TIME psychology

5 Key Components of a Good Apology

sorry
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Apologies do make a difference. People often prefer them over money, even if they’re just cheap talk.

What does the research say about the best way to apologize?

 

One

Don’t apologize for what you think you did wrong. Apologize for what they think you did wrong:

…victims reacted most positively to apologies that were congruent with their self-construals.

 

Two

The most effective apologies have four parts:

Via Wait: The Art and Science of Delay:

Aaron Lazare devotes two full chapters of On Apology and much of his subsequent research to questions of timing and delay. He finds that effective apologies typically contain four parts:

1. Acknowledge that you did it.

2. Explain what happened.

3. Express remorse.

4. Repair the damage, as much as you can.

This aligns with previous research on effective apologies:

Results indicated that relationships recovered significantly when offending partners used behaviors labeled as explicit acknowledgment, nonverbal assurance, and compensation.

 

Three

Timing is crucial — and faster is not better. People need to feel they are heard and understood so a delayed apology is actually more satisfying.

Via Wait: The Art and Science of Delay:

The results were stark: “Apology timing was positively correlated with outcome satisfaction; when the apology came later in the conflict, participants reported greater satisfaction.” Statistical tests showed that, the greater the delay, the more a victim felt heard and understood. With more time, there was more opportunity for voice and understanding.

 

Four

If it’s clear you intentionally did something wrong, you’re probably better off notapologizing. After intentional acts, apologies tend to backfire and make things worse:

An apology does not help at all after clearly intentionally committed offenses. On the contrary, after such offenses harmdoers do better not to apologize since sending an apology in this situation strongly increases punishment compared to remaining silent.

 

Five

Are they not accepting your apology? A little guilting can be effective. Being reminded of times when they did something wrong makes people more likely to accept apologies and forgive:

…participants in the recall-self-as-wrongdoer condition were significantly more likely to accept the apology from the classmate and forgive the transgression.

 

A Final Tip

Hopefully you won’t need this list too often. However, you may want to keep the principles in mind for next time you get pulled over. Studies have shown that apologizing to the police is one of the few effective ways to get out of a speeding ticket.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

TIME Religion

Florida Atheist Kicked Out of City Meeting For Refusing to Stand During Invocation

"I don't have to do that," he said

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This article originally appeared on Patheos.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Winter Garden City Commissioners (in Florida), Mayor John Rees announced that they would begin with an invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, as many government meetings do, and asked everyone to stand up.

John Thoreau, an atheist, remained seated. Normally, that would be irrelevant since he has every right to do that, but Rees had other ideas.

As the first syllable of the invocation was uttered, Rees told everyone to hold up because Thoreau was still sitting down…

Rees: We’re waiting for everyone to rise.

Thoreau: Sorry, are you waiting for me?

Rees: Yes, sir.

Thoreau: I don’t have to.

Rees: Well, we appreciate — you may rise or you may leave the room as we give our prayer and our Pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Thoreau: I don’t believe I have to do that, thank you.

Rees: I believe you have to [unintelligible]…

Rees didn’t press it and the sectarian invocation (in Jesus’ name) continued. Then when it time for the Pledge, the conversation started up again:

Rees: Now, sir, please stand while we do the Pledge… please stand. Children have to do it in school, too.

Thoreau: Yes, and they don’t have to be there…

Rees: This is respect for our country…

Thoreau: I understand that, sir.

Rees: You have one of two choices, sir. You may please stand for the Pledge. You don’t have to say it. Please stand.

Thoreau: I don’t have to do that.

Rees: Okay…

Audience member: Just stand up, man.

Rees: [I'm] asking you to either stand or please be escorted out [as we do] the Pledge. It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas, sir.

Cop: What do you want to do? Do you want to stand or leave?

Thoreau, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community, was quickly taken out of the room.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote a letter to the city today spelling out the constitutional violations of which the Mayor is guilty and telling them how they must remedy the situation:

(1) The government may not force citizens to stand for the Pledge of allegiance.

(2) Government officials may not ask citizens to stand for prayers or, (3) say prayers themselves.

To remedy the Pledge violation, at the next meeting, Mayor Rees ought to explain that citizens are within their rights to remain sitting for the Pledge and that it does not reflect a lack of patriotism… [Police] Chief [George] Brennan should make a similar statement. Patriotism and religiosity are not one and the same

To show solidarity with Thoreau, several atheist members of the CFFC will attend the city’s next meeting in two weeks and remain seated during the invocation and Pledge. (That should be fun.)

I should point out that “John Thoreau” is a pseudonym because the real person doesn’t want to face any public backlash or threats.

That the Mayor doesn’t understand First Amendment rights is appalling. That he would single out one member of the crowd for not standing is even worse. Can you imagine how much more awful it would’ve been if this was a teacher calling out a teenager in the classroom?

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. His latest book is called The Young Atheist’s Survival Guide.

Read more from Patheos:

TIME Religion

Hate Crime Laws: What the Amish Beard Cutting Case Means for the Rest of Us

Cleveland, Ohio Amish hair cutting attacks trial
Members of the Amish community leave the Cleveland, Ohio federal courthouse during the trial of a breakaway Amish community in eastern Ohio, led by Samuel Mullet Sr., at the federal courthouse in Cleveland, Aug. 27, 2012. David Maxwell—EPA

While it might seem like a legal quibble over facial hair, the decision is important for the future of hate crime laws

In the fall of 2011, 16 members (10 men and six women) of a breakaway Amish community in eastern Ohio executed five beard-cutting attacks on Amish people in other communities at night and by ambush over an eight-week period. The 16 defendants were convicted of federal hate crimes as well as lying to the FBI and obstructing justice. The US government built its case on the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Under this statute hate crimes occur when an assailant attacks a person because of his or her gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity or religion.

After a three-week trial in September 2012 a jury convicted the 16 defendants of federal hate crimes motivated by religion. Bishop Samuel Mullet was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The others received shorter sentences. Several defendants who received one year sentences have already returned to the Bergholz Amish community.

This week the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati overturned the hate crime convictions in a 2-1 sharply divided decision. The court upended the hate crime convictions for what it considered an error in the district court’s instructions to the jury. The non-hate crime convictions (perjury and obstructing justice) were not overturned.

Amish Beard Cutting Appellate Court Decision

No one, including the defendants and their attorneys, disputes that the attacks took place. The issue at stake in the trial was the motivation behind the attacks. What motives drove the assailants? Were they driven by family disputes, interpersonal conflict, or religion? The defendants argued that family malice and interpersonal bitterness prompted them to shear the beards and hair of the victims. The prosecution contended that religious differences propelled the attacks. The federal statute considers an attack a religious hate crime if an assailant “willfully causes bodily injury to any person . . . because of the actual or perceived . . . religion . . . of [that] person.” The appellate court’s opinion hinged on two different interpretations of the words “because of.”

The federal district court in Cleveland instructed the jury that a religious motive could be determined if a victim’s “actual or perceived religion was a significant motivating factor for a [d]efendant’s action…even if he or she had other reasons” for attacking the victim. Attorneys for the defendants argued that the phrase “because of” requires a “but-for” cause to show that assailants would not have cut beards but for the victim’s actual or perceived religious beliefs. The appellate court agreed with the defendants, saying that “because of” means “by reason of” or “on account of.”

The reversal opinion made a distinction between religion being the primary or predominant motive and religion being a significant motive among other motives. Did the assailants commit the attacks “because of” the religion of the victims or was religion only a significant reason among others.

The district court used a broader, less restrictive wording at the trial to define the motives driving the Amish hate crimes. The appellate court’s opinion is a more narrow interpretation of the meaning of the words “because of” suggesting that the crimes may not have happened solely for religious motives.

The dissenting judge in a sharply worded opinion said, “the overwhelming and unrefuted evidence adduced at trial demonstrates that Mullet participated in the assaults because of the victims’ religious beliefs.”

While this all might seem like splitting legal hairs over Amish beards, the decision is very important not only for the Amish, or for religious hate crimes, but for all hate crimes that are directed toward victims because of their gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, ethnicity, or religion. The legal decisions ensuing from this reversal will establish a judicial standard for how the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act is interpreted in the future. If the appellate court’s restrictive interpretation this week remains unchallenged it will make prosecution of federal hate crimes more difficult in the future because establishing a single predominant motive in the context of an attack is quite challenging.

Donald Kraybill, PhD, is distinguished professor and senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. The US Department of Justice contracted Professor Kraybill for six months to assist in the prosecution of the Bergholz clan. He is the author of Renegade Amish: Beard Cutting, Hate Crimes, and the Trial of the Bergholz Barbers (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

 

TIME

Is America’s Second Contractors’ War Drawing Near?

Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security
Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security Courtesy Simon & Schuster

Four years ago this Sunday, President Barack Obama declared the end of the Iraq war. So much of that fight and our current involvement in the Middle East is carried out by a privatized military. Here's why that matters

Last year, on the tenth anniversary of the 2003 Iraq invasion, there was the predictable commentary about why we went to war and what the consequences were. And there was some attention given to the fact that this had been the most privatized military engagement in U.S. history, with private contractors actually outnumbering traditional troops — the “First Contractors’ War,” as Middlebury College scholar Allison Stanger called it in 2009. No one, however, talked about the possibility of a second contractors’ war, a topic that may surface sooner than we anticipated and one that yields a multitude of questions. This time, for example, will we be told about the extent of the role of military and security contractors? Will we know which companies are making millions, even billions, from providing armed and unarmed services in the name of American defense? Will we know how many layers of subcontractors there are, from what countries they were hired, and who trained them? When the U.S. government announces casualty totals, will the stats include the contractors who were wounded and killed? And what about the soldiers missing in action? In Iraq by the spring of 2011 there were eight MIAs, seven of which were private contractors.

The First Contractors’ War was “a remarkably unprecedented experiment” in the privatization of America’s defense forces, as California’s U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D) told Congress in 2007– one that clearly succeeded. And out of such success arose a bold new industry of private military and security companies, some of which had already existed and grew substantially during the bonanza of contracts that defined the Iraq war, and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of new ones worldwide. Their broad range of services may include police training, intelligence analysis, logistics support, air transport, border patrol, weapons procurement, and drone operations. They assist U.S. forces in contingency operations and remain long after the military withdraws from combat zones; they guard our diplomats; and they play key roles in U.S. counterterrorism strategies. They work for the United Nations, for AFRICOM ( the U.S. unified command in Africa) and for multinational corporations working in hostile environments; they provide armed security to the shipping industry. Their markets exist wherever instability threatens development; wherever military commitments exceed the capabilities of nations; wherever governments are viewed as incapable of supplying defense and security fast enough.

They are the latest incarnation of the solutions that President Eisenhower referred to in the often-overlooked part of his famed 1961 “military-industrial complex” address: “Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.” Now, wherever our geopolitical missions take us, these companies will be part of the plan. As former U.S. Rep. Chris Shays, who served as co-chair for Congress’s Commission on Wartime Contracting, said recently, “The one thing that’s a given now: We can’t go to war without contractors and we can’t go to peace without contractors.”

But what does it matter? Why should we care who defends and secures us, how and where they are trained, and whether or not they are employees of private military and security companies? Why should we worry at all about the Second Contractors’ War? If dismal and dangerous jobs are outsourced and we can tend to our own concerns, what’s the problem? The simple fact that we have to ask such a question exposes the reality that we know too little about who these contractors are and that we care too little about what it means for our nation to be dependent on them. The simplest answer to why it matters thus becomes one word: democracy.

Private military and security firms promote themselves as on-call businesses, which effectively provide a fast solution that averts the often slow democratic process. To be sure, democracy demands restraint to allow for discourse, which in turn requires transparency. “Reliance on contractors allows the government to work under the radar of public scrutiny,” the New York Times noted in 2010. But what about the citizens’ right to know and need to know for the sake of their own security? The more the citizens of a nation are removed from the job of its defense and do not see the full impact of war, including all casualties, the easier it is for policy makers to engage the nation in conflicts and for citizens to lose a personal connection, a passionate allegiance, to nation — the passion that throughout history has motivated insurgents (including the American rebels in our revolution) to win wars. In other words, such indifference is a threat to our security. If a nation is not aware of the impact of war, then it will not fear going to war; if not affected then its citizens will not discuss and debate.

In August of 2011, the final report of the three- year study by Congress’s Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed some unnerving details about our dependence on private contractors and fervently urged reforms to prevent any repeat performances. It warned: “Delay and denial are not good options. There will be a next contingency, whether the crisis takes the form of overseas hostilities or domestic response to a national emergency like a mass-casualty terror attack or natural disaster.”

Three years later, we as citizens of a democracy must ask ourselves: are we ready for the Second Contractors’ War?

Ann Hagedorn is the award-winning author of the new book The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She’s written four previous books: Wild Ride, Ransom, Beyond the River, and Savage Peace, and has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal. She has taught writing at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, Xavier University, and Miami University. She holds an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Denison University. She divides her time between New York City and a small Ohio River town, which she discovered during her research for Beyond the River.

TIME europe

Only Gender Quotas Can Stop the E.U. from Being a Boys Club

Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France.
Newly elected President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker is congratulated on July 15, 2014, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images

The European Commission's president has asked that EU member states nominate female candidates. Here's why gender quotas are necessary

Gender anxiety is enveloping the top levels of the European Union. By the end of this month, each of the bloc’s 28 countries is expected to put forward their candidate to sit on the European Commission, the powerful body that drives policy-making and enforces E.U. law.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the Commission’s new president, has instructed member states to send female candidates, saying he wants more women in the top jobs. A social media campaign – #10orMore – is also under way to boost female representation at the E.U. to a record high.

Unfortunately, governments are not playing ball: so far only five countries have nominated women. Nineteen other nations have nominated a man, with four countries still to announce their candidates.

The goal of getting more women into top decision-making posts is simply common sense given that they represent more than half of the E.U.’s 507 million citizens. Right now this is not reflected by their visibility in politics, business or the media, meaning their interests are often sidelined.

The drive to change the status quo at the top echelons of the E.U. has attracted skepticism. On the Facebook page of Neelie Kroes – one of the nine women in the outgoing Commission and a co-founder of the #10orMore campaign – critics question why gender would qualify a person for one of the 28 commissioner posts.

Such knee-jerk accusations of tokenism greet most attempts to introduce gender quotas in politics or the boardroom. But while so many barriers stand between women and senior positions – and these range from sexism in the workplace, high childcare costs and the unequal distribution of maternity and paternity leave – quotas are one of the few measures that actually have an impact.

In 1997 the British Labour party introduced all-women short lists for parliamentary candidates in some constituencies. Later that year, a record number of women were elected, and Labour still has the highest proportion of female MPs in Britain.

Britain’s Conservative party, which formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats in 2010, does not support all-women short lists, and a U.N. survey of women in ministerial positions earlier this year shows Britain languishing at around the halfway point, below Morocco and Cote d’Ivoire, with women making up just 15% of the cabinet.

There are other poor performers in Europe, with Greece, Cyprus and Hungary faring even worse, reflecting the problems Juncker is having in rallying enough women for his Commission.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are Sweden and Finland, which are in the top three of the U.N. survey with over 50% female representation in their cabinets. France and Norway are close to reaching gender parity.

What the top performers have in common are long-term and often legislated programs to improve gender equality across society. In Sweden, political parties have since the early 1990s imposed voluntary quotas for election candidates. Norway was the first to introduce quotas for women on company boards, while France has legally-binding quotas for both politics and the boardroom. “Quotas are nobody’s first choice but where they are introduced they do improve representation, they do improve visibility of women,” says Clare McNeil, a senior fellow at the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research, adding that they work best when coupled with penalties for non-compliance.

Given the pool of female talent in the E.U., having just a handful of women in the Commission would be a pitiful performance. It is crucial now that efforts to increase female representation go beyond headline-grabbing promises. Juncker and the European Parliament, which approves the Commission, must make good on threats to reject the line-up if it is too male-dominated.

Hopefully quotas will not need to be in place forever. But right now Europe is so far from being a level playing field that radical measures are needed to kick-start lasting change in society.

Charlotte McDonald-Gibson is a writer and journalist based in Brussels.

TIME Race

Reparations Could Prevent the Next Ferguson

Protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo, Aug. 20, 2014.
Protesters march in the street as lightning flashes in the distance in Ferguson, Mo, Aug. 20, 2014. Jeff Roberson—AP

The U.S. government and society need to recognize the direct connections between continuing racial disparities in this country and the wrongs that gave rise to them

Watching the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri, I can’t help thinking about the Holocaust and post-war Germany. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I’ve spent years watching Germany wrestle with its dark past. It’s just one of many places that have made efforts to understand and compensate for a difficult history: For nearly three decades, countries as varied as South Africa, Rwanda, and the nations of Latin America and post-Communist Eastern Europe have been engaged in this process, often called “transitional justice.” That’s a broad term for the ways in which societies deal with the legacies of past injustice. Many believe that countries can only move forward once they have come to terms with their past in this way.

We’re accustomed to looking abroad for examples of such processes. But maybe — especially in light of racial tensions once again revealed in Ferguson — it’s time for us to begin thinking about what “transitional justice” could mean for the U.S.

Like many nations, Americans are reluctant to see ourselves in the same light as human rights abusers elsewhere. And yet our history includes a number of glaring atrocities, including the genocide of Native Americans and slavery and its aftermath. But the United States lags behind other societies in its efforts to confront and make amends for that legacy.

What, exactly would that entail? Justice means more than putting perpetrators on trial. The transitional justice process also encompasses methods focused on the victims and the wider society, such as truthseeking, memorialization, education, institutional change, and material compensation — that is, actions that seek not only to punish, but to encourage a shared historical understanding, begin to repair the damage done, and ensure that it can’t happen again.

A first step in the process seems simple: official acknowledgment. Yet societies are often hesitant to admit historical wrongdoing. Armenians have been trying for decades to get Turkish authorities to acknowledge that they were the victims of an organized crime. To understand what this means, I’ve tried to imagine what I would feel had Germany not accepted responsibility for the Holocaust. Official silence negates the experience of the victims, but it’s also damaging to perpetrator societies; it feeds denial and false narratives of history that allow tensions and resentments to persist.

Apology often accompanies acknowledgment. Both Australia and Canada have recently apologized to their aboriginal populations for decades of removing children from their families. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s famous gesture in Warsaw in 1970, when he fell to his knees before a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, enraged many Germans who preferred not to face questions of guilt and responsibility. But this spontaneous gesture of atonement was enormously important to Holocaust survivors. In recent years, the Polish government has reversed decades of denial under its Communist government by acknowledging the participation of some Poles in anti-Semitic atrocities during World War II. Even the U.S. has managed an apology — in 1988, after a long campaign by Japanese-Americans, president Reagan apologized for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Yet the U.S. has never officially apologized for slavery or Jim Crow (and a 2009 “apology” to Native Americans, slipped into a Defense Appropriations Act, made little impact). Nor are there memorials to slavery or to the Native American genocide on a scale similar to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. That memorial, imperfect as it is, represents a conscious public acknowledgment by a perpetrator society of its own wrongdoing — both a rebuke to deniers and a purposeful statement that memory should not only be the job of victims.

One reason societies often resist officially acknowledging wrongdoing is the fear of being held financially accountable. Even years after the fact, victims or their descendants may ask for the return of confiscated property, bank accounts, or uncollected insurance claims, as they have in the case of the Holocaust, Eastern European communism, and the Armenian genocide. Reagan’s apology for our treatment of Japanese-Americans was accompanied by monetary compensation.

Financial reparations are in fact the most direct way to compensate victims for past suffering.

Germany was able to pay millions to survivors of the Holocaust who suffered quantifiable harm, and continues to do so (my father received a small monthly check that made an enormous difference, especially to a penniless new immigrant in the 1950s who had lost his entire family in the Holocaust; my mother, not a survivor, still receives a widow’s pension). Societies with fewer resources have offered other types of reparation: scholarships to victims’ children, affirmative action programs, and preferential housing, health care and other entitlements.

In the United States, however, we are more likely to insist that existing institutions already provide a sufficient foundation for improving conditions, as though we could erase the effects of past atrocity without undertaking any difficult changes. Except in the brief period following the Civil War, direct financial compensation for slavery and Jim Crow has never had a serious place on the national agenda. The most significant effort to compensate for the institutionalized legal, economic and social discrimination against black Americans that persisted into recent decades—a modern legacy of slavery and Jim Crow vividly described in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Atlantic Monthly piece “The Case for Reparations” — was affirmative action, but it has largely been reversed by the Supreme Court. Very little has been done to directly address ongoing racial injustices such as the disproportionate incarceration of black Americans, which author Michelle Alexander has referred to as “The New Jim Crow.”

Transitional justice demands recognition that fulfilling responsibilities to the past requires more than merely lip service from a perpetrator society. Crimes against minority groups in any society bring benefits to the perpetrator group, and compensating for them can necessitate material sacrifice. But remorse often ends where personal sacrifice begins. Marco Williams’ 2006 documentary, Banished, tells the story of several black towns in the American South that were ethnically cleansed in the early 20th century. A black family from one of these towns sought to have a father’s remains reburied near their new home and was met with sympathy from the white residents of the town — until they asked the town to pay the costs. As in Germany, where polls over the years have shown significant minorities that deny an ongoing financial responsibility towards the victims of the Holocaust, many fail to see why they should be held individually accountable for the acts of their parents or grandparents. The benefits accrued through the injustices of the past are not always apparent.

One of the most important aspects of successful transitional justice, therefore, lies in illuminating not only the victims’ suffering, but the ways in which an entire society continues to bear the burdens of history. This helps elevate an important point: correcting injustice may require affirmative steps. The U.S. government and society need to recognize — and educate citizens on — the direct connections between continuing racial disparities in this country and the wrongs that gave rise to them, and to talk far more about the responsibilities we all share for repairing the damage. Perhaps Ferguson – which has revealed what can happen when we suppress these conversations – will finally motivate us to think about how to address the harms, whether through material reparations or otherwise. If we’re willing to start talking, we’ll find no shortage of role models for transitional justice throughout the world to help us take the next steps.

Belinda Cooper is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights and New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. This piece originally appeared on The Weekly Wonk.

 

TIME U.S.

Shut Up Already About Obama’s Tan Suit! Let’s Talk Substance Over Style

President Obama Makes Statement In The Briefing Room Of White House
U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong—Getty Images

Suitgate is giving the president a taste of what it's like to live in a woman's world. But what good does that do anyone?

Female politicians have been criticized for what they wear since they first began running for office. Hair too long, skirt too short, too much or too little makeup: any and all of it can derail an interview and focus attention on style over substance. It almost doesn’t matter what you say if you don’t look good doing it, the television adage goes.

Welcome to the women’s world, President Obama. Isn’t it fun? The tempest over the President wearing a tan summer suit on Thursday has virtually overshadowed the important messages he delivered on hostilities in Ukraine and Iraq. As a woman, I’m kind of glad to see a man held to the same crazy standards that we are. But that doesn’t make the standards any less ridiculous, male or female.

This President seems particularly prone to sartorial bullying. Obama has been criticized far more than other recent Presidents; I had to really think hard for similar sturm und drang for George Bushes 1 & 2 or Bill Clinton and came up with virtually nothing (unless you count Clinton making the G7 leaders get dressed up as cowboys, but that seemed more like him having some fun at their expense than an actual fashion misstep). But Obama has drawn ire for his lack of an American flag pin during the primaries that fed conspiracy theories that he wasn’t really American; his mom jeans; and just last week, his lack of tie while addressing the crisis in Iraq from Martha’s Vineyard, where he was vacationing.

What we wear has no impact on what we’re saying, so why does it matter so much? Hillary Clinton has been drawing scrutiny and headlines since velvet headband in her her 60 Minutes interview with Bill in 1992. Sarah Palin got savaged for her big hair, heavy makeup and “porn-star looks.” Condoleeza Rice was accused of going too sexy when she wore black leather knee high boots as Secretary of State. Just last year, the New York Times marked the historic number of women in the 113th Congress by doing a fashion profile of their purses. And these are the things we remember: their hair, their pedicures, their heads photoshopped onto a woman in a bikini, not so much their policies or platforms. Because style is always easier to digest than substance.

Up until recently, men seemed relatively immune to this kind of fluffy criticism. Granted, male politicians rarely venture beyond dull grey suits. Obama once told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he only wore grey and blue suits. But when they do break this unspoken rule, as Obama did on Thursday, do they deserve the kind of evisceration that he got? “The Audacity of Taupe,” tweeted Jared Keller, a programming director at startup MicNews. “Yes we tan!” read another headline. Wall Street Journal economic-policy reporter Damian Paletta tweeted, “I’m sorry but you can’t declare war in a suit like that.” Never mind that the President just announced he had no strategy for the conflict in Iraq and Syria.

Sometimes a boring uniform can be helpful: It creates unanimity and a reassuring predictability. It’s why the military has uniforms. But America isn’t a militarized state. And verging outside the norm shouldn’t detract from important work. Women have learned this the hard way: conform or die, politically. And even a pro like Clinton can still draw criticism after 30 years in the public spotlight when, in the midst of international crises, she didn’t wear makeup or have time to cut her hair. It’s dispiriting to see the same level of scrutiny now being applied to men. I wish the great equalizer would be to leave all comments about appearances off the table.

Jay Newton-Small is TIME’s congressional correspondent and she’s working on a book about women in politics.

TIME

Negrophobia: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and America’s Fear of Black People

Demonstrators march down West Florissant during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near Ferguson, Mio., Aug. 18, 2014.
Demonstrators march down West Florissant during a peaceful march in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown, near Ferguson, Mio., Aug. 18, 2014. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Phobias are extreme aversions embedded deep in our psyches, activated when we come face-to-face with the thing we fear. Some people are afraid of black people.

Phobias are lethal. This summer’s series of prominent killings of unarmed Black men, Michael Brown being the most covered, have forced me to come to terms with my own fear: I am an arachnophobe.

A few nights ago, I noticed a dark spot in my periphery. Suddenly it twitched. My stomach dropped. The dark spot was a five-inch spider, looking as if it had muscle and bone. There was no possible way I could sleep soundly until the behemoth was neutralized. I scrambled to find a shoe, then swung it with all my might. With a clap of thunder, the big dark enemy was no more; flattened to a wall stencil. Relief.

Phobias are extreme aversions. They are embedded deep in our psyches, activated when we come face-to-face with the thing we fear. For me, spiders trigger overreactions. For others, it can be people.

Black people.

Before there was Michael Brown, there was Eric Garner, a dark spot in the periphery of the NYPD—a trigger for their phobia. There was no possible way they could patrol confidently that day without assurance the behemoth was neutralized.

Garner’s 400-pound anatomy forms an object of American Negrophobia: the unjustified fear of black people. Studies show that Black people, particularly Black men, are the group most feared by White adults. Negrophobia fuels the triangular system of oppression that keeps people of color pinned into hapless ghettos between the pillars of militarized police, starved inner-city schools, and voracious prisons. And this summer there weren’t only Garner and Brown; there were John Crawford, and Ezell Ford, and many others who will not be eulogized in the media.

Even the most well-intentioned people sometimes have difficulty avoiding discourses that reinforce problematic notions of Black physicality. A few months ago, I got into a conversation with a mentor of mine, a Stanford administrator. This individual told a story of a visit to a penitentiary where there was a stellar performance of Shakespeare’s Othello by a cast of inmates. My mentor’s description of the lead, a brawny African-American male convict, will always fascinate me. In this person’s words, the thespian was a “large, beautiful, intimidating Black man.”

This stream of modifiers—large, beautiful, and intimidating—is normally reserved for majestic, predatory beasts like tigers, bears, or dragons. It describes something both appealing and appalling, but not typically a human. You can see classic buck and brute tropes echoed in various corners of modern popular culture. These types of perceptions of historically marginalized groups can, in the wrong circumstances, foment phobias—and dangerous overreactions.

But misperception is nothing new. The bestial depiction, and treatment, of Black people follows a linear history from the times of pickaninny children to the current United States president.

I hate to think this is what the police see when they approach any unarmed Black person—a predator that has escaped captivity and must be tranquilized before he or she wreaks havoc. And yet. An officer quelling Ferguson protests can be heard screaming on live television, “Bring it, all you f****** animals!” to the predominantly Black demonstrators.

Back to the spider once more: my perception of the fear and the ability of that spider to actually produce the threat I have mentally assigned it were completely disproportionate. It was just me spooking myself into fury. Phobic people hyperbolize a threat that is not actually present, and trip themselves into aggression. We as Americans must learn to see each other properly and not through the lens of phobia.

This is a plea to those officers who are unflinching in the gravest of dangers, whose courage is forged in the crucible of our nation’s worst emergencies, yet who lose all composure when facing the grimace of a Black man. The concept of diversity, like Eric Garner, is large, beautiful, and sometimes intimidating. America will only be America once we learn how to fully appreciate it, not fear it. One day, I hope, we won’t see our fellow humans as dark spots.

Brandon Hill is a junior at Stanford University, studying political science and African & African American Studies. Raised in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, he has interned for the White House and UNICEF.

TIME

A Tale of Two 9-Year-Olds: The One on the Playground, and the One With an Uzi

An UZI assault pistol
An UZI assault pistol Terry Ashe—Getty Images

You should be absolutely terrified that a 9-year-old’s constitutional right to fire an Uzi trumps your right to decide at what age your kids can play at the park unsupervised

Parents who allow their 9-year-old to play unsupervised at a playground can be arrested, but handing a nine-year-old an Uzi is perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately, that’s not hyperbole. It’s just the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves, after a 9-year-old New Jersey girl accidentally shot and killed her instructor at a firing range in Arizona. The girl’s parents paid for her to fire a fully automatic machine gun, but she lost control of the weapon and shot her instructor, Charles Vacca, killing the military veteran.

The chilling ordeal was caught on tape, courtesy of the girl’s parents, but Arizona police officials have said no charges will be filed or arrests made. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office concluded the incident was an “industrial accident,” and have contacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to investigate, according to published reports.

Let’s compare that to a story from earlier this summer, regarding a different 9-year-old, one in South Carolina.

Debra Harrell is a working mother who faces a common problem for parents when school lets out for the summer: finding affordable child care. The McDonald’s employee couldn’t afford to have someone watch her 9-year-old daughter, so the girl was playing on her laptop in the restaurant during her mother’s shifts. However, when that laptop was stolen from their home, Harrell armed her daughter with a cell phone in case of an emergency and let her go unsupervised to an area playground. Another parent noticed the girl there alone and contacted the police, at which point Harrell was arrested and charged with child neglect. If convicted, she faces up to 10 years behind bars.

Is anyone else absolutely scared to death of the horrendous message we’re sending to parents?

Regarding the incident in Arizona, we’re talking about two parents who willingly paid $200 to put a fully automatic weapon in the hands of their 9-year-old daughter. This poor girl, who should’ve been learning to shoot with a .22 rifle or some other weapon she could handle (if indeed she had to learn to fire a gun) was given an Uzi capable of firing up to 600 rounds per minute—creating a recoil difficult for some adults to handle.

And the scariest part? The firing range has a minimum age of eight years old to fire such weapons – one year younger than the girl who is now surely scarred for life. The terrible judgment of the New Jersey parents (combined with the operators of the firing range to allow kids that young to fire Uzis) directly contributed to a man’s death. That stands in stark contrast to Harrell’s troubles in South Carolina.

Instead of a loaded weapon, Harrell armed her daughter with a phone, and sent her to a playground with lots of other kids and adults. The only shooting that took place was the cool water from a splash pad and some hoops on the basketball courts. There were even volunteers who came by the playground with free snacks. While perhaps not ideal since Harrell was at work, she sent her daughter to a family-friendly place with an environment geared toward fun and summertime frivolity. The same kind of place I routinely rode my bike to at the age of nine.

Yet Harrell is the one arrested. Who lost her job. Who spent 17 days in jail, temporarily lost custody of her daughter, and faces 10 years in prison.

So, when considering charges for the neglect of a child, playgrounds seem to be a greater threat in the eyes of the law than guns. And that is a travesty.

Wherever you fall in this country’s ongoing debate about guns and gun control, this should upset you. It should infuriate you. It should alert you to our disturbingly warped gun culture, and should be more than enough proof that change is desperately needed. And parents, let me state this unequivocally: It is never acceptable to let your 9-year-old fire an Uzi. Never. Under any circumstances.

Harrell’s detractors claim someone could’ve kidnapped her daughter at the playground, which is true. But while there is a low risk of child abduction at a public playground in broad daylight, it pales in comparison to the risks involved with letting a 9-year-old fire a machine gun. So please stop referencing the 2nd amendment, because I’m certain our Founding Fathers weren’t contemplating the benefits of letting children fire hundreds of rounds per minute when they drafted the right to bear arms.

If you’re a parent, you should be absolutely terrified that a 9-year-old’s constitutional right to fire an Uzi trumps your right to decide at what age your kids can play at the park unsupervised.

Something has to change. Now.

Aaron Gouveia is a husband, father of two boys, and writes for his site, The Daddy Files.

TIME feminism

Campus Rape: The Problem with ‘Yes Means Yes’

New students at San Diego State University watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting, Aug. 1, 2014, in San Diego.
New students at San Diego State University watch a video on sexual consent during an orientation meeting, Aug. 1, 2014, in San Diego. Gregory Bull—AP

Having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is a terrible idea

The campus crusade against rape has achieved a major victory in California with the passage of a so-called “Yes means yes” law. Unanimously approved by the state Senate yesterday after a 52-16 vote in the assembly on Monday, SB967 requires colleges and universities to evaluate disciplinary charges of sexual assault under an “affirmative consent” standard as a condition of qualifying for state funds. The bill’s supporters praise it as an important step in preventing sexual violence on campus. In fact, it is very unlikely to deter predators or protect victims. Instead, its effect will be to codify vague and capricious rules governing student conduct, to shift the burden of proof to (usually male) students accused of sexual offenses, and to create a disturbing precedent for government regulation of consensual sex.

No sane person would quarrel with the principle that sex without consent is rape and should be severely punished. But while sexual consent is widely defined as the absence of a “no” (except in cases of incapacitation), anti-rape activists and many feminists have long argued that this definition needs to shift toward an active “yes.” Or, as the California bill puts it:

“Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity. … Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.

The law’s defenders, such as feminist writer Amanda Hess, dismiss as hyperbole claims that it would turn people into unwitting rapists every time they have sex without obtaining an explicit “yes” (or, better yet, a notarized signature) from their partner. Hess points out that consent can include nonverbal cues such as body language. Indeed, the warning that “relying solely on nonverbal communication can lead to misunderstanding,” included in the initial draft of the bill, was dropped from later versions. Yet even after those revisions, one of the bill’s co-authors, Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune that the affirmative consent standard means a person “must say ‘yes.’ ”

Nonverbal cues indicating consent are almost certainly present in most consensual sexual encounters. But as a legal standard, nonverbal affirmative consent leaves campus tribunals in the position of trying to answer murky and confusing questions — for instance, whether a passionate response to a kiss was just a kiss, or an expression of “voluntary agreement” to have sexual intercourse. Faced with such ambiguities, administrators are likely to err on the side of caution and treat only explicit verbal agreement as sufficient proof of consent. In fact, many affirmative-consent-based student codes of sexual conduct today either discourage reliance on nonverbal communication as leaving too much room for mistakes (among them California’s Occidental College and North Carolina’s Duke University) or explicitly require asking for and obtaining verbal consent (the University of Houston). At Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College, nonverbal communication is allowed but a verbal request for consent absolutely requires a verbal response: If you ask, “Do you want this?”, you may not infer consent from the mere fact that your partner pulls you down on the bed and moves to take off your clothes.

Meanwhile, workshops and other activities promoting the idea that one must “ask first and ask often” and that sex without verbal agreement is rape have proliferated on college campuses.

The consent evangelists often admit that discussing consent is widely seen as awkward and likely to kill the mood — though they seem to assume that the problem can be resolved if you just keep repeating that such verbal exchanges can be “hot,” “cool,” and “creative.” It’s not that talk during a sexual encounter is inherently a turn-off — far from it. But there’s a big difference between sexy banter or endearments, and mandatory checks to confirm you aren’t assaulting your partner (especially when you’re told that such checks must be conducted “in an ongoing manner”). Most people prefer spontaneous give-and-take and even some mystery, however old-fashioned that may sound; sex therapists will also tell you that good sex requires “letting go” of self-consciousness. When ThinkProgress.com columnist Tara Culp-Ressler writes approvingly that under affirmative consent “both partners are required to pay more attention to whether they’re feeling enthusiastic about the sexual experience they’re having,” it sounds more like a prescription for overthinking.

Of course anyone who believes that verbal communication about consent is essential to healthy sexual relationships can preach that message to others. The problem is that advocates of affirmative consent don’t rely simply on persuasion but on guilt-tripping (one handout stresses that verbal communication is “worth the risk of embarrassment or awkwardness” since the alternative is the risk of sexual assault) and, more importantly, on the threat of sanctions.

Until now, these sanctions have been voluntarily adopted by colleges; SB-967 gives them the backing of a government mandate. In addition to creating a vaguely and subjectively defined offense of nonconsensual sex, the bill also explicitly places the burden of proof on the accused, who must demonstrate that he (or she) took “reasonable steps … to ascertain whether the complainant affirmatively consented.” When the San Gabriel Valley Tribune asked Lowenthal how an innocent person could prove consent under such a standard, her reply was, “Your guess is as good as mine.”

Meanwhile, Culp-Ressler reassures her readers that passionate trysts without explicit agreement “aren’t necessarily breaches of an affirmative consent standard,” since, “if both partners were enthusiastic about the sexual encounter, there will be no reason for anyone to report a rape later.” But it’s not always that simple. One of the partners could start feeling ambivalent about an encounter after the fact and reinterpret it as coerced — especially after repeatedly hearing the message that only a clear “yes” constitutes real consent. In essence, advocates of affirmative consent are admitting that they’re not sure what constitutes a violation; they are asking people to trust that the system won’t be abused. This is not how the rule of law works.

This is not a matter of criminal trials, and suspension or even expulsion from college is not the same as going to prison. Nonetheless, having the government codify a standard that may implicitly criminalize most human sexual interaction is a very bad idea.

Such rules are unlikely to protect anyone from sexual assault. The activists often cite a scenario in which a woman submits without saying no because she is paralyzed by fear. Yet the perpetrator in such a case is very likely to be a sexual predator, not a clueless guy making an innocent mistake — and there is nothing to stop him from lying and claiming that he obtained explicit consent. As for sex with an incapacitated victim, it is already not only a violation of college codes of conduct but a felony.

Many feminists say that affirmative consent is not about getting permission but about making sure sexual encounters are based on mutual desire and enthusiasm. No one could oppose such a goal. But having the government dictate how people should behave in sexual encounters is hardly the way to go about it.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine.

 

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