Offensive? It depends…

2 Dec

“Who is John Galt?”

Reusable tote bags from Lululemon Athletica, a technical athletic apparel retailer, are asking the question originally penned by Ayn Rand for her 1957 novel/Objectivist manifesto Atlas Shrugged.

Huh?

Let’s start with Rand: her Objectivist philosophy declares that “man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life” (Rand, 1962).

In other words, selfishness is good.

As someone who cherishes my time to go running and defends it vigorously from clients, friends and even my husband, I get it. Taking care of myself physically, spiritually, socially and intellectually is inherently selfish. And, I believe, it’s actually good, not only for me, but for those with whom I work, play and live. So at least in this sense, I agree with Rand. And I can see how Lululemon might see a natural connection between its yoga-practicing customers and Rand’s call to self-interest. As Molly Worthen of Slate magazine writes, “The great appeal of yoga is that you are doing something selfish and virtuous at the same time. You are sweating and suffering and honing a ‘watchful mind,’ but also taking a break from your daily burdens and acquiring fantastic-looking abs. And that’s the genius of Ayn Rand: She made egoism the ultimate good” (http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2011/11/ayn_rand_groupies_yoga_enthusiasts_and_the_american_genius_for_self_absorption_.html)

But not all Lululemon-ites agree about Rand’s “genius.” One blog commenter wrote on the company’s site, “I’m fairly shocked to hear that [L]ululemon and [Republican presidential candidate contender] Ron Paul draw their inspiration from the same author.”

The Huffington Post‘s Business section appears to share the sentiment, asking readers, “Would you like a free dose of right-wing philosophy with your $98 yoga pants?… This week, [Lululemon] came under fire for holiday tote bags that promote a Tea Party-esque message taken from Ayn Rand’s controversial novel Atlas Shrugged” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/18/lululemons-ayn-rand-atlas-tea-party-yoga_n_1102048.html).

It would seem, as Worthen observes, that “[t]he average yoga enthusiast seems to have a vague idea that Rand is a darling of the right, Alan Greenspan’s fairy godmother, and a bad lady who would definitely throw your chakras out of balance.” Indeed, the objections I’ve found to Lululemon’s Objectivist branding are not about Rand’s philosophy per se, but consistently and pointedly about the philosophy of her Republican fan base.

How I feel about Rand notwithstanding, this yogi rejection by association of her work strikes me as unfair, very human—and more relatable than I care to admit. How often do I dismiss an idea or perspective because of its source, or rather, what I think about the source? (The answer: daily.)

I cop to the same bias about Tea Party taint that many of Lululemon’s customers have: if it’s approved by the party, then I start with a presumption of irrationality, intolerance or some other objectionability. But what does this close-mindedness cost me?

I’d like to think nothing, other than time wasted on angry, fact-lacking rhetoric—but that’s the bias speaking again. As affirming and enlightening as I find the perspectives of my usual, sympathetic sources, there are limits to what any of us can learn in a homogeneous group (see yesterday’s post). And when I consider what I’ve gained listening to and learning from unlikely sources (for me, this group includes born again Christians, people who oppose or deride diversity and multiculturalism, and yes, far right politicos), it becomes clear that I can’t really afford my intolerance.

Engaging the people, groups and ideologies I have an impulse to dismiss (whether or not I’ve done so by choice) has enriched me personally and professionally, helping me to empathize with different perspectives, clarify my own beliefs and, perhaps most importantly, recognize the difference between a philosophy and the person who subscribes to it.

Who is John Galt?
Well, that depends who you ask.

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