7 posts from March 2011

March 28, 2011

Children in Poverty

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

60 Minutes recently aired a story about children living in families so hard hit hard by the recession that they had become homeless.

 

Poverty is one of those subjects that many of us often prefer not to think about. Child poverty is a particularly difficult issue to broach, despite the fact that more than one in five American children now live under the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

As you can see from the graph below, children are the age group most likely to live in poverty. While the elderly used to have higher poverty rates, by the mid-1970s those rates declined dramatically, likely in part as a result of federal programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Overall, far fewer people of all ages live in poverty now that they did 50 years ago. However, poverty rates have been rising in recent years, due in large part to the recession. The economic downturn has hit children particularly hard. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (NCCP), currently 15 million children live below the FPL and the percentage of children in poverty rose 33 percent between 2000 and 2009. NCCP suggests that families actually need to earn at least twice the FPL to be economically stable. They estimate that 31 million live in low income families, or 42 percent of American children. clip_image001

While white children comprise the largest raw number of children in poverty, African American/Black, American Indian, and Hispanic/Latino children are disproportionally more likely to live in poverty compared with white or Asian children. Children of all ethnicities who live in single mother headed households are also more likely to live in poverty.

clip_image003

clip_image004

And as you can see from the graph below, child poverty varies regionally. Children in the South have the highest poverty rates, with Mississippi’s topping out at just over 30 percent. (Puerto Rico, an American territory, has a child poverty rate of 55.9 percent.)

By contrast, the Northeast and Plains states have the lowest child poverty level, with New Hampshire the nation’s lowest at 9.5 percent.

Percent of Children under 18 in Poverty, past 12 months

clip_image006clip_image008

Source: American Community Survey 2005-2009, U.S. Census

The NCCP’s data challenges several common beliefs about children in poverty: that it is the result of parents who won’t work, who have too many kids, and who experience generational poverty.

As the 60 Minutes story suggests, children in poverty are most likely poor as the result of a major disruptive change in their family: a lost job, an illness, divorce, or death. According to the NCCP, “Most of these children have parents who work, but low wages and unstable employment leave their families struggling to make ends meet.” The NCCP’s research also dispels several myths:

Family poverty in the U.S. is typically depicted as a static, entrenched condition, characterized by large numbers of children, chronic unemployment, drugs, violence, and family turmoil. But the realities of poverty and economic hardship are very different.

Americans often talk about “poor people” as if they are a distinct group with uniform characteristics and somehow unlike the rest of “us.” In fact, there is great diversity among children and families who experience economic hardship. Research shows that many stereotypes just aren’t accurate: a study of children born between 1970 and 1990 showed that 35 percent experienced poverty at some point during their childhood; only a small minority experienced persistent and chronic poverty. And more than 90 percent of low-income single mothers have only one, two, or three children.

Given that poverty often comes after a child’s birth, it is too simple to just suggest that poor people not have children. What other factors might reduce the growing number of children living in poverty?

March 24, 2011

Distance Learning: Lowering Higher Education?

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

Am I the last to know? That’s what I’m wondering now. You have no idea what I’m talking about so let’s start at the beginning.

When I started teaching online, I had never taken an online class. After all, I went to school in the prehistoric days, before everyone had a computer. I was on the cutting edge with my IBM 286—my first—as a senior!

My closest association with distance learning was my husband. He completed an entire degree online, and while I never saw the materials he used, I saw him poring over books and working on the computer for hours. Based on this sample of one, I figured online education was similar to “on the ground” education. And even though I’m not a techie, I am quite into tech toys and feel pretty fearless about trying new technologies, I waltzed into the experience with complete confidence!

Then reality hit. I took an online course to learn how to use the learning management system, Blackboard (Bb). I had heard of it, but never seen Bb in operation. Simply finding my way around Bb to take the course was a bit more of a challenge than I anticipated.

Here are some of the questions I had: What is a discussion board? Why are people telling me (and everyone else) their life stories in their introductions? Where is the paper? I was so used to holding paper when I studied that reading everything on a computer screen was very disorienting. I couldn’t underline or write on the screen the way I was used to doing when I studied.

My panic began when my manager started giving me regular reminders that I needed to develop my course—months before I was due to begin teaching. I couldn’t understand why I had to do this so early nor how I would do it. I passed the Bb course but didn’t feel much clearer on what I was doing, because I had no clear picture of how I would teach in this medium. How was I going to lecture? Was there a video camera somewhere? Where was I going to work out problems for the statistics course?

Finally, my manager provided some more direction, but if I understood what was required of me, I didn’t have to do a lecture! I thought that was odd, but I was happy that I was on the road to doing what was asked of me. So I created tests, and discussion questions based on concepts. And with that, I was done…at least with the set-up!

clip_image002I emphasized my availability to answer questions and explain concepts to students but they didn’t take me up on those offers. So what was I being paid for exactly? Don’t misunderstand; all of the setting-up took lots of time. And I did take time grading the discussion forums and  was very conscientious about responding promptly to students' emails. But where was the instruction? So many people are highly phobic about math and all things number-related that I really wanted to be able to show students how easy (and fun!) statistics could be.

When I teach statistics on campus, I demonstrate each new type of problem on the board (sometimes more than once) before having everyone in the class work on similar problems. Students can work on their own or in groups and I walk around to offer direction. This is how most of my students get it. I see them copying the steps from the board and coaching each other along. Regardless of their learning style—most of us are one or a combination of visual, verbal, active, reflective, sensing or intuitive learners—this method of teaching has something for everyone.

Contrast this with my online course and I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of learner does well with a textbook, tests, and weekly opportunities to discuss concepts. I still can’t think of any and so I learned how to add lectures and demonstrations to my online courses. This effort was costly, both because I had to buy the necessary techie toys, and because it took hours to learn another technology and then use it.

 

clip_image004The big surprise came when students told me that after many years of taking on-line courses, these were their very first lectures! I also heard from colleagues that the on-line courses they are familiar with have no lectures!

Am I the last to find out that I didn’t need to go through all of this to produce lectures? I think I owe my students my expertise as a teacher to help them learn; what responsibilities do schools have for helping their students process information? Why are there tuition costs associated with self-study courses?

This documentary, College Inc., discusses the inability of community colleges to meet the demands of the student market. “For profit” schools have filled this hole, catering to adult learners with online courses, but does educational quality suffer in this format? If so, is that necessarily the case? Do online courses that lack lectures impact the quality of higher education?

March 21, 2011

American Values: Are We Really Divided?

BakerPhoto2005 By Wayne Baker andgc Gayle Campbell

www.OurValues.org

http://www.facebook.com/OurValues.org

Flipping through T.V. channels or scanning the web, one hears all sorts of conversations about values in America. But one in particular seems to be invading our living rooms: political vitriol. Talk show hosts hype up hot-button social issues, politicians announce their refusal to compromise with their rivals, and even supposedly objective news sources disproportionately allocate coverage. Polarization is popular, and the media seizes upon that. But is the way the media portrays the issues necessarily indicative of the way Americans feel? If this is true, only one conclusion can be reached: Americans are more sharply divided than ever, especially when it comes to the most important values.

But are we truly divided? Keep reading and you will find that, according to four national polls Wayne conducted during the past two years, there are, indeed, shared core American values. The research on core values comes from the Americans' Evolving Values Surveys, led by Baker and conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research in June 2009, December 2009, March 2010 and September 2010. The purpose was to create a barometer of American values, and the target population was randomly-selected adults, 18 or older, living in the U.S.

These are guiding principles that are strongly and widely held, shared across demographic lines, and stable over time. Here we outline the Top 8 core values that Americans share:

1. Patriotism: The vast majority of Americans say that seeing the flag or hearing the national anthem makes them feel good. Maybe the more significant value Americans hold dear is the manner in which they choose to criticize the U.S—lovingly. The majority of Americans say that if they oppose some U.S. policies, it is because they want to improve the country. So even when people have different opinions about America, they still agree on core principles.

2. Belief in God-- About two-thirds of Americans say God is “very important” in their life, and this figure has not changed much over the decades. This value is uniquely American: Only 15 percent of the Dutch and of the Germans say God is very important in their lives, and less than a majority of our Canadian neighbors (46 percent) say the same. There are lots of disagreements about how this core belief in God is enacted and played out in American life, but belief in God is still a value that unites us.

3. Self-Reliance-- Individualism is coded in America’s DNA—the ideal of individual autonomy, liberty, and sovereignty goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson. Today, the influence of these values is still prevalent. Over 85 percent of Americans say they would rather depend on themselves than on others. About the same proportion say they rely on themselves most of the time.

4. Getting ahead-- American society is unique in the emphasis placed on achievement and success. Three of four Americans agree that getting ahead is important to them. Those who fail to get ahead suffer a defect of will, a lack of persistence, verve, or some other personal shortcoming. Most Americans recognize that forces larger than the individual affect our fates, yet this doesn’t change our strong-held faith in self-made achievement and success.

5. Equal Opportunities-- Well over 90 percent of Americans agree that everyone should have equal opportunities. The same can’t be said, however, for equality of outcomes. Many Americans support some version of this, but it’s far from a core value. While more than 70 percent of Americans believe the gap between rich and poor is too large, the solution to this problem leaves many divided. It’s the ability to have access to the same opportunities as others that truly unites us.

6. Freedom and Liberty--Freedom and liberty are deeply held American values that every generation inherits and passes on to the next. But their meaning is reinterpreted again and again. Almost all Americans agree, however, that freedom is being able to express unpopular ideas without fearing for one’s safety and having the right to participate in politics and elections. The meaning will continue to be debated—but the debate itself is a sign of health and freedom in our country.

7. Respect-- More than 90 percent of Americans agree that respect for people of different racial, ethnic and religious groups is important to them. This core value, however, gets complicated when it is applied. If minorities don’t do well in life, many Americans feel they have no one to blame but themselves. We proclaim respect for people of different race, ethnicities, and religions—but more than 70 percent of Americans say that immigrants should adopt American values. While Americans generally proclaim to value respect, we seem to put limits on it.

8. Free market-- Over 70 percent of Americans in each of the four polls I took agreed that the free market economy is best for our future. The polls were conducted in 2009 and 2010—bad times in our economy—so the economic recession hasn’t had a significant impact on this value. Free market ideology is intertwined with other core values:  freedom and liberty, individualism, achievement, and equality.

As you can see here, Americans have far more in common than the news media and political campaigns will admit. Knowing there are core American values is important, especially in troubled times when political discourse has become more polarized and uncivil. While Americans may not agree on how each core value should be acted upon, it’s important to remember that our general consensus on core values ultimately unites us.

March 16, 2011

Research Methods and Studying Sex

new sallyBy Sally Raskoff

Sexual behavior is challenging to measure. Alfred Kinsey famously studied sex in the mid-twentieth century, and although groundbreaking, his study relied on convenience sampling which prevents us from being able to generalize the results to the entire population.

The National Health and Social Life Survey (NHSLS), conducted in 1992, has been considered a more scientifically rigorous study. Two more recent studies, the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) and the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB) provide us with a more current picture of sexual behavior in America.

The NHSLS, NSSHB, and NSFG are all national probability samples, which means that we can generalize the findings to the larger population even though they didn’t survey everyone in the country.

The older NHSLS is based on 3,432 respondents (1,901 women, 1,531 men), ages 18-59. The NSFG is sampled an astounding 13,495 people (6,139 men, 7,356 women), ages 15 to 44. The NSSHB sampled the largest age range, including 5,865 people (2,929 women, 2,936 men,), ages 14 to 94.

The findings from all these studies are quite interesting--and not just because they have to do with sexual behavior.

Each study asked about sexual orientation identity. The older NHSLS data showed 98.6% of women and 96.9% of men said they were heterosexual, 0.9% women and 2.0% men said homosexual, gay, or lesbian, and 0.5% and 0.8% men said they were bisexual.

The newer studies show slightly different data:

Sexual Orientation

NSSHB

2009

WOMEN

14-17

18-70+

NSFG, 2006-2008 18-44

Heterosexual

90.5

93.1

93.7

Homosexual, Gay, or Lesbian

0.2

0.9

1.1

Bisexual

8.4

3.6

3.5

MEN

14-17

18-70+

18-44

Heterosexual

96.1

92.2

95.7

Homosexual, Gay, or Lesbian

1.8

4.2

1.7

Bisexual

1.5

2.6

1.1

Source: NSFG: Tables 12 & 13; NSSHB: Table 1.

The table above shows the primacy of the heterosexual category, with which most people identify. However, comparing data on identity to those based on behavior, a fascinating pattern emerges: Identity does not always match behavior.

Sexual Behavior

WOMEN

MEN

NSFG (2006-2008)

15-24

15-24

Any Opposite Sex Contact

70.1

71.7

Any Same Sex Contact

13.4

4.0

No Sexual Contact with another person

28.6

27.2

Source: NSFG: Table 7.

Notice how the identity data patterns show very few people aligning with the homosexual or bisexual categories. Yet when asked about homosexual or bisexual behavior, much higher percentages appear.

Since both studies utilize probability samples, they are both representative of the larger population. There can be some sampling error, wherein some groups might be systematically excluded in ways that might bias the data. When this happens one sample may not fully represent its population. Is that what’s happening here? Or is there more going on?

Part of the answer might lie with methodology. The NHSLS used face-to-face interviews and focus groups. The NSFG used in-person interviews using “Audio Computer Assisted Self-Interviewing” technology. The NSSHB used “Research Panels accessed through Knowledge Networks” via the internet, although they did provide hardware and internet access when necessary. When dealing with a sensitive subject like sex, how the data are collected will have a big impact on the results.

Another clue would rest with the different ways the questions were asked. Each study asked about the issues in slightly different ways.

For the NSFG, what was considered “sexual behavior” was different if it was same-sex or other-sex contact. For the NSSHB, questions were about specific behaviors based on who were their partners.

While the studies were conducted at different times, that is not necessarily problematic. Cultural patterns such as these do not tend to shift quickly.

Our scientific techniques for high-quality research are based on systematic methodologies. Because such techniques can yield different results we need to replicate or repeat research studies as often as possible. Many studies on the same topic can give us a lot of data patterns which then can be compared and compiled so that we can see more clearly what is going on in our social world. What other factors do you think might create more high-quality data on sensitive issues like this one?

March 11, 2011

Dangerous Beauty: Gender and Social Structure

KS_2010aBy Karen Sternheimer

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Dangerous Beauty, a musical based on the book The Honest Courtesan: Veronica Franco, Citizen and Writer in Sixteenth Century Venice (there was also a film version of the book released in 1998). I hadn’t read the book before seeing the play, and knew very little about courtesans, other than thinking that the name was a fancy word for a high-end prostitute of the past.

At its core, the play is a love story between a senator’s son and a young woman of modest means in sixteenth century Venice. Her father had died and the family fortune had disappeared, so she had no dowry to offer in marriage. With few other choices outside of marriage, her mother encouraged her to take up her own former profession and become a courtesan.

Without knowing more about the social structure of sixteenth century Venice, it is tempting to react from a twenty-first century place of judgment: who would encourage her daughter to sell her body? Both the play and the book help us answer this question and offer us a better understanding of the context of gender during that place and time.

Veronica Franco was a poet living during the Counter Reformation, a time when the Catholic Church sought to regain dominance after the Protestant Reformation. Women in sixteenth century Venice would likely receive little education, no matter how wealthy their family. Families often arranged marriages for political expediency or to consolidate wealth, and women were expected to be subservient to their husbands—many of whom were practically strangers by contemporary western standards.

clip_image002For women from families without wealth, power, or prestige, marriage could be difficult to arrange. But becoming a courtesan was more than just a way to make money. As we learn in the play, courtesans were allowed to be educated and to enter libraries, unlike their married counterparts.

Just as Franco was a poet, many courtesans were artists, musicians, and writers. They could essentially live independently and have careers of their own despite tight restrictions on women’s lives during the time. As in the play, courtesans often knew as much about politics world affairs as the powerful men they served, and were valued for their wit and knowledge as well as for their sexual services.

Of course it is important not to glamorize courtesans. In a poignant moment in the play a woman of means asks if Franco would teach her daughter to be a courtesan so that she might have more freedom someday. Franco responds that although she appears to be free, she too is confined, although her cage might be a bit bigger.

Courtesans—just like other women living independently throughout history—were likely to be accused of witchcraft during periods of heightened social control. Franco herself was arrested during the Inquisition. (I won’t spoil the ending in case you see the play someday too).

After the play, I attended a small gathering that included the author of The Honest Courtesan, Margaret F. Rosenthal, professor of Italian at the University of Southern California. Along with other faculty members and students, we talked about her research on Franco’s life and the lives of women during sixteenth century Venice. Despite the tendency to look back and think that people just accepted—or even embraced—the proscribed roles of women in the past, she noted how many women like Franco resisted as best they could.

Franco had published her poetry, no small feat for any writer at the time. Here are a few lines of one of her poems, translated from Italian:

“When we women, too, have weapons and training,
we will be able to prove to all men
that we have hands and feet and hearts like yours.”
(capitolo 16, lines 64-66)

The group toasted Veronica Franco, and the freedom to be educated women in western societies enjoy today. I thought about what my life might have been like had I lived in that place and time, and I thought about other parts of the world that today are not that different than Venice was in the sixteenth century—where girls and women receive little education and often have few options to support themselves financially.

March 08, 2011

Wrongfully Convicted, 35 Years Later

new janisBy Janis Prince Inniss

clip_image002How much money would you be willing to accept to give up five years of your life? How about 10 or 20? How would you decide on an amount? Would you accept $1.7 million to give up 35 years?

If you sat out the last 35 years what would you have missed? Maybe your entire life! If you were to list the possessions you are most attached to, high on the list might be the cell phone, the Ipod, the (personal) computer and many related things including the internet, YouTube, Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter. Imagine life without any of these goodies. For James Bain, this is no idle exercise, as he has lost 35 years of a free life and is currently awaiting $1.7 million as restitution for the mistakes that imprisoned him.

clip_image004The name James Bain meant nothing to me before December 2009. It’s a name that I’m unlikely to forget now though. I remember seeing Bain at a news conference that December—I think I watched it live—and I was struck! I wasn’t star struck; Bain is not a celebrity, but I was struck by the simple, zen-like calm that emanated from him as he spoke to a small crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Polk county, Florida. There is something gentle about Bain; it’s hard to imagine him in a prison of tough guys. But in December 2009, Bain was released from prison after spending 35 years there.

In 1974, a nine-year-old boy living in Lake Wales, Florida was plucked from his bed and raped. The boy’s description of his attacker led his uncle to think that he may have been James Bain, who was a student at the high school where the uncle worked as an assistant principal . There is some debate about whether the victim was steered towards doing so, but he selected Bain as his attacker from a photo lineup. So despite 19- year-old Jimmy Bain’s protests that he was at home with his twin sister at the time of the crime, he was tried and convicted of kidnapping and raping the child. Bain, who had no prior criminal record, protested his innocence all along, but off he went to prison.

I’ve heard the joke that everybody in prison is innocent, so Bain’s protestations didn’t necessarily mean he wasn’t guilty. Over the years, Bain tried to get DNA testing of the victim’s clothing, but his appeals were all denied. Attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida were able to get DNA testing done in July of 2009, proving that Bain was falsely imprisoned. He was imprisoned for 35 years for a crime he did not commit! He spent all of his 20s in prison. And all of his 30s. And his 40s. And he began his 50s in prison. At the time of his release, Bain had spent more time in prison than any one else in the U.S. who was eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

If we think of the life course perspective that chunks life into stages, James Bain missed transitional adulthood, which is the name for the stage of those ages 18-29. Bain began his sentence at a time during which many of us attend college and then begin our careers. By the end of the 20s many are dating or married and have professional degrees or licenses. Bain didn’t get his driver’s license until age 55 and he plans to get a GED and take the state of Florida up on its offer to pay for his college tuition.

Bain also spent what is referred to as the early middle years (ages 30-49) in prison. In the free world, people at that life stage often experience career shifts and divorce. Bain left prison at 53—the beginning of what is called the later middle years (ages 50-65)—a time at which people generally begin to think about their mortality as they encounter health problems. At 55, Bain is engaged to a woman who has a young child and was seeking employment, events that had he been out of prison would have likely taken place in his 20s. Also, in his 50s, he attended his first NFL football game.

What are your reactions to Bain’s story? How much do you think he should be paid by the state for all that he missed? (More than a year after his release, Bain appears to be experiencing bureaucratic gridlock; although the state has promised to pay him $1.7 million, he has not received a single dollar yet.) How much is it worth not to get an education or start a family? Or never to have used a cell phone? Or to miss being with family and friends?

Is it inevitable that as a society we will incarcerate some portion of people who are innocent? The Innocence Project , an organization which exists to free wrongfully convicted people, has exonerated more than 260 people since its creation in 1992. What, if anything, do you think needs to be changed in the criminal justice system to ensure that The Innocence Project is no longer needed?

 

March 04, 2011

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life

todd_S_2010aBy Todd Schoepflin

Silence and Denial in Everyday Life is the subtitle of a powerfully insightful book, The Elephant in the Room by sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel.  I came across this gem a few years ago and it has since become one of my favorite books.

Surely you’ve heard the phrase “elephant in the room,” which refers to something obvious that is being ignored. It can be a problem or controversial issue that is overlooked for a variety of reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear, or because the subject is taboo. As Zerubavel explains, silence is a practical way of avoiding painful or controversial issues, and so we might “look the other way” instead of confronting a problem or discussing a delicate matter.

But why else do people remain silent in the face of controversial issues? According to Zerubavel, one answer is norms about remaining silent or ignoring information. For example, think about sayings in our culture about keeping quiet like “Bite your tongue,” “Button your lip,” and “Silence is golden.”

Other sayings that tell us we shouldn’t seek out information: “Ignorance is bliss,” “What you don’t know won’t hurt you,” “Look the other way,” “Turn a blind eye.” There are also common expressions to discourage us from getting involved in matters that supposedly don’t involve us, like “Don’t rock the boat” and “Mind your own business.” elephant in the room cover

Zerubavel uses the example of the policy for gays and lesbians in the military that was enacted during Bill Clinton’s first term as President: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Not asking and not telling doesn’t mean there aren’t gays and lesbians serving in the military! It’s a perfect example of ignoring an obvious elephant in the room. As you may know, this policy was recently repealed.

Here’s a scenario as another example of an elephant in the room: Suppose three couples get together who’ve been good friends for many years. Two couples have happy and healthy children but the third couple has no children. It is evident from conversations over the years that the third couple wants to have children, but it is not exactly known why they don’t. Has there been a miscarriage? Can they not get pregnant? Would they consider adopting? As the two other couples’ children run around and laugh and play, tension hangs in the room. The absence of children for the third couple is a sensitive matter. What, if anything, should be said?

It is possible, Zerubavel suggests, that we learn to be quiet about serious things and to be tactful about trivial things. For instance, what do you do if a co-worker you don’t know very well has their fly open? Do you say anything? If an acquaintance has food stuck in their teeth, do you tell them?

Although these are trivial matters, there are norms about being tactful in handling (or ignoring) them. It might be the case that being polite about not so serious things teaches us to be polite about very serious things. This is not to say that anyone who ignores someone’s open zipper will automatically ignore a substantially serious matter; it is only to say that norms in non-serious situations may carry over to serious ones.

Think about all the times you’ve been told gossip and the conversation ends with a reminder like “This stays between us” and “This doesn’t leave the room.” Could it be that, in effect, we are trained to ignore things or keep our mouths shut when it comes to significant and serious problems? Do you feel like a good friend is drinking way too much lately but you don’t say anything? Are you concerned that another good friend is unsafe with regard to sexual activity but you mind your own business? Do you ignore signs that a family member is suffering from an eating disorder?

If so, are you subscribing to the notion that “Some things are better left unsaid”?

In cases like this we might feel like it’s not our place to get involved. But if it’s not our place, whose place is it? Is it possible that we’re too concerned with minimizing conflict and keeping social interaction smooth? I’m not suggesting we always open our mouths because, in reality, some things are better left unsaid. There are times when “loose lips sink ships.” But there are also times when things are better said. For instance, like this campaign says, drinking and driving should never be the elephant in the room.

In a very powerful point, Zerubavel reminds us that silence, in some cases, is consent. If we don’t say anything, we essentially condone improper behavior and the person responsible for it might view his or her actions as acceptable. He gives the example of a woman who pretends not to notice that her husband is molesting their daughter. As he says, her silence enables the abuse because it conveys approval. Zerubavel uses the phrase “conspiracy of silence” to describe this type of situation.

Silence prevents us from confronting (and consequently solving) problems and controversial issues. Breaking a conspiracy of silence can start with an acknowledgment that an issue (an “elephant”) is present and will not go away by itself. This is why, as the author explains, breaking silence can be a moral act.

In the beginning of the book, he provides a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.” A quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. is appropriate because he exemplifies the importance of not keeping quiet in the face of inequality and injustice. Indeed, civil rights leaders usually don’t look the other way and they actually do rock the boat.

And society is better off for many a leader having challenged the status quo. We can’t forget the fact that disrupting the existing order is a key ingredient in facilitating social change. The quote is so powerful because it implies that it’s not enough to not be a bad person. The so-called “good people” who don’t say or do anything about cruel behavior or longstanding social problems can be thought of as tacitly condoning the misdeeds of others and accepting the consequences of unsolved problems.

We aren’t powerless in the face of disturbing situations or intimidating societal problems. People who engage in protests are an example of people who don’t look the other way. And some people do tackle problems and troubling issues, such as an employee who confronts company wrongdoing (a so-called “whistleblower”). For example, The Insider is a movie about a scientist who takes on the tobacco industry because he knew nicotine is more dangerous and addicting than the industry claimed. Another example of someone who does not ignore an elephant is a person who organizes an intervention to deal with a family member’s drug addiction. Watch any episode of Intervention and you’ll see it isn’t easy to break the silence about a family member whose life has spiraled out of control.

Of course, not all of the examples I mention are equivalent. A couple who has trouble getting pregnant is obviously very different from a man who molests a child. How we respond in troubling situations (and whether we say anything) will often depend on a variety of factors. Furthermore, we can’t protest all of the world’s problems all of the time. But the common point in the examples is that we may too often err on the side of silence. Maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to button our lips. Maybe we should take a more active role in fighting the problems that surround us.

There’s so much to learn from reading The Elephant in the Room. It’s one of those books that can change the way you think, and it might even change the way you act.

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