My Optimism, Pessimism, and Ambivalence

By Kevin Currie-Knight

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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.

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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.

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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.

9 comments

  1. I find the breeziness with which you discuss the issues raised in paragraph 5 rather glib. The number of cases involving dangerous, violent male criminals “transitioning” so that they can be put in prisons with women, where they then sexually assault their fellow inmates, is far too large to handwave away with vague talk about “challenging what we think of as natural.” Ditto with the number of cases of mediocre male athletes “transitioning” and winning competitive athletics competitions in the Women’s division in cycling, weight-lifting, track, and elsewhere, as male physiological advantages are irreversible after having undergone a male puberty, regardless of how many hormones one takes. It is outrageous and a demonstrable clash of substantial interests, and all these generalities about “fluidity” and “pushing the boundaries” are just a kind of distracting fog. Push the boundaries of what it is to be a man and leave women alone. The late Magdalena Berns made this point quite effectively, in her takedown of the smarmy Alex Drummond.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkK7zisjoDk

    The mammalian nature of human beings is not in any way affected or moved by smooth, abstract talk by Camus, and in mammals, reproduction occurs by way of two reproductive classes; classes, the individuals belonging to which have such substantial physiological and anatomical differences that they can be distinguished in skeletons, thousands of years old. There is a reason why if you watch *any* nature program about gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, elephants or any other mammals, so much time is spent discussing the differences between the males and females. But somehow when we start talking about people, a small number of overly excitable folks lose their collective minds.

    1. > … The number of cases involving dangerous, violent male criminals “transitioning” so that they can be put in prisons with women, where they then sexually assault their fellow inmates, is far too large to … Ditto with the number of cases of mediocre male athletes “transitioning” and winning competitive athletics competitions in the Women’s division …

      I agree the sports issues can be very problematic. Sexual assaults in prisons too of course, but it wasn’t easy to find clear definitions of terms or data on trans-women in female prisons but I did find some.

      For a period of about ten years up to 2020, in England and Wales and if numbers haven’t changed much since then, there have been about 15 sexual assaults a year in female prisons, of which trans-gender (men and women) committed about 6% of those or about one a year. Of course one more doesn’t in anyway make it acceptable. And you’re rightly concerned about it. So am I.

      By the way, Magdalena Berns video reminds me of a few things I’m also concerned about, first that she was giving more air time to Alex Drummond, and second, how her rhetorical style, sarcasm and negative emotional escalation, together can tend to encourage some people to engage in, or engage in more, violent behaviour towards trans-gender individuals. Of course that’s not to mean that was her intention, but it is statistically neverless a predictable outcome, and sadly also a factor in what appears to be fairly new aggressive behaviours towards non trans-gender individuals : male and females becoming aggressive towards females for using the female restrooms because they aren’t presenting enough of a ‘standard’ women gender and are therefore assumed to be trans.

  2. I should add, by the way, that I generally agree with you, re: the appropriate balance of pessimism and optimism. I just think that *sometimes* your balance is a bit too rigorously applied. Sometimes, things are not balanced at all. It’s just *mostly* that they are.

  3. At the age of 64, I definitely think the next 60 years will not be nearly as nice as the ones I lived through. My main reason for that is environmental. Last summer it was, for a couple of days, around 109 degrees here in Seattle, and my wife and I spent a lot of time hiding out in the basement. When I was a kid, we were amazed if it hit 90. We were also driven out of our vacation home in the Cascades by smoke from wildfires. My niece and her husband live in southern California, and water shortages and wildfires are increasingly becoming a concern

    At a global level, in a recent and somber article (in the NYT?) they talked about how in the Iran and Iraq they could soon hit stretches of 125-130. At that point there will be a major migration north – and Europe does not want them. The same thing will happen here, where immigration is already a huge issue.

    I hope I am wrong and that we find a way out of this trend, but, as I say, I am not optimistic.

  4. ‘Pessimists worry about what happens when a single despised group – communists, fascists, theocrats, progressives – takes over everything.’

    I’m currently more pessimist than optimist, but not for the reason quoted above. The concern is that voices at the extremes are not balancing each other out, but feeding each other to normalize a way of communicating that eliminates nuance, charity ….. limiting the type of discourse that lead to any real mutual understanding or progress.

  5. “I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Mark Twain
    “How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!” Thomas Jefferson

    Bottom line: Our minds often worry about things that never happen which is a totally useless thing to do. It usually only serves to ruin our present by raising our anxiety and fear levels.

    That said put me down on the side of the pessimists as one in my mid-70s. Given the ability for one or just a few individuals being able to implement bioterrorism way more powerful than COVID even now much less easier in the next decade that is worry enough. Climate change is going to produce immigration and death beyond anything that can be reasonably managed. If the MAGA crowd and others are worried about an invasion from the south of people they have not seen anything yet since the heat will drive people north to survive. Of course nuclear proliferation will continue with it also becoming much more likely a small group of non-state actors can put a nuclear weapon in a brief case and blow large holes in big cities for example. Then there is the maturation of artificial intelligence that will be putting tons of people out of work including many middle class and high income professionals. Then the rise of China as a global power will be quite problematic as well although minor compared to the others.

    Oh, and if you want to get even more pessimistic about government anywhere under any system give this a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs

    My biggest fear is the reincarnation people are right and I might have to come back!

    1. > Climate change is going to produce immigration and death beyond anything that can be reasonably managed. If the MAGA crowd and others are worried about an invasion from the south of people they have not seen anything yet since the heat will drive people north to survive

      It’s already happening in parts of the northern triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), which are no longer habitable. Within 10-20 years the major political batttle is going to be against eco-fascism, since the catastrophic effects of climate change will be impossible to deny.

  6. Thoughtful piece. I am an old pragmatist. Your ambivalence is a rite of passage, so don’t worry too much about it. Just try harder to think better, doing the best you can with what you have and know. My concern, newly phrased and shared in several comments to blog posts, is this: desocialization of homo sapiens. In my view, it is cumulative and has more lately accelerated. The causes are legion, almost exponential, though that seems impossibly overstated. But rather than accept gloom and doom, I’ll try to be productive. And enjoy a cup of catnip tea.

  7. Kevin,

    Interesting and I liked it.

    I don’t think Dan’s first comment is fair or that you’re waving away what he says you are.

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