By Oksana Yakushko
Social critics such as Barbara Ehrenreich and Chris Hedges link the long standing promotion of personal self-control, happiness, and productivity in American society, and the rise of the positive psychology movement, to neoliberal oppressive forces that maintain the social status quo. I too wonder how emphases on individual happiness, internalized locusts of control, and internal attributions have led to the recent election of Donald Trump, who has promised America its “greatness.” Such positivity has been central to Trump as a businessman and now as a politician. His commitment to tenets of positive thinking have a long-standing history and profound impact on his apparent perception of himself and the world. He considered Norman Vincent Peale, a figure central to the positive thinking movement in the United States, his personal religious guru. In a 2009 interview with Psychology Today Trump stated that he uses Peale’s teachings to make himself “a firm believer in the power of being positive.” This connection between the positive thinking movement and the new president’s actions are gathering attention among journalists. A gap in this investigation is how the positive psychology movement and the political narratives that emphasize greatness and having a positive outlook continue to denigrate societal and individual suffering.
I recognize the election of Trump, like elections of all right-wing politicians around the globe, is based on complex social factors and layered historical realities. I believe such election results are reflective of unconscious colonization. This colonization,leads poor people to vote for a billionaire whose primary concern has always been building his own financial empire. It is reflective of the colonization of women’s minds and bodies (colonization present in multiple ways including popular romances featuring billionaires who are sexual dynamites but also conflicted and in need of feminine care) resulting in women voting for a misogynist. It is reflective of the narratives of acculturation, and class dominance, unconsciously internalized by immigrants in this country, which led to a third of Latino/as voting for someone who is blatantly xenophobic and racist.
The proponents of the positive thinking movement view the problem differently. In their eyes, those of us from marginalized background just don’t flow. We don’t think positively, or use internalized positive affirmations. We don’t rely on our positive strengths and resilience to ensure success. Based on positive psychology assertions, Hillary Clinton lost the election because of such individual failures, rather than because she is a woman who ran within a sexist misogynist context. This misogynistic context illustrated by the openly expressed concerns that American society was becoming “too soft and feminine.” Positive psychology writers repeatedly claim that “negative” states, including anger and sadness, are failures of self-control, as well as signs of personal selfishness and irrationality. This sentiment reminds me of how pro-Trump advocates label the growing anger of protestors as tantrums and whining perpetuated by liberal snowflakes.
Social scholars, including those influenced by psychoanalysis, have written about how suppressing these emotions are tools of cultural control. Howard Zinn’s many works on U.S. history highlight that positivity and happiness were the primary way of controlling slaves, women, and all other marginalized groups. Zinn elaborates that the “founding fathers” emphasis on the right to pursue happiness was just that—the institutionalized entitlement of wealthy White heterosexual slave-owning colonizers to keeping America “great” exclusively for themselves. Feminist scholar Ahmed (2010) proposed that women’s consciousness, especially feminist consciousness of women of color, must be “the consciousness of unhappiness.” She encourages women to “claim their right to be unhappy” in face of continued sexism and racism (p. 571).
After the elections, I am weary of multiple encouragements to stay happy, hopeful, focus on the future, and to actively find a silver lining. Are not anger, sadness, and all other “negative emotions” central to resistance? Is not attention to history of oppression and the current institutionalized forms of violence crucial to understanding the affect on our lives?
Speaking personally, as an ex-Soviet immigrant from a family that experienced political violence, as a Ukrainian who continues to live through colonization and invasions of my country by Russia, I recall the heady days of the Soviet Union break up and the imaginings of a glorious future ahead. What I know to be true now, 20 years later, is that old cultural, social, and institutionalized forms of violence are alive and well, not only in evidence of elected leaders such as Vladimir Putin, but also in the colonized blindness to such realities among the many people of all ex-Soviet block nations. For example, having grown up in the capital of Ukraine, I was so Russified that I still do not speak my own native language confidently but catch myself cringing at its sounds. I hear it and remember lessons that it was unrefined, the sound of a “hick,” or a “redneck,” particularly, in contrast to the language of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and the rest. No wonder there are some in Ukraine who claim to be okay with Putin “liberating” the “oppressed Russian speakers” even while knowing that it is his well-trained military troops and militias killing their ways in a grab for land control in Eastern Europe.
I do not feel happy or hopeful or positive about the future of Ukraine at this point, especially with the election of Donald Trump and his selection of pro-Russian billionaires to his cabinet. In fact, I feel terrified, angry, dismayed, depressed and disheartened, especially when I think of my mother, my sister, my many relatives and friends who live in Ukraine. Yes, I do remember a history of survival against the odds and in spite of the multiple forms of oppression that wounded my family since the early 1900s. Yet this survival did not result in glorious resilience, meaning, and joy (valorized by positive psychology) but in a host of complex and challenging reactions to inter-generational trauma, which are activated by such political events as election of a strong man who disregard justice or human rights. Positive thinking is not correlated with social progress.
I believe that at its very best psychoanalysis, like many other social theories and movements (i.e., feminism, Marxism, indigeneity/post-colonialism), embraces a full view of humanity and human beings, recognizing the capacity and value of an entire range of emotions. This full view includes how these disciplines can hold the subjective, situated, complex, dynamic, contradictory, defended, violent, and inspiring natures. I hope to use this full range of feelings and inner experiences as places on which to stand in my own ways of resistance or resilience and acknowledge generational and institutional wounding. I hope that they drive the decolonization of my mind and body toward a capacity to be with the mix of sufferings and triumphs. I want to claim resistance to psychology (including in psychoanalysis) of Pollyannaism in the name of sciences or theoretical goals; resistance to psychology’s reduction of human beings to brains or animals (animals who are not shaped by social histories or intra-species institutionalized forms of violence); resistance to using therapies that use rational and behavioral bullying into submission and self-recrimination; and most importantly resistance to all forms of oppression, including my own internalized unconscious colonization.
As I write about this type of resistance I think of a quote from Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. Zinn discusses how in the late 1800s noted African American leaders called for their communities’ peaceful acceptance of social structures rather than open rebellion. In reaction to such calls for Black people to remain docile, cooperative, and even thankful for segregation, John Hope, a young African American teacher, living the U.S. South, called: “Rise!.. Be discontented. Be dissatisfied… Be as restless as the tempestuous billows on the boundless sea. Let your discontent break mountain-high against the wall of prejudice, and swamp it to the very foundation” (in Zinn, 2010, p. 193). I hope to heed this now, and I hope you do too.
Let’s stay angry and fight together.