Personal Development

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

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