Let Us Praise Negativity (OP)

I was in some doubt whether to reproduce this post as it is one area in which my experiences have, to some extent, modified my perceptions. Certainly I have come to have a different view of the Positive Mental Health Group, or more accurately its members and the work they did. On the other hand it is how I felt at the time and my broader views have not really changed.

 29th June 2007

 I went to a meeting of an organisation called the Positive Mental Health Group yesterday, which is funded by the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Trust. As an experience this was quite an ordeal; any social interaction is, but this was the first time I had been to a meeting with an agenda and minutes for what I might poetically describe as long years. I have quite a lot to say about this experience but should preface my remarks by saying that I have no doubt that the people involved are well-intentioned and hard-working. It may well be that my remarks are unfair and based on a very limited perception. But I felt the whole experience as an example of the slightly fantastic quality which so frequently recurs in modern Britain. On a grand scale we had a perfect example on Wednesday when Tony Blair give his final speech in the Commons, and at its conclusion all the MP’s (with the highly creditable exception of the Scottish Nationalists) rose to applaud. Apart from the Trollopian quality – the revelation of pretended divisions and rival ideologies as sham, the reality of a united ruling class – what struck me about this was that I had earlier been listening to a radio phone-in on Blair’s legacy where callers discussed how the health service or schools or redundancy had wrecked their, or those they cared for, lives. The gap between the images of the House of Commons applauding and what was actually happening in people’s lives. Now it might be argued that this has always been so. But actually this is not true. Thatcher, for instance, was a bitterly divisive figure. I do not think that anyone would have believed for a single minute that she ‘cared’, that everything about her was positive – she was an obvious class warrior, determined to ensure the bosses’ triumph (the means by which she achieved this are much more complicated and devious than is sometimes appreciated but that is another story). Not even the British media would have attempted to portray her as blandly positive. Her many media supporters lauded her to the skies but their bias was patently obvious and it was easy to find negativity too. Blair has somehow elided this so you get an enormous gulf between what is represented and what many people think and feel. This is presented as ‘political apathy’.

A similar example has occurred with the flooding. We see the images and hear the voices of people standing in their wrecked homes, but a Government Minister I have just heard talks about long-term planning, carbon-emission reduction and the wonderful work of the Emergency Services and local councils. Yet earlier this morning I heard a woman from Doncaster, who’s house has been wrecked, talking about how she has been trying for years to get her local council to do something, how they rang up for sandbags before the floods arrived and were told the council had none. This is another classic example of ‘spin’. But again it can be said ‘spin’ has always existed and so it has. What I find new is that spin now is so relentlessly positive. Many great spins (Bolshevik gold) were classically negative, satiric, blatant untruths. What happens now is the implication that anyone who is negative, be it interviewer, member of the public, opponent, whoever, is somehow morally wrong. That there is, per se, some moral virtue in positivity.

And it is here that I can, at last, refer back to my own field of knowledge – depression. As well as a medical condition, there is a suggestion that there is some moral fault in negativity. That mental health is associated with positivity. Now I would be the last person to deny the crippling and horrific reality of being in the ‘black hole’ when every thought is wholly negative, self-loathing, guilty, despairing and suicidal. This is an illness and a terrible one. If it can be alleviated for some or many people by regimes of ‘positive thinking’ (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) then I am all for them. But I insist that these are medical procedures, who’s worth is to be judged solely by their medical efficacy in each individual case; they have no innate or moral worth. But the transition is all too easily and too often made. Positivity is transformed from a medical to a moral virtue. Then those who are ‘guilty’ of negativity are arraigned at a moral (or political) bar. This is a denial of both human freedom and the facts of human existence. There is so much in the world, at both a personal and a general level, about which it is in fact ‘right’ that we should be negative. All great literature and works of the imagination contain both the positive and the negative. Negativity is an essential part of our humanity.

So I have some problems with the concept of Positive Mental Health. As I say I may be maligning the organisation unfairly. But because we live in an age where positivity is transformed into a moral virtue I think it vitally important that we insist that ‘Mental Health’ (if such a condition is possible) includes negativity.

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