Dorothea Dix: Giving Voice to Suffering, Getting Results

Many comments from our opponents have a despair- or paralysis-inducing cast to them. We have been derided for not making a big dent in a $56 billion industry within a few months, told that sexual abuse has been pervasive in society long before the advent of today’s porn, told that to improve the lot of a neighborhood we must take on a staggering array of issues (apparently all at once), told that bad things happen everywhere (“WE cannot save the world”), seen the King Street area mocked as not worth caring about, told that we are helping “zero” victims of porn, and told that awareness-raising is “overrated”. On learning that we have many visitors to this blog, opponents have claimed that large numbers of them must be here to gawk at our faulty reasoning and make fun of us.

In reality, even a single person dedicated to one cause can have a major impact. Yesterday was the birthday of Dorothea Dix. Her advocacy for the mentally ill helped lead to radical improvements in their care. Garrison Keillor sketches her life in The Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of reformer Dorothea Dix, (books by this author) born in Hampden, Maine (1802). After her grandmother died and left her a great deal of money, Dix no longer needed to work for a living, but she continued to volunteer as a teacher in various schools. In 1841, she volunteered to teach at the Cambridge House of Correction in Massachusetts. It was on a tour of the prison that she first saw mentally ill inmates chained to the walls in darkness, with no heat and little food, sleeping naked on the stone floor. She was horrified and began visiting nearly every prison in the state, documenting everything she saw.

In 1843, Dix went to the Massachusetts legislature to present her findings about the treatment of the mentally ill. She was the first American to argue that mentally ill people were not criminals, and she established the first hospitals dedicated to humane treatment of the insane. Despite serious health problems, including malaria, she spent the rest of her life traveling around the United States and Europe, speaking on behalf of the poor and disabled…

The Northampton State Hospital was a product of the reforms inspired by people like Ms. Dix:

In the early 19th century, Massachusetts was in the vanguard of states to take on an active role in the care of the mentally ill. Spurred by such advocates as Dorothea Dix, who revealed the frequent mistreatment of the mentally ill in private homes and in poorhouses and jails, Massachusetts built its first state hospital in the 1830’s. Overcrowding at Worcester led to the construction of hospitals in Taunton and Northampton in the 1850’s.

The Northampton Lunatic Hospital opened in 1858. It was built in an optimistic spirit of humanitarian reform which held that mental illness could be cured if the afflicted were provided with the proper environment and healthy influences. The patients were to receive humane and dignified treatment under the watchful eye and direct care of the superintendent, the doctor who attended to every medical and administrative detail of the hospital…

Giving voice to suffering, calling attention to what’s wrong, proposing practical solutions–it works.

See also:

Category: Northampton Worth Fighting For

How the Supreme Court Reconciles Adult-Use Zoning with the First Amendment [comment]
If the Goldbergs felt shamed, that’s because they are doing something shameful. They are proposing to make money with little regard for the suffering of others. In America, one of our better correctives for shameful acts is to expose them, as Ida Tarbell did to Standard Oil…

8 thoughts on “Dorothea Dix: Giving Voice to Suffering, Getting Results

  1. Where do you get the $56 billion figure from? I’ve never heard anything larger than $11 or $12 billion. You’re talking about per year, right?

    When Mr. Schubert says you haven’t made a big dent in anything, he appears to be pointing out that the porn store you tried to keep from opening nevertheless is going to open, that no sex workers are better off because of you, and that there aren’t fewer porn stores because of you. These seems to be fair points. (How are things coming with Oh My! by the way? Any luck getting them to stop dealing with porn via dialogue? Or is there a boycott in the works?)

    When Always Controversial points out that sexual abuse has been pervasive for a long time, he’s calling into question your contention that porn causes sexual abuse. Since sexual abuse itself is a well-known cause of (later) sexual abuse, it’s plausible that the current sexual abuse pandemic is a result of previous pandemics. The role of porn is questionable.

    I did not suggest that you were responsible for fixing all of Springfield’s problems. I was suggesting that Springfield’s problems have a wide variety of causes, such as corruption, poverty, economic decay, etc. The role of the one porn store company you oppose in all of this urban blight is questionable.

    Even if you’re right about how many visitors you get, the fact is that an infinitesimal percentage of those people “Digg” it, even when you beg and plead for them to do so. You have 5 Diggs out of—you tell me. How many? 12,000? More?

    I don’t think any of your critics would deny that a small group of people can change the world. I don’t think any of us would deny that Dothea Dix changed the world for a while. What we would deny is that *you* have changed the world for the better. We would deny that you’ve changed anything for the better.

    Which raises the question: what have you accomplished? Why do you list Ms. Dix’s accomplishments as proof that *you* are capable of getting results? Why not just list your own results? That would be better evidence of your capabilities. What are they? Please tell us.

  2. Cronin and Davenport estimated the worldwide porn industry to be $56 billion in 2001. If anything, this figure may understate the size of the industry today.

    If we accomplished nothing else, zoning viewing booths away from homes in Northampton was a significant accomplishment that has likely saved residents much of the heartache they experienced in Kittery and are experiencing now in Springfield.

    Small things matter.

    I’m sure Ms. Dix didn’t accomplish what she did in one year, and neither will we. We tell her story so that activists will persist in the face of naysayers.

  3. I am outside of your immediate community, but I do fight porn in our local community. As a health care provider, I see the negative impact of porn on a regular basis. I see it not only in my medical practice, but in teen focus groups, where I work with teens at risk. While the etiology of current behavior patterns (abuse, etc.) is complex, there is no doubt that porn is fueling aggressive, violent, and destructive behavior. As is the case with illegal drugs, major battles will not be won without decreasing demand. Similarly, the porn stores won’t go away until demand decreases. That will occur slowly – one customer at a time.
    I think that the story about Ms. Dix is very appropriate – she gathered data, prepared her information, and fought existing “logic.” The analogy is well suited to the current situation. Porn is a single component in many complex problems. The inability of any group or society as a whole to deal with all of the problems at once should not be taken as a failure, or as proof that a group is ineffective. Indeed, reducing large problems to manageable components is an effective start. I work with another group that deals with multi-generational abuse and neglect. Here, we focus on children from birth to about age 5. We help others if we can, but our efforts are focused on breaking multi-generational patterns of behavior, and we have data to show that we will be the most successful if we concentrate our efforts on young children. If we succeed, we won’t see the real effects for another generation. By limiting access of children to porn, by educating adults, change will come, albeit slowly. The failure to stop a single store from opening is a non-event.
    And somehow I missed the announcement that “Digg” has become a measure of success or credibility. The measure of success of this group can be seen by the fact that others use it as a reference. I attended a child advocacy meeting out of state (and nowhere close to Mass.), and this website was mentioned as a resource. I work with a colleague in a different state, and he sends me a link to this site, having received it from a parent. Success will come slowly – and won’t be measured by store openings or closings.

  4. Dear Bob B,

    I applaud your work with abuse victims, breaking the multi-generational patterns of abuse. That kind of work gets right to the heart of the problem–the transmission of abusive behavior from generation to generation–and seems to be very likely to result in real progress. Please keep up the good work.

    I share your view that the opening or non-opening of a single porn store is a non-event. That is why I am so bewildered by the single-minded focus of NoPornNorthampton on the narrow goal of preventing this one porn store from opening. I recently suggested an alternate, potentially more productive avenue, charities that support sex-and porn-workers and attempt to provide medical services for them. Unfortunately, they haven’t shown any signs of pursuing it, or anything like it.

    I, too, missed the anouncement that “digg” has become the measure of success and credibility. That’s why I’ve been pressuring them about it. They seem to think that not only “Diggs,” but the number of monthly page views, the number of posts on their blog, and even the number of words it contains, confer credibility. That’s why I continue to bring it up; not because I think there’s anything to such absurd notions.

    I also share your point of view that breaking the cycle of abuse is most successful when efforts are focused on children. That’s just another reason why I find NoPornNorthampton’s narrow focus on just one small, local, adults-only porn store so bewildering.

    I don’t blame you for misunderstanding my point. There’s so much material on this blog that it’s virtually impossible to sift through it all to see the context of the discussion I’ve been having with Mr. Cohen.

    That said, I must express my concern that people in your field use this website as a resource. I think that careful scrutiny of its content reveals a one-sided, agenda-driven presentation of “evidence,” a vast quantity of fallacious reasoning, astonishingly poor analysis of data, and a staggering level of contempt for the intelligence of its readers. I teach writing classes at a local university, and I use this website as an example of how not to do research. I encourage you to take a closer look.

    Once again, I’d like to say how much I appreciate the work you do. It’s because of people like you that I have optimism about the future. Thanks!

  5. [Comment revised on 4/19/07]

    Paddy, I look forward to your students encountering more of the real world when they leave school and gain experience. There perhaps they will see who has the more relevant arguments, and the uses of focused community activism. When it’s your own neighborhood, suddenly one adult enterprise seems plenty important.

    By showing people, in detail, how to understand and mitigate the harm from a porn shop in Northampton, we help them deal with these enterprises elsewhere, as in Berlin, CT and Johns Creek, GA.

    There’s no reason a person can’t support both adult-use zoning and help for porn workers.

  6. Your suggestion that my students aren’t living in the real world is as spurious as it is insulting. You don’t know them. My students are bright kids. Some of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Some of them are politically active. They’re all hard-workers and they all deserve to be respected.

    I don’t tell my students what to think. I teach them how to write and do research. Well-conducted research is not driven by an agenda, as yours is. It does not make use of fallacious reasoning, as you do. Its practitioners evaluate the reliability of their sources, unlike you. Its practitioners carefully read the articles they use a sources, unlike you. Unlike you, I make an effort to encourage people to make up their own minds. When they disagree with me, I do not insult them, call them names, or accuse them on a well-advertised website of being similar to moral monsters, such as segregationists (I also do not then throw up my arms and hypocritically wonder where the civility has all gone. “Why aren’t people nicer to me…?”). I try to impress upon them the importance of conducting research properly, so as to minimize error. It is my view that this is important, even in the “real” world, even in the realms of political and humanitarian activism.

    I am aware that it is possible to oppose a local porn store while simultaneously working to help sex-workers. That’s why I continue to be bewildered and mystified by the fact that you haven’t done anything at all to help any of them, in spite of your long-time insistence that they are important to you. You spent $14,000 to send a piece of junk-mail to 30,000 people—half of whom have no stake in the issue and can’t vote in Northampton—in a futile attempt to prevent a porn store from opening in your neighborhood. The fact that you can’t be bothered to post even a single link to any organization that advocates for or provides assistance to sex-workers (who you cares very, very deeply about) strains credulity beyond its limits. From where I stand, you appear to care about one thing, and only one.

    As for what I do to make the world better, I resent, and will not be taken in by, your attempt to transform this discussion of your atrocious research habits and self-serving “activism,” which is taking place on your blog, into a discussion of my morals. My conscience is clear and I sleep like a lamb.

  7. Paddy: I agree, this is a busy site, with a lot of material on it. I may not have grasped all elements of your concerns. However, I always look at material carefully before I present it to teens and families. There is a lot of useful material on this site. I have not read 100% of it-but the material I have used is helpful. Understand that I am dealing with a parallel universe of unbelievable mythology (can you believe that the myth that Mountain Dew is an effective male contraceptive is still out there?). Worse, there are sites that have terribly inaccurate information with regard to specific risks, such as STIs or drugs. There are sites that actively try to drive a wedge between parents and children. I’ve yet to find a perfect website.This one offers a variety of material that is very useful in opening discussions with teens at risk. By the end of this school year, I’ll have had contact with about 5200 teens in a variety of settings. For recent focus groups, the material on this site has provided lively and valuable discussion. I am not preaching to these kids (I certainly don’t have the moral authority to do that). I do teach them about risky behavior, violent relationships, STIs and abuse. I am all too familiar with evidence driven data, and am pretty good (not perfect) at picking it apart. This site has far less than average – FAR less. The kids tell me that my presentations have to “rise above the noise” – above the background of a free for all. As I do that, I try to teach them how to filter the noise. With a little coaching, they become pretty good at it. I’d encourage you to look at Bob Herbert’s editorial in the New York Times from October 2006 “Why aren’t we shocked?” It eloquently speaks to the culture of misogyny that has come to exist in our society. I will tell you that this undercurrent of violence is palpable in my encounters with teens. Guys that think it is fine to beat up girls, and girls that believe that “getting hit on a date is part of growing up.” The “adults only” aspect of porn shops is as effective as age limits on drinking. Porn readily finds it way to young kids & plays a role in their behavior. Are local porn shops the only source? Of course not. They are a source with EASIER access than others, including the Net. Cash still leaves no trail,no firewall logs. All of the porn DVDs recently seized from a group of area 6th graders came from local porn shops. By providing information for local activism, this site provides a great service. We can all learn from the events in other communities. I am not smart enough to devise a solution to the free speech aspects of porn. However,I know it is harming children, now and in the future. THAT remains my focus. Is this site perfect?No (tell me one that is!). Is it my sole source of information? No. It is a helpful resource in my work? Yes. Will I recommend it to others? Absolutely. I applaud its editors for their work.

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