The Secret “universe”

Most people don’t realize that “snake oil” actually refers to the fats in a specific type of snake native to China called the “Enhydris chinensi”. It was and still is used as to treat inflammation of the joints caused by arthritis. Strangely in our society, the term has evolved to mean something very different. It speaks to a specific type of predatory behaviour; cowardly in nature, rooted in deception, lies and exploitation of the vulnerable.

I would be hard pressed to think of something crueller than peddling false hope, especially when the practice is done for monetary gain. So, in the noble and just cause of debunking junk science, false prophets and con artists I want to emphatically state that The Secret is a wicked book and should be denounced as such.

It has done real, not benign damage. As a social worker in training I cannot possibly imagine something more ethically irresponsible than offering people hope that “positive thinking” can be a truly transformative exercise in and of itself.

During one of my lectures at George Brown a student asked “What happens when a client of yours breaks down and start crying and your natural human impulse is to tell them everything will be “OK” even though you know it won’t?”.

We were told in NO uncertain terms that to peddle that kind of snake oil is pretty much the most ethically irresponsible thing a person can do. It may not be “OK” and no amount of wishful or positive thinking will change that. Facts must be acknowledged and limitations must be realized and actual work may have to be done before catharsis can be achieved. It is NOT healthy to encourage people to engage in perpetual wishful thinking. For an idea that masquerades as some sort of post modern eastern philosophy nothing could be more individualistic and narcissistic than to encourage people to think about their “wants” and “needs” all of the time. Also, it is no more healthy to give credit to the intangible universe for ones accomplishments than it would be to ascribe the universe blame for one’s hardships.

Real personal growth and empowerment can be a difficult process. The Secret encourages the worst type of inaction in its followers. The abdication of personal responsibility through the vicarious transfer of one’s situation to “The Universe”; which the book barely even attempts to define.

This fact that the “inventors” of this gibberish leave the central concept key to their entire philosophy horribly vague is by no means an accident. It exists so that The Secret can never be subjected to the sort of rigorous qualitative and metaphysical criticism that every other religion, scientific discipline or philosophy is forced to endure. It is not a science but lays claim to methodologically dubious distortions of quantum mechanics and chaos theory. It is not a religion but contains within it a deep spiritual component. It straddles the imaginary divide between philosophy and fairy tale. What is the Universe? The Secret mocks the work of every serious attempt to answer the question from Socrates to Kant to Spinoza to Hawking.

Yet despite the very obvious flaws in the idea of a judgmental Universe being apparently very “in tune” with the inner thought processes of random individuals, I have a larger objection. It goes something like this…

A: Oh hey there little starving kid from Sierra Leone with no hands….why isn’t your life happy and wonderful?

B: Because you went and positively manifested yourself a husband who gave you a big fat diamond that came as a direct result of a civil war that got my fucking hands chopped off….and I haven’t eaten in months…. bitch.

A: Well it’s all in your attitude my little handless friend….you just need to positively visualize a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and some hands to eat with and you won’t be so hungry!!

My grandfather lived in Belgium around the time he was scooped up by the Nazi’s and thrown on a train to Auschwitz. It’s a pretty damn long ride to Poland….I suppose he didn’t positively visualize his escape profoundly enough for the universe to co-operate. And all those six year old kids dying of leukemia and shit….what brought that on, negative fucking thinking? To suggest a relationship between “positive thinking” and actual results is to essentially suggest the following:

–  People in the 3rd World, concentration camps, etc do not think positively

– The Universe doesn’t care much for them, it cares for people who buy these ridiculous books (and DVDs)

Now, I know some will think I am being too literal, missing the forest for the trees so to speak. Perhaps there is some truth to this. But in my defence I truly believe that most people innately understand that positive thinking can create the mental framework necessary for achieving one’s goals. The reverse is true as well. Negative thinking is often a self-fulfilling prophecy standing in the way of growth or change. But all of that falls within the realm of common sense. These are very basic lessons most of us internalized at a very early age. The rub is this: you can’t “sell” common sense unless you wrap it inside some sort of ideology or dogma. “Selling” false hope to emotionally vulnerable people in need of actual help is immoral. That would be true even if the supposed “help” didn’t promote an all consuming self-centred philosophy based on getting “what you want” when “you want it” (a phrase common to small children/babies everywhere).

It’s a funny thing that people in the West who fancy themselves “students” of what are basically Eastern Philosophical ideas of “wholeness” and “inter-connectedness” love to ruminate on the conceptual while dismissing or rarely even acknowledging actual real-life connections. The example mentioned above is fairly basic. Children in Sierra Leone really do lose their hands in civil wars fought to control the Diamond trade, all to satisfy market-demand in the Western world. That’s a fact. It’s something which really happens. It is also exactly the type of factual connection which doesn’t fit the neat little package of the world “The Secret” presents.

There are real and tangible injustices in this world. It is hard enough mobilizing people to care without removing the core incentive that push people to actually get shit done. Any sort of philosophy, religion or idea that passes the buck of human responsibility to God, the Universe, determinism, fate or any other force outside of our own collective actions and decisions is plain and simply wrong. Almost as wrong as encouraging people to do essentially do nothing and just hope that opportunities will present themselves.

So if (knock on wood) any of us one day have to suffer the intolerable pain of arthritic inflammation, for heavens sake…. don’t try to “positively manifest” the pain away, go and get yourself some actual fucking “snake oil:”.

About Joe

Joe a public servant in the truest sense of the word, tirelessly advocating for YOU. He doesn’t “technically” work in government but considers all of the citizens of Toronto to be his children. Recovering drug addict, social worker, certified life skills coach (really), political dissident and former ice cream, sorbet and frozen yogurt manufacturer... Joseph pushes the boundaries of new Journalism. His mission is clear; merging opinion and fact into semi-coherent gibberish designed to generate ad revenue to feed his editors pockets (and ego). Joe’s writing represents your number #1 online source for what Joe may be thinking at any given moment. Other PP posts by Joe can be found [here]

  • Nobilis

    Your basic argument makes all kinds of sense, and I have no quibbles with the path your logic takes. The only blemish is the fact that you have researched a bit too deeply.

    Actually, “Snake Oil” refers to things like this:

    http://vote29.com/newmyblog/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/snake-oil.jpg

    …which were products that did exactly what “snake oil” means now…offer false hope to people who were suffering. So good on you for making a point that desperately needs to be made. I just wish you hadn’t climbed so far up in your ivory tower to make it.

  • http://silverliberationarmy.com/ Joseph D. Beldick

    well the snake oil, used in traditional Chinese medicine is different from the tonics and ointments that were peddled in the West by con-artists. that’s sort of the point so to speak.

    both the secret and snake oil involve western folk selling a fraudulent version of something from far away that we don’t quite understand or care too.

    Regardless if its fake tonics substituting for traditional Chinese medicine or “The Secret” masquerading as some sort of post-modern buddhism….both products are peddled (here) by con-artists, for cash.

  • sliderossian

    After working in a new thought church in CA for 5 years as an atheist musician, to me all the palliative offerings they proffer are totally wiped out by their beliefs in things like The Secret and the Laws of the Universe (like the Law of Reciprocity), something they teach the kids there. To my way of thinking, it is the opposite of the way life really works most of the time or even should work. It is saying you can get more than you put in, if you just have the right attitude and pray, like a magic purse. In the beginning of The Secret (The Movie), some guys says, pointing into the camera, “YOU can get ANYTHING you WANT!” with a big smile on his face. I suppose it’s Stephen Hawkings’ attitude which keeps him from jumping outta that chair and doing a little dance. Those poor children starving in third world countries – they just need to turn their frowns upside down! It is a elitist point of view for those who want to think themselves magical. It’s scalping the punters no less than faith healers or snake handlers.

  • DarkStar

    Thank you for making me feel that I’m not the only one who can’t stand that book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/raja.wellth Raja Wellth

    When people use their heads to write articles like this, it could be considered real positive thinking. Problems exist, and the closest we have to solving those problems are people who are willing to acknowledge and do something about them. I’m glad this article addresses that.