Here is part two on Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided. (Part one is here.)
Chapter two is a discussion of motivational literature and ideas, especially of those famous enough to be on Oprah.
A convention for motivational speakers: Ehrenreich is surprised by the mix of technical, commercial help and theoretical information that are offered, though it seems rather typical, and useful. Her real concern is for the people at the convention, because they mostly are wannabes who will presumably be taken for a ride. They lack experience addressing large audiences of the type they presumably will need to do, in order to become motivational speakers; they are not prepared to address audiences “of the size of” the convention. They are hero-worshipping the people who run the convention and don’t realize that they aren’t really capable of reaching the top of the pyramid. This is not the kind of place where people can attend seminars where they will learn things from teachers or purchase books from which they can learn. It is a certain kind of emotional experience mixed with crass commerce.
Ehrenreich has to admit that there are advantages to being nice, and having a positive attitude, rather than being grumpy. She seems to be ambivalent. She’s trying to show why she dislikes it, why it’s troubling, why it can be pragmatically counterproductive. Still, this part of the book doesn’t really work for me. Ehrenreich concedes that a workplace filled with happy people is more enjoyable for most people: we are one another’s “emotional wallpaper,” in her words, creating the environment within which each individual moves and acts. But she has to work very hard to find a way to describe this that will not undermine her point, and she doesn’t always succeed. She asks whether most people would prefer to work with “critical and challenging people or smiling yes-sayers”; but this is awfully close to “critical nay-sayers or people who smile at you”; and how much more persuasive would this have been if she’d written “people who challenge your assumptions or yes-men who, in Hamlet’s words, ‘smile and smile’”?
Her most vivid examples of the evils of the positive thinking mindset involve coercion imposed by employers—not unnaturally, given her leftist politics—she is appalled by the treatment people who work for others, especially for corporations, are compelled to put up with. In Dale Carnegie’s day, a telephone operator could be compelled to behave as if she were really interested in the people she helped. In our own time, one of her sources was never even able to discover what he’d said that had been so sarcastic he’d had to be let go. William Whyte’s “Organization Man” was managed in industrial conditions similarly oppressive to those in the Soviet Union. “What has changed, in the last few years, is that the advice to at least act in a positive way has taken on a harsher edge. The penalty for nonconformity is going up, from the possibility of job loss and failure to social shunning and complete isolation.”
Here, again, I think she is going off-track: nobody has said that what’s criticized as “negativity” in the workplace has anything to do with getting rid of people who bring up bad news or who “provide unwelcome reality checks.” This plays well into the example, which she brings up here, of the subprime mortgage fiasco (which was indeed caused in part by groupthink and reluctance to listen to the objections of naysayers to improbably optimistic plans), but there is no reason to believe problems of the laid-off workers she quoted on the previous few pages had anything to do with that kind of thing—with the idea that workers “are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm.” She gives no reason to believe that this is a widespread or an increasing problem, only three widely separated data points of different categories (individual firings, current events, and motivational literature): this argument can have no practical or direct effect on the people she appears to be most concerned about (the workers), and can at best give people a reason (the recent financial disasters) to change the way they think (giving less credence to “positive thinking” literature).
Positive thinking writers advise people not to watch the news, because news stories are invariably “negative,” being about war and crime. Ehrenreich notes that this may make people feel better about the world by giving them a false idea about how few problems there are in it. Positive thinking drives the new media in which people are given “positive” news instead: happy-ending human-interest stories. The refusal to pay attention to the news is “suggestive of a deep helplessness at the core of positive thinking.” Is Ehrenreich thinking of “learned helplessness,” the theory that explains high rates of female depression by comparison with the lab mice who were shocked so frequently that they stopped trying to escape? It doesn’t seem entirely apropos, though the psychologizing fits, for example with the idea that positive thinkers cannot handle the “terrifying” fact “that there may, in fact, be a ‘real world’ out there that is utterly unaffected by our wishes,” which causes them to “withdraw” into a fantasy world.
Ehrenreich would prefer they join a social or political movement, which I agree would be better than pretending problems don’t exist, and if they do, it is better for people on the other side of the world to suffer, because “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” But the writers who remind people that they can’t prevent wars or earthquakes, even by sending money, joining a movement to persuade the public of the need for change, or lobbying their political representatives (the alternatives Ehrenreich offers) do have a point; the way these stories are covered really are disproportionate to their connection to most people’s lives.
The idea of people setting themselves up as life and career coaches originates in corporations hiring sports coaches as motivational speakers.At the convention, the career coaches’ convention include pseudoscientific explanations of why their techniques work, and a claim that quantum mechanics supports the theory. Ehrenreich’s motivation and her animus against these people shows through too transparently here; the quantum mechanics stuff is very silly and can have been included only in order to make them look ridiculous. She tries to show the difference between the truly scientific (if popular) accounts of Murray Gell-man and Michael Shermer, and the self-help writers who pretend their free ranging speculations are based on real science, but the only point her material really supports is the mistakenness of applying ideas outside the boundaries within which they apply, and she tries to go farther than that. I don't see what purpose is served by emphasizing so frequently that the connections positive thinking writers claim, between their theories and science, are not only slight but non-existent--most people with an interest in science already knew that, most people with an interest in positive thinking don't care about science, and the few who do are not going to be persuaded by her calling them "silly."