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SB 610: Commentary on “Business Confidence”

So the anti-SB 610 advertising is still going on, from representatives of the major fast food companies. I invite you to read this commentary from a McDonald’s franchisee who ended up being one of the spearheading forces for it.

What I find remarkable is the repeated usage of claims in this advertising that doing things like changing the franchise-franchiser format will lower food safety.

Insofar as that might even be true and is not simply a claim made with no evidence, what that is saying is, “If businesses are forced to be fair, they’ll cut corners”.

It’s a threat. It’s a veiled threat.

Every time you hear business lobbies talk about business confidence, or loss of jobs, or anything like that, what they’re saying is, “We will punish you for daring to regulate us”.

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September 11th: Thirteen Retrospectives

There’s going to be a lot of September 11th retrospectives today. I’ve already read two that were deeply moving. It’s a galvanizing moment in our history.

But I’ve always felt that our national reaction to September 11th ended up galvanizing us rather the wrong way. We ended up pursuing a path of violence instead of peace. We ended up tearing apart law instead of supporting it. And we didn’t question our nominal leaders.

One thing that has always has to be remembered on these anniversaries is “the other September 11th”: Pinochet’s coup d’etat in 1973, bombing the Presidential palace of Allende and leading to a bloody coup. The two events are of course not entirely analogous. The number of people who actually died on the specific date of 1973 was lower than September 11th, but the best estimates of Pinochet’s death toll are much higher. September 11th was unique in that the guns were pointed from the colonized world to the colonizing world. And while September 11th was a major atrocity, it didn’t plunge a whole society into chaos or change a regime.

Most importantly, the second September 11th was an extraordinary event, while the first was standard operating practice for American empire.

I usually try to be the sanguine and optimistic voice in the room. But sometimes people want to embrace the easy over the difficult. So I think it’s time for a review of what has transpired in the last thirteen years.

It is true that we have seen the US get out of Iraq… but we got ourselves into it. And it’s important to remember that we allowed ourselves to invade a sovereign nation (yes with an evil dictator, one who we had backed and to a large extent even installed) under fraudulent pretenses, and pretenses that were even at the time clearly fraudulent. Despite immense protest, the American people allowed a great crime and act of evil to occur. The invasion of Iraq under Nuremberg should have led to the execution of Bush and many of his cronies.

The Taliban no longer run a country… but they’re still around, and threatening Pakistani stability. Worse, Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet according to Transparency International, with rampant cronyism. Both Iraq and Afghanistan had at best a mixed record thanks to US intervention.

There was some democratization since the invasion of Iraq… but most scholars find that the 2008 recession had quite a lot more to do with that wave of democracy than anything the US did. Worse, we’re seeing that the efforts to democratize in Egypt and Libya are struggling. And we’re seeing that the United States has at best an ambiguous and mixed response when it comes to countries like Egypt in their efforts to democratize (remember: the Mubarak regime was a US client).

ISIS is now a serious threat. We moved from having terror cells operating mostly covertly (with some notable exceptions like the Taliban) to suicide bombing in Iraq and “insurgents” (read: people defending a nation from an illegal invasion) to what seems to be a growing army. ISIS is so brutal that al-Zawahiri has disowned them. ISIS now has tens of thousands of operatives, and it seems that al-Qaeda’s representatives in the region, al-Nusra, has joined ISIS.
The perpetual crisis in Israel and Palestine still continues to trundle along, instead of actually seeing any kind of resolution.

There’s an even greater tragedy, though.

Instead of taking the opportunity to build connections with the world and join the international community more fully, we raised ourselves above it.

Instead of developing empathy and compassion, we allowed extreme neo-conservatives to run many of our institutions for eight years. That lack of empathy and compassion led us to endure a colossal recession. (A recession that, had we not spent so much on the military, we might have had public funds to be able to mitigate or avert).
Instead of learning how to walk the Earth as brother and sisters, we used the very planes and submarines that Dr. King found so unimpressive to kill and maim.

I intend to write an article soon about how the United States has discredited itself so fully that now it is difficult for good-hearted people here to get our military to successfully intervene against ISIS or Russia or any other potential threats.

Global warming is continuing and the world seems to be less safe in many ways than it was thirteen years ago.

It’s incumbent upon us to learn real lessons from September 11th: Violence is not a solution to problems, on the schoolyard or in life; truly being heroic and intervening to aid others requires respect for their autonomy and true love; and our blindness to the pain of others can have immense and catastrophic results.

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The Allegory of the Cave and Lived Experience

I’ve always felt that the best philosophy isn’t just telling us about our world or giving us interesting ideas at the conceptual level, but explains a way of living. I’ve been baffled by those who related to philosophers from Socrates to Descartes and didn’t realize that there was an emotional world that these people were trying to communicate as well as an intellectual one.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is one of those ideas that I think has been chronically misunderstood.

For those of you who don’t know (or slept through honors English), the allegory of the cave goes something like this: Imagine a group of prisoners in a dark cave, chained to a wall. All they can see is a blank wall in front of them. They see shadows reflected from people passing in front of a nearby fire and hear distant sounds from outside the cave.

The point Plato was trying to make is that these prisoners’ experience is horrifically degraded. They can barely understand reality as it actually is. All they see are the shadows of real things, the echoes of an actual world outside tem.

A prisoner that managed to escape from this cave would be blinded. She would be in agony for some time. She wouldn’t understand everything from social norms to Facebook to what a tip at a restaurant is.

If she ever managed to adapt to reality, and tried to return to the cave, her former compatriots in the cave would be perplexed. They may reject the escaped prisoner as insane, or simply be frustrated at their inability to understand. They may even feel that the difficulty of escaping the cave would not be worth their benefits of their freedom. Besides, they’re launching a new series on the wall next summer that might be pretty good.

Plato thought about this as an analogy for education. He felt that the philosophically educated could see parts of reality that others could not, and saw a richness to life that the uneducated would never experience.

Yet Plato, and the people in his lineage like Aristotle and Socrates, clearly thought about education as being more than simply learning conceptual and intellectual ideas. They thought about it as the development of moral and emotional resources too.

I’ve always thought the allegory of the cave wasn’t very compelling. If you tell someone with poor mathematics skills how calculus works, they may be confused, frustrated, or annoyed, but they won’t react as if their reality is being undermined. If I tell you something like, “Mertonian strain is a theory that tries to explain deviant and criminal behavior by referring to the tension between society’s expectations and its normative means of achieving it”, it’s fairly unlikely to actually transform your knowledge of reality. At most, it might make you question aspects of your society or political beliefs you may have had, questioning certain convictions. But your idea of how the world works might not change.

Intellectual concepts rarely change the core of who we are or the way we view the world. It’s experience that does. Rene Descartes, the great French philosopher who gave us “I think, therefore I am”, and Socrates both found that their understanding of the world that they had been given as members of their society didn’t hold up when they saw the outside world. It’s life as we live it that makes us change, not concepts.

A lot of my writing in Skillful Means has been trying to communicate to people how impoverished the experience of those who have been traumatized or who have struggled with addiction or depression can be.

It’s in that difference in emotional reality that I think the allegory of the cave actually applies.

When I’ve tried to explain to some people feelings like true and unconditional love, or joy at adversity, or smiling so hard one’s face hurts, or taking horrible tragedies as reasons to fight, they would often fail to understand.

When I’ve tried to explain how it is possible to hold many loves dear in one’s heart, many wondered if I was trying to trick them.

When I’ve tried to explain that even the people in our lives who leave us by their own volition can still have touched our lives and be cherished inside of us, they were baffled.

When I’ve tried to communicate what ideas like duty and being a true knight and being a superhero feels like to me, I often get at best limited understanding.

When I’ve tried to put into words what it is like to feel a joy that washes away one’s sense of self and reality and simply allows one to be, as if a warm tidal wave were obliterating us, they would look at me as if I was insane.

And, to be fair, the same applies to me. I am in my own cave when it comes to the true traumas and horrors of life. There are aspects of the experiences of a sexual assault victim, or a torture victim, or someone grappling with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, that I may never fully understand.

In fact, in a sense, the reality is far lonelier than Plato described. We are often trapped in a cave by ourselves, no prisoners to share the experience with us.

This may be one of the most important things for people who want to help others to understand: Sometimes, when we have a positive experience of life, it is beyond their ability to comprehend. Their experience is so degraded or lacks so many of the antecedents of ours that we have to be able to go down to the very basic level. As I explain in the Imaginable Horizon, sometimes all we can do is slowly and patiently change their perception of what is possible. (And, in the process, learn more about the different ways others experience life, which can amplify our empathy, galvanize our passion to help, and facilitate our own counting of blessings).

Still, just as Plato felt it was possible with education to overcome the cave, so too do I believe that empathy fundamentally can defeat our different experiences. I believe that we can arrive at a level of understanding about the diversity of life that allows us to choose the best paths for ourselves and help those we care about find the same quality of path.

We all just have to be patient with each other, and hope that we can help each other find a better world.

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It’s As Easy As 1-2-3! Aspirations and Finding Them

So, onto something lighter!

I usually hate when people boil something down to banal trivialities. I find myself despising it when people take a complex process and try to pretend that it can be reduced to something “As simple as 1-2-3”.

So, here’s an analysis of my own 1-2-3 approach to complex problems!

Specifically, my approach whenever I help anyone deal with any personal and psychological issues (and in fact it’s a good general approach to many problems) is the following:

#1: Identify where you’re at.

#2: Make a list of aspirations.

#3: Construct an action plan.

This sounds simple, and in matter of fact you can do each part relatively easily in many different contexts. But there’s two things that need to be analyzed before you can use this approach.

First of all, we as human beings tend to want to focus on step #3. But in actuality, step #3 is nearly automatic when #1 and #2 are done correctly. Truly identifying a problem, especially when it’s an emotional problem that requires admitting weakness and fault and real hurt, is difficult. We often want to leap to the point where we find a solution, but we have to actually live in the moment of the problem. And really figuring out what we want and why is actually an immensely challenging process.

Once we’ve figured out where we actually are, with no self-serving illusions, and once we’ve figured out what we actually want, the mind has an incredible ability to begin subconsciously working on implementing the action plan.

More importantly, and today’s main topic, is the complexity of #2.

When I work with people on bridging the gap between #2 and #3, I have to do what seems like two contradictory things. I write this post now because last night I was in the process of doing so for myself. (Everything I suggest when working with people is techniques that I have personally used, including every chapter of Skillful Means).

First, I have to tell someone to not censor their aspirations at all.

Do you want to kiss George Clooney? Great, write that down.

Want a billion dollars? Add that to the list.

We have a natural instinct to try to keep our aspirations down. We want them to be realistic. We don’t want to admit aspirations that seem selfish. In particular, we often struggle to admit aspirations that society doesn’t want us to have.

For example: I want a partner who is willing to explore D/s and ravishment fantasy play. (If you don’t know what that is: Google is your friend… if you’re careful).

I admit this in public because my work requires me to be metaphorically naked. But it’s also a good example of the kind of thing that many people would struggle to admit. It’d be too problematic to their self-image. Hopefully, the work that was done at step #1 would force the honesty here, but it will still be hard at step #2 to admit it as something that could be desired.

For this process to work, it has to be complete. Someone has to list everything they want.

The reason why is that the list of aspirations is not really to actually achieve.

It’s diagnostic.

When we see written out all the things that we want, we can then start putting priorities to them. I suggest people use Very Low, Low, Medium, High and Very High, effectively a simple Likert scale.

Someone might realize that their desire to kiss George Clooney or actually be in a Hollywood movie or anything like that is Very Low. Yes, the idea’s cool, but they come to realize as they think about implementing it that they don’t really want it.

Meanwhile, their desire to actually become a good chef may be Very High. They might realize that they love cooking so much that they want to pursue that dream.

When we fully understand the networks of our desires and where they come from, we can move onto the second, seemingly contradictory step.

Because now that we’ve listed everything, we have to start tapering. Brutally.

This process can seem difficult. It can mean sometimes compromising on dreams. It means selecting how we will spend our time and how we will be defined.

But this tapering process is actually liberating.

Throughout history, most human beings had staggeringly few options. Paleolithic people were going to be hunter-gatherers. Maybe you were also a storyteller, or a drum-maker, or a weapon maker, but you were certainly going to be a hunter-gatherer. In feudal societies, most people were going to be farmers and serfs, the bulk of society providing food so a small elite could do anything else and have relative material security, expecting full well that they and their children and their children’s children would forever be in this state of agonizing lifelong work.

But options can be paralyzing. When we stand in the middle of a massive field and see every possible direction we can go, sometimes we find ourselves choosing none.

Tapering down options and making selections is difficult at first, but it becomes a relief. It frees our minds. It allows us to eliminate expectations. It lets us realize that the reason why we haven’t achieved many of our dreams is that they were phantasms rather than true aspirations of the soul.

Because it can be psychically jarring to go from opening the heart to every possibility to shutting the mind’s doors against idle thoughts, we may have to do these two steps separately. But they need to be done.

Perhaps the most important thing that we can discover by doing this is realizing not just what our aspirations are, but why.

One of the most important things to realize about human psychology is this: Two people can have the same goal for very different reasons.

I want to make more money. I find myself not only wanting to be more free from monetary concerns but also wanting to be able to aid friends and family, give to causes I care about, and have the latitude to pursue options and projects.

Yet I don’t really want consumer goods. Aside from a penchant for Steam games (which I’ve managed to mercifully shut down) and other occasional stupid purchases, I find myself generally being quite satisfied with what I have, materially.

This isn’t to brag or say that I’m some kind of saint. I have desires, they just generally are not fulfilled by material possessions. (I must admit, an Iron Chef pilgrimage would be expensive and yet a goal I do have).

But other people might quite justifiably want to make more money so they can enjoy creature comforts. They may want to have a powerful car, or a lavish home, or be able to pursue expensive projects and hobbies such as constructing model train sets.

The guy who wants the model train set, we’ll call him Rod, and I share a goal: Increasing how much money we make. But our action plans to get there have to be totally different.

If someone like me were to try to choose to make good money because they wanted to provide for their friends and family, if they found consistently that that was the reason for that aspiration, then they would want to avoid doing jobs that might require compromises that might lead them away from that aspiration. Someone who wanted money  for private consumption like Rod does, on the other hand, would be able to pursue virtually any career that paid well.

A person who wants children to satisfy their parents’ desire for grandchildren may need to recognize that that is not a particularly healthy reason to pursue children. A person who wants to get more friends because they feel lonely may need to recognize that they may feel lonely even surrounded by people. We can begin to get a diagnosis of our internal ailments by examining our external desires.

I have found consistently that the biggest predictor of the way people endure trauma and the costs of living and move through difficulty is their feeling of purpose. When you have something to live for, events that would cripple others can wash over you. Moving through #2 and getting to #3 can give us a desire to fulfill our dreams and an awareness of what specifically we want. So many people struggle to get by in life not because of the challenges of life but because they haven’t found something that burns hotter than the darkness outside. When we know what we want, we can recognize that the costs that we often endure are part and parcel of what we’re pursuing. And simply recognizing that the challenges in our life are so often of our own choosing can be tremendously liberating.

Post-scriptum: I am considering doing a video on this topic. Please comment if there would be any interest; I also have a video planned on sacrificing to the altar of our beliefs!

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Date Rape Drug Lipstick, Activism, and Quixotic Quests

A feminist commentary on the new date rape-preventing lipstick has been making the rounds. I’ve been hearing a lot of befuddlement on the part of many friends of mine. I think this is a perfect example of the complexities of activism and why in this social media age it’s so important to be very clear and unambiguous.

For reference, here’s the original image.

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Now, let’s step back a second. Why would someone write something like this?

In activism, one thing we often find is that people use the beginnings of improvements as an excuse to slow down rather than build momentum. In fact, anyone who’s ever worked motivating people knows that it can be hard to maintain momentum through successes. We have a natural instinct to congratulate ourselves and reduce our energy output.

Creating a device that helps women detect date rape drugs is really a massive improvement. It makes women feel safer in bars and public places again. It’s a smart and innovative investment. It’s also a deterrent to potential date rapists, knowing that some portion of their marks may be caught.

I think that this particular activist didn’t realize that for many people her concession that “These devices are helpful insofar as they help women feel safe and in control” would be viewed as a brief aside and would in fact not be noticed. Moreover, that statement is actually false. These devices don’t just help women feel safe and in control. They actually increase the amount of control and safety women have. This is fairly inarguable.

Moreover, opening with an analogy to chastity belts and anti-rape tampons, while an interesting point, is unfortunately actually a false analogy in this instance. A chastity belt protects you when you are in the process of being assaulted. A date rape detection kit protects you before it even gets there. A date rape drug testing kit can thus be more properly compared to pepper spray, stunguns, or a gun.

But this activist, quite understandably, wanted to center on what she feels (and I concur) are the real issues. Rape isn’t just about men being pigs, and it’s just not a safety issue. It’s also a humanity issue. It’s an empathy issue.

Anyone who has done any work with victims of rape, as I have done, or who has been involved at all with any kind of mental health work or feminist action, knows the stigma that can come from any kind of mental illness or trauma. People who are victimized aren’t just victimized by their attackers. They often feel that their entire family and social network participate in it. They feel that nurses, police, attorneys, and others repeat the trauma with insensitivity. Unfortunately, I have come to find in life that an astonishingly high number of people don’t have the basic sensitivity and empathy to treat a fast food worker like a human, let alone know how to be kind and sensitive to a victim of trauma.

I myself have often labored with the fear, as small as it was given my extremely high self-esteem, that I carried hidden wounds from my many difficult interactions with women (especially victims) and my efforts to help others. I have labored under the fear Oliver Queen expressed in Arrow that people would view me as different if I admitted how much it hurt: As damaged. As weak. I didn’t want the people who looked at me as if I was an aspirational figure to stop admiring me because I had been injured in the fight.

If I can feel that from vicarious trauma and good-spirited (and I hope heroic) efforts to help people, what could someone feel from an action so awful it has been called “soul murder”?

When a victim wakes screaming in the night from flashbacks that haunt her dreams just as they haunt her waking life, how can she (or he) come to expect that she will ever be treated by others as normal? Can’t they view themselves as fundamentally broken, and therefore below love? Perhaps even toxic to any good people in their life who are innocent?

“Rape culture” is not a feminist piece of dogma and it’s not an abstract concept. It’s the network of ways our society often trivializes rape, refuses to seek the hidden victims in their silent screaming and self-enforced cages, doesn’t provide assistance to women, and even often views assaults as the fault of women. It’s the way that many men, even if they do not engage in sexual assault themselves, routinely behave in ways that dehumanize, terrorize or dismiss the needs and rights of women.

I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how men refer to “pussy”, as Louis CK put it, as an element of the universe. Not connected to a real living, breathing person. Not part of a body that contains a soul with feelings and desires and aspirations.

If we can view women as disposable objects for sex (and if many women can in fact view men similarly), then can’t we admit that the bridge to abusing them is short indeed?

All this is to say that this activist strategy has a lot of justification to it. It’s a way of trying to have this particular dialog, a back-and-forth dialectic that is exceedingly common in life:

“Yes, this is an improvement. But we need more improvement, and different kinds of improvement”.

Bono has had to make this point when he talks about real efforts to reduce poverty. He points out that people could cut back on efforts based on the successes in poverty reduction, and therefore slow the rate of progress, or push forward with increased momentum. The same is true when you’re trying to stop a war, or just help a friend conquer an addiction or a personal problem.

Expressing this tension skillfully is hard. If you emphasize too much how much progress has been made, you defeat the whole purpose. If you don’t, then you trivialize real work.

I am sure that the people who made this lipstick had the best of intentions. Many were likely even feminists.

However, it is true that anti-rape devices like this get a lot of attention. There’s an unfortunate trajectory for people to implicitly believe or explicitly say, “See? Now women can be safe! We don’t have to do any of the hard work to change our gender norms”.

So this activist wasn’t dismissing rape lipstick, and she wasn’t up in arms about it. She wasn’t saying it was a bad thing. Ms. Green was just saying that we need to do more work, and work in a different arena, if we want to hedge back on rape and mitigate its negative effects when it occurs. It’s important to recognize as she points out that the vast majority of rapes involve no drugs, and just involve the standard and immemorial techniques: Plying someone with the date rape drug called “alcohol”, coercion, threats, blackmail, or actual force and violence. In fact, of all of the victims I’ve worked with, I cannot recall one who was drugged. Most were simply threatened or actually beaten into submission, often brutally.

Unfortunately, there’s some complicated issues we have to get into as well for this particular post.

We have to recognize an ethic of dual responsibility. This, like my eventual post on homosexuality and choice, is one of the articles I am looking forward least to writing.

If I’m mugged because I was walking in a dangerous area at night, was that my “fault”?

It depends on what we mean by “fault”.

Might different, wiser actions have avoided that event? Yes.

But the mugger shouldn’t be mugging anyone anywhere. Moreover, I could be victimized anywhere potentially.

Can women increase their safety against all sorts of potential threats, not just rape but also robbery and carjacking and so forth, by traveling in groups, being trained in martial arts, carrying tools like pepper spray, telling a friend when they’ll check in, etc.?

Yes. This is just prudent behavior.

But rapists shouldn’t rape. There is no excuse, there is no justification. No one should ever pin someone else down and have their way with them.

I have a ravishment fantasy. I have often fantasized about taking a woman against her will. But the actual thought of doing it for real, especially with my experiences now, sickens me. It shakes me to the core. I have never once come close to assaulting a woman. I have never been remotely tempted. I can’t even imagine the damage one has to have to one’s soul to be able to look at someone who is not having a good time, not laughing or moaning in pleasure, and keep on pushing for one’s own sexual release anyways. If I see that my partner is even a little bit uncomfortable, I instantly feel bad and want to improve the situation. And I’m far from alone. Virtually every man I am privileged to call my friend is very, very concerned about being attentive, good lovers.

We have to find a way when discussing situations like this to give people tools to protect themselves while never losing sight of the fact that there is no excuse, no justification, no defense that can be made for evil actions.

Walking home alone at night in a dark area may be unwise, even foolish. Raping someone is evil. The distinction must be hammered home.

This distinction is actually especially vital because, in fact, many people who are assaulted repeatedly put themselves into the places where they can be attacked.

One of the most hideous secrets of trauma is this: People tend to keep falling back into the patterns that create trauma.

I’ve talked about this elsewhere, and will write an extensive post about it at some point, but suffice it to say: Women who have been assaulted routinely find themselves with abusive men later who will beat them or rape them again. They feel that that’s what sex is. They think that’s what they deserve. They can’t imagine anything better, and when they do see something better they can’t believe it.

This isn’t, again, to say it’s their “fault”. They never should have been attacked or molested, not the first time, not the second, not the fifth. But it is to say that people need to be accountable to protecting themselves. We need to find out why we don’t love ourselves enough to be safe and prudent.

There’s another final aspect that has to be discussed.

Men are not naturally predatory, it’s true. Not as a category.

But the fact is, crime is an outcome to some extent of human nature. Perhaps truly amazing sociological changes, new institutions that I strive to achieve for society, better culture, and technology will abolish crime. But we can’t expect that will happen in our lifetimes or in the lifetimes of our great-grandchildren.

Some people will always fall through the cracks. Some people will always be angry, violent, or hurtful. Both men and women rape or sexually abuse others for a variety of reasons.

No matter what work we do against “rape culture”, there will always be some people who sexually victimize and exploit others, and there will always be people who will have so little self-love that they let it happen.

This is hard to say. It’s good sociology. In point of fact, rape has numerous sociological causes, like any other crime, and like any other crime it can be hard to get a hold of all of them. We as Americans often come to believe that we can solve any problem. But rape has been a part of human society since, near as we can tell, the dawn of man. It may not be extinguishable.

But we can reduce the numbers. We can make it so those few people left who do victimize others are properly punished and rehabilitated, and we can make it so those few people left who are victimized

I think we could see a reduction of rape and sexual assault by fourfold in our lifetimes. Improvements not just in the way that we treat women and value them but also in rape prevention, male allydom practices (e.g. standing up for a female friend long before they’re in a situation where they can be attacked or standing up to our male friends when they are being dehumanizing or abusive), and better policing tools with more sensitivity to victim experiences could increase the likelihood that victims speak up and pursue charges against their attackers. If 90% of women reported their attacks instead of something more like 25%, and successful prosecution was more likely, people would be less likely to do so.

More importantly, what we can do is we can make the quixotic quest for a world free of sexual assault just as a world free of crime.

We can’t always get everything. We may never see a world truly free of war. We may always struggle with balancing our ecology. We may always struggle with balancing the collective versus the individual, giving people opportunities and power while not letting them exceed their rights.

But we can try. And a world free of rape is a goal worth everyone fighting for, in their communities, in their neighborhoods and homes and in the streets and with politicians and police chiefs, right now.

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