Staff Picks: Books

It's no longer cool to be a pessimist, says Alfie Kohn, so get over it

Actually, if you look around, pessimism does seem to be the cool thing to do. The media only reports bad news (oh, yeah, I forgot the occasional story about a police officer trying to get a cat out of a tree. And because I have a cat I'm pretty sure it’s thinking: "I'll come down when I want thank you very much.") Most TV shows promote a very disturbing image (Maury). It wasn't until the 1960's that we thought maybe we should start figuring out what makes people happy and good—"Positive psychology" was born. Evolutionary biology has been banging its head against the wall for decades trying to explain how, just how could a thing like altruism exists! When people say "I'm a realist," they really mean "I'm a pessimist." Why is that?

Cicero said it best: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."

In the end there are a lot of reasons for us to be pessimists, the most obvious reason being this: we are bad. But that’s only half the truth. And only half the truth can lead to complacency, setting the bar way too low, not respecting yourself or others, clouding your judgment, being more likely to not help. Course it goes both ways: naive optimists who don’t accept evil have their own problems (read Voltaire's Candide for a famous lashing of Optimism).

What about War?  

Of course war is the cruelest and most horrendous thing in the history of human beings, and it happens too much. But what is amazing about war is the amount of effort the government has to go through to actually convince us to do it. Think about it. First, they have to convince the public that it’s a “just war.” This isn’t very easy. Second, they might have to force people to go (draft). Third, they have to turn a person into a soldier, by systematically breaking them down and building them back up. Sound “natural” to you? Rousseau pointed out that war is not between people anyway. Soldiers are pawns in a political chess game. And lastly, if you manage to put a young man on the front lines, gun in hand, picture of family in pocket, taught to kill, good luck getting him to actually kill someone. In World War II, for instance, a study found that only 15% of all soldier in combat used their guns at all. That means that not only 75% refused to kill, but refused to even use their weapons in combat!

Sadly, the book doesn’t make a good case for the other side of the story—all the amazing and good things that happen daily, yearly, throughout history. I'm still looking for that book, although I recommend Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

I go outside. I pass a person on the street. They make eye contact. They nod. An amazing show of respect by complete strangers. So much in a nod! An ambulance goes by, perhaps saving a life at that very second. People are laughing in the park. A cookout? Ministry with Community feeds people every single day. The entire day will pass and I will not see one person harming another person; that will be a normal day. A church offers free breakfast. United Way clothes the poor. My mom calls just to say hi. A person watches a movie and cries. 40 million more people get health insurance. A person devotes their life to cure cancer. Okay, I’ll stop. As the character in American Beauty once said, yes it might be hard to take all the suffering in the world—but it’s equally hard to take in all the goodness, all the beauty. Press on, you Optimists! You are creating the future!

book

The Brighter Side of Human Nature
9780465007585

It's no longer cool to be a pessimist, says Alfie Kohn, so get over it

(Books, Nonfiction) Permanent link

Actually, if you look around, pessimism does seem to be the cool thing to do. The media only reports bad news (oh, yeah, I forgot the occasional story about a police officer trying to get a cat out of a tree. And because I have a cat I'm pretty sure it’s thinking: "I'll come down when I want thank you very much.") Most TV shows promote a very disturbing image (Maury). It wasn't until the 1960's that we thought maybe we should start figuring out what makes people happy and good—"Positive psychology" was born. Evolutionary biology has been banging its head against the wall for decades trying to explain how, just how could a thing like altruism exists! When people say "I'm a realist," they really mean "I'm a pessimist." Why is that?

Cicero said it best: “If we are forced, at every hour, to watch or listen to horrible events, this constant stream of ghastly impressions will deprive even the most delicate among us of all respect for humanity."

In the end there are a lot of reasons for us to be pessimists, the most obvious reason being this: we are bad. But that’s only half the truth. And only half the truth can lead to complacency, setting the bar way too low, not respecting yourself or others, clouding your judgment, being more likely to not help. Course it goes both ways: naive optimists who don’t accept evil have their own problems (read Voltaire's Candide for a famous lashing of Optimism).

What about War?  

Of course war is the cruelest and most horrendous thing in the history of human beings, and it happens too much. But what is amazing about war is the amount of effort the government has to go through to actually convince us to do it. Think about it. First, they have to convince the public that it’s a “just war.” This isn’t very easy. Second, they might have to force people to go (draft). Third, they have to turn a person into a soldier, by systematically breaking them down and building them back up. Sound “natural” to you? Rousseau pointed out that war is not between people anyway. Soldiers are pawns in a political chess game. And lastly, if you manage to put a young man on the front lines, gun in hand, picture of family in pocket, taught to kill, good luck getting him to actually kill someone. In World War II, for instance, a study found that only 15% of all soldier in combat used their guns at all. That means that not only 75% refused to kill, but refused to even use their weapons in combat!

Sadly, the book doesn’t make a good case for the other side of the story—all the amazing and good things that happen daily, yearly, throughout history. I'm still looking for that book, although I recommend Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.

I go outside. I pass a person on the street. They make eye contact. They nod. An amazing show of respect by complete strangers. So much in a nod! An ambulance goes by, perhaps saving a life at that very second. People are laughing in the park. A cookout? Ministry with Community feeds people every single day. The entire day will pass and I will not see one person harming another person; that will be a normal day. A church offers free breakfast. United Way clothes the poor. My mom calls just to say hi. A person watches a movie and cries. 40 million more people get health insurance. A person devotes their life to cure cancer. Okay, I’ll stop. As the character in American Beauty once said, yes it might be hard to take all the suffering in the world—but it’s equally hard to take in all the goodness, all the beauty. Press on, you Optimists! You are creating the future!

book

The Brighter Side of Human Nature
9780465007585

Posted by Matt Smith at 04/23/2013 04:53:26 PM | 


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