Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Prohibition still doesn’t work

People who know me well know that I abhor alcohol and other addictive drugs and mind-altering substances. If it actually worked, I would be a major supporter of prohibition. However, prohibition doesn’t work no matter how people try to justify it. Prohibition actually makes the problems worse.

danah boyd has a post worth reading about lowering the legal drinking age and opening up — in moderation — alcohol access to youths. In the post, boyd talks about the Amethyst Initiative, which is headed by “chancellors and presidents of universities and colleges across the United States” who are calling for a re-evaluation of the U.S. drinking age.

Regulating and mitigating, but not prohibition, are the most effective ways we have available to curb substance abuse.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Encouraging involvement by local politicians

It’s one thing for politicians to be meaningfully involved in their communities before getting political, it’s quite another for them to maintain that involvement after “ascending to power.”

There are three of the Alberta MLAs in Calgary who I had worked with on social change projects before they got elected: Harry Chase with Friends of Medicare and the Council of Canadians, David Swann with various peace activism and Sudan issues, and Kent Hehr with the Calgary Housing Action Initiative. What’s encouraging for me is that I still see them out at community and activist events — they didn’t leave that behind with their move into political office (although they obviously aren’t able to attend quite as often as they did before).

What prompts me to be thinking about this today is that I was in a small meeting this morning, discussing advocacy for provincial action on AISH and living wage policies, with all three in attendance. It stood out for me that Swann, now in the midst of a leadership campaign, is still showing real commitment to this work.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of their political party (my role as past president and candidate for the Alberta Greens should make clear my leanings), but I do appreciate and respect the work these individuals are doing to push for positive social change.

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Social norms harm relationship health

A friend of mine was recently in an intimate relationship with someone who was notably older. In addition to the challenges of navigating potential power imbalances in that circumstance, they faced harassment when in public. My friend told me about a couple of times when they were out at restaurants together (in typical dating fashion) where people actively discouraged their relationship through derogatory remarks.

The following is somewhat expanded and modified from my remarks in an online chat I had with my friend about all that:

I don’t know the extent to which external social pressures contributed to their eventual breakup, but it’s certainly quite different from the constant pressure to partner that accompanies the standard cultural expectation of a near-age, heteronormative, same-class, same-ethnicity, mating pair.

It’s unfortunate how arbitrary social norms restrict the range of relationship choices people have. Heteronormativity, ageism, classism, racism, etc., all serve to keep people apart when there is difference beyond just “boy-girl”. Additionally, the mainstream definitions of what is and can be a “relationship” and the expectations of what is to occur in a “relationship” also limit the range of emotional interactions in people’s lives.

Fundamentally, people need a diversity of emotional relationships in their lives that is not at all addressed by the extremist focus on the “traditional” nuclear-family model.

The stereotypes of what it means for an older male to be in a relationship with a younger female are definitely harmful to those who have found (or are seeking) a genuinely healthy relationship in that circumstance. It’s prejudicial and sexist to assume that a younger woman is just in it because of his ‘wealth’, prestige or power, or that she has some sort of “daddy complex”. It’s as if her role in such a relationship is necessarily immature and her only contribution can be her youth and sex.

While there certainly are no shortage of deeply unhealthy relationships in our society where older males use their position to exploit younger females, it is viciously belittling to paint all inter-generational relationships with that brush. (My friend’s response at this point in the chat: “Completely. What do they know? It's insulting to us both.”)

Here’s the thing, unless there is a lack of meaningful consent (such as in a relationship between an adult and a minor), no relationship should be looked down upon, and no assumptions should be laid about the values of those involved.

Consent is key.

Consent is challenging to achieve in a meaningful sense in this society due to the wide range of power imbalances. That is a big part of why I always recommend caution and a commitment to continuous work in relationships with significant age differences. Age difference does not preclude the possibility of a healthy balance in a relationship, but it does typically require more work to build and maintain that balance.

The abundance of adult relationships in our society which have sufficient power imbalances as to be non-consensual (as exemplified by the number of clients of women’s shelters) do not preclude genuinely consensual relations across socially defined divides such as age, class, culture, etc.

Even if — as seems to be the case — the majority of inter-generational relationships are not fairly consensual, it is wrong to assume that any given inter-generational relationship must therefore be non-consensual. Assumptions like that only make it harder for those relationships to find and maintain a healthy balance.

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