Why Self Help Actually Hurts the Movement


(ed. Originally published Feb. 24, 2012 – here!)

Welcome to another excoriating edition of Occupy LA AntiSocial Media. The target today—self-help culture and the noxious influence of a mind-boggling array of bad books , talk show TV, romantic comedies, and pop songs arguing from the same basic standpoint—how you feel right now is more important than civic virtue, duty, social justice, and one’s work (as opposed to how one’s work reflects on oneself). You’ve all at least perused a self-help text, from “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” to “The 7 Habits of Highly Predictable People” (oops, did I quote that wrong…?)

It’s not that it’s hard to wave a diverse number of flags. I can wave an anarchist or communist flag (for me they’re not so different—it’s all in the implementation, which is to say are there a bunch of ego-driven self-help addicts behind it or not?), a queer pride flag, and a futbol team flag at the same time. The problem is that when you wave the identity flag it tends to bleed all over and contaminate the other flags with the United States of America’s most ruthless virus—the self.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing for a nation of automatons who let their individual rights be stomped on. I’m talking about how we confuse individual rights like free speech and privacy from our government with individual cravings like the need for affirmation and recognition. In Occupy LA for example, we have new age-y types who spam the list serve and general assemblies in impassioned attacks on… anyone who attacks. How about what was attacked in the first place, or its worthiness as target? Irrelevant to these people. They care more about making sure everyone behaves themselves in their emails than the fact that these emails could be read by our government without our permission. At least that’s what I must infer by the volume of writing dedicated to these two problems, respectively.

I’ve traveled widely, and I diagnose it as a particularly United States of American problem (yes I don’t say merely ‘American’ because that’s an insult to South and Central Americans, let alone Canadians). We think anger and aggression are cardinal sins, much worse, apparently, than lying, narcissism, racism, sexism and perpetuating the world’s great disease, capitalism. This is also a case of cultural chauvinism. Settled by demurring, meek-championing Puritans, we’ve always in this country had more of a problem with passion and anger than, say, the Mediterranean or South America. When North Americans do flout the mumbling, soft-spoken humble-hounds that rule popular culture, their intensity is subject to racial bigotry, given that, for example, segments of Black U.S. culture hark back to different traditions of performance of self.

Again, I’d like to be clear that there are plenty of people with metaphysical beliefs who are NOT trying to poison political conversations with relentless attention to the self—but there is a trend among the privileged to think “occupy yourself” somehow matters more than learning about the work already happening to unravel the oppressive conditions of the world.

New Age is often a euphemism for ‘make yourself happy and healthy and the world will be healed’. Too bad healthiness for humans requires much more communal decision-making and self-(un)defining than is allowed for in such a model. This is why it astounds me that David Fincher’s Fight Club is so popular. U.S.Aers eating up a philosophy that says fuck self-improvement, self-destruction is where it’s at?! And isn’t there a model here to the great reformist/radical debate needlessly plagueing the movement? Do you want to improve the state or tear it down and extirpate the colonial, imperial roots? But we can’t even hear the word ‘destruction’ or ‘self-destruction’—because of their pollution within the self-help tradition—without imagining menacing demons and malicious violence, despite a rich theological and philosophical tradition in which some of our favorite gods and heroes exemplify salutary, empowering destruction of some sort, from Krishna to Nietzsche to Dante’s slow dismantling of his identity as he travels through the very un-neoliberal space of hell (where up is down and down is up, and one reaches the heights only through the fiery depths. If only we still believed as Dante did that fraud is worse than violence, we wouldn’t be in this mess.

Let’s face it, what this comes down to is a disease that’s in the neoliberal worldview, and supports capitalism. lt has left us in critical cultural condition—United States of American style hyperindividualism, one of our only exports still going strong in the deindustrialized, employment-be-damned neoliberal era. We love the word “I”. We are uncomfortable with the word ‘we’. We love subjectivity and distrust intersubjectivity. We think we care about community but unfortunately our ideology runs deeper than our consciousness, and informs our very language, which is a stinking pile of “I”s and “me”s : my personal space, my accomplishments, my contributions, my history, my my my. I’VE been at Occupy L.A. since the beginning! Whoopee!

What are some of the self-help clichés? How about ‘everyone must walk his own path’? Um, I’m not so much in favor of sexist pigs walking their own path right over my womanhood. How about ‘I’m just in a ____space right now.’ It may sound harmless but the fact that we divide up space into discrete sectors defined by identity is the ideological problem. Think of what ‘identity’ implies—sameness. What is lost is the civic power of difference, of intercourse, cross-contamination of ideas and selves and bodies persona. Sure, I know self-help types pay lip service to ‘diversity’ and learning from others in a way that sounds similar, but they are in the end hamstrung by their (usually unconscious) subscription to the ideological sanctity of the individual unit, of the self-sufficient, self-defining “I”.

In such a space there is little room for ‘We’. So how about I’m in a communal space, and I am struggling within it, sometimes cravenly, sometimes nobly, but always conscious of it. That’s where I want to be. Oops, there I go again with the “I”. That’s where, I think, we want to be when we’re thinking in terms of that great prefix comm-: community, communication…dare I say communism? Whatever—your –ism doesn’t matter. What matters is: can you respond to great philosophy and literature, great political thinking and avant-garde art? Or do you keep gravitating towards that insidiously popular section of Barnes and Noble, “Self-Improvement?” Try improving something other than yourself. I know they say (yet another self-help cliché) you can’t heal the world til you heal yourself.

But maybe you can’t heal yourself until you define yourself in terms of the world you and your brothers and sisters want—no,need—to see come into being. Self-care is not the same as self-help. Being healthy and ready to fight for the revolution is not the same as “feeling safe.” As Leonard Cohen sings, “Why don’t you come on back to the war? You can still get married.”

It’s really not about you.

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