Saturday, October 23, 2010

Redux #37 - "Bright-Sided" by Barbara Ehrenreich

I've been on a roll lately with reading books by women authors. I saw Barbara Ehrenreich on "The Daily Show" and decided her latest book would be worth reading. I've already read Nickel and Dimed by Ehrenreich. I thought that one was pretty interesting, although many of her points seemed really obvious to me, as I've had a number of low-skill, low-paying jobs. Unfortunately, I came away from Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009) rather frustrated and disappointed.

Barbara Ehrenreich recently dealt with breast cancer, and it was her experience fighting this disease that gave her the idea for the book. While she was facing one of the worst times of her life, she was surrounded by pink frilliness and forced cheer. In fact, she felt the pressure to conform and not discuss fear, anger, and despair. She argues that the belief that positive thinking will heal you can actually be destructive if and when you don't improve, because then the blame can be shifted from the cancer to the fact that you're not trying hard enough. The distraction of positive thinking can also make people shift focus from some of the environmental factors that are causing increased rates of cancer and what we can do about it. I found this introductory chapter to be the strongest of the book; I liked the aspect of Ehrenreich's personal story, and it was the most convincing.

However, after that first chapter, I could not follow Ehrenreich's argument. I felt she had to fish around to get enough material to make into a book, and it doesn't all fit together well. The first problem I have with her premise is that she doesn't ever clearly define what she means by positive thinking. It also wasn't clear whether she was denouncing all positive thinking or just positive thinking to some kind of excess. Ehrenreich doesn't discuss this, but it is not an easy black and white answer that positive thinking won't help you. For instance, I am most familiar with positive thinking and visualizing when it comes to sports, and I've seen and felt it work myself. Your brain is an amazing tool that we don't even begin to understand, and believing that you can do something or imagining yourself succeeding will often make the difference between failure or success. Therefore, if Ehrenreich is writing a blanket denial of the efficacy of positive thinking, then she was wholly unconvincing.

After discussing cancer, Ehrenreich moves on with chapters on motivational speakers, positive thinking in the workplace, large religious congregations, and "the law of attraction." I think her strongest point may be that corporations, as well as people, use positive thinking to avoid looking hard at some real problems. Corporations are downsizing and firing half their staff, and if they think giving you a motivational book or hiring a speaker is going to make it all better, that's certainly not true. My main problem with the rest of the book can be shown with Ehrenreich's focus on religion using positive thinking. She discussed both rich, greedy televangelists as well as some of the gigantic churches out in the suburbs. The problem I had with this argument is that it's not clear what kind of influence these people have on society as a whole. Sure, they spout out some crazy, unhelpful things, but I never had a high opinion of televangelists. In fact, I had very little interest in reading about them. The same goes with the corporations. The fact that corporations might encourage positive thinking and bring in some speakers is not one of my major concerns; in fact, I'm a lot more worried over corporations' influence over our political process at the moment.

I had a hard time feeling out Ehrenreich's point in this book. It felt unfocused and confused, and I think that's partly because simply stating that positive thinking is bad is not a very defensible position. I was left unconvinced about both how much influence "positive thinking" wields over our society, as well as what the actual detrimental effects of "positive thinking" are.

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