Over the past few days, I’ve encountered two quirky but, to my mind, intriguing ethical questions.
The first involves NationBuilder.com. They’re a site that enables anybody–many users are political candidates–to easily create a campaign site. They can use the site to organize volunteers, raise money and connect with supporters. There are a bunch of tools in this category out there, but when they launched, I was impressed by their presentation and apparent ease of use. I wasn’talone.
To the chagrin of many progressive Americans, NationBuilder recently signed “the largest deal ever struck in political technology” (an unprovable media release claim if there ever was one) with the Republican State Leadership Committee. The RSLC works to get Republican candidates elected at the state level.
Not surprisingly, this has raised the ire of a lot of left-of-centre colleagues. Here’s a quote from Jason Rosenbaum, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s senior online campaign director, that exemplifies this anger:
As it stands now, progressives should think carefully about who they’re helping when they use NationBuilder — every dollar you spend directly aids your opponents,” he told techPresident in an email. “The [RSLC] are the folks who helped pass Scott Walker’s agenda, who want to give transvaginal ultrasounds to women, who want to disenfranchise the minorities, who want to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. Helping them win elections is pretty evil,
And here’s another, from Rory McCarron, who says he previously encouraged clients to use NationBuilder:
I won’t work with, or support a company that develops tools that further the Republican agenda. Full stop. So, I have made the decision to not recommend, or use Nationbuilder on any of the campaigns I work on.
It’s times like this that, as a Canadian, I observe our polarized neighbours to the south with a mix of awe and bemusement. That two-party system is a bummer, eh?
If I was the CEO of NationBuilder, would I sign a contract with the RSLC? At my day job, we don’t take work that’s in opposition to our values–no work with the military, oil and gas industry and so forth. We have had clients who have built non-weapons technology and happened to sell it to Western militaries, but we can’t really control for that. For some reason, though, I feel like a consultancy like ours is different than a product offering. When we work with a client, we’re almost always teaching them how to be better at their work.
In truth, though, if I ran NationBuilder, I wouldn’t have a problem selling it to any of the major Canadian political parties. They’re all legitimate organizations that represent the values of millions of people. I’d have a greater problem selling to an NGO or political lobbyist whose sole purpose was to advocate a position that I strongly opposed. For example, I’d think twice about selling software licenses to pro-life or anti-gay marriage groups.
What’s the difference there? Well, the Conservative party is a legitimate, significant democratic force in Canadian politics, and while I’ve never voted for them, I may occasionally agree with their policies. On the other hand, there are plenty of advocacy groups whose world view is entirely abhorrent to me.
My logic feels pretty shoddy here. I guess that’s why it’s an interesting ethical quandary.
What do authorities do in that future? Do they build security measures into all commercially-available 3-D printers, so that end users can’t manufacture assault rifles and, I don’t know, hand grenades?
When I was in theatre school, I regularly participated in the ‘collective creation’ process. This involved collaborating with my fellow students to create a short play or scene. There were no directors or playwrights. Everybody contributed to the project, and we reached a consensus on what work to keep and what to throw out. The process was slow-moving, feelings regularly got hurt and the results were unilaterally awful.
The rise of the Occupy movement this fall reminded me of working on collective creations. Occupy Wall Street and its cousins around the world actively eschewed leaders, and relied on a community-oriented consensus model to reach decisions. This ostensibly leaderless approach got me naturally thinking about leadership.
In every project in which I’ve been involved–creative, corporate, volunteer, non-profit–there was always a person in charge. Whether or not that person had an authoritative title or anybody acknowledged it, they had final decision-making power. A group always needs to look to somebody to own big decisions. That’s what a leader is there for.
Whether we’re talking about theatre, an unconference or revolution, there’s always a leader at the heart of things. Like it or not, we’re a hierarchical species. It’s how we get stuff done.
Which is why I’ve been interested in the intentional leaderlessness of the Occupy movement. There’s a cliche about Generation Y that they were raised on teamwork and consensus building, where everybody got a ribbon on Sports Day and nobody counted goals at their soccer games. Does Occupy reflect these values? Or is it merely a coincidence? I suspect that, in truth, each Occupy protest had their fair share of leaders who, at the end of the day, drove and owned decisions.
Here’s another thing about leadership that I’ve learned over the years: most people don’t want to be leaders.
In rereading this little post, it seems like I’m rather aggressively reinforcing the status quo. A feminist reading of this post might accuse me of taking a very traditional, masculine line of thinking. I should emphasize that I’m not writing off other ways of organization, but I can think of very few truly leaderless projects. Can you think of examples?
UPDATE: A friend sent me this interesting article by Micah L. Sifry. It frames Occupy Wall Street as a ‘leader-full movement’. I’d need to read more about this idea to get my head around it. It’s a pity that, in the conclusion, Sifry demonizes traditional leadership by writing “a world of top-down leaders who use hierarchy, secrecy and spin to conduct their business”. He hasn’t earned that claim with evidence elsewhere in the article, and so it cheapens an otherwise thoughtful piece.
Regardless of how you feel about banks and credit unions, this is a terrific protest. It’s specific, easily understandable, anybody with a bank account can participate, and it speaks a language the targeted institutions understand: filthy lucre. Admittedly, Bank of America’s assets total US $2.2 trillion, but when an industry loses 700,000 customers, meetings will be taken, and changes may be made.
I mention Bank Transfer Day because it stands in sharp contrast to the murky, apparently leaderless Occupy movement. Bank Transfer Day was started by a specific person, with a specific goal in mind. As I said in my previous post on this topic, specificity matters.
I’m not claiming that the Occupy movement is entirely without merit. As I already wrote, I hope it coalesces into something with a narrower, more achievable purview. And I hope they take lessons from Bank Transfer Day.
I’ve been tardy in writing a review of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”, which opened at The Arts Club last week. I’ve been reluctant, I think, because I felt unmoved by the production.
The show is not without its merits. Atwood’s lyrical script retells the Odyssey myth from Penelope’s perspective. She’s stuck at home on Ithaca while her footloose husband Odysseus meanders around the Mediterranean. She has a busy kingdom to run, maids to manage, suitors to stave off and a sass-mouthed son to mother. The plot, as skeletal as certain adversaries of Jason in another Greek myth, doesn’t really get started until the second act. The script isn’t exactly ripe with gripping drama, and feels a little padded out by a number of songs.
Meg Roe is luminous and regal as Penelope, telling her story from Hades. Through much of the play, her role is passive–she recounts events as a kind of Greek Stepford wife, all smiles and warmth. The supporting cast, ten women who play Penelope’s favourite maids, as well as sundry other roles, were also strong. I did wonder a bit about the decision to cast all women in these roles in 2011. It felt like a rather 20th-century, Top Girls kind of stunt casting. Colleen Wheeler was suitably gloomy and masculine when she played Odysseus, but why cast that role as a woman? Perhaps I’m alone in this, but Wheeler and Roe’s most intimate scenes were inevitably overlaid with my constant awareness that “she’s pretending to be a he”. Obviously that was Atwood or director Vanessa Porteous’s intent, but I couldn’t glean why.
Other production elements–the nautical set with a floating platform that doubled as a marriage bed, the watery lighting and the on-stage sound design and music–were all cohesive and well-executed.
Nowadays, most of us don’t have maids, but, especially in our blessedly peaceable land of Canada, are we really aware of the impact we have on the “invisible ones” whose lives we touch? The people who make the clothes we buy; the people “downstream” from us, as they say in environmental circles; the people who live in countries far away, the mothers and sisters and daughters of the nations with whom we are in conflict?
That’s a dubious question to ask of Arts Club attendees in 2011. They’re locavores, crafters and sustainability connoisseurs. From Slumdog Millionaire to The Story of Stuff, few groups are more aware of how their consumption or their country’s politics impacts people in the developing world.
In short, The Penelopiad was a well-made play that wasn’t to my liking. It’s plot was too turgid, and its themes too tired for me to find it particularly engaging. As the Internet kids say, your mileage may vary. The play runs through November 20 at the Stanley Theatre.
I’m still unsure about the Occupy movement. I see that, in the United States, it represents a profound discord among Americans who feel frustrated with the financial meltdown and the current administration’s response to it. My smart American peers hope that the protests will coalesce into a Tea Party of the Left. Such a group would pull the Democrats to the left as the Tea Party is pulling Republicans to the right.
I find the Canadian protests more vexing. Here’s the first paragraph of Occupy Vancouver’s ‘working statement’:
We, the Ninety-Nine Percent, come together with our diverse experiences to transform the unequal, unfair, and growing disparity in the distribution of power and wealth in our city and around the globe. We challenge corporate greed, corruption, and the collusion between corporate power and government. We oppose systemic inequality, militarization, environmental destruction, and the erosion of civil liberties and human rights. We seek economic security, genuine equality, and the protection of the environment for all.
That’s about as specific as their demands get, as far as I can tell. Personally, I can get behind opposition to environmental destruction (I fight that battle, in variousforms, every day in my work), but none of their other topics really speak to me. Or rather, they’re not effective when bundled together in this catch-all, ambiguous fashion.
And that’s my key issue with Occupy Vancouver, I guess. Specificity matters. Protests are rarely successful, and the ones that are, in my thinking, are those with a hyper-specific objective. Protests opposing American participation in the Vietnam War or logging in the Clayoquot Sound identified a specific outcome and worked toward it.
We must distinguish, in other words, between dissent and deviance. Dissent is like civil disobedience. It occurs when people are willing in principle to play by the rules but have a genuine, good-faith objection to the specific content of the prevailing set of rules. They disobey despite the consequences that these actions may incur. Deviance, on the other hand, occurs when people disobey the rules for self-interested reasons. The two can be very difficult to tell apart, party because people will often try to justify deviant conduct as a form of dissent, but also because of powers of self-delusion. Many people who are engaged in deviant conduct genuinely believe that what they are doing is a form of dissent.
Are those engaged in Occupy Vancouver dissenting or deviating? Some of each, I suspect.
I just watched a trailer for a great-looking new documentary called Miss Representation. Its premise, from the film’s website, is that “American youth are being sold the concept that women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality. It’s time to break that cycle of mistruths.” Here’s the trailer:
A very worthy topic. I actually watched an extended 8-minute trailer, which you can find on Facebook. In that video, the film expresses a theory of change based on getting more women into positions of power in politics, corporations and media. From the film’s website:
While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have an eating disorder.
Though it’s not plainly stated anywhere, the website and trailer imply that if more women were in positions of power, the despairing treatment of women in media and advertising would improve. This, on the face of it, seems like a rationale approach to the problem.
I can’t speak broadly to the issue, but whenever this solution is presented, I think of women’s magazines. Specifically, I think of magazines apparently culpable in the objectification of women–Cosmopolitan, Glamour and their sundry sisters.
These magazines have been staffed and run by women for decades. Glamourhas had a female editor since its inception in 1939.
If these magazines are produced by women, then why do we regularly point to them as a source of the message that “women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality”? Here are the possibilities I can think of:
Despite all the women on the masthead, the tone and content of these magazines are driven by the men who own the magazines at Condé Nast and Hearst.
Sex sells, and in a competitive landscape, women are as likely as men to race to the bottom.
We’ll require many women leaders in many different fields and vocations before progress can be made on this culture of objectification and sexism.
Other reasons I haven’t thought of.
Now, obviously, achieving gender equity in positions of power is essential for a healthy society. There are many, many reasons for why we need more female politicians and executives. And Miss Representation seems like a very worthy film.
However, the ongoing popularity of Cosmopolitan, written by and for women, prevents me from completely buying the “more women in power” leads to “less emphasis on girls and womens’ youth, beauty and sexuality” thesis.
What do you think?
A Footnote on the 3%
The trailer also used the statistic I quoted above, about only 3% of women being in “clout positions” in media. That seemed shockingly low, so I wanted to learn more about it. The Miss Representation site provided no source for this quote. I did some searching, and determined that it came from a 2003 report entitled “The Glass Ceiling Persists”. The report defines “clout positions” as “clout titles as those positions that ‘wield the most corporate influence and policy making power.’ These titles include: Chairman, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Vice Chairman, President, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Senior Executive Vice President, and Executive Vice President.”
The report examined three advertising companies, 11 entertainment firms and 18 publishing companies. So, that seems hardly like a definitive analysis of the media industry. It’s a dubious statistic at best.
It’s also worth noting that the average age of a new CEO in 2009 was 53, while the average age of any CEO according to a couple of sources is about 57. Considering it’s a 2003 study, that means 2003-era CEOs were entering the workforce in the late sixties and early seventies. At that time, there were fewer women in the workforce, and fewer of them expected to become a CEO.
My point? It’s a lousy stat, and there are definitely better, equally shocking ones available. Also, we’re probably a generation away from seeing anything close to parity in these “clout positions”. On top of all the other battles women have fought, it just takes a long time to make a CEO.
As I think I’ve mentioned, my brother, father and I share a subscription to The New Yorker. I’m the final recipient in our troika of magazine readers, and a stack usually piles up before I can get to many issues. So, while this story is six months old, I just read it this week.
In 1999, Marine General Charles Krulak wrote an influential article in which he coined the term “strategic corporal.” Krulak argued that, in an interconnected world, the actions of even a lowly corporal can have global consequences. “All future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience,” Krulak wrote. “In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy and will potentially influence not only the immediate tactical situation, but the operational and strategic levels as well.”
To my mind, this is the sort of long-form (and expensive) reporting we need to preserve in an era of declining fortunes for journalism.
Canada has a federal election next week. Please vote.
If you live in Eastern Canada, your vote may be counted before our polls out west close. The local media in Fredericton and Lavalle and Ottawa will report on the early returns.
Section 329 of Canada’s election laws will, in theory, prevent those results from drifting westward before 8:00 pm PST. Here it is:
No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another electoral district before the close of all of the polling stations in that other electoral district.
The law is designed to prevent eastern results from influencing western voters. It made sense in an era of few communications channels, before the 24-hours news cycle, before TV and when there were only dozens of radio stations across the country. In 2011, in the age of the Internet, Canada has millions of broadcast channels. More than half the country has a Facebook account, and there are millions of Canadians on Twitter.
Section 329 has clearly become obsolete, unfeasible and unenforceable. We can’t ask 10 million easterners on social networks to keep secrets from five million westerners. It’s just not going to happen.
It’s a small act of civil disobedience, demonstrating that Section 329 is untenable, and encouraging lawmakers to reform it. All the site does is aggregate tweets with the hash tag #tweetheresults. It replicates functionality that’s native to Twitter.
A good, bad or impractical law?
In response to our little site, some people have suggested that social media users “respect the spirit of the law”. I’m more interested in emphasizing the impracticality of Section 329 than debating its underlying ethics.
That said, the argument for it seems pretty philosophical. According to journalist Paula Simons, there’s no evidence that voting patterns would change. In 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada considered a case where a Vancouver blogger published election results from Atlantic Canada. In her dissent of the 5-4 decision which upheld the blogger’s conviction, Justice Rosalie Abella wrote:
“There is only speculative and unpersuasive evidence to support the government’s claim that the information imbalance is of sufficient harm to voter behaviour or perceptions of electoral unfairness that it outweighs any damage done to a fundamental and constitutionally protected right.”
It’s also worth noting that other big democracies–the US, Australia and Russia–have no such blackout rule in place.
Law professor Michael Geist points out that enforcing the law would require banning access to Facebook and Twitter on election night:
Given the current popularity of social media tools that did not exist at the time, a similar ban today is simply not possible without inflicting enormous harm to freedom of expression and public confidence in the election system.
Finally, there’s a simple solution to the results blackout: Elections Canada should simply delay publicizing any results anywhere in the country until polls have closed in British Columbia. Democracy can wait three hours.
I genuinely don’t care if anybody actually tweets or post to Facebook about election results on May 2. I do care about changing this silly law to one that works for this century.
What do you think? Are you going to stay off Twitter and Facebook on election night to avoid hearing the results?