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These Angry Male Thought Leaders Need Hugs
I'm not fucking doing it, though
What sets the sciences apart is that they claim to construct reality but not to be themselves constructed. -Emily Martin
When I turned six, my brother hijacked my birthday party by running around our backyard and getting all of my friends to chase him for what felt like forever. Imagine me, standing off to the side by myself and feeling like I was getting left behind. I got upset. My parents did nothing. My brother ruined my 6th birthday party, so went the story.
After I stopped drinking 5 years ago, I did the steps. Step 4, the lynchpin for many, helps instill insight and perspective by looking at your resentments from the opposite point of view. Instead of playing the passive victim (my parents didn’t listen; my brother ruined my birthday), you focus on your role, your unsavory character traits. “What a little alcoholic you were!”, an old-timer once told me. “You’ve always wanted it to be all about you!!”
While I accepted all of this at first the way a desperate person does, over time I noticed the difference between who entered the rooms and who stayed. Even in New York, meeting demographics inevitably favored old white guys while driving out the non-Christian, LGBTQIA, female, trans, and BIPOC members. They were the ones who had no problem with the misogynistic, racist literature. “I’ve been sober for decades,” they said. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by a bunch of privileged white men in 1935 who responded well to ego deflation—they needed to be told “you were the asshole, all along” to finally see the folly of their ways.While volunteering at a rehab a few years ago, I asked the head if he thought intense ego deflation was good for, say, the teenagers who traded a genuinely traumatic home life for homelessness and heroin addiction.
“Kids these days are fragile—they don’t want to admit that they were little assholes. You’ve got to break them down until they run out of self-will. They’re still trying to run the show.”
-Toxic guy who worked at a rehab? Jon Haidt?
Magical things happen when you aim to understand, not pathologize
In hindsight, calling yourself a piece of shit for everything you’ve ever done is not the best way to gain clarity about self-destructive tendencies and the underlying dysfunctional dynamics. What did help me was ACA. Whereas A.A. said you were a selfish, self-centered little alcoholic, ACA says “because you expressed your hurt feelings and weren’t taken seriously, you learned to value yourself a little less, deny your own feelings, and develop a sense of guilt whenever you stand up for yourself instead of giving in to others.”
Instead of seeing yourself as full of character defects, you gain clarity on the big picture: My parents did that because they learned from their own imperfect parents; their behavior was not a reflection of my intrinsic self-worth. You see the development of your own patterns, referring to them as traits or character defenses that no longer serving you rather than character defects.
You aim to understand instead of pathologize, which takes cognitive flexibility and humility.
And it fucking works.
There are old-timers punching down at people who just hit rock bottom—telling them that abuse is normal, that feelings are to be ignored, that one’s perspective is fundamentally flawed, and a part of growing up is to learn how to take one’s lumps.
“Kindness is the only non-delusional response to the human condition.” — George Saunders
Old White Guys Aren’t Fragile, Teenagers Are
Jon Haidt and Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently spent an hour talking about why American teenagers are so sad and anxious. (If you want to listen to two middle-aged men analyze the mental lives of teenage girls on Instagram, have at it.)
Haidt likens what he refers to as “fragility” to peanut allergies, which he claims is entirely due to people keeping their kids away from peanuts: you need to expose them to a noxious substance to prepare their immune system! Shut up, it’s good for you!
But food allergies are on the rise for many reasons: “increased use of hygiene products and overuse of antibiotics and, secondly, a change in diet and the increased consumption of processed food with reduced exposure to naturally grown food and changed composition of the gut microbiome.” It’s a complex situation—a perfect storm of variables coming together to shift the functioning of the overall system.
It’s not one cause because it never is. It’s a perfect storm. The kids today do not need more peanuts. As David Brooks writes:
The emerging generations today enjoy none of that sense of security. They grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious.
Mental health issues are always complex, and even the most robust set of genes can’t handle a constant, unprecedented onslaught of social stressors. Chronic social stress is cumulative and defeat inhibits motivation; if the world is fucked and you’re going to get yelled at for even trying, why bother?
Defensiveness and Perfecting Adaptation to Reality
I’m constantly amused at how often defensive white male thought leaders are, and how quick they are to weaponize rationality.
Rationality by Steven Pinker; Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely; Thinking, Fast, and Slow by Daniel Kahneman—all of these types of books, apparently, foretelling the apocalypse because people don’t weigh information in the same way that those authors find acceptable.
Humans are not machines designed to maximize, say, money. Human thought puts more weight on recent information because it’s more relevant to the current situation; human thought is finely calibrated to arrive at a solution that works just fine, and then stop simply because our energy is limited. (Heuristics and biases are features, not bugs, of the brain.)
See? Our so-called irrational thought processes make sense once you look at the big picture.
Addiction and narcissism are characterized by a low self-esteem; narcissists mask their low self-esteem with a constant need for external validation. Narcissists are never wrong, ignoring and denigrating comments that don’t match up with their rosy worldview and need to demonstrate superiority. Empathy? It ain’t happening.
Because, you know, these kids need meat on their bones.
Piaget’s view of psychological development or maturity was the ability to accurately adapt to reality:
“A [maturing] individual is constantly interacting with the environment and actively seeking correspondence between their existing organization of knowledge and new environmental experiences… striving to attain higher levels of development, which gives them a better understanding of the surrounding world.”
Consider the people you know who are failing to thrive, the ones perpetually stuck in their own muck, whose lives consist of having the same arguments, problems—they’re failing to incorporate new information into their worldview. “Defense mechanisms are mechanisms that permit us to think and act... defense mechanisms are the primary instruments for creating order in the mind.”
No One Thinks They’re Defensive Until They Hit Rock Bottom
We’re more likely to judge something as true if the information lines up with what we already believe; it’s easier to discard one thing than it is to rearrange our entire worldview. But what if your field has, historically, been wrong? Racist, sexist, full of privilege?
I had a moment that researcher Roy Baumeister calls a “crystallization of discontent”:
Prior to a crystallization of discontent, a person may have many complaints, but these remain separate from each other. The crystallization brings them together into a coherent body… forming associative links among a multitude of unpleasant, unsatisfactory, and otherwise negative features of one’s current life situation.
I’m finding it easier and easier to ignore old privileged white guys telling me that I’m fragile, that the world is going to hell because some people want to change their pronouns, or that it’s wrong to walk out of a toxic situation because I need more meat on my bones. (I have plenty, thank you.) It’s really not a matter of being “overly sensitive” or “insensitive,” just a matter of respecting the other person, recognizing that we never know someone else’s history or life experience. Period.
For now, I have to take my own advice: seek to understand, not pathologize. So I’m not saying that Jon Haidt, Pinker, et. al. are horrible people. I’m just saying that someday, they’re realize that the world isn’t crazy for wanting to be treated well.
But first, maybe acknowledge that the unrelenting desire to call THE ENTIRE WORLD crazy does not seem to be motivated by anything except for the need to feel superior, which comes from a lack of solid, internal validation. A failure to feel whole and worthwhile, just as you are.
That’s not evil, per se.
But it is fucking sad.
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It’s the moral equivalent, perhaps, of grasping the extent of one’s shopping addiction with a “buy nothing!” month.