This touches on similar themes raised in the book discussed here regarding ‘emotional labour’ and the contemporary emphasis on a banal, uncritical persona in the workplace. The article doesn’t go far enough in that the consensus on ‘positivity’ and the idea that critical, intelligent thought = ‘negativity’ has spread far beyond the workplace. It’s been easy to observe in the response to the Jubilee and Olympics, though I didn’t appreciate just how disinterested or plainly contemptuous many people were regarding the Olympics. The disconnect between popular culture, the political elite and ordinary people has been quite staggering, though the chorus of voices labelling the cynicism as ‘typical’ British ‘negativity’ has never been far away.
More than this, however, the fetishising of insipid ‘positivity’ stretches across culture and even into how we conduct our friendships. Sure, the ironic distance which stretches ever more widely around individuals creates the appearance of a cynical, sarcastic disengagement with everything and everyone; this, however, is a passive, empty gesture. Serious criticism and discussion which is less than enthusiastic is seen as tiresome at best, beyond the pale at worst. This is particularly the case with gestures which are ostensibly ‘good things’, such as pop stars and politicians saying nice things about gay people or companies donating 2p from their products to charity. Indeed, both have been combined by former rugby player Ben Cohen in his ‘Ben Cohen Foundation’ which advertises itself as “the world’s first foundation dedicated to anti-bullying”. Aside from the odd blog post which expresses dismay at links with organisations such as Nike with poor labour records and confusion at what the Foundation actually does, the response to this has been overwhelmingly positive. Ben has appeared on the cover of both the main gay magazines in the UK, lauded as a hero. When he first appeared on the cover of Attitude, I had a few questions. For example, did all of the profits from the StandUp brand go back into the Foundation to fund charitable work? Did Ben Cohen make any personal financial gain from the brand and/or the personal appearances he makes which are even tenuously connected to it (which range from speaking engagements to signing underwear in Prowler)? Had the Foundation engaged with existing anti-bullying charities from the moment of its inception in order to figure out how it could best help? Suffice to say, the response I received was almost entirely dismissive and accused me of being ‘negative’. Yet it seems completely reasonable to me that a celebrity launching himself into an area he has little previous connection with other than profiting from the ‘target market’ should be questioned and not instantly celebrated. The same is found with any questioning of, say, Lady Gaga’s ‘pro-gay’ utterings. Even more perversely, it was a fairly common reaction to my blog pointing out that the recent ‘hanged gay men’ photo from Iran was actually not what it was being presented as at all. For pointing out that a lie had spread across the globe within 24 hours and been unquestioningly repeated by many high-profile outlets and individuals, I was called an apologist for the Iranian regime. The idea that those in power may have an interest in such lies was not one worth the slightest of consideration, just as the idea that the Jubilee and Olympics may have purposes beyond joyful celebration has been frequently dismissed.
In short, critical thinking is increasingly seen as ‘being negative’ and the questioning of dominant narratives, particularly ostentatiously ‘liberal’ ones, is sneered at. I realise that the examples above make it sound like I am presenting myself as some wonderful seeker of truth – I don’t wish them to. I merely think that we should all do more to question the world around us, from our workplace to our media to the way we conduct our relationships. Dismissing someone as ‘negative’ is incredibly easy and, increasingly, incredibly trite.