‘Smile or Die’ – critical view of positive thinking

Here is an excellent video from the RSARoyal Society of Art, Manufactures and Commerce.  As I said before, please do not categorize me as one who agrees with or disagrees with all of this.  I approach everything for the views/thoughts/analysis in helpful constructive ways toward liberation and justice and advocacy, while I critique problematic aspects.  However, instead of me revealing critiques all the time, here is one that the analysis works well and is very good in many ways, and a few problematics that we can discuss if you want.  Please comment for yourself.

In my life, walking amongst new age believers and privileged people in the United States especially, positive thinking and smiling –‘nice’ things, are demanded by many.  If one isn’t smiling or ‘saying things in a positive way,’ you become the unwilling victim (or perhaps willing depending on what you want) of people wanting to fix you, or you are ostracized and called ‘negative,’ ‘crazy’ and other such names meant to mean ‘not acceptable to our superior way of being-ness.’  Being-ness in many circles in the United States, means the drumming out of our lives with force or manipulation or denial–those very aspects that need healing, attention, care, and reflection, analysis and movement.

So many people I’ve known will ask ‘what’s wrong?’ and when you share something, there is an immediate need to fix you, to try to be ‘positive.’  I recently heard a wonderful talk by a woman at the graduate school I attended in San Francisco.  It was during a ‘Creative Expressions’ night.  This woman spoke calmly and directly to us about her trip back to Germany to be at the funeral of a dead older relative.  Then she spoke about her German heritage and the ‘dark secrets’ of this dying relative.  It turns out that he was a high official in the German military during the Nazi regime.  He was one of the many who ordered the imprisonment and killing of Jews, homosexuals, and the ‘physically-less-abled’ during this time.

She then told the audience  that she needed to investigate this because of her sadness.  Her main point in this telling of the story was that some of the people she knew, were telling her that this wasn’t about her and that she needed to move on.  They intimated that it was unhealthy and unproductive.  She then said, powerfully, that she felt insulted by them.  This is a part of her heritage. These are the people she loved.  We are complex beings with histories.  And this history that we have kept in our bodies, silently, was perhaps needing to be opened, looked at, thought of, and mourned.  She said that she found that more people needed to understand what being with a person and a history is about.  That our self-ness is not about a non-history, a non-relation, and that so-called ‘negative things’ are not to be shuttered away somewhere, corroding us.

I felt a resonance to her.  Many people throughout my life told me I was nuts and disturbed, including some of my relatives, for speaking about WWII and the US Occupation; for bringing up my mother’s experiences.  And at work, people have told me ‘you should smile more, your smile is gorgeous.’  What if I had just experienced some events that were horrific, terrible, sad?  Are the range of emotions called ‘bad’ threatening?  In what way?  Why would someone feel uncomfortable and/or assume that one should not express those feelings and express ‘smiles?’  What about concentration?  Can one concentrate?  Apparently, we have to smile.  It is about the people saying them, their not feeling comfortable.  There are a thousand ways to be in the world.  Smiling is not a priority sometimes.  But in this situation, it is political.  What does smiling mean anyway?If one looks at some of the pictures of the white people executing lynchings of African-Americans during the 1950s in the deep south of the US, or some of the pictures of Japanese soldiers with the Chinese prisoners during WWII before their execution, there are smiles.

When I was a young boy, I was beaten and left for dead by a group of boys who smiled and laughed with glee the entire time.  What is this about smiling that I should carry around?  Smiling means many things, not just as a defense or domination.   Yes we need social lubrication, to be with each other, but there is too much of a priority by some circles, on denial and exclusion.  This denial favors those who can carry out the ‘proper’ emotion and behavior and sending the others who don’t or cannot, down the tube to inferior. It favors the people who repress and who judge and who cut-off from feelings.  It is, as the speaker suggests, a convenient way for social control. It is neo-colonial in many ways, or opens the door for it and is used.  How do each of us participate in this?

So I like this video, which the speaker relates to governance and depression in society, and other ways to work with it.  Again, there are a few things I would critique about in the video.  Shall we think about which?

Acclaimed journalist/activist Barbara Ehrenreich, author of ‘Nickel and Dimed’ and ‘Bait and Switch’ speaks about her experiences and thoughts on positive thinking from the subject of her new book:  ‘Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.’

The video following is on the same subject through an interview with Barbara Ehrenreich on Democracy Now.

2 responses to “‘Smile or Die’ – critical view of positive thinking

  1. How do I learn to question and think the way you do? not to mimic but to learn the skills of independent critical thought. Questioning seems to be a part of it but forming a conclusion seems insurmountable with a million factors contributing to even seemingly simple concepts. If you can help it would be very much appreciated. This article is also very interesting, having noticed this trend I wonder what implications lie ahead for generations who have been told to “smile” and not express and work through emotions.

    • Thank you for being interested in this posting and the video. Yes, social change takes certain kinds of work, and certain commitments. Usually, it is about more than one thing to work on so it is very strenuous work which takes alot of energy and focus on self-care because we aren’t perfect, especially when others may not care what we’re doing or what we want or how hard it is. My suggestion is always, in the struggle for social change and social justice, to find others who are committed to certain projects and issues, and the commit to helping each other out. The problem is policing. When is a smile “real” or “authentic” or when is it not? This is something that is almost ridiculous but needed question. So these things we have to figure out for ourselves, to begin to be who we are and not some fake robot of goodness, or some self-centered, oblivious ignoramus. So find people to work with first, or at least some sort of constant inspiration/guide. In commitments of this kind, you agree that you will alert them when they do this, ask certain questions and agree to how to point it out – then – they agree to do the same for you. It’s not about doing something “wrong.” It’s about where you are trying to get to. In my own life, my projects and commitments tend toward liberatory possibilities in change, not political correctness or callous self-empowerment. So it looks a certain way. If you commit to wanting to investigate “smiling” and its contours of denial, injustice, disguise, etc. then make sure you flesh out, with that friend or group (which is even better), how this would be done. Don’t find flaky people. It’ll never work. This is a start. All of us are different. We smile and laugh for different reasons. make sure we are aware of all this as we move forward. You will find that there are perhaps *Other* more intense or pressing things that you might want to commit to. If that happens, it’s okay. It’s a journey. Hope this helps somehow.

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