Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

      View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    Checkout
    Plough Podcast logo

    PloughCast #8 Animal Slaughter, Online Dating, and Embodiment

    The PloughCast, Creatures, Part 2

    By Susannah Black, Peter Mommsen and Leah Libresco Sargeant

    June 8, 2021
    1 Comments
    1 Comments
    1 Comments
      Submit
    • VALSON THAMPU

      Thanks for the reflections on dependence. While I agree with the arguments and insights offered, here’s something I feel that needs to be incorporated into the gamut of thought. Spiritually wholesome or worthwhile dependence is, in Jesus’ thought, conjoined with the duty to be FRUITFUL. Contrary to this is parasitical dependence. Even autonomy falls into the parasitical mode to the extent that autonomy tends to see and act in a unilateral way, which is the essence of parasitism. Dependence, as the speaker argues, is unavoidable. We are dependent on all who have gone on before us insofar as our life is nourished by the fruits of their labour. The choice is between the two paradigms of dependence as hinted above. Valson Thampu, India.

    What do our bodies have to tell us, and what happens when dating leaves the bodily realm?

    Listen and subscribe to The PloughCast

    Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | iHeartRadio

    About this Episode

    Peter and Susannah talk about Mary Harrington’s piece on the business of online dating. What happens when butchering is removed from the marketplace? And what are we doing when we swipe right on someone, treating him or her as a commodity which might or might not pass muster?

    Then they talk with Plough contributing editor Leah Libresco Sargeant about her piece “Let the Body Testify.” Are we disembodied wills unrelated to our bodies, using them as meat robots? Or are we embodied souls whose selfhood persists even if we are unable to advocate for ourselves?

    • I. Intro
    • II. The Marketplace of Online Dating
    • III. Let the Body Testify
    • IV. Children as Products

    Recommended Reading

    Transcript

    Susannah: Welcome to another episode of The PloughCast where we’re discussing articles and ideas from the most recent issue of Plough, “Creatures: The Nature Issue.” I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough.

    Peter: And I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough Quarterly. If you’re new to this podcast, this is one episode of a six-part series where we also speak to our contributors and answer listener questions. We also talk to just interesting guests who we invite on. If you have a question you’d like us to discuss, let us know on Twitter with the hashtag, #BookofCreatures, or email us at info@plough.com.

    Susannah: First up today, we will be talking about a piece by Mary Harrington, a contributor from Bedfordshire, England, where she reflects on the cost of the trend towards finding romance in the digital marketplace, “What’s for sale on online dating sites?”

    Peter: Later we’ll be talking with Plough contributing editor Leah Libresco Sergeant about her essay in the issue, “Let the Body Testify,” where she asked the question, “Is our worth rooted in our existence as living bodies or as disembodied wills?”

    Susannah: Pete, let’s get started.

    Peter: Okay, with Mary Harrington’s beautiful piece where she begins by telling us where the shambles is.

    Susannah: Right. She describes the little market town that she lives in in England as very organized, orderly, and there is a little building in the middle of the town. She said that that’s the spot where the shambles used to be. The shambles is essentially the public slaughterhouse slash the parallel that she makes is to wet markets which have been in the news a good bit this year. But this is where you would go and you would take your animal to get it slaughtered.

    Peter: This is the very Bedfordshire version of the famous Wuhan wet market.

    Susannah: That is correct.

    Peter: In that shambles, I guess this public marketplace, you can just imagine the animals, the probably . . . vegetables, the blood, and literal blood and guts running down the street as you went to pick up your lamb or your fish or . . .

    Susannah: Whatever it was.

    Peter: . . . rabbit. There’s some beautiful Dutch paintings of the shambles. I don’t know what they call them in Dutch, but they are done by the Brueghel School. You can just get a sense of the stench of these places, which must’ve been in every major market town until . . . she describes one.

    Susannah: Oh, it’ll be like . . .

    Peter: I think eighteenth century.

    Susannah: Eighteenth century.

    Peter: A time of growing sanitization of major public places. Of course, without using the phrase “meat market” and getting us from the shambles to OnlyFans.

    Susannah: That’s really good. I did not see that coming.

    Peter: She very elegantly managed to avoid what I officially am throwing out there. She gets us via Adam Smith’s [The] Theory of the . . .

    Susannah: Moral Sentiments.

    Peter: Moral Sentiments and of the invisible hand of the marketplace working together to digital romance today. We will not spoil her essay by telling you what she concludes, but there are a few things that we would like to talk about because it relates to our overall theme of creatureliness – creatures. Are we human creatures or are we just digital phantasms that you swipe left or swipe right on? Now, some people are going to already be protesting quietly, I think: “Well, I found the love of my life on a digital dating site.”

    Susannah: Possibly not OnlyFans, although . . .

    Peter: Very likely, no. That is unlikely, but possibly on some other dating site, which Mary Harrington might point out is perhaps not entirely different at least in its structure if not in the personal moral intentions of those people who are participating.

    Susannah: Then OnlyFans. Yeah, she basically is making a kind of a case that the way that we start to look at each other when we encounter each other in this dating market, primarily as disembodied products on a screen, is perhaps not the greatest possible way to think of each other and to begin to enter into what might be – hopefully is – a lifelong loving relationship. I think she’s just wanting us to start getting pretty troubled about that. That’s the sense that I got with the piece.

    Peter: In what sense does that digitization, that sanitization, that removal of the marketplace from the blood and the guts, so to speak . . . that makes romantic life sound really horrible, doesn’t it?

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: But in what sense does the removal of the marketplace from the embodied nature of human life actually decrease our ability to see each other for what we are, to really love each other? To what extent do we instead become a bunch of attributes that are more or less desirable?

    Susannah: Right. I think that she also talks about the . . . when she talks about the deep history of the companionate marriage almost and the way that we might think of the bargains that people make in entering into families. I know she’s not . . . she talks about Jane Austen in this context. She’s not entirely romanticizing past ways of doing the business of mating, but she is just asking, essentially wanting to know, how we can avoid, I think, dehumanizing each other and making each other into accessories, making the person that you’re with essentially into an accessory of yourself.

    Peter: Well, I find it really troubling. Living in a community, it’s something that we have thought a lot about. I live in the Bruderhof community as probably many of you know. In an Anabaptist community, we do have . . . I do use Twitter occasionally. It’s not an Amish rejection of all technology, but there is something about not just romantic sites but also social media in general, and in fact about the publishing world in general, that is very much about personal brand, personal platform.

    It’s actually at war with what we, in a community, a Christian community such as the Bruderhof, are trying to live for: where you’re not interested in a person as a person but it’s very easy to become influenced in a person as a brand, as somebody who has a lot of followers or who is witty or has put out a certain persona of themselves. That’s actually fundamentally at odds, and I’m not saying that . . . I’m not at all saying that Twitter is evil or social media are, per se, evil, but there is a dynamic to it that is fundamentally at odds with emptying yourself, with honoring . . . the last being first and the first being last. Because on Twitter, the first are . . .

    Susannah: First.

    Peter: First are first. It’s a very . . . we were talking about Darwin last time: it’s a very social Darwinistic kind of world. You see that in publishing world too where book publishers will only sign authors, not because they can write well. One of the first things they’re going to look for is, what is their social platform? There’s something very fundamentally at odds with Christianity in it.

    Susannah: Right. And the other thing that Mary gets into a little bit which I thought was interesting is the way that even at its best, even in pre-dating app world, there was this tendency or there has been for the past couple of hundred years at least this tendency to see men and women as essentially out . . . each one, they’re either in competition with each other or each one pursues his or her own interest.

    They somehow through this Mandevillian self-interested pursuit of something or other end up coming together as a couple, but that’s not really what couplehood is. That’s not what love is. That’s the pursuit of your own self-interest – private vice does not conduce to public virtue ever, and certainly not in a marriage. I think that her discussion of that kind of capitalistic understanding of what men and women look for in each other does make it seem as though, I don’t know, the incel culture that’s very cynical about what women look for in men and essentially would talk about marriage as legalized prostitution.

    There’s something that that is getting at in the way that we . . . that more mainstream people maybe think but aren’t as open about in saying, and I think that that in itself is pretty demented.

    Peter: I’d actually like to look at Mary’s piece from the other end of the telescope. I’m not sure if this will work, Susannah, but we could probably . . . she does a beautiful job of exploring and teasing out some of these aspects of modern life in her essay. But I’d like to get back to actually where she started, which is back to the shambles because it relates to our core theme of creatures. To what extent is it that we’re unable to read the book of nature, to experience life as creatures and to see the world around us as created beings? Because we moderns have sanitized the world around us to such a great degree that we’re not actually . . . we don’t have the smell of the creatures on us anymore. As we’ve discussed, we’re not living on farms. The number of people who hunt and fish have gone down. People can’t see the Milky Way. Many people, apart from pets, obviously, which remain a big source of companionship with creatures for millions, people aren’t really as at home in the natural world as they more naturally would have been one hundred years ago.

    That’s not just to say that everything was better back then, but I do think it has made it harder for people to feel at home in nature and then to feel at home as being, for example, a member of a species that is carnivorous and that slaughters things and eats them, and doesn’t see that as  . . . 

    Susannah: Icky.

    Peter: Yeah, as aesthetically disgusting.

    Susannah: Yeah. I do think that the weightiness of the act of killing animals, the thing that her piece right at the beginning put me in mind of was, again, C.S. Lewis points out, I can remember reading this, that the temple in Jerusalem was essentially a public abattoir. The number of animal sacrifices that went on there every day in both First and Second Temple Judaism were just staggering. There were a lot of animals that were being killed, and these were very, very morally weighty actions obviously. They’re actions that God wasn’t just okay with but prescribed. You had to kill the animal. And then at the Passover, you had to eat it.

    Peter: So read Mary’s piece, which is fantastic, and it lands in a very different place than you might imagine when it started. It certainly isn’t a finger-wagging exercise in moralism. But now we’ll turn to another topic, one of my favorite pieces in our issue, written by Leah Libresco Sargeant, our Plough contributing editor, called “Let the Body Testify”. This is going to go a little deeper into the question of what it means to have a created body, but now we’re going to talk about people.

    Susannah: Right. Leah, I guess one way to go into this is, can you just describe a little bit what the argument of your piece was and how you came to write it?

    Leah: Absolutely. As you know and I think readers of Plough know, I’ve been interested for a while in what we learn from our dependence and our weakness. I have a Substack community, Other Feminisms. It’s kind of focused on this question. Because often in our society focused on autonomy, we treat our periods of strength as though that’s when we’re really us and periods of sickness, age, pregnancy as exceptional cases  . . .  as those when we become less ourselves, but hopefully we move on and recover from them quickly.

    I wrote one piece for Plough that was an essay just called “Dependence” on the subject, but I’m really fascinated in how we grapple with the reality of the body and how much we’re able to ignore in the service of really defending this lie that the human being is at its core an autonomous person, someone who doesn’t suffer, who doesn’t need, except in exceptional circumstances. This piece is really all about the different ways we find of ignoring that truth. It starts with one that was startling for me to encounter, which is just that there are a lot of very politicized debates over when babies can feel pain in the womb.

    They’re politicized because they touch obviously for everyone, whatever side you’re on, on the question of abortion. But what you would think would be a less controversial question, whether babies can feel pain after they’re born, was something where medical doctors ignored this because the babies were small, because the babies couldn’t articulate their pain in the way a grownup could and went through operations without anesthesia sometimes because their pain wasn’t legible or real to the doctors who treated them. I see that as a microcosm of this question of trying to make bodies invisible or unheard when they deviate from our expectations.

    Susannah: We spent a lot of time talking earlier, I don’t know, in past episodes and a little bit earlier today about the question of the legibility of the world and the legibility of creation, reading creation like a book. One of the cases that you make is that we need to be able to read, especially not ignore the bodies that are there and attend to the bodies that are there.

    You talk a little bit about the way that many aspects of contemporary society are a little bit geared against the legibility of women’s bodies or being able to read women’s bodies as normal, non-problematic, not things that need to be managed because they’re chaotically potentially pregnant. There’s a very [pause] There’s an impulse to tame, it seems to me, especially women’s bodies in the contemporary world. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Leah: Yeah, to tame, to reshape, to make them fit more easily a world that isn’t necessarily attentive to them. I really like the author Caroline Criado Perez who has written an entire book on this way the world is not built to accommodate women. Everything from the way that a tool is often sized for a male hand, and women may struggle to hold it comfortably, and then have ourselves cast as weak or incompetent when we just need a tool that’s sized for our hand as it is.

    She even has a newsletter where every week she keeps track of things that don’t take into account women’s bodies, whether it’s psychological or medical studies that include zero women in their sample and then imply the result is generalizable to all people, or whether it’s something as strange as a male entrepreneur who was developing period gloves for women to wear while dealing with menstrual problems, you see. Just imagine that probably everyone needs special gloves to deal with that.

    I think that really points to the fact that this isn’t all malice. It’s negligence. It’s a lack of curiosity about the range of people God has made, and a willingness to live a siloed life where you don’t encounter people different from yourself, to realize that their needs are different than yours. I experience this most strongly as a woman. I think women are often the largest single group that gets left out. It’s amazing to have half of everyone left out in this way.

    But people who suffer from disabilities, people who are old, all have these kinds of experiences because we build our world very narrowly for a shockingly small minority of people to navigate comfortably, and then we blame others for not navigating this world that is not tailored to their needs.

    Susannah: The way that I have been thinking about this most in the past couple of years is as part of the conversation that you and I have both very much been engaged with, the question of liberalism and post-liberalism. If you dig back into the O.G. [original] liberal writings of John Locke for example, you really start to get the sense that the paradigmatic human being is an adult man who’s around thirty-five, who is physically fit, and who has a certain amount of private income, probably a servant. That is the – he is the subject. He is the person who’s the paradigmatic human being, and other human beings exist as defective versions of him.

    I can’t remember the philosopher who said it, but there was some line about, the liberal philosophers are childless men who’ve forgotten what it’s like to be a child because the bizarre concept of every [pause] The bizarre premise of liberalism that everything that we own is something that [pause] We come into property because we have mixed our labor with the property. Gifts are not the paradigmatic example of property. What is worked for is the paradigmatic example of property. This does not work with a species that starts out as a completely dependent creature.

    Leah: And ends that way, unless [pause] If we’re lucky, you end that way, also completely dependent. I think this idea of the liberal man, someone who’s autonomous, someone who –  I’d agree with your description but I’d add – who has a wife who takes care of some of these things and who isn’t the liberal subject herself, an accessory or a prop for the liberal man, it’s really toxic and poisonous. It’s embedded in a lot of our institutions even if we like some of the other work they’re doing. I was just reading today, the number of places we bring this contempt is what really strikes me because there is a lovely essay in Aeon.**

    I don’t know how they pronounce that magazine to be honest. Aeon, “How to do philosophy for – and with – children” by Jana Mohr Lone. What she was saying is that we treat children as though they will become people at some point, the same problem I was talking about with the babies and the doctors, but just for their ability to grapple with ideas or interesting questions. She cites the other cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik saying that we treat children like they are defective adults, that they’re going to blossom into liberal subjects at some point.

    Now I’m going beyond what Gopnik is saying, because she is not making a political critique in this way. But we see them not as part of what it means to be human, but as people who are in the process of becoming human. It’s that idea I really want to push back against. In the womb, in old age, covered in mud as a six-year-old, each of these people is human. This is a portrait of what it means to be human at this particular age or at this particular stage, not a journey on the way to becoming a human.

    Susannah: How does that . . . I absolutely agree with that, but it’s also a little bit in tension, at least in my head, with the idea of teleology and the idea that we actually do – it is good for us to grow up into adult men and women who then go on to form families of our own. That is a good telos for us.

    Leah: It is good to grow up. It isn’t technically speaking necessary. That’s not the fullness of what we grow up into. We grow up into being the image of Christ and the image of who he asks us to be. Some people image Christ in their weakness. In his willingness to become man for us and to undergo all the degradations of a human body, the worst of what death has to offer, some people image Christ in their suffering. Some people don’t become verbal even as adults and are still full images of Christ.

    They’re imaging perhaps a different part of Christ than you are, Susannah. But we do have a telos, but it’s to holiness, not even to wholeness as we might think of it in terms of what we expect an adult to look like.

    Susannah: Let’s talk about suffering a little bit. One of the really fascinating parts of your piece was the idea that we learn how to suffer, that there’s a certain amount of free floating, especially psychological as you could probably say, suffering that gets expressed in different ways in different cultures. You used the example of anorexia. Can you talk a little bit about that?

    Leah: Yeah. This is drawn from a book called Crazy Like Us by a man named Ethan Watters. He’s a controversial guy, but I found his arguments persuasive. He’s really looking at what it looked like to export the American understanding of anorexia and of difficulties for young women to other parts of the world where scientists and sociologists with the best intentions in mind went looking for a disease that didn’t necessarily exist in other parts of the world.

    He’s looking particularly at China, and then would do awareness raising campaigns about anorexia which were followed by a spike in anorexia. You can tell two stories about this. One is there was a hidden epidemic and they uncovered it. The other is they tutored girls in how to cope with the difficulties of adolescence, how to give voice to whatever difficulties they were going through, and the language they taught to express that difficulty was anorexia.

    Susannah: You make a connection between that and potentially the spike, a similar spike, in gender dysphoria among young women these days, which also seems to be in some way socially contagious, in some way [pause] I think the figures were, up until recently, 75 percent of people with gender dysphoria were men, and at this point it’s like 70 percent young women. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?

    Leah: I think you have to ask the same question in both cases. Are you uncovering a hidden epidemic that’s been there the whole time? – which is the claim you could make about gender dysphoria or anorexia in China. Or are you to a certain extent taking people at a vulnerable age where they’re looking for ways to have a language to cope with what’s going on with their bodies, especially for girls to cope with a world that’s very hostile to women, that’s going to, in a sense, punish them for going through puberty, for their changing bodies as they receive catcalls, as they receive bullying or harassment from boys or men in their life?

    Are you offering them a way out of that or a way of expressing their dissatisfaction with that that speaks to a real need, doesn’t give a full answer to it.

    Susannah: You also talked a little bit about a book that’s been . . . I don’t know. I feel like it’s been haunting this issue of the magazine, which is Carter Snead’s recent What it Means to be Human: The Case for the Body in Public Bioethics. You talk about Snead’s discussion of the ideology of expressive individualism, especially if it has to do with childbearing and the choices that we make about our bodies. Can you talk about that a little bit?

    Leah: It’s a stellar book, is what I wanted to say first. Everyone else pause the recording for just a moment, order it from your local bookshop. Invite a friend to read it with you. Set up a book club. It’s an extraordinary book. I’m halfway through the year. It’s going to be one of the best books I read all year; I’m sure of that. What Snead is really looking at is, what do we ground our sense of dignity and identity in? He’s looking at it through the lens of bioethics and the law, but this is a question that touches on everyone even if you don’t think of yourself as a bioethicist or a lawyer.

    Of course, everyone’s a bioethicist when you’re sick or you’re caring for a family member who’s facing difficult choices, so it’s a book that’s relevant to everyone. He draws this contrasting view between the dignity coming from our ability to reason and to will versus our dignity coming from the fact that we have bodies and that those bodies are vulnerable. In the one case, that’s the autonomous idea –  the idea that only some people are fully people and that it’s a real crisis whenever you fall off that level of autonomy, that you need to be restored to it or you’re only a half person for a while versus the idea that there’s a dignity in need. It’s not something we escape. It’s something we just experience at varying degrees during our life and that the point of bioethics, the point of medicine, the point, he extends it to, of human community is to begin to answer to that vulnerability, an answer that respects it and prizes the person. It doesn’t seek to excuse or ignore vulnerability.

    Susannah: You also go on from there to look at Sarah Zhang’s – is that how you pronounce it? – piece in The Atlantic about basically what it does when we start to screen for Down syndrome. The way that that becomes like [pause] That then having a child with Down syndrome becomes almost like a thing that you’ve chosen in a way that expresses part of your identity, that expresses almost the way that you might choose a car. The fact that I’ve chosen to have this child with Down syndrome says something about me, or the fact that I’ve chosen to abort this child says something about me. Do you want to go on and talk a little bit about how she goes into that?

    Leah: Yeah. I think she’s describing something that these parents experience as a real hardship because they feel like for their whole life and for their child’s whole life, their child’s Down syndrome is a comment about what the parent wanted for them as a child. They feel pressure because the universal screening makes them feel guilty, that everything hard in their child’s life is something that the parent has opted into to an extent by carrying their baby to term. We don’t feel that way about other hardships in the same way.

    If your child, God forbid, were in a car accident and suffered severe injuries, paralysis, cognitive difficulties, no one would look at you and say, “You chose that for your child. You made a choice to have your child live this life that’s marked by these vulnerabilities and difficulties.” But universal screening and abortion leaves parents feeling as though in some sense, this might be their fault because they said yes to it and they said yes to their particular baby.

    Some of the parents she talks about say they’d feel more comfortable if they hadn’t known because they still love their child, but then they wouldn’t feel like they, as they experience it, were the cause of the difficulties their child faces.

    Susannah: Right. The idea of the choice to have a child really starts to sound quite a bit more sinister when you . . . I wanted to read this paragraph just because it was quite haunting to me: “The model of expressive individualism sanctifies nearly any choice. In this framework, abortion is liberation for both mother and child. The Planned Parenthood slogan, ‘Every child a wanted child’ confers a peculiar dignity on survivors of a pro-choice world – unlike their aborted brothers and sisters, they were chosen.” The idea of just that . . . It’s almost a massive . . . It’s almost a pre-birth meritocracy in a way, which is chilling at least to me.

    Leah: I think this is often how advice to women is framed during pregnancy even when it’s not explicitly about abortion. It’s that the food you eat, the experiences you have – you’re making choices about your child. You’re making them into a particular kind of person. Anything that goes wrong for your child medically or is hard for your child is going to be your fault and it’s going to be in some sense an expression of you.

    I really admire Emily Oster’s writing on this in her book on pregnancy Expecting Better because she talks about this really in a different framework, neither of Snead’s I would say. She’s saying that our life is about balancing risks. It’s not about avoiding all danger or avoiding all bad outcomes. It’s about thinking about what it costs us to avoid them and making healthy, sane choices. She’s not someone slapping food out of a woman’s hand when she’s pregnant saying, “Have you considered everything that might be in that?”

    A friend of mine had a pregnancy book that said, “With every bite you take, consider if this is the best choice you could make for your baby.” I think that really goes back to a fear of children’s potential. What if your child isn’t what you hope for? Aren’t you obliged to do everything possible to prevent that? Versus are there ways to be comfortable accepting your child as the person they are and just accepting and really growing into the particular relationship they have with you?

    Peter: I’ve been fascinated to just listen into your conversation. I will butt in, because this last comment you just made, Leah, there’s been a lot of coverage in the last few weeks about the falling fertility levels [not only] in our country, but around the world. Really bad in the United States, but then there’s countries like South Korea where it’s actually at 0.9 . . .

    Susannah: Oh my gosh.

    Peter: – when replacement rate is 2.1 or so. I’ve often wondered too, could that not be a big contributing factor, this idea that every child has to be an expression of my best self? If he or she is not, it’s a failure on me as a parent. It creates actually an impossible burden on parenthood. I’ve no idea if this can be verified in statistics or not, but it does seem to me that there is a much higher expectation that rather than the child just being whoever got born, that’s your child. Now that child is an expression of me that, before birth and then also after birth, has to continually be molded not toward just holiness as you said earlier, Leah, but toward success however defined.

    Susannah: A child as a product. I think that this is something that obviously we’re going to be seeing a lot more of as the biotechnology becomes . . . It becomes more and more possible to do things like CRISPR babies, but much, much, much more so. I think that it’s something that it seems to me that . . . I don’t know. It seems like there’s an entirely different way of thinking about childbirth and about bearing children. As you were talking just now, Leah, I was remembering a piece that our friend Gracy Olmstead wrote. I can’t remember whether it was for Plough or for Breaking Ground.

    Peter: It was for Plough.

    Susannah: It was for Plough. Okay, there we go.

    Peter: “The Risk of Gentleness.”

    Susannah: “The Risk of Gentleness.” It was about this . . . She had a surprise pregnancy right at the beginning of COVID. The way that . . . pregnancy, it’s not something passive. It’s not that you’re not active. It’s that it is something that you receive and it is fundamentally a gift, and it’s something that you are . . . It’s not an expression of your will. You don’t need to . . . this is all autonomic nervous system stuff.

    You don’t need to worry about making your child’s kidneys properly and thinking through to make sure that you don’t screw that up. I wonder whether there’s a way that we can reboot ourselves to start thinking of children as gifts as opposed to products and how it is that we do that. I also wondered whether you wanted to talk about your daughter a little bit, because I think she’s pretty cool.

    Leah: She’s excellent. But I think a lot of this goes back to the anxiety about precarity in our society, the sense that if we don’t give our children the very best and prepare them for a meritocracy, they won’t make it, that they’ll slide backwards from where we are. That’s a real fear that a lot of parents are facing. College is more expensive. Housing is more expensive. Careers are not as stable. When I say that I want parents to take a step back from this fearful approach to children, I recognize that that’s harder to do for people who are parents now than for our own parents, that it feels like there are fewer second chances, fewer avenues up and out for people.

    I think the answer to that fear is a healthier society, a more humane economy that will be a while in coming even if we all start working on it now. To an extent, it’s being comfortable with the idea that some things may disadvantage your child economically or socially and that that price is worth paying to convey to them what their essential dignity is rooted in. We see more and more college students who are heavily anxious, again not without reason given the lives they lead and the pressures they face.

    It is that tradeoff of, do you want your child to go to the best school they might be able to get into if they push themselves all through high school, even all through middle school? Or do you want something less for them in the eyes of the world but more for them in terms of who they know they are and what their life is centered on? One of the things I do try and do for Beatrice is just make it normal for her that she struggles with things.

    It is normal for a baby, but we don’t treat it as normal for an adult, and that leads grownups to not take chances, not take on hobbies, not take on difficult friendships, not extend themselves in charity if we’re used to the idea of being a grownup, of being an autonomous person, is feeling good at everything we do. I want my daughter to do things she’s bad at. I need her to do it right now, because she’s bad at fairly important things like eating soup with a spoon. I want her to get better at that over time, but I want her to not be discouraged by doing things she isn’t excellent at for her whole life.

    Susannah: It seems like the phenomenon of experiencing oneself as made in the image of God, experiencing oneself as having been given to one’s parents by God is probably more important than being genetically modified to be optimized. I think that’s where we might be coming out on this. That might be an editorial position of this magazine.

    Peter: I think we could establish that as a strong editorial position of our magazine.

    Susannah: Yeah, okay.

    Peter: I’m really intrigued, Leah, by what you say about letting Beatrice struggle and be bad at things. I think there’s this book, The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer which I’m intrigued by. I’ve only read part of it, but I love reading his blog. It seems to me that so much of it has to do also with parents being okay with their kids being kind of mediocre, right, and that’s okay. They’re a human being. They’re a beloved human being that can love other human beings. My son is now a seventh grader, and I have no idea what he’s going to be. He’s not struggling that hard, but he’s not going to be at 1 percent of the meritocracy probably.

    Hopefully he doesn’t listen to this. But he might be a really good carpenter. We have to [pause] How do we get to a society where that’s just fine? Because if you’re a loving human being who’s good at being with other human beings, how you rank out on that meritocracy really doesn’t matter. The fact is for a lot of kids, it does matter, and that’s what gets at parents now, is that it makes a big difference in whether they’ll find a spouse later down the road, what kind of friends they’ll have, whether they can raise their own kids with even that much choice. This is the struggle. You can’t just go tell people, “Well, ignore it all now.”

    Susannah: I think I want to . . .

    Leah: This is more of a struggle the more you live and expect to live in an intensely socially, economically, intelligent, stratified community so that what levels you achieve on any of those are deciding who your friends are, deciding who you meet. That’s something I do admire a lot about the Bruderhof, that there’s a real range of people when I come visit you, a range of people all brought together by a common way of life rather than a single level of excellence in one domain.

    It’s something that was always, when I lived in DC, so different about when I went to Mass than when I did almost literally anything else socially in the District. At Mass, I saw a much broader range of people, a broader range of ages versus just seeing other twenty-somethings like me when I lived there, a range of abilities and genetic conditions versus again in the offices I was in, I wasn’t likely to meet someone with Down syndrome and I did at church, and a range of excellences.

    I think without some part of your life, and hopefully more and more of your life, where you’re brought together with people who are different to love them as they are, the more anxiety it’s natural to have about the meritocracy and everything else because it determines everything else about your life.

    Peter: The answer is actually a stronger and more vibrant church, more places where you meet the person with Down syndrome and where they meet other people and where the stockbroker and the plumber and the homemaker and the woman who cleans bathrooms at the gas station really are all eye-to-eye. That’s what the kingdom of God is meant to be like.

    Leah: It’s to an extent an argument against the kind of intensely filtered affinity groups some churches make to create a community of, okay, all the singles who are under thirty in this group. When you graduate, then there’s no more hope for you and you have to float around to see what you can join. And then one group for mothers and possibly something for men every other month in case men like having friends, but we’re not sure. That kind of intense filtering.

    Susannah: I do think the other thing to think about which you touch on in your piece as well is the way that . . . how this looks at the end of life. Because just as much as choosing to have a child who has Down syndrome becomes an expressive individualistic choice that says something about your personality, as there’s an increased normalization and indeed pressure towards euthanasia, it seems like insisting on staying alive is also going to be seen as this weird, expressive, individual choice.

    Peter: Creating an imposition, right?

    Susannah: Yeah. It’s like, why are you doing this? What is your . . . what are you saying? At the same time, I think that there’s going to be a great temptation to create customized deaths that say something really beautiful about your [pause] read a little clue, like a rhyme,  . . .  and toast with some really excellent white wine with your friends before you take the pill or whatever it is.

    It seems especially important because as Christians we do think that death is one of the most important things that we do. It’s a little bit like graduation. It seems particularly important to try and figure out what it means to be a full human being and not use your own old age as an avenue of expressive individualism.

    Leah: Well, I think this is what’s hard, having a lot of parts that are normally part of life turned into choices that have to be justified. There are [those] communities that have introduced assisted suicide and have made the qualifications very broad. Suddenly it’ll mean that choosing to live is a question you have to actively consider and perhaps justify, especially in the face of a society that’s happy to help you die but not to support you in your dignity and needs while you’re alive.

    But the same pressure is there for women in the age of the pill where a child is always supposed to be an active, considered choice, and I loved Gracy’s essay on that not being true for her. That means that, to an extent, you’re expected to be able to justify any children you have no matter what their condition. The timing is supposed to be justifiable. It’s all supposed to be part of a good, considered decision rather than just a thing that happens in marriage.

    Susannah: Well, Leah, thank you so much for talking with us. It’s been a blast, and we’re very happy to have you on.

    Peter: If you’d like to hear more of this conversation, please join Leah, as we certainly will, in a conversation with another Plough Editor, Marianne Wright, on June 23rd at 8:00 Eastern time. June 23rd, that’s a Wednesday. We’ll drop a link in the program notes, and there she’ll have discussion and I believe [Leah will] answer questions from readers on her essay for Plough that we’ve just been discussing.

    Susannah: This is going to be a new format for us. This is like live letters to the editor. It is on Zoom, and so drop on by, tell us what you think.

    Peter: Thanks, Leah.

    Leah: I’m really looking forward to it.

    Susannah: It’s going to be awesome.

    Peter: It’s going to be so fun.

    Leah: I’m looking forward to it. Yeah, it is.

    Peter: Goodbye.

    Susannah: Goodbye, Leah.

    Leah: Goodbye, guys.

    Contributed By Susanna Black Susannah Black

    Susannah Black is a senior editor of Plough.

    Learn More
    Contributed By Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

    Learn More
    Contributed By Leah Libresco Sargeant Leah Libresco Sargeant

    Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option.

    Learn More
    1 Comments

    Sign up for Plough's weekly newsletter