The Ethics Of… Motivational Quotes

Ok this is going to seem a bit weird compared to my usual posts, but since I’m currently on a Pacific island for the next couple weeks I’m trying something a little different: bite-sized posts. So sit back and enjoy the spectacle of my trying to cram my usual long-winded, meandering, 4-pages-on-a-good-day train of thought into one single page. If the length of this introduction is anything to go by, I’m in serious trouble.

There doesn’t seem to be much middle-ground when it comes to motivational quotes; either you insist on smothering your facebook friends with them on a daily basis, or you hate them enough to make your own sarcastic motivational post in retaliation.

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Seems kind of strange that something as innocent as vague encouragement can get such intense, nearly fanatical reactions. After all, all they really boil down to is variations on ‘You can do it’.

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Not exactly lighting the world on fire, is it?

So why the massive love/hate reactions? Well it might just be the sheer volume of the things that get thrown around the place, locking some people into trace-like enthusiasm and others into overloaded revulsion, kind of like that ‘Let it go’ song from Frozen (enjoy that for the next hour by the way). But I don’t think that explains the sheer intensity of feeling we get here.

Remember when Shia LaBeouf recently spent one minute screaming “DO IT!” into a camera? And half the internet claimed it single-handedly solved every problem they had, while the other half started furiously churning out hilarious parodies? Things like Frozen and those bloody minion things that have been popping up everywhere may be irritating, but you don’t see anywhere near the same level of reaction to them. So what gives?

Sure it might have been performance art, but the fact remains that NOBODY COULD TELL.

The essential problem with motivational phrases is a pretty common one when it comes to ethics: it’s the difference between ‘is’ and ‘should’, or more specifically the difficulty in balancing the practicalities and principles of an issue. What the hell do I mean by that? Well let me show you an example:

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Here we have a stock-standard motivational poster: short, snappy and basically encouraging you to improve yourself. Nice, right? Well that depends entirely on how you take that message. “Start again” the poster encourages you – but what the hell does that mean? Well that’s up to you, since the poster is only 13 words long. So what is that message going to mean to you? Whatever you think it means, that’s what, and here is where the trouble starts…

Imagine you’re not enjoying your job, or are in a failing relationship or otherwise trapped in a place that doesn’t make you happy anymore. Imagine you’ve been daydreaming about just leaving it all; quitting your job, breaking up with your partner and just travelling wild and free for a while! If only you could gather the courage to do so… Then you come across this poster and man, doesn’t it just sum up where you are right now! What a perfect, wonderful message! Every day IS a new one and you CAN just start a-fresh! Even if you don’t make the break today, at least you’ll know that you can and maybe, one day, you will!

Unless, of course, you can’t. Say you’re too poor to have the luxury to quit your job, or have serious commitments like a mortgage or children. Maybe you didn’t have the grades or skills to get a job you enjoy, or maybe you’ve just been ground down for too long by shit bosses, crappy jobs and a dismal life in general to the point where escape is not longer thinkable to you – imagine how this smug-fuckin-hippy-pretentious-BULLSHIT poster is going to go down when you read it?

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‘Start again’? Fuck you, ‘start again’! And just how do you suggest I do that Mr Motivational Poster? Just wander off into the sunset where everything is wonderful? Quit my job, default on my mortgage and enjoy the wonderful freedom of homelessness? Why didn’t I think of that?! And those kids that I’m raising that cost me a few hundred dollars a week? I suppose I can just chuck them off a bridge and walk away whistling, right? Maybe I’ll stop in for one of those convenient ‘Upgrade your intelligence, opportunities and social class’ upgrades while I’m at it.

Go have a look at just about any motivational quote, poster or video and this same problem applies to each and every one of them: where one person sees a suggestion for what life could be like, another sees a ham-fisted attempt to tell them how their life is. The former is encouragement to change one’s situation; the latter a pretty little kick in the teeth that denies the reality your situation and basically blames the entire mess on you.

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Take this quote as a statement on principle and all is well – an accurate (if simple) statement that the opinions of others often hold us back when they shouldn’t. Take it as a practical statement on the other hand, and we’re in a world of trouble because the opinions of other can and do hold us back all the dang time. Want to be an actor like Mr Depp? Well unless you happen to have a couple of hundred million bucks under your mattress, good luck with that. Shit, even serious raw talent isn’t always enough – just ask the thousands of extremely talented but unconnected actors jockeying for place in Hollywood or LA.

Ethics may be about the facts of a situation, but like it or not, everyone perceives the same facts differently. One person’s intentions may not match with another person’s reaction, despite the fact that they’re both experiencing the same simple three-lined quote. If we’re going to get anywhere in life these differences need to be appreciated, but they also need to be overcome. Because whether you think motivational quotes are the best thing evaaaar or the source of all western decadence, one thing’s for sure: either one is a waste of energy.

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One thought on “The Ethics Of… Motivational Quotes

  1. I’ve been meaning to get back to this post and read it when I saw it come up on my reader because I knew I was going to love it, because I have the same gripe about all these motivational memes. I wrote a blog posted about a particular one that bothers me although I’m sure it is said more often than just on the internet. http://cloakunfurled.com/2014/03/24/paltry-proverbs/

    Ultimately all of these come across to me as unwanted, and unhelpful advice, or words that just show someone’s privilege. Tell some person in Africa is oppressed by some warlord that his happiness is all a result of his attitude. Or tell that to someone with a mental disorder that they are completely responsible for how they feel even if the chemicals in their brain are completely askew. I’ve had people drop me on facebook when I pointed out an example about how their little motivational quote is a pile of privilege bullshit. And I don’t regret it. lol Anyway, thanks for writing this and summing up the problem with these things rather well!

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