Another Week Ends

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview […]

CJ Green / 10.28.16

Click here to listen to this week’s episode of The Mockingcast, which features an interview with Zac Hicks, author of the brand new book The Worship Pastor.

1. In a great piece called “Meritocracy Is Exhausting,” from The Atlantic (ht DT), Victor Tan Chen explains how a society built on reward can be not only tiresome but also inescapable. Chen says that the cogs of America rely increasingly on “performance reviews,” synthesized by “data-gathering technologies.” He cites behavior tracking apps, marketing algorithms, and online review forums as just a few examples. Such technologies, or “models,” have obvious flaws: namely reinforcing a sense of supremacy among certain groups.

9f5b8c7ccc3e1375441ca5bef2006690Even if models could be perfected, what does it mean to live in a culture that defers to data, that sorts and judges with unrelenting, unforgiving precision? This is a mentality that stems from Americans’ unabiding faith in meritocracy, that the most-talented and hardest-working should—and will—rise to the top. But such a mindset comes with a number of tradeoffs, some of which undermine American culture’s most cherished egalitarian ideals.

Among the above “cherished ideals,” Chen includes grace. Ten points for Gryffindor!

Those further down the economic ladder are also learning that a good work ethic is not enough. They can’t just clock in at the factory anymore and expect a decent paycheck. Now they have to put on a smile and pray customers will give them five stars in the inevitable follow-up online or phone survey.

(On this, you must do some light netflixing this weekend with Black Mirror’s uncanny parable, “Nosedive.”) Chen goes on to explain that something more personal is at stake:

This judgmental attitude can turn inwards as well… Replaying past decisions in their minds—about schooling, finances, careers—plunged [unemployed workers] into depression and even thoughts of suicide. They were “losers,” as one worker put it, in a society that values winning at all costs.

A norm of constant performance reviews focuses people’s energies not on structural reforms but on the ups and downs of their individual ratings, scores, and tallies. It turns some into modern-day Pharisees—expecting perfection, despising failure, excusing nothing—and deepens the despair of those they scorn. “You can’t make no mistakes,” one of the unemployed workers I interviewed told me. “You got to do everything perfect. You can’t get into trouble. You can’t do nothing. You got nobody to run to.”

2. David Brooks wrote a great op-ed in The NY Times this week, “The Epidemic of Worry.” In it, he cites Francis O’Gorman’s book, Worrying:

“Worry is circular…And it has a nasty habit of taking off on its own, of getting out of hand, of spawning thoughts that are related to the original worry and which make it worse.”

That’s what’s happening this year. Anxiety is coursing through American society. It has become its own destructive character on the national stage.

Worry alters the atmosphere of the mind. It shrinks your awareness of the present and your ability to enjoy what’s around you right now. It cycles possible bad futures around in your head and forces you to live in dreadful future scenarios, 90 percent of which will never come true.

Pretty soon you are seeing the world through a dirty windshield. Worry dims every sunrise and amplifies mistrust.

Brooks explains that anxiety manifests in different ways for different reasons among people of different classes–but it has captured modern America across boundaries:

Last weekend’s “Black Jeopardy” skit on “Saturday Night Live” did a beautiful job of showing how this sensation overlaps among both progressive African-Americans and reactionary Trumpians.

It is a well-established fact that people who experience social exclusion have a tendency to slide toward superstitious and conspiratorial thinking. People who feel exploited by, and invisible to, those at the commanding heights of society are not going to worry if their candidate can’t pass a fact-check test. They just want someone who can share their exclusion and give them a better story.

For now, we’re lost in our own heads. To break the cycle, Brooks encourages us to “take action” in the way that he might encourage a lonely friend to get a puppy:

…action takes us out of ourselves. Worry, like drama, is all about the self. As O’Gorman puts it, the worrier is the opposite of a lighthouse: “He doesn’t give out energy for the benefit of others. He absorbs energy at others’ cost.”

If you’re worrying, you’re spiraling into your own narcissistic pool. But concrete plans and actions thrust us into the daily fact of other people’s lives. This campaign will soon be over, and governing, thank God, will soon return.

Hakuna matata.

“It means no worries! For the rest of your days.” While Brooks’ political analysis could have been more nuanced, he’s nevertheless doing something remarkable (and brave) by throwing some comfortable words at an election where both sides have been accused of becoming the next Third Reich.

3. And speaking of the election, this is real (#prayersforcharlyn):

4. Though we haven’t quite figured out dating apps, or the world that invented them, it seems they are already “old hat.” According to Julie Beck’s article, “The Rise of Dating-App Fatigue,” the decline began circa 2014. (This is a great follow-up to last week’s link, which also referenced dating-historian extraordinaire, Moira Weigel.)

Whenever using a technology makes people unhappy, the question is always: Is it the technology’s fault, or is it ours? Is Twitter terrible, or is it just a platform terrible people have taken advantage of? Are dating apps exhausting because of some fundamental problem with the apps, or just because dating is always frustrating and disappointing?

I vote the latter. (And, apologies for another Black Mirror reference, but so would Charlie “technology-is-never-the-villain” Brooker; and so would the sixth issue of The Mockingbird. So there.)

Perhaps the problem is just that no one knows what they’re doing. Apps and online dating sites “don’t instruct people on how to date, they only offer a means of communicating,” Wood says. In the absence of clear norms, people just have to wing it.


The challenges of dating, and the joys of it, can’t be algorithmed into something straightforward; that seems to be the ulitmate source of all the dismay surrounding our disillusionment with the apps. Beck’s closing paragraph is perfect:

Dating hasn’t become an apocalypse, it’s just become another way modern life can make people feel overworked. When the actual apocalypse eventually comes, perhaps it will be easier to recognize love when it’s looking at us over the rat carcasses we’re roasting on a spit over a trash can fire, when many of our options have been killed off by plagues or zombie hordes, for then no time we’re given will feel like a waste. Until then, there’s always Tinder.

5. Over at Quartz (ht JD), Adrienne Matei wrote, “Psychology suggests that psychopaths can be changed by the power of love”—can’t we all? Though so unassuming, love and mercy–as we see with Zaccheaus, for example–is the primary agent of all positive change.

Though [psychopaths] are largely disassociated from feelings of sincerity and vulnerability—emotions which are central to forming strong romantic bonds—psychopaths are not impervious to love’s benefits, and they suffer when they’re absent. “Good social relationships are a key component of happiness,” Love explains. “Therefore, the fact that people who score high on psychopathy questionnaires also tend to have poor social relationships may partially explain why these people also tend to be less happy.”

Though we tend to characterize them as a “them,” psychos are human, too (à la Bates Motel).

6. For humor, check out Vox’s Top 27 Halloween candies. There are a lot of noteworthy moments, but the best one must be “Mounds are the Barb of candies.” I won’t spoil which candy comes in first place…but know that I am pulling my hair out about it. It is so wrong. (Cheers to my mom, by the way, who gives out Capri Sun on Halloween. Remember, kids get thirsty after all that walking.) 

7. If David Zahl didn’t have bigger and better things going on this weekend, I’m sure he would have masterfully addressed this article, Looking for the Beach Boys, by Ben Ratcliff. I, on the other hand, as a person whose greatest association with the Beach Boys comes from the ’97 Disney remake of That Darn Cat (anyone?), will let the article speak for itself. (Find DZ’s “Pet Sounds Turns 50” essay, which deals with many of the same themes, here.)

8. This one is devastating, fair warning (ht BJ). Patton Oswalt (stand-up comedian; also Remy from Ratatouille) talked to The NY Times about dealing with grief and the unexpected death of his wife. Have a hankie nearby before you read the full thing. It is, however, ultimately a good word, and a liberatingly honest picture, for anyone experiencing grief:

patton-oswalt-a-435[Oswalt] said he now saw the lie of so many of his favorite comic books that portray the impact of a death in the family. “If Bruce Wayne watched his parents murdered at 9, he wouldn’t become this cut hero,” he said, referring to the Batman origin story. “He would become Gotham’s most annoying slam poet. How about someone dies, and they just get fat and angry and confused? But no, immediately, they’re at the gym.”

Mr. Oswalt says he has never been less healthy: crippled by sadness, struggling to hold it together day by day. He went to counseling, read C. S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” and reread the part of Stephen King’s “On Writing” that describes struggling to work after a debilitating injury, taking satisfaction in finishing one page…

Grief is an attack on life. It’s not a seducer. It’s an ambush or worse. It stands right out there and says: ‘The minute you try something, I’m waiting for you.’”

One thing Mr. Oswalt said had been therapeutic was stand-up. Last month, he started working on a new hour of material (more than half of which, he said, will focus on his grief)…Going onstage, he said, was “a rebuke to grief, an acceptance of the messiness of life. I’ll never be at 100 percent again, but that won’t stop me from living this.”

Grief, as the imposing attacker, seems to say that it’s never ok to move on. Oswalt’s honesty has long been a gift to anyone who follows his work.  His 2009 show was called “My Weakness Is Strong.”


9. Here is an interesting piece about gender equality: “We Have Almost Achieved Irresponsible-Drinking Gender Equity.” Jesse Singal from Science of Us reports that men were once twice as likely to engage in dangerous drinking habits as women; now women are nearly as likely to. On one hand, women can do anything that men can do! On the other hand, women can do anything that men can do…

This is a double-edged finding, in a sense. On the one hand, it suggests that since the early 1900s, women have gained more and more of the social freedom that men have traditionally been the primary beneficiaries of. On the other hand, the freedom in question is heavy drinking, which does bring with it all sorts of serious harms.

In the future, this sort of data will be very useful for public-health researchers as they try to figure out how best to allocate resources in our increasingly egalitarian world — a world in which men and women are almost equally likely to get drunk and then do dumb, dangerous things.

It seems like our genuine need for political and social liberation is not the whole story. (I must admit before I go any further that I am carrying the psychological baggage of having to read The Awakening by Kate Chopin four times before I graduated college. That’ll put a chip on your shoulder.) Not only has gender equality become something of a golden calf in the modern mind, but this unassuming hole in the plot of progressivism hints that sometimes when we try to help, we may be unknowingly opening a new wound.