Against Being Positive!

By matthews on November 3, 2009

There is nothing positive in the economic and environmental catastrophe that will shortly over take the world and I am becoming a little irritated with people telling me to think positive. It sometimes feels like we are in the Life of Brian.

Telling people who are about to lose their livelihoods and homes and in many cases their lives that we should look at global warming and the coming collapse of global free market capitalism positively is absurd.

The mistake is to think that the alternative to being positive is to be go around saying we are all doomed and ringing our hands. There is another position we could adopt, that is to be ‘realistic’.

Mainstream economics as others have written is a social science and is as much ideology as it is science as Tony Weekes has pointed out in his opening shot of the debate of what a Quaker economics or Quakernomics could look like (See the Woodbrooke Journal Spring 2009).

In some ways being positive, always thinking the best and hoping something will turn up has made a huge contribution to getting us into this mess.  The self-help industry going around telling people that they are miserable not because they have no job, no money, no friends, no food, no family, no love, not because of systemic failure but  because of their personal attitude, that they need ‘positive thinking’ and all will be well are part of the problem not part of the solution.

The current problems are not due to the individual failure of us not being  ‘positive’ they are huge systemic failures of all of our economic and political systems and no amount of positive thinking is going to fix the environment or save the economy. Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Bright Sided, How Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, argues that positive thought has at times made us deaf to the pleas of those who warn us of the potential dangers—her examples include, the Iraqi resistance, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and the Wall Street implosion. Urging us to think positivity is not just beside the point when our circumstances are dire, it’s also dangerously distracting.

This is why she dedicates her book to “complainers everywhere,” inciting them to “turn up the volume.” She has written, “When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as it’s opposite. The alternative to both is realism – seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty. Now, with our savings, our homes and our livelihoods on the line, we ought to give it a try.”

At the Conference on the idea of a Zero Growth Economy? Alistair Macintosh implored that we need to be “midwives at the birth of a new way of living”. But this implies that we will also have to be gravediggers for the old way.

Ehrenreich points out that this cult of positivity was a reaction to the early Calvinists that built America, I suspect that must include us Quakers, Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendents, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh ethos that positive thinking arose– among mystics, lay healers, and transcendentalists – in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough.”

I feel we need to return to those earlier Quaker values it’s a hard road and there are no guarantees but being dreamily positive is no substitute for a realistic understanding of the problems we face. Too much positive thinking and looking inside ourselves for answers lets those who have created this mess escape their responsibility and disarms us from holding them to account.

Ehrenreich adds, “Besides, the constant effort of maintaining optimism in the face of considerable counterevidence is just too damn much work. Optimism training, affirmations and related forms of self-hypnosis are a burden that we can finally, in good conscience, set down. They won’t make you richer or healthier, and, as we should have learned by now, they can easily put you in harm’s way. The threats that we face, individually and collectively, won’t be solved by wishful thinking but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world.”

Of course having praised the power of the negative there is one thing that does require us to at least have some element of positive thinking. Surely you say there must be a middle way between clueless cheerleaders and grumpy prophets. There are those like the Dalai Lama who show you can strive to be content and remain angry about injustice.

 I believe, that in some ways, agitating for social change is the most positive form of thinking there is. In order to do so, we must believe that one person (or at least a small group of people) can make a difference, that our opinion is worth voicing, and that the world can become better – if we are willing to make an effort to shape it that way.



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  1. Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:27 am | Permalink

    The biggest risk to peace and justice is government overlegislation. Our economy is highly legislated now, and the actions being taken in Washington are only aimed at legislating it more. We’re now at a point in the world’s history where we need more freedom to adapt to changes … not more restrictions making it harder to adapt.

    Yes, I’m sad and depressed, but it’s only because of nonsense like global warming and free markets collapsing. What ridiculous ideas!

  2. Posted November 5, 2009 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    Oh, and another thing: it’s completely absurd to talk about a zero growth economy. Let’s say there’s a pile of pollution over there, and I get paid to clean it up. I’ve grown the economy and saved the environment … how is that bad?

    Let’s say that somebody is making something and producing some waste. I figure out how to use that waste. I’ve grown the economy and saved the environment … how is that bad?

    Let’s say that I figure out how to make a soda can using less aluminum. I’ve grown the economy and saved the environment … how is that bad?

    You can be ignorant of economics, but economics isn’t going to be ignorant of you.

  3. Posted November 5, 2009 at 5:23 am | Permalink

    Hands can be wrung, but not rung. ;)

  4. Nick Matthews
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Thanks John.
    Don’t rely on spell checker!

  5. Tony Weekes
    Posted November 5, 2009 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    My friends in West Yorkshire – with whom I stayed after the weekend at Woodbrooke – have succeeded (with much help from many others) in making a difference. They have persuaded the local council to drop a plan to demolish the central library in order to make space for a shopping mall. It took months of careful hard work: lobbying of councillors; letters to, and an alliance with the press; coalitions with other citizens’ groups; the provision of well-researched briefings.

    Can we do it? Yes, we can! But the fruit doesn’t easily drop off the tree. It requires much determined effort – and need us to be well informed both about what we want … as well as what we don’t want

  6. jeanne gimblett
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Zero growth may not be the answer, but it is a starting point for ideas and work towards a more equal and fairer society. Such a society would not need to exploit the planet’s limited resources and we would be working towards balance. So lets say we cut out the ‘middle man’ and drink water thus saving the aluminum for the can of soda and reducing the waste?

  7. Posted June 27, 2010 at 2:58 am | Permalink

    Zero economic growth is a hard pill to swallow but we better look forward to it as far better than uncontrollable suicide. We must stop buying things we do not need. We must stop assuming we need vacations. We must stop creating demand for products. We must educate people to think trice and not buying. The developing world is looking at us for leadership. They outnumber us. We better show then be more efficient than us.

  8. Posted June 27, 2010 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Corrected website

  9. Posted June 27, 2010 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    Sigh. John, products that truly help people usually require them to change their habits (e.g. switching from buying water in bottles to buying a bottle for their water) and thus NEED to have a demand created for them. People don’t WANT to change their habits.

    Perhaps you’ll be able think more clearly about economics if you take the time to study economics? It’s a lot more subtle than you think.

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