Positivity and the Olympic ‘Feel-Good Factor’

I love people. An odd statement, I know, and one that some (most?!) who know me would immediately scoff at. I can be very scathing about aspects of people (and aspects of myself.)  Yet this love and this disdain both stem from the same strong belief that each one of us has enormous potential – to think, to act, to create, to empathise, to live lives which always aspire to something that bit greater than what we are. That is why I’m a socialist. I have an unshakeable belief that people are fundamentally ‘good’ – that people want the best not only for themselves, but for each other – and that co-operation is both a way to achieve this and, in itself, the peak expression of human dignity and endeavour. I believe passionately that as a society we should work to maximise the opportunities available to everyone, whatever their background, so that they may understand and begin to realise their potential.

Talk of opportunities and background is, of course, everywhere at the moment. Team GB exceeded all expectations at the Olympics and discussion has turned to how to foster future opportunities for potential Olympians. Yet this seemingly innocuous subject is the terrain for a clash of visions of Britain. On the one hand you have those, like the Prime Minister or the Daily Mail journalist on BBC News this morning, who are fixating on the individual efforts of the athletes involved. The journalist spoke of the hard work and ambition of the athletes, contrasting their efforts with those chasing ‘quick’ success on ‘X Factor’. As I’ve previously noted, this narrative has also been used as a strong contrast to the riots last year, the differing paths of an Olympic athlete and a looter being reduced to rational, individual choices. It’s a clearly neoliberal interpretation, focusing on atomised individuals who achieve almost entirely due to their own determination. It’s easy to understand why those with Conservative leanings would favour this idea.

The second, somewhat quieter vision emphasises the fundamental importance of state spending on sport, the combined efforts of many and the opportunities afforded as a result. A perfect example of this appears in today’s Guardian and it uses this foundation to argue that the post-Olympic glow is the ideal time to make the case for a social democratic Britain.

It’s clear, then, that many will lay claim to the so-called ‘feel-good factor’ generated by the Olympics. Yet once the athletes have packed up and gone home, what exactly is this factor? Reams have already been written about the ‘positive nationalism’ which the Games have allowed; about the British being unembarrassed about pride once more. Much has been made of the success of some non-white athletes – immigrants to the country, even. The Games, we are told, has presented us with the face of a modern, open and happy country. However as the Games closed, a poll presented as proof of this happiness found that a majority of Britons agreed with the statement that “More often than not immigrants … do not bring anything positive, and the likes of the Olympic-winning athletes are an exception”. 68% disagreed that the Olympics would make them ‘more positive or less worried’ about immigration. Fascinatingly, 68% also agreed that “modern Britain is stronger as a country of many cultures”. How this fits with a disdain for immigration is difficult to comprehend but, nonetheless, it shows that questions are raised immediately as you look behind the gloss of the Olympic cheer. Nationalistic pride by definition must exclude people – can it ever truly be ‘positive’? The abundance of articles about the ethnic origins of some Team GB athletes raised many concerns. Aside from the patronising co-opting of someone’s race as a weapon with which to attack ‘racists’, there were implicit  ideas about ‘deserving’ immigrants who achieve gold and, by extension, ‘undeserving’ immigrants – the kind you read about in the Daily Mail, in fact.

Of course, this wasn’t the intention of the vast majority. They simply felt enormous pride that ‘their’ athletes had done well. Yet the refusal to countenance any political connotations, inevitably presented as ‘negative’, seems to me to already be a strong feature of aforementioned ‘feel-good factor’. Affirmations of the power of ‘positive thinking’ have been everywhere, with people determining to ‘stay positive’ and ‘avoid negativity’. The problem with this is that ‘positive thinking’ is almost always apolitical and being apolitical is inherently a reactionary political position. Understanding the power structures of society, understanding the class privilege which led to the over-representation of private schooled athletes in Team GB, understanding the racial privilege which led many to feel they should turn non-white athletes into liberal totems, understanding the competing ideologies at the heart of even simple discussions about supporting athletes – none of these can ever be unremittingly ‘positive’ as they involve confronting a society which is divided and in many ways flawed. They involve bringing Bad Feeling into the warm glow of an apolitical ‘togetherness’. This was perfectly illustrated by last night’s deeply flawed ‘The Riots: In Their Own Words’ documentary on BBC 2. Barely had the ink dried on the slew of newspaper editorials celebrating the ‘new Britain’ before many were taking to social media to once again spit bile at the ‘feral rats’ and ‘animals’ who rioted and looted last year. Of course many did awful, inexcusable things during those days but in what sense is reducing someone to the level of a beast in any way ‘positive’? Wouldn’t the ‘positive’ attitude be to try and put ourselves in their shoes and begin to try and comprehend why they felt they could, should, do these things? To also try and understand that which allows a human being to be killed and the killers to go free, as has happened with Mark Duggan (amongst others)? It is ‘positive’ to ignore this?

Most people who do speak about this do not do so because they want to be agents of doom. They don’t do it because they’re naive do-gooders or because they want to be different. They do so because of their love and respect for people; their belief that the United Kingdom can be a place where the potential of a former looter is understood as much as that of a Royal and where, crucially, it is afforded real and lasting opportunities. Understanding the deep inequalities and injustices which persist in our society may not fit nicely into a ‘feel-good factor’ but, ultimately, the desire for change which stems from that is far more ‘positive’ than a shallow nationalism.

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.

Coercion and Comic Sans: How “Positive Thinking” Became Capital’s Latest Weapon