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Media@McGill Lecture: Barbara Ehrenreich's "Reinforcing the Culture of Optimism"

Posted by Carolyn / November 20, 2010


Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich doesn't like Breast Cancer Awareness teddy bears, motivational speakers, or desk accessories with slogans like "Go Above and Beyond!" written on them. She doesn't think that leaving post-it notes on your mirror that say "Love yourself" or "What you can dream, you can achieve" actually gets you anywhere, and she also doesn't particularly appreciate being told that she has a bad attitude. Although the instinctive reaction for glass-half-fullers like myself may be to dismiss Ehrenreich as something of a killjoy, her diatribe against positivity in fact delivers a poignantly truthful--and ultimately positive--message.

The American ideology of "mandatory optimism" was the topic of the evening on Thursday night at McGill, where feminist, social activist, bestselling author and all-around muckraker Barbara Ehrenreich delivered the Communications Department's Beaverbrook Annual Lecture.

According to Ehrenreich, there is a dominant notion in our culture that everyone must be cheerful, joyous and optimistic at all times; if you are not, there is something wrong with you and you must find some means of quelling your toxic negativity.

Ehrenreich explained that she first experienced the mandate of relentless positivity nine years ago while being treated for breast cancer. "I encountered in all this a mandatory optimism--the constant expectation to think positively about the disease. In fact, even to embrace the disease," she says. "The idea is that a positive attitude is essential to recovery. I was being told essentially that if I didn't recover, it was my own fault."

The pseudoscientific misconceptions created and perpetuated by a culture of requisite optimism--such as the idea that a positive attitude can literally cure cancer--range from inane to potentially harmful. "There is this idea that you can have anything you want by thinking of it," says Ehrenreich. "Visualize what you want and it will be attracted to you." By this increasingly commonplace school of thought, the universe is waiting to unfold in accordance with our dreams and desires, if only you think positively to magnetically attract good things to yourself.

By this dubious logic, cancer is a blessing in disguise which can be cured by cheerfulness, and getting fired is an opportunity for personal growth. In fact, you were probably laid off because your negative thought patterns were repelling wealth and sucess. Get a life coach to help you with daily visualizations and affirmations (think: "I deserve to be rich, and I will be!") and by some mysterious power of quantum physics, you will magnetically attract good fortune to yourself.

It's not hard to see how this extreme version of the glass-half-full mentality can play out at the national level in dangerous ways. Ehrenreich's most recent book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America, theorizes that our cultural demand for unwavering positivity was a significant causal factor leading to the economic meltdown.

According to Ehrenreich, positive thinking directly contributed to the financial crisis in part by encouraging people to take on unsustainable amounts of debt. Furthermore, the collapse of the stock market took us by such surprise because those in the banking industry who saw it coming and spoke out was silenced or purged for their negativity. In this case, the failure to allow for the possibility of bad things happening proved detrimental.

The media plays an operative role in reinforcing this culture of excessive positivity by selectively reporting on new news stories that depict the "triumph of the human spirit" over balanced and accurately-reported accounts of real, and perhaps more disheartening, events.

"I can't tell you how many times I've seen unemployed people quoted in the newspapers saying yeah, I haven't had a job in six months or 18 months but I'm doing my best to stay positive," says Ehrenreich. "And I'm saying, why put in that effort? Why not be angry? There's something wrong with a society that doesn't generate enough jobs to employ and use all the talent and intelligence of the people in that society."

So why pull people out of their blissful ignorance? For Ehrenreich, it's because positive thinking is not the stuff of social change. Activism stems from discontent--identifying something that's not right and having the strength and conviction to try to change it. The second wave women's movement of the 1970s--in which Ehrenreich was heavily involved--would never have happened if women were trying to see the bright side of sex inequality. Fighting for greater equality and social progress doesn't take blind optimism; it takes audacity.

Her solution, then, is not pessimism--it's critical thinking. Ehrenreich concluded by reminding her audience once more that she's not against enjoying life and smiling at strangers. "I'm not saying don't be happy," says Ehrenreich. "But be realistic and be vigilant about possible dangers--this is what makes real happiness possible."



vitamin e / November 20, 2010 at 03:36 pm
her speech was fantastic.
Lara / November 20, 2010 at 10:54 pm
does anyone know if it was recorded?
Jer / November 30, 2010 at 02:16 pm
It was recorded. Video is here:
kanchipuramsarees / January 21, 2019 at 11:13 pm
kanchipuramsarees / January 21, 2019 at 11:14 pm
herbal powder / January 21, 2019 at 11:14 pm

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