Another Week Ends

1. First up, education. Ross Douthat at the NYT this week wrote a thoughtful appeal […]

Will McDavid / 8.10.18

1. First up, education. Ross Douthat at the NYT this week wrote a thoughtful appeal for the humanities, which are in serious decline. At the top thirty colleges (according to the formidable US News rankings), the proportion of humanities majors has fallen from about a third in the early 2000s to around a fifth today. In glossing this change, Douthat lays much of the blame at the door of “technocratic ambition.” For the technocrats, the goal of education is technical mastery, whereby one learns how to better control and make use of the world. Education is no longer about humanism–which we’ll get to in a second–but more about acquiring a set of hard skills for use out in the world.

One perspective would fault internal changes in the humanities, which have been largely swallowed by method. The great writers and texts, past and present, cease to have voices of their own; they are instead objects to which some method will be applied. The really important thing is the new theory or paradigm; a dissertation’s worth is not in how much it illuminates the text to which the theory is applied, but only the degree of cleverness or novelty of the application.

Another issue in the humanities is the politicization of it. Teachers of course are not exempt from our political age, and they are just as galvanized by the Big Issues as anyone. They want their books and theories to have a bearing on those issues. But when an idea becomes only an instrument of social change, the idea undergoes distortion. Nuance gets lost, and the scholar can no longer develop the idea on its own terms. Depth gets lost, too, as depth leads to nuance, which often impairs usefulness. Reading Swann’s Way with a commitment to making it useful for Leftist politics is almost as bad as reading the Bible with a commitment to making it useful to Rightist politics. Both harm the text and may adulterate the politics, too.

Douthat says that “both the turn toward radical politics and the turn toward high theory are attempts by humanists in the academy to supply that [official/cultural] justification — to rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or to assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.” The key movement was in the prioritization of technique over contemplation, which was made long before. (Readers of ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ stuff will note the deeper waters Douthat is swimming in here; I think especially of Pickstock’s very deep dive into the problems of techne.)

I don’t think that Douthat goes deep enough. Exactly what is the alternative to Technical Mastery, whether direct (accounting major) or indirect (the reductive kind of critical theory)? Why is it “Christian humanism” (a loaded and perhaps unstable term)? For Douthat, the midcentury flourishing of the humanities was partly attributable to the effects of religion:

First, there was a stronger religious element in midcentury culture, visible both in the general postwar religious revival and in the particular theological-intellectual flowering that [Alan] Jacobs’s subjects embodied, which rooted midcentury humanism in a metaphysical understanding of human life — an understanding that both ennobled acts of artistic creation and justified a strong interest in the human person’s interiority, his actual person as opposed to just his brain chemistry or social role.

Douthat goes on to prescribe a bit more openness to religious belief in the academy. But it seems a little simplistic; Sartre and Camus, after all, were as interested in interiority as any other midcentury humanist, and both of them would’ve likely viewed religion as an obstacle to the kind of humanities Douthat wants, comprehensive systems (like critical theory today) which are incapable of taking experience on its own terms. I don’t quite think Douthat’s guilty of this, but many of the new Christian conservative thinkers today seem too focused on macro-cultural issues to really create great art or great criticism. They enjoy Eliot’s middling essays (“Idea of a Christian Society”) more than his breathtaking poetry. Which is just to say that any good humanities, Christian or not, has to be more concerned with experience than declamations about it, more with art than with ballooning non-fiction. I think it was Kierkegaard who said that a Christian society could be fatal to Christianity.

To the extent Christianity can contribute to a  revival of humanities, it would be in its role as anti-religion, as the one religion which purports to deconstruct all human mastery, technique, and self-justification.

2. Those human predicaments may be larger than people think. Over at the Guardian, Seth Stevens-Davidowitz contributes a fascinating article on how people lie in surveys. People still lie even in anonymous surveys–for instance,

Fewer than 2% [of U. of Michigan graduates surveyed] reported that they graduated with lower than a 2.5 GPA (grade point average). In reality, about 11% did. And 44% said they had donated to the university in the past year. In reality, about 28% did.

Stevens-Davidowitz has therefore spent four years analyzing data from the one place we are most honest: our Google searches. If you have secrets, fears, problems, or suspicions too sensitive to divulge to anyone else, you’ll likely look for answers (and perhaps understanding) on the ‘Net. The analysis of Google data, therefore, works as a fascinating window into people’s inner lives. For example, some of the data indicate more anxiety about sex than people tend to let on:

On Google, there are 16 times more complaints about a spouse not wanting sex than about a married partner not being willing to talk. There are five-and-a-half times more complaints about an unmarried partner not wanting sex than an unmarried partner refusing to text back.

Other data show that despite the progress in language about racial and religious minorities, the sins of prejudice and identity-based anger and violence are disturbingly entrenched:

Consider what happened shortly after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December, 2015. . . . That evening, minutes after the media first reported one of the shooters’ Muslim-sounding names, a disturbing number of Californians decided what they wanted to do with Muslims: kill them. The top Google search in California with the word “Muslims” in it at the time was “kill Muslims”. And overall, Americans searched for the phrase “kill Muslims” with about the same frequency that they searched for “martini recipe” and “migraine symptoms”.

In the days following the San Bernardino attack, for every American concerned with “Islamophobia”, another was searching for “kill Muslims”. . . .

In his speech [after the shooting], the president said: “It is the responsibility of all Americans – of every faith – to reject discrimination.” But searches calling Muslims “terrorists”, “bad”, “violent”, and “evil” doubled during and shortly after the speech.

In other words, Obama seemed to say all the right things. But new data from the internet, offering digital truth serum, suggested that the speech actually backfired in its main goal. Instead of calming the angry mob, as everybody thought he was doing, the internet data tells us that Obama actually inflamed it. Sometimes we need internet data to correct our instinct to pat ourselves on the back.

And finally, on gender stereotyping, parents are twice as likely to Google search, “Is my daughter overweight?” than “Is my son overweight?”.

These insights reveal a few things. Perhaps the most interesting, to me, is the discrepancy between the ‘front story,’ or the appearance, and the ‘back story,’ or the reality. A Martian reading newspapers every day would conclude we have made far more progress on important issues, such as inclusivity, than a reader of Google searches. So we can make all sorts of progress on moral issues in culture, but the human heart does not change nearly so quickly. The back story is hidden and inaccessible, like the stereotype of promiscuity in Victorian England. The external appearance of cultural virtue has only a tenuous connection to what people actually think and feel. And the more virtuous the culture, the more people will hide what is really going on–the discrepancy widens.

Second, “the power of sin is the law” (1 Cor. 15:56). The President’s “holy, just, and good” imprecation to tolerance, after the San Bernardino shooting, apparently backfired, at least judging by Google searches. As Luther and other Reformational Christians have recognized, the attempt to engineer virtue is always a perilous enterprise, and the human heart is deceitful above all else. Exhortation will as often produce rebellion as virtue. It happens in microcosm–urging your daughter to stop dating that undesirable man or your son to lose weight, even if doing so artfully and winsomely, will often make the opposite more likely. Paul Zahl’s wonderful Grace in Practice provides some extended reflections on this theme.

Third, we are sinners. It is so hard to see the ‘back story.’ Priests and therapists often see the back story–the loveless marriages, the upstanding bankers who wake most nights in a cold sweat over some intractable problem, the wounds from childhood which are never made public. Most of the rest of us read the newspapers, or the write-up on that beautiful couple’s home renovation, and assume things are mostly okay with everyone. But the biblical picture of humanity coincides with the Google-search picture. It is a picture of humans hopelessly awash in some predicament or another, with a sense that things are not all alright and a sense too of a shared inclination to mess things up. Work like Stevens-Davidowitz’s helps us see what’s really going on, what self-justifying virtue (individually and collectively) cannot admit, to help us humans see ourselves as we are. “I also am other than what I imagine myself to be,” Simone Weil said. “To know this is forgiveness.”

3. That quote comes from a great reflection on Weil this week over at American Conservative, reviewing Love in the Void, a recently released anthology of some of her work.

The great value of Weil, and something Love in the Void highlights well, is that in standing opposed to our historical moment, she advocates for a deeper moment of grace. The void in ourselves where God finds us is also a temporal void, not entirely disconnected from but absolutely transcending the events of our anodyne lives. Weil tells us in the final chapter of the book that “There are two forms of friendship: meeting and separation.” “When two beings who are not friends are near other,” Weil explains, “there is no meeting.” Likewise, two beings who are not friends don’t feel the pang of separation. This metaphor of distance in relation to an “absent” God is perhaps Weil at her finest. “Even the distress of the abandoned Christ is a good,” she contends. “God can never be perfectly present to us here below on account of our flesh. But he can be almost perfectly absent from us in extreme affliction. This is the only possibility of perfection for us on earth. That is why the cross is our only hope.”

4. Staying for a moment on this confessional bent, Garrison Keillor posted about his church experience at a healing prayer service earlier this week:

I wept in church this morning, sat in my pew and wept big tears, breaking several decades of dry-eyed Christianity. And in an Episcopal church! It was a healing service and after the sermon, the clergy and deacons stood in a line across the front of the church and people were invited to come forward for prayers of healing. Some old, some young, came up to a clergyperson and the two of them joined hands and the supplicant leaned forward and whispered and the clergyperson prayed for him or her. These encounters took several minutes, there was no hurry. It was so moving, the visible Body of Christ offering prayerful attention to individuals who needed it, and I wept so I couldn’t even sing the healing hymn, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” A steady stream of people. And then I joined them and I went to a black lady deacon who took my hands and I whispered that I have too much anger about a wrong done to me and I feel crippled by anger, and she prayed in a soft Caribbean voice, a long prayer, as I stood there, trembling. And then the hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” which I love, and another, with the chorus, “He will raise them up, He will raise them up, in the last day” and all around me, Episcopalians, white, black, gay, straight, holding their hands in the air for faith in the blessed Resurrection. Anglicans, being charismatic. I grew up in a cold fundamentalist sect in which doctrinal purity was the whole emphasis, there was no laying on of hands, only wary sidelong glances. This is a miraculous church, St. Michael’s on 99th and Amsterdam. I would move to New York just to attend there. And besides all of that, I wrote four limericks during the sermon, which was inaudible.

Have mercy upon me, O Lord.
I am weak and willful and bored.
I’ve abandoned Your Ways
But I kneel in Your praise,
Bless my pen and my laptop, my sword.

I say the prayer of contrition
And see my pernicious condition,
And then in an inst-
Ant am cleansed, at least rinsed,
A sinner but a newer edition.

5. In culture, there’s an interesting article on The Spectator on the new male self-improvement.

Young men are drinking less alcohol, smoking less and, oddly, having less sex, perhaps because sex involves focusing on someone else. Traditional masculine pursuits are being abandoned in favour of more ethical ones. Pubs are closing down and gyms are opening up. . . .

It used to be women who were battered with dieting advice and who were flogged endless piles of self-help books. A few years ago, ‘clean eating’ was in vogue. Happiness was just round the corner, we were led to believe, so long as we stuck to a diet of chia-seed smoothies and no gluten.

Nowadays, male self-improvement is all the rage and men are now almost as boring about their appearance as women. Bodybuilding, not so long ago a peculiar pursuit, has become a very ordinary hobby and the market for protein products is enormous and swelling: it is currently estimated to be worth £238 million and set to reach £409 million by next year. Supermarket shelves now groan with ‘fuel bars’. According to the Office for National Statistics, protein supplements, once a niche fitness product, are now a staple in the nation’s shopping basket.

We are witnessing a very 21st-century asceticism. No real sacrifice involved, just a new exciting set of powders and pills to order on Amazon Prime, while you have earnest conversations about the dangers of our consumer culture. . . .

[New] diets and food substitutes are certainly eccentric —the sort of sci-fi whimsy that tech billionaires can indulge in — but they are alarmingly popular. The idea that the male body should be purged and perfected has become a mainstream one. What would once have been called male anorexia (‘manorexia’) is now sold as an advanced, high-tech ‘disruptive’ diet. . . .

There is a dark side to the modern male fixation on intensive self-improvement and ethical dieting. In July last year, the NHS reported a 70 per cent rise in adult men being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder. Around the same time, it was revealed that steroid use had quadrupled. Up to a million people in the UK now take anabolic steroids in order to make themselves look more muscular — and one in ten men who go to a gym are thought to have ‘muscle dysmorphia’: the neurotic belief that their bodies are insufficiently toned.

The Huel-slurping puritans, the Silicon Valley transhumanists and the hairless gym bunnies have something in common: an obsession with pushing the limits of their bodies. They want to become virtuous machines, a superior breed of man to the #MeToo monsters who have given masculinity such a bad name. Whether they will find love and happiness at the end of all that devotion to themselves is a different matter.

I’d hedge a little bit on the authors’ attribution of these trends to post-#MeToo movement male guilt. Not that I’ve got a better idea–the roots of body-image anxieties are complicated enough in an individual case, more so in a group one. Nor is it quite unprecedented, historically.

A quick excursus with some simplified Charles Taylor: in the the modern, secular culture (as opposed to a more or less medieval Catholic one), we view the world not as a field of signs of divine meaning, but a machine of interconnected parts, a mechanism. Instead of contemplating the created world to learn from it, we perceive it as a machine set up for given purposes, which we can fulfill by living the right kind of life. As Taylor says, “living a godly life in this world is something very different from living in the [cosmos of Aquinas] . . . It is no longer a matter of admiring a normative order, in which God has revealed himself through signs and symbols. We rather have to inhabit it as agents of instrumental reason, working the system effectively to bring about God’s purposes.” One example of this style of thinking was the development of an ideal of “civility,” by which nature was transformed in a constructed polite society. Thus in the 16th century,

The nobles were adopting more ‘polished’ manners, a new and more self-conscious style of behavior, modelled on the courtesy-book . . . Noblemen were learning to exercise self-control . . . Treatises on dancing also multiplied and court dancing diverged from country dancing . . . [Noblemen] stopped wrestling with their peasants, as they used to do in Lombardy, and they stopped killing bulls in public, as they used to do in Spain. (Taylor quoting Burke’s Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe).

There’s a sense of asceticism in that passage, of cultivating one’s own moral lifestyle largely by abstaining from behaviors more characteristic of the savage state of nature (e.g., wrestling) or of the lower classes. I think that the Spectator article may be describing something similar, albeit on a smaller scale, today. Sport is losing popularity, especially the more violent sports, like football. Middle and upper-class men are steadily creating their own food choices, with expensive smoothies and trendy health foods; the juice place in my old town was by far the most socioeconomically segregated place in the city. What ties these trends together is not just an aversion to our animal natures, but also the idea that personal discipline is the vehicle by which we construct these new, ascetic men and women. While women may be currently getting a very slight respite from cultural body-image pressures due to sex stereotypes (though the Google search data belie that–see above), the new moral impetus behind healthiness may end up producing similar results.

As for the Taylor comparison, it’s possible that big data is once again rendering the world a less mysterious, more transparently understandable–and thus, more manipulable–medium of our lives. FitBits and menu legends allow for seemingly precise control over calories ingested and calories burned. Increasingly sophisticated cosmetic surgery allows for more control over one’s appearance, and men in their twenties are getting it done. The possibilities for personal makeovers, cosmetic or otherwise, have never seemed better, so it doesn’t seem like a huge surprise that more people are taking advantage of them–or blaming themselves when they fail to do so.

6. The new ideals are also more susceptible of enforcement, via the Internet. The virtuous can Instagram a picture of their ancient-grains salad (to general approval), while the reprobate may be shamed. It’s sort of like the old English assizes, where a man who’d slandered his neighbor might be put in the stocks during the town market to be jeered–but on a larger stage, without the personal relationships, and perhaps with less of a fair trial. Not that the shaming is always, or even usually, borne of naked antipathy–advancement in moral ideals requires social discipline, “with the aim of inducing self-discipline” (Taylor again). But such inducements can have a high human cost. Over at The New York TimesPaul Bloom and Matthew Jordan go into social-media shaming, likening it to inadvertent torture:

There is a dial in front of you, and if you turn it, a stranger who is in mild pain from being shocked will experience a tiny increase in the amount of the shock, so slight that he doesn’t even notice it. You turn it and leave. And then hundreds of people go up to the dial and each also turns it, so that eventually the victim is screaming in agony.

Did you do anything wrong? Derek Parfit, the influential British philosopher who died in January 2017, called this the case of the Harmless Torturer. . . .

When we think of the savagery of social media, we often think of awful individual behavior — death threats and rape threats; the release of personal information, including home addresses and the locations of the victim’s children; vicious lies; and the like. Harmless Torturers never go that far; we just like, retweet and add the occasional clever remark. But there are millions of us, and we’re all turning the dial.

Parfit never tells us what motivates the torturers in his thought experiment, but there are a lot of considerations in everyday life. We are moral animals, after all. There is abundant evidence from laboratory studies and from real life that we wish to see immoral agents get their comeuppance. And this is grounded in sound evolutionary logic: If we weren’t disposed to punish or exclude bad actors, there would be no cost to being a bad actor, and cooperative societies couldn’t get off the ground.

There is also a sort of social credit that comes with being seen as a moralistic punisher; we want to show off our goodness to others, to signal our virtue. We are more likely to punish when others are watching, and there is evidence that third parties think more highly of — and are more likely to later trust — those who punish bad actors versus those who sit back and do nothing. . . .

The Harmless Torturer effect isn’t limited to social media; we can also see the effects of aggregation when it comes to more impactful individual actions. Likes and retweets bear a structural similarity to execution by stoning, particularly if the crowd is large: it’s hard to see the victim, and nobody has good aim. Social shunning is another case, torture through the accumulation of omissions — individuals avoiding social contact with a certain person — as opposed to actions. . . .

Our minds have evolved to think about the effects of our individual actions; it’s hard to consider aggregate effects. But the lesson of Parfit’s Harmless Torturer is that if we want to be decent people, we should try.

I would add a third motivation to the mob of Harmless Torturers: we want not only to show others we are good, but also we want to convince ourselves that we are good. If I condemn X, then I can’t have any part of it. The common term of “othering” gets at that perfectly: we make someone else the “other,” and then we condemn her, because we cannot tolerate the thought of similar sin within ourselves. On that view, then, there’s certainly nothing wrong with trying to be decent in the way the article’s close suggests. But it is possible that it is our own desperate attempts to be “decent” which get the ball rolling in the first place. Jesus, after all, doesn’t stop a stoning by exhorting the men to decency, but by causing them to realize their own shared sinfulness.

Finally, in humor, The Onion reports that a “Struggling Used Bookstore Has Tried Everything But Organizing Books By Genre And Author.” If that’s not a metaphor for the intractable problem in your life and mine, then I don’t know what is. Also in strays, some good vintage bridesmaids images courtesy of sadanduseless (used above), and some unconventional skating highlights shared by DZ (below). Oh and there’s a new Mockingcast up: Episode 135, “Oh the Humanity!”


2 responses to “Another Week Ends: More Declining Humanities, You Shall Know Them by Their Google-Searches, Some Simone Weil, Garrison Keillor Goes to Church, the New Male (?) Self-Improvement, and Social-Media Shaming”

  1. David Zahl says:

    A fire hydrant of McDavid gold! ptL.

  2. Kyle Dupic says:

    That last paragraph about Harmless Torturers. Pure gold…

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