Monday, March 29, 2010

Wrestling with Free Speech

I confess it: sometimes I wrestle with the issue of free speech. More specifically, I wrestle with the idea of free speech when I read about things that are so blatantly offensive and arguably hateful that I almost can't justify them being said or written. Two events recently have gotten me thinking about it-- one piece in the international news, and one from my own college campus.

The news piece that first got me thinking was an article published in the Ottawa Citizen about how Ann Coulter's speech at the University of Ottawa was cancelled. The conservative commentator has been on a speaking tour around Canada, and has encountered considerable resistance from liberally-minded Canadians who opposed her message and the manner in which she delivered it. Although there were protests at a majority of her speaking locations, the protests at the University of Ottawa were so vehement that security urged Coulter to cancel the event, sparking criticism and debates from Coulter and others about how friendly Canada is to freedom of expression.

The other instance happened just today. Our student newspaper, the Eagle, published a piece by one of its more incendiary columnists, Alex Knepper, entitled, "Dealing with AU's anti-sex brigade." Read the column, then look at the comments. Words really can't adequately describe the controversial nature of the contents, but suffice it to say that Knepper managed to get virtually every female on campus up in arms when he stated that there is no such thing as date rape, and criticized the feminist movement for its views on sex. Just an excerpt:
“Date rape” is an incoherent concept. There’s rape and there’s not-rape, and we need a line of demarcation. It’s not clear enough to merely speak of consent, because the lines of consent in sex — especially anonymous sex — can become very blurry. If that bothers you, then stick with Pat Robertson and his brigade of anti-sex cavemen! Don’t jump into the sexual arena if you can’t handle the volatility of its practice!
To put it mildly, the AU campus community freaked out. I would be willing to bet that the Eagle hasn't gotten this many comments on a single article in years. There has been a range of (in my opinion, fairly low-key) vandalism and threats, and attacks on Knepper in general. There have also been an outpouring of comments and letters to the editor flowing into the newspaper, many of them criticizing the editors for having the nerve to put the piece into print.

So here's where my personal dilemma comes in. I hate just about everything Ann Coulter stands for, and I disagree with virtually everything Alex Knepper wrote in that column. I don't believe that hate speech of any variety has a place in a civilized society, and I am offended by the notion that someone would put such a stark line between "rape and not-rape," which vastly oversimplifies relational and sexual dilemmas AND devalues the pain felt by women who HAVE been raped, date or otherwise.

But here's the thing. I also hate censorship. I recognize the fact that if I am to be able to hold and express my opinions in this society, others should be able to hold and express theirs. I don't envy the Supreme Court their duty to identify where First Amendment rights to free speech end and where public safety or whatever is at stake. As much as I hate to admit it, Fox News has the same right to air Glenn Beck that MSNBC has to air Keith Olbermann.

If you ask me, there are more questions in this arena than answers. Yes, I think Knepper went WAY over any line of civility. Yes, I think that Ann Coulter's anti-Muslim comments in her speeches were distinctly inappropriate and downright hateful. I really don't think that "shock jocks" belong in real journalism. But those are my opinions. What about you?

Who gets to decide what is appropriate for publication and what is not?
What are liberals going to do if the tables get turned and people start getting really offended by what they say?
How do we reconcile the need for free speech that has been valued for so long, and the need to respect people and carry on CIVIL conversation?

I don't know. But it's food for thought.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Grouching About the Oscars

Anyone who follows my blog knows that I love movies. I write about them regularly, and view and talk about them even more regularly. So naturally I was excited for the Academy Awards this year, with a wider Best Picture field than usual, and a pending face-off between director James Cameron (Avatar) and his ex-wife, director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). So last night I settled down in front of ABC for their Oscar broadcast.

Part 1: The Red Carpet

Hands down, this is my least favorite part of the Academy Awards. I think the whole "red carpet" rigamarole is overrated and puts a focus on the star persona (and even more on what they wear) that is totally unnecessary. Why do we deify these actors to the point where a walk up a red carpet into a theater is one of the defining hallmarks of entertainment? Gabourey Sidibe (of Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire) was right when she described it as "Prom Night for Hollywood."

OK, that rant aside, naturally I watched the red carpet broadcast. Obnoxious interviewers and philosophical issues aside, some of the information was interesting. For example, did you know that the last time there were ten movies in the running for the Best Picture award was in 1943, the year Casablanca won? No pressure or anything, though.

Shallow moment:
Favorite male heartthrob sightings: George Clooney and Matt Damon
Favorite dresses: Kate Winslet (nobody classes up an event like her) and Sandra Bullock (a girl after my own heart-- when asked by an interviewer what she wanted to eat after the ceremony, she said a burger, fries, and a milkshake.)

Part 2: The 82nd Annual Academy Awards Ceremony

OK, on to the part that actually matters in my opinion: the ceremony itself. Neil Patrick Harris's over-the-top musical number intro was hilarious and awesome-- "No One Wants to Do It Alone." I really enjoyed Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin as hosts. They had a great (if sometimes awkward) back-and-forth insulting each other and the audience, both at the beginning during their roast of the nominees and during the rest of the show.

So- the awards themselves. Here are the winners in each category, for those who missed it:

BEST PICTURE: "The Hurt Locker"
BEST DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow, "The Hurt Locker"
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina)

BEST LEADING ACTOR: Jeff Bridges, "Crazy Heart"
BEST LEADING ACTRESS: Sandra Bullock, "The Blind Side"
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Christoph Waltz, "Inglourious Basterds"

BEST FILM EDITING: "The Hurt Locker"
BEST SOUND MIXING: "The Hurt Locker"

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE: Michael Giacchino, "Up"
BEST ORIGINAL SONG: "The Weary Kind" from "Crazy Heart"
BEST MAKE-UP: "Star Trek"
BEST COSTUMES: "The Young Victoria"

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Sapphire' by Push"

Full disclosure: I was rooting for Up in the Air to win in every category it was nominated for (Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture). I can't say that I actually believed that it would win all of those categories, but I wanted it to. I thought it deserved the awards most for its timely and unique portrayal of the human impact of the economic recession in the US, for its superb acting (by George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, and Vera Farmiga) and directing (by Jason Reitman), and for its clever script. Needless to say, I am quite upset that it didn't walk away with any of the above awards.

I was also rooting for Sherlock Holmes to win the Best Original Score award. I thought Hans Zimmer did a superb job creating a musical atmosphere for that movie, and the soundtrack is one of my new favorite albums to listen to-- atonal and unusual, but still somehow hauntingly beautiful. Still, the eventual winner (Michael Giacchino for Up!) was also an excellent choice-- although I actually preferred his music for Star Trek.

Despite my choices not winning, I am happy with most of the results. Avatar walked away with a handful of much-deserved technical awards but NOT any acting or overall "best" awards. Say what you will about the visual splendor of the movie, and I'll even give you the fact that the music was wonderful (James Horner composed the soundtrack, how do you go wrong?), but it did not have an original plot or good enough script to warrant anything else.

I was very impressed by The Hurt Locker, and am certainly inclined to support its Best Picture win, if Up in the Air couldn't win it. It was a unique brand of film with almost an indie film feel to it, and a relevance for its military content, even as the US pulls out of Iraq and starts to forget about what's happening over there in light of domestic concerns.

What I had not realized about the movie was that the screenwriter had been a journalist in Iraq, and had written the story based on his experiences with the troops there-- although I can't say I'm surprised, given how close the movie strikes to the reality on the ground (as I understand it). I was touched by the very sincere tribute and dedication that the writer, Mark Boal, gave to the troops when he accepted his award for Best Original Screenplay.

The film had a superb cast (especially Jeremy Renner), and a solid director in Kathryn Bigelow, who broke the proverbial glass ceiling last night by becoming the first woman ever to win the Academy Award for Best Director.

The Hurt Locker cleaned up in many awards categories, so the ceremony perhaps wasn't as well distributed as it could have been in that regard. And Up in the Air didn't win anything, which I have an issue with. But I guess I still have to "thank the Academy," as they say, because they fulfilled my hopes and did not give Avatar awards that it simply (in my opinion) did not deserve, just because it is the highest-grossing and possibly most visually stunning movie ever made. Being a Best Picture winner is about more than great visuals. It has to be about the quality and relevance of the story, the articulateness of the script, and the incredible acting-- not the money it rakes in or how pretty the film is.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Climate Change 2.0

Communication matters. Politicians have known this for years, but it often seems as though scientists and activists missed that memo. These groups know why a topic matters to them, but they cannot convey the significance to the public in a way that gets through the daily onslaught of information. Scientists are especially guilty when they limit their distribution of information to academic journals and conferences. These venues are hardly perused by the general public, and so useful information gets lost in the labyrinth of academia. Activists similarly struggle to communicate, although not for lack of effort. In a world where new causes seem to materialize every day, how can a climate activist stay relevant? In the past the strategy has involved some groups lobbying for environmental legislation, and others trying to get people interested in preserving nature, from polar bears to wetlands.

Without minimizing the importance of conservation and legislation, it seems as though the message of the climate change movement often gets muddled. It often fails to use communication strategies that are clear and reach large numbers of people. In particular, the climate movement should be making a special effort to reach out to the millennial generation, who will be most affected by the effects of climate change during their lifetimes. The distinguishing communication venue for millennials is the Internet-- specifically, social networks. As the millennial generation becomes more and more politically active, the climate movement will benefit greatly from finding ways to engage them with their most-utilized communication methods.

Climate Change 2.0: Recent Uses of New Media

Activists have long attempted to determine effective ways to reach a broader public with their message about global warming. Indeed, an organization called Resource Innovations “initiated a project designed to identify the most effective means to communicate with local populations about climate change.” This study yielded a number of recommendations about how best to communicate climate change, including the types of messengers that should be used to convey the information-- those with a range of expertise on a variety of subject areas from religious to environmental to business. Focus groups indicated that a broader range of experts educating the public on climate change would improve the credibility of the movement. In light of this study, it is reasonable to assume that among younger audiences, the credibility of the climate change movement would also be improved by increased activity on social media outlets.

Some organizations and individuals have already begun to increase their use of social media regarding climate change issues. The Copenhagen conference in particular drove groups to take up an active place on social networks, although some Web 2.0 aficionados found the website of the conference itself to be deficient in its use of new media. One of the most prominent to do so was not an environmental group, but the Associated Press and its affiliates covering the conference. Due to the conference's significance, the AP created a Facebook page and Twitter account to “provide a unique outlet for Internet users to discuss climate change with some of the world's most experienced journalists covering the conference,” according to a press release put out by the company. Other prominent individuals also started using social media in advance of the conference, such as John Prescott, the former British Transport Secretary and current Rapporteur on Climate Change to the Council of Europe who used Twitter and his blog to gauge and try to sway public opinion in England about climate change in advance of the summit.

The movement rallied the blogosphere and Web 2.0 aficionados around the climate summit in Copenhagen, publicizing the use of their own videos and other sources on individual Twitter feeds and blogs, effectively spreading the word about their organization. and its partners joined together in a Blog Action Day before Copenhagen, calling for the preservation of the Earth's atmosphere at no higher than 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Before the Blog Action Day, also featured six of the “hottest” videos on climate change, highlighting the roles that social media can play in raising awareness and calling for action.

Beyond the climate conference, some businesses have also been actively commenting on climate change issues. One of the most noteworthy is Shell Oil, which allowed its climate change adviser, David Hone, to start and maintain a blog, on which he records his thoughts and experiences looking into climate change-related issues. The idea behind the blog was to provide a “serious venue for conversation about an issue that is very important to all of us” and to do so in a way that is accessible to people beyond environmentalists and policy makers.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits that social media has already provided is in areas that are indirectly related to climate change-- namely, in providing information after natural disasters. The earthquake in Haiti is perhaps the best current example of how Twitter can be useful, although in this particular instance the quake is not related to climate change. After the earthquake, news outlets such as CNN reported people going to Twitter for information in record numbers, as disaster agencies posted updates and celebrities used their feeds to call for donations to charities. Similar situations have occurred in the past and will likely occur again in the future in instances where climate change is more directly tied to a disaster. A prime example is the cyclone that occurred in Bangladesh in December 2007. BBC World Service had spent several years building up a site showcasing the effects that climate change had already had on that area, and when the cyclone arrived, Twitter and blog updates provided personal accounts from the ground, even when the mainstream media switched its focus.

Reaching the Millennials: Why Social Media Matters

The millennials are the generation that is most likely to be heavily impacted by climate change. Right now, social media venues are the main outlet for young people looking to share their opinions with a broader audience, and with or without the support of the mainstream climate movement, they are speaking out on the issue. Jesse Strauss, a student and blogger on, wrote about the urgency with which we need to address climate change:
Every once in a while, a generation gets a necessary call to act and sacrifice. The last time this happened, a nation mobilized to defeat the armies of fascism. The most powerful force on Earth is a mobilized democracy calling for action, and that is what we need to be. Right now, we have been granted a very small and rare window to change our ways to save this planet for our children. A new decade means a clean slate. [...] When 2020 rolls around, let’s be able to say truthfully we left the decade with the Earth better than we found it.
The Pew Research Center announced in its New Media Index just before the Copenhagen conference that global warming had been the primary hot topic discussed on blogs and other social media networks, with more than half of the news links in blogs relating to the issue. Often the blogs have been posted by those who doubt the reality of global warming, but during the weeks before Copenhagen, the debate was not one-sided. Rather, “much of the added fuel [to the debate] came from climate change believers who engaged in the debate that had been dominated by skeptics.”

Bloggers like Jesse Strauss and the data from the New Media Index are together reflections of the evolving reality: that connecting teens to movements like the fight against climate change will increasingly require engagement with online social media as much as (or more than) traditional media. The Pew Research Institute has been active in recent years studying the interaction between the millennial generation and the Internet, and the results have been striking. A study published in December 2007 learned that about 93% of teens use the Internet, and that 64% of these online teens have either contributed to or written a blog, maintained a personal website, shared their own artistic creations online, and included content that they found online in their own work-- and this did not even include those who were active on Facebook or another social networking site.

Beyond the teenagers, however, are the older members of the millennial generation (those born between 1980 and 2000). These are mostly no longer teenagers, but they are equally “plugged in” to the technology that many consider to be a hallmark of the generation. According to a Pew Research Center study published in February 2010, approximately 75% of millennials have at least one social networking profile (compared with 50% of Gen-Xers and 30% of baby boomers). These are numbers that have jumped significantly within the last ten years for all adults, but most strikingly for the millennials. Between 2005 and 2006, the percentage of young people using social networking sites jumped from 7% to 51%, a number that subsequently increased and stabilized at 75% in 2008.

In addition to the data about the technological engagement of millennials, the Pew data indicated a trend toward more liberal political opinions. More than half of the millennials surveyed said that they thought the government should do more to help people, compared to 42% who thought that the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. However, the study notes that like other generations when they were younger, millennials do not typically have high levels of political engagement. They did make a substantial difference in the election of Barack Obama (a campaign that stood out for its use of social media) in 2008, but the number of millennials voting sank significantly in the gubernatorial elections of 2009 in New Jersey and Virginia.

The Pew Center report says, “Even though Millennials made extensive use of social media in the 2008 campaign, it is too early to judge the long-term impact of these technologies on their level of engagement.” This is undoubtedly true. However, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that the ability of the Obama campaign to connect with younger voters using familiar technology (social networking) might be correlated to their ability to get out the youth vote. Not only did the Obama campaign convey a message that millennials could relate to, they used a relevant medium to millennials.

Climate change movements that seek to stay relevant with today's technology-savvy generation can learn from the lessons of the Obama campaign in 2008, as well as from organizations that mobilized around the Copenhagen conference. Social media-- from blogs to videos to Twitter-- can be an effective tool for spreading information and especially engaging with younger potential activists. Many millennials know that global climate change will be manifesting its consequences during their lifetimes, and they are eager to step up and take action to reduce the impact. They are simply waiting for leadership that meets them on familiar ground and connects with them.