Another Week Ends

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, of Magnolia and, more recently, The Master fame, passed away this week […]

Will McDavid / 2.7.14

1. Philip Seymour Hoffman, of Magnolia and, more recently, The Master fame, passed away this week in what the press generally called a “heroin overdose”. On the subject of addiction, it was painful and touching recalling his role in Owning Mahowny, and a moving reflection on Hoffman’s death comes from fellow Hollywood icon and recovering addict Aaron Sorkin at Time, ht BJ:

I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean.

So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.

He didn’t die because he was partying too hard or because he was depressed — he died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it. He’ll have his well-earned legacy — his Willy Loman that belongs on the same shelf with Lee J. Cobb’s and Dustin Hoffman’s, his Jamie Tyrone, his Truman Capote and his Academy Award. Let’s add to that 10 people who were about to die who won’t now.

The term ‘overdose’ implicitly reinforces the assumption we have a measure of control with addiction, heightening both the potential for blaming someone and making the drug seem safer, since human agency is left with ground to stand on. Sorkin’s commentary nudges us toward a more accurate – and not incidentally, compassionate – understanding of addiction.


And Electric Feast chimes in with some welcome insight on addiction. It’s not a stretch to call this brilliant, ht BPZ:

I guarantee that every time Hoffman put that needle in his arm, he felt guilty. He felt conflicted. He craved that high that would take the pain away, but knew the pain he caused himself and those around him every time he took a hit. We all have destructive habits. If we’re lucky, it’s watching too much TV when it’s inhibiting our productivity, or looking at porn when we think it’s a sin, or lying, cheating, overeating. If we’re lucky, our addictions won’t kill us.  The majority of us can go through a partying phase and then grow up, settle down, and put down the sauce. But for an unfortunate group, the need to keep going becomes as pervasive as the need to eat or sleep. And we call them selfish, as if they would prefer to be a slave to the thing that’s ruining everything good in their lives.

When tragedies like these deaths happen to celebrities, they should be a wake-up call for the rest of us. If someone who has everything going for them can be so horribly enslaved to what they know could kill them, imagine what it’s like for the average addict. Addiction is bigger than class, race, religion, or any other factor that one might hope would reduce its captive hold. Succumbing to it isn’t selfish. It’s horribly sad and extremely difficult to prevent, even though it is, in theory, preventable. The way we talk about a celebrity who ODs says a lot about the way we think about people who are struggling around us. It’s time we tried to understand struggles we don’t endure ourselves. It’s called empathy, and we could all use a lot more of it.

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2. In parenting this week, offers a novelly dark take on bad-parenting confessionals, ht WTH:

… But the cumulative effect of a Doocified world is that the Web is now flooded with “honest” anecdotes, and “brave” confessions about less-than-perfect parenting. Is it really “brave” when honesty is what’s getting the book deals these days?

Then there’s the fact that the parents writing these stories are, almost without exception, very capable women. These are not the “worst moms ever”; they are competent, loving parents who occasionally feel overwhelmed. They are parents who think and read and write about parenting. Almost by definition, they are doing just fine. Yet, culturally, we applaud their “bad” parenting while becoming less and less tolerant of actual bad parents. This is a country that is increasingly willing to prosecute pregnant women and young mothers for their mistakes with drugs, or for leaving their children home alone in moments of desperation. In a middle-class parenting subculture in which self-acceptance is a bedrock virtue, it’s impossible not to notice a disconnect.

Another disconnect: As I read these parenting posts as a way to peer into my possible future, there is one question that plagues me the most. If becoming a parent “changes everything,” as everyone says, then what is its promise to those of us who are already happy? If those changes are primarily terrible, as so many voices online seem to agree, then it had better have some serious joy to offer. Is anyone writing about joy? Is there a way to do it without seeming obnoxiously smug or totally dishonest?

One could answer that writing about joy is impossible precisely because we are so invested in the issue and, therefore, we are “less and less tolerant of actual bad parents.” That is, finding joy wouldn’t be considered so smug if we weren’t secretly obsessed with it. And part of the reason telling everyone you’re a bad parent works is because, well, we assume if you’re actually a bad one you won’t be saying it on the Internet – a pretty similar logic to the one parodied with Portlandia‘s magnificent nerd PSA below (replace ‘nerd’ with ‘bad parent’). Slate’s take aside, if you haven’t seen the “Reasons My Son Is Crying” blog, check it out – especially for the bad parents among us.

3. In religion, ‘New Atheist’ Sam Harris offered $10,000 to anyone who could disprove his contention that right and wrong are objectively measurable (scientifically, unsurprisingly), a contention seemingly designed to cut against a common theistic argument that we can have no morality without religion. Both arguments are spurious, the former dicey with regard to the previous couple thousand years of ethical thought (religious and non-), and the latter implying that religion may be merely instrumental to some sort of social cohesion, etc. But the best response has come from psychologist Jonathan Haidt (incidentally a 2014 Mbird Conference speaker), who cut straight through the arguments pro and con by betting Harris himself $10,000 that no, Harris will not change his mind:

moral_relativity (1)In the 1980s and 1990s, social psychologists began documenting the awesome power of “motivated reasoning” and the“confirmation bias.” People deploy their reasoning powers to find support for what they want to believe. Nobody has yet found a way to “debias” people—to train people to look for evidence on the other side—once emotions or self-interest are activated. Also in the 1990s, the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio showed that reasoning depends on emotional reactions. When emotional areas of the brain are damaged, people don’t become more rational; instead, they lose the ability to evaluate propositions intuitively and their reasoning gets bogged down in minutiae.

In the 2000s, in my own area of research—moral judgment—it became clear that people make judgments of right and wrong almost instantly, and then make up supporting reasons later. The intuitive dog wags its rational tail, which explains why it is so difficult to change anyone’s mind on a moral issue by refuting every reason they offer. To sum it all up, David Hume was right in 1739 when he wrote that reason was “the slave of the passions,” rather than the divine master, or charioteer, as Plato had believed…

In the opening paragraph of his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, David Hume described the futility of arguing with people who are overly certain about their principles. He noted that “as reasoning is not the source, whence [such a] disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.” If Hume is right, then what is the likely outcome of The Moral Landscape Challenge? What are the odds that anyone will change Harris’s mind with a reasoned essay of under 1000 words? I’ll put my money on Hume and issue my own challenge, The Righteous Mind challenge: If anyone can convince Harris to renounce his views, I’ll pay Harris the $10,000 that it would cost him to do so.

Looks like a win-win for Harris, apart from being made to look a little ridiculous – though no more so, perhaps, than any of the rest of us. Turns out low anthropology, as well an inveterate tendency to forget it, could be something atheist thinkers and their Christian counterparts have in common.

4. Along not-so-different lines, Tripp and Tyler (YouTube video makers, I think?) released an honest Facebook tribute, exposing the cognitive dissonance between our heavy use of Facebook and its more-than-recognizably scant benefits. The Righteous Mind award here would have to go to the line, “Zero: The number of times my views changed because of someone’s post in my feed”, but the whole thing’s pretty funny, ht SC:

5. The New York Times caught out the inauthenticity of our contemporary public apologies; when being “really, really sorry” is something expected as a social norm, spontaneity/genuineness is the first casualty. That is to say, external pressure to do something renders it meaningless by occluding the freedom of the apologize-er. Sorry to jump to conclusions, but sounds a bit like law/trespass/etc, ht BJ:

[W]hat does saying “sorry” mean when it’s tossed around with the frequency of a Justin Bieber scandal?

“Apology-washing changes no one, neither the apologizer nor the recipient, because the act regurgitates a social norm rather than launching an emotional process,” Mr. Seidman told me.

“The foundation for this shortcutting starts in childhood, when parents force children to say ‘I’m sorry’ as a way to educate them about appropriate behaviors. But all it does is teach children a verbal escape route,” he said. “We must recognize that we don’t apologize to get out of something, but rather to get into a new mode of thought and behavior. It’s a beginning, not an end.”…

In longer form, more NYT thoughts on the ‘apology epidemic’ can be found here.

6. Super Bowl commercials: most law-heavy, in the theological sense, goes to Jeep’s “Stay Restless”, a manifesto both for those who want to believe we’re outdoorsier than we are and for, well, collective unhappiness; most law-heavy in the professional sense was undoubtedly Jamie Casino (both below):

The second one was found via deadspin, whose commentary, for those with a decent tolerance for profanity, is admittedly on-the-money.

7. Rising inequality, and the purported decline of social mobility in America (this latter point is contested) seem to be coming more to the fore in political news/discourse. David and Amber Lapp at First Things this week took a compelling look at loneliness and the state of the American Dream:

Brandon, the son of maintenance workers, accumulated $80,000 in debt to earn a criminal-justice degree. Everyone always told him that college is the path to “the land of milk and honey,” he told Silva. But eleven years later, he only has a retail job to show for it. “I feel like I was sold fake goods.” Others describe falling for real-estate scams, accumulating forbidding amounts of credit-card debt, and rushing from first part-time job to second part-time job only to land in the hospital, uninsured and facing a $5,000 bill…

Perhaps even if social mobility hasn’t declined over the last few decades in America, its appeal has increased, to the point that programs promising self-actualization seem more and more appealing. As the Lapps suggest later on in their article, communities founded on a non-economic basis (e.g., religious ones, ideological ones) offer a much-needed antidote. Of course, moral meritocracies aren’t much healthier, if at all, than economic ones; what we need is news from outside of us, beyond all our expectations and paradigms.

8. …e.g., this week’s bonus Bringing You the Gospel and cap to a video-heavy week, ht MS:

Extras: We all love Sherlock because we’re erratic, narcissistic, violent and lonely, surmises Esquire in a piece less dark than it sounds; Rod Dreher reworks Haidt’s above critique of Harris into something more shrill at The American Conservative; an old 2008 post on The Gospel According to Philip Seymour Hoffman, by James Martin, SJ, for Busted Halo deserves another look; the Internet’s sometimes-brutal Law of Feminism may be harming the movement, reports; and finally, incredulity at a new trend (‘artisanal’ toast) becomes a pretty interesting human-interest story at Pacific Standard, ht RW.



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