Too many of us are behaving like indoor cats these days. Let me explain.
I was walking home late at night recently down the back lane to my house. I heard a loud thud as something landed on top of a garbage can. I looked up from my phone to see that it was a squirrel. The squirrel scurried away and I went back to reading late night instant messages. Then another thud. This time it was a cat. A thin, smoky colored athletic little guy, who propelled himself off of the garbage can and into the darkness in pursuit of the squirrel. It felt like I was watching an action movie with hero and villain leaping from rooftop to rooftop in an epic chase scene. I was pleased to see that mangy little cat. A few days before, my neighbor had been distributing flyers with his photo on them. He had gone missing and she was terribly concerned she had lost her pet forever. When she handed a flyer to my partner and me, and I thought to myself: “He should really be an indoor cat. Indoor cats don’t run away, and they live longer. It’s irresponsible to have a cat and let it roam outside where it can get in to all sorts of trouble.” Seeing Smoky back in the neighborhood and back in action, however, I began to think differently. He was clearly having the time of his life.
My friend has an indoor cat named The Dude. She works three jobs including freelance writing just to get by. But her cat is spoiled. Like a fat little prince, he spends his days lounging in sunbeams on his hardwood floor, stretching, yawning, and staring out the window. The other day, she went to the dollar store for some off-brand cat food that would have to make due for The Dude until payday. The vittles, however, were not up to The Dude’s standards. The Dude was not amused. He turned up his nose at the food and went on a hunger strike. At two in the morning, my dear friend went to a fast food joint down the street to barter for some BBQ hot wings sans sauce. She went home, and despite her squeamish vegetarianism, pulled the meat off the bones. At 2:45am, The Dude’s hunger strike officially came to an end.
These two cats could not be more different. Smoky scraps in dumpsters with raccoons for takeout bags. The Dude gets startled when the bathroom door creaks. As for Smoky, danger is his middle name. The Dude was never really in danger of going hungry. The Dude has never experienced danger.
In 2018, many of us have become indoor cats. We’ve gotten to the point where we are blind to what actual danger is. There is so much emphasis on the purported harm of words and ideas, the “violence” of language, that we often overlook actual harm and violence while simultaneously fainting at the hint or trace of it.
With this in mind, it’s worth revisiting the aptly titled “Cat Person” — a short story that went viral last year. It illustrates my pet theory both in terms of its content and the reception it received. Published in the New Yorker, it made such a splash that it became the second most read “article” in the magazine that year, and landed its author, Kristen Roupenian, a seven figure book deal. The story, intentionally bland in its telling, is about Margot, a young woman who works at the concessions at a movie theatre, and her brief sexual encounter with a patron named Robert. After weeks of text messages, they finally go on their first and last date. They watch a boring movie, have boring conversation over drinks, and have boring sex. It’s clear that both characters are too immature for the situation they find themselves in.
The reception to “Cat Person” was unexpectedly heated. It was largely a response based on gender. Many women online praised the story as a relatable and powerful depiction of modern single women’s experience. The journalist Dana Schwartz hailed it as “brutally and uncomfortably relatable.” Men, on the other hand, were often less than impressed, calling out the story for its lack of empathy, and focusing on Margot’s disgust of Robert’s older, softer body. This, of course, just made certain women love it more, and it even inspired a comedy Twitter account where people could submit screenshots of men’s disapproving reactions to the story. Unsurprisingly, these reactions are as shallow as the characters. Also curious was the lack of consensus as to what the story actually was. Many readers on both sides of the debate assumed that it was a confessional essay or a think piece as opposed to a short story. This may have to do with simple genre illiteracy, or it may have to do with Roupenian’s straightforward style of writing.
But the response to “Cat Person” is illustrative of something beyond gender and genre. Here’s what I find compelling: Margot and Robert are both digital natives. Margot is 20 — a late millennial; Robert is 34 — an early millennial. They are incapable of an honest moment or a genuine utterance. They lack empathy and have been ill-equipped for real life adult situations. It’s somewhat more understandable for Margot because she is only twenty, but her coldness toward the bumbling Robert shifts the reader’s sympathy. As they clumsily proceed to the bedroom, the reader is forced to endure a depiction of the most awkward and self-pitying sex imaginable. Robert undoubtedly got his sexual education from online porn; Margot undoubtedly got her sexual education from Tumblr activism.
More recently, the New York Times provided us with a new example of the safety-obsessed thinking currently dominating our culture. It is so preposterous in terms of its language and claims, that I am not convinced it isn’t satire. Courtney Sender’s essay “He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost” tells the tale of how Sender was unhappy with a two-time Tinder hook-up. At first, she was put off and confused by his insistence on affirmative consent. She was perplexed: “Hadn’t I already said yes several times? Wasn’t I lying there with him, my leg tossed over his, my whole body arcing toward him?” Sender eventually got used to this “progressive” approach by her new lover, and tried to turn it into a learning experience. Sadly, her new lover “ghosted” after their second sexual encounter. This led Sender to proclaim, “Our culture’s current approach to consent is too narrow.” The lesson she seems to have learned is that consent should somehow be extended to an unspecified period of time after a sexual experience, presumably to ensure the emotional safety of the participants. Is this satire? I really hope so, but I would wager that it isn’t.
The adults of “Cat Person” and “He Asked Permission to Touch, but Not to Ghost” reduce each other to the archetypes they were taught. They are all indoor cats raised by websites and apps. To me this is the crucial lesson that sane people can take away from these stories. Today, with the culture wars at a fevered pitch, and trust in each other at an all time low, we haven’t been communicating while looking in each other’s eyes, we’ve been looking at our own screens.
But just because our formative years were powered by Intel, doesn’t mean it’s the sole reason we are where we are. We should look at the increasingly protective way we’ve been raising children for the last couple of decades as well. We participate in a hypersensitive and supervisory culture as well — one where it is considered wrong to not intervene in other people’s lives even though we don’t know them. In the New York Times, Kim Brooks writes about her ordeal with an outstanding arrest warrant. Her alleged crime? Leaving her kid in a locked car for five minutes on a cool day while she ran an errand. As Brooks puts it, “We now live in a country where it is seen as abnormal, or even criminal, to allow children to be away from direct adult supervision, even for a second.”
In Utah, there is a movement and an organization called Free-Range Kids. It’s a reaction to the helicopter parenting that has become the dominant child-rearing model in North America. Its founder Lenore Skenazy was shamed for letting her 9-year-old son ride the subway by himself in 2008. She was referred to as the “world’s worst mom” by major media outlets until she started to fight back. She established a Free Range Kids and Parents Bill of Rights that can basically be summed up by the following declaration: “Our children have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.” In other words, Skenazy’s movement is about letting kids act a bit more like outdoor cats. Earlier this year, inspired by Skenazy’s movement, Utah became the first state to adopt free range parenting laws, and I think they’re on to something. What does all this intensified vigilance get us? It doesn’t actually make us safer. It puts us in peril. It limits our freedom and makes us ill prepared for real danger should we actually encounter it. We should make strides to make things not necessarily unsafe, but less sheltered for our children and ourselves.
This is why The Coddling of the American Mind, the new book by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, is so important and its release is so perfectly timed. Their essay of the same name appeared in The Atlantic in September of 2015, and it was a game changer. It felt like the first effective strike back against safety culture, the stuff of victimhood, safe spaces, and trigger warnings. Haidt and Lukianoff argue that it’s actually unhealthy for vulnerable people to be shielded from ideas and language that they consider harmful or “violent.” They assert that trigger warnings actually keep people vulnerable, and exposure to unpleasant things leads to reduced fear and increased resiliency. This thesis, largely panned by progressive pundits, has since been backed up by a 2018 study.
In 2018, many of us are acting too much like The Dude and not enough like Smoky. We need to rediscover that thing inside of us that makes us want to go outside, to explore a back alley or two, to interact with each other, and to maybe get into a little trouble now and again. I’m not suggesting that indoor cats are the worst. Nor am I suggesting that we start some sort of outdoor cat revolution. I’m simply suggesting we should mark the difference between the two and start acting like grown ups again.