One concept that I encountered frequently in my studies of the West Indies and West Indians was “negativity”. Negativity, it is said, perpetuates all kinds of social ills. You’ve got to be “positive” to get anything accomplished. It’s a load of crap, of course, but it is said so often that folks actually start to believe it. Charges of negativity are most often used to stifle criticism and to make victims of social ills blame themselves.
While it is fitting to try to keep on the sunny side of life, it makes no sense to deny that problems exist or to obscure their causes, unless you are the cause. I have known quite a few managers who regard any kind of complaint or criticism as manifesting a “bad attitude” even when the criticism or complaint is well founded. There is no problem except for the critic and his pesky negativity. Problem solving skills get you nowhere, whereas a sunny disposition counts for a lot.
Among West Indians, the concept of negativity serves to keep people in their places and to perpetuate the status quo. The so called “barrel crab mentality” is blamed for a lack of social mobility. Like crabs in a barrel, where any crab that is about to escape gets pulled down by the others, West Indians supposedly prevent their peers from succeeding by “talking them down”. The mechanism by which this negative talk works its magic has never been described to me, and I am a skeptic when it comes to claims about “mentality”. The fact is that there are plenty of barriers to social mobility in West Indian society that have nothing to do with the mentality of would be social climbers. Pointing these barriers out gets you labeled as “negative” and a “barrel crab”.
The same myth prevailed in New Town, the African American section of my hometown. Black folks couldn’t get ahead because other black folks wouldn’t let them. It wasn’t segregation and racism at all. They had only themselves to blame.
In 1999, one of the contestants in the Barbados calypso contest took the concept of negativity and turned it on its head in her social commentary. She dressed as a nurse and sang a piece entitled “Are You Positive?” She was referring to HIV, which was a huge problem that nobody wanted to talk about. She was able to comment on it by using the call for “positivity” in a novel way. Social commentary in calypso is one of the few acceptable outlets for complaints about society. Calypso artists can be as negative as they like as long as they put it to a happy tune.
Joel Osteen and his ilk are looking to get all kinds of people to blame themselves for their problems and to accept whatever crap we are fed with a smile on our faces and a song in our hearts. “You’re dying of pancreatic cancer? Look on the bright side. The man who died from it yesterday would love to be in your shoes!”