DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Rainbow Right-Wingers, and Other Myths About Personal Development Politics

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich, you'd think people who are into personal development must be rabid right-wingers.  The common New Age notion that you can create happiness from within, she says, supports a conservative political line.

After all, she basically says, who needs welfare programs if poor people can just "think themselves happy"?  And the same goes for the Law of Attraction -- instead of relying on the government, why don't the less fortunate just "manifest" a BMW in the driveway, or a winning lottery ticket?

What About Governor Moonbeam?

However, it would be hard to dispute that the most "new-agey" U.S. politician today is liberal Democrat, and California gubernatorial hopeful, Jerry Brown.  In the '70s and '80s, when he previously served as governor, some called him "Moonbeam" because of his study of Zen meditation and interest in creating a California state space academy.

By contrast, how many times have we heard Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich extol the wonders of meditation, herbal aromatherapy, or any other "woo-woo" idea?  The answer -- mostly for those of you outside the U.S. -- is zero.  Most conservative politicians would never admit to participating in "non-traditional" spiritual practices, and risk alienating their spiritually "traditional" constituencies.  (Nor would most liberals, for that matter.)

We see a similar trend among personal growth teachers themselves.  For example, Tony Robbins, in this much-viewed speech, mentions that he wishes Al Gore had won the 2000 election.  Oprah Winfrey, whose show has skyrocketed the careers of many self-development and spiritual authors, is one of President Obama's most visible supporters.

Is Self-Responsibility A Right-Wing Idea?

Why, if personal growth ideas are aligned with political conservatism, is all this true?  Do liberals who are into self-development, and conservatives who aren't, simply fail to see the connection?  I don't think so.

Why not?  As we saw, a big reason critics tend to cast self-development ideas as right-leaning is personal growth's embrace of what I've called the "responsibility ethic" -- the notion that each of us is responsible for their life circumstances.

Some might see this as an inherently anti-government, or anti-political, philosophy.  After all, if I believe I have the power to shape my life situation -- to create the relationships, career, and so on that I want -- why should I depend on the government to provide me with, say, education or healthcare?

Self-Responsibility Through Political Action

This argument sounds good on the surface, but I think it misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  Here's why:  the idea that we can create our circumstances doesn't tell us anything about how we ought to create them.

For example, suppose I think I'm paying too much in income taxes.  If I believe I have the power to change this situation, there are a number of ways I might choose to bring about change:  vote for a politician who promises lower taxes, move to a different state or country, learn creative ways to exploit tax loopholes, and so on.  As you can see, some options involve trying to influence the government, while others rely more on individual effort.

What's more, in all likelihood, liberal politicians themselves strongly believe in their power to affect their situation (as do conservatives, I'm sure).  If they didn't see themselves as capable of bringing about change, they wouldn't have run for office.  After all, why bother getting into politics if you don't think you can make an impact?

So, I think the truth is that accepting self-development ideas, generally speaking, doesn't require us to buy into any particular political agenda.  Here in California, for better or worse, we may soon have a "new-agey" liberal governor to prove it.

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  1. Hi Chris.
    “Why, if personal growth ideas are aligned with political conservatism, is all this true? Do liberals who are into self-development, and conservatives who aren’t, simply fail to see the connection?”

    I do think so. Ideas can have unseen implications and uniintended consequences. It is quite possible for a person to be a better person than their philosophy – behaving inconsistently with their philosophy is to their credit. I doubt that the proponents of neo-liberalism measure the value of their children in monetary terms (it is to their credit that they don’t but inconsistent with their promotion of money as the measure of value).

    I think you mixed two things. The idea that we are responsible and the idea that ‘with our thoughts we make the world’. Like you I don’t that responsibility implies that the world is the production of our thoughts – but these two things are often put together.

    The idea that it is our thinking which creates reality I do think has profoundly socially-conservative implications. (Some of the proponents probably don’t realise this. In self development social context isn’t much talked about.)

    There are also problems with the meaning of conservative. Most self development has no agenda for major political change (especially in the US I think – though I’m not there so you would know better than I). In this sense almost everyone in parliament is conservative – invested in the current system and it’s perpetuation. Committed to amelioration at best. I don’t think a US self development person would get real far if they trashed capitalism – so they don’t.)

    Conservative I think roughly covers two meanings. An older meaning a la Burke of trusting the current system as the outcome of small steps and sensible decisions – with the distrust of utopianism associated with grand plans to re-do society. This was against the intervention of government which was the vehicle to implement the grand plans. A newer meaning of hostility to the state (small government, valuing the nuclear family – the continuity with the old meaning), and re-doing society on the basis of markets – which is a massive revolution in social terms.

    I don’t think a responsibility ethic need be socially conservative, but I do think the idea it is often presented with (that our thoughts create the world) is.

  2. Hi Evan — thanks, that’s definitely thought-provoking. I wonder if critics tend to associate the Law of Attraction / “your thoughts create your reality” notion with conservatism simply because of how it’s usually packaged — typically people refer to it in the context of making more money and accumulating stuff.

    But what if a person who buys into the Law of Attraction has different goals? What if they try to use visualization or positive thinking to eliminate poverty in the world? Of course, I doubt that this would be successful, but my point is that it’s no less realistic than the notion that I can manifest a BMW in the driveway by looking at a picture of it every day.

    Of course, if we did accept that something like this was possible, it might render politics irrelevant, because it’s not necessary for me to vote or form an advocacy group if my thoughts alone can relieve the suffering of the world. But note that it also renders individual action irrelevant, because if I’m really omnipotent I don’t need to even get up out of my chair to save the world.

  3. Hi Chris, I agree. Eliminating individual and political action seems like a recipe for maintaining the status quo (ie. is conservative). This is because I don’t think that just thinking about things enough makes them real (action is required in my view. Even action that may be at some cost to ourselves – heresy I know.) The ‘with your thoughts you make the world’ people will disagree with me.

  4. Hi Evan — ah, I see what you’re getting at — the Law of Attraction idea, in theory, renders people effectively complacent because it causes them to rely on visualization to change the world, and that changes nothing and perpetuates the status quo. Whether that will have “liberal” or “conservative” results, I guess, depends on what you think of the current situation. All the Republican voters sitting at home on Election Day and visualizing Democratic senators being defeated, for instance, would work to preserve a Democrat-majority status quo, and vice versa.

  5. Hi Chris, I was thinking consevative = conserving the current situation. In which case the outcome is conservative. Liberalism on this understanding of conservative can be a conservative philosophy – I take it that this is the point of the jibe at (legal) liberalism: It means we all have an equal right to sleep under the same bridge.

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