Another Week Ends

1) Facebook at the top of our list again this week, thanks in whole to […]


1) Facebook at the top of our list again this week, thanks in whole to Joshua Rothman’s New Yorker article, “In Facebook’s Courtroom.” The article depends on a deadly cocktail of TMZ’s Ray Rice video release and Kafka’s “The Trial.” What he gets at, in doing so, is the idea of Facebook as our junk-room of judgment—a place where ‘likes’ are actually ‘hate-likes’ and a user’s status updates stand as verdicts on the world around them. Even the positive “Gratitude Challenge” trends that crop up are indirect judgments disguised as inspirational montages.

Rothman is not just talking about the tendency to finger-wag the troubles of the time, but also the tendency to finger-wag the finger-wagging, or to finger-wag by not finger-wagging. Facebook, as with any social media outlet, is less about projecting positivity in a progressing utopia, and more about taking the stand (the pulpit?) before the jury of one’s peers—once again, vindicated.

Like Kafka’s stories, though, Rothman notes that the use of Facebook is also an indication of a more elemental desire for acquittal. If Facebook is a courtroom, our common and addictive use of it springs from the yearning to be seen innocent. Rothman:

KafkaCrumbHandsNot all of Facebook is devoted to overt judgment and punishment, of course; there are plenty of cute family photos and fun listicles floating around. But even superficially innocuous posts can have a hearing-like, evidentiary aspect. (Paranoia, unfortunately, is inevitable in a Kafkaesque world.) The omnipresent “challenge”—one recent version, the “gratitude challenge,” asks you to post three things you’re grateful for every day for five days—is typically Kafkaesque: it’s punishment beneath a veneer of positivity, an accusation of ingratitude against which you must prove your innocence. (It’s also the kind of thing Bart Simpson might be made to do at his blackboard.) Occasionally, if you post a selfie after your 10K or announce a new job, you might be congratulated for “doing it right.” But what feels great in your feed takes on, in others’ feeds, the character of what evolutionary psychologists call “altruistic punishment”—that is, punishment meted out to those who aren’t contributing to the good of the community. It’s a little like writing in to your college’s class notes; the message is, “I’m contributing to the general vitality and productivity of humankind—What are you doing?” (The dispiriting answer: reading Facebook.)

All this raises an obvious question: If Facebook, and social media in general, constitute an unpleasant, Kafkaesque world of incessant judgment, then why do we spend so much time in that world? Why do we so willingly adopt identities as criminals and prosecutors, defendants and judges, prisoners and punishers? Kafka had an idea about this, too. He believed that we all yearn for absolution; we want to be declared innocent of the crimes we see all around us. But innocence is a difficult state to attain: in our everyday lives, we struggle to do real good, or even to know what goodness is. In “The Trial,” Josef K. works hard to argue his case before the all-too-human judges of the court. But the real power, one man tells him—the power to acquit—  “resides only in the highest court, which is totally inaccessible to you and me and everyone else. We don’t know what things look like up there, and incidentally, we don’t want to know.” We are trapped, in short, in the lower courts, where we have no choice but to argue our innocence and hope for the best.

Sometimes, though, absolution comes before the defense. This is the case of Christianity, but it is also the case of some San Francisco-based, high-end commercial real estate search engines. Slate tells us that 42Floors has taken on the trend of Pre-cations. Yes, it means you get a vacation, a paid vacation, before you ever start your new job. As the article points out, sometimes the “unlimited vacation” trend is often a guilt-induced misnomer—companies expect your best, and five weeks paid vacation might just mean you aren’t giving the kind of best that another hiree might give. A pre-cation, though, is a forcible rest.

Freedman decided to begin offering pre-cations to all his new hires. “The day they get their offer letter, it’s kind of like Christmas morning, in that they have a new job and they’ve already thought through the vacation they’re about to go on. We have a guy who’s about to start next week, and he’s in Thailand right now.”

2) Some Pixar fun surfaced this week, including the teaser trailer for their newest film, Inside Out, which is, literally this time, angled right at the heart.


And there’s this, too.


3) Child-worship is the subject of an amazing new piece on American parenting by physician and researcher Danielle Teller. Her thesis is that the American parent is killing the American marriage, namely because of the cult of the faultless child. This is not just the “coach’s kid” kind of child favoritism that Teller is talking about. It is the across-the-board belief that children are blameless and pure. Not so, says Teller, and probably any other parent who has had an honest look inside their own homes. And yet, the belief in the blameless child is so strong that to critique it is heresy. She uses the “blasphemy” of Ayalet Waldman, who in 2005 wrote a New York Times article in which she argued to keep her marriage prioritized over her children.

What happens, Teller describes, is what is true of any “idol.” You defend its merits beyond the restraints of honesty, which leads you leaving the problems packed deeper under the rug (ht SC).

There are doubtless benefits that come from elevating parenthood to the status of a religion, but there are obvious pitfalls as well. Parents who do not feel free to express their feelings honestly are less likely to resolve problems at home. Children who are raised to believe that they are the center of the universe have a tough time when their special status erodes as they approach adulthood. Most troubling of all, couples who live entirely child-centric lives can lose touch with one another to the point where they have nothing left to say to one another when the kids leave home.

In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose. Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters? Perhaps it is time that we gave the parenthood religion a second thought.

4) While our biases for our children may remain locked and sealed, our biases against others are under attack! Behold, the bias police! The Boston Globe reports that psychologists are looking for ways to prevent racial prejudice (old news?) in light of the Michael Brown situation and others like it. The article asks, If cops, our most egalitarian-minded citizens (in principle), cannot make decisions objectively, who can? Can we all say, we might a little bit of Good Samaritan storytelling, which is to say, the hope of empathy? (ht SZ)


It’s tempting to think that simply being told that you harbor biases is enough to get them under control. Not so, says Yale University psychologist John Dovidio, who has spent decades studying what he calls “aversive racism” among people who profess to believe in egalitarian principles but still engage in racist behavior. “Making people aware of it is not sufficient,” Dovidio said. “There’s no ‘insight cure’ for it….You actually have to teach people ways to suppress their biases.”

…In another effective approach, test subjects listened to stories, told in the second person, about a white assailant attempting to hurt them and a black man coming to their rescue. The emotional pull of the experience seemed to be key. Researchers found that making the story longer and more vivid—changing it from “With sadistic pleasure, he bashes you with his bat again and again” to “With sadistic pleasure, he beats you again and again. First to the body, then to the head. You fight to keep your eyes open and your hands up. The last things you remember are the faint smells of alcohol and chewing tobacco and his wicked grin”—was doubly effective at reducing bias.

…If bias is uncomfortably wrapped up in who we are—enough so that people resist being trained to fight it—Goff’s approach may offer a new way to think about it, and a different way forward. “We have to ask: What are we combatting here?” Goff said. “Because if we’re combatting an attitude, then our goal is to redeem the souls of those whose hearts and minds don’t meet our expectations as a culture. But if we’re combatting discrimination, then our goal is to protect the most vulnerable citizens among us.” He added: “The latter is a call for social justice. The former is a call for spiritual redemption. We need both. But we need not confuse them.”

5) On the pop-docket this week: Did you know Victor Hugo’s largely unread disappointment, The Man Who Laughed, was actually the inspiration behind Batman’s Joker? Well, Hugo’s book may get its fifteen minutes now, with the release of it in comic form, adapted by none other than David Hine, the guy behind “Strange Embrace.” Does the Hugo storyline, based in London, sound familiar? No, I’m not talking about Romulus and Remus. Hine describes:

Here was a truly enthralling tale of love and humanity, of ordinary people struggling to survive in an unjust and unequal society. At it’s core is the story of a young man who is kidnapped, mutilated and sold to travelling entertainers, yet who retains his integrity and his dignity through the love of his adoptive ‘family’, the eccentric philosopher Ursus, his pet wolf Homo and the beautiful blind girl, Dea.

The new Sons of Bill album is out, and it’s working on a brand new paradigm. Also, the new Foxygen album is streaming on NPR this week—these guys continue to throw everything at the wall–I mean, everything.


And then there’s this, that demands not to be missed, that DZ linked to in his procrastination piece. Based on the groovy California Pynchon novel.


Slaid Cleaves song of the week, as we gear up for Houston! Also, our final Breakout session is finalized. Howie Espenshied will be walking us through Sports: The Greatest Reality TV Show of Them All.


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One response to “Another Week Ends: Kafka’s Facebook, Pre-cations, New Hugo, New Pixar, the Empathy Police, and Kid Worship”

  1. David Zahl says:

    holy moly that parenting article…!

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