As I write these words there’s a tennis ball lodged between my shoulders and the back of my office chair. I put it there in an effort to improve my posture. If I lean forward or sit in an incorrect manner, the ball will fall down. The aim of this exercise is to help fix a problem that has bothered me for a while and is the result of both working at a desk and countless hours spent behind the wheel during long distance commutes: Rounded shoulders.
There is a lot about my physical appearance that I don’t like and these dislikes have had a toxic effect on other aspects of my life. My bad posture has led to neck and back pain, which in turn has affected my sleep.
Said bad posture is linked to if not the cause of other aspects of ill-health. Over the last twelve years, I’ve experienced considerable fluctuations in my weight. In 2005 I weighed one hundred and sixty pounds and was considered underweight by my family doctor. By 2010, I weighed two hundred and sixty pounds: an enormous climb over the previous five years. At the end of 2012, my weight dropped to two hundred pounds, before spiking to two twenty by the middle of 2014 where it plateaued until the beginning of 2017. Over the past ten months through dietary changes my weight has fallen to one hundred and ninety pounds. I feel better about myself, but I’m not entirely happy either. Therefore I’m fixing the problem through a new exercise regime. I doubt I will ever feel completely satisfied with how I look, but I know I’ll feel better and that’s a start.
I must add that the above fluctuations were the result of changing personal, economic and psychological circumstances and all working in tandem. In 2005, I worked a physically demanding job, so keeping fit was easy. In 2006, I became an office worker and too many sugar-sweetened coffees and long hours spent at a desk played hell with my physiology and physique. I also hated the line of work I was in and turned that dislike on myself. Self-disgust doesn’t necessitate taking care of one-self. In short I didn’t fix matters because I didn’t want to and I’m under no illusion that these physical and psychological discomforts aggravated or created problems with my day-job, my interpersonal relationships and my creative writing. My bad posture isn’t the root cause – grief, stress and other factors were at play – but it certainly hasn’t helped matters. The solution lies in exercise and corrective stances. In that regard, I’ve embarked on a forty minute per day work out regime over forty days. Why forty minutes per forty days? It simply fits my schedule.
Fixing problems is what responsible adults do: It is a key attribute of being a responsible human being. Our failures to fix the problems in our lives and with the world lies with our perception of what the problem is (personal or external ideologies), our willingness (or lack thereof) to deal with the problem (motivation) and our ability (knowledge) of how to fix said problem. All these factors are inextricably linked and require inductive and deductive insights into the real world and ourselves. Sun Tzu writing in the Art of War stated:
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not know the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.
-The Art of War Chapter III Attack By Strategem
All problems are fixable. However the easiest and quickest solutions are not always the best. Take a simple example such as eating. If you are hungry, the solution is to find food and consume it. However if what you choose to eat is bad for you and you become unhealthy as a result, then your solution has created another problem. Knowledge of what to eat is key, but so too is your state of mind. Eating bad food because you feel bad about yourself is rooted in personal ideology and thus is an irrational choice. A responsible individual is a discerning individual who is knowledgeable of self as well as of the outside world.
In the modern era, we are discouraged from being discerning or knowledgeable and when we seek knowledge it is invariably the preserve of so-called experts. Not that there is anything intrinsically bad about expertise or seeking practical knowledge from experts. However expertise, like science and technology is a neutral discipline, capable of both positive and negative effects. In a literal sense a 19th century blacksmith was an expert in making ploughs which helped feed the population as well as swords and firearms that killed people. In many cases the blacksmith was also the local dentist, which in an age before anesthetic would have made dental appointments a truly dreadful experience.
In our era, many expert economists proclaimed before the 2008 Financial Crash that the housing market was solid. The policies they advocated also made a lot of people rich before the Crash. Therefore there exists a fine line between expertise and sophistry – and there are many sophists in the modern era. The solution for the individual is to think independently of such people. Unfortunately few choose to do so.
Not that the citizen is encouraged to think in contemporary society. As the world’s economies become ever more corporate and mercantile the citizen is instead encouraged to believe that other people can provide them with solutions and by extension happiness. At the same time in a manner typical of dissociative ideas, the prevailing orthodoxy of neoliberalism encourages the belief that the individual is also entirely responsible whenever failures occur. An example of this is the nonsensical idea that individual consumers alone can impact climate change through changing their personal habits. That absurdity is best described by Martin Lukacs:
While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71%. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.
One of the side-effects of neoliberalism’s dual obsessions with individualism and a passive citizenry is mental illness. George Monbiot also writing in The Guardian argues:
[… the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.
That being said I hold the view that the individual has a responsibility to question received wisdom and by and large most individuals fail to do so. I suspect that there are a number of reasons for this. The first is that most people don’t really know who they are and so rely on other people and social status to define them.
Second, there is a dearth of real world experience driven in part by a pervasive fear of error and of loneliness. In seeking to be part of a social clique we subordinate our individualism and our willingness to take risks. This aversion to risk is encouraged in the work-place where creativity and questioning are discouraged by managerial systems designed to enforce structure and stability.
Tied into the fear of error and uncertainty is a fear and disinterest in knowledge. An example of this is found in the consumer market for automobiles. John McElroy writing in Autoblog points out that:
[…] 85 percent of car buyers don’t care where their engine and transmission came from, just as they don’t know or care who supplied the steel, who made the headlamps, or who delivered the seats on a just-in-time basis. It’s immaterial to them.
Despite the fact that the engine is the heart of a vehicle few automobile owners know anything about them, a fact confirmed by a study by LV = Road Rescue.
It might seem a stretch to place widespread public indifference to automobile components on the same level as wilful popular ignorance towards politics, economics or current affairs but there are parallels. First, most people in North America who are old enough to drive are also old enough to vote.
Second, many people know someone who has been the victim of an unscrupulous automotive mechanic and if the LV=Road Rescue survey is correct chances are high that many people have been duped by such a person without realising it.
Similarly, citizens will rally around the political candidate that offers easy solutions for complex problems and who makes them feel validated in their prejudices regardless if that candidate’s policies are detrimental to the well-being of vast majority of the electorate.
In both scenarios the individual displays a lack of knowledge over the issue, a reliance on so-called expertise and a willingness to place one’s wealth and well-being in the hands of someone who may be lying to them. Put in that context, it’s almost possible to agree with Ayn Rand’s sentiment that people choose to be victims.
Furthermore, in both scenarios, the citizen displays an unwillingness to dig deeper into the issue and to ask some critical questions about the fundamentals. Perhaps the design of the car and the industrial model that built it is, like that of our current corporatist governments: Deeply flawed. Viewed in such a light, neither the mechanic nor the politician is capable of addressing the underlying problem, since both require the continuation of the status quo in order to continue wielding power. In both cases then, the citizen/consumer is being passive.
This isn’t to say that the citizen should be an expert in all topics. Yet in an age of so much readily available information in the form of books, videos and the Internet, it is possible to learn enough about a topic in order to at least pose some intelligent questions. A responsible person is open to learning. It is only through constant learning and questioning that we avoid stagnation.
There is of course a great deal of activism in the world today, little of which offers more than a token threat to the prevailing socioeconomic orthodoxy. Some of the most lunatic movements of recent decades have found voice in the mainstream political discourse because they inadvertently protect the status quo by acting as steam release valves for societal frustration.
Four of the more absurd contemporary radical movements are White Nationalism, the so-called Alt Right, the Men’s Right’s movement and the current wave of extremist radical feminism. Of these four, the first three are the most politically significant and also the most pathetic.
Two common traits shared by White Nationalists, Alt-Right supporters and Men’s Right’s activists is the tendency to blame groups or communities that have nothing to do with the root cause of their socioeconomic predicament and to derive power through perceived victimhood. One group that all three share a dislike for is women and their arguments behind that dislike are rooted in personal and ideological insecurity.
White nationalism and its descendent the Alt-Right has been the bearer of these absurd ideas the longest of the three groups. That ideological insecurity is best described by the work of James Messerschmidt et al (1997) in chapter three of Crime as Structured Action: Gender, Race, Class and Crime in the Making. In essence, traditional white supremacy was (and is) frightened of both the perceived sexual prowess of non-white men and of the nonsensical notion that women – especially white women – are incapable of controlling their sexuality. Adding to these delusions is the concept that there are “purer” examples of a white “race”. Hence, Houston Stuart Chamberlain, Adolf Hitler, David Duke and other bigots try to argue that Russian Caucasians are different than Anglo-Saxon Caucasians on the basis of fantasy. Despite the human genome displaying 99.9% similarity across all inhabited continents, a theology of racial insecurity is propagated by weak little men like David Duke, Richard Spencer and the late William Luther Pierce.
Leaving aside the absurdity of White Supremacism, the solutions White Nationalists offer as an alternative to the status quo would result in greater socioeconomic stagnation. In keeping with their absurdity white nationalists hold up Japan as an example of the “positive effects” of low “diversity” by contrast to North America or Europe.
Yet Japan’s economy has been in the doldrums since the 1990’s relative to the growth of more comparably open societies such as China and South Korea. Furthermore, Japan is experiencing a population decline: So much so that the Japanese Government considers the decline in birthrate to be the single greatest threat to Japanese culture and sovereignty since World War II.
The root of Japan’s population decline is also socioeconomic. More women have entered the work-force and have gained considerable economic and social status. Unable or unwilling to adapt to or accept the circumstances, Japanese men have balked at the prospect of women being on an equal footing and the number of marriages has fallen dramatically. To address the issue there are calls in Japan for greater immigration.
Ultimately, Japan will only survive and prosper if it alters its deep-seated prejudice against immigration. One argument against immigration is that it would alter significantly Japan’s homogeneous population with its shared values and harmonious consensus.
Across the Tsushima Straits in South Korea, traditional misogyny in the face of modernity has resulted in a gender war between men’s rights groups and the feminist movement Megalia. One of the most outspoken men’s rights activists Hong Sang Ryung considers himself a “member of Korea’s working poor” which is a fitting statement for a grown man still living with his parents and working in a convenience store. Hong’s anger towards women gaining economic power seems in direct correlation to his own inability or unwillingness to improve his own personal circumstances.
The Alt-Right and the Men’s rights movements have made much of the new wave of extreme radical feminists but I find it difficult to feel any sympathy for their positions on the latter. First, the definition of extreme radical feminism needs qualification. What is described as “female chauvinism towards” by men like Hong Sang Ryung likely includes such “extreme” behaviour like going to work, voting, and not being sexually or physically harassed. Second, much of the name-calling and online trolling of men’s rights activists by feminist groups such as South Korea’s Megalia is in reaction to threats of physical assault and rape by online misogynists.
Third, extreme radical feminism as a force determined to wipe out men from the face of the earth barely registers as a political or social movement of consequence. On university campuses, extreme radical feminists are a minority. Outside campuses, they hold neither political influence, economic power nor widespread popular appeal. Put simply, the planet is not going to be overrun by radical feminists determined to turn all inhabited continents into replicas of the Greek island of Lesbos. Men need not fear Wonder Woman!
The novelist Margaret Atwood in conversation with the documentary producer Mary Dickson said:
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
Yet one of the few reasonable responses to white nationalism, the Alt-Right, Men’s Right’s activists and extreme radical feminism is to laugh at their absurdity. Whether it’s Charlottesville, Virginia or Seoul, South Korea, there’s something laughably pathetic about the sight of groups of grown men carrying torches and shouting racist or sexist slogans. It’s not just the melodrama of their actions that should arouse derisive laughter but the pathos of supposedly strong, responsible men being so afraid of women and minorities. Furthermore such actions do nothing to address the real underlying problems facing these men or of society in general.
As stated earlier our failures to fix the problems in our lives and with the world lies with our perception of what the problem is (personal or external ideologies), our willingness (or lack thereof) to deal with the problem (motivation) and our ability (knowledge) of how to fix said problem. In the case of white nationalism, men’s rights activism and extreme radical feminism, the underlying problem isn’t race or gender. The problems are socioeconomic stagnation (personal and external ideology), fear (motivation) and insecurity (knowledge). Before we can tackle these underlying problems we must first fix ourselves. The failure of extremist groups to do so is a failure or unwillingness to seek personal insight. Therefore they cannot and will not fix anything including their personal lives.
These failures aren’t confined to the extremist groups. In fact the phenomenon is best enunciated in the following lyrics.
Everybody wants to change the world but one thing’s clear: Nobody wants to change themselves.
A fundamental weakness of extremists is that often they know neither themselves nor their enemy. Consequently, more often than not, they do and deservedly lose.
I’ll close this article the same way I began it and with some personal confessions. One of the reasons I am unhappy with my personal appearance and wish to change it is because like all heterosexual men, I want to be appealing to the opposite sex.
But it’s not the only reason I want to be more physically fit: Being healthy in body aids being healthy in mind. I also believe that being strong in all categories: physically, mentally, intellectually and emotionally is something to aspire to.
Like many people I’ve been hurt in all those categories and some of the greatest heartbreak I have ever experienced has been romantic. Like many men I am afraid of being ridiculed, including by women. Having said that I am aware that I have caused a fair share of heartbreak too. I’m not proud of it. Its just to say that all of us have been victims at some point.
Whether or not we choose to continue being victims and passing out hurt is another matter. The reality that all of us must accept is that no matter the damage done to us by others, we each of us have a responsibility to fix ourselves. It’s a brutal truth but it’s also part of learning and of life.
Call it evolution. Call it survival. Call it both. I’d simply call it being responsible.
Now I can take this tennis ball away!
For those looking for tips and motivation for personal fitness, I highly recommend ATHLEAN-X. Details and videos are available here.