The Gray Area with Sean Illing-logo

The Gray Area with Sean Illing

Vox Media

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 and Thursday.


United States


Vox Media


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 and Thursday.




Brian Stelter thinks the news has a reliability problem

Will the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News be a watershed moment? Is the media industry beyond repair? Sean Illing is joined by media reporter Brian Stelter, the former host of CNN’s Reliable Sources and the author of Hoax. Together, they reflect on the relationship of news, entertainment, and politics and what the consequences of the Dominion suit might be. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Brian Stelter, (@brianstelter) author; former TV news host;...


How corporations got all your data

Sean Illing speaks with Matthew Jones, historian of science and technology, and co-author (with data scientist Chris Wiggins) of the new book How Data Happened. They discuss the surprisingly long history of data from the 18th century to today, in service of explaining how we wound up in a world where our personal information is mined by giant corporations for profit. They talk about how the allure of measurement and precision spread from astronomy to the social sciences, why advertising...


The case for failure

Is our society's fixation with success hindering our ability to find humility? Sean Illing speaks with Costica Bradatan about his new book In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility, which explores failure through the lives of historical figures like Gandhi and the philosopher Simone Weil. They discuss the benefits of engaging with our limits and what we can learn from those who've embraced failure. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Costica Bradatan, Professor...


Poetry as religion

Sean Illing speaks with poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose new book The Wonder Paradox asks: if we don't have God or religion, what — if anything — do we lose? They discuss how religion accesses meaning — through things like prayer, ceremony, and ritual — and Jennifer speaks on the ways that poetry can play similar roles in a secular way. They also discuss some of the "tricks" that poets use, share favorite poems, and explore what it would mean to "live the questions" — and...


Revisiting the American Dream

In America, there's been an increase of available jobs, and there's also been a series of high-profile layoffs, strikes, and calls for unionization. The social safety net for workers is disappearing, so what can people do? Sean Illing speaks with Alissa Quart about her new book, Bootstrapped: Liberating Ourselves from the American Dream, about why people need to rid themselves of the American Dream's individualistic ideals and embrace dependence in order to succeed. Host: Sean Illing...


The cost of saving pandas

The giant panda is no longer endangered. This, of course, is good news. But the model of conservation that worked to protect these iconic bears has failed to help the countless other threatened species on Earth, most of which are far less charismatic. Guest host Benji Jones talks with Jason Gilchrist, a wildlife ecologist. They discuss if there is another way we should approach conservation, what exactly we should be trying to save, and why. Host: Benji Jones (@BenjiSJones), Senior...


Breaking our family patterns

Sean Illing speaks with marriage and family therapist Vienna Pharaon, whose new book The Origins of You aims to help us identify and heal the wounds that originated from our family, which shape our patterns of behavior in relationships and throughout our lives. Sean and Vienna talk about how we can spot and name our "origin wounds," discuss practical wisdom to help break free from the ways these pains grip us, and Sean directly confronts some real issues from his upbringing and family life....


For Black horror fans, fact is scarier than fiction

Guest host Alissa Wilkinson talks with Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman about her new book, The Black Guy Dies First: Black Horror Cinema from Fodder to Oscar. Dr. Coleman is the Vice President & Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at Northwestern University, where she is a Professor of Communication Studies. Together, they discuss the tropes in Black horror, and how inequity in Hollywood has shaped the attitudes of a nation toward Black people. Host: Alissa...


Taking Nietzsche seriously

Sean Illing talks with political science professor Matt McManus about the political thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher with a complicated legacy, despite his crossover into popular culture. They discuss how Nietzsche's work has been interpreted — and misinterpreted — since his death in 1900, how his radical political views emerge from his body of work, and how we can use Nietzsche's philosophy in order to interpret some key features of our contemporary...


The dark history of Silicon Valley

Sean Illing speaks with Malcolm Harris, a journalist, critic, and author of the new book Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World. Together, they discuss the weird history of the city that's birthed Stanford University, Hewlett Packard, Theranos, and the model of capitalism that's made an impact across the globe. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Malcolm Harris (@BigMeanInternet), journalist, critic and author References: Palo Alto: A History of...


The value of being a "hater"

Guest host Rebecca Jennings talks with Justin Charity, cultural critic and senior staff writer at The Ringer, about what it means to be dubbed a "hater" on the internet. Rebecca and Justin talk about the role of criticism and the evolving ways in which critics and fans clash online. They discuss how a bad review (or a review seen as bad) can spark a far-ranging backlash, how the meme-ified cry of "let people enjoy things" has been taken from its original context, and what — if anything —...


Behind the blue wall

Sean Illing speaks with Rosa Brooks, a former reserve police officer and current law professor at Georgetown University. Brooks wrote Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City about her experience going through the police academy and becoming a cop on the streets of Washington, DC. They discuss what she saw during her time on the force, some of the differences between how cops see their jobs and how things are, and what could be done differently to fix American policing. Host: Sean...


Best of: Imagine a future with no police

Guest host Fabiola Cineas talks with author, lawyer, and organizer Derecka Purnell about her recent book Becoming Abolitionists. They discuss Derecka's journey to defending the idea of police abolition, and what that position really entails. They explore questions about the historical and social role of policing in society, how to imagine a future where we radically rethink our system of criminal justice, and how we can acknowledge and incorporate current data about crime — while still...


Is America broken?

Sean Illing speaks with Alana Newhouse, the editor-in-chief of Tablet magazine. They discuss her recent essay on "brokenism," a term she coined in an effort to redefine political divisions in America. Newhouse argues that the most salient divide right now is between those who want to fix the institutions we have and those who want to burn it all down and start fresh. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Alana Newhouse (@alananewhouse) editor-in-chief, Tablet...


The creator of Fargo is done with good guys vs. bad guys

Sean Illing talks with Noah Hawley, the creator and showrunner of the anthology drama Fargo on FX, as well as a celebrated novelist whose newest book is Anthem (2022). They discuss themes stemming from Hawley's recent piece in the Atlantic about myths, stories, and tropes from the Old West (and Hollywood) that are still powerful and active in shaping American society. Hawley also talks about why we're drawn to shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, what to expect on the forthcoming...


Revisiting the "father of capitalism"

Sean Illing talks with Glory Liu, the author of Adam Smith’s America: How a Scottish Philosopher became an Icon of American Capitalism. Smith is most well-known for being the “father of capitalism,” but as Liu points out in her book, his legacy has been misappropriated — especially in America. They discuss his original intentions and what we can take away from his work today. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Glory Liu (@miss_glory), author; lecturer, Harvard...


Can effective altruism be redeemed?

Guest host Sigal Samuel talks with Holden Karnofsky about effective altruism, a movement flung into public scrutiny with the collapse of Sam Bankman-Fried and his crypto exchange, FTX. They discuss EA’s approach to charitable giving, the relationship between effective altruism and the moral philosophy of utilitarianism, and what reforms might be needed for the future of the movement. Note: In August 2022, Bankman-Fried’s philanthropic family foundation, Building a Stronger Future, awarded...


The roots of homelessness

Sean Illing talks with writer and reporter Jerusalem Demsas about the causes of homelessness in America. They discuss our ideas of home ownership, and how our country’s cultural expectations and policies are working against us. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Jerusalem Demsas (@JerusalemDemsas) staff writer, The Atlantic References: “The Homeownership Society Was a Mistake” by Jerusalem Demsas (The Atlantic; Dec. 20, 2022) “The Obvious Answer to Homelessness and...


Can race be transcended?

Sean Illing talks with author Thomas Chatterton Williams about race and identity in America. Thomas has analyzed racial identity through the lens of his own upbringing, and the performativity and pressures he experienced. In conversation with Sean, Thomas speaks about how he sees these identities as restrictive connections to the racial oppressions of the past, whether it's possible to achieve liberation without sacrificing solidarity, and on the complex interplay between race and class....


Is ethical AI possible?

Sean Illing talks with Timnit Gebru, the founder of the Distributed AI Research Institute. She studies the ethics of artificial intelligence and is an outspoken critic of companies developing new AI systems. Sean and Timnit discuss the power dynamics in the world of AI, the discriminatory outcomes that these technologies can cause, and the need for accountability and transparency in the field. Host: Sean Illing (@seanilling), host, The Gray Area Guest: Timnit Gebru (@timnitGebru), founder,...