Friday, November 28, 2008

Sit or Get off the Pot: The Toilet as a Human Right

I was talking with a friend the other night and she told me she thought that a key issue for world peace in the near future would be food security and access to clean water. I said that I thought she was right, but that after reading this article, I also think that we also need to consider where all that food and water will eventually end up. Maybe we need to think of the toilet as a human right.

Many years ago, on my first trip to Europe, I remember my friend Phillip and I wandering through a train station in Florence, looking for a bathroom. We found the men's room and he went in. A few minutes later he returned with a puzzled look on his face. He said that there was no toilets or urinals in the bathroom. Just a hole in the floor. We both knew about squat toilets in Asia (there are cultural differences, even in defecating). But we were in the middle of Italy!

We were lucky to find public toilets, actually. Cities in the developed world are decreasing the number of public facilities. In the last eight years, the number of public toilets in London dropped over 40%. Why worry about the lack of toilets? One suggestion: A Japanese national disaster prevention panel found in a recent study that:

"nearly a million people would be unable to find a toilet if a magnitude 7.3-quake struck Tokyo at noon on a workday, sending 12 million people pouring out of office buildings and creating a potential hygiene and sanitation nightmare of biblical proportions."

In the developing world, access to some kind of toilet is rare. Open defecation leads to water pollution and the transmission of disease. In terms of preventing death in the developing world, nothing beats the toilet as a tool:

"Improved sanitation means more jobs, more economic growth, and less poverty. According to a recent WHO study, every dollar spent improving sanitation generates an average economic benefit of $9. The “sanitary revolution” — that is, the introduction of clean water and sewage disposal — has been the greatest medical advance of the last century and a half, according to a poll by the British Medical Journal. Though vaccinations certainly helped curb the spread of disease, they didn’t altogether stop it as much as the toilet did. A simple toilet is one of the cheapest medicines, adding decades to the human lifespan — when it’s used."

Lest you think that the idea of a toilet as a human right is a joke, consider this testimony from an Iraqi prisoner in Fallujah. It seems to make a case for the idea that being denied a toilet is a human rights violation. Abbas Abid claims he was tortured by American forces. Some of the methods included preventing him from urinating or defecating. Sometimes he was put into a room with many other men who had no access to a toilet. Instead, they were all given plastic bags that had to be stored in the cell with them and these bags were sometimes knocked over and spilled throughout the cell.

Such practices make a hole in the ground in Florence sound like heaven.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What Should Obama's Global Ethical Priorities Be?

Ethicist Peter Singer outlines some of the moral challenges on a global scale facing the new Obama administration:

1) Restoring the U.S.'s image internationally by following through on the promise to close Guantanamo prison and pulling troops out of Iraq.

2) Helping to usher in reform at the United Nations by making it more democratic--meaning that something needs to be done by reducing the power of the five permanent members of the Security Council: the U.S., the U.K., France, Russia, and China.

3) Increasing the amount of foreign aid the United States provides to the world (currently about $25 billion/year, but still far less, as a percentage of overall GDP, than most industrialized nations)

4) Reducing carbon emissions and finding a way to become part of the discussion on enforcing the Kyoto treaty for the reduction of greenhouse gases.

What other global issues need to be addressed?

I would add a couple of considerations:

a) joining the Rome Statute and becoming part of the International Criminal Court system. The U.S. has failed to join because of worry that the Court might be used by other nations to engage in politically motivated prosecutions of U.S. leader and military personnel. We should move fast to become part of this growing system of global law with a policy of "constructive engagement" so that the U.S. regains its footing as a prime mover of global law and ethical norms. As it is now, our legal ideas are becoming less and less relevant to the world.

b) examining our commitment to trade agreements, such as NAFTA, and other bilateral agreements that we have with numerous Latin American nations and ensure that we are engaging in fair trade. NAFTA has undoubtedly affected immigration to the U.S., and that has raised issues of human rights along the border and the treatment of immigrants within the country (now that we have a vastly expanded immigration enforcement bureau under Homeland Security)

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Should Students be Publically Humiliated for Plagiarism?

An instructor at Texas A & M International University was recently fired for his treatment of plagiarism in the classroom. According to the report on Inside Higher Ed, Loye Young informed his class that any acts of plagiarism would result in public humiliation in addition to any penalties given by the university. When he found six students engaging in academic dishonesty, he published their names on his course blog.

In my discussion of academic dishonesty with Courtney Campbell, we talked about plagiarism as a kind of moral harm against the academic community, disrupting bonds of trust and amounting to a kind of theft. On this issue, we agreed with Loye Young on the seriousness of the problem.

The question is whether the penalty of public humiliation, above and beyond the failing grades, is justified. At Oregon State, there is a procedure to follow in informing students of allegations of plagiarism. Students are usually given a chance to see the work and the evidence amassed by the instructor that led her/him to accuse the student. Based on that discussion, the case can be sent to the administration and the student may have the right to appeal. In addition to academic grade penalties, the student may have to attend workshops.

Its not clear that the students were given a chance to know about the finding of suspected plagiarism and had a chance to respond. From Loye Young's blog, it appears he completed the grading and posted their names almost immediately. This seems to me the wrong way to go about it. I often find it the case that students simply do not know what constitutes academic dishonesty, especially if they come from backgrounds in which they are the first to attend university. In those kinds of instances, there is an opportunity for education of academic standards. I've never hesitated to fail a student on an assignment for plagiarism, but I have sometimes not recommended further discipline if I felt, after a discussion with the student, that they were simply uninformed or ignorant. In other words, ignorance of the law is no excuse, but leniency in sentencing is sometimes called for.

Loye Young seems to think that shaming is an appropriate response to academic dishonesty. I assume the idea is that if plagiarism is a harm against the community, then the community should know how it was harmed and by whom ( a form of punishment not unfamiliar to our Puritan ancestors). Assuming that students had been informed about the policy beforehand in the course syllabus and the students had been informed that they had been caught in academic dishonesty, would public shaming be a just punishment?


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

This is Your Brain on Love

Researcher Helen Fisher argues that the feeling of romantic love creates changes in the brain that are similar to those undergone by someone with narcotic addiction.

This does seem to describe very well the kind of obsession that many people talk about with eros.

One hesitation I have about her discussion is her description of romantic love as a feeling, distinct from sexual attraction, that singles out one person as worthy of exclusive attention for the purpose of mating. This seems to essentialize heterosexual monogamy into biology.

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Friday, November 07, 2008

Did the Obama victory represent a revolution of ideas?

This week in my political philosophy course, we talked about the anti-democratic design of the federal government--that fact that certain institutions, such as the Senate and the Electoral College, were created to put a brake on popular movements in society.

Its also interesting how the election results in both the Electoral College and the popular count give drastically different impressions of the support behind Obama. For instance, Rep. John Lewis called the victory a "nonviolent revolution", and a revolution of ideas, that represents a culmination of the hopes of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If you look at a map of the Electoral College results, it certainly seems like a landslide in favor of change. (The graphic also gives you a chance to look at different results going back to 1996.)

But the results of the popular vote are less decisive. Obama won only with about a 5% margin, as was predicted by the polls. Not quite the landslide.

Some other interesting points: the youth vote did not particular surge this year, anymore than it did for Kerry in 2004. What Obama did do is to solidify a coaltion of people of color behind him, particularly Latinos/as (who seemed to have been the ones to win it for him in New Mexicio and Colorado). You can see some interesting analysis here.

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Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Does it Matter Who Wins? Obama, Palin, and Strategy for Social Justice

No matter which party wins today in the presidential race, it will be an historic election. One the one hand, we might have our first African American president. On the other, we might have the first woman vice president. Either way, the end result will be an individual in a position of power who would never have been allowed there by the Founding Framers of this country.

Courtney, over at Feministing, reports on the feeling in the air in the multiracial, multicultural streets of Brooklyn, NY. If Obama wins, she writes, it will provide hope for youth, and renewed faith for elders that social justice movement can work.

Undoubtedly, we are in historic moments. Some cautionary notes:

Malcolm X, speaking in 1964, on the eve of the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act, warned his audience not to be content with making reforms in the United States. He urged them to think more broadly, in terms of human rights. He said of American politics:

"Well, I am one who doesn't believe in deluding myself. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate."

It is certainly true that an Obama administration will be different, and perhaps, more receptive to social justice concerns. But social justice will require more than just having the right people in place at the table or in the White House.

William Lloyd Garrison, the famous abolishionist, refused to vote in elections because he felt it gave legitimacy to a political system that behaved immorally. I think it is problematic to think of voting as an expression of purity. There are those who will not vote for either McCain or Obama because they believe both represent compromised positions. They will vote for third party candidates, who will most certainly not win, because they cannot bring themselves to tie their fortunes to someone they consider distasteful.

There is perhaps another way to think of this. Machiavelli taught us (in the Discourses) not to think of politics as a game of virtue, or to honor our politicians because of their honorable characters. Instead, he taught that politics is an arena of struggle. If you don't participate, you risk allowing other groups into that arena who might threaten your liberty. Political action, then, ought to be strategic; how best can you defend your views? Voting should be seen as a strategic move rather than as a direct expression of your views, making sure that the political arena is open enough to allow you to manuever in it. In this sense, voting third party in U.S. elections might not be the best thing to do, since it is most certainly a wasted vote and unlikely to create any strategic space in the political arena (though it might make you feel personally good)

Garrison wrote, in 1838:

"There are those who disapprove of every form of political action, on the part of abolitionists.... We cannot yield to this reasoning. It proceeds, we think, upon a narrow view of the subject. Politics, rightly considered, is a branch of morals, and cannot be deserted innocently. …We, however, view political action chiefly as a means of agitating the subject.... To conclude this part of the subject, our true policy is not to turn party politicians, but in politics as elsewhere to stand firm by our principles, and let the politicians come to us...."

Despite whomever wins in the presidential race today, the power to make change will still depend on grassroots organizing and ordinary people who will push those in office. We will have to be strategic.

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Monday, November 03, 2008

New Interview on KUCI's "Justice or Just Us?"

Last week, I had a great interview about Cesar Chavez and the Common Sense of Nonviolence on KUCI's program "Justice or Just Us" with activist-scholar Jarret Lovell. You can listen to it here

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