Public Outrage Hasn’t Improved Policing

The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What is the best way forward for Americans who want to improve policing and the criminal-justice system?

Send your responses to or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Earlier this month, a Black man named Keenan Darnell Anderson died at a Southern California hospital hours after he was repeatedly Tasered by LAPD officers as they attempted to arrest him following a traffic accident. In video footage where he alternately seems to be asking for help and confusedly resisting arrest, “the officers tell Anderson that if he does not stop resisting, they will Taser him,” MSNBC reported. “The video shows one officer, who appears to be Black, placing his elbow on Anderson's neck to pin him to the ground. At one point, Anderson yells, ‘They’re trying to George Floyd me.’” The story continues, “Police Chief Michel Moore said Anderson had committed a felony hit-and-run and tried to ‘get into another person's car without their permission.’”

I have no idea how to apportion blame in this particular death, but in an opinion article, also at MSNBC, Ja’han Jones contrasted “the widespread public outrage over Floyd’s death” and the dearth of attention paid to the death in Los Angeles. “What are we to make of this difference?” he wrote. “Has the public gotten busier since then? Crueler? More fickle? More tolerant of violence? More futile in our response to it? Where are the black Instagram squares, the corporate news releases claiming to stand for racial justice, the social media posts about white folks listening and learning about their privilege?” But Jones neglects to acknowledge that none of those responses did anything to lessen the number of police killings.

A subsequent Slate article titled “What Happened to the National Outrage Over Police Killings?” offered variations on the same theme. Its author, Shirin Ali, began by asserting that “an ongoing analysis by The Washington Post found Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans—and in 2022, police killed the highest number of people on record.” That’s misleading, as the criminologist Peter Moskos pointed out: There were more police killings in 2022 than any year in the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, but the newspaper has only been keeping track since 2015.

There is evidence to suggest police killings are much lower today than in the past. Moskos has found historical data on 18 major cities showing a 69 percent drop in police shootings since the early- to mid-1970s. Police in New York City and Los Angeles both shoot fewer people than they did then, even though the cities’ populations are now much bigger.

Nevertheless, police in America still kill far more people than in other liberal democracies. The Yale professor Phillip Goff, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, told Slate that although periodic reforms to American policing have improved it over the decades, police reform has also been stymied. The culprit, in his telling, is “people who think the best way to manage vulnerable Black communities is to lock them up or commit acts of violence whenever they are in a place where they shouldn’t be, where they violate a law that was made to give them opportunities to lock the folks up.”

Reading both articles, I was struck not so much by what was said as by what was neglected: hugely significant factors that are obviously influencing how Americans respond to police shootings compared with how they responded in 2013, when protesters marked the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; or during ensuing years, as #BlackLivesMatter began growing from a hashtag into an international movement; or in 2020, when Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in America and abroad.

What happened to the national outrage over police killings? It has been muted, in part, by a spike in gun homicides that dwarfs police killings in the number of Black lives that it has destroyed. The outrage has also been muted, in part, by trepidation after the weeks in 2020 when several anti-racist protests were marred by incidents of arson, vandalism, and looting, resulting in as much as $2 billion in damage and as many as  19 people killed. If history is any guide, affected neighborhoods will suffer for decades, disproportionately harming Black and brown communities and businesses.

And although it has always been hard to disentangle the exact relationship between the hearteningly widespread, decentralized activist movement Black Lives Matter and the coalition of groups called the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the Black Lives Matter PAC, and more, outrage is more muted now in part because of infighting among some prominent activists within these groups. Several individuals have come under scathing criticism from some of the very families they purported to champion, or are doing who-knows-what-exactly (some bought luxury real estate) with an unprecedented windfall of grassroots contributions.

Those of us who still want to improve policing need to face reality: Probing why Americans are reacting differently to the most recent death of a Black man after an encounter with police, without at least grappling with all that went wrong in recent years, is doomed to fail.  

Long before Black Lives Matter’s ascent, I was among those inveighing against policing injustices and America’s catastrophic War on Drugs, and trying and failing to significantly reduce police misconduct. Black Lives Matter arose in part because most of us who came before it largely failed. When it did, I hoped it would succeed spectacularly in reducing police killings and agreed with at least its premise that the issue warranted attention.

But it is now clear that the Black Lives Matter approach has largely failed too.

Despite an awareness-raising campaign as successful as any in my lifetime, untold millions of dollars in donations, and a position of influence within the progressive criminal-justice-reform coalition, there are just as many police killings as before Black Lives Matter began. Politically, a powerful faction inside the movement sought to elect more radical progressives; Donald Trump and Joe Biden won the next presidential elections. That same faction sought to “defund the police”; police budgets are now rising, and “defund” is unpopular with majorities of every racial group.

Whether or not you think those reforms should have prevailed, they did not. If impact matters more than intent, the criminal-justice-reform movement needs an alternative to Black Lives Matter that has better prospects for actually improving real lives. Today, almost every American is aware of police killings as an issue. Awareness has been raised, and returns are diminished.

I wish I knew the best way forward. I lament the breakup of the constructive alliance of libertarians, progressives, and religious conservatives who cooperated during the Obama Administration to achieve some worthy criminal-justice reforms, and I continue to be impressed with the ethos Jill Leovy sketched out in the book Ghettoside, offering one strategy that would (in my estimation) dramatically increase equity in American policing. (I also urge everyone to revisit this newsletter’s previous installments on the death penalty, which highlight the powerful abolitionist arguments of my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig, and the war on drugs, which keeps imposing staggering costs while failing to prevent pandemic opioid deaths.)

This week’s question is “What is the best way forward for Americans who want to improve the criminal-justice system?” I hope to air perspectives as diverse as the country, and perhaps plant seeds that grow into constructive new approaches.

Civilian Oversight and Its Discontents

At the Marshall Project, Jamiles Lartey describes the political battle in many municipalities over police-oversight boards, and argues that police unions frequently try to undermine their mission:

Resistance to oversight boards comes primarily from pro-law enforcement groups, especially police unions, who often make concerted efforts to dilute the power of the boards. Law enforcement voices frequently argue that civilians, by definition, don’t have the right knowledge to evaluate police actions. “It would be akin to putting a plumber in charge of the investigation of airplane crashes,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, told the Washington Post in 2021. When they can’t stop these oversight agencies, or weaken their powers, police unions sometimes seek to have allies placed in vacant board positions. In Chicago, where proponents recently won passage of a new oversight structure, WBEZ reported this week that the largest local police union is spending money “in an attempt to extend the union’s power into a domain created specifically to oversee the officers who make up the union’s membership.”

It’s common for negotiations about oversight bodies to include debate on whether people with close ties to the police (like former officers or family members of officers) are eligible to serve.

On the other side of the spectrum, some police abolitionists push back against these boards, arguing that they work “against deeper change.” It’s also not uncommon for community activists who initially back oversight boards to turn against them over time, frustrated by a lack of results. That’s how things are playing out in Dallas, where activists and board members are both expressing frustration with a board that had its powers expanded after the 2018 killing of Botham Jean by then-officer Amber Guyger. One board member told Bolts Magazine that their efforts were being “stonewalled,” “marginalized” and “put in a corner” by the department’s non-cooperation. The political wrangling about oversight boards is only one way that police departments and unions push back on accountability. In Boston, which rolled out its own independent watchdog body in 2021 (to mixed reviews), Mayor Michelle Wu is currently locked in a battle over the police union contract, and her desire to strengthen the disciplinary process for officer misconduct.

Continuing the DEI Conversation

In our last installment, I promised to run additional reader responses to the Question of the Week about diversity training and associated initiatives within organizations. Today’s collection explores how readers feel about the intersection of corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals and hiring practices.

Andy feels frustrated by a lack of specificity about what is expected of him––and a climate where open conversation and debate seems too risky to engage in:

In my company, we have a VP of Diversity, who has made a couple of presentations about how we “need” to be more diverse. But what does that look like? I’m in software. I’m a manager who has 10 people reporting to me. Five are white men (one an Orthodox Jew––how does he fit in?). One is an Asian man, one is an Asian woman, two are Indian women, and one is an Indian man. One of the Indian women is my highest-paid employee, deservedly. So, how much work do I have to do in order to make my team diverse?

So instead, we focus on “underrepresented,” which means women, Black, and Hispanic. Maybe gay or trans. How many "groups" do we put on the underrepresented list? Which ones? By the way, the other development manager working with me is a Black man, and our testing and product managers are Hispanic men. I’ve hired maybe 20 employees over my career. The majority are Indian, then Asian, men. My last few openings, I’ve had women recruiters, which, research says, is supposed to tilt the candidates toward women. Not working, I guess. Or maybe it’s actually reflective of the pool? Of course, there isn’t much room for discourse. I’m debating whether I should post this article in our “random” slack channel. Will I just get in trouble?

Jack hypothesizes that diversity work is less appealing when resources are scarce:

I took the all-day diversity class as a middle manager. The company was going through downsizing, which creates a zero-sum mentality that is not a good companion to confessions of moral turpitude, the holy grail of the day. Then the multimillion-dollar fee charged by the consultant came up, igniting two-way hostility.  A total fiasco. I concluded that movies would do a better job helping people internalize the diversity concepts.

D. believes that, for some positions, job candidates from historically underrepresented groups should get hired over white candidates for the sake of diversity, as opposed to a policy of strict nondiscrimination. But he is frustrated by his perception that his employer won’t admit that preference:

I am a card-carrying liberal teaching at a Canadian university. All members of hiring committees are mandated to do periodic equity training in order to sit on the committee, so I’ve done this at least twice. My experience is that the training is as good or as bad as the trainers: my second time was competent, boring, professional; it explained Canadian law and provincial law and university policies, and gave a few decent tips on how to balance the three when they are in conflict, which is pretty often.

But the first time was so insulting to our intelligence. What I most remember is the trainer’s complete ignorance of, or refusal to be honest about, affirmative action (which I support, by the way). The message was you must hire the best candidate, but make sure the best candidate is from an equity-deserving group. Our question: “Can we advertise that for diversity reasons we are only looking for, say, an Indigenous person to teach Indigenous studies?” The answer: “No, you can’t do that.” Our question: “So we have to accept applications from people who in reality have no chance of making the short list?” Their answer: “Hire the best person,” but with the implication that it would be a bad outcome to have a non-Indigenous instructor of Indigenous studies. I actually support the idea of diversity-oriented searches to address historical exclusion and present underrepresentation. Again, I’m a liberal.  But I don’t support lying in job ads.  

It’s the exact equivalent, in reverse, of the NFL mandate to give no-chance-in-hell interviews to minority head-coach candidates. So is the problem the training, or is it Canadian law, which refuses to call diversity preference or compensatory preference by its name, and just calls it “equity”? I’m not sure, but the English language weeps either way. To be clear, though, my awful experience was years back, and the second time, the trainers were pretty honest with us about the contradictions between laws at various levels.

Paul argues that the current approach to DEI generates a backlash from people who feel discriminated against:

I am a Ph.D. candidate at a flagship state university in the Midwest, and recently, a call was put out for scholarships and research funding. At the beginning of the application was the caveat that “priority will be given to underrepresented groups.” Although I am a military veteran, a “nontraditional” student (i.e. middle aged), and come from a rural and “underprivileged” background (whatever that means), I am quite persuaded that none of these “underrepresented” categories is what they meant. And that’s the problem.  

In modern academic circles, DEI initiatives engage in a good deal of coy linguistic posturing that is intended to signal “justice” but that actually sows confusion and resentment. It is well understood on campus that racial and sexual identities trump all other aspects of background and character, and that the commanding heights of student and faculty ambitions are occupied by a class of technocrats engaged in setting historical injustices straight. They do so, paradoxically, by engaging in precisely the kind of arbitrary and capricious discrimination that caused the historical injustices in the first place. And one daren’t lift so much as an eyebrow of critical inquiry (“Can we have a list of the groups to be favored and why?”) without risking professional sanction and social animus.

And even if these DEI programs were models of carefully and individually tailored merit-apportioning, it would hardly matter, since the general perception is quite the opposite. Like the Irish who “need not apply,” talented and ambitious men and women (if they are the wrong identity) quietly skulk to the sidelines to wait for the madness to end.

They don’t even look one another in the face.

Mike has concluded that it’s a waste of time for him to apply for jobs at an employer that is emphasizing certain kinds of DEI initiatives:

I was part of a layoff last week with nearly a universal demographic makeup: straight, white-looking men. The company was already 60 percent female. I have an MBA and a bunch of technical certifications. I look at data and can do analysis. Before I even respond to an inbound request from a prospective employer, I look at the DEI targets. If those targets require significant headcount growth or layoffs to meet goals based on historical trends … I will not apply or interview. I will point my POC and female friends their way.

It’s purely a numbers game.

The leaders are telling me they don’t want people like me … so they don’t get people like me. The shift from meritocracy to equity is going to cause businesses not focused on DEI to gain an advantage in the long term. I’m not less talented than I used to be; I am just the wrong race—and DEI is clear that being white makes me lower quality. There was one company I did accept an inbound with. They put their DEI targets against proportional talent metrics, and they wanted to promote proportionally. It was more work and didn’t look as good as the aggressive virtue signal, but I know if I land there, I just have to execute to win. TLDR: As a white male, when I see DEI, I know it normally means “We don’t want you, we don’t like you, and we will promote or hire literally anyone else if we can.”

James feels discarded by organizations with what he sees as an insufficient commitment to diversity and inclusion:

In my experience, as a visibly queer, Indigenous person in various leadership roles over the past decade, all that is being fulfilled by many diversity efforts––classes, webinars, newsletters, certification programs, and the like––is the documentation of completion rather than the work that should and must be done in order to actually effect change.

The people we should be listening to are Asian women, Black women, Indigenous women, queer women, and femmes of color—they are often at the bottom of the wage pool, subjected to microaggressions and outright discrimination. I’ve had a nonprofit leader ask me why we needed “another DEI class” when she had a certificate from just two or three years ago; I’ve had an instructor who touts a certification of excellence granted by some national institution or other using slurs and derogatory language about Indigenous people like it’s industry jargon. Because it is: Microaggressions; belittling remarks based on race, gender, identity, presentation, hair, makeup, clothes, body type; and the expectation of willingness to step into a stereotype are what we see. The closest thing many of us come to “inclusion” is that we’re all discarded in equal measure.

In an essay that takes aim at TikTok, Cory Doctorow puts forth a general theory of tech giants:

Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die … This is enshittification: Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

Thanks for your contributions. I read every one that you send. By submitting an email, you’ve agreed to let us use it—in part or in full—in the newsletter and on our website. Published feedback may include a writer’s full name, city, and state, unless otherwise requested in your initial note.

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What Makes a Great Alien Language?

The Atlantic

For big fans of James Cameron’s Avatar, the 13-year wait between the original and this year’s sequel probably felt near interminable. But die-hard fans might have counted with a bit more agony and say it’s actually been vomrra zìsìt, or “15 years.”

I’m not implying that Avatar rots the brain. Rather, the blue-skinned Na’vi people, who inhabit the planet Pandora in Cameron’s universe, have four digits per hand. As a result, their language—painstakingly built from scratch for the movies—uses base-eight counting instead of the human base-10. Fifteen in Na’vi actually means eight plus five (as opposed to 10 plus five in English), making it the equivalent of our 13.

During those “15” years, Paul Frommer—the business professor and linguist who developed a complete Na’vi language for the first movie, including its octal counting system—created a distinct dialect for the reef-dwelling clan introduced in Avatar: The Way of Water. Only a few snippets are audible in the three-hour sequel, and Frommer is waiting to release more details to the small but passionate community of Na’vi speakers here on planet Earth—he wants to give them the opportunity to puzzle over its lexical and syntactical variations first.

Commissioning an entirely new language, which felt special for the first Avatar, is becoming a staple for immersive science-fiction and fantasy worlds. We’ve seen the invention of Dothraki and High Valyrian for HBO’s Game of Thrones, spoken and sign languages for the recent Dune remake, and bloodsucker-speak for Vampire Academy, to name only a handful. These languages are as functional as English, with internally consistent rules. In turn, neuroscientists have been able to harness them to better understand how the human brain processes constructed and natural languages, giving us new clues into what, exactly, constitutes a language to begin with.

Whereas the sounds and syntax of natural languages evolve over hundreds of years of unscripted conversation, many invented languages of similar complexity are quite literally scripted, pieced together on short timelines of months or even weeks. It all raises the question: Just how does someone build a fictional language?

The earliest recorded constructed language, or “conlang,” was created in the 12th century by a German nun, Hildegard of Bingen. Scholars still puzzle over the purpose of Bingen’s lingua ignota, preserved in a glossary of about 1,000 words, but its categories and hierarchies, with God and angels on top, suggest religious motivations.

The documented history of sustained, systematic language construction really begins several hundred years later. In the 1600s, as the ideas that would eventually produce the Enlightenment were gaining momentum, philosophers sought to create an ultrarational mode of communication. “The purpose was to find the truth of the universe by finding a language in which you could only express the truth,” says Arika Okrent, a linguist who wrote the landmark history In the Land of Invented Languages.

To create a universally true language would require the categorization of every possible thing and idea. That’s exactly what the British polymath John Wilkins set out to do when he created his “philosophical language,” among the most famous of these attempts, in which he broke down the universe into its most basic units of meaning and laid them out in a monstrous conceptual map. When it came time to link written words to those concepts, Wilkins sought a “real character” composed of symbols that were not surrogates for words or sounds, but that produced meaning through their form. Each word was essentially a coordinate for a concept’s location on Wilkins’s map. The philosophical language translation for “shit,” as Okrent tracks down in her book, is a stringing together of the scriptural representations of category XXXI, or motion (“ce”); subcategory IV, or purgation (“p”); sub-subcategory 9, or gross parts (“uhw”); and finally, the opposite of vomiting (“s”)—all of which combine to form cepuhws, or “shit.”

Efforts like Wilkins’s were brilliant, even beautiful, and laid the foundation for modern taxonomy. But their high standard for conceptual precision made the actual languages unusable because “you have to know what you want to say before you can put your words together,” Okrent told me. Intellectuals soon lost interest.

[Read: Only English would try to shorten a word this way]

Two centuries later, the search for another mode of ideal communication began, more practical but no less lofty in its ambition: a common language that would serve as a vehicle for international peace. Esperanto, invented in 1887 by a Polish ophthalmologist, is the most famous example and is still in use. But that quest, too, was abandoned after horrors throughout the 20th century made clear that linguistic divides were not the root of humanity’s enmity and bloodshed.

The model for modern language creation lies not in philosophy or international relations, but in the work of the Lord of the Rings author, J. R. R. Tolkien—that is, in fantasy. Tolkien, a philologist who helped work on the Oxford English Dictionary, did not design languages for his fictional world and histories, but built a universe around the multiple tongues he had been making since about 1910. (A common misconception is that Elvish is a language; rather, it is a language family, something like Romance or Sino-Tibetan.) The next well-known effort was Star Trek’s Klingon, designed in 1984 to sound as alien as possible by creating sound combinations not found in any human language. Yet “conlanging” remained fringe, even among nerds and linguists, for decades. As Okrent wrote in the opening line of her book, which came out in 2009, Klingon speakers inhabited “the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder.”

The debut of 10-foot-tall blue aliens in theaters that same year morphed conlang condescension into fascination. In 2005, Cameron had sent out a request for a linguist to construct a unique Na’vi language, and Frommer, then teaching business communication at the University of Southern California but with a linguistics Ph.D., got the job. There were a few constraints: He needed to incorporate 30 or so words Cameron had already come up with and make the language learnable by humans.

Frommer also suspected that a subset of enthusiastic viewers would want to explore the language, and so he designed it to stand up to scrutiny. He began with the basic sounds and sound system of Na’vi, some parts of which were inspired by various human languages, “but others are very unfamiliar,” like the fng and tskx consonant clusters, Frommer told me. Then he considered the formation of words and their relation to basic grammar, also known as morphology. The prefixes that indicate a noun’s plurality aren’t limited to indicating “one” or “many,” but have different forms for “one,” “two,” “three,” and “four or more”; verbs have in-fixes (as opposed to pre- or suffixes), insertions into the middle of a word to modify its meaning. Last came syntax, how words combine into phrases and sentences, with some innovations Frommer has not encountered in any natural language. For instance, expressing “I am here” in Na’vi requires a transitive verb—tok, literally “to occupy a space”—signifying how “your existing in the place has changed the place,” he said: Oel fìtsengit tok (oel tok fìtsengit or tok oel fìtsengit are also acceptableNa’vi word order is very flexible).

[Read: Avatar: The Way of Water puts most modern blockbusters to shame]

As important as these technical aspects, Frommer said, is “how your language is going to conform to and be appropriate to the environment in which it’s spoken, and to the individuals who speak it.” The octal counting system is one example, constructed to match how Na’vi would naturally have evolved given the physical characteristics of the beings speaking it. Frommer also created various idioms to reflect the Pandoran planet, such as na loreyu ’awnampi, which means that someone is shy but literally translates to “like a touched helicoradian”—a reference to large, spiraling plants (well, technically plant-animals) that coil up when brushed against.

Similar principles apply to nonverbal communication: The deaf actor CJ Jones created an underwater sign language for the reef-dwelling Na’vi in The Way of Water by imagining “how the Na’vi would communicate underneath the water,” he said in an interview with IGN. “And so I decided to create, use the feeling, and get into their soul.” Creating languages for Cameron’s films, then, required conjuring a sort of avatar—imagining the Na’vi people and their environment by putting oneself in their bodies and world.

Only two years after the first Avatar, the debut of HBO’s Game of Thrones series—with complete languages such as Dothraki and High Valyrian and which, across all seasons, generated an estimated $285 million in profits an episode—firmly established invented languages as a benchmark for immersive, well-constructed fantasy and science-fiction worlds. The show’s creators went to David Peterson, a linguist who co-founded the Language Creation Society, hoping he could flesh out the snippets of language found in George R. R. Martin’s novels.

Peterson, joined by the linguist Jessie Sams in 2019, creates conlangs professionally for television and film—“the top of the chain of the artistic conlang movement,” Okrent told me—and is responsible for the fictional languages in productions including The Witcher, Paper Girls, and Motherland: Fort Salem. Ideally they’d have six months for each project, Sams told me, but they sometimes have been given as few as 10 days. The success of several movies and shows with their own languages, combined with communities of fans facilitated by the internet, is part of what makes this business possible. “People look at it as not only an important way to build characters and build world, but to help build a stronger, better fan base,” Sams said.

Peterson embraces a kind of simulation to create his languages. He sets up a simple protolanguage that might exist in a given fictional universe, and then traces the kind of natural evolution that might take place in its sounds, lexicon, and grammar—as if the language’s path “recommends itself to you,” Peterson told me.

Every decision shapes and is shaped by the language’s overall structure; vocabulary and idioms should reflect the environment and history in which they will be used. “A fleshed-out history is what separates languages that are good from languages that are excellent,” Peterson wrote in his 2015 book. Locating a language in space and time, then—fitting it to an embodied communicator and physical environment, as well as to a point in its evolution—may be the key to its success.

When executed well, fantasy and science-fiction languages don’t only mimic the structure and evolution of natural forms of spoken communication; fMRI scans reveal that the brain seems to treat them the same as real languages.

Evelina Fedorenko, a cognitive scientist at MIT, has for years studied how the brain behaves when an individual speaks different languages, and has discovered that “some basic features of the neural mechanism for language are similar” across languages, she told me. The same neural machinery fires when the brain processes any of the 45 languages, across 12 language families, that her lab has studied. Fedorenko also previously found that the parts of the brain that process literal language are not active when people engage in cognitive activities often metaphorically described as “languages,” like solving math problems, listening to music, or programming.

Her lab wanted to apply the same method to conlangs to see if, for example, a fluent Na’vi speaker listening to the language would use the same parts of the brain as a Mandarin speaker listening to Mandarin would. Constructed languages haven’t evolved over hundreds of years via organic conversations, after all: “So the question then arose, does the brain treat it as a language?” says Saima Malik-Moraleda, who worked on a study of Esperanto, Klingon, Dothraki, High Valyrian, and Na’vi. “Or will it be like computer languages, where it’s processed in these other networks?” Their research, which has not yet been published, found that it was the former—all five of the languages studied activated the brain’s language network.

“It seems like languages provide us with mappings between forms and meanings,” Fedorenko said. English and Na’vi might lead the brain to associate words with objects and ideas in an attempt to communicate those meanings to others, whereas a line of code or sheet music helps with problem-solving or aesthetic expression; in other words, language and thought are not necessarily the same. Perhaps John Wilkins’s philosophical language, if difficult to use, had struck near the essence of language; centuries later, mapping symbols to an abstract meaning-space is similar to how cutting-edge AI translation programs work as well.

Beautiful languages are created without Hollywood’s backing, of course; Peterson is fond of Rikchik, a language created for seven-armed inhabitants imagined to live on a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. And in turn, enjoyment can arise even without a technically sophisticated conlang. The Game of Thrones novels were best sellers without fleshed-out Dothraki; the languages in Star Wars, one of the most successful franchises ever, are mostly gibberish, even if Han Solo claims to understand Chewbacca’s bestial warbling.

I’ll even admit to crying multiple times while watching Avatar: The Way of Water, in which, even as a fictional language makes the Na’vi world feel complete, most of the dialogue is in English. Perhaps, if someone had completed the quest to create a language of universal truths, or one that would foster universal empathy—or if you and I both had the distinct neural braids of the Na’vi people—I could precisely explain in only a few words why I connected with the blue-skinned CGI characters and make you cry as well. As is, you’ll have to watch all 192 minutes of the film before agreeing with or ridiculing me.

The 35 Best Podcasts of 2022

The Atlantic

This story seems to be about:

Editor’s Note: Find all of The Atlantic’s “Best of 2022” coverage here.

Widespread remote work may have changed where people listened to podcasts, but many are back to their prior routines and hitting “Play” like it’s 2019. Fittingly, certain trends from yesteryear have stuck around for this resurgence: The audio space is still packed with true crime, which is often entertaining yet rarely remarkable. Shows about right-wing extremists and conspiracy theories are still popular. (Now, though, we’re finally hearing about the left’s fringe, too.) But a lot of what’s emerging in 2022 seems to be a rebuttal to two years of vegetation.

Dating shows have guests who are meeting in person again, and the latest podcasts are heavy on the fieldwork. Makers went back out into the world; some revisited their hometowns, some headed abroad, and others journeyed through ungoverned waters. We also observed the inverse of travel—burrowing deeper into one’s own headspace. Podcast hosts read poetry or, like so many people, came to terms with sorrow and grief, both private and shared. One thing remained constant: The best material we heard subverted popular tendencies or flat out surprised us.

This list contains 35 podcasts, not our usual 50 from years past. The audio space has become so creative and crowded that the bar for a standout entry has necessarily gotten higher. We’ve chosen only the podcasts that managed to cut through the noise, slide into our heads, and stay there. (As in prior years, we’re recusing ourselves from ranking any Atlantic content.) These shows don’t gawk at tragedies so the audience can rubberneck along. They don’t merely recap movies or shows or current events. Instead, they provide as much inspiration as they do provocation. We offer them as a balm for loneliness, a call to adventure, and a blueprint for the future of the art form.

35. My Unlived Life

Where book lovers’ and arm-chair psychologists’ interests intersect, you’ll find My Unlived Life. According to the host Miriam Robinson, life is made up of small choices—you could’ve gone left but you went right, and so on. She invites guests to pinpoint one such decision and imagine, step by step, what life would’ve been like if they’d gone down the other path. They consider big choices such as having children or moving to New York, but also more seemingly mundane ones, such as attending a pool party or auditioning for a play. Hearing these guests, many of them writers, reimagine their own story in real time will inevitably inspire listeners to reflect on their own what-ifs and forks in the road. But instead of the worry that can often accompany such rumination, Robinson and her guests arrive somewhere closer to catharsis. Yes, life could be different, but you’re always on a road that leads to yourself.

Gateway Episode: “Irenosen Okojie

34. My Mother Made Me

Part golden memory, part real-time conversation, My Mother Made Me is Jason Reynolds’s collage-style ode to his alive-and-well mother, Isabell. (He jokes that she forced him to make the podcast—hence, the title.) Sifting through their shared past, he contemplates his relationship to not only his mom but also life in general. The topics can get heavy: He ruminates on his mother’s scare with cancer, his brother’s alcoholism, and his grandfather’s gambling. Yet this audio diary relies on lyricism and the joy of wordplay, which makes listening a unique pleasure. My Mother Made Me may approach even its most serious themes with a gentle beauty, but underneath its velvet touch is hard-earned wisdom.

Gateway Episode: “I Can Do Anything

33. Can I Tell You a Secret?

Not long after Facebook arrived in Northwich, England, Matthew Hardy started stirring up conflict. He assumed fake but plausible identities on the platform, then messaged people that their boyfriend or parents were cheaters. He commented on what people were doing or wearing in real time and escalated his behavior to sexual harassment. His schemes made for one of the most extreme cases of cyberstalking that a Google search will retrieve. One could argue that the most compelling part of Can I Tell You a Secret? is its horrifically juicy fare. But in the hands of the host and Guardian reporter Sirin Kale, the show also provides a clear-eyed analysis of modern-day stalking, the damage that can be caused without any laws being broken, and the ways in which a nonviolent person can still cause physical harm. Can I Tell You a Secret? leans slightly into salaciousness, but only enough to pose important questions about how far the legal consequences of a virtual crime should go.

Gateway Episode: “The Beginning

32. Til This Day

For his playful conversations with prominent artists, thinkers, and comedians, Radio Rahim adopts a format inspired by his career as a boxing journalist. Rather than spanning a single episode, each interview is broken up into three chapters. That structure riffs off three-round bouts but also mirrors the gradual way we tend to get to know people in real life. Auto-Tuned voices, music, and sound effects dramatize key moments. Rosie Perez’s voice is made to echo as she recalls the intensity of working 12-hour days while choreographing In Living Color, and heavy-metal music and crowd noise kick in while Jon Stewart explains the terror of a mosh pit. Rahim also had a tête-à-tête with Bob Saget: The interview, recorded in 2021, was published shortly after the comedian died, and it serves as the perfect homage to a beloved American figure. Rahim is an agile and clever host, always ready with a follow-up question that hits the mark.

Gateway Episode: “Michael Che: Ch 1

31. Réunion: Shark Attacks in Paradise

This show takes listeners to Réunion, an island in the Indian Ocean that saw an alarming rise in violent shark encounters in 2011. The resulting beach shutdowns affected tourists, surfers, and business owners, not to mention local politics. The host, Daniel Duane, mostly interviews the island’s residents and discusses patterns in shark encounters—the surface-level stuff listeners might expect for a shark-attack show. But the podcast ventures deeper too: One surfer legally hunted and killed a shark, which sparked outrage from other surfers. Another gives a play by play of how a bull shark bit his leg off and of the unexpected relief that came when it finally did. Duane shows how the increased presence of sharks is a symptom of bigger issues and a problem in its own right while also depicting how many surfers have to play mind games with themselves in order to keep doing what they love.

Gateway Episode: “Bienvenue au Paradis

30. School Colors

Some call the borough of Queens the most diverse place in the world, and yet its schools aren’t integrated. This podcast’s second season tracks the implementation of a “diversity plan” for District 28, only no one will tell the parents what the plan actually is. Recorded in 2019 during a packed school-board meeting, the first scene will disabuse listeners of idealized notions about modern integration in the classroom. To understand the racial dynamics, the hosts Mark Winston Griffith and Max Freedman offer a history of the community going back more than 100 years. Additionally, comments by former Mayor Ed Koch and ex-Governor Mario Cuomo (made prior to their election to those positions) reveal how high-level politicians bowed to pressure from white constituents. Very little has changed since then, except that maybe the language of discrimination has gotten gentler. In a time when conspiracy theories about what powerful people do behind closed doors run rampant, here is an account of colossal American dysfunction hiding in plain sight.

Gateway Episode: “There Is No Plan

29. Case 63

Case 63 (played by Oscar Isaac) is a psychiatric patient who claims he’s from the year 2062 and has come back to save the world from the latest lethal virus. He tells his psychiatrist, Eliza Knight (Julianne Moore), that after 2020, the world will go through many rounds of lockdowns and vaccinations, that people will grow more distrustful of one another and institutions, and eventually, a new disease will kill anyone who doesn’t take extreme caution. Case 63 is the perfect binge at under two hours total, which is about the right amount of time to sit with this brand of existential fear. Each plot twist bends the mind just enough to remind listeners that the show is science fiction, not prophecy (or is it?). Julio Rojas’s exquisite writing, adapted for English by Mara Vélez Meléndez, transforms fuzzy pandemic anxieties into crystalline conclusions.

Gateway Episode: “The Story I Grew Up With

28. Welcome to Paradise

Anna Maria Tremonti is a broadcast journalist who’s covered conflict zones so dangerous that she had to write her blood type above her heart just in case. She posits that she was drawn to reporting on violence toward women because of the physically abusive marriage she survived and kept mostly secret for decades. Now, with the help of her therapist, she’s telling her story publicly. She sets the stage for Welcome to Paradise with: “Maybe we all travel towards hell and are fooled, lulled by pockets of paradise along the way.” Tremonti grapples, episode by episode, with how she became part of a statistic—one-third of women worldwide experience physical violence, many from a partner—and with her feelings of shame. Considering how rarely women discuss their own experiences of intimate-partner violence in public, Welcome to Paradise is an urgent roadmap, as moving as it is brave.

Gateway Episode: “One of Those People You Hear About

27. Not Lost

Before the pandemic, the radio host Brendan Francis Newnam decided he needed new “creative meaning” and a dramatic change of scene. The result is the freewheeling travel podcast Not Lost, a series about communing with others—and living in your own skin—when you’re away from home. In each episode, Newnam is joined by a friend; his most frequent guest is the TV writer Danielle Henderson. They plan typical tourist activities, such as dance lessons in Mexico City, but the subsequent conversations take unexpected, introspective turns. (For example, Henderson says she’s too tall to dance, prompting both of them to chat about their bodies and abilities.) At every location, Newnam attempts to get invited to a dinner party by someone he has just met. That conceit pays off wonderfully, forcing him to win over strangers, at the risk of rejection. During a Valentine’s Day trip to Las Vegas in 2020, just before COVID shut down production, the dialogue frequently turned to not just love but also the meaning of being alone—an omen of things to come. Not Lost vividly captures the highs of travel as well as the longing and self-examination that come with exploring foreign territory.

Gateway Episode: “New Orleans: Anybody’s Gumbo

26. Borderline Salty

Borderline Salty packs a lifetime of cooking into tidy 30-minute episodes. The hosts Carla Lalli Music and Rick Martinez field questions from listeners, usually regarding anxieties about foods and intimidating techniques (one listener asks about cleaning mussels, another about how to choose the best spicy-sweet dessert). At-home chefs will feel encouraged to take risks and create, because Music and Martinez are utterly committed to the inquiries. The hosts have a supernatural ability to bring meals to life with their words, a skill they probably perfected while working for Bon Appétit. Martinez describes a decadent refried-beans-with-chicharrónes dish as “pork on top of pork, on top of more pork, on top of lard.” Music describes cooking over medium heat and “listening to the fat sizzle on the coals, and the smoke in my hair.” Listening to them is a sumptuous experience; Borderline Salty is a feast of superior kitchen wisdom.

Gateway Episode: “Like a Kiss From a Chile

25. Women’s Work

The reporter Ashley Ahearn takes listeners out West, introducing a round-up of ranching innovators, all of whom are women. Ahearn visits six states and covers the many sides of this business—the ecological, the financial—but her exploration of the land’s inherently contentious history makes the show a standout. Each episode begins with someone acknowledging the tribes that represent the ancestral land on which the show was produced. In one, someone rightly points out that many techniques described today as revolutionary have been used by Native Americans for millennia. And though a major conclusion of the show has to do with the current lack of creativity in the food system, Women’s Work delves so deep into its subject that nothing is left to the imagination.

Gateway Episode: “Waiting for Babette

24. Slow Burn: Roe v. Wade

The repeal of Roe v. Wade demolished nearly 50 years of constitutional protections for a woman’s right to choose. This season of Slow Burn explores the judicial battles that culminated in the 1973 precedent. Revisiting this material today, when restrictive laws are back on the books, may seem like agony. However, this history—of the people who fought in court and won—demands attention. The podcast begins in the early 1970s, when the state of Florida prosecuted a woman named Shirley Wheeler for manslaughter for having an abortion. From there, the story expands out, to President Richard Nixon’s cynical propagandizing of the fetus for the sake of votes, and to the Connecticut activists whose case, Abele v. Markle, was studied by Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun before his majority opinion for Roe. Women are still treated as pawns in political games; Slow Burn gives us hope that we’ll restore federal protections.

Gateway Episode: “Get Married or Go Home

23. Uncared For

A former reporter for MTV News, the host SuChin Pak is now a mother of two and podcaster. In Uncared For, she analyzes health care for pregnant people in the United States, where carrying to term, especially for Black people, has greater risks than it does in any other wealthy country. Pak kicks off the series by discussing with her postpartum doula the ways in which the American medical system disempowers pregnant people and how a lack of confidence, support, and trust can lead to dire consequences. In light of these realities, the show mindfully argues—via anecdotes, expert interviews, and plenty of statistics—that when pregnant people are centered, instead of the fetus, everyone benefits. We learn about how, in Germany, every pregnant person has the legal right to a midwife and how Dutch providers treat pregnant people as experts in their own body. Uncared For takes this last idea seriously, showing again and again that nobody knows your body better than you.

Gateway Episode: “America the Outlier

22. Buffy

Buffy may be the most famous folk singer you’ve never heard of. This show argues that her relative obscurity, despite her many cultural contributions, may be a result of blacklisting by radio stations and industry executives. Alongside the Mohawk and Tuscarora host Falen Johnson, Buffy tells much of her own story—how she grew up in a mostly white neighborhood in Massachusetts, reconnected with her Cree heritage, and came up in the 1960s alongside Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She was the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar. She brought Indigenous programming to Sesame Street. Elvis Presley, Barbara Striesand, and Cher covered one of her songs. But the show’s main draw is telling the story of how Buffy, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, maneuvered for future generations. Her extraordinary legacy as a consummate protester offers a guide for Native Americans seeking to reclaim power.

Gateway Episode: “Javex, USA

21. Normal Gossip

Pushing “Play” on Normal Gossip is like entering another world. In each episode, the host Kelsey McKinney shares a story that’s been submitted to her for discussion. Real names are scrubbed. Facts are unchecked. Though normal is in the title, many of the tales are scintillating. McKinney begins by chatting with a guest about their relationship to gossip, and why it matters to both of them. As the journalist Sam Sanders memorably quips, “It is a way for the powerless to have power.” The show perfectly re-creates how people gossip; McKinney dispenses plot points for dramatic effect but also adds some flourishes, such as choose-your-own-adventure-style questions. This series seeks to formalize the art of gossip, giving it the respect it deserves, tantalizing events notwithstanding.

Gateway Episode: “Spot the Scammer With Claire Fallon and Emma Gray

20. We Were Three

Soon after the writer Rachel McKibbens, her husband, and children—all vaccinated—came down with COVID, she lost her father and brother—both unvaccinated—to the disease. At the time, she was estranged from the two of them because of their staunchly different views on medical treatments. Still, McKibbens struggled with the fact that COVID had destroyed her family. The veteran podcaster Nancy Updike and McKibbens explore this fraught divide, and the deaths of otherwise healthy people. By looking at a fascinating archive of text messages from the phone of McKibbens’s brother, We Were Three offers a taxonomy of the polarizing, sometimes fatal misinformation surrounding COVID. But the podcast is primarily a family portrait, one that illustrates, by turns, fierce loyalty, violence, love, survival, and something like closure too.

Gateway Episode: “Black Box

19. Cover Story: Seed Money

The host Hanna Rosin takes listeners to Whitefish, Montana, a stunning town at the base of Glacier National Park, where a Silicon Valley venture capitalist named Mike Goguen started a company with his best friend, Matt Marshall, to conduct CIA-style missions. On the surface, Seed Money shows what someone with a superhero complex might do if given the opportunity, and in this way paints a somewhat embarrassing portrait of how billions of dollars can impact the male ego. When it’s revealed that Goguen has been depositing millions into women’s bank accounts around the country, what looks like nefarious power dynamics leads to a case study in what the show describes as “macho drama.” The podcast also uncovers a spectacular crime that, through a wildly entertaining investigation, lands someone in prison. In Seed Money, wealth is a red herring.

Gateway Episode: “Mind Your Own Business

18. Dear Poetry

As a girl, the reporter Luisa Beck was riveted by Dr. Erich Kastner’s Lyrical Apothecary, a book that sorted poems by ailment. Dear Poetry takes its cues from that work: Luisa and a guest writer prescribe poetry to ease callers’ problems. Cheryl Strayed responds to a question about accepting the evil in the world with “Good Bones,” by Maggie Smith. Someone wondering how to stay connected to an ailing father who has alcoholism and Alzheimer’s is encouraged by Jane Flett to read “Bottom of the Ocean,” by Bob Hicok. Reproductive anxiety, romantic woes, and racial inequity are all treated with poems. Beck kicks off each episode with a lyrical interlude from her own life, and her guest writer reads the literary treatment. Then, they tie the verses to what the caller shared, reminding listeners that poetry has the power to heal. The show is as dreamy and transcendent as it sounds.

Gateway Episode: “Always Near Ends

17. La última copa/The Last Cup

The soccer megastar Lionel Messi is the focal point of The Last Cup, but the host Jasmine Garsd’s fandom and personal history also underpin much of this saga, which starts with the economic collapse that forced her family out of Argentina. For many, Messi is a peerless goal-scoring machine, but back home, some fans think he is too privileged, too timid, and too European. (He moved to Spain when he was 13.) The series is a brilliant dissection of class, race, culture, and what it means to be an immigrant who idolizes the place where they were born. The Last Cup finds parallels between Garsd and Messi—they were both teenagers who left Argentina in the early 2000s, for instance—and connects both to the political turmoil in which they were raised. This podcast makes a global celebrity seem like the boy next door.

Gateway Episode: “The Goal

16. Articles of Interest: American Ivy

The creator of Articles of Interest, Avery Trufelman, devotes an entire season to a type of preppy clothing called “Ivy,” and what its history tells us about class, race, and possibly everything we put on our body. Styles are supposed to ebb and flow, yet Ivy doesn’t go away. Though the subject of fashion may be opaque, Trufelman argues that navy blazers and chinos are essential to our understanding of ourselves. She tells two stories: one about the garments themselves—the uniform worn on campuses in the mid-century Ivy League—and another about a Japanese man named Kensuke Ishizu who may have single-handedly made the clothing a fashion staple. Interviews with industry experts, which can sometimes drag down a podcast, are spellbinding here. The stylist and author Jason Jules gives one. When asked by Trufelman abou