Mass Shootings and Important Conversations

Monday, May 26, 2014

This was cross-posted to the IH Blog.

Elliot Rodger, a disturbed rich young man went on a shooting spree in Isla Vista, a wealthy district in Santa Barbara, California. Thanks to the joys of social media, both his written and videotaped "manifestos" were able to go viral. The reasons he listed for his killing tour included his parents' divorce, lack of luck with the ladies, and being short.

I get the divorce and the sexual frustration, but being short? That one was new.

Predictably, this has set off all manner of commentary in the public sphere. First and foremost, of course, comes the discourse on gun control. Gun control advocates have pointed out that all of the guns that Rodger used were legally obtained. The Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence has spoken out on the need to tighten controls on obtaining firearms, and one of the victim's fathers blamed "craven, irresponsible politicians and the NRA" for his son's death. To be fair, three of the six people who died were actually stabbed to death, but Rodger had plenty more ready in his car that he could have used.

The feminist response to the "manifesto" (can we even call it that? should we?) has been swift and furious, pointing out the misogynism woven through it and drawing attention to his links to the usually peculiar, occasionally violence-embracing "Men's Rights Movement" (which, by the way, is what exactly?)
But it also denies reality to pretend that Rodger’s sense of masculine entitlement and views about women didn’t matter or somehow existed in a vacuum. The horror of Rodger’s alleged crimes is unique, but the distorted way he understood himself as a man and the violence with which he discussed women — the bleak and dehumanizing way he judged them — is not. Just as we examine our culture of guns once again in the wake of yet another mass shooting, we must also examine our culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity, which devalues both women’s and men’s lives and worth, and inflicts real and daily harm.
Outspoken feminist writers have pointed out that this is not the first time a shooter has claimed similar motives, and Laurie Penny, in her usual no-holds-barred style, has dubbed the attack as the latest example of misogynistic extremism.

Last, and perhaps least, is the quiet conversation about mental health that seems to only experience half-hearted revivals when these tragedies strike. Mental health advocates speak up to point out that mental illness and seeking treatment for it are stigmatized in our culture, so social awkwardness and becomes anger without productive outlets which then warps into repressed rage. The media usually turns its head for a bit, shrugs, and then moves on to montages of grieving members of the community and talking heads interviewing NRA spokespeople on CNN. Unfortunately, this shooting has pitted feminists and mental health advocates against one another - as if Elliot Rodger the misogynist and Elliot Rodger the mentally unbalanced were mutually exclusive.

As both a feminist and a public health advocate, that makes me sad.

However, I think these are all important conversations to have. I much prefer them being featured on prime-time television in shows like Law and Order: SVU and Scandal than to have them forcibly thrust into the spotlight in the wake of a tragedy, but they need our attention nonetheless - and not at the expense of one another. While I'm not quite with the NRA on (lack of) gun control, I do think it's something of a straw man in this case - California is one of the strictest states when it comes to gun ownership, and preventing mass killings goes beyond cutting off access to handguns (which, for better or worse, cannot be kept from citizens per the Supreme Court) - but conversations about gun violence segue into discussions about poverty and equity, which badly need to be confronted. We need to scrutinize sexism and gender violence as much as society's assumption that a man's worth is based on his sexual prowess - all of which hurt men as much as they hurt women, but in completely different ways. And we need to stop sweeping mental health advocacy under the rug, so that people don't avoid treatment for mental illness for fear of being unable to get jobs in places like the military or the federal government.

Rather than fighting each other for the spotlight, let's share it together.

Development, the Public, and Complex Messaging

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In one of my most widely-read (and quoted - even by the New York Times!) blog posts back in 2011, I commented on the price of admitting failure for NGOs and aid organizations. That year, transparency and admitting failure, ostensibly to "innovate and learn from our mistakes," was all the rage in the aid and development blog-o-sphere, and it sparked a great conversation about how aid organizations market and evaluate their programs. In a nutshell, their tendency is to blow the trumpet on successful projects and sweep the failures under the rug in an effort to keep public support - and donor money - flowing. The "pro-failure" movement argued that this keeps the sector from innovating and learning from its mistakes, thus dooming us eternally to repeat them.

Perhaps because I am one of the few (relatively) conservatives in this field, or maybe just a cynic, I don't particularly mind expressing opinions that go against the grain (probably because I am not yet getting paid to express them), so in this case I took to my keyboard to point out the obvious - that NGOs' fears of being open about their failures were well-founded because they inevitably did result in withdrawal of donations and financial support from large-scale donors who didn't want to look like chumps in the court of public opinion. The media circus surrounding the (misrepresentation of) published results of the Global Fund's audit in 2010. The Fund, in an attempt to be transparent and accountable, posted a report about the fraud it discovered in a handful of its grants and was promptly rewarded with a massive withdrawal of donor support.

As I mentioned in that post, I do believe that failure has value when shared among industry professionals, but sharing it with the public will only bring bad publicity. Now it seems that the aid and development blog WhyDev agrees with me:
Research shows that when we read web pages, we actually don’t. In fact, we typically read 28% of the text that is on a web page. Similarly, only 12% of readers read all the way to the bottom of a page. (I’ll be accessing NSA records to check if you make it all the way down in a few minutes).

Knowing this, people who work in communications for non-profits boil down the complexities of the program so that it hardly represents the actual work done. Then they stick it in the slow cooker for another 12 hours until it is reduced even further.

In the push and pull of what needs to be done versus what people consume, clever communications folk know that they have to cater to the amount of effort that people are willing to give.
The post, "5 reasons why effective marketing and good development work are incompatible," eloquently sums up my stance on the issue - that most people simply don't care, and when they do, they want it in simple terms. The public doesn't have patience for nuance, so marketing departments do what works. Case in point: Failfare DC, an aid industry conference to "celebrate failure," only happened in 2011 and 2012, and the last anecdote submitted to Engineers Without Borders Canada website Admitting Failure was at the beginning of last year. WhyDev has promised to post a rebuttal of their piece in a few days, but I still don't see the trend catching on.