In Defense of Positivity Culture

As the sort of meta-emotional-cultutal — idk, how to say — “vibe” sinks lower and lower, more and more people are turning to self-help, spirituality, and New Age ideas to cope. And with the rise of self-help, spirituality, New Age thought, etc., so too has risen criticism from the Left (and others), particularly around “positivity culture,” which is the idea that you should think positive and that by doing so you can improve your life through “the law of attraction” (similar internal thoughts/energies attract other similar thoughts/energies) and “manifestation” (internal thoughts can become your external reality).

The criticisms of positivity culture can be summarized around four main points:
1) Positivity culture is disproportionately practiced by white people.
2) Positivity culture lacks nuance.
3) Positivity culture distracts people from having a systematic analysis of oppression.
4) Positivity culture is just sort of hokey-pokey and stupid.

All of the above are true; all of the above are way more than valid. I contest none of the above.

But I’d like to provide three reasons why thinking positive, when integrated in a nuanced and measure way, is actually really beneficial — maybe even particularly for smart AF people of color who have nuanced analysis of oppression.

1. Oppression is totally overwhelming at times.

I can speak on my experiences as a union organizer.

After months and months of lies, emotional and psychological intimidation, threats, and straight-up gas-lighting from their bosses, workers engaged in an intense union organizing drive can get a little f*cked up in the head. Look, it’s pretty hard *not* to get a little messed up — as you walk into work every day, your bosses having hired highly-paid union busting lawyers to craft messaging specifically to make you fear that you will lose your livelihood/source of income, and employing manipulative psychological tactics to confuse the crap out of you.

At this stage of a campaign, rational engagement is not useful. Everyone is too freaked out, and emotions are too high. So, instead — because it’s good messaging, but also because it’s capital-t True — I remind workers (and have worker-leaders remind their coworkers) that when people feel hopeless, sad, defeated, etc., that’s the boss winning. When people feel hope, happiness, thriving, community, solidarity, action-taking, etc., that’s the workers winning.

This framework can be applied outside of union organizing as well.

We live in a toxic AF culture; capitalism, patriarchy, racism, etc., literally messes with people’s minds.

And when people feel down and hopeless about oppression, it is true, in a certain frame, that that’s these dominant hegemonic oppressive forces winning.

Feeling hope, despite it all, and fighting back with all your strength and solidarity, thinking positive — wow, that’s resistance. That’s winning. That’s rebellion.

2. Most of your thoughts are irrationally negative; balance is good.

If you’re anything like me, you’re a little bit neurotic. You think a lot of irrational negative thoughts — way more worrying than is proportionate to material reality.

If you’re anything like me, sometimes you’ll wake up, and just feel sort of numb some days. Alone. Sad. And you’ll need to just wait it out.

My point is that re-training your brain, after years and years of alienation, oppression, etc., to think irrationally positive is irrational, yes, but it’s also a way to counteract and balance the fact that you may be thinking in the opposite — irrationally negative — direction all the time already, and so thinking positive might steer you closer to material reality.

Positive thinking has definitely helped me out increase my awareness that some of my negative thoughts are just as irrational as thinking everything is awesome — but when starting from an emotional deficit, you first must recalibrate sharply.

3. Thinking positive gives you a better social-emotional vibe, improving your organizing abilities.

I went into this point in ridiculous depth in these two posts…

…so I’ll just summarize here.

Yes, your organizing technique is super important. But only up to a certain point. In order to keep on improving your organizing results, you’ve got to examine your inner beliefs. Your inner beliefs convey a lot in your sub-communication, energy, and vibe.

What I’ve found is that healing your own trauma and being able to feel abundant positive emotions/thoughts actually frees you up to do better emotional labor, to connect with people with greater empathy, and even makes you a more effective organizer. Ultimately, having a “full” and “giving” vibe means being able to think with positivity and thus be a more effective organizer.

I want to reiterate: positivity culture when taken too far and without nuance is really bad.

But I think, particularly for people engaged in the movement, a balanced, nuanced approach to thinking positive should be considered.

Certainly it should not be dismissed outright.

I’d be curious to see what others think.

Thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

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