Why I Don’t Give a Damn About My Bad Reputation

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Young people get a pretty bad rap these days. Chances are, you’ve seen more than one article or op-ed from a credited news source lamenting the dismal performance of “millennials” – a term used in media to lump anyone born between the early 1980s and late 2000s into one single category. Often times, the language used could almost be referring to a different species. Google the term, and you get pages of headlines like, “Five Tips for Managing Millennials,” or “The Millennials Are Coming,” as if our generation was an invading alien race rather than a group of diverse, talented and hardworking people who aren’t that different from those who came before.

The stereotypes are abundant, but my favorite is the frequently reoccurring statement that we are the generation who “played on [enter sport of your choice here] teams where there were no winners or losers” – as if that alone should clue someone in that there is something fundamentally inferior about our work ethic. Not every narrative explicitly identifies these distinguishing characteristics as negative, but anytime “millennial” is mentioned, it is usually to compare and contrast the stark differences between generations.

People are quick to cite statistics about how many millennials have tattoos or liken the loss of their phone to the loss of an appendage – but how often do you hear that 81 percent of our generation have donated money, goods or services, that we may soon become the most educated generation in American history, or that approximately 60 percent of us believe we are personally responsible to leave the world better than we inherited it?

Though they are decidedly few and far between, the articles that focus on the positive attributes of the millennial generation frequently list the desire to make the world a better place first and foremost among our most defining qualities. According to a recent study, more than half of millennials have said they would take a pay cut to work somewhere that is impacting positive change. Somehow, that doesn’t strike me as a characteristic of a lazy and disengaged generation.

In fact, if I had to pick the negative quality that I have most frequently observed in my peers I would say it is the tendency to be overly concerned and troubled by the state of the world – or the fear that their skills and talents won’t be enough to make a difference after all.

As for being lazy, I wouldn’t use that word to describe the countless students I have met who were presidents of clubs, editors of newspapers, captains of sports teams, founders of non-profits and startups, and members of the honor roll – all before graduating high school. Every year, the graduating class is more accomplished than the last. So yes, we might have grown up playing on sports teams where everyone was a winner, but we were also learning to play a musical instrument, taking an art class, speaking a second language or engaging in a plethora of other activities, all at the same time.

Of course, that’s a gross generalization of a very diverse and immense group of people – but it seems only fair to respond in kind to the generalizations heaped upon us by the media these days. The journalists, CEOs and politicians who bemoan the state of the younger generations should be the people we look up to – and yet, it is my peers who inspire me most. Their accomplishments impress and motivate me, their visions of the future excite me, and their views and perspectives challenge and engage me.

As a university student, I have come to recognize that it has been the experience of being surrounded by my fellow millennials that has truly educated me – sometimes more than a professor ever could. And if prominent members of older generations and the mainstream media doesn’t seem to understand that, who cares?

They’re not the ones I want to impress anyway.

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Hallowed Halls of Compliance

In response to: http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/29/us/bloomberg-harvard-speech/

“The important thing is not to stop questioning.” – Albert Einstein

I never would have defined myself as “conservative” until attending a liberal arts university. For the first time, I found myself sitting in class defending the very things I used to argue about with my father, a staunch Republican. In an environment where I expected to fit right in, I found myself often in the position of the minority opinion.

I chalk this up to the liberalism that has pervaded academia. I’d listen to my classmates – all well-intended, intelligent individuals (for the most part) – and I’d wonder in awe at the rhetoric they spouted. They actually recited lines from MSNBC commentators. I couldn’t believe that college students would blindly embrace such a one-sided way of thinking in the very place they were supposed to be expanding their perspectives.

Apparently it’s now an archaic concept, but one year ago I believed I was going off to school to have my thoughts and opinions challenged and debated. I was expecting hard, difficult discussions that would eventually teach me to look at the world through multiple views instead of simply the one through my own two eyes. And I did get that, mostly because I am an independent voter (and thinker) rather than a Democratic one. But I fear that for my peers who grew up in blue districts, all they really got was the satisfaction of having the views they had entered with reiterated and supported.

Another old-fashioned view I have (one that makes itself known in the voice of my father) is that you treat those who are older or in a position of authority with respect. You don’t have to agree with them, but you do have to respect the experience they have and the perspective they have to offer. In fact, that goes for any human being. You don’t owe them your agreement right off the bat, but you do owe them courtesy.

When I heard my university had invited Dick Cheney to come to speak at our school, I was surprised and a little disappointed, but still pretty impressed. After all, it was a former vice president coming to talk at our campus. I’d have a hard time finding many policies Mr. Cheney and I agree on, but I still respect the fact that he’s got ‘White House’ on his resume and I’ve got ‘waitress’ on mine. He was a successful politician and had been privy to some fascinating events in American history.

When when I heard that students were planning to walk out on Cheney’s speech in protest, I was surprised. First of all, it meant that students who actually wanted to see Mr. Cheney speak would be denied seats in favor of students who were just going to leave theirs. Second, it was a blatantly disrespectful way to express one’s disagreement with the speaker. And finally – what bothered me the most as a practical human being – the act of walking out would do absolutely nothing.

It wouldn’t change the fact that Cheney had (possibly, most likely) allowed for the torture of hundreds, or that he was just another corrupt politician who had shot someone while hunting, or any of the other allegations they were leveraging against him. Instead, these students were physically representing a trend that has swept over the country and also, apparently, into our schools – turning their backs on the other side.

I used to get very riled up talking to my dad, who is still much more conservative than I will ever be. And I still do. But I also think that the conversations we have in which we don’t agree are possibly the most important conversations either of us have that day. I want to listen to the arguments of people I don’t see eye to eye with. I want to have that dialogue in a calm, respectful way, yes. But I also love dissent, the clash of opinions – the debate. To me, you get the benefit of two possible outcomes – either you walk away having gleaned an interesting insight into the perspective of someone else, who might have even convinced you to defect to their side; or you had the chance to reaffirm why you feel so passionate about your own.

Thinking for yourself is one of the qualities Tocqueville named as distinctly American. It made us who we are. That’s why it pains me to think that we’re so comfortable now absorbing whatever they’re telling us on television these days. And it frustrates me that even in the world of academia – where open dialogue was once fiercely fought for and defended – that trend of complying to ignorance is seeping in as well.

Describing the Indescribable: A Reflection on My Trip to Haiti

Neg Mawon

Neg Mawon

It’s hard to believe that a mere 48 hours has passed since I was in Haiti.

The transition between that country and my own has been surreal, to say the least. To abruptly go from such a powerful emotional and social experience back to the regular routines of daily life was a little harder than I anticipated. I was only partially present as I sat through my classes, caught up with friends and went through the other motions of a typical Tuesday. Part of me was still in Haiti.

I’ve been struggling with the best way to put the experience into words. At first I was hesitant to try, because I know that no matter how eloquently I describe it I still won’t be doing it justice. But I come from a family of writers and I’ve been taught that the best way to process and understand something is to write it out. So here’s my best shot.

I thought I understood what poverty looked like. I thought I understood global systems of oppression, social inequality, and the consequences of broken government structures. These things have been clearly articulated to me in my college and high school classes and as a student at a liberal university with a school that’s literally named for international service, I know theories about international development better than my own alma mater. I have been challenged several times throughout my academic experience to uncover and accept the inherent privileges that my skin tone, socio-economic status and nationality have allowed me.

But nothing impacted my conception of these issues the way this experience did. To actually see the things I had only ever read about or discussed in class – to actively observe and question and reflect – profoundly challenged and changed my perspective.

I was struck by how lucky I am for the opportunities I’ve been afforded, how grateful I should be for the life I’ve led. Spending a few days with a hole in the ground as my only bathroom has made me inordinately excited about flushing toilets and indoor plumbing. Hearing one man’s nightmare story about a painful ambulance ride down a mountain with no paved roads has made me feel foolish for ever having complained about a bi-annual doctor’s check-up. Learning about the incredible obstacles that stand in the way of Haitian youth and a good education and the hard work and ingenuity of those individuals who have managed to get theirs has doubled my appreciation for the education I was given. It’s inspired me to someday use it as a means by which to combat the institutions that have created such unfairness.

At the end of my time in Haiti, I was exhausted. I had been challenged physically, emotionally and intellectually. But I was also invigorated. I am in awe of the individuals I met there. I am excited by the successes of the grassroots organizations we partnered with, which I have now seen with my own eyes. I am outraged by the blatant disparity, by the UN workers who patrol peaceful towns in armored vehicles, and by every bag of rice or sugar – two of Haiti’s staple crops that should be produced and sold by them – stamped with the logo “Made in the USA”. And I am touched and moved by the strength, intelligence, kindness, rebelliousness and hospitality of the people.

Haiti can break your heart and make it swell with happiness within the same moment. It makes you want to turn your head and look away and it makes you stare in rapture. It cannot be condensed to fit neatly into a New York Times op-ed. Images and footage of it looks good on television, but it doesn’t show you very much at all. The history and theory I’ve learned in my classes don’t come close to explaining it, no matter how convincing the professor made it sound at the time. And if Pulitzer Prize winners, famous news anchors and academic scholars don’t get it right, I’m not sure if I’ll do much better. All I can say for certain is that Haiti is a country that gets its hooks into you, whether you want it to or not. And it filled me with hope – even though most of the narratives told about it suggested that hope was the last thing I would find.

I came to Haiti searching for a way that I could help. But now I don’t think help is really what Haiti needs, at least in the way help has traditionally been understood. Instead, I think Haiti needs understanding. It needs a new narrative. As one of our hosts told us on the day before our departure, my peers and I were given the chance to see that the “myth of Haiti” is not true. She thanked us for coming to search for what was. And when I asked, perhaps naively, what we were supposed to do with that knowledge, she suggested that we take our experience as a reminder to question our concepts of different people and places, especially those that are depicted badly – and that the next time we face certain stereotypes, we remember Haiti.

I don’t think that Haiti is done with me yet. But for now, I’m going to try to live by those parting words. And I hope that from here on out, no matter what misconceptions I’m tempted to fall under, I will always remember Haiti.

The Ethical Dilemma of Torture

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Two years ago, when I attended a leadership and ethics conference, we were presented with a series of scenarios and instructed to pick one course of action. In one of the scenarios, we were told to picture the scene of a future car accident. We, as omnipotent observers, knew that the oncoming vehicle held only one person, but would strike a family of bicyclists, killing three while allowing the driver to survive. Our choices were to allow this accident to occur, or to press a magical button that would send the driver veering off the road at the last second. We knew nothing personal about the family or the driver. We didn’t know who was to blame. All we knew was that in one scenario, three people died and in another, only one would. It was simply a game of numbers.

That was my first encounter with ethics as a cold, calculating process. The question of whether or not it is acceptable to use torture as a means of extracting knowledge is often looked at in a similar way. The value of human lives is reduced to empirical numbers, quantified in order to answer one simple question: is it worth the degradation, humiliation, and possible murder of one individual if doing so saves the lives of other people?

Still, a logical answer to this question is difficult to find. Some point out that while torture may save some lives it does so at the cost of arousing enmity around the world, producing new terrorists who will cause the death of even more people (Danchev 2006: 18). As a result, the counterterrorism policies of the United States may actually serve to perpetuate the war on terror. Some believe that the policies enacted by the Bush administration (foremost being the use of “high pressure interrogations”) have severely degraded America’s standing as a world leader (Hafner Burton and Shapiro 2010: 1) and increased anti-American sentiment throughout the world.

The funny thing is that the most valuable intelligence information, referred to as “actionable information” by the military, does not even get extracted during the torture process. Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA, claims that the purpose of torture “was not to get the truth” but rather to “move [the detainee] from a zone of defiance to a zone of cooperation” from which they would be more willing to communicate (GPS 2013: 4). This practice is counter to evidence that detainees are more willing to share information when they deem it advantageous to them, rather than when they are threatened.

With these facts in mind, you might say that torture defies logic. This position is amplified by our nation’s historical attitude on the value of human life.

Yet still, we try to tread a line down the middle. As our president boldly claimed in a 2009 speech, we as Americans can “reject the false choice between our security and our ideals” (Desch 2010: 4). This belief—that America can preach one set of values in the public eye of international relations but practice something completely different behind the closed doors of Guantanamo—ultimately undermines whatever integrity this nation is perceived to retain around the world.

And the sad truth is we can get away with it. While other countries may easily recognize the hypocrisy of the United States, there is no substantive global authority that can hold us accountable for our actions. Even in Muslim countries, where public backlash against American use of torture has been loud and clear, governments still cooperate with U.S counterterrorism policies (Hafner Burton and Shapiro 2010: 3).

America already knows we can get away with torture. But to be fair, what we’re doing is nothing new. Human beings have done atrocious things to one another since the dawn of time. And since the dawn of time, every government, dictatorship or tribal chieftain has attempted to justify those atrocious acts as unsavory but necessary for the protection of one’s own society.

We can continue down this time-tested road. But is it acceptable to do so?

Even Hayden admits that it ultimately boils down to a numbers game. He acknowledges that in attempting to prevent acts of terror through the use of torture, “we are not going to succeed all the time” (GPS 2013: 4). Yet he also claims that torture can “reduce the number of those times and the severity of it and when it happens”. And to Hayden, that trade-off is clearly worth it.

Honestly, I’m still not sure if I feel the same. But I do know that when I was confronted with that choice at my conference, I chose to save three lives instead of one.