Hillary Clinton, Melissa Harris-Perry, and the Opposite of Imposter Syndrome

Originally published on The Huffington Post on 3/27/2016.

To fit into male-dominated spaces, women are told to fix a lot of things: stop using “sorry” and “just” in emails, avoid vocal fry and upspeak, and “watch your tone” at all times.

But more than anything else, women are told that it’s a lack of confidence that’s really holding us back. If only we could get over imposter syndrome, and internalize our successes instead of feeling like serially lucky frauds, we’d be unstoppable.

Too bad it doesn’t work like that. There is a very real external bias against women’s competence, and nobody gets around it by being more confident. In fact, as we see through the experiences of Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry, being more confident can result in harsh pushback when you’re pursuing leadership positions within male-dominated environments. Because how dare you.

While we’re so busy focusing on what women should and should not do, there’s a big problem going undiagnosed: entitlement syndrome. The opposite of imposter syndrome, entitlement syndrome is the problem of overconfident mediocre white men. After I break down competence bias, I’ll get into what entitlement syndrome looks like, and what some concrete solutions might be.

What competence bias looks like

Women are assumed to be less competent, less trustworthy, and are held to a higher standard overall than men. There’s a much greater chance that their work will be ignored, discounted, trivialized, devalued, or otherwise not taken seriously. The more success a woman experiences, the stronger these external forces become. They’re also magnified by intersecting biases, like racism and homophobia.

It’s easy to see how imposter syndrome is a rational response to competence bias. Why would you think you’re competent, if nobody else does?

Competence bias starts early. Girls learn that they’ll be held to higher standards physically, intellectually, and behaviorally than boys. While boys are raised to exaggerate their skills, take risks, fall down and pick themselves back up, girls are taught to think things through and second-guess, avoid risk and failure, and not raise their hand unless they’re sure they have the right answer. Lastly, girls absorb from the media that their real value lies in their appearance, at the same time that boys absorb the message that girls are not to be trusted.

It’s not simple to undo such deeply held, unconscious biases. Telling women to counteract the entirety of competence bias by being more confident is like telling one of Cinderella’s stepsisters to squeeze her foot harder into the glass slipper. It’s never going to work. The structure itself has to shift, which is going to take work by both women and men (I’ll get into this more later).

However, self-confidence in the face of oppression is extremely disruptive to power structures. Audre Lorde called self-love “an act of political warfare“, and Maya Angelou wrote about its power to upset and offend oppressors. When a woman is confident instead of self-doubting, it means she’s no longer playing by the rules. It triggers intense pushback, as we’ll see in the stories of Hillary Clinton and Melissa Harris-Perry.

Hillary Clinton’s experience

Hillary Clinton’s list of accomplishments puts her in the top echelons of high achieving women. Not only was she the first female partner at a major law firm, but she went on to serve as First Lady of Arkansas, First Lady of the United States, US Senator from New York, and Secretary of State. She ran for president in 2008, and now, eight years later, she’s doing it again.

According to Nate Silver’s analysis, Hillary Clinton has earned consistently high approval ratings in each of her government positions. In 2013, as Secretary of State, her 69% approval rating made her the most popular politician in the country. But Silver also found that the moment Clinton hits the campaign trail for any kind of political office, her approval rating crashes. Why? Writer Sady Doyle sums it up like this:

“Campaigning is not succeeding. It’s asking for success, and for power. To campaign is to publicly claim that you are better than the others (usually white men) who want the same job, and that a whole lot of people should work to place you in a more powerful position. In other words, campaigning is a transgressive act for women… Women who put themselves forward in the same assertive, confident style as men are routinely found pushy, “bitchy,” or unlikable, and professionally penalized for that, too.”

This is a paradox. The public has tremendous respect for Hillary Clinton as long as she has her head down and is working hard. But the moment she asks credit, acknowledgment, and a promotion, that admiration turns to vitriol. By confidently asking for what she wants, and stating why she deserves it, Clinton brings her competence into question.

Sound familiar? A lot of women have experienced sexism in their workplace performance reviews that closely parallels Clinton’s experience. After all, what is a political campaign but a huge, public performance review? Reviews are a minefield for high-achieving women. Several studies have come out recently confirming that women displaying confident, assertive behavior at work are often labeled “abrasive”, “bossy”, “strident”, “emotional” and “irrational” in their performance reviews. Fun fact: the word “abrasive” literally never appears in men’s performance reviews. What does it mean to be called “abrasive”? Without a doubt, it means “stay in your lane.” All of these forms of pushback work together to undercut a woman’s perceived competence in the workplace.

Hillary Clinton has been not-so-subtly told to stay in her lane in all kinds of different ways that undercut her competence. She was told she has a “loud, annoying, nagging wife” voice, called out for appearing without makeup, and criticized for her pantsuits. She was slammed for not showing authentic emotion, but then when her voice broke during a speech, it was widely reported as “weeping” and her ability to hold it together enough to lead was called into question. Media Matters has compiled a full list of sexist media reports from 2007-2008, organized by category (there are fourteen). A word of warning: it’s overwhelming. Even if you don’t like Hillary Clinton at all, please look at this list. (And if you need something to laugh about afterwards to bring you back up – I did – here’s the Clinton-Palin SNL skit.)

Sexist attacks on Hillary Clinton’s competence in the 2015-2016 primary season have been more subtle, but they’re still there. This time around, we’re seeing a huge focus on “trust”, which is important to recognize as a very loaded word from a gender perspective. Let me clarify that it is a valid criticism to say “I don’t trust Clinton because she has a record of [insert specific political action].” It’s not a valid criticism to imply that she just “seems” untrustworthy, or lacks authenticity and “realness” as a person. This kind of criticism essentially calls her an imposter.

Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic race, Bernie Sanders, is widely praised for being trustworthy and authentic. When arguments for Bernie Sanders being trustworthy are based on his congressional record, writings, and speeches, that’s not sexist. That’s just a regular opinion, and an important part of the political process. But when we see a recurring emphasis on Bernie’s sense of authenticity based the fact that he doesn’t care about how he looks, prefers not to brush his hair, and makes faces during debates, that is sexist. People say it’s just “Bernie being Bernie” and that he’s “bucking the traditional image of a political candidate” but it’s important to take a closer look. We find a strikingly similar example in Republican candidate Donald Trump – famous for his comb-over and spray tan – who is known for “showing real emotion” and being “not afraid to make himself look really ugly.”

Both Sanders and Trump are praised for an image that no female candidate is currently allowed to cultivate. Show me a female candidate who can throw on an ill-fitting suit, not brush her hair, and scowl and wag her finger at her opponent during a debate. The media would have a field day, not a love-fest.

The attacks on Clinton’s competence go beyond appearance. This widely-circulated meme is one example:


While the subject matter is often silly, ranging from Harry Potter to Star Wars, Bernie’s responses are crafted to demonstrate a thorough understanding of each issue. He just “gets it.” Hillary’s responses are instead designed to demonstrate enthusiastic cluelessness from a poser (imposter) spouting a totally superficial answer she thinks the crowd will like. It’s pretty close to framing her as a bimbo.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have the privilege of existing in a wide lane when it comes to appearance and behavior. Not only are they assumed to be competent, and automatically praised instead of punished for the act of asking for power – but they’re encouraged to be their passionately scowling, unfashionable selves, and people love them for it.

Hillary Clinton’s lane is narrow. Not only is she a woman asking for power (an automatic transgression), but she is required to prove her competence over and over. She wins no authenticity or trustworthiness points for deviating from perfection in appearance or behavior. Sure, she can “be herself” – but the cost is that her actions will be effectively run through a de-credibility translator. Tears become hysteria. Laughing is called cackling. Frowning is a sign of mood swings. If she tries to avoid showing any emotion to avoid this kind of judgment altogether, she’s called a robot. It’s a no-win situation.

Let’s move on to MHP’s story.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s experience

Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the much-loved Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, has recently ended a struggle for editorial control with the network by deciding to leave her show. In a publicly-published email to her staff, she said:

“MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. While MSNBC may believe that I am worthless, I know better. I know who I am. I know why MHP Show is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or this show. I am not hungry for empty airtime. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return–not a moment earlier.”

Melissa Harris-Perry has a PhD in political science and taught American voting and elections at some of the country’s top universities including Princeton, the University of Chicago, and Wake Forest. An expert in her field, she consistently brought diverse voices to her show to talk about elections, local and national government, and social movements. The MHP Show was vastly more diverse than any other Sunday cable news show. Her guests were 45 percent white, compared to a 75-88 percent range from all the other major political weekend shows. Hers was also the only show that came anywhere near a 50-50 gender balance.


After years of fighting for editorial control, MHP reached her limit when MSNBC’s white male leadership told her she could not discuss Beyonce’s Formation video, even though it is politically relevant and the entire country was talking about it. They wanted her to stick to election politics instead. What happened was MHP spoke about Formation anyway, as footage of Jeb Bush and Chris Christie rallies in New Hampshire appeared in a box on the screen. MSNBC was not pleased.

If you watch MHP’s commentary on Formation, the subtext is loud and clear. She says:

“Beyonce is making an artistic statement that is boldly, unapologetically, black. She’s giving us black bodies and a black politics that will not be silenced or ashamed, but instead commands space for the one thing the video tells us they are most definitely here to do – as Beyonce says in the song’s refrain -‘I slay’.”

Melissa Harris-Perry is telling MSNBC that she too is bold, unapologetic, and came to slay. She will accept nothing less than full respect for her leadership and editorial vision – and this vision is fully linked to her identity as a black woman. She then informed MSNBC that she’s leaving.

The network responded to her publicly-shared email by saying “She’s a brilliant, intelligent but challenging and unpredictable personality” and “It’s highly unlikely she will continue” at MSNBC. Her email “is destructive to our relationship.”

MSNBC trying to slam MHP by using “challenging” and “unpredictable” as coded language both for “a confident woman who will not stay in her lane” and “a black person who doesn’t care what white people think.” Not only is MHP supposed to experience self-doubt as a woman, but MSNBC is shocked that she expresses such confidence as a minority in an overwhelmingly white-dominated industry, operating within a system of white supremacy. They view her confidence as an act of extreme audacity. Once again, we’re seeing the kind of words that could easily appear in any successful woman’s performance review.

MSNBC’s statement also misleadingly makes it sound like there’s still a relationship that MHP is recklessly damaging. Newsflash: you can’t fire someone who already quit. The email can’t possibly be “destructive to the relationship” because MHP already decided that there is no more relationship.

The network is treating MHP like she should have imposter syndrome, but she doesn’t. She is completely aware of her contribution and self worth, and she made the decision to leave on her own terms. Unsurprisingly, media reporting echoed MSNBC’s incredulity, saying that the network “severed ties with her” or “fired her” or even that she “went on strike.” It’s so hard for people to grasp that MHP simply took the power in this situation, and left.

The best part of this story is that not only did MHP choose freedom over silence by leaving MSNBC, but she also did it by refusing to sign a non-disparagement clause on her way out. The network assumed she would exchange her silence for cash in their exit negotiations, but she didn’t. And then she simply carried on speaking truth:

MSNBC tried to publicly punish MHP for her confidence, but she’s refusing to be silently “disappeared” like former hosts. The network and the media can still try to spin her story however they want, but she won’t be enduring it silently, and that will make things a lot harder for them. Not only do they have to field questions about her departure, but also the wider issue of their participation in the whitewashing of cable news.

MHP and HRC are fighting different battles, but both of their stories reveal the pushback that happens when persistent confidence flies in the face of competence bias.

Since it just wouldn’t be fair to talk about half the population being taught to self-doubt, without talking about the other half being taught to self-aggrandize, let’s move on to entitlement syndrome.

Entitlement syndrome

Entitlement syndrome is formally known as the Dunning-Kruger effect or illusory superiority. It disproportionately affects white men (whiteness and maleness being powerful intersecting privileges), and usually remains invisible and undiagnosed. Here’s a quick definition:

Entitlement syndrome is when a person (usually a white man) overestimates his own skills, relative to others. He believes he deserves not only respect for his accomplishments (no matter how mediocre) but also success. He doesn’t have to go above and beyond to qualify for excellence, and if he doesn’t get the success he deserves, it’s not his fault. He can use vocal fry, upspeak, and “sorry” and “just” because he expects to be judged solely on the content of his speech. He also believes he deserves the benefit of the doubt at all times, a partner who is much more attractive than him, and copious amounts of public space.

Both entitlement syndrome and imposter syndrome have their root in the unconscious competence bias that operates at every level. You can see it clearly when you look at how men and women view success and failure.

When women succeed, they tend to attribute their success to external factors (imposter syndrome). But when men succeed, they tend to attribute their successes to inner qualities like dedication and talent (entitlement syndrome). When men and women fail, the attributions get flipped. Women tend to blame their failures on internal shortcomings or a lack of effort (imposter syndrome), while men tend to blame circumstances outside their control (entitlement syndrome). So in a general sense, we have men internalizing mostly successes and women internalizing mostly failures, an internal thought process which is then strongly reinforced by outside forces.

Entitlement syndrome is like being coated in confidence (and competence!) teflon. You expect to succeed, and this is reinforced by external circumstances: those around you also expect you to succeed. Even if you’re less qualified than other candidates, you believe in yourself. Your competence is rarely questioned by others, so why would you question it? When the competence of other candidates – women, people of color – is rigorously vetted, you also don’t question it. Entitlement syndrome is why we so often see white male mediocrity promoted over more qualified candidates who are not white men.

Entitlement syndrome never makes the self-help circuit. Unlike imposter syndrome, nobody’s making any money off pathologizing a destructive thought pattern that disproportionately affects privileged white men – because for them, it’s not a problem. It’s great. The entitlement syndrome thought pattern is allowed to exist invisibly as the status quo to which other groups must conform in order to be successful. If a group is having trouble, the message is that they need to fix themselves. The system is fine, they just need to work harder to fit into it.

Except the system is not fine. It’s broken. Now what?

Entitlement syndrome is a characteristic of a group that expects to fit easily into an environment that was designed especially for them. Imposter syndrome, on the other hand, is the cognitive dissonance that happens when a group does everything “right” to fit in and succeed, and yet can’t escape a situation in which their competence is regularly under fire. The examples of Melissa Harris-Perry and Hillary Clinton show that biased attacks on competence only increase in intensity the more competence and confidence a woman demonstrates.

The problem is systemic and environmental, so the solution also must also be systemic and environmental. As scholar Karen Ashcraft states, “social change is about fixing environments, not people.” Here are a few examples of things we can do:

  1. If your company is holding assertiveness trainings for women, ask what trainings will be held for men. If only the women in a workplace are deemed in need of special training, it sends a message that the men’s skill set is the standard. The reality is that everyone can benefit from dexterity in communication.
  2. Through unconscious bias training, cultivate “privilege traitors” who do the work of debunking their own privilege and pointing out unconscious bias when they see it.
  3. Keep an eye out for backlash that happens when a woman asserts confidence in the workplace. If you are involved in a performance review process and a word like “abrasive” comes up, push back. Explain why that word is problematic, and stick to specific, performance-related examples.
  4. If you’re in a meeting and you witness a woman being interrupted by a man, who then essentially repeats what the woman just said, expecting (and somehow getting) credit for it, cut in as soon as they take a breath. Redirect attention back to the woman by saying something like “Oh, that’s like Lila was just saying about ____. Lila, tell us more about how ____ would work.”

To really get at the root of competence bias, we’re going to have to arrive at an environment where no one group is seen as the yardstick for competence. Per Ashcraft, we need to create environments where difference can emerge and flourish. This means dropping any assumptions of what difference will look like. Instead of saying, “we need more women in politics because they’re great at building consensus” or “we need more women of color hosting cable news shows because they’re better at bringing in more diverse guests” we should be saying “we need more diverse representation in politics and cable news because it reflects the plurality we live in.” We can’t rely on tired stereotypes to assume what impact this will have. We can only encourage humility, curiosity, and openness around how that difference will emerge and what it will look like.

How to Counter The Politics of Disgust

Originally published on The Huffington Post on 1/28/2016.

In Pixar’s movie, Inside Out, the character Disgust looks like this:


In politics, disgust often looks more like this:


This second example references not the Holocaust, but a few years before it. This was a time when entire groups of people – Jewish people, gay people, and mentally and physically disabled people, among others – were the targets of propaganda campaigns working to transform ordinary human beings into something disgusting in the public eye.  

It’s now about 75 years later, and the word “disgusting” is getting thrown around in presidential politics, referring to groups like women, Mexicans, and Muslims. Should we be alarmed? Yes, we should.

In this post, I’m going to give a quick rundown of how disgust works as a political strategy, and why it’s so powerful. Then I’ll get into how we can counter it.

How disgust works

Biologically, disgust is a reaction to substances that might harm us by making us sick, like poop, blood, rotting flesh, and spoiled food. It’s different from fear, which is a reaction to imminent bodily harm (like seeing a shark fin approach).


Fear and Disgust in Pixar’s Inside Out

If you’re a politician speaking at a podium, it’s actually pretty hard to make the people listening physically feel fear. Low-grade dread is the best you can hope for. Disgust, on the other hand, is simple. Feeling grossed out is visceral and automatic, and it’s easy to get there with words alone. Think about it – have you ever asked a friend to stop telling all the gory details of their recent surgery, or how their dog got sick, because it just made you feel too gross?  

Not only is disgust an easy emotion to evoke, it’s also special because it’s highly contagious. If you touch a disgusting object (like a fly swatter) to a clean object (a sandwich), the clean object becomes contaminated. This easily translates to politics: if you rhetorically tag Hillary Clinton with a toilet, BOOM, she’s disgusting.

This actually happened recently. During a debate, Hillary Clinton was a few minutes late returning from a bathroom break. Here’s what Donald Trump said about it:

“I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.”

The reality is that all the candidates regularly use the bathroom, including him. But that fact doesn’t diminish at all the emotional power of the image he invoked with his words. He specifically wants you to think of a toilet when you think of Hillary Clinton.  

Shortly after this incident, Donald Trump tagged Clinton with disgust again, using a different angle. In his “Hillary and her friends” instagram video, he shows images of her alongside Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby and Anthony Weiner. This time, instead of a toilet, he’s tagging her with “the blue dress”, serial rape, and dick pics.

The contamination feature of disgust is just as easy to apply to social groups or moral issues as it is to individuals. It has a subliminal, distancing effect, and it’s scary how easily it can go unnoticed. As Soraya Chemaly writes, “Disgust is step one of othering people, step one of justifying injustice.” The myth that “Jews smell bad” might actually have seemed like a silly thing at first – but it was a step on the path to dehumanization. It should come as no surprise that the groups most likely to be tagged with disgust are lowest in the social hierarchy, and disgust is often used to prevent them from “infecting the integrity” of a better-positioned social group.

I want to say a few more words about Donald Trump, since he’s the person who’s been making the news the most lately for invoking disgust. The first time Trump really got in trouble for it was when Megyn Kelly called him out at the August 2015 Republican presidential debate, saying “You’ve called women you don’t like, ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ slobs, and disgusting animals” to which he responded “Only Rosie O’Donnell” and then later described the exchange by invoking period blood: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” He’s “contaminating” women by associating them with animals and blood.

Donald Trump has also called Mexicans and Muslims disgusting, as well as handshakes and elevator buttons and windmills. Here’s a nice list of 32 things he’s called disgusting. His excessive use of the word is becoming a joke at this point.

The thing is, if you think elevator buttons are disgusting, that’s fine – you can’t dehumanize an object. But if you’re running for the highest political office in the country and you think entire groups of people are disgusting, that’s scary. It’s particularly scary if you are representing a party with conservative political beliefs, because studies have shown that conservatives are significantly more sensitive to disgust than liberals. One study was even able to predict political leaning based on disgust sensitivity with 95% accuracy. If you want to learn more about the science behind this, there have been a couple of great breakdowns in the Washington Post and the New Republic.

In a nutshell, Trump’s strategy of tagging people and groups with things like toilets and pigs and blood is extra powerful politically, because he knows his audience. He’s exploiting his party’s elevated sensitivity to disgust.

The antidote to disgust as a political strategy  

Now that we know how disgust works, what do we do about it? Because disgust has a distancing effect, the solution is to eliminate that distance. We need to find ways to bring people closer to the “disgusting” person or group and invite them to develop empathy.

The only way past disgust is through it. Here is a step-by-step approach:

Step 1. Expose disgust as an othering strategy

When disgust appears in politics, the first step is to identify which person or group is being pushed away. What -isms or -phobias do we see? Might be racism, islamophobia, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia. We can ask ourselves, why is that person or group being othered? What is the political reason they are being distanced? We can also look at our internal assumptions: Do we personally feel distanced from that person or group? Why?

Step 2. Zero in on the ignorance involved  

Ignorance is an absolute requirement for political disgust to exist. For example, the GOP has cultivated ignorance around women’s lives and bodies, maintaining that there will always be a “mystery,” about the “opposite sex.” They do the same thing around Mexicans and Muslims, painting them as the un-relatable, un-understandable “other” who needs to be held back by walls and laws. When you see disgust being evoked against a group of people, you’ll rarely see a personal story – the narrative is all vague generalizations. Our tendency as humans is to love and care about other humans. If we start to understand and identify with a member of a group, that’ll erode ignorance. But first we have to recognizing that ignorance is being purposefully cultivated.

Step 3. Use empathy

Disgust and empathy are processed in the same part of the brain (the anterior insula) and both focus on protecting the self from discomfort. Disgust protects from discomfort via getting sick or “contaminated”, by causing us to draw away from the source of discomfort. Empathy does the opposite. It forces us to get close to another person or group and feel their pain. The worse we feel as a result of our empathy, the more motivated we are to help the person or group feel better, because it will make us feel better. It’s a little bit selfish, really, but it works. And the result is that the feeling of discomfort is no longer just far away, it’s actually gone.

But it doesn’t just happen automatically. How do we make that switch from feeling disgust to feeling empathy?

Step 4. Make it personal

Here is where we bring in those powerful individual stories that are suppressed in order to cultivate ignorance. It’s time to let them out, because they are the secret to closing the distance. Where can you find them? Look to your social networks, or start googling. The stories are there if you’re motivated to find them.

A few great examples I’ve seen recently involve people trying to counter period disgust, such as this art project by Rupi Kaur and this video for the guy who hates period commercials. Both are heavy on exposure: they aim to bring a traditionally “othered” taboo into a balanced reality.

Another great example is the stereotype-breaking “I’m Muslim, But I’m Not” video (definitely watch it if you haven’t already: the messaging transforms amazingly into “I’m Muslim, And”). In this video, a group that is usually otherized by American mainstream media as a homogenously scary, incomprehensible group, is able to deliver its own personal messages to communicate varied, relatable self-identities.

Lastly, back to that Hillary Clinton bathroom thing. Soraya Chemaly’s piece on the subject gets into what bathroom inequality actually looks like in reality. The otherizing message on women’s bathroom use is that women take forever because they waste time on a combination of frivolous (gossiping, primping) and unmentionable (periods) activities. Chemaly’s piece exposes inequalities in bathroom construction, the differing realities of women’s bodies and clothes, and disproportionate childcare responsibilities. There’s nothing mysterious about it.

Creating a blog post or a video or an art project takes a lot of time and energy. But sharing one with your network does not – you can easily boost the signal this way. Hashtags are another powerful method of personalization, because they allow us to easily participate as well as access a huge, connected volume of personal stories very quickly – like #MuslimApologies and #periodsarenotaninsult. These might seem like small things, but they’re so important. You never know who’s listening.

Step 5. Repeat

Transforming disgust is not a one-time thing. It requires repeated, positive exposure. In our social-media saturated environment, this is extremely doable. But it will involve a lot of people pushing back in personal ways and sharing their experiences to counter the disgust narrative. When it comes to women’s bodies, it will also be important for the platforms themselves to stop “protecting” men from non-sexualized realities of periods, breast milk, and body hair.

Why can’t we just flip the script and talk about how Trump is actually the disgusting one?

The last thing I want to mention is how some groups have started to try to use the word “disgust” against Donald Trump. Like this skywriting:


Or the recent Slate article calling Trump’s anti-Muslim plan “disgusting but not surprising.”

My initial reaction to turning the term “disgusting” against Donald Trump is that it’s a weak strategy because it maintains the feeling of disgust front-and-center, which doesn’t really get us anywhere. Dan Kelly, an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University, takes a more philosophical point of view, saying “It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo.”


4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

4 Things the “Ferguson Effect” Gets Wrong (and 1 big thing it gets right)

Over the past week, both the Director of the FBI and the acting head of the DEA have publicly stated that they think there might be some validity to the “Ferguson Effect.”

The “Ferguson Effect” is an attempt to explain why there has been a spike in homicides in some major U.S. cities, including Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. It states that police officers are now so afraid of ending up on YouTube, that they are reluctant to do their jobs. Or as Trevor Noah puts it, police officers now live in fear of “someone whipping out their phone and brutally filming them.”

Who started it? Sam Dotson, the police chief of St. Louis, Missouri. Last year, after the protests in Ferguson, he said that police were moving away from frontline work and the “criminal element is feeling empowered.” The phrase “Ferguson Effect” has been popping up here and there for months, gaining momentum, but now that it’s been endorsed by FBI and DEA leadership, it’s getting a lot more press.

Unsurprisingly, the White House calls bullshit on this theory, pointing out that it’s based on blatant data cherry-picking.

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets wrong

1. There are obvious correlation vs. causation issues.

If you take a look at Ferguson, MO, the epicenter of the “Ferguson Effect”, you can see that the homicide rate started to rise months before Michael Brown’s death.

Screen Shot 2015-11-11 at 8.29.51 PM

According to The Sentencing Project, crime data is a “cherry-picker’s delight.” Why? Because our leading comprehensive data sources are slow. The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey comes out twice a year, but it doesn’t include city-level crime data. If you want city-level crime data, you have to wait for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, which are only published annually. So, on a month-to-month basis, everybody’s data is anecdotal. In other words: “If you want to tell a story of crime increases, you can. If not, just pick from a different tree.”

2. Even if we had the data, nobody really knows what affects the crime rate.

The big-picture story is that violent crime has been on a steady decrease for about 20 years now (around the world) and nobody has been able to pinpoint why. The end of the crack cocaine epidemic? Less lead paint? More access to abortion? Hot spot policing? We just don’t know. When Time published an article last year titled “Violent Crime Drops to Lowest Level Since 1978” it stated one possible reason for the decrease is “an increased use of security cameras and cell phone videos capturing incidents.” LOLZ. 

3. It’s offensive to police officers who are doing their jobs.

The “Ferguson Effect” states that the murder rate is rising – people are losing their lives – specifically because police officers are not doing their jobs. This falsely plants the idea that the responsibility for crime prevention lies entirely on police shoulders, and they’re dropping the ball. 

The rhetoric around police hesitation also insinuates that it’s easy to inadvertently commit acts of police violence. It’s eerily similar to messaging around rape that makes it sound like it’s just really easy to “make a mistake.” But the videos that have gone viral do not reveal gray areas. In other words, “Unless you are choking an unarmed man to death who is not resisting, shooting an unarmed man in the back as he is running away or body slamming a calm teenage girl to the floor in front of her classmates, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.”

4. It’s fear-mongering.

To accept the Ferguson Effect you have to assume there is a “criminal element” out there and the only thing holding them back from total murderous chaos is aggressive policing (clear racist undertones here).

What the “Ferguson Effect” gets right

The “Ferguson Effect” is old-school, emotional, conservative messaging. It combines fear and the “strong father” framework (aka people are naturally evil and need disciplining) with something that appeals to “common sense.” Total power combo.

As Melissa Harris-Perry’s panel explained earlier this month, the “Ferguson Effect” is the kind of conservative myth-creation that happens whenever social movements start making progress. And this one’s a doozy in terms of emotional power, since conversations around crime evoke both corporal fear (someone will hurt me personally) and political fear (the status quo, benefiting those in power, is threatened).

The Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer, states that the “Ferguson Effect” harkens “back the era of the 1980s when police had crime policy developed by soundbites and anecdotes. We had the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘three strikes, you’re out’” and focus was constantly drawn away from systemic issues, to individual sensationalized crimes.

Even though it’s 2015 and there’s more data available than ever, the conservative emotional messaging game is still on point to cloud the discussion. The “Ferguson Effect” is just the latest in a long history of catchy, loaded phrases like Death Panels, Anchor Babies, Tax Relief, and Welfare Queens.

It’s frustrating that progressives are always two steps behind, weakly shouting “but the data! the data!” Has anyone seen a progressive attempt to reframe the “Ferguson Effect” or change the story around it, as opposed to just saying “no, this isn’t true and here are the facts that explain why”? It’s all very defensive. There’s some great research out there about how to reframe how we talk about the criminal justice system, but so far I haven’t really seen it out in the wild.

If you want to get deeper into how conservative and progressive political messaging strategies work, check out The Political Brain by Drew Westen, and Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff. It’s fascinating and great context for following the 2016 presidential campaigns.  

The 21st Century Rape Whistle: How to Think Critically About Tech for Women’s Safety

Originally published on Huffington Post on 11/3/2015.

Tech projects aimed at women’s safety are hot right now: a new one pops up every couple of weeks. It’s easy to get excited about them, because violence against women is a persistent problem, and tech holds the promise of a shiny, new, and groundbreaking solution.

But there’s a lot below the surface. I’ve had many conversations on the subject recently, and what I usually do is point people to Jessica Valenti’s article, “Why is it easier to invent anti-rape nail polish than to stop rapists?”. Then I started thinking, maybe what would be useful is a media-literacy style set of questions to help us think more critically about these projects.

Here are 6 questions to ask yourself the next time a product or app related to women’s safety hits your newsfeed:

1. Who is the target audience for this project?

It’s usually college-aged women. This audience is a good fit for this type of product, because there has been significant press around how rape culture affects this group. Rape culture means a culture where sexual violence is normalized, considered inevitable, and joked about (examples here). In rape culture, sexual assault is seen as inevitable, and the responsibility falls to individual women to prevent it from happening by taking self-defense classes, dressing modestly, not going out alone, watching their drink, and GPS tracking their walk home.

So what happens if an assault does occur? It’s her fault. Victim-blaming is easy: just point out how she failed to protect herself. It is really important to understand that there is no concept of “ending sexual assault” in a rape culture. Rape culture dictates that sexual assault is an inevitable part of life, and all you can do is make sure the next victim isn’t you.

Sub-question: Who is not the target audience for this project? Why not? Sexual assault affects every demographic and every community, some – like trans women of color – at much higher rates than others.

2. What is the purpose?

What specific problem is the project trying to solve? Apps like Circle of 6, Kitestring, and Companion, and wearables like safety jewelry have been released over the past few years, with the purposes of connecting women to friends, family, and authorities who can help in an emergency. They usually focus on sexual assault, often referring to the dangers of “walking home alone”, which strongly evokes the image of a stranger rapist in a dark alley (quite literally the least of our problems, since most sexual violence is between people who know each other. I should also mention here that only a tiny fraction of assaults are committed using date rape drugs. Yet these are the two most frequently conjured images in women’s safety tech marketing).

Sub-question: What does “prevention” mean? Preventing an individual assault in the moment is one thing. Primary prevention, aka getting to the root of the problem, is something entirely different.

3. Does the app or device refer to itself as a “21st century rape whistle”?

I’ve recently seen tech safety devices referred to as 21st century rape whistles, or some kind of high-tech mace.


But this tradition goes back even further. Did you know women in the early 1900s were stabbing their harassers with hatpins? Yep. That was 100 years ago. We are reinventing the hatpin.

Sub-questions: What does it mean that we keep coming up with new devices for women to protect themselves? How is this approach working out in terms of solving the problem?

4. How does the project frame the problem it’s trying to solve?

A frame is the context in your brain when you’re thinking about an issue. The three main frames I’ve seen used to talk about apps/devices are: as a women’s issue, an individual issue, and inevitable.

Women’s issue:
How many times have I mentioned the word “men” so far in this piece? Zero. That’s funny, because sexual assault is primarily a men’s issue. How is it possible that we spend so much time talking about women’s role in addressing sexual assault, and so little time talking about men’s? This is rape culture in action. While men are very much involved in perpetuating the problem, we see far fewer calls to men to help address it (and yes, there are many ways for men to be an active part of the solution).

A direct quote from Jessica Valenti’s article that I love:

As former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said after a cabinet member suggested that women be given a curfew to curb a spate of sexual assaults: “But it’s the men who are attacking the women. If there’s to be a curfew, let the men stay home, not the women.”

Individual issue:
A product for personal use naturally leads us to imagine solutions on an individual level. What does the opposite frame look like? One example of a community/institutional approach is the powerful movement to hold college campus administrations accountable for complying with Title IX rules for addressing sexual assaults on campus. Because lots of schools, who have far more power and influence than any individual with a rape whistle, aren’t even meeting their baseline responsibilities. Check out the big name schools on the investigation list.

Treating a problem as inevitable only perpetuates it. Think about how persistently advertisers have insisted that men are incompetent as parents and confused by housework. It’s equally offensive to equate masculinity with the inability to control oneself around unwatched drinks and skirts that are too short.

Sub-questions: When you’re looking at the latest app/device, do you notice these or any other frames?

5. Who are the project’s main supporters?

Take a look at the “About Us” section of the project’s website. Are organizations working on violence prevention issues partnering on this project, partnering in development, or advising? Why or why not? Are there any quotes or testimonials from experts in the sexual assault prevention field?

Sub-question: What do you know about these experts? Joe Biden has gotten some great things done, but that doesn’t mean he always gets it. Just because someone is a big name doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a critical approach.

6. Who is talking about it?

Take a look at the press section. If you see lots of great press from tech and business news sources, but nothing from social justice/violence prevention/feminist outlets, ask yourself why. Do some googling and twitter searching. If the project is getting enthusiastic coverage from people who know very little about sexual assault prevention (think: your local news station, or national tech leaders) what does that mean?

Sub-question: What does it mean if you’re not finding anything negative, but the expert community is not saying a word?

Thinking critically does not mean dismissing

A hundred years ago, women used their hatpins for self-defense because they needed to. Today, a woman using a high-tech safety product is doing the same thing. Because she’s still unsafe. So I’m not going to say that the latest women’s safety tech device is useless. What I am going to say is “are we going to be doing the same thing in 2050?” We need to start asking ourselves why we’re stuck in this loop.

That means challenging the way we think about the problem. A focus on short-term, individual solutions keeps us locked in a narrow perception of what the problem is. These solutions do not challenge rape culture. They sustain it.

To quote Soraya Chemaly,

“It’s really hard for some people to understand why anyone, and especially feminists, would reject a new product like anti-rape nail polish — how could you reject something that could help stop rape? But those people are thinking about their individual safety, their children’s safety, and not interested in all in attacking the systems that create the larger problem. That’s not rape prevention, but rape avoidance.”

Other approaches to women’s safety

So how do we challenge rape culture and approach the problem in a different way? I’m not an expert, but the three things I see most often are:

  1. Hold rapists accountable
  2. Support survivors
  3. Focus on early education

Can tech play a role in any of these? For sure. Projects like Callisto, a survivor-focused college sexual assault reporting system, is taking steps towards holding rapists accountable, and social media plays a huge role in connecting and educating people around victim blaming. As far as early education, I don’t know of any tech solutions for things like teaching kids about consent.

There are lots of ways to think about the complexities of this problem, and I welcome your perspectives and resources.

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Queen: Do Not Miss This Movie

Has Netflix suggested Queen to you yet? I watched it, freaked out with joy, and immediately texted my sister, who was all like “yeah, I saw that! It is SO GOOD.”

What a terrible sister, for not telling me about it immediately.

(Just kidding, I love you sister!)


This movie is about a Delhi woman, Rani, who gets dumped by her fiance Vijay two days before her wedding, loses her shit for a minute, and then decides to go on her honeymoon (to Paris and Amsterdam) alone.

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Or I could just lay in this bed until I die. 

Rani’s a mess, but just can’t stand the thought of missing out on her dream trip (even though her family thinks she’s nuts). At first, when she arrives in Paris, she’s depressed and lonely. But what do you know – it all works out!

This movie strikes just the right balance of serious and silly, and I never wanted it to end.

WARNING: Do Not Watch The Trailer

I’m not even linking to the trailer, because it’s just bad. It’s basically just a mashup of all the scenes where Rani is either crying hysterically or drunk. Why?!? I don’t know. Just trust me on this. Watch the first 5 minutes of the movie instead.

5 Reasons This Movie is Great:

1. It will make you want to travel alone

For a lot of people, the idea of traveling alone sounds scary. Won’t you be lonely? Won’t it be boring without anyone to share your experiences with? It’s easy to fall into a trap of imagining solitary meals, solitary tours, solitary everything.

Ok. Deep breath. 

But in reality, all that loneliness is a pretty unlikely scenario unless you want it to be. Like Rani, you’ll probably meet some cool people, and a few crazy things will inevitably happen.

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Rani and her new friend, Vijayalakshmi, about to party it up

2. It passes the Bechdel Test, with burping

If you’ve never heard of it, the Bechdel Test was designed to challenge women’s under-representation in films. Here are the three criteria a movie must meet to pass it:

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

It’s sadly pretty unusual for a movie to pass the test. But this one does.

As you would expect, there’s a lot of “I’m so sad because this guy dumped me” stuff, but the movie doesn’t get stuck there. For example, there’s a great scene where Rani and her new Paris friend, Vijayalakshmi, are in a cab, talking about burping. And then they practice.

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Burping practice.

Rani makes friends with both men and women in this movie, defying the movie tropes of “ladies get other ladies through a breakup” or “cool girl hangs out with all the guys.” The mix feels really authentic, and beautiful.

3. All the scenes with the guys from the hostel

When Rani arrives in Amsterdam, she goes to a hostel that Vijayalakshmi booked for her. But when she realizes that a hostel means sharing a room with other people – and in this case, three GUYS, she freaks out. But there are no other options.

At first, Rani is hesitant.

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“If I don’t make eye contact, they won’t know I’m putting on my bra under this blanket.”

But then she warms up to the guys and they become a weird little family: Rani, Taka from Japan, Tim from France and Oleksander from Russia.

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They all brush their teeth together in a group.

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They help each other find nice souvenirs to bring home to their families.

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They go to the red light district and make friends with pole dancers.

And like a hundred other things. It’s all so, so great.

4. Rani kisses someone! And then it goes nowhere.

Rani insults this Italian chef in Amsterdam by calling his food bland, and he challenges her to cook her food at his stand at a weekend fair and see how she does. Annnnd she is a smashing success. Rani studied culinary arts in college, so she’s a pro – this scene is about her getting back to her passion.

And then she kisses Italian Chef.

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Rani warming up, pre-kiss.

And that’s it! It’s fun, it’s exciting… and she goes right back to hang out with her friends.

5. The fiance comes running back as soon as he gets an inkling of Rani’s new happiness but NOPE. NOPE.

Does moving on actually have a smell that only exes can recognize? Yes, it does. Ciara says it best:

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Like clockwork.

So of course, sad-sack Vijay shows up in Amsterdam at the height of Rani’s fun times. Sigh.

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She ignored your 100 phone calls, Vijay. But you showed up anyway.

She *almost* abandons her friends to listen to his endless pleas for reconciliation. But then she comes to her senses, realizes Vijay’s full of shit, and runs off to join the guys for one last rock concert.

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I love that the way Rani moved on in the movie wasn’t by hooking up with another guy. She wasn’t like “oh sorry, Vijay, but there’s this Italian chef now.” In Rani’s case, the “someone else” she starts loving is her own self. SORRY VIJAY!!!! Go home.

More Reasons to Watch This Movie

There are a couple of deep moments that will take you off guard. And a really great lizard scene. : )

Last thing: Curious about how the film was received in its home country? Here’s a great blog post describing one person’s experience watching it in a theater in Mumbai.

I would love to know what you thought! Post a comment, or drop me a line!

Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

Sex Metaphors, Ooo Yeah

I always thought of metaphors as literary devices, and also as very important things to be able to identify (according to every standardized test). Then I read Metaphors We Live By George Lakoff and it blew my mind. Turns out we all use hundreds of metaphors a day, without even trying. It goes deep, people.


Metaphors are a powerful way of mapping a familiar situation onto an unfamiliar situation, and then presto – we just get it.

For example, I’ve been thinking about my “Got Consent?” shirt lately. Whenever I wear it, I mentally prepare myself for random people to ask me questions about consent… and then they almost never do. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that, but the one that sticks in my mind is that the word “consent” just doesn’t evoke much. Maybe people are pretty sure it’s about not raping people, but what else?

It actually represents a huge big deal. A total shift in thinking.

Old: No means No
New: Yes means Yes

The difference is VAST. And it can take a lot of words to explain fully.

But lucky us, we have metaphors to use as a shortcut! Here are two that I love:

Metaphor #1: Sex as a Cup of Tea

Recommended Use: When someone says “but it seems like a gray area”

This metaphor, created by rockstar dinosaur pirate princess in March, is so good. It gets even better the more it expands, so even though it’s kind of long, I’m just going to paste it here and let it speak for itself:

…just imagine instead of initiating sex, you’re making them a cup of tea.


You say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they go “omg fuck yes, I would fucking LOVE a cup of tea! Thank you!” then you know they want a cup of tea.

If you say “hey, would you like a cup of tea?” and they um and ahh and say, “I’m not really sure…” then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it, and if they don’t drink it then – this is the important bit –  don’t make them drink it. You can’t blame them for you going to the effort of making the tea on the off-chance they wanted it; you just have to deal with them not drinking it. Just because you made it doesn’t mean you are entitled to watch them drink it.

If they say “No thank you” then don’t make them tea. At all. Don’t make them tea, don’t make them drink tea, don’t get annoyed at them for not wanting tea. They just don’t want tea, ok?


They might say “Yes please, that’s kind of you” and then when the tea arrives they actually don’t want the tea at all. Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you’ve gone to the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea, now they don’t. Sometimes people change their mind in the time it takes to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk. And it’s ok for people to change their mind, and you are still not entitled to watch them drink it even though you went to the trouble of making it.

If they are unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea and can’t answer the question “do you want tea” because they are unconscious.

Ok, maybe they were conscious when you asked them if they wanted tea, and they said yes, but in the time it took you to boil that kettle, brew the tea and add the milk they are now unconscious. You should just put the tea down, make sure the unconscious person is safe, and  – this is the important bit – don’t make them drink the tea. They said yes then, sure, but unconscious people don’t want tea.


If someone said yes to tea, started drinking it, and then passed out before they’d finished it, don’t keep on pouring it down their throat. Take the tea away and make sure they are safe. Because unconscious people don’t want tea. Trust me on this.

If someone said “yes” to tea around your house last saturday, that doesn’t mean that they want you to make them tea all the time. They don’t want you to come around unexpectedly to their place and make them tea and force them to drink it going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST WEEK”, or to wake up to find you pouring tea down their throat going “BUT YOU WANTED TEA LAST NIGHT”.

Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already  – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconscious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?

My favorite thing about this metaphor is that it puts sex into the same category as every other human interaction. Sex is not a magical, passion-ruled, anything-goes, gray-area thing. It’s a regular thing. Like tea.

Metaphor #2: Sex as a Jam Session

Recommended Use: Sex Ed 101

I read this really great book of essays edited by Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, called Yes Means Yes (additional proof that it is great: Margaret Cho wrote the foreword) and my favorite chapter was “Toward a Performance Model of Sex” by Thomas Macaulay Millar.

Millar explains that it’s totally normalized to talk about sex as a transaction:

                   She “gives it up”

                   He “gets some”

Super familiar, right? Millar goes on to say:

“sex is like a ticket;  women have it, and men try to get it. Women may give it away, or trade it for something valuable, but either way it’s a transaction”

Heteronormative? Check. Phallocentric? Check.

Rape apologists adopt this “commodity model” language frequently when trying to cast doubt on rape by calling it “buyer’s remorse” (also known as “regretful sex”).

Think about how the tea model says “if someone said they wanted tea, and then they changed their mind, don’t give them tea.” The transactional model *really* frowns on this kind of “dealbreaking” after a transaction has been initiated.

But what if we talked about sex as a performance?

Miller uses the metaphor of a “jam session.” Pretty similar to the tea metaphor – if the other person doesn’t want to sing or play an instrument, then the jam session isn’t gonna happen. And a jam session is creative, it’s collaborative, pretty exciting all the way around.

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If Janelle or Badoula just stopped singing, the show would be over.

Here’s my favorite way that the performance model smashes the commodity model. The commodity model assumes that when a woman has sex, she loses something of value. So if she has too much sex, she basically becomes worthless. Here’s how the performance model contradicts that:

“a musician’s first halting notes at age 13 in the basement are not something of particular value. She gets better by learning, by playing a lot, by playing with different people who are better than she is. She reaches the height of her powers in the prime of her life, as an experienced musician, confident in her style and conversant in her material.”


It’s time to smash the commodity model, don’t you think?

I definitely recommend getting the book and reading the full chapter, because it is so much more complicated and interesting than what I’m able to get into here.

Questions? Comments? Amazing metaphors to share? Feel free to comment or drop me a line!

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike

How the Criminal Justice System is Like Riding a Bike


Now that policing strategies are squarely in the public eye, criminal justice system reform advocates are encouraging the public to take a step further and see the problems with policing as part of a larger, broken system. This is an area where reframing is going to be key.

What does a bike have to do with it? Charles J. Ogletree Jr. and David J. Harris of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School published an opinion piece in The Boston Globe last month that lays out a new metaphor for thinking about the system:

This system is not only wasteful and deeply harmful, it is also woefully outdated. It is as if we have been riding on an old bike with balloon tires and one speed even though we have far more sophisticated vehicles at our disposal. Imagine a public safety vehicle as a 21-speed bike, with enough flexibility to traverse any terrain.”


Ogletree and Harris didn’t pick the idea of a bike out of thin air as a creative way to illustrate their point. On the contrary, they were involved in the strategic construction of this metaphor for three years. Formally known as the “Justice Gears” metaphor, it is the product of intensive research by the Frameworks Institute in partnership with the Hamilton Institute, to determine where the gaps in understanding fall between experts’ understanding of the criminal justice system and the general public’s understanding.

Here’s the Justice Gears metaphor in its entirety:

“Right now our justice system is stuck using only one gear – the prison gear. Think about how a bicycle needs to use different gears for different situations to work effectively and efficiently. The criminal justice system is trying to deal with a wide variety of situations using only the prison gear. We need to have other justice gears for people who come into the system, like mental health or juvenile justice services. We need to change the criminal justice system to make sure it has different gears for different purposes and that it can use the right gear in the right situation. If we do use more justice gears, we can improve outcomes and all get where we need to go.”

The point of this new metaphor is to put a concrete go-to picture in people’s heads when they think about the criminal justice system. Currently, most Americans’ automatic thinking around the subject involves a combination of the following:

  • We jump to public safety, thinking about it mostly in terms of front-line responders: police, firefighters, security personnel. We readily acknowledge that some of these individuals are corrupt or lazy.
  • We think crime is caused by individuals who weigh costs/benefits (rational actors), or by “rotten egg” personalities. To a lesser degree, we think of crime as a result of ecological determinants.
  • We trust that the system is “generally” functioning as it should. We don’t usually think critically about whether the system is working to advance society’s goals, or whether it serves the broad public interest.

The Framework Institute’s report gets into much greater nuance, but a central point is that the general population recognizes that there are problems in the system, but tends to attribute them to isolated individuals. Experts, on the other hand, attribute the problems to structural issues within the system.

It is important to note that African-American and Latino groups in the research study, while still demonstrating a predominant focus on the individual, came closest to the expert view on systemic issues around racial inequities within the system, a finding which comes as no surprise.

Here’s why it’s problematic to have a mental model like our current one, that doesn’t take into account systemic issues: because the model in your head naturally determines the solutions you see. If you think rational actors are choosing to commit crimes, the solution you might see is harsher punishments. If you think bad cops are responsible for police brutality, the solution you might see is stricter policies to establish surveillance around and root out those individuals. Same goes for corrupt prosecutors, crooked wardens, etc. If your mental model is focused on individual “agents”, the solutions you see will be tailored towards those agents.

If you instead see the problem in terms of structural issues, like police quotas, overwhelming caseloads, mandatory sentencing, etc., the potential solutions you see will be very different. The “Justice Gears” metaphor is one element of the reframing process that helps us reorient our dominant cognitive model towards something that positions us to consider a different set of solutions. According to the Frameworks Institute, the two other critical elements for reframing are the values and facts that most effectively reinforce the new narrative around the issue.

They tested the effectiveness of these facts:

  • Neutral – describing the impact of the criminal justice system on all adult Americans.
  • International – comparing stats on the US criminal justice system with other countries.
  • Racial Disparities – comparing effects of the system on African Americans/whites.

And these values:

  • Pragmatism emphasizing taking a “common sense” approach to public safety and criminal justice.
  • Fairness – emphasizing equal treatment.
  • Cost Efficiency – emphasizing fiscal responsibility.

The winning combination was the value of Pragmatism plus facts about Racial Disparities. Here’s an example of what messaging aligned with this value/fact combination can look like:

“Managing the criminal justice system more responsibly can address some important problems currently facing our country. For example, we know that communities with high unemployment, underachieving schools and a lack of other resources have high rates of crime. This problem particularly hurts children and young adults who may end up in the system. If we take a commonsense approach to solving our communities’ problems, we can decrease crime and enhance public safety. Specifically, we need to identify practical things we can do to address these and other issues. On the other hand, if we spend resources sending more people to prison instead of using proven alternatives, these problems will remain. A responsible approach to criminal justice will make our country safer and help all Americans. The system we have is not doing this. In 2010, seven out of every 1,000 white men in the United States were in prison. By contrast, 43 out of every 1,000 African American men in the United States were in prison. Clearly, the system is not working, and is taking a toll on our society as a whole and on communities of color in particular. We need to address the places in the system where it is not working to advance the goals of our society.”

The idea is that advocates will be able to start using this messaging as a way to start familiarizing the general public with this new framework.

As you might imagine with such a huge issue, the Frameworks Institute isn’t the only organization working on reframing. The Berkeley Media Studies Group released a report in 2009 around reframing violence among youth that touches on similar points, and also gets into some really interesting research around how to counter the distortions in news coverage of crime that conflate race and violence.

Have you seen any other research out there around reframing or other communications strategies? What do you think about the Framework Institute’s proposed framework? I would love to learn more about other perspectives or ideas. Drop me a line!