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August 2013

Post image for A question for women

In the opening months of 2000, NBC Universal launched Oxygen, a new cable channel aimed at women. At the time, it aired a lot of syndicated reruns of television shows with female leads, such as Kate & Allie and Cybill, but also a lot of original programming.

Robin Epstein, a New York based writer, got a job as the head writer of one of those original shows. It was a quiz show called Clued In, in which the contestants were schoolgoing teenage girls.

She loved the idea of young women demonstrating to the world that they were knowledgeable, intelligent people, defying the stereotype of the ditzy teen girl. Part of her job was to write the questions the contestants would have to answer.

Epstein had heard about research suggesting that until the age of about eleven, girls and boys exhibit about the same inclination to raise their hands in class and answer the teacher’s questions. At age twelve or thirteen, girls tend to show a dramatic decrease in classroom studiousness. There was nothing to indicate that girls were less intelligent than boys, but it almost seems as if girls, at pre-teen age, begin to focus on not appearing smart or keen.

It was controversial view, and Epstein wanted to prove it wrong on national television.

That is not what happened. When the show aired, the questions weren’t particularly difficult for their grade levels, but the girls were getting very few of them right. This was very discouraging to Epstein — she felt that not only was she failing to show that these girls were as smart as anyone, but she was making them look dumb.

More of this story, and clips of the show itself, can be heard here on the long-running radio show This American Life. Host Ira Glass asks what she did when she realized the girls couldn’t answer most of the questions.

“You dumb down the questions,” Epstein said. “You give them things that anyone — anyone of any age, any mental capacity — could possibly answer.”  Read More

Post image for On Getting Good at Being Good

It’s really not very good. Your payday ritual of having eat-in pizza and a beer before you leave downtown after work suddenly feels like it’s no longer worth the nineteen dollars, or even the indigestion alone.

A loss of interest in something that used to excite you is a familiar feeling by now, but this time it’s so much worse than disappointment. You feel shame.

It occurs to you that FMSC or UNICEF could have fed a famished child for three months with that money, or maybe vaccinate someone against a horrendous disease. You don’t remember what buys what these days, but you know that instead of buying greasy food you could have spared someone suffering far greater in intensity than all the joy you’ve ever had eating pizza.

With the till receipt still in your hand, the truth of truths hits you: if you are to be a sane and good person, the well-being of others can be worth no less than yours. It’s the same thing.

Before this moment, you supposed that the population was more or less moral, other than a minority of bad people who put themselves before others. But now you see that every decision of yours has the power to create or prevent vast amounts of real suffering, and you have not been taking this responsibility seriously.

Thinking about it rationally, you can’t escape the conclusion that as long as you are regularly making decisions that do not maximize well-being for every sentient being, then you are being less than moral. Had you never realized that? It seems like you knew it but didn’t grasp its weight until now.

You think about what it would actually mean to live morally, on a practical level. You couldn’t justify any personal expense other than your most basic needs. You must cause the least harm possible, and create the most joy possible.

This would apply to your time as well as your money. Therefore, being moral necessarily takes all of your time, which is to say you must give your entire life to it.

So you do. All suffering is now your suffering, all joy is now your joy. You feel free, for the first time.

You give up ownership of all your possessions. You cannot think of anything as your exclusive property. Nothing can be yours unless it is everyone’s.  Read More

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