Female or Male, You People Trying to 'Have It All' Are Seriously Creeping Out The Rest of Us

Anne-Marie Slaughter's new piece in The Atlantic about how women cannot "have it all" has provoked a wave of commentary, but none that I have seen has mentioned the article's clearest, if unstated, point. It is right there, in the opening: Slaughter, a former high State Department official, begins with herself on the job, at the United Nations, meeting foreign dignitaries and sipping champagne at a reception hosted by President Obama. But her mind is not on her diplomatic work, because she's thinking about her royal pain of a 14-year-old son, who's messing up in school, failing math, and not speaking to her. Oh, my, I thought: Mother certainly has had her revenge. And then it occurred to me that matters may actually be uglier: Maybe Slaughter genuinely believes she isn't engaged in payback. Maybe, like a good technocrat, she just decided to write the best possible article, and too bad for the cost.

I don't know Slaughter's son's name, but I'm sure finding it would be a 10-second Google chore. (Yep. Just did it.) His mother being who she is, and The Atlantic being what it is, he is now marked for life. Did she spring that surprise on him? Or did she tell him, in that tough-but-fair State Department style used to criticize dictators we used to support, that the downside of writing up his troubles was outweighed by the good it would do? I don't know, but I bet he wishes his parents had just taken away his iPhone. And I think his embarrassment is relevant to any evaluation of Slaughter's argument.

Here is why: Slaughter is fed up with the mythology that women can and should "have it all," by which she means the maddeningly glib chatter to the effect that it is and should have been possible for her to have gone on "juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teen-age boys." Meticulously, she dissects the myth. But her proposals for change are all about the process of "high-level" work. The content of work at the top of our meritocracy doesn't trouble her.

So, she writes, people should be able to work from home more. And long hours for the sake of long hours? An unnecessary trap.

All true enough. But Slaughter also makes it clear that she is a total professional, committed to the standards of high-quality American work as practiced by those who have reached the top of our corporations, businesses, media, law firms and so on. She wants to make professionalism easier for women (and for men who respect their family commitments) but she gives no thought to the possibility that professionalism itself—not the way it is managed and scheduled—is part of the problem.

Instead, she reassures current and future patrons that she's no rocker of boats. Don't worry, her piece tells them. I still teach a full course load and give a lot of speeches. Yes, I permit myself to doubt the ethos that says it was OK for Richard Holbrooke to miss much of his son's childhood because he was out saving the world. And I'll give a shout out to politicians who take seriously the impact of their work on their families. But I'll still stay until dawn when it must be done: "Being willing to put the time in when the job simply has to get done is rightfully a hallmark of a successful professional." Where is the moment where she wonders if the job really does have to get done? Whether it is, in fact, really essential?

There is nothing in the article to suggest that there is anything wrong with the nation's high achievers, those "successful professionals" in diplomacy, law, academia, media, business and other perches of power and/or money. And, that, to me, is its fatal weakness. Because the inhumanity and brutishness of so many professional lives doesn't derive from scheduling complications and a culture of long hours. The miseries derive from professionalism itself.

This is why I think Slaughter's choice to use her son is relevant. The story made for a terrific lead to her piece—specific, engaging, and memorable. It may well be true that her article would have been less effective without it. From the point of view of the profession (American journalism, thinky-magazine division) she made the right choice.

But, seriously, throwing her son's adolescence out there for the world to chew over? Icky. Suppose she had said to herself, this is the best anecdote to start my piece—but I can't do it. If she had made that choice, she would have been unprofessional, in that she would have made her work less effective, for an emotional reason that had nothing to do with its strictures. I can only read her article, not her mind, but I certainly left with a strong impression that she didn't weigh that possibility. Slaughter may want to work at home some days, but she's still a professional.

Please don't think this example is contrived or far-fetched. In my journalistic career, I have stumbled onto moments of unexpected intimacy and vulnerability, when people opened up to me and made revelations they never intended. I didn't use them in the articles in which they could have appeared. In each instance, I refrained because I felt that the heartache and pain I'd unveiled would be redoubled by publication. And what would be the benefit? Readers would be impressed for a few seconds before they flipped to the department-store ads. "It's just a magazine article," I thought. "It's not worth adding to the sum total of human misery."

I've had similar thoughts when I worked as a magazine editor. When, for example, the big boss would insist on changing a writer's meaning—because his guiding principle was that the publication should reflect his vision. And the second-in-command would say our job was to do what the boss wanted. I would think, "this writer wants it different, plus she needs the money, and it's just a paragraph. How about we give way here, and let the magazine be less polished but more honest?"

These, I think, were not professional thoughts. They were based on an inchoate hunch that any vision of perfection has no inherent moral value. The worth of the work isn't measured by its perfection relative to other efforts but rather by its consequences in the world. And by that standard a lot of what consummate professionals do in the 21st century is practically worthless. Maybe that's not true of Slaughter's champagne-sipping and hobnobbing at the diplomatic reception—or more generally of work in the State Department. But the question—is this trip necessary?—ought at least to be asked.

In American meritocratic circles, that is an acceptable sentiment if you mean, as Slaughter does, that it's hard to do your best and also make the kids' soccer games. It's not acceptable to mean that maybe, just maybe, today your very best isn't really needed, and may not be worth the pain it causes others.

My guess is that this thought is heresy to the hard-driving people who occupy the pinnacles of American achievement. And I further suspect that, in contrast, it is considered as obvious as sunlight be the rest of their fellow citizens. Which perhaps helps fuel the rage and distrust expressed by Tea Partiers and Occupiers about institutions of business and government.

Slaughter wants to change the circumstances of work so that more women reach the summits of achievement and power. But as long as everyone up there is a consummate professional, their gender isn't going to make a lot of difference. Male or female, they'll still look monsters to the rest of us.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.