The Speculist: The New Racism

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The New Racism

The other night on the podcast, I asked whether there is an advantage to having a bleak outlook on the future. I believe that there have been some historical advantages to having a negative outlook, but that the advantage has been variable throughout human evolution --sometimes you get a boost from being a pessimist, sometimes from being an optimist. But seeing as life was riskier in the short term for our ancestors, the more risk-averse pessimistic outlook took hold. We developed a natural fear of the future not too unlike our natural fear of the other.

In an evolutionary context, fear of the other is not necessarily a bad thing. If we're talking about Homo Sapiens vs. Neanderthals or (earlier on) mammals vs. reptiles, an innate revulsion to the threatening other served to keep evolution moving in the right direction. Back then. Today, we need our fear of the other a lot less than we used to. I think it kicks in correctly if, say, you come home and find a stranger in your bedroom. But a "fear" of other cultures, races, religions, lifestyle choices, etc. is not helpful, notwithstanding the fact that major cultural artifacts, lets call them memeplexes, have been developed around this fear. These we know as xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, and other delights.

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Today we recognize that basic animal instinct as one that we need to control, and the memeplexes that developed around it as not only unhelpful, but morally wrong. What, then, about that closely related animal instinct, our natural fear of the future? Again, it was a fairly useful guide back in the days when human life was one unbroken chain of existential threats. Back when we needed to find prey or starve, avoid predators or be eaten, stay out of the flood plain or drown, keep warm at night or freeze to death, and so on, a healthy fixation on everything that could go wrong and an expectation that many such things would go wrong was key to survival.

But the downside to this approach is opportunity cost. Staying off the flood plain or out of what looks like a nice (but potentially predator-infested) habitat comes at the expense of quality of life, especially if there are reliable ways to know when floods or predators are coming and avoid them. Fear of the future ensured our survival, but it had to be tempered by something else -- a desire for the good, let's call it the pursuit of happiness -- in order for us to make any forward progress. Otherwise, we'd still be hunter-gatherers, sleeping fitfully in our (at best) cave dwellings and constantly looking over our shoulders when on the move.

Although, in a sense, that is exactly what we are today. Granted, our urge to pursue happiness got us out of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and on to agriculture, civilization, industrialization, and Facebook, but the tendency to look over our shoulders has not gone away (nor should it, not entirely.) The memeplexes which have grown out of our fear of the future -- pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy -- seem to be gaining in influence. I wrote recently about longstanding debate between Paul Ehrlich, who is lauded for his consistently wrong predictions of catastrophe, and Julian Simon, who was essentially ignored in the face of his fact-based assessments of human progress and correct predictions of more of the same. Whether we're talking about Paul Ehrlich or Bill Joy or Al Gore, a doomsayer is a person with a serious point of view, someone who is to be respected. And whether we're talking about Julian Simon, Robin Hanson, or Ray Kurzweil, a doomslayer is a crackpot who needs to be taken down a peg.

Ben Young argues that our obsession with bad outcomes has proven quite effective at reducing them, but that focusing more and more intently on tragedy and disaster acts as a kind of slow poison whereby our net happiness does not increase (in fact, it goes down) even as our circumstances improve. Our aversion to risk and bad outcomes becomes so pronounced that eventually we turn it on ourselves. In the end, it isn't just the optimists who need to be taken down a peg, it is all of humanity.

Consider this very telling passage from Roger Ebert's review of the new M. Night Shyamalan film:

I know I have. For some time the thought has been gathering at the back of my mind that we are in the final act. We have finally insulted the planet so much that it can no longer sustain us. It is exhausted. It never occurred to me that vegetation might exterminate us. In fact, the form of the planet's revenge remains undefined in my thoughts, although I have read of rising sea levels and the ends of species.

Ah, but surely Ebert's political leanings are well known, and a little over-the-top enviro-ranting from a left-of-center film critic who hasn't been in the best of health can't be taken as an overall trend in the popular culture. Okay then. How about this passage from a Peggy Noonan essay from 10 years ago, also using movies as her point of departure:

Our entertainment industry, interestingly enough, has plucked something from the unconscious of a small collective. For about 30 years now, but accelerating quickly this decade, the industry has been telling us about The Big Terrible Thing. Space aliens come and scare us, nuts with nukes try to blow us up.

This is not new: In the '50s Michael Rennie came from space to tell us in "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that if we don't become more peaceful our planet will be obliterated. But now in movies the monsters aren't coming close, they're hitting us directly. Meteors the size of Texas come down and take out the eastern seaboard, volcanoes swallow Los Angeles, Martians blow up the White House. The biggest-grosser of all time was about the end of a world, the catastrophic sinking of an unsinkable entity.

Something's up. And deep down, where the body meets the soul, we are fearful. We fear, down so deep it hasn't even risen to the point of articulation, that with all our comforts and amusements, with all our toys and bells and whistles . . . we wonder if what we really have is . . . a first-class stateroom on the Titanic. Everything's wonderful, but a world is ending and we sense it.

First published in 1998, this particular essay was heavily quoted and recirculated in the wake of 9/11. Peggy's "Big Terrible Thing" did, indeed, seem to come to pass. And maybe a world did end, but the world did not. However, the fatalism that both she and Roger Ebert express is a palpable undercurrent in much contemporary discourse, political and otherwise. The left talks about impending environmental disaster; the right warns us that western civilization is committing suicide.

The irony is that the smart money -- if you look at the long-term trends, and don't just extrapolate to doomsday from your current negative indicators of choice -- says that in the future, the world will be cleaner and people will be freer, healthier, more prosperous, and less prone to violence than they are today; however, that world might not be a terribly happy place. If our fixation with disaster and intolerance of risk continue to grow at the same pace as our overall improvement of the world, the happiest era in the history of humanity might turn out to be the most miserable. (Arguably, we are experiencing something like that even today.)

Like our fear of the other, our fear of the future has limited applicability in our present circumstances. It is an evolutionary artifact which, by and large, needs to be suppressed. We must deal realistically with real threats, just as we need to be alarmed if we come home to find a stranger in our house. But we must recognize that the memeplexes that have built up around our fear of the future -- pessimism, cynicism, fatalism, misanthropy -- are both factually and morally wrong.

Pessimism is the new racism, and we must start treating it as such.

Comments

Test comment. trying life out without TypeKey. Only a test. Nothing more to see here.

"lets call them memeplexes, "

Oh, let's not. There's enough intellectual sloppiness and insanity going on around the "meme" meme without extending it.

Actually,vanderleun, I'm already using the term. Just threw that in by way of introducing it to new folks coming into the discussion. Of course, I'm sorry it doesn't meet you're exacting rhetorical standards, but I think I can live with it.

You can be pessimistic about different things. Some could be optimistic about their own personal future, but be pessimistic about society's future. Or, vice-versa.

Recent polling has shown that most people in this country believe the country is going to hell in a hand basket but that they, personally, are okay. I think this is a function of relentlessly negative news coverage.

Some old people are particularly pessimistic about society. Facing their own personal doom and with fading powers to influence society, its easy to get cynical about a society that is so different from the one they grew up with.

The only way to combat this is to continually point out that pessimism, while easy, is objectively wrong. I got my copy of It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 years.

When a slightly better tooth paste comes along it doesn't make headlines. When high school drop out rates decrease you don't hear about it.

That book and this blog push back against easy pessimism.

"But a "fear" of other cultures, races, religions, lifestyle choices, etc. is not helpful"

What if those other cultures/races/religions/lifestyle choices are bad? Or is that possibility ruled out a priori?

OTOH, pessimism gets a lot of support from the past. There's a lot of life, species, cultures, etc that no longer exists. A lot of that occured because the old was out competed by something else and died off. This continues throughout the technological ramp-ups that transhumanists like to describe. More significantly, a lot of the upheavals of the past are due to these sorts of advances.

So what makes this time different?

Here's an alternate way to look at things. I see fear and doubt as the emotional equivalent of the immune system. Ignoring bad outcomes and harmful deception is a common human disease of thought. These at least make the human mind sensitive to such things.

But just as the body's immune system starts misbehaving in a sterile environment, I think the mental defenses of the human mind misbehave in the absence of that sort of danger. Then you get such things as hysteria, paranoia, groundless pessimism and cynicism, etc.

Brett --

Personally, I would rule out the idea that any race is "bad" a priori. Those who do not do so are what we call "racists." For the others, I think there's an important difference between disagreeing with lifestyle choices and cultural norms and viewing others with fear, contempt, or revulsion.

Karl --

The point isn't that nothing bad has ever happened. Appallingly bad things have happened at an appalling scale. And anybody who bet on the very long term success of, say, the Persian or Roman empire was in for a major disappointment.

On the other hand, everyone who ever predicted that the human condition has peaked, the best days are behind us, the end has begun, and so forth also got it wrong. Assessing risk and responding accordingly is, as you point out, necessary to survival. Assuming that annihilation is imminent is not necessary, and has a huge opportunity cost associated with it.

When thinking about the future I think it's important to avoid inevitability. There is always a possibility of bad things happening in the future, but there is also the possibility that the future might hold good things. Don't have the thought process of a pendulum, swinging from extreme pessimism to Pollyanna optimism. Essentially, a little moderation.

Regarding the predictions of doom and the end of the world, it's important to remember something. Ever since the beginning of time people have been predicting the end of the world. Those who predict the end of the world seem to think they're actually unique. In reality, they are just the latest in the line of millions.

When anyone watches a doom-laden CNN collage of video, it is easy to think--at that very moment--that all the rest of your compatriots take that news seriously. You may harbor a suspicion that, "Oh my Goodness! Everyone else is watching watching this and they take this seriously!" Sorry, that is not the case as total viewership numbers for broadcast journalism like CNN is in steady decline.

Are "we" as a population becoming more pessimistic in light of modern privileges, or are we paying undue attention to the loud, in-your-face swan song of dying businesses? Are the aggregate statistics of viewership telling us that there are limits to our species' pessimism?

As has, I think, been said elsewhere, Ehrlich et al are anti-Cassandras: instead of always being right and never being believed, they have a terrible track record and huge numbers of followers.

I don't think pessimism is the problem. I think the new problems are the old problems: envy, greed, duplicity, vanity and hate.

Add amorality, moral relativism and rationalization. Convince a large number of the population that these are all virtues when done correctly.

You'll get the problems we have now: people are unhappy.

There is nothing remotely new about pessimism. Tell me of a time when mankind didn't obsess over our impending demise! For example Hesiod wrote the following in approximately the 8th century BC:
"I wish
I had nothing to do with this fifth generation,
Wish I had died before or been born after,
Because this is the Iron Age.
Not a day goes by
A man doesn't have some kind of trouble.
Nights too, just wearing him down. I mean
The gods send us terrible pain and vexation.
Still, there'll be some good mixed in with the evil,
And then Zeus will destroy this generation too,
...[omitting 16 lines of examples of the coming troubles]...
Envy will be everybody's constant companion,
With her foul mouth and hateful face, relishing evil.
And then
up to Olympos from the wide-pathed Earth,
lovely apparitions wrapped in white veils,
off to join the Immortals, abandoning humans
There go Shame and Nemesis. And horrible suffering
Will be left for mortal men, and no defense against evil."

(translation: Lombardo)

Hesiod was an extremely influential author, and his vision of the inevitable doom of mankind was by no means uncommon.

As demonstrably ridiculous as your supposition that rampant pessimism is a recent phenomenon may be, it pales in comparison to the sheer madness of declaring pessimism "the new racism"--whatever exactly that means.

Our society is aging. More older people are contemplating their own mortality.

A lot of people confuse their own decline with that of society, or the world.

I think it's the Boomers getting old.

If you step out of the Western Civilization viewpoint (with America at it's center) and say, look at the world from an Asian viewpoint (China in particular) the last twenty five years indicate great optimism for the future, as their standard of living has risen dramatically.
The West may think pessimistically, because SOME of the huge advantages we had in some areas have disappeared. The West isn't "worse off", it's just that much of the world, especially the billions of Asia, are much better off.
If you were a Russian, the '90's were a really bad decade, as the USSR fell apart, and chaos ensued. Nowadays, things are looking up, in only certain ways, though.
If you live in certain parts of the Sudan or Zimbabwe, or dozens of other real Hell-holes on Earth, things don't look so good.
Our real knowledge of the world, as it really exists, is a double edged sword. We can choose to be pessimists, by looking at the worst alternatives, or be optimists and expect the best possible outcomes. Undoubtedly, in the next ten or twenty years, bad things will happen somewhere. But unless you are unfortunate to live in one of the worlds worst places, the future for most of the human race on Earth is getting brighter every year.

There's something vaguely quasi-religious about the simultaneous adoration and de facto dismissal of the doomsayers. I just got back from the BIO conference in San Diego and saw that, in the midst of what is surely the most optimistic, super-hyped celebration of our glorious bio-future, everybody feels obligated to do pay approximately 3% of their attention to people telling us how awful everything is and will continue to be if we don't radically change our ways. Its almost like tithing or penance. It feels like there is a whole industry - stretching across academia, culture and politics - based around Ehrlichism (or anti-Simonism) but its not about anything other than the feelings and self-perceptions of all concerned. Ehrlich will continue to be wrong, and continue to be celebrated, while Simon will continue to be correct, and ignored. The fact of the matter is that our highly dynamic economy and society solves problems about as rapidly as they arise. People are scared of people like Kurzweil not because they think he is wrong and they are worried about the future, but precisely the opposite: because they think he might be absolutely right, and they are worried about how much penance and tithing they will need to do to alleviate the guilt and make it 'acceptable' to live a very happy and healthy 200+ years.

teenagers tend to become pessimistic and Hollywood started tapping the teenage market big time so it's not a bit surprise if pessimism has increased and even keeps teens from growing out of it now adays.

They also say that non-religious folks are more pessimistic so perhaps there is another simultanious trend at work.

Like so many full of himself blatherers you have no clue. You use racism and ethnocentrism in a sentence as though they were two fruits of the same tree. Racism is generally unhelpful. Ethnocentrism? What's wrong with liking your own culture? Really? What's the alternative? U.S. of KKK?

Capital L:

As demonstrably ridiculous as your supposition that rampant pessimism is a recent phenomenon...

Oops, looks like you clicked the wrong browser button somewhere and ended up on a different blog post. You're commenting on a post wherein the author claims that pessimism is innate and that it's been with us since before we were even fully human. Like, way before Hesiod, if that helps.

it pales in comparison to the sheer madness of declaring pessimism "the new racism"--whatever exactly that means.

Well, again, that would require reading the actual post.

Phil: I apologize, as upon rereading the post I did not indeed see the same overall implications that I somehow came away with initially.

I assure you I did make some effort at reading it before posting, as it was this sentance "However, the fatalism that both she and Roger Ebert express is a palpable undercurrent in much contemporary discourse, political and otherwise." that got my wheels turning about ancient pessimism and then Hesiod.

It seems the first couple paragraphs, which I skimmed through with utter ineptness, address both my (incorrect) concern that pessimism was being considered new and my confusion at the "new racism" context.

Once I got to thinking about "this relevant but obscure quote!!1!" I failed in my due diligence regarding what you were trying to express, and I feel foolish. Mea culpa.

What to reduce personal pessimism? Watch less television.

Have you ever known a person who's suffering from depression? If so, and if that person is relatively intelligent, you've probably heard the lament, "Sometimes I just wish I weren't so smart."

What they mean is that they feel saddled by their own ability to think -- by a brain that's capable of seeing and analyzing reality to the point of discomfort.

You've probably sometimes felt like shaking them: "Yes, you ARE smart -- but you're not seeing the whole picture! Yes, you DO have a brain that can incisively analyze reality, but you've zeroed in on the sliver of bad stuff at the expense of all the good!"

That's what a lot of this feels like: a collective tendency to zero in on the world's ills, at the expense of seeing the bigger picture and all its good. And maybe the "smarter" we collectively become, the more pronounced this tendency.

"Ignorance is bliss" didn't become a cliche just by accident.

Capital L:

No harm, no foul.

Interesting that Hesiod was predicting the end of it all a couple or three hundred years before Alexander, a good two millennia before the fall of Constantinople -- what he might have viewed (had he been around to witness it) as the end of the end of the end of the virtually unrecognizable abomination that Hellenic civilization had become.

But even that was hardly the end of the world.

I wonder if Hesiod were around today if he would be a film critic? ;-)

Nolanimrod:

We don't allow personal attacks on this site, so please find a way to frame your arguments without insulting people.

I'm a little surprised at how prickly some people become when you speak ill of racism and ethnocentrism. I would agree latter is nowhere near as bad as the former; however, ethnocentrism is not simply "liking one's own culture." It has to do with assuming that one's culture is superior and the standard by which all others are to be judged. And, yes, I think it derives from the same basic source as racism -- the fear of the other.

Great essay. I've always thought the reason people like to think that it the end of the world is because it flatters us. One may not have been there when Jesus walked the Earth, or when Washington sailed the Potomac, or rode with Genghis Khan, but at least you get to see the end. What's better than taking part in history, it's being able to see the end on history.

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