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.