Homelessness And Positive Thinking


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



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17 thoughts on “Homelessness And Positive Thinking

  1. bisted

    …the biggest mistake the Comms Unit seem to have made here is Damien English…English…seriously lads…even the name is an oxymoron…

  2. Fatima

    Government by woo-woo. Think nice thoughts and all the nasty hospital trolleys will go away. Be positive and all the unemployed will be employed. Dream of a lovely silver house in the clouds and it will be yours.

    No nasty squatting in empty houses or occupying hospitals or going on strike. That’s negative. That’s bold.

    1. f_lawless

      I would have thought the rhetorical situation as presented was fairly apparent – as in, something along the lines of:
      Ireland’s fixation with right-wing politics has led us down the path of becoming an ever more divided, uncaring society . Isn’t it time for a truly left-wing government to be given a chance for once?

      1. Milton Freidman

        If you honestly think Ireland is fixated with ‘right wing’ politics in the economic sense then you are deluded. The biggest budget any department has is the Department of Social Protection, which accounts for 40% of all state spending. People give out about right wing politics without defining it. Of course if you define it as a pejorative as in ‘everything that is wrong with the country’ then of course the opposite held view is that if we got left wing politics we would be living in Utopia as everything broken would be magically fixed, am I correct?

        1. f_lawless

          Aren’t you just indulging in strawman arguments there? I neither mentioned “the economic sense” nor would I want to dumb things down to “right-wing politics being everything that is wrong with the country”.

          1. Milton Friedman

            Your previous post gives that impression. Give a left wing government a chance, just because. Am I right?

    2. Yep

      A critique on the method of inaction doesn’t need a solution for it to hold weight.

      Also, what were Friedman’s solution for homelessness? Blame the individual and let the market decide? That seems to be our current plan of action. How is that going?

      Good read.

  3. Milton Freidman

    The irony of this is of course that state action has made this situation worse rather then better. Banning bedsits has been a massive contributor to people sleeping on the streets, to take one simple example. Nevermind planning restrictions on the height of new buildings, requirements for dual aspects, car parking and so on that prevents a more cheaper units being built to house people. Yet, the answer to any question here is, let the state do MORE!

    1. Cian

      The banning of bedsits, restrictions on the height of new buildings, requirements for dual aspects, and other minimum standards are there for a reason – without these standards we probably wouldn’t have a housing crisis – instead we would have a slum crisis.
      There is a fine line between light-touch regulation and over-regulation and nobody will ever agree where it sits – the vested interests will always say the line is too far over the other side (as an example, the RTB settles disputes between landlords and tenants – many landlords think it is too tenant friendly; many tenants think it is too landlord friendly).
      Personally I think we have a problem with enforcement in this country – the old minimum standards were being abused and people were living in bedsits that were hovels. Rather than enforce the standards that existed at the time, a new (higher) set of standards were introduced. These new standards abolished bedsits… but the new standards aren’t enforced either – so certain landlords continue to ignore them. Sigh.

      1. Milton Friedman

        You may have a point if there were still bedsits but afaik there are no bedsits anymore in Dublin. This policy introduced by well meaning Green TD’s is the single biggest factor for people sleeping on our streets. Are the Greens right wing? No.

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