Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Halloween correctness

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University of Louisville has apologized after the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes was posted online. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via Associated Press

James Ramsey, lower right, the University of Louisville president, and his wife, Jane, upper left, hosted a Halloween party in Louisville, Ky. The University has apologized for the photo showing Ramsey among university staff members dressed in stereotypical Mexican costumes. Scott Utterback/The Courier-Journal, via AP

There have been recently in the US media a rash of reports related to what is often called cultural appropriation, namely taking on superficial aspects of another culture (appearance, dress, speech) in a way that can be perceived as prejudicial and insensitive. Today, there was a story out of Yale University, which, as other US universities did for Halloween, issued guidelines for avoiding cultural insensitivity in choosing a Halloween costume – eliminating what used to be mainstays of Halloween costumes such as Native American princesses (Pocohontas) or a Chinese warrior princess (Mulan). At Yale, an email was sent out to all students outlining what kinds of costumes are inappropriate. One of the categories was “Socio-economic strata”, which would have eliminated my stand-by Halloween costume as a kid, a hobo, a term which, too, has become unacceptable. The email sent out to Yale students by the “Intercultural Affairs Committee” prompted a response by one faculty member, Erika Christakis, who commented in an email of her own:

This year, we seem afraid that college students are unable to decide how to dress themselves on Halloween. I don’t wish to trivialize genuine concerns about cultural and personal representation, and other challenges to our lived experience in a plural community. I know that many decent people have proposed guidelines on Halloween costumes from a spirit of avoiding hurt and offense. I laud those goals, in theory, as most of us do. But in practice, I wonder if we should reflect more transparently, as a community, on the consequences of an institutional (bureaucratic and administrative) exercise of implied control over college students.

The idea, advocated here, for Yale students to decide issues of appropriateness of costumes for themselves, was met with a storm of protest from Yale students, with one encounter (with Christakis’ husband, also a faculty member) being captured on video. The Atlantic today has a long article about the controversy. One of the points made there is that the students’ strong reaction to Christakis’ email was likely not just caused by the email, but came from feelings of many minority students at Yale that racism was prevalent on campus. A NY Times article details some recent incidents.

The tension between free speech and cultural insensitivity is something that many US universities have struggled with, for example in creating “speech codes” which limit certain kinds of speech. It’s not just college campuses either. The NY times ran a piece recently on fashion asking “Does anyone own the cornrow?”, a hair style associated with black women, but one that has become popular with young white women as well. The case of Rachel Dolezal (the white woman who until recently claimed to be black) also has raised interesting questions of identity formation – is it offensive for someone to try to look black because she feels black and identifies more with African-Americans?

Greeks & Germans: Cultural contrasts

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

Former Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis

There are a number of contentious issues in the conflict between Greece and the European Union over the country’s economic situation. What we hear about in the media are disagreements related to taxes and pensions.  The popular perception outside of Greece, and particularly in Germany, is that the Greeks have not been good shepherds of their resources; they retire early with fat pensions and do not pay the taxes they owe. It turns out that those views are outdated; there have been major reforms of the pension system and crackdowns on tax evaders (see the story in this week’s On the Media about that). But popular perceptions are slow to change, especially when there are compelling and long-established stereotypes at work: Germans are industrious; Greeks (and southern Europeans) are lazy. However, there are indeed some striking cultural distinctions of interest.

One of the aspects of the Greek crisis that I’ve been following with interest are the conflicts that have arisen that have nothing to do with money. A few weeks ago, when the Greek prime minister and other officials were in Brussels to continue negotiations, German TV news conducted an interview with Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister. Schäuble said he didn’t think the Greeks were serious about finding a solution to the crisis. Why? Not because their proposals were deficient, but because the Greek delegation wasn’t showing up on time for meetings. He gave specifics. He also commented on the fact that at the time of the interview, in the morning, the Greeks were having a leisurely breakfast, rather than showing up for meetings. For Schäuble, if you are serious about getting work done, the first requirement is that you be on time. The Greek perspective is different, seeing deadlines as less important. When Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras pulled out of negotiations and announced the referendum that was held last Sunday, he was asked about the problem of missing the June 30 deadline for Greek to pay back 1.6 billion euros. His response: he couldn’t imagine that it would be a problem if there were a delay of a few days while a deal was worked out. Yesterday, the EU officials were flabbergasted that the Greeks did not show up for the meetings of finance ministers with a new proposal. Prime Minister Tsiparas had promised to deliver a new plan within 48 hours, if the Greeks voted “no” in the referendum. The Greeks responded yesterday that they were working on it.

For individuals used to a “monochronic” time orientation (doing one thing at a time; keeping to deadlines), like Schäuble, it was inconceivable that agreed-on time commitments were not kept. For those with a “polychronic” time orientation, time is not seen as segmented, but fluid, and other priorities may have precedence. From the Greek perspective, the Germans were being unnecessarily rigid and unreasonable. The problem here is not really related to being on time, but on establishing and maintaining a cooperative attitude that could lead to a successful negotiation. The Germans, not taking into consideration the different time orientation of the Greeks, interpreted their behavior as one more signal that the Greeks were not serious negotiation partners. The Greeks didn’t help by not being aware of and taking into consideration the German imperative for punctuality. It’s not just the Germans who have this perspective; the Lithuanian prime minister said today that for the Greeks “everything is always mañana“,  thus taking a swipe at several different cultures.

This was not the only cultural conflict. Schäuble offered a dramatic contrast in style and tone to the Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, who announced his resignation yesterday. Schäuble is tight-lipped and serious, being cautious in his pronouncements. Varoufakis, in contrast, is free with his opinions and has not hid his disdain for some EU and German officials. Schäuble wears dark suits with conservative ties; Varoufakis goes for leather jackets. The Greek prime minister also does not wear ties. The German convention is that if you are doing serious business, you dress the part. Of course, the contrast between the two finance ministers is also a case of different personalities, as well as a generational divide. But it remains that if the German and Greeks are far apart on economic issues, they are as well in terms of some social norms and practices.

Measles and Willful Ignorance

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

Child with measles, a potentially life-threatening disease

The super bowl will be played tomorrow and there is some concern that with so many people in one place, there is danger that the recent measles outbreak may lead to cases from those attending the game, particularly as there have been cases reported in Arizona. But wait, wasn’t measles declared eliminated in the U.S.? Yes, it was, back in 2000. The problem is not that the vaccine has stopped working; it’s that there are a substantial number of parents – especially in California – who refuse to have their children vaccinated. It’s bad enough that this endangers the children of these parents, but it also endangers others, particularly infants who are too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, or people with immune problems that prevent them from being vaccinated. There was a story recently on NPR about such a child, recovering from leukemia, whose father it asking that the school in Marin County, California, his son attends bar students from attending who have not been vaccinated.

Why are the parents refusing to have their children vaccinated? Because they have bought in to the anti-vaccine movement which claims a link between vaccination and autism. This idea comes from an article by Andrew Wakefield published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998. The article has long since been discredited and Wakefield, based on evidence that the study was fraudulent and that Wakefield had a financial conflict of interest, has been bared from practicing medicine in Britain. All the available scientific evidence indicates that there is no link between vaccinations and autism. That evidence has not been enough to convince doubters, which include some politicians (Michele Bachmann) and TV personalities (Jenny McCarthy). In addition to citing the junk science represented by Wakefield, such voices also talk about parental rights. However, individual rights have to be seen within the context of social responsibility – no one has absolute rights to take actions that endanger others.

This phenomenon is one more case of willful ignorance, the refusal to accept evidence-based science. We continue to see this among evolution deniers and those who don’t believe in global warming. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center indicates how large the gulf is between the views of scientists in the U.S. and non-scientists across a wide range of issues. The results confirm the importance of encouraging more attention in our schools to critical thinking and the process of scientific enquiry.

Fighting Extremism: Integration is key

Pegida movement in Germany

Pegida anti-immigrant movement in Germany

Yesterday President Obama, in the context of a joint press appearance with David Cameron, talked about ways to fight the rise of extreme Islamists who carry out the kinds of attacks experienced last week in Paris. He pointed to the importance of the Muslim population integrating into U.S. society:

There is, you know, this incredible process of immigration and assimilation that is part of our tradition that is probably our greatest strength. Now, it doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the kinds of tragedies that we saw at the Boston Marathon. But that, I think, has been helpful. There are parts of Europe in which that’s not the case.

Providing all residents – citizens and immigrants – the same opportunities for education, employment, and free exercise of their chosen religion is clearly one way to lessen the likelihood of frustration, hopelessness, and anger, feelings which provide a fertile ground for the growth of extremist views. This does not equate with immigrant or minority groups giving up their cultures (including language) and becoming indistinguishable from the majority culture. When groups such as “Pegida” in Germany (“Patriotic Europeans against the islamification of the West”) rail against the threat to Judeo-Christian culture represented by Islamic immigrants, what they are advocating for is religious intolerance, just what fuels the flames of extremist elements.

It’s not just in the West that lived experiences lead to the growth of extremism. In her new book on Afghanistan, Thieves Of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, Sarah Chayes describes how the wide-spread practice of bribes and graft create strong feelings of injustice, powerlessness and rage, leading to the embrace of violent means to create a new social order. In an interview on NPR, she cited a number of examples of the humiliation Afghans experience through being extorted for bribes for all kinds of daily interactions (such as using the post office) and how contemptuously people are often treated by officials. This has understandable consequences:

It infuriates people. So first of all, you get people who are indignant and personally humiliated in a country like Afghanistan and a significant number of them, especially of males, are going to get violent. So if you have a violent movement that’s around and looking to recruit people, there’s a likelihood that they are going to really find people who have had an interaction like this or – or five of them or 10 of them – that are ready to get some revenge.

We’ve tried war, nation-building, and demonizing Islam as ways to fight terrorism – none has worked. The common sense – and just – approach is to provide opportunities for individuals and families to build their lives in an open and tolerant society. This is as true in Muslim countries as it is in the West.

A Mom’s White Privilege

threat

Potential shooters?

Following the events in Ferguson, Missouri in which an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a policeman, there have been many discussions on race relations in the US. One of the more interesting perspectives I’ve seen is the blog post a young white mother posted about her sons:

I have three sons, two years between each. They are various shades of blond, various shades of pinkish-white, and will probably end up dressing in polo shirts and button downs most of the time. Their eyes are blue and green. Basically, I’m raising the physical embodiment of The Man, times three. The White is strong in these ones.

She goes on to comment on the day-to-day experiences her sons are likely to have, living in the United States, starting with the following:

• Clerks do not follow my sons around the store, presuming they might steal something.
• Their normal kid stuff – tantrums, running, shouting – these are chalked up to being children, not to being non-white.
• People do not assume that, with three children, I am scheming to cheat the welfare system.
• When I wrap them on my back, no one thinks I’m going native, or that I must be from somewhere else.
• When my sons are teenagers, I will not worry about them leaving the house. I will worry – that they’ll crash the car, or impregnate a girl, or engage in the same stupidness endemic to teenagers everywhere.
• I will not worry that the police will shoot them.

She continues, giving examples from recent incidents in which an African-Americans woman was shot to death when she went to a house for help after a car mishap or when a young black man wielding a toy pistol was killed by police in a Walmart store – experiences her sons are unlikely to have.

She concludes:

My boys will carry a burden of privilege with them always. They will be golden boys, inoculated by a lack of melanin and all its social trapping against the problems faced by Black America. For a mother, white privilege means your heart doesn’t hit your throat when your kids walk out the door. It means you don’t worry that the cops will shoot your sons. It carries another burden instead. White privilege means that if you don’t school your sons about it, if you don’t insist on its reality and call out oppression, your sons may become something terrifying. Your sons may become the shooters.

Her comments echo those of Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples. Her essay was in the news earlier this year in the context of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang’s rejection of the idea that as a white male attending an Ivy League university he should “check his privilege”. It seems likely that such divergent views will continue, given the diversity of experiences of white and black US citizens. Interestingly, a good number of the protesters against the killing in Ferguson were white.

Check your privilege

Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 9.13.12 PM

Tal Fortgang on Fox News

There has been a lot in the news recently about white privilege, following the case of Princeton University freshman Tal Fortgang. He reacted to the comment by a classmate that he should “check his privilege” by writing a piece published in Time Magazine. He rejects the idea that there is any kind of white privilege in American society and that he is any way someone who has enjoyed advantages from growing up white and male in a well-to-do upper middle class family. He points to the difficulties in his family history, including his grandparents fleeing the Nazis and immigrating penniless to the U.S.:

Behind every success, large or small, there is a story, and it isn’t always told by sex or skin color. My appearance certainly doesn’t tell the whole story, and to assume that it does and that I should apologize for it is insulting. While I haven’t done everything for myself up to this point in my life, someone sacrificed themselves so that I can lead a better life. But that is a legacy I am proud of.

Fortgang certainly has a point, that who you are is not determined by your gender or your racial identity. We all create our persona from multiple sources and influences, including, as Fortgang emphasizes in the story of his hard-working father, through industry and personal fortitude. But he implies that we all have the same starting point for being successful in US society, which I and many others would argue is not the case. The case for that was made by Peggy McIntosh, a women’s-studies scholar at Wellesley College, in a widely read essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” in which she provides an extensive list of examples, starting out with these:

1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
3. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
4. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.
5. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

Interestingly, McIntosh was interviewed a few days ago for a piece in the New Yorker on “The Origins of ‘Privilege’” and commented on the Fortgang controversy:

When Tal Fortgang was told, “Check your privilege”—which is a flip, get-with-it kind of statement—it infuriated him, because he didn’t want to see himself systematically. But what I believe is that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life. Whiteness is just one of the many variables that one can look at, starting with, for example, one’s place in the birth order, or your body type, or your athletic abilities, or your relationship to written and spoken words, or your parents’ places of origin, or your parents’ relationship to education and to English, or what is projected onto your religious or ethnic background. We’re all put ahead and behind by the circumstances of our birth. We all have a combination of both. And it changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do.

McIntosh accepts Fortgang’s that the whole story “isn’t always told by sex or skin color”, but that there are many more factors at play. I was at a conference presentation recently in which the main topic was how to include diversity as a topic in online courses. The first question after the presentation was by the only African-American in the audience. I expected, as did probably the rest of the folks there, for her to comment on diversity from the perspective of growing up black in the US. Instead, she went on at considerable length about what it was like to grow up skinny and suggested that body size be included in discussing diversity and discrimination.

On the lighter side, Buzzfeed has an interactive checklist for seeing how privileged you are. For an alternative view on white privilege, here is Louis CK’s take on being white:

Facts: irrelevant!

just-the-factsHow hard is it to get people to change their beliefs? Really hard, even if facts are provided that refute those beliefs.  And even if those facts are accepted as true!  A recent study in Scientific American points to this conclusion. The study, by Brendan Nyham of Dartmouth College, dealt with the now-debunked idea that a vaccine for childhood diseases like measles causes autism.  The researchers were able to bring the parents who were vaccine-skeptics to the point that they believed the scientific research which showed no link existed.  However, they found surprisingly that after accepting the scientific evidence as fact, the parents indicated that they were even less likely to have their children vaccinated.   According to Nyham, “The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases may be counterproductive.” The explanation for this behavior is not completely clear, but Nyham speculates, based on previous studies, that the vaccine doubters likely recalled other objections or concerns: “We suggest that people are motivated to defend their more skeptical or less favorable attitudes towards vaccines.”  The takeaway:  changing people’s minds takes more than presenting facts, and may call for messages with a variety of arguments to counter misinformation and myths.

The recent debate about evolution between Bill Nye (the “science guy”) and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum may send an even more disturbing message.  It was widely acknowledged (including by Christian Today) that Bill Nye, basing his arguments on radiometric dating, the fossil record, and common sense, clearly won the debate.  Of course, whether the debate convinced evolution doubters to accept scientific evidence is uncertain.  What seems, however, to be an outcome of the debate is that it has led to a flood of contributions to a proposed theme park addition to Kentucky’s Creation Museum.  In fact, a number of scientists were leery of having such a debate, as it gives an aura of believability to creationism.  It’s a sad thought that just talking about such issues can be problematic and can reinforce mistaken ideas and beliefs.

 

Not in Putin’s plans: Crimean Tatars

tatar

Crimean Tatars in traditional dress

Part of the tense, complicated crisis currently in Crimea is the role of an ethnic group indigenous to the Black Sea peninsula, the Crimean Tatars.  Their history has made them side much more with Ukraine than with Russia in the current stand-off.  They were forcibly removed by Stalin from Crimea, which they consider their ancestral homeland, and in the waning days of the Soviet Union, under Gorbachev, gradually began returning to Crimea.  Today they represent some 12% of the population of Crimea. Having suffered persecution under both Czarist and communist Russia, the Crimean Tatars are understandably nervous about Crimea coming back under Russian control. In fact, until the recent arrival of Russian military units in Crimea, the Tatars were among the few groups outside Western Ukraine actively proclaiming their allegiance to the new Ukrainian government. According to a recent article in the New Republic, the Crimean Tatars are not likely to go along with an increasing Russification of the peninsula and may  cause trouble for Putin’s possible plans to annex Crimea.

The Crimean Tatars differ from both Russians and Ukrainians in religion (Muslim) and language (Crimean Tatar).  Their language belongs to the Turkic language family and is one of the treasured cultural traditions the Tatars maintained in exile.  Today, however, living alongside other Crimeans speaking Russian and Ukrainian, there are fears that the language is endangered.  Should the language die out, so would a crucial element of the group’s cultural identity and cohesion.  In an interesting reflection of socio-political realities, the written language has gone through myriad transformations, from using Arabic script, to Turkic, to Cyrillian, to a Latin-based alphabet. 

Beer and democracy

singhabeerIf you see beer being poured over someone’s feet, what would be your reaction?  In Thailand, this is disparaging action and part of a protest against a prominent beer brand, Singha.  It’s not a protest concerning the quality of the product – Singha is a well-known brand.  It concerns comments from Chitpas Bhirombhakdi, 28, the Singha beer heiress who was quoted last month in a widely circulated article saying that many Thais lack a “true understanding” of democracy, “especially in the rural areas.” This comes from a NY Times article published this week-end.  She was reacting to the continued support for the current government, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, from Thais in the poor, rural areas of the country. The Singha heiress is part of the group trying to oust the Prime Minister.  In contrast to what one normally expects from protests – namely a call for more democracy, the rich and powerful in Thailand are calling for less democracy, “The demonstrators want a hiatus from democracy, replacing it with rule by a ‘people’s council’ selected from various professions in the country. Many say they yearn for a return to the absolute monarchy because Thailand is not ready for democracy.”

The Thai protest against the government is reminiscent of last year’s action in Egypt, ousting a legally and democratically elected leader, President Mohamed Morsi.  Of course, the situation in Thailand and Egypt are quite different, but they do point to a worrisome trend, away from changing leaders through elections, and instead forcing them out through a military coup or other actions.

Lessons in Kindness and Forgiving

Nelson Mandel's symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Nelson Mandel’s symbolic action of reconciliation through sport

Just in time for the Christmas season, a couple of stories in the news point to instances of personal conduct unusual in our day, offering a refreshing antidote to the culture of self-promotion and crudeness discussed in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal essay, “America the Vulgar“.

The incredible life of Nelson Mandela is a personification of the power of forgiveness, in his case resulting in the prevention of mass violence and freeing an oppressed people, ultimately creating a democratic state.  It wasn’t a small case of forgiveness.  The 27 years in prison robbed him of his prime and robbed him of his family. His son died tragically when he was in prison and he was not permitted to attend his funeral. He was allowed one letter every six months. He was often put in solitary confinement. Many Black South Africans wanted retribution against their long-time oppressors. Mandela forgave and initiated a process of reconciliation.

Seven years ago, Charles Carl Roberts entered an Amish elementary school, tied up 10 little girls, then opened fire, killing five in cold blood and injuring the others, then shot himself. The Amish community responded by offering immediate forgiveness, later attended the killer’s funeral, and befriended his family.  Now the killer’s mother spends time every week with a now 13-year victim of the shooting who as a result of the shooting is confined to a wheelchair and is fed through a tube.

Today in the news, one year after the Sandy Hook shooting, one of the parents of a slain child was asked what outsiders who wanted to help could do; her answer – perform “an act of kindness” in your community.

Sacred values

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that he had set a “red line” for the negotiations his country is restarting with Western countries over Iran’s nuclear program.  His remarks echo similar comments Iranian officials in recent weeks concerning Iran’s “right” to create nuclear fuel through uranium enrichment. The U.S. and its allies are hoping that offering Iran a strong incentive, namely the easing of crippling sanctions to its economy, would bring Iran around to the point that it would agree to forego uranium enrichment.  The strong language from the leaders in Iran indicates otherwise.  While many observers might point to national pride or fervent nationalism as the explanation, a recent piece in the NY Times explains the Iranian recalcitrance by citing it as an example of the power of “sacred values”, defined as “moral imperatives we’re unwilling to compromise on, be they political, religious or personal”.  Evidently for Iranians nuclear power has become such a sacred value and no amount of logical persuasion or financial incentives is likely to have any effect.

The U.S. is no stranger to the strength of sacred values, as the battles over gun rights and abortion have demonstrated.  We may be seeing the playing out of a sacred value among those who are now so vociferously attacking “Obamacare”, who are not just upset over the botched roll-out or the bad policy they believe it represents, but view it as an assault on the strong belief they hold relative to the kind, size and power of the federal government.  Clearly when sacred values come into play negotiation and compromise goes out the window.  Of course in negotiations the trick is to determine when intransigence is a negotiating posture and when it is due to running up against a sacred value. The article cites pioneering work in behavioral economics that challenges the traditional assumption of economists that people act in their own best interest when it comes to financial transactions. It’s not just that people don’t always recognize their own best interest, in some cases that interest may be clashing with values so deeply held that nothing else matters.  The presence of sacred values can be important to recognize not just in political or diplomatic negotiations, but in personal interactions as well. It’s good to know when you might be hitting your head against a brick wall.

Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.

I’m allowed to wear a hoodie

istock_000008235676largeIn an interview yesterday, a member of the George Zimmerman trial jury stated that race did not enter into their deliberations and that she did not think the situation would have been different had it been a white young man walking down the street of Zimmerman’s neighborhood. Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trevon Martin. We all tend to categorize unknown individuals based on appearance, including dress, skin color, gender, age, demeanor, walking style. This is normal human behavior in dealing with the unknown – we put things and people into groups based on previous encounters, learned values, and media messaging. This kind of processing does not normally have deadly consequences, but it becomes problematic and potentially dangerous if we assume our initial categorizing corresponds to reality in every case and in every context, without trying to ascertain the nature of an individual beyond outward appearances. This is profiling – associating the stereotyped individual with assumed negative behavior.

It’s clear that Zimmerman’s actions were based on profiling, following Treyvon Martin because he was black, male, young, and wearing a hoodie. On NPR this morning as part of the “race card project” (creating 6-word statements about race) there was discussion about what message is sent by someone wearing a hoodie:

A woman named Bethany Banner of Kalamazoo had this ah-ha moment when she was out shopping one day. It starts raining. She pulls her hoodie, and her six words were: ‘I’m allowed to wear a hoodie’. Because she realized in that moment that no one would ever look at her, as a petite white woman, and assume that she was someone dangerous because she had this hood up over her head.

Treyvon Martin made the mistake of thinking he too would not be looked at askance when wearing a hoodie.

Another jolting quote came yesterday from George Zimmerman’s brother, who was complaining that his brother was afraid of retribution : “There are people that would want to take the law into their own hands as they perceive it, or be vigilantes in some sense”. I think he missed the irony of George Zimmerman fearing someone acting outside official channels and taking matters into his own hands.