Influential Prose

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Cultural Differences in Moral Reasoning

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Cultural differences in moral reasoning are driven by various influences — history, leadership, religious belief, experiences with peace and warfare, available resources and the strategies for extracting and distributing those resources. These cultural differences are not limited to the scale of nations. There can also be differences in the culture and moral reasoning between schools, communities, companies, even families. Moral reasoning has a way of adapting to or being shaped by people’s needs and perceptions.

Absolutes vs. Relativism
There’s an ongoing, cross-cultural debate on whether moral values are absolute or relative. Are there universal morals that apply to all regardless of culture, or are moral values a negotiation between the environment, natural selection and social conditions? It’s a hotly debated topic, but clearly moral reasoning diverges among cultures. In some areas, gay marriage is accepted and not in others. Some countries permit personal firearm ownership, in others you can be jailed. The same is true for possession of certain plants.

National Differences
Overpopulation has led China to impose some restrictions on family size. Today it has over 1.35 billion people and most Chinese live with an average density of 326 people per square mile. People living at that density calls for, and perhaps requires, a moral system that emphasizes cooperation and harmony — exactly what Confucianism teaches. In China, conditions and moral reasoning lead to limits on family size.

In Russia, conditions and moral reasoning lead to an opposite conclusion. Russia’s population density is slightly below 14 people per square mile, with about 143 million total population. Government policy encourages families to have as many children as they can (which also requires cooperation and harmony).

Japan’s situation is complex. They face a rapidly aging population and steep decline in fertility, in part because strong Confucian values demand marriage before children, but marriage rates are dismally low. Japan is caught between cultural values and an inevitable economic decline unless fertility and immigration increase; thus Japanese moral reasoning is now forced to resolve this conflict to maintain national prosperity.

Economic Differences
Consider a simplified example of conflicting interests between a factory owner and a farmer. To remain in business, the factory owner must balance costs and expenses. This may mean discharging pollutants in the atmosphere because it is the lowest-cost way to eliminate wastes. If costs are not well-controlled, the factory could fail and people would lose jobs. From this perspective, cost control is a moral good.

From a farmer’s perspective, if crops are contaminated by mercury particulates from the factory, the moral good of cost control becomes the evil of food poisoning. Similarly, an agricultural society will have a different moral perspective on some issues than an industrial society. Cultural values — morals — tend to dovetail with practical needs.

On the issue of global warming, there’s a clear clash between the view in academic culture, which is driven by several lines of evidence pointing toward anthropogenic climate change, and the views of fossil fuel and other industries, a culture that tends to combat any conclusion that will affect profits. When scientific facts and self-interest diverge, the effect on moral reasoning is illuminating.

Humanitarian Differences
Cultures vary in how they value others in their midst. Slavery is a stark example, and had its advocates. It is now widely condemned, yet persists in the form of human trafficking, or sex slavery. Sexual slavery victims tend to flow from economically insecure areas to regions of relative stability. When times are hard, the young women who comprise the majority of victims can be manipulated and entrapped with promises of phony jobs. Some locales, most famously Bangkok and Amsterdam, tolerate the sex trade by reasoning that it’s a matter between consenting adults. This blurs the line between consent and coercion and complicates enforcement against human trafficking.

Social Stratification
Other forms of devaluation persist, cutting across lines of ethnicity, gender, age and disability, resulting in societies stratified by economic class (U.S.), social castes (India, Pakistan) and ethnicity (U.S, Japan). Social stratification is inherently hierarchical, a pre-rational behavioral pattern, and proactive moral reasoning is working to reduce it through affirmative action programs in the U.S. and India.

Moral reasoning varies by culture in accordance with what the culture values. As noted American author Robert A. Heinlein pointed out, “Man is not a rational animal. He is a rationalizing animal.” It’s clear that moral values are relative in practice. If there are also absolute universal moral values, no clear consensus has yet emerged that identifies them.

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Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:20 am

Why Parents Shouldn’t Be Able to Refuse Medical Treatment for an Ill Child

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Legally, refusal to provide or access medical care for children can be termed medical neglect. According to the latest available national statistics, documented child abuse and neglect in 2011 affected more than 675,000 children, or nearly 1 in a 100 kids. On average, 3 percent was stemmed from medical neglect in 41 reporting states. Some states average higher. Arkansas’ medical neglect rate is 7.5 percent, while the District of Columbia, Georgia, New York and Puerto Rico all average about 5 percent. The lowest rates are in Delaware and Utah at 0.04 percent and 0.02 percent respectively, plus both Wisconsin and Nebraska at 0.01 percent.

Causes
Medical neglect can have several causes, including economic hardship, lack of access to care or health insurance, family chaos and disorganization, lack of awareness, knowledge or skills, lack of trust in health care workers, impairment of caregivers, caregivers’ beliefs and children’s behavior, according to a 2007 article in the journal “Pediatrics.” Of these causes, two can involve active refusal of care: caregivers’ belief systems and children’s behavior.

Legal Exceptions
In most instances, medical neglect is legally actionable. The exception is faith-based exemptions, which are written into law in most states, according to Childhealthcare.org. These exemptions vary in scope. Forty-eight states permit exemption from immunization programs. Most states permit exemption from metabolic testing of newborns that can detect developmental problems, including some that can be prevented with treatment. Ten states have religious exemptions for eyedrops that can help prevent blindness in children who contact a venereal disease carried by their mothers. Seventeen states have religious exemptions to felony crimes against children.

Consequences
A study titled “Child Fatalities from Religion-Motivated Medical Neglect” in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal found that of 172 cases of child fatalities attributed to faith-based medical neglect, 140 had excellent (90 percent positive) prognosis with standard treatment. Many of the remaining 32 children were treatable, with good outcomes likely. The consequences of not participating in immunization programs can be widespread. In 1991, “The New York Times” reported on an outbreak of 492 measles cases in Philadelphia that led to the deaths of six children, two of them unrelated to the Faith Tabernacle and First Century Gospel churches at the center of the outbreak. A later check of the Faith Tabernacle school found 201 of the children in attendance had never seen a doctor.

Prevention
Most faith-based cases of medical neglect leading to illness and death are preventable. The nonprofit educational charity Children’s Health Care Is a Legal Duty lists other treatable conditions that resulted in the deaths of children in the care of Christian Science parents between 1974 and 1994; five by meningitis, three of pneumonia, two of appendicitis, five of diabetes, two of diphtheria, one of measles, one of septicemia, one of a kidney infection, one of a bowel obstruction, and one of heart disease. In the Philadelphia outbreak, three children were hospitalized under court order to ensure treatment. However, as long as religious exemptions remain in place, the justice system has legal limits on what they can do.

References
American Academy of Pediatrics: Religious Objections to Medical Care
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Maltreatment 2011 report
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Familes: Child Neglect: A Guide for Intervention
American Academy of Pediatrics: Recognizing and Responding to Medical Neglect
American Medical Association: Miracle vs. Medicine: When Faith Puts Care at Risk

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:11 am

High School Swimming Lessons

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

In school districts with sufficient budgets and facilities, high school students can choose from beginning, intermediate and advanced swimming courses, often modeled on the American Red Cross’s Learn-to-Swim program. Some schools also offer competitive swimming. Knowing how to swim well is a valuable skill, for both safety and physical fitness. Regular swimming can yield lifelong benefits as a low-impact activity that can continue as one grows older. For students who desire additional challenges, swim programs also often offer diving lessons and lifeguard training. CPR training is another possible pursuit.

Beginning Lessons
Early lessons stress water safety and comfort. Safety training begins with a review of pool rules, including how to use a life jacket, how to recognize another swimmer in distress and how to get help in an emergency. Then, beginning in shallow water and working progressively deeper, the goal is to become familiar with various positions and movement while supported in the water. Learning how to tread water, swim unassisted for short distances on the front, back and side, change directions and roll over are skills needed to move on to the next level.

Intermediate Lessons
At this level, your teen will be relaxed and comfortable in water and ready to build on and refine existing skills. This begins with learning strokes that aid efficient swimming by conserving energy and extending range. Strokes include front glide, front crawl, back crawl and butterfly kick, plus demonstration of longer float times and specific float positions, including the HELP and Huddle strategies for conserving heat in cold water, and how to do a survival float. At this point, the swimmer should be able to dive and retrieve objects from chest-deep water.

Advanced Lessons
Skills introduced at this level include swimming underwater, specific dive types, several specific strokes for treading water, open turns for lane swimming and several safety techniques. Rules for safe diving, how to do a compact jump from a height while wearing a life jacket, how to conduct a throwing assist and how to care for a conscious choking victim are all reviewed. Swimmers demonstrate a back and survival float in deep water for a minute and the ability to swim using back crawl, butterfly, breaststroke and elementary back stroke between 15 and 25 yards.

Fitness and Lifeguard Readiness
Swim distances are lengthened, additional equipment such as pull buoys, fins, pace clocks and paddles are introduced. Training techniques, understanding target heart rates and principles of swimming programs and water exercise are reviewed. In preparation for competitive swimming, a variety of of open turns as they vary by stroke are practiced. Lifeguard readiness trainings build endurance in swimming and treading water, develop diving and submerged swimming proficiency, practice an assortment of rescue techniques, and demonstrate the ability to swim 500 yards — 10 lengths of an Olympic-sized pool — using six different strokes.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 3:06 am

Effective Programs to Help at-Risk Teenagers Stay in School

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013. Published version here.]

Keeping at-risk teens in school entails a variety of strategies. It begins by identifying who is mostly likely to drop out and the influences that compel them to do so; these can include bullying, homelessness, financial insecurity, poor nutrition, substance abuse, early pregnancy and abuse at home. Solutions can be targeted individually or schoolwide, but whatever the approach, these problems are difficult, widespread and not always responsive to generalized programs. Although, effective programs do exist.

Check and Connect
Developed at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, Check and Connect has 20 years of documentation to demonstrate program effectiveness and is highly rated by the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network. It is a relatively low-cost program that trains mentors to check on at-risk students’ attendance, behavior and grades while connecting with them personally to provide coordinated support with school staff, families and community providers. The goal of the program is to build academic and social competence on the path to graduation.

Positive Action
Rated by the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse as a top program, Positive Action’s approach is summarized by its logo, which features three arrows representing thoughts, action and feelings revolving around a plus sign for positivity in a virtuous circle. As the program states, “Positive Action is the philosophy that you feel good about yourself when you think and do positive actions, and there is always a positive way to do everything.” If it sounds like a feel-good program, it is, but it also lowers truancy and increases attendance. Success is compelling.

Ripple Effects
Ripple Effects recognizes the varied influences on dropouts and addresses them by sorting students by risk level, identifying specific behaviors and targeting them with specific, useful interventions. Academic performance is deeply influenced by social and emotional needs. Ripple Effects provides responsive support, aiding students who need to believe in themselves when family, peers or community leads them to doubt. Suspension alternatives are part of the program, steering students toward assessments that also watch for structural unfairness and unconscious bias by school administrations.

Success Highways
This program begins with a comprehensive early warning assessment that not only identifies at-risk students, but determines the reasons underlying their risks and can be reviewed at the district, school, classroom and individual levels. Intervention focuses on six resiliency skills, teaching the essential lesson that failure is occasionally inevitable, but that persistence pays off. Specific skills taught include stress management, intrinsic motivation, academic confidence, balanced well-being, connectedness to others and connecting educational relevance to achievement of life goals.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:57 am

Evangelism in the Early Seventeenth & Eighteenth Centuries

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

The roots of American evangelism go back to 16th century Europe, when Anabaptists began suggesting that church should be separate from the state. This view did not find favor among governments closely aligned with the Catholic church, and consequently Anabaptism was brutally suppressed. The means, as the Global Mennonite Encyclopedia starkly describes it, was often “the scaffold and the stake.” By the end of the 16th century, most European Anabaptist leaders were dead. Some of the survivors fled to America, where evangelism would later resume, but the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites who were descended from the original Anabaptists abandoned evangelism in the United States.

Evangelism, Not Evangelicalism
The most common personal experience with evangelism and apologetics in America today is with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go door to door to advance their faith. Evangelists are the local equivalent of missionaries who go abroad to spread the word. Evangelism is not the same thing as evangelicalism. Evangelism is a practice, a way of sharing belief. Evangelicalism is a dogma and a trend that led to American political activism and megachurches in large U.S. cities.

Early American Settlers
The early 17th century in North America was marked by the establishment of colonies, including Jamestown, Plymouth and Boston. Some settlers came to escape religious persecution; others came to make money. It was a brutal time: many colonists failed to survive the deep winters, and native Indians were a danger as well. Although there was ample religious fervor among the colonists, there was little energy or enthusiasm for evangelism. Simple survival was the priority.

The Great Awakening
After a period of relative quiet in the religious sphere, like the calm before the storm, evangelism suddenly caught fire again in American culture during the Great Awakening. A charismatic preaching style modeled on the fiery, emotional sermons of George Whitefield, paired with dramatic “religious revival” events, drew increasingly larger crowds to Protestant churches in the late 1730s. Beginning in New England over six years, then spreading to the South, revivals were aimed at the faithful whose convictions were weakened by doubt and the unchurched who had little contact or experience with organized religion.

George Whitefield
Whitefield was a central figure in establishing American evangelism, but according to some, he may have also been a factor in sparking the American Revolution. Before Whitefield, sermons were top-down affairs — the pastor preached, the congregation listened. Using the call and response technique, Whitefield established congregational participation and encouraged emotional expression. This exciting new dialogue, together with a generally defiant attitude toward authority, stirred what Nancy Ruttenburg calls the “democratic personality.” The Great Awakening unleashed more than a religious revival; it reinforced a fierce sense of independence. This eventually led to the separation of church and state that Anabaptists had advocated.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:53 am

Top Advocates for Teens

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Teen advocacy comes in a variety of forms and purposes, covering issues like juvenile justice, education, civil rights and assistance for at-risk youth in America and around the world. Some organizations are student-led and others, in areas such as juvenile justice, are managed by professionals with experience and expertise in related fields. Many advocacy organizations are nonprofit and work with limited resources and some are politically active. These organizations have established track records for effective and ongoing advocacy.

Juvenile Justice
The Vera Center on Youth Justice works for fairness in policy and practice, promoting reform in the areas of the status offender system, detention centers, treatment placements and the management of justice system data on juveniles. Goals include spotlighting systems that emphasize punishment over treatment, identifying inhumane conditions and disproportionate targeting of minorities.

A similar organization, The Campaign for Youth Justice, has a single, clear aim: to end the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system. It also serves as an information clearing house, with a variety of reports, fact sheets and poll data.

Education
The Energy Action Coalition educates and advocates on a variety of issues related to the extraction, generation and consumption of energy supplies, with an eye toward the future and the risks of climate change. Some of the specific issues the coalition addresses include fracking, the planned Keystone XL pipeline, mountaintop removal, strip mining and coal plant proliferation.

Advocates for Youth has existed since 1980, with a focus on adolescent reproductive and sexual health both in the U.S. and developing countries. Their credo regarding responsibility reads, “Society has the responsibility to provide young people with the tools they need to safeguard their sexual health, and young people have the responsibility to protect themselves from too-early childbearing and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.”

Civil Rights
The Student Press Law Center addresses First Amendment rights and censorship of student publications, both online and in print. Their website offers links to legal assistance, a Freedom of Information letter generator, legal guides, FAQs, a law library and a blog.

The United States Student Association bills itself as the largest, oldest student-led organization in the country. Their action agenda encompasses student debt, immigration reform and shared governance of campus policies. The USSA policy platform includes 29 items and includes expansion of basic education, voter ID law, the Equal Rights Amendment and support for the Violence Against Women Act.

At Risk, at Home and Abroad
Big Brothers and Big Sisters has paired role models with at-risk youth for over a century, first as separate organizations working with girls and boys, then together as one organization since 1977. They operate in all 50 states and 12 countries. An independently funded 18-month study found that participants in Bigs and Littles programs were 47 percent less likely to begin using illegal drugs, and 52 percent less likely to skip school.

Voices of Youth is a program funded by UNICEF, the United Nation’s Children’s Fund. They are active in human rights for children and teens, poverty and hunger, education, health, the environment and the effects of violence and war.

Written by Influential Prose

June 26, 2015 at 2:45 am

Moral Reading for Teens

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

Morality is fundamentally about the choices we make and the behavior that follows. Stories can expose different moral dimensions, circumstances that present contrasts, and give teen readers perspective on their lives and their choices. Given all the media and entertainment options available, books must be compelling to compete. By exploring the age-old questions of family, peer pressure, temptations, personal appearance, sexuality and health, books can challenge teens.

‘Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey From Homeless to Harvard’
Finding the path to responsibility and maturity amid irresponsible adults would be tough for anyone. Finding a way from being homeless and alone at 15 years of age to becoming a Harvard graduate would be Herculean. Liz Murray’s story winds from a roach-infested Bronx apartment with drug-addicted parents to the bridges she slept under and the parade of losers she encountered. She is faced with an array of pitfalls that many never imagine, much less encounter.

‘Am I Blue? Coming Out from the Silence’
Years of high-profile stories about bullying, murders and suicides of gays and lesbians, the effect of the television series “Will and Grace,” and the legalization of gay marriage in several states has prompted a cultural conversation about love that once dared not speak its name. In this anthology, gay and straight authors speak out with short stories that explore the moral dilemmas faced by people coming to terms with themselves and the reactions of their peers, families and communities. The passage from tolerance to acceptance to respect is often rocky, but the journey can make better persons of us all.

‘The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible’
Author A.J. Jacobs takes up the challenge of living in literal accordance with the Bible, a centuries-old standard of moral guidance. He prays regularly, lets his beard grow, tells the truth at all times, keeps the 10 Commandments and herds sheep. Along the way, he discovers that keeping some biblical injunctions are nearly impossible, and others are downright illegal. Jacobs takes the reader through his year like a tour guide, explaining ambiguous interpretations of some rules, the rationale behind others, and how he choose to follow them. It’s funny, respectful and educational for believers, agnostics and atheists alike.

‘The Pregnancy Project: A Memoir’
Gaby Rodriguez took up an unusual challenge during her senior year in high school. Coming from a family with a history of teen pregnancies, she knew people assumed it would happen to her, too. Rather than fight the expectation, she rolled with it — by faking a pregnancy for six months as her senior class project. Her sociological study triggered whispers among her peers, fears from her boyfriend’s family, and discrimination from many directions. Teen pregnancy is all too common, but Rodriguez’s story provides uncommon insight into the consequences and problems that result.

Written by Influential Prose

June 25, 2015 at 11:37 pm