blast, the second one happened a few blocks up the course, thereby trapping probably hundreds of runners who had been pushing it (or if like me, limping) to the finish. These runners were no doubt detoured as well.

On a normal race day without the disruption of bombs at the finish line, things go like this: Once you cross the line in Boston, it’s a short celebration. You’re stopped at the chip removal station, where a volunteer unties your shoes and collects your timing chips. You’re then hurried along to the food and water, given your finisher medal and your aluminum blanket, and if you don’t need medical attention, stumble exhausted to the bus where your bag of gear is waiting for you—where your photo ID is likely waiting for you. Emergency information is written on your participant number, so why? If you finished with or near friends, you may linger a little longer to wait, but most probably want to get to their families or just collapse in Boston Common. The post-finish area is Runners Only and secured by barricade fencing; you have to navigate it like a maze just to get out. Add in the crowd of other runners, especially around the baggage buses and family meeting area, and even a Boston Marathon veteran probably couldn’t get through the three blocks and get their bag (one of hundreds to be sorted through on a bus) in less than 10 minutes.

After the explosion, this all goes to hell because from the chip and food/water areas, you can see the finish line and there are people running everywhere, becoming a chaotic scene of finishers, spectators, volunteers, and first responders. And even assuming there was a finisher or two who stated they were heading up to MGH after the explosion, they’d have to jog the 1.1 miles from the runners exit on St. James over to the Blood Donor Center. I’m not convinced that someone is doing all that in 10 minutes, arriving and checking in before they stop taking donations.

So assume there are a few runners, who are local enough to know how to get to MGH, get through the finish area very quickly, then also decide, “This is how I can help.” Maybe I’m a coward, but the last thing I would consider doing after a marathon, for any reason, is withdrawing a substantial amount of blood. We also have to question if a phlebotomist or medical professional would even accept a donation from a marathon finisher. A marathon is strenuous physical activity. One’s iron content could be greatly diminished by the exertion and it’s certain that on a sunny, 50-degree day, the balance of body fluids are not going to be suitable to donation. The elite runners have a strong electrolyte and fluid management plan for their races. I guaranteed that the 4 hour group is not quite so meticulous, so as to be healthy enough to donate. It is far-fetched that anyone would be physically capable of actually successfully giving, even if they got up to MGH prior to the Blood Donor Center closing for the day.

Yet without even the slightest interrogation, this is the perfect kind of myth we love in the wake of these tragedies. An unknown number of unnamed individuals, in a frightening and chaotic scene, volunteered themselves to jog, after running 26.2 miles, to donate blood, possibly against the better judgment of medicine and common sense. The narrative that unfolded, contrary to the reality of geography and time, is that the people involved, if there were donors or intended donors among the finishers near the time of the explosion, is not that they themselves are heroes. The idea of finishers going to donate after running is what we find to be heroic. We like to believe that there are people who selflessly pushed their bodies even just a little bit harder, as just another example of how we’re a strong and resilient country, made up of strong and resilient people.

We are a strong and resilient nation, and Americans tend to be strong and resilient when facing difficult situations. I just don’t think we need unsubstantiated media reports, exaggerations, or outright lies to help us believe it in the wake of tragic events. The facts should speak for themselves.

Click over to Part 2 for my other thoughts on the events in Boston

Battling Our Porn Problem

Among the many reasons that I’m proud to work with the fraternity Beta Theta Pi is the recent issue of their alumni magazine tackled some unusual content: Addictions. I was struck how they took the unusual approach of publishing a piece on the impact of pornography, neurochemically and interpersonally, on the human relationships that fraternities and colleges strive to foster, side-by-side with updates on the achievements of members or the capital campaigns underway.

Before going on, click on over and check out the article at http://issuu.com/betathetapiao/docs/beta_theta_pi_spring_2013/27

Now, I disagree that we need to automatically categorize any viewer of pornography (or other visual aids for arousal) as having a problem. For example, there is actually a growing market for feminist pornography and there are arguments for some things as a healthy component of sexual intimacy–the Kama Sutra has a spiritual purpose in addition to being a how-to guide.

And I couldn’t even venture a comment on the value or critiques in porn for same-sex couples. It’s important to acknowledge that other communities may have a different perspective because they consume pornographic materials in different ways.

However, the author Justin Warren, a Beta alum from SMU, makes some strong points regarding the neurochemical change that occurs with repeated use of porn. The brain can re-wire itself and your expectations regarding sexual intimacy, arousal, and attraction.

Not only that, by engaging more with porn instead of people, it can damage human relationships, which are crucial for young men navigating college or high school especially. At worst, in a fraternity chapter, one member can derail an entire community, if that porn becomes the gateway through which they learn to apply force or coercion to achieve real sex, as mirrored in more hardcore stuff.

What was missing was a critique about the way that porn, especially due to its limitless availability in the information age, has reinforced social norms that demean or objectify women.

It’s all well and good to address the way porn hurts men. That’s one strong way to discourage men from using it, by thinking through their own self-interest in stopping.

But by ignoring the social inequality perpetuated by the pornographic money machine–through sex trafficking in less than equitable production locations outside of southern California, the dehumanization done by showing people as body parts solely for sexual gratification, and as a representative of heterosexual sex as the “norm”–it reads as if there is no greater need beyond addressing it with a fraternity brother who may use porn a little too much.

The unfortunate reality is that the very fabric of our being is strained by the use and abuse of porn. By dehumanizing women, the industry intent on producing profits dehumanizes men by disrupting our ability to have empathy, develop emotional intimacy, or recognize the on-going problems with porn.

Without that deeper connection to social justice awareness, fraternity men will not seek to include themselves in efforts to effect meaningful change in the world. I’m all for philanthropy, but throwing a bar party to raise money to fight cancer is not the same as putting in the time and effort to challenge oppression or make community change a reality.

It’d be amazing to see a chapter of fraternity men take an authentic stand on an issue of gender- or sexuality-based inequality: volunteering with a LGBT youth center, raising funds for a domestic violence shelter, volunteering on a rape crisis line or with interpersonal violence prevention, or developing meaningful self-governance practices that eliminate alcohol and sex for all recruitment, retention, or social activities.

One of the reasons I decided to volunteer with Beta Theta Pi is because as a facilitator for their summer leadership development program, I was introduced to the core values and spirit of the fraternity. It stands for something greater than having a fun chapter or a well-known house–things other fraternities I’ve interacted with have prioritized.

The spirit of mutual assistance and integrity resonate with my personal beliefs. The connection to values, though, is too often not the primary reason I’ve heard men join a fraternity (it’s the guys they meet).

But I continue to give my time to the organization out of the hope that through work with one local chapter, I can begin to make a difference. Growing up I didn’t feel comfortable talking to anyone about porn, for example. I thought using it was okay, or even expected. It was never talked about, but then again it was never discouraged either.

As I became more self-aware as a man, I sought out opportunities to connect with men and open up the exploration of masculinities through a variety of avenues–gender roles and expectations, work roles, group roles, emotional expression, and others. I also realized that it was critical to my personal well-being and the well-being of my relationship with my partner to stop using porn. And these can be hard things to think about or put in to action.

Beta took a bold stand in putting this content out to his thousands of alumni, challenging those men to reconsider what role they thought porn should have in their lives and in the lives of the men who are the future of the fraternity. I worry that there are men out there, some of whom are in the chapter I advise, no doubt, who have not yet considered the harm that pornography can wreak on one’s perceptions of love, intimacy, and sex.

As I spend more time working with this  fraternity chapter, I hope to continue to develop the relationships that will allow those men to feel comfortable seeking out support from me when they are struggling with their own conception of what it means to “be a man.”

Victoria’s Secret targets young girls

Since I’m not yet a parent, I can only say that I worry about how to approach raising my future children in order to ensure that they are critical consumers of the media and what’s marketed to their age demographic. This type of stuff isn’t going to go away because companies are going to try and squeeze every last dollar out of possible demographics, especially with greater access to internet marketing targeting young people (Facebook ads, etc.).

Victoria’s Secret, as a company, thrives off of objectifying women, creating an unrealistic expectation about beauty and body shape, and marketing to teenage girls (their Pink line is just one example, albeit less risque). This is just another way that corporate profits are prioritized and women are devalued. My partner stands by her claim that they make good products–comfortable and long lasting. It’s a shame that their approach to marketing doesn’t emphasize that, instead setting up unrealistic expectations about the female body for both young men and young women.

Rev. Evan M. Dolive

An open letter to Victoria’s Secret regarding their choice to make an underwear line aimed at young teenagers. (Read about it here)


Dear Victoria’s Secret,

I am a father of a three year old girl. She loves princesses, Dora the Explorer, Doc McStuffins and drawing pictures for people. Her favorite foods are peanut butter and jelly, cheese and pistachios.

Even though she is only three, as a parent I have had those thoughts of my daughter growing up and not being the little girl she is now. It is true what they say about kids, they grow up fast. No matter how hard I try I know that she will not be the little ball of energy she is now; one day she will be a rebellious teenager that will more than likely think her dad is a total goof ball and would want to distance herself from my…

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You don’t get credit for being decent

Disclaimer: I don’t speak for the LGBT community or marriage equality movement. Yet I can’t help but feel that it’s a bit ridiculous that we’re giving Hillary Clinton, Rob Portman, Claire McCaskill, or the countless others who have publicly come out for gay marriage or gay rights in the last few weeks praise for doing the right thing. For publicly proclaiming that all families deserve equal protection of the law and equal access to the legislated benefits of marriage (a ridiculous thing, in and of itself).

Sure, public support, shown through polls or the statements of public figures, is great for this issue. The court decision will no doubt be impacted by the sea change in public opinion and broader base of voices calling for equality. It’s great that more and more people are speaking out about their support for same sex marriage. And hopefully it’ll inspire others to rethink their positions and get on the right side of history, squaring their beliefs with what’s ethical and just and fair.

But you don’t get credit just for being a decent. At the end of the day, I don’t get an award for not saying something racist or not abusing a woman. And politicians shouldn’t get praise for publicly opposing homophobia. That’s just being a decent person: Publicly standing for friends, family members, or constituents who want to have families and safety and equal protection of the laws. Let’s focus on some important news like this polar bear:

Update (3-25-2013): With more folks taking public stands in favor of same-sex marriage and acceptance, and arguments beginning tomorrow in front of the Supreme Court, I’m happy to see popular opinion shifting (not that the NY Times is representative of views in this country). Allies should work with others to advance social justice, but we don’t get to ask for pats on the back or praise for doing so. The struggle is much harder for the minoritized who have to live with and fight against oppression every day. But the public figures who are speaking out for same-sex marriage are drawing attention to themselves, away from the people who have struggled for decades to achieve equality and safety and legal protections. The media spotlight on these individuals can be a positive, conveying a broad message of equality and acceptance, especially if the efforts appear genuine and not solely self-interested.

Yet I’m troubled when the media fails to center the experiences of the oppressed, of those who have been consistently denied equal rights. At the end of this, straight allies can return to their day-to-day with very little cost if marriage inequality is upheld. We should hold them accountable to do more than make public statements, like actively engaging straight folks in developing acceptance and embracing equality (something Scott Fujita is actively involved in). But if marriage equality fails, it’s just another blow to justice and fairness in our society, and the consequences will continue to fall on the LGBT community, not those of us who can have legally recognized marriages and over a thousand legal benefits.

Sexism Illustrated

Last week I received an offer from Sports Illustrated for a cheesy mass-produced NFL team jacket if I subscribed to their magazine. It’s been years since I’ve read an issue of SI, but this whole month of February, I had had the recurring thought about the Swimsuit Issue and its role in men’s development (as experienced through my own adolescence) and its larger place in our society. Receiving that mail in offer was the catalyst that I needed to actually sort through what I thought and how I felt about the Swimsuit Issue. Not only did I come to view it through my own lens of developing a masculine identity, particularly its role in sexuality and idealizing female archetypes, but also as it relates to the larger issue of gender equity in sports and sports culture. The latter topic is so broad it deserves its own post so look for that, bu the personal is stake we should all feel in this is what I think is most critical.

When I was a teenager, I had a subscription to Sports Illustrated for around three or four years. Each year, I looked forward to the annual Swimsuit Issue, because, in case its not obvious, as a heterosexual teenage male, I viewed the female models as objects that existed solely for my self-gratification. But what wasn’t apparent to me was that I was supposed to view them this way. It definitely could be argued that the very public imagery of the models reinforces existing media efforts to restrict women in American society to fit a certain ideal. That feminist critique is valid certainly, but in this space I’m concerned with the impact that the magazine has on our young men and their expectations for women’s appearance.

Each year, we’re given a new issue filled with women in bathing suits (or body paint) and posed in sexually suggestive positions. In the same way that pornography warps men’s expectation of sexual intimacy, the swimsuit issue warps are view of the ideal woman (in line with most mainstream media outlets of course). That the Swimsuit Issue is more readily available to young males, even with access to the pornography-overrun internet, a young teenage male could easily spend the cover price and pick up the magazine at their local 7-11. Thus with access to this lone magazine, young men and boys are starting to do what society wants them to do. View women as objects, lust (not necessarily in the biblical sense, just the animalistic desire sense) after these models, and by extension other women, and begin to habitually imagine sexual acts with these and other women. When researchers suggest men think about sex every seven seconds, if those men are anything like I have been, they’re imagining sexual acts with strangers they pass on the streets—a tough habit to unlearn. The Swimsuit Issue functions as a gateway of sorts. Once one starts objectifying women in the Swimsuit Issue, how easy does it become to go browsing the internet for porn?

In the digital age the Sexism Issue may be an outdated attempt at boosting revenue, especially with access to bonus content for magazine subscribers, but it’s just one piece in a very large web that serves to keep women and men restricted. Women are supposed to fit an ideal and their athletic (or professional) success is irrelevant. Men are supposed to lust after women, after all its only natural, right? That SI’s swimsuit issue is just taken as normal is indicative of how pervasive the problem has become. We are numb to the things that reinforce the Man Box and keep us trapped by this narrow definition of men.

Instead of subscribing, let Sports Illustrated know that you are disappointed in their exploitation of women. Tweet at them at @SInow or contact them. And you can do what I did if they solicit subscriptions. Send back a note asking them to change their sexist ways. As women’s history month begins this weekend, think about the progress that’s been made and how this magazine is just one of the many remnants that still needs to be swept away as we look to build a more equitable society.