From James Marriott in THE TIMES, 9 October 2018:
Fancy doing some radical politics? It’s all right, you don’t even have to leave the house. Pop upstairs and run a bath. If you’re feeling especially political you might want to add some bubbles. Jump in. Congratulations, you’re performing a radical act of self care. In this distressing political climate, the argument goes, you have a duty to look after yourself by setting aside some “me time”. Suddenly politics has never been easier. The rise of self-care is one of the most noticeable (and easily pilloried) manifestations of the new idea that selfishness can be virtuous, and even politically admirable. In the past, politics tended to involve other people: you went on strike, or organised a march, or went to a meeting. This is no longer necessarily the case.
The notion of self-care has respectable, sensible origins. Most trace it to the black feminist philosopher and poet Audre Lorde. “Caring for myself”, Lorde wrote, “is an act of political warfare”. This might sound like hyperbole but the broad argument behind her phrase makes a lot of sense. If you’re a poor black woman you have to care for yourself because it’s hardly likely that society is going to do it for you. If you’re an English duke living in a giant country house you’ll have a noticeably easier time.
But even the most cursory trawl of the phrase #selfcare across social media reveals that things have gone awry since Lorde formulated her ideas. Most of the people I saw posting about “self-care” seemed noticeably affluent and white. My survey of Instagram suggests that cooking dinner, painting your nails and trimming your beard all count as self-care. A recent rash of self-help books confirms the corruption of Lorde’s idea.
Notable among them is the right-wing philosopher Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. If you thought self-care was for snowflake students try reading this passage from his book: “You deserve some respect . . .You have some vital role to play in the unfolding destiny in the world. You are, therefore, morally obliged to take care of yourself.”
Disturbingly, Peterson takes things further. Not only should you care for yourself. You should also strongly consider not caring for others. One of his 12 rules is “Make friends with people who want the best for you”. This sounds fair enough until you get into the nitty gritty. If you’re thinking of picking friends who you think you might be able to help, that makes you “naive or wilfully blind” because “not everyone who is failing is a victim, and not everyone at the bottom wishes to rise”. Yikes! And after all “How do you know that your attempts to pull someone up won’t bring them — or you — further down?” Those confused by the fact that Peterson is a Christian will be reassured to learn that he believes Jesus’s spiel about “loving your neighbour as yourself” has nothing to do with “being nice”.
Ideas like this echo in numerous similar books. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life has spent some of its time in the bestseller charts alongside books with titles such as The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** by Sarah Knight and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson. Knight advises her readers to list their problems, including annoying, draining friends. As you cross them off your list “you should utter a quiet, ceremonial ‘F*** you’ to each and every one”. How nice.
Of course human beings have always been selfish, even without the advice of some dubious self-help books. Over history, countless bloodthirsty monarchs and Victorian mill-owners cheerfully murdered and abused their fellow human beings while at the same time subscribing to a religion that told them to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The idea that a few alarming self-help books represents a major shift in the human psyche might seem far-fetched.
But the belief that “self-care” not only involves looking after yourself but also rejecting other people seems peculiarly relevant to the problems of our political moment. If you’re a student it might induce you to no-platform speakers if you find their opinions infringe on your feelings. If you’re Jordan Peterson it might lead you to refuse to address transgender people by their preferred pronoun. Now more than ever we need to listen to one another and to be careful of each other’s feelings.
After all, politics has traditionally been about other people — the word derives from the Greek for “city”. The historian Kenneth Clark identified courtesy, “the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos”, as a foundation stone of civilisation. But now that you can be political all by yourself and selfishness has itself become political virtue, we should worry.
As always, we would do well to heed the words of the poet Philip Larkin who wrote: “we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.”
James Marriott is deputy books editor