Why Some Progress Is Slow for Accessibility

“What’s with that?” a student asked me. Our classroom this semester was on the third floor of Barker Hall at the University of Kentucky. The flights are tall and there is no elevator. “How is that allowed?”

The young woman was asking about accessibility. It’s 2016. Don’t campus buildings have to be accessible?

This is a photo of a modern staircase designed with ramps running zig zag up the diagonals of the staircase.

New construction can incorporate accessibility features beautifully, as part of the design, and while not making accommodations around back by the trash can. You can walk or roll with your loved ones to the other floor.

A sidewalk that ends in grass.Before moving to Lexington, I advocated for certain accessibility issues at the University of Mississippi. In the process, I learned a lot about what people say when you push on such issues. There were many disappointing responses at times, the most upsetting of which was being ignored for nearly a year. That’s another story.

The experience in Mississippi revealed to me some interesting challenges to consider even when an organization means to do its best to make a social space maximally accessible.

If you want to advocate for change, critical thinking textbooks will tell you, you have to understand your opposition and address it head on. Finding the weakest arguments that oppose your mission and laughing at them won’t convince people who disagree with you. Identifying the smartest things people say in their defense and responding to those might.

How many buildings are on a university campus? It will vary significantly, but let’s imagine that there are 200 at a major research university. If the campus has been around a long time, many of the buildings will have been built long before the Americans with Disabilities Act. Some will be historic buildings. Others in need of repair. Some will be priorities and others won’t.

Classroom space tends to be at a premium in most institutions. When all of the most commonly used spaces have been taken up, you look for further spots not yet in use. My courses were added far later than is usual this past summer, so they were located in classroom space still available. It so happens that that means Barker Hall.

Barker hall today.Barker Hall is historic, built in 1901. The first photo of it is how it looks now, although it is actually surrounded by construction of the new student center at present. The next photo showcases what we mean when we call it historic.

So why isn’t it accessible?

  1. Making spaces accessible as you build them is cheaper than retroactively. So, it’s more expensive than making other, perhaps more spacious new buildings accessible.
  2. Historic photo of Barker Hall.Making historic buildings accessible generally adds cost, because it is desirable to preserve the beauty of historic buildings, while retrofitting. It’s harder, so it costs more.
  3. It probably is not the only remaining space that needs retrofitting.
  4. Money is always limited and judgments are made all-things-considered about where to spend it.
  5. Without many people calling for Barker to change, it won’t any time soon. Though, there may be plans in the works to update it at some point.

But wait, “Isn’t it the law?!”

  1. No, it’s not technically the law that every space has to be accessible to every person. The law says that institutions like mine have an obligation to make reasonable accommodations for people who need them. That means that if any of us had a broken ankle or if a student who uses a mobility device were to have added the course, the university would have had to find some solution to move the class meetings.

This last point is delicate, though. How would it make you feel if 30 other people had a change to their meeting location for a semester because of you? It’s something that couldn’t help but make someone feel singled out. Maybe the first classroom was conveniently located for certain people. Barker Hall is a hop away from Patterson Office Tower, where my office is. So, in the end, this answer is not terribly satisfying.

My point here is not that I think it’s fine to have inaccessible buildings. Hell, the window unit air conditioners made it hard to hear each other in August, a problem for people with hearing impairments, not to mention anyone trying to engage in a classroom discussion.

Man holding his ear because he can't hear the speaker.

No, this professional baseball team executive has nothing to do with the story here, except that he’s struggling to hear someone, as I often did this semester.

So, at some point I’ll gently start to ask questions about what the structure is here for decisions and initiatives regarding accessibility. It was refreshing, I must say, to hear disdain in the student’s voice. I heard passion and initiative in it. You can’t change much for the better without high expectations. At the same time, the challenges are real even when good people are trying to do many things right with limited resources.

Next semester, I’ll be teaching on the second floor of a building with several elevators. And central air.

Follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

The Risks of Public Engagement, Part I

Dr. Shane RalstonI and others may well be guilty of romanticizing public philosophy. Fellow Dewey scholar and a prolific writer, Shane Ralston, has published a warning for people interested in engaging in public philosophy. In “On the Perils of Public Philosophy,” Ralston rightly recognizes both that there is a resurgence in the movement for publicly engaged philosophy and that too few call attention to its risks.

He explains that “Public philosophers are often criticized, bullied, harassed and even threatened and, unfortunately, some respond in kind when communicating their ideas in the public sphere.” He’s right. In Oxford, MS, while I was working at the University of Mississippi, I was thoroughly harassed by someone who made me feel ill. I won’t go into the details of it, but being publicly engaged has not been easy. People who disagree with you sometimes do so to a degree motivating enough to be threatening.

David - The Death of Socrates

I have reason to believe that this person sent two students to my office with a video camera for a “gotcha” kind of harassing interview. They were surprised when I sat them down to schedule a time to meet up formally. They didn’t show up for that.

Other people have written me with insults. One man, in a single email, called me a eunuch, a gelding, and effeminate. He clearly has strong feelings about gender and opinions. That sort of thing I can laugh off. The person who told me he was meeting with my Chancellor the next day was clearly trying to intimidate me. I was then an untenured assistant professor.

People will be mean. They will be unbelievably uncivil. One said that I should spend more time in the classroom than in the opinion pages.

Ralston is right that we don’t hear enough about the unpleasant side of public engagement.

So, why on Earth do we do it?

First of all, we should remember that it’s no surprise to be criticized or insulted for engaging with people about philosophical issues. Plato noted in his cave metaphor that the philosophers who have seen the light outside the cave have an obligation to go back down in there to help free the others. He did not think that they would welcome this liberation, he explained. If any philosopher “tried to loose another [prisoner in the cave] and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death… No question.”

Plato’s Socrates recognized that people will resist teachers and liberators. The folks in the cave are habituated to that setting. They believe that they have interests there. It’s unpleasant to be turned toward the light. People will be upset. Some might try to kill you.

I see that I have yet to make the case for public engagement. My point so far is that when we do it, we must do so with understanding of dangers. It’s like a battle medic. You head into dangerous territory to save people, not to injure anyone. Nevertheless, you can be targeted and hurt in the process. The part that makes it all the more difficult is that in Plato’s metaphor, it’s those whom you’re trying to save who resist and want you dead. Given that, why think we even have an obligation to them?

Here another line from the Republic is motivating for me. Plato’s Socrates says that the “greatest punishment for those unwilling to rule is to be led by those who are worse.”

Puppet master's hands and strings.If you’re unwilling to fight for the truth and for the liberation of people’s minds, you have chosen to be ruled by ignorance and whatever shadows on the wall the powerful puppet masters choose.

If we are going to mean what we do in love of wisdom, we must do so with our greatest hopes in mind. It isn’t that we should believe that they will be achieved. The point is that if we don’t try, we choose to be doomed to follow ignorance and injustice.

Now we have the greatest need I have witnessed in my lifetime to engage publicly in reasoned, vigorous debate about what is right. There will be risks to doing so. Socrates was killed. It is incredibly unlikely that philosophy professors today could face such risks, but it is not impossible. This is all the more reason why it is important to mean it when we say with Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

You can follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook @EricThomasWeberAuthor.

Trump’s Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won’t Work, Just Look at the Evidence

Piece originally published in The Herald Leader, October 13, 2016.

Thumbnail photo of my piece in the Herald Leader, titled, 'Trump's Blind Faith in Tax Cuts Won't Work, Just Look at the Evidence.' The link leads to the article on the Herald Leader's site.

After watching the first Presidential debate, I was struck by how little Donald Trump had to offer in terms of actual policy proposals. He suggested renegotiating trade deals, but that’s not something he can unilaterally do. I’m skeptical. The things government can do on its own, among his recommendations, included lowering taxes for the wealthy and for corporations. It’s his panacea. It’s also something that in many cases has already been shown not to work.

Of course, there can be too much. But for a man proud of paying no taxes, it’s all the more absurd to suggest that taxes are too high on him. Here’s my piece, covering what I take to be the four big mistakes in Donald Trump’s free market fundamentalism.

Trump Forfeited the Benefit of the Doubt

Yesterday, I was deeply troubled to hear that Trump referred to suicidal veterans with PTSD as people who “can’t handle it” (CNN). It sounded, read in the news, like another incredibly callous remark, like so many that he has made. When you watch the video of him saying the words, you see that he was trying to speak sympathetically to the difficulties that veterans face when they witness traumatic events. That fact leads some people to want to defend Trump from the unfair media, and from others’ allegedly unfair reactions.

Image of a soldier at the Arlington National Cemetary.

There’s certainly some merit to the idea of encouraging people to dig deeper. Folks need to understand two things, however. 1) His remarks displayed a disrespectful, troubling set of assumptions even if he meant to be sympathetic. 2) Trump once deserved the benefit of the doubt, but his words and actions forfeited it long ago. Procedurally, he’ll always have the benefit of the doubt in the courtroom, but you have to deserve it in the court of public opinion.

Trump calls people “losers” all the time (170 examples in the Washington Post), and himself “smart” for paying no taxes. He sees people’s misfortunes as demonstrations of their own failings. You can’t get a clearer example of this than in the language he used to describe veterans who commit suicide. “Handling it” is something you’re supposed to do when you have a problem. Even if he was trying to speak sympathetically, and I’m sure he was, he referred to PTSD in terms of an inability for veterans to handle their problems. Imagine saying that a deceased mother’s problem was that she couldn’t handle her cancer. If you hear how jarring that sounds, you can see what’s so troubling and ignorant in Trump’s remarks. PTSD isn’t a little bit of everyday work stress turned up several levels. It’s a serious matter of mental illness. It’s akin to cancer.

So, when reporters who felt that his language was troubling wrote that “Military suicides happen to service members who ‘can’t handle it’,” it rubbed a lot of people wrong. He has said so many things that have been deeply callous, troubling, and unacceptable for a Presidential candidate that folks encountering that reporting have cause to worry and be dismayed by this man’s careless statements.

For critical thinkers and readers, it’s important to give people the benefit of the doubt. When I first read the article, it sure sounded as though he was being as callous and judgmental as so many instances in the past. For public figures, we ought to dig deeper and try to make sure that our judgments are deserved. A figure can abuse that, however, and there’s no doubt that the public has heard so much troubling bigotry from Trump that we’ve become desensitized to it.

I want our judgments to be well informed and fair, but at least as important is the obligation of our officials to deserve the benefit of the doubt. Trump has forfeited that honor contemptuously. Three examples of hundreds make the matter plain for me:

  1. Because of Trump, we actually have had a Presidential candidate, during a Republican primary debate, mind you, refer to his penis size and satisfaction over the matter. Sadly, this is the least troubling of my three examples.
  2. Trump’s misogyny actually led him to refer to a Fox News reporter’s menstrual cycle, literally “blood,” when upset about difficult questions she raised for him. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes… Blood coming out of her wherever.”
  3. In reference to one of our most famous veterans who endured trauma, Senator McCain, Donald Trump actually dismissed the idea of him as a hero, saying that he prefers soldiers who weren’t captured.

This final example explains my lack of sympathy for those who believe Trump was interpreted unfairly. Maybe some commentator thought he meant to be hurtful, and probably that person was wrong. That doesn’t mean that Trump deserves the benefit of the doubt. He has so profoundly demeaned the role of the American Presidential candidate that he has forfeited sympathy over a few people’s snap judgments.

If evidence matters to you, here’s a New York Times list of 258 people, places, and things that Donald Trump has insulted, as of August 22nd.

Sure, I’ll always advocate for innocent til proven guilty in court. But in the public sphere and in the pursuit of the highest office in the United States of America, you’ve got to deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s time for people who care about values to mean it.

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber is Executive Director of the Society of Philosophers in America (SOPHIA) and Visiting Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Kentucky. He is representing only his own point of view. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

End Corporal Punishment in Public Schools

First published in The Herald Leader (Lexington, KY), Sunday, 9/25/16, 4-5C.

Logo of the Lexington Herald-Leader.On September 4th, The Herald Leader of Lexington, KY, published an in-depth news article on the subject of corporal punishment in public schools. It was still early in the school year, which makes such topics timely. I had written a draft to send them on the subject, but the news article offered many specifics to address in considering the kinds of justifications people raise for continuing corporal punishment in public schools.

Here is the news article to which I was responding, titled “The Paddle Is Still Wielded in Kentucky Schools, but in Declining Numbers.” The piece covers quite an array of reasons people give for the continued practice of corporal punishment. I believe philosophers have a lot to offer when it comes to analyzing arguments, clarifying concerns, and cataloguing reasons for or against a matter. So, I updated my initial draft for the Herald Leader and it came out yesterday in the Sunday issue.

Photo of the header of my op-ed on corporal punishment. Clicking on the link in the image takes you to the full scan of the printed article, available on Academia.edu.

My original title was “End Corporal Punishment in Schools,” but the editors found one of the lines from the piece stronger. So in print and online, the op-ed is titled “Prisoners Better Protected from Corporal Punishment than Students.” That link takes you to the HTML version of the piece online. I’ve also scanned in the printed version which you can view on Academia.edu here or by clicking the image here above.

Interview on Science & Religion in The Tehran Times

This piece was originally published on August 1, 2016, pages 1 and 9.

It’s an honor and a pleasure to be interviewed for The Tehran Times. I am especially grateful that the put the very philosophical interview I gave on the front page of the newspaper. The Tehran Times is Iran’s major English language newspaper. I have had the opportunity to talk quite a few times about philosophy and democracy. Here’s photo of the interview, which links to the full Adobe PDF file for the day’s newspaper (August 1st, 2016). My piece is on pages 1 and 9:

This is a photo of a cut out of the front page interview I gave for The Tehran Times on science and religion.

I got a lot of positive feedback about this piece, as well as some interesting comments and questions on Facebook. In case you want to see those, here’s the post – sorry for the repeat image. I’ve not embedded a Facebook post on this site before, so here’s a test:

I’m honored to see my piece on the front page of the Tehran Times again. How cool is that? (See pgs 1 & 9): http://media.mehrnews.com/d/2016/07/31/0/2156798.pdf
Posted by Eric Thomas Weber, author on Sunday, July 31, 2016

 

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Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power [Essay]

Journal of Speculative Philosophy 30, Issue 1 (2016): 45-63.

My regular, public writing is starting up again, as we’re getting settled in. Over the course of a few busy months, some of my pieces have come out in academic outlets, like the essay I posted last week. Here’s a further piece published this year (2016) in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s titled “Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power: On Protection, Self-Affirmation, and Harm in the Charge of ‘Acting White’.” Here’s a pic of it:

Photo of my essay, 'Self-Respect and a Sense of Positive Power.'

I seek permission to post my full articles on my Academia.edu page, and I either am given it or have at least given a good faith effort to get that permission. In this case, though, this copy of the paper is the only one I have with my final edits and it’s plastered with JSTOR info (online journal database) and policies stuff. Given that, I’m posting a link to the JSTOR page for my paper instead of to a scan on my Academia.edu profile. If you have academic library access to such stuff, you can probably open the paper or manage to get access to it here (the “static” page for the on JSTOR).

This essay is one of the steps in my overarching project on culture and justice. For now, I can share my abstract for the paper:

In the liberal tradition, self-respect is most often associated with Kantian moral philosophy, which suggests a focus on individual responsibility. While the individual plays a part in the development of his or her self-respect, so, too, do his or her environmental and cultural conditions. In this essay, I distinguish between conceptions of self-respect, especially those that focus on it as a duty to oneself, and having a “sense of one’s own positive power,” a Deweyan educational ideal. A sense of positive power is partly directed by the individual but is also clearly conditioned by the ways in which one’s culture treats and reacts to one’s efforts. Thus, a sense of positive power, as a concept, reveals the powerful role of one’s wider culture in frustrating or enabling a vital element of personal growth necessary for justice. I test the distinction with respect to the difficult and harmful charge of “acting white,” which concerns self-respect and the role of oppressive forces conditioning people’s senses of their power in an unjust society.

If I can figure out a way to share the full paper without violating relevant policies, I will. In general, scholars as editors want you to share your work. A journal is better known the more it’s read. I do understand that there’s a system to this, however, and I try to always seek permission to share my work as much as I can.

John Dewey, standing.

Despite this hurdle, I’m especially happy to have work come out in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy. It’s a classic outlet in American philosophy. John Dewey published in it as early as 1882. Also, Charles Pierce published one of his classic pieces in the journal as early as 1868 (free to access, unlike my paper). A few of Dewey’s early papers there are available for free as well, such as this one on Kant that was very helpful for my dissertation.

If you can’t access this paper and want to know more about it, let me know that. At the very least, that’ll tell me that I should probably consider a newspaper piece on the subject. For now, I’m working on an op-ed on education and another on the Presidential election.

Reach out if you’re interested and follow or “like” my pages on Twitter @EricTWeber and on Facebook.com/EricThomasWeberAuthor.

My Latest Essay – on the Intentional Costs of Comfort

Published in the 'Southwestern Philosophy Review,' 31, Issue 1, 2016, 19-24.

Hi folks. Dr. John Lachs.It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted. There’s a reason that they say moving is one of the most stressful times in life. It certainly is. Among the many things I’ve been meaning to post is my latest essay, which is a commentary piece I wrote and originally delivered at the 2015 meeting of the Southwestern Philosophical Society conference. The society met in Nashville, TN, at Vanderbilt University. That doesn’t sound very Southwestern, admittedly, but it’s a great group. The essay was a response to the keynote address by Dr. John Lachs of Vanderbilt. It was an honor to comment on his talk, “The Costs of Comfort.” John has been a mentor of mine for close to 20 years. As you’ll see in my commentary essay, however, that doesn’t mean that I went easy on his argument.

This is a photo of the top of the first page of my essay.

In philosophy, we say that “criticism is the fondest form of flattery.” The idea is that engaging in argument with someone’s ideas isn’t a bad thing. It’s joining in with the author in the pursuit of the truth. The honor is in taking someone’s ideas seriously, thinking hard with him or her, or them, and about something of importance attended to in the piece. In this essay, I respond to Lachs’s arguments about “The Costs of Comfort.” It’s a work in progress, though the version I reply to was also published, with my response to it. The costs of comfort are significant, Lachs argues, and some of what “reformers” want to change about present problems can amount to an unwillingness to accept the costs of living the comfortable lives so many of us enjoy today. We may bemoan environmental degradation, but summers in Mississippi are brutal enough even with air conditioning.

About many examples, Lachs is quite right and reasonable, but there are, I argue, avoidable costs of comfort. There are also costs of comfort that are not only accidental, but actually intentionally targeted towards people who are thereby disadvantaged. Racism and other forms of cultural violence lead all kinds of costs of our comfort to be put upon groups made to suffer their weight. In my essay, I defend the need for “reformers,” not for the basic costs of comfort, but for the many troubling cases. Many people reasonably feel for animals and I certainly agree that factory farming needs reform, but when the bugs start to get into my house or my bed, I feel no remorse for hiring the exterminator to keep certain levels of comfort at the expense of bed bugs.

Photo of a bed bug.

How much sympathy would you feel about hundreds of these critters living in your sheets?

That said, injustice is not some simple thing to sacrifice to beat the heat or to keep the bugs out. If we can significantly reduce air conditioning costs with white roofs instead of black ones, furthermore, shouldn’t policy encourage such reforms? If we can raise chickens in far more humane ways than in the cages that are so troubling, why not endure the small discomfort it takes to make that change? Reform can overreach and be unrealistic, but it can also be absolutely vital for good people to sleep at night.

It’s easy for the most comfortable among us to focus on the simpler examples than injustice. Yes we like our comforts, but in time, so many innovations can at least reduce the costs we cause, and still other costs are simply unjustifiable.

If you want to check out my essay, which is a lot more specific than this quick post, visit my Academia.edu page with the piece.

If you’re interested in a speaker for your event, visit my speaking and contact pages. You can also “like” my Facebook author page and follow me on Twitter @EricTWeber.

Virtual Moving Is Stressful Too

While Annie and I make the move to the University of Kentucky, our virtual stuff has to move as well as our physical stuff. So, I’ve begun transferring spaces and tools like this Web site to a new host. I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of the University of Mississippi’s IT department, and especially of the university’s great Webmaster, Robby Seitz. He’s helped me host a bunch of sites, including this one. Presently I’m transferring this WordPress site from the university’s servers to one I’ve contracted with to host the site from here on out (BlueHost).

Pickup truck with WAY too much stuff attached to the bed of a truck.

Anyway, I know that this is a terribly dull post. The point, though, is that a number of things may not yet work properly on this newly transferred page. Bear with me, please, as I work on this slowly but surely all while we’re also moving our home and work… If links aren’t working properly, do please let me know. I may not yet have noticed all of the elements of the site need work. Alternatively, come back later and see whether whatever you’re looking for has been updated.

Thanks for your patience and come back soon.

The Eulogy Virtues Valued in Life

This is a photo of the cover of David Brooks's latest book, The Road to Character, 2015. David Brooks has been challenging young people lately to think about more than what he calls the “résumé virtues.” His latest book is called The Road to Character, and he has been touring the country to talk about what’s more important than the many small steps we take in advancing our careers. Which matters more: what people think or say about your résumé, or what people will say at your funeral?

Brooks argues that so many of us today focus on the wrong things — on getting the next notch in our belts — when what we should be developing are the eulogy virtues. In the end, people usually don’t care about this or that promotion you earned. The bigger house you bought rarely comes up at a funeral. What matters most to people are the qualities of your character, not the quantities in your bank account.

Brooks’s message especially to young professionals and those aspiring to be them resonates with me. First of all, Aristotle noted that happiness is something that can only really be measured in terms of a person’s whole life. When we say we are happy, in everyday language, we are primarily talking about how we feel right now. What makes for a happy life, however, is not a certain number of happy-feeling-moments. We can endure great challenges for the right reasons and be happy about what we have contributed. The feeling is less the issue, however. What matters, as Brooks notes, is our character.

With a focus on professionalism today, one can certainly make a great deal more money going into any number of careers than one earns as a teacher. So some other force pushes people into that line of work. As I said in my last post, I’ve been very fortunate to feel appreciated at the University of Mississippi. Recently, a number of students added to that very kindly.

The funny thing about moving, as Annie and I soon will, is that you get a glimpse of people’s appreciation of the eulogy virtues, but without the dying part.

The logo of the University of Mississippi's Student Alumni Council.The Student Alumni Council at the University of Mississippi is a clever organization, in which current students are involved in the work of the alumni association — hook’em early, they say. It’s a great idea, actually, for networking purposes as well as for opportunities for student leadership. Yes, those are related to résumé virtues. The group is more meaningful than that, however. They organize an event each spring (though I don’t know how long this has been going on) where they recognize mentors, hosting a “Random Acts of Kindness” event. When I received my invitation, I joked to myself that I generally intend my acts of kindness to be thoughtful and purposeful, rather than random.

The event was lovely. One student at a time got up to say a few words about a mentor he or she wanted to recognize on campus with a Random Act of Kindness award. Next, two students got up to say that they had both nominated a certain professor. It was heartwarming. We do this work because we believe in it. It’s icing on the cake when people actually show you appreciation for it. When the time came, I was taken aback by three students who each got up to say some deeply thoughtful and kind things about our work together. I got a taste of the value of the eulogy virtues, without having to die, when Mary Kate Berger, Natalie King, and Rod Bridges each spoke eloquently and kindly in their explanations for their nominations for me.

I feel profoundly fortunate to have worked with great people in Mississippi. I also am more confident that Brooks and Aristotle are right. Character is the most important thing we can cultivate. The funny thing that so many people miss, however, is that attending to one’s own happiness really comes down to attending to the same for others. I can’t think of a more rewarding opportunity than to help others to shape their character.

Thank you again, Rod, Mary Kate, and Natalie (left to right in the photo)!

This is a photo of Rod Bridges, Mary Kate Berger, Eric Thomas Weber, and Natalie King at the UM 2016 Student Alumni Council 'Random Acts of Kindness' event.