Saturday, October 17, 2009

Plessy, Brown, Barbara Ehrenreich & "Positive Thinking": Robson's Saturday Evening Review

Be positive!  How many times have you heard that recently?  How many times have you said that?  Or if you haven't heard it or said it explicitly, how many times has that been the implicit message? 

In formal meetings and informal ones, in classrooms and offices, in conversations with colleagues, students, and clients, inside academia and outside it,  the significance of being - - - or at least acting - - - happy, positive,  and "upbeat"  has become de rigueur.   And what could be wrong with that?

 Ehrenreich_opening_03 A few answers are provided by Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.  It is a journalist's book aimed at a popular audience,  yet this seems right because it is criticizing a movement so ubiquitous that it is rarely named a "movement." But a movement it is, she argues, tracing its genesis to the "New Thought" movement in post-Calvinist America, around the time of the Civil War.   In the 1860s, Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, met Phineas Parker Quimby, a metaphysician, watchmaker, journal-keeper, and inventor in Portland, Maine, and so "the cultural phenomenon we now recognize as positive thinking" was launched. (79).   From here, it is only a short distance to William James' pragmatism, Napolean Hill's 1930's classic Think and Grow Rich, and of course Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 mainstay, The Power of Positive Thinking.   Ehrenreich partially explains the contemporary popularity of "positive thinking" in part by changes in work and life:  much more depended on being "likeable to employers, clients, coworkers, and potential customers,"  (96) and not only that, one's very life and health might depend upon it.   

Ehrenreich looks at several specific contemporary manifestations: cancer care and advice, the partnership between corporate and motivational industries,  the mega-churches ("God wants you to be rich!"), and psychologists purveying "scientific" studies of happiness.  Most predictably perhaps, she considers the present economic turmoil.  Ehrenreich doesn't think the culprit was simply greed, but an all pervasive sentiment that confused positive thinking with reality.  Thus, not only were people, whether they be borrowers or lenders, encouraged to think that things could only get better and that they individually deserved the new purse/house/car that they had visualized, but that anyone who dared proffer another idea should be dismissed as "negative" or even "toxic."  Being "negative" could mean not only that one was not in demand as a conversationalist or dinner companion, but that one was terminated from her or his job.

Academia earns only a brief mention (141); she concludes that universities have been "corporatized" with their MBA Administrators, bland architecture, aggressive marketing techniques, and hiring of "motivational speakers.  Not to mention, although she does, the "jargon" that one hears in universities and "everywhere": "incentivizing," "value added," and "going forward."  (She omits my favorite, "reaching out," often referring to speaking to a colleague next door or a student one would see in class, as if that person is very far away).  

Law does not figure in Ehrenreich's book (with the exception of the "law of attraction": visualize what you want and it will be attracted to you).   Reading it, however, did bring to mind both Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 US 537 (1896), and Brown v. Board of Education, 347 US 483 (1954).  In Plessy, Justice Henry Billings Brown famously wrote:

We consider the underlying fallacy of the plaintiff's argument to consist in the assumption that the enforced separation of the two races stamps the colored race with a badge of inferiority. If this be so, it is not by reason of anything found in the act, but solely because the colored race chooses to put that construction upon it.

I've always considered this a premature postmodernist stance, but it also fits into the "New Thought" currents Ehrenreich discusses.   If Homer Plessy had only been more of a positive thinker about that Louisiana statute mandating separation of the races! 

Fifty-eight years later, Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education concludes that racial segregation has a "detrimental effect" :

Whatever may have been the extent of psychological knowledge at the time of Plessy v. Ferguson, this finding is amply supported by modern authority. Any language in Plessy v. Ferguson contrary to this finding is rejected.

The modern authority Brown cites in the footnote includes the famous Clark "doll studies."  But in the power of positive thinking world that Ehrenreich describes, low self-esteem - - - what would be named "negativity" now - - - is in the control of the individual and is not attributable to legal or social conditions.    Instead of suing to end segregated schools, should the plaintiffs (and attorneys) in Brown have looked "within" and tried to be more "positive" about the "situation"?

Ehrenreich's all-important point - - - which I think might be too easily lost in the book - - - is that what's wrong with the insistence on a positive world view is that it reinforces the status quo.    If, as the positive psychologist studies contend, "circumstances" only play a small role in individual happiness, then, as she writes "policy is a marginal exercise."  (171).

Why advocate for better jobs and schools, safer neighborhoods, universal health insurance, or any other liberal desideratum if these measures will do little to make people happy?  Social reformers, political activists, and change-oriented individuals can all take a much-needed rest. . . . the baton has been passed to the practitioners of "optimism training"  . . . .


So, the next time you hear - - - or say - - - something about someone's positive or negative attitude, think of Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education.  And take a look at Ehrenreich's new book. 



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New Thought was/is a reaction to dreary self-loathing religions that crippled their followers via fear and shame. Unfortunately, it has also become destructive and used to reinforce the status quo of the rich and powerful.

Posted by: Diane D'Angelo | Oct 18, 2009 9:54:30 AM

there has been breakthroughs in quantom physics that have lead people to see truth in positive thinking it is all to do with the vibrations of sumatomic particles and they attract to themselvs the same type of particles and thoughts are vibrations so it makes sence that they bring more good things to you!

Posted by: Rick | Apr 7, 2010 8:05:01 AM

Thank you for some great info.. you've been bookmarked! (Quite painless.. honestly)

Posted by: Towherenow | Nov 14, 2010 10:33:54 PM

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