Friday, October 16, 2009

How Barbara Ehrenreich Ruined my Movie Night....


Huge Disclaimer: As someone not living in the United States, I might not be the best person to be commenting about an author whose book carries the tagline: "How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America." Maybe the cult of Positive Thinking really is a USA-only thing. I haven't lived in the US for much time in the past 6 years, so maybe she's spot on. I'm still skeptical. Check out what I'm talking about:
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Man, I love the Daily Show. I only just now rediscovered it because, well, I'm living in Germany. Yesterday was a day of watching "good things" so we started our little marathon of Prime Time TV and movies by watching the October 14th episode of The Daily Show, with guest Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of books I'd never heard of. (You can watch the episode online by clicking HERE).
If you're not into watching episodes online (legally, I might add!), check out this Blog post of her's by clicking HERE.

Check it out and form your own opinion. The issue I have with it is that she seems to be against Positive Thinking as a religion...she talks at length about hippy-esque positive energy being able to shape the world around them but it's this horrible over-generalization. I don't know if I'm articulating this properly....but basically she's against telling people who are sick, depressed, or out of work to "Stay positive". She's potentially the most cynical person I know. Which is awesome, but her attitude toward the "Evil" of positive thinking as a whole is what left a bad taste in my mouth. Again, I don't know if she's really against ALL positive thinking but that's pretty much what she says.

So I'm watching Star Trek and Spock tells the captain that there's only a 4% chance that they'll be able to survive. Kirk tells Spock that "Everything will be Alright". Me and my older woman immediate chime in "THE EVIL OF POSITIVE THINKING!" in unison.

From her Blog:

"When it comes to how we think, “negative” is not the only alternative to “positive.” As the case histories of depressives show, consistent pessimism can be just as baseless and deluded as its opposite. The alternative to both is realism – seeing the risks, having the courage to bear bad news, and being prepared for famine as well as plenty."

The problem is that in our fiction and sometimes in reality, we're surrounded by horrible, overwhelming odds that if we're realistic, there's not hope. Sure it's more heroic to think you're most likely going to die, but Barbara is apparently against telling people who are about to die "everything will be fine." Which is noble, in a way, but next time you watch a movie and something bad happens see how quickly the hero uses the deception of Positive Thinking. Sorry hero, most likely we're all going to horribly die. I keep looking at Star Wars and, when I think about it, C3PO was the most realistic character in that movie, because he kept going on and on about how he was going to die. Other random things:

"As God as my witness, I will never go hungry again."
-Postive Thinking from Gone with the Wind (Evil, OMG!)

Mr. Rad: Get yo' head up. You lost the money, it's gone. But, you can't lay around in yo' misery too long. Do *not* walk outta' this place and start to second guess yo' talent. You got yo' ass whooped tonight. But, I done seen y'all whoop a many a ass, right in the same place. Now, you lost. Lemme tell you somethin' my father told me, is: "If it don't kill you, it makes you stronger". Remember that.
-From "You Got Served" (I have no idea if this is positive thinking or realism, but since not all things that don't kill you make you stronger, I'm going to hedge my bet and put it over onto the side of wicked deception.)

And that's me rambling. Read her Blog, watch the interview, and maybe read her book. I know I will just because of the sheer thought she's inspired in my own home. She's awesome but, unless she just sucks at explaining her point in a concise fashion, she seems to also be very wrong...at least in my experience. When reality sucks, being realistic borders on suicidal. If I didn't believe that one day I'd be able to make a living doing what I love, I would have given up on painting and gone back to that well-paying office job I had years ago.
And again, I'm sure I'm misunderstanding her point. She seems to be speaking from personal experience involving economics and self-help cults, but at the same time she lashes out against Positive Thinking itself, which is why she's created so much energy to talk about her.
-Jared
"Who thought HE was Cynical until he learned who Barbara was"

Edit:
Why am I reminded of the Nihilist philosophic arguments of the late 1970's? If you studied philosophy or are familiar with John Gardner's Grendel, then you may very well know why they spring to mind.

And this is telling. From Barbara's Bio that's outdated and obviously talking about her new book:

"I’m now researching for a book on what I call “the cult of cheerfulness,” which requires Americans to “think positively” rather than to take positive action for change"

If she'd said that at some point with any conviction, it would have saved me a lot of hilarious "How Can you Be So Wrong" moments yesterday. Positive Action for Change? Awesome. Being Realistic when you can't do anything about it, such as when you have cancer? Less Awesome. There's still some weird mixed messages there, but I think ultimately she meant to do good with her joy-killing tome. Only time will tell.

9 Comments:

Blogger Samuel said...

I think she's writing more about things like The Secret (a vile little book that Oprah pushed for a while), affirmations, and the "law of attraction." These sort of things make victims blame themselves for not thinking positively enough.

I don't know if I'm articulating this properly....but basically she's against telling people who are sick, depressed, or out of work to "Stay positive".

As for this, I think you misunderstand. The point is not that you shouldn't tell people to think positively when they're sick--that flies in the face of quite a bit of recent scientific evidence. It's that newage thinking has led some people to forgo proper medical treatment--for themselves and/or their children--because they've been led to believe that they can think/pray themselves better.

Why am I reminded of the Nihilist philosophic arguments of the late 1970's? If you studied philosophy or are familiar with John Gardner's Grendel, then you may very well know why they spring to mind.

Would you be willing to expand on this? I'm not familiar with that work, and I'm curious to see what about her reminds you of nihilism (especially since she's a humanist of some note).

6:40 PM  
Blogger Jared said...

I think the problem is I'm not familiar with "The Secret" and, well, her use of the Term "Positive Thinking" seems to be a bit misleading. It does seem to be that she's against positive thinking but not against thinking positive? It's a weird semantic thing. I think you're totally right and from the getgo I was pretty accepting of the fact that I was missing something obvious.
I will say that I think you're a bit off as well, because she specifically states that she wasn't told to "stay positive" instead of medical treatment. Check out her interview...Jon Stewart presses that point rather clearly, making it harder to pin down exactly what her point is. Is Thinking Positive in tandem with Medical Care negative? I think that, without reading the book, it's hard to understand that she's against "New Age Positive Psychobabble Magic", because she just keeps coming out against Postive Thinking. It's a semantic thing I think (and I will read the book to clear this up because now I'm curious).

As for the Nihilist thing, I really should expand on my relationship with all that crap and John Gardner at length, but I will say she reminds me of the Nihilist argument because:
a) She makes a lot of sense and is providing a truth.
b) It is a hideous truth that is particularly difficult to find joy from.
c)Her position is one that is derisive/subjectively superior to everyone who disagrees with her...i.e. anyone who believes in Hope.

Again, I'm obviously misunderstanding her but then again, I'm not sure. The Nihilist bent comes from having a position that is negative without providing an alternative. She's against people being positive, but she's not saying she's in FAVOR of people being negative. She's just saying that if you're in a bad situation and you try to act positive about it, you're perpetuating a grand, self-destructive scheme. I exaggerate, but you get what I'm talking about. Like Nihilism, you're left having to juggle a weird conundrum. If I'm realistic about the amount of work I have to do by the end of the month, I'll get depressed and not be able to finish it. If I "think positive" (again, not the weird Hippy New Age version) I'll be able to get it done.

Saying she's only talking about the New Age stuff is a nice escape from the argument, but from her Interview/blog, I think it's clear she's not JUST against that aspect of it.
If any of that makes sense. It's all very interesting, really.
-Jared

7:07 PM  
Blogger Samuel said...

Gah (that's my reaction to the interview, not what you wrote), now I understand why you got the impressions that you did.

First off, and most importantly: Unless you are active in the skeptical/freethought/humanist community* (henceforth to be referred to as the freethought community) in the US/UK/Aus., she expressed herself HORRIBLY in that interview.
I did understand what was being expressed in that interview, but it was in that way that I understood Lynch's Dune--prior knowledge/frame of reference.

The biggest problem with the Daily Show interview is that her kept it a bit too personal. My statement about being sick was more generalised, rather than about her specific case.

On "delusions"**:
This is a very hotly debated topic in the freethought community, and part of it is how acceptable lying is, and what qualifies as such. It's also very subjective.

I will have to wait to address the idea of Nihilism, but I definitely want to address it.

*I participate in the community in that I listen to podcasts.

**The term she uses in the interview.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Jared said...

First off:
Golden. I'm glad someone (potentially) "in the know" can say she expressed herself terribly. Not being attached at the hip to American culture also didn't help, but I'm glad someone engaged in the topic agrees with me, at least on the validity of thinking the wrong thing based off what she said.

Secondly:
"Freethought Community"? What madness is this! Cite your sources and share them with the whole class, if that's a possibility. Seriously, I wasn't aware there were such communities that actually were what they said they were. And holy crap I'm afraid...but curious. Recommend some Podcasts/sites to check out...I wasn't aware there were specific Freethought communities rather than communities that are, well, into free thinking. Lord knows if I'm making sense, but this Barbara Ehrenreich stuff is giving me Philosophy (my 1st Major, eventually a minor) flashbacks.
-Jared

Edit: And Lordy Lou, all this is going to inspire me actually talking about Nihilism and why I dropped out of Philosophy in the next blog post.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Googleshng said...

Yeah, a big part of understanding the point here requires some familiarity with The Secret and some similar things from various Deepak Chopra books.

Basically, the premise is: The quality of your life is determined solely by how you secretly want it to be. So if you're happy and successful, it's because you really want to be happy and successful.

Meanwhile if you're sick or someone dumps you or you're poor, it's because deep down, you don't think you deserve to be happy. It has nothing at all to do with keeping your spirits up and continuing to do your best until you get some payoff. It's literally saying that if you close your eyes and wish to become a millionaire, and you really mean it, it'll happen.

So, basically, the idea is to alleviate guilt for self-centered jerks by telling them that the universe really DOES revolve around them, and they don't need to feel sorry for the less fortunate because they want to be living on the street and dying of pneumonia. Horrifyingly enough, a surprising number of people buy into it too.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Josiah said...

Hope you don't mind my chiming in...

I think one of the biggest issues regarding this whole concept or mode of thought (viz. affirmations/law of attraction) is that it can easily and unconsciously strip an individual of his/her ability to discern and progress through life under their own power. By that I mean, the individual is seemingly alleviated from all responsability or life's work, simply chalking it up to the forces of nature or their own lack of will to manifest what they truly want. What is missing is the fact that everything worth doing/achieving on this planet takes hard work, both physical and mental. It is absurd to assume that any forces of nature would give you a BMW just because you want it badly. In my mind, if there is a law of attraction, it affects the universe only in a extra-physical manner. It's possible that you may see or understand things you once didn't through willpower or affirmations, but to think that it will affect any aspect of your physical existence (wealth, health, womens, whatever) is utterly rediculous. If the heirophant of this so-called movement states that one can manifest riches solely by willing it, then they are full of shite, and pose a serious threat to weak-willed unintelligent folk who want out of their unfortunate circumstances and will gladly pay $$$ for books and DVDs that offer the chance at a way out without dealing with any of the work or consequences. Whatever exists outside of our physical world isn't going to pimp your ride for free just 'cause some douchebag with a ponytail told you it will.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

Ehrenreich's book is a response to a theme in American culture. "The Secret" is its most pure expression. It's not easy to clearly express, but it romanticizes optimism and determination. Conversely, any sort of critical thought is seen as negativity and disdained. This theme shows up a lot in the media, especially in media targeted toward women.

A little cheerfulness is worthwhile. Nihilism is for teenagers, then it's time to move on and deal with life. But American culture can go too far in the opposite direction. Any country that can elect George W Bush, twice, is a country that needs a good hard lesson in the value of critical thinking.

It may seem a bit foreign to modern Germans. I worry that it would seem all to familiar to their great-grandparents.

7:57 PM  
Blogger karim said...

Very thoughtfull post on Positive Thinking . It should be very much helpfull.
Thanks,
Karim - Positive thinking

4:22 AM  
Anonymous Frankie D. said...

Yay for KoL Crimbo Cards!

11:46 PM  

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