Thursday, July 21, 2016

A Discussion of Ethics

Unfortunately, it seems all good things must come to an end, as we head into our final week here at UPenn. However, as the end draws nearer, so too does the due date for our capstone projects. Consequently, our efforts to complete them have been intensifying lately, as we advance into the final stages of our projects. Meanwhile, our daily classes and reading assignments have largely remained the same.

To start off our week on a positive note, we were surprised with a gift of Dr. R. Scott Hanson's book City of Gods for each of us, courtesy of the Summer Discovery program, so I will certainly read it once I get the chance. After we had finished examining our copies of the book and settled down, he asked us about our impressions of El Barrio, the neighborhood we visited Friday of last week. While some commented about the poor state of the area, others said that the people were outgoing and that the neighborhood was lively once we started hearing the music played from some of the stores. Dr. Hanson then remarked that the neighborhood was probably new to some of us and pointed out how our class is in a safe space within a safe space, as we are in the social justice academy of Penn. He also pointed out how pockets of poverty can exist in close proximity or even adjacent to affluent areas, as El Barrio was very close to some wealthier neighborhoods. With that, he showed us a brief video about Futurama, which was an futuristic vision for people back in 1939 that General Motors believed could be implemented by 1960. However, it included displacing the impoverished, which we are now aware would have been unfair.
The front cover of City of Gods
Another angle of the book
After watching the video and holding a brief discussion about it, we then had one student from our class, Linn Zheng, an international student from China, talk about her experience being discriminated against here at Penn, which we consider a safe area. According to her, an African-American woman with a child began harassing Linn with hate speech at around 10 PM from outside Linn's dorm window. When she sought comfort from a friend in Ohio, instead, Linn found that her friend had also been subjected to discrimination. This incident made Linn feel more compelled to pursue social justice, as she had now personally experienced discrimination and hate speech. I have never been so directly confronted, so it's rather shocking to me that someone would have the audacity to be that disrespectful and blatantly racist. Once she had finished and we were given a short break, I went over to her and commended her for maintaining her self-control and for her bravery and willingness to share this incident in front of the entire class. 

We reconvened within about ten minutes to hear our guest speakers, Dana Cook and Marc Bookman, talk about the death penalty. Prior to starting the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, Mr. Bookman used to be a public defender while Ms. Cook was a mitigation specialist, which is essentially a lawyer that tries to provide context beyond the crime to lessen its severity. After being introduced by Dr. Hanson, Mr. Bookman then proceeded to give us a brief lecture about the death penalty in the U.S. The death penalty is peculiarly American, as most other Western countries do not permit it, while the ones we typically do not associate with do. It is believed to have grown out of lynching as a legal method of killing a person. However, contrary to popular belief, many capital crimes are represented by exceedingly poor lawyers, as few resources are provided to these cases, making many lawyers unwilling to represent capital cases. With that, he concluded his lecture and opened the floor for questions.

From his answers, we learned that most cases do not have DNA evidence, allowing for wrongful executions, as well as that there is no "innocent" in court cases, only "not guilty" of the crime. Ms. Cook also informed us that the death sentence is given to those that commit first-degree murder with aggravating conditions. When I asked whether they thought the death penalty was an instance of American exceptionalism, he responded that he thought it was more a history of violence here in the
U.S. I also got the chance to ask whether they thought the death penalty could possibly be more humane than life in prison without the chance of parole, which I thought seemed to be rather inhumane, as they are being forced to live in prison without any hope of getting released. However, Mr. Bookman responded that some were still able to communicate with their families and enjoyed doing so. Eventually, they concluded their presentation, with Mr. Bookman using an example from Lion King, as Simba chooses to spare Scar's life, saying, "I'm not like you." Likewise, he believes we should not impose death upon those who commit murder, otherwise that makes us no better than those people.

After a lunch break, we returned to the McNeil Building, where we watched the movie Estilo Hip Hop, which is about the emergence of hip hop as a medium for social activism in Brazil, Chile, and Cuba. The hip hop movement was first introduced through dance and developed through short rhymes being turned into songs and influence from U.S. hip hop artists. The movie follows three main narratives: Eli Efi in Brazil, Guerrillero Okulto in Cuba, and Magia in Cuba. Each person works diligently to provide for their families while trying to maintain their social activism through hip hop as well. I thought that it was inspiring to see people fighting against all odds to bring change to their countries, although it makes me somewhat disappointed in the state of mainstream media here in the United States, particularly mainstream hip hop, most of which is more concerned about superficial qualities and material wealth.

Once the movie ended, with each artist looking to the future with hope, the director of the film herself, Ms. Loira Limbal, came to the front of the room to talk to us about the movie and answer any questions we had. She began by trying to get a sense of the audience, asking us various questions to try and find any connections to the film, including if any of us were from Brazil, Chile, or Cuba, and if any of us were fans of hip hop music. Once she had done so, she proceeded to talk about the making of the film. She connected with the artists by seeking activist movements while in Brazil, through a friend of a friend that ran a hip hop magazine in Chile, and at a Black August event in Cuba. Upon completion of the film, she tried to get it shown by media stations, but they seemed to support their bigger donors more. Finally, Ms. Limbal concluded by saying that she is still in touch with all the artists today, who are still enduring difficulties in various aspects, before allowing us to ask questions. When asked about the mainstream hip hop that takes up most of the space in the industry, she responded by saying that there is still some space for activism, including artists such as Kendrick Lamar. She also believes that we are at a strange intersection, at which the young people are more radical in spite of the backwards media. In response to the question of why hip hop for the social activist movement, she said that she thinks the accessibility, the youth of the movement, and urban environment all contributed to hip hop being the largest means for social activism.

We received the opportunity to discuss the topic of the death penalty further with our sections, which mine certainly did. We discussed the morality of taking another person's life, which some believed was wrong regardless of the circumstances, while others, including myself, believed that under certain circumstances, it could be justified. We also argued over how just life without parole is. In my opinion, it seems rather unfair that prisoners with the sentence of life without parole could actually be better off than the impoverished, who undergo a daily struggle to find sustenance and shelter, while those that have committed capital crimes are provided with the fundamental needs. Of course, the prisoners lack agency in physical aspects, but it seems unlikely that the impoverished would be able to move very far or participate in leisurely activities either. After a lengthy and fairly heated debate about the various topics within the overarching subject of the death penalty, we were distracted by texts from our RCs warning us to stay indoors due to severe thunderstorms and possibly hail. Not too long afterwards, we heard several peals of thunder. As that was going on, we switched over to the topic of the film and Ms. Limbal. We reached a consensus that it would be great if we could use hip hop to promote social justice, although we were forced to acknowledge that our current mainstream media is not very socially conscious at the moment and that it would take some work to convert it.

By the time we had finished for the day, however, the weather had calmed to a mild drizzle, so I quickly hurried back to my dorm and changed before heading back out to go the gym to play basketball with JC and Sravan. Fortunately, the courts were still available, so the three of us played a game of twenty-one, which is essentially a free-for-all. Once we had finished that game, we decided to play a full-court 5-on-5 with some other players that had showed up. Although we didn't get the ball as much, it was still fun and I got a good workout from it. We decided that we didn't really want to play in another full-court game, so instead, JC and I played a one-on-one game to 15 points, counting by ones and twos, on another court. I underestimated him and was on the verge of losing before I managed to make a comeback and win the game, but it was competitive and I definitely have respect for him as a basketball player.
The basketball courts in the gym
To me, the death penalty and use of hip hop as a medium for social activism were really interesting topics and I was glad to get a chance to explore them further. In particular, the death penalty forced us to examine and analyze our morals during our discussion, and I thought it made for a fascinating discussion about ethics. I also hope that we will be able to use hip hop to bring social justice to the United States, although we will have plenty of work to do to accomplish that.

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