Another Week Ends

1. Over at his Righteous Mind site, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt follows up his recent […]

David Zahl / 9.11.15

1. Over at his Righteous Mind site, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt follows up his recent article in The Atlantic about “The Coddling of the American Mind” by taking readers on a tour of Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning’s article “Microaggressions and Moral Cultures”, which appeared in Comparative Sociology in 2014. Manning and Campbell argue that we in the West are witnessing a transition in moral cultures, away from Dignity to Victimhood–which actually has more in common with an Honor culture, the main difference between the two being the Victimhood’s appeal to administrative bodies for redress (where those in an Honor culture would seek it solo). Sounds technical, I know, but this is Haidt, so it all boils down to righteousness and, therefore, justification. A couple of his notes on the paper:

BaSpynqThe key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims

As progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization…

This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce.

For a more humorous take on the same material, be sure to check out The New Yorker’s “Politically Correct Lord of the Flies”.

2. Elsewhere, The New York Review of Books published a doozie of an essay by Marilynne Robinson on “Fear”. Like most of her (exquisite) writing, it doesn’t really lend itself to excerpting. She takes us from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the virtues of French Protestants through to the current U.S. boom in Kalashnikov sales and 2nd Amendment questions. Throughout she hits a sustained note on the perils of heresy-hunting, namely how, when fear takes dissent and turns it into blasphemy, violence is always close at hand. A couple of sentences from the beginning:

1418889907542568368My thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind….

Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.

3. This past April, Commonweal reviewed Edward Mendelson’s new(-ish) Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth-Century American Writers and let slip, in the conclusion, another beautiful/saintly anecdote about W.H Auden:

There is the rare case where moral and artistic vision were fully married, as in the work of W. H. Auden. Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor, and he paints the poet as a genius who, in contrast to some of the others, over time became painfully aware of his capacity for sin, and correspondingly made himself appear “less than he was.” When the poet gave readings late in his career, Mendelson recounts, “more than once, someone in the audience complained that he was no longer ‘leading us’ as he did in the 1930s—while Auden stared straight ahead, ashamed that he had once made it possible for those who wanted a leader to imagine he was one.”

4. Social Science report of the week comes to us from The Washington Post and details yet another cost of escalating performancism in our little ones, namely “The decline of play in preschoolers — and the rise in sensory issues”. You hear a lot about increased anxiety and emotional frailty as a result of diminished free-play, but this report zeroes in on the purely physical fallout, like clumsiness. One Kindergarten teacher claims that her kids fall out of their chairs at least three times a day, something you never saw twenty years ago. Oy vey.


5. Probably my favorite read of the week was Frank Bruni’s column about “The Myth of Quality Time”, in which he expands on his extended family’s countercultural insistence on spending a full week together every summer (in a single house). Bruni’s suggests that the phrase “quality time” has become a justification for avoiding the nitty-gritty of real intimacy, a way we shrink relational time down to manageable windows. Yet, as he wisely observes, moments of grace/mercy/genuine closeness cannot be engineered. They occur when you least expect them to–basically, if you want people to truly love and be loved, there has to be enough time for walls to come down, for control to loosen and vulnerability to appear:

With a more expansive stretch [of time together], there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter…

People tend not to operate on cue. At least our moods and emotions don’t. We reach out for help at odd points; we bloom at unpredictable ones. The surest way to see the brightest colors, or the darkest ones, is to be watching and waiting and ready for them.

6. In Humor/Miscellany: Hint Magazine compiled some of the WTF looks from Copenhagen Fashion Week, and holy moly they had a lot to work with. i09 takes us into “The Alternate Universe of Soviet Arcade Games”. Wired boils down some recent breakthroughs in the field of Leisure Studies. On McSweeney’s, “Taylor Swift: A Socratic Dialogue” is pretty clever. IFC’s Documentary Now! is cracking me up. Cannot wait for the Blue Jeans Committee episode:

7. In the little-l law department, Rachel Wells wrote a smart, brave article for The Times about what happens When Your Sex Life Doesn’t Follow a Script, noting how the cultural imperatives around sex have not diminished since the 1960s so much as morphed, possibly even become amplified:

In recent decades, the standards by which our sexuality is evaluated — and the sources of our sexual shame — have evolved. Sex is no longer just something we are told not to do, or else risk being judged as dirty and depraved. It is also something we must do, or else be declared pathetic, prudish and undesirable.

8. Finally, Christianity Today printed the entirety of Samantha Blythe’s testimony that we mentioned last week, “Maze Runner to God”. As opposed to the “coherent self” narratives that Ethan wrote about earlier this week, Samantha lays out the many diffuse phases of her life and personality in vivid, and very funny, detail before coming to a touching close that places the burden of cohesion elsewhere. Also, she digs Buffy! Praise God:

I have been a Christian for almost 16 years but I still have not allowed God to seal me into that Ziploc bag and poke and prod me with the tenderizing truth that all I need is faith in Christ’s perfect life and atoning death. Once I get sufficiently steeped in the knowledge that I am eternally secure in Christ, I can better stand up to the smoke and heat on the barbeque of life. Not a scary “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” situation, but rather a “Tough Steaks in the Hands of a Great Pitmaster.”

My basting sauce has been a mixture of all the sadness and disappointments and unfulfilled longings in my life—a concoction that would taste really bad in the hands of a less competent chef than the Lord—but of course, he makes it work.


  • Jonathan Franzen shared some thoughts on intimacy in an age of transparency with Terry Gross. They also discussed feminism and his friendship with David Foster Wallace.
  • Pretty incredible illustration of what it means to be saved by grace from one of the sermons Karl Barth preached to prisoners in Basel toward the end of his life.
  • This is rich: New Spotify feature provides tangible evidence of how hip you are via a “Found Them First” feature.
  • Our friends Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s new children’s book came out this week, God Made All of Me, and is much recommended. For more info, check out Mbird contributor Lauren Larkin’s write-up here.
  • Finally, there’s the following video, which, well, you’ll just have to watch:

p.s. In reference to the performance above, one friend theorized: “She’s exhausted (bone tired), massively overindulged, and probably being taken advantage of by the gang of older hippies that surrounds her. And the chances are pretty good that she’s never really known love, which is why her simulacrum of love with the blowfish is so compelling to her. Her handlers and her parents should probably be put in jail for a while.” That said, I found it kind of sweet.


2 responses to “Another Week Ends: Micro-Victims, Robinson’s Fear, Auden’s Shame, Clumsy Kinder, Scripted Sex, & Barth on Ice”

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    Estonian composer Arvo Part turned 80 today, and he may be the most performed living composer of what’s colloquially called classical music in the world today.

  2. Jim McNeely says:

    I love Arvo Pärt! Thanks for reminding me to listen to some. And great roundup this week.

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