When the Smoke Clears

Current Events, Reflections1 Comment

Josh Nezam: Protests in Ferguson, MOYou have to be careful on the internet, or you might get sucked into a black hole.

I was exploring Costa Rica when Ferguson, MO started exploring the boundaries of chaos. I was aware of it, but didn’t have time to read everything until this past weekend. I procrastinated, knowing how emotional I might become, knowing I could veil my ignorance as melancholy behind a shaking head and a passing comment. Despair might get in the way of real understanding, I thought, but ignorance necessarily would.

At first I only felt the terrible gravity of the articles about the Michael Brown shooting and subsequent disorder. I moved on to watch the Kajieme Powell video, and maybe felt a hint that I was sinking further. Suddenly I had a dozen tabs open with everything from statistics demonstrating the racial gap in attitudes towards police, to a video of the 1998 murder of Deputy Kyle Dinkheller among other shootings handled in various ways, to Talib Kweli and Don Lemon getting into an unnecessary argument. In between every Ctrl+Tab and — what did that last page say? — Shift+Ctrl+Tab, my mind was racing to process it all, Ctrl+clicking more and more articles as if I could read away the senselessness. By then I was completely sucked in, unable to escape.

My body was still mine, however, so I sent it out to grab some falafel. On the walk, I felt the sort of nausea that takes over to distract you when your emotions need a rest. And I thought to myself, If I were a black man, I would be consumed by rage; I have no idea how I would live in this society. And then I was disappointed in myself for getting so upset when I know I exercised the privilege of choosing whether or not to share in this grief.

Strong emotions are very much like sore muscles. Experiencing them is distracting and even debilitating, but while you’re aware of your limited capabilities, you make plans that account for recovery. If your arms are sore today, you might not do any pushups, but you won’t cancel a canoe trip for next month.

Right now, I hate cops, all of them — but I know that doesn’t make sense, I have family members who are cops, and I’ve seen well-trained cops do good things, even for homeless black kids. Kajieme Powell reminds me of one those kids I used to work with, and I wish I was there before he died because I’m very experienced in crisis intervention and I’m positive I could have deescalated him and saved his life — but I know that’s only a self-aggrandizing fantasy. All I hear is other white people — the reasonable ones, I mean, not the smug Kevin Sorbos — pussyfooting around the issue with safe truisms and over-enthusiastic words of solidarity. But there’s my pride again.

It’s hard to make sense of senseless killing. Neither the hottest rage nor the most apt analysis will undo these murders or deflect the vile bullets too soon to be fired again. Through the dark smoke of emotion, however, I can see a pocket of blue sky, an intimation of wisdom to come.

It is the wisdom of abiding contradiction. Darren Wilson is a murderer, and yet he will be acquitted like so many before him. Cops do the best they can, and yet we should never trust them. This should never happen, and yet it will happen again. There is no excuse for what has happened, and yet we must ask why — the cold why of causality, not the pleading why of spiritual torment. Nothing can make this better, and yet we must identify and advocate for pragmatic remedies. This shouldn’t be our burden, and yet none other can spur change.

When the smokes clears, I’ll be able to hold all that in my head at the same time. The gears will slip back into place, and society will keep moving. My nausea will subside, and we might even see some good come out of it all. We will heal.

And yet, the smoke has not cleared.

SorenWhen the Smoke Clears

Modern Ethics

DiscourseLeave a Comment

Ethics can’t be about justice — about what other people deserve. Ethics must be about us — about how we choose to define our character.

If we base moral decisions on anything else, we will do wrong, because we live in a time when the fragmented nature of society distorts our intentions and makes it difficult to comprehend the consequences of our actions. Therefore, modern ethics must be rooted in character because it is present, because it is immediate, because it is not distorted by bureaucracy, or global consumer markets.

If you do harm unto an evil person, you are not just. You are a harmful person.

Right and wrong are no longer determined by impact. They are determined by character.

SorenModern Ethics

How are we going to fix society?

Discourse, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

Seriously, how?

I see a lot of good work being done, some of it even by my own hands, but when I step back and look at the state of altruism in America all I really see is band-aid solutions. Non-profits, activist groups, volunteer efforts — these are all good things that make life on earth a little less tarnished by suffering and injustice. But my question is not, How do we clean up some of the stains on human existence?, it’s, How do we fix this place?

And there aren’t any good answers right now. As I’m growing up, I’m seeing that thing happen that we always told ourselves we wouldn’t let happen to us: we’re getting so involved in our own day-to-day lives that if we can even find time for a mediocre, band-aid solution to a social ill we at least feel relieved that we’re contributing something. I see this in myself. I work for a non-profit, so at the end of the day I feel like I put in my due and I can waste away my free time however I choose.

This attitude is completely normal. But we’re seeing that our strategies for social change fall short and become mere band-aids because people don’t give enough. Non-profits could change the world if they were all properly funded. An army of dedicated and well-led volunteers could similarly fix everything.

But they won’t. We have to be ruthlessly pragmatic. We are not going to convince people to give and do more than they already are, especially when we struggle to even convince ourselves, so we need to find strategies that will be fully fueled by what people are already doing.

SorenHow are we going to fix society?

Boycotting Ain’t What It Used To Be

DiscourseLeave a Comment

You know what blows my mind? The Montgomery Bus Boycott. Do you know that it lasted more than a year? Do you know how logistically intricate it was? That was some powerful commitment.

We don’t have the chops for that kind of thing these days. We’re too cynical to risk looking like idealistic idiots working too hard for something that will never happen. And with good reason: we’ve been burned. We’ve worked hard on things before, we’ve invested in political movements, but we’ve never seen real change.

These days our boycotts are more conversation pieces than activism. We like them to have cute hashtags. We talk about them while we’re waiting for the train. We’re not so concerned with impact.

See, more than actually creating change — an outcome we’ve more or less written off — we want to feel like we’re doing something. That homophobic exec really pissed us off, so he doesn’t get our money any more. And it feels good! Plus it’s really easy because there are tons of alternatives to everything, so you don’t have to actually give anything up.

The takeaway here isn’t that we’re too cynical to work passionately for a cause or too selfish to make real sacrifices, even if those things may be painfully true. Our boycotts may be exercises in vanity, but they are interesting because they tell us something about the way humans are motivated. We are more likely to take action when we simultaneously feel a personal connection to a cause, and a concrete sense of the harm being done.

It has to be both. When we feel a personal connection, but the mechanism of harm is vague or abstract — like Congress failing to address the unaccompanied minor situation — we respond with apathy in order to shelter ourselves from confronting how disempowered we are. When the mechanism of harm is concrete, but we feel disconnected from it — like police brutality for anyone who’s community isn’t terrorized by it — we respond with cynicism in order to absolve ourselves of the responsibility to act.

But when we feel both, we suddenly find the energy that society needs to take steps forward. If we can figure out how to channel that into something more meaningful than tweeting #ChickFilGay, it’s going to be awesome.

SorenBoycotting Ain’t What It Used To Be

Look Who’s Talking

Discourse, Things I Take For GrantedLeave a Comment

sprout_labs: Lego Men 2When the presenter is changing slides, I’m trying to do a subtle tally. Double check the count, yes, that’s accurate. I’m paying attention to who’s talking to figure out how much I should hold my tongue. I’ve managed to keep my comments succinct, but one by one every white guy in the room takes his turn sharing an experience or a reflection. That’s fine, all valuable comments, but where are the other voices? At the end of the day, we hear from six out of 18 women and four out of five men. That’s 33% and 80%. The only man who didn’t speak is also the only man of color in the room.

I do these little tallies all the time. The results are always that white people and men are overrepresented regardless of the makeup of the room. I find this particularly interesting because the ratio of women to men at my agency is 2:1, so the above example where the room is 78% women is a very common occurrence. I assume that holding such a big majority makes it at least a little bit more comfortable to step up and speak in a group. But still, if you listened to a recording of our dialogue without looking at the room, it would lead you to believe the gender makeup was 50/50.

So what does it look like in other professional environments that are more dominated by men? You should do your own tally and tell me what you notice.

I’ve been trained for my whole life to believe that everything I say is a golden ray of sunshine. People listen to me even when they shouldn’t. Conversely, people don’t listen to women even when they should. A lot of women I’ve talked to have told me about countless experiences where they say something accurate and nobody listens and then moments later a man repeats it and everybody sings his praises. When you mix a lifetime of being over-valued with a lifetime of being under-valued, you get a very unbalanced situation.

Do we not realize this dynamic exists in virtually every mixed-gender discussion? Do we think because it’s ubiquitous that it must be innocuous? Or are we blind to the social conditioning that structures our interactions?


SorenLook Who’s Talking

CorpoRed Herrings

Current Events, DiscourseLeave a Comment


071014-pm-img-01Walgreens has been getting a lot of backlash for considering moving its headquarters to Switzerland in a move known as corporate inversion. Basically, by purchasing a U.K. drugstore chain and showing that more than 20% of the company is foreign-owned, they can pull a corporate Depardieu and defect to another country for lower taxes. Fortune Magazine isn’t the only one calling them Un-American for trying to save billions of dollars in taxes. Their Facebook page is totally congested with vitriolic comments casting shame and threatening to boycott.

So what should they do?

I think that’s the wrong question. I think the fact that asking that question is our natural impulse shows that we’re thinking about social problems in the wrong way. “What should they do?” as if us talking about it is going to have an impact on their decision. “They should…” as if the universe will echo our judgments in the nightmares of Walgreens CEO Gregory Wasson until he wakes up in a sweat with a newfound conviction to keep Walgreens in the United States.

Regardless of what they should do, we all know what they will do: the selfish thing. If they decide to keep their HQ in the United States it won’t be for patriotic reasons, it will be because they decided that it was ultimately most profitable for their shareholders to do so.

We should expect nothing less. Corporations, just like people, simply respond to the system of rewards and consequences woven into their environments. So when they make choices like the one that Walgreens is considering that are bad for the rest of us, we have to look at that as the symptom of a structural problem.

Again, it’s the same with people. It’s just as easy to say, “Walgreens shouldn’t invert,” as it is to say, “People shouldn’t buy conflict diamonds.” And while I agree with both of those statements, I don’t want the quality of society to be determined by whether or not we can win head-on-head arguments with people about what’s in their best interest.

It is a supreme waste of time to think that Walgreens’ Facebook page is a battleground for American industry. If actions tells us about the environment, and we don’t like the action, then we need to change the environment. Changes in the individual will follow suit.

We focus too much on individual wrongdoing and lose sight of the big picture. Not only does this distract us from a more important conversation about what we want society to look like, it tricks us into thinking that individual action should be the main focus of social change. Our natural impulse when we see something we don’t like shouldn’t be to attack it, it should be to question how it came about in the first place.

SorenCorpoRed Herrings

The Republicans Fired Me

Current Events, Reflections, Social WorkLeave a Comment

Neither of these men gives a shit about Central American kids.

Cut from the same cloth?

You may have heard about the unaccompanied minor crisis: thousands of children fleeing across the Mexican border from terrifying situations in places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. I have a friend who works with these kids at a temporary shelter and, if you want to know why they’re coming, take it from a teenage girl she works with who said that members of a local gang told her directly they were going to either rape or kill her. To save her own life, she took a very dangerous journey to a country that doesn’t really want her.

I should specify: to a government that doesn’t really want her. A recent poll found that 69% of respondents feel that unaccompanied minors should be treated as refugees. But when President Obama asked Congress for the money required to actually address the situation, the GOP-controlled House shot back with an extremist “message bill” that won’t actually go into law.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement has a tough task. See they’re the ones that have to actually respond to this crisis. But on top of that, they’re already responsible for serving refugees, asylees, and survivors of human trafficking and torture among others. So now they have to do what everyone else does when the money just isn’t there at the end of the month: decide what they can afford to cut out.

Unfortunately for me and the families I work with, they decided to cut out my job. For just a short time longer, I’m responsible for guiding newly arrived refugees through the immense bureaucracy of Chicago Public Schools. What happens when something like that gets cut is that the bare minimum responsibilities will be transferred to another department, probably ultimately falling on the shoulders of interns, and the rest will be lost. Families will get registered in school as quickly as possible and then there will be very little followup support.

This is a huge disservice to refugees resettling in the United States, and it’s infuriating because we’ve made a commitment to these people. Republicans can say whatever they want about whether or not that’s a commitment they believe in, but it doesn’t matter because the commitment is already made and until we change the number of refugees we accept, we have a duty to adequately help them transition to life here.

So Congress, instead of honoring our commitments to refugees, serves up mean-spirited and, frankly, racist legislation that doesn’t even give a passing thought to how many of these kids have valid asylum claims. That in turn forces the Office of Refugee Resettlement to cut refugee services in order to reallocate money to address the unaccompanied minor crisis. Far worse than me losing my job — especially because I will be able to transition into a different role in the same program — is the terrible impact this will have on thousands of refugee students in schools across the country.

I don’t really like Democrats, but situations like this one are why I sometimes vote for them.

SorenThe Republicans Fired Me

Work It Like a Boss. Literally.

Discourse1 Comment

One reason society sucks is the bad guys are working harder than us. Greed and power are very motivating on account of the concrete personal benefits they can offer. We who try to do good, however, have to feed our appetite for accomplishment with abstraction and patience. In the absence of observable results, we satisfy ourselves by thinking about the long game, and about what good people we are for our efforts. Seldom do we actually get anything out of it or see anything change.

I was interviewing a volunteer the other day for a mentoring program and they said they didn’t care about what they got out of the program, that they just wanted to do something good for the mentee. That’s a nice sentiment, and I have a lot of respect for this person, but I had to carefully explain: you have to get something out of it too otherwise volunteering will become a chore and you will burn out.

Our activism has to be like this: we have to get something out of it too. Something direct and tangible, and I don’t mean free pizza at the phone bank. And I don’t mean a pair of TOMS or a Gap (Red) T-shirt. What I’m talking about might sound like it’s informed by the same thought process behind consumer activism, but it’s actually the opposite. Consumer activism exploits selflessness for purposes that are ultimately selfish. The kind of activism I’m talking about has to exploit selfishness for purposes that are ultimately selfless.

We won’t fix the world unless we work for it, but people don’t work for free.

SorenWork It Like a Boss. Literally.

Where are the villains?

Discourse, Pop CultureLeave a Comment

When I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes recently, I was surprised by how invested I started to feel in the eventual triumph of the film’s good guys. I imagined what I would do if I was in the story, looking to my own past for evidence to justify thinking that I would be on the right side of the conflict. I wondered if the protagonist would think highly of me. I felt a tangible animosity toward the bad guy. And I was jubilant when the forces of good ultimately prevailed.

Afterwards, I thought it quite strange that I should feel so intensely about a work of fiction.

When was the last time you took a stand against evil? Against a foe so fully corrupted that there was no hope of redemption, nor second-guessing about unseen consequences. When was the last time you acted with total certainty in defense of liberty and justice? Moved with the swiftness of certitude, emboldened by an unspoken feeling that the universe will protect those who champion the light.

I never have. Every conflict I’ve opted into has become more confusing as it progressed, sapping away my conviction even as I tried to plan the next move. In the beginning, I can see a clear division between right and wrong, like the different colored tiles of a mosaic; but when I step back and look at the complete image, I realize that it doesn’t have those clear divisions. Stuck in that moral haze, there is no absolute victory.

There is no cinematic battle of good against evil in this life. There are no obvious right choices untainted by doubt or troubling complexity. We live in the age of moral uncertainty.

I see now that I love movies with clear sides because they allow me to do something that is impossible in real life: to feel invested without doubt or caution, to thirst for total defeat of the enemy.

I only wish the real-world enemies of justice were so easily identified, and that eliminating them would solve all our problems.

SorenWhere are the villains?

What would you change?

Discourse3 Comments

If you could change anything about the way humans function in attempt to improve society, what would you change? Would you take away greed? Eliminate prejudice? Increase compassion?

I would change people to naturally be able to see the consequences of their actions even if they are 10, 20, or 100 steps down the road.

I don’t think greed, prejudice, indifference, or any other moral weakness are the root problem. Humans, on the whole, are not greedy. There are a thousand counter examples for every display of exorbitant wealth that saturates the media — we just don’t think about them. Humans, on the whole, are not morally weak. But when we operate in contexts where we are blind to all but the most immediate consequences of our actions, we are not able to make effective moral choices.

So if I could, I would change people so they can see with immediate clarity even the most far-reaching effects their actions have. I think that would immediately spark the beginning of the end of all poverty and oppression.

But that’s impossible. So what if we look at it the other way around? If humans are generally good, but become bad when operating in contexts that obscure the consequences of their actions, what would happen if they began to operate in a new context? What if instead of changing people, we changed the environment?

SorenWhat would you change?