Motivation and control

I came across an interesting argument on Twitter recently. It went something like this:

“You shouldn’t tell people that they can’t help being racist, because that’s demotivating. If they can’t help it, then they might figure…. why bother trying to change? If they can’t help it, then it makes them feel helpless. That will make them sullen and resentful, and isn’t the way to get people to want to do better. It just makes them feel like… hey, why not give up? I mean, if I can’t help being racist anyway… maybe I shouldn’t even try!”

I tried thinking about other examples of things in my life that I can’t control. Do I feel demotivated when there is something I have no power to change? Sometimes. There are definitely times when I can feel discouraged. However, I also recognize that these feelings come from my mindset: my attitude about control and the world around me.

For example, my right arm is stronger than my left arm because of a football injury I got when I was in my 20’s. This is something I will never be able to change: my left arm will always be weaker. Moreover, when I’m lifting weights, I have to be aware that my left arm is weaker: I have to use the mirror to judge symmetry and I have to constantly compensate for that “bias” my body has.  In this scenario, the fact that weakness in my left arm is something I can’t change or control isn’t something I should ignore. It is also not something that demotivates me. On the contrary, being aware of the bias lets me be more effective in pushing myself hard at the gym and achieving my goals.

If you acknowledge that everybody in our culture has racial biases, and therefore has unconscious tendencies that are a little bit racist, you can use that knowledge to function more effectively in the world. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person, and the fact that you can’t change it doesn’t mean you should “give up.” But knowledge of a persistent unconscious bias can be one more data point that you use when evaluating the world around you, and striving to be the best person you can be.

To me, the argument I heard on Twitter — “if you tell someone they can’t help it, then they will figure why bother!” — simply seems lazy. It would be like me saying: “Hey, my left arm will never be as strong as my right arm, so I’m just going to work out my right arm from now on!” All that does is amplify the problem, and create more problems (with balance, posture, symmetry, and overall strength) down the road. It’s what a person does when they just want to do what is easy, not what produces the best results.

Sisyphus was cursed to the useless task of forever pushing a boulder up a hill, only to watch it fall back down to the bottom again. But Camus speculated that this wasn’t much of a punishment at all, because Sisyphus would only really be unhappy in the moment when he reflected on his lack of control: while he was engaged in the hard work of pushing the boulder, it was a challenge that consumed him… and he would have no time for despair.