on July 31, 2010
What to say about Barbara Ehrenreich except "Thank you!" I first read a few online articles from her a dozen years ago and was hooked. Then I read Nickel and Dimed, the best expose and analysis of the underclasses in the USA that I'm aware of. When I later read Bait and Switch, which demonstrated how the program in Nickel and Dimed had succeeded so well (in stealing the little the underclass had) that the ruling elites moved the program into the middle classes, I was shocked. The audacity by the elite classes was astounding and the carefully-constructed "acceptance" by the lower and middle classes was disheartening.
And now comes Bright-Sided, her effort to explain how the "positive psychology" movement has attempted to shift the blame of so much personal and societal anguish on to the shoulders of those who the trickery was foisted on, rather than on the true cause of the pain: a social system based on the economics of rob-from-the-poor-to-give-to-the-rich. She does it in her usually witty way, never failing to wince at the injustice while detailing it in sometimes savage prose. While not as personal as the other two books I noted (in which she lives and works with members of those classes), it is more probing of one of the tools that the elite use to get their way: make the robbed feel responsible for the robbery. As long as we have such a corrupt system there will never be a time we do not need such people as her.
On a final note I ask how much longer, in a shrinking world with a burgeoning human need-greed, can this go on?
on November 10, 2009
For those who feel that the self-help-spiritual gurus of The Secret fame were handing us a crock pot of crap, this is the book to read. Over the years, having worked in book stores, seeing the corporate side of the retail world (trying to smile during a downsize) as well as the charlatans of the New Age movement, this book was a welcome treat. For many years I've battled with the blinders of blatant optimism and for me, Ehrenreich has shown a spotlight on the yoke of happiness thinking.
It's not that being positive is completely blinding, it is just that there is a constant in-balance. A bright, shiny attitude is fine and dandy but let's be realistic about certain things. If you're driving through Hell, the last thing you want to do is ask for a blanket. The same thing goes for the commodity of the forced smile. When people are working overtime and holidays, afraid of the next lay off, how can people be happy? Ehrenreich addresses these issues, pointing her critical pen at the pink ribbon society of breast cancer alumni (the survivors vs. those who die, those who weren't positive 'enough'), the self-appointed gurus of optimism, corporate churches, and corporations hellbent of force feeding employees happiness (a negative attitude might lead to a firing).
We are complex creatures in a complex world and to go through life with a monotone emotion, we deny ourselves our humanity. She argues that we lose insight and direction if we befuddle ourselves with optimism. We lose our hold on life. Also, it was the Communist states of the former Eastern Bloc as much as Iran pre-1979 that manipulated its citizens to be happy and have a positive attitude.
This is a must read for those who feel nauseous at the end of forced happy endings in Hollywood films or find the Stepford wives creepy. This book offers more self-help than the self-help section - it advocates for reason and empiricism, not delusion and joy. If you can read this book, smile for the sake that you will no longer be bright-sided by the ongoing 'feel good B.S.' we are fed in this world.
When Barbara Ehrenreich was diagnosed with cancer, she soon discovered that her physical illness wasn’t her only challenge — she was bombarded by the exhortation that she see the disease as an opportunity for growth.
Ehrenreich’s negative response to the cheerleaders of the cancer community was a major prompt for her 2009 book examining the positive thinking industry.
Having been blind-sided by cancer, she titled her book Bright-Sided, after the assaults on realism with which governments and corporations work to reduce scrutiny, criticism, and the impulse to reform.
The theme of the book is right up front, in the complete title: Bright-Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
Ehrenreich proclaims, “We need to brace ourselves for a struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making and imposed by the natural world. And the first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.”
After recounting her own battle to remain “real” during her cancer treatment, to resist the notion that breast cancer is not a serious problem at all — it is a “gift,” a life-change opportunity deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude — Ehrenreich spends the rest of the book deconstructing the positive thinking industry, showing how it benefits not only the individuals who flog it tirelessly but also the larger interests that have a huge stake in maintaining the status quo.
The drive toward positive thinking is everywhere. It is “like a perpetually flashing neon sign in the background, like an inescapable jingle.”
This endless pumping-up is “not just a diffuse cultural consensus, spread by contagion. It has its ideologues, spokespeople, preachers, and salespersons—authors of self-help books, motivational speakers, coaches, and trainers.”
Ehrenreich devotes a good deal of space, perhaps too much space, to profiles of these positivity promoters; but the book’s real interest lies in her identification of the often unspoken and deeper social goals of the optimists.
One outcome of relentless indoctrination in the upbeat is that positive thinking has become a core value of society, and woe to anyone who refuses to grin widely and feel good: "What has changed, in the last few years, is that the advice to at least act in a positive way has taken on a harsher edge. The penalty for nonconformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation."
Being the lone pessimist at the management table can cost you your career, and so can joining your company’s “voluntary” team-building weekend camping trip with insufficient enthusiasm. In 1984, the important thing wasn’t just to scream and shout during the Two-Minutes Hate — you had to really feel the required emotions.
But, Ehrenreich notes, “it is not enough, though, to cull the negative people from one’s immediate circle of contacts; information about the larger human world must be carefully censored.”
Don’t watch the news — you can’t do anything about it, anyway. Don’t read serious books — they’ll only sap your positivity. See no negativity, hear no negativity, and you will speak no negativity.
The Great Lie of positive thinking is that if only you want something badly enough, you can have it. No, you will have it. If you don’t get everything you want, it’s your own fault for not wanting it enough.
The world isn’t unfair; you’re not positive enough. Bad luck didn’t knock you for a loop; you were thinking negative thoughts.
As Ehrenreich correctly points out, the idea that the world can be your very own oyster is little more than a modern version of traditional magical thinking: “The positive thought, or mental image of the desired outcome, serves as a kind of internal fetish to hold in your mind.”
But it’s not just the individual who is attracted to this dream of on-demand wish fulfillment. For quite different reasons, corporations love positive thinking.
The downward spiral of the wage-earning classes has been well documented elsewhere, so we won’t repeat it here. The more important point that Ehrenreich makes is that positive thinking has become a powerful weapon in the hands of the corporations doing the downsizing, the outsourcing, the stripping of benefits and pensions.
What a corporation needs in a time of upheaval and uncertainty is to change the focus, to more the spotlight off itself and onto its economic and social victims: "With 'motivation' as the whip, positive thinking became the hallmark of the compliant employee, and as the conditions of corporate employment worsened in the age of downsizing that began in the 1980s, the hand on the whip grew heavier."
You can’t change what’s happening to you. You can’t stop us from exploiting you. But you can stop feeling bad about it. So let’s stop talking about us and what we’re doing to you, and instead start talking about you and what you can do for yourself!
The motivation industry could not repair this new reality. All it could do was offer to change how one thought about it, insisting that corporate restructuring was an exhilaratingly progressive “change” to be embraced, that job loss presented an opportunity for self-transformation, that a new batch of “winners” would emerge from the turmoil. And this is what corporations were paying the motivation industry to do.
Not only didn’t most of us see through this cynical ploy — most of us bought into it: "By and large, America’s white-collar corporate workforce drank the Kool-Aid, as the expression goes, and accepted positive thinking as a substitute for their former affluence and security. They did not take to the streets, shift their political allegiance in large numbers, or show up at work with automatic weapons in hand."
The epidemic of positive thinking affected governments as well as corporations, as both the Clinton and Bush II administrations relied on rosy forecasts of unending growth, instead of regulating an out of control financial system and making provision for an inevitable cooling off — or, in the current case, falling off the cliff.
Ehrenreich is concerned about more than short-term politics or even mid-term economic woes. Far worse, the cult of positive thinking threatens the rational core at the heart of our scientific and cultural growth: "Human intellectual progress, such as it has been, results from our long struggle to see things “as they are,” or in the most universally comprehensible way, and not as projections of our own emotions."
Rejecting what is in favour of what we’d like is part of the American psyche, a key component of the unending allure of the American Dream. To criticize, to look at the negatives as well as the positives, is more than unpopular — it’s un-American.
“Within the United States, any talk of intractable problems like poverty could be dismissed as a denial of America’s greatness. Any complaints of economic violence could be derided as the ‘whining’ of self-selected victims,” writes Ehrenreich. “The effort of positive ‘thought control,’ which is always presented as such a life preserver, has become a potentially dead weight–obscuring judgment and shielding us from vital information.”
Information about reality is vital because without it we have no hope of addressing our problems as a society. In fact, in a culture of positive thinking, society has no problems — only people who persist in negative thinking have problems.
I’m reminded of the Soviet practice of committing dissidents to psychiatric hospitals. After all, the USSR was surely and demonstrably the world’s greatest country, so anyone who didn’t embrace that idea was either clinically depressed or dangerously delusional, or both.
So stop whining about the economy or your pending foreclosure — and smile, buddy, smile!
Barbara Ehrenreich is one of my favourite investigative writers, partly because I tend to agree with her left-of-centre political take but mostly because she's a really interesting writer. Her latest book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, deals with the whole concept of positive thinking in American society, from its historical roots as an answer to dour Calvinism to its relentless drive into the business world (where it essentially told workers, "if you're negative, you're out of here," while at the same time demanding that remaining workers cheerfully take on larger and larger amounts of work to be done in less and less time), to the "God wants you to be rich!" evangelical "religious" leaders (you know, those preachers who kind of forget to mention anything about Christianity and instead invoke God as a kind of magician, to whom you need only chant the right words in order to get everything you want in life), and finally to the cult of positivism that destroyed the financial system and the housing market in the US in 2007-2008. Perhaps Ehrenreich's greatest outrage is kept for the demands made of cancer patients (in particular, breast cancer patients as she herself was one of them) that they see their cancer as a positive opportunity in their lives and that they deny any negative feelings about their illness lest their negativity "contribute" to the disease. Provocative stuff, and thoughtfully and painstakingly laid out (complete with copious citations in the notes, something that the academic in me is a sucker for), and well worth reading. As someone once said, "if you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention," and I'm glad that there are still people like Ehrenreich around to remind us about everyday reasons to be angry about how our world works. Recommended!