Saturday, October 30, 2021

The World According to Brene Brown

Everyone has heard of Brene Brown. The major purveyor of psychobabble and empty platitudes just received the star treatment-- a profile in The New Yorker. It makes you regret that Janet Malcolm is not around to puncture the bubble that has become Brown’s reputation.

Anyway, as I read the drooling profile I recalled a phrase we owe to one Nathan Robinson. The phrase: we get the intellectuals we deserve.

Now, Robinson was using the phrase in a magisterial review of one Jordan Peterson. Since Brown and Peterson are both denizens of the psycho world, it seems apt to compare the two. As for Robinson himself, he is a very bright young man who suffers from an adolescent infatuation with socialism. We can only wish that he will outgrow it. 

Unfortunately, some people will dismiss his views of Peterson on they rounds that he is a self-proclaimed leftist radical. Personally, I prefer a leftist who is honest enough to call himself a blooming radical than one who declares himself, in defiance of logic and of the English language, a progressive. One suspects that the Congresspeople who call themselves progressives do not know what the term means, anyway.

I will mention in passing that I have not read Peterson’s books. You might think that this does not qualify me to comment on a slightly off-kilter Jungian-- for the record, all Jungians are slightly off-kilter-- but, in truth, anyone who cannot see past Carl Jung does not deserve to be taken seriously. Aside from Jung’s flirtations with Nazism and his forays into anti-Semitism, the Swiss psychoanalyst was effectively selling pagan idolatry. If pagan idolatry is your thing, Jung is your man. If you want to undermine the moral basis of Western civilization, turn to Jung and imbibe his musings about pagan mythology, astrology, alchemy, witchcraft and Tarot cards.

For my part life is too short to waste time on the mental meanderings of a born again Jungian. You might say that if I had seen any indication that Peterson knew how to think, I would have read him. 

Anyway, Robinson’s description of Peterson can easily apply to one Brene Brown. That is a good reason to introduce it here:

If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like “if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of” or “many moral values are similar across human societies.” 

Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. 

That’s not all: 

Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured. (It does help if you are male and Caucasian.)

On the latter score, Robinson is clearly wrong. Part of the appeal of Brene Brown must be that she is a woman. One wonders whether a man could ever have gotten away with serving up such pabulum.

Like Peterson, Brene Brown is a symptom of a moment where Western civilization is falling apart. Robinson continues:

If Jordan Peterson is the most influential intellectual in the Western world, the Western world has lost its damn mind. And since Jordan Peterson does indeed have a good claim to being the most influential intellectual in the Western world, we need to think seriously about what has gone wrong. What have we done to end up with this man? His success is our failure, and while it’s easy to scoff at him, it’s more important to inquire into how we got to this point. He is a symptom. He shows a culture bereft of ideas, a politics without inspiration or principle. Jordan Peterson may not be the intellectual we want. But he is probably the intellectual we deserve.

One might well say that Brene Brown is what people who have imbibed the swill that constitutes therapy culture deserve. Besides, I have already remarked on her theoretical deficiencies. Link here.

Brown applies the virtues of confessional literature in order to make it appear that she has received something like divine inspiration:

Connection, Brown goes on, is the essence of human experience. When she studied it, she found that what impeded connection was shame—the feeling that some quality prevented us from being worthy of love. 

Transcending that shame involved vulnerability: the “excruciating” act of allowing ourselves to be truly known. “I hate vulnerability,” Brown continues. But the happiest people in her research had embraced it; they accepted their imperfections, risked saying “I love you” first. Once Brown had this realization, it led to a “breakdown”—a year in therapy, not unlike a “street fight,” during which she was forced to confront her dread of exposure. “I lost the fight, but probably won my life back,” she says.

Now let us praise vulnerability. Yes, indeed, this is all a pile of girltalk. It almost goes without saying that it will make you dysfunctional in the workplace. The worst part is that showing off your vulnerability in the workplace invites the wrong kind of attention. If we are at all serious about reducing the colossal amount of harassment and abuse that women, in particular, suffer in the workplace, we should put vulnerability back where it belongs-- and that is not in the workplace.

What was the #MeToo movement doing if not flooding the zone with stories about women’s vulnerability. Do you really believe that this advanced professional and business opportunities for women? In truth, as everyone with a barely functioning mind understands full well, it caused more than a few men to avoid personal contact with female subordinates, and even colleagues. 

Of course, connection matters. Human contact matters. Human relationships matter. And they all depend on your having a sense of shame. That means, for those who are not seduced by Brown’s drivel, keeping your pants on, keeping your private parts out of the public square, reserving your intimate feelings for your intimates. Making a public spectacle of your shamelessness, which seems to be what Brown is recommending, will turn your life into endless drama, but will not connect you with anyone.

Brown believes that shaming people does not change behavior. This means, if I may, that shaming people is the only way that people will ever change behaviors. If you have no sense that you have done something wrong, why would you ever correct yourself.

The New Yorker reported:

While working at a residential treatment facility for children, she had encountered a striking idea during a staff meeting. “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors,” a clinical director told the group.

As it happens, Brown is taken to be something of an expert on the topic of shame. Of course, she does not understand it, but she does understand that she prefers guilt. This is inane. Consider the reasoning, or lack of same.

Again and again, Brown encountered the destructive power of shame (“I am bad”), which seemed to corrode the self, unlike guilt (“I did something bad”), which held it accountable. 

Of course, shame does not say that you are bad. It says that you dropped the ball. It says that you used the wrong fork. It says that your marketing plan failed. It says that you made a mistake. By expressing your shame through an apology you are saying that the mistake does not define you. Just because you dropped the ball, you are not going to drop every ball. You are going to work hard to overcome your failure to focus.

Whereas shame involves failures to adhere to social norms-- point that seems to have escaped Brown’s mini-mind-- guilt, for those who understand it, refers to criminal activity, that is to breaking laws, to transgressing prohibitions. Dropping the ball or making a public spectacle of your vulnerability-- both of which ought to provoke feelings of shame-- is not the same as sticking up a bodega or assaulting someone on the street. The latter will incite guilt, not necessarily because the perpetrator will feel guilty-- what does it mean to be a psychopath except to be exempt from guilt. In truth, guilt, for those who have considered the issue for more than a nanosecond, is ascribed by a court of law. You can be pronounced guilty and held to account regardless of whether you feel guilt.

The rest of the article explains Brown’s work with corporate clients. Of course, a large part of it is explaining that she does not mean what she says and that when she says that everyone should advertise their vulnerability, thus compromising their career prospects by making themselves look weak and pathetic, she does not exactly mean what she says. 

Apparently, Brown wants corporate honchos to reckon with their humanity and the humanity of their staff. This is also silly thinking, the kind that produces a radical girlification of the workplace. In business it is never about your humanity. It is about your role in the company and your defined relationship with people who have different roles. With your role comes certain responsibilities. None of them have anything to do with your being a fully fledged human organism:

In her corporate work, Brown is essentially putting that mantra into practice: getting leaders and workers to reckon with one another’s humanity. This includes addressing problems directly rather than back-channelling, creating the psychological safety for openness, and helping all workers feel like they belong. “I didn’t invent that,” Brown told me in Austin, in a small conference room at U.T. “You read every article in H.B.R. over the last twenty years, and it’s got all these great things to do”—take risks, accept the possibility of failure, truly listen. “But not one person is talking about the vulnerability that it takes to do it.”

On the last score, we can sorta agree. Surely, great leaders take great risks. When one thinks of someone like Elon Musk one understands that he is not averse to taking risks. And yet, one takes risks because one has courage, not because one feels vulnerable. It might well be that those who take the greatest risks feel invulnerable.

In truth, risk taking is more consonant with people who feel less vulnerable. That would be the male of the species. As it happens, women, who remain more vulnerable, for being physiologically weaker, are more risk averse than men. Everyone should know this. Apparently, everyone does not.

The training emphasizes that vulnerability doesn’t mean heedlessly sharing information or emotions. “Sometimes I’ll hear someone say something like ‘How often should I cry in front of my team?’ ” Brown told an interviewer on “60 Minutes.” “That’s not what I’m saying. Vulnerability is not about self-disclosure. I’m not saying you have to weep uncontrollably to show how human you are. I’m saying, Try to be aware of your armor, and when you feel vulnerable try not to Transformer up. . . . Very different things.”

Obviously, this is gibberish. What is vulnerability if not self-disclosure. What could make you feel more vulnerable than sexting, for instance. Naturally, Brown is not proposing that people sext. Yet, her advice, for those who take it seriously, does not tell you not to do so. How else can you show how well you have overcome your sense of shame?

For those who want to see Brown’s ideas in action, one need only look at the group that has now been called Gen Z. Emma Goldberg wrote a fascinating piece about it in The New York Times. As a ground level look at the culture, it deserves all of the positive attention it has been receiving.

Gen Z, for those who care, comes after the notably dysfunctional millennial group. Gen Z, by Goldberg’s calculation, is the cohort that is too young to recall 9/11. That is, young adults born after 1997.

As this group enters the workforce, their bad habits and dysfunctional behaviors are wreaking corporate havoc. These young people are thin-skinned, easily triggered, seriously vulnerable and complain constantly. They do not understand their roles, do not understand the rules and refuse to respect their managers. They were brought up in a therapy culture and this has turned their lives into non-stop therapy. That are that brittle and are that weak and vulnerable. The last thing they will do is take risks.

Goldberg explains:

At a retail business based in New York, managers were distressed to encounter young employees who wanted paid time off when coping with anxiety or period cramps. At a supplement company, a Gen Z worker questioned why she would be expected to clock in for a standard eight-hour day when she might get through her to-do list by the afternoon. 

At a biotech venture, entry-level staff members delegated tasks to the founder. And spanning sectors and start-ups, the youngest members of the work force have demanded what they see as a long overdue shift away from corporate neutrality toward a more open expression of values, whether through executives displaying their pronouns on Slack or putting out statements in support of the protests for Black Lives Matter.

Time off for period cramps-- now that gives you a true glimpse of today’s strong, empowered women. And, dare I mention, perhaps employees should keep some of their private experiences to themselves.

When it comes to exposing their vulnerability, thus making them more thin-skinned, and more likely to receive the pity of their co-workers, Gen Z has the Brown program down pat.

Brene Brown might not approve, but her theorizing is sufficiently lame, her inability to think perfectly manifest, that her pabulum easily leads to the following scenes. Note well, exposing vulnerability breaks the bounds of professional conversation, of the kind of respect for colleagues that will surely tamp down the current tendency to harass and abuse one’s colleagues.

Goldberg explains:

At many businesses, Gen Z employees are given increasing leeway to drive internal culture, too. Emily Fletcher, 42, who runs Ziva Meditation, noticed that at her company retreat the junior people were the ones who were most comfortable stretching the bounds of what is considered professional conversation.

This became apparent when the staff participated in an exercise she calls the “Suffie Awards”: sitting around a campfire and sharing personal sources of suffering from last year, trying to one-up one another as corny award show music played in the background. It was the Gen Zers, Ms. Fletcher said, getting the most vulnerable by speaking about partners cheating on them or the loneliness of a solo quarantine.

“They celebrate human emotion, instead of having an outdated framework of what corporate should be,” Ms. Fletcher said.

Corporate America, as the saying goes, has gone completely woke. One feels some sympathy for the managers who are obliged to deal with these young fools. But, they made their own beds. They took Brene Brown’s silly and mindless ramblings seriously. Now they are paying the corporate price. If you think that these people are going to compete against companies in Asia you are living in an unreal world. This explains why Facebook prefers to hire young software engineers who were educated in Shanghai. Anything but Gen Z.


David Foster said...

" Emily Fletcher, 42, who runs Ziva Meditation, noticed that at her company retreat the junior people were the ones who were most comfortable stretching the bounds of what is considered professional conversation.

This became apparent when the staff participated in an exercise she calls the “Suffie Awards”: sitting around a campfire and sharing personal sources of suffering from last year, trying to one-up one another as corny award show music played in the background. It was the Gen Zers, Ms. Fletcher said, getting the most vulnerable by speaking about partners cheating on them or the loneliness of a solo quarantine."

I suspect that a lot of this oversharing at work is a function of lonely people who don't have anyone *else* to talk to.

Extremely stressful, I'm sure, to those employees who don't like that sort of thing.

Sam L. said...

YO!! I've never heard of her before this. I don't do psycobabble.

"Anyway, as I read the drooling profile I recalled a phrase we owe to one Nathan Robinson. The phrase: we get the intellectuals we deserve." Fortunately, I am "intellectual free", because I am ensconced in my secret underground fortress of solitude with my welcoming signs, "ACHTUNG: MINEN!!"

"One suspects that the Congresspeople who call themselves progressives do not know what the term means, anyway." The word "progressive" always reminds me of "CANCER".