On Coercion and a Different Social Ethic

One of my favorite bloggers once wrote a post about the idea of “consent culture” as an alternative to rape culture. After describing various ways to help create a culture of consent surrounding sex, she brilliantly expands the idea to social interactions in general:

I think part of the reason we have trouble drawing the line “it’s not okay to force someone into sexual activity” is that in many ways, forcing people to do things is part of our culture in general.  Cut that shit out of your life.  If someone doesn’t want to go to a party, try a new food, get up and dance, make small talk at the lunchtable–that’s their right.  Stop the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” and the games where you playfully force someone to play along.  Accept that no means no–all the time.

This hit home with me in a very personal way. As a shy, withdrawn child who preferred to do things her own way (who, by the way, grew into a friendly, outgoing adult who still prefers to do things her own way), I experienced this from parents, friends, and total strangers on a constant basis.

Is it as bad as sexual coercion? Of course not. But social coercion can leave its own scars–of feeling inadequate, dependent, and not in control of one’s own circumstances.

Social coercion is something I try very hard to both avoid having done to me and to avoid doing to others. It fails the test that I try to live by as much as possible, which I call the Asshole Test. The Asshole Test is simple–would another person who happens to witness what you’re doing right now think you’re an asshole? If so, you’re more likely than not behaving like one. (Probably with exceptions.)

Would you want to be that person who’s always trying to strong-arm people into doing things “for their own good?” I wouldn’t.

I’ve heard plenty of arguments against this view of social coercion. Here are a few:

1. It’s for their own good. This is the most common justification I’ve ever heard people give for trying to wheedle others into doing things. “But he always orders the same dish! Shouldn’t he try something new?” “But that guy keeps looking at her and she’s too shy to go over and talk to him!” “But they never go out! They need to go to the party and have fun!”

Here’s the thing. Assuming the object of your coercion is old enough to think for themselves (I’ll get to the subject of young children later), only they know what’s best for them. You don’t. Maybe they’re working up the courage to do what you’re trying to get them to do and just need more time, or maybe they don’t want to do it at all. Regardless, it’s not for you to decide. Once someone says no, accept that that’s their answer.

2. But they’ll be glad they did it! First of all, nobody knows that from the get-go. I’ve been manipulated into doing things I ended up enjoying, and I’ve been manipulated into doing things I’ve regretted for years and years. Some of the people who pushed me to do the latter things have been some of the people I’m closest to, and even they turned out to be wrong.

Second, even if they’re glad they did it–even if they’re thanking you–that doesn’t make it right. If it did, then we’d be getting into a Machiavellian sort of friendship ethic in which the ends satisfy the means. I just can’t get on board with that.

But more importantly, it’s the precedent that’s set that matters. You’re not really doing your friend any favors, even if they end up loving whatever it is you made them do, because you’re not teaching them to do it for themselves. You’re teaching them to do it to please you, to keep your friendship, to avoid looking bad in front of you and your friends, or just simply to get you to shut up.

You’re teaching them that, ultimately, their choices have to be moderated by the people they interact with. You’re teaching them to rely on you for direction rather than on themselves. You’re teaching them a lot of negative things that you shouldn’t really want to teach your friends.

3. So what, parents can’t force their kids to eat their vegetables? This is a stupid argument. But yes, I’ve heard people use it, including some of the people who’ve responded to my post about this on Tumblr. I’ve also heard teenagers try to justify their acts of rebellion this way.

Our society–and probably most societies around the world–have already established the precedent that, sometimes, parent-child relationships can have a different dynamic from other sorts of relationships. A parent can (within reason) take away a child’s computer as a punishment. But they cannot do so to their spouse. A parent can prohibit a child from eating certain foods, but they can’t do so to a friend. And that’s not only because they’d never be able to enforce it–that’s because it would be abusive to try to control the life of another adult in such a way.

There are definitely situations, though, when things that many people think are acceptable to force children to do are simply not. Another of my favorite bloggers, Yashar Ali, handles this point beautifully in his piece “Now…Give Your Uncle a Kiss.” Yashar, Holly (the author of the “Consent Culture” piece), and I all agree that coercing children into showing physical affection for other people is wrong.

But where do you draw the line?

When I have children someday, I think I know where I’ll personally draw it. I think it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are unequivocally necessary for their health and safety, such as eating vegetables or avoiding talking to strangers. I think that, within reason, it’s acceptable to coerce children into doing things that are necessary for them to have a happy, successful life, such as doing their homework and using manners.

Beyond that, though, things get hazy, and every parent must set their own boundaries.

An easy way to tell whether you’re coercing a child for the right reasons or not is to examine your own motives. If you demand a child to eat her vegetables, it’s not because you’re going to be personally offended if she doesn’t; it’s because she needs them to be healthy. If you demand a child to mingle with your guests, it’s probably because you don’t want to be embarrassed by his shyness, or because you want your guests to be impressed by how smart he is, or because your personal ideal for people is that they be outgoing. It’s not for his health, safety, or happiness.

If you are coercing a child into doing something, though, they should always know why. And no, it’s not “because I said so.” Kids are naturally curious and one should take these opportunities to teach them things. For instance, tell them what kinds of vitamins and minerals can be found in healthy food, and what these nutrients do for the body. Kids should know that even though their parents can make them do things sometimes, they’re doing these things for themselves and not for their parents.

4. But persuasion isn’t coercion. Good job, you understand the English language. But seriously, I know it’s not. It’s not rape either, as some people on Tumblr misconstrue the argument.

Persuasion is like coercion’s younger, cheerier sibling. It’s usually harmless, and healthy, secure adults can easily ignore it if they want to. But it’s irresponsible, I think, to keep trying to persuade someone to do something while placing the burden of deflecting those requests onto them. Some people have a lot of difficulty saying no. They want to make you happy, they want to keep your friendship. I talked about this a bit before.

It’s very, very hard to tell
when persuasion turns into coercion. That’s why I personally avoid trying to persuade people to do things, period. You could say that if they genuinely agree with you, then they’ve been persuaded, but if they go along for other reasons, they’ve been coerced. I don’t really know. Unless you know someone extremely well, you can’t tell what’s going on in their mind, and sometimes you get it wrong even if you do know them extremely well. That’s why I try to play it safe.

And, finally, the most odious and dangerous excuse of them all: 5. But sometimes they want to be coerced. This is a bad excuse when it comes to sex, and it’s a bad excuse when it comes to social interactions.

This is where clear communication is essential. Some people really do want to be convinced to do things. Other people don’t. If you have a friend who always turns down your requests initially but then relents, why don’t you ask them why? Say, “So I’ve noticed that when I ask you if you want to do x/y/z, you always say no at first but then you change your mind. Is it because you feel pressured by me, or because you just needed some convincing?”

And then let them speak for themselves.

What I’m proposing is a different sort of social ethic. In this ethic, we not only respect people’s autonomy by not explicitly forcing them to do things, but we also free them from more subtle types of influence. That doesn’t mean we have to hide our desires and preferences, though. Instead of the “aww c’mon” and “just this once” that Holly writes about above, we say, “I wish you’d come along, but I’ll understand if you’d rather not.” Or “I think you’d like it if you tried it, but it’s totally up to you.” Or “That’s fine, maybe next time. Let me know if you change your mind.”

I think part of the reason why people have so much resistance to this sort of thinking is because we don’t like to take responsibility for things. It’s nice to think that we can just say and do whatever we want to other people and that our words and actions will have no real, lasting, and possibly negative effects on them. It’s nice to think that we’re all fully independent of each other, and that if someone says “yes” to something, it’s for one reason only–that they genuinely, from-the-bottom-of-their-hearts mean “yes.”

But there are ties that bind us to each other. Weak ties for acquaintances, stronger ties for friends, and stronger still for family and romantic partners. Respecting these ties means, among other things, recognizing the fact that you have an effect on this person, that you are not entirely independent of this person.

You don’t have to respect these ties. Unless we’re talking about sex, of course, you won’t be a rapist if you disrespect them. There are no legal consequences, and often there won’t even be any personal consequences, because not everyone recognizes when they’re being manipulated.

But that doesn’t make it right.

I'm Not Poor: A Reflection on Class at Northwestern

[TMI Warning]

Before I came to Northwestern, not once in my life did I feel like my family didn’t have enough money.

To be sure, there have been times in my family’s history when we didn’t. Immigration–especially moving between countries and continents four times in seven years like we did–does deplete one’s financial reserves. For the first few years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my brother, who is nine years older than me. I didn’t have a bed until we rented out our first single-family house when I was nine years old. Up until then, I’d slept on a mattress.

Even now, I prefer sleeping close to the floor.

But things got rapidly better after that. We bought our first house. We bought cars. We bought kitchen appliances, leather sofas, an exercise machine, a piano. We bought a futon for my older brother to use when he comes to visit. We bought nice jewelry for my mom and for me. We bought laptops, iPhones, Kindles.

We bought things that we wanted rather than needed, because they made life more comfortable and more fun.

Even through all of this, though, we were thrifty. The afghan rugs on our floors have been it the family for years. We recycle clothes and hand them down, and readily accept hand-me-downs from others. My mom and I shop mostly at T.J. Maxx, that lifesaving discount store that sells everything from perfume to purses to pots and pans. To put me through college, my parents used their own retirement savings rather than taking out new loans. The assumption was that a Northwestern education will one day provide me with enough income to finance my own parents’ retirement, in return for their having financed my education.

~~~

Original Tall Hunter Boot--$125

In our suburb in Ohio, almost everyone is middle-class. Some of my friends had a bit more money and some had a bit less, but there were rarely huge differences. All of us went on family road trips for vacation rather than flying to other countries. None of us wore designer clothes, because even if we could afford it, there aren’t any Prada or Gucci stores in Beavercreek, Ohio. There isn’t even an H&M.

The most my girlfriends or I would ever pay for a pair of jeans was $30.

Then I came to Northwestern. My freshman year roommate unpacked and took out a laundry hamper that looked like an authentic rice bag that one might buy at an Asian market. I asked her about it, assuming she’d brought it from her native Korea.

“Oh, this? It’s only $30 at Urban Outfitters. You should get one!”

I wasn’t getting a $30 hamper for my dirty underwear. I used a $2 mesh one I’d bought at Target. Up until that day, I didn’t realize anybody would do otherwise.

During the fall of my freshman year, there was a tiny protest in which some students help up signs to bring awareness to the plight of lower-income students at Northwestern. “I didn’t get into any of my top 3 sororities,” one said. “I can’t afford a North Face,” said another.

North Face is a brand of outerwear that I’d never even heard of before I came to Northwestern. Its logo is more pervasive on our campus than Northwestern’s own. At North Face, a knee-length down coat–the sort you really need in Chicago–costs $300. My own down coat cost about $70 at T.J. Maxx.

So I couldn’t afford North Face, either.

Was I poor?

Money–and the spending of it–pervade campus culture so thoroughly that nobody notices it. Within weeks of arriving on campus, I was expected to shell out for $20 club t-shirts, $20 restaurant dinners, to say nothing of $200 textbooks. While many students, including me, have a part-time job, many do not. I met many students who had been offered a work-study allowance as part of their financial aid package but chose not to use it.

These days, I usually have two jobs at a time and use the earnings to help pay my rent, which is twice my monthly income. I can’t save very much.

Financial aid doesn’t help much. Every year my dad sends them a personal letter explaining that we have aging grandparents oversees, two small children whose childcare must be paid for, that my mom lost her job last year (she has since found a new one), that we’re still paying off a mortgage, that my family’s retirement savings are being depleted, what have you.

Sometimes they sigh and toss us an extra thousand bucks.

Last year I decided to become an RA (or CA, as they call it at Northwestern). It would be good for my resume, it would be something I’d enjoy doing, and it would help me pay for school.

Or so I thought.

Once I was accepted as a CA and received my new financial aid statement to reflect my free room and board, I noticed something odd–I no longer had a work-study allowance, and my scholarship had decreased substantially. My family would be paying the exact same amount they had been paying before.

I asked the financial aid office what had happened. “Well,” they said, “since you no longer have to pay room and board, we decreased your aid so that your expected family contribution stays the same, because that’s what you’re able to afford according to our calculations.”

“But we can’t really afford that,” I said.

“Well, that’s your expected contribution.”

They told me that they were forced to keep my expected contribution the same due to “federal law.”

I asked my new supervisors in University Residential Life for help. They told me that, as a CA, I was only allowed 10 hours of non-academic time commitments per week, so if I wanted to continue working part-time, that would have to come out of those hours. “We’re willing to work with you to help you find a non-work study job,” they said, since I no longer had a work-study allowance and most campus jobs were work-study only.

I talked to a student who’d been a CA for several years. “Well,” he said, “I guess it doesn’t really make much sense for students on financial aid to become CAs.”

I did it anyway because I didn’t want money to hold me back from a valuable experience. But I always remembered the lesson I’d learned: Northwestern wasn’t going to expend any extra effort for its “students on financial aid,” like me.

~~~

Longchamp "Le Pliage" Tote Bag--$145

I soon learned to dread being asked what I was doing for the upcoming break. Save for one memorable spring break when I’d asked my parents for a roundtrip ticket to New York City as a birthday present, I always do essentially the same thing: I go home to Ohio to babysit my siblings, making some much-needed extra money while making sure that they feel like I’m still part of their lives.

I like going home and babysitting. I miss my home a lot most of the time, and even though I have few people to see there aside from my family, I still feel the need to return regularly.

What I don’t like, though, is being obliged to ask the question in return: “And you?”

And they, usually, have capital-P Plans for their breaks. They go to Florida, California, or Las Vegas. They go to Spain, England, China, Argentina.

I had never felt this wanting before. I had always assumed that traveling to other countries was something people did once they finished their education and got jobs. I felt content with my break plans until I had to hear about those of my classmates.

Aside from traveling abroad on breaks, Northwestern students also love to study abroad. I would’ve loved to do it too, but I chose not to due to various financial and personal concerns. Yet, I often encounter students exhorting self-righteously how “everyone” should experience study abroad because it “changes your life” and “gives you perspective.”

Well, maybe it does. But everyone can’t do study abroad, because everyone can’t afford it. (Don’t talk to me about “financial aid”–I’ve already seen how that works as I attempt to finance my Northwestern education). So the rest of us will just have to get by without that particular life-changing source of perspective.

~~~

Classic Tall Ugg Boot--$200

Although I felt envy and–at times, when confronted with $30 laundry hampers–disdain, what I never felt was shame. It never occurred to me to feel ashamed of something as unchangeable, as circumstantial as how much money I have. I still don’t understand why anybody would ever feel ashamed of a situation that they had no hand in creating.

But others taught me that my shamelessness was wrong. When asked to spend beyond my means, I had no problem telling people why I couldn’t. When asked where I bought an item of clothing, I never hesitated to say that it came from eBay or the local thrift store. But the reactions were inevitably quiet, embarrassed. They’d mumble, “Oh of course, sorry, you don’t have to come,” and walk away. When they found out where I’d gotten my clothes, their eyes would widen. “Oh!” they’d say. “I wouldn’t have even guessed.” As though stylish clothes can only come from Michigan Avenue.

Whenever I get this reaction, I try to analyze it. Are they embarrassed for me, because I don’t have the money? Or are they embarrassed for themselves, because they assumed that I did? Do they drop the conversation because they don’t want me to feel bad, or because they don’t really want to know why I can’t come with them?

There is a “Northwestern Uniform,” of course. Over the seasons, it includes the following: Longchamp bags, Ugg boots, North Face jackets, Hunter rainboots, anything from Urban Outfitters and American Apparel. Sorority and fraternity letters, naturally. I don’t like any of these things, so I wouldn’t buy them even if I could.

~~~

North Face Metropolis Parka--$289

Over time, I learned not to care. I reminded myself that before college I’d never wanted for anything. I realized that the right clothing and spring break plans were never going to help me fit in at Northwestern anyway, because it’s not the sort of place where I can fit in. There might not even be a place in the world where I can fit in because I’m so weird, but since the jury’s still out, I’m still looking.

I found that there are, of course, plenty of students just like me at Northwestern. But they’re hard to see because they aren’t the ones inviting friends to restaurants, joining the Greek system (which students like me could never afford), or walking around looking like a page from Vogue.

Although it’s hard sometimes, I refuse to feel “poor.” I refuse to feel like I’m lacking anything. I refuse to feel that way because I know for a fact that, compared to most Americans, I have everything a young woman could ask for. But sometimes, I hate Northwestern for hiding that truth from us. We don’t have real diversity on this campus. If we did, I would feel rich.

~~~

Urban Outfitters Recycled Rice Bag Hamper--$30

I didn’t write this to get sympathy for not being able to afford restaurant dinners and North Face jackets. I wouldn’t want sympathy for that because, first of all, I don’t feel bad about it myself, and second, because other people can afford much less.

I wrote it because those protesters during my freshman year should’ve known better. They should’ve known that, statistically, not being able to afford North Face is normal. Being able to afford it is not.

I wrote it because I don’t feel ashamed to tell people that I spend my breaks at home with my family, and I hope that nobody else feels ashamed for that, either.

I wrote it because we don’t talk about it, and we should.

Agribusiness is Ruining Capitalism (Among Other Things)

Agribusiness is the reason we can’t have nice things.

The same industry that recently terrified consumers by including pink slime (or, euphemistically, “boneless lean beef trimmings”) in 70% of supermarket ground beef is now responsible for a new Iowa law that makes it a crime to misrepresent yourself in order to get a job at a farm. It had already been a crime in Iowa to record audio or video at a farm without the owner’s permission, but now that the organization Mercy for Animals has inconveniently shot footage of atrocious animal abuse at the Iowa egg farm Sparboe, lawmakers are upping the ante.

Oops, did I say lawmakers? I meant the lobbyists that have them on puppet strings.

The purpose of these “ag-gag” laws (as they’re being called) is obvious–it’s to make it harder for people to get access to farms and find out what’s really going on there. Agribusinesses may claim that these laws prevent them from being “misrepresented” and that the abuses filmed by activists were just a “one-time” thing, the truth is that if they had nothing to hide, they’d have no problem with people coming in and looking at their farms. As one hog farmer says, “We have a problem with a lot of undercover videos that go into livestock production facilities looking for things that might be out of ordinary and, I think many times, fabricating things that are not happening on regular basis.”
He does not specify how it is possible to “fabricate” something that, as he says, is simply “out of the ordinary.” (Which, of course, it isn’t.)

One might wonder why it would even be necessary to pretend to be someone else in order to get a job at a farm, or to film without the owner’s permission. Well, it’s because they won’t let you do it otherwise. All the books I’ve read about factory farming, such as Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and the companion book to Food, Inc., mention how difficult it is to obtain access to these farms.

Even assuming that a journalist manages to enter the premises without hiding his/her identity or intentions, many states have laws that make it extremely dangerous to criticize agribusiness. Consider this passage from Fast Food Nation:

Having centralized American agriculture, the large agribusiness firms are now attempting, like Soviet commissars, to stifle criticism of their policies. Over the past decade, “veggie libel laws” backed by agribusiness have been passed in thirteen states. The laws make it illegal to criticize agricultural commodities in a matter inconsistent with “reasonable” scientific evidence. The whole concept of “veggie libel” is probably unconstitutional; nevertheless, these laws remain on the books. Oprah Winfrey, among others, has been sued for making disparaging remarks about food. In Texas, a man was sued by a sod company for criticizing the quality of its lawns. … In Colorado, violating the veggie libel law is now a criminal, not a civil, offense. Criticizing the Greeley slaughterhouse could put you behind bars. (pg. 266-67)

So, it’s not very surprising that activists now have to go undercover to tell the truth about what’s going on inside factory farms.

Iowa’s new law wouldn’t be so bad if these films didn’t have as huge an impact as they do. Four of Sparboe’s biggest clients–Target, McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Supervalu–have stopped doing business with the farm since seeing video that Mercy for Animals created. Similar results came about for other farms due to whistleblowing films (see the fifth paragraph of this article for some examples).

Ag-gag laws like Iowa’s are now pending in seven other states, including Illinois, where I attend school and where I will soon be writing to my district’s state representatives.

One may debate the importance of animal welfare (well, I wouldn’t debate it, but many people would), but here’s something that most Americans probably consider undebatable: consumers deserve to know the truth about the products they buy so that they can make informed decisions about their purchases. Companies that cannot make products that consumers want to buy should either change their business model or go out of business.

But laws that protect agribusiness from public scrutiny turn this model upside down. Now industrial farms can produce food (or, I should say, “food”) using whichever methods are cheapest and easiest for them, regardless of what consumers would actually buy if they knew the truth.

Of course, the notion of companies hiding their manufacturing methods from the public in order to cut costs without sacrificing consumer loyalty is neither new nor limited to the agriculture industry. Controversies over conditions at iPhone factories and the safety of pharmaceuticals, for instance, are old news by now.

However, agriculture is different for several reasons. First of all, the fact that certain states depend so heavily on it means that agribusiness lobbyists can more easily bend state lawmakers to their will. Second, the increasing pervasiveness of industrial farms means that, without regulation, it is becoming impossible for ethical farmers to compete (except by pandering to the sort of consumers who shop at Whole Foods). Third, unlike iPhones or Nike sneakers, food directly impacts people’s health, making it that much more urgent for people to know how their food is produced and to be able to make choices based on that knowledge. Finally, unlike most other industries, agriculture affects every single person who eats animal products of any kind. To avoid products from industrial farms, you would literally have to become a vegan–or, at the very least, dedicate your life to finding out exactly where all those free-range hens and cage-free eggs are actually coming from, since product labeling standards are pretty lax for these things.

A free market isn’t really free if basic information about products is kept from consumers. Most Americans probably wouldn’t want to eat eggs that come from hens whose beaks are burned off to keep them from pecking each other in overcrowded, filthy cages. They probably wouldn’t want to eat beef from cows that were literally bulldozed into the slaughterhouse because they were too sick to walk.

The legislators who pass laws allowing for these flagrant abuses to be kept secret from the American public ought to remember who they were elected to serve.

Here’s a hint: it’s not the agribusinesses.

Update (3/15/12): Et tu, Utah?

Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012’s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

Free Speech: What it is, What it Isn't

It’s pretty rare that a single idiot spawns two whole posts on this blog, but Rush Limbaugh has done it.

As journalists and bloggers continue to debate the fallout of Limbaugh’s calling a female law student a slut and a prostitute on his show, I’ve noticed one particular phrase coming up again and again in these discussions. That phrase, of course, is “free speech.”

For every five online comments I see that demand for Limbaugh’s show to go off the air, there’s at least one that goes something like this: “Limbaugh is an idiot and I don’t listen to his show, but seriously, what happened to free speech?” (Examples: here, here, really any thread that discusses this incident.)

Occasionally, even the mere suggestion that his comments were inappropriate garners this rhetorical question.

The non-rhetorical answer is that absolutely nothing has happened to free speech. Although there are certainly some liberals who seek to limit it, the vast majority seek only to convince people that they shouldn’t be assholes. I’m looking at you, Limbaugh.

I’m not a constitutional scholar or even a political science major, so feel free to take my opinions on this issue with a grain of salt, but I think that what far-right conservatives are referring to when they say “free speech” is very different from what moderates, liberals, and, yes, the Founding Fathers meant by it.

First of all, the right to free speech–and the rest of the First Amendment rights–constitutes a restriction on the government, not on private individuals or institutions. For instance, here are some things the government cannot do in the United States:

  • order a newspaper not to publish a piece that portrays the administration in a negative light
  • forbid individuals from forming a new political party
  • pass a law making it illegal to utter a racist slur
  • criminalize the production, sale, and/or possession of pornography
  • ban a violent film from being produced or screened

In certain cases, of course, the government can make some restrictions on free speech in order to keep people safe–a practice that many Libertarians consider unconstitutional, showing how differently the Constitution can be interpreted by different people. However, for now, that remains an acceptable use of the government’s powers. For instance, the government can ban:

  • the production, sale, and possession of child pornography
  • yelling “fire” in a crowded theater (incidentally, why is the example always a theater? It can be any crowded room.)
  • revealing classified military information
  • publishing libel
  • minors from buying pornography, cigarettes, alcohol, or lottery tickets

However, as I said, First Amendment rights pertain to actions by the government, not by individuals or businesses. Here are some things that are NOT in violation of free speech that many conservatives seem to think are:

  • a company firing an employee who has brought it negative attention
  • a newspaper or radio channel choosing not to syndicate a column or show anymore because it does not fit with the outlet’s purpose or philosophy
  • an advertiser pulling its ads from an outlet with which it no longer wants to do business
  • a group of consumers starting a petition asking for any of the above to happen

Limbaugh’s fans would do well to note that these things are not violations of free speech. They’re capitalism at work. If consumers show that they no longer want to support a company that does business with such a cretin, then these companies are entitled to do what it takes to preserve their customers’ loyalty.

And another thing that isn’t a violation of free speech: telling someone that they’re an idiot and should shut up. If Limbaugh has the right to spew his idiocy into the public sphere, the rest of us have the right to label it as such.

And really–now I might be getting too off-topic–these conservatives who are so desperate to ensure that Limbaugh’s liberty goes unrestrained might want to focus instead on the very real, very flagrant abuses of individual rights that the U.S. government actually does perpetrate.

But strangely, these are often the very abuses that Limbaugh and his ilk support.

Funny how that works.

Limbaugh Really Should Educate Himself About Birth Control

Up until this week, those of us with a shred of optimism and/or naivete could have pretended that the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ perspectives on birth control were due to something as benign as “differing beliefs.”

However, now that Rush Limbaugh has run his mouth on the subject, I think we can all agree that much of the conservative opposition to birth control is due not to differing beliefs that are equally legitimate and should be respected, but to simple, stupid ignorance.

The following is probably common knowledge now, but I’ll rehash it anyway:

  • Sandra Fluke, a 31-year-old Georgetown University law student, was proposed by the Democrats as a witness in the upcoming Congressional hearings on birth control. Her history of feminist activism and her previous employment with a nonprofit that advocated for victims of domestic violence made her an appropriate witness for their side.
  • Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, turned her down because, he claimed, her name had been submitted too late.
  • The resulting panel of witnesses for the Congressional hearings turned out to consist of absolutely no women whatsoever, which is really funny in that not-actually-funny-way because hormonal birth control of the sort whose mandated insurance coverage was being debated is only used by women/people with female reproductive systems.
  • A week later, she testified for House Democrats, mentioning that birth control would cost her $3,000 over three years. Lest anyone misinterpret her argument as being solely about those slutty women’s desire to have tons and tons of sex, she also mentioned her friend with polycystic ovary syndrome who developed a cyst because she was denied coverage for birth control pills (which would’ve helped because they would’ve reinstated a regular menstrual cycle).

A few days later, Rush Limbaugh decided to insert his expert opinion into the discourse surrounding mandated insurance coverage of birth control. His expert opinion?

What does it say about the college coed Susan Fluke [sic], who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute. She wants to be paid to have sex.

The next day, he clarified his views:

So, Ms. Fluke and the rest of you feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it, and I’ll tell you what it is. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch.

And the next day (allow me to shamelessly quote Wikipedia):

The following day Limbaugh said that Fluke had boyfriends “lined up around the block.”[18] He went on to say that if his daughter had testified that “she’s having so much sex she can’t pay for it and wants a new welfare program to pay for it,” he’d be “embarrassed” and “disconnect the phone,” “go into hiding,” and “hope the media didn’t find me.”[19]

I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by explaining how misogynistic Limbaugh’s comments were, especially since plenty of excellent writers have done so already. However, it continually shocks me how he gets away with saying things that are not only offensive and inflammatory, but simply inaccurate.

First of all, a primer for anyone who’s still confused: except for barrier-based forms of birth control (i.e. condoms and diaphragms), the amount of birth control that one needs does not depend on how much sex one is having. Hormonal birth control works by preventing ovulation, and in order for it to work, it has to be taken regularly and continually. For instance, you take the Pill every day, or you apply a new patch every week, or you get a new NuvaRing each month, or you get a new Depo-Provera shot every three months. You stick to this schedule whether you’re having sex once a week or once a day or ten times a day. You stick to it if you’re having sex only with your husband, and you stick to it if you’re having sex with several fuck buddies, and you stick to it if you’re a prostitute and have sex with dozens of different people every day.

Same goes for IUDs, which last for years.

Therefore, when Limbaugh says that those who support mandated insurance coverage of birth control are “having so much sex [they] can’t pay for it,” he’s not merely being an asshole. He’s also simply wrong.

And for the record, he didn’t even get her name right. It’s Sandra, not Susan. One word of advice for you, Limbaugh: if you’re going to call someone a slut and a prostitute, at least use their correct name. But I guess we should give him credit for knowing which letter it starts with.

I don’t care what your views are on mandated insurance coverage of birth control. I don’t care what your views are on how much or what kind of sex women should be allowed to have (as much as they want and whichever kind they want, in my opinion). Because whatever your views are on these things, you have to agree that these questions should not be getting answered by people who have absolutely no understanding of how these things actually work.

For instance, Limbaugh completely ignored the part of Fluke’s testimony in which she described the problem faced by her friend with polycystic ovary syndrome. This friend’s predicament has nothing to do with sex. Absolutely nothing. For all we know, she’s a virgin.

After all, polycystic ovary syndrome isn’t caused by anything that involves sex. The current medical opinion is that it’s probably caused by genetics.

Unlike some feminists, I don’t think that men should be excluded from debates about women’s health. But men (and women) who show little or no understanding about women’s health should absolutely be excluded from these debates.

You wouldn’t let a doctor who believes that babies come from storks deliver your baby. You wouldn’t let a mechanic who doesn’t know how an engine works work on your car. And you shouldn’t let politicians and commentators who think that you need more birth control if you have more sex decide whether or not birth control will be covered by your insurance.

And, for the record, I also don’t think that Congressional hearings on birth control should look like this: