Unfunny Bigot – How Steve Harvey is Doing Injustice to Women and Critical Thinking

[M]y girls and my concern for the future inspire me [to write this book] as well. They will all grow up and reach for the same dream most women do: The husband. Some kids. A house. A happy life. True love.

You may be forgiven for thinking I have quoted from The Misogynist’s Bible of 1950. But this was written by the American “comedian” Steve Harvey in his new best-seller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man. My friend – a woman – asked me to write on this book, after we came into contact with this venerable tripe and wasted forest inbetween two perfectly nice pieces of book cover. (As ill-luck would have it, on the back, there is an unfortunate picture of Steve Harvey. He is no Hugh Jackman).

The reason why this crap has become a best-seller is the same reason another poison fruit was allowed to unfurl its petals of nausea, namely: The Secret. And the reason for The Secret and Act Like a Douche, or whatever, is selling so copiously – well, Oprah of course.

Oprah may be responsible for the marked decline in critical faculties, just gazing casually across her recent history of nonsense. Someone might write a book about it and call it A Short History of Nearly Nothing considering all the advances in critical thinking, knowledge and reason her recommended books have given to human society. From Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, to James Frey’s A Million Whiny Pieces, and of course The Secret and now… this.

Harvey’s argument is this:

1. Women struggle to find men – presumably to marry and have kids with, of course. They just can’t wait to get started on the hassles of domestic life, and cook and clean and pick up the kids. I mean, why would women aspire to be good human beings, who live successful independent lives and help to better the world? Pfft, no Steve knows what they want, just read the previous quotation.

2. They struggle because they are thinking like a woman! If they want to bag men, they must learn to – you guessed it – “think like a man!”

3. Steve has realised this and wants to be the gateway so women can live happier lives – by marrying, having kids, and other horribly, closed-minded goals.

The Epicurean in me recoiled at this man’s mind; the complete closure of the mind to be formulated in so simple a construct should immediately strike people as being dubious. Something must be wrong here. I didn’t spend four years studying psychology to let a failed comedian write a pathetic work of misogynistic fiction to solve “relationship” problems. He is insulting the deeply coagulated, fluctuating amalgam we call the human being; he is further insulting their ability to work out problems for themselves.

People you pay to give relationship advice are better placed behind crystal balls. Unless they are your therapist, close-friend or parent, no one else should be giving you advice about yourself or about your interactions with other people. So-called relationship gurus never work – the testament that they have loyal clients, who have been with them for ages, should immediately point out the flaw: if they were so good, they wouldn’t have loyal clients! They should get the advice and leave, never to return with a string of wonderful lovers giving chase.

Harvey is an example of this kind of thinking – immediate solutions to long-standing personal problems. We like to expand our problems, such as “relationship problems”, to fit under a referential rubric and thus unite ourselves with others, calling ourselves failed lovers or lonely people. But the truth is far worse: our problems are our own and we need to solve it, individually. Life is not so hard for most of us that we need to turn to a failed comedian – what are his credentials to be dispensing such advice, please?

I struggled to read most of this book. It is filled with a man who thinks that morality comes from god or at least should fit some divine plan. He seems to have no knowledge of sexuality or how or why it occurs (I recommend Jared Diamond’s Why Sex is Fun or the sex chapter in Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape). If it is not enough that he is completely misguided and deluded in thinking he is actually helping people – this gives a bad name to therapy, which is a hard, tortuous discipline and no easy answers are ever found – he is also a bigot. He claims that women should find out about a man by asking about his various relationships: his relationship with his mother, etc., and of course with god. If they don’t have a relationship with god, women, apparently, must pack up their bags. (It is how casually people accept this statement and how people in the audience, in the link, laugh that irks me. We should not accept such bigotry) Turns out all those atheists getting married – oh, what, women can be atheists too!? – should just give it up. They are atheist and have no moral “barometer”. Of course, if he did just a little reading into evolution or ethics, he would know that morals are not derived from his god (whoever she is).

Instead of this, people should try Bertrand Russell’s Marriage and Morals (which was mentioned in Lord Russell’s Nobel prize citation) and his beautiful The Conquest of Happiness. Now, readers will recall that I said you shouldn’t take advice from someone who wasn’t your close-friend, parent, therapist, etc. So why do I recommend Bertrand Russell? Well, the difference with this kind of advice is that it primarily aimed at critical thinking. It is not quick solutions; it is a formulation for a methodology one can adapt to enhance self-reflection and expand upon notions, to find those negative aspects orbiting one’s life. Russell is not the only one: I recall, at this moment, Robert Winston’s brilliant book on the mind, too, which attempts a similar theme albeit more up-to-date and scientifically sound one.

Please, dear readers, read Steve Harvey if you want an example of nonsense – but use your precious reading time for better books. I read it in one-sitting and hated that I had to – but I did it, so you don’t have to. It’s nonsense and it is insulting to those of us who studied how the human mind works, how humans interact, etc. Social science may not be a science according to Popper – and I agree with him – but I will be damned if hard work is not constantly involved in it, from the practitioners and the patients. Harvey, the bigot and misogynist, is deeply insulting to critical thinking, hard work at one’s own faults and insulting to women. There are better things to read than an overzealous, failed comedian on relationships.

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Literature – To What End?

There are non-material forces, which cannot be measured precisely, but which nonetheless carry weight… And among these powers I would include that of the literary tradition; that is to say, the power of that network of texts which humanity has produced and still produces not for practical ends (such as records, commentaries on laws and scientific formulae, minutes of meetings or train schedules) but, rather, for its own sake, for humanity’s enjoyment – and which are read for pleasure, spiritual edification, broadening of knowledge…

– Umberto Eco

The coagulated effort to give vent to the synaptic breaches of what makes us human, shared and divided in our experiences, by putting form to abstract ideas via ink to paper might considered ‘literature’. Yet, when we consider literature today, it is often in some ‘high-cultured’ mindset: the names of Joyce, Tolstoy, Kafka, Sartre, Rushdie, or McEwan are echoes in some impenetrable fortress of ideas. Many find them too dark, too hard, too contrite, too “up its own arse”, too unfathomable to give it a second take. But the wonder of literature needs to be restated in the context of a broader humanity, in its inherent need to express its own existence. The branches of our family tree overshadow whatever dying leaves of scepticism we have in this enterprise and to understand it, we must dust off its roots to see them laid bare.

Literary criticism is a strange beast. I obtained a first in it, at the end of my first tier of academic studies. I say this not in a spirit of self-congratulation but in an attempt to give vent to the notion that ‘anyone can do it!’. It is often considered a microdiscipline if it is even considered a discipline at all. I am not here to defend literary criticism – indeed, I have more sympathy for those who view it with suspicion and incomprehensibility. I once wrote a literature paper on the implications of Tolstoy’s title character in The Death of Ivan Ilych and the reverberations in the dying protagonist of J.M. Coetzee’s Age of Iron. Let me give a summary of such a literary endeavour:

1. Both characters are aware of their own demise. Ilych is made aware of a pain that steadily grows, which cripples and further debilitates him. His uncaring family watches on. In Age of Iron, the lead character is aware from the beginning that she is dying. The novel is actually a final letter to the character’s daughter, detailing a “true” account of her own mind.

2. Both are reticent toward their loved ones, except in a numinous finality accentuated by a dramatic physical engagement. Ilych is finally embraced by his son; Coetzee’s character is bathed and held by a strange man she meets in the beginning, who she always called her “angel of death”, since he appeared in her life on the same day as her awareness of oncoming demise.

3. Both attempt to universalise their suffering, pushing their human roots further into the soil of illimitable comprehension. Ilych considers the whole of human suffering, the joyless march made by normal men like himself toward a meaningless life. Even his name we might consider to be rendered in English as “John Smith”. His normality is precisely that which vexed his creator (or Creator, depending on how one wishes to read the story), as made apparent in its most famous line: “The story of Ivan Ilyich’s life was of the simplest, most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Coetzee’s character wishes to see the entire land consumed in fire, as she wished to protest the absolutist, bullying apartheid regime which squanders personal liberty and enforces a bigoted division based on nothing but assertion.

And so on. I can only assume many people have not read either work, possibly not even heard of them. This does not make people stupid but rather the fault should rest with those of us who do know and love such works. The problem of the microdiscipline I have found with literary criticism is precisely its goal. What exactly is it trying to do? It is all very good and well to establish a coherent juxtaposition between two great writers – but, to what end?

Like most people, my fellow UCT graduates  were vexed at my scepticism, suspicion and derision toward an established view held by the majority. This concerned the notion of post-modernism, for which this is neither the time nor place (I can only urge you, dear reader, to beg, borrow or steal Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Fashionable Nonsense). But it is further exacerbated by my incomprehension toward the entire academic enterprise of literary criticism. It was worse when there was the introduction of feminist theory in the criticism – as most people had not read feminist literature, such as J.S. Mill (yes – I know I mention him a lot, like his godson, but I can’t help it that he was right and no one reads him), de Beauvoir (she who uses every vowel in her surname), and the great H.L. Mencken ( “Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men… a great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands.” Like myself, Mencken considers women the better sex though he did not specifically say so). Instead, most people (men included) took this as opportunity to laud men, express hatred at their oppressive fathers and brothers and patriarchy in general, and somehow mirror these views in literature. Thus Joyce was a misogynist, Faulkner was a misogynist, Coetzee was a misogynist.

My disdain for a lot of academia is apparent and to many I expect too much. I do not see the purpose in studying poetry – an area of beauty I find wanting, detached, loathsome, puerile, juvenile, stupid and egotistical. For myself, the only good poet is a dead one: and by that I mean Keats, Yeats, Hughes, Blake, Shakespeare, Ginsberg.

I do not see how this enterprise of self-absorption is helping the world. I do not see how comparing Tolstoy’s lead character to Coetzee’s, how that BS-wizard Derrida’s notion of the spectres of Marx and “I’m French, gay and mysterious” Foucault’s deconstructionism could add to our body of knowledge.

Well, no. There is way. They make us aware of the areas that are filled with muck and nonsense, the quicksand of self-imposed confusion whose nettles are made of the cornerstones of logic. I find it disappointing because many talented, inquisitive, eloquent and brilliant people are wasting their lives on going to symposiums (they have symposiums and conferences for this!) discussing J.M. Coetzee’s notions of “the exile”, for example. A lecturer once proceeded to elaborate for an hour on a single line from Age of Iron, which was only a synopsis of three papers she had read by one Coetzee scholar.

The problem is these brilliant people – I do not doubt their brilliance and eloquence (indeed, if nothing else most English scholars are eloquent!) – are doing something quite useless. Instead the area of inquiry that could be expanded upon could be pragmatic: they could use the art of their communication skills to teach people critical thinking, what occurs in science, how ethics and morality work, how to think about abstract questions. In other words, these people could be science and philosophy communicators aiming to better the world with an informed choice and by using that dying organ, the brain.

The enthusiasm that permeates their cheeks as they gaze longingly at a photocopied page of a soon-to-be-released J.M. Coetzee book (the next one is called Summertime, for those who are interested) should rather be directed toward the desire to educate people with eloquence. C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” (the natural sciences and the humanities) must be amalgamated by having scientists understand the humanities and vice versa. We do not want everything to be a microdiscipline – indeed, I can understand why something like quantum mechanics is the exclusive territory of very few people. My worry is that something like English studies or literary criticism could slowly descend into a quicksand of nonsense and label itself into the same obscurantism as quantum physics. Quantum physics, as far as I have read (which is only 4 books and a 10 or so articles), is deeply beautiful but at its fundamental level not anything I could ever comprehend. However, their results are such that they can have accuracy, they can obtain objective results. This part is not obscure. But can literature studies say the same thing? Can they point to a result, or an objective understanding?

Of course not. By its definition that is not what the discipline is about. Yet, if its fades into more and more obscurity, it is losing its sense of what it should be doing and why I am so suspicious of it. Philosophy is at least the beautiful and wonderful enterprise to engage in thought and actually has important implications for our world – despite what some sceptics might say about it being a pointless endeavour. Philosophy can ultimately lead us to construct arguments, defend our views and come to reasonable conclusions – or at least, idealistically. Here there is a sense in which philosophy mirrors science (much to Wittgenstein’s dismay).

The gap between C.P. Snow’s two cultures has created a chasm so vast its shadows are taken for truth, its echoes taken for further knowledge and its darkness taken for beauty.

Thus, it seems to me that those who are involved in the whole literary criticism scene need to tell me why I should care. Given that I am “one of them” – supposedly – I still have yet to meet a defence of this discipline to be an academic one. How does it contribute to our knowledge? I can think of many good reasons for keeping it around and not eradicating it – but my aim is not to “eradicate” it, but to ask it for a defence.

For example, it is a beautiful way to synthesise important works, to harness our shared humanity under a single rubric. We all share stories and can understand one another, since we are human. One need only recall a story about one of  the greatest and one of the first works of literature. As Alberto Manguel recalls:

In 1990, the Colombian Ministry of Culture set up a system of itinerant libraries to take books to the inhabitants of distant rural regions …  According to one librarian, the books were always safely accounted for. “I know of a single instance in which a book was not returned,” she said. “We had taken,  along with the usual practical titles, a Spanish translation of the Iliad. When the time came to exchange the book, the villagers refused to give it back. We decided to make them a present of it, but asked them why they wished to keep that particular title. They explained that Homer’s story reflected their own: it told of a war-torn country in which mad gods mix with men and women who never know exactly what the fighting is about, or when they will be happy, or why they will be killed.

As this wonderful story highlights, people have a need to see themselves, their world and their difficulties expressed. Sad people read sad poetry, listen to sad songs, because artists have been able to capture the essence of loss in a firmament of disarming realisations about existence. They can mix words like petals in oil and create synthesised flowers of blooming comprehension.

But it seems that those who are so deeply pressed against literature’s walls have forgotten this. Instead, the walls are taken to be hiding a truth, hiding a discipline worth creating academic departments for. I see no need for this and I think those who scale, so skilfully, all its turrets and towers, need instead leap to the mountain of undisclosed knowledge lying on the horizon. We know what this is for. Why must we continue to use those same tools that allow us to scale the shadowed behemoths in the distance instead to covet a breaking, cavernous castle? All that talent could be better used and it grates me that no one else is saying this.

…Or maybe, I am missing something?