Negatively charged

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.

Cui bono?

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.

10 Responses to “Negatively charged”

  1. glittertrash Says:

    Spot fucking on, Soilman. A hat tip to a great rant. Endless articles about “How to look on the bright side of the devastating but entirely foreseeable economic collapse that will fuck over only and exclusively the masses and leave the people who orchestrated it unharmed” make my blood boil, especially because the line of shit they sell seems to be so enticing to people. When I see constant articles like “Connect more with your children and family via the financially devastating loss of your job and impossibility of getting another one”, and “Offset the cuts in your pension by getting closer to nature with a return to subsistence farming!”, and I see people buying it, I think how very clever capitalism is at appropriating the serf-repressing tenets of classical religions and repackaging them for a new age.

    Here’s to pessimism, which does not in fact mean refusing to see the good when it’s there- and there is plenty to admire in the world- but does mean refusing to be blind to the bad, and especially to keeping an eye on who is actively fucking you over, and why.

  2. Soilman Says:

    Amen to that, Glittertrash. The subsistence farming bollocks is real laughter in the dark, isn’t it? I mean, do any of these idiots have a fucking clue how INCREDIBLY HARD it is being a subsistence peasant? Like, why on earth do they think genuine peasants troop out of the countryside to industrial shitholes in cities the moment they become available?

  3. Redbloke Says:

    OK, nice rant. On the negative side, I hate free market capitalists / lying politicians / lying union leaders / lying religious leaders / indoctrinated journalists / the corrupt state … and so on. On the positive side, I’m an atheist an optimist and I love life. I also fully understand the shit times we live in.
    As a pessimist, how do you avoid stringing yourself up in your allotment shed? … I’m concerned about you Soilman!

    Footnote.
    Churchill’s defining moment was indeed in the 2nd World War, … the rest was pretty negative.

  4. Kath Says:

    There is a thin, thin line between pessimism and common sense. I work for a corporation that recently replaced all the upper management with people (well, they appear to be human) who are so elitist it is mind boggling. I feel like I’ve walked back into the past…the really old bad past. All the employees are stupid, especially the women, and can’t be trusted to do anything correctly. It is clear the elitists are getting ready to dump a bunch of us, screw us out of our severance (redundency pay) and if we strave in the streets it will be our own damn fault. Our government (US) is busy squabbling like a bunch of teenagers while the economy goes to hell in a handbasket. I could go on and on and on…..

  5. delcatto Says:

    I prefer ‘realist’ to ‘pessimist’. i.e. This is life just get the fuck on with it.
    Lots of tomatoes this year by the way and I grew cucumbers for the first time. They were tasty too.
    I like your attitude & I’m adding you to favourites as I need all the (help) advice going re. growing stuff.

  6. Marie Says:

    So that’s why you garden, right? May I insert a smiley face here to imply the unseen smile? Or would that mark me an optimist?I’m not, I swear I’m not…I garden, too.

  7. Ford Says:

    I read “Smile or die” last year! Read in nearly one sitting! Afterwards, I thought “I was right all along!” I didn’t share any of these ideas with my “positive” acquaintences,; who would have been a bit negative about the whole thing! I’m not a “Pessimist” Pessimist/Pessimism is just a pejorative term, to tell me that I’m wrong,; because my glass is half empty! Generally, I want the facts; and to know that someone has thought through all possible outcome! Work out what can go wrong, and make sure it doesn’t! I had a boss in a library who was introducing a huge change to the way we were working within the college. I asked, “What if it goes wrong?” Answer, “It can’t go wrong; because, it has to work!”

  8. Zoe Says:

    Looking on the dark side of life can lead some people into a very dark place. Churchill himself suffered with the ‘black dog’ of depression. I agree that blind optimism can be a dangerous thing, but so can the opposite, and for some people ‘staying positive’ is merely a survival tactic. I try to be realistic about possible outcomes in life, but if I saw every outcome with a negative result, I don’t think I’d do anything. On the positive side – good rant!

  9. Cazost Says:

    wonderful stuff Soilman! Life is truly one drudge through the shite… with only the anticipation of a holiday to keep the focus forwards… as even the holidays themselves usually turn out to be mindlessly dull. Still, it makes the moments of laughter shine that bit brighter…

  10. simon Says:

    Chin up SM. It’ll all turn out find in the end. Think positive. Every cloud … etc etc.