1. The Atlantic’s cover story this month comes from social science favorite Jonathan Haidt. His topic is the apprehension-du-jour, the ever-growing problem of P.C., especially in the realm of college classrooms and student learning. Haidt, a professor himself at NYU, sees the trend of “trigger warnings” and “vindictive protectiveness,” different from the political correctness interest of the 80s and 90s, mainly because this wave stems from emotional reasoning more than it does from objective reasoning. And he sees this as a danger to the learning of students, precisely because it prioritizes evasion of conflict rather than the confrontation of it.

Haidt points to the growing number of professors in higher education who have felt the need to provide warning for disseminating opinions that may be unpleasant or challenging. The phrase “trigger warning,” which was used for trauma victims in the World Wars, is now being used before introducing difficult ideas to a classroom of overprotective students.

Jeannie Suk’s New Yorker essay described the difficulties of teaching rape law in the age of trigger warnings. Some students, she wrote, have pressured their professors to avoid teaching the subject in order to protect themselves and their classmates from potential distress. Suk compares this to trying to teach “a medical student who is training to be a surgeon but who fears that he’ll become distressed if he sees or handles blood.”

However, there is a deeper problem with trigger warnings. According to the most-basic tenets of psychology, the very idea of helping people with anxiety disorders avoid the things they fear is misguided. A person who is trapped in an elevator during a power outage may panic and think she is going to die. That frightening experience can change neural connections in her amygdala, leading to an elevator phobia. If you want this woman to retain her fear for life, you should help her avoid elevators.

But if you want to help her return to normalcy, you should take your cues from Ivan Pavlov and guide her through a process known as exposure therapy. You might start by asking the woman to merely look at an elevator from a distance—standing in a building lobby, perhaps—until her apprehension begins to subside. If nothing bad happens while she’s standing in the lobby—if the fear is not “reinforced”—then she will begin to learn a new association: elevators are not dangerous. (This reduction in fear during exposure is called habituation.) Then, on subsequent days, you might ask her to get closer, and on later days to push the call button, and eventually to step in and go up one floor. This is how the amygdala can get rewired again to associate a previously feared situation with safety or normalcy.

Amygdala or not, Haidt is pointing to a psychological insight that the Frank Lake post also alluded to yesterday, namely, that we are doing ourselves no favors by hiding in our pretensions of offendedness. Our avoidance of conflict, inner-conflict or any other, tends build walls of fear that keep growing. This is why our images of God continue to skew towards bad bosses and expectant fathers. Our failure to dig up and face them only makes them loom larger.

Which brings me, of course, to Donald Trump. The New Yorker’s Financial Page this past issue dealt with the ratings rise for the one-man circus (the article actually compared him to P.T. Barnum), explaining that his popularity has a direct correlation to what Haidt is speaking about above. In short, the Donald’s exaggerated wealth gives him the clout of a man who cannot be bought by lobbyists or party interest. This freedom is fresh air to an American public increasingly bound up by political correctness:

‘I don’t give a shit about lobbyists,’ Trump proclaimed at an event in May. And his willingness to talk about issues that other candidates are shying away from, like immigration and trade, reinforces the message that money makes him free.

He also appeals to the myth of the self-made man.

Yet many voters see Trump as someone who embodies the American dream of making your own fortune. And that dream remains surprisingly potent: in a 2011 Pew survey, hard work and personal drive (not luck or family connections) were the factors respondents cited most frequently to explain why people got ahead. Even Trump’s unabashed reveling in his wealth works to his benefit, since it makes him seem like an ordinary guy who can’t get over how cool it is to be rich.

2. The True Detective finale was, by my count, the best of the season, and chock full of religious allegory. From the bedside confessionals to the season-ending Madonna move, the season wrapped up with quite a bit of atonement talk. I’ll let the A/V Club (and Todd’s post) do the talking (spoilers!):

Loss, redemption, retribution, atonement, just desserts: These ideas are the heart of the episode. Ani and Ray struggle over what they owe Paul, who died for their salvation. Ray pledges to pay back “these filth” who destroyed their lives. He atones, finally, for his years of miserable fatherhood, by silently saluting the son he’s leaving behind—and by seeing Chad happier than he’s ever been shown, sitting with friends, his grandfather’s badge at his side. Never knowing the DNA test proves his parentage, he records a final message of love, and an overdue apology. His son might never hear it, but Ray needs to say it:

“I’m sorry for the man I became, for the father I was. I hope you’ve got the strength to learn from that. I hope you’ve got no doubt how much I love you, son. You’re better than me. If I’d been stronger, I’d’ve been more like you.”

3. This is a really interesting piece on a 50-year-old phenomenon called “The Performance Bias” or the “Publication Bias.” It was re-discovered by The Observer to be truer than ever. The gist of the theory is this: that we give an unduly amount of credit to the parts of life that fit a positive, publishable arc. The theory was first used to describe how scientific studies get selected for publication; the ones chosen are ones that worked. The experiments that did not work, or did not prove anything, obviously weren’t selected for publication.

Fifty years later, when we are our own publishers, we do the same thing, culling our days, detail by self-justifying detail, for a person who has performed well.

You’ve seen this—friends who are going through a rough patch in a relationship but post loving photos of themselves with their partner, almost as if they’re willing it to be better. People going through financial difficulties apparently living it up on Instagram. Even in your own life, do you ever post when things aren’t going well?

It’s the Publication Bias. It’s the Performance Bias. I think about this a lot because as a writer the job makes you start to view your life as material. It’s a real easy and tempting way to escape what another writer, Walker Percy, called the “everydayness” of your life.” Or what Nassim Taleb calls the “narrative fallacy.” Nobody sees the article ideas that I couldn’t quite figure out. Nobody sees me when I am uncertain or unsure. I don’t write about the parts of my life I don’t feel qualified to talk about or I’m too embarrassed to reveal. And as a result, I leave a lot out.

And if this has you all confused, McSweeney’s has this piece of brilliance for more information, “FAQ: Personal Branding” (ht CJG)

4) A contrary follow-up to the Tinder piece that I covered earlier this week at the New Republic, by Moira Weigel, called “Dating Will Never Die.” Weigel argues that, while apps like Tinder have certainly changed the game, the game of love and courtship has always been evolving with the times—even “dating” hasn’t been around that long. And at each new revolution of this game, a new fear has arisen that the future of courtship is damned. These fears are nostalgic and destructive, she says,

First, they are not only incoherent; they are reactionary. Stories about the depraved state of dating in the present often indulge in unreflective nostalgia for the past, while obscuring all the things that were terrible about dating then. We may look back at the Fifties as an era of sweet chivalry now, but it was also an era of unbearable gender double standards, date rape that left young women no option but to blame themselves, shotgun marriages that pulled women out of school and led to lifetimes of unhappiness. Forget what happened to you if you fell in love with someone not of your race.

Got to say she’s got a point about “unreflective nostalgia,” and I agree that articles like the Vanity Fair article (and Mbird posts about them, ahem) often smell of “technological determinism.” It is so easy to point to new apps and devices as harbingers of doom. But defending Tinder requires a stretch. Surely people of all decades and millennia have wanted to get funky, and surely these people have always wanted to exchange more validation for less vulnerability. But there is a difference between defending the inevitability of that human impulse, and defending a technology which makes it the starting point for relationships. Call me old fashioned.

5) Okay all you Tolkiendil, there’s an Atlantic tribute that you won’t want to miss. Where else have you seen Tolkien and Lewis compared to the Beatniks? (ht WTH)

Who can compare with these writers? In the intensity of their communion, their accelerating effect upon one another, and their impact on posterity, their only real 20th-century rivals are the Beats. And the Inklings would have detested the Beats. Nonetheless, the two core groups can be mapped onto each other with weird precision: Tolkien would be Kerouac, sensitive maker of legends; Lewis, the broad-shouldered preacher-communicator, would be Allen Ginsberg; Charles Williams, kinky magus, would have to be William Burroughs; and the sagacious and durable Owen Barfield, Gary Snyder. (The Inklings had no Neal Cassady, no rogue inspirational sex idol—they were all too grown-up for that.)

But the Beats, bless them, consumed the greater portion of their own energies, with the result that their influence went mainly into rock and roll and advertising, and stayed there. The Inklings, on the other hand, are still gathering steam. Tolkien revived in us an appetite for myth, for the earth-tremor of Deep Story. (See: Game of Thrones, and the pancultural howls of pain at the death of Jon Snow.) Lewis invented Narnia—though the exacting Tolkien regarded it as an incoherent mythology—and he may be, write the Zaleskis, “the bestselling Christian writer since John Bunyan.” As for Williams and Barfield, they hang in the tingling future: for the former I prophesy an H. P. Lovecraft–style cult (with creepy folk music), and for the latter, cosmic vindication. And Warnie serves another round of drinks, and the Inklings, huffing and puffing and hurtling through time and space in their armchairs, have their victory.

Also, the Minas Tirith campaign?!


-Mockingbird’s Facebook Page hit 3,000 this week, not that we’re counting. Are you on there?

Gandhi and Tolstoy were Penpals.

-We’re going to be in Florida for the ChristHoldFast Conference in Orlando. More information here.

David Foster Wallace, King of the Bros.

To Binge or Not to Binge?