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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The darker side of positive thinking

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before... He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way." - Kurt Vonnegut


RSA Animate - Smile or Die:

"Acclaimed journalist, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich explores the darker side of positive thinking."


"The same ideology of postive thinking [was] being applied to people who were downsized from the corporate world. White-collar, middle-level people, being sent to support groups or networking groups...

The message was: 'It's not bad to be laid off. It's actually a good thing. It's actually an opportunity. It's a growth opportunity. You will come out of it much better. And if you want to come out of it at all, of course, you better work on your attitude, because the key to getting a job in today's corporate world is not knowing things, or having skills or experience, but having a positive attitude.

Somebody who's in an absolute low point in their lives, and certainly losing a job can be that, and just tell them: 'There's nothing wrong. Just put on a smiley face and get on with it. Don't complain, whatever you do.'

So then I began to see a pattern and find it in more and more aspects of American life. This kind of mandatory optimism and cheerfulness.

One area where it is very strongly concentrated now, and has been for some years is the Corporate World. The workplace. Where the idea has been: yes indeed, you'd better be positive, because you're not really there to do X or Y task. You're there to spread good cheer and make the other people around you comfortable, and happy all day.

Now, you might think, 'What's wrong with that?'... 'You change the physical world with your thoughts'...

Now they talk about quantum physics. I love that, you know. Quantum physics, for some reason, has become an excuse to mock all of Science. Say: nothing real, nothing true, and whatever you think, that's how the world is. So if you think positively, you remake the world. Positively, according to this pseudo-scientific explanation.

But anyway. What's wrong with this. Why not delude yourself into thinking: you know, everything's fine, and you can change the world with your thoughts. I have two problems with it.

One, I'll be hardline about this. I think delusion is always a mistake. There's no safe delusion. Although one of the messages of positive psychology in the United States is, yeah, it's good to have some positive delusions about yourself.

The biggest evidence is the financial meltdown of 07. Now, a lot of things went into that... Certainly, one element was the grip of positive thinking in the corporate world, and particularly in the financial sector. People who tried to raise problems in the middle of the last decade would be shut up, or fired. You couldn't be inside Countrywide Mortgage Company - which was the one which almost singlehandedly set off the whole collapse in the US, and say: "I'm worried about our subprime mortgage exposure, or you'd be out.

And I got to interview some Wall Street guys... People who tried, say within Lehman Brothers, to point out that the housing prices could not rise forever, were fired.

It was this wilful ignorance. Nobody could think bad thoughts, and if you didn't, nothing bad would happen.

And I think the other thing I find very very disturbing about it... it's cruel to take people who are having great difficulties in their lives, and tell them it's all in their heads, and they only have to change their attitudes.

My favourite example of this moral callousness is from the author of The Secret...
The book on how you can have anything you want, attract anything to yourself by thinking.

And she was at about the Tsunami of '06, and how could this happen? And she said, and kind of, her phrasing, 'Those people, the victims of it, must have been sending out tsunami-like vibrations into the universe to attract that to themselves. Because nothing happens to us that we don't attract'. And I think that's beyond amorality. I don't even know where to locate that.

I'm not advocating gloom and pessimism and negativity, or depression. Those can also be delusional. You can go around making up a story to yourself that everything you undertake is going to fail, and there's no reason to think that.

I might, my very radical suggestion, is realism. Trying to figure out what is actually happening in the world and seeing what we can do about those parts of it that are threatening or hurtful.

... George W Bush was a cheerleader in College. Not an athlete. A cheerleader. And I think he construed the presidency as a continuation of that role. He is one of those people who closed himself in the bubble of positive feeling.

Condoleeza Rice said, way too late, that she had had doubts about the invasion of Iraq, but she didn't dare express them because the President hated to be around "pessimists". The equation of pessimism with doubt.

So nobody raised any questions about that war within the hearing of the President. Or those who did, like the General who suggested that we were only putting half as many troops on the ground as would be needed to accomplish whatever we were trying to accomplish, he was pushed out of the way. He lost his job.

What could be cleverer as a way of quelling dissent than to tell people who are in some kind of trouble: poverty, unemployment, etc, that it's all their attitude. You know, that that's all that has to change. That they should get with the program. You know, smile, and get no complaining.

It's a brilliant form of social control which, by the way, was practised in the Soviet Union. One of the principles of Soviet Communism was Optimism.

It's a form of social control, by the way, it's quite widespread in totalitarian types of societies, but I think it has worked very well in America...

What we call market fundamentalism. The idea that the market, the invisible hand, will straighten everything out. That you don't have to intervene, you don't have to do policy, you don't have planning, because there's this miraculous force that just irons out everything. Well, maybe a couple of generations get crushed along the way.

It's basically - it completely overlaps with the positive thinking ideology. You don't really have to do anything because there is a benevolent invisible deity - the market - that will clear everything up.

... If you want to really take a mental leap, a kind of belief. Believe that we could change things. It's the powerlessness of positive thinking. It always just thinks, it always just envisions you as a lone individual changing the world. Or not changing the world, redesigning the world to fit your ideas"

Keywords: financial crisis
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