In an era that tends to idealise positive thinking, it is easy to assume it is ‘good’ and other ways of thinking are ‘bad.’ Positive thinking isn’t all its cracked up to be though and I think dystopian fiction has something interesting to say about it.
A few years ago, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich unravelled an important false illusion about the blind pursuit of positive thinking which became a YouTube phenomenon.
She demonstrated how positive thinking can become a kind of delusion where people ignore anything that doesn’t fit with their positive worldview, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. She challenged the pervasive idea that positive thinking is all good.
One of her most striking examples is from before the last financial crisis where people were fired for raising concerns about sub-prime mortgages.
Positive thinkers couldn’t see what was happening in front of their noses for all their positivity and risk managers were dismissed as ‘negative’ (the worst thing one could be) and called troublemakers.
The commitment to positive thinking can be so pervasive that it comes complete with fundamentalist and delusional overtones.
Blind positive thinking can be very risky because it can easily become a convenient excuse for ignoring anything bad, like a ‘the Titanic can’t sink scenario.’ Dystopian fiction on the other hand recognises that being willing to identify risks and failures is the first step in doing something to fix them.
Dystopias are all fantasy though, right? Not quite.
It is true that the futuristic setting of dystopias can make their links to the real world somewhat hazy and it is understandable that stories set in the future are mistaken for the future, but they are actually about the time they were written in.
George Orwell wrote his seminal work of dystopian literature, 1984, in 1948 without any insider knowledge about the year 1984. No author has special insider knowledge of the future.
One of the reasons stories are set in the future is to put a magnifying glass to present dysfunctions so they can be seen more clearly. Margaret Atwood, author of dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale, describes this as “dark shadows cast by the present into the future” and the cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling likens it to seeing “the hidden bulk of an iceberg.”
Unlike positive thinkers, dystopians are not afraid to identify risks – they are far more afraid of not noticing risks until it’s too late. The risk management strategy is to zoom in close to problems so details that are not visible at a glance are illuminated. Dystopians are watching for icebergs. And if they see one, they are not afraid to sound the alarm.
The icebergs identified in dystopian fiction are based on the realities of human experience, even if their fictional futurist settings sometimes make them seem like illusions.
Atwood is especially emphatic on this point, arguing that The Handmaid’s Tale uses only situations that have actually occurred. “Nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or which it is not doing now,” she says.
With the recent attacks in the United States on women’s reproductive freedoms, conversations about the continuing relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale over twenty years after it was first published are experiencing a renaissance, a situation that underlines her point with disturbing precision.
It might seem that Suzanne Collins‘ trilogy of books, The Hunger Games – in which children are forced to fight to the death in gladiator-style tournament – is an exception to the idea of dystopia as the present magnified. Some have found its themes offensive and others are bewildered by what readers get out of it.
The Hunger Games has clear roots in the present though and if we take offence at the book it is because there are things to take offence at in reality. It is, of course, offensive to think of children fighting to the death – but it is certainly not without historical precedent.
Staging the fights as entertainment for an indulged elite is also offensive – but the concept of televised reality competitions that fixate on the glories and failures of individuals for an infatuated population is not new to the eyes of children today.
(That Big Brother, the show that pioneered the televised form of reality competition, shares its name with Orwell’s ominous figure from 1984 is not ironic – it is demonstrative that the warnings calls were sounded while the ship steamed straight ahead.)
People who read dystopias are like society's risk managers - unafraid to identify hazards and unfazed by advocating a change of course.A world where the majority live in destitution and are used to supply the frivolities and fancies of a few is also offensive – but this must bring to mind a planet where stuffed toys are made by the plundered resources and labour of children of one country to be distributed in walmart-economies to entertain the children of another. It must surely bring to mind a planet where a few face an obesity crisis and many face a starvation crisis when there is enough food to go around.
If The Hunger Games is resonating it is because it resonates with the realities of our world.
Positive thinking enthusiasts might say dystopians are obsessed with the iceberg, but glossing over realities in the name of blind positive thinking is not the alternative.
The biggest problem with positive thinking, as Ehrenreich says, is the powerlessness of it – just think positive thoughts and leave the rest to fate.
Dystopian enthusiasts recognise that if we just close our eyes and hope for the best we might find ourselves dealing with the worst. People who read dystopias are like society’s risk managers – unafraid to identify hazards and unfazed by advocating a change of course.
Most people don’t get a great deal of a say in how the future will unfold – even those we can see shaping it like politicians and scientists. Authors like George Orwell and Margaret Atwood are visible among those influencers though.
Dystopias are intrinsically statements against apathy and absolving decision-making to a controlling elite. Reading them, far from being incomprehensible and odd, is actually a legitimate and accessible way to be engaged in conversations about how the future should unfold.
Rather than celebrating negativity, dystopias imagine worst case scenarios so we can act to avoid them. It’s actually quite positive when you think about it. Far from being futile, dystopias are great literary expressions of hope – hope that as a community and a species we can learn from the worst we can be so we can live the best we can be.
Tell me, did I get it right about positive thinking or did I miss the boat? Do you think dystopians are society’s risk managers? Do you think reading dystopian fiction is a statement against apathy and a way to be involved in creating a better future? Do you think dystopian thinking is a safer and smarter option than blind positive thinking? Share your thoughts in the comments…