Essay

Beyond Critique

By Duff McDuffee on September 20th, 2011

Critique is of vital importance to self-development. Our vision at Beyond Growth was to make a space for intelligent critique of the frequently shallow ideas and manipulative marketing in personal development culture to expand the field. In the past two years of writing we have featured articles on many topics, but overwhelmingly the most popular articles were our critiques of self-help gurus.

While I think it is a valuable thing to root out corruption and critique shallow ideology, it has never been my intention to be the self-help police, nor is that the focus of this group blog project. (Other people do it better anyway.) As a philosophically minded person, I am more interested in general principles, in seeing the pattern.

In particular, I see several problems with focusing too much on a critique of individuals:

1. Unethical behavior is often fueled by systemic or structural forces. If we self-help critics succeed in deposing one guru from their throne, a thousand others will scramble to take his place. If we focus too much on specific individuals, we could miss this larger systemic pattern and thus “hack at the leaves” instead of digging up the roots of the problem.

2. All people are a mix of good and evil. If we demonize others as being the bad guys and gals, this might imply we are all good. Demonizing others also is a less-than-compassionate response to another human being. At first this is a very understandable response, and as we learn and grow we can even better than that. We can protect ourselves and others from harm without causing additional harm.

3. A focus on corruption can solidify cynicism. While a sober assessment of humanity can be useful at times, a rigid focus on what’s wrong with people—if calcified into one’s only perspective—can distort one’s view. I think it’s important to be able to sincerely advocate for something too, and see people’s humanity.

The key here is having a flexibility of mind where you can think critically, observe unhelpful or unethical behaviors in yourself and others clearly, but also think optimistically about future potentials and see positive intention behind harmful behavior.

My hope for this blog project was that it would free up many others to openly discuss ideas and behaviors in the personal development community using critical thinking. That has happened in a very small way, but not as widely as I would have liked. Some personal development folks are still doing very harmful things, while some academics are so cynical about the possibilities for human change they censor opposing ideas. I suppose I was a bit naive about the possibilities for changing the world through blogging.

What has happened in the past two years of blogging is that I’ve been able to clarify and refine my values and ideas about personal development and change. Despite being much more aware of human evil, I’m even more optimistic about the possibilities for people to make positive, deep, and significant personal change. Every time I’d write about something I felt angry about, or someone would comment or disagree with my opinions and I’d feel hurt, I’d do Core Transformation or some other process to integrate my feelings and gain a more resourceful response. I also encountered my own evil within and made positive changes with those parts of me. We can use critique and discussion to fuel our personal development, but only if we have effective methods of doing so, and we use them.

Now I can clearly see corruption in action. I’m not as reactive and instead feel more compassionate and resourceful when I hear about abuses of power in self-help or elsewhere. I also feel like the most important thing I can do now is to teach people practical change methods so they can make positive changes too. As I’ve changed, I expected people would change with me—but most have not. I’m optimistic that if people knew how to change in a way that respected all parts of themselves, was non-manipulative, and was clearly explained and taught, they would embrace it and go for it.

I hope that some Beyond Growth readers will join me in my new focus. Together we can grow and change and discover better ways of doing so.

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