I am coming out of hiatus and destroying my already-damaged wrists to weigh in on an important topic that just can’t wait: Cracked, and this one article by David Wong that everyone keeps linking to. I’ve seen it referenced by four our five different intelligent people who ought to know better (this post quotes some conversations I’ve had about it). It is time for everyone to stop liking it. Let’s break it down…without numbered points, please.
Before we get to the content, let’s look at the framing. Wong puts great effort into stopping criticism before it starts by framing disagreement as part of the problem. Consider the title. “Truths that make you a better person” immediately divides the readership into two camps: People who accept the truths and are better people, and people who reject the truths and are worse people. There’s no room for people to respectfully disagree or think his facts might not be all that factual. They just can’t accept the truths they need. Notice how he responds to potential criticisms:
No, your brain jumps to that conclusion so you have an excuse to write off everyone who rejects you by thinking that they’re just being shallow and selfish…
So even now, some of you reading this are feeling your brain bombard you with knee-jerk reasons to reject it.
If you disagree with anything he’s saying, that’s your malfunctioning brain bombarding you with excuses. You couldn’t possibly reject the article because it’s a terrible article. Wow, it’s almost like he’s afraid of criticism.
Worldview and Projection
To state the obvious: This is an opinion piece.
But it claims to be about “truths.” Wong is framing his opinion as fact, and it’s working. When I mentioned to someone that opinion shouldn’t be framed as truth, I got the reply “But it IS truth.” Again, this is a way of deflecting criticism. Opinions necessarily leave room for other opinions, but people who disagree with facts are just in denial.
And what are the facts?
The World Only Cares About What It Can Get from You…
People have needs and thus assign value to the people who meet them. These are simple mechanisms of the universe and they do not respond to our wishes…
But make no mistake: Your “job” — the useful thing you do for other people — is all you are.
I knew Ayn Rand was behind this.
Opinion as fact: This is how Wong thinks everyone treats everyone else. Maybe he is actually that crassly self-serving, but fortunately, the rest of the world is not. Out here we have things like human worth and unconditional love, not always achieved, but held in esteem. And, despite Wong’s naysaying, people very often value each other just for who they are. Drst opines:
I was put off by the “what you do, not what you are” thing in Wong’s article myself. Sometimes who you are IS what you can do for other people. If you’re an honest person the people around you may value you for that because they need someone trustworthy in their lives. The implication that you have to DO something and that’s the only way to have value to other people was way too reductive.
And I opine: You do have value. You have immense value. You didn’t need to do anything to earn it and you can never lose it.
This article purports to be helpful; it is supposedly trying to better people by presenting them with the path they need to take. Other people aren’t inherently worse, so it goes, they just haven’t taken those steps yet. If that sounds like it belongs on a Chick tract, that’s because it does! Wong is a proselyte. He had his own moment of conversion (Alec Baldwin’s monologue, which “changed [his] life”) and now he’s trying to convert you to his religion of self-serving cynicism.
The key difference between this and simply trying to convince someone else of your opinion is the characterization of the opposition. People who reject your proselytizing aren’t just disagreeing, they’re bad people who deserve the misery that they’ve inflicted upon themselves*. Notice the constant us-vs-them message:
the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”…the point is that the difference in those two attitudes — bitter vs. motivated — largely determines whether or not you’ll succeed in the world.
Look how this message comes across
to Creative Writing Student, one of several people who felt they fell on the wrong side of the divide:
Am I the only one who reads them, thinks “oh god this is me”, then “I’m a stupid, useless, worthless person and I keep making excuses for stuff instead of doing them, I should kill myself because I’ll never amount to anything because I’m a worthless lump of shit?”
These are awesome people, but in Wong’s religion, they are the “sinners:” those who accept the message but feel they can’t walk the walk that the article demands of them. These people end up feeling terrible. That’s by design. The article is meant to make people who do what Wong says feel like they’re awesome and winning at life…but that only works if there’s also a class of terrible people who are losing at life.
I’ve seen this article linked to by feminists because it addresses “Nice Guy” syndrome. There’s a terribly toxic idea online, expressed in the terms “nice guy” and “friendzone,” that if a guy is nice enough to a girl, she owes him sex and is somehow being unfair to him if she rejects him or just wants to be friends.
To Wong’s credit, he smacks down this idea. But look at his reasons:
Don’t say that you’re a nice guy — that’s the bare minimum. Pretty girls have guys being nice to them 36 times a day…It’s up to you, but don’t complain about how girls fall for jerks; they fall for those jerks because those jerks have other things they can offer. “But I’m a great listener!” Are you? Because you’re willing to sit quietly in exchange for the chance to be in the proximity of a pretty girl (and spend every second imagining how soft her skin must be)? Well guess what, there’s another guy in her life who also knows how to do that, and he can play the guitar.
There’s no mention that people, pretty girls included, don’t owe anyone sex for any reason, merely that nice guys lack the traits that will earn them sex**. In other words, girls aren’t vending machines that take kindness tokens; they’re vending machines that take guitar-playing tokens. Girls aren’t treated very well in this view, as Discombobulated points out in almost a direct quote from the article:
Apparently men are valued for what they can do, and women are valued for being Zooey Deschanel lookalikes who feel guilty every time they eat a salad.
The Just-World Fallacy
The article constantly berates you to attain skills so that you’ll be worth something and people will like you:
But the key is, I don’t want you to focus on something great that you’re going to make happen to you (“I’m going to find a girlfriend, I’m going to make lots of money …”). I want you to purely focus on giving yourself a skill that would make you ever so slightly more interesting and valuable to other people.
That’s the other part that people like, because who can disagree with the value of going out and doing things? Except, once again, the reasoning is all wrong. Wong says that you should develop skills because then people will like you and you’ll get a girlfriend and a good job and be happy. Conversely, that means that any failure you experience is your own fault for not developing a skill (which, apparently, anyone can do if they “throw enough hours of repetition at it”).
“Victim-blaming” is the phrase Doad used. Viscaria cuts to the heart of the matter:
It fits right in to the Just World Hypothesis. I’ve gotten loads of things that I wanted and that I never worked for, and there are probably some people out there who work incredibly hard every day and want some of the things I’ve just been given, and they will probably never get them. Not because they’re not putting in the effort, just because they’re not as lucky.
Pecunium points out the insidious undertone that this is the key to happiness:
[H]e is pretending this is the recipe for being happy. Not for anything else, but for being happy.
And it’s not so. It’s corrosive as all fuck. It tells people that if they don’t have some salable skill… if they don’t do something someone is willing to pay them for, they are worthless. Looking at the undertone of the piece I wonder how happy he is with his life.
Things That Don’t Happen (According to Wong)
So Wong has repeated a million times that nobody cares about anything except for what you do for them. This isn’t how people should treat each other, it’s how, according to him, they do treat each other. So here’s how the real world apparently works:
- Nobody cares for their elderly relatives. You’ve already gotten everything you’re going to get out of them.
- Nobody spends time with a friend who is sick or having a bad day, except in the hopes of gaining reciprocation. Of course, the reciprocation itself is only offered in hopes of gaining further reciprocation down the line. Dizzying, isn’t it?
- Parents don’t love their children. After all, babies cry and poop and have absolutely no skills. The only reason anyone has babies is as a long-term retirement plan.
- Nobody is very fond of animals, either. Cute, sweet-tempered animals maybe, but no one would ever devote themselves to, say, working with feral cats who need months to even approach you and may never really trust people at all.
- Nobody donates to charity.
- When people hang out, it’s a calculated way of evaluating one another. The guy who doesn’t make you laugh doesn’t get invited back.
- Resources for the handicapped don’t exist. If they can’t get by like able-bodied people, they’re worthless and nobody cares about them.
- Nor for reintegrating veterans into civilian life. It’s their own fault if they devoted their lives to learning skills that would no longer apply later on, and they’re just lazy whiners for making excuses like “I got shot.” (No idea why the president would be hanging out with one of these guys.)
- And, obviously, no one would ever, under any circumstances, risk their own life for someone else.
Cynicism as Virtue
Finally, the skills-as-value objectivism collides with us-vs-them victim-blaming in this pinnacle of badness:
Yeah, whatever you try to build or create — be it a poem, or a new skill, or a new relationship — you will find yourself immediately surrounded by non-creators who trash it. Maybe not to your face, but they’ll do it. Your drunk friends do not want you to get sober. Your fat friends do not want you to start a fitness regimen. Your jobless friends do not want to see you embark on a career.
Unbelievably, multiple people have read to the end of that article without throwing their computers out the window.
I’ll end with a sentiment from CassandraSays:
I have a really hard time not rolling my eyes when people do that faux-jaded thing. I think it comes right after reading Rand in the development cycle of the pretentious libertarian asshole…Those people aren’t actually jaded, they’re just pretending to be because they think it makes them look cool, and because it lets them off the hook in all kinds of ways.
Ah, cynicism, a brilliant way to make acting like a dick seem virtuous.
All Doad had to say was “I don’t know if it’s worth responding to that.” I married a wise man.
Images found here, here, here, and here.
*On that note: If you love Wong’s article and love Cracked, you have every right to do so.
**The assumption that kindness is a baseline that everyone meets is also, unfortunately, not true.