Another Week Ends

Untangled Forgiveness, Lee Ross’s Error, the Tyranny of Positivity, Peloton Shaming, Ted Lasso, Artificial Spirituality, and Mr. Tiger’s Cave House

David Zahl / 7.23.21

1. Goodness gracious, this first one! Erstwhile NY Times columnist and current Atlantic columnist Elizabeth Bruenig finally got the opportunity to talk at some length on a topic that has gotten her in hot water on social media, and she did not disappoint. That subject is Forgiveness. Speaking to Sean Illing at Vox, Bruenig invoked her Christian faith at length, bringing refreshing clarity and charity, as well an alarming amount of insight, to bear on this touchiest yet most essential of f-words. Hard to pare it down for our purposes so please, uh, forgive the overlong excerpts:

Forgiveness doesn’t undo the fact of the offense, nor does forgiveness suggest that the offense wasn’t really that bad. So a lot of the time when you read people thinking through forgiveness, what you actually see them doing is trying to find ways to mitigate the offense. People will say, “Well, I wanted to forgive this person, and so I took into account that they didn’t really mean it. They were young, they were ill,” etc., etc.

But the truth is that forgiveness pertains to a situation in which the person is guilty and culpable. That is when the question of forgiveness actually opens. It does not open up when you have a situation where somebody is not responsible for the offense. That’s not forgiveness. Forgiveness is when you decide to permanently forgo seeking restitution or vengeance — or however you want to think about it — for an offense that someone really did commit. […]

Whatever forgiveness is, and I do think it is a personal virtue as well as a social virtue, it’s certainly not something you do for your own pleasure or your own health. The person doing the forgiving isn’t getting a lot of bang for their buck. The person who benefits way out of proportion to what they’ve done is the offender. But that raises an important point: Forgiveness is not deserved by definition. It’s not something somebody earns. It’s something that’s freely given […]

I definitely think that the Internet is very good at inflaming our worst tendencies. And one of those is the tendency to discipline and punish and prosecute, not for safety, not for the preservation of community, but just for fun […]

At the same time, I don’t think people have ever been especially forgiving. I don’t think we need to be too down on ourselves because I think it’s just a perennially difficult thing. I look back at late antiquity and the early medieval period and the stuff I studied in grad school, and those are definitely not what I’d call especially merciful times or forgiving people. They knew it was important, they thought about it, they wrote about it, it was a virtue on their minds. But in just looking how society played out, it was something that, to borrow from Updike, was on their minds much more than on their schedules.

You’ll note that most of their discussion revolves around the granting of forgiveness. (Don’t you worry, she notes that ultimate forgiveness may be a law that’s beyond human capability to fulfill). So I appreciated that she surfaced the other side of the coin toward the end:

It’s also hard to be forgiven. There are so many issues with respect to pride and ego and accepting fault, and there are feelings of condescension and suspicions of having something lorded over you. So part of forgiving is to stand humbly and say, “I’m not kidding. I’m serious. It’s forgiven.”

2. On May 14th, legendary psychologist Lee Ross died, but the Times didn’t run their lengthy obit until last month. It naturally underlined Ross’s key discovery, and one that longtime readers / listeners will recognize: the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is about as foundational a social science finding as there could be for those interested in self-justification. The Nonzero newsletter issued a primer on the concept, the key paragraphs being:

It turns out that our tendency to attribute people’s behavior to disposition rather than situation isn’t as general as Ross and other psychologists originally thought. There are two notable exceptions to it:

(1) If an enemy or rival does something good, we’re inclined to attribute the behavior to situation. (Granted, my rival for the affections of the woman I love did give money to a homeless man, but that was just to impress the woman I love, not because he’s actually a nice guy!) (2) If a friend or ally does something bad, we’re inclined to attribute the behavior to situation. (Yes, my golf buddy embezzled millions of dollars, but his wife was ill, and health care is expensive—plus, there was the mistress to support!)

3. Next up, therapist Esther Perel spoke to GQ about “the tyranny of positivity” that haunts our day-to-day, both outside the church and inside it, and her observations were characteristically trenchant. The great American commandment of Thou Shalt Be Happy, it turns out, seems to produce the opposite result:

The tyranny of positivity is a burden. Happiness is an outcome, not a mandate, because the mandate of happiness makes you constantly have to wonder, “Am I happy? Am I happy enough? Could I be happier?” So it becomes, how do I know? And then it becomes massive uncertainty, massive self-doubt […]

The depression and anxiety of today is the mirror response to the pressure on happiness. You can’t be sad. You can’t be blue, melancholic. Then you get the permission to be sad if you’re depressed. So let’s pathologize it. And if depression isn’t enough, let’s say you’ve had trauma.

Trauma is the licensed language to talk about pain and suffering at this moment. That doesn’t mean there is no trauma, but it means that if we say the word trauma, it gives me permission to say, “I have pain and I have suffered, and it was hard, and I have legacies from it.” … in society, there is a direct correlation between the pressure to be happy and the release valve that comes through the trauma.

4. Over at Jezebel Shannon Meloro penned an indictment of Peloton trainer/personality Robin Arzon — and the culture she represents — uncovering what can only be called a devastating amount of #seculosity. The second paragraph made me almost guffaw in disbelief, having just returned from a trip to an affluent beach community full of extremely fit yet extremely anxious people. Not-enoughness sells even faster at the top of the food chain, my friends:

Modern health and wellness is built on the hollowed-out carcass of classic diet culture, which is built over the grave of overt fatphobia. Arzón and others like her can inspire and coddle an audience until they’re blue in the face, but when you peel back the glitter, what’s left is a naked desire to be thin and beautiful and a reminder that one can never be enough of both.

No matter what advice Arzón gave in relation to being mentally strong, it all came back to the body. “Our ability to combat stress is directly related to how healthy we can be in our bodies,” Arzón said during a lesson about food. There was no escaping the subliminal messaging that if I ever wanted to become the woman that Arzón was telling me I could be, I had to have a different, better, high-performance body.

The positive reframing of jealousy (envy) toward the end was particularly rich. Oy vey. Yet while we’re on the subject, Same Old Song co-host Aaron Zimmerman just got to do something jealousy-inducing on his sabbatical:

5. In more uplifting cultural news, the premiere of Season 2 of Ted Lasso drops today! The reviews have been uniformly positive, almost shockingly so. The Week ran a good one. Meanwhile GQ published a lengthy profile of the show’s creator and lead actor Jason Sudeikis in which he let slip a few Lasso-like tidbits. [FYI, there are 206 bones in the human body, so the 412 is a reference to every one of them being broken]:

But [Jason] acknowledged it had been a hard year. Not necessarily a bad one, but a hard one. “I think it was really neat,” he said. “I think if you have the opportunity to hit a rock bottom, however you define that, you can become 412 bones or you can land like an Avenger. I personally have chosen to land like an Avenger.”

Is that easier said than done? To land like an Avenger? “I don’t know. It’s just how I landed. It doesn’t mean when you blast back up you’re not going to run into a bunch of shit and have to, you know, fight things to get back to the heights that you were at, but I’d take that over 412 bones anytime.”

He paused, then continued: “But there is power in creating 412 bones! Because we all know that a bone, up to a certain age, when it heals, it heals stronger. So, I mean, it’s not to knock anybody that doesn’t land like an Avenger. Because there’s strength in that too.”

6. Humor: In the Hard Times,God Updates LinkedIn Title to ‘Content Creation Ninja’” and “Cool New Factory Opens in Renovated Nightclub” and Reductress weighed in with “Woman Snoozing Alarm Treats Herself to Another 20 Minutes of Anxiety” and “Friend Who Followed Her Dreams Unfortunately Doing Pretty Well.” Oh and this may not be funny, but it is utterly entrancing:

7. Finally, in the NY Times Magazine, Linda Kinstler asks “Can Silicon Valley find God?” speaking with a number of the groups currently trying to bridge the gap between technology and religion, mainly for the sake of how Artificial Intelligence is developed. According to most of the experts she polls, the engineers pushing AI forward are having to grapple with all the major questions about what it means to be human, but are doing so in isolation from those who’ve been asking those questions for the past, um, 4000 years. Danger, Will Robinson!

I’ll be honest, the article makes me profoundly nervous, especially given the way that the medium has become the message, i.e. the way that smartphone technology has shaped the way we think — as well as what we deem thinkable. I’m convinced that tech at this point exists upstream from pretty much everything else in life, from politics to culture to relationships to, yes, religion. It’s consoling to know groups like AI and Faith are not only trying to stand in the breach, but that their efforts are being reported on in such large platforms:

Amid increasing scrutiny of technology’s role in everything from policing to politics, “ethics” had become an industry safe word, but no one seemed to agree on what those “ethics” were … Silicon Valley is rife with its own doctrines; there are the rationalists, the techno-utopians, the militant atheists. Many technologists seem to prefer to consecrate their own religions rather than ascribe to the old ones, discarding thousands of years of humanistic reasoning and debate along the way.

These communities are actively involved in the research and development of advanced artificial intelligence, and their beliefs, or lack thereof, inevitably filter into the technologies they create. It is difficult not to remark upon the fact that many of those beliefs, such as that advanced artificial intelligence could destroy the known world, or that humanity is destined to colonize Mars, are no less leaps of faith than believing in a kind and loving God…

In my conversations with A.I. and Faith members and others working toward similar goals, I often found myself marveling at their moral clarity. Each in their own way, they were working to use their religious traditions toward advancing social justice and combating the worst impulses of capitalism. They seemed to share an admirable humility about what they do not and cannot know about the world; it is a humility that the technology industry — and its political and legal offshoots — sorely lacks.

Over the course of my reporting, I often thought back to the experience of Rob Barrett, who worked as a researcher at IBM in the ’90s. One day, he was outlining the default privacy settings for an early web browser feature. His boss, he said, gave him only one instruction: “Do the right thing.” It was up to Mr. Barrett to decide what the “right thing” was. That was when it dawned on him: “I don’t know enough theology to be a good engineer,” he told his boss. He requested a leave of absence so he could study the Old Testament, and eventually he left the industry.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the most prophetic and important movie of the past 15 years is Spike Jonze’s Her.

A Few Music-Related Strays:

  • The Killers announced a new album for August, and the cover is, well, pretty cruciform. See above.
  • Wonderful review of The Mountain Goats new Jonah-inspired record Dark in Here (heh) over at Christianity Today.
  • Speaking of CT, allow me to triple down on Todd and Bryan’s recommendation of their The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast. Absorbing, gracious, upsetting, bracing, surprisingly widescreen, incredibly well produced, it’s essential listening for anyone interested in contemporary American Christianity (not just Evangelicalism). Bravo, Mike Cosper! I look forward to each new episode.
  • Finally, some of us are still reeling from Jim Steinman’s death a few months ago. If you’re looking for some unearthed gold from the Meatloaf maestro, be sure to check out the demos of his Batman musical that almost got produced.