By Kevin Currie-Knight
Recently, I’ve noticed an ambivalence in my thinking about the future. At different times and in different moods I am sometimes an optimist and sometimes a pessimist. Some of things I believe about human beings and our relationships to one another and to the world make me optimistic, while other things make me pessimistic.
I suspect that part of this can be chalked up to the fact that I am forty-five; neither young nor old. In some ways, it means I can “see” from both perspectives. But I also think that my optimism and pessimism are less about indecision as they are about different aspects of humanity that each highlights. Let me explain.
My optimism is best reflected by the meliorist and liberal tradition of thinkers like William James and John Stuart Mill. (I’d even add Albert Camus for his hopefulness.) Lifespans are improving beyond what anyone could have dreamed generations ago. (Absolute) global poverty is in decline. Information technology has changed how we connect with distant and not-so-distant others. Even if there remains work to be done, this surely demonstrates that the belief that the human condition can be improved through hope and effort can pay off.
My optimism is similar to that of technologist Kevin Kelly when he writes: “Some of these new solutions are worse than the problems they were supposed to solve, but I think there is evidence that on average and over time, the new solutions outweigh the new problems.” It is not a naive Panglossian optimism that suggests that everything works out for the good. It is a grittier optimism that suggests that when we tally up on the ledger sheet, the positives tend to outweigh the negatives, and that beyond that, the negatives that exist tend to generate new discontents which, with time, generate solutions more readily and reliably than pessimists often admit.
My optimism about the future shares another thing in common with the pragmatists: a refusal to see the world or humankind in fixed rather than fluid terms. When pessimists resist certain changes (say, the recognition of homosexual, transgender, or gender-fluid identities), I am tempted to quote Camus: “Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is.” In other words, none of this is new to us. If we have a nature, it is to persistently challenge what we think of as natural, and this is often for the good. The pessimist, of course, will remind me of Camus’s next line: “The problem is to know whether this refusal can only lead to the destruction of himself and of others.” We’ll get to that in more fully in a bit, but I would retort with a variation on what I said earlier: the only way we know where the limits are is to push them, but gently enough so that the problems caused by the pushing may be revealed. At those times – and not before – solutions and the motivation to generate them come more readily than pessimists want to admit. History demonstrates this.
My optimism comes also from a mindfulness of the persistent status quo bias. Especially as we get older, we tend to experience more things as settled and accustom ourselves more firmly to the way things are. I am not so optimistic as to say that this bias is without any merit. I just want to suggest that it is not only half of the story, but the half told by the older among us, the ones who – because of their age – tend to be in positions of more institutional power. Again, not wrongly so, but surely worth being balanced out by rebellion against that power and its capacity for shortsightedness.
Lastly, my optimism comes from a tendency to appreciate systems over specific actors within systems. One thing I notice with pessimists (and unbridled optimists) is that they tend to focus their fears (or dreams) on a set of actors that ignores those actors’ humbler role in larger systems that might keep them in check. Pessimists worry about what happens when a single despised group – communists, fascists, theocrats, progressives – takes over everything.
In liberal countries, these groups exist in larger, heterogeneous populations that are likely to check their excesses. If you worry that Black Lives Matter will turn the United States into a communist hellscape, or that the alt-right will revert the world to 1952, you must reckon with the fact that either group would have to accomplish this within a political and cultural landscape too pluralistic to tolerate such purist goals. To say the least, conversations must occur and compromises have to be made for any agenda to dominate. One group can, of course, be dominant at a given time, but any pessimism I might have comes less from worrying about extremists among us than concern over whether we can keep a pluralistic cultural balance that holds them and everyone else in equilibrium.
If my optimism owes to the meliorism of James and Mill, my pessimism lies in the “conservatism” or agonism of Michael Oakeshott, John Gray, and (some would say) Isaiah Berlin. These thinkers are skeptical of certain kinds of progress, because they recognize a perennial flaw in humanity: a gap between our often-dizzying aspirations and our more limited ability to satisfy them. The Buddhists rightly tell us that all human suffering comes from striving, as one continually wants more than can be achieved. Sometimes, this is because it is unremitting; even when we have reason to be satisfied, we will find ways to be unsatisfied and reach for ever more. Other times, it is because striving can be unmoored our own limits and those of the world, like when we want to both eat our cake and retain our waistlines, or eliminate from the human condition something that turns out to be a feature rather than a bug.
My pessimism comes from the recognition (or suspicion) that we may not be up to certain, unavoidable challenges. We simultaneously are naturally diverse and find diversity difficult to tolerate. The postmodern (some call it, “high modern”) world we are stepping into creates wonderful opportunities for people to exercise more agency over their lives and choose between – rather than be condemned to predetermined – ways of life. Yet I suspect that just as often as we crave such agency, we also have a strong sense of rootedness and externally-imposed structure. We want peace and cosmopolitanism, even as we demonstrate a knack for war and tribalism; we are the cousins of the ultra-egalitarian and loving Bonobos every bit as much as we are related to the hierarchical and bellicose Chimpanzees. For these and other reasons, my pessimistic side suspects that we always will be plagued with intra- and inter-personal struggle.
Lastly, my pessimism shares a source with my optimism: namely, my anti-teleological view that we exist in a contingent world, trying to figure things out with inadequate roadmaps. Each new problem poses opportunities for growth and previously unheard-of advancements. But they’re also opportunities for optimists to move too quickly and zealously, potentially closing off avenues that we might later regret not being able to retreat to or travel down. Either there is no Grand Author to the Human Story who can put it all right, or if there is, we have hopelessly different ideas of the Plotline, because the Author speaks vaguely and doesn’t respond much to audience queries.
My ambivalence comes from a failure to see these reasons for optimism and pessimism as mutually contradictory. Indeed, I think they are supplementary. Without persistent limitations on our accomplishments, meliorism would at some point be unnecessary. Without a very live hope that things can be better if we try to make them so, the pessimist would have no need to issue warnings. As I’ve written in another context, the optimistic activist and the pessimistic skeptic are in inextricable symbiosis.
This may be why the writers I gravitate toward – even ones I mention above – hint at ambivalence. William James and Isaiah Berlin, for instance, had a habit of writing essays exploring questions from various angles that stopped short of providing answers to them. They often thought – or wrote as if they thought – that such answers were ill-advised, because they always leave important things out.
Sometimes what they leave out is the acknowledgement that while we desperately want our words to be final, they are most often temporary and contingent, uttered in a larger conversation over which none of us fully controls. That leaves plenty of reason to speak enthusiastically and believe that our words can have an impact. But it also reminds us that our words can be puny, or worse, may wreck conversations.
My ambivalence might be best summed up by the agonistic philosopher William Connolly. All societies, he writes, have norms and ways of doing things that allow them to function. Inevitably, those norms and ways of operating rule out and exclude other ways of doing things. There will be blind spots, and people who prefer different, perhaps more expansive ways will feel intolerably put upon by the existing ways. Struggles will ensue, and sometimes the old ways will give way to new ones. Often, this proves to be progress.
That’s the meliorist part. Here’s the pessimistic part. The cycle inevitably repeats because of what Connolly started with: all societies have rules and ways of doing things that inevitably exclude. New struggles will ensue. Solutions invariably create new problems. Attempts at perfection always throw something unseen or ignored out of whack.
In a sense, what reconciles my optimism and pessimism is my sense of ambivalent agonism. Unlike the unbridled optimist, I recognize the perennial struggle of human beings to be more than we can possibly be. But unlike the unbridled pessimist, I can’t see that the persistence of that struggle means that we should always side with what is over what could be.