01 October 2020

Do self help books harm people?

Do self help books harm people? Topic by Norma

(Do current self-help books harm people instead of helping them?)

Self help books are not a new phenomenon in publishing. With some imagination we can even think that cave paintings might include some sort of instructions and maybe even self help reminders on how to hunt wild animals.

More recently self help books took the form of holy books telling members of the faith how to be good. And most important of all, how to arrive to haven. Unfortunately we cannot verify the validity and soundness of cave paintings and holy books as self help books for their set objectives. Holy books may or may not be a formula to go to heaven, but they have certainly been interpreted to cause a lot of harm and mischief. This leaves us with the eternal question of whether: it is acceptable to do harm to people in the name of a higher good?

A more modern self help book is, of course, the Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. Accepted that this is a handbook for princes, today we all accept that we are all princes and princesses with a principality of one, ourselves.

Today we are inundated with self help books. In a way self help books should make us sufficiently informed about a given subject, but unfortunately not all information and knowledge is the same. We have to go back to distinguishing knowledge about "How to do something" and knowledge about "What is something".

Self help books are more about how to do something because the end game of the book is to make the reader proficient in something: solve a problem or achieve a goal. The more questionable self help books are those that pretend to teach us how to improve and analyse ourselves: books that profess to fix our mind. But people who suffer from psychological disquiet might face a dilemma: Seek professional psychological help that might be very expensive or seek medical help that may or may not lead to a spiral of drug taking and drug dependence.

Other people might be in a really bad situation and although they are aware of their situation they deny that they need professional help; if only they discover a new ideas how to deal with their problems and they will be able to deal with matters from there. These unfortunate people are easy prey to psychological charlatans and psychological snake oil peddlers.

Other self help books are not so personal and traumatic. Some books simply try to give us ideas and action plans on how to improve one's performance, one's happiness, and maybe even how to fix a leaking tap in the kitchen.

A key feature of self help books is that the author of the book is recognised as some sort of authority on the subject or maybe a knowledgeable and well researched author. We might argue whether the book came first or the author did. But who is the author is important for us since this affects our trust in the information of the contents of the book. But to trust in someone we must be in a mental state that we turn off the self preservation instinct in us: ie keep strangers at arms length. The clergy of religions or sects, and certainly members of political parties, are very familiar with this principle and their job is to build an environment of trust to attract converts. Today we call this marketing, but this behaviour is well established amongst animals and other biological creatures.

It should be said that self help books do sometimes offer solutions to problems and do offer answers on how to do things. Just because people abuse and misuse books, especially holy books that end up causing harm, it does not mean that some if not all of the content is not valid, useful, or interesting. And as a publishing phenomenon self help books keep many people in employment.

To recap self help books are just another way of sharing knowledge, especially based on experience or professional knowledge that is not easily accessible to people or not necessary for the problems people have. They also involve an element of value judgement from our part in deciding which self help book to trust and study (read). And the other philosophical perspective is that we need to understand and follow the instructions given in the book to solve our problems. Sometimes self help books are useless.

The question today is whether self help books are an endangered species of book form? And by book I do not necessarily mean in paper form. That battle has long been lost; today paper books are like living monuments of technology in the same way that country fetes are gatherings from a time with limited access to means of transport. But even today we are not sure whether such large gatherings in the countryside will continue given the Covid pandemic and foot and mouth disease in the agricultural sector.

Today problems are solved by consulting search engines, blogs and vlogs, forums, websites, and digital friends on mobile phone apps. Indeed before starting to write this essay, I spent two hours trying to make an old computer go faster by looking at various solutions: I am still not driving a sports car of a PC, after all one cannot make a silk purse from a sow's ear, but it is reacting immediately to my tapping of the keys!

Maybe the genetics of self help books have nothing to do with the book form but on the type of knowledge we are looking for, our trust in this knowledge, and the authors of this knowledge. Followed by our ability to understand and apply the relevant knowledge to solve our problems. From this context today our self help is the internet and we have thousands upon thousands of “authors” sharing their nuggets of knowledge with us. The challenge is to know how to prosper for those nuggets of information.

And of course charlatans and snake oil peddlers have not disappeared. They always distort facts and information to take advantage of our ignorance or naivety. Does this mean that charlatans and snake peddlers are the blood suckers of knowledge?

Best Lawrence

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Email: philomadrid@gmail.com


PhiloMadrid on Skype 6:30pm Sunday 4th October: Do self help books harm people?

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