On Celebrity Culture versus Real Bodies: Viva The Locker Room

realbodiesI’ve been enjoying Tim Caulfield’s Is Gwyneth Paltrow Wrong About Everything? Caulfield is a University of Alberta guy — gives me a rarely felt twinge of alumni pride, actually. Maybe I’m proud because he wrote a well researched book that is really easy and fun to read. Gwyneth is his poster girl for all the weird intersections between celebrity culture and our endless quests to improve ourselves — through diet and alternative medicine for example — or to achieve “fame.” (On the latter point, some of his stats on your odds of making it big in music or sports are truly alarming.) The overall point of the book is that celebrity culture has a symbiotic relationship with a lot of the human qualities that we can all be, shall we say, less proud of: Continue reading

Advertisements

Drinking Our Post-Truth Kool-Aid

It is intriguing, if terribly, sad to see a stark shift to pessimism and fatalism in the wake of the US election. I’ve noticed, and felt in myself, a kind of despair and helplessness as developed countries across the world turn to poisonous authoritarian political leadership.

My deeper sadness and frustration, though, comes out of what appears to be the rapid waning of a reflective moment in which people seemed to be taking a collective responsibility for this. “Gee, maybe we missed something,” said Democrats and liberals. There were a few voices suggesting that slagging Republicans might not be in our collective interests, and that maybe the mean-spiritedness of our politics was something that everyone owned — not just Trump supporters.

I saw a flicker of hope in calls for reason, solidarity and empathy as political values to replace the toxic soup we’re in. Alas we seem instead to have either accepted “post-truth” politics as inevitable, or worse yet, legitimate because our “outrage” excuses us from being civil or reasonable. So we inflame hostility instead of seeking to heal it. We love what makes us feel justified and morally superior, more than we love the pursuit of truth, or indeed the pursuit of much of anything that might serve our collective best interests. It’s a big, enthusiastic march to hell.

“Drinking the kool-aid” is common vernacular for accepting an idea with a kind of religious fervor that dampens reason. Some (but not all) may be aware that it alludes to the Jonestown Massacre of 1978: the staggering mass suicide of some 900 religious cult members some of who — yep — drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid to end it all. While evidence and survivors’ accounts suggest that many died under duress, others committed suicide willingly. Thus “drinking the kool-aid” doesn’t just describe buying in to a cult-life belief as an individual. Drinking kool-aid isn’t a lone act. It’s a social one. Mass delusion followed by mass suicide.

How have we become convinced, en masse, that disrespect and vitriol make for good politics? There are two forms of delusion at work here: the delusions of the embittered who think they will be saved by authoritarian leaders, and the delusions of those who believe that effective opposition to this movement takes the form piling on to the existing wealth of ad hominem memes and snarky commentary on the internet.

There are many possible explanations for our lining up at the Kool-Aid cauldron of political incivility. I’d like to offer one: a loss of collective memory. We’re losing the stories we need to connect our political behaviours to their consequences. I was born 25 years after the end of World War 2, and have some recollections of Remembrance Day as a visceral experience for the adults around me. I was a kid and I didn’t really get it. But there were people in my family and immediate circle who could speak of world wars in ways that ingrained a healthy respect for what is at stake in armed conflicts. [1] My own kids and their cohort are that much further removed from the influences of veterans, family members, teachers and public figures who could communicate, widely and in intimate terms, the real costs of violent global conflict. Lost children. Lost husbands. Rations of goods that we take for granted every day. PTSD. Imminent fear of violent death, rape, poverty, starvation and cold.

In the West, as the stories of veterans and other real people affected by the real consequences of global conflict fade, we’re left with an unacknowledged, collective sense that war is a kind of video game. There have been studies and accompanying commentary that video games do not cause players to become more violent.[2][3][4] If this is the case — if we indeed do not translate screens to reality — there’s no reason to think that we translate real events on screens to reality either. So violent conflict is readily abstracted to “something that happens to people in Syria.” It’s accompanied by a vague and helpless kind of empathy, but it’s an abstract empathy. It doesn’t carry the weight and power of having stories of human suffering — your own family’s suffering, or that of people you meet and talk to every day.

In short, because the real consequences of violent conflict are not part of our lived experience, and are no longer a part of our collective memory in the West, we’ve gotten really stupid. Like drinking-the-Kool-Aid stupid. Like kids playing shooter games, we engage in all manners of incivility and violence, and then turn the screen off and go get ourselves some lunch. As if the satisfying game of slagging our political opponents is not contributing to a downward road from incivility of words to incivility of deeds.

Endnotes

[1] I am also old enough to remember a kind of heavy fear around the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear attacks. A blast from my past: The 1983 movie, “The Day After.” It is one of a number of many movies and documentaries reflecting the public fear and pessimism of the era. It was controversial when released.

[2] I don’t know enough about these debates to weigh in on the evidence, one way or another, but it’s out there for those who would pursue it. Here’s a popular press article, anyway: The Truth About Video Games and Gun Violence.

Why So Many Coaches?

questionsI’ve been mulling the proliferation of ADHD coaches. I always want to err on the side of thinking people are well-intentioned, so I attribute this in part to what I think is really a wonderful impulse: the desire to “pay it forward” when you have experienced support yourself. But this alone can’t account for the crazy-ass, exponential growth of all kinds of different coaching — not just ADHD coaching. You can hire a coach for most anything, from a generic “life coach” down to niches like parenting coaching, or even coaching to get laid (aka a “dating coach.”) The International Coaching Federation grew tenfold in a decade: from about 1,500 members in 1999 to 16,000 in 2011.[1] So what’s going on?

We’re confused. If you’re old enough to read non-fiction voluntarily, “constant change” and “complexity” are probably part of your vocabulary for describing the world you live and work in. Nothing is simple, dammit. Part of this is an unfortunate general by-product of adulthood, but in fields like psychology, sociology and economics, writers talk about the particular effects of a modern life that constantly demands complex decisions on the part of ordinary people.[2] Presented with an endless array of decisions to make — from biggies like what career to pursue down to picking the “right” running shoes from umpteen brands, we get tired, stressed out and confused. A coach, consultant, or Lululemon “educator” (I shit you not) becomes a welcome friend/expert who helps you bear the cognitive load of a world that demands your active attention at every turn.[3] Continue reading

Holiday Excess: Down, Girl

This morning I am avoiding work by cruising the internet for mocktail recipes. I thought I might take over some fixings for virgin mojitos to the Aunties’ for Christmas Eve. And as is the way with these things, I got sucked into the foodie/entertaining/fuck-stupid-Pinterest-spams-everything vortex.[1] Somehow, I ended up watching a “how to make a charcuterie platter” video and fantasizing about rolling genoa salami into fancy looking flower things.

Among its many unforeseen effects, the internet has spawned a never-ending carnival of home décor, home entertaining, home DIY and home renovation. I’m always ambivalent about this stuff. It seems to provide many people with creative outlets that they genuinely enjoy. For me it’s cooking. Not much makes me happier than a day in the kitchen because I find it grounds me. And when I have the time, trying something new and making it look beautiful is a real pleasure.

Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.
Martha Stewart. Helping all to feel just a little more inadequate. Bitch.

I also love sharing food with family and friends. So, all the home entertaining fodder online gets me super ambivalent. This is because it is so difficult to parse our motivations when these home events cross over the line from that genuine enjoyment of sharing with others, and a less generous desire to display status and show others how awesome we are.

For better or for worse, as a species we are driven to seek out and display our social status. This observation is consistent across different cultures and different historical periods. It’s an observation that is arrived upon consistently from different academic disciplinary perspectives: social psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, archeology, social biology. You name it.  Cheng and Tracy (2014) describe two basic ways that this stuff has been thought about historically.[2]

One is the “dominance theory,” that says, in really simple terms, that we defer to dominant others because it is natural to do so, and because from a herd perspective, it is in our best interests to do so. There is lots of evidence to support this theory, but it is a dangerous one because it can be used very easily to defend social inequality. So, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour or live in a better house it may be accompanied by an unstated and broad acceptance that this is because you deserve to.[3] We accept this, as a society, as reasonably fair arrangement.

The other approach described by Cheng and Tracy is the “prestige theory.” This explanation for the pursuit of social status is that we seek it because we have lots of complicated reasons to find it satisfying to be seen well in the eyes of others. So, from this perspective, if you throw a better dinner party than your neighbour you might have put a ton of work into it because you care about what your neighbour thinks. You want to make a good impression.

The reason I find this second idea more interesting and compelling is because it helps me to understand that ambivalence I just described about entertaining excesses – holiday and otherwise. It helps to explain how we could simultaneously take sincere pleasure in putting our best foot (feet?) forward in how we arrange and open our homes to others we care about, while at the same time pursuing a largely unconscious agenda to be well regarded in the eyes of strangers that we actually don’t have any reason to give a shit about. Or to engage in subtle forms of social competition just out of habit.

Mass Media and Social Status Competition. Ugh.

The interesting thing about the internet and reality TV is that these media provide tempting opportunities for us to indulge what I’d argue are our lesser angels with regard to this “prestige” thesis of social status.

About five years ago, there was a (mercifully) short-lived show on Canadian reality TV called Dinner Party Wars. I had a friend who liked it, and I watched a few episodes, but quickly became squeamish. Because the deal was that strangers – three couples – would host dinner parties for each other, and be judged for their efforts by a panel. They would also be judged, secretly and usually uncharitably, by their guests in whispered asides from the bathroom, dutifully filmed for the show.

You couldn’t sink much lower. The very premise of the show was status competition for all the wrong reasons: the opening of one’s home and display of effort and creativity not to share the pleasure of company and good food, but to one-up strangers and display entertaining prowess for a wider audience.

If I have a point, I suppose it is that even if we accept that there are some compelling and powerful reasons for us to pursue status, we’ve still got a lot of choices about how we go about that, and to what ends. I try to be conscious of my motivations. A lot of times it helps me to make better decisions: to keep things more simple than I might have otherwise, and to focus my limited energy more on the people coming over than the stuff in my home surrounding the event. It might mean a less fancy dinner table, or fewer, less elaborate dishes, but it also means more time visiting instead of cooking, and less stress for everyone.

In fact, as I get older I more and more like the idea of keeping my home and entertaining efforts modest. It’s not always easy, because it’s not like I’m immune to status-seeking. I don’t think any of us are. But bringing some awareness to the ways in which we are seduced to seek and display “more” is also something of which we are all capable. And I think it offers us all the opportunity to slow down the damn consumption treadmill we are so caught up in.

The crap thing about social status is that it ties us together in that pernicious, endless pursuit of more. But the cool thing is that the very same forces that compel us to seek agreement and status among our social “others” can also be used to help us collectively to do better. It just requires turning the energy in the right direction. Mass social media gives us Pinterest and Dinner Party Wars, but is also gives us blog networks and virtual communities supporting the pursuit of less and better. It’s really all in our hands isn’t it?

[1] I *really* hate Pinterest.

[2] Cheng, J. & Tracy, J. (2014). Theoretical perspectives: The nature of social status and hierarchy. In The psychology of social status, Cheng, J., Tracy, J. & Anderson, C. (Eds.), pp. 3-27. New York: Springer.

[3] It’s really important here to realize that you may not being thinking this *specifically* about your neighbour, who you may quite like and respect. But if you take it out of the context of your personal relationships and think about your natural tendencies in interpreting the larger world – for example imagining the reasons why some people live in big houses and others in crappy apartments – you are likely to realize that you are unconsciously making judgements of merit. Those who have more must, we believe, have qualities that make them “good people:” hard working, intelligent, otherwise talented, self-disciplined, etc.

The Weird, Weird World of ADHD Coaching

I am a sociologist, and that is something that is really hard to turn off. The world is your lab. Everything is some form of participant observation, where you are watching and wondering what makes people tick and why they come together (or fall apart) in the ways that they do.

That’s my preamble/advanced apology for picking on the weird world of ADHD coaching. I have discovered that if you find out you have Adult ADHD, you should follow these steps:

  • Listen to podcasts promoting coaching/support groups
  • Join a coaching/support group
  • Feel so happy and hopeful now that you’ve found your tribe (i.e. other people with no short-term memory or concept of time) that you are inspired to pay it forward.
  • Start your own podcast and blog promoting your own, new coaching and support group business.

The ADHD Coaching Small Business Model

The first source of bemusement: ADHD people looooove new ideas! They have a new idea every ten minutes. So starting a small business where you get to help people and potentially earn a living is one humdinger of a new idea. The problem is that ADHD people also suck at follow-through and details, and they have short-term memories like sieves. So, if you know anything at all about small businesses, you can probably predict where this small business thing might go: Gobs of ADHD podcasts by earnest coaches (who also have coaches) that have super strong starts and then disappear after a year. On podcasts, you talk about and/or have guests who talk about all the challenges that come with having ADHD, including the challenges of running your own ADHD business when you have no sense of time, react allergically to paperwork, and need daily alarms to remind you to brush your teeth.

After listening to enough of these things to get the gist, one starts to wonder where, in coaching, the value of empathy tapers off, and the need for professionals with serious skills kicks in. In other words, at what point does ADHD coaching start (or stop) being a case of the blind leading the blind? I don’t mean to be unkind here, because hearts and efforts are all coming from good places. But hey, shouldn’t your coach have her shit more-or-less together before coaching?

The ADHD Conference

Two ADHD coaches walk into a bar.

Okay, no. They were actually at the big annual US conference for ADHD where parents, adult ADHDers, and (I expect anyway) about a million ADHD “experts” of varying actual expertise show up to talk about ADHD. I’m getting the impression that this conference is an awesome place to network if you are coaching, blogging, podcasting, or wrote a book about ADHD. (Or all of the above.)

Back to the story: One ADHD coach is confessing to another ADHD coach that she’s a wreck any time she has to pack for anything because she has ADHD, which is a near guarantee that you will forget something no matter how hard you try not to. She arrives at this particular conference having forgotten the business cards for her ADHD coaching business. Which she was going to hand out at networking events at the ADHD conference. To get clients with ADHD and help them to not forget their business cards.

Is your sense of irony kicking in yet? At the ADHD conference, is everyone late for sessions, including the presenters? Do half the attendees take the wrong bus and end up on the other side of the city? Do they have buckets of pens for people who want to write things down but forgot their pens?

It writes itself, doesn’t it?

Expertise and Money

I think that what makes me uncomfortable about this whole thing is the business model of coaching. In my last blog, I talked about the generosity of spirit that can come about when people make commitments to one another in support groups. But weird things start happening when you attach money to what very often amounts to simple peer support among people with similar needs and concerns. Weird things like a whole sub-culture of “expertise” as anyone can hop online, self-publish a book, and come up with their own marketing angle to make their particular brand of coaching distinctive. Even if intentions of individual ADHD entrepreneurs are sincere, the whole thing amounts to a real quagmire for people who are looking for help.

Coaches will claim that they provide practical strategies and serve as accountability partners. They may facilitate support groups. Yet these can easily bleed over into what is more properly called therapy. ADHD may be accompanied by other issues that call for professional intervention: depression (especially in women), or substance abuse. With ADHD, medication regimes are important accompaniments to learning and practicing skills, and coaches should not be prescribing or recommending or monitoring medications. So you can see grey areas and ethical issues emerging very quickly here when it comes to one’s qualifications to offer support.[1]

I could go on. And I might in a future blog because I’m right into thinking about this “coaching” thing more, because the ethical questions and the role of the internet in promoting “expertise”[2] apply much more broadly than in the ADHD world. For now, I’m still shaking my head about the lady who forgot her business cards. Cause I’d be right there doing the same thing, of course.

[1] I did find this short and fairly recent write-up on present efforts to credentialize ADHD coaching. The process of professionalizing a non-profession is really interesting because it follows some predictable patterns, which include turf wars among professional associations. But I digress…

[2]This is how you get people, without any apparent irony, writing books like “How to Become an Expert on Anything in Two Hours.” This gets even better, as the authors have also written a book called “How to Spot a Liar.”

Accountability

I’ve been listening to lots of podcasts about ADHD this week. There’s been this ongoing reference to “coaching and accountability” groups. It got me thinking about what accountability means, because it can mean different things.

In the world of policy wonks (of which I’m a citizen) accountability is a pretty loaded word. Educational philosopher Gert Biesta distinguishes between accountability in “democratic” or “bureaucratic” senses. The first emphasizes a kind of a voluntary social contract. That means that we buy into the idea that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re “accountable” in the sense that we accept that our actions matter for other peoples’ lives. The bureaucratic variety, on the other hand is punitive and watchful. In the contexts of the public sector (health, education, government) it means producing data to prove that you aren’t fucking up.[1]. So whereas the democratic variety of accountability is something that engage in voluntarily, the “bureaucratic” variety is based on a profound sense of social mistrust. Biesta talks about this in the contexts of teachers and how each understanding of “accountability” changes the way they act. This gist is that the “democratic” kind inspires growth and learning. The “bureaucratic” kind inspires teachers (and others) to find ways to keep people off their asses — to avoid getting in trouble.[2]

So I was thinking about all of this in the context of this business of self-help groups as forms of accountability. And I like it. Unlike the kind of accountability that you owe to your boss, or your teachers, or any other authority figure who says “perform or else,” accountability in the contexts of self-help groups comes out of an intentional creation of trust for the purposes of growth and learning.

In the context of these adult ADHD support groups (and countless other support groups), accountability speaks, I think, of our deep need to hook into communities that can remind us that our quests to “do better” are meaningful beyond our own self-interests. Autonomy, self-motivation, and self-discipline are celebrated in our culture. So why submit oneself the “accountability” in a group? I’d suggest it is because the “self” in self-development is limited in its capacity to offer the motivation we need to make efforts to change. These efforts achieve new dimensions of meaning when our “doing better” makes things better for people we care about.

[1] For the record, Biesta does not quite explain it this way. And adds much more to the topic than I am dealing with here. He’s awesome. Biesta, G. (2015). What is education for? On Good education, teacher judgement, and educational professionalism. European Journal of Education, 50(1), 75–87. http://doi.org/10.1111/ejed.12109

[2] Again, Biesta is decidedly more eloquent…