Underneath my yellow skin

When Positivity is Oppressive

I read a short rant by a Facebook friend on white spiritual workers (she’s white herself) being full of shit, and she ended it by saying Law of Attraction was bullshit. I didn’t know what that was, so I Googled it, as is my wont. I’ll get to that in a second. On this post, a friend of my friend posted how disappointed she was with the original post (OP), and she was being all airy-fairy about it, but I could easily read the anger under all her love and light words. Apparently, she unfriended my friend, which sort of proved my friend’s point. Many people who espouse to be all about love are some of the most repressed, angriest people I know. Not all, of course, but it’s easy to wrap yourself in the lingo as a away of avoiding your actual problems.

I’ve ranted before about Americans and our weird obsession with having a positive attitude. To me, it’s a way of coping with the fact that we have very little control over what happens, which is fine, I guess. However, we’re also a very repressive Christian nation at heart, which also believes that you get what you deserve, basically. When I was a Christian, I was told to pray to God if I needed something. If I didn’t get the response I wanted, well, then either I didn’t pray hard enough or I didn’t believe hard enough. It was always the fault of the supplicant and not of God.

That’s how I view positive thinking, at least the way many Americans interpret it. “If you think it, you can do it.” “You can beat this cancer if you just have a positive attitude!” “There’s nothing you can’t do if you put your mind to it.” Even as a kid, I knew this was bullshit. I knew I could never be President of the United States, and this was before I discovered I was bisexual. I would never play in the NBA or be an award-winning photography*, neither of which I wanted to do, but still. I also felt I couldn’t be an actress which is what I really wanted to do because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me who wasn’t an extra on M*A*S*H, but that’s another rant for another time.

Barbara Ehrenreich, an author who is extremely conscious of social justice issues, had the same complaint when she got cancer. She went on all these online forums and was greeted with an onslaught of positivity that just made her angry because it seemed to be victim-blaming. One person told her to run to therapy because she was too angry. Being the researcher that she is, Ehrenreich dove into the positive thinking movement and wrote a book about it. She started a group called the Negatives, and they’re dedicated to debunking a lot of this bullshit. She makes it clear that she’s not a pessimist, but she sees a lot of problems with the positivity movement.

She even makes a connection that I hadn’t previously made. The positivity movement led to the economic bubble. It makes sense once I think about it. People believed they could afford houses that were above their means because they were sweet-talked into it. When my BFF bought her first house, the mortgage person tried to talk her into buying twice the house she wanted to buy, saying she (and her husband) could afford it. My BFF is a very practical person when it comes to money,  and she firmly said no. She was able to survive the bubble bursting because of her level-headed thinking, but she could have so easily said, “We can afford twice as much because nothing will ever go wrong!”

To me, the victim-blaming part of positive thinking is so fucking insidious. And, very Christian. It’s your fault if you don’t believe hard enough. Hey, I just thought of something else. It’s very Peter Pan. Clap harder and Tinkerbell lives!  Anyway, Ehrenreich makes another good point. Part of the positivity movement is to expunge negative people from your life. Now, I want to say that having people who are toxic (for lack of better word. I don’t like it, but you get what I mean) for you in your life is not a good thing. But, having people who are negative in terms of questioning things and not automatically rah-rahing is invaluable. We need the skeptics and the critics and the scientists.

Back to the beginning of this post and the Law of Attraction. To put it very simply, it states that whatever you put out into the universe in what you get from it. Side note: I’ve now seen them retweeted twice into my TL this afternoon. It’s the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon in effect! Anyway, it’s bullshit for many of the reasons I mentioned above, but it’s also bullshit for social justice reasons (as Ehrenreich also has noted). I’ll take a very obvious issue that is still sadly relevant–slavery. Try telling a descendant of a slave that their ancestor was a slave because it’s the energy they put out into the universe and see how far that would get you. Then add that all the slave had to do was believe they were free and act upon that belief and see what happens.

I can pretty much guarantee it will not end well for you, nor should it. It’s a nasty way of telling someone that the bad things happening to them are their own damn fault. It’s also an easy way to cover up for your own bad behavior. You can do whatever the fuck you want and when someone reacts negatively, you can say they control their own reaction. Yeah, but you control your own behavior, so maybe not be a dick in the first place?

In addition, it’s too easy to look at all that’s going on and say, “Well, I’ll just send out positive energy into the universe and that’ll be me doing my part.”

No. It’s not enough. It’s not nearly enough.

It let’s you off the hook from doing any real work and for being complicit in a socially unjust system. In addition, if you really believe that you receive from the universe what you put into it, then you believe queer people deserve to be bashed for being queer; black and brown people deserve to be killed in cold blood by the cops solely for their skin color; women deserve to be paid less for the same work than do men; and a myriad of other heinous beliefs.

It means you’re OK with inequality because you think it’s the fault of the person experiencing it. You may not say it directly, but it’s the logical conclusion of what you’re espousing. In other words, it’s a privilege to be able to think like that. There’s no room for being hands off in a time like this, and it’s a luxury to be able to be above it all.

I want to make it clear that I’m not against looking for the good in things though my tendency is to explore the darkness. I think there needs to be a balance, and, ironically, I’m learning to be less negative by seeing the continual outrage on social media. However, I think it’s detrimental to ignore the very real societal and institutional systems that are oppressive to so many people.

It’s my problem with spirituality in general. If it’s not actually helping people in the real world, then it’s just empty platitudes. I’ve had enough of those to last me a lifetime, and it’s one reason I took such a long time finding a taiji teacher. I didn’t want someone who was hippie-dippy or didn’t want to engage in the messiness that is life. I wanted my taiji to be practical and something I could use every day.

It is, by the way, something I use every day. I was just talking with my taiji teacher how I use my mental taiji to help me out with difficult situations. I’ve written before how my relationship with my parents has steadily improved over the years. Some of the credit is to them–they’ve both made a conscious effort to interact differently with me than they have before, but I also have to take some of the credit. I’m less touchy, less defensive, and more relaxed around them. It wouldn’t have happened without taiji, and I didn’t even have to practice this positivity bullshit to make it happen.

I guess my biggest problem with the positivity movement (besides the fact that it ignores societal issues) is that it glosses over the fact that it’s fucking hard work to change your personality. It can be done, obviously, but it’s not something that will happen just by chanting mantras and exuding positive energy. I’ve been studying taiji for almost nine years, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve really noticed a change in how I approach things. And, it’s not something I consciously do. When I’m in a tense situation, I don’t try to tell myself to be positive or whatever. I am just automatically less defensive. I don’t snap out right away, and I can actually listen without erecting all my shields.

The best example I can give is when I was in a minor car accident. I looked up and saw this car coming at me. I thought, “I’m going to get hit” and instantly relaxed as she plowed into me.  I had people warning me that I would feel it months after. I’d develop back problems or whiplash or whatever. I didn’t. I had a nasty bruise on my stomach from the airbag/seat belt, but that was it (physically, anyway). Before taiji, I probably would have tensed up and been hurt much worse, but because of taiji, I immediately relaxed. It wasn’t something I told myself, however; I just did it. So, someone watching it happen would assume it was easy for me, and it was in the moment, but it wouldn’t have been without the hard work I’d done leading up to that moment.

Again, I’m not trying to say we should walk around with a doom cloud over our head all the time–just that we ignore our shadow side (or our country’s shadow side) to our detriment.




*I have absolutely no eye for photography. None. This is another recurring rant of mine–you can’t teach talent. Yes, I could learn how to be a competent photographer, but I don’t have that thing that my brother has when it comes to a camera. He can just look at a scene and instinctively know how to get the best shot. I could take a hundred pics and still not nail it.

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