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Women, Representation, Revolution

photograph of all the women save Senator Mary Landrieu on the US Senate in 2013

As the midterm election rapidly approaches, one thing is obvious—the number of women running for office is truly historic.  There are 256 women running for Congress, 234 for seats in the House and 22 for seats in the Senate.  The majority of the women running are Democrats. There are 197 Democratic female candidates and 59 Republican female candidates. The previous record for Democratic female nominees to the House was established in 2016, when 120 women were nominated, a record that is shattered by this year’s numbers. Historically, women have never comprised more than one-fourth of the House or the Senate. This year, that might change.

With the possibility of more female governance on the horizon, it seems like a good time to reflect on what this might mean for the country in both the short and the long term. One of the more immediate results of having more women in power might have been one of the main motivators for women to run for office in record numbers this year in the first place: a change in tone with respect to how women’s issues are discussed. To many, it seems as if there are no real consequences when it is revealed that important public officials discuss and treat women in demeaning, objectifying ways. If more women are in position to write and edit the script when it comes to how public officials talk about and treat women, we might be looking at a new normal.  

If there were more women in power, it would make a tremendous difference when it comes to the habituation of children. Female children would be put in a position to see a new range of possibilities for themselves. If these female candidates are successful, becoming a politician might seem like a natural career choice for a young woman dreaming about her future. Male children being raised in a society with more female representation will never be led to believe that political power is held predominantly by men in the first place. A choice to become a politician will seem equally possible for young men, and they’ll be ready to come to the decision-making table and roll up their sleeves with both men and women.

If there were more women in power, decisions about women’s issues could be made with the benefit of the crucial female voice. Of course, not all women share the same opinions, but discussion generated by healthy disagreement among women with different backgrounds and experiences with women’s issues is crucial to constructing sound policy and legislation in these areas.

Of course, it’s not as if the dominant reason for electing women is so that they can have a say when it comes to issues that affect women. That women should be involved in discussion about women’s issues is a pretty minimum requirement for just, fair governance. A female perspective is crucial when it comes to all social policy.  

It might be time for a revolution when it comes to our philosophy of power. There are different approaches to power, each of which might be appropriate in different domains and which may work together to regulate one another. We know that women provide the majority of both paid and non-paid care work. In our current political climate, that work is significantly undervalued. What if we came to recognize the value of care—and saw it for the tremendous source of power that it ought, rightly, to be? This kind of power is not a power over, but a power to, specifically, a power to help. A care relationship arises out of need. For example, a child may have needs for food, clean drinking water, and shelter, among other things. Parents, in their capacity as caregivers, have the power to help to satisfy those needs.

What if the popular understanding of the relationship between representative and constituent changed? Currently, we tend to have a pretty paternalistic conception of the way that political representation works. People vote along party lines and then largely check-out, trusting the elected official to make decisions in ways that are consistent with their values. Politicians, on this model, are given wide berth to engage in dubious political machinations and place themselves in the pockets of lobbyists. But care relationships don’t work this way. What would change if we came to view the relationship between the representative and the constituent as a relationship of care, where the power wielded by politicians was the power to help? Care depends on need, and addressing needs requires paying attention. So a politician fails to satisfy their obligation of care when, for example, they fail to respond to constituents who overwhelmingly express a need for change in firearm legislation. The representative would retain some autonomy and authority over the precise way in which this need gets pursued, but they can’t just ignore it altogether. If a child expressed an urgent and legitimate need for medical care, we’d view a parent as negligent if they didn’t attempt to satisfy that need to the extent that they were able. Should we respond any differently when it is our fellow citizens drowning themselves in debt to pay for essential medical needs while our representatives look on, unresponsive?

People have different personalities and interests and express power in various ways, irrespective of gender. We’ll avoid generalizing. But if, as the numbers bear out, women often voluntarily engage in care work regularly in an earnest desire to help, this new way of conceiving of power results in the conclusion that many women would be quite well-suited to take on the political mantle. In many of the locations in which women are running this year, they have little chance of being successful. But some races look promising. It’s a start.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

The Pittsburgh Shooting and Secondary Anti-Semitism

"Governor Wolf Gives Remarks Regarding Pittsburgh Shooting and Participates in Vigil" by Governor Tom Wolf licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

This Saturday, Robert Bowers entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and three handguns, Bower fired into the gathering of worshippers assembled for the morning service. At least eleven people were killed, while six others sustained injuries, including members of law enforcement.

Continue reading “The Pittsburgh Shooting and Secondary Anti-Semitism”

The Ethics of “Media Men” Lists, One Year Later

Photo of two people holding signs at a protest

Editor’s note: This article contains use of a vulgarity.

At around this time last year a Google spreadsheet titled “Shitty Media Men” began being shared by a group of women who worked in various positions involving the media. The document was intended to be a place where women could anonymously make reports about inappropriate conduct of men who they worked with, ranging from unsolicited advances or generally creepy behavior, all the way to accusations of sexual assault and rape. Moira Donegan, the creator of the list, explained her intention at The Cut as “an attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault.” As Donegan goes on to note, “informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women” called “whisper networks” have been common for a long time. In creating a more widely accessible document, however, Donegan wanted to provide access to this information to a much wider audience, allowing those who might not have been part of a whisper network to gain information and share their experiences.

Once the existence of the list became public knowledge, however, it started to receive backlash. Some worried about the claims on the list being unsubstantiated, and that the men accused on the list were unable to respond to the accusations made therein. And there were repercussions for being named on the list, with some men having investigations performed by their employers into their conduct, and others being fired. The prominent worry, then, was that the accusations made on the list could be false, and the consequence of a false accusation is the punishment of an innocent man.

Recently, one man named on the list, Stephen Elliott, filed lawsuit against Donegan for damages, to the tune of $1.5 million. On the “Shitty Media Men” list Elliott was accused of sexual harassment and rape, amongst other things. In an extensive reply, Elliott has denied all accusations, and claims that as a result of being accused he has suffered in the form of reduced book sales, being cut off from professional contacts, and suffering psychologically.

The fear that innocent men will suffer from being falsely accused is becoming increasingly common in the wake of the #metoo movement, as well as with what appears to be a very gradual shift towards taking women’s accusations of sexual assault seriously. For instance, the response to the recent swearing in of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court has been divided between those who believed that the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford ought to have been given much more consideration, and those who believed that to take the testimony of Dr. Ford seriously would be to risk derailing a man’s career on the basis of accusations that they thought did not meet the proper standards of proof. Recently, Donald Trump expressed that it was “a scary time” for men, even going so far as to act out a one-man show in which a falsely accused son explained melodramatically to his tearful mother why he had lost his job.

The ethical worry surrounding things like the “Shitty Media Men” list, then, is that it potentially puts innocent men at risk: merely being named on the list has potential consequences, and since anyone can make accusations anonymously, the worry is that not only will such false accusations be possible, but prevalent. Of course, the existence of such lists also have the potential to bring about a lot of benefits. As Donegan explains, it is often the case that “for someone looking to report an incident or to make habitual behavior stop, all the available options are bad ones”; notably, that “police are notoriously inept at handing sexual-assault cases” and that within a corporate environment, “human-resource departments…are tasked not with protecting employees but with shielding the company from liability.” The benefits of such lists, then, are that women can help other women avoid potential harm, and that women can have an alternative option to make a report. While those like Elliott claim psychological harms from being named on the list, the existence of such a list could also prevent a significant amount of psychological harm suffered by women whose reports are not taken seriously, or who feel that they really have no other way to name their accusers.

One way that we can evaluate whether it’s a good or bad thing to have a “Shitty Media Men” list is by weighing the potential goods versus the potential harms that could come about as a result of its existence. As many commentators have noted, the fear of men being falsely accused tends to be exaggerated: although it is difficult to get an exact idea of how common false accusations are, various sources have put the rate at around 5%, although that number might be as low as 2% or as high as 10%, at least in America. At the same time, while it is again very difficult to get a sense of the numbers, there is good reason to think that sexual assault is generally underreported. It seems likely that providing additional avenues for reporting would then help with the problem of underreporting, which would be a significant benefit to many women. If these lists result in significantly more potential benefits than potential harms, then, there is reason to think their existence really is a good thing.

Calculating costs and benefits in this way, however, may not seem to be very satisfying. Indeed, we might think it would be better if the existing options that women had to report assault weren’t so bad, perhaps if police, human resource departments, and political leaders were better trained. And it may seem callous to suggest that men who are falsely accused are an unfortunate but necessary collateral damage. That being said, given the obstacles that women continue to face in having their reports taken seriously, the continued existence of such lists seems inevitable. In considering whether this is a good or bad thing, we need to keep in mind both the relative paucity of false accusations, and the benefits that the existence of the “Shitty Media Men” list could bring.


This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of our discussion questions, check out the Educational Resources page.

Male Contraceptives Might Allow For a Shift In Responsibility

Photograph of three different brands of birth control

Women carry the entire burden of childbearing for biological reasons, and the majority of child rearing for social reasons. Before contraceptives, a woman’s sexual freedom was inhibited by the potential for unplanned pregnancy. Despite the invention of contraceptives, men have not and will never have to worry about bearing the physical burden of unplanned pregnancy. For centuries, women were expected to raise children as their career. The first birth control pill was invented in 1950, but the effects of societal pressure on women to raise their children have remained statistically evident. It was not until recent years that women began to choose professional careers over child-raising careers. The invention of contraceptives has allowed women to gain power over their bodies and the choice to have children or not, but is it possible for men to share in more of the responsibility of childbearing? And if so, should they?

According to a Guttmacher Institute study, “60% of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method.” Of this number, about 63% of women are using non permanent or hormonal methods such as a birth control pill, a patch, an implant, an injectable, a vaginal ring, or an intrauterine device. Another 22% of women using contraceptives choose sterilization as a means to control pregnancy. Men are contributing to preventing pregnancy by getting vasectomies, and are responsible for 7% of the 60% of pregnancy prevention.

Although the percentage of men and women in the workforce has approached equal over the past century, it is still composed of 53% men and 47% women, and projections say it never will be completely equal. The invention of birth control for women has not resulted in equal gender representation in the workforce, and did not end the societal expectation and pressures placed upon women to raise children in place of having a career.

Although accidental pregnancies affect both partners, women are the ones who will bear the physical burden. In order for women to have the same sexual freedom as men, they have no choice but to use contraceptive measures. However, birth control does not come without both physical and financial costs. Each form of contraception has its own benefits and detriments, all of which impact only women.The birth control pill, the most common form of contraception, has a common list of side effects that women may experience. Common among these are nausea, breast tenderness, headaches and migraines, weight gain, mood changes, missed periods, and decreased libido. In addition, birth control is not free for all. Only those who have insurance that covers birth control have access to it at no charge. There is no doubt that birth control pills, among other forms of contraception, are a burden on whomever chooses to use them.

In 2000, 450 men were surveyed from Edinburgh, Cape Town, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Depending on the group surveyed, 44-83% said they would take a male birth control pill. There have been several male contraceptives developed and tested, yet none have reached the market. In 2016, a study was done on 320 men to test a male hormonal birth control shot. The subjects, ages 18-45, all had normal sperm cell counts, and were injected with synthetic testosterone and a derivative of the female hormones progesterone and estrogen. The drug was designed to stop their production of testosterone and sperm. The experiment found the contraceptive to be effective for approximately 96% of users. Common side effects participants experienced were acne, increased libido, pain at the injection site, and muscle pain. The study ended early because of several cases of more serious side effects of depression and irregular heartbeat. However, in these cases, the correlation between the injection and the side effects has been debated for various reasons. This study is one example of multiple; yet, in 2018, male birth control has yet to be introduced to the general public. Although a male birth control pill is in testing stages, it seems there has not been enough demand from the public to result in its creation before now.

Biologically, women have more to be concerned with in the case of an unplanned pregnancy than men. Does this mean that women should have more responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies than men? Men cannot be forced to take a birth control pill, but perhaps society should exert more pressure on them to take greater responsibility in preventing unwanted pregnancies. Should a mother’s responsibility to her child be greater than the father’s because of her biology? Or should men and women should share the responsibility of preventing pregnancy more equally?

This is the problem: there is a large demographic of individuals that wish to avoid pregnancy. This is a solution: contraception. Should women have the responsibility for the majority of the solution? A University of Washington Medical Center endocrinologist summarized the issue when he said:  “It’s hard to solve a problem when you essentially exclude half the world’s population from doing anything about it.”

First Nations in Canada and the ‘Duty to Consult’

Photograph of First Nation people in Vancouver protesting

On Thursday, October 11, Canada’s Supreme Court issued a judgment which, some argue, has turned back the clock on First Nations’ rights to pre-1982. The Mikisew Cree Nation of Alberta contended against the federal government that Canada’s enshrined ”duty to consult’ with First Nations peoples should apply to the legislative process in constructing bills that impinge on Aboriginal or treaty rights. In a majority 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court decided against the Mikisew Cree First Nation’s claim, citing in their decision the separation of judiciary from legislative powers.

This lengthy legal conflict began in 2012, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative administration passed controversial omnibus bills C-38 and C-45. While omnibus bills are not unusual in Canadian legislature, these bills were contested for their extraordinary length and scope. They radically reshaped Canadian environmental policies. Among other things, bills C-38 and C-45 withdrew Kyoto protocol commitments, removed protections on ninety-nine percent of Canadian waterways, ransacked the existing Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, and struck down existing rules to preserve fisheries and endangered species. This removal of protections applies to resources in First Nations’ territories, directly impinging on Aboriginal and treaty rights.

These two omnibus bills triggered in their wake a nation-wide protest and environmental movement begun by Indigenous, Métis, Inuit, and allies called ”Idle No More”. Massive cuts to environmental regulation moved the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Alberta to take the federal government to court. The Mikisew argued that the “duty to consult” should include the legislative process (applying to the passing of bills like Harper’s unwieldy omnibuses), and not just the executive and implementation stage of projects.

The Mikisew First Nation had the weight of international standards on their side, as the foundation of the “duty to consult and accommodate with Aboriginal peoples” is upheld in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (As an aside, Canada was initially one of only four nations that objected to this declaration, citing concerns that First Nations would be acknowledged veto power in decisions that affected natural resources within First Nations territories, though Canada has since got on board with the declaration as of May 2016).

Despite this reluctance from the federal government to endorse international norms on Indigenous rights, the overall direction of Canadian jurisprudence has been to uphold the principle of duty to consult in both federal and provincial contexts. This ”duty to consult” itself was a sign of progress in an otherwise oppressive settler-colonialist history. By dint of diligent interrogations by First Nations reacting to Canada’s assimilationist policies, Canadian jurisprudence has steadily moved towards the acknowledgement of First Nations’ inherent prior rights and treaty rights.  Indigenous rights were officially recognized in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982.

Pamela Palmater, Mi`kmaw lawyer and Indigenous governance professor, sees the October 11 decision as a major reversal of this hard-won progress. While the majority decision cited the separation of judicial from legislative powers in their decision, she writes: “Isn’t the whole purpose of reconciliation—at least from Canada’s perspective—supposed to balance constitutional rights and principles and find a way to make them work together?” Dialogue and reconciliation are, after all, core foundations of Aboriginal and Canadian culture.

Dwight Newman, law professor and expert on Indigenous rights in law, notes that the decision is not conclusive. While it is true that 7-2 judges on the Supreme Court ruled against the Mikisew, their legal reasoning differed. Three of the majority ruling, Justices Andromache Karakatsanis, Richard Wagner, and Clément Gascon, deferred to the ”honour of the Crown” – a principle underlying the duty to consult – that could invite future litigation and re-negotiation.  Dissenting justices Rosalie Abella and Sheilah Martin asserted that the ”honour of the Crown” permeated all relationships between the government and Indigenous peoples, entailing the duty to consult at the legislative as well as executive levels.

Mikisew First Nation representative and director of Government Industry Relations, Melody Lepine, expressed trepidation at the Court’s consignment of Indigenous rights to ambiguity: ”In my several years of working with the federal government and with the provincial government to try to force them to consult, there is no honour, there is no willingness, and it has been a complete struggle… I have no faith that the government will do the right thing.” This sense of betrayal was echoed by Mikisew lead council Robert Janes, who noted that the SCC ruling displayed a missed opportunity for Canada to engage First Nations as committed partners. As it stands, this decision means that First Nations will have little resort but to litigate unilateral legislation that has already been passed, ensuring the continuation of an adversarial, burdensome, and costly model of feedback.

The Mikisew ruling is a setback for all First Nations in the process of reconciliation, but it should also be a wake-up call for Canadians. The political and legal struggles of First Nations in Canada recurrently show that real, meaningful, decision-making power comes from obtaining a place at the table. They exemplify the key importance of what John Rawls called “procedural justice,” the ability to participate in governance processes as a means of ensuring fair outcomes.  Procedural justice also satisfies a fundamental principle of recognition, in allowing concerned parties to have a say in their fate. It is time for Canadians to campaign for legislative mechanisms that reconcile procedural justice for First Nations communities, i.e. processes which meaningfully include First Nations’ peoples at every level of decision-making that impacts them.

Opinion: Kavanaugh Was the Wrong Choice

photograph of Mississippi senator Cindy Hyde-Smith and Brett Kavanaugh smiling while sitting on a couch

It’s a headline we’ve all probably seen in some form during the past month: allegations of sexual assault against nominated justice Brett Kavanaugh disrupted his confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States. Updates on the interruptions surrounding his confirmation have dominated news cycles since alleged victim of Kavanaugh’s forceful advances, Christine Blasey Ford, testified against him in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. To quickly recap, here is a timeline of significant events that have transpired with Kavanaugh’s confirmation:

           

July 9: President Donald Trump announces his pick as Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court bench.

September 16: Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations of Kavanaugh sexually assaulting her while they were both in high school go public in a Washington Post report.

September 17: Kavanaugh issues a statement denying Ford’s accusations.

September 23: A second woman, Deborah Ramirez, comes forward with sexual misconduct allegations from when the two were in college together. Kavanaugh subsequently denies these allegations.

September 26: A third woman, Julie Swetnick, accuses Kavanaugh of targeting girls for sexual assault. Kavanaugh also denies these allegations.

September 27: Both Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

September 28: Senate Judiciary Committee votes to send Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Senate floor.

October 1: White House directs FBI to interview anyone deemed relevant in their investigation of Kavanaugh.

October 6: The Senate confirms Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

These events have brought the push against the #MeToo movement to a head, as Kavanaugh’s defenders elicited many similar arguments that were used in defense of the men who were accused of rape/sexual misconduct soon after the movement’s birth including Louis CK, Al Franken, and Matt Lauer. Perhaps the most commonly-used of these arguments is the presumption of innocence. Actor, comedian, and producer Jeremy Piven stated after being accused of sexual assault that “lives are being put in jeopardy without a hearing, due process or evidence.” In this, Piven refers to the subverting of formal legal processes in these accusations by publicly labeling men as sex offenders when there is no concrete proof or general consensus supporting the accusations. Thus, to Piven, the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” seems to have been wrongly undermined in these situations. More relevant to Kavanaugh’s case, Hans A. von Spakovsky of Fox News writes, “if you believe in the presumption of innocence, based on what we know now it would be unfair to assume that Kavanaugh is guilty of sexual assault and deny him a seat on our nation’s highest court based on uncorroborated accusations.”

Furthermore, Kavanaugh’s backers argued that the instances of sexual assault his accusers detail occurred in 1982, when Kavanaugh was only 17 years old and the culture surrounding sexual assault was much different than it is today. Rod Dreher, an editor at the American Conservative, tweeted, “I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge…This is a terrible standard to establish in public life.” In 1982, long before the #MeToo movement and American society’s mainstream prioritizing of sexual consent, forced sex between young people was merely seen as “fooling around” or “boys being boys.” The extent and severity of sexual assaults on young women had not yet been exposed to the public, so most people were not engaged in discourse about the issue. In fact, the first nationally-observed Sexual Assault Awareness Month was not until April of 2001. Therefore, as Kavanaugh supporters argued, how could Kavanaugh have understood the need for consent before discussions about consent were even being had in the mainstream?

Whether for the sake of partisan politics, women’s rights, or molding the future of conversations about sexual assault, Democrats in Congress fought vehemently to block Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court. Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic Senator from California and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in an article for The Los Angeles Times, “Supreme Court justices should not be an extension of the Republican Party…I strongly oppose Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.” Feinstein’s argument raises a fair partisan concern, but there are other, more ethically-grounded reasons why Kavanaugh should not have been confirmed to the Supreme Court and why the previously-mentioned defenses of him fall short.

What Kavanaugh’s supporters seem not to realize is that Kavanaugh was not being tried as a criminal, although he and Ford’s testimonial process bore great resemblance to a criminal trial. Rather, Kavanaugh was undergoing intense scrutiny to deem whether he is worthy of holding one of the most prestigious and permanent offices in the United States’ government. Therefore, the presumption of innocence does not apply to this situation. There will be no verdict of “guilty” or “innocent,” but rather one of “fit” or “not fit” to serve on the Supreme Court. Being denied the confirmation would not have “ruin[ed] Judge Kavanaugh’s life,” as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina believes it would have, rather it would have prevented a potential sexual deviant from holding one of the most ethics-centered positions in the U.S. Even if one holds a sound belief that Kavanaugh is innocent of committing sexual assault, why should our country take the risk? Especially in a political climate where sexual assault cases are at the forefront, we cannot afford to do so. Politics aside, President Trump and the Republican Senate could have nominated and confirmed a judge with similar politics and competency as Kavanaugh, but without his questionable past.

Should Kavanaugh’s past be allowed to affect his future? The short answer is that it shouldn’t matter. The extended answer requires us to step back and look at Kavanaugh’s confirmation from a broader view. Bearing the entire country’s already horrific rape culture in mind, Kavanaugh and his individual life should have no bearing on the nation’s future. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, approximately one-third of perpetrators of juvenile sexual abuse are themselves juveniles, with an overwhelming majority being male. By confirming Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the President and Congress have sent a resounding message to the rest of the nation that high school boys can sexually assault their female peers and still grow up to hold one of the highest offices in the nation. The danger of sending this message greatly outweighs threats to Kavanaugh’s individual future.

Unfortunately, the Senate disregarded these points and sided with partisanship over morality and logic to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court anyways. While the future of our nation looks bleak with the lifetime appointment of Kavanaugh, what can this debacle teach us about the intersection of ethics and politics? Perhaps the most important lesson to take is that public officials, especially politicians, should be judged based on the ethicality of all of their actions, and how they react to those actions. Kavanaugh, vying for the most ethics-centered position in the nation, was accused of an unethical action, and reacted with anger and brute denial rather than understanding and acknowledgement of a social climate in the United States that is dangerous for women. Whether he is guilty or not, his refusal to recognize the backlash that survivors of sexual assault commonly face implies that he does not see consent to be tied directly to ethics. In today’s politics where sexual assault is at the forefront of modern law, the U.S. needs a new justice who will view these cases with objectivity and poise, will set a good example for the rest of the nation, and will have a sound moral compass. Brett Kavanaugh is not that justice.

On Ethically Addressing Climate Change Deniers

"Banksy is a climate change denier" by Matt Brown licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Rising temperatures, acidifying oceans, melting ice caps, and heightened levels of greenhouse gases are all familiar phrases when discussing climate change. Unfortunately, so are controversy, political debate, partisan animosity, and climate change deniers. Tensions are so high on both sides that many of us are left wondering when science became a partisan issue, and moreover one which causes individuals on both sides to engage in debates which result in little to no consensus.

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Decisions for the Dead: The Moral Dimensions of Body Disposal

Photograph of a graveyard overlooking hills and plains

When Monique Martinot died of ovarian cancer in 1984, her husband, hoping to achieve immortality for his wife through cryonics, placed her body in an industrial size freezer in his chateau in the town of Neuil–sur–Layon, France.  When the husband, Raymond Martinot, realized, years later at the age of eighty, that his own death was imminent, he conveyed to his son that he would like to be frozen alongside his wife until such time that their bodies could be revived.  French courts objected to this method of body disposal and demanded that both bodies be removed from the freezer and disposed of in a method consistent with national law—the bodies must be buried, cremated, or donated to science.

Dead bodies are objects, but they are objects of a fascinating and unique kind—they were once possessed by autonomous beings.  Autonomous beings, according to every known moral theory, are deserving of moral consideration. Once the being has left its erstwhile vessel, does some lingering moral status remain?  Once a person is dead, what, if any, relationship exists between that person’s autonomous choices and the body-object they have left behind? Is there a moral obligation to honor the wishes of the deceased with respect to what should be done with their body after death?  Should Monique and Raymond have been allowed to rest unmolested in their modest freezer without intrusion by the government?

Under certain conditions, dead bodies can be a threat to public health.  If the deceased died of an infectious disease, the infectious agents may still be active and can be transmitted after death.  Because of the threat posed to the public in these kinds of cases, some control by the government over the disposal of dead bodies may be morally justified.  In at least some kinds of cases, then, if an individual has a right to determine what happens to their own body after death, the right of the government to protect the public against threats to general health trumps this right.  It’s worth noting, however, that the commonly held belief that all dead bodies pose public health threats is a myth.  Belief in the myth has carried with it some fairly tragic consequences.  In the aftermath of natural disasters and other mass tragedies, unidentified bodies are often buried in mass graves to get rid of the “threat to public health.”  As a result, many individuals never learn what happened to their deceased loved ones. It seems, then, that the government’s right to intervene may rest on the contingent fact that some bodies spread disease.  In a possible world in which infectious disease is eradicated, we’d need to revisit the question of whether the government can tell its citizens that they can’t keep their dead loved ones in freezers in the basement or under the rose garden in the backyard.

If the government’s right to decide what can be done with a body after death can supersede the wishes of the deceased individual in some cases, might there be others in which governmental intervention is justified?  Consider the case of organ donation. There are currently 114,555 individuals on the waiting list for donated organs in the United States. Twenty people die every day waiting for a donated organ.  Fifty-four percent of people in The United States are registered organ donors.  This might sound like a pretty impressive number, but it is dwarfed by the percentage of the population that donates organs in countries that have an “opt out” process for organ donation.  In these countries, everyone is automatically put on the organ donor list, with the option of “opting out” if they decide they’d rather not donate. In those countries, 90% of the population is on the list of registered donors.  Only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organs to be successfully transplanted, so the more donors the better the odds that lives will be saved.  If the government is justified in determining what happens to dead bodies when their goal is to promote public health, would they be justified in enacting “opt out” policies?  After all, the need for donated organs is also a public health issue. It’s far from clear that the “rights” of the being that once occupied the dead body are a more pressing concern than the lives lost when the organs are wasted.

There are other reasons for the government to step in when it comes to disposal of the dead. The practice of burying the dead in caskets is terrible for the environment.  Many unnecessary resources are wasted in the process, including precious trees for caskets and water to maintain pristine lawns in graveyards. During the embalming process, formaldehyde—a known human carcinogen—is pumped into human bodies.  When those bodies are buried, that carcinogen eventually seeps out, polluting soil and groundwater. Burying bodies also takes up lots of space. The practice is unsustainable. Cremation is arguably better for the environment, but not much. The practice releases harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change.  We aren’t without options; there are some eco-friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Bodies can be destroyed using a process of alkaline hydrolysis, used to liquefy human flesh.  The remaining bones can then be ground into ash in a way that uses fewer resources than cremation.  Bodies can also be encased in pods that eventually grow into trees or sealed into a ball that is then sunk to the bottom of the ocean where it will feed coral reefs. These are far more environmentally friendly ways of disposing of human remains.  Given that climate change poses serious threats to public health, would governments be justified in mandating that bodies are disposed of in more environmentally friendly ways?

It seems unlikely that changes to our organ donation or funerary practices would be met with swells of public support.  This reticence should give us pause. Many variables inform cultural practices involving dead bodies. Humans have the capacity to reflect on their own mortality, and, unsurprisingly, many of us find it terrifying.  Fear, grief, and love are powerful and crucial emotions, but they have the potential to motivate the formation of superstitious rituals and guidelines for cultural practice that are ultimately indefensible when challenged.

How Much Should We Really Use Social Media?

Photograph of a person holding a smartphone with Instagram showing on the screen

Today, we live in a digital era. Modern technology has drastically changed how we go about our everyday lives. It has changed how we learn, for we can retrieve almost any information instantaneously. Even teachers can engage with students through the internet. Money is exchanged digitally. Technology has also changed how we are entertained, for we watch what we want on our phones. But perhaps one of the most popular and equally controversial changes that modern technology has brought to society is how we communicate. Social media. We live in an era where likes and retweets reign supreme. People document their every thought using platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. They share every aspect of their lives through platforms like Instagram. Social media acts as way to connect people who never would have connected without it, but the effects of social media can also be negative. Based on all the controversy that surrounds social media, should we be using it as often as we do?

If you were to walk down the street, or go wait in line at a restaurant, or go to a sporting event, or go anywhere, you’d most likely see people on their phones. They’re scrolling through various social media platforms or sharing the most recent funny dog video. And this phenomenon is happening everywhere and all the time. Per Jessica Brown, a staff writer for BBC, three billion people, which is around 40 percent of the world’s population, use social media. Brown went on to explain that we spend an average of two hours per day on social media, which translates to half a million pieces of content shared every minute. How does this constant engagement with social media affect us?

According to Amanda Macmillan of Time Magazine, in a survey that aimed to gauge the effect that social media platforms had on mental health, results showed that Instagram performed the worst. Per Macmillan, the social media platform was associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and other negative symptoms. Other social media platforms, but Instagram especially, can cause FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” Users will scroll through their feed and see their friends having fun that they cannot experience. For women users, there is the pressure of an unrealistic body images. Based on the survey that ranked social media platforms and their effect on users, one participant explained that Instagram makes girls and women feel that their bodies aren’t good enough because other users add filters and alter their pictures to look “perfect,” or the ideal image of beauty. The manipulation of images on Instagram can cause users to feel low self-esteem, anxiety, and feel insecure about themselves overall. The negativity that users feel because of what others post can create a toxic environment. Would the same effects be happening if people spent less time on social media? If so, maybe users need to take a hard look at how much time they are spending. Or social media platforms could monitor the content that is being posted more to prevent some of the mental effects that some users are getting from social media usage.

Although Instagram can cause have adverse effects on mental health, it can create a positive environment for self-identity and self expression. It can be a place of community building support as well. However, such positive outcomes from social media must be a result of all users cooperating and working to make the digital space a positive environment. Based on the survey of social media platforms, though, this does not seem to be the case and currently, the pros of social media platforms like Instagram seem to be far outweighed by the cons.

Although Facebook and Twitter were ranked higher than Instagram in terms of negatively affecting the mental health of users, they can still have adverse effects as well. In a survey of 1,800 people, women were found to be more stressed than men and a large factor to their stress was Twitter. However, it was also found that the more women used Twitter, the less stressed they became. It’s likely that Twitter acting as both a stressor and a coping mechanism comes from the type of content that women were interacting with. In another survey, researchers found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for twenty minutes compared to those who just browsed the internet. But the weather that was occurring that day (i.e rainy, sunny) could have also been a factor in the user’s mood.

Although social media seems to only have adverse effects on the mental health of its users, social media is a great way to connect with others. It can act as a cultural bridge, bringing people from all across the globe together. It’s way to share content that can be positive and unite people with similar beliefs. With the positives and negatives in mind, should we change how much we are using social media? Or at least try to regulate? People could take it upon themselves to simply try and stay off social media sites, although with the digital age that we live in, that might be a hard feat to pull off. After all, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, as demonstrated from the surveys on social media. But perhaps we should be looking at the way that we are using social media rather than the time we spend on it. If users share positive content and strive to create a positive online presence and community, other users might not deal with the mental health issues that arise after usage of social media. But then again, people should be free to post whatever content they want. At the end of the day, users have their own agenda for how they manage their social media. So perhaps it’s dependent on every individual to look at their own health and their social media usage, and regulate it based on what they see in themselves.

Reduction of Harm: Fentanyl Testing Strips for Drug Users

Photograph of a kit for needle exchange, including three needles, cotton pads, and alcohol wipes

In 2017, more than 49,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses, the highest rate that America has ever seen. Of these opioids on the rise is the illicitly manufactured fentanyl drug which can be mixed into heroin and other powdered drugs. Fentanyl is also a prescribed pain killer, but it is the illegally synthesized opioids made with this drug that have caused 29,406 deaths the past year in the US and a 22-fold increase from 2002 in overdose-related deaths. Fentanyl is a drug that is 50 times as potent as heroin and this deadly synthetic could be responsible for the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.

There is now a way for users to take caution from using drugs that contain this synthetic opioid. On the market for $1 a piece, there are two-inch fentanyl testing strips. When drug users dip the strip into a drug it will reveal if the drug contains fentanyl by the presence of a red line. Along with detecting fentanyl, it can detect nine different chemically analogous drugs, such as carfentanil, which is 10,000 times as potent as morphine. The test strips were originally created for doctors who use them to test the urine of patients  who use fentanyl as a prescribed pain medication. BTNX Inc, a main commercial provider of these strips, is now selling more strips to harm-reduction groups and city/state governments then they are to doctors.

A study conducted by Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International,  looked to see if drug users would change how they used drugs if they had access to these fentanyl strips. They surveyed 125 heroin users from Greensboro, North Carolina at a needle-exchange program site. Eighty-one percent of users reported using the strips and 63 percent got a positive result for fentanyl in their drugs. Those who had a positive result for fentanyl were five times likely to change how they use in order to avoid overdosing. Responders reported using less drug then usual, administering a tester shot, pushing the syringe in slower than normal, and snorting instead of injecting. These practices can decrease the rate and amount of the drug that goes into the bloodstream making them a safer way to use.  Jon Zibbell, an author of the study, says, “An important insight from the study is that people who inject drugs can and will change their behavior when they have information about the risks involved. The bottom line is that fentanyl test strips may represent a new technique to prevent opioid overdose by allowing people to check street drugs for fentanyl and modify consumption behavior accordingly.”     

These testing strips have similar intentions to needle-exchange programs and naloxone antidotes for overdoses. Needle-exchange programs have been found to reduce the amount of blood-borne infections, keep the streets safer for kids with less loose syringes, and provide safe spaces for drug users who have been rejected from their families. These spaces create opportunities for users to turn their lives around and make productive, clean lives. Similarly, naloxone is a medication that will rapidly reverse overdose. It comes as an injection, auto injection, or nasal spray for trained personnel or family members of opioid users to access in case of emergency.

The intentions behind the fentanyl strips for drug users are morally sound in that they align with the needle-exchange programs and naloxone antidotes. They work to decrease overdose, spread of disease, and overall harm to users. However, we must consider if these fentanyl strips are actually effective at decreasing drug overdose. Are they actually being used as something productive, to decrease the amount of harm to users? Or are they promoting the drug industry as “safer” ways to use? If they do little to eliminate harm to users then they could just be weakening drug laws and promoting usage as an unintended consequence.

A few cities such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, and Burlington, Vermont, have started providing test strips at their needle-exchange sites. However, something that is restricting the wide distribution is that there are paraphernalia laws in place that prohibit the use of devices to aid drug users in using drugs. The needle-exchange sites are not nationally used today: fifteen states still outlaw them. Though this restriction has been loosened for when it comes to clean needles, it could still apply to test strips.

The cons of the testing strips, according to the RTI study, is that though users are more likely to change the way that they use the drugs, they do not stop using. The respondents said that they were more likely to reduce how much they use. They were also more likely to snort the drug instead of inject it, which leads to less being absorbed in the blood stream. However, none of the respondents said that they would throw out the drugs even though they had a 63 percent positive finding for the potent fentanyl drug. Not to mention, the cost of the strips may be too much of a burden for the users to take on as a way of protection.

On average, a clean syringe costs $0.97, similar to the $1 cost of a testing strip. The fact that the strips cost one dollar may seem like a cheap price but on average, heroin users inject four times a day. When injecting this frequently, the process could potentially become too costly to be worth clean syringes and testing strips to users. To counter this barrier, some people suggest that users should just assume that all heroin contains fentanyl and adjust accordingly. Jon Zibbell says, “We have a poisoning epidemic. When there’s E. coli in the lettuce, you test the lettuce. You have to test the product to see what’s in it.”

In order for these testing strips to be implemented in a positive way, there needs to be more solid evidence that they will function as harm prevention. From the Harm Reduction Journal, Don C Des Jarlais writes about how the way that needle-exchange programs were so successful was through vast amounts of research and activism to put the harm reduction measures into place. He says, “The researchers then provided the data needed to justify large-scale public expenditures on harm reduction programs (primarily by state and local governments). Without these public expenditures, the harm reduction programs would not have achieved the scope they needed to be successful to stop the HIV epidemic among people who inject drugs (PWID)”. Fentanyl testing strips seem to be in the horizon towards lowering drug overdose, but more research needs to be done. This research must prove that because of access to the fentanyl strips, drug users will change the way or amount that they use, ultimately proving that the fentanyl strips can decrease the rate of opioid overdose deaths.

The Ethics of Legacy Admissions

Photograph of a banner that says "office of admissions"

In a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh responded to questions about his college-aged behavior by saying “I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.” Although Kavanaugh’s claim to independence was quickly confirmed to be false (his grandfather also attended Yale), his concern to separate himself from the notion of being a “legacy admission” is unsurprising: the very concept grates against the oft-espoused cultural virtue of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.

In short, for college admission offices who give preference to such applicants, “legacy” students have at least one close relative (such as a parent, sibling, or grandparent) who is an alumnus of the college in question. Being such an applicant grants no guarantee of admission, but it is a standard question on the applications to many elite institutions, particularly in the Ivy League. Universities interested in such information defend the practice on the grounds that it helps improve a college’s yield, or percentage of admitted students who actually end up enrolling, if more admitted students already have emotional connections to the institution. Critics of the practice charge that it inherently prefers traditionally privileged students at the expense of potentially equally qualified applicants from poorer families.

One element cannot be debated: legacy admission rates are indeed higher than that of others students, often to the degree of two to five times more than first-generation applicants; nearly a third of Harvard’s incoming class of 2021, for example, counted themselves as legacy students. Many schools do not report statistics on the effect of legacy applications to the admissions process, but recent student movements at several historic universities are pushing to change such policies. At the very least, they argue, if the natural assumption of collegiate meritocracy is going to be undermined by nepotistic interests, then such effects should be made public.

Although it may be true that legacy applicants are more likely to attend a school to which they apply, it is clearly not the case that legacy students are the only applicants with emotional investments in the schools of their choice. If yield rates are a driving concern in perpetuating this practice, that could easily be addressed during applicant interviews (or even with other written questions on the initial form). In all likelihood, alumni donation rates are also a significant factor in this process, with schools admitting the children of wealthy graduates (affectionately called “development cases”) in the hopes to continue encouraging financial support; although perhaps falling short of the legal definition of ‘bribery,’ such financial concerns certainly smell morally problematic.

Of course, in most cases, legacy admits are perfectly qualified candidates for admission on their own merits; it’s hard to tell what sort of benefits are granted to the Ivy League graduate, for example, because of her degree as opposed to her privileged upbringing or, indeed, because of her own talent and effort. No one has suggested that legacy students are inherently undeserving of their positions on the student rolls or that Brett Kavanaugh is not a qualified candidate for a Supreme Court position because of the conditions of his schooling; the concern is rather that granting preferential treatment to legacy students unfairly perpetuates socioeconomic disparities for reasons that are not clearly beneficial to anyone other than the colleges themselves.

Trump, Puerto Rico, and the Ethics of Skepticism

Arial photograph of destruction caused by Hurricane Maria

In September, Donald Trump claimed on Twitter that the number of deaths in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria reported by the media was exaggerated: instead of the widely cited number of approximately 3000, Trump claimed that the real death toll was closer to 16. According to Trump the number was inflated by his political opponents with the intention of making him look bad. To support such a bold claim one would expect to be presented with a significant amount of evidence, but Trump presented none. Instead, it seems that he merely raised the possibility of a conspiracy and appealed to his supporters’ distrust of the political left in order to try to deflect criticism that he did not sufficiently address the problems created by Hurricane Maria.

Many interpreted Trump’s claims as abhorrent: not only was Trump apparently attempting to capitalize on a recent tragedy in order to score political points, he was also expressing a complete disregard for a significant loss of life. Carmen Yuliz Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, put the matter succinctly when she tweeted: “Mr Trump you can try and bully us with your tweets BUT WE KNOW OUR LIVES MATTER”.

While many from those on both sides of the political spectrum repudiated Trump’s claims, responses from some diehard Trump supporters differed. It is common to find comments on articles and tweets made by those that praise Trump for what they take to be expressions of truth, and chastise what they take to be bias in reporting. Here are some representative responses on Trump’s follow up to his original tweet:

“I think Puerto Rico needs to show a list of the names .. just like when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 … It  only took 5 to 6 days…”

“It’s a rabbit trail designed to distract. Don’t waste time beating that dead horse Mr. President. Time to start tweeting out your MANY success. Let the mainstream media chase its tail.”

“Our President Mr Trump had done nothing wrong when Maria hit Puerto Rico he did exactly what he was supposed to. All the goods he had sent there sat in haulers no one wanted to drive them and you blame this on our President. It was their President that failed them.”

“I am amazed that “fake news” has infiltrated the weather channel. News reporters acting like the wind is about to blow them down with people walking in background at a normal pace. Then, reporters telling about a death toll with so much exaggeration. Shameful scaring of people.”

Of course, these claims are not generally supported with evidence, either. Instead, in the wake of Trump’s tweets, many of his followers have responded in the following way: it is really impossible to know, exactly, how many people died in Hurricane Maria, perhaps because it took a significant amount of time for the death toll numbers to come in, or perhaps because there are suspicions that those in charge of reporting such numbers are corrupt or incompetent. Since his supporters see Trump as trustworthy and his opponents untrustworthy, they claim that it is more plausible that Trump’s numbers are accurate.

It is unclear whether Trump truly believes what he is tweeting, or if he is trying to purposely mislead people. At the very least, what Trump appears to be doing is sowing seeds of doubt in his supporters, in this case by raising the possibility that the officially reported death toll numbers are wrong, solely on the basis of egotism and distrust. He is, then, engaging in a disingenuous form of skepticism. It is sometimes a good thing to be skeptical – we do not want to believe just anything that anyone tells us without thinking about it, and so it is often a good idea to scrutinize information we’re given or to look for additional evidence ourselves. But skepticism without cause and that is based not on trying to get to the truth can be detrimental and, in some cases, even unethical.

When philosophers talk about skeptics they have in mind someone who attempts to convince us that we do not know something (or in general, that we do not know anything) by reminding us of all the ways that we could be mistaken. For instance, the classic philosophical skeptics challenge us to consider whether we could merely be dreaming, or raise that possibility that we could be living a life in the computer simulation like the Matrix. Since these are possibilities that I can’t rule out – I really can’t tell whether I’m dreaming right now or whether I’m awake, and if I were in a computer simulation I would never know it – it seems like I’m stuck: for all I know I could very well be wrong about everything I thought that I knew.

In the real world, skepticism is typically much more narrowly focused: someone expresses a belief, and that belief is called into question because of the possibility that someone could be wrong. Again, this can be a good thing: it is a good practice to call one’s beliefs into questions and to make sure that one has good reason to believe them. But it can also be unhelpful: when we have a significant amount of evidence, raising the mere possibility of being wrong can be a distraction, something that prevents us from believing what’s true. Conspiracies are often based on unfounded skepticism: that the moon landing was faked in a Hollywood studio, or that the roundness of the Earth is a NASA plot are both possibilities, but not ones that most people take seriously. We should only pay attention to the skeptic, it seems, when they have good reasons for their skepticism.

Trump’s skepticism seems to fall squarely into the category of that which we should ignore, as there is significant evidence for the numbers that are widely reported to be accurate – for instance, in the form of an independent report conducted by The George Washington University – and no evidence that they have been fabricated. While it is still true that it is possible that the report was conducted incorrectly, and that it is possible that there is a conspiracy at play in an attempt to further discredit Donald Trump, these possibilities are not ones that we really need to take seriously: there is no evidence for these claims, and so much evidence that they are false, that we should not be worried about being wrong.

One worry with Trump’s recent tweets, then, is that he is spreading false information. However, expressing his skepticism in this way has moral consequences, as well. By convincing others not to believe that the reported death toll is correct, they will not only be less inclined to provide any assistance (say, in the form of donations to those affected by Hurricane Maria), but also threatens to strip from Puerto Ricans the right to seek such assistance. The people of Puerto Rico should be considered victims of a natural disaster, and as such we have certain obligations to help them. Trump’s skepticism, however, attempts to relinquish himself and his followers from any such obligations. The more significant problem behind Trump’s tweets, then, is not merely a dispute about numbers, but rather that an unfounded skepticism of reliable reports can result in lasting damage to people in need of aid.

The Indianapolis Prize and the Ethics of Conservation

Photograph of a lemur turning toward the camera over its puffy tail

On Saturday, September 29, the Indianapolis Zoological Society hosted its biennial awards ceremony, the Indianapolis Prize Gala, at the JW Marriot hotel in Indianapolis, Indiana. Referred to as “the Nobel Prize of animal conservation,” the Indianapolis Prize is awarded every second year to a scientist deemed to have contributed significantly to wildlife conservation. This year, Dr. Russ Mittermeier received the honor, which includes a $250,000 award, for his work with various primate species over a 45-year career. The gala also recognizes a celebrity who has advanced the cause of conservation through funding, visibility, and outreach: this year, actor Harrison Ford was the recipient of that honor. In his speech, Ford said, “Protecting nature is first and foremost for me a moral imperative.” Inspiring as that statement may be, it remains to be seen exactly what kind of moral imperative there is regarding nature. What is the most ethical way to support and protect the environment? Furthermore, what kind of relationship should human beings maintain with our environment?
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Democracy Notwithstanding: The Strange Case of a Canadian Constitutional Scuffle

Photograph of the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa with a hotel in the background

Canada is rarely imagined as a place of political instability. Yet an unfolding political situation in Ontario has garnered international attention and, for some, a national sense of constitutional crisis. The origins of the story are local, but the consequences shed light on something global for the ethics of constitutional democracy. The problem began with a Conservative bill to reduce the number of Toronto council members by half, ostensibly for cost-saving and expediency goals, yet startlingly one month before an election. It escalated when a Superior Court Justice ruled the bill unconstitutional and in violation of certain portions of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms which ensures basic – though, as we will see, not inviolable – human and political rights (in the case of this judgment, the freedom of speech and assembly in city council and election). The situation became interesting, however, when Doug Ford, Ontario’s new Premier, invoked in response what is called the “notwithstanding clause” of the Charter. This effectively allows a parliamentary body to temporarily override certain parts of the Charter and any judicial review – that is, to suspend rights of citizens and prevent any court challenge – in order to continue a legislative agenda.

Let’s set aside the possible political motivations behind the bill itself – which proponents see as a rightful purview of the province to legislate its municipal elections, and critics see as a politically motivated assault on and unnecessary intervention in the council during an election process. What is of interest to us here is the history, philosophical function, and ethical implications of a constitutional mechanism that can be invoked by any parliamentary majority to overrule constitutional rights themselves, and to disregard and render ineffectual a judicial decision upholding those rights. But first, what is the origin of this thing that has suddenly entered national attention?

The notwithstanding clause, peculiar to the Canadian system, is neither a perennial feature of Canadian government nor a prevalently employed one. It originated in a compromise between the federal and provincial representatives during the repatriation of Canada’s constitution in 1982. It has been used rarely outside of Quebec in the 1980s, where for a number of years it was “blanketly” employed for all legislation, and it has never been used in Ontario. Thus we have a kind of public shock and condemnation, as well as an educative moment in which many Canadians scramble to figure out how the nuances of their political system work. The deal that was struck in 1982 ultimately ensured the adoption of the Charter, but it contained a concession to provinces from the federalist program of universal rights. This overnight-deal of a clause provides a specific leveraging power to legislatures in relation to the judiciary’s power to rule over laws in the final instance.

This shows a distinctly different perspective on the role of the judiciary from the American political model, which I have written about elsewhere. Where the founders of the U.S. constitution saw the Supreme Court as a safeguard against legislative caprices which might produce laws violating constitutional rights, there is a strain of Canadian provincialism that fears the reverse: the oppression of legislation by historically defined judiciary sentiments. This reactionary concern against federalist and judiciary power is most pointedly and coarsely articulated in Conrad Black’s recent letter in the National Post. “The real importance of the premier’s invocation of Section 33,” Black argues, “is the threat it poses to the ability of the bench to ignore the intention of legislators and interpret every statute as they choose in light of current sociology and legal convention.” Black’s concern is with what he takes to be “eccentric decisions” by the judiciary. “We have the courts to thank, almost untethered to what the law states,” Black scornfully laments, “for … the theory that almost accuses the ancestors of the Europeans in this country of effectively invading and seizing the nations of the native people virtually as Hitler and Stalin invaded and occupied Poland in 1939 and that implies that we have an uncertain right to be here,” as well as departing from what he calls “the unquestioned and demonstrable view that there are two sexes in the human species (among others), though a variety of sexual orientations.” The content of Black’s political and philosophical concerns speak for themselves. The crux here in this strange diatribe, however, is not just a concern with the allocation of powers between the federal and the provincial, but a fundamental disdain for the adjudication by principles and rights. Conflating “law” with legislation removes actual legislation from questions of right and justice with universal scope.

Critics of Ford’s move range widely as they come to terms with an intrinsic possibility largely dormant in the Canadian political world. One concern is about the anti-democratic nature of invoking the clause itself, and a more nuanced claim about its inappropriateness in a specific context – or, as one commenter dramatically puts it, “using a nuclear bomb to kill a bug.” However, the weight of this depends on how we understand democracy. Constitutionally, if we understand democracy as an accord with constitutional rights and privileges, then it is in the full power of the Ontario parliament to do so. Perhaps then it is not an issue with the parliamentary decision to invoke the clause, but rather with the existence of the clause itself. And yet suggesting that the clause is anti-democratic is not exact, since in practical and intended effect it shifts power to elected legislative assemblies and away from unelected justices of the court. If we hold onto the claim that the suspension of rights for legislative purposes is anti-democratic, then it seems that the critique needs to move toward a wholesale defense of the inviolable integrity of the Charter against all possible infringements, federal or provincial. But this is, at least traditionally understood, the purview of the judiciary. Canada, perhaps just starting the honeymoon with the substance of its Charter, might also be reckoning with the family of unelected members (whether justices or ministers) with which it looks to spend the rest of its life.

There is a deeper issue revealed in the notwithstanding clause. It is an instance of what theorists call a “state of exception,” that is, a feature of government that allows a legal political power to suspend the law in its totality, in specific geopolitical areas, or in restricted and tactical ways. This mechanism is what Carl Schmitt, the renowned Crown Jurist and political theorist during the Third Reich, isolated as the highest power of sovereignty: not any positive structure of government, but the power of the law to suspend itself in times of emergency. This is shown not merely by the indefinite suspension of the Weimar constitution during the Second World War for a political authoritarianism, or governance via state of emergency. As Giorgio Agamben develops Schmitt’s definition, it is also a perennial feature of state power that we see in different forms widely in our ostensible constitutional democracies: the power in the U.S. to suspend habeas corpus during situations of national threat, the construction of extra-judicial prisons like Guantanamo Bay beyond national and international legal statutes, or declarations of martial law. What seeps through our attention with this relatively small provincial bill, and the invocation of an obscure constitutional clause, is this anti-democratic power tucked into the fabric of our democracies like a safeguard against the principles of justice we imagine holding our societies together.

The Implications of being The Bachelor and a Virgin

"Roses" by Ângela Antunes licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Recently, Colton Underwood, former NFL player and contestant on season 14 of The Bachelorette with Becca Kufrin, has been named the next Bachelor in ABC’s hit reality show The Bachelor. The show’s structure allows for one person to date several other people at once. And while there are several problems with this structure, one of the most problematic elements is that it exacerbates existing problems within dating culture. During Underwood’s time on The Bachelorette he confessed to being a virgin, and now will be The Bachelor’s first virgin Bachelor.

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Commodifying Activism

"Nike" by Miguel Vaca licensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Recently, Nike aired an advertisement that sparked a lot of cultural and political buzz. This ad contained professional football player, Colin Kaepernick, a man who has become a household name in political discourse through his protest to police brutality, delivering a simple message: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Since the airing of this ad, there has been a considerable backlash with a variety of Twitter hashtags like #justburnit or #BoycottNike becoming increasingly popular. Despite this response to Nike’s use of Kaepernick’s controversial figure, the value of Nike’s stock has only risen and sales have increased. Nike’s promotion has helped spread awareness and increase support for Colin Kaepernick, but what right do companies with a history like Nike’s have to be champions of social justice? Nike has a notorious history of utilizing sweatshops and child labor and not only that, but they just signed a new contract with the same league that has collectively barred Kaepernick from playing. This amalgam of good and bad aspects of Nike’s support for social justice begs the question: is it ethical for companies to commodify social and political activism? And what are its effects on our societal norms? In the following paragraphs, I will explore how similar ad campaigns have informed their respective social justice movements and if there is an ethical way to market these movements within a consumerist economy.

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The Ethics of Regulating Sperm Donation

"041/365 - April 29, 2009" by Morgan liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

With advances in reproductive technology, there are more options than ever to procreate. One of those options is via donor insemination. It is estimated that 30,000-60,000 children are born per year using sperm donors. Currently the US operates on voluntary action for donors and regulation of these registries. This means that donors can donate in anonymity. Mothers of donor children are not required to report their birth to the sperm bank births from the donation and it is estimated that only 20-40 percent of mothers actually report. The site donorsibblingregistry.com has serves as a record for the resulting children to connect to donors, donor-siblings, and donor-conceived people.   Continue reading “The Ethics of Regulating Sperm Donation”

Freedom to Gather: An Ethical Examination of the DePauw Student Handbook

Photograph of two housing units at DePauw University

This past Saturday, my friends and I found ourselves heading towards the Greencastle town square, when we walked past a fraternity house that looked like the remnants of a music festival: the grass covered by an assortment of beer bottles, and foldable tables struggling to retain their shape. When we saw this, we immediately stopped. Simultaneously, like something deeply ingrained within us, we exclaimed, “White privilege!” What else could explain that police were not present and questioning what seemed like an obvious violation of University policies? What else could explain that there were no students frantically cleaning the mess, or even the fact that drinking of alcoholic beverages had occurred outside of a fraternity house to begin with, and in broad daylight?

As three women of color, who have ample experience within the university, my friends and I know that social gatherings of people of color are highly policed and regulated. Parties where the majority of people in attendance are black or brown get shut down, even when there is no alcohol present. With this in mind, we considered how having the institutional weight of historically white fraternities behind students could allow them to violate school policies with seemingly no consequences. Furthermore, this led me to consider how DePauw upholds white supremacy and oppression on a “policy” and “enforcement” level. What are the ethical considerations that the DePauw student handbook raises in regards to principles of justice? Through a combination of negligence and racist policies, the DePauw student handbook promises a diverse and inclusive community, but instead delivers an environment that promotes inequality.

After seeing the fraternity house go unbothered, I began to doubt myself and wondered whether there were any university policies that prohibited what this organization had done. I checked the handbook which listed “Consuming alcohol outdoors in the vicinity of any University-owned property or Greek living unit” as punishable by Community Standards. This led me to review the entirety of the DePauw Student handbook to assess how the university’s policies respect the ethical principle of justice. Through a set of policies, the student handbook limits student of color’s ability to gather in social or political action.

According to the “Campus Living Residential Policies Fall 2018, “All events in university owned houses must be registered if they exceed ten people. Additionally, even when registered, these events cannot surpass 35 people total. One might wonder how that is an infringement of justice; however, it is important to consider that many students of color do not feel comfortable or welcomed in historically white fraternity parties or events. Additionally, most students of color at DePauw are either independent or part of a historically black, multicultural, or Latinx organization. Furthermore, most students of color live in university-owned rooms and houses, including Greek students, which means that if they wish to congregate in their living units, they must consider the university’s policies.

While historically white sororities and fraternities are still supposed to abide by university policies, their houses are considered private property and are somewhat outside of the university’s domain. Therefore, there appears to be an issue: students of color who do not want to engage in a party culture that revolves around historically white fraternity houses are restricted from hosting their own events. The student handbook, under “Student Rights, Responsibilities and Freedoms” affrims students’ right to the “freedom of assembly, inquiry and expression.” To me, this would mean that all student are able to gather in a safe manner that promotes expression and community-building. The ethical principle of justice is violated, however, when “safety” is a tool raised to prohibit students of color from gathering. What may be an even greater violation of justice is that black and brown gatherings are restricted at times, because the houses these students live in are not trusted to be structurally sound.

Last year, a university-owned house was torn down after the floor collapsed while students were inside. This house was occupied by the members of a historically black fraternity. When I interviewed the members of this house, one of them voiced that they had reported what they perceived to be an issue with their house’s floor. They explained that, soon after they moved in, the floor seemed bouncy and uneven when they walked on it. According to Nicole Collissi from Campus Living and Community Development, members of the Facilities Management team replaced the beam from the foundation that had previously snapped after they were made aware of the issue. The residents confirmed that Facilities had seemingly fixed the issue after inspections and a follow-up. However, during a registered social gathering at their house, a beam broke again, and they were asked to move out immediately. According to Campus Living and Community Development, the collapsed floor had been a product of over-capacity in the space. The university tore the house down: the only remnants of the incident are an empty lot and a set of stairs leading to what used to be an entrance. The students were moved to a residential unit, which has also been deemed structurally unsafe for any students to live in since then.

After speaking with Nicole Collissi and Kevin Hamilton from Campus Living and Community Development, it became evident that they are highly concerned with student’s safety. Nicole Collissi voiced that the 35 person rule is based on Indiana Fire Code regulations, which are meant to keep students safe. However, a house’s floor, if this house is structurally sound, should not collapse. The fact that a social gathering caused the floor to collapse points to how old and unkempt that house was to begin with. Despite the lacking quality of university owned houses, it is understandable that the university would like student functions and events to abide by fire code regulations. If all students broke the university’s policies, there would be great chaos within the student body. However, as I highlighted, white students and students from historically white fraternities and sororities are not held accountable to university policies to the same extent that students of color are.

The historically white fraternity, Sigma Nu, is an interesting case when considering the student handbook housing policies, because they are the only historically white fraternity on campus whose house is university-owned. Like the events organized by NPHC, multicultural and Latinx organizations, their events are alcohol-free. I spoke with the current president of Sigma Nu, who shared that they had not been made aware of any guest limits for their events. Nevertheless, they abide by their fraternity’s guidelines on guests and events, which limits two guests per brother. Kevin Hamilton from Campus Living and Community Development expressed that Sigma Nu’s events are typically not very loud and therefore Public Safety does not have a reason to shut them down. This leads me to consider how the cultural practices of black and brown bodies are perpetually deemed loud and disruptive. However, the cultural practices reflected in the ways students of color gather in community are rooted within their peoples’ histories. Furthermore, whose gaze is privileged when a cultural practice, such as dancing, is deemed to be “too much?”

This year alone, my own university house has been visited by Facilities Management more than six times, and we are only a few weeks into the semester. After the facilities team came to our house for the third time concerning a leak in the kitchen, they said they had to change a piece of the pipes that seemed to date from the 1960’s. The structural issue emerges: students of color are not safe in predominantly white spaces, but these are the spaces where people can congregate. Students of color want to abide by the university’s rules and keep themselves and their peers safe, but are not able to ensure safety even within their personal dwellings. Therefore, students of color either feel forced to risk their safety by attending events in historically white fraternities, risk their safety by congregating in their own houses that may not be able to safely house themselves and their peers, or remain without certain aspects of community building granted to white students. It is important to consider how, historically, people of color have used community building as a form of survival. However, the ability for students of color to congregate and have fun is currently contested.

It is imperative one highlights how a policy that seems reasonable on the surface is actually the product of our white supremacist society. These policies reflect how our institution is structurally assembled to protect some students more than others. This starts with the spaces students are able to occupy, and what they are allowed to do in these spaces. Nicole Collissi stated that the university has been working on the Master Housing Plan, which will include new houses for students. I am optimistic that these spaces will be given to students of color and will have the capability of housing student functions in a safe manner. However, the completion of this project is not on the horizon and it is yet to be seen how students of color will be granted an equitable opportunity to gather.

 

On Supposed Harm

Image of Sen. Grassley with two people behind him

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the fifth article of that series.   

This past week, Brett Kavanaugh claimed his life and family were significantly harmed by Dr. Ford recounting her experiences with him: “My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed by vicious and false additional accusations.” The possibility that he may not receive the position of Supreme Court Justice has been framed by many as a punishment for behavior he performed as a youth, and therefore too stringent a comeuppance. Further, Kavanaugh “losing out” on this opportunity has been cast as part of the current climate brought about by the #metoo movement where supposedly men must be on their guard and are under unjustified attack.   Continue reading “On Supposed Harm”

Himpathy: The (Pre-emptive) Word of the Year

"Believe Women Vs Kavanaugh" by Mobilus In Mobili liscensed under CC BY 2.0 (Via Flickr).

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the fourth article of that series.   

Judge Brett Kavanaugh has a wife and two daughters. He is also credibly accused of sexually assaulting at least one (and quite possibly more) women over the course of the last five decades. Since his nomination by Donald Trump to the open seat on the US Supreme Court, the country has watched his confirmation proceedings in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee with unusual attention. Historically, this is a governmental process typically kept separate from the spectacle of public campaigns; for Kavanaugh’s, the room has been upset by loud protesters, long speeches from politicians, and by Kavanaugh himself, whose own statement this past Thursday excoriated the press, the Democratic party, and his accusers with a surprising lack of decorum.

Continue reading “Himpathy: The (Pre-emptive) Word of the Year”

Sexual Abuse and the Rhetoric of Powerful Men

Photograph of Brett Kavanaugh with his hand raised in anger

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the third article of that series.   

Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination has been contested since Dr. Christine Blasey Ford alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her three decades ago. Since Ford, Deborah Ramirez and a third accuser, Julie Swetnick, also have alleged sexually inappropriate behaviour from Kavanaugh.  Initially, Republicans attempted to rush through the nomination. But on facing public outcry about their seeming disregard for normal vetting processes, the Republicans permitted Dr. Blasey Ford to testify at a congressional hearing this past week. Dr. Blasey Ford’s controlled testimony about her experience has triggered a nation-wide distillation of grief and rage from sexual assault survivors.

In the wake of #MeToo, women are rejecting silence about their abusers en masse. Men are starting to get alarmed. Here, I focus on men as accused and women as accusers in part because it is reflective of the norm – one in five women are raped in their lifetime, while one in seventy-one men will get raped. Also, men are overwhelmingly represented in powerful positions, and are beneficiaries of social machinery that operate to keep them there. The suggestion that this gendered distribution of power could be challenged is raising serious anxiety for the Republicans, the party with an overwhelmingly male face. As one anonymous White House lawyer summed it up: “If somebody can be brought down by accusations like this, then you, me, every man certainly should be worried. “

Previously, the burden of responsibility for rape allegations has always been borne by the victim. Women are routinely scrutinized for being the recipients of sexual assault, while men’s actions are diminished as ”horseplay”, or drunken, youthful antics. Here, too, there are gendered laws as to how drink affects agency: a man who drinks automatically has reduced culpability for his actions, while a woman who drinks is de facto responsible for what a man does to her.

Now that the winds appear to be shifting slightly to ask more accountability from men, men are reacting with outsized emotions. Brett Kavanaugh’s petulant tirade following the testimony of his accuser, Dr. Blasey Ford, implied that he was owed one of the highest offices in the land without being subjected to scrutiny. And yet this appears to have worked for Kavanaugh – righteous male rage is an effective strategy to redirect narratives, empathy, and power to male perpetrators rather than to victims of sexual assault.

This indefatigable entitlement also characterizes a broader backdrop wherein men who have been accused by numerous women of misconduct are seeking returns to their former prominence.  Jian Ghomeshi, the Canadian media personality who was accused of sexual abuse by twenty women, was recently given a prestigious platform in the New York Review of Books. Ghomeshi’s self-indulgent essay came under fire for its mischaracterization of his offenses (for example, Ghomeshi said ”several” women had come forward rather than the actual number of twenty, and he characterized his actions, which included punching women in the head, non-consensual choking, and workplace harassment as being ”emotionally thoughtless”). Ghomeshi also expressed claims to newfound empathy, an empathy which seems misplaced in its primary fixation on other accused offenders rather than for the victims of his actions. Widely derided as an editorial choice, the publication of Ghomeshi’s essay triggered the departure of NYRB’s editor, Ian Buruma.  Rather than concede poor professional judgment in publishing an article that was neither fact-checked or published with journalistic due diligence, Buruma mourned that he simply wanted to hear from Ghomeshi after he was tried by a ‘court’ of social media, but found himself ‘pilloried’ in turn.  

This example reflects a common strategy of the sexual politics surrounding #MeToo: men rhetorically adopting the position of hapless victim of hearsay and public shaming, asking for ‘due process’ – whatever that is supposed to mean outside of a judicial system.  Surprisingly enough, judicial-sounding tropes of ‘courts’ and ‘due process’ in the context of public opinion have been rejected by none other than Mitt Romney.  In 2017, Romney tweeted in support of Leigh Corfman against Roy Moore, sayingInnocent until proven guilty is for criminal convictions, not elections.” Mitt Romney has a point. This rhetorical strategy may seem persuasive on its surface, but does not hold up to scrutiny. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ and ‘due process’ are concepts which reflect a high standard reserved for criminal and civil prosecution, because inflicting punishment by the state is reasonably held to a high standard of proof.

Public opinion, on the other hand, does not and need not operate beyond the shadow of a doubt. Most of our decisions about people’s characters in everyday life and politics are made with reasonably plausible levels of certainty, rather than courtroom levels of certainty.  What these pleas for impossibly high standards of proof in talking about rape truly advocate is preventing any outing of powerful men as sexual offenders. But powerful men do not need our continued support. They need it least of all in a world where only six out of every 1000 rapists will ever end up in prison and it takes sixty female accusers to persuade a court that one powerful man is a rapist. And yet, these same men who rail against their accusers should be the first to seek to clear their names by formal avenues.  If Brett Kavanaugh were truly convinced of his own innocence, he should have pleaded for an FBI investigation, rather than Dr. Blasey-Ford.

Today, op-eds abound asking whether high-profile sexual offenders have finished their time-out yet, or ask whether #MeToo is ‘going too far’, revealing a strong identification and concern for powerful men who have abused their power. Surprisingly, these same voices show a complete lack of curiosity and vision regarding the present and future of victims who have come forth in the tidal wave of confessing their experiences, often at great personal cost.  When do they get to reclaim their power, productivity, joy, and carefree lives?

In this pivotal historical moment, it is important to reflect and critically scrutinize the use of hyperbole as a rhetorical power play. Misapplied uses of language can obfuscate who are the real victims in an imbalanced state of affairs.  Misleading rhetoric can even re-victimize those who have already been violated, while reaffirming the status quo. As Aristotle proposed in the first book of the Rhetoric, citizens and thinkers must peel beneath rhetorical performances to evaluate where the better case for justice lies. It may not necessarily rest with those who are protesting the loudest.

 

We Listen to Accusers, Should We Listen to the Accused?

"Jian Ghomeshi" by Ontario Library Association liscenced under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr).

Editor’s Note: The confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the allegations against him, and the subsequent congressional hearing interviewing Dr. Blasey Ford have spurred many difficult, complex reactions. This week, we will be publishing varied perspectives on the spectrum of topics brought to the fore by Dr. Blasey’s hearing. This is the second of that series.

Our culture has arrived at a moment of reckoning. Substantial strides have been made towards protecting victims of sexual assault and punishing those responsible. The perceived privilege of wealth and power can no longer shield the wealthy and powerful from facing deserved punishment for wrongful actions. But has the pendulum swung too far? In our efforts to unconditionally support victims have we crossed into automatically believing accusers? In doing so, have we failed to consider the account of the accused?

Continue reading “We Listen to Accusers, Should We Listen to the Accused?”