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‘Self-Care’ Turning Americans into Blanket-Hugging Toddlers

A specter is comforting America—the specter of self-care.

In April 2015, Amazon’s best-selling book in the United States was not the recipient of a Booker Prize or a Pulitzer Prize. It was not even a work of literature; it was an adult coloring book by Johanna Basford. In August 2015, the American Art Therapy Association publicly endorsed “the use of coloring books for pleasure and self-care.”

The same year, Michelle Joni Lapidos and Candice Kilpatrick started a preschool for adults in New York City, and a Nova Scotian business venture that sought to place customers in womb-like sensory-deprivation tanks reached 176 percent of its funding target on Indiegogo. At the same time, diatribes about the self-protection of university students blanketed the mainstream press.

In a 2015 piece published in the New York Times titled In College and Hiding from Scary Ideas [1],” journalist Judith Shulevitz described a safe space at Brown University that offered students “cookies, coloring books, bubbles, Play-Doh, calming music, pillows, blankets and a video of frolicking puppies.” “The Coddling of the American Mind [2]” appeared in The Atlantic just a few months later.

In November 2016, an international group of gamers hosted a Self-Care Jam—an event based on self-care games, apps, comics, and so on. Submissions included “Self-Love Hotel” (described as an auto-romantic dating simulator), “Dancing With Myself” (tagline: “Take yourself on a date!”), and a self-care Twitter bot [3]. In March 2017, the Self-Care Jam made it into The New Yorker via “The Politics of Conspicuous Self-Care [4].” 2017 was also the year of the jade egg [5], placed inside one’s own vagina for the sake of “optimal self-love and well-being.” (The jade egg, made exclusively for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, is available for just $66.)

Faith in others; love for the unfamiliar; curiosity about the profound Otherness of science; art that cannot be reduced to one’s human-animal body, sensations or opinions… The mainstream in 2017 is so absurd, it is difficult to discuss serious topics like these without being labelled out-of-touch or a crank.

In 1994, the British critic John Gray envisaged a bleak future for liberal democracies that valorize self-care and consumer choice at the expense of classical, philosophical subjects. “In a world without art, science, friendship or love,” Gray wrote, “in a society without a rich and deep public culture, autonomous choice will be impoverished or nearly worthless, if indeed it is really a possibility.” A few years later, the Scandinavian filmmaker Lars von Trier parodied self-care and self-realization in the aptly titled Idioterne (The Idiots). Von Trier’s film depicted a small commune, separated from conventional society, founded on “spazzing.” In order to feel better and to discover their so-called true selves, the commune’s members acted as if they were intellectually disabled.

Something that is authentically one’s own (and no one else’s), something absolutely indecipherable to others, the private par excellence—this is the meaning of idiotic. Indeed, the word idiotic derives from idios, “own, private.” Von Trier’s spazzers do not shun idiocy; they uphold idiocy as a peculiar, progressive/regressive ideal. “In the Stone Age, all the idiots died. It doesn’t have to be like that nowadays,” explained the commune’s principal ideologue. “Being an idiot is a luxury, but it is also a step forward. Idiots are the people of the future.” Gray’s prediction is consonant with the spazzers’ proposal: the future of liberal democracy is likely more self-care, more idiocy.

Saint Augustine famously associated idiocy with ostentatious self-authorization. In his Confessions, Augustine referred critically to his younger self as “a prisoner, trying to simulate a crippled sort of freedom.” The specter comforting America is that of the juvenile Augustine—free to enjoy its own vacuity, empowered ironically by crippledom.

Reilly Smethurst is an Australian-born writer. He has a philosophy doctorate from the Queensland Conservatorium.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "‘Self-Care’ Turning Americans into Blanket-Hugging Toddlers"

#1 Comment By Ken T On November 12, 2017 @ 11:41 pm

it is difficult to discuss serious topics like these

To be frank, I don’t see you discussing much of anything here, or even trying to. All I see is a list of “Ha, ha, look at all these silly things liberals do”. So what? And I can’t help noticing that you make no mention of what is undoubtedly the most destructive, harmful retreat into a personal “safe space” of all – opioid abuse. Which of course has become the “self care” method of choice of many, many Red State conservatives. What is the difference between someone having a session in a sensory deprivation tank versus someone “checking out” with Oxycontin or heroin? Answer – only one of them ends with no permanent harm done at the end of the session.

#2 Comment By Cash On November 13, 2017 @ 8:24 am

Ken T wins the thread. He says all that needs to be said.

#3 Comment By Will Jones On November 13, 2017 @ 8:39 am

Nobel Prizes for Literature are not awarded to individual books, but to an author for a lifetime’s body of work.

#4 Comment By BiVy On November 13, 2017 @ 10:00 am

Ken T. is right.

Also, the pictures that accompany articles at TAC have been getting sillier, goofier, more sensational. More encouraging of that “silly liberals” attitude that serious conservatives should reject.

It’s not always possible to avoid. But a good photo should make you more thoughtful about an aspect of the article. Not more hateful, more groaning, more partisan.

#5 Comment By K-Dog-One On November 13, 2017 @ 10:14 am

Am I the only reader who has noticed that liberals and/or trolls have been posting more and more responses on this blog during the last year or so?

#6 Comment By John Smithson On November 13, 2017 @ 10:19 am

So Cash, if Ken T ‘wins’ what game were we playing? So if we point out what ‘bad’ stuff the other guy does, we ‘win’? How does the tragedy of opioid use relate to the article above anyway?

On just one point raised: I graduated college way back in the early 1990s. My impression was college was a place to have your ideas challenged and either strengthened or altered, but in either case more deeply studied. It wasn’t a place of ‘safety’ where my ideas are never challenged for fear of hurting one’s feelings…

How about we just search for the truth and accept whatever comes along the way rather than pick at each other’s peccadilloes in some perpetual partisan/cultural bickering.

#7 Comment By Positivethinker On November 13, 2017 @ 10:21 am

I work on a college campus and I can say with everything I see here…the ‘self care’ concept trend is pretty scary and its real. What happens when these kids are in charge of the world? Should we just assume they will all suddenly become responsible adults once they leave the safety of all the safe spaces on college campus? That is what it seems we are counting on.

#8 Comment By Dan Green On November 13, 2017 @ 11:00 am

Hi, I am from the government, here to help you.” ” It is your responsibility to see your kids get lots of trophies .” We’ll provide everything else.

#9 Comment By K-Dog-One On November 13, 2017 @ 11:13 am

@Ken T

You’ve made a strawman argument.

One can be opposed to both this kind of “self-care” and opioid abuse. If you search this blog, you will find many articles and responses from conservatives decrying opioid abuse.

I will grant you that much less harm occurs as a result of this kind of “self-care” than opioid abuse.

#10 Comment By bkh On November 13, 2017 @ 11:22 am

Actually, “safe spaces” are dealt with in the Bible. At the end, there will be no safe places/spaces to hide in for anybody falling under judgement. There is a safe space, but it involves a Rock that is higher than I. Humility and repentance are also involved.

#11 Comment By b. On November 13, 2017 @ 12:53 pm

“in a society without a rich and deep public culture, autonomous choice will be impoverished or nearly worthless, if indeed it is really a possibility”

Is this a call for free college education, reduced work week hours, and income equality?

Or just another tiresome elitist snob wanking off the fact that, the more money those sophisticated oligarchs suck up, the less knowledgeable and “refined” the mass of voters has become?

A rich and deep public culture starts with the average citizen being able to laugh off the paternalistic, pompous fools that lecture her, whether they are named Gray or Smethurst.

Sadly, a truly conservative outlook implies a concern with the institutions and procedures of any open, democratic, republican society to be robust and evolutionary stable, capable of reform of structures and argumentative in the quest to refine our understanding of our values. That includes a recognition that sometimes, our understanding of our values is in conflict with the survival of our structure of governance. The Constitution is a “suicide pact” if it has to have any meaning, but there is a difference between struggling against the tyranny of fallible men, and fighting against the laws of physics. Conservatism cannot mean stagnation and statism unless we claim we “know it all” – if we take seriously the Founders’ admonition that all of us act like idiots some of the time, we have to be prepared to consider our structures of governance and even our values and principles a work in progress deserving of critical questioning. Being conservative means to reject change until its necessity has been recognized by consensus and empirical data. It is a sound principle of engineering, which means we have to acknowledge that our society, too, is a work in progress, and that man-made structures will have to be engineered and re-engineered to account for the evolutions and revolutions of our understanding of ourselves.

Educated, informed citizens are the bedrock of an open society, and hence the priority of any republican project – whatever the cost. But instead:

“The mainstream in 2017 is so absurd…”

Really? I would suggest a misplaced sense of priorities and an inability to propose constructive remedies is a big part of the calamity here. But then, the elitist perspective has always been to redefine “citizen” in a sufficiently exclusionary manner. Maybe the author should join forces with the voices of “Too Much Democracy” and “No Votes For Deplorables” on the gliberal side of the mirror. It would be fitting company for a university-accredited “philosphopher” of his self-penetrating wit.

#12 Comment By Luther Blisset On November 13, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

I feel very conflicted about this article.

On one hand, I’ve never seen such a clear characterization of the right-leaning individual’s version of a “virtue signal.”

On the other hand, I’ve never read such a clear depiction of my own frustration with modernity.

#13 Comment By Andrew Ryback On November 13, 2017 @ 1:56 pm

Americans essentially are a screwed-up lot.

#14 Comment By Antigone On November 13, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

These aren’t merely “silly” things that liberals do. They are things that destructive of the ethos that is supposed to govern a university and of a society more generally, or perhaps more specifically, they are symptomatic of the destruction progressivism is wreaking. In fact these are the very point the author is making, but somehow Ken T and other liberals leaping in defense of safe spaces and the like missed the point.

#15 Comment By Centralist On November 13, 2017 @ 2:55 pm

K-Dog-One

I think he was just calling out the apparent hypocrisy of the article. Both are efforts to avoid the real world.

#16 Comment By Bob Krantz On November 13, 2017 @ 4:15 pm

No, the winners are those who can fully take care of themselves, both physically and emotionally. They are then able to engage with others in mutually productive ways.

Celebrating incompetence and incapacity, and even worse, making it a virtue, creates a disfunction and dependent society.

There is a reason people discouraged “losers” for the past few millennia.

#17 Comment By Sam On November 13, 2017 @ 4:22 pm

Centralist, what is hypocritical about the article? In discussing one type of flight from reality is the author obliged to address every other type? It’s a nonsense response.

And by the way, the opioid epidemic is not solely a problem of conservatives in red states. It’s a national problem, including in blue states like Massachusetts.

#18 Comment By Tyro On November 13, 2017 @ 4:55 pm

Well, I guess the difference between the older generation and the younger generation is that both of us had very stressful academic experience and stressful jobs, but the younger generation is healthier, mentally and physically, because the younger generation prioritizes “self care” experiences like leaving for the gym and cooking healthy food for oneself.

Talking about how you never sleep, gained weight, and and let your health go to pot while alienating all personal relationships because you took out your mental health problems on them might seem like a superior way to handle life to what the younger generations do, but the younger generations evaluated the efficacy of older generations’ methods of dealing with life and decided it came up short.

#19 Comment By Doug E. On November 13, 2017 @ 5:10 pm

“Self-care” is another concept from psychology that has value in context, but is obviously stretched into absurdity by some people. “Self-care” is a well known term in the addiction recovery world. Many addicts do not have healthy ways of dealing with life’s challenges. Addicts need to learn the “self-care” that most everyone else does automatically. These are people with serious mental health problems. It makes me a little angry to see this important idea conflated with selfishness and self-indulgence.

#20 Comment By Ken Zaretzke On November 13, 2017 @ 5:11 pm

“Am I the only reader who has noticed that liberals and/or trolls have been posting more and more responses on this blog during the last year or so?”

It’s irksome. One solution is to go to Takimag or The American Spectator, where the vast majority of the (*enormous* number of) commenters are anti-liberal and often humorous.

#21 Comment By Youknowho On November 13, 2017 @ 8:42 pm

@Doug E

The parallel to what you describe is the current “gluten-free” fad. There are people who have celiac disease, and who DO need such food. The rest? The rest self-diagnose and adopt a fashionable ailment to make themselves seem special.

Just another example of the urge to self-diagnose and self-medicate, thus bringing a useful therapeutic tool into disrepute.

#22 Comment By Ken T On November 13, 2017 @ 8:46 pm

K-dog-one:

My comment was addressed to this specific article, not the entirety of TAC. I am well aware of the existence of serious articles on this and many other subjects elsewhere on the website. In fact, I have participated in many of those discussions (can’t say I’ve ever seen your name before). My point was that THIS article is a completely inane waste of space, not up to the standards of the site.

#23 Comment By Antonio On November 13, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

It would have been useful of you could have summarised why each of the topics mentioned make modern culture absurd.

For example, and please correct me if I misinterpreted your article, the otherness of science doesn’t seem like a problem provided you are open to what will come out of building an identity assuming the process started with only the minimum set of assumptions necessary.

#24 Comment By David Cobb On November 16, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

Daddy was a sargent. He would say he had nothing against “silly villians”, except it was a dangerous thing to have so many people running around without sargents to tell them what to do.