Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Travesty of Self-Help Advice

Outside of the academy, self-help platitudes have largely substituted for philosophical literature. This is both pitiful and fortunate. The pity is that the advice peddled by self-help writers is abysmal. The blessing is that if the masses are attracted to New Age-flavoured self-help therapy, they haven’t the stomach for authentic knowledge and so it’s just as well they steer clear of philosophy. Still, here’s a philosophical take on some pearls of self-help wisdom.

Warped Stoicism, Garbled Liberalism

The charlatan sometimes lures you in with a veneer of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism. Authentic Stoic philosophy is tragic, because it was meant for warriors in a literal battlefield in which a violent death can come to anyone with no warning. The Stoic concedes that we have no control over the external world and therefore shouldn’t expect to get what we want if our desires are based on the false premise that we can control anything other than ourselves. Thus, we shouldn’t expect to be happy if we think happiness ought to include monetary wealth. As in Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Jainism, we should tailor our desires to natural reality: our na├»ve, self-centered, extravagant desires are unrealistic; the external world is indifferent towards our success (especially in war), and so the most we should hope for is to avoid disappointment if we can learn to be humble, to expect to control only our mindset. This is why Epictetus said the Stoic is invincible, since as long as he or she aligns her thoughts with natural reality, the Stoic won’t expect more than the world is likely to provide.

All by itself, then, genuine Stoicism refutes most of what passes for self-help wisdom, because Stoicism includes the tragic principles of Buddhism, which were much more recently reformulated by pessimists and existentialists in the wake of modern science. But in summarizing the top self-help lessons, one charlatan recommends taking “full responsibility” for your life. “This means that you have to own your mistakes and your victories too. You should not blame anyone else for the conditions in your life. You have to take responsibility for your life so as to live the one that you desire. Do not place responsibility for your life in the hands of your parents, guardians or romantic partners. The quality of your life is completely up to you. Do not make excuses, only progress.” Another source puts the point this way: “Don’t be an asshole. There’s enough negativity in the world; don’t contribute to it. If you’re able, be kind, but if you’re having a rough day, just try not to be a complete dick.”

This advice appears to be a garbled rendition of Sartre’s view and is thus in line with the bastardization of Stoicism. The exoteric slip-up here is to slide from Sartre’s early phenomenological focus on how consciousness is free to escape the present, to the notion that our freedom encompasses our “life.” In short, Sartre’s early account of freedom amounts to Stoicism, so his point is that we’re free to adjust our conscious states to accept reality. Thus, he says in Being and Nothingness that even a prisoner is free as long as he or she doesn’t wish to leave the prison cell. This is just the Stoic warrior’s tragic attitude of accepting the unpleasant likelihood of suffering or death in war, which extends to the broader conflict between nature and all creatures not occupied on a formal battlefield.

(Strictly speaking, the early Sartre conflates phenomenology and metaphysics and thus takes himself to be collapsing the distinction between intention and action, self and world. But Sartre doesn’t advocate the self-help charlatan’s sort of solipsism. Thus, Sartre concedes that the prisoner isn’t always free to leave prison, since that would be “absurd,” but he insists on the ontological significance of the fact that the prisoner is absolutely free to set himself on the course of fleeing, since that intention increases the probability of escape, by his initiating of actions that could achieve that goal. In any case, the later Sartre adopts a political, Marxist account of freedom, maintaining that Stoic freedom is insufficient.)

But the charlatan boasts that we control our “victories” and “mistakes,” as well as the “conditions” of our life, which conflicts with the notion that we’re responsible for the “quality” of our life if the latter is interpreted as meaning just our conscious reaction to events. If the point is to think positively, to not be an asshole so as to avoid disturbing the peace, the advice is plainly an amoral gesture to cynical conservatism. If the masses of sheeple are happy, because they’re uninformed and indoctrinated with self-help claptrap, it would be as rude to wake them as it would be to spoil a child’s fantasy about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

However, the principle may instead be pragmatic so as to be consistent with another self-help gem, which is to “Fake your success until it becomes real.” The alleged reasoning runs as follows: “The only way to make your personal change last is to convince your mind that you already are what you desire to be. For example, to become confident, you have to fake confidence. Faking it reprograms your mind to achieve what you are afraid to do. Thus, simply fake being successful by acting like you are and eventually, you will surprise yourself by actually becoming a success.”

In reality, this advice is meant to lower the bar in the context of run-away capitalism, to inure the duped masses to a culture in which frauds are commonly perpetrated by the power elites. The suggestion is to fool yourself so you can fool others into mistaking you for something you’re not; it’s thus a form of trickle-down mimicry of the financial frauds of the supervillains in charge of the economy, but on the smaller scale of our private betrayals of elementary standards of personal integrity. Just as women are taught to wear make-up or flattering clothes to pretend to have flawless skin or an hourglass figure, in business we’re supposed to act out roles deemed to be heroic by the collective infotainments that make excuses for the gross economic inequalities.

Another self-help principle, which appears to be a distortion of classic liberalism, is that, “You have the permission to become anything that you want.” This is supposed to be because, “Every desire of the human heart has some mechanics through which it can be achieved. If you find that you have a talent for a particular thing or activity, then you are bound to practice it to the fullest. You should utilize your talents and obligations. This responsibility is up to you and exists so that you can serve others around you. Somehow, our hearts already know who we are supposed to be. It is up to each of us to become anything that we want.”

The liberal doctrine is that we’re free to pursue any goal we choose as long as our goals don’t interfere with anyone else’s right to do the same for themselves. Thus, Adam Smith’s economic argument about the invisible hand that supports everyone’s self-interested pursuits was qualified by his treatise on “moral sentiments,” in which he demonstrates that he expects people in society to have a conscience, to seek to achieve “mutual sympathy of sentiments.” According to classic liberals, then, we shouldn’t consider ourselves absolutely free to be anything we want. Again, the self-help garbling of philosophy is meant to provide excuses for the sociopathy of the richest one percent. When translated into a reality-based form, minus the veneer of happy-talking obfuscation, the self-help advice is to believe we’re permitted to be anything at all, even something monstrous such as the sociopaths who have “earned” the greatest success in business or politics, assuming our “heart,” meaning our lack thereof indicates we’re heading in that loathsome direction.

If the advice is to follow your passion, as Joseph Campbell used to say, the advice should be tempered with the Stoic reminder that in most endeavours we’re likely to fail regardless of how much effort we exert, because the external world is indifferent and far mightier even than all of us put together. But this would defeat the true self-help agenda of rationalizing the pre-existing power structure. Thus in self-help fantasyland it’s heads I win, tails you lose. If you want to be an astronaut and you happen to be one of the very few who succeed in that endeavour, a self-help charlatan would depict you as being basked in the further glory of having “stayed true to your heart,” of not giving up and so forth, forgetting the ever-present luck factor in everything that transpires. But if you fail, and most of us would, that’s because you gave up too soon. In short, the Western world is supposed to be a meritocracy, contrary, for example, to the Stoic or Eastern basis of much of this phony wisdom.

The Twaddle of Self-Help Theology

To sum up, knowing yourself and following your ethical passions to prevent regrets are fine, as long as you keep in mind that the real world doesn’t owe you anything, because the world is as monstrous as the creeps in charge who effectively serve as avatars of certain true gods, that is, of the factors involved in nature’s tendency to evolve by preying on itself. But the self-help charlatan goes further in saying, “You have an obligation to be who your heart knows you can be. This way you make your highest contribution to the world and live regret free. There are no accidents or unreachable goals that exist within your desires. You are also worthy of receiving the blessings (including financial blessings) that result when you bring value to others.”

The latter point about “blessings” is refuted by basic Stoicism and the Greek tragedies, but the sentimental tone here, about blessings and the obligation to stay true to what our “heart” knows, makes sense only in light of self-help theology. This theology comes in two forms. Thus, a charlatan writes, “There is always a higher power at work (and it’s on your side)…The universe’s helping hand is on call, waiting to lift you back up, literally on demand, as soon as you center yourself and allow the above truths into your life.” Indeed, writes the same charlatan, “The higher power at work in our lives (call it God, the universe, source energy, it doesn’t matter) is working right alongside you—always. In moments of discouragement, don’t despair.”

Obviously, this apology for Western Christianity doesn’t sit well with classical Greek philosophy, the latter being the basis of some self-help bromides. The Greeks had their gods too, but they didn’t trust in them because they understood that these gods represented what we would call natural regularities, which are inhuman or which at least don’t care whether we succeed or fail (unless our deeds happen to coincide with the Olympian agenda of maintaining the cosmic order). The reason, though, that the charlatan is nonchalant about what to call this higher power is that the writer’s heart isn’t in this religious aspect of self-help therapy. The real point of this religious rhetoric is for the writer to follow the advice of “faking it until you make it,” and to cast the net as widely as possible so as to sell the most books and thus to succeed monetarily at the expense of those who are easily fooled. Thus, whether you call this higher power “God,” the “universe” or “source energy,” all are welcome to purchase the self-help materials. It doesn’t matter that the natural universe couldn’t be expected to be “on our side” to the same extent as would a benevolent deity; at least, we’re not supposed to think about that because self-help therapy is a scam.

The second part of this bogus theology is known as the “Law of Attraction,” the point of which, writes a charlatan, is that, “Your thoughts create your reality,” which means, “We create our world with the thoughts which we think. The thoughts we have at any one time have the potential to bring us joy or sadness. It is entirely up to us to pick which one we want. If you feel low, it is because of the thoughts which you have at the moment. Are you full of joy? Your thoughts are the reasons for this. Just as you have the capacity to change your thoughts, so do you have the capacity to change your emotions and also your reality. In your day to day life, only reach for the thoughts which give you the highest feelings. Focus on what you want, not what you don't want. This will promote the Law of Attraction to bring you what you desire. Everything you are going through today was manifested due to a thought you had. Thus, guard your thoughts jealously and treasure only the positive ones.”

The hidden significance of this piece of advice is that it follows the liar’s maxim to wrap the lie in the truth, to disguise the dishonest intention. Notice in the above, then, the Stoic truism that our thoughts are the reasons for our joy or for whatever we happen to be feeling. But the charlatan slides from saying that we create our inner world, to saying that we create our outer one too, which would be magical. You can “change your thoughts,” but according to the advice you likewise “have the capacity to change your emotions and also your reality” (my emphasis). The latter part is just tacked on, but the gibberish metaphysics is supposed to fill in the gap. Thus, if you focus on what you want, the “Law of Attraction” will kick in, which works like a magnet for spirituality and morality.

Brazenly, the charlatan writes, “Everything you are going through today was manifested due to a thought you had” (my emphasis). Again, the real point of this assertion isn’t to support any plausible late-modern religion. The point is only to pretend that “free” society is meritocratic, that if a society is at least superficially democratic and capitalistic, while being more deeply plutocratic and rigged against competition, everything that happens is still as it ought to happen. The free world is fair, and since most competitors lose in any race, they’re solely to blame for their failure, which is why the rare victory is celebrated, because it, too, is earned. We control our thoughts, since we can train ourselves to operate under one mindset or another, and since our thoughts dictate our actions, and the benevolent world is inclined to bow to our will, we “manifest” the life we deserve.

Just as the books in the Bible weren’t meant to be read by all and sundry but were intended for narrow audiences long since having passed away, this Law of Attraction is directed to the relative winners who are likely to come across it in bookstores or on the internet or daytime talk shows. If the self-help guru takes her meritocratic mantras to a slum or—like the rapist Bill Cosby—focuses on blaming poor people’s parents for their children’s troubles, she likely won’t survive the encounter. Why are some nations much poorer than others? There are lots of reasons, of course, but one of them is bound to be that richer, more powerful nations have historically had a hand in oppressing those poorer people. This is true in Central and South America, and in the Middle East and Africa. If the poor think positively, will they be “destined” to overthrow their oppressors? Here the question assumes the possibility of mind over matter, as though the American military and economic might which backed Saddam Hussein, for example, could have been defeated just by Iraqi positive thinking. From recent history, we know instead that it took the fantasies implicit in American neoconservatism to turn the American military against Saddam’s regime to defeat him. Moreover, we learned that American positive-thinking didn’t prevent the subsequent and predictable outbreak of chaos and tribalism in the region. Where, then, was the benevolent higher power for the downtrodden in Iraq? Where is this power in any other poor part of the world in which the poor’s natural wishes for a better life go unanswered?

Of course, because self-help therapy is pseudoscientific and meant primarily to rationalize societal power inequalities and to reassure the relative few who happen to succeed that they deserve their luxuries because they’ve “earned” them, the charlatan is free to answer that the poor likewise deserve their failure because their thinking isn’t sufficiently positive. The conceit here is that the so-called Law of Attraction is quantifiable, as though the magnetic higher power snaps into action only once a certain threshold is reached, as spelled out by some New Age theory of the mechanisms at work in this system. Never mind that the scientific model of explanation objectifies and thus depersonalizes what it explains, positing indeed mechanisms rather than spirits or even moral qualities such as the higher power’s being “on our side.” If you find yourself reading self-help infotainment rather than genuine philosophy, you’re not supposed to know how science works in the first place. Far from being a workable method of ensuring success in the real world in which there’s no such underlying benevolent force at our beck and call, so-called self-help advice is part of the neoliberal smokescreen.

To Love or to Loathe, that is the Question

Finally, when it comes to your love life, the principle is to “Love yourself,” the point being that, ‘No other love should be stronger than the love which you have for yourself. Self-help books indicate that you should take some time every day to love yourself. Look in the mirror every morning and say to yourself, “I really love you.” You do not have to be any different than you currently are so as to deserve love. You deserve some love simply because you exist. When you love yourself, you are able to become the real you. When you have high levels of self-love, your personal vibrations are at a frequency that is able to repel fear and inspire others to be themselves. Loving yourself keeps you present and refuses activities that are self-sabotaging.’

This nauseating bit of guidance likewise betrays its true purpose as well as its proper audience. Those who are supposed to read that instruction and who are most in need of it are the few who achieve the greatest success in liberal society. Their wealth empowers them, their power corrupts them, and so they lose their worthy, inner self to monstrous, animal habits. They become sociopathic dominators in comparison to the lower class that soothes itself with slave morality. But the monsters, too, need to learn to feel good about themselves; they need to love the hideous creatures they’ve become on account of the worldly success they’re driven to achieve at any cost. Hence the dictum to love yourself, no matter who or what you are. The charlatan leaves the door open to sociopaths, by saying, “You do not have to be any different than you currently are so as to deserve love.” Everyone who ever lived, therefore, deserves to be loved. We have the right to be loved simply because we exist.

A truly wise person would cease at that point, since if monsters can be trained to love themselves, given that no one else would love them, the self-help principle might seem vindicated, at least at first glance. Everyone deserves to be loved and justice would be done in the monster’s case since at least one person would love the mega-rich sociopath: himself or herself. But the self-help charlatan adds this bit of quackery: “When you have high levels of self-love, your personal vibrations are at a frequency that is able to repel fear and inspire others to be themselves.” Again, the conceit is that any of this has been quantified so that we could speak meaningfully about levels, vibrations, or frequencies with respect to a metaphysically-grounded right to be loved.

Are we our truest self when we approve of ourselves? Notice that our true self needn’t be the same as our best self. Our best self might be construed as the version of ourselves that’s most useful to others, if not to ourselves, in which case the neoliberal intelligentsia might encourage the mob to maintain their sheepish posture so as not to interfere with the power elites’ enjoyment of their leisure time. This best self is precisely what Marxists and existentialists alike would call our inauthentic self, which is the opposite of our real one. We’d be living for others rather than for ourselves and playing a role that’s dictated to us instead of understanding the consequences and accepting the role in good faith. In short, we’d be duped and talked out of being ourselves.

Our true self, of course, is our real one, which is the self that exists according to objective explanations of what we are. That self is necessarily unlovable, as is anything else in so far as it’s objectified. The more we study ourselves and stew in introspection, the more we learn to loathe ourselves, just as the more we study nature, the more we appreciate the universe’s monstrous proportions and living-dead transformations, which compels us to take shelter in our alternative habitatsOur true self is the one consisting of mental programs that fool themselves into thinking they add up to a sovereign person; these programs or compulsive thoughts need such a ruse to deal with the cognitive dissonance arising from the human brain’s anomalous power of higher-order thinking. Our true self is likely the one that succumbs to delusions and other weaknesses of character to avoid entertaining unpleasant truths, including the scientific truth of its identity as a self-deceiving animal. For example, we resort to the delusions of self-help therapy instead of reckoning with the cosmicist implications of scientific theories, even to the point of twisting Stoic principles to serve Western hedonism.    

The romantic implication here, though, is that if we love ourselves, someone else is bound to find us more attractive and love us in turn. In other words, women prefer confident men (whereas men prefer the opposite, namely submissive women, as history and anthropology demonstrate). It’s true that women prefer confident men, but this has little to do with love or with any right to be loved. A woman wants a confident partner, because confidence is a sign of success and success indicates the ability to protect the woman’s offspring. Thus, what drives this dynamic isn’t romantic love, but the genetic compulsion to procreate.

If we leave aside that unpleasantness and focus on what morality prescribes, we’re led to the opposite conclusion: as Jesus might have said, those who are most deserving of love are the meekest since they’re the least likely to harm others. Again, those whose self-confidence is borne from worldly success are liable to be not just aware of their abilities but poisoned, to some extent, by a sense of self-entitlement. Their success is cursed by nature’s carelessness, and so the victors in politics or in business deserve not to be loved but reviled. That’s what a moral narrative would dictate, that we should love most those who can’t help themselves, because they’ve done the least harm in life.

Instead, we think our free society is meritocratic and so we do the opposite: we celebrate the alpha males despite their sociopathic tendencies, and we hold omega losers in contempt. We do so because we’re driven more by our animal nature than by morality, because the fictions that sustain moral judgments are no longer compelling. On top of that, free society impoverishes our taste in fiction, so that even if the egalitarian myths that enjoin us to cooperate with strangers weren’t undone by philosophical naturalism, in our capitalistic race to the bottom we’d be inclined to ignore Jesus and the other saints and mystics, and defer to the myths of Western meritocracy such as those that emanate from Hollywood, Fox News, and conservative talk radio. Thus, women prefer confident men not just for the evolutionary reason, but because their romance novels and movies have taught them to lust after sociopathic alphas. Still, that has nothing to do with romantic love, although the noble lie is couched in those terms. The romantic myth of the antihero who entices the woman with the promise of adventure is meant to excuse the sociopathy not of fictional characters but of the alpha males who actually rule.

What passes for self-help wisdom and thus for philosophy, for the nonphilosophical masses is a travesty. But the content of self-help advice should be distinguished from its function. What self-help gurus say is laughable, but the effect of these lessons must be to reinforce the more appalling aspects of Western culture that aren’t self-justifying. In short, the powerful few co-opt philosophy, religion, and any other source of information, spinning a narrative to defuse the potential for resistance to their domination. Under these conditions, the actual philosopher’s job might be to side with the winners, whispering advice into the corrupt king’s ear, like a pretentious court jester; to side with the losers, providing abstract discourse to those whose suffering speaks for itself; or to stay out of the conflict as omega watchers, to ridicule both sides with ironic detachment. By contrast, the self-help charlatan’s job is obviously just to cash in on mass ignorance. 

No comments:

Post a Comment