Your self help book is problematic

This is how conservatives avoid taking good advice: “You can’t tell me what to do! Muh freedom!”

This is how liberals avoid taking good advice: “How dare you degrade me by implying that I’m not perfect the way I am! Oppressor!”

This isn’t a “left” or a “right” problem. Someone gives face-value good advice like “be considerate of people’s feelings,” and there is always some conservative on a hair trigger to yell about “policing language” and “political correctness”. On the flip side, if someone gives equally (face-value) good advice like “you should work hard if you want to succeed,” there are those on the left who instantly decide that you are “poor shaming” and most likely racist, sexist, and xenophobic.

It’s not restricted to social media or political discussion, either. There are people who completely reject professional advice and self-help books based on nothing more than a knee-jerk partisan political reaction, or a perception of the political orientation of the person giving the advice.

Neil Gaiman was called “classist” for saying that aspiring writers should go to Clarion, a well-respected workshop for science fiction and fantasy writing. (Apparently the workshop is expensive.)

Mike Cernovich told me that he was called “ableist” for including posture exercises in his self-help book The Gorilla Mindset.

It’s lazy and stupid. It is stupid because you are letting your assumptions about someone’s motivations govern your reaction, rather than actually listening to what they are saying. And it is lazy, because ultimately it is an excuse to avoid listening to any advice you don’t like. “I don’t have to put in effort to become a better person,” you can say to yourself, “Because anyone who criticizes me is wrong.”

Don’t be lazy and stupid. You should always listen to advice and consider what value it might have to offer you, rather than brushing it off with a knee-jerk “muh freedom!” or “oppressor!”

You’re better than that.

Tangled motivations

Yet that simple answer–the easy answer–isn’t a complete picture, either. In today’s political discourse we’ve become conditioned to associate certain types of advice with certain ideological positions.

There are lots of people out there for whom the sentence “people should work hard” is immediately followed by “…so people born into poverty just need to work harder, and that will solve all of their economic problems!” That is sometimes followed further by “….and if black people aren’t rich and successful, it’s just because they are lazy.”

The “work hard” narrative is part of a larger sociocultural movement that–when taken to its extremes–is anti social safety net, anti minimum wage, and often blames poor people for being poor. And if you spend a lot of your time reading partisan text on social media or engaging in political debates, you may have formed a strong association between “people should work hard” and this larger worldview. You may have, through simple repetition, come to expect that one is likely to imply the other.

So when you hear “you should work hard,” you immediately wonder: is the person giving this advice that kind of person?

Of course, the same thing happens on the flip side as well. The “be nice and respectful toward people” trope has been used as a lever by a very authoritarian “regressive left” movement that wants to no-platform and censor anyone and anything they deem offensive or “insensitive”. Naturally, not everyone who says “hey don’t be a dick” is an authoritarian censor; but if you are sensitive to issues of free speech, it’s understandable that, every time you hear “be considerate of other people”, you might wonder: am I talking to that kind of person?

The wise thing to do would be to wait and see. The calm and thoughtful thing to do would be to ask:

Hey! What exactly do you mean when you say be respectful? Are you saying people have a right to not be offended?

Hey! What exactly do you mean when you say everyone should work hard if they want to succeed? Are you saying that we shouldn’t try to implement institutional systems to help people who were born into disadvantaged conditions?

At the very least, that can then lead to a more detailed conversation about real issues. It can lead to a proper exchange of ideas, rather than flinging around phrases such as “oppression!” and “freedom!” like balls of poo.

Separate the message from the messenger

Try this exercise: The next time someone suggests that you behave a certain way, especially if your first reaction is to be indignant and outraged (“oppressor!” “muh freedom!”), stop and imagine that the advice is coming from someone whose political ideologies align with your own. Imagine that you are sitting in your living room, and a good friend is saying the same words to you.

Now, does it sound like good advice?

If the answer is “yes”, then it is good advice… regardless of who is giving it to you.

What about this phrase: “Always try to decrease the stress of the people around you.”  Is it good advice? Or is it a symptom of a weak dependency mindset?

The line by Mark Cuban. If it came from a Youtube video by a tatted up tween “SJW” you might think it was an attack on independence and liberty, reeking political correctness. “Be nice! Be nice!” It actually came from the self-made billionaire serial entrepreneur who owns the Dallas Mavericks.

But you want to know the real secret? It would still have been good advice, even if it came from the Youtube video.

Just like “be considerate of other people” is good advice.

Just like “work hard” is good advice.

You are hurting yourself

Why does it matter? When you refuse to consider advice based just on your assumptions and fears about the political orientation of the source, the only person you are hurting is yourself. By narrowing your worldview, and walling off your experiences to prevent input from certain “types of people”, you are limiting your own growth. You are cutting yourself off from the most valuable thing that life has to offer you: a variety of information and perspectives to choose from.

One of the saddest things about both the “extreme right” and the “extreme left” is the tendency to wall themselves off. They dismiss anyone with whom they disagree as stupid or evil, and none of the advice they give could possibly be worthwhile! Don’t read that book by a conservative, it can’t possibly have anything good to say! Don’t read that book by a liberal, liberals never have anything to offer!

You miss a lot of good advice, if you trap yourself in a dark room of ideology. It’s anti-intellectual, and it stunts your growth.

Of course, you might decide that the advice you are reading is bad advice. I’ve read many “self help” books filled with advice that I decided, after much thoughtful consideration, was a load of useless bullshit. And whether the advice is “work hard” or “be nice” or literally anything else, you might–after careful consideration–decide that you don’t want to follow it. You might decide that’s not what your chosen path and personality are about.

That’s fine. That’s up to you.

But at least it will be an informed choice rather than a shallow knee-jerk reaction.

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

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  1. mirella says:

    Some people just seem to have chosen for their life purpose to focus on abusing, distorting, contorting the message to fit their own worldview – but only until their lives become sooo miserable that somehow they are are being forced to start asking themselves questions, opening their mind up to truly understand. It is then that the depth and the width of the message strikes them as true. Until then … tempus non fugit.

  2. Gregory says:

    The L/R binary isn’t true of my own experience. I love the “extreme Left” and those I consider such have been notorious for including diversity a prior.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Hi Gregory!

      I know exactly what you mean. Personally, I’ve begun to find analysis in terms of the left-right dichotomy increasingly…. uninteresting. Uninteresting and not particularly informative. Other dimensions of contrast seem like they can be much more informative about the complexity of how issues are unfolding in our culture: libertarian vs authoritarian, inclusive vs exclusive, difference-embracing vs homogeny-embracing, and so on.

  3. dhl92 says:

    I think you have missed the real point here which is that by simply accepting and not speaking up about phrases like “people should work hard” it leaves those phrases out there in the culture and then they get used by racists and the right wing as a way of pushing the idea that being poor is just laziness.

    I that you are saying that’s not what everyone might mean when they say it but we have to challenge it because the idea can be abused by people who do want to push that agenda.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment! Although I understand what you mean, I’ve always been very way of the kind of argument that says: “This idea might be misunderstood or abused or used by bad people, therefore we must suppress the idea.”

      After all, since literally any idea “can” be abused, isn’t this an argument against… well, any idea?

      “Speak out against evolution… since some people might use evolution to justify eugenics!”

      “Speak out against E=mc^2, since some people might might use that idea to create a bomb!”

      “Speak out against being nice to people, since some people might think it’s an excuse to censor any speech they think it mean!”

      This is a kind of thinking that I’m against on principle. There will always be bad people in the world who misunderstand, abuse and misuse ideas. The remedy isn’t to clamp down on the ideas…. it’s to have even more dialogue about the ideas, so people learn not to abuse them.

      • dhl92 says:

        Maybe you have a problem with reading comprehension but I didn’t say that anything should be suppressed I’m just saying that the idea needs to be challenged. Letting a real general statement like “work hard” is too vague and can be abused and used for all kinds of implications so its just best to challenge the statement to force people to be more specific about what they mean.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          Thanks for clarifying! You are correct, I didn’t immediately understand, when I read your comment, that you were simply agreeing with what I said in the article. My position is exactly the same as what you just described, which I thought was clear when I wrote that the wise thing to do is to ask people what exactly they mean.

          The only thing I’m “speaking out against” in this article is people who don’t “challenge” (to use your words) or “ask questions” (as I framed it in the article), but rather rail against statements based on assumptions about the “character” or political orientation of the person giving the advice. I see too many people who just block and yell and assume that statement like “work hard” can only POSSIBLY ever be motivated by evil-terrible-no-good beliefs about poor people. I am against that … and if I understand your comments correctly, so are you.