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Nancy S. Jecker

The Bioethics Of COVID Boosters When 2% Of Africa Is Vaccinated

Affluent countries have begun offering COVID-19 boosters to already fully vaccinated citizens. Meanwhile in some low-income countries, access to doses is virtually non-existent.

Should countries that can afford COVID-19 booster vaccines offer them to residents if scientists recommend them?

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has made his position clear, calling for countries to impose a moratorium on boosters until 10% of people in every country are vaccinated. His plea comes amid mounting concerns about the slow progress getting COVID-19 vaccines to people in low-income countries.

Like the WHO, some ethicists, including me, have argued that the world must stand together in solidarity to end the pandemic.

Yet as of Sept. 14, of the 5.76 billion doses of vaccine that have been administered globally, only 1.9% went to people in low-income countries.

Meanwhile, many wealthy countries have begun offering COVID-19 boosters to fully vaccinated, healthy adults.

Early evidence on the benefit of COVID-19 boosters to protect against severe disease and death cuts both ways. Some experts tout their benefits, while others argue against them for now.

As a philosopher who studies justice and global bioethics, I believe everyone needs to wrestle with another question: the ethics of whether to offer boosters while people in poor countries go without.

A dangerous gap

The WHO's call for a moratorium on boosters is an appeal to fairness: the idea that it's unfair for richer countries to use up more of the global vaccine supply while 58% of people in the world have not received their first shots.

In some countries, such as Tanzania, Chad and Haiti, fewer than 1% of people have received a vaccine. Meanwhile, in wealthy nations, most citizens are fully vaccinated – 79% of people in the United Arab Emirates, 76% in Spain, 65% in the U.K., and 53% in the U.S.

Even if boosters save lives and prevent severe disease, they benefit people far less than first shots.

In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended boosters for moderately to severely immunocompromised people. President Biden has publicly endorsed offering boosters to all Americans eight months after they complete their second shots, pending Food and Drug Administration approval. Yet on Sept. 17, the FDA's advisory panel recommended against a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine for most Americans, though they did endorse boosters for people over age 65 or at higher risk.

On Aug. 11, before the CDC had authorized boosters for anyone – including immunocompromised people – it estimated that 1 million Americans had decided not to wait and got a third vaccine. It is unclear whether some of them were advised by doctors to seek a booster shot based on, for example, age or compromised immunity. Some healthy Americans have reportedly lied to gain access to unauthorized shots, telling pharmacists – falsely – that this is their first shot.

In addition to raising concerns about fairness, gross disparities between vaccine haves and have-nots violate an ethical principle of health equity. This principle holds that the world ought to help those who are most in need – people in low-income countries who cannot access a single dose.

China's Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine arriving in Cambodia – Photo: Phearum/Xinhua via ZUMA Press

There's also a purely utilitarian case to be made for delaying boosters. Even if boosters save lives and prevent severe disease, they benefit people far less than first shots, a notion known as diminishing marginal utility.

For example, the original laboratory studies of the Pfizer vaccine showed more than 90% protection for most people against severe disease and death after the primary, two-dose series. Booster shots, even if they boost immunity, give much less protection: perhaps less than 10% protection, according to a preliminary study.

As a recent article in a leading medical journal, The Lancet, points out, “Even if boosting were eventually shown to decrease the medium-term risk of serious disease, current vaccine supplies could save more lives if used in previously unvaccinated populations than if used as boosters in vaccinated populations."

Moreover, when scarce vaccines are used as boosters, rather than as first shots for the unvaccinated, that allows the virus to replicate and mutate, potentially creating variants of concern that undercut vaccine protection.

One could argue that since rich countries have bought millions of doses, they are the rightful owners of those vaccines and are ethically free to do as they wish.

Buy it, use it?

While the ethical argument for delaying boosters is strong, critics think it is not strong enough to override every nation's duty to protect its own people. According to one interpretation of this view, countries should adopt an “influenza standard." In other words, governments are justified in prioritizing their own residents until the risks of COVID-19 are similar to the flu season's. At that point, governments should send vaccine supplies to countries with greater needs.

One could argue that since rich countries have bought millions of doses, they are the rightful owners of those vaccines and are ethically free to do as they wish.

Yet critics argue that vaccines are not owned by anyone, even by the pharmaceutical companies that develop them. Instead, they represent the final part of product development that is years in the making and the result of many people's labors. Moreover, most COVID-19 vaccines were publicly funded, principally by governments using taxpayer dollars.

Since 1995, the World Trade Organization has required its member states to enforce intellectual property rights, including patents for vaccines. Currently, however, the trade organization's members are debating proposals to temporarily waive patents on COVID-19-related products during the pandemic.

Some commentators suggest that the whole debate over boosters is overblown and not really about ethics at all. They propose simply calling boosters something else: “final doses."

But regardless of what we call boosters, the ethical question the WHO's director-general raised remains: Is giving these shots a fair and equitable way to distribute a lifesaving vaccine?The Conversation

Nancy S. Jecker, Professor of Bioethics and Humanities, School of Medicine, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shuaishuai Wang

'Sissy Men' Purge? Tech Is Other Target Of China's Effeminate Male Ban

Government regulators in Beijing have banned the TV and streaming appearance of what is referred to with the slur "niang pao" – literally, "girlie guns." It is clearly a homophobic and transphobic measure, but the real aim may be to keep the increasingly powerful tech platforms in line.


The Chinese government has recently taken action against what it calls “sissy men" – males, often celebrities, deemed too effeminate.

On Sept. 2,2021, government regulators banned their appearance on both television and video streaming sites. Using the Chinese derogatory slur “niang pao" – literally, “girlie guns" – Chinese cultural authorities explained that they were rolling out a rule to purge “morally flawed celebrities" in order to “correct aesthetics" in “performing styles" and “wardrobes and makeups."

Technically this is a rule, not a law. But thanks to the strong control the Chinese government exerts over industry, the tech companies that give these celebrities a platform have quickly fallen in line.

The international community may view the rule as yet another example of Chinese repression centered on LBGTQ communities.

And this could be true, to an extent.

However, as someone who studies China's queer cultures, I'm also attuned to the way pronouncements made by the Chinese government often cloak a hidden agenda.

To me, it's no coincidence that the ban has come during the intense national campaign against China's domestic big tech giants, which the government increasingly sees as a threat to its ability to keep tabs on its citizens.

In the mid-2010s the Chinese government's grip on the country's entertainment sector began to weaken after decades of control over who could star on TV and what sort of stories could be told. TV dramas, films and talent shows produced by private tech companies started to take off, while ratings and ad revenues of state-owned television stations tumbled.

Beginning in 2016, the government started to censor web videos with the same criteria it had been using for television. However, the restrictions seemed to only inspire more creative and subversive expressions of sexuality on video streaming sites.

For example, images of two men kissing and holding hands were banned. So creators simply used dialogues and gestures, like intense eye contact, to convey homosexual intimacy. Furthermore, these rules didn't regulate the physical appearance of characters.

Since 2017, shows produced by the country's leading video streaming platforms – many of which mimic the basic format of shows like “American Idol" and “The Voice" – have launched the careers of a number of effeminate male celebrities.

These shows include “The Coming One" and “CHUANG 2021," which appear on Tencent Video, a streaming site owned by Tencent, the Chinese technology conglomerate that also owns WeChat. Meanwhile, “Idol Producer" and “Youth With You" appear on another video service provider, iQiyi, a subsidiary of Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google. The male participants in these shows are often young, dress in unisex clothing, and apply orange-red eye shadow and lipstick, along with heavy makeup that whitens their skin and thickens their eyebrows.

Contestants compete on 'CHUANG 2021.'

In the past, female audiences would clamor for masculine looks or physiques in their male celebrities. Today's young Chinese people, on the other hand, are more open to challenging gender stereotypes. Within online fan communities, femininity in male celebrities isn't stigmatized; instead, it's celebrated. They'll call their female idols “brother" or “husband" and their male idols “wife" – names meant more as compliments than insults.

This shift can be traced, in large part, to the influence of K-pop, the South Korean pop music phenomenon in which many of the singers reject traditionally masculine ideals.

An easy way for male actors to achieve stardom is to appear in adaptions of “boys' love novels," an online fiction genre originating in Japan that features homoerotic relationships between men.

Take the actor Zhang Zhehan. For years, he played masculine characters in several TV shows. Still, he remained largely unknown until he appeared in the adaption of the boys' love novel “Word of Honor," which appeared in early 2021 on Youku, a streaming service owned by the tech giant Alibaba.

His female fans even invented a meme to describe Zhang's rapid rise to fame: “manning up for a decade failed, but [he] succeeded as a wife overnight."

Despite their perceived effeminate mannerisms, these male celebrities have amassed a huge following among female viewers. Typically, their shows can generate billions of views and considerable ad revenue.

Celebrities whose fame emerged out of shows like “The Coming One" and “Idol Producer" are called “traffic stars" because they're more dependent on their massive followings than on any specific skill such as singing, acting or dancing.

Two members of the Chinese boy band WayV — Photo: Instagram

Since views, shares and likes have become the dominant metric for a celebrity's popularity and market value, fans will organize to actively manipulate social media features such as ranking lists and trending topics in support of their idols. This “data worship" – to use the terminology of the Chinese authorities – ultimately boosts the revenue of the big tech companies that promote and host the stars.

Therefore, the profits of tech companies and the proliferation of internet influencers, movie stars and TV personalities have become increasingly intertwined.

For a country seeking to rein in the power of big tech companies, these effeminate idols become an obvious target.

Although it could be argued that everyday LGBTQ people aren't the real target of the most recent policy, I believe it will almost certainly have a pernicious effect on China's marginalized gender groups and LGBTQ communities.

In China, the government has long exploited gender and sexuality in the service of political needs. During the first three decades of the People's Republic of China – from 1949 to 1978 – homosexuality was portrayed as the epitome of capitalist vice and was, therefore, seen as incompatible with the values of the Communist party-state.

After China's market reforms in 1978 and the “opening up" of the country, people – especially in China's cities – became more comfortable calling themselves gay.

In the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the state-run Xinhua News agency even published articles championing the gay website Danlan – a precursor to Blued, the most popular gay dating app in the world – in order to portray China as an inclusive and diverse place and to deflect international criticism of China's poor record on human rights.

Thanks to digital technology and the growth of online subcultures, China has achieved some real progress in the acceptance of gender and sexual minorities over the past decade. Young women often speak of having a “gay confidant" (“gaymi" in Chinese), while young straight men are keen to call their male friends “good gay buddies"(“hao jiyou").

So it's a bit surprising to see a gender slur – “girlie guns" – being written into government policy and repeated throughout the country's mainstream media outlets.

And it isn't difficult to envision more anti-LGBTQ bullying, harassment and violence in schools and workplaces as a result.

After all, if the government condones a slur, who's to say it's wrong to use it to attack others?The Conversation

Shuaishuai Wang, Lecturer of New Media and Digital Culture, University of Amsterdam

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Charles Kurzman

20 Years After 9/11, Islamic Terrorists Struggle To Recruit

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS openly complain about the difficulty in finding new members ready to give everything for the cause.

Al-Qaeda was planning two sets of terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001. On Sept. 11, 2021, as Americans commemorate and mourn the lives lost that Tuesday morning 20 years ago, it is important to remember the second plot as well – the attacks that didn't happen.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the organizer of the 9/11 operation, originally envisioned simultaneous attacks on the East Coast and the West Coast of the United States. He bragged about having had dozens of recruits to choose from.

But the numbers were smaller than he expected. Several people dropped out of the plot and could not be replaced. Ultimately al-Qaeda could find only 19 sufficiently trained militants who were willing to die for the cause. As a result, the West Coast plot had to be canceled.

As strange as it may sound, revolutionary Islamist groups suffer from recruitment problems as any other organization does. My research on Islamist terrorism has found that al-Qaeda and its rival offshoot, the Islamic State group, have long had chronic difficulties replenishing their ranks.

These groups complain about their recruitment problems frequently. "We are most amazed that the community of Islam is still asleep and heedless while its children are being wiped out and killed everywhere and its land is being diminished every day," al-Qaeda wrote in one of its online publications in 2004. It is a sentiment that the group has repeated over many years.

The Islamic State group has also expressed disappointment in Muslims' lack of militancy. In June 2017, for example, it published an article in an online magazine criticizing Muslims who "drag the tail of shame" by remaining "safe in your homes, secure with your families and wealth" instead of joining the revolutionary movement. The problem, according to a November 2017 article in the Islamic State's online daily newspaper, is "love of life and hatred of death," a "disease of weakness whose final result will be the supremacy of the enemy over the Muslims."

Democracy, not revolution

Love of life is only one of the militants' recruitment problems.

According to social science surveys, the bulk of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims find these groups abhorrent. Most Muslims support policies that encourage or enforce Islamic piety, but they don't support revolutionary violence. A large majority of Muslims support democratic elections, which the revolutionaries consider un-Islamic.

Democratic thought has deep roots in Islamic tradition, including the "nahda" renaissance of Arab intellectuals in the 19th century, mass pro-democracy moments in the early 20th century in the Ottoman Empire and Iran, and the Arab Spring movement that started in late 2010.

The world's governments have made it very hard for people to find and join militant groups.

Islamist militants such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group view democratic efforts as a threat and have repeatedly targeted pro-democracy Muslim scholars and activists for assassination. For instance, Muhammad Nu'man Fazli, a cleric in Afghanistan, was among the recent victims of this sort of violence. His mosque outside Kabul was bombed by the Islamic State group in May 2021 during a cease-fire between the Taliban and the Afghan government, specifically because of his support of democracy, according to a statement in the Islamic State group's newspaper.

The world's governments have made it very hard for people to find and join militant groups. There are few safe places for training, and the ones that do exist are typically in remote areas that are hard to reach, such as the mountains of northwest Pakistan, the deserts of eastern Mali, the forests of the Lake Chad basin and northern Mozambique, and the islands of the southern Philippines.

Even online, militants must constantly seek new methods to avoid detection. Every message they send or receive risks exposing them to arrest or drone attack.

Competing for recruits

Nationalist groups like Hamas, Hezbollah and the Taliban are also trying to recruit Islamic extremists. Like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, these movements also aim to impose an austere version of Islamic law, at least partly through force of arms. But their ambitions are primarily local, as opposed to the global agendas of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The nationalists and globalists may cooperate at times – most notably, the tense alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the years leading up to 9/11. Still, they are fundamentally rivals when it comes to recruitment, and the nationalists are far more successful in drawing on trusted local networks.

Still image taken from a propaganda video released October 18, 2017 showing Tahrir al-Sham in clashes against the Islamic State — Photo: Handout/Planet Pix/ZUMA Wire

In Afghanistan today, the Taliban have tens of thousands of militants among their recruits, according to U.S. government estimates. The Islamic State group's regional branch, often referred to as ISIS-K, has approximately 1,000 fighters, and al-Qaeda has fewer than 1,000.

Twenty years after 9/11, al-Qaeda has never found enough recruits to carry out its second wave of mass-casualty attacks on America. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only a dozen people in the United States were convicted in the years after 9/11 for links with al-Qaeda, and none were involved in large-scale plots.

The Islamic State group has organized or inspired several dozen attacks in the United States, but the numbers fell off sharply in the middle of 2015, when the Turkish government closed its border with Syria. And those were do-it-yourself operations involving small arms, homemade explosives, vehicles and knives, averaging 14 fatalities per year. The Islamic State group has never mobilized enough militants in the West to "destroy the White House, Big Ben, and the Eiffel Tower, by Allah's permission," as it threatened to do in 2015.

Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group remain serious about targeting the United States. But the good news for Americans, on this anniversary of 9/11, is that militants face a recruitment bottleneck – a mundane organizational problem that afflicts these very unconventional organizations.

Alexander Gillespie

New Zealand's COVID Exceptionalism Risks Unraveling

As New Zealand grapples to bring a Delta outbreak under control and to accelerate the vaccination rollout, social cohesion is vital for a successful elimination strategy.

Political consensus on elimination has endured so far. Unlike the anti-mask and anti-vaccination movements elsewhere, most New Zealanders continue to back the prime minister's decision to place the country under the strictest lockdown.

But strains on public consensus are beginning to show, with a less-than-ideal parliament, some pushback against lockdowns and agitation to "open up."

These debates will become more pressing as the government moves towards difficult discussions about an exit strategy and targets for vaccination rates.

Dissent and debate within parliament

At the highest level, the country has been let down by all sides.

During last year's nation-wide lockdown, the prime minister created the epidemic response committee. It reflected a government confident enough to be questioned in public through a parliamentary body it did not control. The opposition was constructive in finding the best ways forward. This was constitutional governance at its best.

This time, all sides of the political spectrum have failed. It began with the decision to suspend the parliamentary sitting, on the advice of the director-general of health. Any such advice should have been given in conjunction with the attorney-general, as it has significant constitutional consequences.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern delivering a press conference to update the country on COVID-19 — Photo: Mark Mitchell/NZME/ZUMA

The epidemic response committee was not resuscitated. Following a wave of criticism, the government floated a virtual option. Opposition parties rejected this, forcing the government to recall a truncated parliament with enhanced social distancing rules.

As a result, very few politicians are in parliament; and smaller parties are staying away for health (not constitutional) reasons. This is a poor example of how our country should be governed in at a time of emergency.

Dissent in the wider community

Dealing with protests outside parliament during this pandemic is equally difficult. The important point here is that people have rights, but these rights may be subject to reasonable limits.

All New Zealanders have a right to peaceful assembly in public to protest, but this can be curtailed by conditions of where, when and how. Fundamentally, nobody has a right to public protest in the middle of a national lockdown.

Other rights, such as freedom of expression, remain intact, pandemic or not. However, this too is not without limits. For example, advocacy is permissible in a speech about vaccination in a public space, but it cannot be misleading or factually incorrect.

The above examples generally relate to situations in which a minority group is trying to influence the majority view. But the debate gets more complex when the majority tries to make smaller groups do things they disagree with.

Compulsion and harm to others

Vaccination is likely to bring this issue to a head. The government has released a plan for a phased border opening, based on its elimination strategy. The plan would eventually allow vaccinated travellers from low-risk countries to enter without quarantine.

This will only be possible once a high proportion of New Zealanders is vaccinated. Earlier modelling shows that, for the alpha variant of COVID-19, around 80-85% of the population would need to be vaccinated before New Zealand can relax border controls. For the more transmissible Delta strain, the source of New Zealand's current outbreak, we would need to reach 97% of the population.

The government will likely need to use incentives and some degree of compulsion.

While Australia and other countries are now discussing how to adapt to an ongoing presence of COVID-19, accepting deaths and hospitalisations, New Zealand so far maintains elimination as a strategy "to stamp out the virus and keep our options open".

Whatever vaccination target will be necessary, getting there from the current level of 21% of the population fully vaccinated will be a challenge. The government will likely need to use incentives and some degree of compulsion.

Free vaccinations, if delivered conveniently and safely as part of a targeted public health education campaign to overcome vaccine hesitancy, are an effective tool. Lowering the age for vaccinations will also lift the overall percentage of uptake. If all else fails, even cash incentives may help to increase voluntary vaccination.

But compulsion might become necessary. While the general rule is that people can refuse medical treatments, in times of emergency this can be trumped and regulations could be introduced to enforce vaccination. This is where we must be careful. The temptation will be to use compulsion or heavy-handed pressure (such as restricting social welfare) against those who choose not to get vaccinated.

So far, the government has only introduced law to make it mandatory that certain workers, such as those at the border, are vaccinated. This is done to reduce the risk to others, and it is the correct measure to use.

If people choose not to be vaccinated and risk harming others, the government should intervene, explaining the risk the unvaccinated pose, apart from their potential self-harm. It should then pass laws to allow reasonable levels of discrimination against people who refuse the vaccine.

This means if a risk of harm to others can be shown, it may become acceptable to stop unvaccinated people from entering restaurants, but not from buying food from a supermarket (although strict safety measures may be insisted upon). Conversely, if an unvaccinated person risks harming only themselves, the government should let them carry the full consequences of their choice.

Kristin J. lieb

"Emotional Stripping," A Pop Idol's New Path To Exposure

Billie Eilish and Demi Lovato represent a new kind of performance artist for our confessional times.

In Billie Eilish's 2019 video for "Bury A Friend," the then-17-year-old singer blurs the lines between being in a nightmare and being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

"I want to end me," she repeats six times before the song ends.

But somehow, that's not what stuck with audiences, media outlets or industry decision-makers, who – until her British Vogue cover broke on May 2 – were more likely to talk about how groundbreaking she was for wearing baggy clothes than her repeated mentions of suicidal thoughts.

It's a familiar story, whether it's Amy Winehouse singing about not wanting to go to rehab before dying of alcohol poisoning at 27, or Kurt Cobain writing a song called "I Hate Myself and Want To Die" before dying by suicide at 27.

Audiences devour trauma narratives. Perhaps they provide a source of comfort by validating viewers' own experiences, making them feel less alone or reminding them that they're comparatively lucky. On the flip side, the titillating content can offer fans a sort of voyeuristic pleasure from the safety of their living rooms. In any case, the implicit agreement appears to be that artists may express their pain as long as audiences can imagine that it's not really a problem they need to be concerned with, but is just something being amplified for artistic effect.

While these revelations can boost an artist's popularity, they can also overshadow all other aspects of the artists' life and work – and can end up veering into another form of exploitation.

As someone who has studied female pop stars for nearly two decades, I've written about how, since the advent of MTV in the 1980s, the music industry has fashioned women pop stars to resonate more as sexy entertainers than as talented musicians.

They are more likely to be framed as gorgeous, frivolous or "hot messes' than vocally or musically adept. In my book "Gender, Branding, and The Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars," I argue that positioning and managing female artists this way has had a negative effect on their creative expression, mental health and career longevity.

Stars reversed the order of operations, keeping their clothes on while sharing their secrets.

Because top stars have been shedding their clothes for decades, skin-deep revelations have become so common they no longer stand out. So, in a crisis for connection, stars reversed the order of operations, keeping their clothes on while sharing their secrets. Stars began to expose their insides – more specifically, their inner turmoil – in bids for deeper relationships with their fans.

This broke the social contract of stardom. For decades, public relations efforts presented women stars as perfect – an impossible illusion for anyone to maintain. Until stars such as Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston experienced public breakdowns, their struggles had largely been hidden to protect their impeccable brands.

Social media further changed the dynamic. Audiences demanded greater authenticity rather than PR spin. And that's exactly what they've been getting for the past several years, as pop star brands have begun to embody and reflect current cultural concerns about misogyny, racism, sexual violence and mental health.

Artists experienced a long-overdue cultural rebranding.

Artists' openness about their experiences with sexual violence, trauma and addiction represents an important shift toward thinking about them as people more than products.

However, today, many artists are making their personal vulnerabilities – not their music, their performances or their bodies – the centerpiece of their brands.

Prior to the popularization of #MeToo in 2017, pop stars had been offering their stories for years to varying levels of reception. In 2013, Madonna shared that she had been raped at knifepoint shortly after moving to New York City. In 2014, Kesha alleged that producer Dr. Luke "sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally" abused her for years, and in 2016 Lady Gaga revealed that she had experienced sexual trauma, which resulted in ongoing PTSD.

As the #MeToo movement gained prominence in the fall of 2017, these popular artists experienced a long-overdue cultural rebranding, becoming esteemed warriors seeking to hold abusive systems and individual abusers accountable.

The floodgates opened, but in typical American fashion, a good thing was overextended to the point of absurdity.

Supporters of Britney Spears take part in protest #FreeBritney in Los Angeles — Photo: Ringo Chiu/ZUMA

In recent years, more stars have told their own survivor stories in powerfully direct or resonant ways: Ariana Grande shared a brain scan to reveal her PTSD diagnosis in 2019; Mariah Carey released a memoir in which she discussed past abuse, her 2001 breakdown and her bipolar disorder diagnosis; and, in 2021, Pink dropped a documentary about her aptly titled "Beautiful Trauma" world tour.

Stars' talent and musicianship has become almost incidental, subservient to their ability to process their pain in public. Pop stars' oversharing detailed trauma stories has become routine.

I call it "emotional stripping."

Emotional stripping is different from when artists transform trauma into great art, as Beyoncé did in "Lemonade" and Fiona Apple pulled off in "Fetch The Bolt Cutters." In each album, the artist is able to universalize her struggles without giving away all of the personal details. These albums embolden the stars as they share their rage, fear, disappointments and vulnerabilities.

But emotional stripping prioritizes the overexposure of the star's human self – her traumas, her addictions, and her mental health struggles – above all other aspects of her brand and her personhood. When a star emotionally strips, she peels away her brand – which, if built and managed properly, should be the protective layer between herself and her audience.

This trend signals progress in one regard – audiences are now less singularly focused on objectifying the stars' actual bodies, as they had been trained to do for decades. But it also creates a new danger; now audiences feel entitled to know the gory details about everything that happens to and within stars' bodies and minds. They greedily consume trauma stories rather than thinking more deeply about how to stop the production of them.

Emotional stripping pays dividends: It gets the audience's attention.

It can also come at great expense to the artist, who doesn't magically heal by simply telling her story from a large enough platform. Talking about trauma has value, but it does not release it; as trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk noted in the title of his bestselling book, "the body keeps the score." It can also cause stars harm through retraumatization.

The pop star as human sacrifice

But given audience demands for authenticity and the proliferation of pop star tell-all streaming documentaries, it appears that most emerging artists vying for the top of the charts now have little choice but to reveal themselves anyway. Just as certain body types and fashion styles have defined the rules of engagement at other times, emotional stripping has become standard operating procedure in popular music.

This may seem like a dream come true. But it may be more like the waking nightmare depicted in Eilish's video for "Bury A Friend."

Britney Spears and other 1990s stars, from Jennifer Love Hewitt to Paris Hilton, reported being triggered by "Framing Britney Spears," a well-intentioned, pro-Britney documentary. Spears refused to participate in the film, which chronicled her breakdown, involuntary hospitalization and subsequent conservatorship. In the documentary "Tina," Tina Turner indicated that she was sick of talking about her abusive ex-husband Ike and wanted to move on.

The question is: Will audiences let Turner and other traumatized female pop stars move on? Or are audiences too invested in trauma narratives to let them go?

'Framing Britney Spears," which chronicled the star's breakdown, was well-intentioned. But Spears wanted nothing to do with it.

Fans' laser focus on stars and stars' tendency to please can even lead fans to disturbing levels of entitlement. Alanis Morissette, who wrote "Jagged Little Pill" when she was 19, shared that at the height of her popularity, fans in crowds would literally try to grab pieces of her hair and skin. They wanted to possess a piece of her and felt emboldened to just take it. Fittingly, Katy Perry's documentary was called "Part of Me."

Meanwhile, it's typically the star, not the audience, who gets constructed as being crazy or needing better boundaries as the public annihilates them.

There's a precedent for this dynamic – the religious ritual of human sacrifice.

Religion scholar Kathryn Lofton has written about this phenomenon in her analysis of Britney Spears.

"Ritual is a controlled environment, a ring for spectatorship. While there are many rituals at play in the religions of Britney Spears' celebrity, perhaps the most tempting is that of sacrifice. Britney Spears rises and falls, time and again, is plumped for the slaughter then primed for the comeback. Watching those declines and ascents might be productively read as a sort of public sacrifice."

Spears has become the rule, not the exception. These days, pop stars seem to exist to entertain fans and carry their burdens, and can sometimes seem to even ultimately die for them, commercially or literally. Fans then move on to the next star, gorge on their trauma and then watch them flame out.

The silver lining is that we're in the middle of the golden age of pop star documentaries. Some, like "Amy" and "Whitney Can I Be Me," chronicle tragic endings. Others enable stars to show their more vulnerable sides while they're still alive and performing – "Billie Eilish: The World's A Bit Blurry," Taylor Swift's "Miss Americana" and Lady Gaga's "Five Foot Two." Many of these documentaries complicate their subjects in positive ways, rehabilitating their troubled or entitled images by inserting nuance, empathy and context into their stories, often for the first time.

A Demi-goddess of the zeitgeist

Woman pop stars are finally starting to be seen more completely, at least superficially, as documentary filmmakers deliver to evolved and evolving audiences nuanced takes on complicated and aspirational women.

But this momentary opportunity has quickly developed into what can look like a competition for which star can be the most vulnerable.

Demi Lovato, who recently came out as nonbinary, may be winning that distinction with "Dancing With The Devil," a four-part documentary series that explores their personal and career challenges. In it, they speak candidly about their attempts to recover from an eating disorder, several sexual assaults, drug addiction and a near-death overdose. Lovato also talks about their difficulties coming out as a queer person.

Demi Lovato has spoken candidly about their struggles with addiction, eating disorders and PTSD.

These are all important conversations started by feminist, LGBTQ, civil rights and public health activists, but only pop stars such as Lovato have the platforms to launch national and global conversations about them. Their series is bold and moving, and sheds light on the impact of trauma and addiction on the star, their loved ones and their professional team.

What remains to be seen is how the series will impact Lovato's career. It could strengthen their relationship with their fans, or make fans focus even less on Lovato's music than they do now, and make Lovato even more vulnerable now that their whole human self is available for public scrutiny.

Lovato, who is now 28, overdosed in 2018, surviving some brutal effects: three strokes, a heart attack and partial blindness. In "Anyone," a song recorded days before the overdose, Lovato laments telling "secrets till my voice was sore" because "no one hears me anymore," "nobody's listening."

"I'm on my ninth life," Lovato said in "Dancing With The Devil," "and I don't know how many opportunities I have left."

For those consuming these films for more than their entertainment value, who thoughtfully engage with the content and internalize its lessons, key questions about existing relationships between artists and fans should be emerging. What are they processing, absorbing and sacrificing for audiences? What can be done to help them negotiate the line between revelation and self-preservation?

In her 2020 book "Call Your 'Mutha": A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene," gender and sexuality scholar Jane Caputi compares the extraction of resources from the land to the enduring damage to bodies and minds caused by sexual violence. In an interview, she told me that the emotional stripping of pop stars enacts "that same paradigm of extraction without reciprocity, of taking what one wants and dumping what one refuses," with places and peoples reduced to "sacrifice zones."

Billie's music isn't depressing, it's just that teenagers are depressed.

While Caputi suggests that this emotional stripping abuse of female pop stars reflects larger patterns of exploitation, communication scholar Nancy Baym argues that music "often predicts social change." If that's true, maybe the regular exposure of previously taboo subjects such as addiction and sexual abuse could minimize their stigma, and make audiences less drawn to the subjects.

Perhaps then – finally – the musicians' actual music can be the central focus of their careers.

And while it's unlikely emotional stripping will stop, the music industry could become more involved in helping these stars survive and thrive. This could range from adding thoughtful and inclusive wellness provisions to artist contracts – including seasoned hazards-of-fame counselors in the standard artist entourage – and teaching fans how to be less reliant on their idols and more emotionally secure themselves. They could also train the parents of young artists on the cusp of fame to be more attuned to signs of distress in their children.

Demi Lovato performs live on stage at Arena Birmingham in England — Photo: Katja Ogrin/PA Wire/ZUMA

In "Lonely," the closing track on Justin Bieber's new record, he sings: "Everybody saw me sick, and it felt like no one gave a shit." GQ reported in May 2021 that at the peak of Bieber's fame, his bodyguards would check his pulse as he slept to make sure he was still alive.

Perhaps Bieber's words could lead his fans and team to consider their complicity.Despite the positive attention and accolades she receives, Eilish, too, appears to be screaming into the void. In "Bury a Friend" Eilish sings: "Honestly, I thought that I would be dead by now (Wow)." Her notebooks, shown in her documentary, reveal lines like: "I am a void. The epitome of nothing" and "I am going to drink acid."

Yet at one point in the film, Eilish's mother, frustrated by people calling Billie's music "depressing," notes that Billie's music isn't depressing, it's just that teenagers are depressed.

To me, this lands like denial, gaslighting or both.

"We need a stop gap for artist care," artist manager Janet Billig-Rich, who managed Nirvana and Hole, among others, told me. "There is a parallel to the Amy Winehouse story where people are saying, 'At least the parents are there and really involved." But they're on the payroll, too, so there's a conflict. There need to be people in that inner circle thinking only about the artist's interest. If we could convince the families and business people to be long-term greedy rather than short-term greedy, the artists would have longer, healthier lifespans and even more lucrative careers."

Perhaps doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is the best we can hope for from the music business.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Michael Blake

The Ethics of the U.S. Pullout

Political philosophy sheds some light on the United States' moral responsibility in Afghanistan

Chaotic scenes in Kabul accompanied the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fundamentalist Islamic group was able to retake power after President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from the country.

The withdrawal brings to a close nearly 20 years of American military presence in Afghanistan.

Without the ongoing prospect of U.S. military support, the Washington-backed Afghan government quickly fell - and on Aug. 15, 2021, the Taliban declared the creation of a new political order, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

The withdrawal was widely popular in the United States, when first announced by Biden on April 14 - the majority of Americans, regardless of political affiliation, favored an end to the military presence in Afghanistan.

The withdrawal, however, has brought significant costs for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban has proved itself willing to engage in widespread violation of basic human rights - in particular, the human rights of women. The decision to withdraw is likely to lead to enormous suffering in the years to come. A hypothetical decision to remain in Afghanistan, however, would also have led to significant moral costs - that decision would continue to put American soldiers in harm's way. As a political philosopher whose work focuses on international affairs, I have tried to understand how ethical reasoning might be applied to such cases.

It is difficult for a person to be both good at politics and a genuinely good person.

The first, and most important, ethical question might be: Was the United States justified in withdrawing its troops?

A second question might involve asking about how the moral wrongs that are now emerging in Afghanistan should weigh upon the American conscience. Should American political leaders regard these wrongs as, in some fashion, their responsibility?

More broadly, is it sometimes possible that, in doing the best available thing, we are nonetheless guilty of doing something morally wrong?

Many philosophers have disliked the idea that someone might make the best choice available and nonetheless be thought to have committed a moral wrong. Immanuel Kant, for one, thought this vision was fundamentally in conflict with the purposes of morality – which is to tell people what it is they ought to do.

If a moral theory told us that sometimes there is no option open to us that does not involve doing wrong, then that theory would sometimes imply that even a perfect moral agent might end up having to become a wrongdoer.

That sort of theory would mean that there might be situations in which we could not escape from doing wrong. If we were unlucky enough to end up in those situations, we would become liable for wrongdoing because of this bad luck. Kant thought this sort of “moral luck" was simply implausible. For Kant, if we do what is best, we can regard ourselves as having avoided doing wrong.

Other philosophers, however, have been more willing to entertain the possibility of moral tragedy, which is understood as a state of affairs in which all options open to us involve serious moral wrongdoing.

Afghan interpreters who served with the British army protest and demand that the country protect all Afghan workers who served the U.K.Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire

Michael Walzer, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, argues that those who exercise power over others may frequently find themselves unable to do good for some without doing serious wrong to others. Instead of thinking that the good they do outweighs the wrong, Walzer argues, individuals ought to accept that the wrong continues to be a genuine wrong.

For example, the politician who must make a deal with a corrupt colleague in order to help protect vulnerable children does wrong in the name of a greater good. This individual does their best but nonetheless stains their soul in the doing.

On this view, politicians who do wrong while trying to do what is right may do the best thing, but they should also be understood as having done wrong, and having stained their consciences in the doing. For Walzer, it is difficult for a person to be both good at politics and a genuinely good person.

If Walzer is right about politicians, his analysis might also help in understanding the morality of international relations – and the morality of the American decision to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Taken in this context, the benefits of withdrawal may have been sufficient to make it the right act. However, the human rights violations that are now very likely to follow in the aftermath of this withdrawal are genuinely wrong, and they are rightly attributed to the United States.

What happens to them should be on your conscience

The women and girls of Afghanistan are likely to face abuses, and the inhabitants of Afghanistan will likely face significant violence as the Taliban seek to reassert their vision of religious law. This ought to trouble the politicians who defended the withdrawal, and those voters who gave power to those politicians.

This vision of international politics is echoed in former Secretary of State Colin Powell's advice to then-President George W. Bush about the invasion of Iraq – codified as the “Pottery Barn rule" after the perceived store policy: If “you break it, you bought it." That is: If you make yourself the ruler over others, you are responsible for them, and what happens to them should be on your conscience.

There are at least two things that might follow this moral vision. The first is that, even if the withdrawal entails taking ownership of some moral wrongs, the United States has an obligation to ensure that such wrong is minimized.

It might therefore be obligated to provide refuge to those people who have borne particular risks in the name of the United States, such as the translators who worked on the military bases within Afghan territory and have been targeted by the Taliban for their work.

The second is, more broadly, that the U.S. tries to avoid entering into such morally tragic situations in the future. If Walzer's analysis is correct, it might be impossible to avoid situations in which the United States is responsible for serious moral wrongs. Having power over others always involves the risk of moral bad luck, and the U.S. has exceptional power in the global community.

But it might at least be expected that the United States, in future conflicts, take account of what philosopher Brian Orend calls justice after war and enters into such conflicts only with some clarity about how and when to end them well.


Michael Blake, Professor of Philosophy, Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Daniel Baldwin Hess and Alex Bitterman

How The Urban Battle Against HIV Helped Cities Fight COVID

HIV health and support groups in LGBT neighborhoods offered COVID-19 testing and other community services during the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, local neighborhoods have played a critical and well-documented role providing the health and social services necessary for American communities and businesses to survive and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gay neighborhoods were particularly well equipped to meet this challenge, according to our latest research on these communities.

We find that the lessons learned and trauma experienced early in the HIV/AIDS pandemic helped urban gay areas respond to COVID-19 quickly and effectively — especially in the face of early federal government paralysis.

How gay neighborhoods fought HIV/AIDS

Gay neighborhoods are those that welcome lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, queer and other sexual minorities — a population generally referred to by the shorthand LGBTQ+. Well-known examples include the Castro district in San Francisco, Dupont Circle in Washington and Greenwich Village and Chelsea in New York City.

"Gayborhoods' grew during the sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, offering LGTBQ people and their allies an escape from pervasive discrimination and prejudice. In these areas, sexual minorities could rent apartments, socialize in bars and express themselves freely in a like-minded, compassionate community.

Even as LGBTQ people in the U.S. began to live more openly, gay neighborhoods really coalesced around the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

When that mysterious new disease began ravaging the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, the U.S. government turned away from, not toward, those communities. Support critical for fighting HIV — including health care subsidies for uninsured people and funding for research on treatments and cures — was initially not provided. Information given by governments about disease transmission and treatment was inconsistent and sometimes inaccurate.

Government neglect ended up stigmatizing people with HIV and leading to many avoidable deaths. So, as we uncovered in our most recent book, gay neighborhoods filled the void where government and mainstream organizations failed. They became the battlefields where the AIDS pandemic was fought and eventually won.

People in gay neighborhoods developed community organizations and systems to deliver health care and mental health services, provide social support for LGBTQ+ people and support LGBTQ-friendly businesses.

Public health organizations like New York City's Gay Men's Health Crisis also stepped in to do what many doctors would not. They shared information about slowing and stopping the spread of HIV and also distributed condoms, conducted free HIV testing and connected people who tested positive to help.

Building community through crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic shares many similarities reminiscent of early days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

With both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, there was a disjointed and bungled government response that endangered lives and produced both fear and stigma. Even some of the same government-appointed leaders were in place: Both Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx worked on marshaling government resources to spearhead the medical response to HIV in the 1990s.

With COVID-19, as with HIV/AIDS, city and state governments were unprepared to fight a disease outbreak. They lacked both planning and infrastructure to effectively fight a rapidly accelerating public health threat.

Pro-Choice activist wearing a protection face mask in colors of the rainbow. — Photo: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Several U.S. states, as a result, looked to organizations within gay neighborhoods for help, relying on neighborhood-based LGBTQ+ health care organizations to help support their COVID-19 pandemic response.

For example, in New York, the Erie County Department of Health requested that Evergreen Health — an LGBTQ community group originally established in the 1980s as a volunteer effort to fight HIV —assume responsibility for HIV testing during the COVID-19 pandemic so that the county government could focus on COVID-19 testing. Evergreen also opened a drive-though COVID-19 testing center in the spring of 2020 — four decades after it had introduced HIV testing to the Buffalo region.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Evergreen Health not only continued to provide health care and other supportive services to Buffalo's LGBTQ community but expanded offerings to better serve underserved and minority neighborhoods across the city. At that time, New York state was the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Chicago and other cities, activists used LGBTQ+ urban social and professional networks established during the HIV/AIDS pandemic to tackle this latest disease. Queer communities disseminated information about COVID-19 to neighbors and distributed face masks and other protective gear, just as they had once shared information about HIV transmission and given out condoms.

Lessons learned

States with major grassroots activism in the HIV crisis also applied lessons from that era about overcoming misinformation and fear of contagious diseases.

For instance, New York state used a network of small laboratories to process its COVID-19 tests and administer vaccines — a model pioneered during the emergence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic when large, centralized laboratories were initially nervous about working with HIV-positive blood samples. Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, this allowed New York to react effectively and process COVID-19 tests relatively quickly.

Activists from the Gay Men's Health Crisis participating in the 2011 New York City Pride. — Photo: Jason Pier/CC BY-NC 2.0

New York, followed by California, was among states in which COVID-19 infection first showed up in the U.S. As these state governments set up testing procedures, they drew upon methods for testing established during the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The experience in both New York and California with HIV/AIDS helped, at least in part, to establish robust testing networks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The United Kingdom government, on the other hand, chose centralized laboratories to process tests, rejecting an offer to create a complementary network of smaller local providers. That decision may have complicated testing and slowed results and contact tracing, according to reporting by SkyNews.

Our research also finds gay neighborhoods banded together to meet the needs of the broader community.

Activist mutual aid networks formed decades ago within "gayborhoods' deployed peer-to-peer mobile technologies to help feed locked down and sick people — not only within the LGBTQ community.

Many of these efforts to combat COVID-19, like actions taken to fight HIV/AIDS, were done quietly, without fanfare. This neighbor-helping-neighbor approach is a hallmark of the leadership that can be found in gay neighborhoods — experienced rescuers in times of crisis.The Conversation


Daniel Baldwin Hess, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, University at Buffalo and Alex Bitterman, Professor of Architecture and Design, Alfred State College of Technology, The State University of New York

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sandy Hershcovis, Ivana Vranjes, Jennifer L. Berdahl and Lilia M. Cortina

In #MeToo Times, Cuomo Saga Shows Abusers Still Hold Sway

Putting New York Governor Cuomo's delayed departure in light of the #MeToo movement.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's resignation came after more than a week of bad news, starting with a damning report from the state attorney general's office that detailed his sexual harassment of 11 women, some of whom worked in his office. An executive assistant to Cuomo, Brittany Commisso, filed a criminal complaint against him with the Albany County sheriff's office. The state Legislature readied impeachment proceedings.

Then, top aide Melissa DeRosa resigned amid a flurry of questions surrounding her role in protecting Cuomo. Attorney Roberta Kaplan also resigned from the #MeToo advocacy organization Time's Up after the attorney general's report revealed that she helped draft a letter that denied Cuomo's wrongdoing.

As news emerged about the silence from Cuomo's staff, who had long protected him, and his victims who feared blowback, our thoughts turned immediately to our research on harassers.

“See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil" is the title of our new article for the Journal of Applied Psychology, which describes the role witnesses play in helping and protecting harassers. Evidence suggests that, rather than helping victims, witnesses often protect the harasser.

I was terrified I was going to lose my job.

The report on Cuomo's sexual harassment is replete with examples that showcase how members of Cuomo's top staff, known collectively as the “Executive Chamber," silenced victims. One victim explained in the report: “I was terrified that if I shared what was going on that it would somehow get around … and if senior aides Stephanie Benton or Melissa DeRosa heard that, I was going to lose my job."

Although #MeToo gave voice to millions of women to speak up about sexual harassment, it remains rare for victims to report sexual harassment to employers. They are afraid of blowback. They think management won't believe them. They fear being blamed or shamed. And these fears are warranted.

Research shows that reporting mechanisms rarely work and often backfire.

For example, employees who speak up about workplace harassment frequently face retaliation, both personal and professional. This is evident in multiple victim accounts in the Cuomo investigation.

One victim was quoted in the report saying that “she did not feel she could safely report or rebuff the conduct because, based on her experience and discussion with others … it's kind of known that the Governor gives the seal of approval who gets promoted and who doesn't."

But what about bystanders? Colleagues? Leaders? Why don't they speak up when they see sexual harassment?

Part of the problem, we have found, lies with social networks – the webs of interconnections among victims, perpetrators, co-workers and managers. The way these networks are configured encourages members to be silent, silence others and not hear victims who voice concerns about sexual harassment.

One of Cuomo's 11 alleged victims, a state trooper, described a conversation she had with Cuomo while driving him to an event. The governor questioned her clothing choices, asking why she wasn't wearing a dress. After the conversation, the victim's state police superior, who was in the car during the interaction, messaged her, saying that the conversation “stays in the truck."

Why do people protect harassers? A number of factors are at play.

First, a harasser can establish a central status by having many strong ties to others in the network. Strong relationships within a tie require an investment of time and resources on both sides, and in turn, they yield loyalty and reciprocity. So network members close to the harasser are more likely to stay silent about his misdeeds, and to silence or manipulate those who speak up into questioning their sanity.

Also, when the harasser is the sole link between disconnected members of the network, he can isolate victims, control information and conceal wrongdoing. The result of all this: Victims, witnesses and would-be supporters stay silent.

In the case of Cuomo, he had many loyal ties. The attorney general's report states that the Executive Chamber had “an intense and overriding focus on secrecy and loyalty that meant that any and all perceived acts of 'disloyalty,' including criticism of the Governor [Cuomo] or his senior staff, would be met with attacks of a personal and professional nature."

When central men sexually harass women, network members stay silent.

The second reason people protect male sexual harassers lies in how certain network beliefs prize men and masculinity. These beliefs normalize male dominance over women, encouraging support for those who enact displays of masculine superiority.

When these beliefs pervade a social network, and central men sexually harass women, network members stay silent. They also rally to defend and protect harassers by silencing and not hearing those who speak up.

Because women are devalued in these networks, powerful witnesses have little motive to hear sexual harassment complaints or take action to support female victims. The investigation into Cuomo's conduct concluded: “This culture of fear, intimidation, and retribution co-existed in the Executive Chamber with one that accepted and normalized everyday flirtations and gender-based comments by the Governor."

Finally, mythologies about sexual harassment are frequently found in social networks such as the one that surrounded Cuomo. These common myths deny that sexual harassment has happened, often by questioning women's complaints – for example, suggesting that false allegations are common. Or they downplay the gravity of these offenses.

When harassment becomes undeniable, myths lead network members to move on to justify it: absolving harassers of responsibility or blaming victims – asking what women did to invite sexual advances.

Myths such as these silence network members because speaking up is likely to be futile or even dangerous. Throughout the report, senior staff members in Cuomo's office denied wrongdoing by Cuomo. One victim, Ana Liss, testified that Cuomo had held her hand, kissed her cheek and been flirtatious. She did not want to report it because “the environment in the Executive Chamber deterred her … she was fully expecting the Governor's team would deny, deny, deny, character assassinate."

It is rare that scholarly research and current events so perfectly reflect each other. But the Cuomo case is – no metaphor here – a textbook example of a network of complicity and silence around sexual harassment.

[The Conversation's Politics + Society editors pick need-to-know stories. Sign up for Politics Weekly._]The Conversation

Sandy Hershcovis, Professor at Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary; Ivana Vranjes, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, Tilburg University; Jennifer L. Berdahl, Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia, and Lilia M. Cortina, University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology, Women's & Gender Studies, and Management & Organizations, University of Michigan

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Elyn Saks*

Her Prerogative? A Unique View On The #FreeBritney Movement

A California law professor with an expertise in mental health and ethics, and who suffers from chronic schizophrenia, takes a look beyond the headlines at the case of Britney Spears, who has been fighting to free herself from the conservatorship of her father.

Britney Spears' impassioned remarks in court have raised many questions about conservatorships, including when they're necessary and whether they effectively protect someone's best interests.

When one loses the capacity to make decisions for oneself the court appoints a guardian, or conservator, to make those decisions. Appointing someone to make decisions about personal and financial matters on another's behalf has been part of civil society since the ancient Greeks. Today, all jurisdictions in the U.S. have conservatorship laws to protect people who lack the ability to make their own decisions.

As a distinguished professor of law at the University of Southern California, and as a person who was diagnosed over four decades ago with chronic schizophrenia, I have a personal and professional interest in issues at the intersection of law, mental health and ethics. I believe that conservatorships are warranted in certain rare cases, such as someone experiencing severe delusions that put them at financial and bodily risk. But because conservatorships are a serious intrusion into a person's sense of self, they might not always be the best option.

Here are four myths about decision-making capacity, and ways to address them:

Myth 1: The inability to make one kind of decision means an inability to make any kind of decision

Historically, lack of decision-making capacity was thought of in a global way. That is, the inability to make a single significant decision meant that a person lacked capacity to make all significant decisions.

Making "bad" decisions, or decisions others do not agree with, is not the same as making incompetent decisions.

Today, U.S. law tends to view decision-making capacity more granularly. Different kinds of decisions require distinct capacities. For example, whether people are capable of making decisions about their finances is seen as legally separate and distinct from whether they're capable of making a decision to marry or refuse medical treatment. Not being able to make one kind of decision may reveal little about whether someone lacks the capacity to make other important decisions.

Making "bad" decisions, or decisions others do not agree with, is not the same as making incompetent decisions. People, especially those with considerable resources, often have family members and associates who are eager to provide a court with examples of an individual's poor decision-making that may be irrelevant to determining competence.

People sometimes make decisions that others strongly disagree with. That is their prerogative.

Myth 2: Once someone loses decision-making capacity, it never returns

As someone who lives with schizophrenia, I can say from personal experience that decision-making capacity waxes and wanes. At times, I unquestionably lack the capacity to make certain decisions because I have false beliefs, or delusions, about the world and how it works. Thankfully, those psychotic states are not permanent. With proper treatment, they pass and I soon return to my usual self.

Although certain conditions, like severe dementia, can permanently render an individual incapable of making decisions, many conditions do not. Research is increasingly demonstrating that there are ways to help people regain their decision-making capacity sooner, including psychotherapy and medication.

Myth 3: People who are declared incompetent are indifferent to having their decision-making abilities taken away

As Spears made powerfully clear in court, being deprived of the ability to make important decisions about one's own life can be one of the most deeply distressing circumstances a person can endure. It leaves one feeling helpless and unheard, and can reinforce and prolong mental illness.

Consider what it might feel like to not be able to write a check or use your credit card without asking for permission. Or consider how a parent reacts when an adult child takes away the car keys. In law school I wrote a paper on the use of mechanical restraints in psychiatric hospitals based on my own excruciating experiences as a patient. On reading my paper, a well-known professor in psychiatry unwittingly remarked that "those people" would not experience restraints as he and I would. I've always regretted not telling him in that moment that my article was about myself.

Britney Spears supporters in Los Angeles on July 14 — Photo: Ringo Chiu/ZUMA

For most people of childbearing potential, the ability to make decisions about reproduction is often an important part of their identity. A state action depriving someone of the ability to reproduce is incredibly intrusive, and the stress this causes may itself exacerbate the conditions that interfere with decision-making capacity.

There are other options that ensure a child's needs are met while respecting the parent's autonomy. One possibility includes having the parent identify individuals who can care for the child until decision-making capacity returns.

Myth 4: Mental illness or involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital indicates lack of decision-making capacity

Under the law, neither a mental illness nor involuntary psychiatric commitment renders a person incapable of making decisions. People who suffer from major psychiatric disorders may be perfectly capable of handling their personal and financial matters and would justifiably be outraged if they were declared unable to do so.

There are cases when someone's ability to make decisions is so compromised that others need to step in.

Those whose ability to make decisions appears to be deteriorating can designate a trusted person to make decisions on their behalf. Supported decision-making allows individuals to choose who they want to help them in decision-making while they retain the final say. Similarly, a pychiatric advance directive documents an individual's mental health treatment preferences and enlists a proxy decision-maker should decision-making capacity be lost in the future.

Respecting autonomy

U.S. law honors individual autonomy by presuming that everyone has decision-making competence unless proved otherwise. There are certainly cases when someone's ability to make decisions is so compromised that others need to step in. Conservatorships are one way to do this. But there are also less restrictive alternatives that take into account the fact that decision-making capacity waxes and wanes. Keeping Britney and others safe does not mean that they cannot be free to make decisions about their own lives.The Conversation

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Homa Hoodfar and Mona Tajali*

They're Back: Why Taliban Return Is Such Bad News For Afghan Women

The Taliban insurgents continue their deadly war to seize control of Afghanistan after the departure of United States and NATO forces. As they close in on major cities that were once government strongholds, like Badakhshan and Kandahar, many Afghans – and the world – fear a total takeover.

Afghan women may have the most to fear from these Islamic militants.

We are academics who interviewed 15 Afghan women activists, community leaders and politicians over the past year as part of an international effort to ensure that women's human rights are defended and constitutionally protected in Afghanistan. For the safety of our research participants, we use no names or first names only here.

"Reform of the Taliban is not really possible," one 40-year-old women's rights activist from Kabul told us. "Their core ideology is fundamentalist, particularly towards women."

From subjugation to Parliament

The Taliban ruled all of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. Everyone faced restrictions under their conservative interpretation of Islam, but those imposed on women were the most stringent.

Women couldn't leave their homes without a male guardian, and were required to cover their bodies from head to toe in a long robe called a burqa. They could not visit health centers, attend school or work.

In 2001, the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban regime and worked with Afghans to establish a democratic government.

Officially, the U.S. war in Afghanistan was about hunting down Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. The Taliban had sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan. But the U.S. invoked women's rights as a justification for the occupation, too.

After the Taliban was driven out, women entered public life in Afghanistan in droves. That includes the fields of law, medicine and politics. Women make up more than a quarter of parliamentarians, and by 2016 more than 150,000 women had been elected to local offices.

Rhetoric versus reality

Last year, after 20 years in Afghanistan, the U.S. signed an accord with the Taliban agreeing to withdraw American troops if the Taliban severed ties with al-Qaida and entered into peace talks with the government.

Officially, in these talks, Taliban leaders emphasize that they wish to grant women's rights "according to Islam."

The Taliban disagree with the basic principles of democracy, including gender equality and free expression

But the women we interviewed say they believe the Taliban still reject the notion of gender equality.

"The Taliban may have learned to appreciate Twitter and social media for propaganda, but their actions on the ground tells us that they have not changed," Meetra, a lawyer, shared with us recently.

The Taliban included no women in its own negotiating team, and as their local fighters are taking over districts, women's rights are being rolled back.

A schoolteacher whose district in northern Mazar-e-Sharif province recently fell to the Taliban told us that, "In the beginning, when we saw the Taliban interviews on TV, we hoped for peace, as if the Taliban had changed. But when I saw the Taliban up close, they have not changed at all."

Members of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan protesting against the Taliban, in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1998 — Photo: RAWA/CC BY 3.0

Using mosque loudspeakers, Taliban fighters in areas under their control often announce that women must now wear the burqa and have a male chaperone in public. They burn public schools, libraries and computer labs.

"We destroy them and put in place our own religious schools, in order to train future Taliban," a local fighter from Herat told the channel France 24 in June 2021.

In Taliban-run religious schools for girls, students learn the "appropriate" Islamic role of women, according to the Taliban's harsh interpretation of the faith. That consists largely of domestic duties.

Such actions demonstrate to many in Afghanistan that the Taliban disagree with the basic principles of democracy, including gender equality and free expression. Taliban negotiators are demanding Afghanistan adopt a new Constitution that would turn it into an "emirate" – an Islamic state ruled by a small group of religious leaders with absolute power.

Women in Afghanistan have been struggling for and gaining new rights for a century

That's an impossible demand for the Afghan government, and peace talks have stalled.

A history of equality

Many Muslim countries have steadily increasing gender equality. That includes Afghanistan, where women have been struggling for and gaining new rights for a century.

In the 1920s, Queen Soraya of Afghanistan participated in the political development of her country alongside her husband, King Amanullah Khan. An advocate for women's rights, Soraya introduced a modern education for women, one that included sciences, history and other subjects alongside traditional home economics-style training and religious topics.

In the 1960s women were among the drafters of Afghanistan's first comprehensive Constitution, ratified in 1964. It recognized the equal rights of men and women as citizens and established democratic elections. In 1965, four women were elected to the Afghan Parliament; several others became government ministers.

Afghan women protested any attacks on their rights. For instance, when religious conservatives in 1968 tried to pass a bill banning women from studying abroad, hundreds of schoolgirls organized a demonstration in Kabul and other cities.

Afghan women's status continued to improve under Soviet-backed socialist regimes of the late 1970s and 1980s. In this era, Parliament further strengthened girls' education and outlawed practices that were harmful to women, such as offering them as brides to settle feuds between two tribes or forcing widows to marry the brother of their deceased husband.

By the end of the socialist regime in 1992, women were full participants in public life in Afghanistan.

In 1996 the rise of the Taliban interrupted this progress – temporarily.

Resilient republic

The post-Taliban era demonstrated Afghan women's resilience after a grueling setback. It also highlighted the public's desire for a more democratic, responsive government.

That political project is still in its infancy today. The U.S. withdrawal now threatens the survival of Afghanistan's fragile democratic institutions.

The Taliban cannot win power at the ballot box. Only around 13.4% of respondents in a 2019 survey by The Asia Foundation expressed some sympathy with the group.

So the Taliban are forcing their authority over the Afghan people using warfare, much as they did in the 1990s. Many women hope what comes next won't repeat that history.

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Green Or Gone
Terry Hughes, Jon C. Day and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg*

What Is The True Risk Level For The Great Barrier Reef?

In case you missed it, the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO recently revealed its draft decision to list the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" — a decision that appeared to shock the Australian government.

In an opinion piece published June 30th in The Australian newspaper, Environment Minister Sussan Ley acknowledged climate change is the biggest threat to the Great Barrier Reef, and that it "has been through a few rough years."

She has also suggested, however, UNESCO's draft in-danger decision is a surprise and was politically motivated. Neither of these claims is credible.

So let's look at Australia's reaction so far, and why criticisms of UNESCO's draft decision don't stack up.

The poster child for climate change

An in-danger listing of a World Heritage property recognises a decline in the "outstanding universal value" that makes the site internationally significant. It sets off alarm bells to identify the underlying causes of decline, and triggers stronger interventions to prevent further damage.

Ley foresees a negative effect of the proposed in-danger listing on reef tourism. However, there's no evidence from the Galapagos Islands, the Belize Barrier Reef or the Everglades National Park — all World Heritage properties and tourism hotspots — that an in-danger listing led to any discernible impacts on tourist numbers.

Most tourists, international or domestic, are already well aware of the pressures facing the Great Barrier Reef, but they are still keen to see it. From 2015–2018, more than two million visitors each year used a tourism operator to visit the reef. During 2020, COVID led to significant decline in visitor numbers so this period has been particularly difficult for the tourism industry.

Ley also claimed Australia, and the reef, didn't deserve to be the poster child for climate change perils. But why can't they be? The Great Barrier Reef is one of the most obvious examples of the costs of inaction on anthropogenic climate change.

The Great Barrier Reef was inscribed as a World Heritage Area in 1981. And for the past two decades Australia has meticulously documented its ongoing deterioration.

According to Australia's regular reporting to UNESCO, the major causes of the reef's decline in outstanding universal value is pollution from agricultural runoff, which has now been eclipsed by heat stress from climate change.

Extreme summer temperatures in 1998, 2002, 2016, 2017 and 2020 have reduced coral cover and changed the mix of species, altering the biodiversity and other World Heritage attributes of the reef for many decades to come.

Clown fish in the Great Barrier Reef; a World Heritage Area since1981 — Photo: David Clode

Unless global warming is stabilised soon, the reef will become unrecognisable. Indeed, in 2019, Australia's latest five-yearly Great Barrier Reef Outlook Report projected the future of the reef as "very poor."

Is Australia doing enough?

Ley also suggests Australia is doing everything it can to protect the reef — but is it really?

UNESCO certainty doesn't think so. The draft decision from UNESCO, which will be considered next month by the World Heritage Committee, noted that interventions to reduce inshore pollution over the past five years have been "largely deficient."

There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels. But the slow progress in meeting many of the water quality targets is documented clearly in the 2017–2018 and 2019 reef Water Quality Report Cards, produced jointly by the federal and Queensland governments.

UNESCO cites Australia's poor progress on reducing emissions as an additional area requiring considerable improvement, to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement and Australia's responsibilities under the World Heritage Convention.

Australia's record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is very poor.

UNESCO has also asked Australia to work with it to develop corrective measures and to ensure the revised Reef 2050 Plan — the overarching framework for protecting the reef to 2050 — addresses the threats.

An in-danger listing is a call to arms to all countries to work together to save the reef from human-caused heating. So the ongoing collaboration between Australia and UNESCO could then enable the Great Barrier Reef's removal from the in-danger list.

Is Australia suddenly being singled out?

Ley wrote that the Great Barrier Reef was suddenly and unexpectedly "singled out" for an in-danger listing, which she interpreted as a suggestion that "Australia can single-handedly change the emissions trajectory of the whole world."

However, the dialogue between UNESCO and Australia on the Great Barrier Reef's protection has a long history. And in making its in-danger recommendation, UNESCO acknowledged Australia "on its own cannot address the threats of climate change." But UNESCO does appear to have concerns about Australia's record on emissions reduction.

For example, in 2011 the World Heritage Committee expressed "extreme concern" over the approval for liquefied natural gas facilities on Curtis Island within the boundary of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage area. A year later, it asked Australia to ensure coastal development isn't permitted if it effects the outstanding universal value of the property.

In 2012, 2013 and 2014, prior to the annual meetings of the World Heritage Committee, UNESCO raised the possible inscription of the Great Barrier Reef on the in-danger list.

There have been some positive achievements in reducing water pollution levels around the Great Barrier Reef — Photo: Axiom/ZUMA

Significantly, in 2017, the World Heritage Committee emphasized the importance of state parties (countries adhering to the world heritage convention, such as Australia) undertaking the most ambitious implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is an important pathway to reduce the risks and impacts of climate change on World Heritage properties.

UNESCO invited all state parties to act on climate change under the Paris Agreement "consistent with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities."

So what are Australia's responsibilities?

Ley is correct to point out that all 29 World Heritage listed coral reefs, scattered throughout the tropics, are extremely vulnerable to human-caused climate change.

However, Australia is responsible for the world's largest coral reef system, and has far higher capabilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than other, less wealthy countries.

But Australia's record on protecting ecosystems and people from climate change is comparatively very poor. And despite being responsible for 20 World Heritage Areas, we have one of the highest per capita emission rates in the world.

The federal government continues to spruik a fossil-fuelled, gas-led COVID recovery, with ongoing subsidies for new coal mines. This support for coal and fossil gas is inconsistent with Australia's commitments to the World Heritage Convention.

Rejecting the science-based assessments by UNESCO is further damaging Australia's reputation as a laggard on addressing climate change. Surely, Australia can do better.

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Amanda Baughan*

Social Media And Fruitful Conversations: It's Complicated

Good-faith disagreements are a normal part of society and building strong relationships. Yet it's difficult to engage in good-faith disagreements on the internet, and people reach less common ground online compared with face-to-face disagreements.

There's no shortage of research about the psychology of arguing online, from text versus voice to how anyone can become a troll and advice about how to argue well. But there's another factor that's often overlooked: the design of social media itself.

My colleagues and I investigated how the design of social media affects online disagreements and how to design for constructive arguments. We surveyed and interviewed 257 people about their experiences with online arguments and how design could help. We asked which features of 10 different social media platforms made it easy or difficult to engage in online arguments, and why. (Full disclosure: I receive research funding from Facebook.)

Having discussions on social media is difficult — Photo: Chris Yang/Unsplash

We found that people often avoid discussing challenging topics online for fear of harming their relationships, and when it comes to disagreements, not all social media are the same. People can spend a lot of time on a social media site and not engage in arguments (e.g. YouTube) or find it nearly impossible to avoid arguments on certain platforms (e.g. Facebook and WhatsApp).

Here's what people told us about their experiences with Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube, which were the most and least common places for online arguments.


Seventy percent of our participants had engaged in a Facebook argument, and many spoke negatively of the experience. People said they felt it was hard to be vulnerable because they had an audience: the rest of their Facebook friends. One participant said, on Facebook, "Sometimes you don't admit your failures because other people are looking." Disagreements became sparring matches with a captive audience, rather than two or more people trying to express their views and find common ground.

People also said that the way Facebook structures commenting prevents meaningful engagement because many comments are automatically hidden and cut shorter. This prevents people from seeing content and participating in the discussion at all.


In contrast, people said arguing on a private messaging platform such as WhatsApp allowed them "to be honest and have an honest conversation." It was a popular place for online arguments, with 76% of our participants saying that they had argued on the platform.

The organization of messages also allowed people to "keep the focus on the discussion at hand." And, unlike the experience with face-to-face conversations, someone receiving a message on WhatsApp could choose when to respond. People said that this helped online dialogue because they had more time to think out their responses and take a step back from the emotional charge of the situation. However, sometimes this turned into too much time between messages, and people said they felt that they were being ignored.

Overall, our participants felt the privacy they had on WhatsApp was necessary for vulnerability and authenticity online, with significantly more people agreeing that they could talk about controversial topics on private platforms as opposed to public ones like Facebook.


Very few people reported engaging in arguments on YouTube, and their opinions of YouTube depended on which feature they used. When commenting, people said they "may write something controversial and nobody will reply to it," which makes the site "feel more like leaving a review than having a conversation." Users felt they could have disagreements in the live chat of a video, with the caveat that the channel didn't moderate the discussion.

Unlike Facebook and WhatsApp, YouTube is centered around video content. Users liked "the fact that one particular video can be focused on, without having to defend, a whole issue," and that "you can make long videos to really explain yourself." They also liked that videos facilitate more social cues than is possible in most online interactions, since "you can see the person's facial expressions on the videos they produce."

YouTube's platform-wide moderation had mixed reviews, as some people felt they could "comment freely without persecution" and others said videos were removed at YouTube's discretion "usually for a ridiculous or nonsensical reason." People also felt that when creators moderated their comments and "just filter things they don't like," it hindered people's ability to have difficult discussions.

Redesigning social media for better arguing

We asked participants how proposed design interactions could improve their experiences arguing online. We showed them storyboards of features that could be added to social media. We found that people like some features that are already present in social media, like the ability to delete inflammatory content, block users who derail conversations and use emoji to convey emotions in text.

People were also enthusiastic about an intervention that helps users to "channel switch" from a public to private online space. This involves an app intervening in an argument on a public post and suggesting users move to a private chat. One person said "this way, people don't get annoyed and included in online discussion that doesn't really involve them." Another said, "this would save a lot of people embarrassment from arguing in public."

A comic displays five tiles in which people are arguing in a comment section, and the app intervenes suggesting the users move to a private message instead.

One way social media platforms can intervene: move squabbles out of public discussions. "Someone Is Wrong on the Internet: Having Hard Conversations in Online Spaces', CC BY-ND

Intervene, but carefully

Overall, the people we interviewed were cautiously optimistic about the potential for design to improve the tone of online arguments. They were hopeful that design could help them find more common ground with others online.

Yet, people are also wary of technology's potential to become intrusive during an already sensitive interpersonal exchange. For instance, a well-intentioned but naïve intervention could backfire and come across as "creepy" and "too much." One of our interventions involved a forced 30-second timeout, designed to give people time to cool off before responding. However, our subjects thought it could end up frustrating people further and derail the conversation.

Social media developers can take steps to foster constructive disagreements online through design. But our findings suggest that they also will need to consider how their interventions might backfire, intrude or otherwise have unintended consequences for their users.

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