Negativity: A Positive Spin


From top: Dublin unemployment queue; Eamonn Kelly

Writer and activist Eamonn Kelly this week concluded an investigation into job activation schemes in Ireland.

Many thought he lacked positivity..

Eamonn writes:

I noticed that one of the criticisms leveled at my articles about JobPath was that they were “negative”.I’m aware that there is a view that negative thinking is destructive of “good” ideas, to the extent that some overly-enthusiastic positive-thinkers appear to believe that negative thinking needs to be stamped out in the name of progress.

The concept of positivity is one that is held dear by Irish people who regard themselves as “progressive”, and is a common badge of honour sported among the artistic elite in Ireland, and often regarded as a necessary antidote – or even as a challenge to – traditional Irish “begrudgery”.

The underlying assumption being that begrudgery and negative thinking are the same thing. Which they’re not. One is destructive envy; while the other, critical thinking, seeks ultimately to be constructive.

There is a strain of positive thinking abroad in Ireland that originated in the US, and it is not as wholesome as its smiling presentation might suggest. If this were a self-help manual we might dub this particular strain of positivity as Toxic Positivity.

The US journalist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote two books on this type of positivity: “Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World.” and “Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America.” Their titles alone shed light on the problem inherent in certain basic assumptions concerning positive thinking.

Ehrenreich shows how positive thinking has its roots in corporate America, where it mingled with US-style Christianity, to produce a strain of delusion that leaves people believing they can think themselves rich by smiling and adopting a positive mental outlook.

The downside to this idea of course, is that you can also “fail” to think yourself rich, by falling into negative thinking, a kind of Corporate original sin that causes not only poverty, but also cancer and brain tumours and all the other awful maladies that life can throw at people.

This idea, that people are architects of their own misfortune through “wrong” thinking, is a very convenient fiction for the various power entities that rule the world.

At its most cynical, and even darkly comical, a corporate spokesperson might claim that people who were say, poisoned by arsenic in the sugar brekkies, have only themselves to blame for not thinking “correctly”. (The spokesperson might be right. They should be eating natural oats.)

The concept is genius really, because it also contains an in-built guilt system that gnaws away at some unfortunate people who may truly believe that if they had thought more happy thoughts, in a more consistent manner, that their lives mightn’t have turned out to be quite so miserable.

But the basic, wildly magical assumption that you can think yourself rich, and that you can think the world into being a better place, by affecting constant contentment, is a travesty of the knowledge that imagination, perhaps more than any other human trait, has the power to shape reality.

Such a power is of course dangerous to certain entrenched powers.

The toxic positive thinking model, appears to deliberately set out to destroy these “dangerous” imaginative and creative attributes, offering a more childish positivity, one that results in the creation of good and obedient workers who smile and smile and smile, toiling away in non-union working environments, suffering decreasing wages year on year, and longer working lives and decreasing pension benefits.

But they smile on, smiling as big as they can, in the vain hope that their forced positive mental attitude will somehow change the awful world their corporate masters are imposing on them.

This kind of positivity has been sold so effectively that it is now almost a religion, and one of its mortal sins is, you’ve guessed it, negative thinking. Once an attribute is considered a type of “sin”, it really needs to be watched closely, particularly in Ireland, simply because we were so deeply indoctrinated by the Church over so many generations that we’re likely to be a little over-sensitive to things like sins and sinners and judgements and commandments and so on.

This is perhaps why it has been so easy to convince the public that the unemployed are economic sinners deserving of being penalized by the JobPath system.

Given the prevailing unquestioning acceptance that positive thinking is a social “good”, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a scenario where a law might be passed designed to reprimand people for expressing negative opinions, on the grounds that such opinions might be undermining a perceived national or regional success story.

Orwell anticipated this in “1984”, and called it “thoughtcrime”. The political intention of the authority in “1984” was to destroy opposition at source by destroying imagination.

The strategy was to simplify and reduce language, destroying its richness and its complexity, reducing concepts to one-word or one-phrase simplicities, depriving the imagination of the tools to think.

Eamonn Kelly is a freelance writer.

Previously: JobPath: The Great Social Protection Swindle

JobPath And Class Discrimination

JobPath And The Reality Of Employment Activation


26 thoughts on “Negativity: A Positive Spin

  1. curmudgeon

    I thought the common theme amongst the bulk of the responses were that pieces needed an executive summary. Longform is a tough sell on the ADHD enabling content aggregator internet of the modern age.

  2. Rob_G

    Ever since the back and forth on the Mosul post about the “correct” versus “incorrect” use of “quotation marks”, I am finding them really “jarring”, even when used “correctly”.

  3. Sheik Yahbouti

    B B B B But Eamonn, “All is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds” – have you not read this elsewhere?
    Seriously, we need to do something deeply unpleasant to all these nonces gurgling on about “negative thinking”. In a more correct society it would be viewed as common sense and a refusal to accept BS.

  4. Rob_G

    Catholic Church ✔
    Orwell ✔

    – right, it’s the Pope’s fault that the social welfare are asking you to apply for a few jobs to keep getting your scratcher; mother of Jaysus…

  5. Rose Madder

    Critical thinking should be encouraged especially in our young people but instead it is being ‘marketed’ as something that drags everyone else down with it. Very convenient for those in positions of power, I may add. The skills required for critical thinking include analysis and problem solving. Trying to see everything through rose-tinted glasses does not create good solutions. We need to wake up, look at our past and it’s implications (how colonialism has affected our psyche as an oppressed nation) and become braver at standing up and tackling injustices and problems. If we do not call out the negative, we allow abuse from those in power to continue.

    1. Rob_G

      Colonialism – check

      – who had ‘colonialism’ in ‘Its Someone Else’s Fault Bingo’

      1. Sheik Yahbouti

        Seriously Rob, time to cop on and try and do something useful with your life. You’ll like yourself a whole lot more, I promise.

      1. Sheik Yahbouti

        Yeah bur, Clampers, calling sh!te ice cream doesn’t make it so. Do you not think it might be more productive to stare reality in the face, and do something about it, rather than our current “sure it’s all grand” mode?

        1. nellyb

          “calling sh!te ice cream doesn’t make it so” – oh it does for its eaters who call it artisan flavor ;-)
          our property market is exactly what you’ve said

  6. Daisy Chainsaw

    What do our middle classes living high on the hog on €20k per annum think about this?

  7. nellyb

    Eamonn, while I agree with you on “positive thinking” – it turns people into boring idiots on denial platform (as well as extra vulnerable to exploitation) – but it’s personal choice for people who are capable of consent.
    I’d rather see them deluded but alive than successfully suicided in lieu of hope. Lesser evil, if you like.

  8. Andrew

    Really Eamonn, you took any critical reaction to your previous piece and patronisingly assign a collective narrative, that this was the cries of brainwashed dullards incapable of critical thought?
    You’re quite a piece of work.
    It couldn’t be anything else no?
    Using the Orwell reference is quite bizarre. Most of what might be classed as ‘Orwellian’ stifling of free speech; is the shutting down of debate that doesn’t fit with a groupthink all too pervasive in our media and online forums.
    Most of the comments on your last piece were either, that it was too long and rambling, or were questioning why you or anyone else should be supported by other workers until you found the ‘right’ job.
    Try some self-criticism Eamonn instead of dismissing anyone that disagrees with you.

  9. Subeditor Needed

    The ideas aren’t bad but the writing is atrocious. Maybe some policing of thoughts is in order.

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