Public Thinker: T. L. Taylor On Gamergate, Live-Streaming, and Esports

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

The qualitative sociologist T. L. Taylor is a professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and cofounder and director of research for AnyKey, an organization dedicated to supporting and developing fair and inclusive esports. She explores the interrelations of culture and technology in online leisure environments, writing in a clear style and with an evocative voice about gender, inclusivity, and diversity in those virtual spaces. Around this research she has built a career that has taken her from California to North Carolina to Denmark to Cambridge, brought her in front of audiences at the White House and the International Olympic Committee, and led her to speak to the New York Times, PBS, and the BBC as a gaming expert.

She is the author of three books and the coauthor of another. Her latest, Watch Me Play: Twitch and the Rise of Game Live Streaming, was published last fall. We spoke about that work, and in particular about online gaming culture, esports, and the economies of live-streaming, and put it in conversation with the Gamergate controversy, noting how the virtual worlds shaped by broader cultural currents might build a more welcoming and accessible future.


B. R. Cohen (BRC): Your research and teaching look at online gaming, esports, the sociology of virtual spaces, and the like. But I want to start with Gamergate. I should know what it is and understand its nuances, but maybe I don’t.

T. L. Taylor (TLT): Well, it began about five years ago, and you might think of it in two ways. First, Gamergate was targeted, systematic harassment of women in gaming, including developers, academics, and game critics. Although it was cloaked in the language of concern about “ethics in gaming,” it was essentially a targeted anti-feminist movement primarily against a host of women. But there’s the second way to think about it. We’ve now seen how its shape and method were a kind of template or dress rehearsal for the alt-right movement, which has been front and center in the last couple years.

BRC: Was that apparent at the time, or has it become clearer since?

TLT: Maybe a little of both. A number of commentaries have since connected what happened in Gamergate with patterns we now see with the alt-right. The forms of harassment are similar, as are the use of various online sites like 4Chan and Reddit.

BRC: Direct connections, too?

TLT: Yeah, definitely. Milo Yiannopoulos and Breitbart played a part in Gamergate. Brett Kavanagh’s friend Mark Judge, and many alt-right guys, were involved in attacking women like Anita Sarkeesian, who is a leading voice on women and video games. She was viciously harassed. Her life was threatened, and she was doxxed. These Gamergate tactics are the bread and butter of what we see in the alt-right movement more generally. To be frank, I often say that—for good or ill—gaming is the canary in the coal mine for broader cultural, critical, and political issues. Gamergate is a profoundly unfortunate example. To call it misogyny would be an understatement.

BRC: This was in 2014?

TLT: Around then, yes. I should say, too, as someone who studies gaming culture, gender, and technology, a pattern often emerges here. You start seeing a reactionary response when you get a critical mass of women, people of color, or queer folks in a space expressing their own thoughts about their circumstances, pushing back on the culture, and not merely echoing whatever the dominant culture is saying. This is when you get people involved in things like Gamergate or the alt-right purportedly defending “ethics in games” when, in fact, they’re mostly just perpetuating hate and fear. So it was a really nasty time. The people who bore the brunt of it were developers and people like Sarkeesian.

BRC: As a scholar studying this phenomenon, how much did you get caught up in it?

TLT: I got tagged in briefly early on, but I think in part because of my name I’m often seen as a man online, so I was not targeted in the same way.

BRC: You pointed me to the Conference on Advances in Computer Entertainment Technology (ACE) just last fall to show that this is still going on.

TLT: In fact, there was a huge controversy and protest movement that eventually led to the conference being cancelled. The ACE conference chair had invited Steve Bannon as its keynote speaker. I mean, the ACE Twitter account previously had Ada Lovelace and all these amazing women in technology in its header image, and yet two years ago the conference chair behaved appallingly on Twitter toward women, particularly junior women scholars. And then he tried to bring Bannon to a conference he was chairing. Gamergate wasn’t some isolated aberration; it was a convergence of off-line misogyny with online platforms and gaming spaces. The alt-right dovetails into that all too well.

BRC: So Gamergate is about gender and technology, certainly, but more broadly it’s about how marginalized peoples use these games to connect with each other and are re-marginalized within these online communities.

TLT: It’s this strange unfortunate double side of game culture. Gaming and geek culture have historically been places where people who felt like outsiders found connection through geeky loves and pastimes, whether they are games, anime, or comics. But as is often the case with subcultures, they also have heavily policed themselves. They police the boundaries of what they are and who is allowed in. As gaming has become mainstream, the stakes in policing those boundaries seem to have gotten even higher for many people. The question of whether you’re a “real gamer” or a “real comics fan” becomes more intense. It’s happened in a number of related subcultures. We have Gamergate, yes, but both the comics and science fiction communities, for example, have had their own version of this.

BRC: How did you come to this topic, this field? These are all social spaces that I see a sociologist would study. How do you make sense of these gaming and esports cultures in your work?

TLT: Well, I studied sociology as an undergrad at Berkeley and as a graduate student at Brandeis. From early on I was drawn to qualitative work and ethnography in particular. I’m probably not an anthropologist, though, because I’m also drawn to thinking about institutions and organizations in particular ways. Not that anthropologists don’t do that, but sociologists do something slightly different. I ended up at Brandeis, because there were only a handful of places to do qualitative sociology in the US at the time.

BRC: Where did your interest in computers and gaming come from?

TLT: I should’ve also mentioned that I was a community college student before Berkeley, and I’m a first-generation college student from a working-class family. I didn’t grow up with a computer in my home. We didn’t even have an early Atari. I played video games at the arcade but that was about it. My undergraduate thesis was on consumption practices among young Cambodian refugees in San Francisco. It had nothing to do with technology. But in 1991 I went to graduate school, moving from California to Boston, and started using the internet mostly because it was available and I wanted to stay in touch with a few friends from undergrad. I started spending a lot of time online and ended up doing my dissertation on embodiment in early virtual environments. This was before Second Life. These were text-based worlds, multiuser dungeons. Did you ever get into these things?

BRC: I didn’t. I’m not sure why. I think SimCity was the height of it for me.

TLT: You missed out on a host of early text-based games. Zork was one, in which you look around the room, go left, go right, by typing the commands. I got interested in the multiplayer ones because you’d head into online text-based worlds full of random people, bringing to mind that old New Yorker “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” cartoon. In that spirit, a good part of the conversation in the 1990s was about identity on the internet. Sherry Turkle was thinking about identity in new and important ways in Life on the Screen. I was her research assistant in the 1990s, which helped develop my thinking on it. I noticed, though, that there was a sense of a presence in these worlds, which got me thinking about embodiment in online spaces, not just about identities. That’s what I worked on.

BRC: I take it that EverQuest was an exemplar of these games?

TLT: Right, that is what’s known as an MMO or MMORPG, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. EverQuest wasn’t the only one, but in the 1990s it was one of the big ones. Unlike all those text-based worlds we’d been hanging out in, EverQuest and other MMOs brought graphics. My first book [Play between Worlds] was about MMOs.

BRC: Last fall I spoke with Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose research on social media grew along with his own biography as someone coming of academic age in the 1990s, when the internet was taking its current form. It sounds like you had a similar trajectory, but how did you come to study that game?

TLT: By the end of my dissertation I was mostly tired of it, as grad students usually are. Some of the people I met doing my dissertation research started telling me about this game, EverQuest. I thought, “Oh, that sounds like a fun distraction,” so I started playing it. Pretty quickly I realized, “Oh, no, wait, wait, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff happening here.” That’s how I got into the game as a player, and that was the hook that got me studying it as a sociologist.

BRC: When you were in those virtual worlds thinking about identity and then embodiment, did gender dynamics stand out right away?

TLT: Yes, right away. They were clear and crystalized within the game spaces in particular. In my early work on embodiment, I wrote about gender and sexuality, but because game spaces so clearly represent the gender issues visually, they’re hard to miss. Or in the case of esports, they’re so egregious; it’s stark. You asked about gender dynamics but, honestly, it wasn’t until grad school that I had any kind of serious feminist awareness. My eyes were always focused on class and socioeconomic issues when I was younger, because of my own biography coming from a working-class family. So for me, socioeconomic class issues were the early hook, while the feminist and gender questions came later.

BRC: It’s difficult in the necessary discussions of intersectionality to think of socioeconomic factors as an intersection, too. So many things can intersect.

TLT: It’s funny, I teach a games and culture class in which we do sessions on gender and race. I try to model thinking on how various aspects of our identities and biographies interact and collide. I talk about how I am a woman, but I’m also from a working-class family—and a white one at that. It’s very hard to do it all, but thinking across these areas is key. And intersectionality, as a way of thinking about interlocking systems of oppression—particularly for people of color—is such an important concept to expose students to.

BRC: How do you approach it?

TLT: I think for me it’s about the sociological imagination, something that the sociologist C. Wright Mills talked about. When I started taking sociology classes, I was like, “Holy shit.” This idea helped me take what felt deeply personal, individual, and family-based and link it to a bigger conversation. That was the first critical intellectual intervention in my life.

BRC: Your work beyond the MIT classroom is in touch with the gaming world as well. You used the phrases “gamers,” “game space,” and “gaming space.” Are those common terms? You’ve got gamers; you’ve got fans, audiences, and markets; and the rise of professionalization comes up in your books. But what is your relationship with the gaming community?

TLT: That’s a tricky question. I’m a low theory person at best, which means I don’t have typological models in my head, so I use those terms a bit colloquially. There isn’t one single game community or one kind of person who is a gamer. Each of my projects tries in some way to show the heterogeneity of the gaming space.

BRC: I don’t know much about those gamer spaces, those social worlds. That’s probably obvious by now. A few years ago, I was playing a game with my kids, Game of War, which we all joined on our devices, made our avatars, and played and chatted with people from all over the world. It didn’t take long to learn about the ways that personalities stuck out in those games, the ways people played them—aggressively, congenially, or otherwise. This was my first experience seeing that this was an entire social system worth examining. But even that felt different than the trolls on Twitter or the comment threads on Facebook. How do the social networks in these games differ from other social media, from Twitter or Facebook? Is it a whole different beast?

TLT: I would say there are many things happening. For example, much of what I talk about in my new book on live-streaming, Watch Me Play, would look familiar to people who study social networks. And some things would look familiar to people who study precarious labor and the gig economy. The stuff that’s happening in gaming is not separate from those broader cultural trends and developments. But it’s even messier, because people very regularly use a variety of other social networking sites to facilitate their game play or live-streaming.

One of the things I talk about in the book is how people are using Twitch to live broadcast their game play to each other, but they’re also using Twitter to keep in contact with fans and audience members. So one consistent thread in my various studies of online gaming is this notion of the assemblage, an assemblage of sites and practices that people rely on to make up their gaming or online experience. You can’t just take the artifact of the game—the specific software or platform—and fixate on it and think you understand something meaningful about gaming. The assemblage notion extends to different actors, stakeholders, institutions, and platforms; they all have to come together to make a particular game or cultural activity around a game happen.

BRC: You’re marking the development of the combination of so many different networks that couldn’t have happened at any other time.

TLT: Exactly. And for me it’s also a bit of a methodological intervention. If you want to understand these spaces and experiences, you have to understand that people aren’t just Twitter users, they aren’t just television watchers, and so on. We have a range of things cobbled together to make up our leisure or recreational practices.

BRC: You’re being technically intersectional.

TLT: Yes, yes, I like that. I think it would be an analytic mistake to focus on individual artifacts, even if methodologically we sometimes have to home in on particular platforms. But your participants often lead you elsewhere. You miss the dynamic interplay and misunderstand a lot of the social practice if you don’t follow those other threads.

BRC: You also write about structural cultural differences across the world, so it isn’t just about the context of cross-platform gaming experiences at one point in time. It’s also about cultural differences. In preparing for this conversation I kept seeing references to South Korea as a pioneer in a lot of these areas, or to Europe and North America as different regions with similar technical things that play out differently.

TLT: That is the sociology side of me, to be honest. With esports, people will often say “Oh, if we could just be like South Korea.” I wrote about that in Raising the Stakes. At the time, South Korea had television stations broadcasting esports and esports teams and sponsors. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that we can’t be like South Korea. Their esports culture came from a set of government policies, technological infrastructure, and cultural patterns of use based on the way youth culture is organized. So if you build your model based on a particular piece of hardware, software, or infrastructure, you’ll likely miss how it’s developing in other places in completely different ways. It’s a bit “Science & Technology Studies 101” to say that cultural context shapes technologies, but with new fields arising and new social spaces like esports, I’ve found that we need to keep showing this.

BRC: There’s more to it than drag and drop. Do you still see that kind of a drag-and-drop version of technology transfer circulating in mainstream media?

TLT: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s funny because in the spaces that I study, whether it’s esports or live-streaming, people build elaborate imagined audience-use models in their heads. I think that’s a lovely model, but it depends on so many complex factors that the technological determinists fail to acknowledge. How does the harassment of women and girls or the regulation of their leisure in particular ways shape their participation in gaming? This is where the nastiness of gaming sometimes comes into play, where models circulate in game communities about what “real gaming” is and what “real gamers” look like. And those are often deeply out of touch with the complexity of context in which people game or how taste and preference develop.

BRC: How do your studies of gaming fit with media portrayals of online communities, esports, or otherwise? You just mentioned determinism, and I think there’s a tendency in the broader media to focus too much on causation and impact, which we probably see with all new technologies. They’ll say, for example, that gaming is causing a problem, gaming is causing a new market, gaming generates harassment, gaming provides new opportunities. Your research helps correct that, I think, by also talking about what leads to gaming, not just what gaming leads to. If people want to talk about how gaming is increasing cultural friction, as with the harassment or gender issues, it would seem that we should attend to its foundations beforehand and not just its outcomes.

TLT: That determinist impulse is so common. When I’m talking to press, I often get the “Where’s it going?” or “What’s next for esports?” questions. And I answer that I am not a futurologist; there’s too much contingency. For me, the most interesting parts of the story are all those contingencies. I’m drawn to skirmishes, gaps, breakdown moments, and the little stories about everything falling apart. Those help to highlight the stakes. None of that is terribly satisfying for people looking for causality models. Esports and live-streaming are closely tied to commercial interests and are in a hype bubble right now. And so I think when I get those questions these days, I just have to say that it’s tied up in pure financial speculation. It’s kind of awful what’s happening in that regard. A lot of people just want to make a lot of money by figuring out what the next thing is. I couldn’t care less about that. For me, those aren’t the most interesting questions.

BRC: Studying commercial spaces and entertainment technologies must bring its own difficulties as a scholar.

TLT: That’s true. Much of the stuff I study either has an inherent commercial element, or there’s somebody who comes along and wants to commercialize it. But I tend to focus on things that have arisen out of user desire and community practice. I think that’s what makes the hype stuff tricky. Even though we’re in an esports bubble right now, I don’t think this thing called esports will ever go away, because it comes from actual people and users building grassroots communities.

BRC: On that point, I want to get back to Twitch and the rise of game live-streaming. Twitch is one of the things that’s commercializing esports, I take it?

TLT: Absolutely. Live-streaming amplified broadcasting, which brought in a bigger audience. That, in turn, has caught the eye of commercial interests. I was just at TwitchCon. It’s now a huge convention, which I guess speaks to the growing phenomenon. It’s massive. Twitch is a video platform on which people stream and watch games. Game live-streaming on a site like Twitch taps into the long-standing pleasures people take in sharing their play with each other, whether that’s sitting on a sofa watching your friend play or making and uploading your own videos. Twitch found a way to build a platform around that user activity. They are, of course, trying to commercialize it. It comes from an authentic and true experience but is now part of a larger culture of monetization and platform economies. Those who are now trying to earn a living or make ends meet by streaming games are tied to gig economies and precarious labor.

BRC: It makes me realize that I didn’t find Dragon’s Lair in your index. That’s my go-to when you talk about spectator video games. I remember arcades in the 1980s, everybody crowded in to see. It was the only video game with a TV screen above it so others could watch. Everybody would huddle around.

TLT: Right, that old arcade game, exactly. That sense of spectating is an important part of gaming. Sure, sometimes we play alone, and nobody’s there to watch, but the pleasure of watching and being watched has always been a part of gaming. Esports and Twitch as a platform tapped into that for the digital age. I was trying to understand that space as a sociologist for this new book. I got into the project because I saw that people were trying to bring gaming to spectator audiences and doing so in all kinds of creative ways, jamming technologies together. Then Twitch came along as a platform and made it easy. Or easier, I should say. Part of this story was coming to understand the dynamics of live-streaming not necessarily as sports but as entertainment, as media entertainment.

BRC: So who is the audience for your work? You’ve published books with academic presses and written in an accessible voice about complicated social and technical issues. You also teach about these things at MIT. But you’re also working with, writing about, and writing for these dynamic communities that are still in the making.

TLT: I think the books have been picked up by nonacademics because they act as a kind of legitimizing artifact and help chronicle a history. With esports folks I think they felt like, “Oh my God, somebody is paying serious attention to us.” It was a totem of legitimation, which is gratifying. I honestly don’t expect nonacademics to read my books. I really don’t, but of course it’s rewarding when the communities I study pick them up.

BRC: You do more specific public-facing things, too, like AnyKey, which, and I’m quoting your mission statement here, aims “to help create fair and inclusive spaces” for marginalized communities online.

TLT: That’s right, AnyKey has been a more explicitly publicly engaged project. Public talks, stuff on YouTube, things like that. AnyKey is where I try to do most of the public-facing work. My work with the initiative has also involved doing shorter white papers meant to actually provide helpful guidelines or insights, because just trying to distill these complicated things is a monumental task.

BRC: What are the general basics of AnyKey?

TLT: It started a few years ago. This actually dovetails with our conversation about Gamergate. When Gamergate was happening, Intel sort of blew it on their first-pass response. They got a lot of heat at the time, but they actually learned a lesson and made a big announcement that they would be supporting a number of different diversity initiatives. They were going to start taking diversity and inclusion more seriously and dedicated a chunk of money to sponsoring various measures. Because of the esports work I had done, I knew people at the Electronic Sports League (ESL), and one of them who’d been hearing me talk about gender for many years came to me and said, “Do you think there’s something we could do? Should we try to get in on this Intel stuff?” ESL has been working with Intel for years on esports. I said “Sure, let’s try to do something.” We connected up with Morgan Romine, who has a PhD in anthropology and who I codirect AnyKey with, and pitched to Intel research-driven initiatives around diversity and inclusion in esports. It worked, and we got some sponsorship money.

BRC: What exactly do you do there?

TLT: We’ve tried to do a range of things so far. Like I said, it’s research driven so we do fieldwork studies, we do workshops in which we try to get a sense of the key issues by working with various stakeholders, and we spend a lot of time talking to lots of folks in the esports space about the challenges they are facing. I’m the director of research and Morgan, my cofounder and director of initiatives, is the one who spins up concrete projects based on our findings. It covers everything, from practical skills like how to moderate chats to more symbolic issues. As an example, one of the things we heard early on is that women who were active and thriving in the esports space all had had these formative moments in which they saw another woman doing it, being involved in esports in some way, and it gave them a sense of like, “Oh wait, I could do that.” That led us to produce a series of videos profiling women in the scene. It was a “if you could see it, you could be it” kind of thing.

BRC: A kind of social inoculation, exposing them to the possibility?

TLT: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of amazing when you start talking to people who are really making it. I love it. I have always been very interested in the women who manage to stay in a space that is so hostile to them. I mean anywhere, in any forum, not just online. Like, how the hell are they doing that? What is going on? It was the same way with esports, leading us to think about what we can learn from the women who are there. There was this thing they had come across and someone else was doing it, playing in that space, and it became seared into their imagination that they could do it too. That doesn’t remove all of the barriers, not by a long shot, but that power of the symbolic was real. So we do studies as well as practical things.

BRC: Like the chat moderation guides?

TLT: Right, yes, and we put out other guidelines like that. We have one on gender-inclusive tournaments, for example. We often support women’s tournaments, but we want those tournaments to be trans inclusive. So we did a whole …

BRC: That’s a thing, gender-defined tournaments?

TLT: Yeah, yeah, and women’s tournaments in esports are tricky because I think most of us who support them see them as a stopgap. Ultimately, we don’t want a world in which men and women are playing on separate teams. There’s no good reason for that. But the harassment of women in this space is so strong that we tend to feel that if you don’t give them opportunities in women-only tournaments, they won’t get the experience. So we see women’s tournaments as necessary for now while working toward gender inclusivity more broadly in esports.</

But even then, we were seeing tournaments happen that were women-only, but the language around them was not trans inclusive. That led us to put out a white paper covering a variety of issues like, for example, how to be gender inclusive when taking photos for your event, making sure that all the photos aren’t just of men. Even that degree of guidance was necessary. But also explaining to people how pronouns work and how to think about having trans inclusivity based on a “you are who you say you are” rule. It’s all in the research section of the AnyKey website.

One of the things we do with those best practices is simply to try to help people who want to make this space better and to give them language and frameworks. We just released another set of guidelines maybe a month ago on how to moderate your chat if you are streaming your esports tournament. Because the chat can be really awful if left unmoderated. And, again, a lot of people want it to be better but they don’t know where to start. So we put out these guidelines to help people.

BRC: Is this extracurricular for you? Or is it part of your job description?

TLT: Yeah, I don’t get paid for it. It’s extra. [Laughs] Public-facing work is such an interesting challenge, and this work with AnyKey has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. We’re trying to take critical or feminist frameworks and interventions and make them accessible, spread them widely, and get them out of the classroom. It’s hard. I find a lot of people want things to be better, they want to do better, but they don’t have the tools or alternative language to get there. Once you give them that, they’re like, “Oh, okay, yeah, I can do that.”

T.L. Taylor Watch Me Play book cover

 

This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.

Featured image: T. L. Taylor. Photograph by Bryce Vickmark

Carolyn Dever: Birth of a Queer Parent

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

By virtue of their youth, trans and queer kids offer something new. Coming out today is less exclusively a narrative of young adulthood or middle age, and increasingly an experience of childhood or early adolescence. When kids embrace models of social identity newly available to their generation, the parents who love and care for them confront new forms of obligation, and even new forms of agency: with every queer child is born a queer parent.

But queer parenting doesn’t exist on its own. Queer parenting also means precarity parenting, as families face down a fragmented and insufficient system of supports while they attempt to optimize the conditions for their kids’ success. Queer identity and economic precarity have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood together.

Parents hold in their hands the capacity to reshape core concepts of social identity, a fact that runs directly counter to the understanding of the family as inherently conservative. In fact, parents make choices every day about how to raise their kids. Those choices are sensitive to the social and economic incentives that translate into opportunities for children to survive and thrive. Because their LGBTQ kids have changed the narrative of childhood gender and sexuality, parents find themselves at the live edge of social transformation.

Today, queer children and teenagers can be out and proud from a very early age. According to sociologist Mary Robertson, queerness offers kids the chance to express a range of nonnormative ways of being: capturing a rich mix of gender identity and sexuality, race and class, ability, and educational and work opportunities.[1.Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity (NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.] That fact is transformative to their families of origin, and from there outward to the conceptual contours of normative identity. One by one, and collectively, queer families demonstrate the futility of any effort to “erase” trans and queer identities.

Queer Parents and Social Agency

“It is rare to have an opportunity to watch an emergent social category in formation,” writes sociologist Tey Meadow in the landmark study Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century. Only in the last decade or so has gender nonconformity emerged as a serious challenge to the normative bureaucratic institutions that form children’s identities: doctor’s offices, schools, and social services; shops, dressing rooms, and bathrooms; proms and playing fields.

This represents the dramatic reorientation of gender identity from a fact of anatomy—it’s a girl!—to a private psychic expression particular to an individual, evolving uniquely over time within the life of each person. In Meadow’s eyes, this marks not a post-gender moment, when gender no longer matters, but gender’s proliferation: not the failure of a child to conform with one of two categories of gender identity, but the failure of categories themselves to capture the full diversity of gender expressions.

If gender nonconformity emerges not as the failure of gender but as its form, the parents of queer little kids become agents poised to dismantle the traditional sex/gender system. Meadow writes: “Parents are becoming ever more likely to fight for a child’s chosen identity, to contest the labeling practices of others, to engage in more directed interpersonal work to assist children in further articulating a discrete identity, to purchase clothing and toys that reinforce that identity, and to enlist social institutions in identity creation and maintenance.” Families operate alongside courts, schools, and the medical establishment as institutions that regulate normative categories of gender and sexuality in kids.

But in the past decade, administrative processes within such institutions have begun to adapt. Social shifts in understanding gender as psychological rather than anatomical have enabled parents to adopt modes of agency and advocacy on behalf of their kids. For many families this agency emerges in the context of vulnerability to state interventions that both reflect and exacerbate inequality.

The state is an active participant in the work of gendering, in both positive and negative ways: “On the one hand, the state confers recognition, in the form of legal name changes and gender changes, antidiscrimination protections, and disability rights paradigms (which can be particularly useful in schools). In this way, we can see gender as a resource distributed by the state. On the other hand, the state also both regulates and punishes deviance.”

At the same time as families are learning to manage state interventions in their kids’ gender nonconformity, they are increasingly exposed to the economic precarity that is in part a function of post-recession instabilities. On both fronts, the cold jaws of social and economic inequality loom, threatening to snap down and trap young kids for life.

Precarity and Parental Agency

When inequality is high, helicopter parents launch. When families are vulnerable to discrimination or poverty, ferocious parental ingenuity kicks in. And when social gains are available to a select few, parents will do whatever they can to ensure that their kids are prepared to benefit. Families and parenting are changing in more ways than one.

Parents parent differently in response to incentives and opportunities. In those areas of the globe that have witnessed the rise of income inequality over the last half century, parenting strategies have changed dramatically. Parents adapt their styles and strategies in order to optimize their kids’ opportunities—for survival, for success, for happiness—on a ladder of achievement that is increasingly perilous.

“The story often told about financial success in America is that slow and steady saving over a lifetime, combined with consistent hard work and a little luck, will ensure financial security, a comfortable retirement, and better opportunities for one’s children,” write Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider in The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty. Yet the lived experiences of families shred this myth, revealing instead an often silent precarity that Morduch and Schneider describe as “America’s hidden inequality.”

For generations, most families have not seen themselves reflected in the mirror of America’s dream. Surely “American’s hidden inequality” was not so very hidden to families of color, nor to queer or single-parent or poor households, nor to anyone outside the great mythology of aspiration. Indeed, the mechanics of parental aspiration in the US today are an outcome of decades and centuries of resourcefulness from families “other” to the normative middle-class ideal.

What has changed? Precarity is now a daily feature of the white, middle-class experience. Developments in technology and human capital distribution since the 1970s have extended financial fragility, and all its social implications, even more broadly. As Morduch and Schneider tell the story, the “Great Job Shift” of the last half century transferred risk from employers to workers, and power from workers to employers. Today, many workers lack a paycheck that is steady, predictable, and sufficient to meet basic needs—a development extended to US federal employees and contractors during the “Trump shutdown.”

Poor families earn less. But they are also subject to brutal income volatility, to unpredictable cycles of earning and expenses. Such vulnerability is increasingly common in the context of rising informality of working arrangements—unpredictable shift work, freelancers replacing full-timers, gig workers patching together a quilt of sidelines—that preserve all flexibility for the employer at the expense of the employed. Income volatility in turn produces extreme vulnerability to the cyclical needs of kids, such as childcare, school supplies, medicine, new shoes … college.

Critical events such as car or health problems are then devastating—though in many cases, vulnerability results in great creativity: “The families we met had developed a range of strategies for managing their cash-flow challenges, as well as for balancing their longer-term goals with their immediate and near-term financial needs … The strategies were often thoughtful and creative, helping families preserve their resources for their highest priorities.” Absent a social safety net, ingenuity makes a virtue of necessity.

It’s about cash-flow management. Programs that rethink the temporality of savings—emphasizing needs emerging sooner rather than later—can help families manage the peaks and valleys of unpredictable income. Strategies of borrowing and sharing among broader communities can insulate individual households from vulnerability, and also create a network of affective bonds: “Social meanings matter to households’ long-term financial decisions and even their day-to-day cash flows. Money is more than a symbol of financial worth, and people rarely make financial decisions based purely on math. Instead, money can be a way that people structure their choices and express their values.”

With ingenuity comes a rewriting of the rigid conventions of social identity associated with the “American dream.” At stake is survival in an inhospitable social field, rather than loyalty to a status quo that has come to strip most people of the capacity to thrive. Inequality, suggest Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti in Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, has a powerful shaping force on the choices parents make, and how parents interact with their kids. Developmental psychologists generally understand three distinct approaches to parenting style: authoritarian, or strict and controlling; permissive, or oriented toward children’s independence; and a more hybrid approach, authoritative, based in reason and the development of values.[2.Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind.]

Doepke and Zilibotti’s study asks why parents adopt a particular parenting strategy. What are the sensitivities that shape parental agency? And what strategies are most effective given the constraints and opportunities facing a family?

When inequality is high, intensive parenting styles—think helicopter parents or stereotypical Asian American tiger moms who take the authoritarian approach—undergird aspirations for upward mobility. In cultures with a flatter social terrain, greater equity among schools and universities, and a reliable social safety net, more permissive or laissez-faire parenting styles prevail. “When it comes to parenting,” write Doepke and Zilibotti, “incentives matter big time.” In a country like the United States, which has witnessed dramatic increases in inequality over the past 30 years, parenting has changed dramatically in turn: “Tiger and helicopter parenting grew increasingly popular just when inequality rose sharply.”

Based on those incentives, parents exercise extraordinary agency in the choices they make for their children. There is a direct correlation, Doepke and Zilibotti demonstrate, between prosperity and access to the full repertoire of choices available to parents, and between the stress of precarity or poverty and the social limits of parenting. All well-meaning parents “attempt to do what it takes to get their children to succeed, given the economic conditions in play.” Yet, in the authors’ words, the “parenting gap” in resources can turn into a “parenting trap” in outcomes, requiring ever more ingenuity and assertive action.

Economic conditions of the 21st century have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood and introduced new roadblocks on the way to security and prosperity for children. The social constraints of parental identity evolve in turn as parents invent and use new tools in their aspirational pursuits.

Queer Parenting, Precarity Parenting

What does it mean for kids to not just survive but thrive? To what social conventions are parents beholden when they act on behalf of their children’s futures?

In light of dramatic changes in social conventions of gender and sexuality, what it means to set a kid up for happiness looks different than it used to. Parents make choices on behalf of the well-being of their children every day, choices that are often creative or unconventional, and that are almost always deeply personal. Parents emerge as gender warriors when social possibilities of gendered identity begin to expand, and the health and prosperity of their trans kids depends on finding a place to thrive within that world.

Yet for those gender warriors, it’s early days. Within the ethnographic study that produced Trans Kids, Meadow’s own gender nonconformity and the identities of the study’s subjects remained a persistent topic of negotiation and scrutiny. Meadow describes “a peculiar kind of carnal sociology,” with the investigator’s identity clearly also in the mix. “Others’ reactions to my gender,” Meadow writes, “their assumptions, discomforts, and interests became an embodied ethnographic project. It was in these self-conscious moments that I believe I came closest to knowing the gender nonconforming child, by which I mean living the experience of having one’s body and identity be the object of a particular type of searching gaze, one tinged with worry, fear, expectation, sometimes hope.”

Subject to hyper-scrutiny, trans kids embody a charged form of epistemological uncertainty. It’s up to their parents to translate such a perceived instability at the core of a child’s self into a successful form of social identity—and by doing so, to support that child’s capacity to survive and thrive.

Parents, writes Meadow, “became ‘radical translators’ of the gender order; they leveraged gender expertise gleaned from the fields of education, psychology, medicine, and politics to convert their child’s subjective self-understandings into socially sanctioned forms of identity and personhood. At the same time, they engaged in tremendous emotional labor to present themselves, the primary conduits of expert knowledge, in ways that were culturally assimilable to the people who ran institutions.” Meadow maps various models of parent activism, including work to gain institutional access for children who transition from one category to another, and more radical work to expand the “constellation of options for childhood gender overall.”

If parents are the radical translators of the gender order, they are also the translators of the economic order: queer parenting and precarity parenting both recognize the prescriptive social order even as they work to loosen or undo its shaping power over children’s lives. Activist parents share a need to mitigate emotional and material risks, remaining inside normative social identities even as they attempt to change them: “From engaging in the gathering and tracking of evidentiary support for their parenting practices, to developing nuanced vocabularies for communicating with children and other adults, to the monitoring of their child’s expressive conduct in public, assessing and responding to uncertainty became an automatic feature of how they parented.”

There are few role models for trans kids’ adult identities: “Older transgender people,” writes Meadow, “did not have the same kinds of transitions as contemporary trans youth,” because social discourses of gender (non)conformity have gradually moved backward into childhood. It’s a moon shot for parents fighting for a future for their gender-nonconforming kids, creating social space and personhood in a way that has never before existed. The social category of trans youth is truly new to this generation. It has emerged against the backdrop of a modern economic order in which the stakes of inequality are sharper every year.

“These families are dismantling the sex/gender system as we know it,” writes Meadow. Theirs is a 21st-century story of modernity, told against the backdrop of inequality and uncertainty. It is also a story of agency, with a child’s future happiness and prosperity at stake. Moved by social and economic incentives, parents who were once gatekeepers of the status quo have stepped forward as agents of its potential transformation.

Featured image: Mother and Child (2018). Photograph by Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash. 

  1. Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity(NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.
  2. Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.

Princeton University Press Partnership with Public Books

Princeton University Press is pleased to announce that we have entered into a nonexclusive partnership with Public Books to reprint an ongoing series of essays containing press-related content to be featured concurrently on our respective sites. Princeton University Press publishes peer-reviewed books that connect authors and readers across spheres of knowledge to advance and enrich the global conversation, and embrace the highest standards of scholarship, inclusivity, and diversity. Public Books unites the best of the university with the openness of the internet. The digital magazine was founded in 2012 by Princeton University Press authors Sharon Marcus, a literature professor, and Caitlin Zaloom, an anthropologist. Their mission was simple: to publish essays and interviews that are erudite without being esoteric and brings scholarly depth to discussions of contemporary art, ideas, and politics.

Public Books began with these precepts: that experts who devote their lives to mastering their subjects need to be heard. That it is desirable for academics to speak to a broader audience, and exciting for readers outside of the academy to debate what scholars have to say. Most importantly, that boundaries between disciplines and ways of knowing deserve to be bridged—and that barriers between the academy and the public deserve to be broken.

Princeton University Press and Public Books share a commitment to bringing scholarly ideas to the world. We look forward to promoting exciting content that speaks to this mission in the Ideas section of our new website, launching later this month. 

Inaugural essays from this partnership can be found here and here. Future contributions will be found in the new Ideas section of our redesigned website, launching soon.

Public Thinker: Issa Kohler-Hausmann on Misdemeanors and Mass Incarceration

Issa-Kohler-Hausmann

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this new interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.

While most critics of the American criminal justice system condemn mass incarceration, fewer have turned a critical eye to practices that result in punishment other than imprisonment. In Misdemeanorland: Criminal Courts and Social Control in an Age of Broken Windows Policing, Issa Kohler-Hausmann argues that we must understand non-carceral policing and punishment in order to fully appreciate the reach of the American criminal justice system.

She focuses on the rapid expansion of these practices in New York City during the early 1990s, following the introduction of a new policing regime targeting allegedly disorderly conditions throughout the city. While felony cases had outpaced misdemeanor ones in the city’s criminal courts prior to the implementation of this regime, misdemeanors—and especially crimes like possessing marijuana or jumping the subway turnstiles—increased dramatically and far outpaced felonies from the mid-1990s to the present.

This growth in misdemeanor arraignments, Kohler-Hausmann observes, has produced a new model of criminal law administration. Rather than turning on questions of guilt or innocence, the “managerial model” uses criminal records, procedural hassles, and behavioral evaluation to achieve social control over the tens of thousands of people annually ensnared by the city’s misdemeanor courts. These practices disproportionately burden low-income communities of color, but imprisonment or even formal convictions are rare.

Kohler-Hausmann is an associate professor of law and sociology at Yale University. In May, we met at a café near Washington Square Park to discuss her new book, the legacy of Broken Windows policing, and the politics of criminal justice reform. The interview lasted an hour and has been significantly edited for length, clarity, and precision.


Jackson Smith (JS): Most of the infractions adjudicated in “misdemeanorland” are not violent, but violent crime does appear to haunt misdemeanorland. As you note in the book, it is at the core of the Broken Windows theory of policing. Could you speak to how conceptions of violent crime shape misdemeanorland, even if violent crime is not what is being adjudicated there?

Issa Kohler-Hausmann (IK): Haunting is a great way of putting it. Violent crime haunts misdemeanorland in a couple of ways. First, policing is concentrated in spaces with more crime. The police will always say that and they are mostly right. I don’t think that necessarily answers the fairness question, or the justice question, but let’s just say for the sake of argument that this is true. The important thing to remember is that what Broken Windows policing is doing is essentially casting a very, very wide net over those spaces and essentially asking everyone who is hauled in to prove that they are not a bad guy. It feels acceptable to have this vast dragnet, because we essentially think it is fair to put the burden on the people who live in high-crime neighborhoods to prove that they are not high-crime people. This is acceptable because they are black and brown people.

The other point is that people will ask, “Well, isn’t it true that this policing diminished serious crime in New York?” The answer is that nobody knows and certainly nobody knows the magnitude and the extent to which this may be true. You also have to think about the mechanism for reducing crime. Is it by virtue of bringing in a lot of people for misdemeanors? By definition, somebody who is arrested for a misdemeanor is not arrested for a felony. If they stopped you for smoking weed and found a gun on you, your top arrest card would be a felony, not a misdemeanor.

The idea is to arrest a lot of people who might grow up to be serious felons, but the mechanism has always been a little unclear to me. The data that I show in the book is that very few of the people arrested for misdemeanors end up with a violent felony conviction after a number of years. This is unsurprising given that we were arresting 100,000–150,000 people at the height of it—that would be a lot of people who would become serious felons.

JS: The first part of your book outlines how and why misdemeanor arraignments reached those peaks of 100,000–150,000 per year in New York City during the 1990s. You trace what you call the “managerial model” of criminal court adjudication back to the rise of Broken Windows policing, but also to the limits of the due process revolution. What can the rise of mass misdemeanors tell us about the unintended consequences of such policy reforms?

IK: What is interesting about misdemeanorland is that the whole thing was sort of unintended, but there were theoretical tenets that underspinned the Broken Windows policing experiment. First, the theory says that people inherently care about disorder, and they might care about it just as much as—if not more than—serious violent crime. Second, it says that there is a developmental sequence between tolerating low-level disorder and the conditions under which serious street crime and violent crimes flourish. The claim is that if you enforce basic norms of civility, people will not think that they have a license to do very serious things.

But no one seemed to give any thought whatsoever to what would happen if you essentially doubled the volume of human bodies moving through a system that is supposed to do adjudicatory work. This system is charged with using the pretty finicky rules of criminal procedure that were established in the due process revolution. It turns out those processes are costly. They involve using resources and time, and people are always going to look for ways not to use resources and time—especially if they are overburdened.

So it was interesting to me to not see any real forethought as to what might happen or even what should happen to these cases. I have not seen anyone write about people who piss on the sidewalk, jump the turnstile, take candy bars from bodegas, walk into buildings that they are not authorized to walk into, or have small amounts of narcotics or marijuana. The people charged with actually doing something with these cases had to make a series of adjustments. They had to solve a series of problems—basically, what do I do with all these cases when I can’t actually adjudicate them? I can’t actually use the rules of criminal procedure to properly figure out if this person did in fact piss on the sidewalk, jump the turnstile, take the candy bar from the bodega, or push or harm or strangle or threaten to hurt this person. It turns out that instead of figuring out if it happened in the past, they could use a series of tools to try to figure out if they think it is likely to happen again in the future.

JS: That temporal orientation is very interesting to me. The penal law looks backwards, as you note in the book, but the “managerial model” evaluates a defendant’s future behavior. This struck me as consistent with the temporality of policing, which also looks forward to essentially safeguard public order. Did the increase in misdemeanor arrests entail a “police-ification” of the lower criminal courts? To what extent does policing dictate the terms of engagement in misdemeanorland?

IK: This is why I spent extended time in the first part of the book talking about the logic of Broken Windows policing. The “managerial model” was an acceptable solution to the daily problems faced by legal actors, because it was quite contiguous with and complementary to the policing model that generated it. It is an ingenious set of answers for dealing with all those cases in a way that did not create conflict with the organization sending you all those cases. It actually vindicated the very logic of that organization. For example, you are a young black man in a high-crime neighborhood, you are smoking weed, or maybe I just put my hands in your pocket and found weed. I don’t know what you are up to, so I demand that you come into this space and prove to me that you are not up to no good. That logic is entirely consistent with the policing model, as you said.

JS: I want to switch directions now to discuss the role of fees and fines in misdemeanorland, as my own research concerns the role of money in what you call “non-carceral criminal justice encounters.” There is a popular understanding that fees and fines reveal a hidden profit motive. Your research complicates that narrative, however, because the immense volume of misdemeanor arraignments also entails an immense public cost. It costs a lot of money to cast that very wide net. Moreover, the lack of public resources apportioned to misdemeanor courts casts doubt on this idea that fees and fines are purely motivated by profit—the costs appear to outpace any revenue generated. In lieu of a profit motive, what can your concepts of “procedural hassle” and “performance” tell us about the logic of misdemeanor fees and fines? Is there something like an austerity logic operative here, such that defendants and their communities are made to bear the costs and responsibilities for their own punishment?

IK: The symbolic logic of profit might be there, but that doesn’t mean it is effective. It is very important to realize this disconnect. That is not to say that it is not punitive, unfair, and burden-shifting. It is certainly a regressive tax on the poorest communities, because the most heavily policed places are where you are going to find infractions like dogs not wearing a leash and public consumption of alcohol, because it is exactly in those places that you have the most police officers wandering around seeing those things. As we know, there is a hell of a lot of Sauvignon Blanc sipping in Prospect Park and very few summonses being issued there. But I think you are right to question this fiscal motive.

As the name of a great article says, you can’t get blood from a stone.[1.See Alexes Harris, Heather Evans, and Katherine Beckett, “Drawing Blood from Stones: Legal Debt and Social Inequality in the Contemporary United States,” AJS, vol. 115, no. 6 (May 2010).] The number one conviction in New York City for decades has been disorderly conduct. Disorderly conduct entails a mandatory court surcharge of $120. I would be shocked if more than 30 percent can or do pay it. If you refuse to pay and there is a finding that you are willfully refusing to pay, you could be subject to jail time, but usually what happens is that civil judgment is entered and civil judgment basically just ruins people’s credit. What we are essentially doing is ruining the credit of people who are already impoverished. It is a really stupid thing to do, but it is not successfully getting blood from a stone. We are saying, “We’re not going to pay for courts; you have to pay for them.” But we end up entangling people in a web of debt, a web of being out-of-compliance with legal rules and orders. We push you further outside the boundary of civic inclusiveness and make you an outlaw, make you out of compliance, and express that you are not a deserving taker of state services. You are a special type of person that does not even deserve the standard things of the state.

JS: Many of the problems in misdemeanorland that you identify throughout your book stem from the outsized power of prosecutors, so I am curious what you make of the nationwide movement to elect progressive prosecutors in local jurisdictions. Do you see it having any impact on what happens in misdemeanorland?

IK: What I say about prosecutors is a line I read somewhere about it being more power than a bad man should have or a good man should want. Once people are given power they tend to think they are the right ones to have it. Very few people in power think, “You know what, I should have some of my discretion taken from me.”

Take [New York County District Attorney] Cy Vance. Here is a guy who for years had probably the most punitive offer policies in the five boroughs. According to my estimates, you had a higher probability of being convicted and going to jail for turnstile jumping in Manhattan than in any other borough. He is now claiming that he will decline to prosecute those cases, which is great. But he is fighting tooth and nail against discovery reform, which would actually give leverage to the other side. In terms of legal reform, we need to give more leverage points to defense attorneys. Prosecutors who fight against that don’t get to call themselves progressive.

Having said that, does the view of the person in power matter? Of course it matters, so I am happy that there is light on this because, as we know, district attorney races have been largely uncontested.

JS: On that note, what is your appraisal of the broader movement for criminal justice reform?

IK: I am often leery of our newfound alliance with the Right on Crime people. What we have in places like Brownsville is the thoroughly anticipated upshot of hundreds of years of racial injustice and a deeply unequal economic system that actually does not care about people who have been left behind. What we need is a huge investment in fundamentally rupturing intergenerational poverty. That is where we are going to part ways with the Right on Crime people, because it is not going to be cheaper and might even be more expensive. Ultimately, we need a Marshall Plan for the ghetto. We need to be willing to put in massive amounts of resources into addressing the very real social problems in many of the heavily policed spaces.

Crime is a real problem because violence disproportionally affects the most vulnerable communities, mainly low-income and minority communities. Violence is a terrible intergenerational harm, and we need to start by recognizing that. But that is why we need to simultaneously be fighting for distributive justice, a union movement, school reform, and the basic social good. Because those are social controls, they are just the benign ones that we think are good.

 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.

Kieran Setiya: Idleness as Flourishing

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

It is hard work to write a book, so there is unavoidable irony in fashioning a volume on the value of being idle. There is a paradox, too: to praise idleness is to suggest that there is some point to it, that wasting time is not a waste of time. Paradox infuses the experience of being idle. Rapturous relaxation can be difficult to distinguish from melancholy. When the academic year comes to an end, I find myself sprawled on the couch, re-watching old episodes of British comedy panel shows on a loop. I cannot tell if I am depressed or taking an indulgent break. As Samuel Johnson wrote: “Every man is, or hopes to be, an Idler.”[1.Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4.] As he also wrote: “There are … miseries in idleness, which the Idler only can conceive.”[2.Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11.]

This year brings three new books in praise of wasting time: a manifesto by MIT professor Alan Lightman; a critical history by philosopher Brian O’Connor; and a memoir by essayist Patricia Hampl. Each author finds a way to write in the spirit of idleness. Yet none of them quite resolves our double vision. Even as they bring its value into focus, they never shake a shadow image of the shame in being idle.

Why idleness now? Because we are too busy, too frantic; because of the felt acceleration of time. Lightman supplies a measure. “Throughout history,” he writes, “the pace of life has always been fueled by the speed of communication.”

When the telegraph was invented in the nineteenth century, information could be transmitted at the rate of about four bits per second. By 1985, near the beginnings of the public Internet, the rate was about a thousand bits per second. Today, the rate is about one billion bits per second.

We are in principle accessible anywhere, at any time; we can be texted, emailed, tagged: “The world today is faster, more scheduled, more fragmented, less patient, louder, more wired, more public.” There is not enough downtime. So Lightman argues in his brisk, persuasive essay. His snapshots of the relevant social science portray the grim effects of over-connection in our digital age: young people are more stressed, more prone to depression, less creative, more lonely but never really alone. Our time is ruthlessly graphed into efficient units. The walking speed of pedestrians in 32 cities increased by 10 percent from 1995 to 2005.

With its brief chapters and bright illustrations, Lightman’s book is itself well-designed for the attention deficits of the internet era, perfect for the postliterate teenager or the busy executive with only an hour to spare. It makes an elegant case for downtime: unstructured and undistracted, time to experiment and introspect. For Lightman, this is the kind of time-wasting that is not a waste of time. It augments creativity, which draws on undirected or “divergent” thinking. It replenishes and repairs us. And it gives us space in which to find ourselves.

Lightman’s definition of “wasting time” as undirected introspection is deliberately tendentious. The phrase could just as well describe the smartphone addict playing Angry Birds. Ironically, one of the most intriguing studies in Lightman’s book concerns the positive impact of trivial games. Asked to come up with new business ideas, people who were forced to procrastinate with Minesweeper or Solitaire for several minutes were “noticeably more creative.” Lightman does not pause to ask whether this effect can be scaled up. (I pushed it pretty far myself in graduate school, with mixed results.) But he offers a suggestive catalog of artists and scientists whose best ideas arrived when they were staring at a wall.

Lightman ends with concrete, practical prescriptions: 10-minute silences during school days, “introspective” college courses that give students more time to reflect, electronics-free rooms at work, unplugged hours at home. The changes are not radical and leave intact the media ecology in which we are to live. “It is within the power of each of us as individuals,” Lightman writes, “to make changes in our way of living to restore our inner lives. … With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time.”

Perhaps it is modesty, or realism, that prevents Lightman from seeking social remedies for a social problem. In the short term, he suggests, we have to work on ourselves: a conservative therapy for what ails us. Lightman’s apology for wasting time is conservative in other ways, too. He celebrates not downtime itself but its instrumental value, its usefulness as a means to integrity and achievement. Lightman cites psychologist Abraham Maslow on two forms of creativity: the kind that involves an artistic escape from stress and the kind that fuels “‘self-actualization,’ the desire to become the best we can be.” For Lightman,

there is a kind of necessary homeostasis of the mind: not a static equilibrium but a dynamic equilibrium in which we are constantly examining, testing, and replenishing our mental system, constantly securing the mental membrane between ourselves and the external world, constantly reorganizing and affirming ourselves.

If this is wasting time, who has the energy for it?

Not Brian O’Connor, who makes bolder, larger claims on behalf of being idle. Idleness flouts the prevailing social order and the conception of autonomy as arduous self-fashioning that Lightman and Maslow share. O’Connor traces the exhausting project of self-constitution to Kant and Hegel, through Karl Marx. What Lightman depicts as the ultimate purpose of wasting time, O’Connor sees as an alien imposition, an order issued without authority. Modern philosophy instructs us to make something of ourselves, but it has no right to tell us what to do, and its edicts are appropriated by societies that make exorbitant demands for work, tie recognition to material success, and exalt the individual at the cost of real community. For O’Connor, idleness is indifference to productive work and social prestige; it rejects the need for guiding purpose or self-formation. He adds to the acknowledged benefits of downtime its value as social critique.

Although O’Connor’s book has a guiding purpose, it nonetheless stays true to the ethos of idling. For the most part, O’Connor is content to answer the case against idleness made by its philosophical critics, not to argue for idleness itself. The burden of proof is placed on the opponents of being idle, who must work to convince the idler he is wrong. The idler’s objections are appropriately laconic.

O’Connor’s principal antagonist is Kant, who argues that we must make every choice as if we were legislating for all, and that we have a consequent duty to develop our talents. Scholars may query O’Connor’s interpretation of Kant as drawing on “that special feeling of worthiness” that comes from being useful to society. But even if he is wrong about this, O’Connor is right to find in Kant a vision of freedom as responsibility, of autonomy as work: the daunting project of determining how to be. For Kant, freedom requires one to live by principles one can will as laws for every rational being. One must bring this severe ambition to everything one does; only then is one entitled to be happy. “It is,” O’Connor writes, “a profound theoretical justification of an idea that has now become commonplace: that a life worth living is one marked by effort and achievement.” The idea that a good life calls for onerous self-creation fuels Nietzsche’s injunction to “become who you are” and Sartre’s existentialism.

Marx is a more difficult customer, since his emphasis on the alienation of labor under capitalism could easily be read as a critique of work. In fact, it is a call for the transformation of work into new, authentic forms. Marx’s idea of alienation was developed by Herbert Marcuse, the closest O’Connor gets to an intellectual ally. For Marcuse, alienation involves the internalization of goals that have nothing to do with what we really want. In order to function, contemporary society requires its members to be alienated in this way. What O’Connor finds suspicious in both Marx and Marcuse is the desire to solve the problems of alienation by changing the nature of work, rather than putting it in its place. Describing the conditions of work under communism, Marx writes: “What appears as a sacrifice of rest may also be called a sacrifice of idleness, of unfreedom, of unhappiness.” Marcuse strives instead for a synthesis of work and play.

O’Connor sees no hope of reconciling labor with leisure. Where Marx wants to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner,” O’Connor wonders why he can’t just take a nap.[3.Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185.] Work needs to be transformed, but even after its transformation, it should not be our model of meaning in life and it cannot subsume the value of being idle. Idleness is freedom not just from alienated labor, but from the pressures of autonomy and authenticity. It is another mode of flourishing, against which the lure of striving and success should seem, at best, a lifestyle choice.

What O’Connor’s provocations miss is that for Kant, and for Sartre, the responsibility for oneself that defines autonomy is at the same time a responsibility to others. It is one thing to slack off when I could develop my talents; that is no one’s problem but my own. It is another to be idle in the face of urgent need, and so to be indifferent to suffering. John Berger wrote: “On this earth there is no happiness without a longing for justice.”[4.John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (Verso, 2007), p. 102.] It has been an aspiration of philosophers since Plato to show that this is true. An adequate defense of idleness would have to address that aspiration, to assuage the idler’s guilt. I may not owe it to myself to strain and struggle, but don’t I owe it to you?

Ironically, the work that most directly confronts the tension between idleness and ethical responsibility is neither a manifesto nor a monograph, but an essay in the spirit of Montaigne. Like Montaigne, Patricia Hampl is moved to reflect by grief and writes in conversation with someone she has lost. Like Montaigne, she rates description over narrative. And like Montaigne, she is willing to meander. Framed by a pilgrimage to Montaigne’s tower near Bordeaux, Hampl’s book does not arrive at his estate for more than two hundred pages and stops at its destination for a perfunctory eight. On the way, it pays visits to the homes of authors, saints, and scientists who embraced idleness by retiring from the world.

The most memorable are two Anglo-Irish women, Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, who eloped together unsuccessfully, disguised as men, in 1778. Returned to their homes, they wore their families down and were permitted to leave together two months later, setting up a cottage in Llangollen, Wales, where they lived on their limited family income, reading books, writing letters, and tending their garden, “famous for wishing to be left alone.” They were visited by celebrities from Shelley and Byron to the Duke of Wellington and Sir Walter Scott.

What the Ladies of Llangollen have in common with Montaigne is a strategy of “[retreat] during ages of political mayhem,” in their case the French Revolution, in his the Reformation. Today, many of us may also feel tempted to retreat. The way of life the Ladies called “our System,” with its monastic regularity and disdain for social expectations, is subversively attractive. Like Montaigne’s essays, it assures us that “the littleness of personhood is somewhere alive, taking its notes,” that it is okay to “enjoy yourself in the littleness of the moment” when the narrative of history goes awry. Withdrawal is not defeat. And if it is irresponsible to withdraw completely, doing so has a point. The limit cases of Montaigne or Ponsonby and Butler, whose idleness did not serve some further goal, show that wasting time is worthwhile in itself. This is what we see in the model their lives present even if, in the face of our obligations to others, it is not a model for us.

It may not even be a model for them. At the end of her book, Hampl quotes a passage from Montaigne: “We say; ‘I have done nothing today.’ What, have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations … He says this in his Essai titled—what else?—‘On Idleness.’” Except he doesn’t. The quotation is from the sprawling essay “Of Experience,” with which the Essays close. “Of Idleness” is an earlier piece, a distillation of self-doubt in which Montaigne indicts his enterprise: “The soul that has no fixed goal loses itself.” If he commits his extravagances to paper, he writes, it is in order “to make my mind ashamed of itself.”[5.Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21.]

Like Montaigne, who played a diffident but competent role in politics—he was mayor of Bordeaux—most of us forge a rotten compromise between idleness and industry. What else can we do? We see the flourishing of life in the little moments, as we see the scale of its shirked responsibilities. To manage our ambivalence is necessary work.

  1. Samuel Johnson, The Idler, no. 1, April 15, 1758; reprinted in The Idler and The Adventurer, edited by W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt, and L. F. Powell (Yale University Press, 1963), pp. 3–4. 
  2. Johnson, The Idler, no. 3, April 29, 1758; in The Idler and The Adventurer, p. 11. 
  3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, translated from the German by Salo Ryazanskaya, in Karl Marx: Selected Writings, 2nd ed., edited by David McClellan (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 185. 
  4. John Berger, Hold Everything Dear(Verso, 2007), p. 102. 
  5. Michel de Montaigne, “On Idleness,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, translated from the French by Donald M. Frame (Stanford University Press, 1958), p. 21. 

Featured image: Paul Cézanne, The Large Bathers (1900–1906). Oil on canvas, 6 feet 10 7/8 inches × 8 feet 2 3/4 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, Reasons without Rationalism (Princeton) and Knowing Right from Wrong. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with his wife and son.

Idleness: A Philosophical Essay by Brian O’Connor is available here.