On How to Converse: What Are You Excited About?

Good conversation is not generally easy to come by in the age of endless busy-ness and casual manners, so here’s a fun piece on how to be graceful and spark interesting chat.

As writer Troy Patterson points out, asking “what do you do” is not only boring but also “has a way of taking the bloom off the roses in the garden.” So what should you say instead?

To win a friend—or, at the very least, to gather data that will enrich your appreciation of the human comedy—you should ask something like “What are you excited about?”—which is nice and wide and cheerful. Just thinking about tomorrow clears away the cobwebs, you know. To say, “What are you looking forward to this fall?” invites the other party to remark on enthusiasms and travel plans and hopes and dreams, and it allows him his choice of a momentous or delightfully trivial answer. He looks into the future while you look into his eyes. It will be your duty, in this joint improvisation, to ask good follow-up questions. It will be your pleasure to reveal something of yourself—the slant of your curiosity, the cast of your mind—by drawing him out and encouraging a self-portrait.

For more on civilized conversation, including how to politely escape a bore, see the full piece here.

 

 

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Double Standard

This article highlights the marked differences between the U.S. Supreme Court’s views on gay rights versus those of women. In a speech last week, Ruth Bader Ginsburg spoke explicitly about the court’s double standard:

In its gay rights rulings, she told a law school audience last week, the court uses the soaring language of “equal dignity” and has endorsed the fundamental values of “liberty and equality.” Indeed, a court that just three decades ago allowed criminal prosecutions for gay sex now speaks with sympathy for gay families and seems on the cusp of embracing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

But in cases involving gender, she said, the court has never fully embraced “the ability of women to decide for themselves what their destiny will be.” She said the court’s five-justice conservative majority, all men, did not understand the challenges women face in achieving authentic equality.

And, according to the article, the court’s swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy is the “most powerful” contributor to this inconsistency. Read the full piece here. The article also includes more about Ginsburg’s career and her account of working with her conservative male colleagues.

Should We Need to “Relate” to Art?

In this article New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead rejects “relatability” as a cultural “scourge,” as she comments on popular radio host Ira Glass’s tweeted response to a performance of King Lear: “Shakespeare sucks…No stakes, not relatable.”

Mead provides a quick survey of the rise of the use of “relatable” as a cultural demand vis-a-vis art, and she explains why it’s such a problem:

Identification with a character is one of the pleasures of reading, or of watching movies, or of seeing plays, though if it is where one’s engagement with the work begins, it should not be where critical thought ends. The concept of identification implies that the reader or viewer is, to some degree at least, actively engaged with the work in question: she is thinking herself into the experience of the characters on the page or screen or stage.

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Read this fine piece here. Then go read, watch, experience some art form that feels totally “unrelatable,” and see what happens.

My Brother’s Keeper: How Does it Affect Girls and Women of Color?

Here’s an article that was not featured in the daily email of headlines I receive from The New York Times, but it should’ve been. Law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw argues that U.S. President Obama’s “signature initiative on race, My Brother’s Keeper, a five-year, $200 million program that will give mentorships, summer jobs and other support to boys and young men of color, most of them African-American or Hispanic,” neglects girls and women of color, who not only face many of the same challenges that their male counterparts do but also deal with gender-specific issues such as a worse pay gap, domestic violence, sex trafficking, and others.

It’s a controversial argument––and a courageous one. Check out Crenshaw’s powerful argument here.

On Single Moms Who Play it Safe in the Age of Economic Inequality–and Stay Unmarried

This great article by historian Stephanie Coontz explores the relationship between progress in gender equality and the rapidly growing economic inequality plaguing the U.S. Of particular interest is her take on the well-known gap in marriage rates between lower- and higher-income mothers:

Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry — even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expenses, and even if they have a child — is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.

Their fears are justified. Chronic economic stress is associated with an increased incidence of depression, domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse and infidelity, all of which raise the risk of divorce. If a woman’s marriage breaks up or her husband squanders their resources, she may end up worse off than if she had remained single and focused on improving her own earning power.

She concludes,

Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families — at almost all income levels — than turning back the gender revolution.

Amen and thank you. It’s great to see someone talking sense about the actual risks and benefits of marriage, but the piece also offers excellent data on wages, marriage rates for various classes, and so forth. Read it here.

On C-Sections and VBACs

This video from The New Yorker (which is offering free content for the next several months, so take advantage!) on rising C-section rates around the world is really well done. The stats are indeed alarming, but it’s not all grim––there’s also a sweet success story that brought tears to my eyes. Check it out.

Rereading Susan Faludi’s Backlash

This is a cool idea. If you’ve never read Susan Faludi’s bestseller Backlash, published in 1991, now’s a good time to do it. The book was groundbreaking because it documents the backlash against feminism that began in the 1980s and continues today, especially in terms of reproductive rights, but also in other ways.

Matter has started a summer book club, where different writers talk about each chapter of Backlash, and readers are invited to join the conversation, of course. Irin Carmon kicked off Chapter 1, and Donna Shalala, Roxanne Gay, and Rebecca Traister discuss Chapter 2 here. New responses to subsequent chapters will be released each week until the end of the summer. Have fun with this classic!

Using Humor to Counter Anti-Choice Protestors

The assault on women’s reproductive rights in the U.S. has been relentless in recent years, but women are fighting back and doing it with humor. Lady Parts Justice, established in 2012, offers info on reproductive laws and setbacks in all 50 states and includes humorous videos.

There’s also this story from The Daily Dot about how one couple decided to use humor to counter anti-choice protestors. This is especially relevant given the U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of a Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics. One pro-choice couple in North Carolina decided to join protestors at a local clinic––but with very different signs.

Countering placards screaming “babies are murdered here,” the couple held signs with messages like “Bring Back Crystal Pepsi,” “I Like Turtles,” and “Weird Hobby” with an arrow pointing toward the anti-choice protestors. Obviously we need more than just mocking to reverse the dangerous trends of recent years, but this approach offers a fresh way of calling out the obnoxious, intrusive behavior of these particular anti-choice folks. Read the full story here.

The Cost of Poverty, Literally

Here’s a sobering piece in the Atlantic on how much money poor Americans lose just by trying to manage their finances. A not-so-fun fact:

Approximately 70 million Americans don’t have a bank account or access to traditional financial services. That’s more people than live in California, New York, and Maryland combined. It’s more than the number who voted for Barack Obama (or Mitt Romney) in the 2012 election.

The writer calls for “financial education” and says “it’s also an opportunity for technology,” suggesting that

mobile apps can begin to replace the infrastructure of banks, allowing us to send money to friends, family, and businesses, and manage the sum that’s left over.

And the conclusion:

Ultimately, the solution to this problem will require the financial tech community to adopt a familiar economic philosophy. Poverty is painful, and it’s the responsibility of a fair society to make it feel easier.

Sure, mobile apps might help to manage limited funds, but this really wins the aim-low prize of the day. Technology can help make poverty “feel easier”? Simply by circumventing the check-cashing places and payday lenders who gouge the poor?

Here’s a better idea: Go directly to the problem and eradicate poverty. Insist on mandated living wages in all states. Make housing affordable for all. Provide childcare and healthcare.

American culture loves to view technology as a panacea. The writer of this article doesn’t necessarily do that, but he contributes to the problem by privileging technical solutions that address the symptoms, rather than humanitarian solutions for the real problem. Technology can help to solve these problems, but it can’t fix them. Only we can.