The end of summer swings round again. Time for less gardening and more ranting. Hold on to your hats.
Today’s little tantrum centres on Positive Thinking. Reason: A relative has just grazed the edges of the Positive Thinking industry, and it reminded me of this wonderful book by Barbara Ehrenreich, which I enjoyed last year (there’s a great extract here).
Note to positive thinkers everywhere: you’re deluded, brainwashed victims of a plutocratic strategy to boost the wealth of a tiny few by reducing everyone else to serfdom. Your determined optimism is making others rich at your expense, and undermining everything you hold dear – your income, your social status, your family life and even your basic physical health (hey, just read the book).
Truth is better than blind positivity
I’m a born pessimist. Always saw the darker side from as far back as I can remember. If you’re an optimist you’ll not understand. You probably think I should just ‘snap out of it’ – as if my pessimism were any more of a choice than your natural optimism.
Weird, isn’t it, how pessimists can’t tell optimists to ‘snap out of it’? Consider that for a second. Its implications are profound. Anglo-saxon societies are infected with a powerful assumption that Optimism = good, natural, ‘normal’, right. Doubt and Pessimism = bad, evil, unnatural, unhealthy, wrong.
My pessimism, though inborn, was only deepened and further ingrained as I grew up. Contact with other human beings saw to that: ‘Homo homini lupus’.
More influential still was my growing suspicion, later confirmed by evidence, that other people’s well-meaning pleas to ‘look on the bright side’, or ‘count your blessings’ actually made things worse – for me.
Why? Because entreaties to see the best in Life are fundamentally dishonest. They are anti-truth. To ‘look on the bright side’ translates as: Cherry-pick the evidence in favour of goodness and fluffy bunnies and ignore everything else. It is as wrong-headed and stupid as insisting on seeing the worst even when all the evidence is positive.
As an empirical rationalist, I abhor this. Post-Enlightenment human beings enjoy the fruits of five centuries of breakthroughs in technology and medicine brought about by sceptical rationalism embodied in the scientific method. To doubt, to consider the evidence in the round… these are the bedrock of our prosperity.
Yet positive thinkers and optimists everywhere tend to live their own lives in direct denial of these principles, urging themselves and others to cling irrationally to a one-sided and facile world view that ignores oceans of useful, albeit unpleasant, evidential input. And it is this world view (encouraged and underpinned by the legacy, still powerful, of Judaeo-Christian teaching – “the poor shall inherit the earth”) that prevails.
The Cassandra Syndrome
It’s tragic for pessimists, because they’re doomed to live as strangers in society. Like dissidents under totalitarian regimes, pessimists dare not speak openly of their ‘faith’ or associate too freely with others for fear of denouncement and loss of social standing and/or employment.
You think I exaggerate? Think again. Anglo-saxon corporate life – especially in the USA, but also in Britain – is all about being ‘positive’, a ‘team player’, being ‘proactive’, playing up upsides, minimising downsides. A ‘negative attitude’ will get you fired quicker than shitting on the boss’ desk. Everyone knows it. To be doubtful, to produce counter-evidence, is to be condemned as ‘uncommitted’ and to be ‘Limogé’ – removed from the front line in disgrace, as French officers were at Verdun, for questioning the efficacy of frontal assaults across open ground against entrenched machine-gun positions.
When pessimists do speak out, they’re usually dismissed as pathetic losers, weird one-eyed ideologues determined to ruin the party – and like Cassandra, they go unheeded. It’s comic to hear our politicians desperately claiming that nobody foresaw the current economic catastrophe, and that it was ‘unpredictable’.
Bollocks. Many, many people predicted it, even non-experts. Be honest: Even as you saw your own house value shoot through the stratosphere in 2007, wasn’t there some part of your brain – even if you’re a committed, apostolic optimist – that said: “This is insane. Nothing goes up forever. There’s a horrible crash coming.”
Yet few said it, even to close friends. In public, hardly anyone said it… though millions were thinking it.
To understand how this has become so entrenched in our society, you have to ask, as Ehrenreich does: Cui bono? In all of the rose-tinted froth about mental attitude shaping reality, in all those positive-thinking corporate away-day cheer-a-thons, in all the think-your-way-to-better-health bullshit of the medical optimism quacks… in all of this, who benefits? Who or what gains from you and I being optimistic, refusing to see a down side, trying to ‘turn negatives into positives’?
I’ll tell you: The Powers That Be, ie the State (it’s YOUR responsibility to make yourself a job/get healthy through positive thinking… not ours through rational economic planning and service provision), Business (it’s YOUR responsibility to turn your redundancy into a ‘good experience’ through the power of positive thinking… it’s not our fault for downsizing you if your life turns to impoverished dogshit) and even Doctors (YOU make yourself well through positive thinking. If the chemotherapy fails, it’s because YOU ‘lost the fight’ with cancer. Your fault, not medicine’s).
I could go on. Luckily for you – as I’m fond of saying – I won’t.
Just do me a favour. Next time you’re about to tell somebody to ‘look on the bright side’ or ‘cheer up, it may never happen’, or ‘don’t be so negative’… don’t. Trying asking yourself, instead:
“WHY am I being so fucking positive? Where’s the evidence that it’s justified? Where’s the evidence that it will really help?”
PS Here’s a useful and timely reminder of how useful pessimism SHOULD be… and how everyone ignores/minimises/scorns it nonetheless (here’s another one). The current Eurozone fuck-up really was predicted – to the letter, in graphic and prescient detail – by scores of eurosceptics. Who were of course all rabid, dogmatic ‘madmen’.
When I find the forces of idiotic positivity ranged against me, I try to remember that history’s greatest Englishman, Winston Churchill, was himself – despite the celebrated optimism quotation – a profound pessimist. All his politics, from opposition to Irish home rule to advocacy of the Gallipoli campaign, sprang from an in-built expectation of human failure, fear of British weakness and other nations’ evil motives. His was a lone voice in the unpopular campaign for rearmament between the wars. Nobody wanted to hear his pessimism about Hitler’s intentions… yet his pessimism was of course totally vindicated. People have now forgotten that many of his profound insights – and that majorly important one, in particular – came from a questioning, pessimistic, suspicious, rationalist mind. God bless him.