If you spend enough time on Twitter you’ll doubtlessly see this kind of post: A block of text copied and pasted from Tumblr that says something along the lines of “you don’t owe anyone anything, you can cut them off without explanation” or “it’s ok to get toxic people out of your life.” It will garner more than 50,000 likes, because cutting out bad things is good, right?
But it seems to me that the internet’s love of encouraging us to remove toxicity from our lives is making us all a little sick.
Our love for the word “toxic,” which was the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2018 word of the year, makes sense. We live in a terrible time where we’ve tacitly accepted a generous estimate that the Earth will die within a few generations. Add to that the internet being full of reply guys, “didn’t happen” commenters and memes that are slowly decreasing in quality, and it’s understandable distance ourselves from the bad stuff that exists there. But decrying the “toxicity” of something is also an easy way to undermine criticism, deflect from any further discussion, and ultimately reinforce to everyone that you are a good, positive person and your adversary is a mean, bad one.
There is a big difference, of course, between cutting out genuinely harmful people and things in one’s life versus cutting out people and things that take any criticism, slight, or inability to fulfill the transactional nature of the way they view relationships as toxic. The former is a mature, brave, and important reaction to negativity, while the latter masquerades as something severe: instead of toxic, a better phrase to use in such instances would be “kind of shitty.” In a recent article for MEL, Maddie Holden discussed “emotional labor” and how the word has evolved so far from its original meaning as to end up with a whole new definition that is doing more harm than good. I believe “toxic” has largely begun to head the same way.
This isn’t entirely our own fault. Our brains are hardwired to avoid criticism that might affect how we see ourselves. A 2000 study showed that “individuals protect the positivity of their self-concept by neglecting feedback that is inconsistent with their prior held (central positive) self-conceptions.” After analyzing how we see bias in ourselves compared to others, research by Stanford University in 2015 found that people have a tendency to assume others are more susceptible to bias than them, making their own views objective and the views of those who disagree distorted by factors such as self-interest.
For a masterclass in why our relationship with the word “toxic” is, well, toxic, you only need look at celebrities. Many current celebrities, despite being rich, beautiful, and surrounded by a staff of yes-people at any given moment, absolutely cannot handle criticism, and their reactions to it are telling. Momager extraordinaire Kris Jenner, when asked in March about actress Jameela Jamil’s comments about how her daughters promote poor body image by hawking diet teas and waist trainers, said they simply “don’t live in that negative energy space.” (What space she was referring to remains unclear.) Before comedian Kevin Hart apologized for his previous and now-deleted homophobic tweets, he issued a statement asking critics to “take your negative energy and put it somewhere constructive.” (Where that might be remains unclear.)
What celebrities and people on Twitter who espouse the virtues of living by your pleasure principles don’t seem to recognize is that sometimes, negativity can be good.
Sometimes even the smallest of slights is interpreted as a pernicious type of cruelty. In April, actress Olivia Munn wrote an essay that she published on Twitter calling out tongue-in-cheek fashion bloggers the Fug Girls for criticizing an ill-fitting metallic suit that she had worn. Munn’s essay casted itself as a high-minded riposte to a big bad blog. The Fug Girls, Munn wrote, “claim to employ some sort of subjective barometer for goodness and beauty even though what they do and write is neither good nor beautiful.” Instead of brushing or laughing off what the Fug Girls said about her ugly suit, Munn, who sadly has more power and money than most bloggers, punched down but acted as if she was punching up by calling out a perceived toxic enemy.
Ever since Horatio Alger wrote about Ragged Dick pulling himself up by his own bootstraps in the late 19th century, the doctrine of optimism has loomed large in America. In her 2009 book Bright-sided, Barbara Ehrenreich explains that this sort of thinking continues to go hand in hand with capitalism, pushing the idea that consumers deserve more and can get it if they just try hard enough. You could, in theory, positive think yourself all the way out of poverty, with no help from the government.
I spoke to Will Davies, a professor in Political Economy at Goldsmiths University in London and author of The Happiness Industry, on how this attitude thrives as part of internet culture. “Social media creates an economy of ‘likes,’ he said. “Rather than being judged critically, cultural content can be measured by how many people like it. It’s an arms race in enthusiasm.”
What celebrities and people on Twitter who espouse the virtues of living by your pleasure principles don’t seem to recognize is that sometimes, negativity can be good. Not in the twee “bad things happen for a reason” way that tends to fall apart when applied to any atrocity larger than a breakup, but rather in how it can create an opportunity for personal growth and even larger-scale action. A VICE piece from last year about civility, ethics, and politics noted that in order for society to move forward, “we must be willing to consider how, when, and to what effect blame whips around and points the finger squarely at our own chests.”
In 2019, there is little room for bland positivity. If anything, the terrible state of the world provides the perfect time to harness the power of negativity. “A compulsion to be happy is a compulsion to accept the world as it is,” Davies said. While discourse’s dark side can incite uncomfortable thoughts and conversations, it gives us the power to paint an accurate picture of the world as it is, not to mention the opportunity to call the world out on its bullshit and call ourselves out on how we contribute to it. Bearing that in mind might go some way to all of us being a little less toxic — or maybe just a little less shitty.