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One Reason the World Seems So Troubled

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The shrewd parts of my brain can’t help but admire Planet Fitness’s business model. It’s a gym made for people who don’t like gyms and don’t want to go to them, which must be a huge slice of the market for gym memberships.

More specifically, they market to people who are afraid of the gym — people who dreaded gym class and dread commercial gyms, but still want to be fitter and healthier.

Helping this segment of the population get fit, if that’s their intent, is a noble and honest goal. I remember how intimidating it was to go at first. I pictured muscle dudes and fitness models rolling their eyes as I huffed and puffed after ninety seconds on the NordicTrack, and struggled to unrack a fifteen-pound dumbbell. I assumed I’d have to bear the pitying gaze of gym regulars for a good six months before I was fit enough to be accepted, or at least ignored.

That’s not what it was like, of course. By the third time you go to a gym, you’ve surely noticed that nobody cares what you do unless you’re about to hurt someone, and that most people there are fellow amateurs. There are a few bodybuilder dudes and career fitness people, and they’re just there to do their routines and go home. Everyone is listening to earbuds and looking at their phones anyway.

Just here for the gainz

What that dreaded first trip to the gym is not, as everyone discovers, is a replay of your worst high school gym class memories — of being glared at by whispering cheerleaders or towel-snapped by hairy jocks. There’s no mean gym teacher punishing you with extra laps and calling you a pansy.

Planet Fitness is no different in this respect, but it’s as though they want you to think your high school nightmares are a reality everywhere else.

How to create a monster

When you first walk in to a Planet Fitness, it seems normal at first. The staff are genuinely friendly. Their uniforms —- slacks and a golf shirt, like salespeople at Best Buy — seem designed specifically not to give the impression that they are “gym people.”

It quickly gets weird. The first thing you notice is a conspicuous amount of “positive” messaging. The phrase “JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE” dominates the back wall, in twenty-four-inch lettering. “YOU BELONG HERE”, assures the wall to the right, while placards indicate what not to wear (string tank tops, do-rags) in order to maintain the “no gymtimidation” environment. Posters mock the musclebound with bizarre insults — “Not allowed to hold babies for fear you might crush them? This ain’t your gym.”

Marketing team in action

The commitment to non-judgement is so overstated that the whole place feels Orwellian. Beneath the slogans on the back wall is a beacon light, like the type on a 1980s police cruiser, labeled “Lunk Alarm.” Below, it explains:

Lunk [lunk] n. [slang]: one who grunts, drops weights or judges.

Ricky is slamming his weights, wearing a body building tank top and drinking out of a gallon water jug… what a lunk!

I never saw it in my short stint as a member, but apparently staff do actually set off this alarm, presumably in order to turn all eyes to a patron who is being decidedly too bodybuilderish in the gym, thus preserving the judgement-free zone.

Only Planet Fitness can say for sure, but it seems as though their messaging is designed to reinforce, rather than help people overcome, a pernicious fitness myth: that at a typical gym you will be rejected and humiliated. The ridiculous picture they paint, of a muscley dude-bro named Ricky grunting and drinking steroid juice out of a milk jug while he laughs at your girly lunges — that’s what we call a boogeyman.

Inspired by True Events

A boogeyman is a threatening portrayal of a person or thing, created on purpose, to drive people away from something: a business or an industry, a political opinion, a behavior. The hope is that the image is so off-putting that you won’t look closely enough to realize it’s a caricature.

Boogeymen work because they’re built from legitimate fears. There are mean jocks, vicious cheerleaders, and mortifying locker room moments, as each of us knows. These threats are real, which means if they aren’t happening right here in front of you, they’re lurking offscreen somewhere.

The problem is that “offscreen” is a pretty large territory. The whole world resides offscreen, in fact, except for the miniscule part you’re experiencing right here and now.

Lurking just offscreen

None of us really knows what the world at large is like, because it’s far too big and complex, but we do have worldviews, which are personalized collections of thoughts and ideas about what the world is like. Those thoughts and ideas might seem reliable to you, because they’re yours. But they’re so susceptible to manipulation and error that the best we can say about them is that they’re “Inspired by True Events.” Your sense of “the way things are” is like a Hollywood horror movie, wherein a few disparate but memorable facts and images get connected, by large spans of inference and fiction, into an effective and satisfying story. A shrewd boogeymonger, by contriving a story of the world in which the things you fear most are prominent and growing, can motivate you to serve their private goals, which are probably to click, condemn, or praise whatever it is they want clicked, condemned, or praised.

Boogeymongering has limitless rhetorical power because limitless anxiety can be generated from a small seed of any significantly intense fear, regardless of how often it actually materializes in your direct experience. It’s an ancient art, but it’s easier than ever today, now that our lives are increasingly spent not directly experiencing the world itself, but instead browsing monetized depictions of the world on electronic devices.

Snakes are real, but most of them are sticks

The human mind tends to fill in the blanks with bad things. This is negativity bias, which helped keep our ancestors alive. It did so by having us mistake sticks for snakes, for example, to make sure that on those rare occasions when it’s a real snake, we don’t think it’s a stick.

Thus we inherited a mind tuned for false positives. The human mind sees a dark room and habitually populates it with monsters, barely aware that it doesn’t actually know what’s there — that the darkness is the not-seeing, the not-knowing.

Do not approach

So how do know when you’re being fooled? You don’t, at least not directly, because the boogeymen we believe in seem real — at least as real as Pluto or Antarctica or any other offscreen phenomena. But there are clues to be noticed when boogeying is afoot.

We can start by assuming that any news, activism, or political speech, right or wrong, is freely employing boogeymen. To be in the rhetoric business and not bother with boogeymen would be like a chef not bothering with a stove. The boogeyman is such a natural and effective tool that we use it intuitively, and even inadvertently. Once one of them makes it into in your worldview, he’s in your world, as far as you can tell.

Boogeying probably afoot

A second reasonable assumption: if you have a completely partisan take on a contentious issue — as in, you do not believe there are any oversights in your side’s argument, no tradeoffs or complexities that might lead a decent person to a different stance — then you have probably been boogeymanned into those feelings to some extent. The boogeyman is a simple monster. Pure badness, pure wrongness. His job is to hide moral complexity, which allows his believers to feel the kind of moral certitude needed to hate, dismiss, and want to punish other people. A good boogeyman can even bait you into hating people just for seeming ambivalent about the issue in question, because those people must not recognize pure evil when they see it.

(To make things worse, there is also reverse-boogeymongering, which is the attempt to minimize a legitimate concern by explicitly calling it a boogeyman. The use of the word alone is reason enough to look closer. If an invested party is telling you “there’s nothing to see here,” that’s a pretty reliable indicator that there is perhaps something to see there.)

In a sea of fools, no one’s an island

Theoretically, it’s possible that you are somehow perfectly appraising a given threat in the world, in all its complexities, whether it’s that of neo-Marxists, neo-Nazis, pedophilia rings, transphobes, gun people, anti-gun people, critical theory, food additives, covid, incels, botulism, vaccination enthusiasts, vaccination critics, Chinese spyware, baseball caps being worn indoors, or the retrograde motion of the planet Mercury. This scenario seems unlikely though, when you consider how often you witness people around you clearly getting important things wrong, by oversimplifying them, falling for headline bait, or making false equivocations. Unless part of your worldview is that you are a truly exceptional member of the species, above the self-delusion that so clearly afflicts everyone else, you can’t responsibly take for granted that you have things basically right.

Possibly has it in for you

So yeah, it’s hard to evaluate your own worldview, because being wrong feels exactly like being right. A certain uncomfortable agnosticism seems to be the most logical position, but it’s hard to sit in the dark like that, knowing that you don’t know. One thing we can believe with confidence is that our minds are highly susceptible to the story of the simple, morally uncomplicated monster.

…And also that the internet makes all this so much worse. Social media allows virtually anyone to find a lurid example of the thing you fear most — real, fabricated, or some combination — put it in front of you, and say “See!? Your fears are true!” Your snake-making brain will do the rest.

The word “boogeyman” makes these monsters sound slow and dopey and easy to spot. Ricky the steroid jock is a particularly transparent one, because of Planet Fitness’s over-the-top rhetoric. That’s probably unusual. I suspect that most of the time, they look exactly like the world as we know it.

***

Photos by MGM, Milan Csizmadia, Freestocks, Tandem X, Mockup Graphics, Presidencia de la Nación Argentina, and NASA

{ 23 Comments }

yamikuronue November 24, 2022 at 10:38 pm

I really like the writings of Fred Clark on evangelical christianity — he makes much the same points, but under the heading of “satanic baby-killers”. Because of course, there ARE no substantial amounts of people out there killing babies for Satan — but everyone would have you think they’re EVERYWHERE, and you have to be vigilant at all times.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 9:36 am

The satanic panic of the 1980s is one of the best examples of this monster-making. It was such a horrifying image that people couldn’t help but take it seriously, but there was nothing behind it. Same with the “superpredator” concept a decade later.

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Daniel Nogueira November 25, 2022 at 3:34 am

Being Plant based for 5 years, I can say for the first 2-3 years of my veganism journey I was completely involved by this boogeyman and can completely relate to a lot of that. I would have a completely sense of the whole world is missing something and they need to wake up, almost if vegans knew something other people don’t. While Im still vegan and still believe in the ethos and that planet based diet could solve a lot of world problems, I am much more acceptable that this is a personal choice to believe in the ethos in the same way a hunter that hunts his own meat has a strong believe in the ethos in the thing he is doing and there is no really way to tell that my ethos is better than his. And you are spot on on the gym – every time we start something we tend to thing most people there are pros(a pool, a yoga class, etc) but in fact in must cases most people are also beginners and they also dont care about you or if they do, they are happy you are there too

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 9:48 am

I remember this when I was a vegan. Initially I had that sort of moral certitude, and then I started to realize that vegan/non-vegan is just one of many moral lines in the sand a person could draw, and I wasn’t on the “best” side of all of them.

The Planet Fitness thing is an easy way to exploit one of our greatest fears, which is rejection or non-belonging. We all know how intimidating it is to go into a new environment where there’s a risk of humiliation, even though it doesn’t usually turn out that way. Unfortunately they want to reify this fear instead of of helping people see through it.

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KK November 25, 2022 at 4:18 am

The Planet Fitness example is really interesting one – I think there’s another problem there. When something gets banned (even if it’s a bad thing, like in ‘no judgement zone’), the insecure mind will anticipate hidden motifs in all the people it encounters there. Like in “of course they are still judging me, but they can’t show it!” mode. It goes hand in hand with the snake analogy. In this case the problem of gym fear can get even bigger, because now you don’t know what’s really happening. Paradoxically, while other gyms still seem ‘unsafe’ and terrifying, the one which should be a safe harbour becomes quite inauthentic because of all the dos and donts.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 9:52 am

Right. Overstating the prevalence of “judgement” makes it bigger in people’s minds, even in places where you’re supposedly safe from it. I also think that having a lot of rules tends to make people more judgmental of each other, because there are more sins to commit.

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CARLA November 25, 2022 at 8:06 am

Questioning our boogiemen is something lots of people aren’t willing to do. It’s hard. We get an inner rush from that feeling of satisfaction in knowing what we know what’s true I guess. Not being sure, is it a snake or a stick, feels so unsafe. We humans make the choice, the decision in what to believe and stick (pardon the pun) to it like it will kill us to reconsider.
I’ve struggled all my life to like exercise due to the gym class ptsd…and Planet Fitness never appealed to me because of the Orwellian nature of it. I always thought it was just me…I appreciate hearing your view on it. I do have a supportive friend I workout with…we “make” each other do it because it is good for us! LOL
I love that you wrote on this topic. Great essay. Well done.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 9:56 am

That rush is definitely a factor and I want to write about it in a separate post. Some part of us is *attracted* to the conclusion that things are bad and dangerous and awful. I have some friends who are very much convinced that the world is ending, or that we live in the most racist society of all time, and they really aren’t interested in any evidence to the contrary — it’s like some part of them wants it to be true. I’m sure I have my own “pet” grievances that I am attracted to in that weird way.

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Pam November 25, 2022 at 8:49 am

I think this is my favorite essay you’ve published!
It’s causing me to question: who is profiting from my fear?

And you’re also correct when you say the opposite happens. There’s also profit to be made from downplaying an actual threat.

Maybe the biggest lie of all is that any of us can be certain we know the truth about everything. It would be nice to be so certain. Like being eternally 18 years old :D But life is so much more complicated than that.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 9:57 am

I think you’re right that the hardest thing to accept is how little we know. We want to organize the unknown in our minds, even if it means assuming the worst. It’s like we fear the darkness more than the evil that might be lurking in it.

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Ginzo November 25, 2022 at 8:53 am

Great presentation with some semi-bitter humor. Actually this feeds into Existentialism….there’s no way you can actually understand my worldview and I can’t really understand your worldview. We are forever separated. But we all swim in the same river….an unsolvable paradox. Ain’t Life great.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 10:02 am

That is undoubtedly true but we do still seem to be able to find little overlaps in worldview, and these moments seem very meaningful to us. When you read a book, and the author describes something in a way that that makes you feel understood.

There’s a dark side to that though, because that overlap in worldview can be something fallacious, like a false conspiracy belief. The sense of shared understanding can make it really hard to get out of those beliefs, because you have to give up that sense of connection to others.

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Réjean Lévesque November 25, 2022 at 10:01 am

I guess that the solution to this kind of oversimplification, positive or negative, is education, that is, always keep searching for the truth.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 10:05 am

I think partly, but an essential part is also letting go of the need for certainty, because we seldom have it. Education doesn’t always enlighten us, because it can just as easily point us to false conclusions, and there’s more of a danger of that if certainty is regarded as necessary.

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rob November 25, 2022 at 12:42 pm

Hi David. I appreciate that you chose Planet Fitness as a very mild example. But when someone consistently paints a group of people as a boogeyman to the point that their followers are going out and killing the supposed boogeyman, shouldn’t we all be able to agree that is wrong? One political party is an expert at this and it is terrifying to excuse it as totally acceptable or to ignore it because of ‘uncertainty’ and to allow it to continue. That’s why the world seems troubled to me. Because we are allowing whole media networks to create boogeymen out of and promote violence towards our fellow citizens. Should I be shrugging that off? I’ve always thought Planet Fitness was disgusting for the way they claim a ‘no judgement zone’ that is wholly based on judging other people. So sure, I get your point that sometimes you could be wrong, and I have been on some things, but sometimes the boogeyman is real. And the ones who give him the benefit of the doubt are complicit in his terror. Basically, there has to be a line somewhere on this that we can all agree upon. Or should we just say oh morals are arbitrary and free speech is too important and let lives (and potentially more) continue to be lost? I am a bit troubled by all of this and these are serious questions.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 3:13 pm

This is such an interesting comment because from reading it I don’t know which party you’re referring to. (I do assume you’re talking about US political parties?) Your remark about morality being non-relative sounds like a common right-side talking point, and the discounting of the importance free speech sounds like a common left-side point, so I honestly don’t know for sure. Either way it sounds as though you are taking for granted that your side has it basically right and everyone knows the other side is horrible.

My point is that this sort of partisanship is a drastic oversimplification that just makes things worse. As a Canadian trying to be nonpartisan I see members of both US political parties engaging in wanton mischaracterizations of the other side. I think it’s a mistake to believe either “side” as a whole can be deemed guilty of the worst offenses committed by other people on that side. That’s making a mockery of the whole idea of properly attributing blame, which is supposed to be the point, right?. When you implicate a hundred million people for the latest atrocity or scandal, you’re making all of them feel more justified in opposing *everything your side says and does,* because they’re being blamed for things they know they didn’t do. It’s lose-lose.

There’s no doubt that there are horrible crimes taking place in the world, and that has always been true. But it really matters which individuals perpetrated them and exactly why. To attribute those evils to half the country is a classic media boogeyman approach. It’s a great way of getting massive clicks and views, and a terrible way of achieving anything resembling justice. Both wings of the media do this. Don’t fall for it.

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Dennis November 27, 2022 at 6:11 pm

Standing. Clapping.

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kiwano November 25, 2022 at 2:38 pm

Reading this had me thinking of a sort of flipside to it that I kinda realized has become a go-to heuristic for me when I’m trying to guess what might be going on off-screen: trying to come up with the most boring explanation I can think of. It’s almost alarming how accurate it is for the cases where some other information comes, telling me what was happening off-screen.

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kiwano November 25, 2022 at 2:52 pm

As a couple of examples of really boring things that happened off-screen and sound like they might be scandalous (or at least exciting) — though not ones that I necessarily made guesses on:

Not long after the wikileaks cables were published, I was reading a blog post by a sex worker who’d decided to search the cables for any mention of sex work, and decided to follow the links that she found. There weren’t very many, and were basically reports from intelligence agents/officers that had been doing some due diligence on a few treaties, and were confirming that the counterparties on those treaties were indeed carrying out their obligations.

When there was a great big scandal about climate researchers telling presenters to one of the COP conferences what to say to the policymakers in attendance, I read through a bunch of the hacked-and-leaked emails. The presenters in question were grad students, the researchers were thesis advisors, and “telling them what to say” amounted to reminding them that an audience of policymakers won’t care about (or even understand) measurement techniques, statistical methods, etc., and that their presentation should stick to the details that are relevant to policy (i.e. conclusions), and be even less detailed than an abstract.

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David Cain November 25, 2022 at 3:18 pm

Ha! Excellent approach. Similar to Hanlon’s razor: “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

It’s also a great starting point because the media undoubtedly wants to sell the most salacious and clickable explanation they can credibly sell, and quite often the evidence subsequently brings the story back to earth, after the buzz has passed and many people have already internalized the salacious explanation. Starting at the other end, where the hypothesis works but is boring, and evidence may draw you slowly to more interesting explanations, you break free of the pull of salaciousness in your appraisal of a situation.

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Vilx- November 26, 2022 at 4:14 pm

Ha! This reminds me of an epiphany that I myself had sometime in the middle of the pandemic.

The first vaccines were coming out and suddenly a whole lot of people – even those who up until now had no issues with other vaccines – started denouncing them as bad and doing more harm than good, and money laundering, and everything inbetween. It polarized the society a lot. And the funny thing is – BOTH sides were calling others as “closed minded” and “lacking of critical thinking”.

What I realized back then was – nobody was really closed minded or lacked critical thinking. Heck, everyone was as critical as f… can be. Perhaps even too much. No, logic wasn’t lacking anywhere. The difference lay in each side’s sources of information, or in other words – whom they trusted.

And this is a really profound problem – how DO you get trustworthy information? How DO you decide whom to trust, and about what?

One way, of course, would be to trust no one and verify everything yourself. But this often isn’t practical. You can’t run a phase 3 clinical trial all by yourself. You can’t repeat all the experiments that led to the current understanding of quantum mechanics. If scientists insisted on each building their entire knowledge base from scratch, they would spend most of their lives just walking down the same paths that their predecessors did before them, not adding anything new until maybe the very end of their twilight years, if they’re lucky. You have to trust SOMEONE.

But who? Personal experiences are true and visceral – but they mostly cannot be generalized to the entire population. Even learned men can make mistakes and hold false beliefs. Authorities can (and often do) lie to the population. Celebrities can be more interested in increasing their own popularity rather than spreading the truth (and how would they know the truth outside their own area of expertise anyway?) Scientists sometimes fake results for money. Etc.

I don’t really have a good answer to this. I see that we, as a society, are slowly starting to tackle this issue – the “fact check” additions in social media are one attempt at a small step in the direction of a solution. But only time will tell.

I’m interested in what other ideas people have on how to solve (or at least improve) the problem of “finding a trustworthy source”.

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David Cain November 27, 2022 at 4:14 pm

One simple first step is to consult a lot of sources, particularly ones affiliated with a variety of points on the political spectrum, because politics is probably the most distortive influence on what is claimed to be true.

It also helps to become aware of common cognitive biases to get a sense of how we might be getting led astray.

I think mostly it’s a matter of recognizing two things: how emotionally invested we are in our favored story of the way things are, and how uncommon it is to really know something for sure. We want our story to be recognized to be true more than we want to actually know what’s true.

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Richard Ells November 28, 2022 at 6:22 pm

Thanks David. I so appreciate you. You are terrific. Anthony Fauci=boogeyman. He seemed kinda small to be the head of a worldwide conspiracy but, Napoleon

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