I recently watched on Youtube, “RSA Animate – Smile or Die,” in which Ehrenreich gets real-time illustration to a lecture based on her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America (Aug 3, 2010).
Ehrenreich says she is against delusional thinking, whether pessimism or optimism, and promotes realism as the only solution to this.
But isn’t it delusional to believe in realism?
Her reason is supposed to be compelling: How can self-help books tell me to smile and see the opportunity in a disaster such as a lay-off. It is natural, first, to be depressed, and this kind of statement would apparently have me take the blame for my misfortune by giving us a platitude such as “buck up.”
Okay. So what is real? Having no job and no means of feeding your family is very real. Hunger, I could say, is something so real it is all consuming. Starvation does not permit very many smiles as its reality demands our total concentration.
In disclosure, I write this on a full stomach. If I were starving, I would not have the concentration; I should be focused on finding myself food. But unfortunately, specialists in survival techniques tell us that starvation can impair judgment. If I were starving, how could I be sure that I could have enough focus to devote against my very real hunger to find nourishment?
To look for nourishment is to believe without seeing that nourishment is somewhere to be found. I could go out into the woods, fashion a makeshift spear, crossbow, or bow and arrow and hunt. Or I could see what I could gather or even scavenge. I could stand on the highway and beg the passing cars for money. I could apply for government assistance. And once the government has jerked me around enough I could take things into my own hands and beg for help from passing cars. I could clean myself up the best I could and walk into a diner and ask for a job (Ehrenreich is familiar with this approach). Any of these could lead to nothing.
Should I then, as Job was tempted to do, curse God and die?
God’s answer to Job is that God is bigger than Job. What Job can experience as real is extremely limited from God’s viewpoint. And it is not hard to extrapolate from this that, even if I don’t believe in God, there are things that outside my understanding of what is real.
The mind, as part of the body, should work with it, but if it should accept Job’s temptation or Ehrenreich’s wisdom (not to say they are the same thing), then the mind can work against the body’s good. The body, for its part, is not cooperating with the mind by impairing its judgment.
So neither the mind or the body has its full faculties of reality to keep alive under the real duress of hunger.
Here we have to admit that reality is not singular but plural. There are at least two realities: the mind-body’s realities with and without hunger. But there are more ways to deprive the mind-body; so then there are more than at least two realities; in fact, a multiplicity.
Of course there always was. And this is not one “evil demon” but legion. I cannot think and therefore be if I am too hungry to think, or too full, too cold or too hot, too thirsty or too tired, or suffering almost any mind-body deprivation. Perhaps the deprivation we most fear is our lack of awareness about anything. As Socrates taught, let’s start by doubting what we know.
I can doubt whether it is really good to be an optimist, or even good to be its counterpoint, a pessimist, and fancy myself a good Aristotelian to have found the so-called golden mean of realism. But this is vanity if I consider for a moment that simply finding the middle road of a dualism is quintessential logic. What if there are other things besides optimism and pessimism to consider as alternative realities?
For example, what if I were to declare myself a “hippopotamus-ist”? This may sound absurd as a possible solution to hunger (especially if you are a hungry, hungry hippopotamus-ist), but it is nonetheless, now that I have said it, a possible way of thinking, and therefore a reality. So now I declare I’ve changed my mind. I now know better and shall from henceforth assert my “antihippotamus-ism.” Of course just contemplating the notion of being an antihippotamus-ist seems more than equally absurd (to be pessmistic about it), so now, let me with all due gravitas declare myself a non-absurdist–which is to say neither hippopotamus-ist nor antihippopotamus-ist. I do not believe that hippos contain the ultimate meaning nor do I think that they don’t–which is to say, of course, absolutely nothing.
We must first, then, eschew dualistic thinking. It is nonsense and a trap. We should spit it out of our mouths.
Too bad. If I had stuck to my guns about being a hippopotamus-ist, I could have shot the hippo, eaten it, and afterwards thought more clearly. I might have more likely imagined something–on my own–however fleeting in the mind, to chase after and eat next. Even a chimera such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s “realism.”
It makes me happy just to think about it. I haven’t eaten chimera in a very long time.
Ehrenreich says she believes in realism. But realism is not reality at all, but rather an intellectually contrived preparation (one of a paltry three at that) for a mind-body reaction to reality. The problem, however, is that true reality is beyond us. A frog or a bat can witness more and less of that reality than we can. When we die, the reality that we have taken part in will continue–changed, but nonetheless real and beyond us–and we will then know yet another side of reality. I claim that it is not so easy to assert the correct reaction to reality when we do not understand what it is we’re reacting to. Unfortunately, “realism” has that deceptive semantic touch of its root word, “real,” to fool us into believing we can and do understand everything well enough to be a realist.
Realism–as are optimism and pessimism and a plethora of other isms–indeed is a perceptual reaction to something not even the most achieved ascetic can keep a clear head about–that elusive sense of the real.
So what does Ehrenreich want from us? What kind of reaction is realism? It is inaction. If it involves action, then wouldn’t the unpleasant word “opportunism” be much more appropriate?
Are we then to adopt a real-politik for our private lives? As Kissinger has publicly shown us, this too is vanity and striving after the wind. How many of his “real”-politik decisions cost us so very dearly because of their sheer delusion? Too many to choose from.
So why not pessimism or optimism? What if it turns out that either was the more correct perceptual stance? In that case, wouldn’t it be better to act on the correct perception? Or if we had to choose, since we don’t really know what the correct perception is, wouldn’t it indeed be better to act on optimism, thereby increasing our chances for an optimal result?
I personally opt for optimism. If I’m going to bet, I’d rather bet on winning. (Also, I would rather be happy than miserable.)
The problem here is, if I cannot define what it is I’m reacting to, then just as in the case of realism, any perceptual stance, including optimism, to an elusive reality, once acted upon, might prove fatal. However, a good survivalist will tell us, it is better to look for food than simply to rot angry about not having any. So this being the case, what does it matter what perceptual stance I base my action on, as long as I’m looking for food?
Does Ehrenreich want Americans to look for food, or does she want us merely to be angry at the people who took it from us and resent them for telling us to smile and look for more? I claim that it is not anger or smiling that is important so much as looking for our own food. Ehrenreich, through joining the ranks of the working class for three whole months, didn’t need the change for food, but made a lot of money writing Nickle and Dimed. It can be said she lives off our discontent. It is in her best interest that we buy into her discontent (using, I suppose, the money we saved from not buying positive self-help books, all of which she cavalierly denigrates) so that she can continue to eat well. Does discontent help us find food for ourselves? If we all write books about how discontented we all are, will everybody buy our books? Maybe. But you can’t eat books.
Let’s assume that Ehrenreich doesn’t want us simply to buy her book and stew in our own juices. What she might be doing is a call to action. I cannot help here thinking about Orwell’s warning in Animal Farm.
Orwell says if we listen to pigs (i.e. people who preach mass discontent against the so-called elite), kill the farmer (the so-called elite), and take over the farm, it will be disastrous. Why? Because we never learned to farm and we listened to pigs.
Pigs are undermining America, not positive thinking.