It is not that nothing has been said on the subject. I am sorely tempted to lift entire paragraphs off articles on psychology websites and quote them over here. My own generation, and the generations after me, are victims to a ever-increasing culture of forced positivity that is turning us into repressed neurotics, steadily infecting our lives with every passing day.
The first time I thought about it was at school. Some big-shot person was giving a speech on the mike, and he said something along the lines of ‘Any one of you can make it to where I am, you just need to want it and go for it.’ In other words, if you don’t get to someplace good in life, it’s your own laziness and lack of drive that you have to blame.
That sounded very wrong. I did not grow up in the lap of luxury; my eyes weren’t blinded by my own privileged existence; I saw poor men, unsuccessful men, tired and hollowed men all around me every day. It sounded incredibly naive, insensitive and inimical to make a remark like that. A remark like that implies that every single victim in the world is fundamentally deserving of whatever injustice they are going through.
Having spent some time on the social media, I am familiar with a popular notion held by some communities in the US – the poor are poor because they are too dumb and too lazy to be any better. The argument is that if they had been enterprising enough, they’d have made something of themselves already. The only thing holding them back is their own negativity and bogged-down mind.
There’s no doubt that this is a very convenient notion. One can easily build on this notion and further argue that people who are successful and wealthy are one hundred percent self-made alphas who owe nothing to nobody and are fully entitled to everything good life has to offer. It can be brushed under the carpet how genetics and environment play omnipotent roles in who you are and who you become. Poverty becomes not a tragedy, but a natural state of those who are ‘losers.’
This game is very old. In his analysis of casteism, Swami Vivekananda had pointed out that the Western society is just as much casteist as the Indian society, only the parameters of caste division are different. He said that the Western culture divides society on the basis of material wealth and creates it own castes. While this analysis makes sense, it is even more interesting how Vivekananda’s defense of Indian casteism perfectly parallels the argument presented by modern-day apologists who try to justify the gulf between the poor and the rich.
To the non-Brahmana castes I say, wait, be not in a hurry. Do not seize every opportunity of fighting the Brahmana, because as I have shown; you are suffering from your own fault. Who told you to neglect spirituality and Sanskrit learning? What have you been doing all this time? Why have you been indifferent? Why do you now fret and fume because somebody else had more brains, more energy, more pluck and go than you? Instead of wasting your energies in vain discussions and quarrels in the newspapers, instead of fighting and quarreling in your own homes – which is sinful – use all your energies in acquiring the culture which the Brahmana has, and the thing is done.THE FUTURE OF INDIA, Lectures from Colombo to Almora (The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 3)
The same reasoning is ceaselessly used by upper class citizens in the West to validate their position and dilute important discussions on systemic oppression prevalent in the society today.
Toxic positivity usually comes from people like these.
One good example is the Facebook page known as Humans of Bombay that serves upper class success stories as uplifting records of the human condition. I was delighted to see this article a few months back that called the page out on its compromised morals. It didn’t seem to have any effect on the page’s admins. In the age of science, it is usual and useful for cheapjacks of spirituality to be very thick-skinned.
I found a handy chart that shows exactly how this toxicity works in everyday conversations, and how it could be avoided. The problem, of course, is that the right responses always involve real responsibility and real commitment, not merely a sugary statement that sounds nice.
Toxic positivity is a real problem with very real effects on many troubled lives. It has broad range. It comes under many guises. The social media is teeming with ‘influencers’ who routinely post shallow, glib lines and high-sounding quotes out of context, passing them off as ‘inspiration.’ They don’t realize how it desensitizes the society by eroding the awareness of suffering and promoting apathy, urging people to look away from painful sights and keep living their blissfully zen, Ikea-cradled lives.
I will be making this a series in which I will counter casual toxipositive statements that I encounter every day on the internet. It doesn’t matter how limited my scope is. Like Ravish Kumar once said, “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that there was someone on the battlefield.”