The Peculiar Quality of Friendship

One question I like to ask people after I’ve known them a while is, “In your opinion, what is the exact moment that we started to become friends?” I’d have to concede that in many cases the trust and intimacy required for friendship came along so slowly that no one could identify an exact moment with any confidence, like pinpointing the precise place a creek becomes a river. On the other hand, many of my friends choose the same memory that I do. One friendship started the time we stayed up half the night talking about how I felt my life was crumbling in front of me. Another began when I happened to be the only person in earshot when the cumulative pressures of college and family had become overbearing. Yet another sprouted from a chance encounter in a piano practice room, where she was on the brink of tears and I managed the rare (for me) feat of saying something meaningful and encouraging.

I once described friendship as having five essential pillars – trust, comfort, affection, quality time, and open communication – but I’ve come to realize this model is at once too complicated yet not sophisticated enough. “Too complicated” because quality time and open communication aren’t so much components of friendship as they are the fuel it runs on. (Is gas really a part of a car? A question for the philosophers.) “Not sophisticated enough” because identifying those core components says nothing about the way they interact. Does open communication lead to comfort, or does comfort produce open communication? I’m self-aware enough to notice that it’s often when I start talking that people become uncomfortable.

Setting aside for a paragraph my instincts as a writer, I think friendship can be helpfully conceptualized as a tree, with roots of trust, a trunk and branches made from intimacy, love as its fruit, and communication and quality time the sunshine and rainwater that keeps it fed and makes it grow. Perhaps this is why those friendships with discrete beginnings – the ones we can trace from seed to sequoia – almost invariably involve some moment of profound vulnerability, a basic bid for support, a plea for understanding or compassion that is unequivocally answered.

But rain falls on concrete as well as trees. This obvious fact (and the brusque, blunt person who feels the need to pedantically point it out) has created a lot of conflict in my life. If the word “friend” is to be a useful term, it must refer to something stronger than just someone I talk to or spend time with: it must describe the essential nature of a particular kind of relationship. Nobody, except those who just moments prior had an explicit claim to the contrary, would take offense to the statement, “You’re not my employee” or “You’re not my spouse.” But to say, “You’re not my friend” is an egregious faux pas. Why should this be?

Of course, the first obvious answer to this question is that most people mean something altogether different than I do when they use the word, that their category for the term is much more expansive than my own. Perhaps they would likewise describe shrubs and cornstalks as “Basically just trees.” I hope you can at least understand why I find that lack of distinction unsatisfying.

C.S. Lewis noticed this too. “To the Ancients,” he wrote, “Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it. We admit of course that besides a wife and family a man needs a few ‘friends.’ But the very tone of the admission, and the sort of acquaintanceships which those who make it would describe as ‘friendships,’ show clearly that what they are talking about has very little to do with that Philia which Aristotle classified among the virtues or that Amicitia on which Cicero wrote a book. It is something quite marginal; not a main course in life’s banquet; a diversion; something that fills up the chunks of one’s time.”

The second – and infinitely more important – answer is that friendship is by its very nature selective and exclusive. Any conscious act of exclusion necessarily begs questions about value or worth. But we will continue to be selective, even as we are offended when we are not selected. We will continue to be exclusive even as we are excluded. Percipience is an essential quality of friendship, and our unease will not change that.

Even then, the inherent selectivity at play between friends can create jealousies and rivalries among those who have an equal or even greater claim to such a title. Who has not experienced the feeling of being unable to relate to a close friend when they are in deep rapport with someone else, or the feeling that this person you know intimately has transformed into someone unrecognizable while they are in the company of another friend? White chocolate brings out unexpected flavors in both caviar and coffee, yet few would dream of combining the latter two. If coffee could talk, would it express its insecurities that white chocolate sometimes hangs out with a much fancier friend? Would caviar envy coffee’s much wider social circle and wonder why he needed to hog white chocolate’s attention? Has this metaphor gone off the rails yet?

I like to think of friends as fellow-travelers on the same secret road, people with whom I share a (sometimes intuitive and sometimes explicit) sense of understanding, whether about a shared experience or passion or even something entirely ineffable. “I know how you feel. Let’s walk a while together.” Or, as Lewis wrote, “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one.’” Perhaps this peculiar quality of friendship is one of the many that gives it so much value. Regardless, I want trees to climb, even while I see the value of cornstalks. I want friendship, not something like it.


Donald Trump Jr. and Very Big Numbers

Recently, Donald Trump, Jr. – son of the Republican nominee/possible lizard person – tweeted out this graphic:


The insinuation, of course, is that any Syrian refugee could possibly be an ISIS sleeper agent trying to gain access to the United States. The comparison was quickly denounced in some circles, roundly praised in others, and given a stern rebuke by the Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co., the maker of the fruity candy, who said, “Skittles are candy. Refugees are people. We don’t feel it’s an appropriate analogy. We will respectively refrain from further commentary, as anything we say could be misinterpreted as marketing.”

Perhaps the most interesting response came from Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute. Nowrasteh argued that the Skittles meme is an appropriate metaphor, but only if utilized properly. It is, after all, a very different story if our bowl holds fifty Skittles or if it holds a million. Per Nowrasteh:

Imagine a bowl full of 3.25 million Skittles that has been accumulated from 1975 to the end of 2015.  We know that 20 of the Skittles in that bowl intended to do harm but only three of those 20 are actually fatal.  That means that one in 1.08 million of them is deadly.  It gets even better though.  There are over three hundred million Americans and not everyone can get a Skittle.  This means that the chance of any American actually eating the fatal Skittle and perishing is about one in 3.64 billion a year during the 41-year time period. Do you eat from the bowl without quaking in your boots?  I would.

The odds of an American being killed by a refugee in any given year are one in 3.64 billion. That is an absurdly small number. But is it correct?

Nowrasteh arrived at his estimate by finding the number of refugees admitted to the United States who were either convicted of planning a terrorist attack or actually carried one out. There were twenty such individuals. “Refugees were not very successful at killing Americans in terrorist attacks,” Nowrasteh writes. “Of the 20, only three were successful in their attacks, killing a total of three people.”

Nowrasteh then comes to his yearly average by dividing three by the sum total of the American population from 1975-2015 (roughly 10.9 billion) to arrive at his one in 3.64 billion figure. (The most dangerous form of immigrant is the one here on a tourist Visa: the odds of dying to such a person in any given year are one in 3.6 million. The second most dangerous? Students.)

“The three refugee terrorists were Cubans who committed their attacks in the 1970s,” Nowrasteh adds. “(They) were admitted before the Refugee Act of 1980 created the modern rigorous refugee-screening procedures currently in place.” According to Nowrasteh, there have been no such murders committed by foreign-born refugees since that act passed.

There are a couple things to consider here. The first is that translating a yearly probability into an absolute probability is a fairly tricky process. The absolute probability over the span from 1975-2015 is roughly 1 per 166 million people. (The sum of Americans who are alive today plus the number who have died since 1975 gives the total number of Americans alive at any point since 1975. That number is approximately 500 million. If three died in refugee-related terrorist activities over that span, that gives us approximately one in 166 million.) But 41 years does not cover the average American life-span. If we can expect to live to 75, on average, and we can expect this rate to remain constant at 1 in 3.64 billion, then the odds of being killed by a refugee-terrorist are now one in 49 million, or roughly the odds of winning the Powerball if you buy four tickets.

Second, if we use the number of refugee-terrorists (whether or not they were successful in their attacks) as our numerator, the odds get a little worse. The number of victims in any given terrorist attack is highly variable. Sometimes these attackers are victims of their own incompetence and there are no victims except for an amateur bomb-maker and the application of common sense. Future attacks, if they are ever indeed carried out, might be more effective at producing casualties. According to John Mueller, professor at Ohio State University, there have been approximately 3.2 million refugees admitted to the United States since 1975. Of those, 20 have attempted acts of terror, or about one for every 162,000 refugees. That’s almost identical to our current rate of mass shooters, which begs an uncomfortable question: are comfortable with the current level of mass shooters in our country?

That leads us to the final, most important factor: is there any reason to expect that the current rate of one in 3.64 billion should stay constant? This is the question at the heart of the debate. “Perhaps future Skittles added into the bowl will be deadlier than previous Skittles but the difference would have to be great before the risks become worrisome,” says Nowrestah. Total refugees from ISIS-controlled territories have increased steadily. According to the State Department, there were 31 total Syrian refugees admitted into the United States. In 2015, that number was 1,682. Refugees from high-percentage Muslim countries have increased a small amount since 2008 (30,934 last year compared to 23,490 in 2008).

Of the twenty refugee-terrorists on Nowrasteh’s list, nine of them entered the US after 9/11. Four of them – Yassin Aref, Najibullah Zazi & Zarein Ahmedzay, and Abdullatif Aldosary – came from regions affiliated with terror groups. Given the high numbers of refugees from these areas, the relative risk for such refugees is one in 44,000 – four times higher than the average rate for refugees. (None of these men were successful in carrying out their crimes).

Depending on how you frame the question, you have between a one in 49 million and a one in 166 million chance of being killed by a refugee-terrorist on American soil. Somewhere between one and 44,000 and one in 162,000 refugees will attempt such an act. Those numbers may seem high, maybe even intolerably high. But stop to consider the fact that you are 7300 times more likely to die in a car accident than at the hands of a refugee-terrorist. Have you stopped driving yet?

The refugee vetting process starts with the UNHCR, which is the U.N.’s refugee agency. The U.N. performs interviews, biological screenings, and attempts to do background checks to weed out criminals and military combatants. After the U.N. refers candidates to the U.S., the Resettlement Support Center initiates an interagency background check, sending the relevant information through the FBI, NCC/IC, the State Department, and Homeland Security. (Syrian refugees receive an even more thorough screening than the average refugee.) Basic biometrics are collected and a medical screening is done. Less than half of referrals are accepted. Finally, an NGO determines where refugees will be settled.

Refugees are subject to the highest level of scrutiny and security checks of any traveler to the United States. The process takes 18-24 months to complete. Refugees have little influence on where and when they will be resettled. As a recipe for spreading terror across an ocean, this method has serious drawbacks. It’s no wonder why the most deadly terrorists came here on student and travel visas. Though we may squabble about particular numbers, the current risk posed by refugees is absurdly low.

A Short PSA on Setting Up Your Friends

Recently, a number of my friends have expressed an interest in setting me up with (presumably) one of their other friends. And although I am somewhat hesitant about the prospect in general, the biggest obstacle for me is the fact that most people seem to draw a blank as to why they think their mystery candidate would make a good match. “You guys have a lot in common!” seems to me to be just a different way of saying, “She’s single and you’re single.” (One friend pitched a date by saying we have similar personalities, which is better. Though it leaves unaddressed the objection that I’m about as much of me as most people can handle, so having a second version of me might not be a recipe for success.) It’s difficult to summarize someone you know well off the cuff.

Here’s my suggestion: if you want to set someone up with someone else, be prepared to sell both of them to each other. Obviously, there are many different ways one could do this, so I’ve devised a simple format. Share two positive personality traits, one charming idiosyncrasy, and two examples of hobbies or interests. For example, if I were trying to set up my friend Katie, I might say, “Let me tell you about my dear friend Katie. She is insightful and caring, has a heretofore unidentified type of narcolepsy, and she enjoys baking and introvert adventures.” Or, likewise, I might say of my friend Dan, “You’d like my friend Dan. He is generous and artistic, he’s never heard a pun he didn’t like, and he enjoys thrifting and woodworking.”

It seems to me that one of the biggest hurdles in a setup is transforming the feeling of hesitant skepticism into curiosity. Perhaps you can think of a better way of accomplishing that task than this recipe. If not, at least it’s a place to start – and it’s better than, “You’re both single.”

(This was the first image to come up when I googled "Blind date." The image, like the blindfolds, is a little on the nose.)

(This was the first image to come up when I googled “Blind date.” The image, like the blindfolds, is a little on the nose.)

On Renaming Lake Calhoun

In the aftermath of the rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week, there have been calls to remove the Confederate flag from government buildings and all state grounds. While for some the Confederate flag might be a banner of state’s rights, to many others it symbolizes a culture of slavery and oppression. Online retailers like eBay and Amazon have responded by banning the sale of those flags and related memorabilia from their websites. Similarly – since it is named after a man who argued vociferously that slavery was a social good – there has been a movement in Minneapolis to rename Lake Calhoun. Although it started in 2011, this movement has picked up considerable steam in the last week. But just because something is opportunistic does not make it wrong: if it plausible that the Confederate flag can carry uncomfortable racial connotations, so can a name. I know I would be uncomfortable suntanning on the beaches of Lake Hitler.

That being said, I don’t think this is so cut and dry. If we start prosecuting our ancestors for modern crimes, where do we stop? George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both owned slaves. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was at the head of a campaign to persecute gay sailors when he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Hell, pick a celebrity at random and we can probably find some reprehensible act in their past. Are we morally obligated to hate the music of Led Zeppelin because Jimmy Page kidnapped a teenage girl? How much good does it take to offset the evil in a person’s legacy? For now, we might overlook Washington’s slave-owning sins because he was a leader of the American Revolution and our first president. Likewise, for some people, the fact that John C. Calhoun sent the expedition to find a site for Fort Snelling – and, as a result, Minnesota became the state that it is today – will be enough of an offset. That won’t be true for everybody.

I think I prefer a third option. Rather than renaming Lake Calhoun – and dealing with the logistical fallout of renaming Calhoun Square, normalizing a new name for the area, and every other headache that comes with it – I think we should use the name to transform Calhoun’s legacy. I think we should find a way to acknowledge the insidious nature of Calhoun’s views on race and slavery with the caveat that those repugnant views don’t snuff out the rest of his contributions. Rather than sweeping our state’s ties to the man under the rug, I would prefer to see Lake Calhoun become a beacon of diversity and inclusivity – moreso than it is already. There’s a certain poetry to the concept, too. It’s as though we are collectively saying, “You helped get us here, but you will not find us how you left us.”

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world

John C. Calhoun, apparently the most unhappy man in the history of the world

Dating, Lies, and Manipulation

Most disagreements in life seem to involve where to draw certain lines. Do human rights begin at conception or at birth or at some arbitrary point in between? How short can a skirt be before it becomes inappropriate for a professional environment? How much T-Pain is too much T-Pain? Conflicts – revolutions, even – hinge on how many people answer questions like these in approximately the same way. When it comes to dating, job interviews, or crafting a first impression in your social life, conventional wisdom dictates that we should avoid the two extremes. We should never craft lies that make us look better than we actually are – you shouldn’t claim to be a fighter pilot, for example, when your piloting experience consists of wearing aviators. Likewise, it is ill advised to offer raw, unfiltered honesty on a first date and make known certain embarrassing facets of your personality. First impressions disproportionately impact how we interpret a person as we are getting to know them, hence why so much of dating advice could be culled from marketing textbooks. Understand and highlight your selling points. Obfuscate your weaknesses. Put your best foot forward.

It becomes important, though, to acknowledge that at a certain point massaging the truth becomes lying. So where do we draw the line?

The other night, I was out with friends at Spoon & Stable, the North Loop restaurant that has been nominated for the prestigious James Beard “Best New Restaurant” award. As we were sipping on our sangiovese, we noticed a couple at a nearby table and we started playing the status-of-the-relationship game. “How long do you think they’ve been dating?” Body language, phone usage, and wardrobe choices became factors in the evaluation. At some point, someone wondered whether the fact that they were out on a Tuesday meant anything. “I think most people prefer first dates to be on weekends.”

“I don’t,” I replied. “I prefer having first dates on weekdays.” When asked why, I explained that I was trying to craft the impression that I am an active and in-demand person, and that an empty Saturday evening is a heuristic for an empty social life. (Of course, there are many other advantages to a weekday date night: an easy out – “I work tomorrow, I should get going” – when you want the date to come to an end, there is more availability for most restaurants, and fewer people out and about makes conversation for soft-spoken types like myself much, much easier.)

I was immediately rebuked. “That’s manipulative.”

One can certainly disagree with the efficacy of such an approach. After all, even the most popular social butterflies find the occasional Friday night with no plans, sometimes plans fall through, and proactive introverts schedule time for themselves on days when they have no work responsibilities. On top of that, as it is a step designed to avoid a negative conclusion rather than create a positive one, it is so subtle that it is likely to be missed entirely. But to object by calling out manipulation ignores efficacy in order to appeal to a moral truth, a line drawn clearly on the spectrum. Now, I know my friend wasn’t calling me a bad person. She just had an instantaneous reaction to the notion that I would consciously and intentionally attempt to craft a woman’s impression of me in this manner. It is manipulative, to be sure. But I don’t think manipulative should always carry a negative connotation, or be seen as a universally bad thing.

Take a moment and think of the things you might do on a date or preparing for the date. Why did you choose Kopplin’s, say, over Starbucks? I can’t speak for anyone else, but among the many reasons for me is that it creates the impression of me as a person “in the know” about the hip places to go (an impression immediately killed by my choice of the word “hip” over “surf party U.S.A.”). Would I have shaved this morning if I wasn’t going out tonight? Are you wearing that sweater because it is slimming and flattering in all the right ways? All of these decisions – and hundreds upon hundreds of others – are manipulative in exactly the same way. Navigating the social spin machine is all part of the game.

It is an unavoidable fact of life that we will venture into areas where someone else’s opinion of us will matter, and we will therefore try to influence that opinion as much as we can. Some people might be uncomfortable with any attempt to do so, and that’s a fine decision. My line dictates that it’s fine to craft your image so long as that image is consistent with reality. (Even there, there’s a gray area. If a friend asks me for date ideas for his upcoming first date, he is, in essence, borrowing my tribal knowledge to benefit himself. I have no problem with that. But it doesn’t completely pass my test.) We have a social contract where we acknowledge that how we present ourselves on a first date, or that important job interview, isn’t the whole story. The important thing to me is to ensure that everything shared will stand up to the future scrutiny of getting to know a person in real life. Where anyone else draws their line is up to them.


Further Thoughts on Gay Marriage

In January, the Supreme Court agreed to review the 6th Circuit court’s decision to uphold gay marriage bans in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Last month, after a federal court order required the state to begin recognizing same-sex marriages, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore forbade probate judges from issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. In response, the Supreme Court declined to stay the order, allowing gay couples to marry in Alabama wherever they could find a judge sympathetic enough to provide a license. Justice Clarence Thomas (dissenting from the seven-justice majority) wrote that the Supreme Court’s refusal to stay the court order “may well be seen as a signal of the Court’s intended resolution” of the constitutionality of gay marriage bans. That is, spoiler warning, Thomas expects that the Supreme Court will strike down gay marriage bans across the country.

I thought the anticipation of this decision would be a good time to further discuss my thoughts on gay marriage, and my views on gay marriage are, in effect, a specific instance of a more general idea: I don’t think the government should be involving itself in marriages. Christians view marriage as a sacred oath between one man and one woman. Different denominations see this idea differently. But one way or another, the understanding of what it means for a Christian to be married depends on their specific form of worship. Churches (and other religious communities, as they see fit) should be governing marriages, not Uncle Sam. Marriage as a continual act of worship is a private endeavor.

That leaves unanswered broader legal questions of inheritance, property rights, hospital visitation, and more, completely unanswered. While the language of civil unions was never popular, I believe that is the answer. If a couple, married religiously or not, wants certain legal rights, that is an arrangement that should be made with the government. Additionally, that arrangement need to reflect a sexual or romantic relationship at all. It just most often would.

This idea, I’ll admit, is a bit contrived and it will never take hold in America. It is just the way I think things out to be: if you think of marriage as a religious act, then let it be practiced within your religious body. If you think of marriage as a legal concern, subject it to the government. Apply new terms as you see fit.

None of that discusses my opinion on gay marriage as it currently stands, so here goes. I think gay marriage should be legal, and I believe my foundations for saying so are conservative in nature. (This means, of course, that I will find myself in a substantial minority on this issue. Many conservatives will disagree with my reasoning – despite the fact that one of the earliest arguments for gay marriage was conservative in nature – and many liberals will think I don’t take things far enough. Such is life for the centrist view.) When discussing whether or not it should be difficult for non-Christians to get divorced, C.S. Lewis had this to say:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question—how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives.

I think the very same logic applies to this circumstance. We should not employ the government to impose a specific religious morality on the American people at large – especially where it’s easy to imagine a differing point of view making a similar imposition on us. (Lewis goes on to make a similar religious marriage/secular marriage distinction as mine: “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.” This is probably where I got the idea.)

There is still an elephant in the room: children and childrearing. One can reasonably make the claim that the best-case scenario for a child is to be raised by his or her biological parents, when those parents are married into a committed, loving, and stable relationship. Fair enough: I think that is probably true as well. Now imagine the spectrum of possibilities, with this hypothetical best case on one end and something like a malnourished, impoverished, abusive, neglect-filled upbringing on the other. Where do you think the health and well-being of a child raised by a gay couple actually lands on that spectrum? If they are also committed, loving, and stable, I would bet it’s far, far closer to the best-case end. And if they are not committed, loving, or stable, then those factors probably have far more to do with any parental shortcomings than does homosexuality.

The Poor Man’s Guide to Reading Minds

Most of us are adept at recognizing when the person in front of us is feeling an emotion. Their faces crinkles and contorts in a familiar – or unfamiliar – fashion. Their posture goes stiff and strong like a two by four, or slumps over like a dehydrated flower. Vocal pitch changes, as does rate of speech. When we witness any of these changes, we interpret it as emotion and intuitively watch for further cues. (Side note that has little bearing on the rest of these ideas: while we are good at spotting such emotional leaking, we are very, very bad at identifying false positives. Though we may know academically that one can fake an emotional expression, too often we see something – a smile, say – and interpret that as indicative of felt emotion. This is why cashiers who smile are many times more likely to be asked on dates than those who do not.)

Although we can generally recognize when an emotion is felt, we are less able to accurately identify which emotion we’ve seen. It is easy to confuse anger for joy, for example, or surprise for sorrow. When we have context and expectation, those errors are less frequent. But divorced from the build up and an instigating event, it is surprisingly difficult to identify an emotion with any measure of accuracy. If you are skeptical, see how you fare on the picture below.

Images taken from Paul Ekman's "Emotions Revealed."

Images taken from Paul Ekman’s “Emotions Revealed.”

What we are worst at, of course, is identifying why a person has felt what they feel. Even if we can successfully navigate past false positives and correctly pick out what someone is feeling, the why remains elusive. And again, though we may know academically that this is true, many of us secretly believe we are experts at reading minds. Ever had a conversation that included a line like, “I know you’re mad at me, and I know it’s because of this”? How often was that correct?

One thing I’m known for are my bus stories, quick anecdotes of something funny, unusual, or even upsetting I witness while riding public transportation in the Twin Cities. Anyone who uses MetroTransit with any frequency at all probably has at least one such story; I have dozens. (I have so many, in fact, that some people have accused me of making them up. If they’d read my short stories, they would know that accusation is absurd.) People naturally want to know why. Am I more observant than others? Do I live in a particularly literary neighborhood?

It’s true that certain routes are more likely to be eventful than others, and I suspect this is because they pass through neighborhoods with vast ethnic and socioeconomic differences. People a group of such people in tight quarters under stress, and conflict arises. There are more stories to be found on a half-full bus running late than a jam-packed bus running on time.

It may be true that I am more observant than most people. What I think is more accurate, though, is I have stumbled upon better predictors of drama. Since almost everyone is focused on their phones or books and their faces are relaxed in a “neutral mask,” the slightest hint of anger, fear, worry, distress, or agitation stands out like a hipster at a cancer ward. From there, one must attempt to figure out why.

The “Why?” is the story. What caused that look of disgust on the skinny blonde wearing the target badge? (The morbidly obese man in the Santa Clause costume smelled of alcohol and feces – he sat in front of me.) Why is that Hispanic man leaning into the aisle, his lower lip looking like hooks are pulling it downward? (The clean-cut college kid next to him was about to vomit, and barely made it off the train before doing so.)

There is a sportswriter named Zach Hample. He is slender and handsome, with thick eyebrows and a wide smile. He is most famous for catching more than 7000 baseballs at major league games. Most baseball fans have never caught any. So it’s both surprising and a little disappointing that his tips are little more than common sense: sit on an aisle so you can move around if you need to; sit in an area that sees a lot of foul balls; bring hats for both teams so they are more likely to toss one to you; be polite. Likewise, I know there is nothing revolutionary about the idea “Spot emotions and then figure out why people are feeling them.” But most people don’t try doing that. If you do, you might have some better stories to tell.

Emma Watson and Gender Feminism

Have you ever been asked to embrace a vague idea only to be told that doing so dictates you must likewise adhere to an entirely different set of immutable principles? Okay, that in itself was a vague idea. Think of the simplistic mindset surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Aren’t you a patriot?” some certainly asked, implying that anyone uncomfortable with war must likewise hate America. The comedian Mike Birbiglia plays on this idea in his stand-up special, “What I Should Have Said Was Nothing.” Birbiglia remarked on how frustrating he found the idea that if he “supported the troops” then he had to support the war. “I just think that’s a little manipulative because I love the troops. Because if they weren’t the troops, I would be the troops, and I would be the worst troops. I’d be like, ‘You expect me to carry a gun this heavy and run away screaming? That is too many things!’”

I think this is what’s going on with the word “feminism” these days. The psychologist Barry Kuhle asked a wide array of people two different questions. 1) Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not? And 2) A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not? “If you’re like many people,” Kuhle wrote, “your answer to question one bore little resemblance to your answer to question two.” According to Kuhle, 65% of women and 58% of men identified as feminist when the definition was provided. Conversely, only 24% of women and 14% of men called themselves feminist in the absence of a clarifying definition.

In his book, The Blank Slate, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker makes a useful distinction between different types of feminism.

Equity feminism is a moral doctrine about equal treatment that makes no commitments regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology. Gender feminism is an empirical doctrine committed to three claims about human nature. The first is that the differences between men and women have nothing to do with biology but are socially constructed in their entirety. The second is that humans possess a single social motive – power – and that social life can be understood only in terms of how it is exercised. The third is that human interactions arise not from the motives of people dealing with each other as individuals but from the motives of groups dealing with other groups – in this case, the male gender dominating the female gender.

Kuhle agrees. “Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality” whereas gender feminism “is the dominant voice in academia and online…. (Gender feminists) ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes …are largely or solely socially constructed.”

I’m not writing this as an attempt to rebut or refute gender feminism (Pinker takes a whack at that: read his book and decide for yourself how effective he was, or see what else Kuhle has to say). Rather, I am writing because of a question Emma Watson posed in her largely excellent speech on equality to the UN. “Women are choosing not to identify as feminists. Apparently, I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, ‘too aggressive,’ isolating and anti-men, unattractive, even. Why has the word become such an uncomfortable one?” I can’t decide if this is an honest question or a disingenuous one. You can disagree with people who are anti-man, and you can disagree with those who believe that gender differences have nothing at all to do with biology, but please don’t pretend those people don’t exist. And don’t compound the problem by further pretending they don’t often call themselves feminists.

Feminism is an uncomfortable word because people mean it to use different – and at times contradictory – things. The group of people who lay claim to the label are diverse, and many of them have different definitions in mind when they use the word. When a person lays bare the tenets of their philosophy, we can choose to embrace or reject those claims. If a person says patriotism means being willing to be self-sacrificial in order to benefit the nation as a whole, we are able to agree or disagree with that claim on its own merits; when “patriotism” comes to mean blind, unchallenging acceptance of policies that we would otherwise detest, the people who are on board with the former might well be turned off by the latter. The term feminism is no different.

I want to reiterate that I agree with Watson in the spirit of what she said. Gender inequality is a worldwide problem, and no nation has achieved equality. (The question of whether or not that’s actually possible is another story entirely.) Watson also pointed out, “Men don’t have the benefits of equality, either,” a sharp insight that I wish had occurred to me. “I’ve seen young men suffering from mental illness, unable to ask for help, for fear it would make them less of a men—or less of a man,” she said. “I’ve seen men made fragile and insecure by a distorted sense of what constitutes male success.” And as far as we’d like to think we’ve come, “15.5 million girls will be married in the next 16 years as children and at current rates, it won’t be until 2086 before all rural African girls can have a secondary education.” Inequality is still an issue. Maybe the way forward is to focus less on labels and more about finding ways to create equality.


Building Christ-Centered Friendships

“To do even the most humbling tasks to the glory of God takes the Almighty God Incarnate working in us.”
– Oswald Chambers

In Christian culture, we put a lot of weight on making our dating relationships “Christ-centered” or “God glorifying” or “holy.” This is good so far as it goes, and I am well aware that modern dating presents some serious danger zones for couples who want to build intimacy while preserving their sexual purity. That being said, most of the advice you’ll find online is restrictive rather than prescriptive: these articles are largely lists telling teens and young adults to avoid physical touch, or to spend less time alone and more time in groups. (I did find one article that suggested watching chick flicks together as a good way to make your relationship Christ-centered. For some reason.)

I also don’t think it goes far enough. Putting Christ front and center in our relationships is not only about maintaining purity. That just puts the cart before the horse. Charles Spurgeon said that love for God is obedience and holiness. But holiness and obedience are not by themselves love for God. (If that’s unclear, think of it this way: maintaining a healthy diet probably means not eating KFC Double Downs, but not eating Double Downs by itself does not necessarily make for a healthy diet.) That is to say, if we fail to make Jesus the focal point of our relationships, then we have fallen short of what our relationships are meant to be even if we maintain sexual purity within them.

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It discourages me to see that when we refer to Christ-centered relationships we almost always mean romantic relationships. If we were to make a practice of putting Christ at the center of all of our relationships, then it wouldn’t be so challenging to do so in our romantic relationships. Jesus said in Luke 16, “If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.” The food writer Michael Ruhlman has a great anecdote about visiting Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant Per Se. “Just the other day, Thomas was so proud to show me how they use painter’s tape in the kitchen,” he said. Rather than tearing tape off of the roll in order to label the plastic food containers, every piece of tape is cut with scissors so that every edge is perfectly straight. “Because it’s all one thing to Thomas. You can’t be lax in one area and perfect in another.” Likewise, if you think you are putting Christ front and center in your dating relationships but aren’t doing the same thing in your other relationships, you are kidding yourself. It’s all or nothing.

But what does a Christ-centered friendship look like? If it’s not about obedience to a set of rules, then what is it? I cannot write a comprehensive description, but I think I can offer some guidelines that will help us on our way.

1) In Christ-centered friendships, we constantly and intentionally point the other person to Christ. We can do this explicitly by imitating Christ, and thus being as Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”) We can lead each other to praise God in our good times and to lean on God in times of trouble and to remember God when things are typical. In the mewithoutYou song “Messes of Men,” Aaron Weiss sings to God, “If ever You come near, I’ll hold up high a mirror. Lord I could never show you anything as beautiful as You.” In the same way, we cannot show each other any greater beauty or kindness than to point to Jesus.

2) In Christ-centered friendships, we must consistently serve one another. In John 13:34, Jesus tells His disciples, “In the same way I have loved you, you are to continue loving one another.” Whether it’s in encouragement when the other is down, in calling them out when they are slipping up, or sharing a burden in a time of need, there are constant opportunities to express, to share, and to embody love in each other’s lives. Even if we feel helpless or overwhelmed, God is not limited by our constraints. I love the way Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) put it: “When God makes His presence felt through us, we are like the burning bush: Moses never took any heed what sort of bush it was—he only saw the brightness of the Lord.”

3) In Christ-centered friendships, we have to prioritize the other person’s spiritual growth. This is related to the first entry, but different enough to warrant its own. We need to encourage each other to be actively growing in knowledge of God, engaging in acts of worship, and expressing the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). In “Mere Christianity,” CS Lewis wonders, “if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?” We have to be constantly reminded of what we believe. We practice our faith like an athlete exercises. If it’s only sporadic it will soon become sluggish. A short time after that, worthless. Teammates hold each other accountable in this way; Christ-centered friends hold each other accountable in this way.

John Piper said, “If all the universe and everything in it exist by the design of an infinite, personal God, to make his manifold glory known and loved, then to treat any subject without reference to God’s glory is insurrection.” Piper was referring to academic scholarship, but his point extends beyond academia. If we are serious about the supremacy of God, then we must also seek to glorify God through building Christ-centered friendships.