Another Week Ends

1. The theme that binds today’s links seems to be cognitive bias: the way our […]

CJ Green / 9.7.18

1. The theme that binds today’s links seems to be cognitive bias: the way our brains maneuver away from rational thinking, particularly under duress or in highly pressurized situations. Much of the pop-coverage of this topic, post-2016 (and there has been quite a bit), has been political: seeking to answer how anyone could be so foolish as to believe fake news, for example. Bias, however, is universal, not something only other people have. It’s a base measure of human irrationality; in short, the lose screw in all of us. This is what Ben Yagoda points toward in his comprehensive piece on the subject, “The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain,” from The Atlantic:

Most books and articles about cognitive bias contain a brief passage, typically toward the end, similar to this one in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The question that is most often asked about cognitive illusions is whether they can be overcome. The message … is not encouraging.”

Art by Moon Patrol

In researching for his article, Yagoda met with preeminent bias scholar Daniel Kahneman, co-author of the aforementioned book, who insists this cognitive kung-fu is inescapable. When “tested,” people may be able to train themselves to overcome certain biases, but in real-life situations, there’s rarely such luck:

“We would all like to have a warning bell that rings loudly whenever we are about to make a serious error, but no such bell is available.”

All of this deeply relates to a topic covered in the latest issue of The Mockingbird, in an essay called “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Lost Doctrine of Sin,” by Simeon Zahl. For those who haven’t haven’t yet had a chance to snag the issue, I’ll reproduce a bit of Simeon’s piece here:

…first and foremost, sin is not best defined as specific acts of moral transgression—say, committing adultery, or embezzling from a charity, lying to get your way, and so on. Those are indeed what we might call sins, but they are not sin itself.

Rather in the first instance, theologically speaking, sin is a condition under which human lives exist. Sin is a way of describing the fact that there is a fundamental flaw in the human system and is an explanation for why that system keeps throwing up errors. The doctrine of sin is a way of saying that reality is like a lens with a subtle but pervasive flaw, such that everything that goes through it gets distorted—plans go wrong, communications fail, good intentions decay—and of describing the fact that, in so many things that happen, there is this slight tilt towards the perverse and the cruel…

Simeon powerfully concludes: “It is only in our sickness that we recognize the Physician.”

2. Inherent bias has a lot to say about self-righteousness, too, our capacity to stand on the right side of whatever proverbial line is being drawn in any given situation. Another way to phrase this righteousness could be “purity.” Who doesn’t want that? In the language we use, in the choices we make—to be free from complicity, hands wiped clean. But as the research described above suggests, our default condition is (to say the least) biased.

This week, Stephen Freeman put it simply: “In a contest of the pure, everyone loses.” Funny enough, this is good news. The following comes from his recent reflection for Ancient Faith Ministries, “Irony and Belief”:

The One, True Church means something quite distinct from perfect. A good read through Orthodox history (which for a thousand years is just “Church history”) refuses to give up an ideal century — the mark and measure for reform. Any student of the New Testament has to admit that there are no Letters to the Perfect. I find it ironic (in another sense) that there are those who search for the “New Testament Church” as though it were an ideal.

This applies equally to those who seek the flawless argument, the reasonable and logical God. That search will also end in contradiction, to be resolved only by irony, for those who can bear it. It is thought by many of the fathers that the very creation is an ironic act — the gift of existence that will require the gift of forgiveness — such is the irony of freedom and the mercy of Divine Love.

From the moment of the resurrection, Christ continues to gather scattered sheep. Betrayal, denial and cowardice were the hallmark of the Church on Good Friday. But from Christ we hear no blame — if only because He never thought us to be other than we are.

3. Former Mockingbird speaker Jonathan Haidt has released a timely new book, co-authored with Greg Lukianoff, which is getting loads of attention from the press. It’s called “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” and it aims to dismantle what is being called “safetyism.” In an in-depth review of the book, for Quillette, Matthew Lesh defines safetyism as the idea that “people should be protected from, rather than exposed to, challenges.” Ultimately this idea that we ought to protect ourselves from [intellectual, political, social] challenges just prevents people from having difficult conversations and dealing honestly with unavoidable conflict. Lesh continues:

Another untruth that has become prominent within academic and wider public discourse is the notion that life consists of many small battles between good and evil. In this framing, it is presumed that one’s opponent has the worst possible intentions, creating feelings of victimisation, anger, hopelessness in students who believe it. The notion of ‘microaggressions’ presumes many innocent comments — such as ‘I believe the most qualified person should get the job’ — are hiding underlying racist sentiments. Encouraging students to be concerned about unintended sentiments ensures that they are always suffering. And in practice, it means students do not speak their minds for fear of being misinterpreted as sexist, racist or homophobic. This is not an environment conducive to freely exploring ideas.

Of course, being politically correct isn’t bad. As a member of the generation purportedly being destroyed by it, I find that careful expression and freedom of speech aren’t mutually exclusive. But the law always accuses, and heightened expectations tee up disappointment.

Safetyism suggests we have the power to control: if we control our circumstances, we can keep everyone, or at least the people we care about, safe. But the opposite so often proves true. (For contrast, consider this NPR report about a start-up called “Let Grow,” which encourages parents to let their kids play outside unsupervised.) Lesh goes on:

This is a generation engaged in a meritocratic “arms race” of epic proportions, that has racked up the most hours of homework (and screen time) in history but also the fewest ever of something so simple as unsupervised outdoor play. If that sounds trivial, it shouldn’t. “When adult-supervised activities crowd out free play, children are less likely to develop the art of association,” Lukianoff and Haidt write, along with other social skills central to the making of good citizens capable of healthy compromise. Worse, the consequences of a generation unable or disinclined to engage with ideas and interlocutors that make them uncomfortable are dire for society, and open the door — accessible from both the left and the right — to various forms of authoritarianism.…

This is where Thomas Chatterton Williams, for his review in The NY Times, picks up the thread. Reviewing Haidt’s book, and another similar one called “The Splintering of the American Mind,” Chatterton Williams asks whether safetyism hampers not only personal health but national health as well: “Does Our Cultural Obsession With Safety Spell the Downfall of Democracy?”

The fracturing and castigating discourse around identity, coupled with metastasizing inequality of both opportunity and outcome, leads Egginton [author of “The Splintering of the American Mind”] to make the necessary if familiar case that a humanities education — however out of fashion and reach for many Americans — is still the “key in the formation of a public capable of democratic self-governance.” The liberal tradition, accessible to all and capable of generating an expansive common narrative that takes note of America in all her tribal guises and evokes sufficient “fellow feeling,” is, for Egginton, our only hope out of the bind.

4. The natural question, then, for a site like ours… Does the gospel have anything to offer the world, right now, in this Age of Coddling and Splintering and Transparency and Information? At Christianity Today, Mark Galli makes an offering:

Unfortunately, we live at a time when the words of Christians sound like nothing more than “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” In some cases, this signals that we have forgotten God, so that people fail to hear and see the Holy One in us. In other cases, our words are simply lost in our present clangor of social noise. As such, we’re tempted to just shout louder and louder, to engage in more frenetic activity, so anxious are we that people hear and see Jesus.

The paradox is that Jesus is usually found not in a rock-shattering wind, or in earthquakes and fire, but in “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12). The great deeds of God are often accompanied with the quiet, gentle whisper—from before Creation (where the Spirit hovered silently above the waters) to the Crucifixion (where God is scarily silent as the world is being saved) to the great silence after the opening of the seventh seal in heaven (inaugurating the final Judgment).

The lesson is as old as it is obvious, but so important is it that we must never tire of reminding ourselves: Our deeds and words, if they would be more than clanging cymbals, need to grow out of silent adoration of our Holy God. “As long as we are at the center of the action, we feel indispensable,” Richard Foster once put it. “But genuine experiences of solitude undercut all the pretense. In the very act of retreat we resign as CEO of the universe. We entrust people into the hands of God.”

Of course God can do what we cannot do for ourselves. I’m reminded again of Jesus’ stunning silence during his trial: “And while he was being accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer” (Mt 27:12). In addition to silence, we may do well to remember the value of listening.

5. Cognitive bias etc. aside, this is far and away the most important study I’ve seen all week: “Mental Health Experts Suggest Logging Off Social Media, Then Backing Over All Your Electronic Devices With A Van.” From The Babylon Bee:

U.S.—In a new report issued Wednesday, health experts are now recommending regularly logging off your social media accounts, and then backing over your electronic devices with a van or other large vehicle.

“We’ve found that mental wellness is greatly increased when people take a few minutes each day to log off of Facebook and Twitter, take a stroll out to the driveway, and just crush all of their electronic devices forever,” one study intern told reporters.

6. Last but not least, over at his personal blog, Fredrik deBoer illuminates how the law often disguises itself as good news: “Self-care is just another set of expectations you’ll never realize” (ht PL):

I think the dictate “be good to yourself” is just that, yet another social command that is imposed on you, no matter how good of an idea, and thus another thing you can be bad at…

Of course you should love yourself. But if you experience self-worth through a set of instructions, you’ve already lost. The voice that says “I am great and deserve it all” sounds, to me, suspiciously like the one that tells me I am worthless and always will be.

Classic mix-up. Still: I hope you’re good to yourself this weekend! Whatever you do, just don’t be like these people. 😉