Category Archives: public policy

Less than One Percent

We live in a time of political triage, and in an environment characterized by blatant sexism and misogyny. It takes very little mental effort to know what that overlap generates – and where our laws, public policies, and politics choose to focus. Even with human rights, human dignity, and civility in the balance, we conclude that we cannot do it all. Through the fierce logic of cost-benefit utilitarian thinking, we decide to do what will benefit the greatest number at the least cost, with weight on the scales by the powerful elite interests. The issues that remain – the sea of waving petitions of the aggrieved – are simply deferred to an ill-defined future date, ignored, or swept aside. Not even self-interest will necessarily prevail; consider the 62% of white, non-college educated women who became Trump voters, surprisingly placing theirs and other women’s dignity and equality as a lower priority. But then we also live in a time where many of us are resigned to accept the way things are as being immutable, and a byproduct of the allegedly inherent self-serving nature of human beings (again, as reinforced by capitalist economics notions).

Until the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

Are we at a unique tipping point in our social norms? It’s still much too early to say, but any optimism that the age of gender equality and equity is fast approaching must be tempered by the recognition that men’s sexual harassment of women has been the norm throughout all of recorded history (except that such sexual harassment and violence has rarely been considered sufficiently noteworthy to be recorded). One need only reflect on the many people who were aware but who tolerated (or were compelled to stay silent about) the reprehensible behavior that was the standard operating procedure by Mr. Weinstein over more than three decades. So many powerful men have been called to account in the weeks that have followed; one might just dare to feel a twinge of vindication, a lightness in one’s step…but perhaps not yet.

Sexual harassment is, of course, but one form in the panoply of gendered manifestations of abuse of power and violence directed against women, girls, and marginalized persons which those of us in the feminist research world classify under the umbrella term “gender based violence” (GBV). That’s an especially large umbrella, with as many at 35% of the world’s women (or more than 1.3 billion female persons, for those who are moved by exceptionally large numbers) being subjected to sexual or physical violence in their lives – a fundamental disrespect of universal dignity and a gross violation of human rights. The most graphic examples of GBV consist of physical violence and emotional abuse – domestic violence, intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, honor killings, forced and unwanted sex, early and forced marriage, female genital cutting, human trafficking, and the gendered deprivation of resources and rights. The vast majority of the perpetrators of such GBV enjoy impunity, either because those victimized remain silent (for many valid reasons), or because the rule-of-law and cultural institutions of governance almost always place a low priority on dealing with GBV. Is there an element of triage in choosing what kinds of crimes to prosecute? Or are certain human beings simply not deemed to be as important: women, girls, and marginalized persons? The fact that this victimized population constitutes more than half of humanity ought to be statistically significant, but such is not the case. Continue reading Less than One Percent

America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Are Americans witnessing the triumph of ignorance, selfishness, greed, and incompetence?  If so, we ought not to be surprised. Outside of religious values tied to particular beliefs, dogmas and ideologies, we just don’t talk about morals. OK – sometimes we do love to ascribe some negative values (vices, really) to certain others: greediness, vanity, laziness, boastfulness. But when we attempt to describe our moral foundations as a nation, or even try to unpack what “American values” mean, we get tongue-tied. We often seem to have lost the vocabulary of secular morals, and we stumble forward without recognizing moral dilemmas in our path. Our inability to articulate a moral quandary might go some way in explaining the flailing soul-searching now happening about Charlottesville.

Has the notion of secular, universal moral values lost its appeal? Moral principles certainly have become obscured by politicized law-making, and “ethics” has come to mean only dry, tedious rules about disclosure and behavior. The voices of secular morality and ethical principles are largely notable by their absence.  Gone are the days when people of the stature of Eleanor Roosevelt labored hard to help craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Now we have a Secretary of State in Rex Tillerson who lacks a moral vocabulary. He has consigned freedom, dignity, and human rights to irrelevancy, at least whenever these principles fail to align with what “the leadership” has identified as our economic and security interests. In the era of America First, our nation is self-maximizing, which arguably nations ought to be. But should there not be some moral constraints that we consider?

And yes, there is the commander-in-chief, the 45th President of the United States of America. Donald Trump does a credible job of being the incarnation of maximizing self-interest and eschewing moral determinations, even as he holds the office in which our many institutions of government were meant to be guided by. That guidance was always intended to be an executive function of looking out for the well-being of all Americans, and standing tall for universal moral principles even beyond our borders. But Trump is about winning, about wealth, about power, about Trump.

Trump is ignorant. But the ignorance I’m perplexed by isn’t about lack of education, or a deficient intellect, or even individualism on its own merits, but is more in the sense of ignorance as described by Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist meditation master:

When we talk of ignorance, it has nothing to do with stupidity. In a way, ignorance is very intelligent, but it is an intelligence that works exclusively in one direction. That is, we react exclusively to our own projections instead of simply seeing what is there.

Given such ignorance at the top, what direction are we going in? While it is now popular (and in many contexts warranted) to deprecate Trump, you may think I’m being too harsh if I  ascribe ignorance to all those who adhere to modern economic dogma. The goal is “every man for himself” – and it is usually assumed to be the men and not the women who are out there heroically forging their respective individual “did-it-my-way” destinies, unconstrained by concerns about others. Individualism has become our unwritten national creed, and the foundation of our economy.

Arguably Trump is more a symptom or byproduct of the trend of unapologetic individualism, and not a leader of a new agenda. He’s already demonstrated – time and again – his lack of empathy, competence, judgment, or the temperament of a real leader. Trump is more about rule than leadership; he serves himself and his family. His “projections” are about winning, not about what is morally right or wrong, good or bad. As president he’s turned his back on decades of global American leadership grounded in a moral agenda that once spoke to most American’s sense of common identity, common destiny, common decency, common good. But now, with the election of Donald Trump, America has personified and projected a new identity – America First. That doctrine is the natural outcome of an amoral, every-man-for-himself world view.

It’s the wrong direction. Continue reading America is going in one direction – the wrong one.

Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

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I would never have believed we, as a nation, could come to this.

Perhaps I should take some comfort in knowing that I’m not alone in my perplexed disbelief. In an op-ed in the Washington Post published today, Republican columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson shared his own incredulity, and his words speak directly to my own pre-election anxieties:

“It is almost beyond belief that Americans should bless and normalize Trump’s appeal. Normalize vindictiveness and prejudice. Normalize bragging about sexual assault and the objectification of women. Normalize conspiracy theories and the abandonment of reason. Normalize contempt for the vulnerable, including disabled people and refugees fleeing oppression. Normalize a political tone that dehumanizes opponents and excuses violence. Normalize an appeal to white identity in a nation where racial discord and conflict are always close to the surface. Normalize every shouted epithet, every cruel ethnic and religious stereotype, every act of bullying in the cause of American “greatness” … In the end, a Trump victory would normalize the belief that the structures of self-government are unequal to the crisis of our time.”

Why are such pernicious, appalling values being normalized? Why are so many Americans completely unconcerned as Trump wreaks havoc with truthfulness by doubling down on lies and on his distortions of well-documented facts?  Why are so many Americans committed to a leader who assaults the very premise of our democracy, i.e. that we as a nation are able to rise together in collaboration to address the challenges that confront us, and to seize the opportunities that await us?  Why are so many Americans so  enthusiastic in their support of a leader who takes pride in turning his back on the urgent threat of global climate change – despite the proven (and progressively self-evident) devastating impacts that will affect their own children, grandchildren, and generations yet unborn? Why are the promises of short-term economic gains so alluring, ignoring all of the subsequent trade-offs of long term (and in many cases) irreparable harms to our economy, our environment, our security, and our sense of ourselves as a nation? In short, why are the polls so damnably close, with the election just days away?

My best guess is that we have lost our sense of direction as a nation.  We have no moral compass, and many of us don’t give a damn.

No, a moral compass isn’t the latest app that can be downloaded onto your smartphone. You may know it best by its absence – the lack of any discernible institutionalized process of robust discussion of secular values in our society at large, and specifically in the corridors of governance. Instead, “values” and “morality” have fallen victim to claims associated with narrow ideologies – and to vagueness – with expressions such as “traditional values”, “family values”, the “moral majority”, and even “American values” often being rhetorical devices to advocate for very narrow and often very polarizing political, cultural, or religious objectives. The idea that secular morality and ethics forms a common societal unifying platform – a deliberative space in which people are respected, listened to, and able to share their well-informed and considered views without jeopardy – is now largely a lost notion. Even our fundamental national institution of deliberation, our Congress, has lost even the pretense of deliberative, mutually respectful discourse and debate on the issues that affect us all. When was the last time that Senators or Representatives actually debated an issue?

The mechanism at the heart of any moral compass is ethics – a system of moral values that guides discernment and decision-making. Sadly, that mechanism has atrophied, due in large measure to semantics. Few really know what “ethics” means. In the media and in the public consciousness, “ethics” as a discipline has been narrowly redefined by the lawyers and legislators, who have reduced and reinterpreted the word to mean little more than compliance with codes of conduct and disclosure, with legal requirements, and with avoidance of conflicts of interest (or the appearance thereof). It’s pretty dry stuff, and not likely to stimulate much lively discourse. While compliance and legal propriety have obvious importance, limiting the role of ethics in this way diminishes ethics to nothing more than a skeletal version of its essential secular and governance role.  Secular ethics and morality exist to make our values explicit and meaningful, to provide the societal glue to bind us together and to guide our progress and direction as a society. Through the application of secular ethics, we learn to recognize which values have the most relevance to specific situations, which values deserve to be respected as universal, and how best to use this knowledge to forge a persuasive social consensus on the shared values, rights, and principles that allow us to cohere as a society and as a nation.

In short, we need that moral compass to guide how we normalize the secular values and human rights that ought to define us, and to reject those values that discredit us as a people. Michael Gerson’s description of what is now being “normalized” clearly shows little reference by Americans to the application of such a moral compass.

What might such a moral compass guide us toward? Continue reading Normalizing America – in a vacuum of values

A “dream career”?

proud-to-be-trans

I recently received an email from my son’s friend at college, a young woman who is a passionate campus ally in her activism on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity here in the United States. She made a passing reference to my own work on LGBTI issues international as a “dream career”.

Is it?

First, “career” is probably not the best noun to describe what many of us who are active in international LGBTI advocacy and development are about. There is almost no money to support such efforts in the Global South (the less developed countries in the world), or in other regions (Russia, Eastern Europe) where LGBTI lives are most at risk. There are also very few actual salaried jobs; very few organizations make such global concerns their priority. Instead, we do this work because we care about the plight of LGBTI people abroad, and we know that just a very modest amount of financial support would move mountains in terms of meeting their development aspirations.

As for “dream”, in reality the dream is more often a nightmare. What many LGBTI persons in the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe confront on a daily basis is beyond comprehension by most people in the United States. True, it is now widely reported that homosexuality is illegal in over 70 countries, yet the fact of such illegality is only a top-level indicator of astounding levels of ignorance and pernicious social values that frequently relegate LGBTI people to sub-human status, or otherwise demean, humiliate, persecute, exclude, reject, bully, isolate, scapegoat, assault, torture, or kill such LGBTI persons. In short, throughout much of the world, any discussion of social inclusion and human rights for LGBTI persons is a very tragic narrative indeed.

Behind this narrative are real persons. My “career” fills me with their names and faces, their big hearts and warm smiles, their gentle spirits and youthful exuberance, and their suffering. Some of these “real persons” whom I have come to know and care for are now dead, victimized by the homophobia and transphobia that is so rampant. I carry these “real persons” – the living and the dead – with me every day, but in the absence of much global concern and with so few resources available to help them, “carry them” is often the most that I can offer. It isn’t enough.

In many instances, the toxic attitudes and values that characterize homophobia and transphobia have their origins among faith-based groups and religious leaders – sometimes with the moral and financial support of religious zealots from the United States – although such support isn’t limited to some fringe streams of fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Many Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, set grim standards for the abuse, torture, and killing of LGBTI persons, claiming that this is somehow justified by their religions. Around the world, it is relatively easy to distort or misinterpret religious values in all faith traditions to “justify” the hatred and persecution of LGBTI persons.

Aspiring politicians in much of the Global South, Russia, and Eastern Europe (and yes, many in Western Europe and North America too) are also often quick to realize the many advantages of blaming any number of societal ills on vulnerable sexual minorities, which spares them the trouble of actually working to solve genuine public policy issues, fight corruption, or pursue actual principles of justice and caring. Much of the world’s media also sees a lucrative market in exploiting bigotry, prejudice, and hatred directed at LGBTI persons and their organizations – one need look no further that the infamous “kill the gays” headline and list of 200 people alleged to be gay which appeared in Uganda’s Red Pepper tabloid on February 25th of 2014.

We are learning more all the time. LGBTI persons themselves – often with support from wonderful organizations such as Human Rights Watch – are making their voices heard more loudly and clearly each day, in videos, podcasts, blogs, and social media. Take a look at a recent video about the realities faced by transgender persons in Sri Lanka, listen to the podcasts of Nigerian LGBTI activists, see a news report of an LGBTI activist in Myanmar, or read English language news about LGBTI people and issues in Turkey. While we still lack adequate analytical data that is essential to move and to fund major policy initiatives or to support scholarly research, the growth in anecdotal data – narratives – is exponential.

We can no longer plead ignorance. Continue reading A “dream career”?

Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

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Washington, D.C. abounds with (free) opportunities to participate in erudite deliberations, cutting-edge topical presentations by highly respected experts, and diverse policy discussions including people who actually wield enormous power (or once did). Then there are those by-invitation-only gatherings of the “high-level” people – gatherings beyond the range of mere mortals such as I, with the occasional quirky exception (such as when I was invited to join Ambassador Samantha Power for a dinner). Elite-invitation-envy aside, Washington events are populated with many folks who are unquestionably very smart, remarkably accomplished, influential (just ask them), and affiliated with just the right institutions or government departments (again, just ask them – they expect to be asked).

With the notable exception of the few “fringe” or “radical” gatherings (e.g. feminists, LGBTI people, religious devotees, environmentalists, or philosophers), those who attend the more typical Washington discourse events are also usually quite well-invested in the prevailing paradigm, which is always a variation on the preeminence of Power and Wealth (occasionally made glamorous by close association with Technology). It’s a paradigm + variations that comes with baggage: an almost off-hand acceptance of the many inherent failings of human nature, the wave-of-the-hand disavowal of “old notions” of morality, or a dismissive snicker at the naïveté of anyone idealistic enough to suggest someone might actually be motivated by public service.

No one really talks about public service. Just like no one really talks about integrity, when it is so much more fashionable to frame everything through the lens of corruption. People will be corrupt to the extent that they can get away with it, right? What else is there to say, except to exhort a stop to these corrupt miscreants (who of course by definition are those of us who get caught)?

It goes deeper still, however. There exists an unspoken premise that citizens will always bend to incentive structures that have been cleverly crafted to appear to maximize their individual self-interest, but which are more likely to be all about manipulating people towards ulterior ends, i.e. entrenching and amassing the power and wealth of the elites. And about those ulterior ends… the adjective “nefarious” is usually left off. Why assume motives, eh? The economy will do what it does.

We who frequent such events do take some small measure of comfort knowing that the many conferences and workshops and gatherings in Washington almost always are provisioned with ample – if not particularly good – free coffee. If you’re lucky, or very selective, there’s even free food. No, the food’s not particularly good either, but the price is sweet.

Do I sound just a little despairing of my Washington colleagues? After all, cynicism about humanity and its venal motivations is well supported by so much of history (or at least by what we’ve chosen to report on in our history books, or on Fox news, or on Twitter). It’s become the norm to be suspicious (or knowingly condescending) about the possibility that morality might mean something, or that human dignity has any practical influence. The evidence to the contrary is just so plentiful – as all around the world senseless conflicts rage on, and millions of people are displaced or condemned to a grueling life as refugees. The tally of human suffering is beyond calculation.

So we don’t try.

That’s just “the way it is”, right? Deal with it. Realism means that we’ve long since put aside the ritual wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth. If you’re going to play in this Washington game at this level, you damn well better know the rules. And in the context of international development, conflict management & peacebuilding, and human rights advocacy, the prevailing rules are rooted in the dynamics of power and wealth. Everything else is “soft”. Sure, it’s “nice” to pay rhetorical homage from time to time (and in passing) to ideals like justice, compassion, patriotism, public service, dignity, second-generation human rights, or – dare I even mention it – love, but in the end the players in this game adhere to the well-worn dictates of the patriarchy: only Power and Money (and the self-interest that can be pursued through these) matter.

Period. Continue reading Gritty Realism vs. a New Woman

Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

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Where did 13 weeks go?

As an ethics professor at the end of a university term, I’m once again challenged by such metaphysical questions…but since I’ve been doing this adjunct gig for the past two decades I’m at least no longer surprised when it all suddenly wraps up. Along the way, I’ve taken great pleasure in the effervescent enthusiasm for learning that my students have contributed to our joint endeavor. Still, I’m troubled… after all these years the most important questions I pose each term remain largely unanswered.

I get it. I know that “ethics” is an uncomfortable word, redolent of images of accountants and lawyers with their ponderously thick books of regulations, accountability standards, codes of conduct, and threats of dire consequences for malfeasance. The type of ethics that I teach however isn’t situated in that dry (if necessary) world of disclosures and compliance obligations. Instead, my modest goal is to teach my public policy students to acquire and use a different vocabulary that has its origin in the moral language of secularism.

In the moral context, that qualifies as a foreign language for the vast majority of people. The language of “ought”, of demands for rational justifications for decisions taken and plans made (usually on behalf of others), and the phraseology of that complicated moral world of good, bad, right, wrong, caring and callous, virtuous and corrupt, and similar values can baffle any of us. When faced with unsolvable moral dilemmas and the weighing of unpleasant trade-offs, wouldn’t we really rather be doing something else, or have someone else (or their rules) telling us what to do? The moral dialogue can be hard; we’d much rather wriggle away from it or pretend it isn’t there.

And most of us do just that…and we get away with it.

Will you be surprised when I assert that ethics can also be a heroic space? Ethical leaders inspire profound transformations. Courageous truth-seekers blow the whistle on self-interested, exploitative, venal officials, or quietly but firmly take principled stands. Some people even choose not to be complacent, when being complacent is so much easier.

Just occasionally (when we’re drained of outrage and indignation) we actually stop long enough to notice those remarkable and often self-effacing people who consistently exemplify integrity and sacrifice. They may not constitute the silent majority, but they are there, all around us. Integrity isn’t a scarce resource, but who would know?

In this day and age, the prevailing ethos is anchored in efficiency, power, and profit. There are very few spaces in our institutions of governance (public or private) or corporate boardrooms where we consciously and regularly set aside time and effort to sharpen our sensibilities about the “greater good”, or to conjecture about the implications of what it might be like were our society marked by fairness, mutual respect, and caring. We seldom consider what it might mean were we to balance our society’s glorification of fierce (and usually “manly”) competitiveness with the sense that our best natures might shine the brightest through collaboration, partnership, reciprocity, and unapologetic idealism. Continue reading Questions that remain unanswered – and unasked…

North Carolina fails the dignity test

 

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We are all born equal in dignity. While it may not be apparent in the particular way we might live, in the various manifestations of the many struggles we each endure, in the special secrets we cling tightly to, and in the treasury of small and large joys that we celebrate when the spirit moves us, we remain equal in dignity throughout our lives. If we do not accept that, we can throw away any pretense to human rights or the rule of law.

That’s not to say that each of us is respected for our innate dignity. Everyone knows what it feels like to have that existential core of one’s identity – our human dignity – assaulted by bullying, manipulation, humiliation, callous indifference, or even violence. We are called to defend our dignity at various points in our lives, some of us more than others, and most of us find a way to rise to that challenge. It is an early lesson from the school yard that not standing up for your own dignity is a sure path to continued disrespect and abuse. As we grow older, and pursue safer environments among people we choose to be with, we relish the civility and sense of inclusion that comes with maturity and – dare I say – grace. Who doesn’t glow with deep inner happiness when they feel valued, respected, and loved for being who they are? Naturally winning the love, care, affection, and respect of those who know you the best is the greatest joy of all, as the authentic “you” is affirmed and celebrated.

Not every daily aspect of human life is inherently dignified in and of itself. We each have our awkward moments, our times of vulnerability, and we each attend to “delicate” biological obligations that are perhaps best attended to with some privacy and discretion. We are modest. We choose what we share, and that is a freedom we can and do exercise as dignified human beings. It is all part of the way that we cohere as “society”. We make allowances for each other.

Except in North Carolina.

When the good citizens of Charlotte recently passed a nondiscrimination ordinance that would’ve allowed (among other protections) transgender people to attend to a call of nature by using the rest room that aligns with their authentic gender identity, state Republicans quickly mobilized in a special session to forestall this ordinance from ever going into effect. They accomplished this by means of a legislative ban on access by transgender persons to public rest rooms and locker rooms that do not match their gender assignment at birth. Continue reading North Carolina fails the dignity test

How’s this for a job pitch?

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What does “human dignity” mean to you? Does it elicit warm and fuzzy feelings? Is it an inspirational term – a call to a higher moral standard perhaps? Or is it instead some ill-defined intellectual notion, associated vaguely with what it means to be a human being, but not something we can operationalize?

Vague? Not for me. Human dignity is the existential core of who I am, and why I – and every human being – deserve to be respected. And no, I’m not claiming some special status. Human dignity is shared in equal measure by every person, but some of us need to remind others of that fact. For anyone who is transgender, reminding the world around us that we’re as deserving of respect for our core humanity and our authentic identity as they are is a daily undertaking. I’m not sure we’re winning…if transgender people are not busy each day having to advocate for our dignity, we are fighting to have our authenticity recognized. That advocacy takes place both morally and legally, but given the near vacuum around secular moral deliberation the public conversation is much more heavily weighed on the legal. Sadly however, law is a field of battle that is only marginally productive in this context, at least in the absence of an equivalently robust moral engagement.

While there have been some legal victories for the human dignity of transgender people in some countries and some American states, that’s the exception and not the rule. We are generally simply classified as “gay” (which many of us emphatically are not, in terms of our sexual orientation) and left to join our beleaguered L,G,and B allies to face the opprobrium of homophobia that is so virulent around the world. As transgender folk we are mostly invisible, unless we’re among those who are struggling to survive in one of the few avenues open to transgender women – as sex workers – where we face extremes of violence almost beyond comprehension. We seldom get the chance to take our public stand on our own terms or on our priority issues, advocating – legally or morally – as dignified and authentic human beings.

That invisibility is slowly being swept away. Too slowly, yes, and often very awkwardly, but through the rising assertiveness of transgender people we are becoming more present. The world is being called to awareness of our existence through our solidarity in advocating a vigorous, in-your-face claim to human dignity. That’s a claim that is spiritually edgy,  morally profound, and legally troubling, and societies around the world are awkward and resistant, or downright abusive, regarding our assertions of human dignity. But human dignity is what we’ve hung our lives and our futures on – and it’s vital to us that we have that conversation with our respective societies.

After all, we’re not going away.

Human dignity however may not be an ideal tactic. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very deeply to detect a significant vein of cynicism about human dignity. Law professor David Hyman of the University of Illinois, writing in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy back in 2003, was dismissive:

Human dignity is an abstract aspiration, but policy decisions are necessarily concrete. These decisions must therefore be created and implemented by those “in the trenches,” but there is little evidence to suggest that anyone in the trenches really wants to use human dignity as the touchstone for decision-making or has any particular expertise in this area.

Continue reading How’s this for a job pitch?