Since the election, a variety of attitudes towards the future have emerged of which one is particularly pernicious, though stemming from a place of decency and grace. I call this attitude the “’Optimist’ Conundrum.”
For a host of liberals and even some Leftists, the election has brought a “wait and see” attitude in which “hoping for the best” has filled a void that activism could have filled. Undergirding this is a wonderful world-view- that people have elemental decency and that indeed the arc of history bends towards justice. When viewed from a philosophical lens, optimism is beautiful and laudable; from a pragmatic view point, however, optimism is insufficient and too much creates inherent conditions for its own failure.
So what does this mean? Does this mean one should adopt a pessimistic worldview? No, not at all. What it does mean however is that optimism must be tempered with constant action, with the notion that human agency is the only force that will create end-states that warrant such optimism. While it appears recursive, this is in fact the exact point here- optimism gives one the motive force but action bridges the gap between status quo and a blissful end-state.
In a few incandescent conversations, I’ve been told that inaction is the right methodology because action implies pessimism. Where does this pernicious idea come from and how does it arise? I can think of three reasons:
1. Middle-class Psychology- Each of us justifies our action or inaction somehow. If we don’t put the garb of virtue on our own actions, then we are forced to look in the mirror once too often.
2. Inaction as Action- We’ve been told that the power of positive-thinking helps people find commonality and blunt the putridity of hate. Add that to the notion that we are what we think not what we do and you get the recipe for latte-induced confessions-as-politics and little else.
3. Inadequate Tools- While dying on the barricades is hardly in the cards for most, few people understand the tools they have at their disposal to act. Small acts multiply so making a difference is not as hard as most people believe. We must remember that the heroes we celebrate were surrounded by unsung people who acted courageously.
All said and done, I am refreshed by optimists. In fact, the most optimistic people I know are the ones who are in the field every day, working hard to bend the arc towards justice. But when optimism creates an aura built on false-positives, then passivity seems justified even as the world is torn asunder.
So be careful of the “Optimist Conundrum.” Else, our own thoughts betray us.
Romi Mahajan can we reached at firstname.lastname@example.org