Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Don't just find Waldo. Look at the rest of the picture.

In last week's election, I voted Democrat all the way down the line, as I have done in most elections ever since I was old enough to vote (1991). I'm not entirely in agreement with everything the Left does, but I like the Left a whole hell of a lot more than I like the Right. Furthermore, there are broad ideas of what the left and right are all about, and I relate to the ones on the left and feel alienated by the ones on the right, which sounds like a stupid reason to align oneself with one party or another, but I think everyone does it. Most people just don't admit it.

I mean, the Left is about cosmopolitanism and intellect and museums and adventurous eating and adventurous travel and diversity and curiosity and inclusiveness and compassion, all of which are things I love. The Right is about hating anyone who isn't a straight, white, rich man and irrationality and religious dogma and conformity and Wal-Mart and xenophobia and prudery and high fructose corn syrup. I defy you to look inside yourself and honestly say that this idea of what the left and right represent is not a major factor in your alignment with whichever side you say you're on. This is not to say that Romney and co. were not deeply scary this year, with their ideas about women's health and healthcare in general, but think about why you generally label yourself the way you do.

This idea of mine was validated when I read David Brooks' The Social Animal, which posits that party identification fits a "social-identity model." But I may not be allowed to say that and still call myself liberal, because Brooks is known as "conservative." And that problem is at the root of what I call "Where's Waldo" news-reading.

"Where's Waldo" is a series of fun and delightful children's books that present big, complicated pictures of crowd scenes and such, where children can find Waldo hidden somewhere in the crowd, wearing his signature red-and-white striped shirt. Where's Waldo news-reading is much less delightful, but I call it that because it uses the same mechanism as finding Waldo: Knowing what you're looking for before you've seen the picture. Ignoring the rest of the picture.

As much as I feel aligned with the Left, I'm disappointed by how much of this has gone on among us, especially during this last election. It seems more like something the Right would do (and the Right does it too, rampantly, but you would expect it of them, so that's not as noteworthy).

For example, I get updates on my Facebook page from an organization that promotes "attachment parenting," a practice that's aligned with the Left despite the anti-feminist element of it that exhorts women to be tied to their children to such a degree that they can't do anything else. Attachment parenting involves breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and various other practices that keep a baby and its mother physically attached at all times. I agree, to a point, with that philosophy--I do think it's excellent for the mama-baby bond to be as close as possible with your baby--though I feel that there are exceptions and one shouldn't be dogmatic about it.

So this organization posted a link to a Fox News article that cited a study that found breastfeeding makes new mothers less stressed out, but co-sleeping makes them more stressed out. They posted the link on Facebook without any commentary.

My heart sank as soon as I saw that the link was from Fox News. Because then I knew that the organization hadn't posted it in a "here's an interesting article" sort of way. They posted it with the preconceived conclusion that it was evil and wrong, because everything Fox News says is evil and wrong and filled with right-wing "bias" (despite the fact that just about all journalism is agenda-driven, and Fox News is just more boorish than average about it). So essentially, they were asking readers to search the story and find the bias, in a "Where's Waldo" sort of way. That's how it works: First, notice that the article comes from Fox News; second, find what's evil and wrong about it. Third, beat your chest in righteous self-satisfaction.

With a deep sigh of frustration, I searched for and found Waldo. The Waldo in this instance is the idea that co-sleeping could ever be anything but wonderful and perfect all the time. Because only Evil Republicans like the ones who agree with Fox News would ever have a problem with co-sleeping. And problems with co-sleeping ALWAYS stem from Evil Republican beliefs about it being "unsafe" that stem from conservative dogmas that venerate 1950s-style child-rearing. (The study's other finding--that breastfeeding is good for mothers--is agreeable to attachment-parenting advocates, and thus is not Waldo, so doesn't matter.)

Personally, I AM stressed out by co-sleeping. When I do it--more often than I'd like, because a lot of the time my son refuses to sleep unless he can sleep in my bed--I don't sleep as well. I'm too preoccupied with his well-being. I feel like I'm parenting in my sleep. I feel like I don't get a break from active parenting even while I'm asleep. I'm constantly waking up and trying to see if he's asleep and if he's okay and what he's doing. Sure, I did this more when he was younger, but I still do it. I believe that being well-rested makes me a better mom, even if that entails sleeping while not being in physical contact with my son. He also takes up lots of space in the bed, giving me less space, especially when he insists on sleeping horizontally with his feet in my face. Sometimes he wakes me up in the morning by pulling everything that's on the headboard down onto my head. Sound stressful? It is. Maybe we should get a new bed, one that's larger, which would necessitate moving into a larger house, and that's not stressful at all, right?

My experience with breastfeeding also falls in line with the results of this study: It makes me feel relaxed and connected and full of warm well-being. I'm very happy that I chose to nurse.

So I'm saying, in a sense, that I "agree" with the article. I mean, I don't agree with it in the sense that I think mothers "shouldn't" co-sleep--far be it from me to tell anyone else what they should do--and I don't agree with it in the sense that I'm certain the study was valid--what do I know about whether the study was valid?--but I agree with it in the sense that my personal experience jibes with the results of the study.

And the implication of this is that I'm a Republican, just because I read a Fox News article and didn't find it completely abhorrent. Despite not having EVER voted Republican. Because that's what Where's Waldo news-reading does. It disallows readers from considering ideas. It tells you what your opinion should be, before it even tells you what subject you're having an opinion about. It penalizes you for thinking critically, in the sense of, "You must not be one of us, if you don't mindlessly follow our dogma." The link says "Fox News," so you know you're supposed to hate it before you even click on it, and then, when you find Waldo (i.e. you find the part you're supposed to hate), you can breathe a sigh of relief. I'm one of you after all!

But if someone tells you that Waldo is hiding somewhere in a picture, it's always possible to find him. And if you believe that the whole point is to find Waldo, you stop engaging with ideas. You stop looking at the rest of the picture. You label something evil and wrong, and only afterward look for reasons why, which one can always find.

Four people commented on the Facebook post. Two of them didn't even MENTION the content of the article--they only mentioned the fact that it came from Fox News. One of them said, "Hell of a thing to wake up to Fox News and their 'studies'"; the other said, "Umm, why do we watch Fox News again?"

The other two used logical fallacies to "debunk" the article, dutifully finding Waldo and pointing him out.

One respondent said the study was invalid because it was done only on new moms, who are stressed out by co-sleeping only because they've been frightened by "the media" about "how dangerous it is," and once they get "accustomed" to doing it, they begin sleeping better. How does she know that all moms who find co-sleeping stressful feel that way because they've been brainwashed by the media to believe it's dangerous? What if there's some other reason? Like, say, the use of a plastic alarm clock to awaken a mother by hitting her in the head with it? The placing of a tiny hand on a sleeping mother's jugular vein and using that hand to support all 27 pounds of one's body weight?

The other commenter bragged that she gets nine hours of sleep a night while co-sleeping and her "cortisol levels are pretty awesome right now." She then qualified this statement by saying she's on her third child, so she's "perfected the art of co-sleeping" by now. Which implies that co-sleeping is an art that needs to be perfected, which sounds like hard work to me. Given what hard work motherhood in general is, taking on the task of "perfecting an art" on top of all that other stuff sounds like it could increase stress. I mean, yes, once one perfects an art, things become less stressful, but if you're still working on it, it might be more stressful, even if you aren't a Republican and haven't been brainwashed by right-wing propaganda.

It seemed clear to me that these respondents were starting with an opinion and only then looking for evidence to back it up, rather than starting with the evidence and using it to form an opinion.

I recently learned of this awesome website, Your Logical Fallacy Is, that lists a bunch of common logical fallacies that people use to win arguments, and it's illuminating to see how many of these were used in the four responses to the Fox News article:

1) Genetic: You judged something on the basis of where it comes from. This is at the heart of Where's Waldo news-reading. Any idea that you hear about from an untrustworthy source--say, Fox News--isn't worth engaging with. Furthermore, it's not OK to engage with it. The only acceptable response to it is to shut it down and find reasons why it's wrong. Engaging with it means you agree with it--in fact, it means you agree with EVERYTHING that source has to say, on ALL topics.

2) Black or white: You presented two alternative states as the only possibilities. Either you love co-sleeping, or you've been brainwashed by the conservative media to believe that it's dangerous.

3) Special Pleading: You moved the goalposts or made up an exception. Co-sleeping may be stressful, but only in the special case of new mothers, who aren't used to it and whose only source of information about it is right-wing fearmongering propaganda. Because certainly those women haven't ever read anything from pro-co-sleeping sources who say it's perfectly safe.

4) Anecdotal: You used a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence. "I co-sleep, and am not stressed out." Well, I co-sleep, and I AM stressed out. But, of the two of us, YOU are the only one who's saying that your personal experience is enough to disqualify the study. I never said that my personal experience was universal, only that it happened to go along with the results of the study, and that might just be a coincidence, but it might not, and it's worth thinking about. You're the one who thinks it's not worth thinking about.

5) The Fallacy Fallacy: Presuming that because a claim has been poorly argued, or a fallacy has been made, that it is necessarily wrong. I'm really not at all a Fox News fan, and I will totally grant you that anything that comes from them probably does have some nefarious right-wing agenda, including this article. But that doesn't mean the study itself is automatically invalid, OR that the opposing view is automatically correct. The key word here is "automatically."

6) No True Scotsman: You made what could be called an appeal to purity as a way to dismiss relevant criticisms or flaws of your argument. As soon as you get through the stressful experience of perfecting the art of co-sleeping, co-sleeping isn't stressful. Anything Fox News says is automatically evil, even though the story was pro-breastfeeding and so are we.

All of these fallacies, plus the other ones on the website, are rooted in arguers' desire to be right without really considering the opposing point of view. These arguments, in other words, are not your real reason why you believe something to be true; your belief comes first and you find reasons to justify it afterward. And THAT is what I have a problem with.

I don't have a problem with co-sleeping. That is, if other people like it, by all means, they should do it. I even enjoy it sometimes. Like when I've gone on vacation and stayed in a hotel with a king-size bed, which was big enough to comfortably accommodate all of us, it was great that I could just nurse him without getting up at all. Or sometimes my son falls asleep in my arms and I can just lie there and feel his warmth and look at his sweet little face and feel joy and happiness. All that is excellent. But still, as a rule, I find sleep more relaxing if I can do it without the baby.

Do I owe it to my baby to sleep with him anyway? Is it better for him even if I find it stressful? Is that a sacrifice I ought to be making for my kid, one that's so important that the downsides are worth it? Will the stress of "perfecting the art" be outweighed by the bliss of what comes after? If we start to wrestle with these questions, then we're getting somewhere. We're getting into the actual ideas, rather than empty declarations of club membership.

This incident is just one example of Where's Waldo news-reading, and I've seen countless other examples of it on both the right and the left, especially in the months leading up to the election. Every time I saw one, I found it upsetting, especially if it came from the left, because we should be above that.

The root of my problem with it is that it encourages complacency. It is an exercise not in arguing your views, but in feeling self-satisfied in them. People do Where's Waldo news-reading for an easy high, not for becoming more informed and informing others. But what's extra insidious about it is that it LOOKS like an engagement with ideas, yet it DISCOURAGES engagement with ideas. It encourages you to find Waldo at the expense of looking at the rest of the picture.

So what really depressed me is that the parenting group posted the Fox News link at all, and that the commenters responded to it in exactly the way they were primed to. It is a self-indulgent, gratuitous act of self-congratulation.

It also implies that the right way to be a liberal is to agree with all the opinions put forth by liberal news organizations, and disagree with the ones from conservative organizations, and never think about any of them at all. Is it any wonder that I bridle at this idea of what it means to be liberal? I thought we were supposed to be the rational, intelligent, thoughtful party, not the ones who say "I believe in the rules because those are the rules" (another logical fallacy).

It's harder than ever to find unbiased information that can help us really form, from scratch, our own personal political ideology. But, as I said in the first paragraphs of this essay, I don't believe most people really do form theirs using information. I think they do it using broad, abstract ideas, and then favor the media that is aligned with the side they've chosen, though they pretend otherwise. Where's Waldo news-reading is a way to pretend.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Think about what being you entails. Really think about it.

I don't think most of us properly appreciate how incredibly intense an experience selfhood is.

I mean, you're you 24 hours a day. You can't get away from yourself. You know what you're thinking ALL THE TIME. You can read your own mind, and you can't turn it off. You know about all of your most embarrassing moments and all your secrets, and you have to deal with them even if no one else knows about them. However it feels to live inside your body, you feel that way ALL THE TIME. No one else feels it--EVER--but you always do. Even if you try artificial ways to simulate turning it off, like getting really drunk, those experiences become part of you and inform your experience of being you too. Even if you're partial to your mind over your body, or your body over your mind, the less favored one still affects you subconsciously every single moment. It never stops, until you die. Your life is an unrelenting onslaught of yourself-ness.

Please take a moment to think about how different this is from our relationships with other people.

Even if we love someone, even if we have a best friend, a parent, a child, really the best we can do is guess at what being them is like. Even if they tell us, in intimate detail, that's nothing compared to experiencing it, nonstop, every second for your entire life.

This explains a number of things.

1. It explains why everyone thinks the world revolves around themselves. Since being yourself is ALWAYS a deeply intense experience, and has been from the moment you were born, you don't tend to think about it that way most of the time. You take it for granted. Which can lead to the unconscious belief that the world should always cater to your desires. That in a conflict, the other person is always wrong. That anything that seems weird to you IS weird.

But when you stop to think about how much more deeply you experience your own life than anyone else's, you might realize, huh, I guess my viewpoint must be kind of skewed. Imagine having to live inside THAT person's body/brain 24/7 for my whole life. Now their point of view might not seem so strange.

2. It explains why some people seem so glamorous and desirable. Of COURSE someone else is always gonna be more mysterious to you than you are to yourself. Think about everything that's happened to you just since this morning when you got up. You've already had a million thoughts and made decisions and felt good about some things and bad about others. By contrast, that enigmatic acquaintance across the way has had a morning that's virtually opaque to you. But it only seems that way to you. To her, it's anything but.

3. It explains why some people seem totally inconsequential. The last time you walked down a city street, assuming you've ever done that (and of course I assume you have, since I have), you walked past a whole bunch of people. Each one of them, you only saw for a split second. But each one of them has to be themselves every moment for their entire life. Their life affects them soooo much more than it affects you. That girl who walked by wearing the ugly jeans, who you thought, "Ew, those jeans are ugly"? She has to wear them ALL DAY. She knows what it's like to feel them on her body and see them every time she looks down. She's either glad or sorry that she purchased them and probably knows which. Every time she gets up in the morning and has to decide what to wear, those jeans are one of the options. She knows the score about those jeans, and you really don't. Which sort of puts your rejection of them into perspective.

It's like, meanwhile you're walking along, engaging in the deeply intense experience of you-ness, and other people just can't compare. Of course, each one of them is doing the same thing, which is why none of you have very much regard for one another, except out of politeness.

4. It explains why you should trust yourself more and other people less. I recently turned 39 (!)  , which seems kind of unbelievable to me, and in contemplating this I was thinking about what I'd say if anyone asked me what the most important lessons I've learned in my 30s were. "That I should trust myself more and other people less" was the first one that came to mind. And this is really rooted in what I'm talking about here, about how you know your own experience so much better than anyone else ever can, even the people who know us best. We are constantly searching outside ourselves for advice, validation, categories that we can fit into, studies that show people react in certain ways to certain things, methods that worked for other people that might work for us. But a method has a better chance of working for us if we don't take it whole cloth, if we just take the parts that are useful and combine them with other stuff and custom-retrofit the whole thing to our exact life and experience, which we know intimately.

Have you ever tried to tell someone about yourself and they didn't understand? That's probably because it's impossible for them to REALLY understand. For them to understand, they'd have to BE you, because that's the only way to get as comprehensive an understanding as you have. I think the closest you can get is a sort of simulacrum of understanding, which itself can be exciting because it's so much more than what usually happens, but even that, you shouldn't get too too excited about. You certainly shouldn't go pinning your hopes and dreams on it. And I'm not even talking about the truly sleazy people who out-and-out PRETEND to understand us so we'll sign our hearts and minds over to them. Certainly watch out for them. (This is definitely a case of "too good to be true.") But even someone who honestly thinks they understand? Doesn't--not as well as you yourself do.

But at the same time, you should surround yourself with people who do sort of understand you. Don't isolate yourself or reject potential partners because they don't completely 100% get it--you'll never find anyone who does. There is this meme (is it a meme?) going around that you should never "settle," and a lot of us would think it was "settling" to stay with someone who doesn't 100% get it. But no one ever will, so you might as well stay with a partner you love who shares your basic values and gets most of the important, big stuff. It's OKAY for them to get it only that much. It's physically impossible to have the other.

5. It explains why you should treasure and value the people in your life. Aside from providing a welcome break from the endless work of conscious selfhood, other people's perspectives can stop you from going totally crazy. The fact that selfhood IS such an intense experience makes it really fortunate that we have other people around to sort of temper the intensity. And this works especially well when it's someone we are very close to who we care about a lot, particularly if the person is in our care. I had my first baby last year and one of the unexpected wonders of the whole experience has been that it's taken me out of myself to a very refreshing degree. It's certainly possible to take very good care of someone, or be taken care of, without that person having as intimate an understanding of you as you have of yourself.

We are here to engage with the world, and that means other people. We learn systems and rules to navigate the world and achieve things in it. The way we feel inside ourselves wouldn't mean much without the world that we live in. It's hard being in the world while being ourselves all the time, but at least everyone else has to do it too, and if we bear that in mind, it might seem easier.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My problem with Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” and all the criticism of it

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: I do NOT believe that Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has an obligation to “diversity.” I am of the mind, which I’ve seen written about elsewhere, that if “Bored to Death” didn’t have that obligation, then “Girls” doesn’t have it either. What is that, anyway? That a show about Women is defined as “other,” and therefore it has to represent every population that is ever “othered”? I think it’s almost more progressive to have a show about rich white girls that doesn’t try to be universally diverse, where that’s not its raison d’être, because then we’re one step closer to women not being “other.”

However, the whole debate about diversity, and whether “Girls” is obligated to have more of it, is limited to boxes on a diversity checklist (does it have a person of color? check; gay person? check; disabled person? check), and I guess I am opposed to that checklist view of humanity, not only because it promotes tokenism, but also because it isn’t humanistic enough, holistic enough. It reminds me of people in relationships who have a Conversation about whether they’re going to be Exclusive, and if they aren’t Exclusive, it means they’re Free to date and sleep with other people. What about the emotional tenor of your relationship? What about the implicit promises you’ve made to the other person by confiding in them, by acting as if you care about being with them? I’ve always been wary of people who treat other people like a checklist, who need a contract to have a relationship.

But if “Girls” wanted to acknowledge the diversity of the human experience in a more holistic way, it might do so in a less lazy approach to the main character’s central problem. Hannah, the protagonist, suddenly gets “cut off” by her mom and dad, who have been entirely supporting her for the two years since college, during which time she’s had an unpaid internship at a publishing company and started writing a memoir. And as much as I bristle at people who get to do unpaid internships in glamorous industries rather than get the first job they can find the minute they graduate from college because they need the money, I understand that some people are like that, and if Lena Dunham wants to represent those people, that’s her prerogative.

But then Hannah is all, “What am I gonna do, work at McDonalds?” and that’s when my heart sinks. Because “working at McDonald’s” is such a lazy cliché of a worst-case employment/career/future scenario. It’s such a lazy cliché that if you DID end up working at McDonalds, you could mitigate the horror of it by being self-consciously twee about it, like, Look At Me, I’ve Really Hit Bottom Now. The symbolism of it would be heavy enough to carry you. And being carried by symbolism is actually a comfortably familiar way to live for someone like Hannah.

I would like to see Hannah get a job as a customer service representative at a car insurance company, or something like that. She should get the job by looking at a bunch of want ads and responding to all of them and taking the first job offered. And she should NOT be comically bad at the job, but rather perfectly competent at it even if she hates it, because then she wouldn’t even be able to fall back on the image of herself as a flaky fuck-up.

And then she would meet people at her job who were totally unfamiliar with the type of lifestyle she used to lead. People who had gone to college, yes, but maybe they went to CUNY while living with their parents in Queens and working at the same time, rather than a four-year stint on an idyllic quad where people had dorm-wide meetings about cultural hegemony. People whose favorite band was Maroon 5 and had no idea anyone thought there was anything wrong with that. People who don’t understand those little boots Hannah wears. People who don’t even USE the word “hipster.” People who don’t watch “Girls” but do watch “American Idol.” People who would peg Hannah as “artsy” and use the word “funky” to describe her outfits and then get it all wrong when buying her a birthday present, maybe they’d buy her some goth thing made of crushed velvet because that’s what they associate with the idea of “alternative.” Women who think French manicures are beautiful and have never met anyone who didn’t agree.

Because that’s the population that you work with when you just have a job because you have to support yourself. In real life, it isn’t a question of publishing internship or McDonald’s. It isn’t about symbolism of despair. It’s the way the rest of the world works, and diversity would be a natural by-product of that scenario. You’d definitely get racial minorities there in addition to middle-class (as opposed to upper-middle-class) white people, maybe not so many out gay people because homophobia runs super rampant in environments like that, but that idea too might be eye-opening for Hannah. That Republicans aren’t just freaks you see on the news, they’re also the people in the next cubicle at your unglamorous job that is too mundane to even offer the comfort of being a symbol.

“But wouldn’t that be boring? It’s a TV show; it has to be fun,” some might say. No, it wouldn’t be boring. Hannah’s JOB would be boring, yes, but I’m not saying we should watch her do data entry for eight hours. Her being in that environment would be anything but boring. Especially if she still held onto dreams of “being a writer” and led her former lifestyle in the off hours. I mean, you could still live in Greenpoint with a roommate on a customer-service salary. What kind of conversations would she have with that horrible guy she has sex with, about her job? Would he encourage her to switch to woodworking because it’s more “honest”? What if she went and had sex with some Republican guy from work who had a thick New York accent and unironically showed off his giant flat-screen TV to her but was better in bed than that guy? (Which wouldn't be difficult.) What would be more offensive, hearing his opinions about illegal immigrants or having the woodworking guy say “let’s play the quiet game”?

That’s just one example of what could happen. What I’m trying to say is, if you let her work at McDonald’s for comic effect, you’re playing it too safe. If you let her be a “day hostess” at a fancy restaurant where her only coworker is a hipster, as Lena Dunham’s character did in her movie “Tiny Furniture,” you’re still playing it too safe. You’re indulging the upper-middle-class mindset about what the possibilities are for how a person can survive and build their adult life. Which is a much bigger implicit insult to the viewers than anything the critics are saying about checklist diversity.