Flashback Friday.

Americans tend to conflate the law and morality. We believe, that is, that we make things illegal because they’re immoral. While we might admit that there are exceptions, we tend to think that our laws generally reflect what is right and wrong, not a simple or arbitrary effort to control the population in ways that people who influence policy want.

This is why changing laws can sometimes be so hard. If it isn’t just about policy, but ethics, then changing a law means allowing something immoral to be legal.

In some other countries, people don’t think like this. They see law as simple public policy, not ethics, which leads to a different attitude toward enforcement.

In Amsterdam, for example, possession and cultivation of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Despite the city’s famous and deserved reputation for the open use of marijuana and the”coffee shops” that sell it, it’s illegal. The city, though, decided that policing it was more trouble than it was worth, so it has a policy of non-enforcement.

An even more fascinating example is their approach to street level sex work. While prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, “streetwalking” is not. Still, there will always be sex workers who can’t afford to rent a work space. These women, some of the most economically deprived, will be on the streets whether the city likes it or not.

Instead of adding to their problems by throwing them all in jails or constantly fining them, the city built a circular drive just outside of town equipped with semi-private stalls. In other words, the city decided against enforcing the law on “streetwalking” and instead spent tax money to build a location in which individuals could engage in behavior that was against the law… and they considered it a win-win.

I thought of this when Julieta R. sent in this picture, shot by her friend at the Aberdeen Pub in Edinburgh, Scotland. Sex in the bathroom, it appears, had begun to inconvenience customers. But, instead of trying to eradicate the behavior, the Pub just said: “Ok, fine, but just keep it to cubicle no. 4.”

Americans would never go for this. Because we think it’s immoral to break the law, not just illegal, we would consider this to be hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter if enforcing the law is impractical (marijuana), if doing so does more harm than good (sex work), or if it’d be easier and cheaper not to do it (cubicle no. 4), in America we believe that the person breaking the law is bad and letting them get away with it is letting a bad person go unpunished.

If we had a practical orientation toward the law, though, instead of a moral one, we might be quicker to change laws, be more willing to weigh the benefits of enforcement with its costs, be able to consider whether enforcement is ethical, feel more comfortable with just letting people break the law, and even helping them do so, if we decided that it was the “right” thing to do.

This post originally appeared in 2010.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Last week PBS hosted a powerful essay by law professor Ekow Yankah. He points to how the new opioid addiction crisis is being talked about very differently than addiction crises of the past. Today, he points out, addiction is being described and increasingly treated as a health crisis with a human toll. “Our nation has linked arms,” he says, “to save souls.”

Even just a decade ago, though, addicts weren’t victims, they were criminals.

What’s changed? Well, race. “Back then, when addiction was a black problem,” Yankah says about 30 years ago, “there was no wave of national compassion.” Instead, we were introduced to suffering “crack babies” and their inhuman, incorrigible mothers. We were told that crack and crime went hand-in-hand because the people involved were simply bad. We were told to fear addicts, not care for them. It was a “war on drugs” that was fought against the people who had succumbed to them.

Yankah is clear that this a welcome change. But, he says, for African Americans, who would have welcomed such compassion for the drugs that devastated their neighborhoods and families, it is bittersweet.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Law professor and critical race scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw developed the term” intersectionality” to draw attention to the way that all of our socially salient identities work together to shape the stereotypes that apply to us. The experience of being black, for example, is shaped by gender, just as the experience of being a man is shaped by race.

Once a person has internalized an intersectional lens, the old model — epitomized by the famous phrase “all the women are white, all the blacks are men” — can be jarring. It has a way of making certain kinds of people and their experience invisible. In the above case, women of color.

At this weekend’s debate, Bernie Sanders made exactly one of these jarring statements in response to an inquiry about “racial blind spots.”

When you’re white, you don’t know what it’s like to be living in a ghetto. You don’t know what it’s like to be poor. You don’t know what it’s like to be hassled when you walk down the street or you get dragged out of a car.

I imagine poor white people, middle class blacks, and women everywhere sat up and were like “What!?”

Author Joy Ann Reid noted on twitter that Sanders was conflating race and class, making poor white and middle and upper class black people invisible. Most African Americans are not poor and most poor people are white. She noted, as well, that white immigrants have lived in what we call the “ghetto” for much of American history.

I’ll add that one doesn’t need to be black to get hassled when walking down the street, as most women of all races can attest. Or, for that matter, how about being a feminine-presenting or gender queer man? And being dragged out of a car is something that happens to black people who are being accosted by the police, but also those who are being victimized by violent boyfriends or husbands.

Ironically, Sanders was saying that his racial blind spot was not being able to fully understand the black experience, but he revealed a different blind spot: intersectionality.

The comment starts at about a minute, twenty seconds:

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 (1)Following the recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, 2015 – a racially motivated act of domestic terrorism – President Barack Obama delivered a sobering address to the American people. With a heavy heart, President Obama spoke the day following the attack, stating:

At some point we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing that politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge.

President Obama was primarily referring to gun control in the portion of his speech addressing the cause of attacks like this. Not all mass shootings are racially motivated, and not all qualify as “terrorist” attacks — though Charleston certainly qualifies.  And the mass shooting that occurred a just a month later in Chattanooga, Tennessee by a Kuwati-born American citizen was quickly labeled an act of domestic terrorism. But, President Obama makes an important point here: mass shootings are a distinctly American problem. This type of rampage violence happens more in the United States than anywhere else. And gun control is a significant part of the problem. But, gun control is only a partial explanation for mass shootings in the United States.

Mass shootings are also almost universally committed by men.  So, this is not just an American problem; it’s a problem related to American masculinity and to the ways American men use guns.  But asking whether “guns” or “masculinity” is more of the problem misses the central point that separating the two might not be as simple as it sounds.  And, as Mark Follman, Gavin Aronsen, and Deanna Pan note in the Mother Jones Guide to Mass Shootings in America, the problem is getting worse.

We recently wrote a chapter summarizing the research on masculinity and mass shootings for Mindy Stombler and Amanda Jungels’ forthcoming volume, Focus on Social Problems: A Contemporary Reader (Oxford University Press). And we subsequently learned of a new dataset on mass shootings in the U.S. produced by the Stanford Geospatial Center. Their Mass Shootings in America database defines a “mass shooting” as an incident during which an active shooter shoots three or more people in a single episode. Some databases define mass shootings as involving 4 shootings in a single episode. And part of this reveals that the number is, in some ways, arbitrary. What is significant is that we can definitively say that mass shootings in the U.S. are on the rise, however they are defined. The Mother Jones database has shown that mass shootings have become more frequent over the past three decades.  And, using the Stanford database, we can see the tend by relying on data that stretches back a bit further.

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Additionally, we know that the number of victims of mass shootings is also at an historic high:

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We also produced a time-lapse map of mass shootings in the United States illustrating both where and when mass shootings have occurred using the Stanford Geospatial Center’s database to illustrate this trend over time:

Our map charts mass shootings with 3 or more victims over roughly 5 decades, since 1966. The dataset takes us through the Charleston and Chattanooga shootings, which brought 2015 to 42 mass shootings . The dataset is composed of 216 separate incidents only 5 of which were committed by lone woman shooters. Below we produced an interactive map depicting all of the mass shootings in the dataset with brief descriptions of the shootings.

In our chapter in Stombler and Jungels’ forthcoming book, we cull existing research to answer two questions about mass shootings: (1) Why is it men who commit mass shootings? and (2) Why do American men commit mass shootings so much more than men anywhere else?  Based on sociological research, we argue that there are two separate explanations – a social psychological explanation and a cultural explanation (see the book for much more detail on each).

A Social Psychological Explanation

Research shows that when an identity someone cares about is called into question, they are likely to react by over-demonstrating qualities associated with that identity.  As this relates to gender, some sociologists call this “masculinity threat.”  And while mass shootings are not common, research suggests that mass shooters experience masculinity threats from their peers and, sometimes, simply from an inability to live up to societal expectations associated with masculinity (like holding down a steady job, being able to obtain sexual access to women’s bodies, etc.) – some certainly more toxic than others.

The research on this topic is primarily experimental.  Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally “threatened” react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more.

This research provides important evidence of what men perceive as masculine in the first place (resources they rely on in a crisis) and a new kind evidence regarding the relationship of masculinity and violence.  The research does not suggest that men are somehow inherently more violent than women.  Rather, it suggests that men are likely to turn to violence when they perceive themselves to be otherwise unable to stake a claim to a masculine gender identity.

A Cultural Explanation

But certainly boys and men experience all manner of gender identity threat in other societies.  Why are American boys and men more likely to react with such extreme displays?  To answer this question, we need an explanation that articulates the role that American culture plays in influencing boys and young men to turn to this kind of violence at rates higher than anywhere else in the world.  This means we need to turn our attention away from the individual characteristics of the shooters themselves and to more carefully investigate the sociocultural contexts in which violent masculinities are produced and valorized.

Men have historically benefited from a great deal of privilege – white, educated, middle and upper class, able-bodied, heterosexual men in particular.  Social movements of all kinds have slowly chipped away at some of these privileges.  So, while inequality is alive and well, men have also seen a gradual erosion of privileges that flowed more seamlessly to previous generations of men (white, heterosexual, class-privileged men in particular).  Michael Kimmel suggests that these changes have produced a uniquely American gendered sentiment that he calls “aggrieved entitlement.”  Of course, being pissed off about an inability to cash in on privileges previous generations of men received without question doesn’t always lead to mass shootings.  But, from this cultural perspective, mass shootings can be understood as an extremely violent example of a more general issue regarding changes in relations between men and women and historical transformations in gender, race, and class inequality.

Mass shootings are a pressing issue in the United States.  And gun control is an important part of this problem.  But, when we focus only on the guns, we sometimes gloss over an important fact: mass shootings are also enactments of masculinity.  And they will continue to occur when this fact is combined with a sense among some men that male privilege is a birthright – and one that many feel unjustly denied.

Cross-posted at Feminist Reflections and Inequality by (Interior) Design.

Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober are sociologists at the College at Brockport (SUNY).   You can follow them on at @tristanbphd and @tobertara.

 

2 (1)News stories of officers being attacked and killed while in the line of duty have become regular features of the nightly news broadcast, but does this increase in coverage reflect an increase in reality? My analysis suggests no.

A count of stories of police officers killed in the line of duty shows that media attention to these killings has increased dramatically since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Between one third and one half of all of the news stories that the “legacy” networks’ (ABC, CBS, NBC) have done on this topic over the last ten years have appeared in the last year. Fox News has run more stories on this topic this year than it did over the four previous years combined.

2Actual incidences of fatal violence against police officers perpetrated by civilians, however, have not been on the rise. Data on police officer deaths compiled by the FBI and the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund shows that the year since Michael Brown’s death has not been especially dangerous for police officers, at least when it comes to the danger of being maliciously attacked by another person. According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund’s data, in the year following Michael Brown’s death, 43 police officers were shot and killed, which is significantly less than the average of 54 police officer shooting per year over the last ten years. Looking back even further, policing is much safer now than any time in the last 45 years.

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The impression that civilians are targeting officers, then, is a reflection of media coverage, not reality. This is a phenomenon called agenda setting, a process by which the media put an item on the public agenda.

What’s particularly troubling here is not necessarily that the media has put police killings by civilians on the agenda, but that they have failed to do so when it was. Many more officers were being killed in the line of duty in 2011, the most lethal year for police officers over the last ten years, and yet the news media gave scant attention to their deaths.

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What explains this divergence between the reality of violence against police officers and the degree to which the news media covers it? It is not simply a matter of ideology. Fox News — the most conservative of the news outlets shown here — has run more stories on police officer deaths this year than the other news outlets, but we can see the same basic pattern across all news outlets, with the exception of National Public Radio.

I suspect that the answer has to do with news framing and the way in which news organizations display their objectivity by giving equal time to “both sides of the story.” Faced with questions and criticism after each high-profile event of police violence against civilians, police spokespeople constantly remind us of the dangers faced by their officers as a means of blunting those criticisms. In giving equal airtime to “both sides” of the issue, news outlets help to spread this message. Whether out of an internal desire to be “balanced” or in direct response to these PR moves, media has picked up the “dangers of policing” narrative.

Ironically, in their effort to tell a balanced story, the news media has interjected itself in a contentious debate by presenting a false symmetry of violence when, in reality, the newsworthy trend is the dramatic increase in deaths at the hands of police.

This narrative is not only bad for understanding what’s really happening between police officers and civilians, it may also be bad for police officers themselves by distracting us from the more common sources of police officer death. As the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund notes, over the last three years the leading cause of police officer deaths in the line duty is car accidents. Indeed, while the number of officers shot and killed is lower this year than for the same time period last year, the total number of officers killed is higher, and that is due to the much higher number of officers killed in accidents.

The news media would contribute much more to the important conversation about the relationship between civilians and police if they were more honest about the relative rates of harm from each to the other.

Aaron Major, PhD is an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany – SUNY. He does research in the areas of globalization and economic policy, neoliberalism and public policy, and social inequality.

2 (1)In 1994, a US immigration judge lifted an order to deport a woman named Lydia Oluloro. Deportation would have forced her to either leave her five- and six-year-old children in America with an abusive father or take them with her to Nigeria. There, they would have been at risk of a genital cutting practice called infibulation, in which the labia majora and minora are trimmed and fused, leaving a small opening for urination and menstruation.

Many Americans will agree that the judge made a good decision, as children shouldn’t be separated from their mothers, left with dangerous family members, or subjected to an unnecessary and irreversible operation that they do not understand. I am among these Americans. However, I am also of the view that Americans who oppose unfamiliar genital cutting practices should think long and hard about how they articulate their opposition.

The judge in the Oluloro case, Kendall Warren, articulated his opposition like this:

This court attempts to respect traditional cultures … but [infibulation] is cruel and serves no known medical purpose. It’s obviously a deeply ingrained cultural tradition going back 1,000 years at least.

Let’s consider the judge’s logic carefully. First, by contrasting the “court” (by which he means America)with “traditional cultures”, the judge is contrasting us (America) with a them (Nigeria). He’s implying that only places like Nigeria are “traditional” — a euphemism for states seen as backward, regressive, and uncivilised — while the US is “modern,” a state conflated with progressiveness and enlightenment.

When he says that the court “attempts to respect traditional cultures,” but cannot in this case, the judge is suggesting that the reason for the disrespect is the fault of the culture itself. In other words, he’s saying “we do our best to respect traditional cultures, but you have pushed us too far.” The reason for this, the judge implies, is that the practices in question have no redeeming value. It “serves no known medical purpose,” and societies which practice it are thus “up to no good” or are not engaging in “rational” action.

The only remaining explanation for the continuation of the practice, the judge concludes, is cruelty. If the practice is cruel the people who practice it must necessarily also be cruel; capriciously, pointlessly, even frivolously cruel.

To make matters worse, in the eyes of the judge, such cruelty can’t be helped because its perpetrators don’t have free will. The practice, he says, is “deeply ingrained” and has been so for at least 1,000 years. Such cultures cannot be expected to see reason. This is the reason why the court — or America — can and should be compelled to intervene.

In sum, the judge might well have said: “we are a modern, rational, free, good society, and you who practice female genital cutting—you are the opposite of this.”

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I’ve published extensively on the ways in which Americans talk about the female genital cutting practices (FGCs) that are common in parts of Africa and elsewhere, focusing on the different ways opposition can be articulated and the consequence of those choices. There are many grounds upon which to oppose FGCs: the oppression of women, the repression of sexuality, human rights abuse, child abuse, a violation of bodily integrity, harm to health, and psychological harm, to name just a few. Nevertheless, Judge Warren, chose to use one of the most common and counterproductive frames available: cultural depravity.

The main source of this frame has been the mass media, which began covering FGCs in the early 1990s. At the time anti-FGC activists were largely using the child abuse frame in their campaigns, yet journalists decided to frame the issue in terms of cultural depravity. This narrative mixed with American ethnocentrism, an obsession with fragile female sexualities, a fear of black men, and a longstanding portrayal of Africa as dark, irrational, and barbaric to make a virulent cocktail of the “African Other.”

The more common word used to describe FGCs — mutilation — is a symbol of this discourse. It perfectly captures Judge Warren’s comment. Mutilation is, perhaps by definition, the opposite of healing and of what physicians are called to do. Defining FGCs this way allows, and even demands, that we wholly condemn the practices, take a zero tolerance stance, and refuse to entertain any other point of view.

Paradoxically, this has been devastating for efforts to reduce genital cutting. People who support genital cutting typically believe that a cut body is more aesthetically pleasing. They largely find the term “mutilation” confusing or offensive. They, like anyone, generally do not appreciate being told that they are barbaric, ignorant of their own bodies, or cruel to their children.

The zero tolerance demand to end the practices has also failed. Neither foreigners intervening in long-practicing communities, nor top-down laws instituted by local politicians under pressure from Western governments, nor even laws against FGCs in Western countries have successfully stopped genital cutting. They have, however, alienated the very women that activists have tried to help, made women dislike or fear the authorities who may help them, and even increased the rate of FGCs by inspiring backlashes.

In contrast, the provision of resources to communities to achieve whatever goals they desire, and then getting out of the way, has been proven to reduce the frequency of FGCs. The most effective interventions have been village development projects that have no agenda regarding cutting, yet empower women to make choices. When women in a community have the power to do so, they often autonomously decide to abandon FGCs. Who could know better, after all, the real costs of continuing the practice?

Likewise, abandonment of the practice may be typical among immigrants to non-practicing societies. This may be related to fear of prosecution under the law. However, it is more likely the result of a real desire among migrants to fit into their new societies, a lessening of the pressures and incentives to go through with cutting, and mothers’ deep and personal familiarity with the short- and long-term pain that accompanies the practices.

The American conversation about FGCs has been warped by our own biases. As a Hastings Center Report summarizes, those who adopt the cultural depravity frame misrepresent the practices, overstate the negative health consequences, misconstrue the reasons for the practice, silence the first-person accounts of women who have undergone cutting, and ignore indigenous anti-FCG organizing. And, while it has fed into American biases about “dark” Africa and its disempowered women, the discourse of cultural depravity has actually impaired efforts to reduce rates of FGCs and the harm that they can cause.

Originally posted at Open Democracy and Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow up on her research about female genital cutting here.

Bentham and Foucault might have been interested in the panopticon but every December we get a view of  true social control in the form of an overweight man at the North Pole. Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws, as he is sometimes called) is just the latest in a long line of beings whose sole purpose is to control children through fear (Krampus is another example, as is the Belsnickel, as Dwight demonstrated on The Office). Recently, though, Santa has been doing his spying by proxy (giving him more time to bully young reindeer).

In Santa’s place are his elves on the shelves, a team of small elves who began taking up residence in people’s homes in 2005. These elves observe the behavior of children and then fly back to the North Pole to report their observations to Santa each night. The magical ability to do so begins when the elves are named (before this point they are apparently in some sort of coma during which they can be sealed in boxes and sent to stores around the country) but the elves are in danger of losing their magic if touched. Upon returning each night, the elves hide in a new place and children delight in finding them each morning. Apparently, some of the elves also like to get into mischief, making them both spies and hypocrites.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

If you have continued reading, prepare yourself for a shock. The elves are actually inanimate objects with neither magic nor the ability to report to Santa Claus each night. Instead, adults in each household are responsible for moving the elves around (thus touching them and ruining any magical potential that they may have had). As you can imagine, this creates quite a bit of work for these adults, to the point that there are posts dedicated to dealing with the fact that they forgot to move the elves. The elves have also been copied in various ways. Telling children that Santa can see them when they’re sleeping and knows when they’re awake and knows if they’ve been bad or good seems much easier, especially since adults are likely to run out of creative places to hide the elf after about the third day.

Assuming that the intention of Santa, Krampus, the Belsnickel, and the elves on the shelves is social control, it seems that the elves would be both the least effective and the biggest pain in the ass. Imagine if the prison designed by Bentham made it possible that prisoners could be observed at any time unless they touched the prison wall, in which case a door came down that cut off the potential view of the guards. There might be no escaping Santa’s creepy spying or the Belsnickel’s judgment, but if I was a kid and I wanted to get away with bad behavior you can bet that the first thing I would do is touch the damn elf.

John is a pseudonymous assistant professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC).  He finished his Ph.D. at a top-25 sociology program in the summer of 2009. He blogs at Memoirs of a SLACer, where this post originally appeared.

This November, a wave of student activism drew attention to the problem of racism at colleges and universities in the US.  Sparked by protests at the University of Missouri, nicknamed Mizzou, we saw actions at dozens of colleges. It was a spectacular show of strength and solidarity and activists have won many concessions, including new funding, resignations, and promises to rename buildings.

Activists’ grievances are structural — aimed at how colleges are organized and who is in charge, what colleges teach and who does the teaching, and what values are centered and where they come from — but they are also interpersonal. Student activists of color talked about being subject to overtly racist behavior from others and being on the receiving end of microaggressions, seemingly innocuous commentary from others that remind them that they do not, as a Claremont McKenna dean so poorly put it, “fit the mold.” That dean lost her job after that comment. Many student activists seem to embrace the policing of offensive speech, both the hateful and the ignorant kind.

Negative reactions to this activism was immediate and widespread. Much of it served only to affirm the students’ claims: that we are still a racist society and that we, at best, tolerate our young people of color only if they stay “in their place.” Other times, it was confusion about the kind of world these young people seemed to want to live in. Why, some people asked, would anyone — especially a member of a marginalized population — want to shut down free speech?

Well, it may be that the American love of free speech is waning. The Pew Research Center released data measuring attitudes about censorship. They asked Americans whether they thought the government should be able to prevent people from saying things that are “offensive to minorities.” Millennials — that is, today’s college students — are significantly more likely than any other generation to say that they should.

In fact, the data show a steady decrease in the proportion of Americans who are eager to defend speech that is offensive to minorities. Only 12% of the Silent generation is in favor of censorship, compared to 24% of the Baby Boomers, 27% of Gen X, and 40% of Millennials. Notably, women, Democrats, and non-whites are all more likely than their counterparts to be willing to tolerate government control of speech.

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Americans still stand out among their national peers. Among European Union countries, 49% of citizens are in favor of censorship, compared to 28% of Americans. If the Millennials have anything to say about it, though, that might be changing. Assuming this is a cohort effect and not an age effect (that is, assuming they won’t change their minds as they age), and with the demographic changes this country will see in the next few decades, we may  very soon look more like Europe on this issue than we do now.

Re-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.