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

Detecting Serial Rapists on College Campuses

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (in addition to a variety of others that get lost in our daily shuffle). So for me it’s a time to critically think about the way we’re raising awareness, and if we’re not undermining our traditional efforts (which are clearly not enough) by ignoring some key research, published just over 10 years ago.

This past week at work, my campus hosted Dr. David Lisak, who is best known for his research in to the predatory nature of most men who commit rape. He was the keynote speaker for our annual summit for sexual assault and violence prevention and facilitated a discussion for allegation investigators. While I had previously seen clips of the documentary based on his research with college men regarding the incidence of sexual predation, there was a substantial amount of information that really challenges the way I think about sexual assault prevention.

Often, the research indicates that bystander intervention programs, which enlist men and women as disrupters of sexual assaults before they occur, are effective programs. Rather than framing the issue as one of men as predators and potential rapists, it instead tries to train potential witnesses to take direct or indirect action to prevent assaults by others.

This approach is intended to bring men in to the conversation, appealing to them as men (who’ve been socialized to believe they are responsible, decisive, action-oriented) to step in. It is founded on the premise that we have to appeal to men through hegemonic masculine norms in order to converse with and bring them to action in gender equity work, something that is problematic but requires its own separate exploration.

Unfortunately, Dr. Lisak’s research presents a problem. He has found, in studies that have been replicated in other environments, that among college aged men, only 5% admit to actions that constitute sexual assault or rape. Of those men, 63% are responsible for 91% of the rape behaviors. His conclusion in the study is that 3% of men are serial rapists, responsible for 91% of rapes, among other violent crimes against women and children. In McWhorter’s study of U.S. Navy recruits, the findings were even more startling, with 13% of men acknowledging behavior that constitutes rape or attempted rape, and among them 71% are serial rapists responsible for 95% of all rapes.

“Great!” we could say, “not all men are rapists.” This is true. However, the 3% who commit the vast majority of rapes and other violent crimes against women/children are doing so because they are “undetected” as Lisak & Miller refer to them.

So for me the vexing issue coming out of this campus summit, in thinking about prevention in a college environment, is how to address the serial rapist issue. Bystander intervention programs I’ve worked with often treat sexual assault as a one-off event that likely results from over-intoxication by the potential victim, and requires people to notice and step in to make sure that person gets home safe and unharmed.

But if the vast majority of men who are likely to commit rape are predatory serial rapists, as Lisak’s and other research suggest, they are actively taking advantage of their victims in ways that may evade bystander intervention techniques taught to college students.

Not only will they continue to use alcohol to ply their potential victims in to isolation, advantageous to the assault, but they may choose environments where bystander interventions are less likely to occur–crowded bars, clubs, and house parties where anonymity is easier and bystander intoxication is more likely to cloud judgment, and thereby prevent successful bystander intervention.

They may also work collaboratively with other predatory men. Among the men interviewed, Lisak found that there were groups–notoriously, but not exclusively fraternities–that intentionally used parties and their social capital as party hosts to prey on new college women, with the tool of choice being cups of highly concentrated alcoholic punch to incapacitate their victims.

The interview transcript was turned in to a documentary with re-enactments of the dialogue. The language used is both disturbing and insightful. The way the man described the women as objects whose sole purpose was his satisfaction is key to understanding the way some men are viewing women on campus, and indifferent to (or worse, proud of) their own predatory behavior.

The Unintentional Risks of Bystander Interventions

Bystander Intervention can be an effective tool, but if we elide or omit the nature of serial rape among non-strangers, we are undermining our own efforts. If a serial rapist is thwarted by a bystander, who assumes it is potentially just a consent or communication issue, they will adjust their tactics to be more successful in the future.

Additionally, the potential rapist is not being held accountable. They do not feel shame for having tried to take advantage of their potential victim. They will feel anger or frustration for being prevented from accomplishing their goal: rape. This will be highly motivating for them to learn from their “mistakes” and find a way to successfully rape in the future, figuring out ways to avoid bystander interventions.

So in many cases, bystander intervention will prevent individual sexual assaults. But it will also teach predators the means to continue to avoid detection as serial rapists. The intrepid among them will attend bystander intervention programs to learn how to continue to be “undetected.”

Serial Rape and Student Conduct

From a student conduct perspective, we’re also challenged on how to hold alleged rapists accountable, if they are serial rapists. Dr. Lisak appeared on CBS a few years ago to talk about the basic synopsis of his research and its implications for investigators, and that can be extended to campus administrators in student conduct.

The reality is that we’re constrained by Title IX and due process. It can be incredibly invasive or resource-intensive to investigate the alleged rapists background to find out if this is a one-off or if they are a serial offender who hasn’t been caught, who has been practicing or enabled, who has other victims.

As I said above, if random bystander X intervenes in a situation, that information may never come to the attention of campus officials as a prior indicator of predatory behavior that can inform an understanding of the alleged student’s motivation and the appropriate sanctions if they’re found responsible.

An investigation could turn it up, but given the scope and scale of the party and bar environment on my campus, it’s just as, if not more, likely that there’s not a snowball’s chance in June that we’re going to hear about it. At least not with some incredibly invasive investigation, which may then draw both press and Federal scrutiny–risks not likely to be palatable to University administrators.

Of course the flip side is a Title IX lawsuit and negative press coverage regarding the campus’s failure to prevent sexual assault. Personally (and professionally) I’d rather deal with the former.

This may require the development of Campus Threat policies and procedures that empower campus officials (and University law enforcement officers) with these investigative responsibilities in order to justify it under legislative, judicial, or media scrutiny. Of course, serial rapists going ignored or unpunished would constitute a campus environment hostile to women so I think it’ll likely stand up, given the research.

But the campus efforts should not be limited only responding to incidents that are reported. We should be working actively to prevent incidents of sexual violence.

Changing Prevention Efforts

One of my responsibilities this year is in developing some efforts for bystander intervention skill development related to high risk alcohol use. As part of that I’m also reflecting on the ways to incorporate sexual assault prevention in to the program. Student leaders, who are the intended participants of this program, need to be educated on the risk of the serial rapist, without sending the message that all men are rapists.

In my mind this proves to be more challenging.

Sharing the statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by a tiny fraction of men on campus may be heartening to some–we who who don’t rape can feel good that we’re the “good ones.” It also may feel daunting to know that confronting a potential sexual assault may not prevent one in the future. Without the expectation to both intervene in the moment, and inform someone in a position of authority, the intervention may only delay the attack to some future victim.

This might conflict with the bystander’s assumptions about the potential rapist: Tarnish an innocent man’s reputation or prevent a potential future assault, without knowing for sure one way or the other.

There may also be a failure to see if group behavior is somehow reinforcing individual serial rape behavior. Like the men in Lisak’s study, there are still some out there who conspire together to use the college party environment as a means to commit sexual assaults (where have prosecutions on that atrocity been?!).

Add in the tendency of college students to distrust authority and resist reporting anyway, unless they’re personally impacted in some way, and you can see the numerous wrinkles to this new way of thinking about sexual assault prevention.

Going forward there has to be concerted efforts to prevent, investigate, and hold accountable serial rape behaviors. To ignore this issue continues to put college women at risk. It can (and it’s only a matter of time before it will) put universities at risk, which may be the interest convergence necessary to start making changes in this area.

For whatever reason, because the research findings have been available for over a decade, it is concerning to me that we unintentionally reinforce rape culture through our lack of resources to fully investigate the alleged offender, our failure to proactively discuss sexual assault with college men in as many avenues as possible, or the meaningful steps to identify “bad actors”: those who have anti-social traits and use alcohol as a means to sexually assault.

These are challenging issues, requiring significant collaboration and education efforts on campus, but to do less would give the message to the predators that if at first they don’t succeed, they can try again.

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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So, two high school football players are going to spend some time in a juvenile detention facility for messing around with a drunk girl.  Maybe you’ve seen the stories and think, “Holy shit!  Could that be me?”

The answer is, it is completely easy for that to never be you.  You can make sure you never end up in Trent Mays’ position in three easy steps.  But first, there are some things you should know.

High school is still a place where, if folks know not everyone is straight, the social world revolves around the assumption that folks are straight (when I’m writing for a different audience I use the term “heteronormative.”) It’s also, like almost everywhere, cisnormative: folks assume that everybody is and wants to stay the gender they were assigned at birth and that everyone’s okay with binary gender.  Some folks are not.  In most high schools there are…

View original post 1,285 more words

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.

Pro Tip: Respond instead of reacting

I can’t even recall when I first heard this phrase “Respond instead of reacting.” One example of its relevance to social justice is cited in “35 dumb things well-intentioned people say,”but that book is problematic to me for reasons outside the scope of this post. But if it was something I first picked up as an education major learning about classroom management or if it was a ground rule in a discussion about social justice topics, it remains a good guide for online and interpersonal interactions. With social media and comment sections, trolls function to generate reaction. Trolls want to drag you in to a rabbit hole of back-and-forth tweets or comments, getting pleasure out of riling up the unsuspecting internet novice. Or it could be the knee-jerk tweets that don’t take the time to understand the nuance, parody, satire, or the person who tweeted it.

But there are also instances when someone at the other end of a digital connection is genuinely interested in your perspective, an answer to a question, or even just your reaction, without the intention of dragging you down that rabbit hole. In terms of interpersonal interactions, in real time and space, you’re probably not going to have involved conversations about serious topics with someone just trolling for a reaction. You’re more likely to be engaging in spirited debate about the topic. There will still be statements and questions that are provocative, intended to spur reaction, though the intention is to either make their point, win the argument, or make you look foolish for a lack of understanding, not for falling in to the rabbit hole.

So what does this have to do with masculine norms? One of the characteristics of hegemonic masculinity is the belief that men and our voices or opinions are more valuable, we’re inherently superior in society, and that we’re always right (except when we’re wrong, but then we never have to admit we were wrong), and these become more dangerous to social justice because we’re expected to be competitive. It’s an underlying foundation of “mansplaining.” As men we tend to react because we don’t always have to be right, we just have to say our “truth” with enough emphasis or forcefully enough, and we can win the argument. Often, we just have to silence the other voices that would be participating. And if we choose to, as a person of privilege, we can react to statements and questions with defensiveness, like by withdrawing from the dialogue or adopting combative or resistant body language, telling ourselves that we still won. Why acknowledge that something I did was hurtful or offensive, when I can cry that I was “misunderstood” or that it was “not my intent” and then refuse to actively participate in the conversation any longer, blaming others for an attack on us. We have the right to use or exclude, to borrow language from Critical Race Theory.

As a person of privilege, it’s been ingrained that my voice is valuable and more valuable than others, reinforced through school, sports, and socializing. Being male is one facet of my identity where society has made easier for me to speak, demonstrate competence, and achieve in our purportedly meritocratic society. What I learned, too late in life, was that I am not always right, I don’t know everything, and I can never fully understand the (racialized, gendered, Othered, oppressed) experience of other individuals. But it was easier to act as if I did, as if I knew as well as a woman because I had taken a history course where we talked about the feminist movement or read an article in an academic journal (this specific instance was particularly problematic at the time). I would react to challenges to my privileged world view. I would get angry, try and embarrass the other person, talk over them, remain indifferent to their frustration with my arrogance, or demonstrate my superiority by withdrawing from the conversation, as if it was beneath me to be even discussing it with a lesser being. Any one of these actions is a defensive strategy that I used to (sometimes) unknowingly maintain my masculine identity, and avoid gender role strain–the internal cognitive conflict that arises when our unexamined masculinity is challenged in a way that surfaces a fear of being (or being perceived as) feminine. Unfortunately, this is not isolated to me alone. My experience is universal for men in America.

In addition to being humbled by some fantastic and compassionate people who began to challenge me right back when I played the “expert” card, I slowly learned that there is a better path to dialogue, where I can share my experience and also learn from the individual experiences of others. When I began a more conscious and conscientious social justice journey, expanding on my purely academic interest in historical oppression, I was often challenged to acknowledge my privileged position, the unearned benefits that had come to me, that made my path in life the one of least resistance. By starting with turning down the impulse to compete and the impulse to prove something (that I’m right, smart, well-educated, an ally, anything), I was able to turn up the volume on the words shared by others. I was able to begin to understand what they were saying–never fully, but enough to begin to trust that there was truth in their words and oppression in my past actions. I had to struggle with guilt over past conversations rooted in my lived privilege and fear of screwing up in the future: an outright acknowledgement that I am not meeting society’s expectations by being fallible. And then I learned to respond.

Responding is more than just making statements back after a pause. It involves engaged listening, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak or thinking about what your response will be while the other person talks. Counselors and psychologists call it “attending:” Behavior and cognitive processes that reflect that the other person has your full attention, building rapport and trust, and facilitating open interpersonal communication. Body language, eye contact, and other non-verbals indicate that they have your attention. Reflective statements demonstrate that you’re listening to the person and attempting to understand the meaning of their words. Your thoughts focus on understanding what they are saying, not thinking about what you’ll say next. Your chosen words don’t take on a tone or volume laced with power, arrogance, or condescension. Responses further the conversation, not win an argument or prove that you’re right.

In digital exchanges of information, it can be even more critical to respond, not react, because there are not the non-verbals that can indicate authenticity or trust. Nuance is lost as in the Jamie Kilstein tweet linked above or as we’ve see in anything sarcastic we’ve ever tried to send via tweet, email, or instant message. Responding in digital formats can take a few different forms, among many others:

  • Taking the time to re-read an email before drafting a response
  • Pausing and reviewing a draft before hitting the send button
  • Adopting the other person’s perspective to better understand their intention
  • Asking for clarification to ensure that you fully understand the context of their statement or what they were trying to convey
  • Taking the time to gather your facts and compare them to the information shared by the other party–though citations in non-journalism communication has gone the way of MySpace
  • Presenting information that expands the scope of understanding for both parties
  • Acknowledge that lived experiences are valid, there is truth in the counter stories that reflect a different understanding of the issue at hand

With Internet 2.0 it can be easy for men to feel like they “win” in a digital exchange. We can sit behind our keyboards, typing out our attacks and reactions, without really reading or understanding the context for the statements. We can remain emotionally detached, or lash out in anger (exacerbated by relative anonymity), and continue to exhibit stereotypical masculine behaviors. We go back and forth trying to present the most compelling information, without the nuance of tact or tone or non-verbals, and then assume that the other person just doesn’t measure up to our intellect or rhetorical ability. Lately the blogosphere (do people still use that word to describe this media environment?) has exploded with explanations of rape culture and refutations of the theory of false rape accusations, and men, from our privileged positions, can just ignore all that commentary, no matter the references or citations to sources, journalism, facts. Like other social justice movements struggling to garner mainstream support, feminism is marginalized because the dominant group they are actively working to change is in no way invested in what feminists saying. It’s a game that men can leave any time they want, declaring victory the moment they choose to walk away.

There are men out there who are actively countering this narrative. Instead of retreating to the relative safety of hegemony, men are starting to find that they can act in the interest of building a culture and community that is actively seeking inclusion and mutual support. Rather than reacting in any situation, men can benefit from learning to respond. We are trying to develop the interpersonal communication skills that build trust and understanding of other perspectives, key components of ally development for those of us in privileged positions. We actively interrogate the ways in which we have been held back by the social pressures that empower us through privilege and oppress us through restrictive gender roles. We engage in authentic dialogue with others about how gender has shaped our experiences. And we put in the hard work, eschewing the path of least resistance, to develop authentic relationships with others rather than competing to be right or louder.

My favorite poem, as much as I dislike poetry generally and as cliché as it might be, is Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” It has long resonated with my conviction that life is best experienced by charting a course that allows exploration, creativity, new experiences, and challenges. For a few years now on our refrigerator has been a magnet that has the last line of the poem:

The Road Less Traveled

It continues to serve as a reminder that although the path of least resistance is always open to me, I make a difference in this life, when choosing the road less traveled. Responding isn’t as easy as reacting, but each day I grow through my shared learning with others, rather than by trying only to prove that I’m a man.

Everything about this post is spot on. I wish other men would take this message to heart and share it with the other men in their lives.

Caught in the Cogs

Trigger Warnings.

In every conversation about rape I’ve encountered in the past months, whether I participated in the conversation or just observed, there have been at least one or two men who claim to have been falsely accused of rape themselves, so their argument remains that survivors can’t just name names “willy nilly.”

I have a theory which I would very much like to explore further. Judging from my own experience and the experience of countless survivors I’ve spoken with in addition to the staggering rape statistics for this country, I’ve made the hypothesis that most, like 94-98%, rape allegations are true, not false. Studies have shown this as well.

Accused rapists often don’t consider what they did as rape because they can’t see themselves as a rapist. It has also been proven that men do self-report if The R Word isn’t used in the description, as shown in Lisak…

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