Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Department of Navel Gazing: My Year in Blogging and some Highlights

I have written 283 blog posts this year (so far!). Last December, I went on an official 6-week hiatus in order to finish my book, then came back on 2/12 in order to talk about the consequences of debating truth-claims about abuse in public.

In 2013, my highest monthly viewership was about 17,000. In 2014, I had 4000 in February, 40000 in March, 17000 in April, between 25000-30000 every month since. The Daniel Handler story drew an extra 20000+ views to the blog in the first few days after I posted it (this post has 23000 views now). I say views instead of readers because at least some of y'all read me regularly, for which I am both humbled and grateful. It's the regular readers that push me to keep writing and to try and get better.

Here are some posts from 2014 that I especially like and that you might have missed.

Guest Posts - I had three guest posts this year. I have no guest post policy and turn down about 99% of requests for guest posts (most of which are commercial in nature). But every so often, something special comes along:
Disability: Discourse, Representation, Violence
On Writing:
  • I talk about the consequences of Hyperscribal Society. What does it mean that we're all writing so much so much of the time?
  • I get asked a lot about whether starting a blog is a good way to get noticed as a writer. I have no idea. But I do have advice for readers - share from the bottom up. It's great to share the latest brilliant utterances of Famous Writer, but it's better to share the brilliant utterances of the person who isn't famous yet.
None of these hit my top-10 blogs for the year, but all of them I think deserve another look.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Line of Duty Deaths in 2014. Two Narratives.

There are two narratives about the police that I've been hearing a lot lately.

One is that police "all the time" get killed by their own service weapon. That means that "he reached for my gun," or even worse, "I thought he might be reaching for my gun," merits instant force. We saw that in the Michael Brown case, in which Wilson claimed that Brown was reaching for his gun. We also see it in this case, in which two New Jersey cops shout, "Stop trying to reach my gun" while illegally beating a man. Dash-cam video exonerated the victim and led to an indictment for the officers.

Two - the idea that thanks to the proliferation of high-powered privately owned weaponry, the police must militarize or be dangerously out-gunned.

Here are the 46 deaths (including K9 deaths) by gunfire in the line-of-duty in 2014. Each one is a tragedy. In most cases, thankfully, the criminals were caught and punished.

In 2014, I have found one case in which a police officer was killed with his own weapon. And one case in which a police officer was killed by someone else while a struggle for his weapon was ongoing.
  • Edwin O. Roman-Acevdo - He was killed by a second assailant with a firearm while the first assailant struggled with Roman-Acevedo over his service weapon.
  • David W. Smith was shot and killed with his own service weapon.
It clearly is a genuine risk and one that police are rightly trained to be careful about. It's something, however, that happens in TV shows frequently, and I suspect our fear of this risk overstates the actual likelihood. The problem is that if the officer can claim any kind of reasonable fear for his life, the law justifies the officer using deadly force. 

Here's the FBI data on Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs) being killed by their own weapon from 2004-2013. Again, it's a problem, it's a real risk point, but it's not an epidemic. "He reached for my gun" cannot be used as a blanket excuse to justify all violent outcomes. 

As for point two, that's a harder one to research, so I'll just offer these cases. There are 10 cases that I have found of "military-esque" weapons being used to kill police. Five of the deaths (and possibly 6) came from right-wing terrorists. 
It's definitely true that criminals can be heavily armed, and police need to be ready to deal with such situations. It is, in fact, why I am a big supporter of SWAT as a vital component of modern policing (and an equally big critic of the over-use of SWAT). There are bad people out there with lots of firepower; police need to be ready. They just need to stop using their military-like equipment in situations that don't require it.

But here's the clearest conclusion that I draw from reading these 46 sad cases:

It is WAY too easy for criminals to get firearms. Not high-powered military weapons, but common handguns. So many tragedies in which a "known felon" or "recent parolee" pulled a gun and killed an officer. If #BlueLivesMatter then #GunControlNow

Monday, December 22, 2014

#DontreHamilton - No Charges in Milwaukee Killing of Black Man with Disability

Picture by @deray on Twitter. Used with permission.
"I have a mental illness. Am I next"
Today news broke that the Milwaukee Country D.A. will not be charging a police officer who killed Dontre Hamilton. Hamilton was black, unarmed, and had psychiatric disabilities.

Hamilton was sleeping in a courtyard/park near a Starbucks, when Officer Christopher Manney came to search him. A struggle ensued and Manney eventually drew his firearm and shot Hamilton 14 times, killing him.

The case, of course, mirrors other cases in which law enforcement killed unarmed black men and were not charged. Manney was fired for not following procedure. The D.A. announced, however:

"This was a tragic incident for the Hamilton family and for the community," Chisholm wrote in his report. "But, based on all the evidence and analysis presented in this report, I come to the conclusion that Officer Manney's use of force in this incident was justified self-defense and that defense cannot be reasonably overcome to establish a basis to charge Officer Manney with a crime."

This is a fairly typical outcome. By the time the officer pulls his weapon, a lethal use of force is almost unavoidable. The laws protect police who have any kind of reasonable assumption of threat, even if they created the conditions that led to the threat. 

I'm especially struck, though, by Manney's comments, as reported earlier this year on BuzzFeed.
In his memo, Manney wrote that Hamilton had a “muscular build” and “most definitely would have overpowered … me or pretty much any officer I can think of, to tell you the truth. He was just that big, that muscular … I would say he would be impossible to control if you were one-man.”
Manney also described Hamilton as being “considerably younger than me, in much better shape than me, and much stronger and more muscular than me.”
But the autopsy results do not support Manney’s description. In the report, the medical examiner said that at the time of his death, Hamilton was a 169-pound, 5-foot-7 “well developed, overweight … adult-black male.”
This invokes, of course, the testimony of Darren Wilson and his description of the demonic visage of Michael Brown. It does seem that far too many police engage with black men with a built in fear, then respond to the perception of threat with quick escalation.

And then there's the disability issue. As I've written before, when disability and racial prejudice intersect, it's terrible dangerous. Hamilton is just the victim in the news today.

There will be someone else tomorrow, or next week, or soon anyway.

It's got to stop.

2014 Published Writing - My year in review

Last March, a terrible story made its way through my social media feeds. A woman with Down syndrome had been raped. Her rapist was convicted. Then, a judge vacated the conviction because the woman "didn't act enough like a victim." I kept waiting for someone in the mainstream press to write a more nuanced piece than "this is horrible," because while it was indeed horrible, it's also the kind of thing that happens in rape cases all the time. If we think it's horrible in this case involving disability, then it should also be horrible in ALL cases.

So I wrote about that for CNN. It got tens of thousands of hits, thousands of shares, and positive letters sent to me by some really awesome people and organizations, pleased to see this denunciation of rape culture on CNN.

A few days later, a job ad showed up for an early modern English professor that said, "MUST PROVIDE EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE." I blogged about it, it got a few thousand hits, so I wrote a more formal essay on it for the Chronicle of Higher Education. It stayed on their "most viewed" list for most of the week.

I pitched a regular column to the Chronicle and started talking to the folks over in Vitae about writing for them too. I wrote about 6 essays to prove to the CHE folks I could do it, and they all went into various queues (published over the next four months).

I wrote three more columns for CNN in May. And I was off.


Chronicle of Higher Education Essays: 21
CNN Essays: 14
Al Jazeera America Essays: 4
Essays I put on HuffPo: 2
Vice: 1
Reproductive Health Reality Check: 1
Co-written for The Atlantic: 1
Inside Higher Ed (University of Venus): 1
Post that I shared with Good Men Project and then ended up on Business Insider (uncompensated): 1
Blog post I revised for BLOOM: 1

Total published pieces (counting Bloom and GMP): 47.

Here are a few of my favorite essays.
Thanks for reading. Thanks for sharing and commenting. Thanks for sending me material. I'm grateful.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Disability and the Murder of Two NYPD Officers

Yesterday, Ismaaiyl Brinsley made an incendiary Instagram post, shot his girlfriend, traveled to NY area, killed two police officers, and then killed himself.

The simple narrative is that this was about Garner and Brown.  Melissa McEwan and others would like us to keep all three victims in mind, and perhaps that complicates the narrative.

In the meantime, I had a troll yelling at me for the "negro retard" who killed the police officers (said troll has since deleted his account), and so I feel it might be helpful to talk a little bit about disability and murder.

It's likely that Brinsley was in the midst of a serious mental health crisis. I don't have any diagnostic information (and would appreciate links). He was also a career criminal. As with all such tragedies we must apply an intersectional lens to figuring out what happened. I am just going to talk about mental health.

Here's what we know:
On Sunday, it emerged that Mr. Brinsley might have had mental health issues.
During an August 2011 plea hearing in Cobb County, Ga., he was asked: “Have you ever been a patient in a mental institution or under the care of a psychiatrist or psychologist?”
According to a court record, he responded yes. The record did not provide any other details.
I have spent much of the last year reporting on killings and harm of people with disabilities by law enforcement. I argue that police are too quick to resort to deadly force and have made a lot of arguments about why and how to reform police strategy. Here's what I may not have said clearly enough.

There will be places in which a person with a disability, often a psychiatric one like schizophrenia, will present a clear danger to themselves or others. At that point, police are justified in using force. The problem is - how does an officer determine the likelihood of such a threat? My #cultofcompliance argument is that police are currently too likely to interpret non-compliance as imminent threat, and so respond with force, often deadly force. People with disabilities and people of color are most often mis-identified as threats (and when they are both, really dangerously often) or handled in such a way as to increase rather than decrease the threat level.

There are no simple answers. There are, though, complex answers. I hope to talk about those complex answers a lot in the coming year.

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Boy and a Pool Noodle - Discipline and Special Needs

A few days ago over on my Facebook page I shared the story of the school district that took away a blind child's cane and replaced it with a "pool noodle." The cane technically belongs to the school district, and when the bus attendant reported that he was waving it in the air and potentially hitting someone with it, they confiscated it. Instead, they gave him a nerf pool noodle to replace it.

The school has apologized and reversed its decision. Here's a good blog post on the story, with these vital points:
To me, this isn’t the issue. Dakota is still a young boy. It’s entirely possible that on occasion, he’s used his cane in questionable ways. It’s also possible he’s still learning how to control his cane, and not accidentally bump it into people or trip them up. The point to me is that the school should have a more thoughtful set of guidelines and procedures for how to deal with Dakota if he should misbehave, as most 8-year-olds misbehave from time to time. And a central tenet of any disciplinary plan should be to never take away an assistive device a child depends on for independence and mobility. This would apply to canes, crutches, a speech device, a wheelchair, or any other equipment that helps them with their particular disability.
I've been troubled by how many people I've seen on social media saying: "Well the kid acted up, of course the school had to take away his stick!" That is the wrong attitude. Below, I'll offer some thoughts about why.

Here are my thoughts.
  1. A cane for someone with vision impairment is a specific piece of assistive technology, designed to give maximum tactile input to the user. It is not just a stick.
  2. The school and parents have not reported on the precise incident, but the boy's parents say it was likely just a misunderstanding. That he lifted his cane in the air and the bus attendant decided it meant he was trying to hit someone.
  3. I am a critic of zero tolerance policies and I see them as a component of the #cultofcompliance. Schools have decided, as a reaction to the fear of violent incidents on their grounds, that ANY sign of violence, especially weapon-driven violence, must be met with the maximum disciplinary response (students suspended for: drawing a gun, having a picture with a gun, pointing his finger at another child).
  4. While zero tolerance can apply to anyone, it is not meted out equally (studied on black preschoolers suspended for fighting). The question is how do the discipline imposing forces interpret typical kid behavior, which includes real fighting, pretend fighting, fake weapon art and weapon play, and so forth. This kind of prejudicial interpretation also applies to kids with special needs.
  5. When kids with special needs act in unpredictable ways, too many authority figures panic. Whereas a typical child would likely get verbal discipline and verbal interventions, there's a presumed communicative wall making it harder for the usual interventions to work. Moreover, when dealing with assistive technology, there's a tangible thing you can take away. No teacher would stitch up a child's eyes. No teacher would duct tape over a child's mouth, and yet my son's "voice," his communication device, could be taken from him. I've heard from parents of older kids who wouldn't stop talking with their device, who had their device removed. That is simply not acceptable practice. Can you imagine a child in a wheelchair who won't sit still being dumped on the ground? Yes, they'd sit still, but it's a failure and it's abuse. Taking away this child's cane is abuse. 
  6. I blogged the other day about two 6-year-olds placed in restraints due to behavior issues. I acknowledged that misbehavior can be complicated. Oppositional defiant disorder can be tough (although a neuroscientists I know argued that it's often mis-diagnosed autism, but that's a different subject). Sometimes, you're going to need an intervention. Here's my mantra though - any intervention, accommodation, or response to special needs that ends up with handcuffs on a six year old is a failed intervention. The same can be said of any intervention that ends up denying access to an assistive technology device.
Here's my core question. I'm glad the school district gave back the cane, but have they actually learned anything? Next time a child with special needs requires an intervention, will they change their procedures?

And speaking of learning, the root for the word discipline comes from the Latin for teaching or instruction. So what does Dakota learn? He learns that by lifting his cane in the are, acting out in any way, authority will remove his means of navigating the world independently.

That's exactly the opposite of the lesson we want to teach.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, public intellectual

Today in the Chronicle of Higher Education I have a profile of Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University. I'm interested in his work as a public intellectual and defender of the traditions of liberal learning. There are lots of other people who make similar arguments (which is not a criticism. They are GOOD arguments!). But few have the kind of influence over one of the elite institutions of American higher education.

Since I wrote my profile, Roth wrote this for The New Republic (before it imploded):
In the nineteenth century, Emerson urged students to “resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism.” He emphasized that a true education would help one find one’s own way by expanding one’s world, not narrowing it: notice everything but imitate nothing, he urged. The goal of this cultivated attentiveness is not to discover some ultimate Truth, but neither is it just to prepare for the worst job one is likely to ever have, one’s first job after graduation.
Instead, the goal of liberal education is, in John Dewey’s words, “to free experience from routine and caprice.” This goal will make one more effective in the world, and it will help one continue to grow as a whole person beyond the university. This project, like learning itself, should never end.
The criticism of Roth will be that this is all easy for him to say, but that first-generation college students need jobs! College is too expensive! Also jobs! All of which is absolutely true, and Roth acknowledges these issues in his other work. But he does seem to want to get us to agree on what the ideal should look like, and then we can work on cost issues.

Roth is also working at Wesleyan to encourage his faculty to do more public work. When I interviewed him, I asked about how this worked (in the context of my piece, But Does it Count?) I believe that if we want academics to engage, and I think we do, we have to make it count. In a followup email, Roth wrote:
We established a faculty task force to examine how to evaluate “non-traditional scholarship.” The impetus came from wanting to acknowledge public and engaged scholarly work. There was genuine buy-in by the tenured faculty, though we still have not determined genuine formulae for quality. There probably aren’t such formulae, in my view, and we will have to proceed with evaluators and metrics on a case-by-case basis.
This seems right to me. That you establish the principle to valorize public work, you deal with it case by case, and then those cases provide precedents for going forward. I think, as I've said elsewhere, that senior faculty members have to go first. They apply for promotions, sabbaticals, and grants based on public work, then those can serve as precedents for junior faculty to do the same.

Finally, Roth is still very much a faculty member in some ways, especially intellectually. I think this runs generally against the grain of university presidencies. For example, Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester, wrote for Inside Higher Education that, "The days of faculty participating as a matter of course in admissions decisions or of presidents being drawn regularly from the ranks of the faculty at their own institutions are over." That's a pretty bold statement from Rosenberg, and I believe Roth serves as a counter-example.

So I asked Roth about what he thinks about faculty becoming presidents. He said:
It is probably important to have had some time in administration, just so one is informed about budgets, fundraising.. and the other systems of governance. Most faculty never have to deal with these things.

Most administrators never have to deal with teaching, and this can be a big problem in the presidential role. Presidents should see themselves as educators as well as administrators. Faculty members can surely do this. I suppose most wouldn’t want to, and many faculty leaders see themselves as antagonists vis a vis the administration. I certainly did. Perhaps this is why some boards of trustees are skeptical about faculty members as presidents.

But university leadership is educational leadership — and I wish that more professors would be interested in it. A friend said to me when I took my first job as president: "you’ve written books, how about trying to build a bookcase?" You don’t build a bookcase if you don’t love books.
And Roth, I am sure, loves books.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Disabled Black Man Holding Spoon Killed by Police. Racists Cheer.

In Texarkana on Monday, a woman called 911 (click for the call) at around 2 AM to report a person in her garage. The woman was frightened and said that she heard banging on the windows from the person in the garage. A police office came to investigate, and found an African-American man holding something in his hand. The officer said the individual came at him in an aggressive manner, and so fired at him, killing him.

The man was Dennis Grigsby. From the article, "Family members say Grigsby had mental problems." He was holding a spoon, the officer said with the handle up, and the officer thought it was a knife.

The local NBC affiliate reports:
"Grigsby then allegedly made an aggressive move towards the officer while carrying a metal object. The officer said he ordered Grigsby to stop but he continued to approach, forcing the officer to fire a shot into Grigsby's chest."
His mother said.
"He was real sweet. He would never hurt anybody. He had a mental illness," said Evelyn Grigsby, Dennis Grigsby's Mother.
She was asleep inside their home when the shooting happened and she says she didn't know her son had left home.
I don't have any information on Dennis' disability, but readers of this blog know how these stories play out, because they happen again and again and again. In this case, Dennis wandered from his house, ended up in the garage, and then started making noise. Perhaps he was trying to get out and was confused. Perhaps he merely was interested in the spoon and the windows. We don't know.

The police officer demanded he comply and shot him when he didn't. It's fairly clear to me that the police officer followed his training, although a man alone in a garage with a metal object is, I believe, someone you could back away from instead of forcing compliance. That's a police strategy point I come back to a lot. There are often other options unless someone is in imminent danger, but we lack the details to judge this one right now.

UPDATE: Notice, though, how the police are reporting the story. Scott Eric Kaufman (of RawStory, but in an email conversation, and quoted with permission), said: "And really, "shank of the spoon"? They're pre-weaponizing it to make the shooting more plausible."

So, another person with disabilities killed by police, as is true of at least 50% of all people killed by police. This one had a spoon. Whether or not the officer should be held accountable is a question I can't answer, but I can demand that this be considered a tragedy and that our thoughts be with Dennis and his family.

That's not, of course, what's happening, at least not in some places. I want to focus now on the combination of hate, mistrust, ignorance, and ableism in this Facebook thread from the local news, in which some white folks show just how much they either don't get it or don't care. You can click on their profiles, see their beautiful children, their boats, their love of football, their pretty lives, all while reading their lack of empathy for Dennis.

It's a morass of pro-violence speech, reinforcing the #cultofcompliance, saying that if you don't obey a cop, you deserve to die. One says she feels so sorry ... for the cop. Few express sadness for the victim. Many bluster with bravado, saying that if someone broke into their home, they'd kill them before the cops had a chance (and I believe them). Lots of comment trashing liberals and the liberal media. Lots of comments linking this killing to Garner and Brown and so many others.

It's loaded with ableism, people saying that if Grigsby was so "mentally challenged," he should have been in a home. Here's a sampling.

  • Brandy Thorn If he was that mental then he should have been in a home not someone else home!
  • Jo Ann Hill Odom Thank you Brian , if he was that mentally challenged , why was he not in a facility that could take care of him ? Does not make sense that he was able to make the decision to even break into someone's house if that mentally ill . Mental illness is a very bad thing for any family to deal with and sometimes they can not control the person with the mental illness because they get out of control , so I do understand the hurt that his parents and family are feeling ! I do understand both sides if this story and I think Channel 12 is doing a great job with this story cause they are covering both sides of it with all the details they have ! We have to have officers on the street to protect us ! If not what would this world be ???? Just saying ......
  • Dakotah Klein Put you damn hands up!!! It's not that hard. Even go to the ground. You retards wanna play badasses till you get 3 in your chest.

  • And then there's this.

    Ray says - call a crackhead if you hate cops. 

    Stuart, in what I think is a libertarian critique, shows a picture of what is likely Nazi (or other fascist execution), saying "Never forget that this was legal at the time ...what unjust actions has your government codified into action?"

    Then Kenny says that everyone on death row should be treated this way, pistol to the back of the head. Save the taxpayers some money. 

    This is the divide in America. That even in a situation when police kill a black man with intellectual disabilities who was only holding a spoon, there's no sympathy, no empathy, and certainly no second thoughts. The Cult of Compliance lives on in these people. 

    Me and Voldemort (Why Academic Freedom in Extramural Utterances Matters)

    I had a new piece at the Chronicle yesterday about offensive speech and academic freedom. Deborah O'Connor, a Florida State lecturer, resigned after saying some really nasty things on a public Facebook page. In my piece, I compare her speech to the un-hiring of Steven Salaita, a case on which I've written a lot over the last few months.

    Here's a passage I had to cut from the essay (as it veered off the main thread), but that I think helps raise the stakes, in the sense that we are all at risk:
    I used to hang out on a Facebook page filled with interesting people from diverse political perspectives. We’d debate issues, disagree, and kept it all pretty civil. But then Voldemort, my nickname for a fanatical right-wing historian, would show up and start baiting me. I was, at the time, easily baited. Again and again, I would find myself writing profane responses, my temper flaring, my fingers slamming down on the keys. I never sent them, at least not the worst ones. I never told him to “Fuck off and die.” I never called him any offensive epithets.  But I was close, too close, too often. Eventually, I had to cut myself off from that community, just because I spent too much of my day being angry.
    Had I lost my temper, what implications should that have for my job? Voldemort could have screen-captured my comments and sent them to my university or to the press. The right-wing blogosphere is always eager for example of left-wing misconduct and angry or violent rhetoric. It could easily have become an issue.
    In the essay, I write:
    Last week Deborah O’Connor, a senior lecturer at Florida State University, was pushed to resign after making racist and homophobic comments on a public Facebook page. She said some pretty horrible things, like blaming Europe’s troubles on “rodent Muslims.” She also told a well-known gay hairstylist to “Take your Northern fagoot [sic] elitism and shove it up your ass. ”
    I am revolted by her remarks. However, I spent quite a lot of the fall arguing thatimpassioned political speech on a personal social-media account did not justify the “de-hiring” of Steven Salaita. As has been well reported, Salaita was hired for a tenured position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign when stories about his angry tweets regarding the war in Gaza reached the trustees and chancellor of the university. They canceled his appointment. Every time I encountered someone justifying Salaita’s firing by emphasizing what they considered the gross anti-Semitism of his tweets, I responded with the following: If we do not stand on principle for people with whom we disagree, we have no principles.
    I stand by that analysis.

    So what is owed O'Connor? The key is to remember that the principles of academic freedom do not say that all speech is protected speech; rather, it argues that there are broad protections of most kinds of conduct. If an institution thinks someone has crossed those lines, then the burden is on the institution to follow (or at least explicitly offer) an appropriate due process, as outlined in the 1964 (rev 1989) AAUP Committee A Statement on Extramural Utterances.

    This should really not be controversial, but it often becomes so when we are faced with someone saying or doing awful things.

    I suspect O'Connor is not, in fact, able to teach without bias. But it's possible, and I'd like the burden of proof to be on FSU to prove it.

    Monday, December 15, 2014

    H.R. 1447 Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013

    Congress just passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act of 2013. You can read the text of the bill here. It's supposed to get departments to regularly report data on deaths in custody, which is badly needed (it's shocking how hard it is to get that data).

    In a public Facebook post, activist Leroy Moore says:
    You know what I am going to say, Where is disability and GBLTQ? "A bill passed by both chambers of Congress and headed to President Barack Obama's desk will require local law enforcement agencies to report every police shooting and other death at their hands. That data will include each victim's age, gender and race as well as details about what happened."

    Here's the key text of the law.

        (a) In General.--For each fiscal year after the expiration of the 
    period specified in subsection (c)(1) in which a State receives funds 
    for a program referred to in subsection (c)(2), the State shall report 
    to the Attorney General, on a quarterly basis and pursuant to 
    guidelines established by the Attorney General, information regarding 
    the death of any person who is detained, under arrest, or is in the 
    process of being arrested, is en route to be incarcerated, or is 
    incarcerated at a municipal or county jail, State prison, State-run 
    boot camp prison, boot camp prison that is contracted out by the State, 
    any State or local contract facility, or other local or State 
    correctional facility (including any juvenile facility).
        (b) Information Required.--The report required by this section 
    shall contain information that, at a minimum, includes--
            (1) the name, gender, race, ethnicity, and age of the deceased;
            (2) the date, time, and location of death;
            (3) the law enforcement agency that detained, arrested, or was 
        in the process of arresting the deceased; and
            (4) a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the  

    Notice that  section 2 b) says at a minimum.

    If we want to make sure that disability, sexuality, religion, class, and whatever other kinds of data is collected, we need to push the DoJ to require or compile such variables as they come in.

    Because we do need that data. I was trying to write a sentence saying the number of people with disabilities killed by police over the last year, or last five years, or whatever. While I know how many cases I have, and I know specific studies in, say, Maine and New Mexico, we just don't have that data.

    And data feeds policy.

    And policy feeds change (as does organization, demonstration, direct action, and so much more).

    We need the data.

    Saturday, December 13, 2014

    Marco Polo and (not) Mary Sue

    Last week Vice published my review of Marco Polo, the new series from Netflix. I genuinely enjoyed watching it, despite the problems, most of which revolve around a character named . . . Marco Polo.
    Marco Polo has all the makings of a great series. There's intrigue, politics, battles, betrayals, assassins in the night, discussions of tax policy, executions, angst, torture, and gorgeous male and female bodies thrown at each other in epic martial arts battles and sex—sometimes simultaneously. Unfortunately, it also has a scrawny white guy named Marco Polo wandering through the scenes, often moping and confused.
    A friend of mine, when I quoted some of the review at her, noted that it was amusing to think of Marco Polo as a Mary Sue. "Mary Sue" is a description used to criticize characters that are unrealistic, often break the story, and often function as an audience insert.

    Marco Polo is absolutely this last one. He is, I think, the show's way of trying to draw in the young white kung-fu-loving male audience to the show. He's going to learn kung fu. He's going to have sex with Asian ladies, perhaps in large numbers (he has not yet been granted access to the harem, but the expectation that this is possible is set up in the end of the first episode). He's going to be granted access to the "mysteries of the East!"

    Fortunately, before I published a piece calling him a Mary Sue, I ran across some tweets from author (and friend) Seanan McGuire criticizing the gendered nature of Mary Sue. She directed me to this post of hers, which argues that the term is used largely to delegitimize certain kinds of female representation. McGuire writes:
    The definitions of Mary Sue are often contradictory, as are the definitions of her male counterpart, Gary Stu. That being said, I have seen many, many female protagonists accused of Mary Sue-ism, but have very rarely seen the opposite accusation leveled at male protagonists, even when the weight of the definition seems to point much more firmly at the males in the situation. Harry Potter is the son of two incredibly beloved, talented, respected wizards; he's never been exposed to the wizard world before the start of the series, yet is instantly one of the most skilled Seekers the Quiddich Team has ever seen; all his flaws turn out to be advantages; everyone loves him, or is instantly branded a villain for ever and ever and ever. Hermione Granger has worked hard for everything she has. She's the smartest girl in Gryffindor, but that's about it; she isn't naturally incredibly magically talented, or handed all her advantages for nothing. Yet I see her accused of Mary Sue-ism way more often than I see him accused of Gary Stu-ism.

    Half the time, "Mary Sue" seems to mean "female character." And that doesn't work for me, for a lot of reasons, including "I write female characters who aren't Mary Sues," and also, "if all women are Mary Sues, why does my hair get frizzy when it rains?" (I would totally be willing to be a Mary Sue if it meant my hair was always perfect and I could go to sleep wearing eyeliner without waking up the next morning looking like a raccoon.) Male characters get to be competent or obnoxious, skilled or clumsy, intelligent or ignorant, without being accused of being Mary Sues. Shouldn't female characters have the same luxury?
    I think this is right. The kinds of criticisms rendered on high-accomplishing female characters serve to say 'women can't do that.' Or, as McGuire writes, "When a female character is awesome, when she's the star, when she's the one the story is about, she runs the risk of being called a Mary Sue."

    Marco Polo functions as a designated audience insert. I could have called him a Gary Stu, and swapped the gender, but instead I'm just going to call him a designated audience insert. Or author wish fulfillment, since the creator, John Fusco, said, "I grew up with this great interest in Asia. And I was this unlikely Italian-American kid who loved the East, and I was always reading about ancient China. And you cannot go into that world without encountering Marco Polo."

    It is pretty cool when Fusco, I mean Marco Polo, learns kung-fu from Hundred Eyes, the blind martial arts master. Wish I could do that.

    Friday, December 12, 2014

    Holiday Party at the White House

    Me giving side-eye to GW
    This is me and George Washington. The picture was taken yesterday, 12/11, when we visited the White House for a holiday party.

    It was a lovely party. Lots of food and drink. I got to see the president make a few jokes (take the paper napkins, don't take the cloth napkins, don't break anything because only two years left on the lease), I didn't make it to the front of the rope line to shake hands or anything, and I got to have a night with my wife in DC without the kids. For the first time in about five years, we hired an overnight babysitter.

    I went, well, because hello, White House! But I really went because I had the chance to meet activists both in the non-profit world and the federal government. I am a lousy activist, at least in the conventional sense. I am not an organizer of face-to-face or online campaigns. I am not a policy writer. There are many things that I am not.

    I am a writer. I have, through lots of luck and hard work, carved out some access to major media and hopefully said some useful things about disability, in particular. But none of this matters without the people doing the work in the communities, often less visibly, and I was grateful for the chance to meet them. Also, it was surreal. A few years ago I was a pretty good medieval historian at a small university, mostly unknown even in my own field. Yesterday, my wife and I went to the White House. I hope you'll forgive me for taking a moment to be happy in public and to share my happiness with you.

    Thank you for reading.
    Thank you for pushing me, sending me stories, and telling me when I inevitably make mistakes.

    And now, I'm getting back to work.

    I am 2300 words into my book proposal. I hope to be able to tell you more in a few days.

    Wednesday, December 10, 2014

    Restraints - Handcuffs on 6 year old is a sign of failure and #cultofcompliance

    In Georgia, a 6 year old with special needs was placed in handcuffs:
    When a Georgia mother arrived at her 6-year-old son’s school last week in response to a call that he was misbehaving, she was greeted by a shocking surprise: Her first grader was in handcuffs.

    Lakaisha Reid’s 6-year-old son Patrick is a special needs student at Pine Ridge Elementary in Stone Mountain, Ga. On the morning of December 5, Reid got a call from the school asking her to pick up her son and bring him home early. “They said he wasn’t having a good day,” Reid tells Yahoo Parenting. “My husband and I walked into the school and heard my son yelling and screaming.” The couple found him in a room on his knees with his hands cuffed behind his back. The school resource officer was standing behind Patrick, holding him in place.
    In Washington, a 6 year old with special needs has been told he can't ride the bus without, basically, a straitjacket. 
    Dean's son, Wyatt, is a first grade student the Hood Canal School in Skokomish. The 6-year old was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, a behavioral issue, when he was younger, Dean says, and has had discipline issues on the school bus.
    The family now faces a tough decision: allow Wyatt to be restrained on the bus or find alternate transportation to school.
    "It just flat-out violates everything as far as any civil rights I would think anybody would ever have," Dean said.
    The district calls the restraints a "safety vest," and says it only uses them after multiple discussions with both a child and the parents, Superintendent Shawn Batstone said Tuesday. Parents must sign off on use of the restraints before they are deployed.
    Behavioral issues can be really challenging for everyone, including the child in question. I don't know all the specifics of either case. I wonder, though, why there isn't a 1:1 aide for Wyatt on the bus? Why use a transportation system that requires the bus driver to do anything but drive? My son does not have specific behavioral disorders, but for the first year he had an aide on the bus every day (we put him on the regular bus as a means of increasing his degree of inclusion).

    Mostly, I just want to say this: Any intervention, accommodation, or response to special needs that ends up with handcuffs on a six year old is a FAILED INTERVENTION.

    Tuesday, December 9, 2014

    Social Media in the Workplace, especially Academia

    I have a meta-thesis about academic culture: It's no worse than anywhere else, but we tend to think we're better, and that's where the problems come in.

    Usually I'm talking about race, class, or gender. We think we're immune to the dominant trends of American society, so generally resist being told to change our ways. In today's essay for Vitae, I talk about power and social media. I think academics, particularly senior folk, are loathe to think of themselves as managers, as bosses, as supervisors, so end up treating their junior colleagues as ... colleagues. Except they are also simultaneously judging their senior colleagues and exercising all sorts of power over them. Our practices on social media need to reflect this reality.

    The essay tells the story of Jane Smith, a young professor with kids, who received a Facebook friend request from a Dean. I explore what it meant for her, interspersed with commentary about social media and the workplace in this age of never-ending work-life integration. I wrote:

    We live in a world in which our social and professional identities entangle so easily. The rise of the Internet and email, followed by the ability to access both from our phones, has stretched the hours of expected contact throughout the day. Many of us choose to habitually broadcast our lives on social media, placing our quotidian activities into a strange public-private record. We can, of course, avoid social media. We can choose not to allow our colleagues into our private online space. Such choices come with social costs and perhaps even missed professional opportunities.

    What we need, instead, are clear guidelines for how to handle such interactions in the best possible way. Here are my rules, rephrased to try to be clearer:


    Is that clear? Don't do it. Don't ask them. They will find you and send to you if you want to do it. When you send a friend request, you are pretending that they can accept or reject if they want to. They can't.

    I think we know this with our students, or most of us do anyway. We need to be mindful of these power dynamics with our colleagues as well.

    2. Accept 100% or 0% of friend requests from subordinates.

    Make a rule. Stick to it. Don't make it personal.

    3. Be mindful of power.

    In an amusing addendum, my Dean sent me an email asking, "What about Twitter?" I responded:

    I think Twitter has a different public/private dynamic (unless you have a private Twitter account, then the same applies). When you say something on Twitter, it's intentionally a public utterance. Not everyone realizes that, of course and people tweet out private thoughts that later get them in trouble. Still, reading someone's tweets, even hitting follow, is different than friending. The Facebook "Friend" suggests a kind of intimacy and a private space. It's also transactional in that when you send a friend request, the other person has to respond. Not so on Twitter. You tweet, the world decides whether they want to listen.

    The Follow does have a kind of status to it. It says - I think you're worth listening to, but the intimacy of Facebook isn't there.
     What do you think?

    Monday, December 8, 2014

    Lawful but Awful - Rethinking Police Strategy to Avoid Violence

    Louis Hayes is a Chicago area SWAT and CIT trained police officer trying to change certain core strategic approaches employed by police. He's got a new piece up about "lawful but awful" cases, many of which involve disability. Hayes writes:

    What I read from activists’ and advocates’ intelligent responses (SPECIAL NOTE: intelligent) to many of the high profile “Lawful But Awful” cases is a sense of officers needlessly rushing into action. While I dispute many of their claims in the recent national cases, they do have a point. In SOME cases, I see videos of officers creating their own jeopardy – by closing the distance, acting too quickly, moving in before gathering more information. When this is combined with the agency not properly training its officers in recognition of mental illness or disability, this is counter to any claim of “risk management.”
    Critics of the above stabilize mindset (generally from inside police work) claim this higher goal is too risky for officers and puts them at risk. I contend not. I argue that when taken from an analytical perspective of risk, I am not asking officers to accept more risk. Actually quite the opposite – expose officers to less risk, thereby needing less force to overcome the lower risk! I also advocate the complete empowerment of police officers to use quick, decisive force levels and options when necessary…up to and including deadly force.
    Hayes and I don't always agree (he's too fond of TASERs for my liking, for example), but I think he's one of the sharper voices from WITHIN the law enforcement community to recognize the challenges of reshaping policing.

    In fact, I just did a radio interview in which the host, politely, asked me how I respond to the accusation that I'm anti-cop. I wish I had this document at hand when answering. In fact, this kind of response can make the officers safer as well as protecting us and our civil liberties.

    Sunday, December 7, 2014

    Saturday, December 6, 2014

    The Hypereducated Poor - Adjuncts in Elle

    In Elle, Alissa Quart has a piece she calls The Hypereducated Poor. It explores the adjunct crisis by looking at the life of a Chicago-area professor, Brianne Bolin. She teaches composition. She has a son with cerebral palsy named Finn. I've met them both as we live in the suburb of Brookfield, though until this article, I didn't know her situation.

    She's an adjunct. She teaches a lot of composition at Columbia College in downtown Chicago. My understanding is that around 80% of all classes at Columbia are taught by adjuncts, but I cannot verify that number and will be glad to correct it. It's an arts school, so many of the classes are taught by artists in a sub-discipline, rather than full-time faculty. English composition, however, does not have that excuse.

    I think the phrase - hypereducated poor - is useful. It points out the ways in which we've created an educational system in which both students and their educators are learning a lot and earning less and less than previous generations.

    And it's hard. The article goes through the calculations that Bolin has to make to get by, and I know that some of my friends will sneer at her and question her decisions, her shopping venues, her aspirations towards a comfortable middle class life. Here's what the article says:

    The point of the social-psychology research is that when so much mental activity is devoted to basic survival, little is left to engage in long-term thinking or to muster willpower—which Bolin well knows. "I need to smoke to relieve the pressure," she tells me as she feverishly rolls her own cigarettes one evening when I take her out to a bar, where she also finds relief in the form of plentiful margaritas. She's self-medicating, she says; other times, she uses Xanax for anxiety. She also takes a daily antidepressant. As Linda Tirado, whose rawly honest blog post on her own minimum-wage existence catapulted her into the national spotlight last year, bluntly writes in her new book, Hand to Mouth: "Being poor while working hard is fucking crushing."

    Finn is just a few months older than my son Nico. I saw him last at a birthday party for a local boy with Down syndrome, and liked both him and his mother a lot, though I didn't know her situation.

    There's a place in the higher education firmament for adjuncts, paid by the course to bring their expertise (or come out of retirement) to teach a class or two for per-course pay. But anyone who is good enough to work full time for an institution should be paid for full time work at a living wage, with benefits.

    Friday, December 5, 2014

    Intersectionality - A look back at Crenshaw's article from 1989

    From Wikipedia:
    Intersectionality (or intersectionalism) is the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination. An example is black feminism, which argues that the experience of being a black female cannot be understood in terms of being black, and of being female, considered independently, but must include the interactions, which frequently reinforce each other.[1]
    This feminist sociological theory was first named by KimberlĂ© Crenshaw in 1989, though the concept can be traced back to the 19th century.[2][3] The theory suggests that—and seeks to examine how—various biological, social and cultural categories such as gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, caste, and other axes of identity interact on multiple and often simultaneous levels, contributing to systematic injustice and social inequality. Intersectionality holds that the classical conceptualizations of oppression within society, such as racism, sexism, biphobia, homophobia, transphobia, and belief-based bigotry, do not act independently of one another. Instead, these forms of oppression interrelate, creating a system of oppression that reflects the "intersection" of multiple forms of discrimination.[4]
    Yesterday I published a piece on CNN calling for an intersectional response to Eric Garner's death. Today I'd like to direct your attention to Crenshaw's article - which you can read here.

    There's been LOTS of work on intersectionality since - indeed, one can argue that third wave feminism is fundamentally intersectional (or at least wants to be), but I hadn't read this piece in years, and spent my morning cup of tea with it again.

    To me, intersectionality is the answer to so many discursive problems. It can keep us out of the oppression olympics (in which different groups try to claim THEIR problem is worse than YOUR problem). It allows us to link the seemingly disparate the identify new patterns of inequality and discrimination. It's a pathway to be an ally.

    What it doesn't say is that all categories in an intersection are equally important to any given discussion. In my piece yesterday, I argued that disability, class, and fat-hatred intersect with the racism at play, rather than one excusing the other (as defenders of the police seem to think). I imagine the intersection visually (in 3D, with spinning whirling parts), with race at the center. It's a way of including categories, not erasing.

    Here's how Crenshaw describes it, metaphorically, at two points in her article that I especially like (there's lots of pragmatic too. Read the article!):

    (11) This apparent contradiction is but another manifestation of the conceptual limitations of the single-issue analyses that inter­sectionality challenges. The point is that Black women can experi­ence discrimination in any number of ways and that the contradic­tion arises from our assumptions that their claims of exclusion must be unidirectional. Consider an analogy to traffic in an inter­ section, coming and going in all four directions. Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a Black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.
    Later, we get the basement:
    (13-14)  Put dif­ferently, the paradigm of sex discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of white women; the model of race discrimination tends to be based on the experiences of the most privileged Blacks. Notions of what constitutes race and sex discrimination are, as a result, narrowly tailored to embrace only a small set of circum­ stances, none of which include discrimination against Black women.

    To the extent that this general description is accurate, the fol­lowing analogy can be useful in describing how Black women are marginalized in the interface between antidiscrimination law and race and gender hierarchies: Imagine a basement which contains all people who are disadvantaged on the basis of race, sex, class, sex­ual preference, age and/or physical ability. These people are stacked-·feet standing on shoulders-with those on the bottom being disadvantaged by the full array of factors, up to the very top, where the heads of all those disadvantaged by a singular factor brush up against the ceiling. Their ceiling is actually the floor above which only those who are not disadvantaged in any way re­ side. In efforts to correct some aspects of domination, those above the ceiling admit from the basement only those who can say that "but for" the ceiling, they too would be in the upper room. A hatch is developed through which those placed immediately below can crawl. Yet this hatch is generally available only to those who-due to the singularity of their burden and their otherwise privileged position relative to those below-are in the position to crawl through. Those who are multiply-burdened are generally left below unless they can somehow pull themselves into the groups that are permitted to squeeze through the hatch.

    As this analogy translates for Black women, the problem is that they can receive protection only to the extent that their ex­periences are recognizably similar to those whose experiences tend to be reflected in antidiscrimination doctrine. If Black women can­ not conclusively say that "but for" their race or "but for" their gender they would be treated differently, they are not invited to climb through the hatch but told to wait in the unprotected mar­gin until they can be absorbed into the broader, protected catego­ries of race and sex.
    So that's what I've read this morning. Happy Friday. 

    Thursday, December 4, 2014

    RESOURCE: Ableism and the Death of Eric Garner

    This is a resource page of people referring to Garner's health as a justification for his death. I will write this up more fully, but just want to collect material here.

    From Mother Jones [update: whole interview here on CNN]
    "If he had not had asthma and a heart condition and was so obese, almost definitely he would not have died from this,” [Representative Peter] King said. "The police had no reason to know he was in serious condition."
    Breitbart selectively gives us the "actual facts" in this piece:

    It appears that the so-called chokehold was instrumental in triggering Garner’s pre-existing health problems and causing his death, but Garner was not choked to death, as the media seems to maintain. According to Garner’s friends, he “had several health issues: diabetes, sleep apnea, and asthma so severe that he had to quit his job as a horticulturist for the city’s parks department. He wheezed when he talked and could not walk a block without resting, they said.”
    Police One is a site in which comments are only supposed to be by proven members of law enforcement. The comments on this article are excellent examples of what I call the Cult of Compliance, but I want to focus on the health issues in this post (h/t to Digby and Ryan Reilly for the initial link):

    • Well damn it, stop resisting so I can handcuff you and roll your fat ass on your side! 
    • The man was yelling "I can't breathe," which means you can breathe. I would say the compression of weight on the body along with bad health caused his death, and the fact that he made a decision to resist. 
    • If you can talk you can breathe. Lets stop making excuses for criminal behavior because they are black. This guy would have died going up a flight of stairs. His diet killed him. The real victims are these poor Officers who's lives are destroyed because everyone is too afraid to speak the truth.  
    • There was a headlock for maybe 8-10 seconds, which ceased as soon as the suspect was face down. He was never choked. He died because of his preexisting medical conditions, and struggling with police.
    • No beat down at all. Certainly was not a chocke hold, had they used OC spray or a Taser maybe the same result! His body was poorly taken care of.
    • You mean the attempted "Carotid Restraint Hold" that lasted for several seconds on "Fatso" the walking heart attack? He killed himself by getting so worked up over refusing to follow simple and lawful commands.  
    • My question would be:
      If the subject wasn't obese, suffer from asthma and be in a generally poor medical condition, would that hold kill him?
      I'd think probably not. The neck compressions were noted, but were they fatal. 
    • Eric Garner is (WAS) 6'4" and weighed 400 lbs. Instead of suing the police department, his family should sue Papa Johns, Dominos, Pizza Hut, Burger King, McDonalds, etc.......  
    • If memory serves, the deceadant was a rather large "gentleman" and died of a preexisting coronary condition. 
    New York Post's Bob McManus:
    Garner balked. “This ends here,” he shouted — as it turned out, tragically prophetic words — as he began struggling with the arresting officer.
    Again, this was a bad decision. Garner suffered from a range of medical ailments — advanced diabetes, plus heart disease and asthma so severe that either malady might have killed him, it was said at the time.
    More to come. 

    Wednesday, December 3, 2014

    Update on ABLE - Two questions.

    ABLE is likely to become law in the next few weeks, offering new tax-free savings accounts for people with disabilities. 
    It reads:
    The proposal's cost has been scaled back from an estimated $20 billion over 10 years. Clarifying that someone must be diagnosed with the disability by age 26 to qualify, and limiting annual contributions to $14,000, trimmed that cost to $2 billion over a decade.
    The question I am trying to get answered (and have some hope of getting answered) is this:
    1. The bill just "allows" states to set up ABLE Accounts? Will we then have to lobby each state to do it, or is it simple enough that this shouldn't be an obstacle.
    I expect to have this question answered by the end of today.
    2.  Why does someone who has a traumatic brain injury at age 25 get access to ABLE and not someone who gets the same injury at age 27?
    I get it that it will make the program more expensive. But if ABLE is good policy, then it's good policy. We have to fight these disability hierarchies that will help my son and those like him, but leave so many other people stranded.

    UPDATE: And answers

    1. A spokesperson for a congressional rep said that it should be fairly simple to get the 529 accounts set up, as states already run the other 529s. But let me know if your state doesn't carry through.

    2. It's just money. Too many reps in the House (I am assuming GOP but my source avoided partisanship) wouldn't vote for it  unless it was cheaper, so they came up with the age 26 based on the ACA use of age 26 as a way to make it cheap enough to pass.

    So Congress is doing a good thing, it's not a big thing, it's going to be nice for wealthier families with kids with disabilities. Poor people won't be helped, as they don't have the money to save. People who become disabled later in life won't be helped. Still, a small good thing is, I guess, good.

    Forbes questions how good and notes that special needs trusts do a lot of this work already. ABLE is better though. At any rate, they are voting more or less now, as I write. 

    ABLE has led me to create a new mantra - Fight disability hierarchies. And so I shall.

    Tuesday, December 2, 2014

    Sheehan vs San Francisco

    On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) took the case of Sheehan vs San Francisco.

    In 2008, Sheehan, who has schizophrenia, threatened her social worker with a knife, then threatened the two police officers who came after. They called for backup. Before backup arrived, the police broke into her apartment, pepper sprayed her, then shot at her 5 or 6 times. Sheehan survived and was charged with assault, but sued the police department and the city under the Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming that the decision to go in without backup was not reasonable given her disability.

    A federal judge threw out the case (he's the brother of Justice Breyer, who will recuse himself), but the 9th Circuit said it should go to a jury. Now SCOTUS will rule.

    Here's what I wrote for CNN in August about police violence and disability:
    In cases like these, we need to stop talking about mental illness and start thinking through the implications of psychiatric disabilities. We also need police whose first instinct is to de-escalate tense situations whenever and however possible, and, when necessary, solve confrontations with the absolute minimum amount of force.
    "Psychiatric disability" refers to mental illness that "significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities," a category that clearly applies to people whose "erratic behavior" got them killed by police.

    The distinction matters. In America, being disabled comes with certain civil rights protections. While we generally try to eradicate illness, we are required to accommodate disability. So how does a police officer accommodate someone behaving erratically and holding a knife?
    So now SCOTUS is going to rule, more or less, on that question. I am not optimistic, but I am not a SCOTUS expert or a legal scholar or a lawyer. I have no real idea how this question will fit into the general legal opinions of the various justices.

    But I am glad the argument is getting its day in court. I'll hope that at least someone writes a pro-accomodation opinion that I can use, even if it's a dissent. We need to shift the rhetoric.

    I'm going to try and go to DC to hear the arguments in the spring and will report back.

    UPDATE: Think Progress has a good summary of the case here.

    Monday, December 1, 2014

    Mistakes and Community

    At Thanksgiving dinner, a friend of my parents, A., was the lone non-family guest, as his wife was out of town. At one point, we were discussing dinner and how we had tried to rein in the feast a little (excess rather than excessive excess), and I said, "We tried to pull back from our obsessive compulsive cooking this year."

    Then I stopped. Then I offered my fullest apologies to A.

    A's son, B, has obsessive-compulsive disorder. In fact, just minutes before my verbal slip, we had been talking B's current involvement in a residential treatment facility and the many intense challenges created by B's OCD. The struggles are many and serious.

    A accepted my apology and we moved into a conversation about language and how much it irritated him when detail-oriented people, joking, said, "Oh, that's just my OCD showing," when they organized something. It's not a joke. It can be debilitating. We had a really good conversation about language, power, and privilege.

    Lesson 1: When you screw up, and you will screw up, own it. Apologize. Try not to do it again.
    Lesson 2: No one is entitled to have their apology accepted.
    Lesson 3: On the other hand, one mistake (rather than a pattern of repeated bad behavior) can become an opportunity for dialogue and strengthening community, rather than sundering it.

    I am not, of course, really talking about my mistake at Thanksgiving, though it was a mistake and I am sorry. And I will mind loose "OCD" talk in the future as ableist.

    I'm really talking about Daniel Handler's apology. About Barilla (now given a 100 rating for its LGBT policies by the HRC). About #shirtstorm and Matt Taylor's apology. About all kinds of moments in which macro and micro aggressions cause pain, cause offense, reveal privilege, and so forth.

    My general goal is that when someone really offends me, but I think they did it unintentionally, because they were unaware, to try and change it so that they become more intentional in their speech and actions in the future. It's about trying to improve the community and welcome the offender back in, but changed, rather than saying - This person is OUT forever.

    In medieval studies, we are having our first real discussion of which I'm aware about sexual harassment and how to address it. One focus is on building a call-out culture, particularly pushing people who are safe (i.e. men, also tenured people) call out sexism explicitly when they see it. This is good.

    Then what? The unconciously sexist person is called out - then how do we bring him (usually) back into the community? Do we want to?

    People make mistakes all the time, driven by their privilege, in terms of language or action. Some people are willfully predatory or discriminatory, but more are just unaware of the consequences of their speech or actions. When we make them aware, then what? I hope that I can be like A and use the moment of awareness as a positive. But there's no obligation NOT to be angry.

    This is a little nebulous, but on my mind.

    What do you think?