The University of California, Davis, has banned the Optimist Club from campus, saying its “unrelenting positiveness” is bad for student health.
“Participating in the club ignites a primal response in the brain which causes students to believe, ‘Things are great, I don’t have to be careful,'” said the chair of the UCD Psychology Department, Meia Stute.
“But the effects of the club go well beyond ego-stroking,” she added. “When we are feeling happy and people are smiling around us, we think less carefully. It leads to a kind of self-perpetuating state of complacency, where students become less likely to question their own beliefs. They wind up living in a bubble of virtue.”
Optimist Club International, the parent organization of the campus club, issued a statement, saying it is “dedicated to bringing out the best in kids through community service programs.” One of those programs is called “Respect for Law/Promotion of Non-Violence.”
“This motivational program can be a community rally against local violence,” said Optimist International. “It’s a get-acquainted event between youth and local law enforcement officials, and is our fourth most popular program.”
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Stute said, pointing to a picture of Che Guevara on her office wall. “Programs against violence simply do not further the university’s goals. We need to problematize the thoughtless adherence to toxic, sexist, white nationalist narratives that urgently endanger our community.”
“You don’t have to like the violent censorship of ideas,” she said, “but understand that the Optimist Club would have brainwashed innocent students and encouraged assault against them.”
According to Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California, the Optimist Club is a perfect representation of the “elaboration likelihood model” of persuasion, which was developed by a psychologist and neuroscientist during the Reagan Administration. The model describes two ways listeners are persuaded by an argument. The first involves thoughtful processing, in which a motivated listener engages with and challenges a message before reaching a conclusion.
“That is the type of learning environment offered by UC campuses statewide,” said Napolitano. “Optimists use a different method that has nothing to do with the logic of the argument itself. Instead, they promote other factors which distract their members, who become more passive and less skeptical.”
“If not all students feel simultaneously happy, reassured, and smart, then no student can be allowed to feel that way,” she said.