MONDAY, JUNE 21, 2021
But do you believe these claims?: We're sorry that we referred to the (additional) essays in question as examples of "dumbnification."
That said, the essays appeared on the front page of the Outlook section in yesterday's Washington Post. Outlook is a very high-profile Sunday section—and we can't say our description was wrong.
One essay was written by Joshua Zeisel, "a clinical psychologist in Winston-Salem, N.C." The other essay—technically, a book review—was written by Emily Balcetis, "an associate professor of psychology at New York University."
Because it forced us to offer this further discussion, we're sorry we used the term "dumbnification." But here's the way the professor started. Do you believe this is true?
BALCETIS (6/20/21): I’ve tried a bunch of strategies to increase my intelligence, and you probably have, too. I’ve made flashcards to memorize the definitions of archaic words. I’ve subscribed to daily crosswords. I’ve eaten avocados and salmon. I studied the French language and had a brief affair with German.
What did I get for it? Mediocre scores on standardized tests. A bunch of unfinished puzzles. Shinier hair. The power to order a coffee and baguette in Paris and come in third place at a karaoke contest in Leipzig. But I can’t say any of those tactics made me noticeably smarter.
Do you believe that's true? Do you believe that this psychology professor has engaged in those strategies in the attempt to make herself smarter?
Has she really tried eating avocados, and making flash cards with archaic words, with that goal in mind? Did she really make these hapless attempts, eventually discovering that nothing worked?
We're not sure we believe that. And it seemed to us that Zeisel's essay started out in a somewhat similar way:
ZEISEL (6/20/21): When I pledged to be a better husband and father, offering to plan our youngest’s 4th birthday party seemed like a good place to start. But as I squinted at the computer screen, trying to assemble a threadbare online invitation and wondering how to find email addresses for all her classmates’ parents, I realized it was going to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated.
The truth is, although I have been a dad for eight years, I’d never taken the lead in planning a birthday party for any of my three kids. I’d never even given these parties much thought. It was always my wife who sent the invitations, ordered the food, decided on the themes (and then redecided when a kid changed their mind a week later). She would sometimes enlist my help on the day of the party—at which point, being the dutiful, feminist husband I believe myself to be, I would gladly help out and feel good about contributing equally to the cause.
Balcetis started out by ruefully reducing herself to the level of the average rube. Zeisel started out portraying himself as a dumbbell too, but he went a bit further.
By that second paragraph, he was already mocking his pre-pandemic belief that he'd been "a dutiful, feminist husband." As he continued, we were asked to believe these further claims about his previous cluelessness:
ZEISEL (continuing directly): The pandemic changed that perception of myself. Yes, I did my share of dishes and laundry. I even cut down my work hours to be home more and helped the kids get set up for distance learning. But I soon realized that even though we both worked full-time outside the home, my wife was doing immensely more “mental labor”—the invisible, logistical tasks that make a household run smoothly, such as scheduling doctor’s visits and making plans for summer child care.
As a clinical psychologist, I was already familiar with this concept in the abstract. Research has shown that in heterosexual, dual-income households, women spend more time thinking about unpaid, family-related matters than men do. Women are also significantly more likely to keep tabs on tasks that need to be completed by both partners and are more likely to issue reminders than men are—a phenomenon I frequently discussed with couples in therapy that was perceived by men to be “nagging” and by women to be necessary because their husbands could not be counted on to do these tasks unless reminded. These roles develop not because of biological predisposition, but rather because women face heightened societal scrutiny and are usually the ones others blame if family tasks are overlooked.
Confident that I wasn’t one of those unsupportive husbands, I shared my observations with my wife one night while I was eating a pint of Ben & Jerry’s on the couch after putting the kids to bed (all by myself, no less!). She burst out laughing, marveling that I was lecturing my clients on mental loads when I didn’t understand how the concept played out in our own household. She rattled off a list of things that hadn’t crossed my mind even once over the course of the year, like acquiring masks for the children and figuring out child care for yet another pandemic summer.
I was dumbstruck. While I thought I was seeing so much that needed to be done, I was missing a whole swath of my family’s needs...
As a clinical psychologist, he'd been familiar, "in the abstract," with these (rather widely-discussed) phenomena.
He had frequently discussed these matters with couples he was counseling, but it had never occurred to him that he was one of the slacker husbands he was counseling others about! Finally, his wife clued him in as he ate his Ben & Jerry's!
Do you believe that either of these portraits is actually true? We're not sure we do. We're not sure we believe that the NYU psychology prof tried eating avocados to make herself smarter. We're not sure it had never occurred to the clinical psychologist that he was slacking off at home in the same way he was counseling clients about.
It doesn't really matter, of course. (According to experts, nothing much does at this point!)
That said, these presentations struck us as an increasingly familiar form of dumbnification. In this particular form of dumbnification, the author is expected to assure us rubes that he or she is just as clueless as the rest of us are. Only then can we be asked to receive his or her expertise or advice.
In effect, we're handed a type of sitcom journalism—variants of Life With Father or possibly I Love Lucy. Before we can read these Sunday essays, we have to be assured that the authors are regular people—that they're basically Dumb Like Us.
Yesterday morning, we weren't sure we believed what these two writers said. We'll now admit that we found their opening salvos annoying.
(At least they weren't complaining about the fact that Walmart is selling Juneteenth t-shirts. No Complaint Left Behind!)
Did those presentations on Outlook's front page involve deliberate dumbnification? That's almost the way it seemed to us, but as the dumbnification proceeds, there's no way a rube can be sure.