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Sunday 18 March 2012

Bring me Cordelia! (review of "Bright-Sided")

Cover of "Bright-sided: How the Relentles...
Cover via Amazon

Positive thinking has become so integrated into the value system of our modern culture, it might seem somewhat odd to find an argument against it. And yet that is exactly what Barbara Ehrenreich does. The release of this book, which was published as “Smile or Die” in the UK has corresponded with the publication of more bold books, willing to challenge the power of positive thinking. A little while back I read Steve Salerno’s unrelenting attack on the self-help movement, “SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless” and since then we have had “The Art of Failure: The Anti-Self Help Book” by Neel Burton. Even the great psychologist Richard Wiseman has taken positive thinking to task and looked at the real science behind self-help in “59 Seconds”, which came out the same year as “Bright-Sided”. This book was not an overt criticism of the self-help movement but rather a genuine attempt to use case studies, raw data and proven psychological methods to help people improve their lives. However, in keeping to the science Wiseman highlighted just how much of the self-help movement was bogus and even damaging. His first chapter, “Happiness”, began with a total debunking of positive thinking and revealed that far from being innocuous at worse, these techniques endorsed by the vast majority of the self-help movement could actually be harmful.

However, out of all these books Ehrenreich’s “Bright-Sided” seems to be the most comprehensive and distilled in its deconstruction of the whole philosophy of positive thinking. She begins with her first clash with the cult of positive thinking after being diagnosed with breast cancer in around 2001. Ehrereich’s award winning “Welcome to Cancerland” article, which was published not long after she started receiving treatment, demonstrated the writer’s annoyance with the whole positive industry surrounding victims of cancer. The article inspired several people to question the so-called empowering methods being employed at all levels of cancer care and support. It even inspired the 2011 documentary “Pink Ribbon Inc.”, which further explored the exploitative industry of those who were supposedly trying to help victims of the disease.
In “Bright-Sided” she has far more space to go through her own personal experiences on forums and support groups, which led her down the path of investigating the whole nature of positive thinking. Ehrenreich noticed that not only were pseudoscientific products and ideas being hawked to help strengthen a patient’s immune systems against cancer on the back of positive thinking, but also that positive thinking was putting extra pressure on some victims of the disease. Worse still, terminal cancer patients were being made to feel they had somehow failed. Ehernreich noted the perverse extremes the philosophy of cancer support gurus who told “survivors” to be thankful for their cancer. Working through restriction and seeing opportunities through bad situations is all well and good, but that is a world apart from thinking that being affected by a disease like cancer is somehow a blessing!

America, as the author, notes in her prologue, is a country known for its positive attitude. The sign-off “Have a nice day!” and perpetual ivory white smiles are the trademark of the nation. Whereas Britain had the stereotyped stiff upper lip in the face of adversity, their cousins over the Atlantic did much more than stare down their problems with calm and a dry sense of humour, they “embraced it” with open arms. 

Looking outside “Cancerland” Ehrenreich’s attention was drawn to the way positive thinking had become a part of the very society lived in and had gone on to infect the rest of the world. I was particularly interested in the way traced this national philosophy back to the USA’s Christian roots. Positive thinking has a distinctively puritanical hard work ethic at its core, which the author linked back to Calvinism. She then traces how it evolved through the emergence of American religion such as Christian Science and the 19th century mystical idea that people could be healed through thinking in a certain way.

Ever the anti-capitalist, it would have been out of character for the author not to have picked up on the way materialism became part of the whole positive thinking fad as it took hold of America’s value system. Suddenly doctrines in Christianity that saw the virtue in poverty and humility were replaced by the idea that God wants Man to prosper. To be a successful and wealthy businessman went hand-in-hand with being a good Christian. Positive thinking, Ehrenreich argues fuelled the mega-churches and the rise of evangelism. The obvious attraction of enthusiastic and happy people – genuine and otherwise – meant that such institutions would be successful.

Of course, American Christianity, as powerful and hugely influential as it is, does not have a monopoly on positive thinking as a method or ethic. The book makes a strong point that the allure of the attitude easily permeated the New Age movement from its earliest beginnings. Deepak Chopra and others fully endorse the mind over matter ideas that first became popular in 19th century America. This has allowed the gateway to open for all sorts of spiritual marriages with the acquisition of wealth.  Concepts like cosmic ordering and the law of attraction, championed by the bestselling pseudoscientific book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne, straddles New Age spiritualism and secularism with ease.

It is with the idea that positive thinking is just a given to be good for you, Ehrenreich makes the case that its misuse is responsible for the fall of businesses and a strong component in the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and global recession of the late 2000s. She has a good argument that compliments the cognitive dissonance/self-justification theory illustrated in Carol Tavris’s “Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)”. Looking at it both we see an interesting picture of self-justification and refusal to accept personal error or responsibility fueled by a culture of “yes men”. The “yes men” element, of course, comes from Ehrenreich. Many large corporations have adopted a policy of firing advisers who were not positive enough. This type of delusion led employees of banks and businesses to refuse to listen to those who erred on the side of caution or presented a picture that was anything less than positive for the future.

What seems to key in Ehrenreich’s critique is the way that overzealous positivity prohibits the voices of reason. To not be positive has become a sin. And yet this has not always been so. There are plenty of fables that praise the person who is willing to stand against madness, delusion and flattery to deliver the hard truth. My favourite is Cordelia from Shakespeare’s “King Lear”. The youngest of the abdicating old king’s daughters refuses to follow the flattery of her sisters, Goneril and Regan. They have competed for their father’s affection in public in order to be given the biggest portion of the kingdom as possible. They play to his vanity. Cordelia, Lear’s actual favourite, will not do anything but tell her father the truth. Lear ends up banishing her and suffers the consequences when his elder daughters reveal the true, cruel and ruthless natures. Cordelia, it is argued by many is also replaced The Fool, Lear’s court jester, who continues to remind the king of his follies and his errors of judgment. The truth is that every great leader needs their Cordelia. They need the person who has the strength and cares enough to tell the truth. 

The audiobook production is straightforward and slick. There are no whistles and bells, as befits the tone of the book. My only criticism is that Barbara Ehrenreich might not be to everyone’s taste or rather Kate Reading might not have been the right choice to narrate her book. I don't know who's feet to land the blame. I get Ehrenreich's dry humour and delivery, but a fellow listener commented that it sounded a little robotic. This is a problem with a lot of members of the sceptical movement. They might be witty and articulate, but that cold logic they bring to their subjects can permeate into their delivery, making them less appealing to the middle ground. It is a small observation and I reiterate that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the work.

“Bright-Sided” is a sobering and bold piece of non-fiction. I believe it opened the floodgates for more works that have dared to challenge impractical, exploitative and delusional concepts at the very core of modern society. This is coming from someone who counts life-coaches and self-help counselors among his friends. I even wrote a forward for a delightful collection of motivating essays written by a dear friend who is an incredible positive thinker. I don’t think that we should be deeply cynical about those who motivate us or tell us to think positively and neither does Ehrenreich. We may have some interesting arguments for applied pessimism in recent non-fiction books and perhaps nihilism will make a return to the fore in the wake the damage over-the-top optimism and unrealistic idealism has done to the financial factor. However, Ehrenreich is not putting the case for an opposite approach to positive thinking. Her final chapter, her postscript in fact, is perhaps the best piece in the entire book. Unlike Salerno’s “SHAM”, Ehrenreich acknowledges that the reader needs some sort of alternative solution to unrealistic and unchecked positive thinking. She looks at the way pessimism can be applied practically without destroying ambition and how science enables us to best understand the way the world works. She argues for a sense of proportion, balance and realism.

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