Monday, November 27, 2017

End sexual harassment!

So many women coming forward with stories of sexual harassment! This is a large step forward. No longer is male aggression on women to be born silently. The guilty can now be called out.
We have known for a long time that as many as one in three women have been harassed or attacked by men. But men, on the whole, have not understood this statistic. They have not been willing to understand that of every three women they know one may have been subject to more or less serious sexual violence. We should have known a long time ago that women we know, women who are friends, or relatives, or coworkers may have been injured seriously by male aggressions.
During the last presidential campaign a video surfaced of the then candidate Trump boasting of kissing or groping unwilling women. Candidate Trump excused his behavior as "locker room talk." The significance of such an excuse has not been understood so far.
The discussion of violation of women has focused on individuals on movie producers, on actors, professors, on employers and others. Aggression against women is discussed as the immoral and exploitative actions of this or that man abusing his power. When Donald Trump mentioned "locker room talk" he reminded everyone that these individuals could only act as they did with impunity in a culture that demeans women.
Everyone is part of a culture. In ours, sexual attacks on children are not acceptable. They do occur but if the culprit is found no one will say, "oh well, men will be men." But if the victim is a teenager or a grown woman people – mostly men – chuckle and change the subject. The amazing and terrifying frequency of sexual assault on women is possible only where such attacks are tacitly permitted.
This culture has different themes and some of them have roots in the distant past. Despising our bodies is one theme. Bodies are somehow thought to serve only sexual purposes and are somehow dirty. Bodies need to be hidden. Bodies are not beautiful, or graceful or dignified. Bodily functions cannot be talked about. One source of that contempt of the body is in the Judeo-Christian religion that regards those parts of us that don't seem to be bodily – mind, spirit, soul – as immortal and valuable and has nothing but contempt for the body where all these immortal functions live.
Sexuality in that culture is just plain dirty. What is more, woman's sexuality is seen as seductive. It was she who gave the apple to Adam. Had he been by himself, Adam presumably would have remained pure. It was the woman who seduced him to discover his and her nakedness. Human ambivalence about sexuality became one tool for denigrating women.
In our culture ambivalence about sexuality becomes a tool for asserting male power over women. Women are supposed to be "modest." In many situations such "modesty" involves strict dress codes for women. The requirement for modesty still remains even in the West where female nakedness is daily used to sell products. But here men have the power to define what modesty consists of, which woman is "easy" or a "whore." Male attacks are justified by complaining about women not being modest.
Not only is power in the hands of men but women are to varying extents treated as property. If a man wants, he can touch a woman's body or grab or kiss her. She would be rude or a bad sport to complain. Women are frequently a possession of one man. But often also they are a possession to be touched and hugged and kissed by any man. We have a special term for that--she can be "manhandled."
Power comes with being male, with owning male genitals. Transgender persons raise the ire of men because such status undermines masculine identity and thus blurs the clear lines that are thought to legitimate the male domination of women.
Power goes with wealth, with being white. The women who have come out to complain about male attacks are mostly white, mostly well-off. We have have heard much less from poor women and women of color. They cannot afford to loose their job. But studies show that 80% of female Mexican farmworkers in California, 50% of Chicago female hotel workers, 40% of female fast food workers say they have been sexually harassed.
Cultures don't maintain themselves automatically. They are not natural phenomena that will thrive if only the conditions are favorable. Cultures need to be maintained. The locker room talk needs to continue. The same sexist jokes need to be repeated over and over. Men need to continue to believe that their worth as persons depends on the size of their penis and the frequency of their orgasms.
Ostracizing this film producer or that actor will not affect serious change. It will titillate for a while, it will encourage wagging tongues. The self-righteous will be encouraged to overlook their own failings, their own sexism. The Bible thumpers can once again exhort us to return to their particular orthodoxy. But then it will all be forgotten.
The changes that are now beginning to men's sexual domination can only be made permanent if the culture changes that allows that sexual domination. Every man must make major efforts to overcome their contributions to the patriarchal culture that makes women into sexual targets and men into sexual predators. We must cease denigrating women. We must speak out when others do.

Friday, November 10, 2017


The latest mass shooting revives the debate over gun control once more. Gun control advocates reiterate what they have said many times before, that gun sales need to be limited, that guns need to be kept out of the hands of criminals, of mentally unstable persons, that all gun sales need to be subject to stricter rules. Gun advocates repeat that guns protect their owners. Both sides cite scientific studies and facts that their opponents reject as unreliable.
When it comes to gun sales, gun ownership and gun control our political processes have broken down. There is no conversation. No one exchanges ideas, no one learns from others. No one is going to change their mind. Everyone just repeats the same positions over and over. As time goes on each side speaks louder. Opponents are shrill and more disrespectful. Nothing is accomplished.
In actual cases, the evidence is very confusing. When David Patrick Kelly started shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, TX a neighbor, hearing the shots, hauled out his own assault rifle and started shooting back. Kelly fled. Did the neighbor's attack on Kelly save lives? Gun advocates say "Yes." But that answer depends on hypotheticals: had the neighbor not started shooting, Kelly would have killed more people in the church. Can we be sure of that? No, of course not.
The example illustrates how uncertain facts are in many cases. The apparently indubitable conclusions both pro- and anti- gun advocates draw are often unjustified. Exaggerating conclusions merely serves to make a real conversation from which all could learn into a useless repetition of unsupported dogmas.
The question about gun safety has many different aspects. Who will be safer if they own guns? Against whom will guns protect us? Guns may protect us against robbers who invade our house But they also open possibilities of errors as when a father, hearing someone outside his house shoots his own son coming home, thinking it might be a robber. (Last year 1300 accidental shootings killed innocent victims) Will guns play a significant role in domestic violence? Women are regularly killed by the guns of husbands, boy friends, former lovers. (1250 women killed by intimate partners in 2000. Half of them shot by guns.) Guns are often used in suicides. (More than 21000 in 2013--two thirds of all gun deaths in the US) Questions whether gun owners attempt suicide more often, and succeed in their attempts more frequently are inescapable. Guns are often involved in gun accidents, especially, among children who find a parents' gun and playing with them kill a relative, not infrequently the parent who owned the gun.
These issues are being studied but the results are difficult to interpret. Different studies show correlations between gun ownership and domestic violence, suicides and accidents. But few causal connection have been established convincingly.
The efforts to get a better understanding of the role of guns is seriously inhibited by a 1996 federal law that prohibits federal funding of research into gun violence. The law makes it impossible for the two government agencies that keep track of the health and well-being of citizens--the CDC and the National Institutes of Health--to do any research having to do with guns, for instance, how to prevent gun violence, what, if any, are the signs that someone will attack a crowd of people.
Kelly bought his gun legally although, being a guilty of domestic violence, he should not have been able to get a gun from a legitimate gun dealer. The case is interesting: passing gun control legislation will not be effective if it is not enforced. After Kelly served his time for domestic violence, the Air Force should have reported this to the National Criminal Information database but failed to do so. It appears the military neglected to report most domestic violence convictions in the military. Passing gun control legislation may well remain ineffective.
Many people have very firm opinions whether every citizen should be armed or whether laws should be passed to radically reduce the number of guns owned by civilians in the country. Once we look at the different issues we see clearly that the certainty with which people hold their positions is unjustified. The matter of gun ownership does not only have to do with the question of security from home invasions or random attacks, it has to do with the role guns play in domestic violence and in suicides. It has to do with the number of preventable gun accidents that happen every year.
The correlations between gun legislation and security of gun owners, frequency of gun use in domestic conflicts and in suicides are often uncertain. Causal connections have not been established scientifically. There is a great deal we do not know about the advantages and disadvantages of private gun ownership. No one should claim to know that guns are good or bad for us.
The debate over guns is just one example of the deplorable state of our political system. Supposedly we govern ourselves. But in a world of complex issues on which citizens disagree, self-government requires that citizens talk to each other in order to discover the best policies in a given setting. Talking to each other means that we do not claim to know what we do not, but to recognize the difficulties of the problems we confront. Talking to each other requires modesty, a willingness to admit ignorance, to ask others for their insights and willingness to cooperate.
Let us begin by admitting that we are in no position to make strong statements about guns. Let us no longer claim knowledge where we are ignorant.