“100% of my female friends have been sexually assaulted”

A female colleague told me this recently while we were discussing the Brett Kavanaugh nomination process. I was incredulous. “You’re certain it’s 100%?”, I asked. “Absolutely”, she replied.

It doesn’t stop there.

I went to a candlelight vigil for Dr. Ford a couple weeks ago (an aside: I was there because I wanted her claim investigated fully, not because I had judged her claim in advance). A friend I was with said she knew that 50% of her friends had been assaulted. We both surmised the percentage was higher because some of her friends presumably hadn’t revealed their truths.

I had dinner recently with another woman who related her own story of assault. And she knew many, many female friends with similar experiences.

There is very real damage to being a victim. The emotional trauma often begets physical damage in turn. Any other condition that caused such damage, at such a widespread rate, would be considered an epidemic. What is the appropriate response here?

The most pernicious aspect of sexual assault is that it happens in so many cases without witnesses. And surely women choose to not disclose their victimization, and especially decline to pursue justice, because their claims are not believed or taken seriously.

Perhaps the way forward relates to the Harvey Weinstein phenomenon. In the court of public opinion, certainty about his behavior increased with the number of accusers. It’s the pattern of behavior, not the provability of any one incident (or even victim), that gave credence to the accusations.

What I hope is that women are emboldened to tell their stories. And that all of us take those claims seriously in terms of acknowledging the epidemic and our obligation to act.

If you think I am exhibiting bias toward the victims, you would be right. The shame and stigma of being a victim today means that anybody who makes a public claim does so with expected negative consequences. They know they will have their reputations challenged. For example, Dr. Ford, who lives in my neighborhood, fled her home after receiving death threats. One day, a news helicopter hovered over her house. A victim’s courage is unto itself a reason to take their claims seriously.

I say all of this despite the fact that I was falsely accused of being an assaulter.

Recently, I rode in an Uber Pool along with two other passengers. In the back seat, alongside me, was a young woman. Three days after the ride, I was contacted by an Uber employee investigating a claim that I inappropriately touched this young woman, was asked by her to stop, and continued to do so.

I told the investigator that this was a serious claim indeed and that Uber was right to take it seriously. I strenuously denied the allegation. I asked if they had interviewed the driver yet, and suggested that he would verify that no conversation at all occurred between any of the passengers. I was banking on the contradiction between the accuser’s story and the driver’s as a basis of discrediting the claim itself. It also happens to be the case that I’ve used Uber since its beginning years ago and had an extremely high passenger rating without incident.

Ultimately, Uber dismissed the claim and reinstated my suspended account.

All of this got me wondering about the complex nature of the situation for Uber, for me and for the accuser. What was Uber’s policy to adjudicate this issue? Were they to apply a legal standard of (my) presumed innocence? If not, then what criteria to judge the merits of the claim? Would the accuser have any other recourse, such as the legal system? Under what circumstances would my identity be revealed? A subpoena? Etc.

Despite this incident, I believe that the bias of victims’ illegitimacy remains. To deal with this epidemic, we need victims to come forward. And we need others to say that it’s needed, it’s ok, and that we take their claims seriously.

On Dr. King: “The arc of the moral universe…”

Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice” – MLK

It’s MLK Day today. I celebrated by reading some of his quotes and watching David Letterman interview Barack Obama and John Lewis.

At times like these, the many gains since the 1960’s seem lost. Instead of an African-American president signifying the permanence of a new era of equality, we find ourselves regressing.

Or, to be more precise, the face of hatred for equality has revealed itself again. Only this time that face is aided and abetted by our President.

My friend put it well. At no point has she and her family been more civically engaged. Their understanding of government and their involvement in civic discourse has never been higher. I could say the same for my family. This engagement can, and must, lead to a counter-reaction to the forces of inequality and ignorance around us.

Today is a day to remind ourselves of the principles that make our country great and that must be defended by us as citizens:

  • we are a nation of immigrants, from which our unique strengths are derived
  • our diversity must be matched by equality in every way: across ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender
  • tolerance and empathy will prevail over intolerance and ignorance

It is both a blessing and a curse that I’ve never felt more connected to Dr. King than right now. May his spirit guide us forward.

Where is the moral outrage?

Previously, I wrote about the lack of empathy in our country right now. I argued that empathy is an obligation of parties that are on both sides of a debate / policy / political affiliation.

As much as I believe this to be a causal factor in this country’s current divisiveness, I’m also implicating morality as a causal factor too.

Truthfulness

A tenet that seems to be in common with every major religion is that of honesty. Yet our president, and those around him, are regularly caught lying. In many cases, it appears to be especially willful, wherein the lie is told with full knowledge of the contradictory facts. This pattern is not in dispute if you take the time to read any legitimate watchdog such as Politifact.

So, why isn’t this a basis of outrage? If a fundamental tenet of every religion is being violated by our leaders, where are religious leaders and their constituents?

The effect of normalizing dishonesty is impossible to quantify but real and costly nonetheless:

  • What are our children being taught from all this?
  • How is our country able to lead the world – on the basis of a higher moral standing – against the despots and autocrats that exist always? Our self-interest is served when we can lead in this way
  • Will our standing as a nation that’s attractive to do business with – on the basis of low rates of corruption and good corporate governance – miss out on future commerce?

Helping others

Another tenet that seems to be in common with all major religions is the duty to care for those less advantaged than us. The weak, the sick, the poor.

These values are so strongly part of our national identity that they are codified in our progressive taxation system.

We live in an era when the need for helping the disadvantaged is acute. We’ve seen a massive economic dislocation over the last 30 years, wherein the twin forces of globalization and automation have eroded our manufacturing base. The blue-collar jobs are gone that used to yield a decent living, a house to own and a means to send one’s kids to college if you so desired.

What are we doing to deal with this? It seems like our administration is making it worse not better:

  • Affordable college education is not on the agenda
  • Affordable healthcare for the least wealthy appears be reduced under the ACA replacement, despite the rhetoric. Next week we’ll likely see this in objective, factual detail from the CBO
  • Tax cuts for the wealthy is definitely on the agenda. There is no evidence that trickle-down economics benefit anyone but those whose taxes are lowered, given the clear evidence of increased wealth concentration over the last 30 years

There’s a segment of Americans who believe that the otherwise admirable principle of “equal opportunity for all” has a symmetric, second principle that one bears no obligation to help anyone else in pursuit of such opportunities. In other words, it’s “American” to be left to your own devices.

I couldn’t disagree more. If we want a truly level playing field, then we must send all players onto it with the same resources: access to education and healthcare.  Nobody with a chronic health condition and poor parents is going to find a way to a college degree, let alone compete for well-paying white-collar jobs.

Eyes on the prize

The plight of the disadvantaged has been talked about more in the last year than arguably since the Johnson era. That can be a good thing.

The narrative of why Trump was elected was that he was the champion and voice of these people when all of Washington had become disinterested in their needs.  It’s a valid argument.

In his actions, it’s not at all clear that these people’s needs are being addressed in the least.

So we must act instead, and do so in a way that is in keeping with our morals.

We can have universal healthcare. As a moral argument, it’s a basic human entitlement. As an economic argument, Massachusetts has proven the long-term viability of the model.  And many industrialized countries have so far as to implement single-payor systems without economic harm. In fact, single-payor systems can dramatically drive down the costs. Witness what we pay for prescription medications versus our neighbors in Canada.

We can have affordable college education. As a moral argument, it’s a way to ensure a level playing field when we send young adults into the workplace. As an economic argument, many industrialized countries have used government money to ensure this. This is an economically sound long-term investment like no other.

We can have progressive taxation. As a moral argument, it’s a clear tenet in our religions. As an economic argument, we’re at a historically low degree of taxation on the wealthy and at a historically high degree of wealth concentration.  This is no clear correlation to broad growth in prosperity such as GDP in such cases. And real income gains for the non-wealthy have stagnated in the last 20-30 years. No wonder the lower middle class is pissed.

 

We’re in an empathy crisis

Young female hand holding old female hand - Taking care of the elderly people with love

If it feels like America is deeply divided, you’re not alone.

Our President is stating provable lies in a consistent pattern.  His speech (and policies) is at times hateful and intolerant, singling out immigrants, refugees, the media, liberals, etc.

No wonder Americans are polarizing along the lines of supporting, or opposing, this President.

What’s the cause of all this?  In my opinion, it’s an utter lack of empathy.

Let’s start with the President himself. I think his behavior has fit a pretty clear pattern of purported empathy for his supporters but not for anybody else.  Empathy for 40% of Americans isn’t the same as for all.

But why are Americans susceptible to this influence? Well, we lack empathy too.

How many “coastal elites” have lived in the middle American cities that have been economically decimated by the decline of their manufacturing base?  You might be “from there” but that’s not the same as living there now.

How many “middle Americans” have lived in cities comprised of heterogeneous everything: citizens and immigrants, multiple religions, secularists, LGBT communities, ethnic foods, etc?

So what’s the solution to all this? I think it goes beyond happy talk like promising ourselves to do better in our attitudes.

Empathy is a by-product of experience. And to develop empathy you must must experience the other.

How? Travel. Live somewhere else. Sponsor an immigrant.  Visit a house of worship of another faith.

It’s so much harder to personify and judge the “others” when they’re sitting across the table from you, sharing a coffee and exhibiting decency.

Travel is my favorite vehicle to empathy. I have traveled to about 40 states and 30 countries on 4 continents.  For example, I’ve experienced the amazing warmth & hospitality of Indians and seen abject poverty and filth. In the same hour.  Talk about confronting the “other”.

You can’t judge India or any country as good or bad.  Only as different. It’s been the same experience in most every country I’ve been to; a mix of things you love and things that are different if not disagreeable.

I’ve also had people from other countries tell me about the paradox of visiting America through their eyes.  Like why we are so “gun crazy” yet sincerely friendly and optimistic. They experienced us and come away changed.  More empathy.

Morgan Spurlock deserves a lot of credit for trying to get at this issue with his series “30 Days“.  It’s well worth watching.

 

On governance (and what happens when there isn’t any)

BoardroomLeaders who work within a governance structure are different than ones who never had governance over them.  We’re experiencing the difference right now in our president’s behavior, and nobody should be surprised at what we see.

Why shouldn’t this be surprising? We implicitly assume that all leaders are accustomed to a governance-based structure because they worked within one before. We get surprised by the behaviors of those who never had governance, because it’s a rare circumstance.

Most all of us have a boss.  Even as a CEO, you have a “boss” because you have a board of directors to whom you’re accountable, or to investors, or both.  When we reflect on recent presidents, they all had bosses too.

President Obama had a boss as a senator; the party leader.  Plus his constituents.  As a law professor, he had a boss in the dean of the faculty or the departmental head.

President Bush had bosses. As governor, it was his constituents and his party. As a businessman, he was on boards of directors where others’ inputs were accommodated by necessity.

However, our president grew up never having a boss.  This is both unusual and very different.

Effectively, he wasn’t ever subject to the governance of independent directors, investors or a supervisor.  As a result, his behaviors never had to accommodate persons in higher authority than himself.

By way of analogy, once in a while a company in the tech industry manages to succeed with the founder’s own bootstrapping. Only later does the company accept outside investment and accept outside investors onto a board of directors.  The longer the time between initial bootstrapping and initial governance, the harder it is on the founder to modify his or her behavior to accept a governance structure for the first time.

I’ve borne witness to multiple of these situations and I can tell you that the founder/CEO seldom adjusts to this change easily if at all.

Now our country is witnessing this phenomenon on a grand scale as our president experiences the initial shock of governance; there is now a unilateralism in virtually everything he does.  This includes but goes beyond having two other branches of government. There are bosses in the form of constituents, the media, other governments, staffers etc.  He can’t order everybody around as he was accustomed to. Apparently he doesn’t like it one bit.

We should not be surprised by any of this given an utter lack of governance in his past, let alone taking his personality into account. If Americans thought they were hiring a typical successful business CEO – who had a board and investors – they overlooked the important difference between the vast majority of CEO’s and this one: governance.

Whether he becomes an effective president or not will depend, in my opinion, on whether he can accept governance over himself for the first time.

 

Is America’s divide about Christianity?

The Pew Research Foundation published an in-depth analysis of what constitutes “national identity” around the world. The data is based on Spring 2016 survey data.

What struck me is how important being a Christian is to Americans, relative to other countries:

Relatively few say religion essential to national identity

As one might imagine, the importance of Christian affiliation is greater for Republicans than Democrats.

In fact, there are several meaningful differences in the definition of “national identity” between the parties:

In U.S., Republicans take tougher stand on what it takes to be a true American

We know that city dwellers skew Democrat and rural dwellers skew Republican.  This report reinforces the broader basis of our “city mouse versus country mouse” cultural and socioeconomic divide:

  • multiple ethnicities in cities versus homogeneously white in rural regions
  • multiple religions and secularists in cities versus Christians in rural regions
  • higher per-capita incomes in cities versus lower in rural settings
  • higher percentage of college educated graduates in cities than in rural settings

I fear this divide is intractable for now. Our cities are becoming more, not less, diverse by every measure thanks to the global nature of the technology and financial service industries.

But the divide is still probably temporal, given the long term demographic trends.

Perhaps we’re experiencing the last stand by those who think our country’s control should rest in the hands of one religious affiliation:

screen-shot-2017-02-03-at-3-43-28-pm

For another blog is the irony of this all.  Our founding fathers carefully designed an areligious government system, where no religious bloc could wield power over others. Their motives were rooted in their prior experiences of religious persecution and monarchial control.

If we really want to get along, perhaps the founding fathers should be our true north (again).

“Daddy, why is the President allowed to lie?”

Businessman holding wooden alphabet blocks reading - Lie - balanced in the palm of his hand.

My 9-year-old son is aware of the recent election and the President’s actions since inauguration.  He sees news snippets on TV and brings stories back from school.

It’s been difficult explaining to him why the President can get away with lying.

He understands that the role of President is to be our country’s leader, and therefore should be the “best” person among us.  And he’s heard many, many times from us his parents about the importance of truthfulness.

So he’s confused.

Yet his innocent question remains.

Our President is a serial liar.  This is not in dispute.  He’s done so multiple times in just his first week in office, perpetuating a pattern throughout his candidacy.  And his lies are beyond what we’re accustomed to hearing from politicians on both sides, spinning their versions of an issue.

So many questions come to mind:

  • Why is this ok?
  • Do we not deserve better?
  • What will be the cost of this behavior on our citizens’ commitment to do right and to get along?
  • How will the rest of the world see us now, and what will that cost us?
  • Will there be a backlash?
  • Will we learn some sort of lesson from this episode, and never repeat it?

These are profound issues. Ones that are tempting to ignore but carry untold costs.

Ethics matter if we want to continue to be the country we say we are.