Another Week Ends

1. “Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument” reads a headline […]

David Zahl / 8.30.13

1. “Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument” reads a headline over at The Pacific Standard, and what follows is a helpful refresher on the overpowering role of self-image when it comes to argumentation. In very Haidt-esque fashion, and with the help of some fresh research, the article claims that the strongest arguments for a particular position are the ones most likely to trigger a defensive response from those who disagree. The implications for those engaged in any kind of religious or theological dialogue should be self-evident. As we all know, social psychology of this kind can engender an element of despair when it comes to the ideological disagreements that surround us (i.e. if our hearing and speaking are such highly “motivated” faculties, why say or write anything?), which is why you should run and not walk to the recent episode of PZ’s podcast on lessons learned from 40 years of New Testament Studies! Motivated as it (and our endorsement!) may be, the ‘cast touches on precisely the same dynamic, yet strikes a considerably more hopeful note. It would seem that rejecting rationalism–in the academy or elsewhere–doesn’t necessarily entail giving up on pursuing the truth, or rather the Truth, ht RW:

lifebatmanThe arguments people make are those that appear the strongest to themselves and the people who already agree with them. But such arguments tend to be meaningless to people who disagree.

How does this happen? It starts with the universal desire to protect against threats to your self-image or self-worth. People are driven to view themselves in a positive light, and they will interpret information and take action in ways that preserve that view. The need to maintain self-worth is one reason we attribute our failures to external factors (bad luck), but our success to internal factors (skill.)

Because political beliefs are connected to deeply held values, information about politics can be very threatening to your self-image. Imagine coming across information that contradicts everything you’ve ever believed about the efficacy of Medicare, for example. If you’re wrong about such an important policy, what else might you be wrong about? And if you’re wrong about a bunch of things, you’re obviously not as smart or as good or as worthwhile a person as you previously believed. These are painful thoughts, and so we evaluate information in ways that will help us to avoid them.

2. “The Inverse of Envy”— what a great title for an introduction to the field of “Schadenfreude Studies”! This past week, timed no doubt in conjunction with Mileygate, just such a thing appeared courtesy of Daniel Akst’s review of Richard Smith’s new book The Joy of Pain in the Wall Street Journal. Akst highlights another volume on the same subject, John Portmann’s When Bad Things Happen to Other People, and if it sounds overly abstract, Akst wisely roots the whole thing in–you guessed it–reality television:

Schadenfreude“Where envy involves pain caused by the good fortune of others,” [Portmann] wrote, “schadenfreude entails pleasure caused by the ill fortune of others.” Mr. Smith, too, understands the importance of envy in schadenfreude. He astutely sees it at work in the delight in some quarters over Martha Stewart’s conviction and in the way the public soaks up news of divorce, drunk driving and other troubles when they afflict celebrities and eminent public figures. Schadenfreude is especially delectable when it strikes closer to home, as Gore Vidal reminded us with his famous quip: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” Little wonder that low self-esteem—one engine of envy—has been associated with higher levels of schadenfreude in various psychological experiments.

Mr. Smith notes that the more deserved a misfortune seems—as when crusading former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer got his comeuppance in a sex scandal or when “Book of Virtues” author William Bennett sustained huge gambling losses—the more open we are about our feelings of pleasure. Otherwise they are something we tend to keep to ourselves, lest we seem cruel or envious. Mr. Smith notes as well that schadenfreude is a pleasant feeling, in part, because it satisfies our wishful belief in a just universe, our hope that misfortune will be meted out to those who most deserve it.

If that’s not an opening to plug my favorite tumblr of the year, This Charming Charlie, I don’t know what is. The site pastes Morrissey lyrics onto old Peanuts cartoons, and the results are just as awesome as you might imagine. “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful” hasn’t made the cut yet, but it’s only a matter of time.


3. Not sure I fully agree with Noah Berlatsky’s plean on The Atlantic’s to “Bring Back Doofus Batman“, but his final paragraph is pure gold:

Batman’s so popular because people like to think of themselves righting wrongs and dispensing justice with a grim determination and a grimmer sneer. As with many popular things, though, the meme gets overplayed — in part because it’s deceitful. The grim, the powerful, and the (supposedly) omniscient aren’t cool avengers who are willing to cut corners to save us. They’re jackasses who mostly make a mess of things… I wish Ben Affleck were a Batman who could get that point across. But, alas, he’s no Adam West… The doofus we need is not the doofus we want, nor the doofus we’re going to get.

Speaking of the doofuses (doofi?) we need, The Replacements played their first show in ages, the entirety of which can be streamed here.

4.  A stirring reflection from theologian Carl Trueman on sitting next to a woman wearing a hijabi during choral evensong at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, and the arresting sublimity of Prayer Book worship, ht CB:

Brave_and_the_bold_104So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.

The ironies Dr. Trueman goes on to note in connection to worship in many modern American churches (that claim to take the Bible seriously) are convicting, to say the least.

5. On the literature front, this past December Paul Elie posed the much-publicized question “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?” (Read our write-up here), and if you haven’t read Randy Boyagoda’s reflection on the same question in First Things, it’s wonderful. One particularly beautiful paragraph toward the end being, ht WB:

Insofar as it can reveal the fullness and wholeness of human experience, insofar as it can reveal ourselves in our inner lives and experiences of time and event as being created by and for love, literature doesn’t lie. It testifies to the ultimate truth of ­human existence: We are not, in the end, alone.

Elsewhere in the bibliosphere, JK Rowling was asked to reflect on the purpose of exposing the ugliness and weakness of human nature in The Casual Vacancy and had a number of interesting things to say. One that stuck out being, ht LM:

helpmerhondaPicture-1I wanted to show how humans can have ugly feelings that they might prefer not to acknowledge; how we’re all caught up in our own problems and limited by our own life experience. To judge somebody else, to declare them substandard, to conclude that their misfortunes are due to inherent character flaws, can be a way of boosting our own self-esteem, because it must follow that our comparative success or happiness is not mere luck or chance, but the reward for superior morals or talent.

6. We can’t talk about beloved authors without expressing our excitement–elation!–about the reports emanating from the new Salinger documentary (and accompanying biography) that the world may see some fresh material from the reclusive author, possibly as soon as 2015. The Times review included a couple of very interesting quotes from the biography, which would seem to indicate that the compilers/filmmakers aren’t as quite sympathetic to Salinger’s religious leanings as some of us might be, e.g. “The war broke [Salinger] as a man and made him a great artist; religion offered him postwar spiritual solace and killed his art.” Hmmm… We might beg to differ.

7. Speaking of religious experiences, The Beach Boys put out their 50th Anniversary Boxed Set this week, and it boggles the mind that the well still hasn’t run dry. In fact, taken in one sitting, the breadth and depth of “America’s band” almost seems like a cruel joke on anyone else who has ever tried playing pop music. Of the unearthed material, Dennis Wilson in particular comes out smelling like the ragged rose that he was. To think that “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again” has been sitting in the vaults all these years is frankly unfathomable–at least it would be if it were any other group. That one track might be emblematic of not just the band, but the entire human race: heartbreaking in its inspired beauty yet profoundly self-defeating in terms of the (dysfunction behind the) decision never to release it. Catch up on six years’ worth of Beach Boys posts by clicking here.

8. Captain Obvious Social Science Study of the Week: “Your obsessive monitoring of your boyfriend’s Twitter feed says more about you than the relationship.” Far less obvious are The Dissolves’s observations about “Movie-Lovers Who Don’t Like to Watch Movies.”

9. Finally, in the humor/whimsy department, Zen Pencils put Calvin and Hobbes’ creator Bill Watterson’s Kenyon Graduation Speech into comic-strip form, and it is a sight to behold. The Onion’s “Last Time Anyone Actually Rose to the Occasion Was 2002″ cracked some of us up. And given yesterday’s post, my jaw dropped when I saw their timely new video “Nation Annoyed About Having to Spend Weekend Away From Work.” Obviously they are reading some Mbird! Psych. But we’ll see you back here on Tuesday.

P.S. The new McCartney single is really fantastic:

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