Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Is Positivity an Excuse for Silencing Opposing Viewpoints?



There's been some push back recently on Twitter against the whole idea of positive attitude as a good thing. It gave me some things to think about, because in general, I've found a positive mindset to be a source of strength in my life. I've even written several posts about positive thinking, including this one:

10 Thoughts On Positive Attitude to Share With Your Team

A positive school is built on positive moments. It doesn't just happen by accident. Every interaction counts. It takes a concerted effort on the part of everyone to create an environment that is awesome. So what are some things everyone should know to be more positive in their own mindset and help contribute to that positive environment we all want?
How could someone not be in favor of having a positive outlook? I was curious and a little puzzled by some of the responses I've seen to the idea of having a positive attitude. I wanted to know more.

So here are some of the arguments I've seen. Keep in mind I'm doing my best to synthesize, so if you're in the anti-positive thinking camp, let me know if I'm missing the point.

1. Calls for a positive attitude are one way the dominant culture silences critics and those with opposing viewpoints. By asking me to have a positive attitude, you are refusing to acknowledge my experience and my suffering. I'm not allowed to speak my mind or share my experience without being labeled a negative person.

2. Positive thinking is not the solution to mental health issues. To the contrary, it's part of the mental health crisis. It's no longer okay to feel negative emotions like sadness, fear, isolation, hopelessness, or anger. If you feel those emotions, you're not being positive, and that's not okay.  The pressure to feel positive all the time is too much, and so when I don't, I feel further devalued and unable to measure up.

3. Sharing positive thoughts is empty of meaning. It's not doing the real work of challenging injustice or working to understand those who are oppressed or those who are suffering. Instead of sharing something "positive," share something that demands justice or calls out oppressive forces. In other words, raise some hell to demand change. That's doing something positive.

I think those are some really good reasons to push back against positive thinking, if you define and understand being positive in a certain way. I think there are some nuances to the idea of being positive that are important for the idea to work, otherwise it's just a thought that we should all be happy all the time, and that's just not helpful.

Here's how I would respond to the three concerns about positive thinking.

1. Being positive doesn't mean everyone has to be agreeable and have the same opinions. But it does mean we express our opinions in ways that are productive and helpful. In a school, leaders need to encourage productive conflict and invite critical dialogue. I want people around me to push my thinking and challenge my ideas. That's how we get better. 

But I'm guessing...in some cases, leaders are silencing voices who are simply expressing a different viewpoint and using positive attitude as the reason. Either you agree with me or you obviously don't have a positive attitude? It's one or the other. That type of thinking is not effective.

2. Being positive doesn't mean you're happy all the time. I think believing you should be happy all the time does result in complications to mental health. We need to feel all our feelings, the positive and negative ones. The truth is none of our feeling are truly negative. They're not bad. They're just feelings. They come and go. And as humans, all of them are legitimate. Being positive is the ability to experience the array of human emotions and respond to them in ways that are helpful. 

In response to every emotion, we have the choice in what we do with it. How do we hold that emotion in our mind and how do we think about it? Do we listen to what our emotions tell us and let them take us down whatever path they choose? Or, do we choose the path for our emotions? Do we point them in a direction we want them to go? We're not repressing them or denying them. It's important to fully acknowledge how we feel, but then choose to use that emotion as fuel to go in some positive direction in life. I'm going to use this pain or sorrow for good in this certain way.

Of course, this is always a process. There are times I do not handle my emotions in productive ways. And that results in strain on my relationships or sticky situations as a leader. I've often had to apologize for times I allowed my emotions to choose the path.

3. Sharing positive thoughts are empty of meaning if they are empty of meaning. But they don't have to be. In fact, the person who can communicate difficult, hard truths in a positive way is a wise person. There is wisdom and strength in communicating a difficult message in a way that doesn't offend or alienate. That's making an effort to have dialogue and not a shouting match. I see no benefit to a shouting match. Neither side is really listening. Nothing productive is resulting from this exchange.

And yet, that is how most people seem to be handling conversations these days in regard to our most pressing issues. It's evident all over social media. There is no dialogue. There is no civility. Each side hurls insults, snide remarks, insulting labels, and believes they have the moral high ground. Our way is the right way!!!

It makes me sad when I see educators fall into this same type of behavior. Unfortunately, I've noticed more destructive posts like this recently from educators. We have an obligation to set a good example for our students every day in our classrooms, and also on social media. We have an obligation to do our very best, all the time, to be respectful and positive with our words and actions.

At the same time, it's never okay to silence an opposing viewpoint on the grounds that the person needs to be positive. It's okay to ask someone to communicate respectfully. But it's not okay to silence someone who disagrees.

Let me know your thoughts on all of this. Leave a comment below or respond on Facebook or Twitter. I always enjoy hearing from you.
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