Another Week Ends

It’s been #Seculosity Week if you’ve been following us on social media, with interviews and […]

Bryan J. / 3.29.19

It’s been #Seculosity Week if you’ve been following us on social media, with interviews and op-eds popping up all over the place. Check out DZ’s interviews with Mbird friend Scott Jones over on the Give and Take podcast, and the 1517 crew’s Banned Books podcast. And in the ICYMI category, #Seculosity made the Washington Post last weekend.

The book arrives on Tuesday of next week, and that Amazon price drop is still going at the time of writing. If you haven’t preordered, run, don’t walk! Now, on to our regularly scheduled weekender:

1. Exhibit A regarding the insufficiency of the law: this week’s leggings row at Notre Dame. A student’s mother wrote into the campus newspaper after seeing the skin-tight yoga pants worn by Fighting Irish undergrads. Her earnest plea that campus women consider lustful boys and the Catholic mothers steering them into godly manhood was completely sincere (with a ‘woke’ analysis of Princess Leia’s slave outfit from Return of the Jedi), charmingly self-effacing, saturated with law, and met with total rebellion. Calls for organized protest rang out, and this past Tuesday was dubbed “Leggings Pride Day.” Reports the Washington Post:

Although more than 1,000 people responded to the group’s Facebook event, it’s unclear exactly how many took part. Dani Green, a PhD student in English at Notre Dame and a founding member of the group, told The Washington Post in a Twitter message that it had been “a little difficult to tell what was protest and what was everyday legging-wear,” in part because the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

Tell people not to wear leggings, and they wear leggings. It’s as simple as that. The sentiment itself isn’t the problem — the mother rightly notes that the leggings conversation has as much to do with the oversexualization of women as it does with poor lustful boys. And yet, the law always [always always] increases the trespass.

2. Contrast the leggings row with the research coming out from Ecuador’s unique gang violence interventions. It’s always a stretch to claim the gospel at work in international relations, but every now and then, a counter-intuitive piece of public policy emerges that hints at the “deeper magic” of transforming grace. Case in point: Ecuador’s murder rate dropped by two-thirds between 2007 and 2017 as it shifted its policies toward “legalizing” urban street gangs.

The article at Vox goes into the finer details of how the policy was implemented, but the theological crux of the article comes at the end, when sociologist David Brotherton explains the success of the program in academic terms:

There’s this idea known as “deviance amplification” — basically, when you want to stop a behavior, the worst thing you can do is prohibit it. Social inclusion is the most productive means of social control. You have to have a system where most of people’s engagement with the authorities is as positive as possible.

Deviance amplification is, of course, yet another way of saying “the law increased the trespass,” but in Ecuador, we find that social inclusion led to positive behavior change, and not the other way around. One might say that belonging and belief lead to the behavior, rather than behavior and belief earning belonging, and that’s as true of the urban gang member as it is the churchgoing sinner. See also: this highlight from last August about Evangelicalism and MS-13 in El Salvador.

3. The social science essay of the week comes to us from Charlotte Lieberman. Her article, Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)is a deep dive in to the pleasure of putting things off. The title is, according to research, completely accurate. Procrastination is closely related with our mood and emotional health, not our time management skills or willpower. After going exploring a growing body of research, Lieberman writes:

We must realize that, at its core, procrastination is about emotions, not productivity. The solution doesn’t involve downloading a time management app or learning new strategies for self-control. It has to do with managing our emotions in a new way.

For anyone caught up in the vicious cycle of self-flagellation via chronic procrastination, this could be a helpful avenue for moving forward. Let’s take the cultural shame of weak willpower off the table and address the issue from the context of a broken will. The article continues on to suggest a few solutions that might help we contemporary procrastinators:

One option is to forgive yourself in the moments you procrastinate. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam. They concluded that self-forgiveness supported productivity by allowing “the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts.”

Another tactic is the related practice of self-compassion, which is treating ourselves with kindness and understanding in the face of our mistakes and failures. In a 2012 study examining the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination, Dr. Sirois found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, suggesting that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events.”

In fact, several studies show that self-compassion supports motivation and personal growth. Not only does it decrease psychological distress, which we now know is a primary culprit for procrastination, it also actively boosts motivationenhances feelings of self-worth and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative. Best of all, self-compassion doesn’t require anything external — just a commitment to meeting your challenges with greater acceptance and kindness rather than rumination and regret.

Beneath all the self-help language, the studies are showing that the answers to procrastination are forgiveness and compassion, i.e. grace. And while yours truly has serious skepticism regarding the claim that grace and forgiveness “don’t require anything external,” I happen to know of an external source of grace and forgiveness that is immediately accessible and eternally available. (It’s the Gospel, people. I’m talking about the Gospel. This article basically says that the Gospel is the solution to procrastination.)

4. Christian Wiman was interviewed over at The New Criterion, discussing his latest and best regarded poetry. Regarding Wiman’s reflection that his “obsessions” are clear and evident, if not fully formed, in his early work, TNC takes it from there:

tnc: What are some of those obsessions?

cw: What might the word “faith” mean to a modern person? What does it mean to speak in appropriate language of God or godlessness? What does suffering mean, and what does suffering have to do with God? I see those obsessions everywhere in those early poems, though I wasn’t fully aware of them.

tnc: You’ve referred more then once in your work to the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, as you put it, “defined faith as primarily faithfulness to a time when we had faith.”

cw: Yes, that’s been another obsession, these moments of radical awareness, of joy. It’s not simply a discipline of memory. There’s a hopefulness; there’s something that propels one forward. I feel a real analogy between a life of poetry and a life of faith, because I have often felt that poetry gives me the moments of greatest elation in my life. It’s also very true that there have been times, many times, when I wished poetry would just leave me alone.

5. This week in humor, from The Onion: I Guess I’m Only Tough On Stains Because My Dad Was So Tough On Me.

I feel absolutely terrible about the times I’ve taken things too far, completely snapping and going off on a simple grass stain with the full strength of my oxy-boosted scrubbing action. Only when it’s too late do I come to my senses and see I’ve left a faded discoloration on a pant leg. Well, that’s on me, friends. My dad may have taken out his frustrations on me, but that doesn’t give me the right to take out mine on ground-in chocolate sauce, hitting it so hard that by the time I’m finished, there’s nothing left but a fresh, long-lasting scent.

Also, Obituaries for the Recently Cancelled:

After many close brushes with cancellation, Jeremy Warble, a 30-year-old bartender and drummer, was canceled on Friday after asking exactly zero questions on a Tinder date. Mr. Warble’s earlier, narrowly evaded cancellations include: a culturally appropriative Halloween costume, repeatedly DMing a woman without receiving a response, and a conspicuous silence on social media during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings.

6. Another week, another attempt to integrate artificial intelligence into the deepest realms of human life. First up, the Should This Exist podcast examines whether Woebot, a smartphone AI programmed to run Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is a helpful aid for the mentally overwhelmed or another way to digitally isolate us away from community. Renowned couples therapist Esther Perel makes an appearance, and her critique of AI therapy is helpful:

AI stands for artificial intelligence, but it also stands for artificial intimacy. And this idea that you can create robotics, machines, apps, bots that will talk to you, and answer you the way that you would want to be answered to, and that you can suspend the idea that it has actually been programmed, that it is pretend, that you are free from the iterative and the reiteration of relationships — that the fake will be as good as the real, like, Las Vegas.

Our thoughts and our distortions are often over-generalizations, but a bot itself is an artifact of over-generalization because it goes for the most common denominator. It simplifies. Otherwise, you can’t scale stuff. All of these things will on some level reduce our expectations of relationships.

Everything about AI is about systematizing, simplifying, and about preventing risk, minimizing risk, and giving you a false sense of control over your life, rather than understanding that your life comes with negative thoughts and negative emotions and that often they are actually the right emotions to have for the circumstances you’re in.

The whole cast is worth a listen, especially if the idea of AI therapy is an automatic “heck no” in your book. Problems of scale, the importance of a 12-step sponsor, and the push to give everyone access to some kind of mental health treatment are all pieces to a complex puzzle, and the podcast does a good job of filling out the possibilities and the pitfalls.

See also from the Wall Street Journal, Deus Ex Machina: Religions Use Robots to Connect with the Public, which looks at the development of Alexa-style AI mounted in small Catholic saints shrine statues.

Gabriele Trovato is worried about tomorrow. Or at least that’s what he confesses to SanTO, one of his religion-inspired robots. Just shy of 17 inches tall, SanTO resembles those small figurines of saints often found in Catholic homes — except with a computer, microphone, sensors and a facial recognition-enabled camera. As Mr. Trovato touches and speaks to the machine, its deep, echoing voice responds with a Bible quote: “From the Gospel according to Matthew,” it says, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Not that I need another voice of law in my life, though maybe if I had a SanTO that only quoted to me the Comforting Words from the Book of Common Prayer, I’d be more sympathetic to it.

Yet still, I think Ester Perel’s critique of AI therapy stands in for these AI saints. Artificial Intimacy and Artificial Incarnation perhaps? Certainly there’s artificial absolution involved. Let’s wrap it together with our procrastination article from before and tie this bow on it: some problems need external, objective solutions. Algorithms don’t ‘know’ you, but a good counselor and a good priest certainly would. And as we all know, if you want to be loved, you have to submit to the horrifying ordeal of being known.

7. Rounding out our week, we’ll give the last word to Dan van Voorhis over at 1517, whose clever twist on St. Francis’s apocryphal quote is worth your time: “Preach the Law, Use Words if Necessary.”

If you’ve ever been in an ambulance (because you yourself needed the ambulance), you know the fear of staring up at the paramedics as they try to stabilize you on the way to the hospital. While there might be initial fear, and even pain, it is a best practice to follow the instructions, or possibly just get out of the way, of those in charge of getting you to the physician. What if I were to refuse this or that ambulance because I didn’t care for the tone of one siren or the size of its rear cab? You would think that I was insane (funny enough, when I went in my first ambulance it was on account of a kind of insanity, yet I still got in the ambulance). Preaching the Law is like getting in the ambulance. Just as the paramedic takes you to the physician, the Law takes you, like a beggar, to the alien word of righteousness from another.


#MbirdTyler19 is next week! Join us for the fun in Tyler TX, April 5 and 6, where DZ, Sarah Condon, Steve Brown, and many other friends will break down “The Future of Grace.”

• Another gem from The Onion: Self-Actualized Historians Urge Nation Not To Get Too Hung Up On The Past.

• #MbirdNYC19 speaker Alfie Kohn makes an appearance this week in The Atlantic’s review of the state of homework research. Take a look if you want to see why we’re so excited to host him next month!

• New York Conference speaker emeritus Oliver Burkeman’s latest in The Guardian is also worth your time: “Why Feedback Is Never Worthwhile.”

• Readers of DZ’s first book will know his affinity for Scott Walker, who died this week. DZ commends this article from The New Yorker.