Stepping into the world of Social Work

American Exceptionalism?

I was recently reading posts on Facebook from my hometown regarding the relative merits of the two rival high schools. The argument boiled down to lists of celebrities who came from the two schools and how often each had beaten the other in various sports and band. To someone more than 30 years out of high school, it sounded absolutely ridiculous. I’ve also, like everyone else, been watching the London Olympics, noting the “medal count” for each country as if it has some intrinsic meaning.

I find myself reacting the same way to those who have a belief in some form of “American exceptionalism.” I define that as the belief that the US is somehow automatically superior to every other country in the world. I love my country, too, just like I loved my high school, but I don’t expect that there is some sort of divine blessing on the United States (it would be tough or me to believe anything like that anyway, as I don’t believe much in the divine in any context). It’s hard for me to listen to these folks without feeling like they are just like the people who are saying “my high school is better than yours.”

Once we leave high school, we end up working with supervisors and co-workers from many other schools, so we have to grow up and realize that those old rivalries weren’t real, they were simply for fun.  I am informed that Olympic athletes party together as soon as their games are done. The US has to do the same thing.

Yes, the US has tried to be a force for good in the world. We were an early adopter of democratic government in the modern era and have served as a model for many other countries. But we must also accept some errors of omission and commission, even in the current day. We also have to accept that other countries can have some good ideas too – either globally or something that simply works well for their specific situation and culture.

Having spent some time in another country (Germany – West Germany at that time), and having taken history and civics courses at the gymnasium (high school) level there, one of the things I really took home with me is that the American viewpoint is not the only one, nor is it even necessarily correct from an objective standard. We often view ourselves as some sort of first democracy, which is demonstrably inaccurate. We ignore the thousands of years of world history that came before us, assuming our nation and its system developed in a vacuum. We ignore the positive developments in the world around us, believing that the only valuable things can come from here.

Healthy relations with the rest of the world, both allies and challengers, will benefit from us taking ourselves down a peg and treating them as equals.

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Sister Wives, polygamy, and feminism

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality...

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality television series about a polygamist family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been watching the TV show Sister Wives for the past couple of years with some interest – the show is about a polygamist family with one man, four wives (the fourth joined the family during the early part of the show) and 16 kids. While I’m sure the show is not a completely accurate view of their lives (I imagine they’ll even admit that, as it is clear they have correctly declared certain private matters completely off limits to the cameras), if it is at least reasonably close, it provides some evidence for my personal view of whether polygamy should be accepted.

It is a tenet among feminists that polygamy is harmful to women. The evidence for this is typically gathered from closed, authoritarian polygamist communities, where a small group of older men are completely and utterly in charge, taking their views to an extreme which includes child and spousal abuse, forced underage marriage, horrendous treatment of young men, and other abusive acts. Examples of this can be heard from those who escaped such groups in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico.

As a feminist, I’ve been shocked by the stories I’ve heard and hope that those abused by these communities get the help they need and those who commit crimes (such as Warren Jeffs) come to justice. As the descendant of Mormon pioneers, I am a little more ambivalent about the issue, as polygamy is only a few generations back in my own family tree. This makes it harder for me to decry something that led to my own existence.

I’ve often wondered what polygamy would look like if it was not part of an authoritarian communal structure and simply a personal choice among adults. This is what Sister Wives purports to show – a family that lives and works alongside us. A recent episode, and a new book, discussed the downsides a little more, though the interpersonal issues sounded fairly normal to me, simply multiplied (as would be expected) due to an increasing number of people.

I’m definitely not cut out to be a sister wife, I think my own personality is too strong to deal with multiple adults. But outside of a closed, authoritarian community, it can have benefits for those who choose it. Child care and household duties can be shared among the women, for example.

As the Browns themselves admit, polygamy “isn’t for amateurs.”  But with divorce statistics as they are, perhaps neither is monogamous marriage. The only way we can really examine these choices is to separate polygamy from the authoritarian cults and examine it as a separate issue. Whatever you might believe about polygamy and the Apostolic United Brethren church, the show has at least contributed to the conversation by allowing us to see a family that isn’t in some separatist compound.

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Morality without God?

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often encounter the statement from devout Christians that it is not possible to be moral without a supreme being and some eternal reward or punishment hanging over our heads. Such a view of agnosticism or atheism includes the expectation that no deity equals permission to do anything you please – such as the chaos that ensued when your second grade teacher left the room for a moment.

As an agnostic who considers myself an ethical/moral individual, I strongly disagree with that belief. I also believe I have pretty good psychological theory to back my statement up. While non-theists might not share every bit of the “moral” code in a particular religion, there is no reason to expect that an individual who does not expect heaven or hell would not be as ethical as his religious neighbor.

First of all, looking at Christian doctrine specifically, it stresses that everyone sins, and the importance of faith in Jesus is for his forgiveness. Different denominations place different values on faith vs. works, but the primary message that Jesus died for “our” forgiveness remains constant among most, if not all Christian sects.

This was always a bit confusing to me, growing up in a Christian household. I was pretty comfortable that God would forgive my childish errors, or minor “sins” as an adult, but I also know that there are some rather nasty acts committed in this world, some by professing Christians at the time of the act, others are converted to Christianity in prison. Will God forgive assault? Rape? Murder?  Where is the line? And most importantly, if I know I’m forgiven, does that really help me avoid sin? If I know, for example, that my husband does not want me to spend money on a particular item, I also know that the item is small and he will forgive me. I might use the principle that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission and buy it anyway.

Psychological theorists, particularly Kohlberg, have also illustrated stages of moral development. Toddlers care only about avoiding punishment, while slightly older children might also start caring about rewards. To me, this is clearly the level of moral thinking expected by those who assume atheists/agnostics cannot act as moral/ethical individuals.

Later, children begin caring about how they are perceived and how their actions affect their relationships. This would be demonstrated by how different children would respond to their teacher leaving the room – some would begin acting out and others would not. Children who had progressed morally would care about their relationship with their teacher and how s/he would feel on coming back to a chaotic classroom.

Developing beyond that, we grow into understanding that rules and laws, even if not visibly enforced, are necessary for people to live together. Most of us will not intentionally run a red light, for example, not because we might get caught, but because we know that the cars coming the other direction are relying on our observance of the rules.

While an enforcer (a parent) has been an integral part of teaching all of us morality and ethics, we move beyond responsibility to an enforcer and towards responsibility to our community and others. This same process happens whether we go to church and are taught about heaven and hell or not.

Recently, in a parking lot, I misjudged a turn and slightly damaged the car I was parking next to. I didn’t believe anyone had seen it, and could have left without doing anything. But this agnostic, despite the lack of punishment, left a note on the other car and provided insurance information. Why? Because that is how I want my community, my world to be. To have slipped away would have been to diminish my community by some small amount.

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A little in advance of the holiday in case someone can take a hint!


To the realtors that leave flags on our lawn every Independence Day:

Thank you very much for your kind gift of an American flag stuck into our lawn this weekend (just like every year at this time). But with all due respect – CUT IT OUT!

I love my country as much as any American, but consider your “gifts” to be in extremely bad taste. Here’s why;

1. First and foremost, I do not consider it acceptable in the least to use the American flag for advertising purposes. Since your name and phone number are attached to the flag, along with the fact you are a realtor, so there is no escaping that this is advertising.

According to the US flag code:

Any person who, within the District of Columbia, in any manner, for exhibition or display, shall place or cause to be placed any word, figure, mark, picture…

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What’s happening in school?

Since we have been on summer break since the beginning of May, I’ve obviously not had any classes, but a few matters are moving along for next semester.

I did receive an MSW Scholarship for next year! I’m not sure how selective the scholarships are (two of my classmates also received it) I’m proud of myself for getting it and grateful for the assistance.

My internship for next year has not yet officially been decided, but I have received a strong hint from the most reliable source available that it will be at the senior program I expected. The official notification is waiting for my advisor to receive all of the proper paperwork and apparently an initial assignment for class that are all sent at the same time.

I have also agreed to be part of the leadership of our academic center caucus for the next year. I was a bit wary of doing this, as I didn’t want to over-commit to that kind of thing at the expense of study time, but I really like the classmates who I will be working for, and it sounds like it could be fun. There are also a few practical perks, but they aren’t big enough to be persuasive.

It should be an interesting summer and a great year!

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RIP R.J. Phillips, special dad

I’ve not posted much over the past few weeks for a number of reasons, most recently because the most important news was too tender to share in any depth. On May 31st, surrounded by family, my dad finally lost his battle to the combination of illnesses that had kept him in the hospital since February.

Our dads are always special to us in ways others wouldn’t see, but I’d like to believe the turnout at his service, which included people from his career (structural engineering), the church (where he had been an important member of the choir since I was very little, and in leadership positions in the vestry for almost as long), and even some friends from his youth, such as my godfather, showed that Dad was special to a lot more than just my immediate family.

I’ll miss him more than words can say…

It was twenty years ago today….

Well, maybe a little more than 20 years ago, but two things have me reminiscing this week.

First, an often neglected anniversary for any married couple, today is the 27th anniversary of the day my husband and I met. I imagine not every couple is exactly sure exactly what day they met, perhaps they were acquainted informally in school or something like that, so the date doesn’t get noted.

In my case, it did. During my junior year, a friend, believing in his psychic ability, predicted that I’d meet someone around that day. Sure enough, while chatting with my English (Science Fiction) professor before class, a shy man joined in the discussion. I learned later that this was very contrary to his normal extremely introverted behavior. We ended up having coffee together shortly thereafter, and never looked back. We moved in together after graduation, married in ’89, and I believe we have truly embodied the “for better, for worse…” We’ve had our share of practical ups and downs, but we’ve always come through together.

On another front, I’m thinking back even further, 1973-75, to be exact. I noticed a former classmate from elementary school had posted a suggestion about Teacher Appreciation Week on Facebook. I knew she had kept in touch with a few of our teachers, so I asked her if she was still in touch with our 5th grade teacher, who had been very special to me. She hadn’t heard from her in some time, but offered to give me the address of our mutual 6th grade teacher. My asking also apparently motivated her to phone this teacher as well. During that call, she learned that the 5th grade teacher had passed on (not all that surprising). She quite happily informed me that our 6th grade teacher clearly remembered me, including an incident that had stuck in my own mind.

It was a little harder to convince myself to write this teacher; while she was a very nice lady and a good teacher, she didn’t “get” me, and as a result made a few errors in relating to me. The one truly upsetting incident I recall (and she might even agree that it was a mistake) is her turning my desk over outside the classroom to force me to neaten it up. But she did try, and she deserved my appreciation for that, so I did write her a nice letter about my current life, and making a positive comment or two about her influence on my love of reading. It will be interesting to read her reply, if any.

Interestingly, my classmate reported that the teacher remembered a time where she brought all the girls together for a meeting. The teacher seemed to remember that I was being bullied and there was something about a boy. I do remember having a crush on a boy who another girl also liked, but I don’t remember it becoming a bullying issue. My own memory of the situation has more to do with handball at recess, and another girl (with a name close to mine) being the victim. Amazing what we remember, isn’t it?

This, plus the chat with the former classmate, got me thinking about what I must have been like as an 11 year old.  I remember that was a pretty tough year for me and my family. My sister’s epilepsy developed that summer, and I:began being treated for a genetic medical condition I was born with. While I had known of the condition at an age appropriate level all along,  going to Children’s Hospital of LA and being examined under a microscope every 3 months isn’t easy on a kid.

I was also a quirky kid. I have my dad’s intelligence and my mom’s stubborn nature, so certain approaches fail with me, no matter whether I am 8 or 48. I respond very badly to black and white scenarios, and being forced to “lose face,” for example. While I don’t know exactly how bad my hearing at the time was, I have always had some level of hearing impairment, which can affect my response to social situations and instructions, causing people to get wrong impressions of me. I can imagine I was frustrating to teach!

I’ll post updates later if the teacher writes me back.

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Pastor Sean Harris and his sickening views….

I came across this, as well as having heard about it on the radio:

This pastor actively promotes physical punishment against children who do not follow narrow gender roles. This brings up some issues I’ve been meaning to talk about from my point of view for quite some time; a clear misunderstanding by the Right of the relationships between adherence to gender-typical behavior, morality, and homosexuality.

This first came home to me when I was working with autistic children and was participating in Floor Time message boards for parents and practitioners. Floor time is a style of play therapy which stresses starting where the child is, what the child wants to do, with the adult gradually integrating gentle instruction in social skills. The critical aspect of doing what the child wants cannot be stressed more.

In one discussion I: remember, one parent mentioned having purchased a kitchen play set for her autistic son. Another parent (evidently a devout Christian) laid into her because it was “immoral” to teach a boy to play in a kitchen! Apparently such play, in her opinion, would lead to homosexuality.

From an objective standpoint, a kitchen play set is a fantastic role playing opportunity. Every member of the family ends up in the kitchen at several points each day, even if they are not responsible for preparing meals or cleaning up after them. In almost every household I have been a member of or visited, social activity centers around the kitchen for both genders and all ages. There are countless ways to allow the child to play and lead the activity, as well as for the adult to use the play for instruction.

Further, it is not morally inappropriate for a child of either gender to be taught basic kitchen skills. Individuals of both genders need to be able to make basic meals for themselves and engage in kitchen clean-up. The reasons for needing this might be too many to mention, but would include living alone as a young adult before getting married, occasional meals when a spouse is unable to cook (perhaps she is in the hospital having a baby?) or maybe being a true partner in the household and helping with a meal or just doing the dishes. My own dad, while maintaining his gender typical role as a bread winning heterosexual father, would happily cook dinner if needed.  I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where men are instructed to stay completely out of the kitchen.

It is also true that many heterosexual men are cooks or chefs by profession. They would not have developed these skills had they not been permitted to cook in their home kitchen. None of these men, whether working in fast food or at a 5 star restaurant, would consider what they do immoral.

This stresses the point that gender-atypical behavior is not necessarily immoral or leading to homosexuality. I am one of countless girls and women who feel more comfortable in slacks than dresses. I enjoyed playing with dolls but also catching lizards and toads. I’m not a feminine woman, but I’m definitely straight. Forcing me into frilly dresses or makeup would have done absolutely no good. I know of many straight men and women who were the same way –  this was particularly true of those of us who fell in the higher range of intelligence.

It is this confusion on the part of the Right which causes the problems of bullying, particularly among young children. Taking this pastor’s advice to heart, these parents’ children will take the same attitude to school and beat up on their classmates because they have a lisp, or chose to play the flute, or aren’t good at sports. This isn’t witnessing for Jesus over some legitimately immoral act, this is bullying those who are different.

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The end of my first year….

USC Logo

USC Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Other than waiting to receive my final grades, my first year at USC is over!

After a few weekends spent chained to the computer writing papers, I e-mailed my final paper to the professor on Wednesday. It was a great feeling to be finished and be able to relax for a couple of months until the process starts again.

Besides my grades, I’m also expecting to hear within the next few weeks where I will be placed in my next year’s internship and what financial aid I will be receiving (grants and scholarships in this case as opposed to loans). While these won’t make an immediate dent in our budget next year, they’ll make a major difference in our debt in ’14 when I’m finished.

As I told the advisor responsible for placing me, I rather expect my internship placement to be with seniors. I’ve had a great deal of experience with kids and with disabled adults, and while I have had personal contact with seniors my whole life, I haven’t worked with them professionally. I am open, however, to whatever she finds for me, particularly knowing that this placement is supposed to be both orienting to the profession and also perhaps to fill in any gaps in the person’s background. I did request to be placed in the San Fernando Valley and for a placement which would pay work-study funds to make up for what I will be losing by going part-time at work.

Right now, it’s time to focus on neglected housework and some relaxation!

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