The Bright Side of Extinction
Optimism without realism is like confidence without competence. It’s a game of chance.
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Previously on Down the Rabbit Hole we talked about the importance of storytelling in how people understand the world. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari goes one step further and explains how us Homo sapiens have used stories to create reality out of thin air. Or more accurately, from imagination. Some of the most prevalent mythologies include money, corporations, human rights, and religion—basically, all the intangible ideas held by us and only us. We’ve created our own fantasy world here on Earth.
Harari’s argument didn’t bother me in the least. The wonderful thing about being Homo sapiens is that I can accept contradiction without my head exploding. Sure, human rights might be fantasy, but I can simultaneously believe them important. When in Rome, and all that. The abstract idea of belief without physical proof may be a key ingredient to the devastation that follows in the wake of human progress. Do our beliefs about good and evil somehow enabled our destructive ways?
In modern storytelling, evil is often represented by a wholly diabolical and despicable individual, sometimes hellbent on leaving destruction in their wake. The hero or heroine on the other hand exudes goodness, is generous, friendly, and thoroughly optimistic. In Sapiens, Harari presents the damning account of animal extinctions that followed in the wake of Sapiens colonization, as our ancestors “… drove to extinction about half the planet’s big beasts long before humans invented the wheel, writing or iron tools.” Were early humans evil, intentionally driving the local fauna to extinction? It seems more likely they merely believed these animals were an endless resource for the taking. If they were anything like humans today, they likely celebrated advances in hunting technique as a universal good.
Is it possible that optimism is more dangerous than malevolence?
Before we go too far, I have a confession: I’m an optimist. On a personal level, it has served me well. I have hope for the future, and find resiliency on the bright side of adversity. I assume most problems have a solution, which awards me passion and intensity. I have internalized the mantra my mother bestowed upon me: I can do anything I put my mind to. The optimist in me conveniently forgets the times where this proved untrue.
What I’ve learned about being an optimist is that most pessimists prefer to be called realists. I get it—being called a pessimist is somewhat synonymous with being called a downer. These days, optimism is put on a pedestal, the desirable side of the good/bad binary. In fact, a pure realist may still be called pessimistic if they don’t look for the silver lining of a cloudy situation. By these standards, optimism is good, and anything else is bad. While looking on the bright side feels good, I can’t help but wonder whether it results in more suffering, not less; albeit, maybe someone else’s.
I read somewhere that pessimism and optimism lie on the same line, with realism squarely in the middle. I don’t remember who said it or whether the source was credible. It makes sense for the sake of this week’s article, and if you’re game, I ask that you conspire with me to accept this as true.
With that settled, let’s carry on.
Optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. Each stray from reality. A pessimist focusses on the terrible outcomes of an endeavour. If not paralyzed into inaction, they can prepare for the worst. By starting out in doom and gloom, they are more likely to be pleasantly surprised when things work out for the better as they most certainly will, on average. An optimist, on the other hand, focusses on success, perhaps ignoring the ripple effects of their actions. They are more likely to act, undeterred from the disasters they don’t foresee. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, probably because someone might point out the foley of your plans. Bummer.
Luckily for the dreamers, looking on the bright side is revered these days. Even when asking for permission, there is an abundance of people ready to cheer you on, whether or not you’ve thought it through.
I’m not knocking dreams here. I’m arguing that optimism is a dangerous tool in the absence of realism. Dreams are great so long as they don’t become someone else’s nightmare.
In a world where optimists are embarking on conquests, celebrating the victories whilst ignoring casualties, reality can grow depressing. Did someone say climate change?
If you’re tired of hearing about the climate crisis (it’s pretty doom and gloom, after all), bear with me. I’m going to touch on it briefly, then we’ll get back to thinking about whether ungrounded optimism trumps evil as the root of destruction. You know: more upbeat stuff.
We’ve known about global warming for a long time, but very little action has been taken aside from talking and hoping for the best. The part where we prepare for the worst has been almost forgotten. Was it banished by the positive thinking trend?
Need a less bleak example? The harm of positive thinking is pervasive. Think about this the next time you hear a woman being told to “show that pretty smile” whilst being harassed. I mean, sure, her personal safety is at risk, but on the bright side, someone thinks she’s hot. If she pouts, she’s a bad sport—a label somehow worse than harasser. Shame on her for letting reality ruin a fun time.
I’m not alone here in thinking that blind positivity can be destructive. In her book Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America Barbara Ehrenreich reveals the harm done by the positive thinking movement, and reveals how failure to consider negative consequences contributes to disaster. Her discussion about positivity as a workplace productivity tool explains some of the mysteries of workplace culture, such as the preference for team players over expertise, the former a euphemism for not rocking the boat with conflicting views.
French philosopher Albert Camus said, “The evil that is in the world always come of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.” I’m not going to get into the importance of effect over intention—we’ve been down that rabbit hole before, and you can read it here.
Optimism without realism is like confidence without competence. It’s a game of chance. Sometimes the outcomes are good, and other times they are disastrous. The tendency to look at the bright side can leave the darkness ignored, especially in a society aversive to uncomfortable feelings. I get it—positive thinking promises happiness and prosperity, two words synonymous with success for many. What is the cost of prosperity—if I win, does that mean another loses? Even if ignorance is bliss, I might still prefer to know the repercussions of my actions. I bet experiencing just one feeling all the time would get boring, anyway. Otherwise, blockbuster movies would be devoid of conflict—just people laughing and smiling at each other. Right?
I think it’s possible to be optimistic and realistic at the same time. Though optimistic conquests can have catastrophic consequences, I believe these can be minimized through learned assessment of reality. There’s my human ability to accept contradicting views again. Perhaps optimism is a spectrum after all. I don’t need to have sunny predictions about the future to be optimistic about my ability to face it. Some of us want to know what’s coming, while others want assurance that everything is going to be okay. Spoiler alert: it won’t be, and that’s okay.
What do you think? Is blind optimism destructive? Is this an ingrained characteristic of human nature (or rather Homo sapiens nature)? Are you an optimist, pessimist, or realist?
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