The Gray Area with Sean Illing

The Gray Area with Sean Illing

The Gray Area with host Sean Illing is a philosophical take on culture, politics, and everything in between. We don’t pretend to have the answers, but we do offer a space for real dialogue. Resist certainty, embrace ambiguity, and get some cool takes on a very hot world. Formerly the Vox Conversations podcast. New episodes drop every Monday.


September 25, 2023 57 mins
Every generation thinks they’re living through the strangest times, but is our generation right? Sean Illing speaks with writer and activist Naomi Klein about her new book, Doppelganger: A Trip Into the Mirror World. They discuss how a much different Naomi — her doppelganger — scrambled her professional life and led to an unexpected plunge into the ironies and absurdities of our digital world. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host,...
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How worried should we be about AI? Sean Illing is joined by Stuart J. Russell, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and director of the Center for Human-Compatible AI. Russell was among the signatories who wrote an open letter asking for a six-month pause on AI training. They discuss the dangers of losing control of AI and what the upsides of this rapidly developing technology could be.  Host: Sean Illing (@seanilli...
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September 11, 2023 51 mins
Why is democracy worth saving? Sean Illing is joined by Astra Taylor, the author of the new book The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart. They discuss the history and reality of insecurity and how we can fight for more sustainable and meaningful democratic politics. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Astra Taylor (@astradisastra), author, The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things ...
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August 28, 2023 55 mins
What will American politics look like after Trump? Sean Illing is joined by Sohrab Ahmari to discuss his new book, Tyranny, Inc. Ahmari is one of the conservative intellectuals trying to map out a post-Trump future for the Republican Party, and his book is an attempt to justify a form of democratic socialism from the right. The two discuss whether his vision could ever be the basis for a broader coalition. Host: Sean Illing (@seani...
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August 21, 2023 53 mins
Why don’t we spend more time imagining a better future? Sean Illing is joined by Kristen R. Ghodsee, the author of Everyday Utopia: What 2,000 Years of Wild Experiments Can Teach Us About the Good Life. They discuss why it’s hard to imagine better outcomes in life, what we can learn from experimental living communities, and what the pandemic proved about our adaptability. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: ...
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August 14, 2023 63 mins
In this episode, which was originally published in August 2022, Sean Illing talks with Corey Robin, author of a 2019 book about the life and thought of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Robin discusses how Thomas — whose concurring opinion in the case that overturned Roe v. Wade garnered recent attention — developed the ideological basis of his extremist judicial philosophy, how his views went from the hard-right fringe to mor...
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August 7, 2023 61 mins
What does masculinity mean these days? Sean Illing speaks with Christine Emba, a columnist at The Washington Post who wrote the piece “Men are lost. Here’s a map out of the wilderness.” Together they discuss the confusing state of manhood, why figures like Jordan Peterson and Andrew Tate hold appeal, and how masculinity could be redefined. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Christine Emba (@ChristineEmba), ...
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July 31, 2023 52 mins
What does it mean to be “authentic” in the digital age? Sean Illing speaks with Tara Isabella Burton about her new book, Self-Made: Creating Our Identities From Da Vinci to the Kardashians. They discuss the history of self-creation, how it’s evolved into personal branding, and why a more collective mindset could benefit all of us. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Tara Isabella Burton (@NotoriousTIB), auth...
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July 24, 2023 47 mins
In the ‘80s and ‘90s, MDMA (also known as molly or ecstasy) was dismissed as a club drug and became the target of anti-drug propaganda. Today, it’s on the brink of being legalized for use in clinical therapy to treat conditions like PTSD. How did that happen? And what have we learned about the therapeutic potential of MDMA? Sean discusses all this with Rachel Nuwer, author of I Feel Love: MDMA and the Quest for Connection in a Frac...
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There are many ways people are trying to know themselves these days – from taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test to analyzing their astrological birth charts to identifying their attachment styles. But are any of these methods helpful? Allie Volpe, a senior reporter at Vox, discusses this with Mitch Green, a philosophy professor at the University of Connecticut and author of the book Know Thyself: The Value and Limits of Self...
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July 10, 2023 47 mins
Does being a parent today necessarily mean also being a climate activist? Sean Illing speaks with moral philosopher and political theorist Elizabeth Cripps about her new book Parenting on Earth, in which she discusses the real-life moral obligations of raising children in our current ecological crisis. Drawing from her experience raising two daughters, Elizabeth and Sean talk about how both to want the best for your children and to...
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June 29, 2023 56 mins
When we find ourselves in a dark place, what if we didn't "lighten things up"? Sean Illing talks with philosopher Mariana Alessandri, whose new book Night Vision offers a new way of understanding our dark moods and experiences like depression, pain, and grief. Alessandri describes the deep influence of what she calls the "light metaphor" — the belief that light is good and darkness is bad — and the destructive emotional cycles it h...
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June 26, 2023 59 mins
Sean Illing talks with Carrie Jenkins about her new book Sad Love, and her call to rethink the shape and boundaries of romantic love. In this far-ranging discussion about the meaning of romantic love, Sean and Carrie discuss the connection between love and happiness, what we should expect (and not expect) from our romantic partners, and whether or not loving a person must entail that we love only that person. This was originally re...
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June 22, 2023 52 mins
Sean Illing talks with evolutionary anthropologist David Samson, whose new book Our Tribal Future delves into how tribalism has shaped the human story — and how we might be able to mitigate its negative effects in the future. Sean and David discuss how and when tribal organization came on the scene, what changed in human organization when it did, and how taking advantage of some positive aspects of tribal alignment could provide a ...
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What do we do when an artist we love does something monstrous? Constance Grady, a culture writer at Vox, talks with Claire Dederer, the author of Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. They discuss how to reckon with the facts and feelings of consuming art by someone who's done something bad, if it's possible to separate the art from the artist, and what responsibility — if any — comes with being a fan. Host: Constance Grady, (@constancegrady)...
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June 12, 2023 57 mins
Sean Illing talks with Clancy Martin, professor of philosophy at University of Missouri Kansas City, about his powerful new book How Not to Kill Yourself, which combines personal memoir and philosophical analysis to explore what it means to pursue self-destruction. They discuss wisdom from the Buddha and Albert Camus, Clancy's view that he is a suicide "addict," and concrete strategies for escaping the grip of suicidal thoughts. I...
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June 8, 2023 57 mins
What is the future of the racial justice movement in America? Sean Illing talks with Cedric Johnson, professor and author of After Black Lives Matter, about building a protest movement that meaningfully recognizes the underlying economic causes of the social inequities highlighted by the BLM movement. They discuss the demonstrations of Summer 2020, the prospects of building a multiracial class-conscious coalition, and viewing urban...
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June 5, 2023 52 mins
Have clicks, likes, and shares driven media and democracy to the point of disrepair? Sean Illing is joined by Ben Smith, the editor-in-chief of Semafor and the author of "Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral." Together, they discuss how newsrooms were transformed by social media and the pursuit of traffic, and what the future of the industry might look like. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), ...
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Sean Illing speaks with history professor Robert Zaretsky about Simone Weil, a 20th-century French writer and activist who dedicated her life to a radical philosophy of love and attention. They discuss how she inspired her contemporaries — like Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir — and how her revolutionary ideas have remained relevant and important. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Robert Zaretsky, histo...
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May 25, 2023 65 mins
Can we live a good life in a world where animals are factory farmed? Guest host Dylan Matthews talks with the world-famous ethicist Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation Now, the newly revised edition of his movement-founding 1975 work. They talk about the progress made by the animal rights movement — and the issues it still faces. Dylan also questions Singer on other aspects of his career as an outspoken popularizer of philoso...
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