From left: Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy TD and Damien English TD at the Housing Summit in the Custom House, Dublin last September.
We all know about the €5million the Taoiseach set aside for a PR team. It is generally assume that they advise the Taoiseach on his “look”, but it likely goes a little deeper than that. To paraphrase a Tom Wait’s song, you can’t help wondering “what are they building in there?”
In November 2017 the Taoiseach suddenly took another tack on the subject of homelessness. He decided to downplay it, to describe it as normal, to as good as deny its existence.
This was taken up by others in the government. There was outrage on the internet, but it seems to have burned itself out. Maybe that too was an idea. To be outrageous and burn off the outrage.
An idea that featured in the sudden re-evaluation of homelessness as “normal” was the term “negative narrative”. I first heard it in a quote from Damien English. In the context in which the phrase was used by Fine Gael, and in the new “beliefs” about homelessness that the phrase appeared to inform, the implication appeared to be that homelessness was a consequence of negative thinking and behaviour.
Homelessness was being presented, in a sense, as the result of a failure to think positive.
This seems exactly like something a PR team would dream up. It’s quite good too when you look at it. By attaching the concept of positive thinking to the homeless crisis the aim of the 5million club appears to be to tap into those Irish people, a sizeable minority, if not possibly the majority, who genuinely subscribe to the idea of positive thinking as a progressive strategy for improvement and change.
Positive thinking is seen by many Irish people as a corrective to Irish begrudgery, and is enthusiastically championed by people who genuinely wish to shuck off their inherited Irish pessimism.
The phrase “negative narrative” is essentially a mechanism, which could conceivably be attached to any number of issues, ensuring more or less the same outcomes, i.e. blame the victim for having created the problem.
This time it is homelessness, next time it may serve similar functions attached to some other issue. Such a phrase can imply, across the board, that all problems ultimately are a failure on the part of those with the problem to practise positive thinking.
But, might this be true? Would social conditions improve if everyone thought more positively?
Studies have shown that the concept of positive thinking is very similar to religions in the manner in which it promises positive returns for certain rituals and practises. It is for this reason that the belief system, which is essentially what it is, is often regarded as a cult. The system has garnered a host of critiques, mainly in the US, questioning its claims. It’s no accident either that President Trump is a big positive-thinking aficionado.
But Trump, like Fine Gael, often cynically uses the concept of positive thinking to deny uncomfortable truths, much as Fine Gael appear to have cynically used the concept to downplay the severity of the homelessness crisis.
But positive thinking, when allied to politics, has been described by some critics as “political gaslighting”. Kitty S Jones describes in the web blog, “Politics and Insights” how the Tories in 2015 used the concept of positive thinking to discredit jobseekers when George Osborne installed cognitive behaviour therapists in job centres to “support” people.
The insinuation being that the causes of unemployment are “psychological rather than socio-political” and that the jobseekers simply weren’t thinking right. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is designed specifically to modify so-called negative thinking. Still, there is a potential growth market in this, creating employment for cognitive therapists “fixing” poor people’s attitudes.
On top of the cynical use of the concept for political ends, an article in the New Yorker in 2014 by Adam Alter cited studies that appeared to demonstrate that even the concept of positive thinking was questionable as an effective agent for the improvement of anything.
“The Powerlessness of Positive Thinking” cites several studies that appear to show that positive thinking may actually be detrimental to positive outcomes, for reasons that are similar to talking up a plan so much that you’ve talked all the energy out and the thing never gets done.
One of the more popular and scathing books on the subject is Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America” (Review here).
She takes issue with some of the main tenets of the belief system, the idea of shutting all “negative” people out of your life; the idea that the poor make themselves poor by not thinking “rich”; and that most cruel and disgusting idea, the notion that cancer sufferers create their own cancer through negative thinking.
All these questionable ideas from Positive Thinking are quite similar to Eileen Gleeson’s assertion that the homeless create their own homelessness through “bad behaviour”. Similarly, Damien English’s use of the phrase “negative narratives” seems also to be pitched in the spirit of positive thinking as a progressive cure-all.
It is likely that the Taoiseach’s 5million club have identified the popularity of positive thinking in Ireland – it could even be that the concept has filled the vacuum created by the decline in church participation – and have set out to cynically exploit the popularity of the belief system to deny the existence of homelessness.
In much the same way as the Trump administration use denial, often flagrantly, in the face of direct evidence to the contrary, in order to discredit all opposition and “equalise” irrationality with common sense perceptions. But the key strategy appears to be, in the Irish case, to hook into those in the middle ground who subscribe, with genuine good intentions, to the concept of positive thinking as a progressive tool for change.
Taken to absurdity, the concept could be invoked to claim that all political opposition is simply negative thinking in action. Maybe the government could install a team of cognitive behavioural therapists in the Dáil to try and modify the thinking of the left Alliance in order to arrive at a more agreeable political consensus.
Maybe instead of giving food and support to the homeless, which Eileen Gleeson suggests is a bad idea anyway, why not just give them copies of “The Secret”, and let them positive-vibe their way out of the hotels and off the streets?
This amalgam of right-wing religious type cultishness, based on a belief system that identifies a righteous elect and excluded defectives responsible for their own misery through “wrong thinking” is about as dangerous a mix of irrational bullshit as any government or ruling elite could possibly conceive of.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance writer