When I wrote this – about the assumption that people who haven’t achieved as much as you are inherently less virtuous – I missed one of the most interesting observations.
The key assumption behind, say, asking what other people’s excuse is for not reaching the same heights you have, and overcoming hurdles and problems like you did, is that success is entirely about determination, grit, mettle, tenacity, fortitude, and other internal merits. Any attribution of failure to external influences – even to some small degree – is written off as excuse-making.
Which is clearly nonsense. It’s not simply a matter of having some innate thing called “character”, and triumphing by pure will, totally disconnected and independent from the outside world. The people we are, and the “determination” or whatever that we’re capable of displaying, is massively shaped by what the world does to us.
But supposedly, it’s unacceptable to pass any shred of one’s shortcomings onto circumstances beyond one’s control, or to expect to be helped along by any kind of intervention from outside your own personal driving force to succeed. Stepping in to help someone out, simply through altruism (it’d be different if you were investing in a business proposition) is beyond the pale; some few exceptional individuals have made sacrifices and overcome obstacles to reach success, and anyone who wants to do the same should just follow that example and not expect any hand-outs.
Except, that’s not how the people who reason this way actually behave. They do make intervention’s into people’s lives, get involved with people’s efforts to succeed, and make contributions in an effort to affect and shape other people’s chances of success.
It’s just that their only intervention is what’s evident in blog posts like the one I linked to which irritated me so much.
Their intervention is to scold, and to chastise, and to spread this message that success or failure is decided entirely within your own mind.
The one contribuion that Matt Walsh guy thought it was worthwhile making, to the lives of women who’ve had children and haven’t got themselves into the same shape that Maria Kang did, was to tell them to be inspired by her message, and to quit whining if they were offended, and to stop coming up with feeble excuses for not already having reached a pinnacle of perceived physical success.
What was he expecting this to achieve?
Did he think it might affect someone’s behaviour, and give them a mental boost that’d help them to work harder and achieve everything they’re capable of? It seems like his intention was something along those lines. But if such hectoring is capable of influencing people’s path, of impacting on their decisions and swaying their chances of success, then why shouldn’t other factors outside a person’s own psyche have a similar effect?
The tone of the article acts as if people are expected to simply be superior human beings by their own force of will – but simultaneously, pointing out their current state of inferiority is presumed to motivate them and steer their actions, in a manner which its whole argument says is impossible.
If no valid excuse for failure is acceptable, then there can be literally nothing in the physical universe which could have any impact on what somebody achieves. And then you get into a kind of weird predeterminism which I don’t think anybody actually adheres to. Black people should stop complaining about being targeted by the police and just knuckle down to work harder and compensate for it. Non-violent drug offenders should get a shave and a haircut and rise above that criminal record which might stop less determined individuals from getting a worthwhile job. Anyone in Somalia who hasn’t managed to net themselves a nice little summerhouse in the Hamptons by now is just lazy.
If you can acknowledge that the preceding paragraph’s conclusions are insane, then you can’t deny that you – along with the rest of the world around us – have the power to influence other people’s chances of success, by making things easier or harder for them to achieve what they aim for, and making them more or less likely to possess the kind of will, determination, and self-awareness to be able to work meaningfully toward their goals in the first place.
One way to do that is by telling them to stop making excuses and work harder for their rewards like other people have. Another way might involve being less of a dick.
But if there’s any justification for intervening in people’s lives with a nagging article like that one, then there’s no reason to be down on other ways of helping people, or of understanding the circumstances in which they might not be living up to their full potential, and might deserve help.
Classroom discussion questions
1. What might be a valid excuse for not looking like Maria Kang when your kids are the same age as hers?
2. How do you balance the importance of personal autonomy against acceptance of fate and circumstance?
3. Am I being unfair characterising this as a largely right-libertarian position?