In Defence of Negativity

The literary world has a great history of embracing the unpopular, negative doubters. Countless tales – from 1984 to the Hunger Games – regale the reader with stories of that pessimist who spends the first part of the story being derided or outcast for their inability to embrace the joy in the situation, and the other half being the hero or heroine who spotted the flaw which no-one else did.

This rich literary tactic has a basis in the real world. Only through the outlook of the ‘negative’ outlier or the devil’s advocate does a situation become properly examined. After all, when people see nothing but positive aspects on any issue, they are implicitly accepting that the situation does not need to change in order to become positive. The explicitly ‘negative’ mind is the one, ironically, that asks ‘Is this the best there is?’ and harbours the potential method for making it better.

Unfortunately, politicians have begun an offensive on negativity, to try and make us accept their often ridiculous ideas on the basis of optimism alone. The Scottish independence referendum was a classic and hugely popular example. Alex Salmond, the leader of the SNP on the pro-independence side, went so far as to dismiss the majority of criticism from pro-unionist parties on the basis that they were ‘scare-mongering’, and even resorted to attempting to rebrand their campaign ‘project fear’.

If you didn’t know about Salmond’s remarks prior to this article, you would be forgiven for thinking that he was responding to some sort of Christian Apocalyptic cult. ‘Project fear’ might accurately describe a campaign that was arguing Scotland would become a nuclear wasteland after a vote in favour of independence. Unfortunately Salmond was actually responding to claims that his economic analysis didn’t stand up to reason, and that his figures on finances were right at the highest end of possible estimates (and thus not balanced). It is usual, and honorable, political technique to point out poor arguments. Salmond not only failed to take this in good political faith, he also started an offence on negativity. He knew full well that boundless optimism, hope and unbridled positivity would be much more favourable toward any new idea than any old one. For the same reason that kids at Christmas, when I was young, opted for shiny new Pogs or the Fun House board game rather than a Rubik’s cube. The quintessential childhood cube outlasted both, of course, but shiny new ideas have the same appeal as shiny new fad toys. The difference being that these toys fade away, while political decisions (especially those regarding isolating entire countries) have long-standing effects.

It would be unfair to single out Salmond alone. His opponents on ‘project fear’ did make the occasional defence of negativity. I remember the leader of the campaign, Alistair Darling, during one of the televised debates, made at least one attempt to point out that counter-arguments are not scaremongering. But their defence of negativity – something which Scotland, and its great enlightenment tradition, could not exist without – was not quite as staunch as it should have been.

Perhaps I am being unkind on Darling, who might be a bright guy but is still fundamentally a politician. People have gotten to that stage where unbridled positivity holds such sway that defending negativity just for the purposes of this campaign would be, unfortunately, a political death march.

The rise of bizarre positivity, almost proud naivety, is evident throughout modern life. The National Lottery – something which anyone with even a small inkling about statistics could not justify spending money on – pulls in millions of punters weekly, along with prime time TV spots. Similarly, the much maligned ‘aspirational TV shows’, whereby celebrities – or even just rich people – are filmed doing nothing more than living, so that we can watch, chat about it and aspire to be like them, also takes up a valuable slot in TV ratings. But were a politician to publicly raise objections to Remembrance Day, or want to mention the problem with war, guess what? He/she would be vilified all over the tabloids as an insensitive hippy. We hate negativity to an unhealthy and irrational degree.

Perhaps it stems from a fear of the different. Those people who strive to be different and to question their surroundings eventually end up changing things for all of us, against a tidal wave of the status quo. However, the more influential media gets, the bigger that tidal wave becomes: people who are different or question the status quo arguably become a smaller minority every year. The task of the Suffragettes and Martin Luther King Jr looked almost impossible at the time, but nowadays you must also factor in hugely inflated modern media outlets, the culture of celebrity role models and an internet crammed full of places where your current opinions can find places to hide and recover in the face of challenge. What is normal and fun can be defended with social stigma comparable to a Soviet Army, whilst new, popular and fun ideas can be promoted against boring old one’s without having to withstand a proper, critical interrogation.

This article is a call to the defence of a human being’s desperate need for negativity; it has its place and it should not be forced from the political or social arenas. Perhaps you don’t want us negative nellies at your birthday parties, perhaps you also don’t want us at your christenings, questioning your assumption that your child wants to be indoctrinated before they get a chance to choose. But you do need us in the political arena: the modern global community is far too big and complex to jump head first into political ideologies without suspiciously examining the water first.

Remember those SNP promises about Scottish independence? You were right to vote No, because we didn’t have a plan for if/when things weren’t as rosy as their imaginations allowed. And those UKIP promises about being a new alternative to ‘old’ politics? You’ll be right to vote against them also; their economic policies are more at home in Narnia than the UK (wardrobe doors are easier to barricade shut, too), and they are simply playing on our bias and fears of foreign influence on our small country. Ignore negativity as you like in your modern life, but if we shut it out of more meaningful debates we’ll be rewinding the enlightenment and swapping critical thinking for faith in our own biases. Negativity belongs alongside positivity in discussions that matter, not behind it.