Toxic positivity

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Ahhh yes the Lego Movie a brilliant film, a genius concept and the home planet of toxic positivity, more on that shortly…

I am a big fan of comedian Bill Bailey and one of my favourite sketches is this reflection on the British psyche and how we report on our current mood. In the clip below he mocks a frequently used response “not too bad” and riffs on the relentless optimism of our culture – the comment on convertible car ownership is inspired. There is an important point amidst all of the hilarity and this clip came to mind this week in a discussion with colleagues about the perils of Toxic Positivity.

This year Kendra Cherry wrote an article on toxic positivity which she describes it as “the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It’s a “good vibes only” approach to life.” As we hopefully progress beyond the pandemic, there is a real risk that this mindset is encouraged and expected by organisations. Let’s look forward with optimism, the worst is behind us or in the words of D:Ream ‘things can only get better’.

Cherry’s article helpfully articulates the negative impact this can have on individuals:

  • It’s shaming: When someone is suffering, they need to know that their emotions are valid, but that they can find relief and love in their friends and family. Toxic positivity tells people that the emotions they are feeling are unacceptable. 
  • It causes guilt: It sends a message that if you aren’t finding a way to feel positive, even in the face of tragedy, that you are doing something wrong.
  • It avoids authentic human emotion: It functions as an avoidance mechanism allowing people to sidestep emotional situations that might make them feel uncomfortable.
  • It prevents growth: It allows us to avoid feeling things that might be painful, but it also denies us the ability to face challenging feelings that can ultimately lead to growth and deeper insight.

I believe there is a fifth spoke to the toxic positivity wheel that particularly comes out in conversations about inclusion and diversity: ‘denial‘. The lack of empathy that runs through the four elements raised by Cherry is also at the heart of this point. An acceptance that there are issues within an organisation is an admittance that the system is unfair, unjust and / or imbalanced. It takes openness and a willingness to be vulnerable to admit that as an individual you may have contributed to that situation or scenario either directly or indirectly (by not challenging the status quo). The potential reaction is to focus on all the good stuff and dial up the positivity. The result threatens to be a bit like this ear worm.

Challenging this requires honesty with ourselves and with each other. It needs us to be open and supportive. Our emphasis needs to be placed on dialling up our empathy and understanding and toning down impressing on others to be upbeat and positive. Let’s be kind and honest to ourselves while we are at it. If things are tough, if you are feeling tired or burnt out share it rather than opting for a 7/10 or a not too bad. This is not a plea for us all to be moribund or miserable but vulnerability and honesty can help us share the burden. A call for help can allow us to support a colleague in need. We can pull through this together but we don’t need to make a (ridiculously upbeat, inaccurate and overly optimistic) song and dance about it.

To my inspiration for this week’s blog thank you – you know who you are! #ImNotTired

A Tale of Four Cities

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…


This week’s post is not a deep dive into a Dickensian classic but the story that has inspired it feels like a work of fiction. A talented 18 year old races from qualifiers to US Open champion without dropping a set just months after a heart breaking withdrawal from the 4th round at Wimbledon. It is a script that I am sure will at some point be turned into a Netflix movie, but if it wasn’t based on truth, we’d say the whole premise was bordering on ludicrous.

Emma Raducanu, US Open Champion (Image: The London Economic)

However, this isn’t just a story about steely determination, years of dedication, focus, raw talent and self belief. It is also a tale of identity and, ever since that winning ace flashed past Leylah Fernandez on Saturday night, the narrative has been split between a fairy tale victory and British multiculturalism. The catalyst to the debate was probably Emma Raducanu’s meteoric rise to stardom being greeted with adulation and superlatives from ‘unexpected’ quarters. Chief among them all was Nigel “I wouldn’t want to live next door to a Romanian” Farage sending his congratulations to the newly crowned Queen of the US hard court. Many people have leapt onto the offensive to remind the former UKIP leader of his disparaging historical remarks about Romanian migrants and the hypocrisy at his change of heart given that Raducanu has a Romanian father, a Chinese mother, was born in Canada and moved to Bromley at the age of two.

Raducanu’s fluent thank you message in Mandarin

Unsurprisingly, to some she is multilingual and in a brilliant PR move she thanked her Chinese supporters in fluent Mandarin. I am a massive fan of David Baddiel but his tweet in relation to this message surprised me somewhat. While it is certainly not the norm to speak more than language in the UK and as a nation we are lagging behind the rest of world (I am sad to report I’m a negative stat in this regard). We still have four out of ten people in the UK (38%) who can speak more than one language. The challenge is we don’t really celebrate that quality in ‘ordinary people’, some times it can even be viewed as a negative and treated with hostility. So when we get incredibly giddy about it in a high profile individual, especially when it is a language clearly shared with them from birth by a parent, it leaves me a little bemused.

Like many I was up late on Saturday, chewing furiously on my finger nails, as she sealed her victory. In my mind at that point was that fact that in January she was innocently tweeting about whether she would sit her A levels and the next making an unexpected run into week 2 at Wimbledon. Thoughts about her heritage hasdn’t really crossed my mind, so I’ll admit to being a bit caught out by the spark of debate and discussion that started almost instantaneously. Good Morning Britain presenter Adil Ray caused a stir celebrating her heritage as a symbol of modern Britain but also highlighting the issue that for many you are only really adopted as British when you are successful. Like Ray I love the fact that her Twitter bio simply says London, Toronto, Shenyang, Bucharest and agree with the questions that he raises in this article.

As the dust settles, I agree that this is an important discussion for us to have as a nation and the best I have read on the topic is this one by Alexandra Topping in The Guardian on the topic of multiculturalism in the UK. I hope that one day the success of a hugely talented teenage tennis player isn’t over shadowed by a debate on immigration. I couldn’t agree more with Wanda Wyporska’s summation who “as a half-Bajan, quarter-Polish, quarter-English” British woman reflected that while she delighted in celebrating Raducanu’s success and talent, she was wary of holding her up as an example of successful immigrant integration.’

The more that people get used to the idea that Britishness is a very varied thing has to be positive, but my concern is that valuing immigrants and refugees in the UK is sort of predicated on being successful and giving back a contribution rather than just being human. That’s not good for us either.”

Mind the (pay) gap…

This week I will make only a passing mention of the uproar surrounding Gavin Williamson and his inexcusable confusion of Maro Itoje and Marcus Rashford. Though I have been amused by the various memes (personal favourite being the Dalek being confused for R2D2) the situation itself is much graver than that. As a Black man who has been ‘mistaken’ for someone else on more than one occasion I find such incidents deeply upsetting and in my view racist.

However, this week I am going to save myself the personal trauma of exploring issues of race and instead focus on gender pay. Followers of he blog will know I am a big fan of sport. I was gripped to the golf every evening over the weekend. The viewing was compelling and reflected a wider growth in interest in women’s sport. The Women’s Football Super League is now on Sky and a record 130,000 spectators flocked to the Inverness Golf Club in Ohio to watch the Solheim Cup. The latter is an event where Europe’s female golfers take on their American counterparts. Though the event is very different from normal golf, with players competing in teams instead of individually, it highlighted the unbelievable gulf in prize money in the individual game.

The victorious European Solheim Cup Team (Image: Golf Digest)

Suzann Pettersen, a former Solheim Cup star, who played 315 events on the LPGA Tour, with 22 wins and who sits in sixth place on the all time money list won less prize money in her entire career than Patrick Cantlay did for winning the Tour Championship that took place the same weekend as the Solheim Cup. Just let that sink in for a moment. A highly decorated and exceptional female golfer won less money across her whole career in the sport than one male golfer did after two impressive performances in the end of season tour championship.

Though sport offers up a really extreme example of the pay gap challenge, we know that the issue runs right through society. The Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading membership charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life, announced last year that Equal Pay Day 2020 (the day in the year when women effectively, on average, stop earning relative to men) was on 20th November. It remains unclear what impact the pandemic has had on the gender pay balance but it is important that we continue to collectively for equal pay in all walks of life.

There are signs of progress. In Ireland the men’s national football team have agreed to reduce their match fee, a reduction matched by the FAI to increase the women’s fee to ensure equal pay. It is a small but positive step and demonstrates what can be done where there is a will and commitment to equality.

This article by Timewise highlights some simple and effective ways of addressing the pay gap. The article focuses on research that identifies four key areas driving the pay gap:
1. There are more men in senior roles than women
2. Caring responsibilities and part-time roles are shared unequally
3. Women choose to work in low-paid roles and sectors
4. Women are paid less than men for the same role

The report also reveals that for three of the four there is a relatively straightforward solution: get better at flexible and part-time working. Perhaps as we move out of the pandemic, embrace hybrid working and continue to experiment with a four day working week: gender pay parity may occur in the not too distant future.

Loaded language: Inspiration porn

This phrase was first coined in 2014 by disability activist Stella Young and to summarise her definition:

“Inspiration porn is the objectification of disabled people for the benefit of non disabled people.”

It is a deliberately provocative term and for a fuller, more rounded explanation I really encourage you to watch this short video.

I share this post this week at the height of the Paralympics, where Team GB are flying high in the medal table and Dame Sarah Storey has set a new record for Paralympic gold medals with an incredible tally of 17. She has competed in two sports in her Paralympic career swimming and cycling and she is an extremely talented athlete. However, there have been times where the stories of our athletes has drifted into the inspiration porn territory. These uses tend to share one or more of the following characteristics highlighted in this brilliant article by Forbes:

  • an attempt to generate sentimentality and/or pity
  • contains some form of moral message, primarily aimed at non-disabled viewers
  • disabled people anonymously objectified, even when they are named

The first question I have for you this week is are you watching the Paralympics? I am going to call myself out on this and say I have been much more selective than I was in watching the Olympics where I would pretty much watch everything. Second and much more important question – what are you thinking when you do watch Paralympic athletes perform. Do you see them as elite athletes or do you see something else?

Have a watch of this Channel 4 advert for the 2016 Paralympic Games. Whilst well intentioned, the title sets the wrong tone and I would ask the question of whether an advert for Olympic Games coverage would include footage of someone answering a phone in an office, a child eating a bowl of cereal or a mother holding her baby?

Like the late Stella Young, I subscribe to the social model of disability. I really like the Scope definition:

“the social model says that people are disabled by barriers in society, not by their impairment or difference. Barriers can be physical, like buildings not having accessible toilets. Or they can be caused by people’s attitudes to difference, like assuming disabled people can’t do certain things.”

So rather than being wowed by disabled people performing every day tasks or enjoying their hobbies let’s think about how we can remove barriers and change our attitudes and perceptions. But most of all let’s stop celebrating inspiration porn and call it out when we see it.

In my summer holidays I learnt…

We all know the drill. First day back to school, especially primary, and you would be set a task revolving around either what you did in the school holidays. Teacher’s were keen to find out about new experiences that you may have had, especially if they were unusual and would use those as a platform to share learning with the rest of the class. This week’s post is my summer holiday reflection and an overnight visit to London Zoo.

They have built some new lodges in the zoo, near the Asiatic Lions. I have long been grappling with the existence of zoos. I loved them as a child and have a fond memory of a visit to London Zoo aged 9 or 10. I recall spending a long period of time watching the penguins at Lubetkin’s award winning penguin pool. Built in the 1930’s, at the time it was a groundbreaking and innovative design. The architect drew on the knowledge of penguin experts at the time and it went on to inspire many other enclosures across the world. It now lies empty, retained as a listed building, but no longer used for its original purpose due to modern day knowledge of the negative impact on animals welfare.

Lubetkin’s Penguin Pool

It is this issue that has been the cause of my love/hate relationship with zoos. An inner turmoil of the concept of captivity for wild animals being anything but negative, especially in relation to providing entertainment. I harboured a sense of guilt and begrudged taking my children to zoos when they were younger. Then a few years ago we visited Port Lympne wildlife reserve and it began to open my eyes to utilising those experiences to build support and investment for conservation in the wild.

Penguin Beach

Returning to our overnight visit, as part of the package you receive a number of tours. These tours are the real focus of my blog this week. The thing is they could have skirted over the Lubetkin pool, not drawn any attention to it. Instead it became an important part of the narrative. They explained how it was an example of how animal welfare approaches were improving. They demonstrated humility and a degree of vulnerability in acknowledging that they not only got it wrong then, but that they may be getting things wrong now and their work needs to be governed by a willingness to learn from the past and an openness to new ideas for the future. Across those three tours they transformed my perspective on the work they do and it was driven by an honesty about the past. For me that made the experience feel more authentic and it increased my perception of the zoos integrity. In those talks the hosts and Zoological Society for London became one.

Though it has gone quiet in recent weeks it made me think about the questions raised about colonial, disability and LGBTQ+ history. About the stories that have gone untold and unheard for too long. As a society we won;t always get things right. Let’s talk about where things have been wrong in the past and be open about the fact the future may well question the way things are now…

Breaking news…

I had written a post for this week. It was a piece about London Zoo based on a trip with my family and framed around what I learnt on the school holidays. It was a lighter touch piece as I am having a much needed break from work and am using that time to recharge.

However, with the events taking place in Afghanistan, and the sobering reflections and debates both within the House of Parliament and outside, it felt that this was the most important conversation to be had. At a time where I need to recharge I simply cannot do the situation justice. I promise I will return to the topic of refugees in the future…

Another year older…

In A Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy a group of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings create a super computer called Deep Thought to find the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything“. The answer produced is 42 (more on that later). So as I have just reached that age milestone I wondered if I might be bestowed with some existential wisdom… (I wasn’t). However, thinking about the bizarre maths from Douglas Adams classic reaffirmed my belief that the solution we are looking for lies in multiplication and not division.

Super computer ‘Deep Thought’ hard at work…

At the root of the discord that we have seen in recent years, starting with Brexit, has been division and poliarised opinion. In the past I have unfairly bracketed all people with views at the opposite end of the spectrum to mine in the same camp. I have steered clear of unhelpful debates, have ignored barbed comments and provocations. I have protected myself in a safe social media haven with like minded individuals and in doing so I have been too narrow minded.

Watching this week as a group of anti-vaxxers stormed the wrong building I asked myself different questions. This only happened when I caught myself enjoying the delicious irony of (what I believe to be) misinformed individuals using inaccurate information to launch a protest. Instead I began to ask myself questions such as ‘why do these people believe so strongly that vaccination is wrong’? Do they all believe coronavirus is a conspiracy or a hoax? If they do how have they reached that conclusion and would I be better served seeking first to understand their viewpoint(s) rather than immediately placing them in a single, negative, homogeneous bucket?

It reminded me of a brilliant presentation I saw from Ruth Ibegbuna following the Brexit vote as she launched her Roots project. She was drawn to understanding not only why people chose to vote the way they did on both sides but also to bring those different perspectives together for rational, open discussion. We need to understand why we are where we are before we can agree where we collectively want to get to. I am aware that there has been influence applied from different quarters from media to prominent public figures to politics. My fear is that if we continue to shout at each other we will only grow further apart. The rifts in our society are real and we all have to play a role in healing them. he first step is being willing to listen with an open mind. To listen to understand.

This is what I am committing to do over the upcoming year and you may well notice a shift in emphasis on this blog space as I look to understand and learn from differing perspectives. However, the motivation will remain consistent how do we move from where we are now to a more equitable and harmonious society?

So back to Hitchhikers… Douglas Adams was asked many times why he chose the number 42. There were lots of complex fan theories that were proposed some relating to binary code and others to how light refracts through water to create a rainbow. Adams rejected them all.

The answer to this is very simple. It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base thirteen, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ’42 will do’ I typed it out. End of story.

Douglas Adams, November 1993

Maybe the answer to our societal challenges is a simple one in its premise. Our situation is not a joke but could we reach swifter consensus if we talked. Meaningfully, deeply and calmly. #ImNotTired

Walking the walk

It is far easier to declare that you stand in solidarity with a cause or an issue than it is to actually take action, stand up and be counted. That was certainly felt at TalkSPORT HQ this week when a caller made a racist remark and neither of the presenters properly called it out or challenged it. The moment illustrated for me why it is critically important that if you intend to be an ally that you invest the time, effort and energy into self development so you are ready when the moment you need to challenge discriminatory behaviour arrives. What troubles me about the incident is that surely one of the key areas of development for the presenters has to be how to recognise a discriminatory comment and how to respond. It is startling that a radio station, that regularly invites callers to dial in, hadn’t done their homework.

For those of you that missed it, a caller discussing the potential transfer of Harry Kane from Tottenham, made an anti-semitic slur against the chairman Daniel Levy. The video below clearly indicates that the presenters were stunned by the comment but rather than call it out they moved the conversation on. I am certain that if the caller had made a racist remark about a Black or Brown footballer, manager or owner they would have responded in the moment. TalkSPORT have since apologised to Tottenham and Daniel Levy and I genuinely hope this will lead to in depth training of the on air team.

What is really sad is that it doesn’t take too much to work to prepare yourself for these kinds of situations. On radio especially, you have the ability to challenge the caller and then end the call if they do not retract / apologise for the remark. I have mentioned in previous blogs preparing a stock response you can have ready for when you are in this kind of situation. It would have been very simple for either Perry Groves or Jordan Jarrett Bryan to end the call and say “That type of racist comment is unacceptable on our show and I’d like to apologise to any listeners who have been offended by that”.

TalkSPORT have highlighted that they were able to cut the slur from radio broadcast but it made it through on the live stream online. Whilst this is a potentially positive step to prevent hateful comments from broadcast I sincerely hope it doesn’t mean that staff development gets ignored. The cynic in me wonders whether the edit was driven more by the comment or the lack of action by the presenters? If we are really going to make progress on anti-racism censorship is not enough. In fact, I think more positive impact would have been made by the presenters calling it out in the moment than by edits and apologies. #ImNotTired

Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy

Olympic spirit

I love the Olympics. It is a moment when we embrace a really diverse range of sport, celebrate achievement and experience moments that capture our imagination and stay with us for a lifetime. My first memory of the games is a fleeting one of Daley Thompson doing back flips on the pole vault mat in 1988. Many years later ias a student, still inspired by that moment, I got to fulfil a childhood dream by spending a year ‘learning’ how to vault. I put the learning in inverted commas as really I just sprinted down a track with a big stick in my hands and hurled myself over a (not very high) bar looking as graceful as a frog in a blender. Many of my olympic memories are golden moments of triumph and unexpected success. However, the most poignant ones that have stuck with me are tales of adversity, courage and the olympic spirit.

The Olympic Spirit is quite simply that the most important thing is not to win but to take part, “just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” From wildcard entry Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani who only learnt to swim 8 months before the games at Sydney 2000 to Derek Redmond finishing the 400m injured with help from his dad in Barcelona 1992 (I still cannot watch the footage without welling up). These are the stories that make the Games special for me and why the spirit is so important.

However, it is unusual for courageous inspirational stories such as this to come from an Olympic superstar and Simone Biles is a sporting megastar, With no Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt at this Olympic Games she is the star attraction. Seeing her falter in qualifying was surprising, when she pulled out of the final that was stunning but what happened next may well be the most important moment not just in sport but in how we think about mental health. Biles was clearly not feeling ok, she did not believe she could perform at her best and took the brave decision to stand herself down in the final for the benefit of her team mates and her own mental health. She then became the team’s biggest cheerleader supporting her team mates avidly from the sidelines. In that moment Biles made a statement that “it’s ok to not be ok” and that any of us can face those challenges. The outpouring on social media afterwards, not just in terms of support for her, but also tales of how her actions would have positive repercussions for all athletes.

Image: Bryan Keane
(prints available here http://inpho.ie/media/NKMt-91EigIr2pO-toALNg..a)

Let us not forget that Biles was probably set to double the number of gymnastic moves named after her to four at this Olympics. If you do not follow the sport,she was likely going to perform a double, double dismount off the beam. For the uninitiated this means jumping off a 4 inch wide beam and doing a double somersault with a double twist to dismount! Think that is impressive then consider the triple double she has trademarked on the floor as she somehow generates enough power and elevation off the mat to complete a double somersault in a perfect tuck with three twists.

It is a superhuman, breathtaking piece of athleticism. She may well be the greatest female athlete of all time and has inspired countless numbers of children to head to their local gym to learn gymnastics. She is a colossus but with her honesty, bravery and openness she has perhaps accomplished something even more important. No matter who you are, what you have achieved and what you are embarking on or involved in you may face mental health challenges and in those moments it is ok to stop and reach out for help. I was full of admiration for her before these games but that is nothing compared to how in awe I am of her now.

I’ll finish this week’s blog with the Derek Redmond clip. It is a tragically sad moment for an athlete who was denied the opportunity to race in an Olympic final but will live on in my memory for that resolute determination to finish the race. I challenge you not to shed a tear… #ImNotTired

Domino effect…

Last week I had a very inspiring discussion with Jane Ide OBE who is a brilliant charity sector leader. In the conversation, we talked about how micro interventions could potentially be the way forward for the kind of inclusive change we are aiming to see in society. It got me thinking have we got our approach all wrong? Have we fixated too much on big ticket changes, seismic movements that would signal a momentous shift rather than concentrating on focused interventions, the sum of which could be greater than their collective parts?

In exploring this question, I thought about the small scale actions with very specific ambitions that are creating ripples that may potentially build up to a tidal wave for change. The first one that came to mind was Show The Salary, a simple ask ‘born out of frustration at the lack of action being taken to address pay gaps and inequity in the charity sector’. Using social media the organisers have consistently called out and challenged organisations posting jobs without showing the salary. Simultaneously, they encouraged organisations to sign their pledge to commit to always revealing it. If you want to understand more about why this is important you can read their excellent top eight reasons here. In summary though you get more candidates, you will run a fairer and more equitable process and you’ll help address pay equality within your organisation. If you are serious about being inclusive it’s a very simple positive action.

Next up was Stop Funding Hate, which was founded in 2016. The organisers were concerned about the drip feed of toxic headlines and the damaging effect they have on society. They want to see community harmony not fracture and therefore condemn those profiting from sowing seeds of division. So they are calling out companies who advertise in newspapers or channels (GB News the most recent focus) that they feel are having this impact. Their rationale is that newspaper sales are reducing and consequently advertising is a key element of profitability. So by encourage individuals to boycott companies who choose to advertise in those newspapers or channels they apply pressure to consider advertising elsewhere. In relation to GB News they have so far seemingly encouraged companies including Ikea, Kopparberg and Octopus Energy to stop advertising. What impact that will have is yet to be seen but their leverage is clearly evident.

Finally, I though about Change.org, which has just exploded this year. As a platform, it has become the epicentre for single issue campaigns and is reflective of the emergence of New Power (see video below). The impact of Change.org in 2020 was extraordinary and it is a wider signal of the power of mass mobilisation. Technology and social media have shifted the balance of power. It is now much more possible for ‘ordinary people’ to make real tangible change. So my question this week is whether the way forward is actually through small scale actions, lots of them, and that we achieve social justice through a thousand flowers blooming? If this is right how do we become more aware of the actions we can take? How do we track the small impacts and ensure that we amplify the difference they are making? Throw in one or two socially conscious mega influencers like Marcus Rashford and who knows what we could achieve… #ImNotTired