Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Talkiswalkism: The Problem With Believing Everything You Say

And Selectricianism, the better path to personal growth

If you say it, you’ll believe it.  If you believe it, you’ll act on it. By declaring your resolve you can bring about real change in your behavior.  Therefore to walk your talk, talk your intended walk, and the more passionately, frequently and insistently you talk it, the more you’ll walk it.

There must be something to this strategy for personal growth. Many researchers argue that what distinguishes us most from other creatures is our power of speech, our ability to declare for example, a personal aspiration. 

Many researchers would argue that, without the power of language we can’t really think. Words aren’t just for communicating thoughts; they are the stuff of thought itself. 

And it’s obvious thinking motivates behavior. So talking (with ourselves, with God or with others) to motivate behavior may well be the human animal’s most distinctive ability. No wonder we think that the more passionately we declare a personal aspiration, the more likely we are to do the work it takes to make realize that aspiration in the real world. 

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But that’s a mistake.  It fails to factor in the ways that talk can very easily become a substitute for walk. The more we talk it the less we’ll walk it. Our earnest declarations of what we aspire to do convince us that we’ve already done it, that we’re already walking it when we’re not. We become enchanted by our self-declared aspirations, literally, since the word enchantment comes from incantare—to sing into a state of bliss.  We sing our aspired-to praises and then get drunk on the sound of self-praise before we’ve actually earned it.

I’m going to call this Talkiswalkism—the assumption that our self-talk is an accurate description of our behavior. It’s a sort of “my will be done” attitude whereby God-like, in the beginning is my word of self-praise and with Godlike omnipotent powers it comes to pass.

Whatever self-affirming affects this personal growth practice might have, it’s a form of systematic, even pathological lying that will drive people away, crazy or both. 

Talkiswalkists can deflect any challenge to their behavior.  Tell them that you think they’re doing something wrong, and they have a ready-made answer:

“I would never do that. I aspire to be good, conscientious, and right-living. You’re wrong about me. I have no intention to do anything wrong. The problem must be you.  You must have misunderstood because I don’t have any need or desire to do things wrong.” 

All this, right out of the box, not even missing a beat, thereby freeing the talkiswalkist from having to give even a second’s thought to your challenging feedback.

And if you press the case, they have a second line of defense.

“Are you claiming you know me better than I know myself?!? How dare you! Don’t tell me what I’m feeling! I aspire to be honest with myself all the time.  I would never want to lie about what’s going on in me.  You’re just trying to oppress me by claiming you know what I feel and want.”

Notice how the talkiswalkist’s declarations blur the line between what is and what they think should be.  We blur that line often without giving it much thought:

Q:  “Are you racist?”

A:  “I sure hope not. I aim to be kind and treat everyone equally.”

However true that answer is, it’s the answer to a different question.  The question was whether the person is racist, not whether he hopes he isn’t.

Talkiswalkism is an extreme indulgence in that kind of blurring, an indulgence because it affords the talkiswalkist a power-tool for implementing a double standard. Notice that “you’re just trying to oppress me by claiming you know what I feel and want,” is in fact claiming to know what the challenger feels and wants.

The double standard goes un-noticed by the talkiswalkist because his earnest declaration that he’s honest makes him feel exceptionally honest, not like other people who wouldn’t be honest about what they feel and want.  Elsewhere I’ve called this double standard Exempt by contempt, the belief, for example, that if you shun dishonestly vigorously and contemptuously enough then you must be an expert on it and therefore exempt from being accused of it. 

Religion and spirituality seem especially conducive to talkiswalkism.  They are both heavily aspirational, encouraging us to aspire to be better people, giving us clear goals to aspire to and providing us with recipes for getting there. They invite us to spend hours learning the language by which to declare our embrace of their goals and recipes.

The people most drawn to religion and spirituality aspire to personal growth and are often haunted by the sense that they’re failing.  Religion and spirituality’s clear goals, recipes and encouragement to declare them must feel to these people like manna from heaven, a way to escape awareness of their shortcomings.

Far more than they notice, preachers and spiritual teachers act as living examples of how to become a talkiswalkist. They may think they’re serving their congregations and students but mostly they’re supplying a serving suggestion for heaps of earnest self-affirming aspirational talk, a recipe people can take out and apply self-protectively in their everyday life. 

I begin to suspect that talkiswalkism is religion and spirituality’s best-kept secret appeal. Many people may be drawn more to the invitation to talkiswalkism than any other aspect of their religious or spiritual practice.

Sitting at the feet of the preacher and teacher, they think they’re drinking in wisdom when more often they’re drinking in that puncture-proofing fluid--the stuff we spray into tires, coating their insides to keep them inflated now matter what sharp criticism they find on the road.  Faith, that proud commitment to ignoring all further evidence, is perhaps less in God than in one’s self-praise.

This is what gives the religious and spiritual their maddening air of hypocritical superiority. There’s nothing so frustrating as someone who claims himself to be exceptionally good at doing what he actually seems exceptional bad, the self-proclaimed patriot who rapes his country, the self-proclaimed truth-teller lying more than most, and the self-proclaimed open-mind more closed-minded than average. Talkiswalkism whether encouraged by the religious, spiritual, political or otherwise idealistic and ideological is a problem we’ve overlooked far too long.

I want to offer an alternative approach to personal change that’s far less conducive to self-serving abuse.  I’ll call it being a Selectrician and it’s based on what we can learn from evolutionary biology about how creatures, us included, evolve to fit our environments’ selective pressures, its ambient incentives and disincentives, rewards and punishments do’s and don’ts, paths of greater and lesser resistance.

Selectricians work to wire up their selective pressures so that they’re conducive to the growth they want to see in themselves. The selectrician’s motto is “I can’t change myself but I can usually change my environment so that it changes me.”

Selectricians don’t trust aspirational incantations to be very powerful.  They don’t expect that earnestly declared resolve breeds anywhere near enough will power to change their behavior, so instead they use their impotent little thimblefuls of resolve and will power not to change themselves directly but rather to change their environments. 

A guy who watches too much porn doesn’t pretend that earnestly declaring, “I’m not doing that anymore” is powerful enough to enable him to resist the porn sites’ chronic beckoning. Rather he employs that wee resolve to put a porn blocker on his computer and give the password to a friend for safekeeping.  Suddenly his environment doesn’t include porn and its beckoning.

Likewise, the over-eater doesn’t pretend that a passionate declaration that he’s going to diet will make him a dieter.  He uses the declaration instead to lock in a changed pantry—no more buying bags of Oreos to have at home chronically beckoning until they’re all eaten up.

Talk is cheap, but not without power. Be careful which power you take from it.  You have a choice between using it as an alternative to personal growth the way a talkiswalkist does, or using it to rewire your environment’s selective pressures the way a selectrician does.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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