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14 September 2018

The Birth of "Celebration of Life"

I got curious after my post yesterday and decided to look at the usage of some of these phrases and terms over time. Here are some Ngrams:

"Celebration of life" does indeed seem to be a neologism, showing up just before 1960 and increasing fairly dramatically in use just before 2000. There doesn't seem to be any noticeable decline in the use of "funeral." "Celebration of life" does, however, seem to be correlated with the rise of "positive thinking."

13 September 2018

Don't Celebrate My Life

My best friend from childhood killed himself this summer. We hadn't kept in touch really, but we would occasionally run into each other when I visited my parents in my hometown over the years. Regardless, his shadow casts very, very large over my formative years.

As seems to be a growing practice, his church held a "celebration of life" service for him. Not a "funeral," but a "celebration of life." When my mother told me this, I briefly remarked that I suspected that it was just a euphemism, but she disagreed, arguing that it was a categorically different event. I worry that this trend is part of (or at least parallel with) the positive thinking movement. (For an excellent takedown, see Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided.) I worry, too, that this is part of the death negative movement that has increasingly dominated American culture for generations. (For solid death-positive work, see Caitlin Doughty's Ask a Mortician). Funerals, wakes, and other traditional mourning rituals serve social and psychological functions. They make us happier in the long term but only by allowing us collectively to be sad in the immediate term. Celebrate the lives of the living; mourn the deaths of the departed.

When I die, I give you permission to mourn, to be sad, even depressed. The pain of loss is not something that can be wished away by focusing on the "good times." Our brains need time to process loss. It is time that shouldn't be avoided by taking a pill or thinking happy thoughts. We are radically social animals, and the ultimate rupturing of a social relationship is the permanence of death. This is why I hope that you will weep when I pass, that you will rent garments, as some translations of the Bible put it. I hope these things because they will help you ultimately to move past my death in a way that no celebration of my life could.


Just to be clear, I am neither depressed nor suicidal. I'm doing quite well mentally and emotionally.

If you are struggling, know that my world is better with you alive in it. Call (1-800-273-8255) or chat online with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are loved.

29 August 2018

Exclusive vs. Inclusive Solidarities

Solidarity is a necessary part of healthy human existence. We are animals and need food, water, etc., but what defines us is our radically social nature so we also need to be connected to other individuals.

When that belonging is tribal, it insists on a kind of primary identity--a master status--that must do the heavy lifting of generating solidarity. For it to work sufficiently, it demands a lot and does so at the unvarying expense of the other. In other words, it's about exclusive solidarity: we feel cohesive by othering and even dehumanizing "them." For example, being an American citizen does this for many people. For it to work, "American citizen" must be defined by an other, most notably "illegal aliens." The political implications can be very harmful to undocumented peoples.

An alternative, and one that has until recently dominated modern life, is to allow people to have multiple identities, each doing relatively little of the heavy lifting of generating solidarity. The social benefit of this is that the diversity of identities is overlapping. This limits the externalized costs of generating solidarity and allows for more overall inclusive solidarity. For example, some are white and some are Evangelical Protestant, but some people of color are also Evangelical Protestants, prompting (at least in theory) such adherents to temper any animus toward those who are not white.

To put it succinctly, overarching identities do exclusive belonging and externalize the cost of that solidarity generation on the other; intersecting identities do inclusive belonging and limit the costs of solidarity generation.

Two major, open questions are (1) whether inclusive solidarity is as socially efficient as exclusive solidarity and, indeed, (2) whether inclusive solidarity is even socially sufficient. 

05 August 2018

The Board Race: Gender and Cooperation

My wife shared this video with me from Facebook:

Her analysis was spot-on sociologically so I wanted to share that as well. The women are much more successful at this game than the men are, but it might not be immediately obvious why. My wife pointed out that, while the men and women seem to be equally coordinated in their steps, the women start with their hands on each other's shoulders, giving them superior stability. The men refuse to touch each other at all. My first guess was that it was about homophobia, in that men are more reluctant to make physical contact with other men for fear that they will be judged as gay (and, per heteronormative/hegemonic/toxic masculinity, weak). My wife suggested that it might be broader. Women are allowed and even taught to make physical contact with each other. Part of this probably relates to the emotion work we demand of women (but not men). Traditional definitions of femininity allow for behavior that is otherwise socially sanctioned by traditional definitions of masculinity.

It's important to remember that even as we recognize (correctly) that men are generally given a structural advantage over women (see the pay gap), men are in some ways hamstrung by the very culture that otherwise privileges them. Just imagine all of the other, more consequential ways that gender stifles cooperation.

27 July 2018

A Problem of Scale: Why Civility, Kindness, and Politeness Can Never Save the World

There is a lot of talk these days about the state of civil and political discourse in the United States. The basic claim of many in varying ways is that we must return to civility, that kindness will save us all. It's generally a centerist claim. These are people who claim to be moderates or independents. I think they are fundamentally wrong. Let me elaborate.

Let's start with Emergence Theory. Basically, Emergence Theory says that phenomena emerge from complexity. I think the best example is our own intelligence. We used to think that intelligence was a brute force kind of thing, that having lots and lots of neurons in our brains made us smart in the same way that a computer chip with lots and lots of transistors was more powerful. Cognitive science and computer science are both coming to the same conclusion, though, that it's not the number of neurons but the overwhelming number of connections between those neurons out of which intelligence (and maybe even consciousness, whatever that is) emerges unpredictably out of the complexity of those interconnections. Physics has its own version of this in which the characteristics of the material world at our macro material world emerge out of the complexity of things at the micro or quantum level. Though sociologists and other social scientists rarely use the term, we do have our own version of Emergence Theory. It's what many of us spend the first week of intro-level courses trying to convince undergraduates of, namely that we cannot understand social structure simply by understanding individuals. In other words, society is more than the sum total of the agency of countless individuals.

What does any of this have to do with being civil or kind? Well, if I understand the centerists' argument, it essentially claims that good behavior at the individual level will trickle up to good institutions and structures. For example, if I, a white man, am courteous, polite, and even kind to a black man, this will somehow solve racism. The political version goes something along the lines of, if the Democrat and the Republican family members are able to have a civil conversation at the Thanksgiving table, this will somehow lead to Congress being functional and productive. All of this is, of course, bullshit. It is oversimplification--at best. We would all be better to embrace complexity. It may not be as reassuring as the simplistic centerist understanding, but it's the path to improvement.