Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pornography and Public Policy

Most of the interviews on Lincoln Avenue explore current issues, with a strong focus on the Mahoning Valley. This week, we’re talking about the past, with historian Whitney Strub. But the history he studies is very much part of contemporary life, since debates about pornography, obscenity, and sexuality never seem to die.

As Whitney explains, we can to a great extent track the pendulum swing of that debate according to which political party is in power. When Republicans dominate, concerns about morality shape policy. For Democrats, the concerns are more about balancing free speech with censorship. Across the political spectrum and through much of the past century, however, the primary issue shaping public policy about obscenity has been how it influences children. That encompasses crack-downs on child pornography, worries about children’s viewing of internet porn, and fears about pedophilia. Other key issues have to do with the exploitation of women, negative representations of sexuality, and concerns about how the porn industry operated.

Strub also examines how what gets defined as “obscene” reflects changing social and political mores. In the middle of the 20th century, images of interracial couples could be deemed obscene, even if they were merely holding hands. Similarly, images of homosexuality have often been judged as unacceptable.

Running through all of the history, though, is a sense of futility. Despite various laws and public debates, pornography continues to thrive, and the industry keeps adapting to new technologies and social trends.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Celebrating Mexican Heritage

If you listen to Lincoln Avenue regularly, you may have noticed my ongoing interest in the local Mexican community. As I’ve written before, some of that is because of my own history, growing up in a city with a large Mexican population. But it also comes from my interest in immigration and ethnicity in the Mahoning Valley. You can’t miss the prevalence of Italians or Irish people in this area, but even though Mexicans have been here for about 90 years, they are a smaller and less visible part of the community.

But, as Rachel Flasco explains in this week’s interview, that doesn’t mean that Mexicans aren’t proud of their heritage, or that they don’t enjoy an opportunity to celebrate and share it. Rachel is President of the Sociedad Mutalista Mexicana, the Youngstown Mexican Club. In our conversation, she explains some of the ways the local Mexican community has changed over the years, shares some of her own family’s history, and talks about the activities of the Mexican Club.

You can join in one of those activities, the upcoming “Pre Cinco de Mayo Fiesta,” on Friday, May 1, at the Mastropietro Winery in Berlin Center. The event will feature Mexican food, music, and dancing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Business of Diversity

When you read the phrase “managing diversity,” you might imagine the kind of sensitivity training workshop that was – rightly – a common object of ridicule in the 1980s and 90s, the kind where everyone is encouraged to appreciate each other’s differences and avoid making racist or sexist comments. In our conversation on Lincoln Avenue, Luke Visconti, one of the founders of DiversityInc, made clear that his approach to creating more diverse workplaces isn’t like that.

DiversityInc publishes a magazine and manages a website that profiles businesses that have succeeded in hiring, keeping, and promoting women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. He told me, as well as the audience at YSU’s annual Diversity Leadership dinner, that the key to creating productively diverse workplaces isn’t about eliminating overt discrimination but about addressing the obstacles that too often keep talented workers from being promoted. Yes, those barriers can be a matter of attitudes, though Visconti insists that he doesn’t think that most employers or colleagues are racists or sexist (though he acknowledges the persistence of homophobia). They simply aren’t aware of how their own habits and assumptions might exclude others. As he explains in tonight’s interview, companies often benefit from recognizing patterns of exclusion and from some basic, often common-sense advice, such as don’t penalize women for taking maternity leave, or simply making your company’s commitment to diversity a strong theme in how you present your business.

Visconti’s positive approach makes sense. We can’t promote real equal opportunity on the basis of guilt; we have to make clear how discrimination harms not only those who are its objects but also those who enact it. And I’m always happy to see discussions of diversity being led by straight, white men – those who, it would seem, have the least to gain from it. In his blog, Ask the White Guy, Visconti encourages people to ask questions that they might not be comfortable either asking within their own companies or to someone who is different from themselves.

All of this seems like a move in a good direction. My diversity skepticism kicked in, though, when Visconti explained his business model, which uses statistical analysis to show companies how well (or poorly) they’re doing and offers consulting services and information to help them do better. That feels a little like a gotcha game. No doubt, companies and organizations need help. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that promoting diversity has itself become a way to make money. I hope that DiversityInc and other companies like it, with the help of all of my colleagues who teach about diversity in schools and colleges and who organize community-based efforts to fight inequality, will succeed enough that they create their own obsolescence.