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.
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.