Anyone who is involved in social media likely gets inundated with inspirational quotes, and some of these have become so common that they begin to underpin peoples’ daily conceptual framework. People start to believe them, and quote them. They are often used in the corporate environment, where they very conveniently function to silence dissent and reinforce hierarchy. So called “positive thinking” is not necessarily “positive” or “thinking”, and often just a proscribed attitude adjustment to smilingly acquiesce to authority. “Positive thinking” cannot be objective, and is thus impaired and compromised thinking.
Imagine you are playing Chess. Positive thinking is useless. The computer that will likely make mincemeat of you is incapable of positive thinking. What’s needed is clear thought without a smear of extraneous false optimism glistening on top of it. Positive thinking doesn’t fix the leaky faucet, stop the war, bring about social justice, cure the disease, or save the environment. It does what the master tells it to, and it doesn’t object.
So I suggest a pithy counter argument. Leave the emotion out of it, positive or negative, and think constructively. This idea is actually subversive in the work environment – even if it puts logic and productivity first, and subjectivity and relativism on the sideline – because it doesn’t meekly follow hierarchy. The technician who warns that the oil rig is unsafe isn’t considered to be thinking positively. On the contrary, he or she is guilty of “poisoning the well”, being “insubordinate”, or challenging someone’s authority. There have been stories in the news of the workers who warned of impending disaster, whether it was environmental or economic, being fired for their negative attitudes, even if their proposed solutions would have worked and benefited everyone in an undeniably positive way. Similarly, whistle-blowers are popularly perceived as “other”, threatening the system, and by extension a risk to the nuclear family and even the warm bed.
People out protesting the building of a new pipeline or dam which is going to cause massive environmental destruction are acting in a very positive way. However, they are frequently labeled “environmental terrorists” by persons in positions of power, whose corrupt misuse of power is ostensibly threatened by right action.
We’ve heard the term “positive thinking” so frequently and for so long that it no longer seems odd to attach a mandatory emotion to what should be clear, objective thought, unsullied by feeling. The effect is to make objectivity and reason into “negative thinking”, because the only positive thinking must, by definition, be a display of deference to authority – obsequiousness. Rational thought and fairness are the greatest threat to bankrupt institutions and the rhetoric that helps prop them up. Positive thinking, on the other hand, holds up the pillars as they crumble.
Constructive thinking is automatically positive anyway, because it brings about positive action. If you are driving home and you are low on gas, positive thinking will say, “I’ll make it if I don’t worry.” Constructive thinking will pull into a gas station and fill the tank. Positive thinking will send soldiers on a suicide mission and tell them to have a “can do attitude” and believe they will triumph. Constructive thinking would probably not have gone to war in the first place. Positive thinking sticks its head in the sand and believes that a miracle will prevent global warming. Constructive thinking acknowledges the problem and takes action now to prevent disaster.
So, if someone tells you to think positively, be a little suspicious, because someone doesn’t want you to think objectively. It really says, “Don’t think!” In the work place it’s code for being submissive, and in politics it’s used to silence dissent and maintain the status quo, even if doing so will doom a given government, country, society, or civilization itself.
4 replies on “Constructive versus positive thinking”
i wouldn’t call that a rant at all. Positive thinking amounts to ‘if you express disagreement with my positive thinking then you must be negative and therefore wrong.’ Positive thinking, as is implicit in your ‘constructive thinking’ contrast, has no content, no method – it is merely rhetorical policing. I don’t know if you’ve ever been caught in conversation with anyone who’s read that book, The Secret. Blimey. The logical extension of their view that physical reality is altered by thought (or magical thinking to give it its proper name) is that there are no causal forces beyond the self. So if you lose your job or get a disease then you are getting back what you gave out. Their evidence for this is that a few marginal scientists who endorsed the book are quoted in it. So on the one hand, the book rejects the authority to the mainstream science that would not endorse such views, while it embraces the authority of science that is implied by the institutional status of the marginal figures quoted.
Have you read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Smile or Die? Very recommended.
Have you encountered the phrase ‘going forward’? It’s used in UK business speak as a positive sounding substitute for ‘in the future’ it also implies that if you disagree with the statement that follows then you are negative, in this case because you would have to be either static or going backwards. Meanwhile, the phrase adds zero evidence to support any claims.
Great post. Should be taught in schools just in case!
Thanks Jeff. I’ve come across the Barbara Ehrenreich, which I dug, and the other end of the spectrum I’ve encountered in many guises since I was still in my teens. You’re right, I’ve heard “going forward” recently. I’ve encountered most of this rhetoric in the corporate environment, and even in schools. I’ve always been a really good worker, but ultimately seen as a bad guy because I stand up for myself and am not afraid of managers or bosses. I had some great altercations with my Chinese boss in a private Chinese school because I caught him trying to rip me off. And I was brainwashed by Socrates early on into believing that “the unknown is always preferable to a known evil” in which case a new job is better than one that sucks, or is starting to suck.
‘I’ve always been a really good worker, but ultimately seen as a bad guy because I stand up for myself and am not afraid of managers or bosses.’
Yes, I’ve heard that artists can be difficult people.
Perhaps a bit more difficult to teat like doormats, because we likely validate ourselves through our art rather than through our station in a corporate hierarchy.