It’s been a while

Hello readers. It’s been a while. Between classes with massive workloads and lots hours at work, I haven’t made time to write what’s been on my mind. But today, I’m making that time.

Like many others, what’s on my mind today is gun control. As I was perusing newspapers in Spain for a current events assignment, the Parkland, Florida school shooting kept appearing in these international publications. The most interesting thing about US affairs in international newspapers is the perspective.

From outside the US, there isn’t such a partisan divide between gun control advocates and gun owners. Reading the articles from El Pais on the Parkland incident, this lack of bias was instantly apparent. After this, the question that keeps rolling around my head is “When did weapons and children’s death become a partisan issue in the US?”

I was listening to a podcast yesterday, 538 Politics I believe, and they mentioned the NRA as a uniquely American phenomenon. Many claim the NRA is what drives some of our political representatives to victim blame, or return to the same tired and often untrue argument of mental instability of the perpetrator. This op-ed by Adam Winkler discusses the previous positions of the NRA, including advocacy for gun control.

After an avid discussion (or argument) on Facebook recently, I realized that opinions held on this particular topic aren’t always educated. They often consist of, “I like guns and I know a lot about them and the Constitution guarantees my rights to them so please don’t try to control me.” But what also needs to be considered is this: not everyone understands weapons, and the constitutional provision that allows citizens to have weapons is quite vague and CLEARLY from a different time. Furthermore, to echo the survivors of Parkland,

“Nobody needs an AR-15 to defend themselves.”

So I’m forced to conclude that partisanship on the gun control debate is a result of uneducated or willfully ignorant perspectives from US citizens. Or it could just be the phenomenon of US narcissism.

You can keep your guns, but seriously, do you need a semi-automatic rifle?

Photo Credit: Paul Tong / Tribune Media Services

Supporting Actors

9 p.m. August 2015, Omaha, Nebraska, the Old Market. I was home for the summer, out with old friends catching up on college adventures. They offered to walk me to my car, I said it was only two blocks away. They got in their car and drove away. I started walking while I dug in my purse for my keys. He came up behind me and pinned me to a wall. The streetlights weren’t on yet. I thought he wanted my wallet. Told him to take it out of my purse, whatever he wanted. I felt him pull his zipper down, panicked. I used my nails to tear at exposed skin. He collapsed. I ran.

I was 19 years old.

Women younger than me have recently come forward and shared their stories. They and all the women who have made allegations against powerful public figures recently have started conversations between people who have experienced sexual assault and the rest of the country. Questions raised because of these conversations deal with who should lead the narrative, and which voices on the topic should be the loudest. If the people involved strive to change the culture and right the wrongs done, supporters need to let survivors take leading roles in this publicly staged discussion.

Don’t mistake this rhetoric for denying anyone their voice. Without the support of white men, who generally have little direct experience with sexual assault, there would likely be nothing done. This is the sad reality of U.S. culture. But the problem lies in men or other unaffected people trying to dictate the narrative of conversations without the proper context to do so. They are defining their roles as leading ones, when they should playing supporting parts.

The most logical parallel to be drawn here leads to allies in the LGBT+ community. Their role is to support friends, family and others that identify as anything other than cisgender heterosexual. They do this by defending the community when they aren’t there, and taking responsibility for educating friends while listening and staying in the back seat while queer people lead the conversation.

If this mindset and role can be accepted by sexual assault survivor allies, more productive conversations could happen and eventually lead to more action. Instead of always starting with the “I believe the women” narrative, the conversation could start with what action could be taken to prevent further harm, emotionally and physically. This is the biggest flaw with unaffected people trying to lead the conversations about sexual assault. Though their hearts are clearly in the right place, there is no possible way for people who have not experienced the trauma of sexual assault to understand what exactly needs to be rectified.

If you find yourself arguing with this idea, or even saying, “Wait a minute, don’t I get a say?” consider this: You don’t. Your voice is important in the fight against sexual assault; you are a part of the group that sees this as a problem. But what can you claim that justifies your demands to be included in writing the framework for laws and workplace policies? Do you have a frame of reference for how it feels to jump through hoops to retrieve your dignity? Unless you’ve experienced sexual assault, odds are you don’t. So, even with the best intentions, things will be overlooked or made unnecessarily traumatizing for survivors if left in the hands of people with no comprehension of the issue.

Acknowledging the need to take a supporting role is especially important for men in positions of power. Only 104 members of the 2017 Congress are women, about 20 percent of the 535-member legislative body. Meanwhile, over 50 percent of the U.S. population is female. With these numbers, support from more than only those affected, or even just women, is necessary to effectively change legislation against sexual assault.

However, men do not need to be the ones drafting the legislation presented to Congress. Four female senators spoke out publicly on Meet the Press to share their own #MeToo stories. These women, and any other female member of Congress, would be perfectly capable of developing these bills.

This week the Senate is wrestling similar questions as, among others, Senator Al Franken faces sexual assault charges. What makes Franken’s case particularly poignant is his sponsorship of a bill designed to help sexual assault survivors. Though not every man in Congress is a perpetrator of sexual assault, Franken’s case highlights the need for survivors to take the lead in writing and sponsoring legislation. Thankfully, Senator Amy Klobuchar has stepped up to sponsor the bill formerly adopted by Franken.

Though forced by external events, this is an example of meaningful change in the approach legislators take to conversations about sexual assault. Hopefully the recent influx of allegations will have one good side effect: male legislators recognizing a need to step back and let others lead on this topic.

Since Franken is far from alone on the stage of men in power accused of sexual assault, advocating for change in how we talk about assault and survivors is more important than ever. This is a multi-industry problem, and in the wake of so many allegations against powerful men, people are more willing to listen than before. This bully pulpit of sorts ought to be used to amplify the calls for change in culture, and in conversation.

With the ingrained fear of reprisal slowly draining away, more women feel safe enough to name their attackers. They are also taking a stronger stand against the systematic silencing of assault survivors. What makes changing the conversation difficult is where the support for speaking out ends. Most of the time, supporters applaud a woman sharing her story of survival, but as soon as she finishes telling her story the attitude turns to, “I’ll take it from here, honey.” This becomes the verbal equivalent of putting a hand over the survivor’s mouth mid-sentence.

From Hollywood to Congress, no one can argue that sexual assault is not a problem in the US. This issue will take years to address. The approach to conversations surrounding assault are a contributing factor, and changing this is a stride towards fixing the problem. If people can swallow their pride enough to let those affected most take the lead on conversations and action surrounding sexual assault, at least part of the broken system will be improved.

Being Queer at Thanksgiving

We always go to my uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. My mom is one of the middle children in a group of eight, and he has a large house. It just makes sense. This year was a new experience for me though, considering I only recently came out to my parents and a few of my trusted aunts.

I didn’t know what to expect. My mom made it quite clear she doesn’t understand my “choice” to be queer, and that she didn’t support it. I actually wrestled with the idea of not going back to Omaha at all. Eventually I decided to drive the three hours on Thursday, and come back Friday morning. It ended up being relatively uneventful, but the awkwardness and discomfort still make me squirm three days later.

Though it’s profoundly more acceptable to be queer in 2017 than it was even a decade ago, my family is a little slow to catch up. With strong Catholic roots, and a politically and morally conservative mindset, I was prepared for my mother to be a bit thrown by my coming out. I wasn’t prepared for her to say, “I feel like there are things I can’t talk to you about anymore,” and “I feel like you aren’t who I raised you to be. You don’t hold any of my values.” I realized later, when I had stopped shock-crying, my mom had a very specific path she wanted me to take, and had no idea why I would choose anything else.

When I asked her to give me the space I needed to find myself and figure out my own way, she didn’t understand. When I came out to my aunt while explaining the whole situation, she clued me in. My mom never had a self-discovery period. She decided what she wanted to think, what she wanted to be, and how she wanted her life to be and never wavered. In some ways, I envy her for that. But mostly, I pity her closed minded approach to life and inability to appreciate things that don’t align with her narrow world view.

IMG_2229
A couple members of the Augie family thanksgiving.

So, with this in mind, Thanksgiving was hard for me. Most of the family doesn’t know I’m queer. My mother doesn’t accept that I am. The support I have can’t be used because I’m not ready to deal with the disapproval of the majority I’d face at the dinner table. I spent the night talking about anything but politics and avoiding confrontation. I knew any memories the people there had of me would instantly change should they discover I don’t just like men.

This mindset doesn’t make sense to me, but that won’t change the minds of those who hold it. So my goal becomes establishing myself as an adult in the minds of everyone present, and doing this solidly enough that it can’t be shaken. So when I come out to all of them, they understand I know myself and simply being queer doesn’t change my competency as a journalist, or even as a person. Being animated, happy, and a “good” person are things that don’t depend on my sexual orientation. I needed them to understand that I am all these things, so when they know I’m queer, they accept me.

Can you feel the panic and stress through these words? I spent the day meant for giving thanks terrified. I needed to be accepted, to be acceptable to these people who I knew would likely not understand me. I spent the day awkwardly pretending things were fine between my mother and I, keeping up appearances. When I returned to Sioux Falls, I was exhausted. And soon, I’ll have to do it again for Christmas. I’m still debating how long to spend in a place I’m not sure I can call home.

Echo? Part 2

Continued from Echo? Part 1

The Social Media of it All

So how do social media and echo chambers affect each other? For starters, check out this article by NPR on how the internet is a catalyst to echo chambers and what to do about yours. But the issue I want to really hone in on is something I’ll call “militant close-mindedness”. Once I noticed my echo chamber, I started following a few more sources that frequently post points of view that are different from mine. When I did this, I discovered that my generally liberal friends were exceptionally intolerant to other points of view. This is the basics of what I mean by “militant closed-mindedness”.

open v closed mind

But where does the “militant” part come in? I noticed the strong intolerance for other points of view because of how my friends reacted to differences on social media. Comments, sharing, even un-friending were common things for my friends to do when discussing politics. But here’s the kicker: many of my friends told me in person that they actively searched for people that disagreed with them on social media in order to change their opinions. Seeing others’ point of view was unimportant, changing opinions was important. My friends were intentionally seeking out people with differing opinions in order to argue with them. For me, that’s as bad as taunting someone into a fist fight.

Intentionally seeking out differences just to have an online argument seems silly sometimes, but it can get boring in an echo chamber. If you’ve ever been to a zoo, you’ve seen the enrichment toys that animals are given to stimulate their brain and make life a little more full. Zoo animals live in a space metaphorically akin to an echo chamber, with no real outside stimuli except for those toys. But, like Zabu’s ball in the video below, those toys often become a great source of entertainment.

Imagine that the ball in the video is opposing opinions, and the tiger is you and your echo chamber. Sure, you can bat it around and chase the other opinions all over the internet. But, you can’t really enjoy playing with the ball unless you understand how it rolls or bounces. Having a productive debate is the same way. It’s boring and nonsensical without at least a basic understanding of the other points of view. Teacher Development Trust has an article listing five different reasons why people may refuse to acknowledge other opinions on social media. Read it here, and learn a little bit about journalism too!

It would be unfair of me to call it out without acknowledging that I’ve been guilty of building my own echo chambers with punching bags made of causes I oppose. Not everyone does this search and destroy mission for opposing opinions, either. Whether or not you do, it’s important to remember that understanding is key to productive conversation.

Echo? Part 1

At some point in life, everyone has been at that party or reception or graduation where they know about two people. Inevitably, awkward small talk occurs when you find yourself in an unfamiliar group. Sometimes the small talk goes well and you make new friends, other times not so much. The ‘not so much’ option usually happens when you hold extremely different views from the people you have been tossed in with. In public, in-person settings, it’s hard to avoid differing views than our own. But in our online lives, it’s much easier to hear and see only what we agree with. I’m writing this post because I want to talk about troubling trends I’ve been seeing on social media outlets like echo chambers and their effect.

Echo Chamber
From Christophe Bruchansky on LinkedIn

Echo Chambers

First I want to define an echo chamber in the way I think of it in an online setting. To me, an echo chamber is tweaking what comes across your news feed or to your inbox to be only things that you agree with, or hold a similar opinion to. While it’s fine to like pages that you agree with the message of and search for things that you appreciate, there’s a big difference between showing support and being closed-minded.

Just want to interrupt myself to clarify here, I’m not calling anyone close-minded. I’m also not trying to call people out. I just want to make people aware of what we are doing to ourselves on social media. 

We have a tendency to only want to hear what we agree with or like. Take it from Robert Cabrera, who wrote this article for The Odyssey called “Echo Chambers, Confirmation Bias And The Closing Of The American Mind”. Despite this tendency, in a climate of highly polarized issues and little to no middle ground, I have to wonder if we are making things harder for ourselves by neglecting to hear other perspectives. When I talk with someone about issues we disagree on, I find myself learning valid and factually backed arguments for their opinion. These facts may not change my mind, but the other person has educated me on another side of the issue. It has opened a door in the echo chamber. It’s as simple as following the President on Twitter, whether or not you support him, because you hear what he has to say. You don’t have to like what you read or hear, simple exposure to other ideas opens up your echo chamber.

echo part 1
From The Odyssey article “Echo Chambers, Confirmation Bias And The Closing Of The American Mind”

If you’re not convinced you want to hear other opinions, look at it this way: learning other sides to a debate is also educational, and often encourages you find further support for your opinion. Still need more to crack open that door? This post by Emily Webber focuses on the importance of diversity of ideas and how it helps businesses succeed. (I highly recommend reading her blog–very well done).

I have more to say on this topic than I anticipated! Check back soon for part 2 to this post about weird things I’ve noticed on social media–like “militant close-mindedness”.