Saturday, 10 March 2012

"Positivity" Has A Downside

  From an early age, people were always telling me "Be positive," or "Stop being so negative."  "You're quite negative," they would frequently complain, quite positive that they had every right to be negative about my being negative, to complain about my complaining and clearly feeling that what I'd been doing was really quite different from what they were (currently) doing.
   I was a true child of my father, and didn't know what any of that meant anyway.  Negative?  Positive?  What did that mean anyway?  People just didn't make any sense.
  As the years went by I started to understand that people, through a mixture of personal choice, social forces and natural predisposition, seem to walk into our day with differing degrees of what some people call "positivity," just as they come to us with different amounts of wealth, personal attractiveness, anger, pride, mental illness, gum disease and deceit.

"Positive" Means Whatever A Given Group Decides It Does
  I'm sure most people have noticed what I just described, that people feel very free to be negative about the negativity of others, judge them if they feel they are judgmental, and criticize them for being critical.  This has always seemed fairly ineffective to me.  How are you going to "make someone more positive" by being negative about his negativity?  It's not really about that anyway.  Here's what I think is really going on:
  It's not really about "positive/negative" at all.  It's about "Do You Support Our Group or Don't You?"  On a very deep, seldom examined level, it's about "Do You Fit In?", which in turn comes down to "Do We
Collectively Like and Feel Good About You?"
  At first I took it quite literally, and thought "They really don't like negativity.  Oops!  There I am wording things negatively again.  They'd want me to say that they prefer that things be worded positively."  I tried doing that.  I found that this didn't help at all.  It turned out that:

"I think there may be even better ways to go about this, or maybe in fact there are better uses of our time"
 got no better response in group situations than 
 "The way we're doing this just isn't working, nor is it worth our time."

It wasn't a matter of grammatical negativity getting up their noses.  Therefore just turning "not's" to "is's" didn't help.  
  Turned out it wasn't just about helpful vs. unhelpful, fair vs. unfair, called for vs. uncalled for, or even constructive vs. deconstructionist either.
  Turning "This isn't working" to "I think we should have a look at new ways to do this" wasn't enough.  I was thinking too hard.  I found that it really seemed to simply come down to this:
  "We're us.  Are you us?  If you're us, then you stand behind us and say things that make us feel good about being us, and enjoy it when others say things about feeling good about being us, and also enjoy it when we feel better than they over there are, being, as they are, them.  If you aren't standing behind us and making us feel good, then you are standing in our way and we'll walk over you, having discovered that you are really not-us.  This makes you them. And this is a place for us."
  "Us" had logos, crests, mascots, team songs, school cheers, membership lists, rewards for years of service, annual retreats, secret handshakes, private jargon and lingo and any number of "Hey!  It'll be fun if we ALL do it!" type activities.  I never got any of that.  Turned out that not getting it meant they didn't get me. That's how that works.
  Us vs. Them.  And it got worse if you knew someone was doing something harmful, or you knew a problem was in the middle of happening.  ("Problems?! Are you suggesting we have problems?  Who are you to say such a thing?!)   My pointing out of dangerous or wasteful problems in "us" was certainly never seen as my doing A Good Thing.  It was not seen as "us" behaviour, rather than dangerous, scary "them" behaviour.  It was pack movement.  As seen in wild dogs.  Yet in any number of emergency situations, I'd shamefacedly be enlisted to deal.  And I'd be given a tiny bit of respect for about 24 hours afterward before being on the outs again.  I was good in a pinch.

"Negative" or "Positive" is Decided By The Group
Individuals are a problem for groups.  Leaders can play both sides of the "individualist vs. group joiner" thing.  And leaders are few.  Sycophants try to claw their way up to become them.  If you're just a run-of-the-mill individualist, like so many of us are, you find that when you're in groups, suddenly you're lumbered with all of these protocols.  You have to be seen as positive and helpful, whether you are, or not. You have to go through channels, respect the chain of command, use the lingo, know the acronyms, follow policies and procedures and generally toe the line, even if problems you're dealing with are the direct result of the content of that structure, of the wording or execution of the policies and procedures or whatever.  You get punished (you get ostracised, you get on the "outs") for your inability to be a team player, to go with the flow, to not rock the canoe when you're in it and so on.
  Having an individual or differing opinion isn't allowed in outsiders or low men on the totem pole.  It's negative.  It's not, as I said, grammatical, logical or attitudinal negativity that is being reacted to: it's a failure to fit in (which could be described equally as a failure of the group to see worth in you except when they need you to deal with stuff you are uniquely able to deal with).

Your Inability To Fit or Their Inability To Accept Diversity of Opinion?
  The group can, at any time, tell you, from recess in grade 5, to the various committees, teams, collectives, clubs and such that litter the adult world, "You don't seem able to fit into the group.  You're not a team player. You're negative."  Suddenly it's a social skills thing.  Suddenly it's a character flaw thing.
  But really, they can say that kind of thing when there's nothing more going on than politics, nothing more deep than "When you don't feel good about stuff, you say things that make people we like more than you feel ways that they don't like.  And we don't like that, so it makes us not like you."

My Problem
I have a problem.  I've always had it.  I was raised to it, and I accepted it and I have never been able to beat it.  I am not in any way ever really going to do what 'the group' says, what conventional, one-size-fits-all wisdom dictates, and what individual people say.
  Oddly: I'm going to ask them what they think so they'll be most annoyed when I then go ahead and don't do it.  And then, as perverse as I am, I am going to feel horrible if they reject my doing things my own way for my own reasons.  They don't get that part of my process, the way I decide things, is I wonder "What would 'everyone' or 'Some other guy' do, in my situation?" and then I ask people that.
  What invariably happens is: this consultation then inspires me to realize that I think that I and my situation, with my differing skills, goals and direction, are different. I then decide that I don't see the wisdom or the worth in my doing their thing, and I go ahead and do my thing, based partly or starting with considering what they thought.  And then I'm deeply troubled when I am doubted, rejected or distrusted, misunderstood or maligned by the group, which invariably withholds its blessing and takes potshots from afar, warning others about me and people like me. Punishment. For being an individualist. For rejecting their wisdom, thought I asked to hear it and did really consider it fully.  I have just enough self-whatever to not always just do what they want, but not enough to feel okay about having so not done.
 Groups do not respond kindly to people like me.  Even just going ahead and not doing their thing isn't kosher.  Doing something else?  Totally verboten.

The Biggest Smile With The Wildest Claims Gets The Job
  Many is the time I have sat in some meeting I didn't want to go to in the first place, at Nortel or the Community Living Association (for the mentally handicapped, not that we called them that), or a high school or some such thing, often with huge amounts of money and people's actual living conditions or weekly schedules on the line. There is always someone in charge.  Often someones who are so in charge that they've never been to where you actually do your work.  Usually a smilingly condescending female person.  I gradually learned about how you get so important that your job is almost entirely made up of meetings and briefings, usually with complimentary food on hand.
  I found that the Biggest Smile With the Wildest Claims always won out and got promoted over anyone else, including anyone who had any skill at seeing problems, flaws in plans, bad roads ahead and areas of inefficiency.  Trouble-shooters were always contractors, specialists, analysts, consultants or paid outsiders of some kind.  Hired by the (much higher paid) Biggest Smile to make problems go away without bothering anyone about them or drawing attention to there being any.  If you were an insider, and you had skills as a trouble-shooter, this was a problem.  You were not "a good fit."  People who saw problems (present and imminent) but who weren't being paid to do so were generally asked to be quiet and seen as negative and not good assets to the team.
  I did my best, and often sat and listened to someone or other of like bent lose his or her head and say "negative" things like "But that won't work!  We've already tried it and there are some real problems with it!" and then I have watched them get shut up and shot down.  Sounds like this: "I think it's best if we stay On Message."  "I had hoped that you'd all be On Board with this at this time."  "I feel Very Positive about the direction Joe's taking us, and think we've heard enough."  Sometimes I have simply heard "Well, that's a very negative perspective, don't you think?"  Like that's the end of that.  Because there is no harsher judgment to bring to the matter.  Saying a person is "being negative" has all the force of saying they "have severe mental and emotional problems" or "are insane."  No one has to listen and the person judged to be negative has to shut up and probably leave.  "Be positive or GTFO. And we'll decide what 'positive' means."

Trying to Make Things Better Isn't Always Seen As Positive
It got complex, too, in these jobs.  Simply trying to make things better was just as upsetting to people as actually pointing out that there was something wrong.  Change was the problem.  Who were you?  Why rock the boat?
  I would explain "My digital camera card isn't big enough to take as many pictures of equipment as I need to in order to make good PowerPoint slideshows of what we want to train people in.  It's only 180 meg.  I'd like to buy a 540 meg one at Wal-mart for $30.  Things would go a lot better. I could make far more extensive presentations of the sort they're asking us to do, and it would be really awesome. Sorry.  I meant to say 'It would be value-added to the entire virtual team, moving forward at this particular moment in time.'  (Don't know what came over me there.)"
  Now, you'd think that me trying to upgrade something was a clear example of me being positive and reaching for the future with optimism, but what it got was stuff like "Well, I think we do well to remember that Diane purchased those camera cards for us three years ago, for which we're all very grateful. And they cost more than $30 as I recall.  In fact, she chaired the committee which acquisitioned all the new acquisitions we acquired over and against the bottomline for this project, and I just really think she deserves a big pat on the back for her efforts.  In fact, let's all give her a round of applause for all the excellent work she did and continues to do for us. (small round of applause and cheesy smiles all around)  I just really don't understand why you're saying Diane's camera cards are somehow not good enough, and why you think you can do better than Diane, who is just so good at her job, and..."
  Me saying "Well, I can get one with a large enough capacity to do what I need it to do, and for less than we paid three years ago.  This is 1999, and a lot of advances have been made in the last three years, as we know, working as we do in the hightech field," wouldn't fly.  At all.  It would, in fact, plummet.
  I'd be told again "I just really don't know why you have an issue with Diane and her good work.  She's been tasked with, among other things, supplying the data cards for these wonderful cameras we're using.  You are not part of that process.  My advice to you is that you just go use them and be grateful.  They were good enough before.  I don't understand why you feel there's an issue now.  You're not on the Acquisitions Acquiring Team. Your job is to use the cameras, not say you can make them better or complain about their storage capacity. You'd do best to remember what your role is."  I'd be told "I'm sure Diane knows what's available at Wal-mart, chairing as she does the Acquisitions Acquiring Team.  I'm sure if there were bigger cards available, and for so little money, she'd know about that and have purchased them, if she thought it was a good use of company time and resources.  Clearly she didn't, and so it isn't!"
  And then someone would say "Well, I know that I've never seen memory cards even being sold at Wal-mart..." And then someone else would say "My daughter works at Wal-mart and I don't recall ever hearing her mention that they sold memory cards..."
  Then I'd lose it and say something like "Look, they exist.  I'll just get one after work and buy it myself and show it to you, okay?" and I'd be asked to stay afterward and made to sit in a chair and wait for a while, and then be told that Annie 'actually felt very shut down' by how closed I'd been, and how negatively I'd handled her suggesting that maybe you couldn't buy a 540 meg card at Wal-mart this week.
  I'd be forbidden to pursue that matter further.  Purchasing one would be seen as causing more trouble.  Anyway, we were cost-cutting as to memory cards, as we'd just spent several million on the facility, including putting a pool table in the break room.  Bottomline was that I'd been very closed-sounding.  Negative.  Which was a Real Problem.  Annie hadn't felt good about it.  It hadn't been fair to Diane. An apology was in order.  I needed to learn to be more positive.  I needed to work more on people skills or I'd be sent to a Workshop about that.  I needed to learn to drop things.  I needed to learn not to try to make things better.  Especially if that wasn't my job.  Things were good.  Trying to improve them made people wonder why they weren't good enough for me. 
  The person "speaking to me" wasn't being negative.  Annie wasn't being negative.  The people who felt that Wal-mart didn't sell memory cards for digital cameras anyway weren't being negative.  It was just me.  The facts were irrelevant.  The feelings were the thing.  It wasn't what had actually occurred.  It was what impression people had after the events had forever passed into unrestrained subjectivity.

It's Not Called "Negative" If You Have The Group's Support
  Situations like that made me realize that it was always okay for more deeply entrenched, powerful and female people (almost all of my bosses have been ladies) to "be negative."  Men had very limited rights as to "negativity," where women could say "Well, men are afraid of commitment, only want One Thing (which they're bad at) and can't talk about their feelings" at the workplace with impunity.
  Once you'd been labeled negative (sometimes due to your unnecessarily pointing up problems, often due to your actually fixing them) it wasn't a positive/negative, closed/open or constructive/deconstructive thing.  It was politics, pure and simple.
  Nortel was a company which, when I worked at it anyway, used blind optimism as business strategy, and Who Can Smilingly Make the Ballsiest, Most Improbable Claims contests to decide which people to hire or promote.  We all know how well that worked out:
  "We are currently sometimes able to make 200 units and sell them for $500 each.  That means we can absolutely make 20 000 next year, and sell them for $750 and make... a lot more money!  We just need to spend one hundred times what we're spending now!  That's it!  We shall be as gods!"
  And then next year the two huge facilities they built, filled with millions upon millions of dollars of equipment, would sit empty of employees and up for sale, as they had had to lay everyone off, after having them produce 17 000 or so units, which no one bought, and which cost $400 each, and which are all still now gathering dust in warehouses we're still paying for monthly.
 They called it "the high tech bubble bursting."  I learned that you can't burst people's bubbles before the time, and you can't keep them as friends if you do, either.  If someone loves or believes in something or someone you see a serious downside to, you're screwed. 

Just Think Positive
  So one major downside to the idea that we should all always be positive all the time, is that the word "positive" frequently doesn't mean what it pretends to  The top dog's "negative" and my "negative" aren't the same thing. In fact, "negative" is too often "the top dog felt bad" or a general reality of "Changes are going to need to happen."  Even if the top dog said "You're an asshole" and you said "I think you're all ganging up on me and calling me names because you're angry that you've gotten the facts wrong here and I've simply pointed that out to you that we now have to fix everything you broke", it would be you, of course, who was "being negative" and not the person who called you a name.  Shooting the messenger isn't negative.  Messengers are negative unless they are saying we're great.
  So "positive" isn't as simple a concept as it it presented to be.  It's not what people think it is.  It's about helping the group feel good about itself without needing to change.
  Also, the word is tied up on the whole 70s self-help culture with which many of us are still enamoured, from "The Power Of Positive Thinking" right through to "The Secret" and all the rest.  "No one's holding you back but you."  Tell that to any truly oppressed person without sounding inane.
  Ultimately the thinking behind all of that normally comes down to the quite dubious idea that evil, that anything bad, that problems of all kinds, simply aren't quite real and don't really exist, without us believing in them.  We make them exist and can choose not to, simply by not thinking them.  So if we clap our hands, think happy thoughts, say we believe in fairies and that kind of thing, we can fix the most fucked up country in Africa, cure AIDS and cancer by Friday, and fly to Never Never Land.
  Or we can decide that cancer is good, AIDS is healthy, Africa is how it really needs to be and Never Never Land is very real but that we don't want to go there. That's how it normally goes. If you accept and welcome a problem, it isn't a problematic reality anymore. Now it's a choice.
  It's a pretty inviting argument: positive is real and negative isn't.  Stuff we like is real and we can get it, and stuff we don't like, simply isn't.  If we just realize that, we can make it all go away.  Seems very zen.  (isn't, of course).  And we can all attest to the kinds of tortuous, wasteful, horrible nastinesses that can be caused by ignoring problems, denying them, repressing them and generally not dealing with them.  We can deny there are any significant numbers of kids who were touched by priests, we can deny that cancer is hard to cure, we can deny that Africa is fucked up.  We can certainly do that.  That's one way of "being positive."  ("Oh, I'm sure that's not true.  I think you're just looking at it all wrong.  Sounds very negative to me.  I'm sure things are fine.  I find just thinking positive is the only way to true happiness.")
  Another way is the "If we raise awareness, get t-shirts, donate the price of a pistachio cream pie or get 2000 likes for our Facebook page, we can make this unfortunate problem a Thing of the Past!"
  I think anyone who takes a hard look at the whole "We can fix a horrible, hard, nasty, ancient problem by caring a tiny bit and doing some pretty easy stuff and soon forgetting about the whole thing" attitude would realize it's an insult to the people who have lived entire lives battling this stuff, and then died without really cracking it.

An Insistence On Positive, Euphemistic Spin Means We Can't Talk Freely
  One of my big problems is how this weird need to "put a positive spin" on everything makes us unable to address or talk about anything icky, scary or yucky, using language that befits adults.   I mean, it's bad enough that it takes complicated issues and pretends they're simple, but it also has them asking groups of people to parrot slogans which appear to contradict.  So the same school puts up something which says "Support Our Troops!" and right next to it on the same edu-ganda, Values Education Bulletin Board goes a poster which announces "Tuesday Is Anti-Bullying Day: All Violence Is Wrong and We Can Stop It! "  Support our troops all violence is wrong. And the cognitive dissonance alarms in people's heads have long since burned out.
  And then we mandate a day in which we will all celebrate difference by decreeing that everyone will wear the same colour of shirt that day.  It's worse that in addition to this aggressive oversimplification of complex issues ("Are You Wearing Pink Or Do You Hate Homosexuals?  Do You Support Our Troops Or Terrorism? (What They do to Us, not what We're doing to Them, of Course)") we are so uncomfortable talking about the problems in direct, plain language.
  People are still dying of cancer.  Most of us have had someone die much earlier than we expected them to, because of it.  They've been working on curing it for a very long time, and countless sums of money have been pumped into it, because you could make a huge profit from being able to cure it, but we can't yet really cure it with any significant rate of success.  And besides, it's not a "Cured? Yes or No?" thing.  It's more complicated than that.  So we have An Event.  We want it to be "positive,' so we don't call it "Let's Stop Deaths Due To Cancer!" but instead "Relay For Life."  And we don't remember people we lost, we honour survivors.  We don't raise money to learn how to get rid of cancer, we raise awareness and funds for Hope.
  We don't like being anti things, and only feel comfortable being anti-anti things, because one of the great uses of negativity is (in grammar and math anyway) if you can put two of them together, this somehow "makes a positive."  This doesn't work as well off-paper.  But on the paper poster we are anti-intolerance, and anti-cancer.  But are we pro-choice or pro-life?  We can't be both, so are you with us, or are you one of them, and clearly wrong?

  Positiveland gives us peacekeeping missiles and troops who peacefully kill people, celebrations of life rather than funerals with eulogies, "letting people go so they are free to explore new employment opportunities" rather than firing or terminating them, and people "passing on" rather than being murdered or dying from a disease.  We're using more profanity and vulgarity at the one end, than ever before, while also mandating the use of more euphemism than ever as well.
  We had a "Remembrance Day" service last November 11 which wasn't about remembering soldiers who died.  We never once heard the word "died" or "killed" or "dead" or anything of the sort.  We did hear a list of people we will never forget, who made the ultimate sacrifice, of course.  A young soldier came in and showed a slideshow of him in a pot field, playing CoD on 360 and stuff like that.  It was mostly laughing.  The message moved from "some young people died for your freedom in a necessary war" to "some young people are in the military now, and it rawks and is sick and makes you a good person worthy of the admiration of everybody!"
  I was taught at Nortel that even the word "problem" itself was, well, a problem. It was unacceptable because it sounded so negative.  They had a neutral word to use instead.  That word was "issue."  Issues are"stuff" or "information" or "things which need to be considered regarding a given thing" and is a neutral term.  "Let's examine the various issues surrounding the question."  It doesn't mean anything bad.  Or it didn't.  Until they used it to mean "problems."  Now it's negative too. I have an issue with that.
  Nortel pretty much went out of business due to using blind optimism as business strategy, smilingly powerful and condescending men and women took obscene sums of money and ran, and yet no one has ever used the word "problem" to talk about any of it.  It isn't kosher anymore.
  Some teachers at our school went to a seminar in which they were told "You can either be Eeyore, or you can be Tigger.  It's up to you."  I think the seminar took all day to say that.  I didn't go.  "Oh, bother," I thought.  A big pile of Pooh.  But I thought "Can't I be Owl? What about Kanga?  Tigger was an OCD, ADHD meth freak.  I wouldn't trust him to make me a sandwich."
  A pastor friend of mine said that he thinks it's better to teach people to be positive rather than to be negative, because people who are positive DO things. I feel that people who are complacent do NOT do things, yet are still called positive, while people working to convey problematic realities are called negative unless they're just "raising awareness," so we're confidently comfortable in the knowledge that no change is imminent. We lords of the manor are not going to better any complicated situation, simply by becoming well and truly "aware" of it for a weekend.
  It's complicated.  Problems exist and are hard to fix.  They don't go away just because we put a happy face on things, we raised our awareness of it, and we believe we can do better than those who have gone before because we have a positive vision statement and mission charter.  Problems might need a good looking at, and there are things beyond even OUR great powers to fix, rather than cause problems.  (Sorry, "issues.")
  I think we've created a society in which telling a lie isn't as bad as "being negative."  Things have to be kept nice for the power people.  We have to promote the biggest smiles and most audacious claims to positions of power, and stamp out any gainsaying of said claims and any looking into their personal qualifications to make a difference that is going to be good.   Are they going to bring change that's needed, or is it going to be business as usual, with the world claimed and souls sold?