The Curiously Oppressive Power of Positive Thinking
by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Content Intern
Occasionally, I read articles and see memes that suggest that loving ourselves and our bodies involves believing in the power of “positive thinking” – a belief that dictates that if we just believe in ourselves enough and put out positive energy into the universe, good things will happen. Following is an example of this type of meme:
[The graphic shows a watercolor-style picture of a woman with her eyes closed and her hair swept up. The text reads: “Believe in what you want so much that it has no choice but to materialize.”]
I have to admit a certain attraction to these kinds of graphics. After all, the way in which we carry ourselves in the world sometimes can have an impact on how people respond to us. For example, most people in our culture will respond more positively to a person exuding confidence than a person who is mired in self-hatred. So there is something to be said for increasing the possibility of positive responses by putting confident, self-loving energy into the world.
But for me, these memes go too far, for a number of reasons.
First, there is a vast difference between increasing the possibility of good things happening and actually guaranteeing a positive outcome. Loving yourself enough to exude confidence is one thing; believing that you can make your dreams come true through an act of attitudinal will is something else entirely. The former is an attempt at playing the odds; the latter is an example of a belief in being able to control what is essentially beyond us. A belief in one’s dreams is an essential ingredient of being able to realize them. However, no dream is guaranteed to materialize, no matter how badly one wants it to.
Moreover, for disabled people – as for any group of marginalized people – these kinds of messages can become oppressive, because they feed into the idea that if only we tried hard enough, or had a good enough attitude, we could single-handedly make our lives better. For disabled people, this way of thinking can take the pernicious form of being blamed for the state of our own bodies, as though we somehow caused our disabilities with poor psychological habits and could somehow cure them with the proper way of thinking. It leads away from self-love into self-blame.
Disability studies scholar Susan Wendell calls this kind of thinking evidence of “the myth of control” – the belief that one has the power to completely control the life of the body (Wendell 1996, 94). Likewise, writer Susan Sontag notes that the mid-20th century saw the flourishing of the belief that a person’s emotional and psychological states were responsible for illness; people had cancer, the story went, because they were “inhibited” and “repressed” (Sontag 2001, 39), and prone to “emotional withdrawal… lack of self-confidence and confidence in the future”(Sontag 2001, 55). The result is that people encounter blame for becoming ill, on the premise that they have the wrong state of mind, rather than receiving support and love while going through a difficult time. This type of blame is just below the surface of the following “positive thinking” graphic:
[The graphic shows a beach at sunset, with colorful stones in the foreground and blue water going out toward a yellow sun and an orange and blue sky on the horizon. The text reads: “The Universe is not punishing you or blessing you. The Universe is responding to the vibrational attitude that you are emitting. – abraham hicks.”]
Despite the disclaimer that one is not being punished or blessed, the graphic makes each person entirely responsible for his or her fate. Put out positive energy, and the universe will respond in one way; put out negative energy, and the universe will respond in another. So if something bad happens, it’s your own doing. This graphic in particular, and the whole notion of “creating your own reality” in general, ignores the many levels of structural oppression that keep people from realizing their dreams, no matter how much good energy they stream in to the world, and ends up blaming people for their own victimization.
People with disabilities routinely run into barriers that make realizing the life they want impossible. These barriers are not of our making and cannot be overcome by means of a positive attitude. A person in a wheelchair who is homebound because he lives on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator cannot, though the power of positive thinking, get to the first floor and onto the subway to a job. A young woman routinely denied employment because of a facial disfigurement cannot, through a powerful rush of spiritual energy, stop people from limiting her opportunities. The 85% of people with autism who are unemployed cannot, by adjusting their attitudes and hoping for better, make remunerative employment appear.
I know that some will answer these assertions by pointing out that individual disabled people have, in fact, overcome structural barriers. The implication is that if one disabled person can do it, then all disabled people should be able to do it. But that sort of thinking ignores the fact that exceptions to the rule are, in fact, exceptions because larger structural inequities make overcoming these barriers uncommon. The notion that, by force of will, we can always overcome structural barriers reinforces the pervasive American notion that individuals bear all of the responsibility for the outcome of their lives, and that society as a whole bears no responsibility at all. But disabled people, for all of their effort, still live with dizzying levels of unemployment, poverty, hate crime, and discrimination. No amount of positive thinking will keep someone from refusing you a job or committing a hate crime against you if they’re bound and determined to do it.
Ultimately, the driving force behind the “power of positive thinking” meme is the word “power.” If you’re powerful enough, you can make anything happen. But what about those whose bodies are not powerful? What about those who are vulnerable? What about those who are tired, isolated, and struggling? What about those who are ill? What about those who lack proper support? How do they make their dreams manifest?
My answer is this: Given that all bodies are vulnerable and go through fluctuating states of ability, disability, energy, fatigue, wellness, and illness, we cannot rely simply on our own individual power. Rather, we must collectively help make one another’s dreams manifest. We must remove the barriers and the inequities that keep people from realizing their dreams.
It’s not enough for each of us to do it for ourselves. It’s up to all of us to do it for one another.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York, NY: Picador, 2001.
Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.
A little girl in my 4th grade class came up to me after recess and said, “I got married at recess!” and I said “Oh? I didn’t know anyone was ordained under the age of twelve.” and she asked me what ordained meant and I explained and then she said “Oh, well, no, my wife and I were married by the slide, but we’ll be happy together anyway.”
So apparently on school playgrounds, slides are already legalizing same-sex marriage.
That was a “totally different” situation, Inhofe told MSNBC, arguing that the Sandy aid was filled with pork. There were “things in the Virgin Islands. They were fixing roads there and putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C.”
“Everyone was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place,” he said. “That won’t happen in Oklahoma. — Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.): Tornado aid ‘totally different’ from Hurricane Sandy aid (via brooklynmutt)
What happen when Pepper Ann tries to buy a comic book?
Look at the date. Nineteen. Ninety. Fucking. EIGHT.
Pepper Ann knew what was up before anyone else.
So at one point Captain Kirk has to send the current navigator off to do something in another part of the ship and he says, “Lieutenant Uhura, take over navigation,” and she just does and it is no big thing. So to anyone out there who ever said that Uhura was only a glorified phone operator, SHE CAN TOTALLY FLY THE SHIP SO THERE.
(image from TrekCore)
- It is cisheteronormative as fuck and pathologizes LGBT people. It makes our acceptance conditional on being unable to avoid being queer. “I tried to be a good boy, I tried soooo hard to be straight, but I just couldn’t help myself and turned out queer. I know I failed at being straight, but please don’t be mean about it”.
- It puts the burden of proof on us. “Prove you were born that way or no rights for you!” This is not asked of other minorities. No one doubts it’s wrong to persecute a religious minorities, even if they haven’t proven that they were born with a gene that makes them believe that way.
- It gives all the power to the oppressor. Straight (cishet) people get to decide who was born that way and who wasn’t, in a way that reflects preexisting prejudice. “It’s natural for gays to be that way, but bisexuals are just promiscuous”. “Gays and lesbians just are that way, but trans people are just really, really gay and trying to avoid it”. “Trans women have female brains in male bodies, but non-binary people are just making stuff up”. The general formulation would be: “[Group I approve of] were born that way and it’s okay, but [group I dislike or don’t understand] are just [prejudice]”. This benefits the more mainstream elements of the LGBT community (read LGs) and leaves more marginalized elements behind and does not constitute true liberation.
- The accusation of having a choice (i.e choosing the homosexual lifestyle) is just a rationalization for many people. Bigots already made up their minds. And then they just look for any argument that supports their stance. If they actually believed in respecting people that were born that way then there would be no mistreatment of intersex people, who were obviously born intersex. (I’m bringing up intersex people, because discrimination towards them and LGBT people shares many root causes and therefore looking at how they are treated reveals something about the mindset of our common oppressors. I hope this does not come across as me trying to appropriate their struggles or being disrespectful).
- The origin of sexual orientation and gender identity is not yet fully understood by science, research is still active. It could still turn out that we weren’t “born that way” after all.
So what’s the alternative, you ask? Well, we could just insist that a person’s sexuality and gender is personal and, therefore, you should just accept people even if you don’t understand their motivations. Also, on a personal level, we should be able to freely express ourselves as queer if that feels right. The question of our essential self is irrelevant (if such a self exists at all).
Final note. There is consensus among psychologists that forcefully trying to change someone’s sexual orientation doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. We don’t have to be born this way for “conversion therapy” to be abusive.
i was teaching my grandma to use computer so we can talk on skype and such but today she went kinda mad at me because “i didnt show her the knitting programme” and i was like what
and it comes out she accidentally opened ms excel and found out its a great way to create knitting patterns
my grandma is 82
I stopped counting how many people I’ve fucked because it got too hard to figure out what “sex” meant. —
ethicalslut, fetlife user
My sex life in a nutshell. Queer sex is a lot of things. It can be hard to figure out.
Jennifer Wolch developed the term “shadow state” to describe the contemporary rise of the voluntary sector that is involve din direct social services previously provided by wholly public New Deal/Great Society agencies. Legislatures and executive branches transformed bureaucracies basically into policing bodies, whose role became to oversee service provision rather than to provide it themselves. This abandonment provoked a response among organizations that advocated on behalf of certain categories of state clients: the elderly, mothers, children, and so forth. It also encouraged the formation of new groups that, lacking an advocacy past, were designed solely to get contracts and the jobs that came with them. To do business with the state, the organizations had to be formally incorporated, so they became non-profits. Thus, for different reasons, non-profits stepped up to fill a service void.
Antistate state actors welcomed non-profits under the rhetoric of efficiency (read: meager budgets) and accountability (read: contracts could be pulled if anybody stepped out of line). As a result of these and other pressures, non-profits providing direct services have become highly professionalized by their relationship with the state. They have had to conform to public rules governing public money and have found that being fiduciary agents in some ways trumps their principal desire to comfort and assist those abandoned to their care. They do not want to lose the contracts to provide services because they truly care about clients who otherwise would have nowhere to go; thus they have been sucked into the world of non profit-providers, which, like all worlds, has its own jargons, limits (determined by bid and budget cycles, and legislative trends), and both formal as well as informal hierarchies. And, generally, the issues they are paid to address have been narrowed to program-specific categories and remedies which make staff—who often have a great deal of understanding of the scale and scope of both individual clients’ and the needs of society at large—become in their everyday practice technocrats through imposed specialization. The shadow state, then, is real but without significant political clout, forbidden by law to advocate for systemic change, and bound by public rules and non-profit charters to stick to its mission or get out of business and suffer legal consequences if it strays along the way. — Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “In the Shadow of the Shadow State,” from The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (via thecurvature)
If you are part of a privileged group and have to constantly demand that somebody in an oppressed group say “not all (insert privileged group here) are like that”
what you are really demanding is that they reassure you that you’re not like that and you’re not being held accountable
which is a cowardly thing to do and also shows the great lengths you will go to in order to avoid examining your role in a toxic system
Characters: Batgirl, Batman, Wolverine
Series: DC & Marvel Comics
After learning my flight was detained 4 hours,
I heard the announcement:
If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic,
Please come to the gate immediately.
Well—one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress,
Just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly.
Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her
Problem? we told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she
I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly.
Shu dow-a, shu- biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick,
Sho bit se-wee?
The minute she heard any words she knew—however poorly used—
She stopped crying.
She thought our flight had been canceled entirely.
She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the
Following day. I said no, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late,
Who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.
We called her son and I spoke with him in English.
I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and
Would ride next to her—Southwest.
She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it.
Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and
Found out of course they had ten shared friends.
Then I thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian
Poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering
She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies—little powdered
Sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts—out of her bag—
And was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
Sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California,
The lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same
Powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.
And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers—
Non-alcoholic—and the two little girls for our flight, one African
American, one Mexican American—ran around serving us all apple juice
And lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar too.
And I noticed my new best friend—by now we were holding hands—
Had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing,
With green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always
Carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought,
This is the world I want to live in. The shared world.
Not a single person in this gate—once the crying of confusion stopped
—has seemed apprehensive about any other person.
They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women too.
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost. — Naomi Shihab Nye (b. 1952), “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal.” I think this poem may be making the rounds, this week, but that’s as it should be. (via oliviacirce)