Let’s Talk About Sexual Harassment

 

The list of powerful and prominent men who are leering, suggesting, groping, fondling, and forcing expands every day. This has resulted in a necessary national conversation regarding behavior that ranges from the boorish to the criminal, and many Americans will recognize that this is both helpful and instructive.

However, now that we find ourselves at this cultural and social crossroads, one that perhaps has some chance of changing both our private conduct and public institutions, it is probably worth asking a single, pertinent question regarding our fifty year forced march toward ever greater freedom to act upon our every impulse: Have we been helped or harmed by the sexual revolution and those who have encouraged its progress throughout our cultural and educational worlds?

Sex has, of course, always preoccupied the human mind; few of us would be here today were this not the case. However, we have experienced a profound and fundamental break with our past because the primal urges that animate our lives have been, thanks to the signal technological improvements of the past century—photography, film, video, and the internet—commodified and monetized to a degree almost beyond comprehension.

What was once private is now very public, what was once pornography is now mainstream entertainment, what was once perverse is now commonplace, and what was once healthy restraint is now unhealthy inhibition.

The coarsening of our culture is a documentable fact, and the outright salaciousness of much of our mass entertainment is undeniable. Perhaps this is simply due to the fact that basic cable now needs to compete with 24/7 streaming pornography for eyeballs, but the graphic—and many times violent or sadistic—nature of the sexual content in shows that purport to be mainstream fare is both startling and disturbing. It is impossible to ignore both the corrosive influence this type of material has on our psyches and the frightening normalization of behavior that is worthy of nothing but our condemnation, not because I dislike sex but because I condemn connecting its beauty with the brutishness, heartlessness, and callousness that has infected so many facets of our mass entertainment and culture.

Of course, any suggestion that restraint and subtlety might be worthy of our consideration is met with howls of “censorship” or “Puritanism” from those who are profiting from producing explicit material to satisfy our natural prurient interests, and sadly it seems the actors involved are willing (if only because they need a job) to tolerate the filming or photographing of their breasts, buttocks, and whatever else is there to share. Some are, of course men, but the bodies most commonly put on public display are female—often in the most gratuitous manner possible. Perhaps the intentions are pure and movies today are trying to teach women helpful life skills—investigate every strange noise downstairs at night while wearing as little as possible and always leave the curtain partially open when you shower—but I somehow doubt this is the case.

Our attitude toward the transformation of our mass entertainment into soft-core porn is a bit of a puzzle. We celebrate the “strength” and “bravery” of the public displays by well-paid entertainers, but we would condemn the same titillation were it provided for free as being nothing but base exploitation of a person’s body. Perhaps it all boils down to the paycheck: That which is sexually explicit in word or deed, regardless of content or intent, simply cannot any longer be considered indecent in America today if the pay is good. This is a particular trap young females in the entertainment industry. Men, it seems, can still choose to keep their shirts on, but for women this possibility many times does not seem to exist unless they are already old enough to play the District Attorney.

Therefore, if only because we and the entertainers somehow need to justify their exploitation, we now celebrate the commercial display of the female form as “empowerment” as long as the women involved are well-compensated for their exertions, and those who can figure out a way to turn sex into major cash can—as long as the pay is high enough—enjoy some degree of respectability. Depending upon your viewpoint, we today live in either a wonderful nation that judges none and welcomes all or a dystopian and immoral country that worships money instead of elevating humanity.

Looking around at the epidemic of sexual battery and assault that now seems to be baked into every strata of our nation, one has to wonder whether this coldly capitalistic attitude toward a fundamental component of our personhood helps or harms both individuals and our society. Some would argue that the frequency and severity of sexual assault is the same as it always was—we are just more aware of the problem—but I find this explanation unpersuasive and exculpatory.

Any society where entertainers are celebrated for attempting to “break” the Internet by posting nude photos of themselves, female college students go online to seek out “sugar daddies”, and young women auction their virginity to the highest bidder through a website has clearly lost sight of any reasonable boundaries between what is acceptable and what is not. It should not be a surprise that abusive sexual behavior (typically, but not exclusively, by men) has become much more common at the same time any sense of personal responsibility or propriety has apparently flown out the window for many—but thankfully not all.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near to making the cultural changes that are needed to promote more respectful attitudes and behavior; there is simply too much money to be made by the shameless entrepreneurs among us—mostly thanks to our nation’s dysfunctional status quo that continually confuses freedom with abuse. Moreover, given that our educational and social science establishments have thoroughly embraced the idea that sexual liberality in attitude and behavior will inevitably lead to personal growth and societal benefits, we are now encouraged to accept that which only a couple of generations ago was unacceptable.

Hence, our nation’s colleges provide helpful workshops on anal sex and BDSM lifestyles in order to promote more “sex-positive” beliefs—which seems a huge difference from only a couple of decades ago. Some of these activities certainly have a legitimate public health function, but there in a fine line between informing and proselytizing, and it seems to me that many involved in these efforts simply do not understand the difference.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of this to change. Encouraging restraint is nowhere near as popular or profitable as promoting licentiousness, and a “party all the time” post-secondary norm keeps the seats filled—regardless of how outrageously high the tuition bill might be—while permitting many educators to preach the “transgressive” values that allow them to believe they are freedom fighters instead of enablers.

No one should be surprised if the trade-off for these no-strings-nor-consequences-attached cultural norms is a toxic environment that encourages the worst sort of personal behavior. These are simply two sides of the same coin, and we are now paying the inevitable price for allowing this nonsense to become our ugly daily reality. Unless we are willing to leverage this unique cultural and political moment into a broader discussion of our broken and misguided personal and societal values, we will see no end to the epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in our nation.

We have lots and lots of laws; we now need a counter-revolution of respect for ourselves and others.

 

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Fragile Youth?

Cause flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth will set the world on fire
Flaming youth, our flag is flying higher and higher and higher
Kiss, Flaming Youth (1976)

If one is to judge from recent studies and data, our adolescents and young adults are far less fiery than they once were. In fact, those who track such trends argue that young men and women are far more depressed, anxious, and troubled than at any time in our history.

One aspect of this question that needs to be first considered is that we live in the age of Big Data, and there has never been a time in human history that had the tools we now possess to chart and graph every fluctuation in our individual and collective moods. Americans were not tweeting at Gettysburg, and nobody was using Snapchat to document their daily activities during the Great Depression.

Our incredibly outer-directed existences are a marked contrast to our more circumspect ancestors, and any comparisons between our very demonstrative present and a past where it was considered peculiar to share every detail of your life with total strangers inevitably crashes into both epistemological and methodological difficulties that are inherently unresolvable, so our collective happiness or unhappiness relative to the pre-Internet world of only a few decades ago is basically unknowable.

There are, however, those who argue that we live in times so tumultuous that it is driving our youth and young adults to the brink of madness, and this is the reason that so many young people need medication, therapy, trigger warnings, safe spaces, and soothing affirmations to struggle through to the end of each day—which tends to do nothing but make their elders shake their heads. Folding up into a quivering, sobbing heap because of the results of an election makes no sense to your grandfather, who at your same age was leaning out the door of a helicopter gunship near Da Nang and hoping not to have his head blown off before his boots hit the ground.

It could, in fact, be persuasively argued that a great many of those who have come of age in America over the past several decades have been more cushioned from harm than could ever have been imagined by any previous generation—which hasn’t been altogether good. Perhaps all the soft padding underneath the monkey bars and participation trophies have done nothing but create young adults who are simply unfamiliar with the bumps and bruises that are an inevitable by-product of life. A familiarity with failure helps prepare young people for the rigors of life outside of the nest, and parents who insist on plowing every possible obstacle from their children’s paths during their formative years should probably be less astonished if their precious offspring crash and burn when they attempt “adulting”.

In addition, we likely need to wrench the cell phones out of our children’s hands because their voracious consumption of social media has turned them into a bunch of lab rats frantically pushing the lever to obtain a food pellet. Tying your self-worth to how many “friends” you have or how often your posts are “liked” by total strangers has produced a lot of unnecessary angst for a lot of young people who fail to recognize that a life lived online is no life at all. There is much to be said for a life less-connected, and transforming the normal insecurities of adolescence into a 24/7 addiction to the approval of others via an iPhone is a prescription for nothing other than misery for millions of teens. If one were to set out today to design a system as insidiously damaging as possible to the emotional health of our young, I will wager no one could come up with anything worse than Facebook is right now.

However, we cannot blame all of our children’s problems on over-protective parenting and Mark Zuckerberg. It is a tough world out there, and misguided social experiments and government policies have quite often backfired and made it even tougher for many. Having watched a great many adolescents and young adults parade through my classroom over the years, I can readily assert that divorce is a disaster for many, the ever-escalating costs of living put incredible pressure on individuals and families, and the pathological financial irresponsibility of our leaders has had—and will continue to have—real and lasting consequences for everyone. Thankfully, I still see many young men and women who have their heads screwed on just fine, and this helps me to take all the clucking about “kids these days” with the healthy dose of skepticism it truly deserves.

This does not, however, mean that we do not have real problems that are causing real pain to our young. We are, sadly, well-past the point of easy fixes, but perhaps we can yet be convinced to roll up our sleeves, work cooperatively, and reclaim our lives and our nation for the simple reason that we honestly have no other choice. We owe it to ourselves, but we really owe it to our children most of all. We need to do what we can to hand them a country a little less screwed up than it is right now, and we must not allow their flaming youth to simply go up in flames. They deserve at least that much from their supposedly-wise elders.

These D.C. Shenanigans Don’t Interest Me

The recent indictment of a prominent Washington political lobbyist, Paul Manafort, is prompting a rapturous response from some. Even though the criminal charges have nothing to do with last year’s election, those who wanted Hillary to win are now convinced that impeachment (Remember that Russian collusion!) is right around the corner. However, there are others who, even if not thrilled with President Trump’s policies or personality, are notably cooler to the idea. Me? With apologies to Rhett Butler—and as much as it pains me to say this—I don’t give a damn.

If you ever needed further proof that Washington, D.C. is a world utterly separate from the one we downtrodden peasants occupy, you need only to listen to the self-important chatter emanating from the banks of the Potomac regarding this non-story about a non-issue that is nonsense.

Given that we already know our federal government is a hopelessly corrupt conglomeration of back scratchers and influence peddlers masquerading as public servants, I am going to guess that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to work up to the target level of outrage. Listening to supposedly sane commentators froth at the mouth concerning the notion that lobbyists might not be the most honest of God’s creations reminds me of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca fulminating about the doings at Rick’s Cafe: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The outrage machine will, however, continue to grind on for as long as it is good business to do so. Anger and investigations encourage donors to write checks, so that is as good a reason as any to try to gin up a story about an apparently corrupt lobbyist into the latest iteration of “the scandal of the century”. If you read many of the reactions in the media, one notable undercurrent is that these investigations and indictments might—at least temporarily—interfere with the real business of Washington insiders: Making obscene amounts of money by selling access to executive, legislative, judicial, and (most important of all) regulatory power brokers. Working for the public good is just fine—as long as it does not interfere with personal profit.

A short list of what our federal government should be preoccupied with might include right-sizing operations in order to stop driving our nation into ever more catastrophic debt, holding agencies and departments accountable for producing measurable public benefits, devising cost-effective strategies for dealing with our crumbling infrastructure, reforming the cesspool of campaign finance, strengthening our military to meet a host of new and disturbing dangers, and pushing back against the many threats to our rights to privacy and free speech. If you can’t focus on your jobs, just get gone for good—for the good of us all.

If I want to watch stupid people engaging in stupid behavior, I can tune into countless reality television shows where dysfunction is worn like a badge of honor. I (perhaps unreasonably) expect more from my national government—particularly in light of the many problems we face today. Perhaps a few high profile prosecutions will provide some minor temporary benefit that will help to support the illusion that real change in a culture of entrenched corruption is at last at hand, but I strongly suspect that much stronger medicine will be necessary to heal what ails our country. Occasionally sacrificing someone of middling importance on the prosecutorial altar does not absolve our nation’s capitol of its many sins. There is far more to answer for regarding the many messes we are in today due to neglectful—or actively damaging—leadership in Washington.

However, feel free to enjoy the D.C. circus of empty rhetoric and feigned concern if that is to your taste. However, I am certain I am not the only American who just does not care—and wants the whole crowd of crooks and cuckoos out of our lives as soon as possible. I can’t say that many of them will be missed.

Do You Feel Safe Yet?

One aspect of our world today that is not commented upon enough amid all the noise of the news cycle is the 24/7 monitoring of our daily activities. A great deal of the ever-present peering into our personal lives is tied to our commercial and financial activities; some of this surveillance is protecting us from fraud, but a much larger portion is designed to better understand our spending habits in order to sell us more junk we don’t really need with money we don’t actually have. However, the more worrisome monitoring of our lives is that which supposedly protects us from international criminals and terrorists—and which has turned us all into germs parked under a very big microscope.

I suppose it is a perverse tribute to the power of the algorithms embedded into the very fabric of our lives today, but we are continually made aware of needs we did not know we even had thanks to the pop up ads on our browsers. Even the helpful viewing suggestions on Netflix are busily compiling a list of our dreams and desires drawn from our viewing profiles, which will immediately be used by businesses to prod us into even more spending and track our purchases down to the very last stick of chewing gum. Although I appreciate it when my credit card company calls to check whether I just purchased lawn furniture in a store five states away from where I actually live, I twitch a bit when I am called about an item I’ve bought that was flagged simply because it fell outside my “purchasing profile”. I realize I’ve probably fallen into a blandly predictable pattern in my life, but need I be reminded by MasterCard just how boring I have become?

Even within my four thin walls, my electronic footprint of daily activities, helpfully logged by my devices and Internet service provider, are keeping a fine record of my life, activities, and thoughts. Sometimes, just to be a rebel, I will pull a physical book off a shelf or search for information on Google that does not interest me in the least—simply to screw with the system. This is my mild and ineffectual revolt against Big Brother. Of course, fifty years from now we might all be grousing about the government-mandated technology embedded in our refrigerators that chastises us when we don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much about the tyranny of our technology today.

However, the oddest aspect of our conversations when we talk about the constant spying into everything we do is just how much of it is justified by the need to keep us secure in a seemingly ever more insecure world. Having entertained myself this morning by counting all the cameras that recorded by daily bus commute to work—and will today monitor my movements on my college campus throughout the day—I cannot help but contemplate how little privacy I have once I step outside the walls of my home. How sad is that?

However, all of the snooping that swirls around our daily lives and spending pales in comparison with the broad and disturbing reach of the national security state’s ceaseless sifting of our activities.

We are, of course, regularly reassured that international drug lords and bloodthirsty terrorists are being foiled by the alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies vacuuming up every facet of our lives with little concern for our confidentiality. However, since the passage of the Post-9/11 Patriot Act, we also have seen an explosion in the number of private corporations that work under government contract and spy on every aspect of our existences and the world around us. According to an article in The Nation last year, the “intelligence-contracting industry… is worth about $50 billion.” Just to give that huge but amorphous number some context, this means that private companies engaged in all manner of surveillance are today an economic behemoth with roughly the same revenues and reach as FedEx.

This translates into the political punch necessary—via campaign contributions, consulting fees, and promises to locate jobs in key legislative districts—to perpetuate their power and further expand their mandates. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that no one with any actual ability to influence contracting or legislation will ever, ever suggest that our national security apparatus needs to be trimmed—there is simply too much money sloshing around the system for it to be otherwise. All those wonderful taxpayer-subsidized paychecks have rendered this sprawling and largely unaccountable system impervious to change or reform, which is exactly what often happens when our government decides it is time to “protect” us—the functional outcome is that the livelihoods of many others are forever protected at our expense.

I am certain that all manner of fanatics and dead-enders have been stopped by a suspicious phone call, bank withdrawal, or illegal left turn that was identified and flagged in a database somewhere. However, this might not be as comforting as we might like to believe. The recent horrific sniper attacks in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and 527 people injured, should give us pause for reasons that go beyond the terrible facts of the crime. The shooter apparently smuggled both a veritable arsenal and an unbelievable amount of ammunition into a major downtown hotel in a city that might have more cameras per square foot than almost any other in the United States. As frightening as the actions of this madman where, the perhaps even more scary fact is that none of the surveillance technology nor the people tasked with operating it had a clue about what was going to happen—until it did.

The inevitable response to this incident and so many like it has, of course, been a call for yet more monitoring, restrictions, and expanded governmental powers to protect us. No one who hopes to win an election is ever going to say that they are simply incapable of protecting everyone from the random horrors of life. This would to call into question the broad purpose of government as it has come to be defined over the past century, an increasing powerful and intrusive set of overlapping entities that claim to be able to keep us safe and happy if we fork over enough tax money.

As the regulatory and police powers of the state have increased and sought to save us from the anxieties generated by foods with insufficient fiber, people who might disagree with us, and sharp scissors, the obvious failures mount up—and the only ones who seem surprised are those who still somehow believe that the solution to every problem is to give government (wait for it!) yet more regulatory and police powers. This is, ultimately, a circular and self-defeating fool’s errand. Even if we put a camera inside every home, a cop on every corner, and a microchip in every individual, we will still not be safe from life because life is an inherently unsafe and potentially upsetting endeavor. Even the best choices sometimes have bad outcomes, and random weirdness and cruelty will never be eliminated from our world no matter how many forms we are required to fill out.

Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo the illusory security provided by living my life under the camera’s unblinking eye. Perhaps something bad will happen to me or someone whom I love as a result, but such is life. In fact, it might be much more of a life—exciting, risky, and completely ours to navigate—than the silly and scolding simulacrum we now have. Just as G-o-d is unable to prevent all of the pain that is part of life, so can we be certain that G-o-v cannot insulate us from every potentially dangerous situation, object, or person. This might seem awful to some, but perhaps we simply have to live our lives, deal with the consequences—and whine a little less about the uncertainty of it all.

 

The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.