Stepping into the world of Social Work

Category Archives: opinion

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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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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A little evidence we are right to be worried


Two articles on the birth control issue caught my eye today, both indicating that reproductive rights advocates are correct in pushing back.

The first is Mitt Romney, stating that he’ll “get rid” of Planned Parenthood. This is very troubling for a number of reasons, but the biggest concern comes from the very arguments of those who are attacking the recent health insurance mandate and even coming up with new legislation allowing ANY employer to opt out for vague conscience reasons. They claim that employers should be able to do this to protect their freedom of religion, and the employee can just go to Planned Parenthood.

Well if these same people had their way, Planned Parenthood wouldn’t even exist! You can’t rely on something in one argument that you are actively seeking to eliminate in another.

Second, an Arizona law requiring that women obtaining birth control prescriptions may be expected to prove to their employer that there is a medical need.  The Huffington Post article does a good job of explaining it. The picture above was going round as a “permission slip for contraception coverage,” which made the concern quite clear. And despite Rachel Larimore’s column on Slate claiming it is insulting and misleading, our fears have turned out to be right on!

It is clear that if we allow the Right to have their way, women will not receive the medical care they need. They are far more concerned about the poor embattled employer having to buck up and provide health care coverage that meets a standard determined by medical and public health experts, rather than religious leaders. Yes, a few exemptions should exist, but they would be for actual churches, not giant universities or hospital chains. Very small employers are also exempt from these mandates, protecting those businesses, as well.

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Freedom of religion and the employer

I’ve been following the birth control debate pretty closely, as can

Rush Limbaugh - Caricature

Rush Limbaugh - Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

probably be shown by my having devoted two whole posts to it, and am considering another about Rush Limbaugh’s ridiculous rants and attacks on a woman, a Georgetown law student who intended to testify on the issue.

We all have the right to our own religious views. However, our rights can be somewhat limited by time and place, as well as the rights of other people. For example, employees can be limited in their speech (including religious) during their paid hours, if that behavior conflicts with the interests of the employer. My co-workers’ right to peace and my employers expectation of productivity do create limits to my hypothetical right to evangelize at work.

An employer, according to US law, also has to accept certain boundaries relative to their religion and employees. Most businesses cannot refuse to hire someone who does not happen to attend the same church as the owner. A few exceptions to that are actual places of worship, possibly very small businesses, and I’m sure a few others are recognized.

So the idea of a “conscience exception” for businesses that are not actively religious in nature is inherently wrong. An employer has no religious rights over his/her employees. A shop owner who didn’t believe in blood transfusions would be considered laughable if they attempted to remove that particular medical treatment in a health insurance plan. So why is birth control fair game? If it were hearing aids or blood pressure medication, the discussion would be much saner (I would hope).

Some would say that it’s the employer’s choice and you don’t have to take or keep the job if the benefits are not sufficient. That is a possible course of action, but I have yet to have an employer give me the details of their insurance plan ahead of time, so it isn’t like the information is available during salary negotiations. Some (most?) employers even require you to work 3 or 6 months before you become eligible, making you put in real time, perhaps only to learn that an important part of your compensation does not meet your needs. So the “free market” does not solve this problem.

We have a major problem with health care in this country. The only solution our legislature was able to get through was a modest plan to increase the percentage of people with insurance coverage. The only way this will help is if we also allow experts (medical and public health experts, not bishops or rabbis) to define what a basic, comprehensive plan looks like.

It is clear that people who speak from a “moral” or a political point of view are deliberately lying and confusing the issue.

  • Sandra Fluke, telling the story  of a roommate whose ovarian condition required surgery due to a lack of coverage for the proper medication, somehow becomes a slut (when her own choices were not even under discussion). Her history of belief in reproductive rights somehow makes her a “plant” as opposed to the positive terms they’d use for those who are devoted to conservative causes.
  •  The co-pays or full prices for prescription medication that must be taken daily somehow add up to “a lot of sex,” deliberately confusing prescription costs with the costs of other “per use” methods such as condoms.
  • Males with no medical training pontificate that birth control pills serve no medical purpose. This is quite easily debunked.
  • Coverage under an insurance policy is deliberately confused with entitlement and government handouts
  • The fact that Georgetown students pay every dollar for their insurance (if it’s like USC, where I attend, it is mandatory unless you have evidence of other acceptable coverage) is not mentioned. That fact alone should indicate that nobody’s religious rights are infringed by bringing insurance policies into the 21st century
  • The fact that 28 states already have laws requiring such coverage with no problems is also ignored
  • The fact that some Catholic universities already have comprehensive plans because there was no way to separate medical necessity from personal preference is also ignored
These are very similar distortions and outright lies to the kinds of things that were said about Obama as a candidate, or even as current president, and health care reform when it was in the formative stages. Death panels, anyone? Obama a secret Muslim? It is clear that the Right cannot be trusted to say anything factual. They will say or do anything to win.

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An open letter to Rush Limbaugh

Dear Mr. Limbaugh,

I hate to waste space and time to you on my blog, but I just had to say my piece about your ridiculous comments on birth control and the recent hearings.

First, the issue is not about giving anyone money. It is about insurance covering FDA approved medications that are legally prescribed by a doctor. Covering any of these medications should be no more controversial than covering those for erectile dysfunction.

It is also not about what we have to pay for as taxpayers. It is about what a “comprehensive medical insurance package” looks like. If employers do not provide this, they are increasing the risk that you and  I will indeed end up paying for medical care that could have been avoided through good preventative coverage. For example, not covering cholesterol medications now will lead to expensive heart procedures later.

This isn’t an entitlement issue. University students pay for their medical insurance along with their tuition (I can provide the evidence – my own bills from USC if you like).  Employees typically receive their insurance as part of their compensation package, with their “contribution” deducted from their salary). I don’t see the taxpayer involved anywhere here.

It isn’t even about supposedly promiscuous college students. Contraceptive medication is medically indicated for many medical issues, including painful ovarian and menstrual conditions. These same medications would be prescribed even if the woman were a cloistered nun. They must be taken daily to work properly, whether the woman is sexually active or celibate, unlike those for erectile dysfunction. Perhaps your familiarity with Viagra and similar medications is why you jumped to the conclusion that $3000 of medications over 3 years indicates “a lot of sex.”

You indicated that a particular woman’s family should be ashamed of her for her testimony. I submit they should be exceedingly proud. She was standing up for a friend and roommate who required a medical treatment the university was denying, even though the condition and the treatment are typically taboo.

Further, it is not about freedom of religion. Employers do not have the right to dictate their religious views to their employees. There are limited exceptions such as churches, but the idea is this: simply because an organization has some connection to a church does not make it exempt from labor laws. Do we allow employers to object “morally” to laws regarding rest and lunch breaks? Can they say their religion forbids them to pay overtime or a minimum wage? Can they ignore occupational health and safety regulations?

The important point is this: the patient, due to the university’s refusal to cover an FDA approved medication, required painful and expensive SURGERY.  Medically and economically, this was an unacceptable outcome. This is what health care reform is about; recognizing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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Contraception is not about women?

I’m personally outraged by some of the rhetoric I hear about the contraception debate, not only from Catholic groups but also at least one of the presidential candidates. THEY are trying to reframe the debate to their taste while not realizing that they are demanding the “right” to trample the health of millions of women.

First, there is no way this can be about anything but women. It is the woman who would decide to obtain that prescription, fill it, and take it each day. It is the woman who would bear the consequence if she was unable to obtain affordable contraception and became pregnant.

An individual accepting a position at a Catholic church or diocese – at any level – would almost certainly be an adherent of the faith, and the small number of exceptions would be people who are willing to accept special strictures. I have absolutely no problem with this, and I doubt anybody else does either. Churches are exempt from a number of employment laws, and may choose employees based on faith affiliation.

The Catholic Church, in addition to their houses of worship and official church structure has also chosen to run some community service agencies, such as hospitals, adoption agencies and universities. (I won’t discuss elementary and high schools, as many elementary schools are certainly directly connected with a specific parish, and high schools may or may not be.)

While these are wonderful contributions to the community, they are separate from the Church in many ways. First, their primary purposes are NOT religious, they are agencies which have the purposes of aiding some specific aspect of their community (health, child welfare, higher education). While some connection to the church might remain, most of the work of the agency is secular.

Hospitals are also large employers, with the only employees absolutely needing to be Catholic reporting to the department of the chaplain. Those who mop the floors, cook and serve food, administer blood tests, take x-rays, handle administrative tasks, and even the nurses are hired on merit, not religion. Their jobs are identical to their peers at any other hospital. The same thing goes for universities – thousands of employees doing secular jobs that are identical to what they would be doing at any other university.

Nobody’s religious freedom is being harmed. The Catholic church is only being required to accept that since their hospitals and universities are not part of their religious mission, they fall subject to a number of secular regulations. One of them is the new definition of what a comprehensive health insurance plan looks like. If they do not wish to offer comprehensive health plans, there are consequences.

Particularly after the compromise, this really starts to look ridiculous. Since health insurance companies typically consider contraception to be a pretty standard prescription to cover, they weren’t giving discounts for plans that didn’t cover it. So covering it free isn’t a big deal for insurance companies. But some bigwig Catholic males are still throwing a tantrum because some food service worker, administrative assistant, nurse, or  English professor might obtain contraceptive medication on the insurance policy they receive as part of their compensation. This is as silly as trying to dictate what an employee might buy with their salary.

The real violation of religious liberty is this: that food service worker and English professor aren’t Catholic. They don’t have to be Catholic simply because they took positions with a Catholic hospital or university.  The nurse does happen to be Catholic, but has a medical condition that is best treated with the same pills. Each of them has the right to decide, with her doctor, what her health requires and what her beliefs are in terms of artificial birth control. In all of these cases (and even if the employee is Catholic but chooses not to follow church teachings in this regard) it is an unacceptable violation of THEIR rights to have their employer exclude an important aspect of women’s health from coverage.

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An excellent decision on birth control and religious employers

English: Picture Of Ortho Tri-Cyclen oral cont...

Image via Wikipedia

In the news this week is a decision to celebrate – many religious employers will be required (in 2013) to cover birth control even if the particular faith opposes it.

While some feel this violates religious liberty, it is actually an excellent decision in support of individual liberty vs employer overreach. My employer, no matter what its views, has no business interfering with my medical decisions.

Most of the individuals employed by such employers are in purely secular positions. Catholic hospitals, for example, have many many positions which are not religious in nature, such as clerical, janitorial, technical, food service. I don’t even imagine all the medical staff (doctors and nurses) are expected to belong to the church. For that reason, their employer has no right to impose its views on their private life (and there is very little more private than medication).

An important factor such employers should also remember is that birth control pills have purposes other than contraception. A well-known example is that they can help solve menstrual bleeding, pain, and irregularity problems. For my employer to limit my doctor’s decision on that score is excessive. Would they also forbid my having a hysterectomy? What if my employer believes that epilepsy is caused by demonic possession – can they forbid the insurance company to cover anti-epileptic medication? Can they deny medical care related to pregnancy if I am not married?

You might say that I accepted such terms if I accepted a hypothetical position with a Catholic employer. I disagree. If I take a position delivering meal trays, billing, or mopping floors at Providence St. Joseph, I am not obligating myself to live as a Catholic.

I tend to be fairly moderate when it comes to employer expectations of employee personal lives. As a former teacher and current social work student,  I can see how working for a religious employer would require great care in personal deportment while at work and in situations where you could be connected with your employer. But nobody other than my husband sees me take my medication every morning, and nobody other than my doctor and I get to decide what that medication is. While my employer has indeed contributed to the insurance plan which pays a portion of my medications, they do not have the right to make medical decisions on my behalf by excluding whole categories.

Perhaps those who are claiming their religious rights are violated can be comforted by seeing insurance more accurately. They are not buying their employees medication – they are paying for a particular level of coverage (usually shared between the employer and employee) and the EMPLOYEE is buying the medication. The assumption that the church is somehow buying birth control because a benefit plan covers them is absurd. It is equivalent to assuming that because my employer paid me my salary, any purchase I might make with it is still subject to their beliefs.

This has some personal interest to me, as I am seriously considering medical social work as my concentration, with the hope of working in a hospital once I am finished. An otherwise excellent Catholic hospital chain is dominant in this area, and I might have found myself applying there. I would not want to affiliate myself with any employer that would attempt to control my life and private medical decisions in such a manner.

A final question to which I do not know the answer: do these same policies that exclude birth control cover Viagra and Cialis?

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Product Review: Kindle Fire

I received a Kindle Fire for Christmas (by request) and thought I’d give some thoughts on it.

I wanted it most particularly for textbooks and journal articles for my MSW program. Carrying heavy books around is a bit annoying and the cost (in paper and ink) of printing out the journal articles assigned as supplementary reading had become too much. I had tried to load articles into my Ipod Touch, but it was just too small to be comfortable.

The Fire is a slight bit heavy, but not unreasonably so given its functions. Its size is just about right for the screen I need for reading. I can comfortably hold it on my knee or stomach or a table and read with my glasses on.

I was disappointed that Amazon tries to tie you into their store, rather than enabling the use of the other Android markets. But it is possible to bypass that.

One thing that really annoyed me was that the only textbook I needed to buy this semester, while promoted as a Kindle edition, was not compatible with my Kindle. But others will be in the future, I’m sure, and that’s more an Amazon issue than Kindle. I did have a textbook  bought in Kindle format prematurely (I thought it would work on my Ipod Touch) which does work, and is still needed for this semester, so at least I have one textbook on Kindle. One class is also using a popular novel for analysis for the midterm, which was also no problem on this device.

Battery life seems to be OK for my type of use, reading things, checking e-mail, and playing games off and on during the day I haven’t had to charge it until after dinner.

I’m still getting the hang of reading journal articles on the Kindle, though it is certainly much better than on an Ipod. 🙂

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