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Do We Really Want to Know This Secret? May 9, 2007

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

Do yourself a favor and read this column by Emily Yoffe (May 7, 2007)  about The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. Apparently, while I’ve been grading papers and trying to reorganize my ivory tower, the world has been buzzing with this notion, a “secret” featured in Byrne’s book, that all you have to do is visualize what you want, and then you shall have it. Admittedly I haven’t read Byrne’s book yet, but from the reviews it sounds to me as if it provides a fabulous example of an unfalsifiable theory/the fallacy of begging the question, because what happens if you didn’t get what you wanted? Well, then you didn’t convince yourself forcefully enough. Hmmm. We’ve heard that one before: If things go right, it must be because you’ve prayed. If things go wrong, and you prayed, you just didn’t pray hard enough. Historically, it is not the first time that people have been told all they have to do is focus really hard on something, and then it will happen, with the help of their own mental powers, or divine intervention—or that if they are in dire straits, it is somehow their own fault, either because of karma from a past life, or punishment by the gods, or their unruly sinful/unconscious self. So there is no longer any excuse: If you’re living in a studio apartment and would like to live in a mansion, it’s your own fault for not visualizing that mansion. If you have lost your job and need to pay your doctor’s bills, shame on you for not visualizing (1) a new job, and (2) yourself in good health. Or perhaps you should visualize winning the lottery, or setting up a scam so people will send you money? Or holding up a liquor store? Does Byrne’s book have a system of values that can guide followers through morally acceptable and unacceptable visualizations? And is there any human understanding and compassion left over for those whose visualization powers are on the weak side? Here is, in effect, a good illustration of the different kinds of “responsibility” that Dwight mentioned in a previous blog. You are “responsible” for your status in life, but does that also mean you ought to feel responsible for other people’s wellbeing? According to some website reviews, the main goal of The Secret is for people to visualize getting stuff, not world peace, so it is apparently completely self-centered, but I’m willing to consider that the critics are perhaps unfairly harsh on the book. If people can get a sense of empowerment and initiative rather than just give up, then it has some merit. But does it distinguish between visualization and fantasy? Is the popularity of this book an expression of a spiritual poverty, a shallowness which clings to the belief that we can get anything we want—a belief in magic? Or are we seeing something else—a popular/populist version of the philosophy of accountability, an attempt to counterbalance the ideology of victimhood, the notion that nobody is responsible for anything because we are all victims of circumstances? Might we be witnessing an ideological battle between the extremist views of everything being the responsibility of the individual, vs. nothing being the responsibility of the individual? Or is it just another self-help book that resonates with ethical egoists?



1. joeymonroe - May 10, 2007

Hi Nina

You make some good points – I too was troubled by a lack of an ethical framework in the film (haven’t read the book).

I recently came across an interview with Bob Proctor, one of the ‘gurus’ featured , in which he describes some of the other ‘laws’ they left out. Worth reading.



2. Dwight Furrow - May 10, 2007

We are very far down the rabbit hole here. “The Secret” (in its incarnation as film) is brought to us by some of the same folks responsible for that other bit of inanity released 2-3 years ago–“What the Bleep Do We Know?”

You may be right that the thesis is strictly speaking unfalsifiable, but it seems to me to be simply false. The irrational exuberance often displayed by stock market investors who buy in at the end of a rally seems to me to be a good example of the power of positive thinking gone awry–and many of them end up jumping off the 40th floor of an office building. (Perhaps our friends at Enron might also be a good example)

And of course if there were moral prescriptions embedded in this hucksterism it wouldn’t sell–it would make us directly responsible for all the evil in the world, a thought that doesn’t go down well with the Cheerios, as Sartre repeatedly pointed out. Anguish anyone?

As you suggest, the interesting question is why people buy this nonsense. I doubt that it has anything to do with an ideological battle between “the extremist views of everything being the responsibility of the individual, vs. nothing being the responsibility of the individual.” Aside from a few professors of philosophy or cultural studies, I don’t know anyone who thinks that no one is responsible for anything. Clearly the people that buy this stuff don’t see themselves as culture warriors (or any other kind of warrior)–it is a battle without a foe.

It is no accident that this idea that we can make our own reality arises within modernity. The world is slipping out of the control of individuals. Much of what effects our welfare is the product of distant actors or institutions over which we have little control as individuals. Those very same actors and institutions, along with our own mythologies, have succeeded in convincing us that we are isolated individuals for whom collective action is somehow disgraceful. And no one seems to be able to articulate the idea that we are all in this together.

In the face of increasing uncertainty, many people will choose the comforting thought that keeps the wolf from the door.

Marx was wrong that religion was nothing but the opiate of the masses–but The Secret and its ilk surely is.

3. Evan Simons - May 10, 2007

If it’s such a damn secret why is she telling everybody? There was an interview with miss Byrne where the interviewer got her going on the idea of harm coming to you with negative thoughts and so the interviewer asked her if the thousands of children in Rwanda who have been orphaned or murdered brought that on themselves. Instead of replying that no, The Secret only works for lonely, middle-class, white women, she said yes, it was their fault for atracting negative ‘vibrations’ as a group. (I think this was the last interview she gave) Instead of being merely self-help (which is a contradiction in terms. You’re buying a book to teach you stuff, that’s help) I think The Secret is a rather pernicious thing. You don’t get cancer from negative thoughts, you get it from enviromental toxins. Ignoring the toxins doesn’t make them go away. Ignoring starving children doesn’t feed them.

4. Nina Rosenstand - May 12, 2007

Thanks for the contribution, and for the tip about Proctor! I will check it out.


5. Mesan - May 20, 2007

I have the cd, which I believe is the book on cd. I personally think it’s great, even though I found its attempt at a scientific explanation a little embarrassing since it really sounds like magic. I think that stuff is really just there to try to help some people get a little more faith in it. You’re supposed to be convinced that you will get something specific and within a short period of time the universe will present an opportunity to obtain it. It does say that you might not get exactly what you were thinking of but it will be something close. Like if you are thinking of winning the lottery you might instead get a great new job offer. I have heard people criticize it and saying that it tells cancer patients to feel responsible for their own cancer. When you listen to you don’t get that vibe unless you’re really looking for it and I don’t believe the cd is intended for those people. I don’t see a whole lot wrong with telling people that even an impossible situation will be ok one day if all they do is believe. It does follow the whole Disney theme of wishing upon a star which people show their children and the love of God and power of prayer which a lot of people embrace. It does mention world peace and encourages the listener to spend time visualizing it, if the listener would like. It also does mention letting other people live their own lives and to not try to interfere using the secret, claiming that it doesn’t really work that way and then gives some short assurance that it’s best that way anyway. I guess I don’t know where people hear all the shame on you stuff because the cd gives a focus on looking forward and is basically telling you that no matter how bad it is that it’s not just bad luck and you’re not cursed and so giving you the possibility and the power to obtain what you wanted and have come to believe you were never meant to have. And I think it tells you you are in control of everything so as to appear strong to the listener and not give the listener a chance to think of something they want as an exception and risking that they believe that the secret wont work for them. A lot like how God knows everything, is always in control and even if you don’t understand why God is right all you need to know is that he is. So I also believe the secret is trying to be a safe place for people which I believe some people need.

6. Mesan - May 20, 2007

ps. It also mentions the news/newspapers and its negativity and encourages people to stop supporting bad news. Which I think is awesome.

7. Angelina - May 23, 2007

When I first heard about this book, The Secret on of course everyones favorite show…OPRAH I was intrigued. Everywhere I went someone was talking about this book, telling me I just had to read it. So of course I had to see what all the fuss was all about. I should start be letting everyone know that I didn’t even make it through reading the whole book due to the simple fact I had enough!! I almost felt like the book was trying to brain wash the reader into believe what it says. For me personally reading a book that tells me to “visualize” where I want to be, and really believe it isn’t taking me any closer to my goal. All I kept thinking is geez… If I wasn’t wasting my time “visualizing” I could get off this couch and actually do something productive to really help me get closer to my goal. My roommate on the other hand is the type of person who feeds off books like this. She was raving about how great she felt after reading this book and how she could really do anything she set her mind to. Soon I found random post-it notes around the house, on the fridge bathroom mirrors with little daily reminders to “keep her focused.” After we both had such a different reactions to the book it really got me thinking. I see this book not as a “self-help” book but almost like meditation for people to be empowered…who may have lost there way. Professor Rosenstand brings up a good point though…”Does Byrne’s book have a system of values that can guide followers through morally acceptable and unacceptable visualizations?” I think this is an important question to ask. Mostly I felt like the book was trying to help you visualize getting things…possesions, nice car, new house, or a certain status in life…a new job, a promotion I don’t think it really addressed a lot of other issues.

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