Aaron Swartz and polarized responses to civil disobedience

I keep reading these really polarized op-eds that either vilify or passionately defend the decisions of folks like Aaron Swartz, Edward Snowden, and others who have been in the news with varying plots of transparency, exposure, demonstration, and crises of conscience. We have everything from Julian Assange documentaries to legal defenses for JSTOR and journalists at the Guardian; in highly charged discussions of Wikileaks, Aaron Swartz, and Edward Snowden respectively. I remember noting that the principles of civil disobedience have always involved paying the price for the indiscretion that a righteous demonstrator, protester, leader or objector commits. But our discourse needs not only to look at a polar question of right and wrong, but at the complex decision-making models behind the situation and person in question- and in the end, our societal mores and folkways. For instance, one of the more interesting arguments I’ve heard recently about Aaron Swartz’s intended electronic release of JSTOR journal articles and manuscripts was that this was stealing from authors. Being new to academia, I can’t say I’m yet as prolific as I am working to be, but I have a few eggs in that basket.

Most of the authors* in JSTOR do not own their copyrights. I can’t access my own articles without getting around a pay-wall either through an institution or my own credit card. Authors are not paid for these publications other than through academic capital, which varies greatly and isn’t comparable to the massive money that JSTOR and other publishing outfits harvest from what is essentially taxpayer money in the first place. So releasing JSTOR articles was illegal, but I would hope we can process that as a society and continue to look at the facts behind the civil disobedience- rather than be deflected from facts by strong rhetoric.

As far as Snowden, the outrage of [the NSA] getting caught has fueled accusations toward him. “Look at what this has done to our relationship with Germany!” … I used to work with adjudicated juveniles in a lockdown facility- when asked why they were there, they’d answer “because I was caught.” Granted, in Snowden’s case, I don’t think he chose the correct path of refuge. I also believe civil disobedience necessitates paying the price. However, I’m “trillions” of times more concerned about what he exposed, than how or who exposed it. We’ve been embarrassed, not by Snowden. Any of the NSA information that has been leaked and confirmed by insiders from tech companies like Apple, Google, etc. would have been fodder for a paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis if we had heard this stuff a decade or two ago. Now it’s just a flood of desensitizing outrageous believe-it-or-not infotainment, served up alongside Kanye and Kim’s “you named your baby what” stories. And that’s the problem. I hope we can approach social problems by changing our society, rather than going after the messenger- slavery, women as property, and genocide have all been features of societies in our history- laws that needed to change.

Some well reasoned discourse and accountable policy needs to spring from our experiences of people like Swartz and others- not this polarizing rhetoric that I see: “moronic”.. “traitor”.. “patriot” .. what about the math, social justice, public policy, ethics, and economics; among other subjects, that result from these revelations? If we brush information like this aside and write it off as the result of having been caught, if we blame “the snitch” and fail to address the underlying deficiencies, we will continue to experience a society crippling cognitive dissonance. There is a middle road, and it is evidence based and factual. And it must be followed through.

For every wrong in an evolving society that must be righted, there is civil disobedience. Prices are indubitably paid. Hopefully we can look to the underlying issues and follow through with collective self improvement, every time we are presented with a Swartz, Manning, or Martin Luther King.

 

*Edit 1/13/14: I declared in haste that nobody in JSTOR owns his or her copyright, but that is not true. A small number of authors do retain rights to what they write.

How to write anything: 12 sentences.

While not everything we write can be summed up in twelve sentences, it’s a grand start. While there is nothing magical about the particular number of twelve, twelve sentences could be the ideal verbal set-up for any writing project; for three reasons. First, there is ample, but not too much room for: 1) an introductory sentence, 2) a thesis sentence, and 3) back-up reasoning. In fact, the back-up reasoning can thoroughly reinforce each of three points with three reinforcement sentences. The second reason for a twelve sentence essay is that it can be established as an outline, abstract, or proposal. Finally, the urgency to reduce an argument to twelve sentences can help to clarify and apply thoughtful discipline to one’s writing. 
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A writing project is like construction- it needs a frame or scaffolding. This scaffolding allows ideas to be built upon a logical foundation which leads to a structurally intuitive, intentional conceptual conclusion. At each point in the construction of this scaffolding, supporting items can then be placed within the structure in order to establish credibility or integrity at each step. The utility of such a structure is often appreciated by readers, reviewers, professors, and editors. If I can communicate an idea in twelve sentences, then I can use it as a makeshift abstract, and bolster each stage in later iterations for communicating something in greater detail; like an outline. In this way, one’s attention is focused toward incisive prioritization and logical progression- all as the result of constructing twelve sentences. 

Disneyland’s lessons for healthcare

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While in California recently for a convention which has a great deal to do with my research interests and pastimes, I had the pleasure of visiting Disneyland with some dear friends. I am into counseling- specifically addictions and career counseling; and I couldn’t help but notice something at Disneyland that would really benefit the fields of counseling and healthcare in general: obsessive attention to detail which results in a high-quality experience.

The level of detail in the Disney experience is so painstaking that much of it fades from one’s consciousness. The staff are called cast members, because you are immersed in a show- a show full of scenery and design. The architecture at Disneyland is designed to immerse guests in specific environments- from the breathtaking canyons with vintage garages of Cars Land, to the proportionally smaller windows and architectural features on the second and third stories of buildings that make them appear taller. For healthcare or counseling, this translates to intentional consistency and vigilant person-centered care. While we spend more and more of our money, as Americans, on healthcare; much of it state-of-the-art; prevalence of chronic disability and disease has never been higher. This is due in part to conflicting messages from healthcare entities about things like what we eat, how we prevent and treat illness, mental illness, addiction, and the people who contract them.

ImageImagine a healthcare system where its participants were immersed and invested in living the longest, healthiest, most fulfilling lives they could. Imagine if healthcare professionals were as obsessed with that vision as the most informed, responsive patients. While leaving Disneyland one night, I noticed two pathway lights whose fluorescent bulbs were flickering. The following night, the bulbs had already been changed. There is no room for an ignored light bulb on Disneyland’s 510 acres. With combined overhead and profits upward of 30% of healthcare costs, you would think we could keep all the bulbs lit. What does it mean to keep bulbs lit in our healthcare systems?

First, a continuum of care should be expected, not just encouraged. The latest research emphases in medicine are on meeting the varied, holistic needs of people from general practitioner to specialist to dietitian to other life domains like career, family, recreation, and self improvement. We could incentivize prevention and self improvement using a combination of strategies to engage patients- to immerse them in living well. We could set expectations for all practitioners that they communicate with other members of a person’s treatment team, and that informed consent is treated as helpful- not just a rubber stamp for status quo treatment. The main thing that needs to happen, however, is a culture shift. Human services professionals must be part of a system that encourages innovation and professionalism. Citizens must be part of a system that encourages self care and self improvement using evidence and research, rather than profits and marketing. Public policy will need to enable vigilant providers and patients, rather than focusing simply on cost analysis and disease management. It is time for culture to change: if self-improvement and a focus on holistic care were a greater part of public discourse, policy debates about health insurance- an unnecessarily, ridiculously large portion of our economy; would be unnecessary and moot.

Diplomacy 101 for Citizens of the Interwebs and Gaming Realms

One of my favorite things to practice while gaming or having a discussion online, is diplomacy. I’m a counselor, so I normally refer to it as “using my counseling skills”. The only way to successfully deploy skills like these (and this is not an exhaustive list) is if you are, yourself, not upset. If you feel upset, walking away is often the best idea- and if you are feeling like you might hurt yourself, it’s time to take care of yourself first (call 911, talk to a parent or trusted friend).Image

Anyway, you can defuse an angry person using these skills – sometimes this person is a troll (someone who posts things with the purpose of angering or upsetting others) and sometimes this person is genuinely upset. Regardless, here are some skills to pull out of your pocket. 

1. Validate something valid. This can be difficult, if someone has just called you a “#$%ing noob” or worse, a group of people has singled someone out. Cyberbullying happens in games, comment sections, and social networks. Anyway, there’s something valid, whether it is a person’s feeling upset. I can validate your feeling upset, even if it’s directed at me for absolutely no reason. “Oh, that did suck, huh? GAHHHH!” … This is empathy. There are various types of empathy, but the simplest way to describe this is to identify with a person’s emotional state and communicate it. “You’re really pissed off, huh?” If someone is cussing at someone else, they are either pissed off or they are not pissed off. Regardless, when you name the emotion for them, they will consider this. I’ve seen two responses, most of the time, to empathy: either a) they say a little more about their feelings and further talk helps to bring them down, or b) they examine how they just said what they said, and correct you: “well I’m not pissed actually. (lol…*)” In either case, encouraging someone to talk more about how they feel about x will either help them to reduce their intense anger, or claim a new emotion. *I dropped an LOL in there, because you will find this is a filler in some seemingly strange contexts of online conversation- look for it in situations where the pressure has just been let out of the veritable room.  

2. Identify commonalities. What do you and the angry person have in common? Shared goals? Shared values? Anything? This can be one of the most difficult things because some of the more heinous online conduct is veiled in anonymity. 

3. Ask for solutions. There are two parts to this. While asking for solutions, remember that a failure to plan is a plan to fail. Have a direction in mind, and see if you can draw it from your adversary. You may not agree, but at least you’re not sitting on the problem- and after an angry person repeats a problem and elaborates a few times, the average angry person tends to deflate and ready to think. One of the worst mistakes that angry people in comment sections, forums, and online games tend to make is to dwell on the problem. In fact, if you listen to any great debate going on right now, you will actually hear restatement of the problem over and over. That’s called feeding the troll, and I suppose it sells. A solution orientation would look like this: “I see this is something you care a lot about- what would a fix look like?” 

4. Be ready to loop back to validation. Sometimes angry internet communicators are taken off guard when you try to derail the troll-train, and they just want to get back to making someone miserable. Whether it’s a need they feel hasn’t been met, or an agenda to which they’ve dedicated themselves, you can blow the cover off problem talk with continued validation, empathy, commonality, and solution questions. 

Why bother? 

There are reasons to negotiate with trolls, calm the angry, befriend the bullies, and chill with the chilled. Perhaps you’re in a World of Warcraft raid and you need this person’s talent (and what a GREAT thing to say to someone, by the way!) or this person is a friend of yours. Perhaps you’re trying to put a stop to a potential cyber-bullying incident where anonymous, misplaced anger has run amok. Another reason is perhaps you want to feel some positive power. I actually get a charge out of trying to debrief some of the more off-the-chart vitriolic personalities I run into online- it’s a whole new dimension to online gaming. 

The main reason is his: spreading positive vibes is always going to be more useful and more fulfilling than doing anything else when faced with an angry person. So why not? 

The above is just a limited list of techniques aimed at situations where you don’t necessarily have control over the venue. You can also set level-headed consequences, if for instance you have control over a forum or a gaming situation. You can use basic skills like active listening, advanced techniques like motivational interviewing, but be wary of manipulating others- it’s an unintended result that can put you on the trolling throne. And nobody wants you on the trolling throne. 

How Vocational Rehabilitation Counselors self-sabotage

There is currently a senate bill under consideration, S.1356, which will eliminate a qualified personnel requirement for vocational rehabilitation that could downgrade the professional identities of vocational rehabilitation counselors, filling open positions with less qualified individuals working for less money with less autonomy and less flexibility. In my limited experience, what I would say to vocational rehabilitation counselors is this: “you asked for it.”

I am currently a tenure-track assistant professor at a university where I teach masters degree courses in counseling. Among my specialties and background is rehabilitation counseling. Rehabilitation counseling (RC) is perhaps best known for its focus on vocation as an essential component of a person’s life. RCs assist people with all sorts of disabilities: physical, mental health, addictive, and developmental; acute and chronic. We’re found in hospitals, clinical counseling agencies, schools, and pretty much anywhere else you might find people who have disabilities of any sort. We are trained as clinical counselors, using the same or similar literature as counseling psychologists, social workers, clinical counselors, school counselors, and other therapists. Many of us work in a setting mostly known as “public rehabilitation”, or “Vocational Rehabilitation”. Every state has an agency or division responsible for assisting people with documented disabilities and demonstrated barriers to suitable employment to achieve that employment. In North Carolina, this is called “Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services“, in Pennsylvania, it’s “Office of Vocational Rehabilitation“, and in Ohio, it is called “Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation“. No matter what it’s called, each state’s VR program follows guidelines and receives partial funding from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). The RSA is, (still at this moment), part of the Department of Education, which reflects rehabilitation counseling’s long heritage in partnering with schools and training programs. RSA has set forth qualifications through Comprehensive System of Personnel Development guidelines found in the Rehabilitation Act. Click on CSPD for background information on this.

CSPD qualifications include, for VR counselors, a master’s degree.  Counselors need to be trained at the graduate level in counseling- but that is likely to change, if S.1356 is signed into law. Why would they get the idea that master’s level counselors with high quality rehabilitation training could be replaced with people who have no counselor education background, no therapy coursework, no graduate level training? Because for years, vocational rehabilitation counselors have failed to perform the functions with which they were trained.

My soapbox message, in career counseling, vocational rehabilitation, and occupational analysis related courses is as follows: take the time to counsel. Your work will be more effective, your clients will be more motivated, and the outcomes will be more substantial. Among the responses that I hear from vocational rehabilitation counselors, the most frequent is, “but my caseload is too big,” … “who has the time?” … “I spend all my time just meeting casework deadlines!” Indeed, caseloads are large. I worked for VR agencies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and my caseloads were both large. My favorite piece of advice was from a manager named Billy Ross, who inspired me with the imagery of a “water-bug”. Mr. Ross had watched his top counselor to see why this was the top counselor- and that is what he saw. A water-bug. Here is a video of a water strider. These four-legged bugs move quickly across the surface. Consider how they cover a lot of ground very quickly. A counselor can meet deadlines as a water strider- a hand on the folder, a hand on the phone, or computer. The point that I took was that you need to move quickly on casework- and I took it a step further. I got my paperwork out of the way as quickly as possible. That frenzy was powered by a desire to spend more time actually counseling with my clients. I became very efficient at paperwork. I did not like a pile of anything to last very long, so I would make as much progress on a case as I could, and then schedule a day on my calendar to follow up on whatever it was I needed to wait for, to move that case forward. The point was to get it out of the way, because I was a counselor- not a paper pusher. But that is the problem.

Several of my students have come back from a field experience placement and shared that they were absolutely overwhelmed by the amount of paperwork. They inevitably repeated what the counselors around them had said: “there is no time to be with the clients, to counsel- it’s all we can do to keep up with the paperwork!” … When I hear this, I always feel like I have failed at trying to turn the tide, because with all the focus on “you are a counselor” that I could inject into my students, they would have just a day in a typical state vocational rehabilitation agency office and come back as a paperwork zombie. This unwritten attitude is so entrenched that VR deals with repeat clients, high job turnover, and countless closures where a person simply falls out of contact for lack of intervention with his or her VR counselor. “Guidance and counseling” is a frequent staple on the standard individual plan for employment document, but is it really being provided? In many cases, the counselor establishes a plan and then refers to the purveyors of community rehabilitation programs. The service provided in this case is basically eligibility determination and writing a check.

You don’t need a master’s degree for eligibility determination and check writing. You barely need a bachelor’s degree. And parity with other federally associated programs where eligibility and check writing are the substantive services provided, would beg the question, “why do we need masters-trained counselors for vocational rehabilitation?”

Because, with a few exceptions, VR counselors aren’t counseling. Why? Because they see no incentives from within the work adjustment career counseling model that we use. The “few exceptions” link is to a Motivational Interviewing practice which the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation in Washington State has adopted this evidence based practice with good results.

My advice to vocational rehabilitation counselors has not changed. Want to be paid, respected, and resourced as a counselor? Act like one. Disagree with me? Prove me wrong.

Mental Health and the Zimmerman Verdict

Folks have been feeling and communicating strong emotions over the Zimmerman verdict. Here are some tips that I would offer as a counselor, in terms of interpreting our feelings.

How “should” I feel?

First, I like to shoot down the cliche’ that plagues mental health: “how does that make you feel?” – the question itself takes control from the individual and places it on the world, even though two people can feel differently about the same thing. A better question that I like to ask is simply, “how do you feel about that?” So now we can talk about how we feel, and not worry so much about how we should feel. Shoulds are words that control and they create a mismatch between where we are and where other people want us to be- what’s neglected is where we want ourselves to be. So if you feel like you should feel a certain way about the trial verdict, ask yourself what you feel instead.

Is anger right for me?

I have been told that I should feel angry. Anger isn’t for everyone, however, and that is good. Imagine if we all reacted to things with anger? That could be stressful. On the other hand, anger isn’t bad either- it stirs us to make changes at times. We must remember, however, that to expect the world to adjust to me is irrational. To enact change through collective efforts; that is rational. Anger isn’t the only way for us to respond to things.

Depression

First off, if you feel like you might hurt yourself or someone else, contact your physician or call 911. That might sound canned, but it needs to be said. It is natural to feel some sadness about what’s gone on. It is not natural to hurt yourself or others over it. Celebrity John Legend tweeted about the Zimmerman verdict, “my heart hurts.” Find someone trusted to talk to, if you’re feeling sad.

Sadness

People are crying about this- and that’s a good thing. Expressing sadness is a normal part of life- people are venting, protesting, debating. They’re processing how they experience this and future incidents and constructing and reconstructing their views of the world.

If you’re not feeling it, that’s all right.

Not everyone feels urgent about everything, and all this online activism can have a dampening effect on our awareness of the things that we can change. A friend of mine reminded me last night that thousands of cases with which the public likely would disagree, go through the courts every day. Why do we focus on one? Because we all can see this one? Did we actually see it? I feel perspective when I think about the “little” miscarriages of justice I’ve witnessed. I say “little” but they’re huge to the people involved. Finding a cause to work on in my “little” world is helpful. The civil rights movement, for example, was a series of “little” worlds making big changes through collective efforts.

Empathy 

Empathy, the understanding or perception of another’s subjective experience, is incredibly useful right now. To verbalize how someone else must feel is a skill that bridges gaps. It is the first tool in a counselor’s toolbox, but it works wonders in any relationship. When strong perspectives like family, rights, racial ethnic identity, societal norms, and freedom come into play, empathy might be the only thing that facilitates communication. To be able to disagree while accepting the other person and his/her feelings as valid, is to approach resolution and progress. You don’t even have to feel those feelings yourself, to feel empathy for others.

Self Care

Take a deep breath and consider whether you want to discuss the Zimmerman verdict with others. There are plenty of trolls and well-meaning souls too who all want to talk about the trial. If you’re feeling distracted from activities of daily living like work, school, sleep, etc. as a result of having those discussions, it might be a good time to clear your mind for a while. Don’t forget to enjoy a healthy meal, take a nice long walk, or play with the dog.

Ask yourself “what do I want out of this conversation?” Does the outcome depend on how other people experience it, or how you experience it? Above all, remember that we can make differences in this world when we’re healthy participants.

Justice Department should oversee voting law changes nationwide: not just for racial equality.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: even in the supreme court’s majority (barely) decision, there is some ambiguity:

“…voter turnout and registration rates [...] now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare.”

ImageRare, you say? Officials within state Republican party organizations (and voting regulations are traditionally, even in this supreme court case’s opinion, delegated to the state level) have declared, 1) less accessible voting results in more republican victories and 2) republicans generally do not benefit proportionally from minority votes. While that is not a direct association, it can be reasoned that limiting voting rights will result in more republican victories. This disproportionately affects certain minorities- or more accurately, it affects socioeconomically disadvantaged people- and poverty is racially associated. I am also troubled by the idea of “approaching parity” rather than “achieving parity”. I want to achieve parity in voter rights. 

The court’s ruling mainly centers on the notion that regionally concentrated racism is less significant than in the past. In other words, if a rural town in Mississippi wanted to postpone an election because they found out a number of people of color were likely to win, they would have had to clear this with the Justice Department first. The same motion in a rural Pennsylvania town would not need such clearance. The decision says that these two are no different, and I agree. Unfortunately, in both cases, discrimination must now be remedied after the fact. The Daily Show’s John Oliver pointed out that 74 cases of such an intervention have occurred since 2000. The Voting Rights Act does allow a state to get out of the defined territory, by not having an incident for 10 years. Justice Ginsberg, in her minority opinion, illustrated a few of the more heinous recent incidents. I can direct you to some of the news outlet websites in such regions and encourage you to read some of the comments, if you want to see examples of rampant racism in public opinion (example) (another example). 

Whether you agree or disagree with the notion (or actual research) that racism is still significantly more prevalent in certain geographical areas, there are other disadvantaged groups caught in the wake of this decision. I am talking about people with disabilities. 

A number of states have policy which keep people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities from voting. Physical disabilities pose another disadvantage in many cases as well. For example, in 2012, an adult with Down Syndrome in Arizona had to go before a judge in order to argue for his right to vote. His right had been automatically taken away by sweeping legislation which categorically disqualified thousands of people in 14 states, with no due process. Due process is guaranteed to all citizens by the US Constitution. From my perspective, the upside of this recent ruling is that geographical areas are no longer treated differently from one another- but the downside is that people’s rights to vote are less safeguarded than they were before, and can be lost without due process. 

The Supreme Court left the decision to protect voting rights across the board to Congress. Whether our legislators take up this matter is another question. Evidence based decisions on this matter are imperative, and I believe the evidence will show that people with disabilities are as important a demographic as any other group of citizenry in this nation.