The Extreme Things Toxic Positivity Forces You To Believe
I feel fairly certain I have never read a worse example of how certain worldviews will have to end up blaming the victim for their suffering than this quote from an article about how we can fetishize “surviving” during difficult times, often taking more interest in things like the Holocaust:
Recently, a textbook required for the UNC minicourse “21st Century Wellness” was skewered for suggesting—as a headline read—“Holocaust victims who died failed to find their inner strength.” The actual text included: “The people in the camps who did not tap into the strength that comes from their intrinsic worth succumbed to the brutality to which they were subjected.”
I realize that this seems shocking that anyone would believe this, but I have a different take on it. Why wouldn’t some people believe this?
Think about how often people will talk about positive mindsets, or even growth mindsets, which aren’t necessarily bad by themselves, but quickly turn into a world-view where any bad situation is explained away as an “opportunity” instead of just a bad situation. Then, think about how much we assign moral value to survivors of bad situations, giving them credit for their awesome survival skills when they were probably just lucky.
In the link above, there’s even a quote from a Holocaust survivor who explains that surviving was, really, just a fluke.
See, that’s the thing about someone else committing a bad act. As the victim of said act, there’s no positive mindset that is going to determine whether I survive or don’t. You can have all of the inner strength you want, and if someone decides to put a bullet in your head or toss you in a gas chamber, you’ll die like everybody else. And yet, this textbook still made it all the way into the curriculum before anyone thought that maybe, this wasn’t correct. I truly believe that is because so many people have become blinded by this worldview. When your entire belief system is based on taking the positive out of every situation, you leave no room for negative events. Any negative event, from getting caught in the rain to the Holocaust, must be viewed through the lens of that event, working toward making you a better person.
Perhaps, getting caught in the rain can be viewed through the lens of teaching you not to be so concerned that your hair is just right or appreciating nature more. That’s great. But when it comes to child abuse, domestic violence, murder, poverty, racism, etc. I’m sorry, but you’re not going to explain those away as teachable moments or opportunities. To do so places the blame squarely on the victim instead of the person who deserves it. If your belief system requires you to look at the victim of child abuse or other forms of violence and say, “This will help you…” your belief system sucks. Your belief system is no better than the adult who beats their child or the spousal abuser who claims it’s “for your own good.”
And, while your belief system makes a hero out of a survivor, who might have survived something horrific, but could also still be an ass, it also makes judgments about anyone who doesn’t survive. Obviously, they didn’t learn the lesson or find the inner strength necessary. What a cold-hearted mockery of humanity that is. This is how we end up with the text above about Holocaust victims.
The truth is, surviving abuse, violence, poverty, and worse, is all a matter of luck, and it’s the same luck that caused it in the first place, most of the time. Child abuse victims weren’t abused because we needed to learn something from it; we were abused because we randomly happened to be in harm’s way. The people who die in terror attacks, like the ones we’ve seen at concerts, schools, etc., died because they randomly happened to be at that spot when another person decided to commit an act of terrorism. If that was the day you missed school or left church early, you survived through randomness, not some innate survival skill. If you had access to resources to help you survive and overcome abuse, that was luck. Take credit for doing the work, absolutely, but don’t for a second think that someone without access to those resources who have not been able to overcome it is any statement about which one of you has a better character. It’s luck. It’s a fluke.
I know that many people aren’t ready to hear this. We all need to have some certainty in our lives. We all crave it endlessly right now. Don’t let your craving for certainty and a need to feel safe blind you to the reality that the biggest factor in whether we are the victim of something horrible or not the victim is luck. Any other explanation invites us to blame victims far too quickly, and we should dismiss any explanation that does that.