Friday, September 27, 2013

Feminist criticism of Blurred Lines misses the mark

One of this summer’s biggest hits was the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. A catchy tune, upbeat background vocals and dance-able beat combined to help Thicke’s song reach number one on the Billboard charts – and stay there for the next 12 weeks. But the song also brought its fair share of controversy. At first, a risque music video full of topless dancers brought accusations that Thicke was demeaning and objectifying women. More recently, prominent feminists have released a series of articles and parody videos accusing the lyrics to Blurred Lines of endorsing rape and sexual assault, with one going so far as to call it a “rape anthem…about male desire and male dominance over a woman’s personal sexual agency.”

Make no mistake, sexual assault is an enormous problem in our society – especially on college campuses – and any time these allegations are made they deserve to be taken extremely seriously. There are indeed a great number of songs, movies, and other elements of pop culture which propagate sexism and are pernicious to women. But upon further inspection, the accusations against Blurred Lines on this count are largely unfounded.

Perhaps the most controversial line from the song is the refrain, “I know you want it.” Critics contend this line insinuates that a woman’s consent to a man’s sexual advances can be assumed, such that active and explicit consent are portrayed as unnecessary. This critique is furthered by the line “The way you grab me, must wanna get nasty.” Feminists rightly note that just because a girl dresses, dances, smiles or flirts in a certain way does not mean she’s “asking for it”. They also observe that unfortunately, that absurd logic is used by many rapists to justify their actions. Taken in conjunction with the song’s title, this argument claims Thicke is trying to legitimize that line of thought by blurring the lines of consent.

But this is not the case. Just because Thicke’s song includes a sentence that many rapists have also used does not mean he is endorsing their actions. The meaning of any language, sexual or otherwise, can only be understood in the context of the situation in which it is used. And unlike rapists, Thicke’s character is speaking before any sex has occurred. Thicke is using those words to verbally woo someone, in an attempt to preemptively acquire their consent; that is very different from using them to justify physically raping someone, in a retroactive attempt to suggest their consent wasn’t necessary. Thicke’s song never comes close to endorsing the latter.

It’s true that while making his sexual sales pitch, Thicke uses the tactic of “assuming the sale”; he tries to inflate the perception of his own attractiveness by speaking as if the woman’s desire for him were a foregone conclusion. This is certainly arrogant, but again, the gap between words and actions cannot be ignored. It is not rape to suspect someone might want to have sex with you. Thicke’s self-portrayal as an irresistible stud says nothing about whether he would rape someone should his facade fail to work. Nor is this cockiness limited to male pop singers. For example, Beyonce’s song “Check On It” also has the lines “boy I know you want it,” before describing in explicit detail all the non-verbal cues the man in question is giving her to imply that this is the case. Stars like Rihanna and Fergie offer many similarly self-centered examples, as do rap artists of both genders. Even outside of the music world, modern people do seemingly do everything in their power – from clothing to makeup to the people they hang out with to the way they speak – to maximize their sexual leverage. Perhaps this overpowering social concern with presenting ourselves as sexually attractive shows our culture is shallow. But Thicke’s example is no worse than the rest, and there’s no evidence he views his suspicions about a woman’s desire as a substitute for her confirmed consent.

Another controversial lyric is the repeated assertion that “you’re a good girl.” Critics portend that by labeling his target a “good girl”, Thicke is attempting to explain her lack of demonstrated interest with the assumption that she’s merely trying to conceal it, in order to keep the intact the myth that his advances are irresistible. They also accuse Thicke of propagating the antiquated idea that women are either “good girls”, if they abstain from sex, or “sluts” if they partake.

The truth is that Thicke’s lyrics do exactly the opposite. When we consider the dated and sexist social pressures placed on women not to have casual sex, it becomes clear Thicke’s lyrics are actually an invitation for women to break free from those constraints (mighty conveniently for him, of course). When he sings, “Let me liberate you…that man is not your maker”, he’s telling women that men do not own them, and they can decide who to sleep with on their own. He’s telling them to reject the social pressure to not act “slutty”, and not to be ashamed or guilty about wanting sex like everyone else. He encourages them to let loose their “animal”, and makes a caricature of the guys who try to “domesticate” them by shaming them into that traditional gender role.

From this perspective, there’s evidence he’s using the term “good girl” sardonically, as if the term itself is ridiculous. Because there’s nothing wrong with having sex, doing it often does not make one any less good. Thus, he’s suggesting there’s no such thing as a good girl, and teasing the woman for pretending to be one.

Of course, it may well be the girl is not pretending at all, and genuinely has no desire for Thicke whatsoever. Thicke never lets on to this possibility because, once again, it would not fit in with his self-inflating aura as a handsome pop-star. But as was previously explained, that cocky front is only dangerous if it translates from verbal boasting to physical aggression, and the song’s lyrics never come near endorse that additional step. In fact, the only allusions to physical advances in Blurred Lines comes on the part of the woman who “grabs” the singer. This, along with the line “Go ahead, get at me,” might even be interpreted as empowering to women, because it unconventionally encourages them to take the lead in approaching men and initiating relationships themselves.

Of course, many other lyrics in Blurred Lines are not particularly high brow. Like many pop songs, the lines are often redundant, hollow and meaningless, and Thicke’s songwriters may not be trying to make any social commentary whatsoever. But what little meaning they have seems to be much less offensive than some have contended, and there may even be elements of female liberation hidden beneath the surface.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Newsletter Editorial: Successful tailgate a step in the right direction for Hopkins school spirit

This past Saturday, the Hopkins’ branch of Beta Theta Pi fraternity teamed up with the SGA to sponsor the Blue Jay Tailgate – an opportunity for Hopkins students to socialize over free food before attending the football team’s first home game of the season. In addition to welcoming new freshman and fostering community in the student body, a principle aim of the tailgate was to bolster Hopkins’ infamously lackluster school spirit.

By all accounts, it was a smashing success. Attendance was so high that the barbecue ran out of meat, and most who attended the cookout stayed after to watch the game, such that the crowd was louder than any other in recent memory. Spurred on by the show of support, Hopkins beat Susquehanna 24-7, and the home-town crowd left happy and full.

The Editorial Board applauds the event coordinators for taking the initiative to put this tailgate together, as well as the students whose attendance and enthusiastic participation made it such a success. Furthermore, we hope the positive momentum created by this event serves as a building block from which Hopkins pride can continue to grow. Prior experience warns, however, that this will not happen without a serious and concerted effort to organize, fund, advertise and promote similar events in the future.

Hopkins’ well recorded lack of school spirit is as difficult to solve as it is troubling. While Hopkins students seem proud of the academic quality of their education, too many appear disinterested when it comes to school athletics. Incoming freshman expecting a rowdy college game day atmosphere are likely put off and disappointed by the lack of care they see from upperclassmen, but may lack the social confidence to break from the established culture of indifference. The result is a widespread sense that Hopkins students are missing out on a unique and enjoyable component of the college experience.

This is a shame, because more school spirit would make Hopkins a happier place to live. Student athletes would feel more appreciated with a raucous crowd cheering them on, and they might even perform better with the knowledge that their friends and peers had their back from the bleachers. In turn, making these games into a big deal would provide students an excuse to take a study break and enjoy a shared experience with the rest of the student body. The resulting environment would improve morale and make Hopkins into a more vibrant, fun, and tight-knit community.

Fostering this environment will take work and time, and ultimately Hopkins students will have to meet the event planners halfway. Nevertheless, we implore the SGA to take a lead in making it happen. The recent tailgate is a great start because it gave students a taste – literally and figuratively – of what such a community could be like. Whether we get to enjoy it in the future is up to us.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Should Libertarians support federalism?

A few months ago, in the wake of the Proposition 8 Supreme Court case, a libertarian friend of mine made a Facebook post in which he lamented libertarians’ odd affinity for federalism. “States rights”, he claimed, were not “inherently good.” Federalism was only useful to the extent that it engendered libertarian outcomes, he argued. States can violate individual rights every bit as much as the federal government can, and in such cases we oughtn’t hesitate to use the federal government as a way to maximize libertarian utility. From gay marriage to abortion to flag burning to slavery, states have a poor track record at defending liberty and we must not place so much trust in them. Was my friend right?

I think he was partially right, but overly general about which type of “rights” he’s referring to. I agree that the federal courts can indeed strike down state laws – so long as what they are undoing is a violation of constitutional rights, rather than just overturning anything libertarians would subjectively label a rights violation. The trouble with the second standard is that some people (particularly non-libertarians) have an extremely expansive definition of what rights are, such that virtually any law could be construed as violating somebody’s right to something. If we let the government overturn any state law it likes so long as it’s “defending rights”, there really aren’t many limits to what it can overturn, which opens the door to abuses libertarians would not support.

There are many anti-libertarian state policies that I believe fall beyond the constitutional scope of federal government. I don’t want the federal government to get involved in those things, even if their involvement would yield favorable libertarian outcomes in the short term, because it their doing so would destroy the notion that the scope of federal government is indeed limited.

For example, from a libertarian perspective, both censorship and drug prohibition are rights violations. Fortunately for us, the incorporated 1st amendment defends free speech across the whole country. If some branch of the federal government overturned a state law that censored certain speech, that’s great – they defended the liberty they are constitutionally authorized to defend. But no such explicit protection exists for smoking pot, and the 10th amendment to the constitution essentially leaves states the freedom to craft their own criminal justice systems. So to me, a congressional law which mandated the legalization of marijuana across all 50 states would be an overreach. Of course, I’d be elated by the outcome of universal legalization, and admittedly I probably wouldn’t lose any sleep over the release of nonviolent drug criminals. But if we say it’s okay to ignore the 10th amendment in that case, what would the implications be for the rest of law? Could the federal government then declare education a right and overturn decisions at the local school district?

My friend was correct that states’ rights are not “inherently good”; oftentimes state policies are even worse than the federal ones. In such cases, federalism is frustrating. Whether its marijuana or gay marriage, state-by-state legalization is slow and painstaking work. It’s highly tempting to view the courts as a silver bullet by which to bypass that messiness and get what we want right away. But I am hesitant to endorse the precedent that it’s okay to ignore the constitution when it gets in the way of political convenience. Selective application of 9th and 10th amendments is hypocritical and dangerous. There's nothing anti-libertarian about respecting constitutional federalism, even especially when some states disagree with us.

If we value our ideological consistency, we have to apply the role of federalism evenly across all issues. And if given a choice between the centralization and the distribution of power as a whole, the latter is generally preferable. The framers recognized that, and I think more often than not federalism turns out to be a pretty libertarian feature of our constitution.

Hopkins must temper the impulse to censor

(A shortened and softened version of this editorial was originally published in the JHU Newsletter, of which I am the Opinions Editor. This is my original version.)

Earlier this week, Whiting School of Engineering Dean Andrew Douglass instructed Hopkins cryptology professor Matthew Green to take down a blog post he’d written in criticism of NSA policies in his field of expertise. Later that day, the order was retracted, and an apology issued. Further details of this story can be found in our news feature on page B9.

What you will not find on page B9 are the full details of this story, for nobody at the university seems willing to provide them. Multiple sources sought for comment were slow or uneager to clarify, such that the specifics surrounding what happened remain murky.

This is unfortunate, because when facts are scarce, there’s a temptation to substitute conjecture in their stay. The Applied Physics Lab’s connections with the Defense Industry are well known, and have been the subject of prior controversy as recently as last spring. Cynical minds have already invented all sorts of hypotheses on where these orders truly originated. Until the university opens up, the Editorial Board has no ammunition with which to dispel these allegations.

Even so, we suspect these accusations are wholly unsubstantiated. There is not yet reason to believe that the official explanation of the incident is anything but the truth. For his part, Dean Douglass has already admitted he acted too quickly and without basis, and has apologized for it. It’s difficult to be outraged by an honest mistake, and as a standalone case, this may have been entirely forgivable.

But unfortunately for the Hopkins community, this is not a standalone case.  It is merely one instantiation of a long stream of cases in which other objectives – perceived safety, preventing student offense, limiting negative publicity, etc. – have outweighed free speech concerns in university policies and decisions. Even as Hopkins took a step closer to attaining President Daniels’ “Top 10 by 2020” objective in this week’s US News college rankings, it ranked in the bottom 10 schools in the country for free speech according to the independent, non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

With this recent history in mind, one would hope the University would be doing everything in its power to shed the perception of censorship. One would hope that upon hearing of this situation, in the absence of first hand proof that something illegal was taking place, the university’s first impulse would be to defend their faculty. And taken in this context, the events of this week speak volumes about where the university’s priorities lie. Universities with a sincere, rather than superficial commitment to free speech in practice would presume protection for all scholarly faculty articles, placing the burden on the accuser to prove why an exception to this de facto position is warranted. That Hopkins officials did the opposite suggests they are guided more by an aversion to controversy than by a heartfelt concern for our right to speak our mind.

If the university wishes to defeat this perception, offering greater leniency on the side of the speaker in future cases would do much to assuage our concerns.