Tuesday, February 26, 2013

This cheese has holes in it

Classic Our Word

Fulton J. Sheen once wrote that "Knowledge of the moral life is conditioned upon the removal of all prejudice.  Not everything that is novel is true, and what is called modern, may be only a new label for an old error."  That quote put me in mind of a piece I wrote back in 2005, in the first months of this blog.  Many things have changed since then, but my feelings on this banal book have, if anything, intensified over the years.  An oldie, but I think it's still a goodie.

Every once in a while you stumble on something that perfectly fits the mood you're in. It's even better when you find this completely by accident, without even looking for it.

Such is the pleasant coincidence I had looking through Eve Tushnet's blog this evening, wanting something to write about. (It's not that I don't lack for subject matter; it's Friday and I'm tired - I lack for energy!) I followed her link to Doublethink, where she'd had a piece published recently. And here, in the table of contents, I came upon this article: "Who Moved My Cheese? and the Meaning of Life," by Peter J. Hansen. With a subtitle reading, "How business bestsellers help impoverish our souls," it was irrestible.

I read Who Moved My Cheese? once, and considered myself both richer and poorer for it. Poorer, in that I was exposed to thinking and writing so banal that I could easily have become depressed at my own lack of success in getting published. Richer, in the sense that I was both encouraged ("Hey, if he can get published, anyone can!") and in knowing that I'd never run out of things to write about, thanks to the unlimited pablum in Spencer Johnson's "book".*

*Richer also in that I was given the book at the job I had at the time, which means I didn't have to pay for it.  As the man said, "free is good."

Ever since the birth of this blog almost a year ago, I'd intended to write about Cheese. I'd gotten as far as doing a first draft of a fairly lengthy, if sloppy, post. There wasn't a month gone by that I hadn't meant to get back to work on it. But other things would always come up, often pieces that I found easier to compose, and Cheese remained on the back burner. Thanks to Peter Hansen, it's time to move it to the front.

Hansen only tangentially touches on Johnson's magnum awful, concentrating on the business book world in general. And what he sees isn't pretty:
In general, the business book genre reflects and reinforces our desire to make careers fill a place in our souls that they cannot truly fill. As human beings we want more out of life than jobs can provide - and thank God for that - but many or most of us don't know where else to turn. The business book genre as we know it is born of that emptiness; and it issues in emptiness as well. The lonely hunger of atomized individuals invites the empty promises of (mostly unwitting) false prophets. Whatever faults Americans had in the generations before we acquired a taste for these books (and no doubt we had many), we do not seem to have gained in self-understanding or happiness.
One of the reasons I never finished my piece on Cheese was that I knew I'd have to go back and read it again in order to get my facts straight, and I figured I'd wait for a really, really bad sin to pop up in confession so that I might suggest to the priest that I read Cheese as a penance.

But I don't think I need to reread this cheesy book to know that the central premise is a dangerous one: the idea that nobody is in control. Sure, as Christians we understand that the strength that lives in us comes from the reality that God, not us, is in charge. So there is a benefit to understanding that we can't control everything. But Cheese goes one step further, suggesting a nihilistic world in which an unseen hand maliciously manipulates our actions, moving the cheese around the maze like a deranged scientist experimenting on rats.

Why do I use the word nihlistic? Because in Johnson's world, no one has the answers. The fact that the book has become popular with CEOs everywhere (including, as Hansen dryly points out, some of the most unsuccessful companies in business today) indicates that the lesson applies to them as well: even a billionaire CEO has to react to circumstances beyond his control. And while there's something levelling in this (the idea that your boss, no matter how glib he or she might be, could just as easily be steamrolled as you), there's also something disturbing, at least to my mind.

For where, in the world that Johnson describes, is the motive in living? Free will would seem to be a farce; your only choice is to adapt or die. There's no suggestion that your decisions can play a an active role in shaping your future, that God has an interactive plan for us all. No, the message is that change happens, there's nothing you can do about it, get used to it. No wonder we look for refuge in sex, drugs and rock 'n roll - or in the increasingly impersonal Internet. Having already discovered the dehumanizing world of Corporate America, which breeds cynicism and despair the same way mosquitos breed disease, why bother to have any human interaction at all?

Hansen does cite business books that seem, however imperfectly, to recognize this. In Now, Discover Your Strengths, authors Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton "argue that it is generally more important to develop one's strengths or talents than to overcome one's weaknesses. 'Without underlying talent, learning a skill is a survival technique, not a path to glory.'" However, Hansen adds, the book is flawed by the "apparent absence of the thought that there is something higher than being an effective cog in the economic wheel":
The problem isn't merely that the authors are looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. One subtle effect of books like this is to redefine human strengths as the ones that productive organizations in fact need. The authors encourage us to discover our strengths so that we can put them to use in our careers. Thus empathy makes one suited for sales (rather than, say, friendship or raising children); imagination makes one suited for formulating business strategy (rather than art or, if allied with other abilities, philosophy or science); and so forth. There is no suggestion that our strengths or virtues point to anything higher than our careers. The book implies, or at least encourages the reader to feel, that one should either redirect or neglect those strengths that have no economic application.
Hansen explains that "[s]mall organizations (including families) can experiment with giving their members a high level of autonomy; but this is much more difficult for large organizations." This would have come as no surprise to G.K. Chesterton, who raised precisely this point in arguing against the dangers of Big Business. Although Hansen doesn't use the term, the employes he describes - those for whom "[s]ubordination and drudgery are inevitably part of the job" - are living, breathing examples of Chesterton's "wage slaves."

The modern company in Corporate America does recognize the existence of human beings, and the necessity of satisfying their needs. However, the humans they serve are not the employees, but the stockholders; and the needs are not spiritual, but material - the bottom line is, indeed, the bottom line.
Hansen makes a telling observation about the change in the relationship between our work lives and, for lack of a better word, our "real" lives:
As late as the 1950s, most men saw their jobs primarily as a means of supporting their families, the most important thing in their lives. As the success of books like Now, Discover Your Strengths attests, many men and women now look to their careers to provide the central satisfaction or meaning in their lives.
Corporate America not only reflects this change in our priorities, it's been the agent of the new reality. And they expect us to put up with it, indeed to thrive in its toxic atmosphere. As Johnson says, when your cheese is moved you don't stand around wondering what happened; you accept and adapt to change, because there's nothing else you can do.

But that's where corporate martinets are wrong, for there is something we can do about it. There always is. For starters, we can reject the world painted by Johnson and his like-minded cronies. We can fight back against the idea that we're only puppets in a deist world, that we've been left alone to bob up and down in the cruel seas of life, buffeted by these incessent winds of change. By applying logic, reason and critical thought we can use our minds - our God-given minds, infused by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit - to determine the proper response to a new idea. And we can realize that there is a place to go for answers, and Someone Who can and will give us the straight scoop, unlike the impotent CEOs that live an implied existence in Johnson's maze.

Sometimes change must be embraced, or even championed (the civil rights struggle, let's say), but sometimes it must be fought - to the death if necessary (the heresy of the Reformation, to cite just one example). The past, just because it's old, doesn't always deserve to be swept under the rug every time something new comes along; the new, just because it's new, shouldn't automatically be seen as preferable. That might be the way Elizabeth Taylor treated her husbands, but human dignity deserves and demands more.

And you're not going to get it by eating cheese that's been left out in the open for too long.

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