Disclosure: Garnett Genuis MP is the Conservative Member of Parliament for the riding of Sherwood Park – Fort Saskatchewan.
I find the story of Joshua Harris intriguing. In 1997 a young man in his early 20s wrote a popular book on dating called “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”. In particular, he made an argument about the kinds of practices before marriage (forms of dating or courtship) which best establish the conditions for a successful marriage. The book sold more than one million copies and had a significant impact on individual cultural and religious communities. This book made him famous.
Harris has been in the news lately because he recently announced that he and his wife have decided to separate. This comes after he has spoken out, explicitly repudiating many things about his book.
Harris’s particular thesis about dating and marriage is not really central to what I find interesting about this whole story. What interests me is the fact that Harris wrote a book that advanced a particular thesis, and yet he transparently had no experience to inform his position at the time.
He had no experience of marriage or of the process of the kind of relationship which leads to marriage. His book uses first principles and argument, as opposed to interviews and other forms of research, to defend its thesis.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to apply first principles to a subject, but one is more likely to make errors in the application of first principles if one has no other experience in their practical application.
The ignorance of this author of his chosen subject was transparent – he did not have to pretend to be an old married man or a trained clinical psychologist in order to become a popular authority. Why would so many people buy and read a book written by a young single man about the practices that lead one to have a successful marriage?
There may have even been a sense in which Harris writing as a young single man had a particular cache. He wasn’t stale – he was living through the age where people usually date, but choosing to challenge norms of dating through his book. That certainly adds to the interest factor, although being interesting and being right are often two very different things.
I recall picking up Harris’s book when I was an impressionable fourteen-year-old. I found his arguments persuasive at the time of reading (although their impact wore off after a few months). Strangely, it did not occur to me at the time to research the background of the author in order to determine if he had any knowledge of the things he was talking about.
I wonder, in retrospect, why that piece of the puzzle did not strike me as important. Apparently, for me and for so many others, the quality of the argument and the quality of the marketing mattered more than the supporting evidence and the experience that informed the advice.
The cultural experience with Joshua Harris and his book raise important questions about who we listen to and why. Harris spoke primarily to evangelical Christians, although listening to those who lack direct experience on the subjects they talk about is not just a problem in one community.
A few years ago, I watched some episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker, a reality TV show about a single woman in California who runs an exclusive matchmaking service for millionaire men. She offers a lot of relationship advice along the way.
I see a lot written these days on all sides about dating and relationships, coming from people who are sharing their own imminent experiences and drawing immediate conclusions from them, which they turn into advice. I see much less being written online by people looking back on experiences which they can say, with the benefit of real hindsight, definitely did or did not lead to success and happiness.
This may be, I suppose, because people who have been married for a very long time, or even people like me who have been married for a relatively short time (8 years), have generally lost interest in having or sharing opinions about dating.
We are too busy having and sharing opinions about raising children, because that’s what we’re in the middle of right now. Perhaps we naturally share opinions about things we are in the middle of, instead of about things that were important to us in the past – even if we probably have more to say about things past than we do about things present.
Regardless, the realities of social media, blogging, and relatively barrier-free publishing make it so much easier for thousands of budding Joshua Harrises to come out of the woodwork and be heard.
Joshua Harris has been speaking out more recently about his journey to reconsider his convictions. He will, I do not doubt, become even more famous now through his public journeying and apologizing. Perhaps he will make the same mistake again, by advancing a new thesis based on conjecture rather than based on evidence and experience.
Either way, if Mr. Harris plans to write another wildly successful book, I hope he won’t mind an impudent suggestion from someone who has absolutely no experience writing best-selling books.
I would suggest that he conduct a series of interviews with elderly people who have been happily married for decades, and ask them to share about their experience and views on dating. I would like to think that “I Asked Old People About Dating” would sell as well as “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”.