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DeVos: Finding the baby in the bathwater

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My daughter, Callie Anderson, wrote the following in response to a high school assignment. I read it and found it more thoughtful than any other reaction to DeVos’s recent remarks about rape and sexual assault on college campuses.

Because DeVos’s stance toward sexual assault is offensive, most liberals tended to dismiss all of her remarks. Callie sifts through DeVos’s ideas a bit more carefully, finding something worth respecting while holding DeVos accountable for her shortcomings.

I asked Callie if I could share her writing, and she said yes. I hope you find it worth your time like I did.

NOTE: WHAT FOLLOWS IS ALL FROM CALLIE ANDERSON

“Secretary DeVos Prepared Remarks on Title IX Enforcement.” U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Education, 7 Sept. 2017. Web. 8 Sept. 2017.
http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/secretary-devos-prepared-remarks-title-ix-enforcement

“Myths about False Accusation.” MAAN RSS, Stanford University, 2017. Web. 8 Sept. 2017. https://web.stanford.edu/group/maan/cgi-bin/?page_id=297

Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos gave a speech on Title IX, specifically about rape and sexual assault on college campuses, on Thursday, September 7, at George Mason University. She highlighted how this Obama-era policy of using the “lowest standard of proof” when dealing with accusations of sexual assault results in a “failed system” where “everyone loses” (“Secretary DeVos”). DeVos cited stories about due process for the accused being violated, often resulting in the accused filing a lawsuit against his or her school because of this violation. This lawsuit process would also mean that the survivor of sexual assault would have to keep reliving his or her experience at multiple trials. DeVos clearly stated that she wants Title IX, the Office for Civil Rights, and schools of higher education to strongly address sexual assault while still maintaining equality to both survivors and people accused of sexual assault. While she has not laid out any specific policy to replace the Obama-era policy, DeVos did announce that the Education Department will have a notice-and-comment process where the public can voice their opinions on Title IX and sexual assault on college campuses (“Secretary DeVos”).

I agree with Secretary DeVos more than I expected to. Overall, sexual assault affects millions of people in the United States, and college campuses must be equipped to deal with such problems when they occur. While sexual assault is something that I take very seriously, I do not think it is acceptable to use lower standards when accusing people of sexual assault because such an accusation can wield life-altering consequences for the accused. And while this is a problem that should be addressed, I think Secretary DeVos missed other important pieces of the sexual assault on college campuses puzzle. With less than half of sexual assaults reported to the police, a more pressing issue would be making the system a friendlier place for survivors (“Myths about False Accusation”). I do not mean to immediately assume an accused person is guilty to deny a person of due process, but to make the process of reporting sexual assault a more comfortable experience. Furthermore, only half of all sexual assault reports are prosecuted (“Myths about False Accusation”). People know how often sexual assault reports get filed away and forgotten about, so many people choose not to even waste their time by going to the police or their college. DeVos focused too much on people falsely accused of sexual assault or who were denied due process because they were accused. Out of six stories DeVos told during her speech, four focused on the accused’s struggles rather than the survivor’s struggles. Again, it is a problem that people are falsely accused of sexual assault or denied due process, but it really is a much bigger and more pressing issue that so few assaults are reported, fewer prosecuted, and even fewer convicted.

Approximately two percent of all rape and sexual assault accusations are false, which is on par with other felonies (“Myths about False Accusation”). While Betsy DeVos had an important message to convey to the American public and the millions of college students, she could have made it more powerful by addressing issues related to sexual assault that are more widespread.

 

 

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Losing patience / losing patients

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On July 27, my physical therapist M1 (a pseudonym, even though that would be a rockstar name) was massaging my shoulders and neck as part of my rotator cuff treatment when he said,

You are a beautiful woman.

I said, “Thank you.”

He said,

Relax.

I had immediately tensed up because I don’t want my therapist commenting on my appearance while he’s rubbing my shoulders and neck.

I provide the context because the context matters. If I had just walked into the office and I was dressed up, his comment would have been welcome. If I had been chatting about feeling ugly and he had been responding, his comment would have been welcome. But he was doing professional work while touching my body in an intimate way when he said something about my appearance out of the blue. He was crossing a line.

I asked for advice on Facebook:

Screen Shot 2017-08-09 at 10.20.05 AM

The responses were excellent and varied. A couple people wondered if I would’ve felt as uncomfortable if the therapist had been female. While that is hard to answer definitively, I think I would’ve felt uncomfortable. Why comment on my appearance out of the blue with your hands rubbing my shoulders and neck? If you’re thinking about what I look like in that situation, I really don’t want to know that no matter what your gender.

Several people said to seek another physical therapist because I shouldn’t be uncomfortable while being treated. Some people said to tell M1 directly (with lots of thoughtful advice about how to have such a conversation), and others said to report him.

My instinct is to tell the person directly, but my friends’ responses made me think twice. Some friends in the medical field pointed out that anyone with training would know better than to make such a comment, and more than one person said my job is to get better, not to fix this therapist’s behavior—that’s a role for his supervisor. I appreciated that because sometimes I do play the martyr role, and that’s both obnoxious and unhealthy.

Lesson 1: When you ask Facebook friends for advice and you happen to know a lot of smart and thoughtful people, you have a good chance of receiving excellent advice.

I decided to call the office and explain the situation, asking that M1 the physical therapist be spoken to, and then I would move on to a new physical therapy office.

What actually happened? I was on vacation for a week and kept intending to call, but I never actually did. So it was Friday 8/5 at 4:30pm, and my next appointment was for Monday 8/7 at 7:40am, and I decided I’d just go to the appointment and deal.

I was a little bit annoyed with myself, but I was also already planning on blogging about how difficult it is to confront issues. It’s so much easier to just go along with things. I don’t think that makes me or anyone else a horrible person; it just makes us human.

Lesson 2: Even when we think of ourselves as feminists and activists, our intentions may be far better than our actions.

Monday arrived and I went to my appointment, and my physical therapist was not there. I overheard someone say that some physical ailment was keeping M1 away from work. Another therapist, M2 (another rockstar pseudonym), ended up working with me, and it all went well.

During my entire time on Monday, I kept thinking about how I might talk to the supervisory person M1 had pointed out to me a couple weeks prior. But she was with a patient behind a curtain for most of my time there. When I was leaving, I thought I’d ask the receptionist if I could talk with the supervisor, but people kept coming in and the phone was ringing, so I still didn’t do anything. I left.

I probably should’ve called Monday afternoon, but the day was busy. Do you see how difficult it is to prioritize a conversation you really don’t want to have? a conversation that I really shouldn’t have to have??

But I finally did it. Yesterday, Tuesday 8/8, I called the office. It turns out the office is closed on Tuesdays, so I left a message cancelling my appointment for this morning, 8/9, and asking that a supervisor or manager call me.

I got a call back this morning. I spoke with M2, the physical therapist I had worked with on Monday, who said he was the appropriate person to talk to about a complaint. I told him about what happened, and I told him how it made me feel, and I asked if he would say something to M1 about the situation. He said he would, and he made two comments in response to me, and he repeated these comments at two different points:

I’m sorry you felt that way.

A response that is a horrible response because it’s not a real apology for M1 being inappropriate at all. Instead, it puts the burden on me and my “feelings.”

And he said:

I’m sure he didn’t intend anything. It was just a compliment.

And that is also a horrible response because he’s excusing away an unprofessional behavior.

An appropriate response would be,

I’m sorry he said that to you, even if he didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable. I will speak to him so that he understands that certain comments are not appropriate in a professional setting.

So now I’m going to find someone else who supervises that office to talk to. Because M2 gave me an ignorant and unhelpful response. M1 may be the direct and immediate problem, but M2 is also the problem. If you don’t understand that there are times and places when it is inappropriate to comment on a person’s appearance, then you need to wake the fuck up.

I’m not policing all compliments in all settings and situations, for the love of god. I’m saying that if you’re thinking about my appearance while providing me with medical treatment, you ought to be keeping those thoughts to yourself where they won’t affect me. And I don’t care if you don’t completely understand how people can feel uncomfortable with “compliments” in certain circumstances because you’ve never been objectified or sexually assaulted or harassed; behaving appropriately doesn’t require 100% understanding. It just requires a little bit of goddamn respect.

Lesson 3: I don’t have much. I’m mad. I’m losing patience. But if you’re reading this and you are ever in the position of M1 or M2, I hope you behave far better than they did. Because this bullshit is not fun and should not be necessary for me or any patient.

Update: I spoke with an office manager of the larger practice. She understood. She will speak with the men about the situation. I feel much better.

Watching “Naked Attraction”

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I never imagined that part of my vacation to Ireland with Jace, my 14-year old son, would involve viewing close-ups of male and female genitalia on a tv screen. But that’s what happened, and while it was a bit odd, it was not nearly as bad as it sounds.

Screen Shot 2017-07-15 at 11.38.35 PM

We were in a Dublin hotel when Jace happened upon a cable tv show called Naked Attraction. And we began watching “Adele & Jack,” Series 2 Episode 3. I was reading at the same time so I didn’t catch every bit, but it was fascinating enough that I didn’t ask Jace to change the channel.

The host introduced Adele, a woman who was looking for a date after surviving cancer. The host then pointed to several booths lined up in a row, each with a man partially hidden by a half-door; we could see the men naked from the waist down. No body parts were blurred out as they would be in U.S. television.

Adele was drawn to a man with a long penis, so she and the host walked over and discussed his genitalia, and it went on from there, with the focus moving from man to man. Sometimes legs and hands were discussed, too, in this first round.

Adele eliminated someone based on this view alone (Jace and I could predict who would go), and the sequence was repeated with the naked bodies being revealed next from the neck down, and then the face, and then the voice, until Adele had a date. As each person was eliminated, we learned his age and occupation and got to see shots of him fully naked and then fully clothed.

Once there were two contestants left, Adele got naked. Somehow this turn of events surprised me. I thought she was the viewer, and suddenly she was also on full view herself. But fair’s fair, I suppose.

Adele made her final elimination, she and her date hugged naked, and then we saw them fully clothed together. Finally, Adele returned to the show to tell about their date.

During the second half of the show, the entire process repeated with a man, Jack, looking for a woman to go on a date with him after he lost a lot of weight.

The day after watching the show, Jace began telling our cousin Joan about it, and soon enough we were articulating some of the reasons why we didn’t change the channel.


It was refreshing to see bodies treated in matter-of-fact ways
.

The host and the guest talked about penises and vaginal areas and breasts and so forth in the same manner in which they discussed hands or legs. Sometimes there’s so much concern about privacy that “private parts” are treated as mysterious at best or taboo at worst.

This show treated body parts as body parts, not as unmentionables.


The limitations of judging others’ potential via body parts became apparent
.

As Adele and then Jack discussed their preferences based on the lower half of people’s bodies—length, shaved or unshaved, and so on—the absurdity of deciding on a date in such a manner was clear.

It makes no sense to choose a date based on a body naked from the waist down. The choice seems completely arbitrary.

But as the show went on and other parts of the body were revealed, it also seemed absurd that seeing the face would make a difference. It’s more typical, sure. We tend to respond to people on a daily basis according to their facial features. Expressions may account for some of our responses, and these do communicate to be sure, but to some degree we judge and categorize and decide on people based on this tiny part of the body.

Naked Attraction made such judgments seem rather absurd as well.

It made me question a kind of dynamic that I don’t often think about, and that questioning is helpful if it gets me to hold off a bit and look for more evidence than appearance before drawing conclusions about others.

I’m still likely to put on make up today as I usually do, but I’ll think more about why I bother, and that’s something.


Diverse bodies were represented.

In the U.S., nakedness tends to be taboo. Movies and tv series with sex scenes expose some body parts but usually avoid full reveals, and most often the people who are naked conform to a single body type (though there are exceptions to these generalizations).

It seemed healthy that the bodies on Naked Attraction did not fit a single type, and the diversity of bodies was emphasized as the host and guest conversed. The range of body types seemed especially key because my teen son was watching; the teen years are often when people wonder if they are normal and okay and so forth, and this show revealed that there is not one simple way to be “normal.”

Jace did notice that all the men were uncircumcised, which is unusual in the U.S. but probably good for him to see. After all, as we move from one region of the world to another, it’s more than food preferences that tend to change.

Unfortunately, the elimination of potential dates based on superficial traits undoes the positive messages about body diversity a good bit. Still, that elimination did seem absurd throughout the episode, so hopefully more good than harm was done.


End notes

I don’t think Naked Attraction is the best show ever. It’s actually rather ridiculous. But I appreciate the way it surprised both me and Jace. It didn’t make us uncomfortable, which would be typical if the two of us were viewing tv featuring naked people in full glory.

Instead, Naked Attraction made us think.

Talking back to pro-life mailings

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When I received a mailing from a group called “Priests for Life,” I tweeted the group a few messages. I probably wasn’t coherent enough, but my basic point was that anyone who wants to reduce the numbers of abortions is barking up the wrong tree by seeking to criminalize the behavior. The wealthy will find ways to get abortions legally in other countries, and the poor will have abortions that put more lives at risk.

To actually reduce abortions, we need comprehensive sex education; readily available contraception; affordable health care; affordable child care; and support for parents.

Anything calling for less sex and for forced pregnancies is impractical and ineffective. Stop wasting your time and your money. You can have a positive effect in other ways.

Anyhow. I placed the “Priests for Life” mailing with a similar one from “Catholic Vote” in a pile of recyclables.

My daughter discovered the mailings and she was compelled to revise.

letter2
Catholic Vote form letter

My favorite edit? This one directed to Pres. Trump (changes are in italics):

You courageously proved that it’s possible to win the Presidency by being explicitly and boldly pro-life a butt face.

followed closely by

I’m hoping your bold pro-life candidacy and victory gives courage to other pro-life politicians to be even more boldly pro-life. Thank you for your courage. you stay away from my uterus.

#notmydoctor

letter1
Priests for Life form letter

In the letter above, she points out that laws are based on the Constitution, not on the Declaration of Independence, even thought the original letter conflates the roles of the two documents.

She also had a good time answering (ahem, trying to fix) their (ridiculously biased) surveys.

Stand out edits:

Q: What kind of Justices do you think President Trump should appoint to the Supreme Court?

A: Justices who are committed to using the Court to promote a “progressive an equal rights agenda (such as abortion-on-demand and same-sex “marriage) regardless of what the Constitution actually says. , which recognizes the separation of church and state.

 

Q: What should be the judicial philosophy of a Supreme Court Justice?

A: A Supreme Court Justice should vote to uphold the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that struck down anti-abortion laws in all 50 states even though because the “right to an abortion” is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution a personal medical decision made between a patient and doctor.

And, not one to slack at the end of a job, she even edited the final page of each mailing that asked for donations. I almost want to donate just so they keep sending me these pages. Great way to keep a teen activist engaged.

Or maybe not worth my money. But I would donate if they spent their funds on efforts that work. The kinds of efforts aimed at doing good—reducing the numbers of abortions while making the world better for the people already in it.

The current pro-life efforts are aimed at controlling women’s bodies.

If you can’t see the difference, you’re not gonna make a difference.

Trump: “I know you are, but what am I?”

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The major problem with Trump’s recent criticism of John Lewis on Twitter is not that John Lewis doesn’t deserve the criticism (though he doesn’t) but rather that Trump consistently uses the rhetoric of a child to deflect criticism.

Consider Trump’s reflex to avoid addressing criticism or changing his behavior by lashing out at Hillary Clinton & Paul Ryan; Meryl Streep, the cast of HamiltonSaturday Night Live & Alec Baldwin; Chuck Jones; Buzzfeed, CNN, The New York Times, Megyn Kelly, & the media as a whole (Trump uses the epithet “the dishonest media” while he openly lies); the CIA, John Brennan, and others in the intelligence community.

Trump pointing finger during debate
“No, you’re the puppet.”–DJT in response to Clinton saying Trump is Putin’s puppet (image from wuwm.com)

The extreme disrespect of the press and the intelligence agencies should worry you if nothing else does.

Honestly, however, even the lashing out at actors is horribly problematic because attention is diverted from issues that actually matter.

It also creates an environment that curtails freedom of speech and, as others have pointed outfreedom of the press. If challenging the person in power leads to backlash, people and organizations are less likely to do so.

These problems with Trump’s childish rhetoric are not new revelations. So why does a practice that is so juvenile and so anti-American work so well?

Honestly, each situation is unique and complex, so it’s interesting to analyze the nuances. We like to figure out who has the right or the obligation to speak up , and we like to debate when and where people have the right or the responsibility to speak up. Of course such conversations entice us! They’re fascinating.

And how can we resist standing up for people or organizations attacked by Trump? They’ve done a good job speaking up, so we cannot let them feel alone when they are bullied. We thus turn our attention to defending folks like John Lewis and Meryl Streep.

Many supporters of Trump are eager to turn attention to the person or organization challenging Trump’s behavior. That’s easier than acknowledging that Trump has lied or misbehaved or been less than a perfect human being. (Note: I have a couple Facebook friends who are conservative but are open to other points of view; I appreciate them and strive to be the kind of liberal who is good at listening.)

It’s also fair to say that not all criticism is appropriate. When people challenge Trump by lying or misrepresenting facts, it’s not cool. Name-calling and making fun of a person also isn’t cool outside the realm of satire, yet this kind of rhetoric is ubiquitous on social media. I don’t know if I’m an outlier liberal on this point, but mean-spirited criticism doesn’t have a place in my politics—that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to call out, so it doesn’t work so well if I’m exhibiting the same behavior I find problematic.

I like to think that I’m beyond being manipulated by Trump, but I’m afraid that he uses the “liar, liar, pants on fire” strategy because it’s been so effective for him for so long—the best defense may indeed be a good offense.

I’m fairly decent at resisting my kids when I call them out on bad behavior and they either point fingers at someone else (my son’s instinct) or accuse me of bullying them (my daughter’s instinct). (Note: My kids are generally awesome. And they probably learned any bad behavior from me because, god knows, I got plenty of things to improve on.)

But Trump is not my child; he’s the president-elect. I’m thus still figuring out how to deal with his ridiculous rhetoric. I imagine the double-pronged approach of defending the right to speak up while holding the soon-to-be president’s feet to the fire may be the best we can do.

At the very least, we need to recognize that Trump’s retaliatory behavior is a problem—a serious problem that needs to be addressed by all of us.

MLA: rearranging deck chairs or taking up oars?

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from 2012 myphilly.com

I’m here, in Philadelphia, attending sessions and noticing the way even the most micro discussions are informed by the wider historical moment. And I’m interested in the way we need to think at both levels as scholars—we need to spend time figuring out what we do on an everyday basis and why we do it. And we need to figure out how we affect and are affected by the most pressing issues of the day.

On the micro-level, we parse out our everyday professional behaviors:
What do we teach in a particular class? How do we teach? What’s the meaning of a particular text? What does it mean to be a scholar?

Slightly larger points of conversation address departmental identities:
What is the relationship between literary studies and writing studies? What about cultural studies, media studies, digital humanities, and so on? What kind of curriculum makes sense?

And still larger concerns center on universities, where we are fighting for survival:
Where have all the English majors gone? How do we get them back? How do we resist the defunding of the humanities? How do we support contingent faculty?

And then there are the national concerns:
What’s happening with the delegitimization of the humanities? The election of Trump? The censoring of faculty? Racism? sexism? anti-immigrant rhetoric? gay rights? (this list goes on…)

And the international:
The movement to the right in the U.S. and beyond. The boycott of Israeli universities, which was not supported by the MLA Delegate Assembly.

And the most pressing, the global:
CLIMATE CHANGE

It all matters. Some of it matters more urgently [climate change].

Even the seemingly tiniest questions about what a text means implicate the ways we understand the world and the ways we behave.

An analogous way of saying it: The issue of climate change trumps Trump. But we gotta pay attention to Trump because his election is bound up with climate change & SO MUCH MORE. The same is true of what we read, write, teach, say, don’t say. It’s all bound up.

We consistently wonder if we are rearranging the deck chairs. Perhaps. It may also be that, together, we are taking up oars, directing ourselves and others away from the iceberg.

And it is more likely that neither metaphor is apt. It may be that we are doing what we will inevitably do because we’re human. We do our best with the situation as we experience it, and we may not understand the urgency until the sinking is upon us. We may act in time, or we may not. Some will fall. Hopefully not all.

When I say, “some will fall,” I’m talking about scholars who will not find sustainable careers, majors that will be discontinued, departments that will be underfunded or disbanded, universities that will close. And I’m also talking about entire communities of people who will fall as we fail to address climate change.

As we—scholars here at the MLA—move forward, listening to one another and pausing to consider what we believe, what we teach, how we do it, and why we do it—it’s not everything. But it is something. At the very least, our smallest questions are consistently engaged with the most pressing issues of our time. We will not solve it all. But we will try try try to do a small piece of it.

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word cloud generated from MLA 2017 convention program

Shoveling when I should be grading

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The driveway stretches from the garage to the street
unmarked except
unproductive footsteps
my trudging for shovel
searching
for the best way to begin

I scoop from the garage, close to the right side of the drive,
feeling with the shovel’s blade
for the place where blacktop meets grass.

snow
where the driveway meets the path, an hour after I shoveled

I uncover the edge of the path—narrow,
the width of two shovel horizons,
leading around the side of the house.
I turn my back on the driveway, let the repetition
lead me until I’ve cleared my way to the recycle bin
and turn back.

From the garage, moving outward,
crossing the driveway in short diagonals:
Arms, legs, shoulders, back—I bend,
lift, push out or flip over—
again and again, pausing to strategize, to see the
white, the mounds, the distance, the work.
I measure what I’ve done, what I’ve left to do.
Relish the challenge.
Ignore the layer of white hiding the rectangle of black that I already cleared,
ignore the startling snowflakes,
ignore the stark trees in stoic relief,
try to ignore the guilt I feel

but it comes to me in metaphors

If I don’t shovel now, it will be more difficult later.
The day will warm, the rain will come, the snow will grow heavy.
And it feels good—to lift, to move, to see what I’ve done, even though there’s always more to do.

I head inside, open my laptop, and
write a poem when I should be grading.
But I’ve written the path to the recycle bin now, am ready to head back to the drive,
to clear my way to the street, telling myself to relish
the startling snowflakes, the stark trees, the work.