Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast! 1. Another incredible op-ed from […]

Click here to listen to the accompanying episode of The Mockingcast!

1. Another incredible op-ed from Molly Worthen this past week about obstructions placed on campus ministries by more and more secular universities. I actually had the opportunity to interview Molly Worthen yesterday for the upcoming Church Issue, and we talked a little bit about this article. In it, she claims that, concomitant with the ideology of nondiscrimination in today’s academia–the ideology that frames much of today’s academic discourse–is the assertion that truth claims are identity-exclusive, and therefore detrimental to student life.

PrayersVarmintShe writes about the InterVarsity chapter at Vanderbilt University, which was recently forced to relocate and was no longer recognized as a campus organization. Vanderbilt, and schools like it, have disbanded these ministries under the assertion that their statement of faith “violated the schools’ ‘all-comers’ policy.”

Under the guiding philosophy of liberal secularism, Worthen argues that these universities tend to view religious belief as simply another identity category in a sea of other identity categories. Within this guiding philosophy, though, religious identity should operate under the same self-enclosed system as any of our other identifiers–having brown hair, liking hiking. This makes Christianity–which certainly views truth as coming from beyond self-understanding (“We love because he first loved us”)–an awkward fit for today’s guiding philosophy on campus. Worthen:

“Identity politics” is shorthand for the left’s effort to empower oppressed groups by elevating the authority of their experience as women, queer people or visible minorities. These identities are inborn or socially constructed (or both), depending on what kind of liberal you ask. But they often come with a tacit agreement to refrain from all but the most anodyne universal truth claims: to each identity her own.

…Few liberals have openly confronted the big important questions raised by the InterVarsity episode: Do secular universities have any business supporting religious groups? How should they accommodate freedom of expression for those who… dissent from liberal values? As evangelical students have watched the penalization of Christian ministries on the basis of policies, like Vanderbilt’s, that explicitly include religion among the categories protected from discrimination, they have witnessed firsthand the contradictions and ambiguities of liberal ideology.

Today many evangelical leaders are fond of proclaiming American Christians’ new status as a moral minority, but these students and campus ministers are the ones who are actually living that reality. It has prodded them to seek serious conversation about humans’ profound disagreements over morality and the nature of truth — questions that campus liberals, despite their professed concern for dialogue and critical thinking, often avoid in the name of tolerance and inclusion.

This particular theme of trigger warnings and emotional coddling is not new to us. In our conversation yesterday, Worthen spoke about how Christianity, and other traditional religions, fill a blind spot for New Left “identity politics,” insofar as they cease to allow a place at the table for those whose truth claims do not operate on a personal sovereignty scale. Christianity’s identifier cannot abide the rules of that table. But, as opposed to liberal secularism, Worthen argues that religious conservatives have learned (by necessity) to articulate the intellectual framework of their belief systems. By virtue of their majority, the modern academy has had a difficult time doing the same.


2. The NY Times Magazine’s cover piece from a couple weeks back, entitled “The Happiness Code” and written by Jennifer Kahn, describes the new wave of self-help in Silicon Valley, called “Applied Rationality.” With the same formulations of positive outcomes and achieved aspirations, Applied Rationality differs from most popular self-help in that it argues it by way of science. Using cognitive science and the research of behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman, CFAR (The Center for Applied Rationality) views human progress like a computer upgrade. The human psyche, it argues, is loaded with cognitive errors and biases. Applied Rationality allows that human–with calm, neutral thinking, of course–to minimize her cognitive errors and optimize her good behavior patterns, so she can be rewired to reach her aspirations. She can, at last, be happy.

While the practical applications seem to work, Kahn allows there’s no shaking the creeping sense that something’s amiss. She talks about a conversation she had with another conference-goer, Raszap, who sincerely wanted to learn jujitsu, but couldn’t summon the energy to make it half the time.

17selfhelp2-articleLarge-v2Many of CFAR’s techniques resemble a kind of self-directed version of psychotherapy’s holy trinity: learning to notice behaviors and assumptions that we’re often barely conscious of; feeling around to understand the roots of those behaviors; and then using those insights to create change. But there was something unsettling about how CFAR focused on superficial fixes while overlooking potentially deeper issues. While talking with Raszap, I began by asking why, if he truly wanted to go, he often skipped the jujitsu class. Raszap listed practical obstacles: Sometimes he doesn’t want the interruption; sometimes he just has a lot to do. But he also said that even the idea of attending the class more regularly makes him feel anxious. ‘‘It’s a feeling of not doing enough,’’ Raszap told me. Perversely, the workout only heightened his fear of failing, of missing the next class. This was coupled with a claustrophobic sense of obligation, what Raszap called ‘‘a fear of foreverness’’ — ‘‘Like, if I go today, I’ll have to keep going forever.’’

Like many of the promises behind Silicon Valley happiness, CFAR seems to miss a subterranean link to belonging (justification?) that the self-help quest belies. Much as Applied Rationality can help us push out our primal urges towards long-term aspirations, it still only points us to our long-term aspirations. It cannot take us beyond the life we have conceived for ourselves. And so it remains undeniably self-oriented.

Secondly, there’s an undeniable progress-orientation to the whole thing. I mean, that’s self-help, I guess. But there is a difference between help and progress, and it should not come as a surprise that many of the people running these conferences are interested in cryonics and apocalypse by artificial intelligence. Understandably, applied reason or not, the fear of death is just beneath the surface here. And does this sound familiar?: “To keep people on track, CFAR holds online practice sessions 10 weeks after a workshop and also assigns ‘accountability buddies’ to encourage participation.” Yikes!

3. Speaking of…Another softball from team Toast. “Bible Verses Where ‘Fear Not’ Has Been Replaced with ‘Um, Yikes'”! The first one is the best, IMO.

sinisterGenesis 15:1-3
Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Um. Yikes, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward. Wow. Where is this coming from?”

Also, hilarious, from The Onion: “Disney World Opens New Ordeal Kingdom for Family Meltdowns.

4. 30 years after the Challenger disaster, the NASA engineer who believed the night before the launch that the spacecraft would explode, spoke with NPR about the regret he’s lived with since. The story is a powerful illustration of the staying power/shelf-life of regret.

He says the same thing today, sitting in a big easy chair in the same living room, his eyes watery and his face grave. The data he and his fellow engineers presented, and their persistent and sometimes angry arguments, weren’t enough to sway Thiokol managers and NASA officials. Ebeling concludes he was inadequate. He didn’t argue the data well enough.

A religious man, this is something he has prayed about for the past 30 years.

“I think that was one of the mistakes that God made,” Ebeling says softly. “He shouldn’t have picked me for the job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me. You picked a loser.’ “

5. From the Needy Mom Branch: “Controlling Parents Lead to Mean College Kids.

Evidence has shown that helicopter parents often trigger “relational aggression” in their children. Relational aggression refers to a relationship with a loved one in which actions harm feelings or damage social status. This is rarely studied among college students. UVM’s study is also unique because it incorporates physiological factors. The miniscule changes in sweat they uncovered could pave the way for behavioral therapies that improve child and parent relationships.


6. From the Foodie Branch: “The Way Forward for Hipster Food”–i.e. Don’t be a fake. Like Mast Brothers.

Old-fashioned food: let’s examine its appeal for a moment. So much of the artisanal movement is about a return to pre-industrial aesthetics and flavors, a celebration of the home- and handmade. I get it: food factories were a disaster for the diversity and wholesomeness of food, and we may never claw our way back. But the Victorian era the movement makes loving reference to was not a wonderful time to be a consumer. In the moment that the Masts’ aesthetic conjures, food was an anxious proposition, unregulated and rife with chicanery—lead in the red candy, chalk in the milk. Deep in our memories, along with the nostalgia for mustache wax, lies the awareness that stories about food are not always true, and that buying into them can be dangerous.

7. From the Twee Branch: “The Sinister History of the Belle & Sebastian Email List”

But I’m not here to tell you that blogging is dead or that email “isnt dead, but evolving.” What is interesting is the way certain experiences, certain phenomena, can become collective ones. For a small window of time, there was something charming about using your college email address to sign up for a new site called Facebook. For a small window of time, there was something charming about the groups that formed through Tumblr. For a moment, there were shared experiences that weren’t cramped by groupthink or torn apart by anonymous trolling. And it’s easy to see how that sweet spot could be hit through an email list, a medium that is a little closer to traditional letter-writing.

8. And let’s cap off on this hilarious piece, which you must read in its entirety, over at The New Yorker: “NYC to LA to NYC to LA, Ad Infinitum.”

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One response to “Another Week Ends: Identity Politics, Applied Rationality, Hipster Nostalgia, Self-Recrimination, and Belle & Sebastian Emails”

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    adding one for the marvel of it, just this week the Atlantic featured the history of Hiram Maxim, an inventor who created a device that an author at the NYT predicted would reduce war because of the terror of its possibility, so written in 1897.; The device? The machine gun!

    We should never underestimate the human capacity to make absurdly optimistic predictions that something won’t go wrong or that something is so terrible humans won’t use it.

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