Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Protocols Against Sexual Harassment

Yesterday’s Ming Pao newspaper published a “front page story” (actually on A2 because A1 was a full page ad featuring Cameron Diaz) that a CUHK professor was given a warning letter for “contact of a sexual nature” for hugging a colleague.  The woman argues the penalty is too light, but the fact of the matter is that a professor hugged a distressed colleague and was then unfairly chastised and is now publicly humiliated. The professor strongly protested his innocence, and resigned in protest. 

A friend of mine who works in a big company, upon hearing of this sad and shocking case, said that the University needs to have “protocols” for meetings. 

I hereby proclaim my protocols for meetings with students and colleagues:

1) All meetings in my office will take place with the door wide open. 

2) All students, staff and colleagues are required to stay on the other side of the desk from me.  I can swivel the computer screen so visitors can see it from across the desk, so no one should come around to my side of the desk and stand next to or behind me, for any reason.

3) No hugging. Ever.

A corollary is that if you come to my office and see there is someone sitting in front of my desk, please do not interrupt me. The open door is not an invitation to interrupt.  And since the door will be open, noise in the hallway needs to be kept down.

Sexual harassment is terrible and needs to be stopped. But we also need to protect people from false accusations of sexual harassment.  Since the University clearly does not have a fair system in place to balance these two needs, my protocols are necessary. They may seem extreme, but given the extremely serious consequences and distressing results of the above case, they are necessary.

Cultural footnote: An important aspect of the original dispute in the case is the meaning of the hug. The professor in this case studied in the US and is married to an American; he hugs my wife when we meet and when we say goodbye. But Chinese do not hug. The newspaper reports the woman saying that she nearly fainted in shock when the university vice-cancellor (president) explained to her that the professor was just using a foreign custom. She could not accept that. I suspect she never spent time in a Latin culture. Many students and some colleagues have commented to me over the years at their surprise at French and Brazilians' custom of hugging and "kissing" (not really a kiss, but seems like a kiss).  Then there is the issue of the professor's resigning in protest. An American friend said that resigning made him seem guilty, but Chinese all recognize this as part of a tradition of righteous protest. Americans would stay and fight (which is why they perhaps deserve the reputation for being litigious), while the Chinese believe in maintaining one's honor. A colleague used the expression 不同流合污, which means "to not associate oneself with undesirable elements" or "not join in their evildoings (literally cesspool)."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Romney Economics and Politics for the dumb

I find it discouraging to see the degree to which democratic politics often does not focus on real issues. As an anthropologist, I understand that symbolism is at the heart of politics, and have no trouble with that. But when symbolism distracts people from their interests, or causes polarization rather than consensus, or confuses the issues, then democracy does not seem to be well served (or democracy does not seem to work that well).

I recently read an article (which I can no longer find) describing the Elizabeth Warren's campaigning in small venues in Massachusetts. The point of the article was that the "undecided voter" would make up his or her mind based on how likable she appeared at such events. To the extent that this "likeability" has to do with how much they feel she understands them and their problems, it is a good fit. But it was clear from the article that she is considered a good candidate because of her social skills in dealing with voters, skills that are probably only partially useful for getting things done in the senate. I've always wondered about the intelligence of "undecided voters" in recent contests: the lines are so clearly drawn between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, red and blue, that one wonders if the "undecided" voter has really been paying attention. To reach them, politicians cannot just hold press conferences and issue position papers. They need to recruit them emotionally, not through rational thought.

Today I see that the Obama campaign has created a website called Romney Economics that seeks to tell the story of Romney's private sector record.  This is a clever idea, because Romney portrays himself as "experienced" and "skilled" in business, and people need to understand what kind of business he ran and how he hollowed out companies, and often made huge profits at the expense of workers and taxpayers who were left holding the bag when the excessively leveraged companies went bankrupt. So far so good.

The problem is that when one reads the examples, it is impossible to understand why what Romney did was even legal.  The three cases describe plundering so egregious that they seem impossible or very biased. The website really needs a 4th example, one where Bain Capital (Romney's firm) and the company it bought and the workers all benefited, so that we can understand how the system should work in theory, helping the reader better understand the three cases of failure. In fact, only if you understand how venture capital is supposed to work can you really understand how Bain Capital's record is one of greed and excess, even if it is legal.  I wonder if the website, and the stories, will really stick if people do not understand how the system is supposed to work. Can people see how Bain (and Romney) used the rules to their private advantage? The website merely demonizes Romney, but will those "undecided voters" be swayed, or will they dismiss this as partisan posturing?  On the other hand, if they are still "undecided" in this election which offers such clear choices, do they have the time and interest to really understand how venture capital is supposed to work?

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Human Rights in New York

There is a disturbing report by the anthropologist David Graeber on the New York Police apparently using sexual assault against Occupy Wall Street protesters. He ties this to the city elite's ties to banking, especially to Mayor Bloomberg's statement that the police is his personal army. Bloomberg is, of course, number 20 on the Forbes Billionaires List (11th in the US), so has a vested interest in protecting the current financial system. Graeber also notes that Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly is the former director of global security of the Wall Street firm Bear Stearns, so has also revolved between banking and policing. Is there any difference in Kelly's mind between protecting Bear Stearns and protecting "the people of New York," or does protecting the banks loom large in his image of his duty to "New York"?

Americans are uncomfortable about this type of story on two levels: first, sexual assaults are easily believed when they happen in Egypt, but people have trouble believing they would happen in the US. Second, the idea that the rich use force (including police violence and "the law" as a form of terror) to protect their interests is something we learned in history books about the Gilded Era (see Haymarket "Riot"), not something we imagine happening today. I note that despite Graeber's links and fairly good sources, my search of the NY Times showed not a single story mentioning groping or sexual assault of protesters.  What I find interesting about this case is how it is not visible to most Americans.  Many Chinese wish their country were more democratic, and complain about the government, but they basically think things are going in the right direction, and they take some level of authoritarianism for granted (especially if they are among the privileged). Stories like this make the US look uncomfortably like the Chinese case, with Americans making excuses (it must be rogue officers, it must be exaggerations, it cannot be policy) and not seeing how their own democracy is constrained by the rich and powerful. Graeber's story, plus the recent revelations of NYPD spying on ordinary citizens simply because they are Muslim (see Fresh Air story here)--and the fact that many New Yorkers think there is no problem with this--make one worry about the future of American democracy and freedom.