Barbara Ehrenreich’s book ‘Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World’ was inspired by her anger at being told that she needed to have ‘positive thinking’ to rid herself of her tumour. As an immunologist, she knew only too well the scientific realities about her cancer… and she was rightly disgusted by the punitive assumption that failure to be cured would implicitly be her own fault for failing to be sufficiently ‘positive’.
This led her to consider the ramifications of ‘positive thinking’ and ultimately the use of the “American Dream’ as a tool for controlling the minds of the masses.
Tumours are a source of happiness. Accepting the laws of physics – or not – is a matter of personal choice. And getting the things you want is primarily a question of imagining what it will be like when they are yours (and perhaps berating God for not having provided them yet). This sort of patent idiocy would be disturbing enough if it lurked only on the wilder fringes of life in America, but, as Barbara Ehrenreich explains in her affronted, surprisingly cheering attack on positive thinking, mainstream culture is also riddled with its destructive tenets. Everything from health care to the global financial system has been infested.
‘Positive thinking’ conveniently shifts the burden of responsibility onto the individual, and it is a tool that has been employed skilfully by the Tory/LD coalition, with help from the media. The most obvious case, is in the denial of there being 5 times as many unemployed as there are job vacancies… and that is without taking into consideration the uneven geographical distribution of jobs. In some areas, the ratio is 25+ unemployed people for every vacancy. Yet the government spins persistently about benefit scroungers, shoddy state education, the ‘wrong’ attitude… and variously punishes the ‘workshy’ for not ‘thinking positively’ enough to find a non-existent job.
Essentially, the focus is placed on the inherent characteristics, or capabilities, of the individual, and is deflected away from any external conditions. In psychology, this comes under the heading of attribution theory. It is suggested that the observer is more ‘comfortable’ believing that the subject slipped on a banana skin because they are inately clumsy, rather than to face the potential risk that they too might inadvertently slip on an unseen banana skin. Hence ‘benefit scrounger’ is a powerful piece of spin which taps into a feature of the human psyche. It is preferable to believe that others are unemployed because they are workshy, rather than face personal fears about the impact of the double-dip recession and economic meltdown.
Another highly pernicious example of the misuse of attribution theory, is in the redefinition of illness which underpins the Welfare Reform bill. The Biopyschosocial model proposes:
… disease is the only objective, medically diagnosable pathology. Sickness is a temporary phenomenon. Illness is a behaviour – ‘all the things people say and do that express and communicate their feelings of being unwell’ (p39). The degree of illness behaviour is dependent not upon an underlying pathology but on ‘individual attitudes and beliefs’, as well as ‘the social context and culture in which it occurs’. Halligan and Wade are more explicit: ‘Personal choice plays an important part in the genesis or maintenance of illness’.
In other words, disease has concrete, physical aspects that can be demonstrated by medical tests. Sickness is something like a cold which is self-limiting and from which you recover. But ‘illness’ is a sort of psychological delusion mediated by the individual’s worldview and a ‘wanting to believe themselves to be ill’. Hence, the problem of being ‘ill’ is firmly located in the individual, and their beliefs and behaviour become the focus of moral judgment and action ie. scroungers, benefit cheats, malingerers, lacking in moral fibre, ‘learned helplessness’ and other such punitive terms.(1)
Thus, many of those with disability and long-term chronic illness are considered to be simply lacking ‘positive thinking’… and, therefore, the horrors of a Work Capability Assessment is justified by government. (2) However, the reality is that this is a cynical means to reduce the benefits bill and put the UK on route to a two-tier US style of insurance-based welfare provision.
Barbara Ehrenreich suggests that the ‘American dream’ is the reason that ordinary Americans have not challenged the ‘upward redistribution of wealth by cutting taxes for the wealthiest, and in subtle ways, raising them for the poorest and for the middle class… It’s a grab. It’s—I’m waiting for people to get really, really angry about it. I think one thing that has held back Americans is the idea that you’re going to get rich, too, you know? That magically, “Hey, I might be one of those multimillionaires next,” so that I don’t want to tax rich people.’ Barbara Ehrenreich: America’s Tragic Decline — Resistance Bursts Out All Over the World, While We Do Nothing to Fight Corporate Takeover August 8, 2011
To paraphrase Gramsci … in order to resist the mind control, we need to try and see the world as it really is – not as we want or fear it, to be. Barbara Ehrenreich concurs by reiterating that we need ‘Realism’ not the magic of ‘Positive Thinking’.
RSA Animate – Smile or Die
Uploaded by theRSAorg on Mar 17, 2010
Acclaimed journalist, author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich explores the darker side of positive thinking.