January 17, 2014

Friday Review: Bright-Sided

My favorite current comic strip is Pearls Before Swine.  Part of why it appeals to me is that I see the two main characters, Pig and Rat, as the dueling sides of my own personality (see also, Van der Graff Generator's "Man-Erg").  Pig is sunny, trusting, gullible, and generally simple minded.  Rat is a cynic, a curmudgeon, and thinks the best character for a childrens' book series is a frequently drunk, homicidal donkey.  You get the picture.  I mention that because, while reading/listening to Bright-Sided, I kept wondering about how Pig and Rat would react to a "positive thinking" sales pitch.  Undoubtedly, Pig would gleefully embrace the power of positive thinking.  Rat, by contrast, would beat it into a coma with a tennis racket.

Barbara Ehrenreich would probably help Rat by holding positive thinking down.  In Bright-Sided she catalogs how the idea that good thoughts can manifest good outcomes in the world around us has infiltrated just about every facet of modern American life.  She begins with the world of breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2000.  She was appalled by the amount of ink spilt not only on the idea that one must have a positive attitude toward treatment in order to survive, but that in many quarters suffers are encouraged to see breast cancer as a "gift" that actually changes their lives for the better.  Ehrenreich traces such counter-factual positive thinking through modern business, religion, academics, and financial sectors.  It is, she argues, largely responsible for the financial meltdown of 2007.

Ehrenreich also goes back in time a bit to figure out where this aversion to reality came from.  Oddly enough, she traces it back to another aversion from reality - religion.  Specifically, Ehrenreich argues that what we think of today as the "positive thinking" movement began as a reaction to the particularly harsh, judgmental 19th Century form of American Calvinism.  In a world shaped by a view that your salvation (or, more likely, lack thereof) was preordained, a contrary voice saying you had more power to shape your own destiny than you ever knew was compelling.  The result was the New Thought movement, out of which sprang things like Christian Science and the Unity movement.

One irony of the positive thinking movement is that, although it began as a reaction to a particular strain of Christianity, it was eventually adopted by a wholly different one - the "prosperity gospel" megachurches.  Ehrenreich delves into that as well - particularly focusing on the church of Joel Osteen - and we see the self-affirmation and "imagine it and you can have it" morphed into "pray hard enough and God will provide it."  Same shit, different container, as they say.

To be honest, I've never given positive thinking, or its more recent commercial versions like The Secret much thought.  It's woo, of course, but largely harmless woo, right?  Ehrenreich convinced me otherwise.  Aside from the basic truth that someone who thinks they can mould reality to their will is going to be seriously disappointed eventually (perhaps in disastrous ways - see the financial meltdown), Ehrenreich also went into how the push to think positively helps obscure injustice in the world.  This particularly came through in her discussion of positive thinking as it invaded business practices during the 1980s, particularly when it comes to downsizing.  Why be angry at a political or economic system that just made you unemployed after years of work for a company when, if you think it hard enough, you can see it as an exciting new opportunity to change your life?  Likewise, why should the cancer patient rail against the inequality of living in the only civilized country on Earth without national healthcare when you can discover personal growth through the arduous (and expensive) process of mere survival?  In the end, all gurus sound like Pangloss, preaching about how this is the best of all possible worlds.

Having said that, there's a sense that Ehrenreich is only going after low hanging fruit.  It's easy to point and laugh at people who think they'll get a new Mercedes just by thinking hard enough about it.  The folks that peddle that nonsense are cranks of the first order.  Wealthy cranks, but cranks nonetheless.  But Ehrenreich doesn't really investigate where positive yet still realistic thinking might be helpful in certain circumstances.  To use a personal example, I wouldn't keep writing and working on fiction to try and get it published if I didn't have a little bit of "I know I can do this" running round in my head (confession time - I occasionally daydream about what my Wikipedia entry will eventually say).  That being said, I don't sit back and think I'll get published and be a successful author just by visualizing it.  I know there's a lot of work still to be done and lots of things I need to learn.  But if I didn't have some positive outlook on the whole process, why would I stick with it?

Which is to say, Ehrenreich's book isn't going to sway a lot of people away from the power of positive thinking.  She's largely preaching to the skeptical choir.  Nor does she really make any attempt to understand the allure of positive thinking to those who support the industry by buying books and DVDs and attending seminars devoted to it.  Sure, the stuff about the Osteens had its place, but what about those in the congregation who come back Sunday after Sunday?  It's too easy (and condescending) to dismiss them all as idiots and be done with it.

What Bright-Sided has going for it is that it's a fun read and, in many spots, an interesting one.  However, it falls short of really proving how positive thinking undermined America.

The Details
Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermining America
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Published 2010

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