2/1/07

Reading SHAM by Steve Salerno, about the Self Help and Actualisation Movement. It’s a scathing attack on the self-help industry, in particular on gurus like Anthony Robbins (Awaken the Giant Within) and John Gray (the Venus and Mars books), and on the way the two core approaches, Victimisation and Empowerment, have corrupted public life, particularly in the US. Victimisation is the view that whatever your current problem, it’s not your fault, it’s caused either by an abusive or misguided upbringing or by a  newly-recognised syndrome (i.e. an illness).

Salerno singles out Alcoholics Anonymous in particular for changing
the culture so that alcoholism is seen as a disease and promoting a
largely ineffective and unexamined regime. The corollary thought for
the Victimisation philosophy is ‘someone is to blame, so you can take
legal action against them’. Empowerment, on the other hand, is the idea
that you can be anything you want, achieve anything you want, all you
need is the belief that you can do so. Salerno (rightly, IMHO) shows
how this leads to the ridiculous scenes in shows like X-Factor where
talentless individuals nonetheless protest they have a right to fame –
because it’s all they’ve ever wanted. He points out the irony that if
one of the self-help gurus’ books were successful in empowering its
readers, they wouldn’t need to be constantly fed more of the same.

Personally I feel challenged by his attack on alternative medicine;
not that I use it but a number of people whom I respect do use and
respect things like homeopathy.  We’re familiar with the arguments
along the lines of ‘It doesn’t stand up to scientific gesting’ and
‘That’s because your tests aren’t appropriate to this form of
intervention’, but Salerno places the debate in the wider context of
the Empowerment view that the opinion of a person receiving treatment
is of equal value and validity to that of a medical
professional. While there’s a lot of valid argument about the right of,
for example, patients to be treated as people not symptoms, that is a
different thing from saying they should have an equal voice.

I recommend this book for a bracing and often incendiary read.