Moving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mMoving from a time and a society in which the news was hoarded by a select few at the top of the social ladder, to the seemingly-sudden abundance of mass-produced newspapers in the mid-19th century, to today's situation in which we are saturated with readily-accessible, constantly updated news 24/7, cannot fail to have its repercussions. And not only because of the constant access, but because of what constitutes 'the news'.
Alain de Botton, populist modern philosopher, here scrutinises six different sections of the news - Politics, World News, Economics, Celebrity, Disaster and Consumption - delving into its impact on our lives and also offering up a utopian ideal of what the news could look like, if it was developed into a healthier version of itself. He asks the question, why does the news matter, and how can it be made to matter more, in a better way?
Journalism has been too modest and too mean in defining its purpose merely as the monitoring of certain kinds of power; a definition that has harmfully restricted its conception of itself and its role in society. It is not just a de facto branch of the police or the tax office; it is, or should be, a government in exile that works through all issues of national life with a view to suggesting ways to build a better country. (p.65)
This is an interesting idea, and, it seems to me, one that completely changes how we think of the news today. One thing that de Botton doesn't touch upon, but which my cynical mind can't help but throw up, is trust: while the news and journalists occupy a position of authority and reliability because of what it and they are meant to stand for, the reality is that we just don't trust them, not anymore. Granted, we believe what we read and hear in the news - we're not just well-trained, we're also well-positioned by the techniques journalists and editors use - but they have a long road to walk if they ever wanted to achieve the kind of position in society that de Botton hopes for, without them being accused of propaganda etc. - this because, as de Botton points out, the news and journalists believe in objectivity, which isn't really possible.
The self-help element aside (which doesn't sit well with me; I can't help but cringe at anything that slips into that category, as this book did), de Botton raises some pertinent and important points, and makes some interesting connections - and explains a few things. His note, in the preface, that analysing the news should be a core part of children's education stood out to me, a teacher, precisely because - in my state at least - we do teach this, albeit not as a compulsory subject. His observation of why the news is so boring was especially interesting to me:
What we colloquially call 'feeling bored' is just the mind, acting out of a self-preserving reflex, ejecting information it has despaired of knowing where to place. We might, for example, struggle to know what to do with information that a group of Chinese officials was paying a visit to Afghanistan to discuss boarder security in the province of Badakhshan or that a left-wing think tank was agitating to reduce levels of tax in the pharmaceutical industry. [...] It is for news organisations to take on some of this librarian's work. It is for them to give us a sense of the larger headings under which minor incidents belong. An item on a case of petty vandalism one Saturday night in a provincial town ('Bus Shelter Graffitied by Young Vandals in Bedford') might come to life if it was viewed as a minuscule moment within a lengthier drama titled 'The Difficulties Faced by Liberal Secular Societies Trying to Instil Moral Behaviour without the Help of Religion'. (p.27)
This leads de Botton into an interesting discussion on bias and how important it is, especially acknowledged bias. It reminded me of an article I read last year about bias in news media and how important it is, and how The Australian refuses to acknowledge its own bias (it's clearly right-leaning and conservative, but they deny having any bias at all). At times de Botton engages in proper analysis, but this was scarcer than I would have liked: it's analysis that my brain thrives on, not the waffle about being a better society 'if only' the news could do this or that. We won't make better journalists or news stations until we better understand what we're doing now, and that's where analysis comes in.
I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from The News: A User's Manual, because this is my first de Botton book and I didn't know what a philosopher's take on the news media might look like. In some ways, it was engrossing, informative, interesting, enlightening. In other ways, it was maddeningly frustrating because it kept veering off into what the news could be, when I really wanted to focus on what it is now. (That said, without this futuristic, utopian ideal, it could have been too shallow and pointless a book.) It was at its best when it delved into the role of tragedy and why we are riveted by news stories of horrible things (just the other day I sat down and read a heap of articles about the 33 year old father in South Australia who drove his car off a wharf with his two young sons, ages 4 and 10 months, in a murder-suicide. I sat there and cried and cried and cried. But I keep coming back to those articles each day. What's the deal? De Botton explains, and it makes sense); or explaining the behind-the-scenes action (or lack thereof) of a news outlet; or why we don't care about what happens in foreign lands; or the effect consumer goods 'news' has on our psychology. There was much more here to love and appreciate than to whinge about, but the some sections were definitely more powerful than others. In particular, I found the chapter on Economics disappointing - I got much more out of a lead essay in The Monthly last year ("Of Clowns and Treasurers" by Richard Denniss, July 2015).
He has some interesting things to say about celebrity news, and why individuals are driven to want to be famous. Contrary to what I would have expected, de Botton doesn't denounce celebrity news, which he views as "a pity", partly because he would prefer "serious people" to anoint celebrities rather than organisations "entirely untroubled by the prospect of appealing to the lowest appetites." (p.159) My instant thought, though, was: but they already do - there are a lot of mass-market-produced 'stars' out there. De Botton's call for intelligent, interesting people who can contribute to our lives in helpful, meaningful and insightful ways is one of the rare times when he sounds naive as well as dismissive, because there are already a wide range of "worthy" individuals. This is one of the times, also, where he slips into self-help mode: "What underlies both the Christian and the Athenian approaches to celebrity is a commitment to the idea of self-improvement, as well as the belief that it is via immersion in the lives of great exemplars that we stand the richest chance of learning how to become better versions of ourselves." (p.163) It's certainly true - it'd be a rare individual who was made 'better' by someone like Kim Kardashian, say - and I love learning about facets to ancient cultures and diverse religions. But he goes on:
We should cease to treat the better celebrities like magical apparitions fit only for passive wonder or sneaky curiosity. They are ordinary humans who have achieved extraordinary feats through hard work and strategic thinking. We should treat them as case studies to be pored over and rigorously dissected with a basic question in mind: 'What can I absorb from this person?' The interest that currently latches on to details of celebrities' clothes or diet should be channelled towards a project of growth. In the ideal news service of the future, every celebrity story would at heart be a piece of education: an invitation to learn from an admirable person about how to become a slightly better version of oneself. (p.165)
I don't disagree, yet I cringe at the idea of 'dissecting' someone in order to become a better person - maybe it's his language, but I can't help but picture scavengers picking all the meat off the bones of a once-elegant, 'worthy' beast. But then, I've never been interested in celebrity 'news' (comparisons to vultures have already been made) and it's one element of the human psyche I struggle to understand, that obsessive adoration of another. (There's definitely a similarity there between celebrities and religion, which de Botton skirts around with his own comparison.) But I definitely love to learn from others, and there are plenty of 'worthies' in the arts. I don't disagree with de Botton's encouragement to ask, in our own heads, 'what can I learn from this person?' It certainly leads to greater self-reflection and self-awareness, which wouldn't be a bad thing in general. I suppose I am well-taught in the school of scepticism, unfortunately, that I don't see his ideas taking root in modern, mainstream society. It was exactly this 'self-help' element that had me baulking at times, and makes it hard for me to write a coherent review.
A mixed bag of a book, but definitely worth reading....more
Health experts, school teachers, politicians, parents and anyone with half an eye has known that there has been an obesity epidemic going on since theHealth experts, school teachers, politicians, parents and anyone with half an eye has known that there has been an obesity epidemic going on since the 1980s. And like with cancer and the tobacco industry, the links between obesity and processed food is well known - not just by concerned health officials or scientists, but by the food industry itself. In fact, as Michael Moss explains in Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, they have long been researching and studying these three key ingredients and how they make us eat more. And getting consumers to eat more means they're buying more, which means more profit for the food giants.
Moss sets the scene well in his prologue: for the first (and only) time ever, on the 8th of April 1999, representatives, company presidents and CEOs from all the major food giants in America gathered together at a secret meeting at the headquarters of Pillsbury in Minneapolis. They came to listen to the vice-president of Kraft, Michael Mudd, a "seasoned fixer" who was "attuned to public sentiment" and an advisor with the boss's ear. He made a good case for linking obesity to the food people ate, the food that the people in the room made a lot of money from making, and he put it to these CEOs that they all, collectively and in agreement, take action now to contribute towards solving the problem rather than denying their responsibility and going on as before, while America's waistlines - and health costs - kept enlarging. He stressed that the food industry alone couldn't solve the problem, or that it could be solved quickly. What he wanted the CEOs to commit to was to "make a sincere effor to be part of the solution. And that by doing so, we can help to defuse the criticism that's building against us. We don't have to singlehandedly solve the obesity problem in order to address the criticism. But we have to make a sincere effort to be part of the solution if we expect to avoid being demonized." [p.xx]
But the CEOs of the food giants - including Kelloggs, Mars, Coca Cola, Nestlé, General Mills, Nabisco, Procter & Gamble as well as the two big companies that sold the salt, sugar and fat to the processed food industry, Cargill and Tate & Lyle - disagreed. "Consumers are fickle," said the CEO of General Mills, Stephen Sanger, "whose $2 billion lineup of sugary cereals, from Count Chocula to Lucky Charms, was now drawing more fire from consumer advocates than soda." [p.xx] Sanger went on to declare, "Don't talk to me about nutrition. [...] Talk to me about taste, and if this stuff tastes better, don't run around trying to sell stuff that doesn't taste good." There was no way one food giant could make any kind of nutritional changes if the others weren't going to follow suit (which Kraft learned when they tried), so the meeting failed.
So why is it so hard for these companies to reduce their reliance on salt, sugar and fat? You'd think it'd be easy, that cutting back on sodium or saturated fat or sugar in its many forms wouldn't make that much of a difference. And you're probably thinking of all those products in the supermarket that boast "35% less salt!" and so on, as proof that it's not that difficult. But as Moss shows throughout this book, full of detailed research into both the science of food, the history of these companies, and the research being done as well as the economics and marketing strategies used to hook consumers and make them crave beyond the needs of their bodies, the food giants are just as hooked on salt, sugar and fat as we the consumers are. Take the sugar and salt out of Kellogg's cornflakes, as the food scientists did for Michael Moss, and they taste like metal from the food processing plant, with the texture of cardboard. And try and take any of the saturated fat out of cheese - which is what cheese is, really - and it tastes disgusting. No one wants to buy it or eat it, and if the food companies can't make any money off it - or they lose money - then they'll pull it.
In tracing the path of processed food - this being any pre-made or pre-prepared food stuff sold in supermarkets and elsewhere, from junk food to processed cheese, salad dressings to canned soup, frozen meals and pasta sauces to soda and synthetic juice - Moss brings these companies to life, digging deep within their very secretive walls by finding people who worked there - some retired, some who have moved on, some who are still there - who are quite happy to talk about it openly. He skilfully combines a very fascinatig science lesson on what salt, sugar and fat does to our brains - why we crave it so - with a thorough understanding of how these food giants operate, the economics of it and the marketing strategies. As he says in the epilogue, his real aim is in giving us, the consumer, the tools we need to make informed decisions on what we buy and eat:
The most crucial point to know is that there is nothing accidental in the grocery store. It is, perhaps, not unreasonable in this scenario to think of the grocery store as a battlefield, dotted with landmines itching to go off. And if you accept this, then it becomes all the more apparent why the food industry is so reliant on salt, sugar and fat. They are cheap. They are interchangeable. They are huge, powerful forces of nature in unnatural food. And yet, for us, knowing all this can be empowering. You can walk through the grocery store and, whil the brightly colored packaging and empty promises are still mesmerizing, you can see the products for what they are. You can also see everything that goes on behind the image they project on the shelf: the formulas, the psychology, and the marketing that compels us to toss them into the cart. They may have salt, sugar and fat on their side, but we, ultimately, have the power to make choices. After all, we decide what to buy. We decide how much to eat. [p.347]
After all the evidence Moss presents that show that the food giants know exactly what to put into their food to make us addicted to sugar, salt and fat - to their food, in other words - it is indeed empowering to have that reminder from Moss, that we can beat the cravings. That we aren't at their mercy. It's not just a matter of will power, but a matter of self-education. This is more important than you'd think, because these days it's not the food technicians who invent the food that we see on the shelves, it's the marketing departments. And as much as the food companies tell themselves that it's all about listening to the public, the consumer, and supplying what they - we - want, it's abundantly clear that it doesn't work that way in reality. Yes new products have bombed because they didn't do the marketing first to see if they would be well-received, but these companies have also learned that combining aggressive marketing strategies with lots of salt, sugar and fat will turn any cheaply-made processed food into the newest must-have.
Even though this book is focused solely on America, America's obesity epidemic and American food companies and products, so many countries around the world are struggling with the same health crisis, and these are global companies. Who hasn't heard of Coca-Cola or Mars or Cadburys? Many of the products Moss discusses - Count Chocula and Cap'n Crunch and Lunchables and Tang - were largely unknown to me (though I happened to notice that in the last few months, I've read several - let's say five - American books where a main character mentioned their love for Cap'n Crunch), but many aren't and it certainly makes you think about the products in your own country.
One area that it doesn't really help you on is public policy and government regulation. As Moss explains, America doesn't have a great deal of regulation, and in fact the Department of Agriculture - which deals with meat and dairy, the two things highest in saturated fat - tends to work more on promoting these as healthy, nutritious foodstuffs that we should eat more of, not less. It bothers me that I don't really know what my own two countries, Australia and Canada, are like when it comes to regulating the amount of salt, sugar and fat companies can add to their food, or what work they've done in the area of promoting nutrition education and better eating. I know that in Australia we've long promoted lean meat - our animals are all farmed outdoors, except for battery hens and pigs - and low sodium, but I'm skeptical at how much regulation we actually have.
In the section on sugar, we learn that we are born liking sugar. That it instantly lights up our brain like it's high, that kids prefer things sweeter than adults do (and there are even differences along ethnic lines), and that researchers and scientists have spent a lot of time and effort in trying to locate the "bliss point", beyond which too much sugar turns us off food. I think my own bliss point must be a lot lower than the average Americans', based on the food we eat - I find the junk food here in Canada, which is largely American, sickly sweet and very artificial tasting and textured. Funnily enough, there's a lot more variety of junk food in Australia than there is here, and I do think it tastes different. This is certainly true of Cadburys, no matter how much they deny it: the Cadburys chocolate is different in Canada to how it is in Australia, and everyone says it's different again in the UK (Australia has the best Cadburys, but it's pretty rubbish here in Canada). They use slightly different ingredients, different ratios, and different kinds of fillings. Mr Big is absolutely not the same as Picnic, even though they look like they should be and have the same description (I tried a Mr Big once, it was nasty.)
This anecdotal evidence of mine seems to be supported by this book. As Moss talks to one of the scientists working on the bliss point, Julie Mennella, she explains how she "has become convinced that our bliss point for sugar - and all foods, for that matter - is shaped by our earliest experiences."
But as babies grow into youngsters, the opportunity for food companies to influence our taste grows as well. For Mannella, this is troubling. It's not that food companies are teaching children to like sweetness; rather, they are teaching children what foods should taste like. And increasingly, this curriculum has been all about sugar. [p.15]
You can see that quite clearly, in children, how they grow to expect a certain level of sweetness - one that's very high and unhealthy - and don't like food that doesn't meet that expectation. Something else we can control, as parents. Sugar is also used as an additive to prolong shelf life and makes water inaccessible to bacteria.
Fat is different. As the scientists Moss talks to explain, fat is like a conductor. It coats the tongue and makes everything taste better, like salt does only differently. It provides what they call the "mouthfeel". Think of chocolate and how amazing it feels in the mouth.
Fat also performs a range of culinary tricks for food manufacturers, thanks to another of its extraordinary powers. It can mask and convey other flavors in foods, all at the same time. This can be seen in a dollop of sour cream, which has acidic components that, by themselves, don't taste so great. Fat coats the tongue to keep the taste buds from getting too large a hit of these acids. Then, this same oily coating reverses direction, and instead of acting as a shield, it stimulates and prolongs the tongue's absorption of the sour cream's more subtle and aromatic flavors, which, of course, is what the food makers want the taste buds to convey to the brain. This act of delivering other flavors is one of fat's most valued functions. [p.147]
I'm glad I don't eat hamburgers (I've never liked them, even the homemade ones my mum makes), because Moss's explanation of what goes into them would quickly have turned me off. In fact, learning about what processed food is like before all the additives are included is off-putting - as it should be. We're not talking about natural food here. This is food that is designed to sit in a warehouse, then a truck or a ship, then a supermarket's shelves, then in your own pantry, for months on end, sometimes more than a year. And as anyone who's ever bought a fresh vegetable knows, food just isn't supposed to last that long.
The price for convenience is turning into a high one. As Moss turns his astute investigative eye onto salt, which the food manufacturers are possibly even more addicted to than sugar and fat, the stakes get even higher. Now it's not just obesity but heart disease (though of course obesity can lead to numerous heart problems too) - you don't have to be obese or overweight to think about cutting back on processed food. According to the American guidelines, which apparently are fairly lax and under consistent pressure from the food industry, the average, basically healthy adult can have as much as 2,300 milligrams of sodium, while those with diabetes and other health problems should only have a much as 1500 milligrams of sodium. When you look at one of those big bottles of vegetable juice, a single serving (a cup) has 480 milligrams of sodium - the company was very proud to have lowered this from about 640 milligrams - you start to see how quickly you can exceed these limits, and from food or drink that you wouldn't expect to be high in sodium. Or take this example, about Nestle's Hot Pocket, a microwavable snack that the company acquired in 2002 for $2.6 billion "and now counts as a prestigious member of its Billionaire Brands Treasury."
In its promotional literature, Nestlé describes the Hot Pocket as a "fully enrobed sandwich that allows you to eat on the go with no mess!" But it's food on the go that comes with a price. The Pepperoni & Three Cheese Calzone version of the Hot Pocket that I picked up at my local grocery store, for instance, contained well over one hundred ingredients, including salt, sugar and fat in several configurations along with six permutations of cheese, from "imitation mozzerella" to "imitation cheddar." A single, eight-ounce calzone delivered 10 grams of saturated fat and nearly six teaspoons of sugar, 600 calories, and, for the retailer's convenience, enough preservatives for a shelf life of 420 days. [p.335]
I don't watch TV commercials (I mute and turn to my book, if I watch TV at all), but I have seen these kinds of Hot Pocket things advertised specifically to young men, especially high school students. With all that crap in them, there's no way they're getting the nutrients their growing bodies need, and instead they're getting a lot of crap they definitely don't need. The same can be said for pretty much everything these companies sell. One of the things Moss does in this book is separate the marketing and advertising tricks and strategies from the truth of what's really in this stuff. And with whole chapters with an astute eye on companies like Coca-Cola, they're stripped right down to their superficial packaging.
Now it's true that the basic message of this book is "preaching to the converted" with me: I don't eat much processed food at all. I detest Kraft cheese and don't even consider it to be real cheese (not sure anyone does but they certainly advertise it that way). I don't eat breakfast cereal except for the plain, healthy flakes made from things like flax that you find tucked away on the very bottom shelf (and I don't add milk because I don't like it soggy!) - after reading this book I actually looked at the cereal aisle for the first time, and felt ill at all the dessert-like choices available. But I've never liked cereal like that, and the one time I tried Froot Loops as a kid I thought they were disgusting and artificial-tasting. I don't buy ready-made pasta sauces (it's easy to make your own) or salad dressing (I eat my salads plain) or soda - in fact I really really hate all fizzy drinks with the exception of lemonade (like Schwepps or the local Australian brands), but I haven't drunk it in years and should avoid it, not just for the sugar but because carbonation leaches the calcium from your bones, which is a particular concern for women, as we're prone to osteoperosis.
That makes me sound like a super-boring person I'm sure, but the truth is I prefer to make my own food from scratch. And I certainly do have a sweet tooth, it's just easily satisfied (though not for long - I do have a sugar addiction which I've been working had on conquering, and I certainly do crave unhealthy food - chocolate being my biggie). I love cheese, just good quality (read: expensive) cheese. But I have this weird thing where I love eating chips - especially Barbecue, or Sea Salt and Pepper, or PC's General Tao's Chicken, or Twisties - but a lot of the time they also make me feel ill. No doubt from over-indulging: I felt like I needed some salt, then the other ingredients make me keep eating long after my body's had enough. And I do still buy things that have been made or prepared by food manufacturers - some of them, like puff pastry sheets, being things I can't reasonably make myself, and others, like canned tomato, because it's just not the same if you use fresh dice tomatoes (the amount of liquid perhaps? no skins?) - and I still, even after reading this book, feel ill-equipped to navigate a supermarket. Michael Moss gave me the insider look into how the processed food industry works, but I still look at the nutritional information on the label without really knowing how to interpret it.
In Canada and Australia, they go by grams and also the daily percentage, or value - like, this product contains 6% of your daily intake of salt in one serving. Two big problems with using percentages: everyone has a different daily intake amount based on age, health, weight, gender, and whether you're trying to lose weight; and no one ever actually adds them up. Oh, and the other reason would be that no one ever eats just a single serving: you eat the entire pack. When they done studies on a wide range of people who think they eat healthfully, they've found that they're way way way over the daily limits, and didn't even know it. Australia also measures the kilojoules (energy, or calories) of the different parts of a food. I rather wish that our governments - or someone - would put out a handy booklet that showed how many calories (units of energy) you should eat based on your age, ethnicity, gender and Body Mass Index, how much salt, sugar and fat you can get away with eating, and how to read that country's nutritional label. Because it varies a lot, making the nutritional labels almost meaningless to most of us. (The Australian government does provide information on reading food labels, but it seems to be written with a completely ignorant person in mind, explaining what the ingredient list is and what food additives are - not how to actually read and understand the information on a given food product!)
I learnt a lot from this book. The marketing strategies are always fascinating to read about (one of my favourite programs on CBC Radio 1 is "Under the Influence", a 30-minute feature all about marketing, it's absolutely fascinating and hugely entertaining - you can listen to the podcasts or download the whole lot from iTunes), and the personal stories from people who have worked in these food companies is equally interesting, as is the research and scientific studies being done. But it's the new-to-me information on our relationship with salt, sugar and fat that really lit up my brain. Read the rest of this review...more
"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and re"Dear Sugar" is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and responses from that column, as well as some new ones that hadn't been published before, all culled from a collection of thousands and thousands of letters and organised in five groups. You can read all the original letters and Sugar's replies on the site, though there have been no new Dear Sugar letters-and-replies since May 2012. I would imagine the wonderful woman behind the persona of Sugar, Cheryl Strayed, is much too busy for the unpaid job anymore - and with good reason.
I had never read The Rumpus or the Dear Sugar column before; hadn't, in fact, heard of it before learning of this book - no surprise there, I just don't have the time to read things online or even explore it that much (and what a shame that is!). I learned of Tiny Beautiful Things through the equally wonderful site, Brain Pickings, on a post featuring The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites, which included a quote from Steve Almond's incredibly quotable introduction to the book (he was the first "Sugar", before passing the baton on to Strayed) - and because it's what made me instantly order a copy, I want to include the same quote here:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it. [pp.4-5]
I have always found the questions asking for advice in magazines interesting to read, though the answers are always too short and too "professional" to be all that entertaining or educational: what I always wanted from such columns was to learn a little about someone else's life, to gain some perspective by seeing things from another perspective, and to, hopefully, pick up some useful advice that would either lend itself to my own life, or help me understand someone else's. I don't read self-help books - in fact, I detest them. The difference here is how deeply personal and private these letters - and Sugar's responses - are. There are no generalities. And the way Sugar writes her responses is so very, very different - and so much more hard-hitting - than the usual agony aunt replies, that you can't help but be effected when you read them.
Cheryl Strayed is a wonderful, unique writer. You can't help but read this book with tears in your eyes and a clenching in your gut. You can't read it in a detached way, or even in a "oh my life is so much better than this person's, thank God" way of feeling better about yourself. You are granted insight into fragile, vulnerable states of mind, including Sugar's. And she has a way of replying that makes everything relatable, regardless of the fact that you have never experienced the problem the letter-writer has.
What I admire most about the say Sugar gives advice, is how she forces the letter-writers to look for the answers within themselves. She presents the facts as she knows and understands them, and paints a picture, and walks the writer through it, and gets them to focus on the right questions, or to see where their thinking is clouded. The stories - they are letters, but they are stories too, because Sugar often tells stories from her own life, relates things to her own experiences, thus giving them weight and empathy - that I most connected with were the ones in response to a woman struggling to write and suffering from depression, and a woman who wanted to have a baby on her own, after her boyfriend went back to his ex-wife and her own biological clock is in its last ticks.
...you'll have a baby. An amazing little being who will blow your mind and expand your heart and make you think things you never thought and remember things you believed you forgot and heal things you imagined would never heal and forgive people you've begrudged for too long and understand things you didn't understand before you fell madly in love with a tiny tyrant who doesn't give a damn whether you need to pee. You will sing again if you stopped singing. You will dance again if you stopped dancing. You will crawl around on the floor and play chase and tickle and peek-a-boo. You'll make towers of teetering blocks and snakes and rabbits with clay.
It's an altogether cool thing.
And it will be lonely, too, doing all that without a partner. How lonely, I can't say. You will hold your baby and cry sometimes in frustration, in rage, in despair, in exhaustion and inexplicable sorrow. You will watch your baby with joy and laugh at the wonder so pure and the beauty so unconcealed that it will make you ache. These are the times when it's really nice to have a partner, M. What will you do? How will you fill the place where the man you've been holding out for would have been?
That is your hard question for me - the one I didn't ask myself when I decided to get pregnant and become a mother, though of course it was naïve for me to think I didn't have to. Not a single one of us knows what the future holds. The unexpected happens even when we've got everything mapped out. [...]
It works in reverse too. What you fear might not come to pass. You might decide to have your baby and find true love in the midst of that. You might search your soul and realize that you don't want a baby after all, not if it means going it without a man.
What's important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision the [High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction] made up. It's up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that. [pp.122-123]
In response to the woman struggling to write while feeling envy towards friends who had secured a book deal, Sugar shares her experiences writing her first novel, Torch. She describes that book as a second heart, beating strongly in her chest but never materialising until, with her thirtieth birthday approaching, she realised that it wouldn't come at all unless she sat down and thought of "only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I meant work."
At the time, I believed that I'd wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn't have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with "intelligence and heart and lengthiness." But I'd finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn't have written my book before I did. I simply wasn't capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O'Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge's first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? [sic] To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That's where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn't get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn't know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn't care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I'd pulled one out with my bare hands. I'd suffered. I'd given it everything I had.
I'd finally been able to give it because I'd let go of all the grandiose ideas I'd once had about myself and my writing - so talented! so young! I'd stopped being grandiose. I'd lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I'd-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do. [pp.56-7]
I feel emotional, and very, very human, just reading these snippets again, here and now. There's something incredibly humbling - I choose that word deliberately - about the way Sugar writes and provides perspective. She avoids bullshit, she demolishes the neuroses and visions in people's heads, and reduces things to the key point.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm - all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it's particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn't exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn't mean you pack your bags the moment there's strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that. [pp.171-2]
There's so much quote-worthy material in this collection of letters around the themes of love and life. Strayed doesn't have the technical qualifications of other agony aunts, but what she has is life experience, and the ability to strip away the padding to reach the core of the matter, and then to discuss it in a way that is both a personal message of understanding and philosophical inquiry, as well as an ad hoc memoir. One of the stories from her life that hit me particularly hard is the time she worked with high school girls who were considered the most likely to drop out early - and later end up in jail. Over time they came to trust her, and would sit in an ugly chair in her office and tell her the horrifying stories of their home lives. She would report cases of abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, but nothing was ever done. Finally, she asked them what they do with her reports, and was told that they record them, file them, and that's it. There's no funding for helping teenagers, Strayed is told over the phone. Better if they run away from home, there's money for helping them then. Have you ever heard anything more tragic and senseless and awful?
Whether Sugar is replying to someone whose grown-up sons (and girlfriends) have moved in and taken over her life without even asking, or someone who can't decide whether she should marry her fiance, or someone who overheard his best friends discussing him behind his back, or someone who is physically ugly and doesn't know if they should even try to find someone to love who will love them back - through all of Sugar's responses come heartwarming, frank, open, honest, open-minded, sincere, encouraging messages that carry their own recurring theme: take a leap, jump high and with intent, put all you've got into it, make space for yourself to breathe, and "when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don't look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don't hold it up and say it's longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn't say for the rest of your life. Say thank you." [pp.352-3]...more
An editor and journalist with a law background, Emily Bazelon's intense examination of what bullying is today began with a series on cyberbullying inAn editor and journalist with a law background, Emily Bazelon's intense examination of what bullying is today began with a series on cyberbullying in the online magazine, Slate, and culminated in a highly contentious article called "What Really Happened to Phoebe Prince?" - much of which is explored again in this book.
Bazelon has taken a refreshing, level-headed approach to a subject that in recent years, thanks to the internet and social media in particular, has become sensationalised to the point where we're throwing the word "bully" around with abandon, but without really understanding what it is anymore. The playing field, so to speak, has broadened and become more complex, and there's a definite need to reassess the terms and conditions if we're to understand what kids are enduring, or inflicting on each other, today. Thanks to the media and its ability to bring stories of bullied kids "on our computer screens and phones for all to see" [p.8], we're all taking a keener interest in what's going on, especially because of the cases of teen suicide where the deceased had been a victim of harassment or bullying.
However Bazelon isn't interested in sensationalising the stories of bullying or teen suicide; the opposite, in fact, is true. In order to be clear about what constitutes actual bullying, it must be defined, and its definition must be adhered to, because the effort to reduce bullying has sometimes negatively impacted kids, in terms of reducing the space they need to develop, mature and learn how to cope with conflict, adversity, clashing personalities and so on.
Doing this right ... means recognizing that there is truth in the old sticks-and-stones chant: most kids do bounce back from cruelty at the hands of other kids. They'll remember being bullied or being a bully; they'll also learn something useful, if painful. "Children need to encounter some adversity while growing up," says Elizabeth Englander, a psychologist who is the guru of bullying prevention in Massachusetts. "Even though it's normal for adults to want to protect them from all meanness, or to rush to their defense, there's a reason why Mother Nature has promoted the existence of run-of-the-mill social cruelty between children. It's how children get the practice they need to copy successfully with the world as adults." [p.11]
It was hard to read that so many of the negative experiences I had as a child in primary school and high school weren't actual bullying, but just "run-of-the-mill social cruelty" - it somehow diminishes, if not dismisses, the impact this had on me. I was very much like Monique McClain, the first of three case studies Bazelon presents as context for discussing the topic of bullying in its many facets: sensitive, not aggressive, not very assertive or confident, and also insecure, shy, easily intimidated and hugely hesitant. When I put it like that, it's a wonder I wasn't bullied more (I may have been all of the above, but I was also a nice kid, friendly with a sunny disposition, and many other positive adjectives - the only real bullying I received in primary school, under the definition presented in this book, concerned my weight, for which kids occasionally teased me from Kindergarten right through to grade 6, but for which my only real suffering was the suffering I inflicted on myself - hence the insecurity and lack of confidence which I spent years working on eradicating).
It's not an easy task for Bazelon to have taken on: no one who has been on the receiving end of unwanted "drama", as kids call it these days, or who has watched their kids endure it, wants to hear that it's not "real" bullying and that they need to find ways of coping and handling it that are more constructive and confidence-building. As the case of Monique showed, it didn't matter that the kids at her school just thought they were involving Monique in their drama; Monique felt she was being bullied and soon it became a fight between her mother and grandmother, and the school principle and school council, being waged at meetings and in local newspapers. None of that really helped Monique, even though that was the aim.
The old problem was that adults were too prone to look the other way when powerful kids turned on weaker ones. This, of course, still happens, but we also have a new trap to watch out for: being too quick to slap the label of bully onto some kids and the label of victim onto others. It's a kind of crying wolf, and it does damage. For one thing, calling every mean comment or hallway clash bullying breeds cynicism and sucks precious resources from the kids who need our help. For another, it turns a manageable problem into an overwhelming one. [p.298]
What Bazelon aims to do is, partly, to show that our (the adults) reactions to what our kids experience at school and online, can sometimes make things worse. She also aims to show that it's important to distinguish between "drama" and bullying because one is "run-of-the-mill social cruelty" and the other can have serious impacts on the health, safety and mental well-being of the victim of bullying. Yet she also argues that bullying alone doesn't lead to teen suicide, that it can play a part but that there are other factors at play, especially mental illness - namely, depression. This is what has earned Bazelon her strongest detractors, because it has been interpreted as "blaming the victim". Yet the way Bazelon explains it, using the case study of Phoebe Prince and "the South Hadley Six" who were charged with causing her death-by-suicide, it does seem clear that it's a much bigger issue than bullying alone can account for, and that the media's sensationalism of "bullycide" (bullying someone until they're driven to suicide) not only misrepresents the issue but may have serious negative effects on our ability to tackle the problem.
The third case study is that of Jacob Lasher, a boy who figured out he was gay when he was eleven, and later decided to come out in a flamboyant way - at a school in the town of Mohawk, New York, "a place that feels more Midwest than East Coast, and a little slow-moving", where nearly all the students are white and the "climate was less forgiving" of anything not "normal" [pp.58-9]. Jacob first experienced "low-level harassment" and ended up being bullied repeatedly, often violently. Many, including the parents of his most persistent bully, Aaron, saw Jacob as the guilty one, the one who provokes others and harasses them to the point where they fight back. The school principal was unsympathetic, and Jacob eventually approached a legal aid group who encouraged him to take the school to court.
Using the three case studies of Monique, Jacob and Phoebe, Bazelon provides not only three very different scenarios for context, but also avenues through which to discuss the broader issues. She delves into studies that have been conducted around the world, current research and statistics, interviews psychologists as well as the victims of bullying and bullies, and explores why people bully others, as well as some of the effective solutions that schools are having success with today. As a child, I figured out for myself that some kids bully for power, and others out of insecurity and a need for power. It's a simplistic picture but it gave me not only some comfort, but also an explanation that defused the impact of their words and behaviour on my own psyche: words and actions affected me less because I saw them not as real critiques on my character or appearance etc., but as reflections of their own insecurities and an attempt to look strong to hide those insecurities from others. Understanding this made a big difference, and I think openly discussing this aspect of bullying with young children definitely helps. It helps not only the weaker sort, but also those who may become bullies of one kind or another; it helps build empathy, and also self-awareness.
And those are the ideas I'd like to leave you with: character and empathy. Most of the time, the old adage that adversity makes us stronger does hold true. We have to watch out for the kids whose internal makeup means they are the exceptions, but we also have to give the majority of teenagers the space to prove the rule. We have to be there for them, ad we have to stand aside. We have to know when to swoop in and save them, and when they have to learn to save themselves. And we have to make tricky decisions about the gray area in between those two poles.
We also have to instill in kids the paramount value of kindness - to show them that it's more important to come together than to finish first, that other people's feelings can take precedence over one's own, that relationships can matter more than tasks.
These are tall mountains to climb - don't I know it. These days, we have to make decisions about how much freedom to give our kids on two planes: the physical and the virtual. I sometimes fear that parents go too far in confining kids' real-world exploration - and then do little or nothing to track their travels online. And so kids strike out on their own where they can, including on their phones and on the Internet. [p.305]
With an entire chapter on the inner workings of Facebook - a secretive realm where Bazelon was granted unprecedented access - we can learn a lot about how social media works, and how kids are using it. For it's true: bullying is an old problem in a new world. The stakes seem so much higher because of the connection the media has loudly made between bullying and suicide, but perhaps we should instead say that the stakes seem so much higher simply because the audience is so much larger: a humiliating, mean message is posted to Facebook and potentially thousands of people can read it, as opposed to the one or two eye-witnesses of an attack on school property. It has also changed the scope because now, so much bullying - or an extension of it - happens online, outside school property and the ability of schools to do anything about it. Still, as Bazelon shows, the onus is placed on schools to "fix" the problem (and then not provided any funding to do it). This book has a clear American focus, and she's talking about American schools, but still the problem is a broader one. I appreciated that Bazelon takes the time to point to parents too, as people who should be responsible for the behaviour of their kids.
Several years ago I read Rosalind Wiseman's Queen Bees and Wannabes, which also talked about girls learning gossipy, judgemental behaviour from listening to how their parents talk. It's a simple, straight-forward truism for the majority of us. Watching my own two-year-old grow and develop, it's blatantly apparent how much he learns from me and his father. If we want him to be polite and friendly and cooperative etc., we have to show him what that looks like. There's not much use in telling your kid: "Be polite!" but never demonstrate politeness (or to demonstrate the opposite). Just yesterday, in the playground, my husband witnessed a case in point: a little boy, perhaps four years old, made a rude declaration about our toddler while standing behind him on the slide. The mother was embarrassed and apologetic to my husband, saying her boy was going through a bit of a phase. She then took him in hand and proceeded to shout at him, yelling things like "You will NOT do that again, do you hear me?" and so on. Now, obviously I don't know these people or what they're going through in their own lives, but bullying your kid to not be a bully is never an affective method of teaching your child anything. It's right up there with using violence to "teach them a lesson" and be good, obedient (read: scared shitless) kids (Michael and Debi Pearl make me so unbelievably angry I can't even begin to express it).
With Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon has rather bravely taken on a very complex issue, one that I had always assumed was fairly black-and-white. I learned a lot from this book, which raises just as many questions for an ongoing dialogue as it answers - because there isn't a simple easy fix. This book is not the beginning and end of an understanding of the subject, but one instalment in an ongoing body of research - one that deftly and comprehensively brings together and makes accessible a vast body of research and opinion. Bazelon has an incredibly effortless writing style that is highly readable, and the way she has structured the book as a whole works exceedingly well in making it readable. The depth of research and the complexity of it all - Bazelon juggles it smoothly and manages to cover so much without tripping over herself, never losing the reader or overwhelming them with too much at once. Not only is the writing clear and clean and easy to read, but it has the added layer of emotional depth. Much of this book will have you tied up in knots, intellectually and emotionally. There was a part that made me cry, and many others that made me weep inside. There were times when I felt such furious rage, and such a strong protective surge, that it made me feel like I was right there, experiencing what these kids experienced. That's empathy, and compassion, and the fact that I've had some experience with being on the receiving end and it did make me stronger, and build character, aids in that understanding which I brought to my reading of this book.
I can see why some find Bazelon's arguments contentious, or controversial. It stems from that same uncertainty and self-doubt that resides in us when we are new parents and many, not all, seek out some kind of guidebook that clearly lays out the rules, the steps, the formula, the method for looking after a baby, that same distrust not just in our own instincts but in others' ability to understand the needs of our child (and yet trust a book!). Bazelon, as the quote above shows, has trust in us adults and parents to be able to distinguish between real bullying and schoolground drama, to know when to step in and when to be quietly supportive, when to take it to the next level and when to give kids the space to work it out for themselves. And that scares the crap out of people. Not only do parents and teachers etc. feel doubt in their own abilities to do this, but we have a general lack of trust in the abilities of others to do so too - something we learn from experience, and the many examples of being let down.
It reminds me of the first time I took a First Aid/CPR course, and the instructor talked about how many times people don't go to the aid of someone having a heart attack etc., because they're terrified they'll do something wrong and make it worse, because they're not 100% sure of what to do, on an intellectual level. The existence of religions and religious texts like the Bible show us that, as a species, we humans yearn or feel a need for a guidebook to life in general, to be told in simple steps how to live, what to do, how to punish others. Bazelon's book is certainly no guide, not in that sense. But it is educational, and it is a guide in a broader sense (and in a practical one: the chapter on solutions offers real world examples of schools that have produced positive results in their methods of tackling bullying); one that expects you the reader to meet it halfway, bringing with you your own experiences, education, intellect, ability to think and reason and of course your empathy. It is a book that not only educates you on the topic through excellent investigative journalism, but expands your own thinking on it, your own understanding and opinions. You might not agree with everything Bazelon says, or the perspective she takes, but it is always worth hearing other sides to a story - because every story has two sides, even if we don't like one of them. As a parent and an educator, Sticks and Stones provided me with much food for thought, a great deal of insight and a wealth of fine detail into a very complex issue that is perhaps more relevant today than it's ever been before. ...more
"Generation Me" is the "new" name for those of us born between 1970 and 2000, so named because we "put ourselves first". Now, you might think that wit"Generation Me" is the "new" name for those of us born between 1970 and 2000, so named because we "put ourselves first". Now, you might think that with all these quotation marks I'm sounding snide and feeling defensive, but actually I found it perfectly apt - with a few qualifiers. The name fills a label gap that follows the short-lived "Generation X", those born in the late 1960s to the 1970s. Generation Me, in contrast, covers a longer time period and encapsulates a bigger, more encapsulating cultural trend.
As for the qualifiers, well, the first thing to note is that this book is specifically about, and uses studies about, Americans. Twenge never says or implies that this is about the under-35s of any other country, though it's clear that some or much of it still applies. The main reason why I'm highlighting this is to do with the "self-esteem movement", which I'll get to. The other reason is that, unlike Twenge (herself born at the beginning of the generation), I'm unwilling to include myself and speak of "we" and "our" etc., because there are some major differences between America's Generation Me, and my own country's Generation Me - if the label even applies, as we shall ponder. So I will steer clear of lumping myself in, simply because if makes too many assumptions.
This is an entertaining and informative look at this generation (of which, yes, I am technically a part of, since I was born in 1979). If you too are of this generation (35 and under, more or less), there's not going to be much that's new here because, to various degrees, we live it. Mostly, it's a validation of our troubles, the satisfaction of being supported in the fact that we do have it harder than the previous generation, the Baby Boomers.
It might make you feel defensive, though, because even if you're not coming from the "self-esteem movement" (more on that below), this generation still finds it hard to take criticism (on a personal side note, I was surprised to hear in my teaching seminar class, prior to each practicum, the advice from our instructor not to get upset when we hear criticism - I don't think many of us were the kind of people to get upset at criticism, but I guess there've been a few. According to this book, it's typical behaviour). There are some mean truths that are aired like dirty laundry, and even if you don't behave in such-and-such a way, you tend to feel guilty by association, because you're of this generation.
There are also some problems with the book, of which I'll go into, since my only other option for a review is really to repeat all the interesting stuff - and that's what the book's for.
THE SELF-ESTEEM MOVEMENT
"Generation Me" is defined by a number of things, captured in the following quote (which was the nicest way she ever put it):
"Generation Me has the highest self-esteem of any generation, but also the most depression. We are more free and equal, but also more cynical. We expect to follow our dreams, but are anxious about making that happen." (p.212)
Raised on a steady diet of self-esteem programs that taught them that they are special and can do anything and be anything they want, GenMe'ers are self-absorbed to the point of narcissism. More importantly - and commonly - they grow up with huge expectations that are hugely unrealistic. Twenge gives as one example the hapless, tuneless "singers" on American Idol auditions who, after being told they simply can't sing, tell the cameras that they're still going to pursue their dream of being a singer. The other insidious message that GenMe'ers have grown up on - and one which I find as ridiculous and distasteful as Twenge does - is the one you've all heard (because it's everywhere), "you have to love yourself before you can love another". This is utter self-indulgent crap.
As Twenge and others rightly point out, self-esteem comes from achieving things, from the sense of satisfaction we get when we work hard and accomplish things, and also from caring about others and being important to them, not to ourselves. She also points out that those who absorb the self-love message too deeply become narcissists, who are incapable of having relationships. The link between putting yourself and your wants first, and the difficulty in meeting someone, pursuing a relationship and then making it work, seems pretty clear and something I've often thought of, though not in these words.
The ironic thing is that self-esteem can't be taught, and it can't be gained by believing that you're special. Twenge rests the increased focus on the self, of increased individualism, onto this "self-esteem movement". There are positives and negatives of being individualistic and she speaks to both of them. She makes a point of saying that it's not that GenMe'ers are selfish, but that they've been taught to put themselves first, that they were born into a culture where this message dominated - and still does - and that if anyone's to blame for their lack of manners, their sense of entitlement, it's their parents: the Baby Boomers.
GenMe'ers have started having children themselves and she wonders aloud whether the trends will continue to worsen, or if the unrealistic expectations and the anxiety and depression that comes from them - particularly in our economic climate - will see a different generation born of this one.
The problem with the self-esteem argument, upon which Twenge's entire thesis rests, is that it's primarily an American phenomenon and so doesn't explain the rise in individualism that's noticeable in other developed "western" nations as well (having lived in Australia, Japan and Canada, and being familiar with the school systems in all of those countries, I can assure you that these self-esteem programs are not common, if they exist at all, outside of America). Admittedly, our individualism is nowhere near as blatant as it is in the States: the sense of entitlement is much reduced (or, since it's been reported by professors at the University of Toronto this year, maybe only a much more recent occurrence); the habit of GenMe people blaming others for their own mistakes or failings isn't as noticeable or common; and while many of the same economic hardships are present, with the same outcomes (later marriages, later pregnancies, more difficulty finding a job after university), I would hazard a guess that the anxiety levels and depression are lower than in America.
ISSUES OF CONTEXT
Twenge is a psychologist and she spent over a decade accumulating data and studying comparisons of surveys and statistics to show that there is a strong generational change between Baby Boomers and GenMe'ers. What's missing is a broader historical context.
Modern America, since the first white colonies, has been a place founded on principles of individualism - and greed. The lure that saw thousands flock to its shores was the idea that America was a land of opportunity. By definition, this means pursuing your dreams and getting rich, no matter where you started from. Obviously this wasn't really the case, but more of a self-fulfilling prophecy for some. It's still considered a land of opportunity by many immigrants from poorer countries, though why you'd pick America, with its poverty, low education standards, lack of national health care and other support networks, crime and fanaticism, over other developed countries is beyond me. I guess you have to come from something much worse to look forward to the crippling debt and intolerance that America offers.
But I digress. My point was that, until Twenge compartmentalised it, I saw the ideology, materialism, and attitudes of today's generation as merely the obvious continuation of trends that have been slowly gathering momentum over the last few centuries. By that token, it seems equally obvious that they would be "more" of this and that than the previous generation. It also takes some of the pressure of blame (again, always blaming others!) from the shoulders of the Baby Boomers. And yet, and yet, I don't quite believe that either.
THE BABY BOOMERS
Twenge goes no further back than a few brief mentions of the WWII generation of mothers who gave birth to the Baby Boomers, so the larger historical context is missing. She does discuss the economy, in chapter 4, offering yet more evidence for why America is far from the best country to emigrate to - speaking as a foreigner.
Another aspect of individualism that has an impact, and ties in with my earlier argument, is "planned obsolescence". This has been going on for all of last century, since General Motors realised they couldn't compete with Ford on better quality motor cars, so they started making them in different colours and styles instead, giving people "choice" (for an excellent book on this, see Giles Slade's Made to Break). This excessive choice didn't start recently, but has been going on for some time. With too much choice, Twenge explains, comes dissatisfaction.
Another point worth noting but merely hinted at in the book, is that the Baby Boomers had a life of relative safety and luxury and wealth - they'll admit as much. Arguably, GenMe'ers have even more safety, and there's more wealth and luxury surrounding them - but it's unattainable to more than a select (often lucky) few. But we are raised in comfortable homes by parents with decent incomes and at the very least we expect the same. As Twenge points out, in America at least this just isn't possible. With soaring housing prices and health insurance premiums outstripping incomes, people can't afford to have children let alone a house or even a small condo. I was surprised that she never once speculated as to what is likely to happen when the vast majority of Boomers finally retires - if it will help or make things worse.
The difficulties of finding a job after university and affording a house and children - the things that designate "adult" and so, she says, we are "postponing" adulthood, which I don't agree with - are in Canada as well, and other countries I'm sure, but at least we have health care. I don't mean to sound smug (okay, yes, I do), but things aren't half as bad here despite not being able to find a job or afford our own home, and my uni debt is minimal - thus, we probably experience less anxiety and depression. Fear of crime is lower as well. But I'm starting to ramble.
This does tie in with Twenge's argument that it's the Baby Boomers who created this generation of super-eager dreamers: when you convince them that they can do anything, and then they reach adulthood and find out that it's far from true, that's a lot to come to terms with. They have also been over-indulgent parents, wanting to be "friends" with their kids, taking their sides in everything, arguing with teachers if their child did poorly etc.
There's plenty in Generation Me that resonates, but at the end of it all, what's the point, really? There's wasn't much at all that was new here, though it was articulated well. It is a better book for the Baby Boomers themselves, and even the older generations, who, Twenge hopes, will come to understand the monsters they've created the younger generation....more
This book, written under the pen name of Morton Rhue in the United States, is a novelisation of the telemovie of the same name, which was based on a sThis book, written under the pen name of Morton Rhue in the United States, is a novelisation of the telemovie of the same name, which was based on a short story by Ron Jones about a real event.
In 1969 a high school history teacher, Ben Ross, was working in a small "all-American" town teaching his class of grade 12 students about the second World War. After showing them a film on Adolf Hitler, the Nazis and concentration camps, his students couldn't understand why the German people hadn't realised what was happening and done something to stop it. How could they not have known? The Nazis were a minority: why didn't they overthrow them?
Ben's answers weren't satisfactory, and in an effort to help them understand, the next day he begins a classroom experiment. He began by teaching them discipline: "strength through discipline" and by the end of the lesson had them all sitting with perfect posture, rising and shouting out answers to his questions with perfect obedience. The experiment continued, incorporating a name for the group: The Wave; as well as a salute and two more mottos: Strength through community and strength through action. Next he gave them membership cards and sent them out to recruit.
His class swelled as kids started skipping their own lessons to be part of his history class. The Wave was introduced to the school's football team and at first, teachers noticed all the improvements: better discipline, punctuality etc. Ben also noticed that, while they were now handing in their homework on time, there was no thought going into their answers, no questioning.
The only student in his original class who resisted was Laurie, editor of the school's paper, but even she didn't believe at first that it was more than a game that was being taken too seriously. Not until one student is beaten up because he's Jewish, and others are threatened for not joining The Wave. The Wave had taken over the school and was acting on orders given by Ben - orders he'd never given them; the movement had a life of its own.
After just over a week pressure from parents and the school principal, as well as his own wife, Christy, a music teacher at the school, forced Ben to end the experiment and question his own involvement. The power trip may have got to him, and he worried that he still had control. He told the Wave members that there was going to be a special meeting in the auditorium only for Wave members, where they would meet their national youth Wave leader. When they had all assembled the projector showed an image of Adolf Hitler.
This is the story I mentioned a while back, that had come up in the workshop I went to on teaching genocide in schools: someone had watched the film at school. At the time I had no idea that there was a novel based on the film, but the grade 8s at my Practicum school are starting an independent reading unit with two books: Animal Farm and The Wave. I was quite excited to read it, since the telemovie isn't so easy to get hold of - I think you have to order it from the States.
The story is fiction, but it's based on a real event. The teacher was Ron Jones, and there is some controversy around how much of his account is bullshit. Some ex-students were who involved have said that it didn't happen like that, that it never took over the school and so on (I found a website collecting debunking stories but I don't have the link sorry).
Personally, I can understand why some would want to downplay the experiment and its effect on them. No one likes to be made a fool of, and no one would want people to think they had it in them to be a little Nazi, a follower, an obedient servant of power-hungry dictators. No one would want to admit that they were not only taken in by it all but got caught up in it to the point of believing it was wonderful, good, fostered equality and that people who were against it should be "stopped".
There are ex-students of the school who fully support Ron Jones' account of the experiment, and there are articles from the school's paper about it as well. It happened a long time ago and no one's memory of it is going to be perfect, but I don't doubt that it happened. The movie is of course a dramatisation of the real event and, for effect, probably embellished at times. But to fixate on how real or truthful The Wave is is to totally miss the point.
The experiment was highly successful, and those who had said it could never happen now (like it was a product of its times and that we had all learnt out lesson from Nazi Germany). The big shock was that it could happen so easily, and happen amongst middle class, "normal" people. It's a great peek into human nature. As one character, David, says to Laurie while trying to convince her to shut up about The Wave: "Some guys just used The Wave as an excuse for beating that kid up. Don't you see? The Wave is still for the good of the whole. Why can't you see that, Laurie? It could be a whole new system. We could make it work." (p113)
At the beginning, the similarities to the military are very apparent and disturbing. But when a group of kids (or anyone) takes on a single mind, you can really see how impossible it becomes to resist, to speak out, to decline. Ben Ross' final speech to the students under the picture of Adolf Hitler neatly sums it up:
"You thought you were so special!" Ross told them. "Better than everyone outside of this room. You traded your freedom for what you said was equality. But you turned your equality into superiority over non-Wave members. You accepted the group's will over your own convictions, no matter who you had to hurt to do it. Oh, some of you thought you were just going along for the ride, that you could walk away at any moment. But did you? Did any of you try it?
"Yes, you all would have made good Nazis," Ben told them. "You would have put on the uniform, turned your heads, and allowed your friends and neighbors to be persecuted and destroyed. You say it could never happen again, but look how close you came. Threatening those who wouldn't join you, preventing non-Wave members from sitting with you at football games. Fascism isn't something those other people did, it is right here, in all of us. You ask how could the German people do nothing as millions of innocent human beings were murdered? How could they claim they weren't involved? What causes people to deny their own histories?"
Ben moved closer to the front of the stage and spoke in a low voice: "If history repeats itself, you will all want to deny what happened to you in The Wave. But, if our experiment has been successful - and I think you can see that it has - you will have learned that we are all responsible for our own actions, and that you must always question what you do rather than blindly follow a leader, and that for the rest of your lives, you will never, ever allow a group's will to usurp your individual rights." (p134-5)...more
This is the book Tina Fey based her screenplay for the movie Mean Girls on, but I didn't know it was a book until, in 2006, a woman I used to work witThis is the book Tina Fey based her screenplay for the movie Mean Girls on, but I didn't know it was a book until, in 2006, a woman I used to work with was reading it and showed it to me. Love the movie, by the way, though it's very exaggerated. Maybe not "very", but it's still pretty extreme. Funny, but. Whether you read this book before or after watching the movie, you'll notice how they fit together instantly. It's a clever script for that alone.
I don't have a daughter, teenage or otherwise, but I was once a teen and hope to one day have a daughter, though this book does put you off child-rearing somewhat. Regardless, it's fascinating. The author is the cofounder of a program in the States that goes to different schools, working with boys and girls on these issues - the book includes many quotes from such students that add insight and support, important especially considering Wiseman's target audience: parents who, for the most part, while loving and caring, don't want to believe their kid gets up to half these things, and would react badly if they did find out.
Wiseman examines what teenage girls face (girls from age 10 and up, actually), and how this effects them later in life. While the book has an American focus and uses American statistics etc., it's fair to say that the situation is pretty much the same in any developed western nation - the language may be different, some of the "scenes" too, or maybe that's just because I grew up on a sheep farm in the country and didn't socialise much outside school hours?
The chapters included cover Cliques and Popularity, the Beauty Pageant, gossiping and teasing (why she doesn't say "bullying" is puzzling to me), rites of passage, Boy World, parties, sex, drugs and getting help. She examines how the relationships between girls are structured, how they change and why friendships are often neglected or betrayed for sake of a boy. Societal attitudes, cultural expectations and stereotypes, peer pressure, parental pressure, and how girls treat each other, all play an important part.
Naturally, while reading it - especially the first chapter, on cliques - I couldn't help but compare what I was reading to my own experience at high school (which, in Tasmania, is grades 7 to 10; college - years 11 and 12 - was a joyful, liberating experience with many happy memories and none of this nasty clique business), and I tried to figure out what kind of person I was, and what kind of parents mine were (Wiseman breaks parents into kinds, too, the better to help them see what their parenting style is like and how it affects their children). I could also visualise a lot of the scenarios, or interactions - I had a memory for many of them, and most weren't pretty. But I went to a bogan school in the country; I always thought that was why it was particularly bad. But I guess, unless you've been to different schools in different settings, you couldn't say whether that's a big factor or not.
I didn't really learn anything new from this book, but it did clarify and put into words things I merely understood - and the chapter about boys was interesting. I agree with Wiseman that boys and men need a sexual revelation just as much as women ever did - they're just as much pinned down and trapped by social expectations, stereotypes and peer pressure as girls and women are. I can't say "were" because things haven't changed all that much.
Wiseman includes strategies and even example scripts for how to talk to your daughter, how to help her, how to reaffirm your relationship with her, how to give her the confidence she needs to solve her own problems - always Wiseman stresses the importance of parents giving their children the support and tools they need to fight their own battles and make their own decisions, rather than try to solve their children's problems for them.
Most important though is the insight the author provides - while she does stay mainstream and doesn't go into the many exceptions and variations of her typecasting, it's easy to see that, yes, the majority of kids fit somewhere within her parameters, even if not neatly. At the very least it would give parents a framework, and since adolescence is such a trying time for all, I'm sure that would be a big help (just as I'm sure that, were I one day a parent with a teenaged daughter, I'd read this and wince)....more