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The voodoo cult of positive thinking

Lessons from Lance Armstrong's disgrace.

He might be disgraced as a sportsman but his advocacy of relentless willpower has brought hope to millions of cancer sufferers. That is the conventional view of Lance Armstrong. Sadly, the doping case against Armstrong is the least of it. Applied to sport, Armstrong’s deification of the power of positive thinking is mere fantasy. When it is applied to the question of life and death it moves into far more dangerous territory.

Armstrong built a brand in answer to the question, “What made the difference, Lance?” He nourished a narrative that apparently began as a lie and hardened into full-scale fantasy. Not talent (though he possessed plenty of that). Not drugs (though his team-mates now say he was a “pioneer of doping”). No, the difference in Armstrong’s view was his mental ability to eliminate human frailty. Armstrong recovered from testicular cancer; he then won seven yellow jerseys in the Tour de France. Those two processes became blurred in his mind – so much so that when people accused him of doping in cycling he would imply they were belittling those who had recovered from cancer.

Fanatical hatred

Does Armstrong still believe he is a genuine champion, unfairly wronged? Many people accused of doping allow themselves some wriggle room, even before they are caught. Armstrong responded to his accusers with fanatical hatred. They were cynics trying to cheat the world of genuine miracles that he, Armstrong, had made real.

Is lying the appropriate word for such a fantasist? Or do fantasists lose possession of those facts that don’t fit the version of events on which their self-image relies? Armstrong’s racing was informed by a simple mantra: I believe, therefore I will win. Armstrong’s doping denials were similarly straightforward: I believe, therefore it is true. Both sport and life had been reduced to a narrative in which willpower could defy any odds.

Armstrong told us to “believe in miracles”. But if you follow his own logic, believing in miracles doesn’t quite capture it. After all, he believed he had the power to make miracles, not just to benefit from them. He was the agent, not just the recipient. There is a term for those who can will miraculous events: gods. That is how Armstrong viewed himself. The rules that govern normal human beings no longer applied to him.

There are echoes of Tiger Woods, who has long regarded his own humanity as something that needs to be overcome rather than embraced. Feelings, emotions, vulnerabilities: they are problems that need to be ironed out, like flaws in a faulty back-swing.

But compare Armstrong’s alleged deceit with the relatively trifling deception of Woods. Woods pretended to be a family man to make a few extra million dollars in easy sponsorship deals. He was exposed but his achievements on the golf course remain valid. With Armstrong, the deceit seems far deeper and sadder.

Armstrong found many willing allies in the promotion of his myth. The public lapped up the Lance legend with hysterical enthusiasm. He was the perfect hero for our times: an icon of willpower. In sport – and in life – self-belief is now routinely invoked as the explanation for almost everything. Commentators blithely assure us that it is “all about who wants it the most”, as though sporting podiums are arranged exactly according to the amount of willpower that went into the struggle. Bronze: considerable self-belief; silver: still stronger self-belief; gold: self-belief on an epic scale.

This is pure nonsense. Inferring an exact and causal relationship between determination and success is a delusional fantasy of a society obsessed by just deserts. The true differentiating factors in elite sport are far more complex. What goes in to the making a champion? It is the subtle interplay of genes, talent, opportunity, hard work, willpower, pure luck and, in some cases, drugs. Willpower is just one factor.  Armstrong’s oversimplification of success becomes even more problematic when it is applied to the question of life and death. The misleading phrase “the battle against cancer” has a lot to answer for. A friend of mine recently died of breast cancer. It would be hard to imagine a braver, stronger-willed woman. But the cancer “won”, as cancers often do. That her death could be interpreted as a failure of willpower or positive thinking is a gross insult.

Modern gods

It is an insult that has been implied by the Armstrong message. The truth about “positive thinking” is much more nuanced. It is often a very good thing. It may even be necessary. But it is never sufficient. The Armstrong philosophy veers dangerously close to the self-help mantra of books such as The Secret. Its author, Rhonda Byrne, mused after the Java tsunami of 2006 that such events only ever afflicted people who were “on the same frequency as the event”. Smile or Die, Barbara Ehrenreich’s exposé of the positive-thinking industry, includes a chilling story from a psychiatrist at a New York cancer clinic: “Patients come in with stories of being told by well-meaning friends, ‘I’ve read all about this – if you got cancer, you must have wanted it.’ ”

Every age has its deities. The medieval mindset placed its blind faith in God. The Enlightenment anointed reason and science. Our own age has indulged a pseudoscientific cult of willpower: the deification of determination. At its best, it is a questionable creed. At its worst, it suggests that all losers must also be weaklings.

With luck, Armstrong’s career – and the legend that surrounded it –will one day be seen as the high-water mark of the voodoo cult of willpower. Paradoxically, Armstrong’s downfall may do more long-term good than his ascent. We now know that pure willpower was only one strand of Armstrong’s career. That corrective applies to all success and, by extension, to all failure. Armstrong spent his career trying to prove that willpower is the whole story. Instead, he has demonstrated that life is always far more complicated than that.

Ed Smith’s “Luck: What It Means and Why It Matters” is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99).

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special

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Why is the government charging more women for selling sex but turning a blind eye to buyers?

Since 2013, the number of women charged for selling sex gone up while the number of men charged for buying it has gone down.

It’s no surprise that prostitution policy is an area rarely visited by our legislators. It’s politically charged - a place where the need to prevent exploitation seemingly clashes head on with notions of liberal freedom; where there are few simple answers, a disputed evidence base, and no votes.

There’s also little evidence to suggest that MPs are different from the rest of the population - where one-in-ten men have purchased sex. It is little wonder therefore that our report on how the law should change, published in 2014, was the first major cross-party intervention on the subject in twenty years.

Some take the view that by removing all legal constraints, it will make the inherently exploitative trade of prostitution, safer. It’s not just me that questions this approach, though I accept that - equally - there’s no consensus that my preferred measure of criminalising the purchase of sex, while decriminalising the sale, would fundamentally change the scale of the problem.

Where all sides come together, however, is in the desire to see women diverted from the law courts. It is still possible for women (and it still is women; prostitution remains highly genderised) to go to prison for offences related to prostitution. Today, in 2015.

The total number of prosecutions for all prostitution offences in England and Wales has been decreasing since 2010, but not in a uniform fashion. This does not reflect a reduction in the size of the trade, or the violent nature of it.

There were once consistently more prosecutions for kerb crawling, profiting, and control of prostitution. But since 2013, there have been more prosecutions for soliciting or loitering than for profit from prostitution and kerb crawling each year.

In simple terms, offences committed by men with choice, freedom and money in their pocket are having a blind eye turned to them, while women are being targeted - and this trend is accelerating. In the law courts, and in prosecutions, it is the most vulnerable party in the transaction, who is taking the burden of criminality.

Take on-street sex buying as an example. In 2013-14 just 237 prosecutions were brought for kerb crawling, but there were 553 - more than twice as many - for loitering and soliciting.

There is a similar pattern in the 2014/15 figures: 227 charges for kerb crawling reached court, while 456 prosecutions were initiated against those who were selling sex. Just 83 prosecutions for control of prostitution, or ‘pimping’, were brought in that same year.

These are men and women on the same street. It takes a high level of liberal delusion to be convinced that prostitution is caused by a surge of women wishing to sell sex, rather than men who wish to buy it. And yet women who sell sex are the ones being targeted in our law courts, not the men that create the demand in the first place.

This situation even goes against the Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) own guidance. They say:

“Prostitution is addressed as sexual exploitation within the overall CPS Violence Against Women strategy because of its gendered nature… At the same time, those who abuse and exploit those involved in prostitution should be rigorously investigated and prosecuted, and enforcement activity focused on those who create the demand for on-street sex, such as kerb crawlers.”

Why then, is this happening? For the same reason it always does - in our criminal justice system stigmatised, poor women are valued less than moneyed, professional men.

My debate in Parliament today raises these issues directly with the government ministers responsible. But to be honest, the prosecution-bias against women in the courts isn’t the problem; merely a symptom of it. This bias will only be tackled when the law reflects the inherent harm of the trade to women, rather than sending the mixed signals of today.

That’s why I welcome the work of the End Demand Alliance, composed of over 40 organisations working to end the demand that fuels sex trafficking and prostitution, advocating the adoption of the Sex Buyer Law throughout the UK.

This would criminalise paying for sex, while decriminalising its sale and providing support and exiting services for those exploited by prostitution. Regardless of these big changes in the law, I don’t see how anyone can support the current state of affairs where there are more prosecutions brought against women than men involved in prostitution.

The authorities are targeting women because they're easier to arrest and prosecute. It goes against their own guidance, common sense and natural justice.
And it needs to stop.

Gavin Shuker is MP for Luton South and chair of the All Party Group on Prostitution and the Global Sex Trade.