This week I have been thinking about something called "toxic positivity". Anyone who has had a bad day and complained about it, only to be told that, in the grand scheme of things, it ain’t so bad, knows what toxic positivity is: when your problems are invalidated because things could always be worse, or because someone else has it worse. What is intended as a pep talk ends up having the opposite effect.
Whether it’s in our personal lives, or on a macro level, reaching for the good news to ameliorate the bad is a common impulse. And sometimes it helps put things in perspective. But as a response to either profound personal problems, or systemic issues around inequality, it is not only inadequate, it can make things worse.
2020 so far has felt like the overlapping of two crises – a pandemic and a global race movement that might as well have had one slogan: "Things Must Change". They both, at different times, were met with toxic positivity. "The pandemic is a global unforeseen act of god," we were told by leaders failing to contain it, or, "a better job could not have been done considering the circumstances". "I think we’ve done a great job," said Donald Trump, while the United States was suffering the highest coronavirus death count in the world.
When it came to Black Lives Matter, the argument was that race relations have never been better. It was, in fact, a point I’d made myself in a previous piece. Both these responses are technically true, but neither meant that hundreds of thousands of people weren’t dying all over the world because of inadequate political responses to the pandemic, or that people of colour weren’t suffering from disproportionate police responses and poor prospects.
There are many reasons for this, which I am attempting to flesh out in a longer piece that should be published soon, but one overarching theme is that we also suffer from the opposite – toxic negativity. The belief that what we are going through is uniquely terrible and distressing can have the same effect as never wanting to fix things because they could always be worse. Believing that things can never get better, or that we are particularly cursed as opposed to universally going through the same challenges in life and politics all over the world, can also lead to stasis.
It’s a balancing act, one that the Better Politics beat is always trying to strike. Because the truth is that to do better, we need to acknowledge that we need to do better, and that means believing that we can.