Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Best Smoking Ban is Not Trying to Ban Students From Smoking Cigarettes

Let’s all attempt to be amiable. As a former smoker, I find cigarettes viscerally disgusting, but I also know that smokers need to smoke. And I don’t believe that our administration has the right to coerce students into behavior that it feels are in their best interests.

Traditionally, in this country, we have only allowed intrusions on our freedom for the excellent reason of preventing other more serious incursions. This is how the campus-wide smoking ban is being sold— as a way to protect innocent, nonsmoking students from those who choose to poison themselves.

The problem is that the benchmark secondhand smoke studies we all know and love, such as a 1992 study by the Environmental Protection Agency, were done indoors.

Despite our professed love of freedom and self-determination, Americans have always accepted reasonable limits. For example, I can scream FIRE outside on the quad, if the whim strikes me, but if I did the same thing in a crowded lecture hall I might face legal repercussions.

We know that secondhand smoke is bad, because we’ve had it drilled into our heads or because we’re old enough to remember what a restaurant or bar filled with smoldering cigarettes smells like. And studies have shown that secondhand smoke is dangerous indoors.

The problem is that all studies on the danger of secondhand smoke outdoors have been attempts to prove that you can draw a meaningful parallel between outdoor cigarette smoke and the indoor cigarette smoke we know is a hazard.

This is the premise of a study claiming to be the first to directly measure human exposure to tobacco smoke outdoors. As the author of the study emphasized, directly measuring human exposure to outdoor tobacco smoke is crucial to understanding its health effects.

One researcher concluded that, “this thing, [outdoor secondhand smoke], that critics have been dismissing as trivial, is not,” in a press release.

Yet in the study he claimed was the first publication of peer-reviewed data of outdoor secondhand smoke concentrations, researchers hoping to cement the deadly reputation of outdoor smoke instead demonstrated its fundamental harmlessness.

The study, “Real Time Measurement of Outdoor Smoke Particles,” published by Stanford in 2007, found that within about eight to 18 inches of a cigarette, there are dangerous levels of smoke. From three to six feet away, those levels drop by half, or more, and at six feet, “levels near single cigarettes were generally close to background.”

So, from six feet away, the level of toxic, cancer-causing smoke from a cigarette is the same as it is anywhere else you might be standing, said the study.

There’s more. Unlike secondhand smoke indoors, when outdoors your exposure drops to zero soon after the offending cigarette is put out. Confirming that our intuitive understanding of the dangers of secondhand smoke is often valid, you have a greater risk of exposure if you’re standing downwind of the cigarette.

The study does show that patios and other semi-enclosed areas can create more harmful effects. This finding validates the 20-foot smoking ban we already have in front of entrances and exists and in patio type areas, but it does not justify expanding that ban to the entire campus.

Staying six feet away from a smoker also sounds reasonable; but only if you turn it around on the smoker. Smoking while walking down a crowded street, or quad, is rude. We already know that it is rude to blow smoke in a strangers face, and if that’s the problem, we need to think of a better way to solve it than an outright smoking ban.

Since the public safety argument is nonsense, advocates for outdoor smoking bans try to reinforce that invalid argument with others featuring esthetics and concern for the health of the smoker. All these arguments show is that the only morally or legally sound argument for banning smoking outside, which is public health, is woefully inadequate.

If you are concerned for the health of your smoking peers, consider that I am concerned for your health as well, and would dearly love to ban all sugar from our campus for that reason.

For a look at the real motivations behind the ban, consider Stan Hebert, who chairs CSU East Bay’s Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Committee. In an interview with The Pioneer, he cited smoking cessation resources as an appropriate way for smokers on campus to deal with the upcoming smoking ban.

This suggests that he sees quitting smoking as the expected response to a campus wide smoking ban. And an attempt to force students, staff, and faculty to quit smoking is very different from protecting the health of nonsmokers.

I am simply calling for civility on both sides. Hopefully if the administration concedes smokers the right to exist, they will make a greater effort to smoke away from nonsmokers and dispose of their butts properly. If they do not, I would certainly support policy requiring them to do so.

This post was published in The Pioneer on Thursday, May 9th, 2013.

Don't Blame the Victims; Change Ourselves

Although our national epidemic of rape and sexual assault has been getting more attention lately, we still live in a culture that seems dedicated to exonerating rapists and punishing victims. A sinister new form, or at least a degree of this lies cultural mythology in an academic paper titled “Psychopathy and Victim Section: The Use of Gait as a Cue to Vulnerability,” and the media’s response to it.

It concluded psychopaths could accurately predict the victimization history of people they see walking in a video.

The more psychopathic they were, the better they performed this task and the more likely they were to be consciously looking for gait as a cue to vulnerability.

For context, the top three factors a psychopath considered when selecting a victim in the study were sex, size, and perceived threat. Several other academic criminology papers have concluded that gait, or the way you walk, is a valid predictor of past victimization.

Their results are facts, and carry no moral value, but when making recommendations the authors’ assigned responsibility for preventing assault on victims by writing “social predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability.”

Contrast their phrase with “social predators are excellent at perceiving and evaluating unconscious nonverbal cues.”

Say it my way and you might think, “Those are some scary predators. We’d better do something about them.”

Say it their way and you apparently conclude that since teaching women to alter their gait loses effectiveness over time, teaching them to think differently might be a more effective way to prepare them for the possibility of future assault.

The media’s reaction to this study is even more disturbing, typified by the title of this blog post on Psychology Today’s website: “Do Victims Deserve Some Blame?”

No. From the day I was born until the day I die or the ghosts of my mother and sister and lovers and friends stop haunting me. No.

The FBI gives psychopaths about 1 percent of population. Another common number, stemming from a 2011 report by the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is that nearly 1 in 5 women, or roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population, has been victimized. That is only counting sexual assault and rape.

Why suggest that women must change either how they act or how they think to avoid being victimized?

And that’s just to deter the subset of potential assaulters who will study their gait and weigh it when deciding whether or not to victimize them.

Why can we dare tell women to do such invasive things in order to walk down the street safely?

This is one reason that we need to look at violence by men.

Does that phrase offend you? Men are overwhelmingly responsible for violent assaults, including rape, against both men and women. Calling this problem “violence against women” helps you believe that fault lies in the victim: Shouldn’t they have defended themselves better?

We cannot ask women to reduce assault by changing themselves; we need to change men to stop them from assaulting people. We need to change our culture so that assault and rape and harassment are unacceptable and we need to change our legal system so that these crimes have real, consistent consequences.

These victim blamers try to justify themselves by saying they are trying to prevent repeated victimization.

That is an admirable goal, but if it is used to distract from the fact that those women should not have been victimized in the first place, that it is unacceptable to live in a country that allows this to happen, that in America, women have to change who they are in order to avoid repeated assault, it becomes part of the problem.

Victims do not need to change; America does.

Jackson Katz is one of the best-known proponents of a possible solution called the bystander approach model.

This idea draws a parallel between sexism, homophobia and racism. We do not use ethnic slurs just because we find ourselves surrounded by members of our own race; in the same way that being surrounded by straight men would give me no excuse to use homophobic epithets.

If someone violated those social norms their friends would shut them down. This kind of social pressure makes it clear that prejudiced behavior and beliefs are unacceptable.

We need to give up the idea that the words used to oppress women are harmless when women are not around. Is there a proper way to act around women and a different, manly way to act around men?

That’s patriarchy, and that’s the foundation of our rape culture.

You may not think that rape culture is something that you have been a part of, or even a bystander to.
What we all need to understand is that this is not enough; passive denunciation and disgust is not enough; only through active resistance to rape culture in all circumstances from the routine to the horrific can we become the change our society needs.

We, men, collectively, have to do better if we are going to help our sisters, mothers, daughters, teachers, friends and colleagues create a world in which they do not have to live in fear.

This post was published in The Pioneer on Thursday, May 16th, 2013.

Listen to an Autistic Person for Autism Awareness Month: Bring in the Blue Light

It’s Autism Awareness Month, and you may have noticed inexplicable blue lights popping up on the skyline, your Facebook feed, maybe even the porch of a neighbor. These blue lights are part of the autism awareness month campaign. I am so sensitive to them I have lost any perspective on a normal person’s reaction, and realize that for many the lights are invisible.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum, as an adult. Those blue lights are supposed to show support for people on the autism spectrum, like me, by supporting an organization called Autism Speaks. It is the largest autism advocacy, research, lobbying and support services organization in the country.
But when I see those blue lights, my heart breaks. When I see those blue lights I see a burning cross. I see the genocide of my people approaching, smiling, wearing my name.
I see these things because Autism Speaks is run by parents and clinicians, and the leaders of those two groups have decided that I am a painful, dangerous, potentially fatal burden to my family and community.
If I could, they reason, I would prefer to be reborn without autism, or even to never have been born at all. That is what you are talking about when you are talking about a cure, the end of autism.
Which sounds great when Autism Speaks labels me a growing epidemic, but autism is not a cold that I could easily be rid of. Autism is not infectious. It is a pervasive developmental disorder, and it has been a par of my brain’s function for as long as I’ve had one.
If you want to remove the autism from my brain you would have to strip my memories and consciousness back to infancy and start over. That is not curing me of a disease: it is destroying me.
Beyond that, the cure I was just talking about is a thought experiment. In a practical sense, the only way we could ‘cure’ autism anytime soon is the same way we’ve come close to ‘curing’ Down’s Syndrome: aborting autistic babies before they are born.
I have no intention of allowing them to genocide my people. I don’t think you want that either.
A vast community of autistic self-advocates are sharing their experiences and reclaiming the right to speak for themselves. If this diverse group has a rallying cry, it is “Nothing About Us Without Us,” to which it was introduced by the wider disability rights community. Their condemnation of Autism Speaks is nearly universal, and their arguments, and stories, are painfully persuasive.
One such advocate is blogger thecaffeinatedautistic, whose post “You aren’t my friend if you Light It Up Blue,” sums up an emerging gestalt in the following quote.
“You are not my friend if you participate KNOWINGLY in an event that was created by an organization who portrays autistic people as burdens, who for a long time were very anti-vaccine in their rhetoric, who have filmed a then-member of their board talking about her thoughts about killing her autistic child and herself (but didn’t because her NT child needed her), and who silences autistic people, removing the very mention of us from our own stories, because clearly, portraying us as capable would ruin the image they are attempting to portray of us."
The most personally terrifying story is that of Paul Corby, who was denied a heart transplant, at the age of twenty-three, because he is autistic. His might seem like an extreme case, but all autistics live in fear that we will suddenly be identified as leper, as unclean, as the other, and be cast aside because all you crazy, normal people don’t even believe that we are fully human.  
Which is why this is such a wonderful problem: once everyone believes autistic people are fully human, that we have all the same rights, responsibilities, desires and idiosyncrasies as any other person, albeit arranged slightly differently, the problem disappears.
Ask yourself, “Is autism scary to me?” If it is, try reading pieces written by autistic people about their experiences. I honestly believe that hearing someone talk about autism from their own perspective is will always make autism seem less frightening.
This is also true for parents. Although I will never understand your family or your child as you do, when your child grows up there are many ways in which they will be more like me than you, and your best chance of understanding these differences, and your child, is listening to people like me.
This is also Autism Acceptance Month, and that’s what I hope you will celebrate. Celebrate accepting autistic people into your communities, into your lives. 1 in 88 people are autistic, after all. Imagine how many of us you already know.  

All that we are asking for is a chance to step out of the closet, and into the light of day. To be able to flap, stim, toe walk and refuse to make eye contact without fear of reprisal just for looking weird.