Universal Religion

(Originally Published 28 Jan, ’05)

The million-and-oneth monkey over at a million monkeys typing wrote the other day about some misgivings he was having about David Allen’s Getting Things Done method, particularly in relation to major life issues like career development. Nothing serious, just some musings about whether what worked for the short term is the best way to go about looking at your life as a whole.

The GTD’ers were not amused. Among the responses he received were the following:

  • If GTD does n’t meet your needs, then you are doing it wrong.
  • GTD does everything an dmore. my life changed wehn i started using it, and you dont have any rite to convince people otherwise
  • Your [sic] a [expletive] [expletive] if you think that your [sic] [expletive] getting things done right.
  • you give people the wrong impression. gtd works.
  • y dont you try christanity, you [expletive]

In a way, the response is a validation of his weblog’s title: the web really is a million (or more) monkeys (well, apes, really) typing, and you’re bound to see it all if you hang around long enough.

But it also points at a rather unflattering aspect of our culture right now, a tendency towards fundamentalism that is hardly confined to the strictly religious. Johnston (the aforementioned million-and-oneth monkey) didn’t challenge the system, he didn’t say it doesn’t work — in fact, he’s one of the more popular GTD bloggers out there — he merely mentioned that GTD might not answer all the questions in his life. ANd just look at how scared he made some people!

There’s an idea I’ve been playing around with the last 6 months or so, that people are essentially universalizing creatures. (I’ve used a couple no-go words there: “essential”, because I reject essentialism, and “creature” which ,the evolution acticists assure me, has been co-opted by the creationists. But like I said, I’m lazy.) We live in a world in which Bad Things happen, and this is where religion comes in. Religion allows us to believe that a) we can exercise some degree of control over the universe, thus forestalling or minimizing the incidence of Bad Things, and b) that when “a” fails and Bad Things Happen Anyway, there is some meaning, some reason behind them — and as a sub-corrollary, that we might learn to understand that meaning. What scares us more than anything is the thought that we might live in a random, meaningless universe — so we make meaning and we invent order.

But this isn’t restricted to the religious domain (hell, the religious domain isn’t restricted to the religious domain) — the need for predictability and uinderstanding pervades all aspects of our life. A lot of your “-isms” — racism, sexism, homophobism, fundamentalism, communism, libertarianism, liberalism, capitalism — consist, at least in part, in the attempt to impose a system of order and meaning onto an otherwise unpatterned reality. One of the big wrenches (a monkey-wrench, perhaps) in the machine are cases of ambiguity — the cross-dresser, the cosmopolitan, the female executive, the hippy, the secular Jew, the half-breed. By failing to fall into the “proper” categories, these people are unpredictable, and this unpredicability makes others uncomfortable. “If I do x, I don’t know how this person wiill react!”

The best assurance of predictability and understanding would be a world in which every person would act in every situation the way we ourselves would act in the same situation. While this offends the sense that some of us have that diversity is not only good but beautiful, I think that it is an omnipresent part of being human. It is this that sits at the core of virtually every social theory of importance. Foucault’s panopticon, Austen’s performativity, Derrida’s deconstruction, Scott’s state, Balibar on racism, Althusser’s hailing, Bourdieu’s distinction, Spivak’s subaltern, Said’s orientalism — all deal with the use of power to impose order and predictability on human subjects.

Thus racism, nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, and so on all emerge as ways of trying to force people unlike “us” (whoever the “us” is in a particular situation — I suppose I should include all the anti-isms as well) to be more like us. Whether the means used are rhetorical, financial, political, or military, the bottom line is getting people to accept as “natural” our way of doing things, and to reject ways that differ from ours. Granted, this is often coupled with an equally strong resistive force — the desire to assure that people significantly unlike us remain unlike us, and thus subjugable. This is the unmentioned side-effect of universalism — the more you make a people like you, the less barrier there is to their replacing you. I’d say this is a tension that exists on every scale, from parenting to global politics.

Setting aside global politics, then, let’s return to the GTD fundamentalism of the million monkeys. More and more in the modern world, and I think particularly in the US, the traditional sources of order and meaning are being eroded. The growth of particularly hard-line religion (folks more puritan than the Puritans!) and the latest anti-science backlash (which encompasses not only evolution but global warming, stem-cell research, pharmacology, genetic engineering, and so on) are one aspect of this. But there’s a personal response as well, best represented by the rise of the “opinion” as the Golden Standard of individual rights. Having a right to one’s opinion used to mean they could not like eggplant; nowadays it increasingly means not having a right to challenge racism, corporatism, political fraud, patriotism, etc. Let me give just one example: how many anti-war activists feel entitled to challenge the morality of the choice to be a soldier? I realize this is a complicated issue, although one that is rarely so complicated when we consider, say, the soldiers of the Nazi regime.

Into this rich stew of fear of disorder comes David Allen, whose relatively simple system offers hope for people buried under what he calls “knowledge work”, that nebulous and poorly defined field that more and more of us find ourselves employed in. We don’t stand on an assemblyline and push a set of buttons all day anymore; most of us have jobs that consist largely of making decisions, setting priorities, and moving information. And working late — we work longer hours, on average, than at any time since the 1920s. The system is simple: collect everything, assign each “thing” an action, and do that action. Lather, rinse, repeat. For the rest of your life.

And that’s the key to the response Johnston got from the typing monkeys: for the rest of your life. Allen’s system is not just a method for doing things, it’s a life discipline. It’s not intended to impose order at work, but to impose order on our lives. The same tools that work at the office are meant to work in our personal lives as well (especially as the line between the two is increasingly blurred). In essence, it promises the same thing religious discipline offers: order and meaning. Johnston’s heterodoxy, which took the form of suggesting that maybe the short-term benefits of GTD could be supplemented with Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits”, in this formulation, is like an Evangelical Christian suggesting that maybe they should adopt the principle of papal infallibility, or Muslim halal rules. More than that. though,. it implies that the system that a lot of people are investing their lives into isn’t complete — and that therefore they might have to change. Frightening stuff, apparently, for a number of people, whose response is typical — the way I do things is right, and your failures are a result of not doing things the way I do. It’s exactly what the French and British told their colonial subjects in Africa and the Middle East, what they, and later the US, told (and tell) American Indians, what the Spanish told the South and Central Americans they conquered.

It would be funnier if it weren’t so scary.

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