Bright-Sided, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bright-Sided

With Bright-Sided, once again Ehrenreich comes up with an interesting, politically aware, thought-provoking book that is witty in its observations of the foibles of people and the institutions they create. Her target this time around is the “positive thinking” philosophy fad.

A lot of what she says hit home with me because it overlaps with things I’ve observed in my own life, and conclusions I’ve tentatively come to.

For a number of years I contributed articles to a few online writing sites for paltry royalties. It worked out to less than minimum wage, or at least the kind of writing I do did. But it was a way to pick up a few dollars from home doing something that’s fairly easy for me, so what the hell.

But one of the more interesting aspects of it to me was to read the posting forums where members of the sites talk to each other. One of them was particularly bad, with the management of the site routinely saying things that were provably untrue, twisting and misrepresenting what other people say, banning people from the site who didn’t toe the company line, etc. It was really crude and ham-handed enough that at first it was hard to believe people couldn’t see it.

But what’s interesting is that for every person who objected, there were five to ten cheerleaders who rushed to the defense of the company and shouted down any opposition. No matter how many times they were lied to, they kept repeating “They’ve never lied to us before!” No matter how much the company acted like a run of the mill self-interested corporation, they kept repeating “I just know they’re going to do the right thing!” Anyone who disagreed was attacked as a malcontent who couldn’t possibly be responding to the merits of the situation, but was just being bitter and destructive and spreading their negative energy.

Were they really that stupid? Well, yes and no. It’s not so much that they were trying to come up with true conclusions and their rational capacities just weren’t up to snuff; it’s more a matter that they were using a non-rational strategy to come up with their beliefs, where truth isn’t the goal.

You occasionally could get a little insight into why they said what they said, like when one of them explicitly attributed it to a religious awakening where she had decided just to view the world in general in a positive way.

I see the behavior of such people as being very much a part of the “positive thinking” mindset. In effect, they want to live in a world where everyone can be trusted, everyone wants everyone else to fare well, etc., so they simply imagine that they live in such a world and act accordingly.

At least when it comes to anyone or anything they’ve committed to emotionally in some way, that is. This community of exploited writers and the entity exploiting them registered in their mind as part of “us,” a group they’d chosen to associate themselves with. As such it’s deserving of having all evidence spun in its favor. The notion that the company is lying to them becomes like the notion that the Bible is mistaken on some point: there’s always going to be some way to reinterpret things, or ignore things, so as to not have to even entertain that possibility.

It’s very much a quasi-religious mindset. And you could see in their frustration and anger against those they regarded as spoilsports and naysayers the same kind of frustration that fundamentalist religious people feel about those who don’t share their beliefs—that it would be so much easier to cling to this worldview and feel good and never have doubt if only everyone else joined in so we could all feel this way together and bolster each other’s positivity.

So they’re not positive about everyone and everything. They can still be pretty darn antagonistic toward those who aren’t joining in the dubious lovefest. But within what they treat as their circle, they’re going to see everything in a positive light if it kills them.

When the company drastically cut what they pay the writers (and naturally announced it in deceptive corporatespeak to make it sound like they were doing the writers a favor, and followed up with lies and efforts to silence anyone who criticized the move), the cheerleaders were out in force saying things like “I choose to see the good side of this,” “I believe in taking what positive I can from any situation,” etc.

So their responses were a manifestation of their positive thinking approach to life, rather than coming from any kind of a rational assessment of the facts.

For them, no justification for what was happening could be too ludicrous. The company is only doing this to avoid going under, they said, and if they went under then we’d be paid zero for our articles, so you see this is really all to our benefit.

People were actually reporting how refreshing they found it to be able to go back to writing for the love of it, because when more money had been involved they’d felt pressured to try to maximize their income. One woman commented that she’d been emotionally burdened by the stress of needing this money to pay her bills and always being right on the edge of not having enough, but now that it couldn’t possibly pay enough to cover her bills she could stop worrying about it and just write. She thanked the company for that.

In other words it reached the point of the Groucho Marx line when he wasn’t paying his employees in The Cocoanuts: “Wages?! Do you want to be wage slaves?! Answer me that! No! Of course not. But what makes wage slaves? Wages!” They’d trained themselves to see whatever happened in their life, whatever was done to them, in as positive a light as possible.

Ehrenreich talks about people like that, people who see everything as being the unchangeable result of impersonal forces beyond their control, but who relish the fact that what they can change is their attitude about it. Their philosophy is that nothing is really bad, nothing is really a hardship, unless you perceive it as such.

The notion that you could actually oppose any of what’s happening in a collective way and change it for the better—that you could join with others and act politically, in other words—never occurs to them, or is quickly dismissed as too confrontational and negative and destructive. The idea isn’t to identify how you’re being screwed and protest it; the idea is to deny that you’re being screwed and take a positive attitude toward your life.

Or as the dimwitted Boxer says in Animal Farm, “Napoleon is always right!” and “I will work harder!” No negative thinking there.

Another thing from my life that this book brings to mind is a friend of mine who spent a fair amount of time trying to break into the field of personal coaching. That’s very much an area of pragmatism over truth—“What beliefs, attitudes, values, etc. can I instill in people that will get them feeling positive and fired up and able to achieve their goals?”

In effect the people offering a way into the field are coaches of the coaches. Both my friend and Ehrenreich attended conventions designed to give all the people wanting to be coaches pep talks, give them opportunities to network, sell them the books and tapes of the organizers, etc. Some of these folks make a very, very comfortable living not so much coaching as convincing others that there’s big money to be made in coaching. Yeah, there’s big money if you just put on seminars for each other.

My friend managed to get a very small number of clients before he gave up and moved on to something else. The clients he had paid enormous hourly rates for his services, so the consumer certainly ends up paying through the nose (and may or may not get any benefits from it—I’m somewhat skeptical, but not willing to say it’s impossible people ever got their money’s worth and made some progress in their lives), but my friend didn’t come out ahead on the deal when you factor in all he spent and all the work he put into trying to get his coaching business off the ground. The people who presumably cashed in from him and his clients were the ones who offer those seminars to train the coaches.

But if there was ever any reason to doubt that this was a promising path, and that the people leading the seminars were offering a way into a field where you were destined to make a lot of money and do people some good, my friend immediately put that out of his mind. His attitude was the same that he was trying to instill in others: success is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you just need to keep telling yourself that if you stay positive and keep trying, this is all going to work out for the best.

What Ehrenreich discovers relates to this, and to other things I’ve observed in this same friend. While there is some cynical manipulation of the positive thinking fad by the rich and powerful, to a surprising degree they believe their own bullshit.

That is, it’s not like all the corporate management people know this is a ruse to get suckers to work harder for them, get people to buy all their products, discourage people from ever protesting injustice, etc. Maybe some do, but in fact the positive thinking philosophy has permeated the corporate world to very high levels. Not just the people at the bottom, but the people running the show have trained themselves to always assume they’ll be successful as a self-fulfilling prophecy, to cast aside doubt, to shun naysayers, and so on.

She attributes a good part of the financial crises of recent years to this collective delusion that everyone from the top down should be go-getter optimists who are great at giving pep talks and being inspiring and going through life looking like winners, regardless of their actual concrete knowledge and skills.

How could these bigwigs possibly have thought that some of the stuff they were doing with bundled subprime mortgages and such was going to continue to be massively profitable indefinitely? Well, they wanted to live in a world where they had the Midas touch and where as long as they believed in what they were doing and did their best it was bound to come out well, so they imagined that they did in fact live in such a world. Anyone who raised doubts clearly wasn’t a “team player” who believed in the company and its success.

One of the simplest examples of this phenomenon occurs in sales. It’s long been obvious that, all else being equal, if you believe your own bullshit, that sincerity is going to be conveyed to the buyer and he’s more likely to believe in what you say as well. You can succeed by faking sincerity, but it’s a heck of a lot easier with real sincerity.

My friend that I’ve been referring to—it was pointed out to me by a mutual friend—has a history of being very skilled at separating people from their money by somewhat unscrupulous means (before and after his foray into coaching he’s spent his adult life doing even more dubious things). Yet you can make a case that he’s been swindled more than the average person himself.

Is that a paradox? How can he not spot when people are doing to him what he does to others?

Well, when you think of it in light of the positive thinking attitude, it makes sense in a way. He doesn’t want to go through life realizing he’s screwing people over for money, so he convinces himself that all his deals are justified and everyone wins in the end, etc. He wants to believe that everything he’s ever gotten he’s earned. He also is used to equating being positive and extroverted and gung ho with being successful, because that’s the image he always tries to convey to the people whose money he’s after. But then when he sees that in others, he responds favorably to it, like “Hey this guy’s really impressive! He really knows his shit!” He’s drawn to people who convey that image of being “winners.”

Some of those people are frauds. And some are sincere but deluded. But they talk a good game, and they make him feel like they’re part of that same community of people that he’s a member of—the community of confident people who believe in themselves, the go getters, the winners.

It may be that it even “works” for him to an extent. Maybe he’s been cheated more than the average person, but he’s also made a lot of money by believing in himself and believing in other confident, positive people. They aren’t all swindlers after all. Maybe there is a certain degree of correlation between projecting that positive image of success and being the kind of person that one benefits from being around, even if there are plenty of individual exceptions.

But as Ehrenreich points out, there’s a “house of cards” quality to all this. So many people put so much effort into believing in themselves and believing in whatever powers that be they’re affiliated with, that they’ve gotten away from substance. The goods, services, investments, etc. that they offer don’t have to be valuable; they just have to get themselves, their employees, their customers, etc. all fired up and positive about them so they’ll treat them as valuable. But surely that’s tenuous. Surely the mania stops sooner or later and the faux value disintegrates as the illusions weaken.

The whole positive thinking thing pervades various other areas of life as well. One of her chapters is on how “support groups” for terminal patients and such all seem to follow the dogma that it’s always best to see whatever’s happening in a positive light.

Not that I think that’s a hundred percent wrong. I had a wonderful friend who died a few years ago, and one of the themes of his life that he was always trying to impress upon people was that all the suffering he had undergone (he’d had major health issues off and on for decades) had made him a better and stronger person, taught him what really matters in life, etc., and that if he could turn back the clock and avoid that suffering he wouldn’t do it.

To a degree I respect that attitude, and I was receptive when he would talk that way. But I also think, with Ehrenreich, that there’s something positively creepy about the dogma that insists on that philosophy.

Maybe it’s that I can respect it when a rare individual sincerely comes to that conclusion by living a hard life and honestly grappling with it. But when it’s just a mantra that everyone is trained to repeat over and over to try to trick themselves into believing, where they haven’t first acknowledged their suffering and raged against its injustice but are just following the strategy of their support group leader—“Everything happens for a reason,” “This is all part of God’s plan,” “This is all for the best,” etc.—then it’s delusional. It’s not a philosophical position they’ve earned; it’s something they’re trying to trick themselves into believing. It’s an attitude they’re trying to adopt as a strategy, not a sincere reflection of what they feel.

Then there are the churches. You’d think as a liberal that Ehrenreich would be horrified by the fundamentalists and their anti-gay, anti-science, anti-woman, anti-underdog, etc. attitudes, but she says what you see even more of in the most successful megachurches these days is this same kind of empty-headed pep talk positive thinking that permeates society. People go to church to feel like they’re winners, to feel like everything’s bound to turn out for the best if they keep a positive attitude, to believe that everything that happens can be spun into something favorable, as evidence that “everything happens for a reason.”

So there’s not a lot of fire and brimstone. Sometimes there’s not even all that much hatred of the “other.” Mostly it’s just a matter of getting everyone fired up about how great they are and about all the success they’re inevitably going to have in their life if they want it badly enough.

I agree with Ehrenreich that the positive thinking movement and its political consequences are decidedly disturbing, if not sinister. From page 121: “The literature and coaches emphasize that a good ‘team player’ is by definition a ‘positive person.’ He or she smiles frequently, does not complain, is not overly critical, and gracefully submits to whatever the boss demands.”

Part of getting ahead in the corporate world is being able to fake that, but a large number of people have sincerely internalized it, and resent anyone around them who hasn’t. (See my earlier example of the deluded people in the forums of the writing websites.) How can this be seen as anything other than evil?

I’ll take truth over delusions any day, regardless of the consequences. But even if you disagree and you just want to believe and do whatever “works,” I’m dubious that all this positive thinking is ultimately effective. Especially on a collective level. Maybe people who are able to sustain the illusions do better as individuals than the average member of the general population in certain respects, but I can’t believe society as a whole is better off as a result of so many people choosing comforting unreality over reality.

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