Author Archives: lmctaggart2013

He Said, She Said. Can Both be Telling the Truth?

US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of assaulting a fellow teenager when they were both in high school. He vehemently denies it. Does that mean one of them is lying?

Maybe not.

Here’s the thing about assaults like this: as we’ve learned from the many personal stories unearthed by the “Me Too” movement, the parties involved in these incidents often remember them differently.

MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Most men are good and decent and would never commit assault. You know who you are! 

HOWEVER, those men who do commit assault might not even realize their own behavior is wrong, because the behavior has absolutely no consequences (at least not for them – there are very significant consequences for the victims).

Men have gotten away with this for years (decades, centuries, millennia!) because their victims were:

  1. Their own employees who would lose their jobs if they protested
  2. Their wives, and therefore their property to assault/abuse as they wished
  3. Afraid to speak up, because of the inevitable personal attacks such a decision invites
  4. Inferior in social or economic status, and therefore powerless to complain
  5. Wearing revealing clothing, and therefore “asking for it”
  6. Of imperfect character, and therefore wouldn’t be believed
  7. Etcetera…

So for most of human history, men who committed assault arrived at the perfectly logical conclusion that forcing themselves on women or playing grabby-grab couldn’t be that bad, because no one complained when they did it! Harvey Weinstein was shocked when karma finally caught up with him. He earnestly explained, “I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”

It was indeed. To him, it was a culture of entitlement and permissiveness. The women involved remember it differently – they describe these incidents as terrifying and absolutely unforgettable. For Harvey, it was all just another day in the life of a movie mogul.

A story from a Georgia restaurant that went viral this summer is a perfect example of this dichotomy: security camera footage shows a man casually grabbing a waitress on the buttocks. He does it without even breaking stride. He doesn’t hesitate or slow down – just executes a smooth, on-the-move squeeze. It looks suspiciously natural (how many times has he done this?). If not for the reaction of the waitress (she slammed him to the ground and asked her co-worker to call the police), he probably would have forgotten all about it. Just another day in life of a regular dude.

The waitress, however, was having none of it. If the incident was a “first” for her, more power to her. More likely, this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. And she hadn’t forgotten about any of the other straws. Because every incident, no matter how relatively small, leaves a mark. And a memory.

Which brings us to Kavanaugh’s accuser Christine Blasey Ford, whose character is already being pummeled in the media (see #3, above). Her recollection of details may be fuzzy, but her memory of the assault itself is sharp as a knife. She reported to the Washington Post that she sought treatment for “long term effects of the incident.” From the moment she escaped by hiding in a bathroom and then fleeing from the house, the events of that day remained significant and traumatic.

If her story is true, Brett Kavanaugh was drunk and, after she ran away and hid, he gave up the chase to rejoin the party. For whatever reason – maybe the alcohol or maybe because it was so long ago – he says he doesn’t remember. No one called the police or confronted him. No one complained.

So Kavanaugh’s denial, which reads, “This is a completely false allegation. I have never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone,” may be truthful. Her description of the event was pretty horrible (“I thought he might inadvertently kill me”), but he may sincerely remember just another summer day, drinking at a party, having some fun. Just another day in the life of a promising young man.

They may both be telling the truth.

 

Advertisements

#KeepFacebook

When my kids were old enough to start using social media and smartphones, they heard me repeat one piece of advice so often you’d think they were training for the eye-rolling Olympics:

“Always remember, anything you share electronically is no longer your own, and nothing online is private.”

Facebook users expressing outrage at a violation of their “privacy” should remember the same.

I’m not saying Facebook is blameless – as I write this, Mark Zuckerberg is facing a gallery of angry senators and telling them Facebook was wrong, they screwed up, he’s sorry. Cambridge Analytica played fast and loose with user data, and Facebook either didn’t try hard enough or didn’t care enough to stop it.

But the vitriol against Facebook today is broader than anger at the Cambridge Analytica situation. Users seem to think the content we post on the site is somehow private, that we own it, and even that Facebook should have to pay us for it.

We need to reflect upon these three truths:

First, Facebook is paying us for our data. Software engineers built a great site. They give us a way to share ridiculous selfies, our kids’ recital videos, and pictures of every restaurant meal we’ve eaten since 2009. They remind us when it’s our cousin’s birthday and help us find that cute kid from our 6th grade class we’ve always wondered about. All this has been given to users in exchange for some profile data. It’s not nothing.

Second, we don’t really care about privacy. We share vacation itineraries, job updates, and pictures of injuries (even x-rays!) with the hundreds or thousands of “friends.” Only fools can possibly believe this stuff was ever private to begin with. Defying all common sense, teenagers post photos of themselves chugging suspiciously from red Solo cups and cliquey adults post pictures of parties to which only the “in” crowd was invited. We’ve all cringed after hurting someone’s feelings because a second-tier friend saw us post that we were in their hometown and didn’t call. When Facebook asks, “What’s on your mind?” we can’t help but answer.

Third, please admit that we wouldn’t want it any other way. All evidence suggests Americans are happy to relinquish some privacy in exchange for free use of social media platforms. Facebook isn’t the only one that knows a lot about us. There are 328 million Twitter users worldwide. When I type, “best beach…” Google answers “reads” before I finish the phrase. All these products could shift to a subscription model, but nobody wants to pay for things we’ve come to expect for free. The airlines have tried that with checked bags and seat selection, and does anyone love that? Face it – we’d rather look at targeted ads.

Still not convinced? Last I checked, use of Facebook (and Twitter, etc.) was voluntary. No one is holding a gun to our heads and forcing us to “like” baby pictures or comment on our Republican uncle’s diatribe about the Second Amendment. Having a Facebook account isn’t like being gay – we aren’t born with it, we choose it.

I’ll say it again – nothing you put online is private. Rolling your eyes won’t make that any less true.

Doing the Math on Sexual Harassment

The numbers are staggering. Every five minutes, ’BREAKING NEWS” reports that yet another politician/journalist/executive has groped at his colleagues’ private parts/answered the door in a towel/paid out thousands of dollars in hush money/ etcetera, etcetera. It’s getting exhausting.

And those numbers don’t even include the countless, nameless everyday working class men who absolutely do this but aren’t famous so, therefore, no one cares. The women they grab suffer silently and anonymously, for now.

To those innocents who are shocked – shocked! – by the endless parade of victims and the steady stream of accusations, I have bad news. What you’re seeing now is only the very tiny little tippy top of the iceberg.

And yet – we all know Good Men. So I’ve been wondering about ratios.

If every woman has a harassment story (or twenty), and we know that there are plenty of Good Men out there who know how to behave, how busy are the other dudes?

Very busy, I suspect. The Pareto Principle, also known as the “80/20 rule,” states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. If this applies to sexual harassment, 20% of men may be responsible for most of the mess.

I sincerely hope this is true, and my personal experience backs it up. I’ve worked in retail stores, a Fortune 500 corporate office, countless nonprofits, and the military – I’ve had thousands of male colleagues. Most of them were absolutely awesome, fully civilized adults who would never do any of the crap in today’s headlines. But I can recall one really bad apple who was very busy indeed.

Of the men who’ve been publicly accused so far, none of them has only a single complaint against him. They are overachievers! They weren’t guilty of “making a mistake” so much as they were successful at “being very persistent” and “not taking a hint.”

What do you do if you’re a 60-year-old man and the first 25-year-old woman to whom you reveal your shriveled privates doesn’t swoon with delight? You try, try again! What if the first woman whose ass you grab doesn’t enthusiastically grab yours back, with a welcoming twinkle in her eye? Have your HR department write a settlement check – shhh. What if your new intern isn’t thrilled at the chance to sleep with you in exchange for a reference? Don’t give up – you know she wants you!

If the Pareto Principle applies, the numbers indicate a large pool of jerks but an even larger pool of decency. That’s the good news. What we need now is for the 80% to make life really miserable for the 20%. Let’s shrink the number to 10% or even 5%. Let’s make the number so small that all the names will fit on a list for girls to memorize as part of the 8th grade Health Curriculum (because apparently, at age 14, you are fair game).

Not all men are comforted by the new transparency (Warning: if this describes you, you may be part of the 20%). In the comment section of a New York Times opinion piece on harassment, a man named Mark whined, “Is every man in your life reduced to a ‘groper’ or a ‘not groper?’” Well, Mark, the answer is YES, to be blunt. But here’s the great news for you – God blessed you with free will and a sturdy zipper on your pants. Use both wisely.

What is Wrong – and Right – With the Navy?

Since January, four warships in the US Navy’s 7th Fleet have been involved in serious accidents. The most recent occurred this week when the destroyer USS John S. McCain collided with a tanker near Singapore; the USS Fitzgerald experienced a fatal collision in June. In both cases, sleeping sailors (no doubt exhausted from the daily grind of life at sea) awoke suddenly to the sound of tearing metal and the rush of seawater. These incidents have many wondering: what on earth is wrong with the navy?

As a former Surface Warfare Officer who spent hundreds of hours standing watch on the bridge of a warship, I know that many things have to go wrong for collisions to occur at sea.  Nearly all of them involve human error by the officers in charge.  Whatever else is going on, it appears the navy has a serious leadership problem.

New reports suggest that the John S. McCain suffered a “steering malfunction” prior to its accident. But navy ships are designed with system redundancy, and well-trained watch teams practice and prepare for such emergencies. When I was a young junior officer, we constantly trained for potential loss of steering, man overboard, and engine room fires. We’d cover the bridge windows with old nautical charts to practice navigating in low-visibility. Our senior officers purposely created training opportunities designed to prepare us for anything. 

That the commanding officer of the Fitzgerald was in his stateroom at the time of the accident is a huge red flag. All watch standers should be familiar with the captain’s “Standing Orders,” which require him to be notified when other vessels get within close range. Were they afraid to tell the boss they’d let another ship get so near? Did they completely lose basic situational awareness? Both are bad; the investigation will eventually determine the truth.

Meanwhile, the responses by the enlisted crew members in both accidents demonstrate what the navy is doing right.  In each instance, berthing compartments flooded in mere minutes – another emergency for which sailors prepare. I will never forget that training simulator, in a dark compartment with cold, high-pressure water spraying in our faces.  As the water quickly rose over our boots, above our waists, and to our armpits, we struggled to stay calm while working to contain the flooding and get everyone out safely.

It’s no wonder the sailors who did just that, after waking suddenly upon impact, are being called heroes for saving so many lives. In the case of the Fitzgerald, they have been commended for keeping the entire ship afloat.

Early investigation results specifically highlight the bravery of Gary Leo Rehm, Jr., who was posthumously advanced to Chief Petty Officer based on his actions. Survivors report that he personally evacuated many shipmates from the flooding compartment. Men like Chief Rehm represent what’s “right” with the navy.

Something else the navy gets right is accountability. To date, the three senior leaders on the Fitzgerald have been removed, and several junior officers were relieved of their duties by the U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin. Ironically, Vice Adm. Aucoin himself was relieved after the John S. McCain accident.  More firings are sure to come.

Holding leadership accountable, however important, feels “too little, too late.” In these recent tragedies, the officers paid with their careers but the enlisted sailors paid with their lives.

The upcoming operational pause – also known as a “safety stand-down” – is an important first step, but I am concerned about restoring trust. The navy today needs the kind of leaders I remember, who demand exceptional performance and ensure they get it by relentlessly training their teams.

Our sailors deserve nothing less. They deserve to hit the rack after a long day at sea with confidence that their ship is in well-trained, capable hands. The only thing jarring them awake should be the too-early call of “Reveille.”

Is the College Admissions Process Unfair?

This is the question everyone is buzzing about, especially after recent reports that Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears poised to challenge affirmative action policies in university admissions.  The move is a nod to President Trump’s base, which, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, believes that white Americans are “losing out” because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.  The news follows years of legal battles on the subject, including cases involving University of Texas and University of Michigan that have been decided by the US Supreme Court.

 The debate is not going away anytime soon, for two reasons. First of all, universities and their applicants have completely different expectations from the admissions process; and second, it’s so hard to agree what “fair” really means.

 Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in the University of Texas case, used a common argument against affirmative action – she claimed that her achievements were better than those of others who were accepted. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference…was the color of our skin” she says in a YouTube video discussing her case.

 Obviously high school achievements matter to colleges. But a close look at their missions reveals that other things matter, too.

 University of Texas says its core purpose is “to transform lives for the benefit of society.” The mission of Harvard College is “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Yale “is committed to improving the world today and for future generations…” through outstanding research and scholarship, education, preservation, and practice.”

 None of these statements brags about the exceptional resumes of the 17-year-olds these colleges admit. Rather, they believe in “educating citizen leaders for our society” and “improving the world…for future generations” and “transforming lives.”

 In short, the obsession with comparing test scores and extracurricular activities misses the point: that the mission of many colleges is to select and prepare students for a promising future, not to reward students for an impressive past.

 So how can colleges “fairly” select the young people they want to educate and send out into the world to make a difference? And what would that mean?

 However hard we try, it’s impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of people. Even standardized tests, arguably the most objective of the metrics, have limitations. Let’s say one kid takes an SAT prep class, works with an SAT tutor, takes the test 3 times, and eventually scores a personal best of 1350. Another kid can barely afford to take the test once; prep classes and tutors are out of the question. That kid gets a 1340. Who is smarter?

 Other metrics are even more subjective. GPA, sports, and clubs? High schools offer very different levels of academic rigor and options for extracurricular activities. Hobbies? Applicants’ choices about how to spend personal time are impacted by geography, disposable income, and family particulars.  Harvard just admitted 2,038 people into its next freshman class, but are they the “best” or “most qualified” of the 39,506 applicants? How can anyone know?

 Obviously Harvard believes they chose the right 2,038 people to become “citizen leaders for our society.” And by “our society,” Harvard certainly means our diverse society. The class of 2021 comes from all the regions of the US and from around the world; some are “legacies” and others are the first in their families to attend college. For the first time, fewer than 50% are white.

 Certainly their test scores and grades are impressive. But Harvard probably could have admitted only applicants from private schools in the Northeast and formed a class with even higher test scores and grades. Would that be fairer? Would anyone want to go to such a school?

 The college application process will never be “fair” because people are not numbers, and numbers are not everything. My advice (unsolicited) to Jeff Sessions is to stop worrying about how unfair life is for white Americans.  When they become scarce at elite universities – or in the President’s cabinet – he can consider affirmative action policies to address those disparities. 

Are You Giving Up Something for Lent?

Today is Ash Wednesday. If you’re a “planning ahead” type of Christian, you may have over-indulged yesterday on whatever delicacy or vice you seek to avoid until Easter. Or maybe you don’t observe Lent that way and wonder what all this “giving up something” is about. Personally, I have always marveled at this relationship between behaviors and beliefs. Would giving up potato chips for 40 days make me a better Christian?

When I was a kid, I noticed that all my little friends carefully considered what treat they planned to give up for Lent. As the lone (it seemed) Presbyterian in a Catholic neighborhood, the concept was foreign to me. I mean, Lent was a thing, of course, but no Sunday school teacher ever implied we should observe it by giving up anything.

My friends, however, were deadly serious about it – they solemnly selected a favorite thing (usually sweets) and then abstained. Friday school lunches were meatless and desserts went un-touched. The collective willpower was impressive.

Despite the prevalence of Lenten sacrifice throughout my childhood, I didn’t get the reason for it until I was an adult. The behavior alone was significant enough to make an impression on me, so I never wondered about the beliefs behind it. Now, anyone can Google it: Lent is associated with penance and abstinence to reflect the 40 days and nights that Jesus fasted in the wilderness (Matthew 4:2).

I don’t know how much my young friends really understood about Lent while they fastidiously avoided temptation for 40 days. So much of their religious behavior perplexed me: all the kneeling and sitting in church, making the sign of the cross, and most of all their descriptions of how priests would assign them repetitions of the “Hail Mary” during Confession.

Does participation in rituals and strict observation of rules make faith more meaningful? Does behavior equal belief?

capybara-02

Fun Fact: To satisfy Venezuelans’ appetite for capybara meat during Lent, the Catholic Church classified this oversized rodent as a fish.

Not always. I know Catholics whose children are being schooled in all the rituals my childhood friends observed, but the parents definitely don’t believe in all the values of the Catholic Church. A friend of mine who’s an Orthodox Jew (observes Shabbat, keeps a kosher home, threw a huge party for his son’s bar mitzvah) told me matter-of-factly that he considers himself an atheist.

And yet…traditional behaviors can be comforting. They connect us to others in our faith community and if performed thoughtfully, can remind us of the beliefs behind them.

I am partial to Lenten behaviors that are additive. Any daily activity – like prayer or Bible study or reading a devotional – is a perfectly acceptable way to practice Lenten self-discipline. But after missing out on all that “giving up something” as a kid, I admit that I feel drawn to consider the practice now.

That’s why I had a spectacularly huge bowl of potato chips last night. It was divine. After getting the most out of my own personal Fat Tuesday, I am now ready for Lent.

Tell Me About Your First Car

Was it a brand-new Dodge Shadow, because your dad worked for Chrysler? Did you inherit your mom’s old Volvo with 200,000 miles on it? Or did you hand over $100 to some stranger and drive off in his old jalopy? Whatever your answer, it reveals something about you and probably stirs up a memory or two. That’s why asking about that first car is my new favorite icebreaker.

I wish I could take credit for this one, but it wasn’t my idea. I was sitting around with my team of fellow volunteer consultants (we’re working with a local nonprofit to develop a strategic plan) and we were trying to come up with a good icebreaker to use with our client in an upcoming workshop. Josh tossed out this idea, and we test drove it.

For a group of people that is not particularly diverse (we were all born within 10-15 years of each other, all have masters degrees from Harvard, all live in Boston, all work in similar white collar fields), our answers were all over the map. One of us remembered a little stick shift coupe she got in college (and the treacherous hill on campus that was the source of many anxious driving moments). One of us never owned a car until he bought a Nissan Leaf about a month ago, having lived mainly in cities. Oddly enough, two of us learned to drive in 1970’s-era Buicks that were so enormous an adult could stretch out and sleep comfortably in the back seat.

I grew up in what’s now known as “flyover country,” a place where most teens got their hands on some kind of vehicle as soon as was humanly possible. In addition to reminiscing about our own cars, we remember our friends’ first wheels. One girl’s dad worked for GM and she had an enviable red Chevy Cavalier, brand new. My two close girlfriends had really cute cars with lots of mileage: a little Honda CRX and green Pacer. The Pacer driver eventually upgraded to a Nissan Sentra hatchback because she played the harp, which actually fit in the back when the seats were laid flat.

Playing a large instrument warranted a special kind of vehicle, so a cello-playing friend got his mom’s old green van (not a minivan – this was pre-the invention of the minivan) with limited seating but plenty of cargo room; anyway, no one cared about seat belts back then because we were teenagers and therefore invincible. One guy even drove an old station wagon which he spray-painted matte black (including some of the windows). It probably wasn’t legal but it made a statement. I’m sure he remembers that car.

Over the course of my adult years, I’ve owned a series of forgettable cars. For a time, anything with four doors that could handle car seats sufficed. I shed no tears saying goodbye to a couple of Honda Accords, an Infinity G-35, and my last Subaru Forester (which was actually pretty great but come on – a leaky head gasket at 70,000 miles? Not OK). I’m now in another Subaru Forester, which is totally fine and great in snow but doesn’t turn any heads. Probably because EVERYONE ELSE IN NEW ENGLAND has the exact same car.

The automotive ‘love of my life’ was my 1990 Mazda Miata, black with tan leather interior, with a manual transmission (of course). I drove it home from the dealership (which was CarMax, my employer at the time) on a cold January day with the top down and the heat blasting. I drove that car as long as possible, but in my eighth month of pregnancy I could no longer justify a car with only two seats. As soon as I’m an empty nester, I’m going Miata shopping. Four years, seven months to go. Not that I’m counting.

What was your first car?