DevInContext The Case For Personal Growth


Personal Development Politics, Part 2: The Elections and Self-Responsibility

We've been looking at the argument, made by some personal growth critics (Salerno posted about this, for example), that self-development's emphasis on personal responsibility favors political conservatism.  If this is true, I've been asking, why do self-development teachers tend to be politically liberal?  Is it because they don't see the implications of their ideas?

Like I said in my last post, I think the answer is no.  I've seen many examples of personal growth teachers consciously embracing both liberal politics and a belief in human beings' ability to control their circumstances.

This recent Huffington Post piece by meditation teachers Ed and Deb Shapiro is a good illustration.  The Shapiros don't seem particularly thrilled about the recent U.S. election  — they describe it as characterized by “weird and unqualified people vying for top government positions," by which they presumably mean some of the Republicans who swept the House of Representatives.

At first, the Shapiros may sound like they're counseling people who are upset about the elections to give up, and accept that there's nothing they can do to change the situation.  "It is our ability to be fully present and engaged that enables us to accept every situation exactly as it is," they write, inviting us "to embrace difficulties, deep sadness, upset feelings, or injustice while staying aware, present, and available."

Self-Responsibility and Social Change

However, the Shapiros go on to reveal a strong, perhaps even radical, belief in personal responsibility.  We can only work for social change, they explain, when we drop our griping about the situation, "for in that moment of acceptance we can move to transform it."

Once we fully accept what's true right now, the power of our thoughts and actions to change the world is at its height.  "Everything we think, say, and do has an immediate effect on everyone and everything else," they write, and this "means that we have enormous resources available to us at all times."

In other words, although they stop short of embracing a full-blown "Law of Attraction," and saying we can conjure up things we want through thought, the Shapiros clearly are firm believers in individuals' ability to shape their situation, and reject the Marxian notion that we're basically pawns of impersonal social forces.

Also, notice that the Shapiros' belief in self-responsibility doesn't lead them to reject politics as a means of solving social problems -- their whole piece, though abstract, is about how adopting an attitude of mindful acceptance can actually empower people to reverse the current political trend.

But What About "Blaming The Victim"?

I can imagine a critic arguing that, although the Shapiros may think it's consistent to be politically liberal and believe in radical self-responsibility, they're simply wrong.

This is because, the argument goes, a major tenet of political liberalism is that the government should create a fair society by redistributing wealth.  This, in turn, is based on the notion that each person's wealth is mostly a matter of luck -- how much they inherited, their genetic makeup, and so on.

However, the belief that we can create our circumstances implies that we're responsible for how wealthy we are.  If we're poor, that can't be due to bad luck -- it must be because we're lazy.  And if we're lazy, that means we don't deserve to have wealth redistributed in our favor.

As I've touched on briefly before, I disagree.  I don't think you need to believe that everyone's circumstances are solely, or even mostly, the result of chance to consistently be a political liberal, as I've defined it.

I'll list four reasons why below.  (Notice how the arguments I'll make can also be used to justify voluntary charity, if government redistribution of wealth isn't your thing.)

1.  Social Harmony. Some, like this organization that Evan pointed out, argue that societies with lower disparities in wealth are more harmonious, in that their people tend to live longer, they have fewer violent crimes and less teen pregnancy, and so on.

I haven't looked in detail at their evidence, so I'm agnostic about what they say, but the point is that it can be used to justify economic equality regardless of whether the less well-off "deserve" contributions from the better-off.

To illustrate, if I was certain that giving money to someone in poverty would extend my lifespan by five years, I'd probably do it regardless of whether he was responsible for being poor.

2.  Compassion for people who make bad choices. Suppose your friend became a drug addict and, as a result, lost his job.  Would you feel no compassion for him, and refuse him help, because he chose to use drugs?  I don't think you would.  In other words, it's certainly possible to feel compassion for people whose predicament is arguably "their own fault."

3.  The "Unconscious Beliefs" argument. It may be the case that (1) we're all totally, or mostly, responsible for the situation we find ourselves in, but (2) not everybody knows that.

For example, suppose I harbor the unconscious belief that "I deserve to suffer and be poor."  I'm "responsible" for this belief, in the sense that it exists in my own mind, but I may not be conscious of its existence or my power to change it.  Many self-development teachers (T. Harv Eker is a popular example when it comes to money) see it as their role to make people aware of "limiting beliefs" like these.

What's more, one might argue, so long as there are people who aren't conscious of their ability to control their economic circumstances, redistribution of wealth or private charity is sometimes needed to help such people.

4.  Divine Command. As you know, many people believe that God, or another supernatural force, has given them an unqualified command to be charitable.  From these people's perspective, it's our job to help the less well-off, regardless of whether they're "at fault" for their plight.

What do you think?  Is a strong belief in personal responsibility inherently conservative?