• Why Brené Brown’s Gospel of Vulnerability Fails the World’s Most Vulnerable

    Rafia Zakaria on the CEO Whisperer’s Recent Failure in Addressing the Genocide in Gaza

    “Vulnerability is not weakness, it is our greatest measure of courage.”

    “Stressed is being in the weeds, overwhelmed is being blown.”

    “Disappointment is unmet expectations.”

    These are the sort of catchy aphorisms you will find in the pages of self-help guru and corporate leadership trainer Brené Brown’s most recent book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience. Making emotion palatable within a corporate setting is what has made Brown rich and famous and loved. It is apt therefore that when the New Yorker published a profile of this Texas maven (she uses the term “researcher”) turned virtuosic guru of the corporate universe they titled it Vulnerability Inc. (NOTE: The online version of the article now has a different title but the original print one is noted at the bottom)

    Last week, however, may have revealed the shallowness of Brown’s “vulnerability is courage” themed offerings. On Tuesday, February 13, 2024 Brown penned and published an essay titled “Not Looking Away: Thoughts on the Israel-Hamas War.” Against the title was a picture of a Post-It note, that totem of the corporate cute with one of Brown’s aphorisms “When we look away from the pain of any people, we diminish their humanity and our own.”

    Here then was a grotesque conflict, declared a genocide by the International Court of Justice in the Hague, reduced to the level of conundrum Brown usually deploys in her c-suite life lessons, the annoyances at airports, the unkindnesses at supermarkets, and the inevitable irksome neighborly jabs that are a mainstay of upper middle class American life.  In “Brené-speak” the war is to be understood through the contradictions of her own “thoughts and beliefs” which she lists at the outset. Support for a “peaceful, prosperous, secure and free Israel” and then also “support for a peaceful, prosperous, secure and free Palestine.” As one reads through the essay, a clear hierarchy emerges: Brené herself, her feelings, are the priority—just below that comes Israel, which leaves Palestine at the bottom.

    It is a clever little trick. Brown’s thoughts and opinions take center stage, followed by the Israelis who suffer under “sadistic violence,” victimized by the “unjustifiable” and the “indefensible” Hamas. At the end, the poor also-ran Palestinians whose dead never seem to amount to enough to interrupt the rationalizations of the almost-rich white folk who make up the Brené Brown Industrial Complex. The word genocide is not mentioned even though the International Court of Justice’s ruling has been one of the most widely covered news stories about the war that has emerged in the past month.

    Genocide doesn’t exist in Brené-speak, that very particular mix of corporate mindfulness lingo that renders discomfort into emotive palatability for the busy corporate class (Brené Brown’s clients include Microsoft, IBM, Pixar and Melinda Gates among others). Until now, Brown has sold her “vulnerability is courage” maxim as a central ethical premise whose adoption within the corporate milieu will allow bosses and workers to share in a common humanity. Leadership, she has promised, is still possible while doing this sort of humanity appreciation and the reward, we are to assume, is a softer, kinder (more efficient) corporation.

    The application of Brené-speak to the genocide in Gaza, however, exposes its inherent confabulations. While she has instructed her millions of followers to be vulnerable as individuals within a work setting (even walking Kate Brown the head of Microsoft through a live session) she appears to have forgotten that such choices are only possible for the  privileged few who make up a tiny sliver of the world’s population.

    Brené Brown’s misidentification of vulnerability as a choice exposes the privilege-dependent and white-centric cult of corporate and corporatized humanity that she has built.

    What about the vulnerability of those who do not have a choice in whether their need or weakness is laid bare before the world? Is vulnerability only courage when the head of Microsoft chooses to share what keeps her up at night or is it similarly precious and singularly central when it is the result of the cruelty of a state that has made massacre of civilians its trademark.

    The same day I read Brown’s essay, I was told to look through the hashtag #wardays on Tik Tok. It is instructive watching, all content produced by the youth of Israel: smug convoys of cars blocking aid shipments, the use of fruit as stand-ins for dead Palestinian children, wasting water as a way of showing-off how much of it they have against the thirst of Gazans, IDF soldiers making meals from food leftover in the kitchens of Gazans who have fled and face famine. The liberal Israeli Ha’aretz has published a piece about this in yes, their Lifestyle Section. This is dehumanization central.

    Brené Brown’s misidentification of vulnerability as a choice exposes the privilege-dependent and white-centric cult of corporate and corporatized humanity that she has built. True to the hyper-individualist cult of capitalism, this handmaiden to CEOs centers the self (herself), then the identities of her most lucrative sponsors, and, finally, the vulnerable themselves. Not only is this hierarchy apparent in the essay in question, with its deprioritization of Palestinian deaths, but it suffuses Brown’s corporate “philosophy,” manifesting in her popular—and profitable—workshops and classes.

    In one classroom workshop, described in the New Yorker article, Brown gets students to pair up and be vulnerable in different ways. We then learn that the students are from all over the world, a myriad of races and identities (including white). But there is never any mention of the power relations between the pairs… The fact that expressions of vulnerability bear different weight depending on who expresses them, the white former quarterback of his football team versus the brown, Muslim female, for example. We experience this blindness because it is repeated in the Israel essay; readers must identify with Brené Brown’s anguish because as a wise white woman who sells her words to corporations, her vulnerability is the most valuable player of the text.

    Corporate trainers themselves were shocked to see how easily  Brown’s consumer-friendly, pseudo morality failed when the need for compassion and humanity went beyond dealing with a bitchy boss or a sarcastic employee. As Animah Kosai, co-founder of “Speaking Up Network” wrote in a post on Linkedin: “I’m guessing Brown is surrounded by people who look like her. Not people from the Global Majority from whom she can learn, and especially not Muslims. Shall I give her books away to Oxfam? I feel sick just looking at Atlas of the Heart. Because it’s obvious her heart is not with people of the Global Majority.” Others like Anita Phagura of “Inclusion in Construction” underscored in a private post how this was not just about Brené Brown but rather “how white women have failed to show up in a meaningful way or in any way again.”

    The issue of a conflict declared a genocide by the International Court of Justice should not be such a test of Brené Brown’s or any human’s empathy. Most of her followers who look exactly like her and who are busy “daring to lead” (a title of one her bestselling books) will see nothing wrong with what she has written. To them, expressing their worry and consternation to work colleagues or to inattentive husbands, who are all in Brené-speak “doing the best they can,” is as much of a stretch of empathy as they can manage. Asking them to think of Gazans first, because it is by and large bombs from the United States that are slaughtering thousands of children, is the “too much” that can make a catchy-tough-love marketing plan too moral and thus a failure.

    In Brené Brown’s worldview, compassion is generated by a shared belief that everyone is “doing the best they can.” The rude cashier, the unaccommodating flight attendant, are all “doing the best that they can.” It is cute this idea and even workable, but it is a prescription best suited to those who are by and large untouched by systemic injustice. It tells us to think that the white cop nailing brown bodies to the pavement is just doing his best—in doing so it furthers the fraud that all our vulnerability is equally valued.

    It is too bad then that the Queen of corporate-friendly aphorisms doesn’t understand that those who need the world to change, or perhaps those who must passively bear the complete evisceration of their lives, their families, their homes must be allowed to say to the Brené Browns, to the world, “do better.” Because right now, they most certainly are not “doing the best they can.”

    Rafia Zakaria
    Rafia Zakaria
    Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015), which was named one of Newsweek’s Top 10 non-fiction books of 2015. She is a regular columnist for Dawn Pakistan and writes the "Reading Other Women" Series at The Boston Review. Her work has appeared in Guardian Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, Dissent, Guernica and various other venues. Her next book Veil will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

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