The lucky ones–even in a pandemic

by Emrys Westacott

When I feel myself becoming irritable, disheartened, or just plain fed-up with life during the pandemic, I find it helpful to conduct a thought-experiment familiar to the ancient Stoics. I reflect on how much I have to be grateful for, and how things could be so much worse. That prompts the more general question: Who are the fortunate, and who are the unfortunate at this time?

Let’s consider the unfortunate first. These include:

  • the dead, the dying, the seriously ill, and those who suffer the loss of family and friends;
  • the desperate: undocumented immigrants without access to social services; refugees; migrants; and the already destitute;
  • the endangered: people with pre-existing conditions that make covid 19 especially dangerous; those residing or working in nursing homes, hospitals, prisons, meatpacking factories, and other places where the contagion spreads easily;
  • the fearful: this includes millions who face serious financial insecurity as their income suddenly no longer covers their expenses: workers who have lost their jobs or been furloughed; the self-employed whose revenues have dried up; business owners who no longer have sufficient customers;
  • the domestically stressed: all those whose domestic situation is unhappy or unhealthy due to loneliness, incapacity, overcrowding, dysfunctional relationships, or just the lack of opportunities to relax, exercise, or experience a refreshing change of scene;
  • the disappointed: students in schools and colleges whose whole experience, both educational and social, has been diminished; all those on career paths whose prospects appear suddenly blighted;
  • the bored.

As for the fortunate, these include:

  • those who avoid death, serious sickness, or the loss of loved ones;
  • those who are relatively free from financial anxiety as their jobs or income from other sources are reasonably secure;
  • those who are in satisfactory domestic circumstances, living with people they get along with, or at least able to communicate regularly with family and friends;
  • those who are not bored.

It is the last category in each of these groups that I want to talk about. Read more »

The problem of stereotypes

by Emrys Westacott

ImagesThe word “stereotype” has decidedly negative connotations. Indeed, it is often used as shorthand for “negative stereotype,” “false stereotype,” or “prejudiced stereotype.” Some dictionaries even define it as an unfair or oversimplified generalization about a particular group of people. Yet stereotypes can be positive. Asians have been stereotyped as hardworking; Brits as unflappable in a crisis; and Toyotas as reliable. And stereotypes can also be neutral, as when we assume Brazilians as more interested in soccer than Alaskans, or presuppose that middle-aged white men from Tennessee will probably prefer country music to hip hop.

Stereotyping was originally a process used in printing. A “stereotype” was a metal plate made from a plaster-of-paris mould and used to print an entire page of text. Printing this way replaced printing from individual letters held together in lines, and made it much easier to reprint a successful book. Real stereotypes made of metal have, of course, been thrown into the dustbin of history by advances in technology. All we have now is the concept, a metaphorical extension of the term's original meaning. We use a stereotype in our thinking whenever we assume that qualities often associated with a certain class of people or things will be found in some particular instance that we encounter. And this is something we all do all the time. I select a cantaloupe at the grocery store by presuming that if it looks healthy on the outside it won't be rotten on the inside. I see a converted railway carriage with a red neon sign over the door that reads “Joe's Cafe”, and I assume this is a place where I can probably buy a BLT sandwich but will not find sweet potato gaufrettes with duck confit on the menu.

In any such instance, we could, of course be wrong. The cantaloupe may be rotten. Joe's Cafe may be a gourmet French restaurant sporting a humble exterior as a humorous, postmodern gesture. But we can't stop using stereotypes in our thinking. For one thing, it's a process that has been ingrained in us by evolution. Early humanoids who didn't stereotype sabretoothed tigers as dangerous got selected out. For another thing, it's just too useful. The fact that we are sometimes mistaken in our assumptions does not disprove this. To be useful, and reasonable, an inference only needs to be probable; it doesn't need to be certain.

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The conflict between competition and leisure

by Emrys Westacott

ScreenHunter_590 Apr. 14 11.15In 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that increases in productivity due to technological progress would lead within a century to most people enjoying much more leisure. He believed that by 2030 the average working week would be around fifteen hours. Eighty-four years later, it doesn't look like this prediction will come true. Most full-time workers work two, three, or four times, that: and many part-time workers would work more hours if they could since they need the money.

So why haven't we come closer to realizing the expectations of Russell and Keynes? In their recent book, How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, 2012), Robert and Edward Skidelsky offer an interesting answer. According to them Keynes' mistake was his failure to realize that capitalism has unleashed forces that can't be brought under control. Specifically, it has greatly inflamed a natural human desire for recognition and status, turning it into an insatiable desire for ever more wealth—wealth being the number one determinant of status in our society. If we could just settle for a modest level of comfort, we could work far less. But the yearning for more wealth and more stuff now leads people to spend far more time working than they need to. The same insatiability characterizes our society as a whole. Every politician and most economists take for granted that we should be striving with all our might to achieve economic growth without limit. The wisdom of this relentless, endless pursuit of economic growth is rarely questioned.

The Skidelskys' explanation of why we still work much more than Keynes predicted isn't entirely wrong, but I don't think it's the whole story or even the most important part. It's no doubt true of some people that they are driven to work more than they need to by insatiable greed. But I suspect that far more people work the hours they do because of circumstances beyond their control. For instance, many people work long hours simply because their hourly wage is quite low, so they work overtime, or perhaps take a second job, just in order to have enough to live on. Some live in expensive metropolitan areas like Boston or San Francisco, so even though they make a good wage, they actually need a full time job even to secure a fairly modest level of comfort, given the cost of housing. Many people keep working full time, even though they'd like to retire or go part time, because only a full time job will provide indispensible benefits like health insurance and a pension. And lots of people would like to cut back the hours they work but can't for a simple reason: their boss won't let them.

But there's also another factor preventing us from achieving a more leisured and balanced lifestyle, and that is the intensely competitive social environment in which we live.

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Why We Care

by Kelly Amis

Decrepit school Michelle Alexander’s New York Times op-ed “In Prison Reform, Money Trumps Civil Rights” is a powerful and depressing assessment of why more Americans are suddenly waking up to our nation’s status as the world’s most prolific jailor (while the U.S. represents just 5% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the incarcerated).

Alexander explains that while decades of social justice advocacy made scant progress towards eliminating the policies that land inordinate numbers of especially black and Hispanic U.S. citizens behind bars, today’s economic crisis is rousing unprecedented calls for prison reform. In other words, suddenly maintaining a prison system bursting-at-the-seams with minority inmates is not worth the price tag.

The resulting interest convergence (in which formerly “tough on crime” policymakers are joining forces with social rights activists) may result in positive policy change, but I can’t help wondering if change will last if it’s not grounded in enlightened agreement about what is fair and just…and even “American”?

Regardless, I believe the same phenomenon Alexander describes is happening today in K-12 education reform: attention is finally being paid to long-standing inequities that keep urban, minority students from achieving on par with their peers due to an awakening of perceived economic interest from our nation’s majority, not because social justice arguments are finally gaining ground.

Does the motivation matter? Maybe, ultimately, it doesn’t. That would be great. But as someone who has witnessed first-hand the discrimination in our education system, I have mixed emotions about today’s sudden interest in implementing commonsense reforms—specifically those having to do with teacher quality—since their raison d’etre is neither based on student well-being nor equity.

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Joy!

JoyTis the season…this time of the year we throw the word Joy around a lot. But really, what is joy? Happiness seems to be a pretty consistent lack of depression and a state of bliss is usually only achieved by yogis. Isn't contentment really one step away from the acknowledgement that you're actually miserable? Joy though, well joy seems to be something that is fleeting for most of us most of the time, but that is realistically attainable. Joy is that spring in your step, the gleam in your eye, the new love in your life or the pleasure of finding yourself surrounded by your loved ones and, for at least a short time, truly enjoying each others company.

I find that as a middle-aged adult, joy is something that I have to work on; if I'm lucky it sometimes comes to me unbidden, sneaking up behind me and shouting “boo!”. I've come to realize that, while I'm lucky to be generally happy with my life, it's those moments of joy that are truly energizing and inspirational. Recently, I've tried to come to a better self-awareness of what really brings me joy and attempt to seek those things and experiences out.

One realization that I have come to, better late than never, is that for too long in my life, I have settled for a career that was satisfying enough, but not joyful in any way. I made a change, and now, I am able to find true joy in the creativity my job affords me and the wonderful colleagues I get to interact with day in and day out. I work for bosses who appreciate me and let me know it–people I trust, respect and have a deep affection for. Given how many hours a week I spend working, I now realize what a huge gap it was in my life that those hours used to be joyless.

And these musing about the nature of joy, and how important it is for me to feel it in my life more than I have in the past, make me think about my daughters and the joy they have in their lives. Children truly have a capacity for joy that most of us seem to lose as we get older. Most children, at least in the western world, have enough of a carefree existence that, even if their parents are burdened by worries, debts, frustrations, they manage to find enormous joy in their friends, their toys, their pets, their music. But do they find it in their schools? I spend the majority of my life working and children spend the majority of theirs learning. Now that I've realized how important it is that I find joy in those hours of my life, I have to ask the question, shouldn't we give our children this as well?

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