The Danger of “Dress Like You Deserve Respect”

When a Hill staffer told Malia and Sasha Obama to “dress like you deserve respect not a spot at the bar” the reaction was pretty much as I expected: outrage combined with some discussion about their length of their skirts: variations of “their skirts are a little short, but that was out of line,” and “they are teenagers who are years from being able to drink.”

What I didn’t see was anyone saying “actually, they deserve respect no matter what they wear or what faces they make (or don’t make) because they are people.”

And, while we are are at it, a bar vs. respect should not be an either or proposition. Women getting dressed for a night out, regardless of their skirt length deserve respect. As do women dressed for any other occasion.

This “dress like you deserve respect” message seems like the other side of the “she was asking for it” coin. We need to teach both our girls and boys that clothes do not make the person, and all people deserve to be treated as human and with dignity. No one was asking for it. Everyone has humanity.

Stories about college rape, about police brutality*, about black boys in hoodies, and about first daughters in skirts show us how far we are from internalizing that lesson.

* separate post on this to come

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Privilege and Outrage: Why I Care About Ferguson

This is 2014. Photo: Associated Press

On the one hand, this should be the shortest post ever: “Because I am human and American,  I care about human rights, our constitution, racism, and poverty.” Done. Hit publish and walk away.

On the other hand, a lot of people who look like me, live near me, and have similar backgrounds to me, don’t see it that way.

The last time I found myself completely unable to stop reading a news story, was when it felt really really personal. When I finally gave myself a news break, I felt relief and calm. This time, I turned off my computer on Friday evening and didn’t turn it back on until Sunday night. When I did, I felt guilty, because Ferguson is not just about Michael Brown, it’s not just about protesters or journalists who are being stopped from doing their job. It’s not just about Ferguson. It’s about the black kid who gets pulled over by the cops ten times a month. It’s about schools with just over 50 percent graduation rates. It’s about segregation in the year 2014. It’s about the criminal justice system in this country. It’s about black boys who are taught to never call the cops. It’s about systemic racism. (Don’t believe me? Take a look at the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Read this. And this. And this.  And this).

And, because I’m white, I can turn off the news and I have the option to tune all of that out. I don’t live with that systemic racism, so when I turn off the news, I have the privilege of tuning it out. My friends, co-workers, fellow citizens, are not so lucky.

When I think about why this is the news story that I can’t stop reading about, I think about the West Wing‘s Toby Ziegler reaction to the shooting in Rosslyn:

Toby: Why does it feel like this? I’ve seen shootings before.

President Bartlet: It wasn’t a shooting, Toby, it was a lynching. They tried to lynch Charlie right in front of our eyes.

To head it off at the pass: yes. I know that the West Wing is not real. I know that in that fictional world, Charlie was shot at by white supremacists and that in the real world, it’s likely that Darren Wilson’s motives were not overtly racist.

Wilson may have shot in fear, but that fear probably has roots in the way our society portrays black men: as dangerous and disposable. Michael Brown’s death may not have been a lynching, but it drove to the surface a lot of anger about a lot of racial injustices. It exposes my country’s darker side, the demons that we have not conquered, the demons we haven’t even really tried to fight because it’s more comfortable to ignore them. 

Yes: “We.” This should be a problem for everyone.

Last week, a commenter on Jezebel said  something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t make this about race, so that everyone could be outraged.” But, you don’t have to be the victim to be outraged. Exercise empathy muscles. Be outraged because it’s unacceptable not because it could happen to you. Educate yourself. Learn that most protesters are not looters. Check your language. Are you making gross generalizations? Are you saying, “not to be racist” or “no offense, but…”? Ask yourself, how can I change myself and how can I change the system, no matter how small an impact. (Does anyone have an answer to the latter question? Let me know!)

In response to a piece from The Forward   “Why Jews Should Care About Ferguson”, someone on Facebook wrote.

“Would you be scared to open your shop there past 9pm? Now? Exactly, so cut it. You have no stake in the game. But those with shops over there do. So how can you belittle their concern for safety?”

Nobody in the thread or in the article had justified the looting. The idea that we somehow shouldn’t or are not allowed to care about the broad underlying injustice because we don’t know what it’s like to be store owners in Ferguson is even more mind-boggling than the idea that you should only be outraged if you are black. I have a stake in this game. We all should. 

I am outraged because as a Jew I believe that I cannot ignore the oppression of others just because things have gotten easier for my people and my family over the decades. We are asked to always remember that we were once slaves and to treat others accordingly.

I am outraged because I remember how uncomfortable it was to be told before a school field trip that any misbehavior in the museum would reflect badly on all Jews everywhere, and the way that information about Michael Brown has been handled by the police, by some parts of the media, and by the Internet reminds me that black boys and men carry a burden that is similar but many times heavier. (I don’t want to link to it, but google Michael Brown Marijuana and then think back to high school).

I am outraged because as a (former) journalist, I believe that the rights of freedom of press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and redress of grievances should not be corralled and must be protected even, and especially, when protecting them calls into question structures of power, and the status quo. Even when its scary or difficult. I agree with the police who believe it is part of their job to protect these rights not with the police who believe it is their job  defend against them. I am outraged because I love this country and part of that love comes from being able to criticize its failings

I am outraged  because I agree with  former Madison, Wisconsin Police Chief David Couper, who wrote, “In a democracy, police have a very complex role compared to what is expected of the police in other systems. The power of the state must be balanced with the rights of an individual; other systems have no balance requirement—only to use the power given them by the state. Uniquely, police in a democracy don’t exist solely to maintain order on behalf of the state, but also to assure that the fundamental rights guaranteed to every citizen are protected in the process.”

I am outraged because as a white person, I automatically benefit from systems, perceptions, and stereotypes that hurt others and I’m not OK with that.

I am outraged because as an American I want to live in a country that lives up to the values enshrined in the constitution.

I am outraged because I believe that everyone’s life is enriched when everyone has opportunities that allow them to reach their full potential. I believe that the American Dream should not be reserved for those who do not have to overcome poverty, sub-par public services, or bigotry.

I am outraged because as a human I believe that skin color should not serve as a barrier for entry, that the poor should not be treated as less-than, that failing students should not be dismissed as net-losses.

I am outraged because as a human I understand that teenage deaths are tragedies, whatever the cause.

I am outraged because as a person, I believe that we could be doing better, and not trying makes me furious.

I am outraged because racism even in its most subtle forms should be considered outrageous. Full stop.

Our Children

A memorial to a student killed in Chicago. Image from This American Life from their radio show on gun violence at Harper High School in Chicago.

“I’d rather have ten kids be killed in Chicago than have my house broken into…. Do you know how scary it is to have your house broken into when you are in it?”

I think my jaw literally dropped when a Harvard graduate student (at a non-HKS school) said that to me this weekend. He might have been saying that to get a reaction from me (it worked) but he said it, which was unfathomable to me whatever  his reason was.

The underlying argument doesn’t work from either side. It’s not clear that stricter gun laws alone will save Chicago’s kids, since most of the shooters don’t have legal guns anyway. The correlation between gun laws and number of guns also isn’t entirely clear; it (unsurprisingly) depends on the substance of the gun laws.The solution needs to be more comprehensive, for sure. And, it’s also not clear to me that guns prevent home invasions. I’ve had a really hard time finding data that showed that gun ownership leads to fewer gun invasions.

But the inflammatory statement isn’t really about gun control. It’s about empathy. It’s about the speaker not knowing anyone who was killed with a gun, but he does know someone whose home was broken into. That’s not surprising since the burglary rate is far higher than murder rate, but he also probably doesn’t know any public school teenagers living in Chicago, let alone living in the neighborhoods most affected by gun violence.

I was privileged to be able to take a class with Robert Putnam last semester. He spoke throughout the semester about the loss of a sense of “our children,” the sense that we are all responsible for each other, outside of our own families. It’s tricky to build the bridging social capital needed to make sure that people with immense privilege debating laws in Cambridge Massachusetts (who, regardless of background have immense privilege by virtue of being Harvard students, and who, obviously, includes me as well) know teenagers whose lives are so full of gun violence that they walk straight down the middle of the street so that they have a few more seconds to run if shooting starts. 

My friend, Tanveer Ali, just wrote an excellent article arguing for more coverage of the victims of shootings.  There are arguments to be made for not covering every murder in the newspaper. The arguments are sad, and generally stem from the idea that the murders are   common (506 in Chicago in 2012) but also have a more positive angle, that writing about every murder in the newspaper makes the city seem like one defined by murder.

But Tanveer’s argument is compelling: “by striving to treat all victims as human, journalists and their audiences may well seek out further information on social, economic, and other factors that play directly into the numbers of violence. And those results would be a good first step in changing the homicide numbers.”

I think the empathy argument, the one I’ve been mulling over all weekend, is a trickier one to pin down: I’d like the media to tell stories that make people inside the beltways and the ivory tower to feel a little bit more that all victims  of violence are valuable and more similar to us than dissimilar.  I don’t know how to get the people who are most likely to talk about only the statistics that support their point of view and only about their own experiences to read things that challenge them, to listen to radio that tells stories about lives completely unlike their own.  But that doesn’t mean that media outlets should stop trying. This American Life did an incredible job going deep into the effects of gun violence on the families, staff, and students of Harper High School in Chicago. At the very end of the two-part radio show, Ira Glass went back to the statistics, to make sure that listeners knew that the problems and struggles and tragedies of Harper High were not unique to Harper High or to Chicago. But it was the stories of the individuals that made the radio show.

How we in the news media expand empathy is something that has no easy answer, and I am sure there are a lot of people who say it’s not our job. But a lot of journalists are working on it. We’re a minuscule part of the solution (and I haven’t even broached the topic of race). But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try our absolute hardest to expand the definition of “our children.”

P.S. On the issue of the gun control debate there is surely a problem of neither side knowing the other, a problem that The New  Republic appears to have tried to tackle recently by running an essay about a gun owner, but the question of empathy for the victims of violence (which can be expanded to non-gun violence as well) seems to me to be a bigger one, because people can stand up and demand action out of a sense that something must be done, even if they disagree on how it should be done.

Strong, Proud, Barnard Women (Updated)

Three of my friends and Barnard classmates show off our Barnard College pride before the Columbia University-wide commencement. (Yes, Barnard students wear the same robes as all other undergrad graduates at Columbia University)

I started writing a post about Barnard-Columbia relations in the wake of the announcement that President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker at Barnard College, but I decided it was too specific for a broad audience. But then, The New York Times decided it was a story worthy of a national newspaper.  And Jezebel followed up with a blog post. This letter is to Anna Bahr, the sophomore at Barnard who sent in the information about the comments on the campus blog, Bwog, to Jezebel.

If you don’t want to click on the links, here’s the one paragraph version of the back story (up to date through March 7): President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia College,  told Barnard that he would speak at Barnard’s commencement (likely a reflection of the central role women’s issues have taken in the current election); Barnard said “yes, please,” and the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who was scheduled to speak said “I’ll come another time.” Students got annoyed that Barnard was getting Obama instead of Columbia, and wrote nasty comments on the campus blog, Bwog. The New York Times picked up the story and quoted the President of Barnard as dismissing the comments (their verb, not mine) as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Students got annoyed and angry and asked for a better response, and the presidents of Barnard and of Columbia University issued another statement.

Here’s my response to one annoyed student who wrote into the feminist blog Jezebel, which is published by Gawker media.

Dear Anna,

As an alumna of Barnard I’ve been following this story with interest. I first heard that Obama was coming from a text from a fellow Barnard alumna. (You should know that the word “Barnard” will make you instant friends with not only other Barnard alumnae but also other Seven Sisters alumnae. It’s pretty great). I called her and we got really excited for Barnard and then, because we are now public policy students, we talked about the politics of it.

I’ve also been following it with rolled eyes. I suspect that this kind of conversation about the Barnard-Columbia relationship has been around since 1982, when Columbia became co-ed. The Internet just brought the insecurities to the surface and allowed people to express them with the kind of disgustingness that is only possible with anonymity.

Bwog is its own special (and often terrible) ecosystem. It was launched when I was in college, and I can tell you that it used to be much worse. People used to post terrible terrible things about individuals, naming them by name, and Bwog, then an infant publication, didn’t have a policy to deal with those kind of comments. I think that they do now, and I think that that level of vitriol has improved a bit.

This is all to say that everything and everyone grows up. Bwog has grown up, and the people posting on Bwog will grow up. I think that Barnard President Deborah Spar,  wasn’t simply dismissive, it was a description of reality.

You know as well as anyone that Barnard isn’t easier than Columbia. There is nothing intrinsic in Barnard’s distribution requirements that make them easier than Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, just wildly different. And a required thesis and a required major–which Barnard has and Columbia does not– certainly do not make completing a Barnard education easier than a Columbia education.

In a lot of ways, the schools are so totally different. There are different cultures; there are different attitudes from the administrators about what students should get from college experiences (See: Barnard offering Greek Games, a functional advising systems, student leadership awards, and the I ❤ BC Day for examples). There are different opportunities. And, of course, there are a lot of similarities. They share sports teams, clubs, and a school newspaper. And, Columbia University has a hand in conferring degrees to the students of both Columbia College and Barnard College (not to mention they also confer or have a hand in conferring degrees to the students of SEAS, the school of General Studies, Teachers College and a lot of other schools). I say “hand in conferring” because the degree is issued by both Barnard and Columbia, not just by Columbia.

But the main difference that people on those boards seem to be griping about when you cut through the crap? Admissions rate. Barnard has a higher admissions rate than Columbia College.

Long story short, I think that this is the reason that President Spar told the New York Times the nastiness in the comments  “probably is 19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” It’s not just dismissive. It’s reality. By the time junior year rolls around, SAT scores and admissions letters should feel distant. What seemed like the cornerstone of self worth as a senior in high school (how prestigious, according to admissions rates the college you chose is) should fade into new measures (how happy am I? Is this school a good fit? Am I getting an education I enjoy, and am challenged by?).

So, when people write that Barnard getting diplomas that are similar to Columbia College degrees somehow diminishes the value of a Columbia College degree, they are still stuck in the high school mentality. I wish there was a way to see who is commenting on Bwog, but I’d be really surprised if the people harping on admissions rate were seniors. Admissions rates should fade from view as other things become more important and better arbiters of your employability or all-around awesomeness.

Don’t take President Spar’s statement as simply dismissive (I mean, of course you can take it that way, but know that it might not be the only way to take it). It can also be seen as a statement of hope: that people grow up, and where you went to college matters less and less.

XKCD: "Duty Calls", http://xkcd.com/386/

Are the terrible comments terrible? Yes. But the first rule of surviving the Internet should be “don’t feed the trolls.”

The graduation requirements only matter in so far as how much you can apply the knowledge you have learned, along with your experiences outside of the classroom, to your life post-college.

The admissions statistics don’t matter at all.

The comments on Bwog don’t matter at all, either.

Love,
Leora

P.S. Do you know who the second person to text me about Obama’s speech was? A friend who is a Columbia College alumna. She also thought the news was cool.

UPDATES: President Deborah Spar and President Lee C. Bollinger have issued an updated statement that says, in part, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community”. 

On March 4, a day after the post about Obama speaking at Barnard went up on the site, Bwog put up a call to “help us rewrite our comment policy.” I  just noticed it while updating the links  for this post.

And, a current Barnard student makes a case for why the comments matter more than I think they do.

Game Change the Movie: A Review

The best parts of the movie Game Change was the look of panic that Ed Harris gives his staff when his audience turns really nasty against Obama. It gives a moment of humanity to a movie that otherwise is ripped straight from the headlines. And, while that might be enticing for a Law and Order episode, for a political movie, it feels like watching what I lived through by reading the news just last year.

It could be that I am just too much of a news junky to enjoy this movie, because everything felt like old hat. Plus, it seemed particularly mean to Palin–nothing in the movie surprised me, but after the first few scenes, we rarely see the charisma and following that she had. I would have liked to see a lot more about the people who were die hard Palin fans and fewer scenes (there were so many!) that said over and over again that she was unprepared for this.

Julianne Moore got the accent, but she wasn’t given much else to work with. It was basically just straight quotes from Palin. There were glimpses into how the campaign destroyed Palin, but there could have been more about how the campaign changed her personally.

The other parts that really worked in the movie were the interactions between the McCain staffers. Those moments were interesting and those characters showed a wide range of emotions and frustrations. I would have loved to see a movie that focused almost exclusively on them.

I am currently sitting in an event at which John Heilman, Mark Halperin — co-authors of the book– and Len Amato, the president of HBO films are speaking. Halperin just said that the movie was not only about the principals, but also about the staff. I really would have liked to see a whole lot more about the staff. I once heard that the television show The West Wing was originally not going to have anyone be the president; it was just going to be the staff, and sometimes the President’s back would be glimpsed but nothing more. They clearly scrapped that very early on in the West Wing development process, but it might have been something facsinating — a movie about McCain/Palin staff and about the Palin  fans–to do with this particular plot, where everyone already knows the principals.

Heilman, the other author of the book, said that the chapters of the book that dealt with Palin were “a series of big set pieces,” big events that shaped the campaign. Ultimately, the movie hits those set pieces, but rarely goes much deeper.