Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Whose Privilege?

I remember the first time I heard the term white privilege. It was at a faculty in-service about diversity, back when I was still a teacher. I also remember my reaction when I first heard it:

It was a load of crap, because I was quite certain it was something else.

I had what I thought was a fairly middle-class upbringing. I knew people who had less money than we did and I knew people who had more money than we did. That meant that we were in the middle. We grew up in a two-family house with a dark and dusty cellar that had a coal furnace in it; but I also knew people who lived in single-family houses with finished basements.

We weren’t rich, but we didn’t want for anything, and had nothing to complain about. When we wanted bikes, we got them. When we wanted electric guitars, we got them. There were three TVs in our house: one in the living room, one in my sister’s room, and one in my room. That way we never had to fight over who got to watch what. We knew people who were teachers (a lot of teachers), lawyers, doctors, hairdressers, autoworkers, accountants, carpenters, retired military veterans, and who knows what all else. I had friends with swimming pools in their yards, and friends who had ponies at their birthday parties. There was one set of friends who had a large house out by the lake, and they hosted a cookout every year that brought in old friends from miles around.

All of these people were black. And all of these people instilled in us the idea that we could do anything we wanted…after all, just look at them. Yes, I knew there was prejudice out there, but big deal. These people succeeded, and so could I, if I had the right skills and a little bit of luck.

And because I knew I was middle class, and could succeed at anything I put my mind to, I didn’t have to prove myself to anyone.

But this wasn’t true for everyone.

I had a friend who didn’t feel the same confidence to succeed at whatever they tried at that the people I grew up with did, and who was always afraid of being found out to be “an impostor.” This friend’s family came from a working-class background, and when they made it to the middle class, and moved to the suburbs, it was total culture shock for her. She was always feeling that she wasn’t good enough, that she didn’t fit in, that she had to prove herself to everyone. Ironically, her family had more money than mine did, but she was comparing herself to a different batch of people than I was.

By comparing herself to what Elton John would call “sons of bankers, sons of lawyers,” she felt like she was poor and at a disadvantage to everyone else.

Even though she was white.

The thing was that I felt that I had more advantage than she did because I compared myself to different people. She was comparing herself to what I considered to be rich people…people that I felt it was pointless for me to compare myself to. And yet, because these were the people she grew up around…people with a few more advantages out the gate than she had, she felt that she was at the bottom of the pile. And when you feel that you’re at the bottom of the pile, it doesn’t matter whether or not you really are.

Similarly, when you feel that you’re middle-class, with all the rights and privileges thereunto pertaining, it doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, or purple. If you feel it, you own it, have the self-confidence that goes with it, and are able to make things happen for yourself.

Based on how I now see white privilege defined, it’s undeniable that she had it. But no one defined it that way back then. In many very real terms, I did have more privilege than she did. And I did because I saw myself as being solidly middle-class, with no need to worry about what anyone else thought of me.

I had middle-class privilege.

And that’s a priceless thing that many people with so-called white privilege don’t have.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Mixed Signals Our Symbols Send

Over the past few months I’ve had the opportunity to think about some of our symbols, and what they say about us. About how we see them and how others see them. About what we think they say about us and what others think they say about us. About the message we think they send and about the message that others think they send.

So with that in mind, I want to talk about a symbol that is beloved by millions, but causes hard feelings among a small minority of people in this country.

It’s the cross.

Yes…the cross. Be it a plain, empty, Protestant cross or a fully-loaded Catholic crucifix.

To Christians, the cross is a symbol of love. A symbol of God’s love that he would be willing to come down to earth, live among us, and die one of the most painful deaths imaginable for our sakes.

But to many Jews, it’s a symbol of hate. It’s a sign of a religion which was responsible for a lot of anti-Semitism. For many in the LGBT community, it’s the symbol of a religion which is responsible for a lot of hatred against them as well. And for many who are non-religious, it’s the symbol of a group of people who are arrogant, ignorant, small-minded, mean-spirited, and want to force everyone to live by their rules.

So which is it?

Technically speaking, the cross in its Christian usage is supposed to be a symbol of love. But it’s undeniable that over the past 2000 years, Christians have not been entirely loving of others. It’s true that we’ve been responsible for some pretty horrible things and that the writings of some Christians have been used to justify some pretty horrible things. So which is it, a symbol of love or a symbol of hate? More to the point, is it intrinsically a symbol of hate, or has it unfortunately been hijacked and turned into one by people who didn’t quite grasp its true meaning?

When those of us who are practicing Christians say that the cross is a symbol of love, and not of hatred, are we supposed to expect those who have suffered at the hands of people who carried it to buy it?


All of which brings me to the symbol you probably thought I was going to talk about in the first place…the Confederate Flag…or more precisely, the Confederate Battle Flag.

There are those who say that it’s about “heritage, not hatred,” and that it represents their part of the country. There are others who point to the founding documents of the Confederacy and the reasons behind the designs of the first flags as undeniable evidence that the Confederacy was founded on racist principles, and to preserve slavery in the South.

And yet…there are others who point out that fewer than 10% of Southerners owned slaves, and that the average person wearing a gray uniform was fighting to protect their land, and to prevent the Yankees from telling them what to do.

Is it possible that the average Southern farm boy who put on a gray uniform had no idea what was going on at the highest political levels, and didn’t know the totally racist agenda behind secession? And is it possible that most Southerners have never heard of those documents or what’s in them?


And…if they don’t know what’s in those documents, then can they legitimately say that to them it’s about “heritage, not hatred”, without needing a stiff laxative…despite what historians say?


And yet…as with the cross…should they expect those who have suffered at the hands of people bearing that flag to buy it…especially when they know its history?

I’ll let you think about that.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

20 Women, 200 Dates, and a Little Math

Two weeks ago I cited two well-known statistics to you. Well, at least they’re well-known to me. The first was:

1 in 5 women will be the victim of some sort of sexual assault.

The second one, from my 19 years of teaching, was:

5% of the students cause 95% of the problems.

I also said that the first statistic did not necessarily imply that 20% of all sexual encounters between women and men involved some sort of assault.

Today is where I show you how that works, by looking at 20 women and 200 dates.

Now before I start out, let me just say that the information I present here is not going to be done to the same rigorous standards that it would be if it were done by a certain statistician I know, but it should be enough to make my point.

We’re going to start off with a set of 20 women, labled F1 through F20, and have them each go out with 10 men over the course of a number of years, thus giving us a total of 200 dates. The 10 men each woman goes out with may or may not be from the same set, since people move around a lot. This means that there could be as many as 200 different men involved or there could be some overlap. It really doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that 5% of the up to 200 different guys are assholes who don’t know the meaning of the word “no”, and that they will cause problems for four of the 20 women. With 200 dates, that means that a chart of the women and dates would look like the one below:

So while 20% of the women have dealt with some form of sexual assault on a date, 96% of the dates…and possibly guys…are just fine.

Now let’s take a look at what the statistic isn’t saying, but could easily be misunderstood to mean. It most definitely is not saying that 20% of all dates go horribly wrong. If that were true, then the chart would look like this one:

Now, notice that even though one fifth of all dates here ended up with some sort of assault, the assaults weren’t evenly distributed. F1 only had one date that resulted in an assault, and F17 got off scot free. On the other hand, F20 was a very unlucky woman.

So now that we know what it is and what it isn’t, we’re faced with two possibly conflicting sets of statistics: The first says that 20% of all women will have to deal with an incident of sexual assault. The second says that 96% of all dates are just fine.

If you’re a woman, which set of stats should you let guide your life?

As a person who knows that flying is statistically the safest way to fly, but whose favorite airline is Amtrak, and hasn't flown since 1987, I don’t really have an answer to that.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The $20 Question

Last week I said that I had two responses to New York’s new “Yes Means Yes” rule, but only had room to give you one. This week I’ll give you the second.

This is that far from “protecting women from unwanted advances”, it totally ignores the fact that women are often the ones making advances…and often on guys who are too clueless to realize that an invitation is being offered. It forgets that the 60s and 70s happened, when women felt as free to pursue as guys…and were just as likely to see how far they could get…or get the guy to go.

With that in mind, I offer an embarrassing experience of mine.

A girl I knew back in the mid-70s had taken a $20 bill from me and stuffed it down her blouse. And $20, as I found out when I went to the online inflation calculator was a lot of money for a teenager back then…almost $100 in today’s money.

Being a gentleman, and liking my dental work exactly as it was at the moment, I politely asked her to give it back. She smiled and refused. I asked again, and with a twinkle in her eye, she smiled and refused again. Finally, after I begged her to give me back my money, she gave me a disgusted and disappointed look, reached in and got out the $20, and threw it at me.

I understand now that this was a non-verbal invitation to “go there.” However, under the new “Yes Means Yes” rules, this non-verbal invitation wouldn’t be enough. I’d have to ask, “May I stick my hand down your blouse to get my money back?” And her replying, with a twinkle in her eye and a lilt in her voice, “What do you think?” would not be considered an “active and enthusiastic ‘yes’.”

And…if while I was naively and single-mindedly trying to get my $20 back without doing anything I didn’t think I was supposed to, she pressed herself close to me in order to force the issue, and maybe finally have the little light go on over my head; because it was non-verbal, it still wouldn’t count as an “active and enthusiastic ‘yes’.”

Even though 99% of us would know what she was implying should happen.

So, should a guy in that position finally decide that this was an invitation to proceed, under the new rules, the Sex Police would pull him over and cite him with a violation.

Don’t get me wrong…I’m a big believer in consent…for both parties. But consent is so very often non-verbal. Flirting and making out are so often based on non-verbal cues or on indirect invitations that don’t exactly spell everything out. Just check out these examples of guys who missed the boat, and the girls who tried to invite them aboard, and you’ll not only see that, but you’ll see that most guys aren’t looking to force themselves on a girl.

Romance is messy. Relationships, and especially sexual relationships, have a lot of gray areas and a lot of non-verbal communication involved. These are communication skills which need to be learned eventually.

And a simplistic “Yes Means Yes” rule doesn’t help that at all.

Finally, next week I'll explain why the combination of 20% of all women and 5% of all men doesn't add up to 20% of all male/female encounters.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mother, May I?

Last week I talked about Cosby, Consent, and Cricket. There was more I wanted to say on the issue of consent, but I really wanted to keep the piece down to about 600 words; so I decided to break my thoughts up into two pieces.

This is the second piece.

Let me begin with two oft-cited statistics, which may or may not have any solid basis in fact. The first is one that is very pertinent to the discussion of consent:

1 in 5 women will be the victim of some sort of sexual assault.

Now one from my 19 years of teaching:

5% of the students cause 95% of the problems.

What does this mean? Far from meaning that 20% of all guys are assholes, it means the 5% who are, are causing all the problems, messing up the lives of millions of women, and giving the rest of us guys a bad name.

And let's examine that first statistic one more time. It's not saying that 20% of all sexual encounters a woman has is some sort of assault. That's something completely different. But maybe we'll talk about that math some other time.

Besides, that’s not what I want to talk about yet. I want to get back to talking about consent.

…and overreacting.

It used to be that the catchphrase was “No Means No.” That was enough for 95% of us. We got it. Of course, there were a few “maybes” in there that got people confused and caused a lot of trouble…a lot of what one friend once called “felony stupidity”, but for the most part, we got it.

But some people didn’t, and as a result, New York is the latest state to enact a “Yes Means Yes” law. This law means that “She didn’t say ‘no’,” isn’t enough. There has to be an active and enthusiastic “Yes!” “Well, OK” doesn’t cut it. Not even a “Well OK” with a twinkle in her eye that would seem to indicate that this was where she wanted things to end up in the first place. There has to be an active and enthusiastic “Yes” at each step of making out.

My response to this is twofold. The first is: You gotta be kidding me! Instead of two people making out and negotiating non-verbally what they want to do as they go along, this turns everything into the following rather unromantic game of “Mother May I?”

Pat: May I kiss you?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I kiss you again?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I put my hand on your butt?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I unbutton your shirt?

Chris: Yes.

Pat: May I undo your pants?

Chris: Yes.

You will notice that I didn’t state what sex either Pat or Chris were. Either one could be male…or female…or they could both be male…or female. It’s not always a case of the guy putting the moves on the girl.

This new rule puts what has traditionally been an improvised dance, with nonverbal cues being understood by most people, into a game of legal contract. 95% of the guys out there understand that if you try to unzip a girl’s pants and she gently moves your hand away, then you should stop. They also understand that if she responds by unzipping yours, then you can try to move further. And the key word here is “try.” If at any point she brushes your hand away, you know not to try again.

But because of the 5% of guys who wouldn’t understand “No” if they were hit over the head with an anvil with the words painted all over it, a new rule has been put in place that says that everyone has to play “Mother May I?”

As for my second response…well, since I’m running out of room again, you’ll just have to wait another week for that.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Cosby, Consent, and Cricket

Well, it’s been quite the month in terms of the issues of consent, rape, how we view consent, and how our changing view of consent changes the way we view rape.

Let’s start with the huge elephant in the room…Bill Cosby. This month damning evidence came to light about his sexual activities with one woman, and this evidence gives credence to the accusations of countless others. There’s a lot of fallout from this, but one of the pieces of fallout I want to address here is that a lot of guys who didn’t want to believe that Cosby had done anything wrong unless they had video footage of it…and they were operating the camera at the time…now have to face up to the fact that these accusations are probably credible.

Why did it take them so long to believe the accusations? It wasn’t that they were insensitive, misogynistic pigs. It was fear, pure and simple. It was the fear of a false accusation against them. It only takes a moment for a false accusation to ruin a reputation, and years to gain it back…even after it’s been proven that the accusations were spurious. It’s not that these guys didn’t feel for any woman who had gone through what these women claimed to have, it’s that without any solid proof, they didn’t want to condemn the man, because they were afraid of someone doing that to them…and they all seemed to know someone who knew someone that that had happened to.

They didn’t understand why the women would keep quiet for so long…and yet many of these guys who gave Cosby the benefit of the doubt were the first to jump all over the Catholic Church for the actions of a few priests (and the resulting cover up) and the actions of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, even though the victims in these two cases came forth with their accusations years, and even decades later.

The Cosby case is a part of our recent redefining of what rape is by making it an issue of consent and not necessarily violence. It’s no longer a matter of having a knife to your throat or a gun to your head, if you did not consent…or were not in a position or condition to consent…it’s rape. Period.

And based on this new and improved definition, Bill Cosby could very easily be charged with rape if any of the incidents happened before the statute of limitations expired.

Based on this new and improved definition, many things that we previously considered simply “not cricket”, not quite right, not the way a gentleman would behave, but not wrong, now are; and now count as rape. What was once seen as simply unethical is now illegal. And this is as it should be. Any use of alcohol or drugs to get the other person into a condition where they’re incapable of saying “no”, isn’t just “taking advantage of them”, it’s rape. Of course, there is a difference between intentionally getting someone stinking drunk so that they can’t say “no” and everyone having a drink or two so that they’re more comfortable saying “yes.” At least there is to me…and Jimmy Buffett.

Next week I’ll talk about how New York’s new “Yes Means Yes” law fits into this.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mawage and the State

Mawage. Mawage is wot brings us togeder today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam…

I can’t tell you how many times I saw that line from The Princess Bride quoted after the recent Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges…you know…the marriage equality case. But I’m not here today to talk about marriage equality, even though I believe strongly in it. As one of millions who have benefitted from the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v Virginia, I feel that I have no honest choice but to support it. But that’s another issue for another time.

No…today I come to talk about the state’s legitimate interest in marriage.

I emphasize “legitimate” because just as I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard that quote from The Princess Bride, I also can’t begin to count how many times I’ve heard some cretin complain that they don’t see why the government has to get involved in what is essentially a private decision between them and their beloved. They don’t see why the government has any business getting mixed up in what is a religious arrangement between them and their beloved. And I have known people, straight people, who rather than spend the $40 to just get married already, spent hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to have lawyers draw up contracts that would give them the same rights and protections as married people…all because they didn’t think the government had any place in their personal business.

I’ve joked that I’ve replied to this complaint so many times on Facebook that I might as well just save my response as boilerplate that I could paste in whenever someone said it; so that I didn’t have to write it from scratch every time. This is my boilerplate, and from now on, I’ll just be able to paste in the link to this blog entry and be done with it.

Before I say what I have to say, I’m going to recommend that anyone with an opinion on marriage, what it is, what it’s been, and what it should be, should immediately get a copy of the book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. If you are able to have your mind changed by facts, you’ll find that this book is full of facts that will change your mind about what a “traditional” marriage is and was, how “tradition” has changed over the centuries, and how “tradition” is not the same all over the world. I know that I learned a few things from it. But more germane to my boilerplate here, is the fact that you’ll find out that marriage has always been the concern of the community.

Let me state that again: Marriage has always been the concern of the community.

Whether it be the tribe, the village, the province, the religious group, or the country, marriage has always been the concern of the community, and hence the state or the government. Why? Because it’s how things like inheritances are sorted out, and how property is divided and custody is decided in the event of a divorce. When you get right down to it, a marriage is a legal contract between two people, giving each of them certain rights and protections, and outlining certain expectations.

I’ll admit that in an era when we’re so accustomed to seeing church weddings that we can hardly imagine anything else, it’s easy to think that religion “owns” weddings, but despite what the Catholic Church may say, it doesn’t. The community does, and religion has the option to put its own seal of approval on what the state has formalized.

There are places in Europe where you have two weddings. The first is the one in the city clerk’s office, that gets all the official recordkeeping done. The second is the one at the church or synagogue or mosque, that adds the religious veneer to it. But you can’t have the second without the first.

Here in the States, the religious and civil communities often overlap, and this is why you only need to get married once here. Clergy are but one group of people…along with mayors, judges, and justices of the peace…who are authorized under the various state laws to marry people. In fact, I know of a pastor who says that when he performs a wedding, he is acting as an agent of the State of New York, which gives him the legal authorization to marry people.

So now that I’m done with my boilerplate on the issue, I expect to use it often…and much more easily.