Friday, May 6, 2011

The Tolle Paradox: How Buzzwords Kill Big Ideas

Whether you love, hate, or don't know Eckhart Tolle, he's an important guy in modern thought. He's been on Oprah's show multiple times (which is really the modern touchstone of influence), his books are bestsellers, and the London-based spirituality group Watkins Review rates him the most spiritually influential person in the world. (Note: The author of this article is largely not convinced of the value of Tolleanism in general, but will not deny his importance.)

You may have heard some of his principles. The two pillars of his work are 1) the rejection of humanity's tendency to live in the past or the present, and 2) the idea of experiencing ideas and objects without categorizing them. That is, experiencing a flower or a day at the beach as an object and a time period, respectively, without assigning them "labels".

You may have even heard "labels" as a negative (which predates Tolle, but has a new meaning in his context)—"don't 'label' this moment," and the like. You probably have heard people ask you to be "present in the moment". Unfortunately, these shortcuts deconstruct the entirety of Tolle's thought. By using labels to describe the act of not using labels, the entire purpose of separating the mind from the self is defeated. The buzzwords kill the idea. The buzzwords become a cudgel by which any number of ideologies are forced upon an audience.

Why is this? I don't have any studies, but let me posit a theory: Buzzwords deconstruct by their nature. Thinking sorts spend months and years on their frameworks, working out exactly what they mean, and running their words through editors and publishing houses and colleagues before releasing them to the public. Their disciples struggle, but eventually work out a practical way to implement their words. Then the work becomes famous, and there arrive on the scene people who want the power of the movement without its substance.

It's easy to learn the jargon of a philosophical movement, then use this new language to identify yourself as sympathetic to the movement itself. One such an intruder overlays his or her own personal philosophy over the jargon of the movement, a weapon of ideology, the buzzword, has been fashioned—it's a funnel by which people can be moved from one school of thought to another without recognizing the shift.

Unfortunately, it's not just something that happens in the ethereal world of new age spirituality. Agile software development is a method for developing applications that has changed the face of coding. The basic principle is this: One builds out fully-formed features of software in small time increments. Every iteration of the process yields a feature for the application that could be brought to market by itself.

Agile, like Tolleanism, is widely accepted and preached, and is mostly harmless. No one would really take issue to focusing on present experience, nor on building software on a marketable piece by marketable piece basis. However, in both cases, powerful rhetoric gets changed into a tool that serves its wielder's interest only. Being asked not to "label" things becomes learning not to talk back to your boss; a "scrum" becomes a sweatshop.

Those burned by the tool-wielders then tend to backlash against Tolle and against Agile, without realizing they've been had by masters of narrative engineering.

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