Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Barbara Ehrenreich's Critique of Positive Thinking
Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided is a funny, fierce, and effective critique of positive thinking.
She takes it on in a number of contexts chapter by chapter: for example, in breast cancer treatment and the rhetoric that has grown up around it ("Smile or Die: The Bright Side of Cancer"), in business and the dissolution of business ("Motivating Business and the Business of Motivation"), and in an influential strand of evangelical Christianity ("God Wants You to Be Rich"). And she brings it all masterfully together in a final chapter that traces how positive thinking in all of these guises contributed to the current economic crisis.
A particularly crucial insight that emerges again and again is the way in which positive thinking while seeming to offer empowerment may actually block meaningful action. It seems to give people something to do, a way forward at moments of crisis when they feel altogether powerless⎯a woman facing down a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, or a worker newly down-sized from his or her job. But in fact its relentlessly inward focus, the personal "work" on attitude and outlook that it demands, inevitably ends with blaming the victim and letting the persons and institutions who are truly responsible off the hook. Concerted action for change is neatly diverted. Further, the delusions that positive thinking can foster at an individual and a broader level can be downright dangerous.
I didn't agree with Ehrenreich's analysis every step of the way but even then, indeed perhaps especially then, I found Bright-Sided to be a bracing read.