Personality and Character (Jeremy Burke)

11 Apr

Barbara Ehrenreich’s analysis of the recent economic crisis and the subsequent recession very much examines the role of a simple personality trait in an economic and social catastrophe. In her chapter, “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy,” she shows how the cultural values of hard work and determination, along with the notion of social mobility, provides a veneer of legitimacy to a mindset that ultimately defies empirical reality. Her description almost offers a dividing line between those who wanted so desperately to believe in the power of the will in shaping reality, and those whose skepticism would not allow them to ignore the real world. The positive thinkers shaped their personality into that which the motivators had told them to; that which the common culture had lauded. An immense barrier was constructed between one’s character and personality; the former, precarious and uncertain, found a crude sense of solace in the thick shield provided by the latter.

For some of these positive thinkers, financial collapse was not enough to open their eyes; opportunism was alive and well, and the force of motivational demagoguery seemed even more compelling. Joel and Victoria Osteen, two motivational preachers, stated on Larry King’s television program, “You’ve got to know that God still has a plan and that even if you lost your job, even if one door closes, God can open up another door.” I suppose that the motivators themselves had good reason to be optimistic; Ehrenreich notes that as the mortgage industry declined over 2007, prior to the financial collapse, the need for motivational speakers in the industry rose by 20 percent. On one hand, it seems somewhat obvious that these speakers are simply manipulating people. But on the other, it’s hard to avoid the harsh reality that people are really manipulating themselves.

Unfortunately, the power of optimism cannot solve all of our problems, and a culture of optimism results in a ‘tragedy of the commons’ in the form of economic bubbles, which inevitably collapse once the disparity between dreams and reality reaches critical mass. We can try and insulate our essential character with an overcoat of optimistic dismissal of crisis, but we will hurt no one but ourselves.

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2 Responses to “Personality and Character (Jeremy Burke)”

  1. ileanacancinos April 11, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

    I think its interesting that you mentioned the motivational speakers are manipulating other people, and that perhaps people are just manipulating themselves to believe that maybe things will get better, especially in a time of crisis. I feel that if someone is too optimistic about a tough time in their life, it makes them a little naïve, and then they’re left with this dumbfounded look on their face when an economic bubble occurs.

  2. kimberlyspring2013 April 11, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    I think it’s really important to analyze why we as a society have enshrouded ourselves so much in positivity that we are willing to ignore knowledge. Is it the belief that if you surround yourself with good vibes you can only receive goodness?

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