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Archive for October, 2007

We therapists tend to favor positive thinking and especially positive self-concept, for good reason. Generally, positive thought, as opposed to the other kind, leads more often to good feelings. One reason for this is that in many situations a positive outlook about oneself produces behavior that simply works better. (It is generally important, of course, that such positive thought have at least a modest relationship to reality!)

I could say a lot more about positive thought, but that’s not really my subject. Negative thought has a place in our lives, too. I want to promote the virtues of negative thoughts, here – both their direct virtues and those we can derive, if we know how.

Let’s look in a little more detail at the two kinds of virtue that may be found in association with negative thinking:

  • Inherent virtue: Negative thought is sometimes right. This is CORRECT negative thought. It tells us that such things as “Do not proceed straight across this valley, for there’s a swamp ahead, and you’ll get into it but you won’t get out, ‘cause you can’t swim!” This is obviously helpful thinking, though it’s hardly positive in nature.
  • Derived virtue: All other negative thought is incorrect. While that isn’t helpful, we can still convert this problem into a good outcome. How to do that will be explained below.

When we notice that we’re not feeling good, and then find that we’re in the grip of negative thinking, especially about ourselves, we should suspect that we may be under the spell of an INCORRECT negative belief. We may well not know, initially, the exact nature of that belief, but once we become aware of it, our goal should be to reduce or eliminate its effect.

Sometimes we must get help to accomplish this – with the more complex and serious negative beliefs. The rest of the time we can often do the job ourselves.

I have written a new article at my professional website which deals in detail with this subject – Building emotional resilience: Finding and calming negative self-beliefs to decrease personal distress and become stronger. Sooner or later, we’re all affected by negative self-beliefs which well may be wrong, and we do well to work to correct them. In this piece, I offer a couple of ways to do this.

For years, I have used myself these methods, and I know they can work very well. I rely upon them, in fact. When I find myself getting in my own way because of negative self-belief, these are the methods I most often use for self-rescue.

Interested? You should be. I hope you check it out.

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I have today resolved to remove myself as contributor to all Internet discussion lists which have moderators who screen all posts before allowing them to display (or not – and of course that’s why they screen them). I can no longer tolerate autocratic* discussion list moderators. (Please see my Note, below, re: “autocratic”.)

HAVING TO ASK PERMISSION TO SPEAK – NO LONGER OK

I began the first draft of this post a few days ago, in a state of outrage. The problem was that in one 24-hour period I had received TWO queries as to the appropriateness of proposed posts to an Internet discussion list I set up a few years ago. Both individuals contacting me had advanced degrees in psychotherapy-related fields, plus years of experience in their fields. Their maturity and good judgment may be assumed. Why, therefore, are they asking permission of me to express themselves on this discussion list? For one thing, I have made it clear, in other contexts, that this List does not have an autocratic moderator. Still, they ask permission.

This is reminiscent of the behavior that been observed in the USA of recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. They get in trouble at some point, and ought to call for help. They are asked – “So why didn’t you call the police?” One person put it plainly: “Where I come from, police don’t resolve trouble. They make trouble.” While this might be very easily understood for, say, an African-American from south-side Chicago, or Louisiana, or a great many other places (sadly), for many of the rest of us it is not.

WHERE THERE’S POWER THERE MUST BE CHECKS AND BALANCES

The problem is power distribution. The moment someone has inordinate power – a lot more power than someone else, without adequate checks and balances, the stage is set for abuse. How the abuse comes about can be surprisingly subtle, and that’s a good part of the problem. Altruistic people, possessed of good intelligence and values, nevertheless simply cannot make certain decisions for other people. When they think they can, and there’s no recourse to those of us on the outside of the process, trouble seems to me to be inevitable.

True autocrats are not controlled by those they serve. They are self-determining. This is the very definition of a “dictator” -someone who says in effect “I will tell you what you will do, and that will be the end of it.” This is unacceptable, in every context which comes to my mind.

POORLY MANAGED POWER IS A PROBLEM IN TOO MANY PSYCHOTHERAPY DISCUSSION LISTS

In truth, there are a number of psychology and psychotherapy-related Internet Discussion lists run by moderators who frankly say “You may speak here only about the topics that I’m interested in, else I’ll prevent you from speaking on the list.” Or, worse yet: “You may express only certain points of view, else I’ll prevent you from speaking here…” The idea of constructing an area where only certain activities are allowed isn’t problematic. The problem is that when one person, or even a minority of a group, controls the behavior of the group as a whole the free flow and interaction of ideas is constricted in ways which do not maximally benefit the welfare of the group.

LESSONS OF HISTORY? WHAT LESSONS?

If the intellectual history of western Europe, or anywhere else, for that matter, teaches us one thing, it is that only when there is a free marketplace of ideas does the best of which we are capable emerge. That it will emerge is not at all guaranteed by such a marketplace, but when the people as a whole are not actually running the market, the likelihood of such an emergence is always reduced. One of things I find most regrettable is that there are too many people, including some in positions of power, who have no apparent knowledge of this history lesson.

WHY THEY KEEP ASKING

Returning to the Internet discussion list problem – this is not the first time I have been asked whether I, as a list moderator, would inflict some kind of punishment upon someone should they post some particular expression to the list. I have, in fact, been contacted repeatedly over the years by people concerned about this matter.

I assume that the anxiety motivating these people to contact me derives from bad real-world experiences on other discussion lists, in part because I have myself had conflicts with Internet discussion list autocrats.

“MAJORITY RULE” ISN’T ENOUGH; WE MUST CARE FOR ALL

Free speech is a core value of my national culture. It is a cornerstone of freedom, we are told, growing up, in our schools and families. At the same time, actual behavior in these schools and families have on occasion denied this principle. Ideology and behavior are tto often at odds, that that in effect we are sometimes told “You have free speech, and if you know what’s good for you you’ll use it in the following way…”

Well, that doesn’t look like free speech, does it?

This actually a more complex problem than it might seem. If autocratic restrictions are a bad thing, how about restrictions deriving from the expressed will of the majority of a group? Well, this certainly is less oppressive, but isn’t necessarily acceptable. Under such a structure, for example slavery might well flourish – and historically has.

A good solution appears to be obtainable when one considers the subtle notions embodied in the conclusion of John Donne’s famous Meditation 17. I find this so powerful that I feel compelled to quote the entire fragment here:

…No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Where one man, woman, or child lives in oppression of any kind, there lives a threat to us all. THAT is why autocratic management of anything which might provide benefit to the people in general is so unacceptable.

Democracy – the rule of the people by the people for the people – is historically a rather rare and precious thing. It seem to require conscious fostering and advocacy, and even defense, at times, for its survival.

DRAW A LINE – TAKE A STAND

So, I will take this stand, from now on: I will make no further contributions to any Internet discussion list which is run by a moderator whose actions are those of an autocrat (as opposed, say, to those of an administrator).

I urge you to do the same, and to do it conspicuously.

The free marketplace of ideas is worth fighting for.

NOTE

* I want to be careful about my use of the word “autocrat”. Am I name-calling, by using it here? I hope not. I certainly am labeling, which is a legitimate kind of intellectual shorthand. The reason why I don’t have trouble with the word is that it has a long and distinct history in the political philosophy and political science. It is not really an imprecise term.

The virtues of autocracy have been debated at least since the time of the Athenian democracy. Implicit in that debate is a fairly clear idea of what’s being debated:

…the control of the many by the few (or the one) without regard to the opinion of the many.

This should be added: whether or not that “regard” is present is to be determined by the many, not by the few. THAT is the critical factor which keeps things from reeling out of control. Someone in a position of power who pays satisfactory attention to the opinion of the many is not an autocrat but an administrator.

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