DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Can Politics And Science Cure All Ills?

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled, but I was inspired to write here again after my recent review, on my other blog, of Robert Augustus MastersSpiritual Bypassing: When Spirituality Disconnects Us from What Really Matters.

Spiritual Bypassing is about how we tend to use spiritual practice to escape from, rather than confront, our psychological wounds.  One thing that particularly struck me in the book was Masters’ statement that, ideally, spiritual practice is about releasing everything in our lives from the “obligation to make us feel better.”

The point is that spirituality is certainly far from the only thing people use to “take the edge off” their pain.  Drugs are another obvious example, but there are subtler and more “socially acceptable” examples as well.  I regularly notice instances of what I’d call “political bypassing” and “scientific bypassing” in our culture.

To illustrate the former, some people I know came close to hailing Obama as a messiah when he was elected — looking, for the next few days, like they were in a spiritually-inspired state of bliss, and their personal tribulations were healed or at least put out of their minds.  (Ironically, the same people usually scoff at the mere mention of spirituality, associating it with evangelical Christians and/or Republicans.)

Most importantly for our purposes, we can also see the embrace of political and scientific “bypassing” among critics of personal growth and spirituality.

Political Bypassing and Personal Growth

I’ve commented before on personal growth critics who basically claim — much like Marx — that the main source of discontent among human beings is economic inequality.  Personal development distracts people from this issue, by encouraging them to focus on their private achievements and relationships.  Thus, self-development is not only ineffective — it retards social progress.

These critics’ vitriol often obscures the wide-eyed idealism of their basic assumption:  that, if everybody only had equal material resources, nobody would suffer again.  No more loneliness, depression, or alienation for the human race, ever.

If the notion that spirituality can address all our “issues” is unrealistic, I think, the same can surely be said of the utopian notion that state-mandated “equality” will cure all human ills.

Scientific Bypassing and Spirituality

As for scientific bypassing, I think we can see this in the “New Atheist” critiques of religion that have been so popular over the last few years, by authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  These critics say that spirituality and science/reason are in irreconcilable conflict, and we’d have a much better world if we only discarded the former and embraced the latter.

One problem these critics face is that science seems incapable of answering moral questions.  Some have no problem with this, and simply deny the existence of objective morality, because “there’s no scientific evidence for it.”  But this answer is instinctively unsatisfying for many people — to use a timeworn example, can we really accept the idea that Nazi medical experiments on prisoners weren’t objectively wrong?

Others respond that science can, at least, tell us what actions and policies will advance “human flourishing” — how to eat nutritiously, for example.  However, these critics need to explain why our actions should serve the goal of human flourishing at all — why shouldn’t kangaroo or algae flourishing be our priority?  Science can’t tell us why we ought to prefer the well-being of one species to that of another.

My point is that I think it’s important to be wary of “bypassing” — relying on one particular practice or institution to “make us feel better” — in all areas of human life.  The realm of spirituality and personal development certainly isn’t the only place where this happens.

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  1. I was appalled myself at the baseless enthusiasm for Obama (whom I support and think is a good president). When I pointed out the specific persuasion strategies Obama was using in his speeches, I was met with reactive anger by my progressive friends.

    That said, this is a total strawman argument:

    These critics’ vitriol often obscures the wide-eyed idealism of their basic assumption: that, if everybody only had equal material resources, nobody would suffer again. No more loneliness, depression, or alienation for the human race, ever.

    Which personal development critic specifically claims that political equality will solve all human problems? It ain’t me, that’s for sure, and I can’t think of any others either.

    That said, social justice is still worth working for, and self-help gurus often work against it by emphasizing individual responsibility for collective problems.

  2. Here’s a specific example from Barbara Ehrenreich on when personal development solutions are never going to solve the problem:

    Ms. Ehrenreich developed breast cancer through what appear to be iatrogenic causes. In other words, her cancer was caused by doctors attempt to keep her healthy. The cancer recovery culture emphasized the necessity of thinking positive as key to recovery, even going as far as to make false and unsubstantiated claims, such as visualization improving immune cell count (which is irrelevant even if true, because cancer cells are not attacked by immune cells).

    In this case, she was simply screwed, and her chances of recovery were as good as anybody’s. But don’t you think there is a good reason for her to be angry? And don’t you think it is reasonable for her to think that something should be done, something about how medicine is performed so as to prevent iatrogenic cancers? I think so.

    Note how nothing in this story says “politics and science can cure all ills” nor “positive thinking is bad in all contexts.”

  3. Hi Duff — Marx seems to endorse the notion that economic equality would render psychology, spirituality, religion, etc. unnecessary, in his statements about the sense of “alienation” people feel being the result of inequality.

    We see Marx’s line echoed in the more academically-oriented personal growth critics, like Carrette and King, who write that modern “capitalist psychology” “offers the psychological product of ’spirituality’ as an apparent cure for the isolation created by a materialistic, competitive and individualized social system” — the implication being that eliminating inequality would also get rid of the “isolation” people are misguidedly turning to spiritual practice to cure.

    The sociologist Micki McGee even calls self-help “a pre-political form of protest,” “evidence of individual dissatisfactions that could be channeled toward political participation.” To her, as I read her book, people who buy self-help books and get therapy and so on don’t realize it (being victims of “false consciousness”), but they are really trying to address their Marxian “alienation,” and presumably if we had socialism these people’s dissatisfaction would fall away.

    Admittedly, perhaps we could read these critics to say that humans will inevitably suffer to some degree, but economic equality is the best we can do to rectify that suffering, and spirituality, psychology, religion and perhaps many other human pursuits largely distract us from that goal.

    By the way, I think Ehrenreich is actually the most insightful of the personal growth critics and I wouldn’t put her in the same category, as much as I might disagree with some of her book.

  4. Actually social equity benefits everyone – the rich as well as the poor. See the extensive evidence collected here It is not a site based in the US, you may not be surprised to know.

    This leads to what I think is the deeper question about the nature of the person. I think we are social-individual not (only) individual individuals.

    I think that the social and individual, the personal and the political, are distinguishable but related dimensions of our lives.

    I’m not a guru but I’m happy to emphasise that the collective dimension affects our individual experience. I think it is possible for activists to be happier as they change the world for the better (and are guilty of a mild and forgiveable form of hypocrisy if they’re not). This is not a new stance: If you can’t dance to it, it’s not my kind of revolution.

  5. Science and politics definitely cannot cure all ill. Regarding science, I wrote a 23-page online report on why science falls short in answering life’s big questions, which are unique to each person (sign-up page linked in my profile). Since starting graduate school this fall, I’ve continued learning so much more about this and why it’s so tricky to spot out. It’s amazing how much power people give away to scientists, studies, and “facts” without actually checking and thinking about those facts. And this has a lot to do with why politics gets away with so much.

    “One problem these critics face is that science seems incapable of answering moral questions. Some have no problem with this, and simply deny the existence of objective morality, because ‘there’s no scientific evidence for it.’”

    I don’t believe there is scientific evidence for objective morality (or any objective reality divorced from our human constraints of perception), but that’s a totally separate issue from choosing my own standards of morality, just as it is for everyone else.

    Great food for thought Chris. I’m especially interested in what’s been written about bypassing, which I’ve referred to as quick-fixing.

  6. Chris,

    I think Marx may have made such claims, but few contemporary Marxists do. I do think social, political, and economic dynamics create the context from which spirituality and self-help emerges—in fact, I consider this a truism. Whether the problems created by these dynamics are best addressed by personal (i.e. spiritual or self-help) or collective (i.e. political, economic, cultural) solutions is an open question, both to be pondered on a case-by-case basis (as in the iatrogenic cancer example) and on the whole.

    Whether someone is claiming that all problems can be eliminated—through primarily personal or collective solutions—is an entirely separate claim, hence why I considered your argument is a strawman. One can seek solutions without thinking that in doing so, a utopia will some day be achieved. In fact, one can even posit a utopian vision without being ideological and thinking that such a utopia will ever obtain in the real world.

    I’ve been reading some intelligent critiques of the notion of alienation lately from those who are more interested in collective dynamics—apparently Marx himself gave up on the concept in favor of other notions.

    I haven’t read Carette and King, so I can’t say whether your argument accurately portrays their position or not.

    That said, I think there is an enormous body of evidence that suggests that indeed self-help and spirituality have taken the place of political action. For instance, pretty much every get-rich/lifestyle-quick scheme talks about many Marxist ideas, nowadays even co-opting Marxist language by talking about the “revolution” of working for yourself. I could give example after example, and in fact I often have in my writing. You singularly dismissed ALL of these examples and arguments in one short blog post though, so I kinda think that maybe you just aren’t listening!

  7. Yeah dismissing all of self-help and authenticity in one post is a terrible thing Duff.

  8. Hi Duff — it sounds like you took this post to be directed at Beyond Growth, but that isn’t how I intended it. I think you are actually unique among personal growth critics in some ways — it appears that you actually have a spiritual practice, whereas I can’t imagine a Barbara Ehrenreich or a Christopher Hitchens taking meditation or any other spiritual practice seriously. (At least, not publicly.) So, I would not characterize your work as taking a strict Marxian line. But I do think the “academic” side of the self-development critique (by which I only mean Ph.Ds who work at universities) does appear oriented in that direction.

    As to internet marketers using Marx-like language to describe “breaking free of 9-5,” it is an interesting question whether that is causing their readers to become less interested in Marx’s ideas, or revolution, or socialism, or a similar topic. That sounds like a great next post topic.

  9. @Evan,

    LOL–just sayin’, nobody should be able to get away with it without getting some comments to the contrary! ;)

  10. Well, it wasn’t specified who you were critiquing which is why I challenged your claims, especially since I tend to argue the opposite side of this debate.

    But yea, Ehrenreich in my opinion is waaaay too dismissive of complimentary and alternative medicine. Same for Hitchens and the new atheists with regards to spirituality and therapy (except perhaps the awe-inspiration of contemplating science and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy/Rational Emotive Therapy). This is a major flaw of both camps.

    …whether that is causing their readers to become less interested in Marx’s ideas, or revolution, or socialism, or a similar topic. That sounds like a great next post topic.

    I don’t think so, just co-opting the language of rebellion from Capitalism for Capitalist ends (selling eBooks, etc.). I don’t think the audience for these products is at all consciously aware of Marxist ideas—nor strangely are the co-opters.

  11. Taking the social seriiously isn’t (necessarily) Marxist Chris. Michael Marmot showed that the biggest factor influencing health (all cause mortality) is position in the social hierarchy. See his The Status Syndrome.

    For instance the neo-libs take the economy as determinant but I’m pretty sure wouldn’t see themselves as Marxist. Likewise the appalling Hitchens no longer sees himself as Marxist. (But remains just as ideological – just a different ideology.)

  12. Hi Evan — I’d agree that Marx is certainly not the only person to suggest that our well-being is determined by our relationships to others — he focuses on people’s relative places on the socioeconomic ladder, whereas developmental psychologists might be focused on our relationships to our mothers, and so on. I think the saying I often hear that “everything happens in relationship,” as abstract as it may be, is sound — and, my point here is just that it’s important to acknowledge the impact of all of the ways we relate to each other as human beings, rather than just the “relationship” of our relative wealth or place in the class structure.

  13. Hi Melissa — yes, like you say, it does seem like the grandeur and complexity of science can blind people to its inability to answer very basic questions, such as why we’re here, what goals we ought to pursue, what’s right and wrong, and so on. A discipline like philosophy, on the surface, may look useless by comparison with science, because philosophy hasn’t given us space shuttles or antibiotics (the kind of thing the New Atheists often say), but in fact the very judgment that “X is useless compared to Y” makes philosophical assumptions.

  14. I entirely agree. The guy who did the stuff on birth order (called something like Why first born children want to rule the world and second born want to change it) found that birth order was something like 7 times more influential than socio-economic status. I can’t remember the exact title, sorry.

  15. It seems to me that values don’t reduce to thoughts of feelings. Thought (in the sense of linear rationality/scientific method) can’t deal with purpose and values don’t reduce to feeling either – that is, we may do what we believe to be right even though it isn’t enjoyable. It seems to me that spirituality/philosophy/values is a separate dimension of our lives.

  16. Hi Evan — I like that way of putting it — for instance, knowing the biological definition of a living thing (something with a metabolism, the ability to maintain homeostasis, etc.), tells us nothing about the purpose of human life generally or of my life specifically, or about how I should treat others.

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