In Defense of Minimalism: Some Responses to Criticism

felted crocheted hearts

Author’s note: I wrote this post about a year ago, but never published it because I couldn’t wrap it up tidily with a neat conclusion. Buuuut considering the sudden and recent renewed interest in decluttering thanks to Netflix’s new Tidying Up series, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as it is. Let me know what you think!

I’ve been coming across a bit of criticism of minimalism lately.

I’ve written a fair amount on the subject in the past, so I always perk up when I hear it mentioned.

And almost every time I hear it criticized, one of the first thoughts I have is, “That’s not my understanding of minimalism.”

So I thought I’d take a look at some of these critiques and offer some counterpoints.

But first off, a definition and some clarifications.

“Minimalism” can be used to define a certain kind of aesthetic as well as a lifestyle. They do not necessarily overlap.

Minimalism as an aesthetic is generally recognized by pared down design elements. Most people conjure up mental images of monochromatic colour schemes, clean lines, bare walls, and a perfectly-matching “capsule wardrobe.” Lots of neutral colours, white paint, and sparse decor. Simplicity.

Minimalism as a lifestyle (at least as far I understand it) means intentionally choosing to own fewer possessions. It means paring down to what is essential in life, and getting rid of excess. It’s about letting go of whatever isn’t serving you. This can look different ways for different people.

Like I said, I don’t think these two forms of minimalism necessarily go hand-in-hand. I think you can practice minimalism while still adorning your house and body with lots of colour and flourish.

I don’t have much to say about minimalism as an aesthetic. Some people find it boring. Some people find it calming and refreshing. My response is, That’s totally subjective, and You do you. I like certain things about it, but you definitely wouldn’t walk into my house and immediately say, “Ahhh — you guys are minimalists!”

I’ve written before about what I think are the merits of a minimalist lifestyle, so I won’t go much into it here. In short, I think minimalism can bring freedom, and is generally good for our (mental, physical, and spiritual) health, as well as the planet.

Below are a couple of critiques I’ve recently heard regarding minimalism, and some of my thoughts on them.

October leaves

“Minimalists think they’re better than everyone else.”

I found this complaint in an article entitled, “Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy.” The author writes,

There are a million variations [of minimalism] – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

She later elaborates,

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of ‘mindless consumerism’… This spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that ‘whatever’ is literally ‘having less shit.’

Okay. So: do minimalists think they’re morally superior? Well, sure, some of them probably do. Maybe even lots of them. But isn’t every subculture susceptible to this kind of snobbery? Even ones that are supposedly based in humility, like Christianity? I’ve heard people complain about the same kind of thing from vegans, democrats, globetrotters, health/fitness fanatics, academics, and artists.

And they’re probably right — to a degree. It’s a problem you’ll find within just about any group, whether it’s centered around a certain philosophy, career path, political affiliation, lifestyle, or religion. We choose these paths because we think they have merit. We think they’re good. And within any subculture, some people are going to be snobs about it.

You can be pretentious about your lifestyle choices or you can be humble about them, whatever they may be.

I’ve heard people be smug and moralistic about their literary tastes. I’ve heard people humblebrag about where they choose to live (i.e. rural vs urban setting). I’ve heard them speak paternalistically about how they spend their money (“Ahem… We value experiences over things”). I’ve even heard people argue haughtily about whose income is further below the poverty line.

I’ve also known some truly humble minimalists, who just don’t want to be caught up in materialism, and are using minimalist principles to make ends meet.

There’s nothing inherently pompous about choosing minimalism — no more than anything else.

And have I ever been douchey about minimalism? Yeah… probably. Sorry about that. I’m a human, and was born desperate for love and validation. I’m trying to do better.

felted wool bowl

“Minimalism is just for rich people.”

I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately. In the article I quoted above, the author argues that “the only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.” In other words, poor people don’t have the freedom to choose minimalism. They already don’t have enough. Therefore minimalism is only for the privileged.

She further points out that

Being minimalist in this way […] really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe.”

She concludes that “Minimalism is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!’”

There is definitely some merit to this argument.

Yes, minimalism requires a certain amount of privilege. Truly impoverished and marginalized people don’t have to resources or social capital to “konmari” their homes.

As this article, entitled “The Problem with Minimalism,” explains: “Minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions. “

These are great points.

But you don’t have to be wealthy to choose to pare down your possessions or to choose to live with less than your neighbours.

You don’t have to buy one pair of $200 jeans so you can turn up your nose at the rest.

You can totally be a minimalist who shops at thrift stores.

In fact, I’ve found that minimalism has made it easier to live on a budget.

And part of the reason I know this is because I’ve heard so many lower-middle-income people say that minimalism has actually helped them live on a budget. Striving to own fewer possessions makes it easier to get by on less.

My own family lives on an income below the poverty line, and minimalism helps make that possible.

It’s partly because I don’t have a huge wardrobe, or buy the kids a ton of toys, or own a lot of electronic devices, that we can afford to survive on one small income.

tulips

“Minimalism isn’t Christian because it’s focused on the self.”

I heard this criticism come up on a podcast that I actually really love, called The Upside Down Podcast. The hosts attempt to differentiate between minimalism and “downward mobility.” “Downward mobility,” they argue, is a lifestyle choice focused on the well-being of others. Minimalism, by contrast, is just about improving your own life and your own well-being, so it’s not inherently Christian.

However, I think this contrast is based on a false dichotomy between helping yourself and helping others. I don’t think these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, helping yourself is also good for the people around you.

Choosing minimalism for your own benefit is not like greed, wherein your help yourself at the expense of someone else.

I think practicing minimalism can be mutually beneficial, to you and the people around you. Of course, minimalism is not automatically or inherently helpful to the people around you; but I think if done well and with the right spirit, it can benefit others beyond yourself.

If you pare down your possessions to the things you actually need and use, you can give the excess to people who could make use of those things. Instead of hanging onto things that will just gather dust in your basement, you can share them with people who might actually use and appreciate them.

Less clutter in your own life can also bring you more peace, time and energy, that you can then share with others.

So do I think minimalism inherently Christian? Well, no, of course not. You can be a minimalist and a totally self-centered douchecanoe. And you can totally be a Christian without practicing minimalism.

But greed, by contrast, definitely is NOT Christian, and I think minimalism can be a very useful tool to fight against greed.

Some of the central tenets of Jesus’ message include generosity, sacrifice, sharing, and equity. His gospel is about lowering yourself and lifting others up.

I personally think minimalism aligns with that message, if it is done with a spirit of generosity and love.

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So these are just a few of my thoughts when it comes to criticism of minimalism.

What do you think?

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Comments

  1. Kathleen, What an enjoyable post about what I truly believe is one of your favorite topics. While I can agree with much of what you say about minimalism and the people that practice its tenets, there are quite a few people who seem to thrive at the idea of being superior because they have less. They might even be thought to enjoy looking down their noses at others who enjoy having more. To me, it’s an acquired taste, sort of like red wine. Your first experience with it is bitter but the more of it you experience the more you enjoy it’s finer points. To be a true minimalist, I believe, you must have experienced abundance to some degree to make the conscious decision to live with less. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in moral high ground taking. Few of us are born with the ability to want less instead of more. Again, it’s an acquired taste to be able to appreciate the bitter pleasure of a fine dry wine instead of the sugary sweetness of a fruity white. So raise your glass and drink up, it’s all good!

    • Ooh, I like the metaphor! Yes, we humans are definitely naturally inclined to want to hang onto everything we can, and it takes a certain amount of privilege, education, and self-examination to learn to appreciate letting go. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Melissa H-K says:

    Wow, that is fascinating! I’m going to have to chew on this in my head for a while. Thanks for the thought-fodder!

  3. I love this! I like that you show the grain of truth in each of the statements (and, real talk, I’ve started chafing pretty badly at the upper-middle-class focus of many minimalism blogs), but push back against people’s attempts to dismiss the entire movement just because of some not-quite-true concerns. Thanks for posting!

  4. Thank you for this. I used to be passionate about minimalism. Since having my youngest with all of her needs I have not made it priority. Life is about connivence and making things easy on me and not saving money or living simple. But, it’s something I would like to reconnect with and not out of guilt but because it feels truer to my goals and how I want to live my life.
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  5. After initially having a giggle-fest on Instagram over the term “douchecanoe,” I have been thinking a lot about an actual proper response to this post, because I’m so glad you decided to share it with us – tidy ending or not (ha! tidy ending – get it?!). And here’s the crux of my thoughts around criticism to minimalists: I really do think that even though minimalism as an aesthetic and as a lifestyle are different things, they get all jumbled up together and then it gets messy (ironic, ha).

    We live in a highly visual world, of HGTV and Instagram and the like, where we’re constantly flooded with images of what things look like, and what things *should* look like. And in this highly-visual world, minimalism as a lifestyle gets wrapped up in minimalism as an aesthetic. Because strictly speaking, minimalism as an aesthetic is a better visual, regardless of how minimalist it may be. It’s not because a minimalist aesthetic is the better – or only – way of being minimalist (and certainly you could have a minimalist aesthetic and not actually be minimalist!); but simply because the minimalist aesthetic serves the visual requirements of the photo-rich world we live in to convey minimalism as a whole. But the problem with that is then minimalism as a lifestyle gets disorted as something it isn’t necessarily.

    Take me and a good friend of mine, as example. We’re both minimalists, but she also has a minimalist aesthetic (which, I freely admit, I do love. Also, *cough*, she also has a lot of money). When I open my tidy and decluttered kitchen cabinets and take a look at our coffee mugs, they’re a visual mess (various colors, patterns, words, shapes, and sizes). But, truly, each and every one of those mugs – with their funny graphics and different designs – brings me joy. Some are for coffee, others are for tea, and one of my favorite practices is choosing which mug I want to drink out of each day. But visually, my shelf of mugs isn’t all that inspired or engaging. My friend’s shelf though, wow! She has open shelving in her kitchen, and her collection of eight all-white, simple mugs line one of those shelves. When I see those all-white mugs, I sometimes have that nagging feeling that she’s “doing” minimalism “better” than I am. It’s not true, of course, but her mugs absolutely convey the visual story of minimalism much better than mine do.

    Or, take Marie Kondo’s own Instagram account. (Fun fact: I actually don’t follow her on Instagram, because I take a minimalist approach to my follow list!) Her account used to share lots of photos of regular ol’ people in their regular ol’ spaces who had konmari’d their stuff. And, frankly, strictly as a visual, it wasn’t anything particularly inspiring (even though it very well may have been a completely successful end-result of a decluttering process). However, the photos she’s shared more recently are much more visually striking – because they’re more minimalist in aesthetic.

    I could also go on and on about two women on Instagram who both have big followings. Stasia Savasuk’s closet doesn’t *look* minimal even though it *is* minimal. Caroline Joy’s closet *looks* minimalist even though it’s not (she has actually diverted away from minimalism in her wardrobe, explaining it was becoming just another iteration of futile attempts at perfectionism) Caroline Joy also spends waaaaay more money on her clothing (often on ethical-clothing brands) than Stasia (who primarily thrifts for clothes) does.

    Blurgh. I meant to type up a short little response and now I’m waxing poetic. So I’ll wrap up now – without my own tidy ending :)

    • You make such an interesting point about how a minimalistic aesthetic is more compelling in a photo-centered culture and therefore gets mixed up with the lifestyle.

      Like yours, my house does NOT, for the most part, look minimalistic, largely for reasons you discuss (eg since we do a lot of thrifting and DIY-ing, most of our stuff doesn’t match, etc). I think it does take a certain amount of wealth to be able to achieve that look (eg being able to buy a whole capsule wardrobe of perfectly-matching pieces; being able to afford a whole set of matching mugs). It requires other forms of privilege, too. For example, Felix’s medical and accessibility equipment will never look aesthetically pleasing or perfectly match the rest of the decor. Since I take care of kids at home all day every day, kid stuff is always in use.

      I do love a minimalist aesthetic as well, though. There’s one room in our house where we’ve achieved that, which is our bedroom, and I find it SOOOO soothing. The walls and bedding are all gray (with some white stripes or polka dots), and we have almost nothing on our walls, and our belongings all folded Kon-Mari style in our drawers, out of sight. There’s no visual clutter and it’s my zen place when I need to relax. But the rest of the house is cluttered with toys, kid artwork, craft supplies, etc.

      Thanks again for being so thoughtful and generous with your thoughts!

    • I have to comment about the mugs because I do the exact same thing! Certain ones for tea, certain ones for coffee…and when I open the cabinet I think, “which mug do I feel like today?” and it’s part of the fun! I could never have just 8 identical white mugs (not to knock your friend at all). But, where’s the fun in that??

      • Lol!!! I love that you shared this. It sincerely made me smile! (I used a NYC mug for coffee this morning and a Ruth Bader Ginsberg mug for tea this afternoon/evening!)

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