Rant Against the Random is Shutting Down

17 Apr

This isn’t really goodbye. It’s more like a new chapter. If you can stick with me, I’ll explain.

In October of last year, the election campaigns were in full swing, and I was beyond irritated. I was tired of sound bites and talking points without context or data or any kind of reasonable discourse. The media cycle had become, in many ways, a toxic echo chamber. The partisan barbs – thrown by politicians, pundits, and voters alike – were not helping us make informed decisions. They were pulling us down into the muck.

This may come as a shock to some, but I was pretty vocal on social media during the election (sarcasm, in case that’s not translating…), posting content almost daily about what was at stake, what was being said, and what it all meant. I started getting comments from friends and former acquaintances who said they’d been using my newsfeed to keep up with the world. Don’t get me wrong – it was flattering – but also disheartening. It was symptomatic of a larger problem: mainstream coverage was failing us.

And I wasn’t alone in my frustration. My friends in academia were getting similar feedback on both the conservative and liberal sides of the spectrum. As we talked, we noticed one thing connecting our comments; all of us were trying to break down complex issues in an easy-to-understand manner. And people were responding.

This is where the idea sparked. What if, we wondered, we could centralize this commentary? What if we could get a group of smart, thoughtful people together, all of whom wanted to better communicate important ideas to the public, and present a collection of commentary from various ideologies? What if we could get away from the sound bite news cycle, and get a meaningful, civil, productive conversation going on things that matter?

A group of around 20 of some of the strongest communicators I’ve ever met expressed interest in participating. This was not a financial proposition. It was about doing something important. And they were on board.

But as is often the case, life intervened. Launching such a project was time-intensive. From site design to static content development to initial propagation of the commentary categories, there was a lot of work involved. Everyone participating (including me) had a day job. And it was election season. And the holidays were around the corner. And for the academics in the world of speech and debate, there were big tournaments on the horizon. The project faded into the background – a decent idea that never got legs.

Enter March of this year. I loved my job, but had grown in a different direction than my company. I was exhausted, and felt like I wasn’t really living up to my potential. If you know me, you know that’s a recipe for utter misery. As the saying goes, we’re all our own worst critics, and I tend to take that to an extreme. With a heavy heart, and after some difficult conversations, I made the decision to leave my position on the 18th. I wasn’t sure what would come next, but I knew it was time for a change.

Up until this point, Rant Against the Random had been an outlet – a place where I could go to discuss the ideas that had driven me through much of my academic career, but didn’t really have an application to my career in finance. I didn’t realize it then, but that was about to change in a big way. On the day I announced my departure from work, I came home and was poking around online while catching up with a few friends. I stumbled across a random article about Steubenville, and the story seemed so absurd, I started reading more on it. And more and more and more.

It was just too much, and I was livid over the way the situation had played out. So I started writing. It was not riddled with aspirations; it was just something I needed to get off my chest. I clicked publish on, “So You’re Tired of Hearing About Rape Culture?” and went to bed.

The next day, the post had taken off, with thousands of shares on social media, and over 80,000 views on the post itself. I was still working, but looking at the traffic now and then, and totally befuddled by the surge. The next day, there were over 300,000 views and hundreds of comments. People had connected. And in the midst of being suddenly thrust into a position to advocate widely on behalf of sexual violence survivors, the news broke that one of my mentors had just been arrested on charges of sexual assault of a minor.

Let’s recap. Monday – I quit my job. Tuesday – my blog exploded. Wednesday – my mentor was in jail for the very reasons my blog had taken off. My entire world was spiraling.

It felt like a moment. You know what I mean – one of those snapshots in time where the decisions you make will determine where you’re going, who you are, and what you stand for. I could rise to the challenge, or shirk back. I had a captive audience. And I had time and opportunity. And the conversations that were taking place on the blog were meaningful. In many ways, it was the beginning of what I’d been envisioning when I’d gotten so excited in October. I had a choice. I could decide to go the (marginally) easier route, let the moment go, and seek out another full-time position immediately, or I could roll the dice, and do something that could make a difference.

I’m rolling the dice.

Starting tomorrow, Rant Against the Random will no longer exist. All of its content, and even more, will now be found on Cogent Comment. Why the change? Well, I’m not sure “ranting” is the best way to describe what we’re doing here anymore. Plus, Wordpress.com comes with inherent limitations. And there are a lot of things I want to do, so limitations are not an option. It’s time to make October’s visions a reality.

Cogent Comment will be a news and commentary site dedicated to fostering effective communication on some of the most important issues of the hour. Our mission is to encourage people to think critically about the way they consume information and communicate ideas. We live in a world where the tools to make things better are at our fingertips, if we’ll only reach out and grasp them. The first step towards doing so is to change the way we engage in conversations about what that world should look like. Language shapes our reality, and we should be conscious architects of the reality in which we live.

The site will feature articles, essays, and narratives related to public policy, politics, cultural commentary, economics and finance, and more. What sets Cogent Comment aside from the rest is its dedication to participating in civil, measured, productive conversations, which is manifested in both its contributor standards and comment moderation policies.

Cogent Comment contributors are asked to demand more of themselves. Over the next few weeks, my content will be joined by posts from professors, graduate students, professionals, and artists. Some posts will be argumentative in nature, relying on evidence and data to make a point. Others will attempt to analyze current political climates to project what could come next, and what that would mean. Don’t expect regurgitation of the AP wires. We’ll also be featuring deep dive posts on topics you may have never heard about, and pieces that explicitly analyze rhetorical action, pushing us to think critically about our language and choices.

Don’t expect an echo chamber, either. Contributors are being solicited from every corner of the political spectrum. Odds are, you’re going to start seeing posts that present perspectives wildly different than my own. That’s ok. As I’ve written before, it’s important to expose yourself to different ideas and points of view as you consume information. One thing will be consistent, though; all content will be written in an accessible manner. We want to include people in the conversation, not exclude them. The only way that happens is if the information is presented in a way that the bulk of people can digest the message, contextualize the information, and respond.

And when I say respond, I mean it. Contributors won’t just be posting their content and walking away. All Cogent Comment contributors will be asked to actively participate in the comment threads on their content. It is, at the end of the day, about engagement. If all we’re doing is throwing out comments without interacting, we’re no better than any other media site.

That being said, we recognize that there are different kinds of engagement, and each has its own merits. For instance, sometimes wide open discussion – due to the variety of the kinds of comments provided – offers a meaningful juxtaposition of ideas and approaches. Sometimes, that juxtaposition can be damaging to the type of conversation being attempted. Sometimes a topic is best discussed with data and evidence to keep the dialogue focused. In other instances, narrative and supportive discussion are key.

In recognition of these different means of discourse and all they offer, and in light of our goal of changing the way we approach discourse on important topics as a society, our posts are put into different comment moderation categories: Open Comment, Closed Comment, Substance Only and Support Only. Each type of comment section comes with its own rules, which you can read about here. The general idea is that we need to be talking to different people in different ways about different ideas. It’s about opening our minds in a civil and useful manner.

Are you subscribed to this blog? You’ll start receiving Daily Digests from Cogent Comment tomorrow. If you don’t want to receive these digests, I don’t want to burden your inbox. You can unsubscribe by clicking the link below.

Unsubscribe Here.

That’s not the only thing that will be happening on the site, though. The past few months has redoubled my passion in being an ally to sexual violence survivors. The posts on this blog have fostered some excellent conversations, but I know we can do more. To this end, the site will also be home to the newly launched Rape Culture Project. This will include:

  • All the current rape culture posts (and comment threads!) from this blog. Don’t worry; the links will be redirected, so you won’t need to change anything if you’ve reblogged the content or linked to it.
  • The Rape Culture Files, a living document of examples of the ways rape culture manifests in our society. This will be continuously updated with new instances. The idea is to create a tapestry which illustrates rape culture’s prevalence, making it more and more difficult for people to deny its existence. Over time, each example will be given a separate post, explaining why it qualifies as representative of rape culture. While I’ll be adding to the Files myself, I’ll be accepting submissions for inclusion as well. This is a collective project. It’s not about me, and it won’t just succeed because of me. We’re in it together.
  • Rape Culture Resources page, including sites for more information, media to share via your social profiles to increase awareness, a guide to solutions you can implement and encourage, and a place to brainstorm effective means of combating rape culture every day.
  • A section dedicated to Survivor Stories, which will feature testimonials from survivors of sexual violence who want to share their experiences. The focus here will not be the attacks themselves, but the circumstances in which they took place, and the experiences that took place in the aftermath. The goal here is to demonstrate that the behaviors and attitudes which contribute to rape culture are not isolated incidents or hyperbole; they happen with a stunning amount of frequency.

The comment sections here will have their own comment moderation policies. The project will include posts on some more difficult topics, as well, such as false allegations (though my prior stance on comments will remain for most other content) and the treatment of male survivors. The purpose will be to foster, over time, a wide-reaching, comprehensive conversation about rape culture and its impacts. It’s far from complete as it stands, but will be growing daily.

Out of respect for the triggering nature of the content, new additions will not be featured in the Daily Digests. There will be a link to the project in the template, and you’ll be able to access it on the site, but the information and images will not confront you when you open your inbox.

For now, the site is self-funded. Contributors are participating because the conversation is important. There are no ads on the site. Eventually, we’ll have to find a way to make Cogent Comment financially sustainable, and when that happens, it will be in consultation with the readers and contributors. It would be foolish to create something you want to be significant, only to diminish it for a couple bucks. That’s not the point here. Ideas in discussion include a Kickstarter campaign, selective advertising, or a donations-based approach. We’ve probably got a couple of months before that decision needs to be made. If you have insight, my ears are open.

But for now, my focus is on pushing this to the next level. That’s sort of the exciting part about starting to follow now. You’re not just going to be reading interesting content; you get to watch the project evolve and grow.

Does all these ideas resonate with you? Do you want to do some posting of your own? Consider contributing. You folks are brilliant and insightful; I know many of you have a lot to add to the conversation.

I’m really excited about this project, and I hope you will be, too. Regardless, I want to thank those of you who have read Rant Against the Random and engaged in the conversations taking place here. In a couple of hours, I’ll set the redirect to Cogent Comment for good. But know this – you inspire me, and I am grateful for each of your voices.

All the best,

NEWSIG

Boston, Baseless Speculation, and Celebrating Goodness

16 Apr darkness

To say yesterday was exhausting wouldn’t do it justice. Emotions are running high in the wake of the bombings at the Boston Marathon. If you’ve seen any of the video from when the explosion took place, one thing is clear: that is what terror sounds like.

People across the country are frightened and hurting. They’re desperate for information. In some cases, they’re searching for loved ones. In others, they just want answers about what this means and what comes next. It’s a scary time.

The quest for more information has created another uncomfortable reality that’s been hard to wrap our minds around. As people took to Twitter and Facebook for news and context, they encountered a disconcerting labyrinth of conflicting reports, and sometimes genuinely offensive commentary. Anger has begun to bubble up. Fingers are being pointed towards militia groups and Al Qaeda. It doesn’t matter that we don’t have any evidence to support that finger pointing. It’s happening anyway.

So I want us to press pause. I want us to take a step back, think about what’s taken place (attack and beyond), and reflect on what it means. You might not be at a place to do so yet. That’s fine. Grieving is not a uniform process. Coping with fear is not a standard affair. But if you’re one of the people who has been calm enough to begin the finger pointing or lament the quality of the press, read on.

A Brief Recap

I’m not going to pretend to have all the details on this story, because – frankly – no one does. What I want to go over is how the story played out. There are no links to articles below, because by the time you go to click on them, the story will have changed. Here’s what we know.

Around 2:50 PM EST yesterday afternoon, around a time in the Boston Marathon where the finish line is typically most populated, two explosions occurred. Around the same time, there were reports of a fire at JFK Library. That report would later change into an explosion happening, before transitioning back into a simple fire, back to an explosion, and, finally, back to a fire not at all related to the bombings.

Authorities began scouring tape and images from the area immediately, looking for suspicious figures or abandoned packages. How the explosives got to where they did – given the tight security and ongoing sweeps – is still unknown. However, in the wake of the blasts, as spectators and runners fled, many more personal items were left behind. Given that there were two explosions, the possibility of additional explosive devices in the area could not be ruled out, and a coordinated search began. There were reports of five additional explosive devices being found.

There was a controlled third explosion in the vicinity of the initial blasts around 3:50 PM EST of a potential device. At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, it was clarified that controlled explosions did not necessarily mean they had found an explosive – just that an item was suspicious enough to warrant an abundance of caution. As of the 8:30 PM EST press conference with investigating authorities, no additional explosives had been found. After the press conference this morning, we’re still at only two.

At 4:04 PM EST, a piece was put out by the New York Post that garnered significant traction. The article indicated that there were 12 dead from the attack – a number much higher than the reports in circulation at the time.  It also indicated that law enforcement officials had confirmed they had a suspect being guarded at a local hospital. It explicitly identified the man as a Saudi national. No other source, at the time, had the story. Around 5:15 PM EST, Fox News – owned by the same company as the NY Post – confirmed it. A little while later, other major news networks started to carry the story.

At the 5:30 PM EST press conference, the Boston Police Commissioner stated in no uncertain terms that they did not have a suspect in custody. He also stated that they had a police presence in all of the hospitals for security purposes, and to take statements from individuals at the scene. The NY Post did not back down from their story. Stories of a suspect in custody at a different hospital began to circulate a little while later. At the 8:30 PM EST press conference, the Commissioner repeated that the reports circulating about a suspect were patently false across the board. The stories have continued.

That’s what we know. It’s not very much, frankly. And it will probably change dramatically over the next few days.

Before We Go Any Further…

Reporting is hard under the best of circumstances. As a blogger and commentator, my writing is much easier, and there are still days I feel like it’s impossible. If you’v ever been charged with conducting original research, you might have an idea of how difficult it is. You probably still won’t get it.

For context: imagine needing to start with a working understanding of really complex and important issues – an understanding that can take years to develop. Then envision needing to relearn a lot of what you know on a regular basis, because the important issues are ever evolving. Then think about needing to find out more information on a new angle, but the people who you know have reliable information are probably unreachable for frank comment. Remember that their standard line has already been regurgitated a dozen times over by the wires, and the rest of your sources are suspect at best. Consider what it would be like to have to vet each and every one of your sources, and consider that the depth of said vetting and the time that goes into it increases with the significance of the story.

Now imagine doing all of this on a time crunch. In most cases (and particularly with breaking news or developing stories), your reporting is perceived as most valuable if you get there first. As a reporter, you know this. Your editor does, too, and odds are, they’re going to be pushing you to go faster than you’re already pushing yourself. In a world of digital reporting, where page views fuel the bottom line via advertising, getting there first is even more important. With social media – and the character limited Twitter platform, in particular – taking center stage for breaking news, multiply all of that times ten.

Sound overwhelming and damn near impossible to get right? That’s because it is.

In a crisis, reporting gets infinitely more difficult. Those on the ground have eye witnesses as a first hand source, but eye witness accounts are frequently unreliable. When a situation is as panic filled as an attack like this one, those accounts become even less reliable, and feature fewer and fewer concrete details. In some instances, the accounts may be entirely accurate, but without context (and in a world where context is rapidly evolving), reporting on those accounts can misinform the public. For instance, when the controlled explosion took place, some were reporting a third explosion without indicating that it was being carried out by the police. Same report – different context – different meaning.

Even those looking for reports from authorities run into issues. They could always wait for the official comments, of course. The problem is that those comments rarely feature the details people are asking for, and everyone tends to get them at the same time, limiting ability for a speed advantage.

At that point, lower level figures with the authorities seem a prime option for getting information. After all, if they’re working the same case, they should all know what’s going on, right? Wrong – specifically wrong when it’s a scene like the one we saw in Boston. Authorities try to centralize communication as much as possible, but even then, the information flow is imperfect. Remember all the reports yesterday with conflicting information? Remember how most of them were citing some sort of member of the authorities as their sources?

Even when the information is right, the slightest variation in choice of words can make all the difference. Particularly with Twitter’s character limits, statements from authorities can be made to look like declarative statements, even when hedging language was initially used by the source in question. So even if the initial reporting is accurate, that pesky MT (modified tweet) tag can pervert the message.

Sensing a lot of “even if” statements? That’s the point. It’s just that complicated.

To be clear, when I say reporters, in this instance, I’m talking about individuals on the ground, providing basic reports of information written for a news source (via social media or published articles) or on live television. I do not mean commentators and pundits. By and large (with a handful of notable exceptions), commentators were not reporting yesterday. We’ll get to them in a minute.

The point I’m trying to make is that reporting in the midst of a crisis is extraordinarily challenging. What comes next is not a critique of the reporting we saw today. For God’s sake, how many reporters were running the marathon, and stuck around to cover the attacks?

The reporting today was never going to be perfect. There were going to be mistakes. There were going to be retractions. That was never even a question. That was not the problem.

The problem came when agenda and demonization entered the mix.

When Reactionary Goes Wrong

While the reporting – flawed at times though it may have been – was laudable, communication on the events unfolding in Boston was not as commendable across the board.

Before the smoke had even begun to clear, Alex Jones was claiming the attack a “false flag” – a phrase used to describe an allegedly covert government op intended to be presented to the public as an outside attack.

Alex Jones Tweet - Boston is a False Flag

The false flag question would get repeated again later, as someone yelled a question about it during the 8:30 PM EST press conference, but not long after Jones started to stir the pot, the more predictable fear-mongering raised its ugly head, as Fox News contributor Erik Rush tweeted:

Erik Rush blames Saudi immigrants

He also “sarcastically” suggested we should kill all the Muslims in response. He wouldn’t be the last to point fingers at the Middle East (more in a second), but not to be outdone, Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s Hardball had his own incendiary take. He started off with a helluva broad brush on domestic terrorism:

Normally, domestic terrorists, people tend to be on the far right, well that’s not a good category, just extremists, let’s call them that. Do they advertise after they do something like this? Do they try to get credit as a group or do they just hate America so much or its politics or its government that they just want to do the damage, they don’t care if they get public credit, if you will?

His guest tried to defuse the suggestion by indicating multiple parties would likely take responsibility for the attacks, but Matthews seemed determined to pursue the line of thought, saying:

But going after the Kennedy Library, not something at Bunker Hill, not something from the Freedom Trail or anything that kind of historic, but a modern political figure of the Democratic Party. Does that tell you anything?

He wasn’t completely free of the anti-Islamic fear-mongering, either – repeatedly referring to potential jihadist involvement.

Here’s the problem with all of this:

There isn’t a shred of evidence to support the speculation. We don’t know anything yet. Emotions are running high right now, and these are the folks people are turning to for guidance on what they should be afraid of, and the pundits are feeding them baseless allegations.

Typically, I give commentators and pundits a break. They’re supposed to be presenting an opinion, after all. As long as you’re getting a balanced diet of the various forms of bias we see in media, it’s not world ending. The problem here is that bias – namely, unfounded bias, also known as discriminatory rhetoric – gets digested by people with violent attitudes. Twitter has been downright ugly.

Twitter Islamaphobia over Boston Attacks(Click to enlarge)

But there were problematic responses from the left side of the debate as well, even if they manifested in a very different way. While well-intentioned, I saw an onslaught of posts talking about how people lamenting the Boston situation without also grieving for the hundreds impacted by a series of bombings in Iraq today were calloused without perspective. I saw others saying it was disgusting to decry the attacks in Boston without also decrying the innocents killed by American drone strikes. There were a sprinkling of posts saying the mourning was warranted, but asking where that mourning was for the minority populations disproportionately imprisoned.

On both sides of the aisle, there were people causing problems with the way they approached the situation.

Why It Matters

Do I think all those people ranting about “towelheads” on Twitter are about to go violently attack someone? No.

Do I think other people might pursue vigilante justice? Possibly. The Washington Post had an excellent piece detailing the expressions of condolences for the attack from the Muslim world, and the very sad fact that these expressions were frequently riddled with fear. Those fears are not unwarranted. Hate crimes against those who appeared to be of Middle Eastern or Arab descent after 9/11 surged. They continue today. Already, there are stories on Twitter describing conversations overheard discussing “taking matters into our own hands.”

On the more liberal side of things, it became about competing grief and injury. Here’s the thing: you and I can be appalled by all of these things. We do not have to express condemnation for injustice in all instances to address it in one, though. Indeed, this can muddle the conversation while alienating people who are focused on dealing with an already huge tragedy from ever considering the ideas you’re presenting.

On both sides, there was a rush to attack each other about not handling the situation properly. The combination of all this was the furthest thing possible from helpful that I can imagine in this situation. Instead of focusing on safety, and assisting those in need, and our collective grief, we saw people trading barbs with self-interest.

It’s easy to dismiss all these people as isolated examples. But think about how we address these “isolated examples.” Erik Rush is given a platform to reach millions on Fox News. Despite this not being Chris Matthew’s first major gaffe, the man still has his own show. And those ranting in social media? They come from somewhere, right? “No man is an island,” as the saying goes, and for people to think this is an appropriate approach to dealing with crisis, there have to be people around them who are saying it’s ok – or, at a minimum, not saying anything at all. We’re missing the boat here, people.

Look for the Helpers

So what does one do to respond to a crisis? They do this:

Mr Rogers

Google Docs I have a place to offer(click to view document)

Patton Oswalt

darkness

They celebrate these people. They donate blood so quickly and in such a high volume that the Red Cross is turning people away. But perhaps, most of all, they remember this, from The Atlantic:

How well this attack succeeds depends much less on what happened in Boston than by our reactions in the coming weeks and months. Terrorism isn’t primarily a crime against people or property. It’s a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we’re indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.
Don’t glorify the terrorists and their actions by calling this part of a “war on terror.” Wars involve two legitimate sides. There’s only one legitimate side here; those on the other are criminals. They should be found, arrested, and punished. But we need to be vigilant not to weaken the very freedoms and liberties that make this country great, meanwhile, just because we’re scared.
Empathize, but refuse to be terrorized. Instead, be indomitable — and support leaders who are as well. That’s how to defeat terrorists.
What’s the point of this ramble? It’s to say that my heart is with Boston. It’s to note that we are incredibly far away from having all the facts right now, and that the current reporting, while at turns admirable, is not necessarily reliable. It’s to ask you to avoid baseless speculation that does nothing to help the situation, but a lot to further divide us. It’s to point out that this kind of division is what so many attacks hope to foster. It’s to remind you that in the midst of chaos, there is still good in the world. It’s to urge you to be a part of that good.

Gun Control, Sandy Hook, and Dylan Hockley

14 Apr

The other day, a friend of mine – who I respect and love dearly – commented on Facebook that he was tired of hearing about Sandy Hook. He lamented that policy was being driven by emotional ploys, and that the media was manipulating public opinion.

Now, this friend is a reasonable individual. We have pretty pronounced differences in opinion when it comes to matters of public policy, and gun control is no exception. He’s not opposed to all forms of regulation; he just thinks we need to be smart about it. I can get behind that.

But I bristled at dismissing the Sandy Hook stories as part of our dialogue on gun control. It was the same reaction I had when people voiced similar frustrations in the wake of Aurora, or the Sikh Temple shooting, or the Virginia Tech massacre, or the Tuscon shootings… or any of the other dozens of mass shootings.

The thing is, if we exclude these personal stories, all we’re left with is data. Data isn’t necessarily bad; indeed, it’s a critical part of effective decision making. In this instance, there is data which suggests gun control, when implemented carefully and consistently (consistency being the key), can decrease gun violence. Such data is frequently (and sometimes, to some extent, with merit) criticized and dismissed by those opposed to increased gun control. The problem is that these debates over data points remove us from the reason we’re having the conversation to begin with: human lives.

Rachel Maddow had a truly fantastic segment at the beginning of her show the other night on the impact of the Sandy Hook narratives on the Senate’s approach to the gun control debate. Watch it. It’s not long, and it’s important. And the rest of this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.

I cried when I watched it live. I’ve cried every time I’ve watched it since. Part of that has to do with the fact that my daughter is on the autism spectrum. She has one of those weighted blankets at Nana and Papa’s house for sleepovers. When the world gets to be too much for her to process, a hug is the only thing that works. And Dylan…

I can’t even write about it. I’ve tried, for days, and the words come out mangled by grief. There is no way to gracefully express the kind of heartbreak associated with this story.

Once again, I am reminded of the importance of narrative. In the wake of past mass shootings, the reaction has been predictable. It starts with disbelief, and is quickly peppered with political statements. Then there is outrage over the existence of those political statements. Eventually, with the feeling that it’s a lost cause, the conversation fades into the background. The reason that a shooting which took place in December is still in the spotlight in April is that these parents aren’t letting us forget about it. These courageous families have put their lives and sorrow and pain on public display. It won’t bring their children back, but it might help someone else’s child, and that’s why they keep fighting. Regardless of where you stand on the gun control debate, most will cede that it’s an important conversation to have. The fact that these narratives are forcing us to have it makes them important, as well.

Whether the conversation would proceed was in question for a stretch there. After all, the NRA was scoring the vote to even hear the debate on the Senate floor. Let me repeat: they are evaluating whether or not Senators are effective defenders of gun rights based on how quickly they shut the conversation down altogether.

(As if I needed another reason to hate the NRA. Seriously, any group that actively works to PREVENT DISCOURSE is not an organization worth supporting. For being such huge fans of the Constitution, it seems like the Second Amendment is the only part they think has value.)

Now, I’m not saying that we should pass policy based on narratives alone; that’s gotten us into trouble on more than one occasion. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have a place in our policy making approach. In this instance, it was the collection of narratives from Sandy Hook that forced us to move forward in the gun control policy debate. It was stories like Dylan’s that made the difference. Dylan was taken from the world much too soon, but even so, his contributions to our well-being may, in the end, be beyond measure.

They Only Live Who Dare

14 Apr

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

Talking about rape culture can be depressing stuff. First there’s the content matter – it’s just stomach churning. Then there’s the absolute failure in fostering understanding sometimes. Just today, I noticed a bump in traffic from a message board. I popped over to see what the conversation looked like, only to read comments about how I’m some sort of feminazi, and exemplary of all the reasons people hate feminists. Sometimes you end up feeling like you’re running full-force into a brick wall… over and over and  over again.

But that’s why it’s important to take a step back and appreciate the victories, however small they might seem.

In one of my recent posts on rape culture, I referenced the unfolding Rick Ross scandal as an example of rape culture. For those of you who didn’t follow that story, Ross wound up in hot water for a portion of his lyrics in the song U.O.E.N.O., where he sang:

Put molly all in her champagne/ She ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that/ She ain’t even know it.

To be clear, lyrics like these are part of rape culture. It glamorizes date rape, categorizes it as no big deal, and makes it seem like a fun joke. It ‘s not the first time a songster has erred in this way, and it probably won’t be the last. But what came next is way more important than the song itself.

Activists and concerned citizens took to social media to lament the lyrics and what they represented. Don’t get me wrong – there were still a great deal of people defending him and his lyrics – but it opened up a huge amount of conversation on rape culture. Anytime that happens, it can be hard to not get blue over the fact that we’re having the conversation for the umpteenth time, but the way the conversation progressed in this instance is noteworthy, because it wasn’t just you and me who were rattled. For whatever reason, this story had lots of bigger names weighing in.

One of my favorite examples was the exchange that took place between musicians Lupe Fiasco and Talib Kweli. While the two are not completely innocent themselves, they wound up having an in depth conversation about the responsibility of artists to their community, and how important it was to better address the pervasive violence triumphed in too many rap songs. You can read more here, but it was awesome to see two celebrities engaging in a mature and measured conversation about cultural struggles, and rising above them.

But in this instance, talking was not enough, and money talks. An effort spearheaded by the group UltraViolet called on Reebok to drop their endorsement deal with Ross. Though this prompted Ross to put out an apology, the initial go round almost made things worse:

It was misunderstanding with a lyric, a misinterpretation where the term ‘rape’ wasn’t used. And I would never use the term ‘rape’ in my records.

For the record, this is, again, an example of rape culture. The idea that the word rape is the problem is a part of the problem. People weren’t angry because they thought they heard him say “rape.” They were angry because his lyrics made it seem like drugging a girl and having your way with her was desirable and hilarious. Dismissing that disgust as a “misunderstanding” was essentially an attempt at sweeping the issue under the rug.

But there were people fighting the good fight. The New York Times summed up the efforts quite nicely:

UltraViolet began circulating an online petition asking Reebok to end its endorsement deal with Mr. Ross. In the first 24 hours the petition received 50,000 signatures, Ms. Chaudhary said. A week later the group organized a protest at the Reebok flagship store, in Midtown Manhattan, in which about 100 people held signs denouncing rape and began sending Twitter messages to Reebok. That day members of UltraViolet also started a phone campaign, calling Reebok’s headquarters in Canton, Mass., to complain about Mr. Ross.

The phone calls were necessary, Ms. Chaudhary said, since earlier efforts to talk to Reebok executives had failed. “Basically we felt like we had no option,” she said.

As UltraViolet’s campaign gained momentum, other feminist bloggers and commentators weighed in, among them Rosa Clemente, an activist whose YouTube video responding to Mr. Ross’s lyrics was viewed almost 17,000 times.

The group also bought digital ads on Facebook that were aimed at people who “liked” the Reebok Facebook page and ads online that were aimed at people who were using search engines to look up “Reebok.” The final step was a letter sent to the company on behalf of 550 rape survivors.

AND IT WORKED. Reebok officially dropped Rick Ross with this statement:

Reebok holds our partners to a high standard, and we expect them to live up to the values of our brand…Unfortunately, Rick Ross has failed to do so. While we do not believe that Rick Ross condones sexual assault, we are very disappointed he has yet to display an understanding of the seriousness of this issue or an appropriate level of remorse.

What’s more, Rick Ross actually issued an apology worth listening to. While a day late and a dollar short, it was precisely what should have been said the first time around:

Before I am an artist, I am a father, a son, and a brother to some of the most cherished women in the world. So for me to suggest in any way that harm and violation be brought to a woman is one of my biggest mistakes and regrets. As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility. And most recently, my choice of words was not only offensive, it does not reflect my true heart. And for this, I apologize. To every woman that has felt the sting of abuse, I apologize. I recognize that as an artist I have a voice and with that, the power of influence. To the young men who listen to my music, please know that using a substance to rob a woman of her right to make a choice is not only a crime, it’s wrong and I do not encourage it. To my fans, I also apologize if I have disappointed you. I can only hope that this sparks a healthy dialogue and that I can contribute to it.

Let’s take a step back for a minute. A celebrity made grossly insensitive and problematic comments about rape. People didn’t tolerate it; they fought back through consumer and social advocacy. That advocacy opened the door for important conversations with people watching the situation unfold. Corporations responded to the efforts by making the responsible and right decision in refusing to reward the behavior. In the end, the celebrity in question issued a heartfelt apology, and called for further discourse on the matter.

THAT’S A WIN, and it should serve as inspiration to keep fighting the good fight.

It’s not just Reebok and Rick Ross here; we’re actually starting to see traction from these efforts on a broader level. As the New York Times pointed out:

That an advertiser would cut ties with a spokesman after a scandal is not a new phenomenon. Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Chris Brown and Rhianna have all recently lost endorsement deals.

But the speed with which brands have been forced to react has increased significantly with the prevalence of social media. More recently the Ford Motor Company apologized for an online advertisement that it ran in India that featured three bound and gagged women in the rear of a vehicle driven by Silvio Berlusconi. The apology came after women’s groups and others complained on its advertising agency’s Facebook page.

When people wonder what the point of engaging in digital conversation is, this is it. It matters. It has an impact. Social media, and the internet in general, provide an invaluable communicative tool if you are willing to put in the work and use it for good.

Is everyone going to agree with your advocacy? No. Are you going to convince everyone you engage with of your perspective? No. But the impact of your words is still incalculable. You will never know how many people viewed the conversation, and did change their perspective. If you’re lucky, you might get a few hints of it now and then, but most of the time you won’t. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of encouraging others to keep the faith, too. If you’re willing to stand up, maybe they should, too. Either way, adding your voice to the chorus calling for change is a good thing.

There are still a lot of battles ahead, and a lot of good left undone. Sometimes the scope of those battles can be enough to make you want to throw in the towel. Don’t. Your voice matters, and we need it.

Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.
- Voltaire

Dear Brad Paisley

10 Apr

Dear Brad,

I may be a self-proclaimed feminist progressive, but I still listen to country now and then. There are some songs in the genre that make me cringe, but that’s true of almost any musical genre. When I was pregnant, country music was my JAM – largely because there was a plethora of sappy music about children available, and I was a hormonal masochist. I had also been living in Kentucky for four years at the time, so I suppose some affinity for country crooning was inevitable. But that’s really neither here nor there. Today, I want us to chat about a song on your new album - Accidental Racist. 

I hadn’t heard the song or read the lyrics before the controversy started to blow up. Having now read said lyrics, I have no desire to hear the song. What’s more, I have no desire to support you and your music anymore. I know this sentiment – being expressed  by many more than me – may confuse and even anger you. You have explained in subsequent interviews that you intended no harm, and simply wanted to open up dialogue about race relations. I can appreciate that. I can also buy into the bad pun being circulated that your song was accidentally racist in and of itself. The reason I won’t support you any longer is that, despite the numerous explanations out there for why your lyrical stance is offensive, you stand by your words and claim you wouldn’t change a thing.

I doubt you will ever read this letter, but I’m still going to attempt to explain for myself why your song isn’t just accidentally awful, but reflective of very real cultural discrimination embedded in that “good ole southern boy” trope to which you try to appeal.

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room

That’s fine if you like Skynyrd’s music. That’s your call. But wearing a Confederate flag as a fashion or cultural statement? I don’t care what it means to you; to most of us, it stands for a very bloody, ugly period in our history as a nation. It represents a palpable and inherently evil set of archaic laws that allowed for the subjugation of a people based on skin pigment. It’s not fashionable and it’s not a point of “Southern Pride.”

I’ve heard the arguments for why it’s a point of reclamation – a means of rising above the sins of our fathers and moving towards a better tomorrow. They’re largely bullshit. There is nothing positive to “reclaim” in the Confederate flag. I’m usually pretty hesitant to draw parallels between Nazi Germany and, well, anything, but wearing the Confederate flag and expecting people not to get upset about it because slavery isn’t around anymore is like wearing a swastika and feeling like it shouldn’t be a big deal anymore because we won World War II.

If you want to encourage Southern pride and combat negative stereotypes, start with bringing your school curriculum into this century, addressing the massive issues with poverty in your states, and standing against hate laced rhetoric and policy towards women and the LGBT community. That’ll get you a lot further than sporting a shirt emblazoned with the symbol of everything you’re trying to claim isn’t representative of the South any longer.

I’ve heard the arguments for how it’s ok because people don’t “mean” it that way anymore. I have no idea what not “meaning” it even means in this context. So you’re wearing a Confederate flag that brings up all kinds of angst because… why the hell not? That makes ALL the sense in the world.

Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history

So you want to show your Southern pride  by wearing the symbol of all the things you’re not proud of? I’m genuinely confused by your logic. It’s hard to give much appreciation to your “point of view” when it’s so poorly reasoned, but I’ll give it a shot.

You say you’re a white man trying to understand what it’s like to not be, all while coming from a position of privilege (this might be giving you a little more credit than you deserve, but so be it). That’s admirable, I suppose. Critical self-reflection is a good thing. The problem is that you walk into a store that has been largely marketed to and bought into by individuals of privilege, and are making a stand about your right to assert that privilege through the broadcasting of an image that is intangibly connected to racial privilege. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t think that’s the greatest starting place for deconstructing privilege.

Your case isn’t helped when the lyrics directly following your purported desire for understanding once again directs sympathy back to you; you can’t be expected to be held accountable for what people did all those years ago, right? The thing is, being uncomfortable with your brazen show of “Southern Pride” from an era of oppression and violence is not holding you accountable for the sins of your father; it’s holding you accountable for your complete lack of sensitivity and tact. It’s holding you accountable for your unwillingness to listen and be part of a dialogue, instead jumping to the defensive.

Speaking of defensive…

Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin

No. No, no, no no no. You are not “caught” between Southern Pride and Southern Blame. You are creating some kind of artificial dichotomy that serves the purpose of justifying your insensitive decisions. No one is trying to “blame” the South when we bristle at your Confederate fashion statements. The blame is directed at individuals who think that the amount of time elapsed suddenly renders prior symbols of discrimination no longer meaningful enough to give pause.

I’m glad you’re willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. The problem is that you only seem interested in tying up the laces and kicking back in a self-congratulatory pose. I’m trying to imagine a world where you actually tried to imagine being on the other side of this equation and still thought wearing a Confederate flag was somehow appropriate. I’m glad LL Cool J somehow thinks it’s ok, but his lyrics are problematic in their own right. I’m going to leave that dissection for cooler minds with better perspective (my general reaction was WTF), but let’s talk about your little mashup with him at the end.

Paisley and Cool J (Cool J in parentheses):

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can re-write history
(Can’t re-write history baby)

Did you seriously just equate a do-rag with a Confederate flag? A cultural symbol that is not tied explicitly to violence or oppression and is also entirely functional to something that is nothing more than a symbol of the oppression of the culture in question? Are you kidding? I hope you’re kidding. It’s not funny, but at least then it would be a botched attempt at humor and not out-and-out lunacy. How is the choice to wear gold chains somehow on par with the shackles of slavery, again? HOW DOES ANYTHING IN THIS PART OF THE SONG MAKE ANY SENSE?!

Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)
I’m a son of the new south
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth

NOPE. You don’t get to revere Robert E. Lee in the same sentence as praising Lincoln for freeing the slaves. Not only is this disgustingly simplified historical drivel representative of what history lessons too frequently look like South of that problematic Mason-Dixon line (it was not the $#@%ing “War of Northern Aggression,” you revisionist jackasses), it’s on par with saying, “RIP Grand Dragon Calvin Fred Craig, but I’ve gotta thank MLK for doing right by us.”

No. No to the false apologies and the weak rationalizations and the callous attempt at bridging a divide you still know very little about, apparently. But no, most importantly, because of the fact that you don’t see a damn thing wrong with your words.

It’s not that there’s a problem with you attempting to engage the subject. The problem is in your defensive listening. This is not an attempt at dialogue. It’s an attempt to make yourself, and others like you, feel better about wearing Confederate relics as fashion accessories. You claim it’s impossible to walk a mile in someone else’s skin, which is only true because you’re so busy listening to the sound of your own voice that you never had a shot at hearing what anyone else was saying.

It’s worth noting that I’m writing this to you as a white woman from Chicago. I’m well aware that I’m coming at this from a position of privilege. I have friends of color who are offended by the Confederate flag wearing good ole boys, and others who are not. I won’t speak for them. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as an American, it is downright embarrassing to see fellow citizens celebrating a chapter of our history born of hatred, bigotry and violence. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as a human, I think nostalgia for the days where a man was worth less because of his skin color is reprehensible, even if you aren’t throwing around racial slurs in the process anymore. I’ll speak for myself in saying that, as a country fan, this is exemplary of  why I feel a twinge of shame whenever I express any affinity for the genre.

It doesn’t matter how much you tipped the man who waited on you at Starbucks, Brad. It doesn’t make your song any better. Until you issue a formal apology, I’m done. You may not have been consciously attempting to be racist in your song, but the decision to not apologize for its offensive content? There’s nothing accidental about that.

Peace,

Lauren

(Hat tip to The Wrap for the lyrics)

For Rehtaeh

10 Apr

TRIGGER WARNING:

The following includes discussions that may serve as a trigger for victims of sexual violence.
Please be advised. 

I’ve been MIA for a few days, preparing to move this blog to a different site as part of a larger project (more on that later). I have a list of about ten posts I want to write, titles staring down from a crowded white board of tasks to be completed. But those will have to wait, because you need to read this story:

A 17-year-old Canadian girl died Sunday following a suicide attempt last week. The family of Rehtaeh Parsons said that their daughter never recovered from an alleged rape by four teenage boys in November 2011 that left her deeply depressed and rejected by her community.

Placed on life support last Thursday at a local hospital, Rehtaeh Parsons died on April 7 after her family made the decision to take her off the life support.

In a Facebook memorial page, the girl’s mother, Leah Parsons, wrote that Rehtaeh had been shunned and harassed after one of the boys allegedly involved in the rape took a picture of the incident and distributed it to their “school and community, where it quickly went viral.”

“Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was okay, and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun,” Parsons wrote.

According to Canadian news outlet CBC, the alleged sexual assault happened at a small gathering at which teenagers consumed alcohol. One of the boys in attendance reportedly took a photo of another boy having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons and sent it to friends.

Gawker writes that the bullying got so bad after the photo circulated that the family was forced to relocate.

When you ask me why I keep talking about rape culture, it’s people like Rehtaeh. This story is getting publicity because of social media and recency, and that’s fine, but there are thousands more like her every year who are alienated by their friends and family members who just don’t get it. There are thousands of victims who may never tell a soul about their attack, but will watch other victims be treated this way and internalize a deep sense of shame they never should have felt to begin with. There are thousands of victims who will never get the help they need, and will suffer in silence for the rest of their lives.

You want to know why a stupid little rape joke matters? You want to know why it’s not ok for a community to call a victim a liar or a slut in the wake of an attack? You want to know why the ads encouraging sexual violence aren’t “just” advertising? You want to know why colleges sweeping attacks under the rug is a problem? You want to know why I keep writing on this subject? You want to know why I’m angry, and not about to back down?

Because Rehtaeh, and so many others, deserved a hell of a lot better than this. 

If you are a Rehtaeh, please know that there are people who have your back. If you know a Rehtaeh, let them know you’re there for them, that it was never their fault, and that you believe them. This girl didn’t have to die. We can, and must, do better. We cannot eradicate sexual violence, but we can change the experiences victims face in the aftermath. The only way that happens is if we raise our voices and keep pushing. It’s not always easy, and the conversations can be exhausting, but the next time you feel like giving up, think of Rehtaeh. I know I will.

About That Evil Media Bias

4 Apr

liberal media bias

Stop complaining about media bias. Seriously. Just stop.

I’ve been hearing it since I was a little girl. Granted, that’s what happens when you grow up in a family that likes to talk politics, particularly when your family is conservative. Believe it or not, I spent the bulk of my childhood hearing that Fox was the only fair and balanced reporting out there. Imagine my surprise…

But I digress.

Every other minute, we’re assaulted with complaints about how the mainstream media is in Obama’s pocket, or how conservative media outlets are the MOST guilty of bias. The end result? You’re looking at a generation of voters who don’t want to hear about the news. They don’t trust anyone. And that’s a scary thought.

Let’s put this in context, shall we?

Bias isn’t always bad. Bias is bad when it masquerades as objectivity. When we pretend that commentators are journalists, we discredit the profession altogether.

Does that mean that commentators are bad? Not in the least. While not the “whole” truth of anything, biased reporting does grant us perspective on issues that a bare bones reading of facts might not, and may raise questions you hadn’t thought of before.

Bias isn’t going anywhere. Commentators are here to stay. We can either yell about it, or figure out a better way to digest it.

Consuming biased media isn’t bad. Consuming media from a singular perspective probably is. So watch Fox. Watch MSNBC. Watch CNN. And then watch BBC and Al-Jazeera. Variety is GOOD.

And while we’re at it, don’t just watch. News on television is pretty. It’s sometimes easier to process than a 3000 word article. But it’s never complete; advertising concerns and ratings competition can drive not only story selection but story construction. So quit being lazy, and read. 

In fact, read from a variety of sources. The New York Times and Economist and Guardian and all the names you hear repeated over and over again are good. But there are a lot of people writing in really compelling ways about really important issues out there who are not mainstream. Don’t be afraid to start following along with a new blog or news site. That being said…

Never accept a claim you hear or read on face. Research the ideas that seem fishy, but more than that, research the ideas that make sense. There’s always more to the story.

Never accept statistics on face. If someone cites a stat, find the study it came from. Look at the size of the study. Look at the margin of error. Look at the methodology. Look at what the study concluded, and measure that against the argument it was used to support. Look at criticisms of the study in question. Look at the age of the study. Look at the studies that have come since. A statistic does not a fact make.

There’s a caveat to all this. Bias isn’t bad. Abusing a platform to spread lies or hate is a horse of a different color. IF as you watch, and read, and research, you find that a given commentator or reporter is providing FACTUALLY INCORRECT information without apology or correction, or if you find that they are REPEATEDLY MISREPRESENTING information, don’t support it. Call it out. Call out people who cite it as though it were Biblical truth.

As a caveat to a caveat, this is not an excuse to broadly dismiss a publication or station. I’m not biggest fan of Fox, but that doesn’t mean they are incapable of decent coverage from time to time on certain issues. I’m a big fan of MSNBC, but I can’t stomach Al Sharpton and I’m glad Ed Schultz is gone.

Just because you really like a host or commentator or writer is not a justification for blind trust, either. Maddow, for instance, is one of my favorites, but I almost always follow up her stories with research of my own. It’s not because I don’t trust or like her; it’s because being a well-informed and responsible consumer of media is important. 

You want to know the best defense against bias in the media? A well-balanced diet of said bias.

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