Another Week Ends

1. First up, Peter Ormerod contributed a fantastic op-ed to the Guardian defending “unconscious bias […]

CJ Green / 10.9.20

1. First up, Peter Ormerod contributed a fantastic op-ed to the Guardian defending “unconscious bias training.” For those unfamiliar, many major institutions have begun programs aimed at combatting bias against race, sexuality, gender, etc., under the assumption that “some of our beliefs may be held so deeply that we are unaware of them.” As Ormerod points out, there has been some backlash against the effort, suggesting that it is “leftist infiltration” or even “Orwellian.” But, he says, despite its modern lingo, “bias training” actually has precedents at least 2,000 years old:

The conventional Christian understanding of sin seems to me entirely consistent with ideas about racism that appear to some as modern. Christianity asserts that sin is embedded deep in the human condition. Racism is one of its vilest manifestations; there is every reason to expect it to work in us as sin does generally.

Christianity understands that sin isn’t all about the bad things we consciously do. As various liturgies put it, we sin not just “through our own deliberate fault”, but also “through negligence, through weakness”. We “have left undone those things that we ought to have done”. One can sin by omission.

Which takes us to the idea that people can be unaware or ignorant of their own failings. It’s about as orthodox as it gets. According to the gospels, Jesus spent much of his ministry decrying self-righteousness, attacking those who believed themselves to be untouched by sin. […]

Further, we are often driven by forces and desires we fail to grasp or fully apprehend. Saint Paul was honest about this. “I do not understand my own actions,” he wrote. “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He went on: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” More of us could do with that self-awareness. We can say we hate racism, we can campaign against it, we can damn others as racist. But that doesn’t make us immune to it.

And because institutions are made by people, it follows that these too can harbour and nurture and propagate sin. They may not know are doing it, or want to be doing it. They may say they’re not doing it; they may even say they oppose it. Yet they may still do it. […]

There are those who say the church should talk about sin less. I say it should talk about it more. The bleak stuff is a part of it, because it is a part of us. But allied to it are remarkable, life-giving ideas the world needs more of: repentance, atonement, forgiveness, redemption, salvation. And most radical of all is the conviction that, in spite of all our failings, each of us has equal, infinite and inherent worth, and each of us is loved.

2. Next, I couldn’t not mention Sam Anderson’s wonderful New York Times essay about the NBA bubble. When you have the word “transcendent” subheading an article about basketball, you know it’s Mbird material.

Anderson describes the bubble as “a circus crossed with a corporate retreat crossed with a space mission. It was March Madness in Versailles.” He details the sense of dislocation from the outside world. Once inside, his whole universe revolved around the game, even as protests against police brutality swept the world beyond the bubble, alongside a nonstop flood of political turbulence.

During games, Anderson would text with his wife regularly. Once, she responded with a pointed question: “Do you feel weird caring so much [about basketball] when there are so many more important things to care about?”

I recognized this as an excellent question. It was, in a way, the crucial question of the bubble, and maybe even of America writ large: Does basketball matter? Does entertainment matter? In a world where governments are rotting from the inside out, where people are gasping for breath, why would we spend any resources on games, distraction, theater? What did it mean that our country’s most visible model of health and normalcy and logistical competence were coming from a professional sports league?

“Well, yes,” I responded. I did feel weird. Part of me sees basketball as embarrassingly adolescent, a costly distraction — Exhibit A for the way societies prioritize exactly the wrong things. The hours of attention I pour every month into sports could be poured into activism, outreach, gardening, exercise, calling my congresspeople.

Another part of me, though, is not embarrassed at all. Sports, at its best, answers a deep human need. We are ravenous for meaning. We want to know that what we do matters, because lord knows there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. Play is a bubble inside of which meaning is undisputed. […]

The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, in his classic 1938 book, “Homo Ludens” (“Playing Man”), argues that civilization itself springs from the urge to play games — that play is the master impulse behind humankind’s most sacred behaviors. “The turf, the tennis court, the chessboard and pavement hopscotch cannot formally be distinguished from the temple or the magic circle,” Huizinga writes. And: “The concept of play merges quite naturally with that of holiness.”

You could call it the grace of distraction, or the ultimate distraction of grace. Which presents the perfect opportunity to plug our magazine’s upcoming Sports Issue, coming soon to a mailbox near you. If you’re not yet subscribed, do yourself a favor.

3. In terms of all that stuff “outside the bubble” — you know, politics — a few brief quotes. In a recent PBS Newshour interview, Pete Peterson (who has been studying the epidemic of loneliness) commented on the decline of civil discourse (ht JT):

… these increasing senses of loneliness and disconnection from one another and disconnection from civic institutions, from churches to civil society, has forced people to find their identity almost explicitly, if not completely, in politics.

And once we find our identity completely in politics, that really does exacerbate these tribal tendencies that we see. We don’t see these mediating forces of identity that we have always had access to in America, from our local communities, to our churches and faith organizations, to broader civil society.

And with the withering of those connections, we, as human beings, will seek that connection. And, unfortunately, we have seen a lot of emphasis now put on our political identities.

On a similar note, a quote from essayist Camille Paglia has been re-circulating this week. In a 2018 interview, Paglia argued, “Those who invest all of their spiritual energies in politics will reap the whirlwind. The evidence is all around us — the paroxysms of inchoate, infantile rage suffered by those who have turned fallible politicians into saviors and devils, godlike avatars of Good and Evil.” Bold! And much Seculosity.

4. Recently on this site, we’ve dedicated quite a bit of space to Anne Helen Petersen, and are likely to continue to do so. (Check back next week for a full review of her book, Can’t Even. I think almost every Millennial on our staff is reading it.) Petersen has a knack for articulating the specific unspoken laws governing modern life and for putting them in the context of wider generational trends. Not only that but she proves incredibly empathetic. In a brief interview with the Atlantic, Petersen points toward the causes of burnout:

Joe Pinsker: What connections do you see between how many Millennials were raised and how burned out many of them are now, as adults?

Anne Helen Petersen: There are two major factors. The first is conceiving of children as mini-adults — trying to cultivate behaviors, postures, and skills that are associated with adults, like being able to carry on conversations with adults or advocating for themselves when they feel something is unfair. I think we often admire that sort of precociousness without understanding what’s lost when you cultivate that in a child. The other component is thinking of childhood as a means to an end, and that end is getting into a good college. So instead of viewing childhood as simply childhood, parents are thinking, How can these various experiences — everything from playdates to piano lessons — lead to this larger résumé-building path to college?

When childhood is treated that way, it can eliminate space for the formation of personality, independence, or confidence. Anything not oriented toward that goal of college — things like hobbies — gets lost. One of the saddest things I heard when talking to many Millennials is that when they reach a point of exhaustion with work, lift their head up, and look around them, they’re like, What else is there? Do I have a personality? Do I know what I like? There’s no there there, other than their ability to work, and I think that’s really difficult. […]

Pinsker: Near the end of the book, you say that one of the best pieces of advice you’ve heard for reducing burnout isn’t about reducing it for yourself, but considering how your own behavior enflames and encourages it in other people.

Along these lines, Devon Price wrote an excellent post for Medium, contrasting today’s presiding euphemisms (“Zoom fatigue,” “weird times,” “doomscrolling”) with the more dire reality of what such terms are trying to sum up. For instance:

Have you been “doomscrolling,” or is your one remaining window to the broader social word an algorithmically poisoned app where everyone is constantly broadcasting their trauma and panic, and your only means of exercising any control over an unpredictable reality is by consuming more and more of it?

Are you “keeping busy,” or have you been browbeaten into believing that any hour not put to some clear productive use is an hour you have squandered, and thus an hour that brings you closer to death, and so you must spend every free moment exercising, baking sourdough, improving your interior design, upgrading your workspace, practicing a foreign language on Duolingo, and learning how to code?

5. If comedy is tragedy plus timing, then it’s about time for something funny. McSweeney’s published a laugh-out-loud list of “Scary Costume Ideas for Halloween 2020,” among them “one ill-timed cough,” and “a guy standing five feet away.”

And from the Reductress, this headline feels all too real: “Existential Crisis Now Factored Into Morning Routine.”

Queens resident Tanya Greene has taken an inventive lifestyle approach to address the growing stress and morning anxiety she’s been feeling: She simply incorporates her daily existential crisis into her morning routine. […]

Greene has since incorporated her daily existential crisis by waking up slightly earlier and squeezing in a solid 15 minutes to lose her shit right after her morning coffee, and before her shower. “Sometimes it takes a bit longer and I have to cry in the shower, but that’s all good,” Greene added.

6. Personally, I have grown to love the bourgeoning genre of blistering literary criticism. It seems that for many, there is nothing so personally affronting as being pressured into reading something. The latest review that tickled me was Emily Hill’s takedown of “the cult” of Sally Rooney. No offense to Rooney, or lovers of Rooney, but one can’t deny the imperative accompanying any mention of her name. The critic, Hill, derides Normal People as a prime example of “chic lit,” books that double as status symbols.

The American website Vox explains: ‘It is now aspirational to be the kind of person who has read Sally Rooney. She is a signifier of a certain kind of literary chic: if you read Sally Rooney … you’re smart, but you’re also fun — and you’re also cool enough to be suspicious of both “smart” and “fun” as general concepts.’

… a girl is no longer free to find her own way — to be educated by surprise. Everything is curated or recommended by people already indoctrinated into the chic lit cult. Before she sashayed off to head up her own imprint at Hogarth, Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker was instructing members of the American Library Association what to borrow. On googling her ‘picks’, I found her verdict on Rooney’s Conversations with Friends: ‘This book. This book. I read it in one day. I hear I’m not alone.’ If that is her definition of a ‘good’ book, where — I howl — can I find all the books she wouldn’t be seen dead with? You can read these books in one day not because they’re brilliant, or because you’re brilliant, but because they’re undemanding. This then is the real marketing genius: to have persuaded the public that high-end airport fiction is in fact a masterpiece.

7. What DIY projects have you been up to lately? As someone who should definitively never attempt to DIY, I have spent my pandemic installing kitchen shelves, turning a new garden bed, and *attempting* to realign the wheels of my lawnmower. According to Amanda Mull, this is all par for the course:

“Humans have a need to be competent, to feel like they have some control over their existence,” says Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, especially when they’re feeling emotionally tender and isolated. “Nesting” is another way to describe the impulse that is likely driving many of the newly minted DIYers, she told me. It’s a desire to eliminate your home’s nuisances and aggravations in order to maximize comfort. One way that’s done, Augustin said, is by moderating the complexity of your space. […]

DIYing, as a pursuit, has some baked-in advantages in these bizarre times. Namely, it’s just you, doing things by yourself in the safety of your own home, without the intervention of outside disease vectors — er, professionals — unless you screw something up. New technology has met the moment. … Then, too, if you’re one of the millions of newly unemployed Americans, finding a way to feel useful might help combat the depressing aimlessness of being out of work — and the internet is teeming with guides for free or low-cost home-improvement projects.

Three cheers, then, for DIY projects! Even when we fail, at least the project offered some distraction, if momentarily, from the uncontrollable mess beyond our own little walls.

8. Lastly, a wonderful video devotional from Fr. Tim Sean Youmans at St. Paul’s Cathedral in OKC — featuring a reading from Mockingbird’s Love and Death Issue. (Thank you for the kind words, Fr. Tim Sean!)


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One response to “Another Week Ends: Unconscious Sin, the NBA Bubble, the Religion of Politics, Millennial Burnout, Scary Halloween Costumes, Sally Rooney, and Eddie Van Halen”

  1. Brian says:

    Regarding #1, interesting that the self righteous sinners are subjected to training by the self righteous sinners. The Guardian guy only sees one side of the ledger. Be careful invoking Christ for one’s racist or anti-racist cause.

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