This International Women’s Day, #LeanInTogether proves that we need feminism more than ever

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! Hope you enjoyed all 23 hours of it.

During the first week of Women’s History Month this year, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, Lean In author, and TED talker, gave us a great, albeit unintentional, demonstration of feminism’s continuing importance., the website and advocacy group launched by Sandberg in 2013 to accompany her book, began its third year of existence by introducing #LeanInTogether, a hashtag campaign aimed at encouraging men to do their part for gender equality at home and in the workplace. The website offers “Tips for Men” such as “Be a 50/50 Partner,” “Help Your Daughter Lead,” and “Evaluate Performance Fairly,” and the campaign encourages women to use the #LeanInTogether hashtag on social media to “celebrate men leaning in.” Sandberg also penned an op-ed with business professor Adam Grant in Sunday’s New York Times, the online edition of which was entitled “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom.” In it, Sandberg and Grant counsel men to embrace feminist goals, pointing to research that shows gender equality is good for business (both the boardroom and bedroom types).

Let’s put aside for a minute the inherent ridiculousness of the idea that two years of talking to women about women’s problems is enough, and that, as one email announcing the campaign put it, “It’s time to talk about the other 50%: men!” Let’s bracket the fact that this kind of campaign tacitly acknowledges the legitimacy of the ridiculous canard that feminism “focuses too much on women,” or “leaves men out.” And let’s try extra hard to ignore the idea that one of the few organizations ostensibly dedicated to advancing the interests of women decided to use International Women’s Day to announce that it was going to start talking to men more.

Having overlooked all of those issues, there’s nothing wrong with wanting men to be involved in pushing for gender equality nor with the idea that feminism is good for society as a whole or good for men in particular. The problem with #LeanInTogether is the laughable smallness of what it’s asking, combined with the idea that men need to be encouraged and cajoled into doing even that.

Take the “Tips for Men,” which the website groups into “at home” and “at work.” The descriptions do point out a few facts that the average man might not be expected to know, such as the impact having a man’s name on your résumé has been shown to have on one’s job search prospects. In spite of this, the steps that men are asked to take seem to add up to (a) do half of the housework, (b) spend time with your daughters and encourage their ambitions, and (c) treat the women that you work with like human beings. Nowhere are men asked to sacrifice anything in the name of equality, beyond what’s obviously required by the fact that women are people. No one is asking men, for example, to consider dedicating themselves to helping promote their wives’ careers, in compensation for all the men who have had professional success only because of women who worked hard to raise their children, clean their houses, and look good on their arms at cocktail parties. No one is asking them to consider not asking for a raise until they know that the women in their office get paid as much as they do. No one is even asking them to occasionally watch a WNBA game when they would rather watch Lebron James.

That’s not to say that #LeanInTogether should be asking men to do any of those things. I fully understand that a women’s organization might want to avoid focusing on the negative or doing anything that could be characterized as nagging. But at the same time that the campaign asks men to do what the most basic notion of fairness requires, it acknowledges that they can’t even be expected to do this without praise and encouragement from the women in their lives. #LeanInTogether In Action encourages people to celebrate “A man up to his elbows in a sink full of suds. A dad reading to his son at bedtime. A colleague who chimes in when a woman is interrupted,” by posting pictures and messages on social media. The implicit message is that men who do even the most basic housework or parenting tasks should be viewed as heroes, not as doing what basic decency requires. A picture of Hugh Jackman taking out the trash with the #LeanInTogether hashtag got 57,000 likes on Instagram. To be clear: Hugh Jackman should take out the trash. And Hugh Jackman should say he’s for gender equality. But Hugh Jackman should not be celebrated as a hero of the women’s movement because he took out the trash and said he was for gender equality. And neither should any other man who takes out the trash or washes the dishes, even 50% of the time. Giving up privilege that you never should have had in the first place isn’t heroism; it’s just decency.

One problem with #LeanInTogether is that it takes it as a given that men will never do even what’s so morally obvious without there being something in it for them. But even more troubling is that Sandberg seems to think that the only things women have in their arsenal are praise and the promise of more money and sex. Not only is the possibility of moral suasion absent, so is the notion that women could use any more forceful means to actually push for equality in the workplace and at home. Sandberg and Grant’s op-ed ends with a history lesson which is appropriate, but perhaps not in the way they intend. They point out that the American suffrage movement was unsuccessful when it tried to argue that women had the moral right to cast their own ballots, and only triumphed when it argued that giving women the vote would benefit men as well. The suffragists couldn’t win by appealing to the conscience of the powerful, nor did they have the political or economic power to force men to accept the 19th Amendment. The fact that Sandberg and Grant see the current situation as parallel to the fight for women’s suffrage is about as damning an indictment of moral progress and of the record of feminism as I can imagine. #LeanInTogether seems to be premised on the idea that despite nearly a century of women’s struggles, feminists have no more tools to push for equality today than they did in 1920.

Luckily, the situation in reality is not that dire. Feminism has achieved some legal protections for women as well as the crucial ability to actually push for more legal changes through the ballot box. And there are plenty of men today who wash half of the dishes (or more!) and treat the women who work for them fairly simply because they realize it’s the morally decent thing to do. But the fact that a leading women’s organization would decide that the best way to promote equality is to address these kinds of timid and cynical appeals to men proves that feminism still has a long way to go and a lot left to achieve.

The Panopticon & The Police (Or Foucault & Ferguson)

The shooting of Michael Brown earlier this month by police officer Darren WIlson, the subsequent protests, and the police response to those protests certainly give us a lot to think about. There’s a story to be told about police militarization that has been taken up by a lot of media outlets (not to mention the junior senator from Kentucky). There’s a story about the effects of persistent neighborhood racial segregation in St. Louis (but by no means only in St. Louis). There’s the long and tragic story of racial imbalances in the use of force by police officers across the country. But there’s also a story that cuts against the grain, in some ways, of the major narratives surrounding this incident. That’s the story of Ferguson as an episode in the struggle over surveillance and the growing ubiquity of methods of recording and observing individuals. Flipping a more familiar surveillance story line on its head, however, in Ferguson it’s the police who are resisting increased monitoring, and more extensive surveillance is being pushed by people opposed to police abuses of power..

First, I think a little background is in order about the theoretical frame I would use in analyzing this topic. Michel Foucault is widely regarded as one of the deepest and most interesting thinkers on the topic of surveillance as a growing social practice. In Discipline & Punish, Foucault discovers an elegant architectural metaphor for the way that constant monitoring operates on members of a population. That metaphor comes from the design of the Panopticon, a 19th-Century blueprint for the ideal prison by English Utilitarian philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham. The Panopticon consists of a cell block in a circular form, with each cell housing a single inmate. Each of the cells has a large window on the outside of the ring to allow light to come in from behind and a large window on the inside of the ring so that the inmate is fully visible from the guard tower in the very center of the circular structure. The guard tower has a round room with windows on all sides, so that a single guard can observe all the inmates in their separate cells at once. Those windows, however, are blinded, to make it difficult for the inmates to tell at any given time whether the guard is actually watching them. The inmates should have the feeling that they could be being monitored at any time, without ever knowing for sure whether they are.

Panopticon” by Jeremy Bentham – The works of Jeremy Bentham vol. IV, 172-3. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Panopticon has rarely been put into practice as an actual design for a prison or other carceral institution. However, Foucault’s intention was not to talk about actual buildings, but to use this design as a metaphor to understand strategies of surveillance that increasingly come into effect in different social institutions in the 19th and 20th centuries. We can view the Panopticon as a metaphor for any set of social practices or techniques that have two features: (1) individualization, or the separating of each person out as a single individual to be tracked and compared (as each individual prisoner is isolated in a single cell), and (2) invisible visibility, or the organization of supervision which makes it possible for each person to be monitored at any time without being able to see whether they’re being monitored at any given time.

Many social practices or institutions fit one or both of these characteristics, and the number of ways in which these two processes take place seems to be growing. The increasing ubiquity of cell phone cameras and closed circuit TV means that, at least in public places, one always has grounds to suspect that one is being recorded. But no one knows what videos will go viral online or which surveillance cameras are really being monitored, meaning we never know who, if anyone, might be watching the things that we do in front of those cameras. Increasingly sophisticated data mining techniques used by advertisers, the NSA, and others mean that more and more people and algorithms are paying attention to what we do individually and keeping statistics to compare us to other individuals, even if their records don’t identify us by name.

You can probably think of many other examples of the growing panoptic organization of society drawing on current events, and it’s the everyday familiarity of these practices that makes Foucault’s identification of the general trend toward panopticism particularly powerful. Many readers and students recognize their own sense of a growth in general surveillance in society and feel that the French thinker has identified and named what they were already noticing themselves. And that feeling of recognition when we read Foucault’s description of panopticism is often accompanied with a sense of dread or anxiety, a feeling that these techniques of mass surveillance are something to be critiqued and resisted in the name of individual liberty or the right to privacy.

If we return to the events in Ferguson, however, we might find that our moral intuitions point us in a different direction. Whereas we often think of law enforcement as engaging in surveillance of the population, in Ferguson a dominant storyline has been one of police trying to avoid being monitored by the press and the public. The Ferguson police department refused for almost a week to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown, and there have been instances of police officers removing their name tags or not responding to requests for their badge numbers. Both of these are attempts to prevent the linking of objectionable police behavior to individual officers. There have also been many cases of police threatening and arresting reporters, as well as orders by police officers to reporters and citizens not to film or photograph their activities (we should note that anyone has the legal right to record police officers conducting their official duties, as long as doing so doesn’t interfere with police operations). In Ferguson, it’s those opposed to abuses of police power who are calling for more surveillance, more accountability. Outrage about the treatment of journalists by the police has been widespread, as was criticism of the police department’s prolonged refusal to identify Darren Wilson by name. A petition to require Ferguson police officers to wear body-mounted cameras has already received more than 45,000 signatures.

The reasoning behind proposals like this one makes perfect sense. If cops know that their actions are being recorded at all times, they’ll be more likely to think twice about using lethal force in cases where doing to isn’t obviously justified. And if an officer like Darren Wilson behaved in keeping with reasonable guidelines about the use of deadly force, the video will vindicate his actions and clear him of wrongdoing. The arguments are eminently reasonable, but it’s still true that all of these are calls for the increased use of techniques of surveillance. Supporters invoke terms like “transparency,“ “accountability,” and “freedom of the press,” rather than “surveillance” or “discipline,” but these proposals nonetheless amount to a push for more use of panoptic technologies as a result of this incident.

In many cases mass surveillance seems like an overreach by the powerful, a violation of the rights of the powerless. In the case of the Ferguson Police, on the other hand, it seems like the powerful are the ones who are resisting increased surveillance and the relatively powerless who are trying to push it on them. What should we make of this apparent contradiction? Do we identify the Ferguson Police Department as allies in a long-term struggle against the surveillance society? Do we admit that our initial intuitions about surveillance were wrong and, in light of this incident, get fully on board with an agenda of panopticism? (a little “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA,” perhaps?)

I think the right answer is neither of these options, but it’s worthwhile to consider the tension that seems to force us to accept one or the other. If increasing surveillance is always bad and forcing police officers to wear body-mounted cameras increases surveillance, then forcing police officers to wear body-mounted cameras is bad. Conversely, If police wearing body mounted cameras is a good thing and its also something that increases surveillance, then something that increases surveillance is a good thing.

The flaw in both of these lines of reasoning is the assumption that the trend of increasing surveillance must be something that’s either an unqualified good or an unqualified evil. Clearly, it seems more likely that it’s the kind of thing that’s sometimes good and sometimes bad. But if we’re not against technologies of surveillance in the case of the Ferguson PD, then we can’t appeal to “surveillance is bad” to justify opposition to being monitored in other cases either; we’ll have to have a more detailed discussion about the ends to be achieved by surveillance and the limits within which it can be justified in these particular cases.

Foucault refers to the Panopticon as a “political technology,” and if one reads his body of work a little more extensively it becomes clear that this does not mean a technology used by the powerful against the powerless. The Panopticon (and here I mean any of the technologies for which this building can serve as a metaphor) is rather a tool that allows a certain kind of influence to be exercised in different situations, with some predictable results. It is not a tool that is the particular property of some group within society to be used against some other group, but one that can be used by different political actors in different situations.

Whether employing techniques of surveillance is just in a particular case will probably largely depend on who is monitoring whom, in what way, and for what purposes they’re doing so. However, that doesn’t mean the issue of surveillance and its effects can simply be ignored when talking about justice and public policy. We can’t simply ignore the very real story of increasing techniques of surveillance throughout society and across the political spectrum in favor of a simplistic lens that says that what the relatively powerful want is bad and what the relatively powerless want is good. There is a real historical trend to be seen in identifying the growth of techniques of surveillance, and the fact that it is a general trend matters for how we evaluate what’s good or bad about instances of surveillance. Like so many important concepts, however, it doesn’t tell us by itself what kinds of policies to support. For that, there’s still no substitute for learning some history and figuring out who the winners and losers of a specific policy would be. By all means, raise your voice in support of more observation and accountability for our law enforcement professionals. But be aware when you’re doing so that your advocacy is part of a social trend with much more ethically murky implications.

Do-Nothings, Congressional and Otherwise

Congress adjourned for the rest of August on Friday, without passing legislation aimed at addressing the ongoing influx of young migrants from Central America and with only a stopgap measure on transportation. The arrival of the annual recess means it’s time for another predictable round of complaining among pundits about congressional do-nothing-ism. Charles Blow takes up the baton for this lap in the New York Times, quoting a Pew study showing that the 113th Congress has passed fewer laws up to this point in its tenure than any other in the last two decades. There are many legitimate reasons to be unhappy with Congress, but the arguments that they didn’t pass enough laws or didn’t spend enough days in session are not among them. Measuring the number of laws passed and the number of days in sessions is a terrible way to assess whether members of Congress are doing their jobs, and it distracts people’s attention from more important conversations we could be having about what kinds of legislation we want and what kinds we would be willing to accept.

Measuring Congress’ job performance by counting the number of laws they pass is silly because, in much the same way that the federal budget isn’t like your household budget, your congressperson’s job is not like your job. Say you work for a company that makes sausages and sells them to people. All else being equal, the more sausages you contribute to making and selling, the better you’re doing at your job. If you have the worst sausage-production year in two decades, you can probably expect some people to get fired. But no matter the similarities that might exist between law-making and sausage-making, they’re different in that making more sausages is always a good thing, while making more laws is not. Even if the average quality of sausage goes down, as long as your company can sell them, it’s doing a better job if it makes more than if it makes fewer. And insofar as you contribute to adequate sausage production and sales, you’re doing well at your job. The same thing is certainly not true about laws. The Congress that makes more laws isn’t necessarily doing better; the Congress we want is the one that passes the laws that the country needs right now.

I’m certainly not saying that Congress is doing a good job by that metric either, but it’s important to distinguish the two because simply complaining about congressional laziness makes it seem like everyone agrees about what they ought to be doing and it’s only the fault of members that it isn’t getting done. This ignores the fact that one reason Congress isn’t passing very many laws is because members, not to mention large swathes of the electorate, deeply disagree about what kinds of laws ought to be passed. Everyone can be mad that no legislation was passed to address the current border crisis, but that happened because most Republicans think the Senate bill is worse than the status quo, and most Democrats think the same thing about the bill passed by the House. Everyone would prefer that Congress do something, but that doesn’t mean there’s any particular thing that everyone thinks is better than doing nothing. Obviously you should have your own preference and you can criticize Congress for not enacting the laws that you would like to see, but then the problem isn’t that congress isn’t working hard enough, it’s that they aren’t passing the laws that you think would be acceptable improvements to current ones.

Forging compromises that can get support of enough legislators (not to mention the President) in order to be enacted is hard work, but that doesn’t mean that if congress fails to come to any compromises it’s because they aren’t working hard. Arguments like Blow’s make it seem like the solution is easy. If our lazy legislators would just get off their butts and pass some laws, like the American people clearly want them to, everything would be great. This might sell a lot of newspapers to Americans who love to hate their representatives, but it understates the difficulty of governing and it also takes away column inches that would be better used debating the merits of an actual policy proposal. Pundits who don’t like what Congress is doing should give some suggestions for a piece of legislation they’d be happy with or spend some time educating the public about the causes of the current state of gridlock. This might not make for a highly shareable infographic or a clickbait headline, but it’s what could be called “doing your job.” It’s lazy and irresponsible to stick to a posture of generalized complaint that gets agreement from a large proportion of readers without taking any position on what actually should be done. We should measure Congress’ performance not by counting their output, but by comparing what they did to what we would have liked them to do. If we apply the same standard to our pundits, we may discover do-nothing-ism someplace other than where we’d expected it.

Why Liberals Need To Get On Board With Corporate Personhood

In the wake of this week’s Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., a lot of reaction from outraged liberals on Facebook and in the Twitterverse has objected to the idea of corporate personhood. This piles onto reactions to the court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which led many indignant progressives to mock the notion that, as Mitt Romney famously put it, “corporations are people, my friend.”

While I’m sympathetic to the opposition of many people on the left to these decisions, it’s important to recognize that corporate personhood doctrine isn’t the reason that they went the wrong way and that, in fact, the idea that corporations are legal persons is entirely necessary to protect individuals from abuses of corporate power in the way liberals would like. The Hobby Lobby decision provides a perfect case study of this because, while corporate personhood played a role in the majority’s reasoning, without the notion there’s no way at all that the court could have found in favor of HHS and the ACA’s contraception mandate.

To see why, it’s important to understand that “corporations are people” simply means that corporations have a different legal identity than their owners, their employees, or their management. To say that a ExxonMobil or Delta Airlines is a person is just to say that it is a legal entity with its own rights and duties, and it isn’t the same entity as any of the individual people affiliated with it. Corporate personhood is the reason that Wal-Mart, as opposed to individuals working for Wal-Mart, can be sued for sex discrimination; it’s the reason a bank has to give me back the money I deposited there even if it changes management or ownership. In both cases the corporation itself is the entity that has legal responsibilities it can be compelled to uphold. If the corporation weren’t a person (in this specific legal sense), then it couldn’t be legally responsible for anything; instead, only its owners or managers would be responsible. The alternative to corporate personhood isn’t a world in which corporations still exist but they have no rights and the government can force them to do whatever it wants. The law doesn’t work that way. The alternative is a world in which corporations have no legal standing and only individuals have legal rights and responsibilities.

This matters a lot in the Hobby Lobby case because what was at issue was whether Hobby Lobby (and other similar companies), as a legal entity distinct from its owners, has a right, under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to be excepted from a law because complying would violate its religious beliefs. The court held that it was Hobby Lobby the corporation whose religious freedom was being violated by forcing it to provide health insurance coverage for four forms of contraception that some people believe to be abortifacients. Both sides agreed that the issue was about Hobby Lobby’s rights, not those of its owners. The decision rests on the doctrine of corporate personhood, in the sense that the decision couldn’t have been rendered without that concept. But the case itself couldn’t have even taken place without it, as we can see from the fact that it’s Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., not Burwell v. Green (the Greens are the family that owns a majority of Hobby Lobby). Corporate personhood allows us to separate out the legal identity of the company from that of the owners, and the court’s mistake was actually not separating them enough.

Consider how the case would have looked without corporate personhood. The issue then would have been whether the Greens themselves have a right to refuse to buy this contraceptive coverage for their employees. As individuals, it’s obvious that they have a sincere religious conviction that it’s wrong to use these specific forms of contraception and that they have a right to religious liberty that could exempt them from some laws that conflict with their religion. If those were the questions at issue any court would haven certainly had to find in favor of the Greens and, moreover, the Obama administration would never would have tried to force such a mandate on employers in the first place. Given corporate personhood, however, it isn’t the religious beliefs and rights of the Greens, but those of Hobby Lobby the corporation, that are at issue. If corporate personhood is accepted, it can be argued either that Hobby Lobby isn’t capable of exercising religious liberty or that the requirement to provide contraceptive insurance coverage doesn’t violate the company’s sincere religious convictions. The same claims can’t plausibly be made about the Greens as individuals.

The problem with the court’s decision isn’t that it accords personhood to Hobby Lobby and other corporations and endows them First Amendment rights. The problem is that the court doesn’t take the companies’ separate identity seriously enough. If Hobby Lobby is a different legal person than the Green family, much more should be required to show that it truly is a religious “person” than simply their say-so. The court tries to argue that because these companies are “closely held” their religious interests can be identified with those of their owners. Even if the notion of a “closely held” company was well-defined, however, the Green’s religious beliefs shouldn’t automatically transfer to a separate legal entity, no matter how much of it they own.

Liberals who complain about the law treating corporations as people should recognize that this decision happened not because corporations were identified as separate entities from their owners, but because the court didn’t separate them enough. The decision lets the owners of a company like Hobby Lobby enjoy the legal advantages of incorporation, which separates their own legal status from that of the company, but still permits them to use the company to impose their personal religious viewpoints on their employees. They shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways. If corporations are distinct from their owners, they have to be considered legally on their own terms. And if we want to hold corporations accountable to their employees, their customers, and society, the idea that they are entities that can be held responsible in their own right has to be part of our conceptual toolbox.


Note: I should mention that Jacob T. Levy at Bleeding Heart Libertarians made a point that’s similar to mine in some ways. It was posted before my piece but I didn’t become aware of it until this morning. You should check it out in any case.