Special Bonus Rant: How Are You Complicit? (Academic Edition)

Trigger Warning: reference to sexual assault

This isn’t the blog post where I’ll unpack issues with social media and blurry boundaries between personal and professional self-presentation, but I will lead with an acknowledgement that this type of blurry boundary is a complicated thing.

(Says the relatively anonymous blogger.)

I debated about whether to link to the original article here, and I’ve decided to go ahead. It’s not like the source text is too inappropriate to share, and it’s also not like this humdrum little blog is going to generate a lot of foot traffic for the original author one way or the other. 

So, here is the link to the article, titled “How Are You Complicit?”

I am avoiding naming the author directly in my post, which I think should prevent this blog from turning up in searches for his name, as I’m not interested in having any impact on this stranger’s actual career (as though I even could if I wanted to, but weird things happen on the internet) or frankly bothering him at all.

He’s just a guy promoting his own dude thoughts in the interest of his public and professional image, which is a pretty reasonable thing for an aspiring academic to do.

I’m clarifying all this because I haven’t read this person’s actual academic scholarship, and I don’t know them personally, so my response here is purely based on this one article they wrote that I happened to encounter one day when I was already feeling cross, and little bit of casual poking around on their website after I started writing out an impromptu rant that turned into this blog post. They’re not, like, my nemesis or something.

Although I do not imagine that the article’s author would enjoy this post if they came across it, they’re still not my real target. My issue is with larger patterns and beliefs that happen to show up particularly clearly in this one little post of theirs.

So, just a reminder that everything on this blog should be taken with a grain of salt, and that the lives people live independently of my opinion have value and worth that my crabbiness cannot and should not be presumed to diminish.

The author interrogates the question “How are you complicit in creating the conditions in your lives that you say you don’t want?”

It’s a short article, but it does reference one outside source (i.e., the author of a book), in the context of a second source (i.e., said book author was interviewed for a podcast). 

Both that author and that interviewer appear to be square-jawed white men with lots of money. 

Incidentally, the author of the source article, the one who references only rich white men in developing his argument about how we are complicit in our own oppression, is an apparently white man who is an assistant professor. 

Assistant professors can hardly be presumed to be wealthy people (though exceptions exist), especially in the humanities and social sciences, but it remains an extremely privileged (even when tenuous) position in the buyer’s market of academia. 

This fellow talks a lot about leadership. He studies the learning practices of individuals in online and hybrid spaces. 

Just, you know, all the individuals.

Who would benefit from the perspective of rich white cis male CEOs.

Anyway, I’m particularly interested in the framing of the last clause of the question: “that you say you don’t want.”

I’m curious as to how this framing might differ from the standard fallacies of victim blaming:

“You say you didn’t want to have sex that night, but why did you wear sexy clothes and then keep talking to that guy who wouldn’t leave you alone?”

“You say you don’t think workers should be exploited, but why do you still work at a job where you yourself are exploited?”

Ah, the convenient threat of hypocrisy. 

To be clear, I’m not really so obtuse that I don’t understand how individuals can perpetuate patterns that keep them stuck in unfortunate situations.

Of course self-sabotage is a thing. 

Of course unhealthy and unproductive patterns can create frustrating personal ruts. 

But this is hardly an either/or situation, and the context of academia is a particularly inappropriate setting in which to imply that it might be. 

How hard is to begin from the premise that while most people can, indeed, take steps to do better (whatever that looks like relative to their own situations), it’s also true that their ability to successfully and consistently do better may still be hindered by social and logistical factors outside their control? 

Is that too much to ask?

The author continues:

“…we are taking part in the things that make us mad, sad, or unhappy.” 

Buddy, that’s just called living

(Italics for emphasis! Like a confident leader would do!)

Now, I recognize that this article is vague because it’s meant to be a quick little think piece, and not like a well-researched manifesto. The author is personally keeping up with the creation of daily content, so of course each individual post isn’t going to be exhaustively reviewed and revised and polished.

Still, if I were to be asked for feedback on that article as a draft, I’d ask for some specific examples to support at least a few of the sweeping generalizations.

Specific examples like

“What are some problems you’ve invited into your life?”

“Under what circumstances have you been unwilling or unable to make a personal change?”

“What are some times when you accepted responsibility for your actions and for your circumstances?”

“What are some examples of times you placed responsibility on others?”

“What kinds of responsibilities belong to individuals?”

“Who dreads and fears doing what kinds of self-work?”

“What critical framework shapes the critical lens you recommend being applied to everyone’s lives and belief systems?”

“What are some examples of times you’ve been wrong or silly or stupid?”

“How are you defining both ‘responsibility’ and ‘complicity’?”

“What are some examples of burdens that have been passed on to you by others’ fear of failure?”

Just a few, off the top of my head. 

Then again, maybe me asking all these pointed questions just stems from my unwillingness to accept my own complicity in letting confident assholes make the kinds of important decisions that they’ve positioned themselves to make within a system that elevates that particular brand of uncritical confidence. 

“Doing self-work is often dreaded and feared,” the author opines.  

Look, I don’t have access to stats on this, so anecdotal evidence is the best I can do on the short notice I’m giving myself for this post. 

But anecdotally, I’d say that the vast majority of folx who have committed to doing the dreaded self-work of shouldering the responsibilities borne of unfavorable conditions are not the same folx who are writing books, intended to coach future business executives, with subtitles like Leadership and the Art of Growing Up.

I’m aware that it may seem redundant to complain about such a personal take on “self work.” How else can you work on your own self unless it’s personally? 

But “we don’t want to put a critical lens to our lives and belief systems,” he says dismissively about all humans. 

As though you – uniquely, individually, personally, solely you – are responsible for those belief systems that it may be time for you to challenge. 

And as though your conclusions about how you’ve chosen to bear the burden of your own responsibilities will be fundamentally better than how you were before you did that self-work, all because you knew from your own knowledge and feelings (but mostly knowledge, because feelings are just excuses for weakness) what substantive improvement would entail. 

As though the critical lens of your own opinion is sufficiently and appropriately tuned to meet or even exceed its own limitations. 

This author seems like someone who should know the difference between “criticism” as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes” and “Criticism” as “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of the object of study.” 

This post really seems to be leaning into the former definition. 

Which is really a less useful tool than the latter. 

And yet that former form of criticism is likely to be a familiar tool for people who’ve had inferiority imposed on them by external forces for their entire lives: they talk the wrong way. They look the wrong way. They feel feelings the wrong way. They get horny the wrong way. They handle money the wrong way. They manage their time the wrong way.

The kind of wealthy faux-Buddhist advice being peddled as wisdom here seems so fucking novel to white dudes who have never believed that something fundamental about their way of existing in the world is a problem to be fixed.

(Do I have to do the #notallwhitedudes business? If you’re a white dude reading this and you know you’re doing real work to resist patriarchy, you probably don’t need that reassurance in order to understand my point, eh?)

It can be true that there are some practical nuggets of actual wisdom hiding among the gross oversimplifications in an article like this one


it can be true that this article is an uncritically selfish framing of what self-work means and why it matters. 

The weight-lifting analogy at the end reveals something the author probably didn’t intend.

It’s like doing self-work is about getting ideologically swole. Like the point of self-work is self-gain (and kind of getting off on the pain of getting there). Not “pass[ing] the burden on to others” is about your ability to shoulder that burden yourself, rather than about sparing others from the burden of your own irresponsibility. 

Then again, I suppose I could just be defensive that my own blog represents my complicity in sustaining toxic positivity, since I say I don’t like it but then I keep collecting tokens and taking the time to rage write about them. 

But honestly? In the end, I still choose to blame Jerry Colonna, author of Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, for every single one of my personal problems.