I wrote a lot in 2015. I also wrote a lot in 2014, but that was mostly unpaid and for blogs and it wasn't until the last few months there that I started to ride the freelance writer train to $$ and readers (thank you, kind folks at The Daily Beast). Since then, I've published a lot of pieces! By my count, nearly 20 pieces that paid me real, actual money!
I'm really happy with this development! And I hope to keep it up. So while I start thinking about how I can walk with DJ Khaled on the pathway to more success, I wanted to make a list of my five favorite pieces I wrote in 2015.
Why don't men touch each other? Old photos show how comfortable we used to be with male intimacy. While some of the best writing on this topic have come from Catholics (like Leah Libresco) who keenly describe our modern discomfort with close male friendships, some of them, like Anthony Elosen, overstate and misdiagnose the problem. While Esolen blames the sexual revolution and prevalence of homosexuality, research suggests a different answer.
Men don’t touch each other anymore, at least not very often or without excuse. For the average straight American man, physical contact is most often gruff—a pat on the back, a punch on the arm, or, most warmly, a firm handshake—and the only socially acceptable way to express emotional closeness is through irony. We show people we care by ribbing and insulting them, and nothing more sincere than that can be expressed without some kind of cover (alcohol is a common one, and films like Superbad serve as good examples).The only way we seem to know how to talk about closeness is in romantic terms, and that’s obvious in the language we use (“bromance”) and in how often male relationships are played up as romantic for laughs. All the cultural scripts we have to describe platonic male affection and friendship seem either ironic or nonexistent. In 22 Jump Street, a running joke is that police officers played by Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum quarrel like a couple, experience jealousy as if they were a couple, and even break up and reconcile like a couple. Looking at how the real and messy and complex friendships at the center of television shows like Comedy Central’s Broad City or HBO’s Girls (NSFW; it’s HBO’s Girls), it’s hard to imagine male friendships playing out similarly.
Can consuming media have harmful effects? Can some media contribute to our prejudices? These are empirical questions that have been hotly debated by pundits in the "GamerGate" controversy. I responded to one in particular, Allum Bokhari at Breitbart, because he and his writing have been represented as the social science contingent of "GamerGate." Starting with a study Bokhari fundamentally misrepresents and misunderstands, I go through what we do know about how media can shape our views, It was a fun piece to write, and it got me branded a liar by the GamerGate forum at Reddit, /r/KotakuInAction.
Last month, the Florida chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists hosted an afternoon panel about GamerGate, the yearlong campaign either about ethics in game journalism or the harassment of women in the tech industry, depending on whom you ask. Since the campaign was launched by a young software developer who published a 9,000 word blog post smearing his ex-girlfriend—a post which led to a mob of harassment and accusations that she had slept with a games journalist for favorable reviews of her game (she hadn’t)—most people, including Wikipedia and almost all media outlets, are not sympathetic to the “actually it’s about ethics” framing.
That camp, composed largely of people who spend their time posting on niche forums, like Reddit’s KotakuInAction, chose a telling group to represent them at SPJ’s afternoon panel: Christina Hoff-Sommers, an author and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who’s critical of modern feminism; Milo Yiannopolous, a writer at Breitbart with a history of unflattering comments about gamers and a poor record of journalistic ethics, who most recently accused Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King of lying about his race to get a scholarship (he wasn't); and Cathy Young, a contributing editor at the libertarian magazine, Reason. Notably, none of them are gamers or game journalists.
I think most of us want to learn how to make do with less, but what if your solution just involved offloading your possessions to other people? This is the solution put forward by many in Silocon Valley: you end up giving up a car, not because you don't need it, but because you can just call an uber. The messy business of actually owning things is relegated to the poor, who can't afford the luxury of living with less.
In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, the Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo offers simple advice: go through all of your possessions, one by one, and ask yourself, “Does this bring me joy?” If the answer is “no,” then get rid of it. The advice has certainly resonated—the book has sold more than two million copies, and it spent months on the New York Times bestseller list. By my friends’ telling, it’s practically required reading for anyone trying to live in a cramped New York apartment.
There’s something spiritually satisfying about the act of pruning. Who hasn’t dreamed of simplifying their life, committing to minimalism, and limiting their possessions to the bare necessities? Many religious and philosophical traditions contain strains of such asceticism. From Epictetus to the Buddha, from Christian monasticism to Thoreau, there’s a long tradition of trying to make do with what you already have, and maybe learning to live with less.
Silicon Valley, with a futurist and libertarian-leaning ideology all its own, is no exception. This new brand of technologically-enhanced asceticism, however, is based less on minimalism than it is on outsourcing, by building a simple life on the backs of sweatshop laborers and the unregulated sharing economy.
No one really knows how we change our minds. We all know it happens, but like a kettle that starts boiling only once we turn away, we've never been able to catch it in the lab. An exciting paper suggests one possibility: make the consequences of not changing your mind really, really scary.
For any issue with the slightest personal or political controversy, social scientists can’t say much about how to change minds other than this: facts alone don’t work.It’s an old and well-supported finding, yet the go-to solutions for our most pressing social problems are simply “raise awareness and improve scientific literacy.”
Public health advocates have been frustrated and vexed by the stubbornness of misinformation. Diseases like measles, which scientists declared eliminated more than a decade ago, have resurfaced in recent years because parents have stopped vaccinating their children, largely because of a widely discredited and since-retracted paper purporting to link vaccines and autism. According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 668 cases of measles in 2014, a more than ten-fold increase from the average rate in the 00’s.
Research released last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, however, provides a rare cause for optimism. Plain facts might not work, but that doesn’t mean nothing will. By making the consequences of not complying painfully and graphically clear, researchers are able to increase support for vaccines.
I spent probably more time writing and researching this piece than I did all the others on this list put together, and I'm really glad I did. If you're going to read anything I wrote this year, please make it this piece.
When Nina Strohminger was a teenager, her grandmother had dementia. “Before she got sick, she was not a very nice person,” Strohminger said. “One of the first things that went when this disease was taking hold is she became really, really nice. I just remember her stopping me one day and saying ‘Nina, your skin is so beautiful,’ and I was like ‘what is happening?’”
We spoke on the phone, both of us traveling—I paced outside of a Starbucks in Brooklyn while she packed her things to move from Durham, NC, where we both lived at the time, to New Haven, CT, where she’d be starting as a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. (Full disclosure: Strohminger is a friend and collaborator of mine.)
“She didn’t seem like the same person,” Strohminger went on. “She just seemed completely different.” This question, what makes someone seem like who they are?, is a fundamental one that philosophers and psychologists have always struggled to answer. Some thinkers have suggested that it’s our bodies that define us, while others argue that it’s our memories. In a forthcoming paper with University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols, Strohminger advances a novel solution: What makes us who we are is our moral character—whether we’re honest, what sorts of things we value, and how well we treat our grandchildren.