Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Everything is F*cked: a Book Critique

I read this book last summer, but people are suddenly talking about it (and his earlier book) all over the place for some reason - maybe because we're just seeing that things are really messed up. Even my youngest asked to borrow it, so it's time to revisit. I give it mixed reviews.

Here's the problem: It's a bit sloppy with the use of studies and with the philosophy. He names drops a whole host of philosophers, and gets a few general ideas right (and some really wrong), but the details are often watered down or at least somewhat inaccurate, which drives me nuts! He's got a degree in international business, but he means well.

He's also sloppy with terms. He uses many words ambiguously as if they can be used to mean a couple things at once in order to further his arguments, or they're used in a way that they aren't used in the fields of study discussed, or they're conflated with one another. Of particular concern is his use of these words: hope, feelings, emotions, narcissism, values, and faith.

I found this book maddening in places, BUT the ideas, if followed by the masses, will benefit people (because it's mainly Stoicism/CBT)! So, yes, read this book and do the things he suggests even though they're not necessarily backed up by arguments he presents, and just keep in mind that you don't now understand many of the philosophers he discusses. Unless, perhaps, you keep scrolling down.

Part I: HOPE

He discusses the notion of hero as someone who creates hope where there is none and of anxiety as a crisis of hope. But his foundational point is the paradox of progress: "the better things get, the more anxious and desperate we all seem to feel . . .  a startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide" (18). His source for the first claim is a poll that asks how people think things are going now, and, for the second, this study which doesn't come to the conclusion he suggests. It says that, of two people with the same income in different neighbourhoods, the one living in the richer neighbourhood has a slightly higher (4.5%) chance of suicide, and, the researchers argue, it's because they compare themselves unfavourably to their neighbours. It's not because they're rich, but because they still don't feel as rich as people around them. The problem isn't wealth, itself, but comparing ourselves to people better off. We do know that anxiety and depression rates are rising, but there's still a lot of questions around the cause. There's quite a bit of questionable manipulation of information in the book that made me dubious of his claims from the get go, but we'll continue as if progress is a primary reason for the change in our mental health.

He spends more time on another problem that seems completely unrelated at this point, our scant attention to our feelings: "For centuries, psychologists and philosophers assumed that dampening or suppressing our emotions was the solution to all life's problems" (25). He has issues with the "assumption that our emotions cause all our problems, and that our reason must swoop in to clean up the mess." He does a dance through philosophers, but he misses the point. Using reason to determine virtue isn't to say we toss out all emotional expression. And what does he even mean by feelings?

Manson argues, "This is the Classic Assumption, the belief that our reason is ultimately in control of our life and that we must train our emotions to sit the fuck down and shut up while the adult it driving. . . . emotional problems are irrational, meaning they cannot be reasoned with" (32, 34). Does capital 'c' Classic refer to 18th century, or classical Greece, which is Platonic, or just the really typical assumption?

If anything, based on watching people in social settings, I think the common understanding is that emotions are to be expressed pretty much at length no matter where you are or how uncomfortable you're making all the people around you! I'm not convinced that we're running into problems because we are a society that is, as he puts is, using our thinking brain but not acknowledging our feeling brain.

Big Concern #1: BUT those philosophers didn't actually assume that suppressing emotions was a solution to anything. He's misrepresenting some of my favourite people here!

Plato and Aristotle were both clear that we need to live in moderation, attending to our passions in a reasonable way so that we don't drink so much that we're hungover day after day. But those are passions like the drive for reputation (spirit) or satiation (appetite), not emotions like anger or sadness. On those, Plato and Aristotle disagree, as they often did. Plato leaned towards control, and Aristotle leaned towards using our emotional energy towards a further good, even counselling us towards the right amount of vengeance to take when slighted.

Plato's description of the ideal person is "being concerned however, not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man . . . he sets in order his own inner life"(Republic Bk IV). Aristotle suggests that it's important to be angry in the right way or at the right time since, "to endure being insulted and put up with insult to one's friends is slavish" (Nicomachean Ethics, Bk IV, part 5), but watch out for an excess of anger. No screaming at the store manager for being out of toilet paper, for instance.

Way later on in the book Manson says, "The philosophers of antiquity didn't see happiness as a virtue. On the contrary, they saw humans' capacity for self-denial as a virtue. . . .  It wasn't until the age of science and technology that happiness became a 'thing'" (173). But Aristotle also argued that everything we do is about moving towards happiness, "for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else. . . . Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is the end of action," but what that looks like is different for different people: "Now the mass of mankind are evidently quite slavish in their tastes, preferring a life suitable to beasts . . . people of superior refinement and of active disposition identity happiness with honor . . . But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for. . . . Third comes the contemplative life." Now, to be fair, by happiness, Aristotle meant fulfillment in life (eudaimonia) or living well, and we're not really sure what Manson means.

One thing many of the Greeks did say is that to be happy we really have to stop wanting so much stuff. Our quest isn't in the right direction! Fleeting joy from accumulation is just that: fleeting. Epicurus takes on this one: "Wealth beyond the requirements of nature is no more benefit to men than water to a vessel which is full. Both alike overflow. We can look upon another's good without perturbation." So it's possible to stop comparing ourselves to those who have more than us; we just have to work at it. It's all attitude.

The Stoics agreed. As Epictetus says, "Take the things which relate to the body as far as the bare use, as food, drink, clothing, house, and slaves: but exclude every thing which is for show or luxury." And Seneca explains, "We are endowed by Nature with an interest in our own well-being; but this very interest, when overindulged, becomes a vice. Nature has intermingled pleasure with necessary things — not in order that we should seek pleasure, but in order that the addition of pleasure may make the indispensable means of existence attractive to our eyes. Should it claim rights of its own, it is luxury. Let us therefore resist these faults when they are demanding entrance, because, as I have said, it is easier to deny them admittance than to make them depart."

It's the Stoics that go further to counsel us to get on top of our emotions, yet Manson's problems and solution to it all takes a page from them directly. Stoics suggest that, instead of looking to those who are better off, that we should keep looking to those worse off in order to improve our outlook. Comedian Michael Connell explains this succinctly: "It's perspective that matters. . . . It's not what happens that matters, but what you think about what happens that makes you feel one way or another." His example: A train being late is a fact, but whether it's good or bad is up to you. If you fell on the tracks, then it's great news!! Connell's explanation fits Manson's thinking and feeling brain analogy perfectly, but it's all Stoicism!

Jump to the last couple centuries, Freud, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, explains that repression of desires is necessary to self-preservation, but repression of feelings leads to neurotic tendencies. He was influenced by Nietzsche's ideas that "repression pushes unacceptable feelings and thoughts into the unconscious and thus makes the individual emotionally more comfortable and effective [and that] the conception that repressed emotions and instinctual drives later are expressed in disguised ways (for example, hostile feelings and ideas may be expressed as altruistic sentiments and acts)." And then in Future of an Illusion, Freud is clear that morality, even developed through science, hinges on "the love of man and the decrease of suffering." We need all the feels!

And, just to seal the deal, let's look at David Hume's thoughts on our feelings, as Manson calls them. I think he mentions him at one point, but Hume is all about using our emotional responses to guide our actions. Hume also mentions the Thinking/Feeling dichotomy, referring to it as reason and sentiment:
"What exists in the nature of things is the standard of our judgment; what each man feels within himself is the standard of sentiment. . . . Those who would resolve all moral determinations into sentiment, may endeavor to show, that it is impossible for reason ever to draw conclusions of this nature. . . . What is honorable, what is fair, what is becoming, what is noble, what is generous, takes possession of the heart, and animates us to embrace and maintain it. . . . Render men totally indifferent towards these distinctions; and morality is no longer a practical study, nor has any tendency to regulate our lives and actions." 
Hume says we can't use reason to determine good and bad, despite being an empiricist, because reason renders us indifferent. So, it would seem that many philosophers and psychologists actually have argued in favour of attention to feelings.

Manson's Solution: Align Your Brains Around Consistent Values (aka get on top of your emotional reactions)

Now for the solution: He says we can't control emotions even if we try, but we can control our values, which affect the meaning we ascribe to our emotions, which will affect how we behave, if I understand him correctly when he says,
"You can't simply change yourself" (30). "Self-control is an illusion. . . . The only way you consistently nail that illusion is by consistently communicating and aligning the brains around the same values. It's a skill. . . . You may not have self-control, but you do have meaning control" (44). "The Thinking Brain makes lateral connections between events (sameness, contrasts, cause/effect, etc.), while the Feeling Brain makes hierarchical connections (better/worse). . . . The is essentially what 'growth' is: reprioritizing one's value hierarchy in an optimal way" (55).
This is what the Stoics said. And it's totally fine that Manson's bringing the concepts to the masses. It's fantastic! It's just that he argues against all the philosophers who have gotten it wrong all these years (largely with straw man fallacies) and comes up with a solution that should be ascribed to the philosophy and psychology they come from. Stoics have many ways to quiet the noise of emotion in order to listen to what our emotions are telling us. In the 1950s, Albert Ellis took those ideas and mixed them with psychotherapy to develop REBT, originally called RT for Rational Therapy, and later developed into CBT by Aaron Beck. These ideas are all over these disciplines that are being slagged by Manson.

Manson explains how much our attitude can change our behaviours with examples like, how we think about parties can help us stop missing them and make us want to go less often. This is what the Stoics tell us and what CBT can get us to do, to stop black and white thinking and to have us question our motives and cognitive distortions. But then he falls into a just world fallacy that we will feel the negative effects of our actions, which will help us stop these actions. "These pangs of regret or embarrassment are good; they signify growth" (57). The reality is that many of us get away with being crappy forever, without any pangs of regret, which is really what causes so many problems.

But then Manson goes further down the road that has also been well-trodden by some big thinkers: Our values are messed up.

On optimally re-prioritizing our value system:

We tell stories about ourselves - we all have a 'script' often passed down from our family of origin, a narrative that makes up how we think of ourselves, and you can "react emotionally to them as though they were an inherent part of you" (65). But we should take time to question our narrative and think about other perspectives. (See Camus's The Fall if you need to kickstart this process!)

Our parents will mess up in one way or another, so we have to re-evaluate our identity. We heal when we start to
reexamine the experiences of your past and rewrite the narratives around them [and to] begin writing the narratives of your future self, to envision what life would be like if you had certain values or possessed a certain identity. [This can be nudged with 'what if' questions, like,] 'What if you didn't have to prove anything to the people in your life for them to like you? What if people's unavailability has more to do with them than it does with you?' (68-9)
It makes me think of Westworld: what if you could change your settings? Who would you be if you could? But, wait... didn't he say we couldn't change or control ourselves?? Anyway.

He also thinks that we gravitate to people with similar values, so changing our script will change the types of people who gravitate to us, which is a clever way to draw in any readers who are annoyed with their friend group. He has a chapter on Isaac Newton, who got harassed by schoolmates, and who wrote, basically, about developing an internal locus of control. In a re-working of parts of this book (or maybe a direct quotation; it's not clear), Manson writes an emo version of Newton,
"All people are more the same than they are different. We all mostly want the same things out of life. But those slight differences generate emotion, and emotion generates a sense of importance. Therefore, we come to perceive our differences as disproportionately more important than our similarities. And this is the true tragedy of man. That we are doomed to perpetuate conflict over the slight difference."
If we assume people are jerks for focusing on our minor differences, rather than assuming that we're doing something to provoke them, then it helps us cope with the situation when people are mean to us. But here's the one flaw with CBT and Stoicism: sometimes our negative thoughts aren't distorted and that bad things happening to us are beyond what we can augment by merely shifting our attitude.

More on Values:

This is where his idea of the paradox of progress merges with his concern with feelings: that we're not developing the right values because we have too many things. I think that's partly right, but not entirely the case, or, not only the case.

He states that "You cannot verify values. They are, by definition, subjective and arbitrary . . . all values are faith-based beliefs" (88-9) taking a relativist position without acknowledging that another position exists. It could be argued that values can be objective, can exist independent of our perception of them, and that some things are right even if we don't always do the right thing (e.g. raping people is wrong). And they don't require faith either as a general belief in them or as anything tossed down to us by God. We can derive axioms to live by without God, which was what Kant was all about. We don't need God to be good, and we don't have to figure it out over and over independently. There are times he conflates values with faith. We can hold values skeptically as we address them.

I agree with his concerns when he takes us to task for blindly following celebrities and ideologies in an us vs them way of thinking. Corruption begins when we lose touch with the values and just blindly follow the leaders, absolutely. And he acknowledges the usefulness of rituals: "We need rituals because rituals make our values tangible. You can't think your way toward valuing something. You have to live it. You have to experience it" (101). And I agree that "We must emerge from our ideological concerns" (130).  We have to think for ourselves through all this.

But in exploring the trajectory of our current value system changing largely because of a plethora of products on the market (116), he completely ignores Indigenous societies and, basically, most non-Western systems. And I'm just going to skip his understanding of Nietzsche's stance on religion or his claim that Greek mythology started with all dudes (um, Gaia much?). In a nutshell, Manson thinks science changed everything.

Big Concern #2: Okay, the development of the scientific method definitely affected things, for sure, but economic and political systems, and the underlying changing epistemology of the times, all affected our values as well.

Economist Yanis Varoufakis explains that a society with markets changes the behaviours of citizens to become a market society. All production now requires raw materials (capital goods), land where production takes place, and labour, but it used to be the case that land and labour were born to us rather than bought and sold. Peasants lived on the land they were born on without paying for that right until the 1500s, when sheep became more lucrative in Britain, and peasants were evicted from ancestral lands. It was the precursor to mercantilism. Suddenly, the peasants had to commodify their labour and to trade work for the privilege of living on land (i.e. worked to pay rent). Then when factories started running in the mid 1700s, it was a triumph of exchange values over experiential values. On one hand there were new freedoms as slavery decreased and there was hope for a surplus for all, but there were new forms of misery as the landless had to pay rent: "freedom came with new chains . . . entirely at the mercy of the markets" (47). Manson comes to the same conclusion about concerns with the markets but as if consumerism somehow came from scientific progress.

And then, once John Locke convinced the world that we were all born with a blank slate, and nobody was divinely ascribed more rights to lead than anyone else - that first blush of equality - then there was no longer anything special about the monarchy, which was a game changer. What Manson seems to miss is how values shifted before the modern era.

Charles Taylor explains, in Sources of the Self, how we took an inward turn long before consumerism.  It's not that we had values once and now we don't, but that we're more and more geared towards the individual at the expense of society. And, more recently, Taylor discusses "social imaginaries," which are our narratives and 'scripts' that provide for us the range of possibilities we can imagine, but which are often provided or restricted by our culture. It's along the lines of what Manson is getting to, it just goes a few steps further.

Hannah Arendt traces our narratives and values beautifully in the The Origins of Totalitarianism:
If man is actually driven by nothing but his individual interests [like Hobbes said in 1650], desire for power must be the fundamental passion of man. . . . This new body politic was conceived for the benefit of the new bourgeois society as it emerged in the seventeenth century and this picture of man is a sketch for the new type of Man who would fit into it. . . . Deprived of political rights, the individual, to whom public and official life manifests itself in the guise of necessity, acquires a new and increased interest in his private life and his personal fate. Excluded from participation in the management of public affairs that involve all citizens, the individual loses his rightful place in society and his natural connection with his fellow-men. He can now judge his individual private life only by comparing it with that of others, and his relations with his fellow-men inside society take the form of competition. . . . 
This process of never-ending accumulation of power necessary for the protection of a never-ending accumulation of capital determined the "progressive" ideology of the late nineteenth century and foreshadowed the rise of imperialism. . . . If society insisted, "You are what you appear to be," postwar activism replied: "You are what you have done." . . . The pertinence of these answers lies less in their validity as redefinitions of personal identity than in their usefulness for an eventual escape from social identification, from the multiplicity of interchangeable roles and functions which society had imposed. The point was to do something, heroic or criminal, which was unpredictable and undetermined by anybody else. . . . .The members of the elite did not object at all to paying a price, the destruction of civilization, for the fun of seeing how those who had been excluded unjustly in the past forced their way into it. . . . . There is only one thing that seems to be discernible: we may say that radical evil has emerged in connection with a system in which all men have become equally superfluous. (139-459)
So, what's she saying? Once private property became a thing and people no longer worked collectively for the good of the kingdom, then we became competitive. But, it wasn't a matter, as first suggested to us, that we could all rise up to become elites (clearly very few of us are really involved in politics at all), but that only a few of us will, and the rest of us then compete in different ways among the lower ranks. This kick-started the drive for impotent power and knock-off versions of wealth and heroes that save nobody all in a quest to be someone. It's the loss of the collective that has us fighting for an identity as a self against one another instead of together. And the people who are at the top, for real, are watching us like we're all participants in a game show, which allows them to view us as pawns rather than people, which is crazy dangerous.

So, yes, science and consumerism, definitely, but also basic property rights provoked a shift in values.

And then there's Schopenhauer's Will that suggests life is just moving from desire to desire, which is suffering (like Buddhism). All existence is just struggle; it's the nature of reality. Maybe it's got nothing to do with anything external. But Marx would counter that if we can no longer be identified with our work, then we end up only identified with what we buy. There are always those perspectives!


Manson looks at how operant conditioning teaches us values as children. That we don't steal because we'll be punished, and how that's the ethical system of a child. And he gets that transactional values develop manipulation strategies, and that we have to grow up to recognize that stealing is wrong in itself, not just because we'll be punished for doing it. So far so good. He references Kohlberg but he could have kept the same theme and done a watered down version of Kierkegaard here too! Like this: We tend to get stuck in Kierkegaard's aesthetic stage (enjoying pleasures) or ethical stage (following rules blindly because they're rules), but we need to all get to the religious stage (doing what's right because it's right). "The difference between a child, an adolescent, and an adult is not how old they are or what they do, but why they do something" (147). Yup, that's the idea.

BUT then this is his example of what it looks like to be an adult: "It's the boss who takes the fall for his employees' mistakes, the mother who gives up her own happiness for her child's" (152). These aren't adults at that ideal stage of morality; they're people with zero boundaries. Adulting isn't self-sacrifice, and both of those examples are co-dependent behaviours that allow the employee and child to continue bad behaviour at the expense of their mom or boss.

He says a few other things near the end that validated my earlier concerns:

* His claim that worshipping any God "will always result in giving up your own humanity" (153) doesn't register the wide varieties of worship or the ability to be religious yet also have independent thought. He falls into stereotypes of religious understanding.

* He understands that Kant wants us to stop exploiting others (156), but that's not the "basis of all wrong behavior," as he suggests, since we can also do wrong without exploiting others. Specifically we can't treat others as a mere means to an end. Never treating anyone as a means to an end, ever, would mean all trade would end. And then he has this weird bit about Kant: "he decided that the only logical way to improve the world is through improving ourselves . . . Love openly and fearlessly. Don't cave to tribal impulses or hopeful deceits. Because there is no heaven or hell in the future" (158), none of which remotely fits with my understanding of Kant.

* Then he gets all about fragile snowflakes and the quest to be anti-fragile: "The more we look for threats, the more we will see them, regardless of how safe or comfortable our environment actually is. . . .  The better things get, the more we perceive threats where there are none, and the more upset we become. And it is at the heart of the paradox of progress" (164-5). He starts to sound a little "Alt-Light" here, but he tempers it just enough, maybe.  He says, "Protecting people from problems . . . makes them more easily insecure  . . . by removing healthy adversity and challenge, people struggle even more. They become more selfish and more childish" (165-6). And we're back to the Stoics: we can get used to anything. People who win the lottery or become disabled end up, a few years later, with the same happiness rating. "There is always a separation between what we experience and how we interpret that experience." Our tolerance for pain is diminishing, absolutely. We're in an amazing time and place in which few know about famine or war first hand - but that's changing.

But I'm not sure this bit is saying anything more than 'rise to the challenges':
"Truly adult values are antifragile: they benefit from the unexpected. The more fucked up a relationship gets, the more useful honesty becomes. The more terrifying the world is, the more important it is to summon up the courage to face it. The more confusing life becomes, the more valuable it is to adopt humility. . . . The more antifragile we become, the more graceful our emotional responses are, the more control we exercise over ourselves, and the more principled our values" (188-9). 
Okay, sure. But why "antifragile" instead of just resilient? (See this 7 minute video I made for my class for more on current resiliency studies or scan the script.)

* Manson thinks Edward Bernays was practically a fascist because he invented marketing at a time when many sociologists were starting to understand the masses as in need of direction. That attitude started thirty years before Bernays with Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd, and then continued with Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion. And Manson continues his idea that, "Let's not forget the whole reason that deadly conflict exists in the first place: it give us hope" (267), which is highly questionable and poorly argued.

* Finally, back to his word choice: "Today's tyranny is achieved by flooding people with so much diversion, so much bullshit information and frivolous distraction, that they are unable to make smart commitments" (210). "If submitting to artificial algorithms sounds awful, understand this: you already do. And you like it" (220). He says that fake freedom of consumerism gives people what they want which leads them to be less satisfied, but real freedom means we need to choose what to give up in our lives. Sure. I wouldn't call it tyranny, though, like I wouldn't call Bernays a fascist. That's a little dramatic. But it might lead the audience towards feeling pity for themselves, for having to tolerate such a plethora of choice in the marketplace instead of feeling guilty for being selfish and greedy, which, again, will garner more readers.

And, again this is precisely what the Greeks were on about: moderation, negative meditations, Epicurean pots of cheese, not overflowing the cup but choosing what goes in it wisely. It's good stuff, for sure, but it's not new. But, at least more people will know a bit about it.

Parts of the book still resonates: "We are not living through a crisis of wealth or material, but a crisis of character, a crisis of virtue, a crisis of means and ends" (161). YES absolutely, but that was clearly the case throughout history as so many philosophers complained about the people around them: the idiots in the cave and the vulgar and unseeing immoral masses. It's possible that in any culture we always have a few Cassandra's calling to all to improve their morality, and then the masses ignoring it. A lack of values isn't new, but the loss of the type of values we are choosing from is what's really different. But keep shouting in the vernacular, like Manson does, and maybe people will listen.

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