DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth

24Mar/10Off

Personal Growth: The New Opiate Of The Masses?

marx

In this series, I'll talk about a common criticism of personal growth that casts it as a veiled form of socioeconomic oppression.  I'll spend a chunk of time describing the argument to make sure I do it justice, because I think this is one of the most important controversies surrounding personal development.

The argument goes like this:  people usually seek out personal growth books, workshops and so on because they're unsatisfied with some aspect of their lives -- their finances, relationships, stress level, and so on.

Yet, even if they achieve their goal, that same unhappiness, in some form or another, remains.  If I get a new relationship, I may still dislike my job.  If I get a higher-paying job, I may want more time to relax.  And so on.

Unhappiness Comes From Unfairness

In the critics' view, this is because personal development does not address the root cause of this unhappiness:  economic unfairness.  From this perspective, there is no defensible moral reason why there should be disparities in wealth between people.  People's talents and abilities largely result from luck, and thus it is immoral to allow those talents and abilities to determine people's economic situation.

We all feel the impact of this unfairness, the argument goes, regardless of our circumstances.  A man in dire financial straits obviously feels it, because he's constantly worried about paying the bills.  But a wealthy man feels it as well, though perhaps in a subtler way -- maybe because he's nagged by the feeling that he doesn't deserve what he has.

Personal growth ideas, the critics say, obviously don't address this basic unfairness.  Even if I get richer, I'll still envy those with more, and I'll still feel guilty because some have less.  Even if I learn how to reduce the stress of my job, I'll still feel the stress of knowing I live in an unfair society.  The solutions offered by personal development, then, are temporary at best and useless at worst.

Personal Growth:  Part Of The Problem

Worse still, the critics charge, self-development ideas actually help maintain this inequality.  By encouraging us to seek happiness through meditation, making money, improving communication in our relationships, and so on, personal growth distracts us from the real source of our unhappiness -- economic unfairness -- which only government redistribution of wealth can ultimately solve.

Thus, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King write in Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion, contemporary spiritual practices "seek to pacify feelings of anxiety and disquiet at the individual level rather than seeking to challenge the social, political and economic inequalities that cause such distress."

Similarly, as we saw earlier, Micki McGee writes in Self-Help Inc. that personal growth teachings trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

Marx Redux

We've seen that, to the critics, economic inequality is the real cause of the unhappiness that prompts people to explore personal growth.  If this is true, we should expect that doing away with inequality would get rid of the unhappiness -- and thus that, in an economically "fair" society, no one would care about personal growth.

This, of course, is not a new idea -- Karl Marx had pretty much the same to say about religion.  As he famously wrote, "religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.  It is the opium of the people."  In other words, people's reliance on religion to relieve their suffering is misguided.  The real cause of their suffering is "oppression," meaning economic inequality.

Only a fair distribution of wealth -- to be achieved, for Marx, through communism -- can alleviate that suffering.  Under communism, because wealth would be equitably distributed, people would have no need for religion.  Similarly, if the critique of self-development we've been discussing is correct, eliminating economic inequality should also eliminate people's desire for personal growth.

A Brief Detour Into The Real World

Is this true?  Not, it seems, in real-life communist countries.  There, even though -- at least, in some people's view -- inequality runs less rampant, people still seem interested in activities that, in the West, we'd probably call "self-development" or "spiritual" practices.

In the People's Republic of China, for instance, tens of millions of people -- despite government oppression -- practice Falun Gong, a form of what we know as qi gong in the West.  In North Korea, again despite persecution, the underground practice of Christianity continues.  Back in the USSR, as Barbara Ehrenreich points out, "positive thinking" was mandatory -- if someone appeared to lack optimism about communism or the future of the Soviet state, they could get in serious trouble with the government.

Marxists might object that modern communist countries don't practice "pure" communism -- Marx, after all, envisioned people peacefully organizing into small communes, not the oppressive regimes communist nations have become.  That's the kind of society, Marx might say, where religion, personal growth and similar "opiates" would naturally fall away.  Personally, I question whether Marx's utopian scenario is realistic, but let's put that aside for a moment.

A Thought Experiment

Suppose we lived in a society where the government mandated total economic equality.  Everyone lived in an identical house, drove an identical car, and had an identical income, regardless of what they did for a living.  In this society, would anyone be interested in personal growth or spiritual practice?

For several reasons, I suspect the answer is yes.  First, I doubt that total equality of resources would affect many common human problems.  What about, say, conflict in people's relationships?  Can we honestly believe that the unfair distribution of wealth is the sole cause of, for instance, divorce and child abuse?

Second, a longing for spirituality and the transcendent, in one form or another, has existed in all societies throughout human history -- from hunter-gatherer tribes, to classical Greece and Rome, to communist countries as we saw, to modern capitalist nations.  It seems unlikely that total economic equality would reshape human nature so profoundly that it would erase this tendency.

I'll stop here in the interest of keeping this brief, but there's definitely more on this issue in the pipeline.

Other Posts in this Series:

  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 5: Self-Development and the "War on Envy"
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 4: "Money Doesn't Buy Happiness" Cuts Both Ways
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 3: The Hard Work of Happiness
  • Growth As An Opiate, Part 2: The Hazards of Happiness
  • 10Mar/10Off

    The Responsibility Ethic, Part 5: The Politics of Responsibility

    no-politics

    This is the final installment in my series on what I've been calling the "responsibility ethic" in personal development -- the notion that it's best to see ourselves as responsible for our life circumstances, as opposed to seeing our situation as the product of chance or forces beyond our control.

    Today, I'll address an argument often made by critics of personal growth that has to do with the relationship between the responsibility ethic and politics.  This is a complicated argument, but I think it's an important one, so bear with me as I flesh it out a little.

    Is The Responsibility Ethic Anti-Political?

    The critics argue that, if I believe I'm responsible for my circumstances, I am unlikely to participate in politics -- to vote, protest, debate issues with others, and so on.  In other words, if I think I hold the power to change my life situation, I won't see any need to use the political process to improve my circumstances.

    Say, for instance, that I run a business, and a tax imposed by the city is hurting my bottom line.  If I believe I have full control over my destiny, I won't see any reason to lobby the city government to reduce the tax.  After all, because I have the power to fix the situation, I can solve the problem myself -- by, say, moving elsewhere, or just increasing my revenues to make up for the loss.

    To the critics, because it convinces people there's no need to participate in politics, the responsibility ethic is anti-democratic, in that it discourages an informed, politically active public.  What's more, the critics argue, we do need the political process to change aspects of our life situation.  Critics with a left-wing bent commonly argue that only the government can remedy the economic unfairness in our society, and the responsibility ethic blinds the "have-nots" to this by deceiving them into thinking they, individually, can solve their financial problems.

    Thus, they might say, the responsibility ethic serves as a kind of "opiate for the masses."  As sociologist Micki McGee writes, personal growth teachings tend to trap their followers in a futile "cycle of seeking individual solutions to problems that are social, economic, and political in origin."

    Clearing Up Some Confusion

    Simply put, I think this argument misunderstands the responsibility ethic.  All the responsibility ethic says is that I am responsible for the situation I'm in, and I have the ability to change that situation if I wish to do so.  It does not address the specific actions I should take to improve my situation, or whether "political action" is a good option.

    We can understand this by returning to my earlier example, where my city imposes a tax I think is bad for my business.  If I accept the responsibility ethic, I will believe I'm capable of improving this situation.  But the question remains:  what is the best way to change it?  Should I move to another city?  Try to increase my revenue?  Lobby the city council to repeal the tax?  The responsibility ethic is silent on this issue.

    In other words, it doesn't follow from my belief that I can improve the situation that political activity will not be an effective method of doing so.  Supporting a politician who pledges to repeal the tax might indeed be an effective method of getting what I want.  Thus, I think it's a mistake to cast the responsibility ethic as inherently anti-political.

    The Politics of "Non-Responsibility"

    This becomes even clearer when we consider the extreme opposite of the responsibility ethic, which I'll call the "non-responsibility ethic."  A person who accepts the non-responsibility ethic (in other words, someone with an external locus of control) sees events in their lives as the product of luck, or of forces they can't control.

    Suppose I believe in the non-responsibility ethic, and I'm faced with the same situation where the city tax is hurting my business.  If I believe my actions are unlikely to make a difference, what will I do to improve my situation?  If I really think I'm a helpless pawn of fate, I'll probably do nothing.

    As this example illustrates, it's also a mistake to call the responsibility ethic inherently politically conservative, as left-wing critics of personal growth tend to do.  If these critics want to see more redistribution of wealth, it won't help them to have a nation of people with an external locus of control who feel powerless to change the status quo.

    In light of this, it's no surprise that some of the most popular personal growth books use political leaders to illustrate their ideas.  Even the much-maligned Think and Grow Rich cites Gandhi as "one of the most astounding examples known to civilization of the possibilities of faith."  Gandhi's faith in his ability to change the world, writes Napoleon Hill, drove his contribution to ending British rule of India.

    The Psychology of Responsibility

    I won't harp too much on the psychological evidence, because I've done it a lot in past posts.  Suffice it to say that several psychological studies have suggested that people with an internal locus of control -- a belief in their own capacity to affect events -- are actually more inclined to participate in politics.

    For example, one study surveyed some newly voting-aged college students, and found that the ones who described themselves as having an internal locus of control were more likely to vote in a presidential election.  Another found that people who tended toward an internal locus of control were more likely to participate in political activism.

    In other words, it seems that a person's belief that they're responsible for their circumstances leads them to be more politically active, not less, which also belies the critics' claim that the responsibility ethic is somehow anti-political.

    In my next post, because I find this issue fascinating, I'll talk more generally about the political implications of personal growth and spirituality.

    Other posts in this series:

  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 1: Self-Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 2: Responsibility Vs. Blame
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 3: Guilt And Morality
  • The Responsibility Ethic, Part 4: Responsibility And Compassion
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