Category: Civil Rights

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Fortune’s Bones: Is There Dignity after Death?

In 1995 Gunther von Hagens presented his Body Worlds exhibit, described as a collection of real human bodies that have been “plastinated” to prevent their decay and make them more malleable. Some of these plastinated bodies were cut open to reveal their inner organs and then positioned in lifelike poses. The exhibit toured the world and was wildly popular.

Body Worlds also generated some criticism. Canadian social scientist, Lawrence Burns, argued that “some aspects of the exhibit violated human dignity.” (7(4): 12-23 Amer. J. Bioethics 2007)  Although touted as an educational experience Burns and others worried that the bodies were being used as “resources to make money from the voyeurism of the general public.” A key concern was that the bodies were denied burial and that this was a dignitary affront. Burns conceded, however, that the concept of human dignity as applied to deceased individuals is unclear.

I started to think about whether there is dignity after death and, if so, what are its parameters, when I read a news article from the New Haven Register, about the skeleton of an enslaved man that was being studied by the anthropology faculty and students at Quinnipiac University prior to burial.

The enslaved man who died in the 1798 (slavery was not abolished in Connecticut until 1848), was named Fortune. At the time of his death Fortune was the human chattel of a Waterbury Connecticut physician who upon Fortune’s death boiled his body to remove the flesh keeping his skeleton to study human anatomy. Fortune’s body remained unburied and was on display as late as 1970 at the Mattatuck Museum where until recently it was still housed. Read More

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Free speech rights and free speech pedagogy

I am working on a paper about student speech rights in public school that has me vacillating about whether the classic Supreme Court case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) is a brilliant exercise in linedrawing or an utter failure. Many readers will remember that Tinker held that students could wear black armbands to school in silent protest of American involvement in hostilities in Vietnam; school officials may interfere with or punish speech only if  they reasonably forecast that it will “materially or substantially interfer[e] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school or collide with the rights of others.”  The Tinker rule has the nice feature of explaining why a student cannot answer a teacher’s question “What were the results of Irish potato famine?” with “US Out of Vietnam!” while she can say the same thing in the hallway. More broadly, Tinker establishes a certain kind of pedagogical regime for the hours that students spend in-school-but-not-in-class, one where students can learn how to exercise constitutional rights by practicing them, up to the point of disruption.

Tinker’s flaws were made vivid once again this week by yet another case, this one from the Fourth Circuit, involving students being prohibited from and punished for wearing to school clothing that bears the likeness of Confederate flags. Such behavior seems initially very similar to wearing a black armband to protest Vietnam; but the courts of appeals have fairly consistently held that such speech can be barred under Tinker because histories of racial tension make it reasonable for school authorities to expect disruption to result from such displays. The new case, Hardwick v. Heyward, is quite emphatic on this score, emphasizing that the mere fact that the shirts did not lead to disruption is immaterial, because it was reasonable for school officials to predict disruption; moreover past racial disputes in the school were material, because they made the prediction more reasonable. The Hardwick rationale pretty clearly means that, had there once been fistfights in the Des Moines schools about the Vietnam War, or perhaps even World War II, then the armbands could have been banned in the present. Thus Tinker is deployed to create a particularly strong kind of hecklers’ veto.

My gut reaction to this case is — who is fooling whom? Read More

Coates on Racism

I found this a particularly powerful column by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the frisking of Forest Whitaker at a New York City deli:

Last month the actor Forest Whitaker was stopped in a Manhattan delicatessen by an employee. Whitaker is one of the pre-eminent actors of his generation. . . Since the Whitaker affair, I’ve read and listened to interviews with the owner of the establishment. He is apologetic to a fault and is sincerely mortified. He says that it was a “sincere mistake” made by a “decent man” who was “just doing his job.” I believe him.

We can forgive Whitaker’s assailant. Much harder to forgive is all that makes Whitaker stand out in the first place. New York is a city, like most in America, that bears the scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal. The ghost of those policies haunts us in a wealth gap between blacks and whites that has actually gotten worse over the past 20 years. But much worse, it haunts black people with a kind of invisible violence that is given tell only when the victim happens to be an Oscar winner.

The “invisible violence” extends to the newsmagazine of NYC’s billionaire mayor, to his law enforcement policies. Implicit bias is pervasive. We need not accuse any particular person of evil intent to observe the corrosive structures that reinforce it.

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More Thoughts on the Dangerous Fragility of Men

First, I want to thank my hosts here at Concurring Opinions for asking me to stay on for another month. One of the things this extended invitation allows me to do is to respond at some length to issues raised in the comments on my last post, “The Dangerous Fragility of Men.” In that post, I highlighted a troubling phenomenon: men with privilege and power characterizing their insecurities and lack of self-control as vulnerability, and using that alleged vulnerability as an excuse or justification for murder, rape, and discrimination (and I would add, though I didn’t discuss it in the post, harassment and intimidation). To demonstrate this phenomenon, I offered a sample of quotations from recent, high-profile cases including Oscar Pistorius‘ shooting of his girlfriend and the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Texas. The post suggested that our society should make a greater effort both to marginalize this cowardice and become more attentive to actual vulnerability. In this post, I’d like to elaborate on these ideas and address some of the objections raised in the responses to my post.

I first want to spend a bit more time on the question of perceived v. actual vulnerability. I noted in my original post that one of the perplexing aspects of this form of male vulnerability is that it seems to increase, rather than decrease, with power or privilege. Frequently, the men using weakness as an excuse or justification (or others offering such explanations on their behalf) for harm are people who are objectively less vulnerable than most. They include famous athletes, soldiers, and wealthy businessmen. I think it is worth spelling this out more explicitly: there is a tendency on the part of privileged individuals to overstate their vulnerability. This tendency towards exaggerated sensitivity is important because it stunts what might otherwise be a meaningful process of self-examination. Feeling vulnerable is not the same thing as being vulnerable, and even actual vulnerability might need to yield before (or at least take into consideration) the greater vulnerability of other people.

We are all vulnerable in certain ways. Figuring out the what and why of our vulnerabilities is an important part of psychological awareness and well-being. What is of most interest to me here, however, is determining the conditions under which it is permissible for us to impose our vulnerabilities on other people, especially when that imposition takes the form of violence or discrimination. In determining those conditions, I would suggest we should ask ourselves at least three questions. One, we should question whether our vulnerability is objectively reasonable. Vulnerability that results from personal insecurity or prejudice is not vulnerability that we may rightfully impose on others. It is our own responsibility to correct vulnerabilities of our own creation. Second, we should question the magnitude of our vulnerability, especially when put in perspective with the vulnerabilities of others. Third, even if our vulnerability is both reasonable and of serious magnitude, we should question whether we are imposing it on appropriate parties in a just and proportional way. Read More

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The Stanford Law Review Online: School Security Considerations After Newtown

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Jason P. Nance entitled School Security Considerations After Newtown. Professor Nance writes that strict school security measures may be ineffective but have a balkanizing effect:

On December 14, 2012, and in the weeks thereafter, our country mourned the deaths of twenty children and six educators who were brutally shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Since that horrific event, parents, educators, and lawmakers have understandably turned their attention to implementing stronger school security measures to prevent such atrocities from happening again. In fact, many states have enacted or proposed legislation to provide additional funds to schools for metal detectors, surveillance cameras, bulletproof glass, locked gates, and law enforcement officers. Because increased security measures are unlikely to prevent someone determined to commit a violent act at school from succeeding, funding currently dedicated to school security can be put to better use by implementing alternative programs in schools that promote peaceful resolution of conflict.

He concludes:

The events at Newtown have caused all of us to deeply consider how to keep students safe at school. A natural response to this atrocity is to demand that lawmakers and school administrators invest our limited public funds into strict security measures. But this strategy is misguided. Empirical evidence suggests that these additional investments in security equipment and law enforcement officers may lead to further disparities along racial and economic lines. Further, it is imperative that all constituencies understand that there are more effective ways to address violence than resorting to coercive measures that harm the educational environment. Indeed, schools can make a tremendous impact in the lives of students by teaching students appropriate ways to resolve conflict and making them feel respected, trusted, and cared for. These are the types of schools that can make a real difference in the lives of students.

Read the full article, School Security Considerations After Newtown at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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The Stanford Law Review Online: Defending DOMA in Court

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Matthew I. Hall entitled How Congress Could Defend DOMA in Court (and Why the BLAG Cannot). Professor Hall argues that the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group lacks standing to defend DOMA:

In one of the most closely watched litigation matters in recent years, the Supreme Court will soon consider Edith Windsor’s challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The Court surprised many observers by granting certiorari, not only on the merits of Windsor’s equal protection and due process claims, but also on the question whether the defendants—the United States and the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the House of Representatives (the BLAG)—have Article III standing to defend DOMA. The United States has agreed with plaintiffs that DOMA is unconstitutional, prompting the BLAG to intervene for the purpose of defending DOMA’s constitutionality. No lower court has yet addressed whether the BLAG has standing, so the Supreme Court will have the first crack at the issue. But it turns out that the answer is straightforward: Under settled precedent, the BLAG lacks authority to represent either the United States or Congress, and having claimed no interest of its own, it therefore lacks Article III standing.

He concludes:

Congress could solve these problems by statute or resolution, but until it does so the BLAG is a mere bystander, with no stake in defending DOMA. This lack of standing may play a decisive role in the Windsor litigation. Both the BLAG and the executive branch defendants appealed the District Court’s judgment to the Second Circuit, and petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari. If the BLAG lacks standing, however, then it had no authority to appeal or to seek Supreme Court review, and the Court’s jurisdiction must turn on whether the United States, which has agreed with the plaintiff that DOMA is unconstitutional, has standing to proceed with the case. Interestingly, the BLAG itself has argued that no such standing exists—a controversial position that is beyond the scope of this short piece. But if the BLAG is correct, then there is no case or controversy before the Court, and the Court will have to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction. The widespread expectation that Windsor will be a significant decision appears to be well-founded. But it remains to be seen whether its significance will lie in the area of individual rights or in the areas of federal court jurisdiction and the separation of powers.

Read the full article, How Congress Could Defend DOMA in Court (and Why the BLAG Cannot) at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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How Young Should Voters Be?: 16-Year-Olds’ Entitlement to the Most Basic Civil Right [Part V]

This is the last in a series of posts on the voting age. In what is becoming a global trend, more than a dozen democratic nations have lowered their voting ages to 16, and others are seriously considering doing so. Two days from now (on Jan. 24), the House of Commons will debate a pending bill, the Voting Age (Comprehensive Reduction) Act 2013, which would set the voting age to 16 across the United Kingdom. Parliamentary assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and the self-governing British Crown Dependencies have already voted to do so. The United States is not among the democracies considering this issue, but it should be. As we extol the virtues of political participation to nascent democracies around the world, we should also remain open to reexamining our own electoral processes — particularly those that result in individuals’ categorical exclusion from political participation. (See my first post.)

It is time we too reexamined the voting age. It was lowered in 1972 from 21 to 18 to bring it in line with the draft age. “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote” remains catchy and has intuitive appeal, but the logic is questionable, as the ability to do one does not necessarily imply the ability — or inability — to do the other. We now know more about voter decision making in general, processes of cognitive development, and adolescent decision making in particular. This knowledge contributes to our ability to make better-informed assessments of what competent voting entails, and the age by which that competence is reliably attained.

Generally, our voter qualification rules aim to ensure would-be voters’ (1) interest in and ongoing connection to the political community; and (2) vote decision-making competence. The young are interested members of the community, so only their presumed lack of competence justifies their exclusion. Informed by empirical studies of voter decision making, I have argued for a cognitive-process-driven conception of vote decision-making competence (see my second post). I explained in my third post why this conception of competence would not operate to disfranchise current voters. A conception of vote decision-making competence instead provides us with a tool we currently lack — a principled standard against which to assess the age or age range by which typical individuals reliably attain the capacities that constitute competence. Upon reaching that age, individuals would, just as they do today, automatically gain the franchise. The state should then bear a heavy burden to disfranchise individuals presumptively entitled to vote but whose competence is nonetheless in question, such as adults with mental impairments. (For a thoughtful critique of individualized assessment tools advocated by some, see this article by Prof. Nina Kohn.)

I argued in my most recent post that 16- and 17-year-olds have attained the cognitive and decision-making capacities required for vote decision-making competence. That alone ought to justify their enfranchisement; their unwarranted exclusion diminishes our democratic legitimacy. (For an elaboration of the above arguments, see my recently-published article, Democratic Inclusion, Cognitive Development, and the Age of Electoral Majority.)

Correcting the arbitrary exclusion of this (competent) cohort of the political community is arguably the most powerful reason for enfranchising 16- and 17-year-olds. Lowering the voting age may also improve our democratic processes in other important ways. It may, for example lead to:

Increased Voter Knowledge: Public ignorance of basic civics, government, and politics is well established. Becoming eligible to vote while still enrolled in high school, however, makes lessons in civics/government more immediately relevant to students’ lives. That immediacy — the real-world application of acquired knowledge — can give students added enthusiasm and incentive to learn, and can provide educators with invaluable teaching tools. Currently, many students will leave high school before becoming eligible to vote, may no longer be in a structured educational setting once they do become eligible, and may wait several years before having the opportunity to vote in a presidential election. Their political disengagement is obviously not inevitable; we have simply lost an opportunity to impart lasting lessons, generate early enthusiasm, and encourage lasting habits (see below) of political engagement and participation.

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Just How Young Should Voters Be? Part IV: Assessing Adolescents’ Electoral Competence

Citizenship and suffrage go hand in hand. This series of posts, drawing on a recently-published  article,  considers the age-based exclusion of citizens younger than 18. A growing number of countries, as I noted in my first post, have lowered their voting ages to 16 or are considering doing so. The United States should be among those democracies reassessing the electoral exclusion of at least some cohort of its younger citizens.

Electoral standards have long required both (1) ongoing community connection and interest, and (2) vote decision-making competence. Individuals lacking either of these characteristics (or more precisely, the indicia of them reflected in specific voter qualification rules) are commonly disqualified from voting. Thus, voter qualification rules that require citizenship, residency, and law-abidingness presumably ensure that voters meet the first standard — community connection and interest. The young meet that standard. They are members of the political community, with significant interest in and ongoing connections to it. It is only their failure to meet the second standard — vote decision-making competence — that can justify their exclusion.

What Constitutes Vote Decision-Making Competence [Redux]? 

The state excludes citizens younger than 18 from the electorate because they have presumably not yet attained vote decision-making competence, but missing from this justification of their exclusion is a conception of that competence. Some conception of electoral competence — the basic capacities required for voting — is required before the state can credibly assess its attainment, or identify its absence. Age-based line drawing with respect to the development-related attainment of electoral competence is a practical necessity. The state owes its citizens its best effort (some effort) to first ascertain a principled yet pragmatic conception of electoral competence, then to assess young people’s attainment of it, and finally to draw the voting-age line in a manner consistent with that assessment. Otherwise, the state cannot meet its burden of justifying electoral exclusion.

What constitutes vote decision-making competence? Based on empirical studies of voter decision making, incorporating factual knowledge (of civics, politics, etc.) into a standard of electoral competence risks disfranchising much of the current electorate, and it is also unnecessary to ensuring correct vote decisions (those a voter would have made under conditions of full information, given the voter’s subjective values). I thus argued in my second post for a cognitive-process-driven conception of electoral competence. It requires “adultlike” rather than “mature” reasoning processes, because there is no universal state of maturity attained by all, or even most, adults. Requiring “mature” reasoning, like requiring factual knowledge, risks disfranchising many current voters.

I thus propose a conception of electoral competence in which a minimally competent voting decision involves an adultlike application and coordination of various reasoning processes to make a choice that could be justified by a good-enough reason.

The Development-Related Attainment of Vote Decision-Making Competence

Cognitive capacity improves more or less linearly throughout childhood and reaches adultlike levels by midadolescence. By age 15 or 16, adolescents are as able as adults to acquire, retain, and retrieve relevant information and apply to it reasoning processes that lead to justifiable conclusions. Researchers have consistently found the logical reasoning and information-processing abilities of 16-year-olds to be essentially indistinguishable from those of adults. According to developmental psychologist David Moshman, “[n]o theorist or researcher has ever identified a form or level of thinking routine among adults that is rarely seen in adolescence.”

But while they have adultlike abilities to think and reach rational judgments, adolescents’ capacities are more susceptible than are adults’ to being confounded by the real-world contexts in which they make decisions. When they must make decisions quickly or under pressure, or when they are highly emotional or stressed, adolescents’ performance suffers. In contexts in which adolescents are likely to make poor decisions — especially when their decisions will have negative externalities — the state properly constrains their decision-making liberty.

[For an elaboration of the context-specific nature of adolescent decision making, see here. For a discussion of neurologically-based models that have the potential to explain adolescents' poor decision making despite their mature cognitive abilities, as well as other aspects of adolescent psychology and behavior, see here.]

Elections are a decision-making domain in which adolescents’ cognitive-processing abilities would almost certainly remain uncompromised. Elections unfold over a period of time, giving voters the opportunity to deliberate and evaluate options without undue pressure. Many sources of information are readily available (televised debates, party affiliations, etc.), which serve as scaffolding or heuristics to help votes evaluate their choices. And voting itself is done anonymously and in private, which diminishes the concern that adolescents’ ultimate choices will be unduly pressured or dictated by their peers or others. (Ken A., in a comment to my previous post, mentioned the potentially undue influence of parents, but the intergenerational transfer of party affiliation seems to be a well-established fact of political life.)

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Just How Young Should Voters Be? Part III: Why We Need a Conception of Electoral Competence, and Its Implications for Adults with Cognitive Impairments

Professor Joey Fishkin raised several important questions in his comment to my previous post. I’d initially planned to set out a pretty streamlined version of my argument for lowering the voting age, but I think his questions merit a bit of a detour/elaboration.

Do We Really Want to Reintroduce Notions of Electoral Competence? Fishkin suggests that introducing a conception of electoral competence is potentially fraught. And he’s right–political elite have historically, and notoriously, invoked the supposed incompetence of various groups to justify their categorical disfranchisement. But competence as a basic criterion for voting has been a constant. Indeed, some notion of it is what justifies voting-age requirements. Only young people’s want of the relevant competence (however that competence is defined/conceptualized) can render legitimate their electoral exclusion.

There can be little dispute that newborns lack the relevant competence, or that individuals typically acquire it at some point over the course of their development. Development and age predictably correlate. There is thus a temporal element to the attainment of electoral competence, making age arguably the most reasonable proxy for it.

Competence-based arguments did not drive the nation to lower the voting age from 21 to 18; Congress’s lowering of the draft age did (see what is probably the most comprehensive history of the passage of the 26th Am., lowering the voting age: Wendell Cultice, Youth’s Battle for the Ballot). Is age 18 the most reliable indicator of electoral competence that we can identify today? To decide, I think we need to answer two questions: First, what is the most appropriate conception of electoral decision-making competence (discussed in my last post)? And second, is it possible to identify an age or age range by which that competence has reliably developed (next post)?

Does the Conception of Electoral Competence I Suggest Risk Disfranchising Segments of the Adult Population? Fishkin suggests that it could, but I don’t think so. I don’t propose that individual would-be voters would have to demonstrate that they meet this standard in order to qualify to vote. I concede the practicality of age as proxy for electoral competence. I advance a conception of competence to guide a reevaluation of our current age-proxy and, if appropriate, establish a better, more empirically-grounded and principled one. We would assess the age or age range by which typical individuals reliably develop electoral decision-making competence. Individuals who attain the age of presumptive competence (just as they do today) would automatically gain the franchise.

The standard for electoral competence I argue for requires certain thinking/reasoning capacities (these attend normal individual development, which may be improved by, but does not require, specific levels or types of learning). Some individuals may meet this standard prior to attaining the presumptive age of competence; some will reach the presumptive age of competence (and gain the franchise) without having attained the typical capacities  Such slippage is the nature of proxies.

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