Men Don’t Need Porn, And It’s Demeaning To Say They Do

In a turn of events both unexpected and welcome, Russell Brand joined the ranks of those speaking out against pornography in a video posted to his YouTube channel. In it, he gives a powerful and unapologetic assessment of soft-core pornography, not only listing its known negative effects on young men but corroborating them from personal experience. Voyeurism, objectification of women, the need to validate one’s masculinity through beautiful women, fear of true intimacy, the tendency to view women as trophies rather than individuals; all of these he admits to and attributes to his exposure to pornography.

More than simply acknowledging the devastating effects that porn has had on him, Brand also admits that he has, as of yet, fallen short of quitting it—despite his distaste for the stuff. “If I had total dominion over myself, I would never look at porn again,” he says.

These words, I think, strike an all too familiar chord in the pornography debate. Total dominion over one’s actions, self-control: Are these attainable goals for young men? That a man who fully understands the harmful effects of pornography remains unable to avoid it raises doubts. Regardless of whether or not pornography is healthy or moral, the question remains: Are men capable of abstaining from it?

The majority opinion—it seems—is a resounding “no.”

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“All men look at porn… The handful of men who claim they don’t look at porn are liars or castrates,” Dan Savage famously remarked. And his statement only repeats a notion almost universally accepted.

We see it manifested in countless male TV characters from Barney Stinson to Frank Underwood. We heard it reiterated in Jennifer Lawrence’s response to the celebrity nude photo leak: “Either your boyfriend is going to look at porn or he’s going to look at you.”

I have personally confronted the notion many times in everyday conversation. I once told a very close friend of mine that my fiancé does not look at pornography. In response, she raised her eyebrows, tilted her head, looked me in the eye, and exclaimed, “I think he might be lying to you about that.”

In a world filled with doubt and confusion, it seems that we, as a society, have come to believe in one immutable truth that men can’t help but look at porn. The only option for girlfriends, fiancées, and wives, it seems, is to accept it.

And yet, I cannot.

To be clear, I am not denying the widespread use of pornography among men. I am not trying to argue with statistics. But there is something disturbing about the way we discuss men and pornography. Indeed, there is something more at stake here, and the statement that porn-use is inevitable for all men is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, to insist “all men look at porn” is, like most broad generalizations, simply false. Statistics on porn consumption range from claiming 64 percent to 80 percent of men are habitual users, but regardless of the precise numbers there is an active and growing movement against pornography of which men are a vital part. What’s more, there are whole societies of people who fall in line with Russell Brand, who have found porn use damaging and addictive, and have found healing in self-restraint.

The Reddit community No Fap, in which members challenge themselves to give up porn and masturbating, has garnered more than 140,000 members. The group provides support, camaraderie, advice, and—notably—success stories for those looking to “recover from porn-induced sexual dysfunction, stop objectifying and establish meaningful connections, improve your interpersonal relationships, live a more fulfilling life.” One needs only to peruse the wealth of success stories posted there to find that men, even those recovering from serious addictive behavior, are not powerless to resist it.

And yet, though this evidence of men avoiding porn is comforting and inspiring, it is ultimately beside the point. The insistence that men cannot help but look at porn is problematic for a much more serious reason than the mere fact that it is not true. Regardless of the number of men who look at porn—be it none, some, or all—to suggest they don’t have a choice in the matter is demeaning. To say that men, by their very natures, are slaves to their sexual appetites, is to deny them free will—and their very humanity.

There is a significant difference between acknowledging that porn use is common and insisting that it has to be. One does not necessarily follow from the other. Demonstrating that all men partake in a particular activity is not sufficient to prove that they have to. If it were, one might easily conclude that because all men have eaten fast food at some point, they are incapable of surviving without it.

This illogical reasoning is particularly problematic in a society striving for gender equality and against sexism. Indeed, excusing male behavior on account of some constrained view of “human nature” is reminiscent of that archaic brand of sexism that claims women can’t take on leadership roles because our decisions are invariably dictated by emotion. Or that women can’t properly manage our finances because our “natures” render us defenseless against the shiny gleam of a new pair of shoes. In these cases, “nature” is just another word for “prejudiced stereotype.” By insisting that financial irresponsibility or emotional recklessness are the necessary results of the female “nature,” we are at once absolved of these behaviors and shackled to them. Likewise, denying men’s ability to resist porn may excuse their conduct, but it also confines them to it. Porn addiction (which neuroscientists have compared to cocaine addiction) is a serious matter, but it can be overcome. To deny men the opportunity to do so isn’t kind to men; it does them a disservice.

It is possible for men to reject pornography. I know this because I am engaged to a man who has done so for years. But even if he struggled and failed in his efforts to avoid pornography, I would never denigrate him by assuming he can’t control himself enough to refrain from it. So let’s change the way we discuss pornography. Let’s promote a dialogue that does not demean men by claiming that their natures render them powerless in the face of porn. Let’s elevate the conversation by refusing to deny men their free will. Because men—and we all—deserve that.

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I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.

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True Equality Means Hiring Based on Talent, Not Gender

I wrote this article for Verily Magazine, where it was originally published.

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I am a feminist. I am also an economist. But I don’t think we need more women in economics. Let me explain.

Whether or not people admit it, feminism is a nuanced ideology, and one that takes on a variety of forms—many of which are fundamentally opposed to each other. That being said, if the root of feminism is, as Emma Watson so eloquently put it, “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” then I most certainly qualify.

What’s more, I dislike being pigeonholed due to my gender. This is not to say that I think men and women are exactly the same. In fact, I think it somewhat naive to assume that the biological differences between males and females would have no implications on their respective personalities, abilities, behavior, or even interests. When it comes these intangible qualities, I think it is unnecessary and dangerous to draw too many conclusions about a person from his or her sex. Unnecessary because whatever can be surmised about someone’s personality or abilities from his sex, that and much more can be drawn from the individual himself. Dangerous because I don’t think we really know with any accuracy or precision the implications that one’s sex has on his personality, cognitive ability, character, and so on.

The fact is that any general lines we can draw between the sexes in these areas are disturbed by the complexity of each individual. Even if it were true that men more frequently excel at carpentry, if an individual woman shows an aptitude for it, on what grounds can her objective ability be rejected? If a man shows an interest in needlework, who’s to deny his passion? Thus, in terms of job or college applications, I think it right for individuals to be judged on their individual merits rather than assumptions based on their sex. Equal rights and opportunities? I’m there.

But there is something about the way that we discuss gender equality that unsettles me. Take me, for example:

I majored in economics in college because I like it and I’m good at it. I took an economics class in high school and found that my mind clicked into the subject in a way that it did not click into others. Majoring in it seemed to me like the next logical step. When I announced my decision, however, my peers and mentors encouraged and applauded me with an urgency that confused me.

“Only 15 percent of economists are female,” they exclaimed.

“We need more female economists,” they would say, “We need more women pursuing quantitative subjects.”

Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for the encouragement. I was happy that my success in economics was regarded as a necessity by my professors, advisers, counselors, and friends. But it was their collective reasoning that disturbed me. My interest and ability did not necessitate my success, according to them—my gender did. They seemed to think that because roughly half of the world’s people are women, so too roughly half of the world’s economists ought to be women. The ratio of women to men in the field is lopsided and thus, unacceptable.

This is a fairly common line of reasoning. Feminists often use lopsided-gender ratios in various occupations as evidence of sexism and cause for change. While such statistics certainly merit attention, they are not in and of themselves problematic. Insisting that they are implies that gender equality is found in the equal distribution of men and women in a given field—as though we cannot have true equality until the demographics of every major, occupation, and hobby perfectly reflect the demographics of society at large.

It is this notion, my fellow feminists, of which I think we should beware.

Do we need more female economists? Do we need an equal number of men and women pursuing each subject for equality to exist? I don’t think so.

I think we need people to have the freedom to make prudential use of their own talents and abilities without hitting arbitrarily constructed walls. We need job candidates to be assessed on their individual merits and performances rather than on preconceived notions about their genders. We need individuals to be free to pursue their respective areas of interest without wrongful discrimination, regardless of prevailing gender ratios.

This, I think, is what we really want. This is equality.

And if that day comes, when the walls of arbitrary discrimination have been torn down, when the barriers constructed of faulty assumptions about men and women have been stripped away, we may find that men and women still generally pursue different interests. We may find that, even in the absence of sexism, the lopsided statistics we today use as evidence of wrongful discrimination still stand. We may find that, in a society where applicants are selected based on merit rather than stereotypes, that the ratio of female to male economists is not one to one.

And that’s okay.

In fact, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? Because having “equal opportunities” means having equal freedom to turn them down.

The War on Barbie Needs to Get its Act Together

Before I begin, let me clarify that this is not a defense of Barbie. Just like pretty much everyone else in the known universe, I think Barbies are silly and poor representations of women. That said, Occupy Barbie is a little disorganized. People are throwing anything and everything at the walls of Barbie’s castle in an effort to tear it down. Collateral damage is ensuing, people are getting hurt. Recently, I was a silent witness to an argument about the recently designed “realistic barbie.”  Touted as progress (and it may very well be, I don’t know), the doll is meant to redefine our current unrealistic standards of beauty by representing women in their average, 19-year-old form, complete with customizable acne, cellulite and stretch marks. Average is beautiful, the slogan goes. acne The conversation was what you’d expect.  One side claimed the doll is unnecessary as dolls need not define beauty.  The opposition claimed the doll is necessary because modern standards of beauty are unrealistic. Another contributor pointed out an apparent double standard;  while people are constantly up in arms about unrealistic representations of women as impossibly thin, smooth-skinned, lily white blondes, no one seems to care about unrealistic representations of men as impossibly tall, sinewy, muscle-bound Goliaths. But EVERYONE agreed that unrealistic representations of the human form are not good. Feminist double standard We’re already running into problems. There is something almost comically contradictory about the passionate push for realistic depictions of women’s bodies in television, ads, and dolls, and the simultaneous demand for the depiction of women in predominantly male professions. For instance, Gizmodo published an article remonstrating Barbie for producing a children’s book that, though entitled “Barbie: I Can Be a Computer Engineer,” tells the story of Barbie screwing up her computer and relying on Steven and Brian (men!) for help in the matter. Realistically, only 13.6% of undergraduate computer science degrees are awarded to women. If we’re bowing to the god of realism, either Barbie shouldn’t be a computer engineer, or, at the very least, it makes sense that her colleagues are men, as men represent six out of every seven people in the field. barbieremix1 You may respond that women have been artificially barred from the world of computer science and that, were this not the case, they would represent a greater share of the field—and you may be right about that. But if the argument against barbie’s physical appearance is lack of realism, I don’t know why the same argument wouldn’t apply to her occupations.

What I’m saying is that, in the war against Barbie, the Supreme Law of Realism applies only to physical appearance. We are horrified when magazines Photoshop women’s bodies to conform to the modern standard of beauty, but we have no problem Photoshopping women’s lives to conform to the modern standard of success. But I digress.

All of this is interesting and worth discussion, but the part of the conversation that I found most telling and most frustrating was a particular comment about the alleged worthlessness of physical beauty. Comparing the representation of men in “He-Man” to the representation of women in “Barbie,” a participant noted that while neither is realistic or necessarily healthy, He-Man is an example of a male power fantasy, while Barbie is merely beautiful. He-man is muscular because he is powerful. Barbie is pretty, but lacks any character development or heroism. I can’t speak for him, but I think the point is that although the male toy is indeed unrealistic, his exaggerated characteristic (physical strength) is worthwhile and valuable, while the unrealistic characteristic portrayed in Barbie (physical beauty) is useless and superficial.

This is a commonly accepted notion—that physical beauty is worthless, while physical strength has true utility. Physical strength lifts, it moves, it opens doors, it launches ships, they say—as though physical beauty has never lifted or moved anything, has never opened doors or launched ships.

Is there no value in beauty? Does it not possess power? Is it less powerful than physical strength? I submit that it is not. What it means to be physically beautiful, what defines it, how it changes and what that means are questions for another day, but I know that beauty exists and I know that it is powerful.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean to say that physical beauty is of the utmost importance to one’s value or happiness, only that it possesses a strength and ability that ought not be underestimated. Inextricably linked to and enhanced by the more important and more powerful beauty of the soul, physical beauty inspires, moves, changes those that encounter it. It is a force less direct and more difficult to measure than physical strength, but a force nonetheless, and one that has been acting on the world since the dawn of time.

This is not a revolutionary statement. We acknowledge the power of beauty in art or nature. It is a well established fact that the beauty of a sunset, a sunrise, an ocean, a painting, a song can inspire and change people, can have an indescribable and immeasurable effect on the world. Only in its human manifestation do we deny its power and value. People seem to take for granted that we are a society that overvalues physical beauty. Not so, I say. We are still enamored by the beautiful, it still works on us, it still moves us, it still inspires us, and yet we refuse to identify it as the formidable force that it is. We are a society in denial. Physical strength, on the other hand, we value above nearly everything else. We value the ability to move an obstacle with one’s arms, and yet dismiss the ability to move an obstacle with one’s presence. Why? If to launch a ship with one’s arms is evidence of a prodigious strength, surely to launch a thousand with one’s face is as well. Helen_of_Troy

^Greek mythology gets it.^

I am not suggesting that people obsess over physical beauty the way some obsess over physical strength, or vice versa. There are far more powerful and important things on which to focus. I just don’t see a substantial difference between the two. Both are limited, both are mortal, but both are powerful. Both result from God-given design and yet can be further cultivated and maintained through one’s lifestyle. Both can be used to build up or tear down, for good or for evil, to help or to hurt. Both deteriorate with age. And while humans tend to make of them both false religions, neither are sufficient for lasting happiness. Just as I would not deny to a very strong man that his strength is good and powerful, I would not deny to a very beautiful woman that her beauty is good and powerful. Let’s not throw beauty out with Barbie. Criticize Barbie for being a bad example, admonish her for her unhealthy figure, but don’t devalue beauty in the process.

The Trouble With “Good” Regulation

When I talk about the dangers of business regulation (as I do incessantly), the dangers of giving a panel of human beings, flawed like the rest of us, the power to create and enforce arbitrary rules and standards within an industry, people tend to assume that I’m going to focus not on “proper” regulation, but its corrupt, human, flawed manifestation in the real world.

The expected argument goes something like this:

We can’t expect people, including regulators, not to act in their own self-interest. If we grant government agencies the special power to regulate businesses, the biggest and most powerful businesses will inevitably find ways to use their wealth to influence those regulatory agencies. In one way or another, the given regulatory agency will become no more than a puppet for the industry’s big wigs. As a result, the very agencies designed to prevent huge companies from using their size and influence at others’ expense will end up granting the wealthiest companies more power and freedom than the free market ever could. Thus, if our goal is to curb the power of big businesses, we’d be better off without the regulatory agencies in the first place.

There is a lot of truth to this.

Anyone who has spent any time thinking about regulatory power, or merely observed the government commissions that exercise that power, is forced to acknowledge the risk of abuse and corruption. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve linked some articles below. Honestly, though, this stuff isn’t that difficult to find, people:

The Federal Aviation Agency

The Food and Drug Administration

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The Securities and Exchange Commission

The Federal Communications Commission

The list goes on…

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Although I firmly believe that the plethora of incriminating evidence within reach is more than enough for a nation to conclude that regulation is a dangerous game, there is more to the story. In fact, the above isn’t an argument against regulation per se, but some bastardized version of it: regulatory capturecrony capitalism. And to focus solely on the obvious problems with corrupt regulation shifts attention away from the less obvious problems with “good” regulation, thereby perpetuating the flawed worldview that the only problem with giving such regulatory power to select members of society is that we continually select the wrong members. If we could but find virtuous enough people to put in charge, or sufficiently regulate the regulators, and sufficiently regulate those who regulate the regulators etc….regulation would be beneficial for society—or so it is often thought.

Let us dispel of that notion by considering the ideal: a virtuous, wise, even-handed regulator, immune to temptation, regulating for the common people.

Even if we assume that regulators are not being bought out, even if we assume that governing agencies are not simply an extension of the big businesses they “regulate,” regulations, somewhat ironically, still grant more power, and freedom to big businesses than the free market ever could.

How? Well, by raising market barriers.

Natural barriers exists to varying degrees in every market. Selling something requires having something to sell. Would you like to get into the lemonade industry? Well, at the very least, you will need some lemonade. If you want to sell homemade lemonade, you’ll need lemons, water, sugar, probably some ice, cups, etc… Given the availability and price of these ingredients, these barriers are not insurmountable for most people, and lemonade is not (naturally) a very difficult market to enter. Some industries have much larger natural barriers. For example, if you’d like to become an automobile manufacturer, you will likely need a lot of very expensive equipment, skilled laborers, etc… To enter such an industry requires much more than the lemonade industry, which is probably why there are more lemonade stands with six-year-old CEOs decorating the sidewalk in your neighborhood than auto-manufacturers.

LemonadeStand

Obviously, the larger the barriers to the market, the more difficult it is to enter it.

Simply put, regulations add to these barriers. Whatever barriers to a given market exist naturally, regulations increase. For instance, if the government decides that a permit is required to sell lemonade, the cost barriers to the lemonade industry increase by the amount of time, money, difficulty it takes to acquire such a permit. Whatever it cost to set up a lemonade shop before, it costs more now.

Imagine that barriers to the market form a literal wall around an industry. The wall exists at varying heights naturally in every market. Every new regulation is an additional brick in that wall (or in many cases a whole layer of bricks). An astute observer would be right to say that, with each additional brick, the businesses within are more assuredly contained and restricted as intended. The problem, of course, is that walls work in both directions. It is impossible to build an effective enclosure that isn’t also a fortress. If the wall is strong enough to restrict big businesses within, it is most certainly strong enough to keep smaller, not-yet-in-existence businesses out.

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^My Photoshop Skills Though^

Why is this a problem? How many lemonade salesmen do we really need? Aren’t a few companies in a particular industry sufficient to satisfy the needs of society? Maybe. The problem is not that regulations reduce the amount of lemonade at our disposal, but that they reduce the possibility, and therefore the threat, of competition.

And competition, whether we like it or not, is the most effective weapon against poor business behavior that we have in our arsenal.

In a market where businesses must compete with each other for customers, one business’s poor behavior is everyone else’s business opportunity. If one business is overcharging or under-performing, another business, or observant entrepreneur can profit by charging less or performing better. The lower the barriers to the market, the faster and more easily this can occur. Truly, this is how most business behavior is effectively “regulated”—not by government mandate or decree, but by competition. Businesses behave best in the markets that can most easily replace them.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the unregulated market has no problems, only that regulations make its problems worse.  As mentioned, barriers exist naturally; regulations, no matter what they entail, no matter how well-intentioned they are, or how virtuously they are enforced, add to them, thereby decreasing the threat of competition. Thus, while some regulations may be marginally effective tools against specific areas of bad business, they also fundamentally undermine a tool that is far, far more effective. This is kind of like disassembling a gun in order to chuck bullets and metal chunks at an attacker. Sure, you might hit him, maybe even injure him, but you also don’t have a gun anymore.

Regulation, then, is the disease for which it claims to be the cure: taxpayer-financed protection of big businesses, sustaining monopolies in its attempt to control them. Efforts to protect people from the threat of big business end up destroying the thing that works most effectively against them.

Why the State Can’t “Feed the Poor”

The other day, I went on my lunchtime walk, as I do pretty much every day. At the end of my lunchtime walk, I stopped at a gas station by my office to buy a bottle of water and a snack, as I do pretty much every day. While I was perusing the snacks, a large man flanked by two companions approached me. He asked me what I was buying.

“Peanuts,” I replied, suspicious of his curiosity.

I was already holding a water bottle and package of Starbursts I intended to purchase.

He explained that he had no cash, that he would buy me my peanuts, candy, and water using his state-issued food assistance card (a.k.a quest card, whatever you want to call it), if I would buy him a Black & Mild and a Swisher Sweet. Why the complex arrangement? Obviously, his quest card cannot directly purchase tobacco, while my credit card can.

Say what you will, but I agreed.

A relatively small, young female—there is nothing formidable about my physical presence—confronted by two burly men over 6’3” and a woman much, much larger than me, it would be easy for me to make the case that I felt threatened, that the cost of agreeing seemed preferable to the possible sinister cost of refusing.  However, to claim that I acted solely out of fear wouldn’t be entirely true. I was scared, I was confused, but I was also apathetic.

He bought my peanuts, and water for $3.19. I bought his tobacco for $1.98.  He effectively used taxpayer dollars to buy tobacco. I, unintentionally, made an enormous profit. The clerk didn’t bat an eyelid. Boom. What’s done is done.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m certainly not attempting to justify my actions. I still don’t know how I feel about the morality of the transaction.

Rather, I offer this anecdote as a demonstration of reality—economic reality. Specifically, the economic reality that we cannot “feed the poor.”

Let me explain.

In my experience, people tend to think of the economy as a system of exchange imposed upon a society—a set of legally approved goods and services bought and sold according to market rules with an official state currency—anything outside of which is considered the “black market.” Without a doubt, that economy exists, but it is not the economy, not in its totality. And to reduce the economy to such is, well, reductive.

At the macroeconomic level, yes, trade tends to occur in a uniform fashion: government-backed currency for goods and services. But at the micro level, the person-to-person economy is much more inclusive. Currency is not reduced to state-issued bills and notes, but to anything that has any value to any person. The economy is not reduced to official, recorded transactions, but to any exchange between persons. People trade, people barter, people do what they have to do.

Barter (1)

My point is that, ultimately, where there is value, there is currency. Where a buyer and seller are both willing and able, an exchange is possible.

As such, anything of value that we give to the poor (to anyone) has the potential to be used as currency to the extent that it is valuable.

It doesn’t matter what it is. As long as it has value to someone, it can be traded. Hand a man a tomato and he can now buy a tomato’s worth of something else from whoever is willing and able to purchase his tomato.  As a store of value, the lifespan of the tomato may be shorter than that of a traditional fiat currency, but it exists. And as long as the value of the object exists, it can be used as a medium of exchange. Some assistance programs may make the bartering process easier and more efficient than others, but as long as the program actually provides the poor with access to food, it also provides them with currency.

I present this not as an argument against welfare, per se, but as a plea for a better discussion about it, one that acknowledges its inherent limitations. Proponents of welfare systems often preface their views with clauses like, “as long as we make sure that aid is used on the important things likes groceries and school supplies rather than drugs or alcohol,….” That the state is capable of ensuring such a thing is taken for granted.

And yet, how welfare payouts are used is ultimately beyond the state’s control. Short of strapping people down and force-feeding them, we do not have a way to guarantee that the poor are fed. We can give to the poor, but we can’t control how they use what is given. We might be able to ensure that the poor have access to food, but we can’t guarantee that they eat it.

We can give food to the poor, but we cannot feed them.

welfare-1

Thus, to defend state-issued assistance to the poor is to accept the possibility that the poor will not utilize that assistance as we see fit.

You may say that it is worth the risk, and you may be right, but the risk must be acknowledged.

The distinction above may be subtle, but it is necessary for a proper debate about welfare. If we are going to have a productive conversation about welfare, we have to consider only those options that are actually at our disposal. If we are going to have a productive conversation about any legislation, we have to consider only those options that are actually at our disposal.

Even if you refuse to remove bad options from the table, you ought to remove from the table those options that don’t exist.

As mind-numbingly obvious as the above “rule of thumb” may appear, it is one rarely followed in the political realm. To dress up the options we do have as more impressive options that we don’t have is the “modus operandi of passing legislation in our current political system. Debates are quickly reduced to false dichotomies constructed of pipe dreams.

Stop global warming or don’t stop it.  Feed the poor or don’t feed the poor. Rehabilitate drug addicts or don’t rehabilitate drug addicts.

None of these accurately represent our real options, or the discussions we ought to be having. Contrary to popular thought, policy issues rarely boil down to the simple choice between solving a problem and not solving a problem. Good public policy questions whether or not a legislative “solution” a. exists, b. does more good than harm, and c. is better than non-legislative solutions.

Thus, as long as we keep treating the welfare discussion as the choice between feeding the poor and not feeding the poor, we will get nowhere. If we want to get anywhere, the political discourse must change.

 

 

Dear Kids, It’s Okay To Not Be Different

Have you seen this article? I’m not sure how popular it is, or if it has been circulated widely enough to be deemed “viral.” I’ve seen it attached to a few irate Facebook statuses. Though, while I’m sure there are some who agreed with the article, I can’t say I saw anyone defending it. There is a good reason for this—the article is sloppily written and blatantly offensive to women and mothers everywhere, a point which the author of the article acknowledges and defends. According to her, she intentionally used provocative language “to start a conversation” (read: to get more views courtesy of the article’s sheer absurdity.)

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Whether or not it had the intended effect, I know not.  Whether or not it is wise, or helpful, or truly productive to make sweeping, offensive claims merely to get people talking, I know not. That is a question for another day.

I mention all this only to clarify that this is not a “response” article—not in the sense that this is a serious discussion and I am responding to her claims as serious claims. I do not attempt to debunk her arguments, not simply because I don’t take them seriously, but because the author herself doesn’t take them seriously. I’m not going to waste my time debunking an argument that even the arguer knows is unfounded.

I am, however, responding to one underlying assumption of the abominable article, an assumption made far too often and accepted far too universally for my comfort.

Referring to mothers, the author states:

“They are the most common thing, ever, in the history of the world……You will never have the time, energy, freedom or mobility to be exceptional if you have a husband and kids.”

Now, most of the responses I have seen address these statements head on, debating whether or not motherhood affords one the time, energy, freedom, or mobility to be exceptional. I am not going to argue about how much time, energy, or freedom motherhood affords. Likewise, I am not arguing whether or not motherhood is a historically common occupation (it is).

Rather, I am addressing the assumed position of the author that “exceptionality” is inherently desirable.

Before we move on, let’s define out terms. While we tend to use the word exceptional interchangeably with words like “great,” “exquisite,” or anything to the effect of “really, really good,” that isn’t what it means. Despite the modern colloquial usage, to be “exceptional” is simply to be an exception—to be different, in some respect, than others.

And being different from everyone else in some respect is not necessarily better than being the same as them.

 

wrapping-up

^Although that yellow umbrella is pretty sweet^

To be sure, it is entirely possible to become so good at something that you become an exception. Experts, connoisseurs, professionals are very often exceptions in their respective fields due to their level of knowledge or skill. But there is a significant difference between being exceptionally good at something and simply being exceptional at it.

To be an exceptionally good dancer you must be so much better than every other dancer that you become an exception. To be an exceptional dancer, you need only to dance differently than every one else. It is possible to be both exceptional and bad at dancing. Trust me.

Anyone can be exceptional. Live on Twizzlers and cream cheese and you’ll be exceptional. Stop showering and you’ll be exceptional. In fact, everyone is exceptional. Ironically, given that no two people are exactly alike, to be exceptional is the most common thing in the world.

My point is that “exceptionality” is no substitute for value.

This may seem like a trivial point, but it is one worth making. Why? Because today’s society worships the notion of being “different” and “unique” and “exceptional.” No one likes to be “typical”, and we go to great lengths to prove that were are not.

 

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I, like so many others, grew up in a world that constantly reminded me that being different is not bad, that we should appreciate the variations within humanity, that we are all unique and that’s a good thing, yada yada yada. No argument there; to be different is not inherently bad.

But the glorification of the unique is no less superficial or asinine than the worship of conformity.

It is as though we realized the stupidity of conformity for the sake of conformity and replaced it with the equally silly pursuit of nonconformity for the sake of nonconformity.

Somewhere along the way, we decided that it is as good to be different as it is to be good.  Artists, writers, fashionistas; there is no need to pursue greatness in your field, for you have only to be different, unique, exceptional.

 

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^Lady Gaga is certainly exceptional^

Unfortunately, applauding something for the simple fact that it is different is just as silly as criticizing it simply because it is different.

Regarding the original article, the popularity of marriage and childbearing does not diminish its value. In fact, it seems far more reasonable to conclude from its popularity that it is highly desirable, rather than shallow or un-valuable. (Let me be very clear; I am not saying that motherhood is valuable because it is common, but that it may be common because it is valuable.)

You may point out that doing things in new ways can be refreshing, and can lead to real progress, and I would agree with you. Changing things up, employing new approaches often leads to innovation and progress, developments with true and tangible value. But these differences are not valuable merely because they are different. If that were the case, any change would be an improvement, and that is simply not true.

That we are all individuals with various eccentricities, differences, unique qualities is a fact—one that adds to the beauty of the great tapestry that is the human race. That we are all humans with many similarities is also a fact—one of which we ought not be ashamed.

 

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There is no shame in falling in line with the rest of humanity. It may take some humility to admit this, but, given the many similarities humans have with each other, what is good for the rest of humanity is very often good for us.

We spend a lot of time consoling children, letting them know that they shouldn’t be afraid of being different. I think it is high time we started reminding them that they should not be afraid of being the same.

If You Haven’t Worked a Day in Your Life, You Probably Don’t Love Anything

You’ve heard it before, the beloved aphorism from the ever-intriguing Confucius;

“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

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I’ve also heard it attributed to Albert Einstein, but the internet tells me that Confucius coined it, so we’ll go with that. Regardless, you’ve probably seen it in the form of a meme, pinned a thousand times on Pinterest, shared on Facebook, tweeted on twitter, etc…

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 ^stuff like this^

I understand why the quote is so popular. There is something inspiring, something hopeful about it. It is just poetic enough to sound reasonable, just vague enough to withstand any serious scrutiny.

The only problem, of course, is that it is almost entirely false.

If the phrase was not so oft-quoted, if I did not think it influenced people’s decisions, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But from where I stand, this Confucian concept is ubiquitous in today’s culture. And it’s a problem.

Case in point: a recent study from Brookings found that 64% of Millennials would rather make $40,000 a year at a job they love than $100,000 at a job they found boring. Now, it isn’t the response that worries me. I would take a lower paying job that I loved over a high-paying boring job any day.

The problem is that this job, the one you love, probably doesn’t exist. And if you make it your primary goal to find a job that you love, you will be unemployed for a very long time.

Before everyone freaks out, lets make a distinction; loving your job is not the same as loving its end. Just because you are passionate about your children’s well-being doesn’t mean you love changing their diapers. And yet, most people would agree that a clean diaper is essential to a child’s well-being. No parent who loves his child allows him to stew in his own feces for too long. And any parent who says he loves wiping poop out of all the crevices of his squirmy, crying infant at 4 in the morning is a liar.

Here’s the thing: All of these “passions” (or vocations, or loves, or whatever you’d like to call them) involve metaphorical diaper changing—actions that we don’t love doing in and of themselves but are willing to do for the sake of something we do love. In fact, many of them involve doing things we hate—things we wouldn’t do but for the sake of the thing we love. Some are less challenging than others, some involve less fecal matter than others, but they all require the doing of boring, mundane, frustrating, tedious tasks. All of them require sacrifice.

Cooking requires chopping, and measuring, and waiting for the stove to heat up, and standing around, and sweating in a hot kitchen. To be great at cooking requires research, persistence, trial and error, failure. A devoted chef will accept failure as a stepping stone on his path to success, but he doesn’t love it in and of itself. If he did, he would be just as content to continue failing as he is to succeed. He loves producing delicious food and is willing to chop onions, sweat, try and fail in order to do so.

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Which brings me to my next point: Not only do all of the things we love require the doing of work we don’t love, the things we love often require more work than things we don’t.

When you are passionate about something, you hold yourself to a higher standard than if you simply like it. If you like writing then you will write, and as long as what you write generally communicates what you intend to say, you will be content. If you love writing, you will strive to perfect what you write, to say what you mean to say in the best possible way. Striving for perfection requires more work than settling for mediocrity. As such, if you are passionate about something you will likely do far more work for its cause than if you aren’t.

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life?

I doubt it.

Find something that you truly love, and you will likely work for it relentlessly.

Now the obvious response to my claims is that I am incorrectly interpreting the aphorism—that Confucius did not mean that a life spent in pursuit of one’s passion is a life without work. Rather, he meant that when you are passionate about something, the work you do for it feels less like work. The quote ought to be interpreted as such: “If you find a pursuit for which you are truly passionate, you won’t ever feel like you’re working even when you are working.”

To which I respectfully respond, “bull.”

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^She probably doesn’t even feel it.^ 

Yes, being passionate about something may motivate you to complete the work it requires, but the work required remains. Yes, your love for something may make the work it requires more rewarding, but the work required remains. And if you asked people who pursued their passions, I’d be willing to bet they’d say that, a lot of the time, the work still felt like work. Maybe not all the time—but a lot of the time.

This is my main issue with the proverb in question: it is a misleading measure of one’s love for something. However interpreted, it suggests that if you have found a pursuit for which you are passionate, you won’t really feel like you’re working as you pursue it.

It follows from this that if you feel like you’re working, then you haven’t found your passion.

Can you think of anything more destructive to the achievement of one’s goals than to be convinced that it shouldn’t require work that feels like work?

I thought that writing was my passion but, based on how work-like it feels, I guess I was wrong. I guess I should try something new—and then abandon it when it starts to feel too much like work, of course.

Imagine if we applied this reasoning to, say, anything else.

“Marry a person you love, and you won’t fight a day in your life. And even if you do fight, the fighting won’t feel like fighting.”

I hate to break it to you, kids. From what I’m told, if you fall in love and get married, you will fight with your spouse from time to time, and the fighting will make you feel exactly as crappy as fighting usually does. To stick it out and work through your marital troubles is well worth your time, but the fighting still feels like fighting.

The same is true of all passions, all loves.

And that’s okay.

Because you do not measure your love for something by how easy it is for you to accomplish it, or how easy it feels to work for it.

Your passion is not that for which you do not have to work, or that for which the work doesn’t feel like work, but that for which you are willing to work—even when the work is grueling.

The Truth About “Loan Forgiveness”

“Loan forgiveness.” The term is everywhere.  Ask the internet and it will refer you to hundreds of testimonials from people who are saddled with debt, struggling to make their monthly payments, begging for “forgiveness” from the government for their student loans.

The internet isn’t lying. Student loan debt is an epidemic that refuses to stop spreading. The average 2012 graduate had $29,400 of student debt by the time he got his degree, up from $26,600 in the previous year.

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If you ask these debt-encumbered graduates (I am one of them) why they chose to borrow so much money, many will reply that the decision was the result of a dilemma more than simply a choice. The “choice” was between a debt-free-but-impoverished life of working for the minimum wage at a dead-end job, and a debt-riddled existence with the possibility of an upwardly-mobile and lucrative career. They were presented with two unfavorable options and chose the one that seemed less terrible. Choose your burden: poverty or debt.

There is some truth to this, though the situation is not quite as rigid as some claim.

At the very least, it is far more difficult to get a well-paying job without a degree than with a degree these days. And, for most people, a degree requires borrowing.

In response, the federal government has presented “loan forgiveness” to clean up the mess, to remedy the poverty vs. debt dilemma by removing debt from the set of options. Why not?

Well, the unfortunate truth is that federal loan forgiveness can do no such things; federal loan forgiveness does not forgive debt, nor does it remedy the poverty/debt dilemma.

Why? Well, for starters, because the government is not capable of forgiving loans.

Loan forgiveness occurs when the lender forgives the borrower’s debt, and eats the cost himself.

But the government is not in a position to forgive debt because the government did not lend the money in the first place—because the government does not have money to lend. When the government “forgives” loans, it does not eat the cost, the taxpayer does—which is another way of saying that, if you’re a taxpaying resident of the United States, your loans have not been forgiven. What you paid with a check before, you will pay with your taxes now. You may not have to pay off your debt immediately, you may not pay it off directly, you may not pay it off to the same degree as others, and you may not even realize that you are paying it off at all, but you are, and so is everyone else.

Your debts have not been forgiven, only redistributed. Smearing dog poop all over the sidewalk is not the same as cleaning it up. Sure, if you spread it sufficiently far and wide, it will seem to disappear; Passersby may not even notice that they are walking in poop. But there is only so much sidewalk and, if enough dogs poop, that crap will eventually pile up, no matter how much you mush it around.

 

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The poop has piled up, America.

The average graduate has $29,400 in debt? I’ve got bad news for you, graduate, you have far more debt than that. The federal government has over $17.5 trillion dollars (estimated to be $21.7 trillion by 2019) of debt. If you evenly divided it among the 318 million+ American residents, each and every citizen would owe more than $55,000. Divided among taxpayers, that figure rises to more than $151,000.

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But wait, there’s more.

You see, America has several layers of government. Most American citizens live in a school district, college district, sewerage district, municipality, county, and state—most of which have the power to issue debt, and have done so. As of 2011, three years ago, the average American represented $3,613.78 in state debt, and another $5,594.61 in local debt.

The situation has only worsened since.

Loans forgiven or not, if you are an American taxpayer, you are on the hook for a lot of money. And the only (legal) way to avoid being a taxpayer, to the extent that one can, is to be poor.

Hence, we arrive back at square one, with that terrible dilemma: a debt-free-but-impoverished life working for the minimum wage at a dead end job, or a debt-riddled existence with at least the possibility of an upwardly-mobile and lucrative career.

Not only is federal “loan forgiveness” not loan forgiveness, but, like so many other government solutions, it is not a solution. Federal “Loan forgiveness” or not, the terrible choice between poverty and debt remains. Choose your burden: poverty or debt.

Why You Should Keep Doing Good Things For The Wrong Reasons

Like many other people, I admire people who do good things for good reasons, people who are motivated by love of others rather than praise of themselves. I tend to resent those who do good things for appearance or attention rather than the goodness of the act itself. You know what I’m talking about: celebrities that volunteer at soup kitchens for the photo-op, companies that give to charity for the good press rather than out of concern for the needy, etc… I spent my youth judging people who dropped money into the collection basket at Church, quietly “knowing” that they cared more about looking charitable than helping the poor. And all the while, the well-known bible verse was ringing in my ear:

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.” (Matthew 6:2)

 

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^Kim you selfless do-gooder.^

Now, I’m not trying to defy the Bible. Bragging is not good (what is and is not bragging is a whole different issue). And doing good things for appearance, even without “announcing it with trumpets” is not ideal. To be motivated primarily by praise, or money, or other earthly rewards is a weakness of character.

But there is a danger in ranking motivation over action.

In order to demonstrate this, let me tell you a story about how my preoccupation with selflessness made me a pretty crappy person:

With distaste for all  base and selfish motivations ingrained in my head as a child, I grew. As I grew, I developed a modicum of self awareness. And as a result of that self-awareness, my contentment to judge what was selfish in others was disturbed by the recognition of something selfish in myself.

It started with a suspicion. Maybe I found myself wishing that someone had been around when I picked up a can of soup that fell out of a pregnant lady’s shopping cart. Maybe I casually mentioned the incredible act of charity later and felt that ugly sensation that accompanies bragging and, ironically, serves to remind one how pathetic he is. Eventually, this suspicion grew into an inescapable conviction and I looked desperately for a solution.

My knee-jerk reaction was to tell people about it, as if the antidote to selfishness was to put it on display. It’s okay to be have selfish motivations if you’re honest about them, right? The real problem with celebrities in soup kitchens is that they are lying, feigning care where there is self-interest alone. All would be well if they were honest about their selfish impetuses because honesty and selfishness cancel each other out, I thought.

Of course, this “solution” proved unhelpful. Being open about being an asshole doesn’t make being an asshole okay. Just so, being honest about having selfish motivations doesn’t make one’s selfish motivations noble. With time I came to the sad realization that my parade of “honesty” was insincere as well, selfishly driven, intended primarily to garner the admiration of others, which just isn’t the best reason for doing something.

It wasn’t until college during an extended conversation with a philosophical friend who’d been reading too much Kant that my self-loathing conviction culminated into a philosophy.

“I guess I’m saying that a person’s action is only as good as his reason for doing it,” I heard myself say.

And before the words had left my mouth, I was resolved on the matter: I would do only those good deeds for which I had the noblest motivations.

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^Immanuel Kant^

I would only compliment someone for the sake of uplifting him, only give if it was out of love for the receiver, only go to Church if it was out of love for God, and only thank someone if I really wanted to show them gratitude.

And do want to know what happened next?

Nothing.

Really, nothing.

I was paralyzed, trapped in my own selfishness; unable to do good for my inability to extricate praise, and popularity from the top of my priorities. It seemed everything I’d ever done had been for some vain purpose, and I was incapable of altering my course.

I was spiritually immobile, and I became very depressed.

Fortunately, my philosophical narcissism allowed me to recognize my depression. I knew I was not happy, and my unhappiness forced me to reconsider this “philosophy of motivation.”

Can it really be true that the goodness of my actions rely wholly on the nobility of my reasons for doing them? Does a selfish motivation render a good action not worth doing?

No, on both accounts.

The fact of the matter is that if good exists, and an action is inherently good, it does not rely on the nobility of your motivations to be so. Good actions are good, even when they are done for the silliest of reasons.

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^Feeding these children is good regardless of why you do it^

Giving what is needed to those in need is always good, even if you are doing it because you want to look like a charitable person. Would it be better if you were giving primarily out of love and concern for the receiver or, even better, for the greater glory of God? Absolutely.

But selfish motivations do not render a good action bad, only imperfect. And if you insist on performing only perfect actions, you will do very little good.

Remember, the Gospel of Matthew does not say that the hypocrites in the synagogues and the streets should not have given to the needy, or that their act of charity was rendered bad by the baseness of their reasons for doing it, or even that their bragging eliminated the good of their charity. He said only that they had received their reward in full.

There are better and worse reasons for doing things, yes. But one does not elevate or purify his motivations by forbidding himself to act until his motivations are transformed. You do not abandon the proverbial old lady in the middle of the street until you’re pretty sure you’d be helping her for the right reasons. That way lies madness, trust me.

On the contrary, when you are slave to earthly motivation, the solution is to do good things relentlessly, regardless of motivation. If you are motivated to do good things primarily by praise, or money, or appearance, take note of it, and then continue to do good things, always.

Why? Because doing good things positively impacts our whole being, including our motivations, and desires. Doing good things helps us to want the right things. So if you want to be a person motivated to do good by love and good will, keep doing good. Pray, think, be honest with yourself, whatever… but keep doing good.

One Million Things that Almost Everyone Understands and Don’t Make Anyone As Special As He’d Like To Be

You’ve seen them. They are everywhere. The lists of things that apparently only one tiny subset of society understands or experiences? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here are a few:

23 Problems Only Yoga People Will Understand

20 Jokes Only Intellectuals Will Understand

21 Problems Only People With Long Hair Understand

21 Problem Only Women With Big Boobs Will Understand

10 Things Only People With Attention Problems Will Understand

26 Struggles Only People Who Are Perpetually Hungry Will Understand

Don’t worry, there are thousands more.

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Now, I don’t have a problem with people posting these lists on facebook, or their preferred social media outlet. But let’s call them what they are.

These lists are most often just poor attempts to present ourselves as different, and special, and struggling, and lonely, and marginalized in ways that we are not.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with the desire to identify oneself with a particular subset of society. I have no problem with compiling and sharing a list of problems, or struggles, or whatever that are common to a particular group of people.

But that isn’t what is occurring in these lists. 

The title is not “10 problems common to people in these given circumstances,” but “10 problems only people in these given circumstances understand.” And that, my big-breasted, long-haired, yoga-doing friend, is almost never the case. But before you go and write a list of 10 things only people who hate The Indisputable Dirt understand, let’s clarify a couple things.

1. Most people “understand” these things you claim only you and a small number of other people understand. In fact, anyone with a basic knowledge of the English language, and the ability to reason at all can understand the problematic nature of the circumstances outlined in the majority of these lists. Most people understand the difficulty of sweating on one’s yoga mat. Maybe they have not personally experienced a sweaty yoga mat during yoga class, but they understand the slippery predicament that arises from the circumstance. They may not be able to empathize with you, but unless they lack the cognitive skill common to most humans over the age of 6, they can sympathize.

Of course, I know what people will say. “That’s not what we meant. Sure, most people can understand the difficulties that accompany having big breasts, but you can’t fully understand unless you’ve lived with them.”

Yes. Fine. Understanding is an issue of degree as well as kind. Someone with long hair likely understands the struggles of having long hair more fully than someone who doesn’t have long hair because she/he has knowledge of experience as well as knowledge through reason. But if we’re demanding complete understanding, then no one should be posting these lists at all, because no one completely understands anything to its fullest extent. There is always more to know about a situation, even if you experience it on a daily basis. You may understand problems associated with being a tall girl more than me because I am of average height, but we both understand them, and we both understand them incompletely.

Which brings me to the more significant problem with these lists.

2. These things are almost never actually singular to the designated group. Skipping over the hyperbolic nature of the assertion that no bathing suits ever fit women with large breasts (really? Because I see a lot of big breasted women on beaches, and advertisements in bikinis that seem to fit very, very well), the claim that only large-breasted women deal with ill-fitting bathing suits is simply false. Lots of women (and men) struggle to find bathing suits that fit well. This is a common problem in a world where most bathing suits come in 3 sizes. Some women experience it more, some women experience it less, but lots of women of a variety of breast sizes experience it.

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And this is the error made in most of these lists: the attempt to claim for a single subset of people something that applies to a lot of people—often most people.

20 Jokes only intellectuals will understand? Guess what, you don’t have to be an intellectual to understand why a Roman ordering 5 beers by holding up two fingers is funny. All you need to know is that “V” is the Roman numeral for the number five.

You don’t have to be perpetually hungry to hate watching other people eat while waiting for your food at a restaurant. You just have to have been hungry, or impatient at a restaurant at some point in your life.

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I wonder what people who are ACTUALLY perpetually hungry think of this list.

You don’t have to have long hair to fear getting haircuts.

You don’t have to have attention problems in order to know the frustration of not being able to find your car keys.

What these lists amount to are rather poor attempts to draw a line between your struggles, and everyone else’s where there is no line. Don’t get me wrong, the line exists—just not where you are drawing it. You are special and different and have your own personal set of problems, ironically, just like everyone else. Just usually not in the dramatic and sweeping fashion outlined in the majority of these lists.