13 Reasons Why Not

13 Reasons Why Not

There is a danger in decrying certain elements of pop culture.

In many cases, the very breath that’s used in criticism serves only to fan the flame you’re trying to extinguish.

Boycotts build bestsellers.

And the best way to ensure the popularity of a book or movie is to try and ban it.

So this is not a move to ban or boycott; but it is a note of quiet resistance to what is now the most controversial show on television: 13 Reasons Why.

THE STORY

The series is an adaptation of Jay Asher’s 2007 novel chronicling the tragic life of Hannah Baker, a high schooler who kills herself after leaving behind 13 tapes to explain why she did it.

Each tape is devoted to a different person in Hannah’s life, and together they plot a path of bullying, betrayal, and most horrifically–a brutal rape.

At points, the series is poignant and heartbreaking.

The characters of Hannah and Clay (her love interest) are well cast and well acted. The soundtrack is fantastic, and the buzz around the show proves what has been obvious for some time: network television has long-ceased to tell stories that folks under fifty even remotely care about. (This too was a suicide of sorts – but less lamented.)

At other points, however, the show is badly broken.

And not just for moral reasons.

ONLY THE CLICHÉS EMERGE UNSCATHED 

With all the talk of death in 13 Reasons, one thing that lives eternal are the wooden stereotypes.

Indeed, most episodes could have come with a disclaimer that despite appearances, “No clichés were harmed in the making of this mixtape.”

“The popular kids are always mean,” says Hannah. “That’s how they get popular.” No lack of nuance there.

The assessment is fairly simple:

  • Athletes are dumb and despicable.
  • Rebels are kind, though misunderstood.
  • And if you own a letter jacket, you’re half Nazi, half Neanderthal.

While acknowledging that there is some truth to the Darwinian dictum that “the strong eat the weak” within the wild of high school, these sorts of oversimplified clichés are enough to make Saved by the Bell seem complex by comparison.

The real problem, though, runs deeper.

THE BACKLASH

While the show’s intent is (ostensibly) to shine a light on the terrible effects of bullying behavior, many experts say that it will have another consequence: more suicides, not less.

In the view of Trevin Wax (here):

In trying to fight bullying, this show lifts up suicide. It gives the main character a noble way out, a martyrdom of sorts, a tragic but glamorous finale (displayed in graphic detail) that goes against virtually every best practice for addressing suicide responsibly.

For Hannah, suicide is a weapon to be wielded against a culture of shame and brutal violence.

Yet what may escape the audience is that this selfish act merely perpetuates the problem. It continues the graceless cycle of violent shaming. And it ends up valorizing the very beast that devoured Hannah in the first place.

To be sure, Hannah’s predators deserve to be punished—severely. Yet the road she chooses merely reiterates the rapist’s verdict: Some lives are expendable; some bodies are mere means to a vindictive end.

In Wax’s even harsher judgment:

Most people think that 13 Reasons Why is about a group of teenagers, who in their selfish actions and inaction, are responsible for killing a fragile young girl. No. This is a show about how a girl, beyond the grave, kills her classmates.

And I’d add: her parents.

While suicide is complex—with contributing factors like mental illness, clinical depression, and even chronic brain injury—13 Reasons gives little hint that such forces account for Hannah’s choice. She’s just a happy girl who was driven to this end by bullies. What choice did she have?

And that’s a dangerous depiction.

THE OTHER HANNAHS

If there is a silver lining to the show, it is the conversation that it may spark (in places like this) regarding how we ought to deal with bullying, sexual assault, and suicide prevention.

And we must.

The very title of this post was stolen from a message by my friend Aaron Stroman as he preached hope to the high school students in his own youth group.

Instead of 13 Reasons Why, he gave “13 Reasons Why Not.”

Because the Gospel claims that even the darkest moments can be made new.

13whynot

As a ministry professor, one thing I never expected was the number of students—even from Christian families—who would eventually recount for me a tale that sounds a bit like Hannah’s.

“I was bullied terribly.”

“I was raped in high school.”

“I thought no one would believe me.”

Or worse yet: “No one did.”

Yet unlike Hannah, these women did not take the violent way out. They pursued help and hope and healing.

For such reasons, they are the far more interesting case studies.

They are the ones who deserve an audience.

And I’ve learned far more from them than Hannah Baker.

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Trampled: Reading “Silence” for the Lenten Season

Is God’s speech sometimes more painful than his silence?

This is but one question raised by Shūsaku Endō’s classic novel.

For almost the duration of story, Father Sebastian Rodrigues longs for just one word from God on behalf of his persecuted people.

But when that word comes, it is the last thing the priest expected.

While I have yet to see the film adaptation of Silence by Martin Scorsese, I have just read the book for Lent.

It is not for the faint of heart.

SILENCE

[*SPOILERS BELOW]

The story follows the path of Jesuit missionaries as they set out for 17th century Japan.

After flourishing in a prior generation, Christianity now faces unspeakable persecution there as the faithful are brutally drowned at sea, slashed by samurai, and tortured over pits of human excrement.

In the midst of such butchery, Father Rodrigues sneaks ashore to serve the suffering Christians, and to investigate the whereabouts of his old mentor, Father Ferreira.

While Ferreira had been a celebrated missionary, rumors swirl that he has now renounced his faith and even trampled on a picture (fumie) of Christ as public proof of this apostasy.

Rodrigues must know if this is true.  Yet after a brief period of ministry, Rodrigues is betrayed, captured, and finally brought to meet the man that he has searched for: Ferreira.

The old priest has adopted the dress and customs of Japan, and he explains what led to his apostasy. After capture, he was hung upside down for three days over the dreaded pit, and all without recanting. But after being taken down, the local magistrate  devised a more insidious torture.

In his place, innocent peasants were suspended over the pit, and Ferreira was told that only his trampling upon the Christ-picture would free them. His choice was their torture or his own “apostasy.”

Ferreira trampled.

Eventually, Rodrigues is given the same choice, yet he resolves never to deny his Lord. Still, even before the fateful moment, the reader senses that the Rodrigues’ resolve is sinking like the peasants in the sea.

His aching question throughout the novel has pertained to God’s silence in the face of suffering.

Why does he say nothing!?

“… the silence of God was something I could not fathom … surely he should speak but a word… .”

Indeed, this excruciating muteness provides a backdrop for almost the entire novel.

Almost.

In the end, as Rodrigues is faced with the terrible choice, he looks down at the picture of Jesus—worn down and grimy from so many feet—and at long last he hears the voice of Christ, as clear as crystal:

“Trample! Trample! … It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that carried my cross.”

The priest placed his foot upon the fumie [picture]. Dawn broke. And far into the distance the cock crew.

RESPONDING TO SILENCE

Is Rodrigues is more like Jesus or Judas?

Is he more like Peter heading to his cross, or Peter just before the rooster crowed?

Is it actually “Christ-like” for the priest to endure what he perceives to be “damnation” so that others might be freed?

And which is more intolerable for Rodrigues, God’s silence or his unexpected speech?

Which is more intolerable for us?

Rodrigues and Ferreira are hardly the only Christian to wrestle with such questions.

The apostle Paul himself once claimed that, if possible, he would gladly be “cut off from Christ” if it meant salvation for the Jews (Rom. 9.3).

And in a different vein, the ardent pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer signed on to a plot to kill Hitler while refusing to justify such violence. Instead, he was resolved to “bear the guilt,” so that others might go free.

Did Rodrigues do that?

Neither Paul nor Bonhoeffer publicly denounced their Lord.

But what if Christ had commanded them to “trample”?

Would Jesus say such a word?

Despite unanswered questions, Silence remains, in many ways, a deeply Christian work—which explains why the Pope recently offered Martin Scorsese a blessing on the movie version.

But unlike so much that passes for “Christian” art these days, Endo’s masterpiece does not gloss over the dark travails of faith.

And as such, it fits perfectly amid the silent shadows of the Lenten season.


Available here.

 

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

Breaking Bias: A children’s book for grownups

As a parent in that purgatory known as “potty training” I am of course familiar with Taro Gomi’s #1 Bestseller: Everyone Poops.

 

It is pearl of wisdom.

 

And since it has also been quite lucrative, I’ve even pondered writing my own classic to address a universal issue plaguing our society.

I call it Everyone Skews—a grownups guide to confirmation bias.

To save costs, we could even steal some illustrations from the Gomi classic (see especially the donkey and the elephant).

The need for such a book should be obvious: Everybody is biased at some level.

And in a highly polarized environment we become especially adept at spotting bias in “them” while being blind to it in “us.”

As Wittgenstein once said: “Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving yourself.”

TYPES OF BIAS

In fact, there are many types of bias (see here)—and each should probably be taught with the kind of rote memorization once reserved for multiplication tables, and now replaced by Taylor Swift lyrics.

Examples include:

  • Projection Bias
  • The Gambler’s Fallacy
  • The Anchoring Effect, and
  • Current Moment Bias

But this is not about those.

CONFIRMATION BIAS

Confirmation Bias (or “Myside Bias”) is the tendency we all have to focus only on claims that reinforce what we already believe.

As the argument goes, we humans can interpret almost any evidence as a confirmation of our existing opinions.

And this can make us stupid.

In the words of George Dvorsky:

We love to agree with people who agree with us. It’s why we only visit websites that express our political opinions, and why we mostly hang around people who hold similar views and tastes. … It’s this preferential mode of behavior that leads to the confirmation bias … And paradoxically, the internet has only made this tendency even worse.

One result of this is what I call a “silo culture” (see here) is a general lack of listening.

WHY DOES IT SMELL FUNNY?

This is dangerous, because to quote Rosaria Butterfield (yet again): we all tend to become sentimentally attached to our bad ideas.

Hence the children’s book for grownups.

While Everyone Skews, more problems come when we deny that our biases stink like those of other people.

“Sure that other News network smells funny, but mine smells like roses and truth. It even says so on the label.”

(Never mind that both are driven by the same quest for ad revenue that guides Keeping Up With the Kardashians.)

CAN I FLUSH IT?

A further danger with confirmation bias is the evidence suggesting there is little correlation between one’s understanding of a given issue and one’s confidence in understanding it.

A sign of this comes in a recent Yale study (here) involving—and I am not making this up…—how a toilet functions.

The study asked folks to rate their understandings of basic processes, including zippers and how a bathroom stool works.

Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because …(Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

[The researchers] see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

But while such ignorance is fairly unimportant when it comes to toilets, it is more dangerous in other areas:

It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban [or any other position] without knowing what I’m talking about.

Surveys on many other issues have yielded similarly dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” … And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem.

BELIEVING THE LIE

Interestingly, the New Testament goes even further.

In Romans 1, Paul attributes the universal human rejection of God (a fairly serious bias), not merely to ignorance or lack of evidence, but to our active “suppression” of the truth.

This is how deep bias runs.

As Paul argues, we all want to “believe the lie” at certain points because lies are more convenient.

Because of this, we need something more than information.

We need Grace.

In some ways, this startling diagnosis should encourage a certain patience when dealing with the biases of others, because I realize that I am prone to even more egregious truth suppressions.

THREE PRACTICAL STEPS

Apart from a gracious overthrow of previous perspectives, there are some practical steps to breaking bias. Here are three simple ones:

  1. Admit the problem.

I can’t have my biases challenged if I don’t admit their existence.

While some folks are clearly more biased than others, there is no view from nowhere.

Every perspective–including mine–carries with it certain blindspots and prejudices.

No one is completely fair and balanced.

So claiming to be so is either ignorance or duplicity.

  1. Irrigate your ideas.

Idea irrigation happens as we expose ourselves to new and differing perspectives. The goal here is not to adopt opposing viewpoints (they might be wrong), but to understand them and (this is important) to encounter them in their most cogent form.

Along these lines, I recently heard a libertarian colleague tell me that he gets all his news from periodicals (not the rubbish heap of Cable News).

Then he told me that he subscribes to thoughtful publications from opposing angles. That seems like great advice. Read diverse thinkers who know how to write in complete sentences.

  1. Embrace Surprise.

As the biochemist Isaac Asimov once said:

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny’.”

What he meant was that our greatest advancements come not when our old presuppositions are confirmed, but when they’re rattled—and we notice it.

Thomas Kuhn called these “anomalies.”

They are observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm.

Along these lines, some scientists are now encouraged to start a “Surprise Journal” (see here) in which each entry chronicles three things:

  • The moment of surprise.
  • Why it was surprising.
  • What this tells me.

The point is to fight confirmation bias and to turn the dissonance into a moment of discovery.

What if more than just scientists did this?

What if we began to notice (and even delight) in those instances in which our presuppositions are surprisingly upended?

In my view, that would be a good thing.

Because all facts are friendly when you’re chasing truth.


 

For more on bias and what a proper information “diet” looks like, check out The Information Diet, by Clay Johnson (here).

Is moral relativism still a thing?

Is moral relativism still a thing?

In years gone by, many of us grew accustomed to the warnings from Christian leaders that “The relativists are coming!”

Yet in recent days, voices on both sides of the conservative-liberal spectrum have announced that such a shift has not in fact occurred.

From the left-leaning archives of The Atlantic, we read of

  • “The Death of Moral Relativism” by Jonathan Merritt (here).

And from the uber-conservative bastion of The Blaze, there is

  • “The Quiet Collapse of Moral Relativism” by Joel Kurtinitis (here).

MORAL RELATIVISM

Of course, it should be obvious that such relativism remains an option on the philosophical buffet line.

It goes great with Nietzsche and a side of Foucault.

Nihilism tastes like chicken.

For instance, some evolutionary biologists would tell us that virtually all acts considered “immoral” amongst humans are part of the natural repertoire of animal behavior—things like deception, bullying, theft, rape, murder, infanticide, and warfare. And if such acts are not objectively immoral for the chimp or the hyena, then they are not objectively immoral for the human animal either.

Or so the argument goes.[1]

Christians disagree with this conclusion, but it does not change the fact that moral relativism is still a “thing” within the land of arcane argument.

A SHIFT IN POP CULTURE

But the articles above are concerned with culture at large.

As David Brooks recently argued in the New York Times:

while American colleges campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media. A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism (cited in Merritt, The Atlantic).

As should be obvious, this new code is hardly the same as the old one.

This is not a mere return to Mayberry.

As Brooks says, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” And as Merritt notes, new absolutes are more likely to be “values of tolerance and inclusion.”

Yet that is still a far cry from moral relativism.

Lada Gaga is not Kurt Cobain.

From the conservative corner of The Blaze, Joel Kurtinitis says basically the same:

The demise of relativism and the rise of the SJW (“social justice warrior”) movement exposes the culture war for what it has been all along—a battle of faiths.

MY TAKE

Personally, I have my doubts as to whether hardcore relativism was ever as widespread in American culture as the articles imply.

The everyman has never been the Übermensch.

Likewise, it should be said that the mere affirmation of an objective code is not necessarily a good thing.

Zealots are not preferable to agnostics (see here).

The question, then, is not absolutes versus relativism, but rather: “Whose morality?”

Despite such caveats, it is nice to hear anyone calling “alternative facts” precisely what they are: falsehoods.

Moral truths exist, and certain things are objectively wrong.

Nonetheless, the real test of a robust worldview will be its ability to provide some answer also to the follow-up question:

“Why?”

 

 


 

[1] See, for instance, the discussion in Daryl Domning, Original Selfishness: Original Sin and Evil in the Light of Evolution (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).

Name three books that changed your life

Name three books that changed your life

“Make America read again” might be my catchphrase for this year.

Along those lines, I recently saw a video in which N.T. Wright was asked to share three books that changed his life.

Here it is:

And that got me thinking about what those three books would be for me.

The Bible is too obvious. So I’ve chosen texts from three completely different genres. They’re not necessarily my favorite books, but they did change me in some way.

(Incidentally, I’ve also added new page to the blog (here) to chronicle things I’m currently reading.)

Here they are in no particular order:

  1. Jesus and the Victory of God (N.T. Wright)

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I read Wright’s 741 page monstrosity on Jesus was I was just starting grad school.

It made me want to be a scholar.

I had never encountered a deeply academic work that was so enjoyable to read. No scholar in recent memory has been able to meld the academic, the accessible, and the aesthetic like Wright.

Likewise, one rarely encounters a work that is so orthodox and so innovative at the same time. It showed me that constructive and creative work need not be heterodox.

Wright set forth ideas on Judaism, parables, ancient politics, and Christ’s prophetic identity that I had never heard before. And while I’ve come to disagree with him on certain things, the book provided a preeminent example of what good scholarship should be: deep, readable, faithful, provocative—and never boring.

  1. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (Jared Diamond)

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I was always terrible at math and science.

In fact, I once joked (sarcastically) that I earned a PhD on the Trinity because it was the one discipline in which you could say “3=1” and get away with it.

And while I’m still bad at math, I’ve grown more interested in science.

One reason is that evangelical Christians have sometimes had such an adversarial relationship with the discipline. And this is sad. We need good science. We don’t need pseudo-science. And we badly need to stop treating scientists as if they are enemies.

All facts are friendly if you’re interested in truth.

Along these lines, Diamond offers fascinating scientific explanations for why western European nations ended up with guns, germs, and steel while other cultures (for instance in Africa and the Americas) did not.

Why did western Europeans conquer the Incas and not vice versa?

Why didn’t African nations colonize Great Britain?

His thesis is a rejection of older racist theories, and a detailed look at how our environments shape us.

  1. Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis).

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I’ve reread no novel as I have this one.

It might be my favorite work of fiction. And oddly, it is one of Lewis’ least known books. “I’ve never read that one,” people always tell me.

The story is a reworking of the ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche, but (as usual) Lewis paints new meaning into a tale that examines beauty, jealously, self-deception, and blood sacrifice.

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

As evidence of how great my wife is, she even bought me a first edition a few years back, complete with a sweet pic on the back cover of Lewis smoking his pipe.

lewis

Now the big question: What three books have deeply influenced you?

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

Jesus picks the music: why love trumps “safety” on the Christian soundtrack

When I was just a poor college student, I did things I’m not proud of.

Things – for money.

In a local apartment complex (dubbed “smurf village” for the bright blue paint), there was one particular residence that looked like all the others. Yet on the inside it was filled with recording equipment.

And there, on numerous occasions, I sang radio jingles for money.

Out of shame, I told no one. Thus my friends (if they noticed) probably thought that I had come into a very small inheritance – perhaps the life insurance policy for a departed hamster.

But eventually the truth came out.

One evening, as the college basketball team drove through a lonely stretch of rural Kansas, across the radio airwaves, came my voice – singing the praises of a “Christian lifestyle store” in a tiny town called McPherson.

Somewhere a rooster crowed.

All kidding aside, the jingles were easy to produce because whatever the merchant—a Bible bookstore in Kansas, a tanning salon in Illinois—the music and the melody remained exactly the same. Only the lyrics were different. This allowed the jingle producer (“Chuck”) to save both time and money when it came to composing and recording.

And most importantly, it ensured that I never had to learn new music.

THE GOSPEL IS NEW MUSIC

And that’s the trouble for Christians too.

All of us have a set of cultural assumptions that seem right and reasonable to us. These assumptions form the “soundtrack” of our lives, and they color everything from our politics to our parenting. Depending where you were born, your soundtrack may be different.

So while Scripture gives WORDS that are meant to tell us how to view the world, those words are easily lost amid the MUSIC of our tribe and our tradition.

It’s like trying to discern the lyrics to a “screamo” song when you’re used to Kenny Rogers.

The result, as one scholar observed, is that we look down the long well of history in search of Jesus, and in the water at the bottom we see a reflection of our own face. “That’s him!” we shout; “He looks and thinks a lot like me!”

Hence, we assume that Christ’s view on something is pretty much the same as whatever seems most “practical” or “reasonable” to us. Thank God. Or rather, thank us.

JESUS, THE IMPRACTICAL

But a quick read through the Gospels (with our music turned down even slightly) shows that Jesus is far from “practical” and “prudent” as we usually define those terms.

In fact, he says many things that don’t seem reasonable or “safe” at all.

A few examples, just from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.”
  • “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”
  • If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
  • “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?”

Elsewhere, in an even more radical passage (Mt. 25), Jesus claims that hellfire—yes, hellfire (see verse 41)—hinges upon whether or not one welcomes “him” in the form of poor and marginalized:

  • “I was a stranger and you invited me in,I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least, you did for me (vss. 35–36).”

Despite interpretive nuances, all this demands an ethic of radical love that seems impractical in many cases. And to be honest, I don’t always like it.

I WAS A STRANGER

I thought about this recently as I read a predictable comment thread on Facebook.

A pastor friend (and former student) had written a heartfelt post lamenting the recent Presidential edict summarily banning refugees and Green Card holders from certain countries, even when they pass the current vetting process.

My friend’s post was not partisan or angry, but the first comment was invariably a rebuke from a fellow churchgoer.

The respondent appreciated the compassion, but just wanted to share that it really isn’t “safe” or “responsible” to allow in Muslim refugees. After all, they’re Muslims.

So just as we “lock our doors at night,” so too we should lock our borders to such refugees—it’s just safer that way.

In response to this “locked door” analogy, the Scriptures tend to tell stories of people opening them (even late at night) to help the vulnerable (Gen. 19; Luke 11). And on the two occasions that a door remains locked, we discover that the church has shut out Jesus himself (Rev. 3.20; Mt. 25.43). The analogy is flawless, except for the Bible.

IN FAIRNESS…

To be fair, I’m all for safety and secure borders. And I’m all for improving the vetting process (when possible) for the folks that we allow to immigrate. A concern for safety isn’t bad, and it can even be a way of “loving thy neighbor.”

But what many fail to see is how radical the WORDS of Scripture actually are on such matters. And I suspect the reason is that while we’re happy to let Jesus say some things, we’ve never let him change our MUSIC.

Hence, the background noise (whether liberal or conservative; Fox News or MSNBC), drowns out the gospel call to a different set of values.

To disagree with the radio station that aired one of my jingles, Jesus has never been “safe and fun for the whole family.” He got tortured to death. And so did his followers.

Radical love, not safety, has always been the mark of Christian character.

This may sound risky, and that’s because it is.

But to sign on to the Jesus movement means that Jesus picks the music.

And in this soundtrack, sacrificial love trumps “safety” as the highest virtue.


For one organization helping refugees, see here.

For one book that has shaped my thinking on this issue, see here.

The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

The trouble with millennial bashing (A response to Simon Sinek)

Recently, my social media feed was practically glutted with recommendations to watch the latest viral rant about “millennials”—that amorphous population blob between age fourteen and thirty-four.

This group is supposedly recognized by their armloads of participation trophies, their entitlement, and their helicopter parents.

This particular installment comes from Simon Sinek, and it has received around four million views.

Because I am eager to encounter insights that have been described as “Yes!” and “Boom!” I watched the video.

It’s easy to see why it caught fire.

Sinek is witty, well-spoken, and has smart-guy glasses.

But while he makes a couple of fairly obvious points (like: social media can be addicting <Now share this in-no-way ironic insight from a viral video>), I had a different reaction than did “Yes!” and “Boom!”

Apparently, I was not the only one (see here; NSFC).

THE CLAIMS

For Sinek (pun intended?), the problem with people born between 1982 and 2002 is that they were given lots of participation medals, and as a result, this self-esteem parenting has given them an insatiable desire for—in Sinek’s words—“beanbags” and “free food.”

In short, millennials are lazy and entitled.

And when the world doesn’t match their “Lo-Fi” Instagram filter, they become impatient and depressed–which makes them difficult to manage.

But don’t worry, Sinek sells books and courses that can teach you how to get more out of such lazy, narcissistic, and developmentally “Lo-Fi” people.

RESPONSE

To be fair, not all of Sinek’s claims are baseless.

So it would be wrong to follow the “crowd-pounding” of millennials with the crowd-pounding of Simon Sinek.

Some millennials are lazy, entitled, and surgically attached to smartphones.

I know: I’m a college professor.

In the words of a colleague:

“You are entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is a C minus.”

Some are even so surrounded by viral videos that they think success comes by becoming a YouTube sensation who plays fast and loose with data. It’s weird; I don’t know where they get it.

In sum, the trouble is not that the allegations against millennials are totally wrong, it’s that they are exaggerated and oversimplified.

In Sinek’s case, the flaws are masked by wit and supported by completely unsubstantiated appeals to things like “science” and “research.” And the glasses.

In my view, the problems are threefold:

  1. Wild generalizations,
  2. A bogus boogieman in the form of “participation trophies,”
  3. And a not-so-subtle marketing approach that succeeds by validating attitudes of superiority that are (ironically) similar to the faults discerned within millennials.

I’ll tackle these in order.

  1. THE TROUBLE WITH “GENERA(TIONA)LIZING”

            “All generalizations are false; including this one” (~Mark Twain).

Imagine if someone started a sentence with “You know what’s wrong with black people… [or Asians, or Jews, or the elderly].”

Then imagine that they proceeded to give a ridiculously reductionist answer like “they all want X.”

The trouble with such sweeping stereotypes is not just that they’re offensive, it’s that they’re wrong in many cases. You need actual data to make claims like this.

One cannot speak of millions of people, born in different regions, in different decades, under different economic conditions, to different parents with the tagline that “they want beanbags and free food.”

When dealing with runaway generalizations, one useful exercise is to look at what is being assumed. What face is Sinek putting on millennials?

Based on the description, his portrait is a child of privilege, showered with parental compliments (i.e. continually told that she was special), and ferried about to numerous after-school activities in which medals were awarded for participation.

Picture a Chevy Tahoe, orange slices, and a nice house in the suburbs.

And while this certainly describes some millennials, I’ve known just as many who struggled for nearly OPPOSITE reasons (And some who don’t struggle at all).

Some millennials were born poor, rarely heard words of affirmation, never knew a loving dad, and were rarely able to participate in activities that didn’t involve a television or the struggling schools tasked with fixing all manner of parental and societal shortcomings.

In fact, Sinek’s “millennial” looks strangely like himself: a reasonably affluent white kid with cool glasses and a bizarre beanbag fixation.

It is as if he looks into the deep well of culture, sees a distorted reflection of his own face, and calls it “millennials.”

I’d say look again; and this time leave the suburbs.

Now for the bogus boogieman:

  1. THE DREADED TROPHIES 

Participation medals are silly.

Lots of people think so.

So decrying them takes about as much courage as yelling “Yankees suck!” at a Red Sox home game. “That’s right Hahvey; Derak Jetah’s a bum!!!” 

It’s red meat.

But while the golden knick-knacks may be silly, they are not the major reason why some millennials are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt.

The millennials I know (myself included) don’t even recall receiving the dreaded trophies. And if we did, they were likely lost beneath the minivan seats before we got home.

To explode the absurdity, Mark Hill recalls his reaction to one of these shiny little WMDs:

My response was not “Well, clearly I’m going to be handed a six-figure job as an adult.” It was “Neat, a trophy! Now I’m going to go back to thinking about Pokemon or farts, because I am a child.” [As] I got older, eventually only the teams that won were rewarded. This did not shock and sadden us — it was what we expected, and wanted, because we were actually capable of observing adult society, and we noticed that pro sports teams weren’t handed many trophies for constantly losing.

To blame a plastic trinket for the loss of a generation is like blaming the 2008 financial collapse on an ill-chosen Happy Meal toy (probably the Hamburgler; he totally normalized greed).

Participation medals are like Vin Diesel movies, Jar-Jar Binks, and men with bangs: they’re absurd, but they are not among our biggest evils.

The trouble is that we crave simplistic answers to complex problems. So along comes a pitchman, or a demagogue, to say:

  • “It’s the Jews!”
  • “It’s the rich people!”
  • “It’s the ab-roller for five minutes!”

It’s not. It’s really not.

And while Sinek bases his case on vague appeals to “science” and “clear research” Hill refutes this also:

It took me five seconds to find science that says the exact opposite. [So] maybe, just maybe, giving a kid a plastic knickknack when they’re eight doesn’t forever shape their psyche.

Now for the biggest problem:

  1. “FIRST, REMOVE THE [TROPHY] FROM YOUR OWN EYE” 

The most insidious issue with millennial-bashing has to do with a not-so-subtle marketing technique: the validation of self-righteous attitudes in the land of “Yes!” and “Boom!”

“God thank you that I am not like those people” (Lk. 18.11), I don’t even like beanbags.

Ironically, this sense of “special-ness” is quite similar to the fault decried within millennials. Funny how that works.

It is as if we all have a satisfied smirk while failing to notice that there’s a trophy sticking out of our own eye.

This happens in two ways:

First, there is the reaction of an older generation that sees the rant as validation: “I walked to school uphill both ways, and these spoiled brats get trophies.” This is nothing new. Every generation sees the next as upending everything. But the accusation is especially rich when coming from the children of the 1960s.

Second, it’s worth noting that many people laughing with Sinek are millennials themselves (see video). And for us (since, again, I technically am one), the pride comes from knowing that we are not like our peers. We’re better. “I sit on a real chair; I pay for my food; I drive a Dodge Stratus!”

Either way, such rants inculcate a sense of self-righteous superiority over a population that is not exactly what Sinek makes it out to be.

CONCLUSION

So yes, entitlement does need to be quashed.

And we can thank Sinek for reminding us.

But it doesn’t happen best by caricature and mockery devoid of data.

Believe me; I’ve tried.