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Op-Ed: Media pessimism is painting the world all wrong — Harvard

The Harvard psychologist, a guy called Professor Steven Pinker, also says that things are getting better, not worse. He points out a pretty solid batch of positive things happening in the world, despite almost universal pessimism.
He also says that media is really overstating and overemphasizing all the negatives. He points out that the theory of “serious journalism” overdoes the emphasis on negative issues. There’s some solid weight in that argument. People do tend to gravitate to perceived risks and possible threats. Pinker adds, with some reasonable justification that this pessimism is entrenched in the West.
A writer’s perspective
As a writer, I can follow this logic in several ways. I agree to a fair extent with this overall view, but there are some other issues. I’m more than slightly tired of writing about global stupidity on so many issues and on so many levels. “Isn’t it awful?” is no great attraction to writing about anything. I actively go looking for more objective views in a lot of these grim situations.
In fairness to Pinker’s views, I also often find some good things to write about, particularly in science and arts. A good news/interesting thing is always the preference, but in all conscience, can any honest writer ignore the howling idiocy of recent times? Can you see “dumb as it gets” affecting so many people and say nothing? Why write fake news, for that matter, when the real news is so much more important?
The psychology of pessimism
Pessimism is largely based on a mix of fear, distrust, often with a bit of personal experience added. People instinctively look for risks. Some information is seen as much as a threat as information, however garbled, biased and distorted the information may be. Media, as the default source of information, is definitely the most likely source of a negative perspective.
(Writers have a lot to do with adding too much fuel to the negatives. The theory of “ethics and balance” in journalism, however, has been largely negated by partisan news and propaganda. The so-called professional news media is taking its own sweet time getting back to core values in these areas.)
Let’s face it – If you’re given information which basically declares war on yourself or another group in the population, or shows any sort of potential risk, there are no good sides to that situation. The negativity is often deliberately pitched extremely high, and it can only have one effect.
In media practice, this is a type of clickbait, intended and guaranteed to get attention. Your negative intake is likely to be much higher than any positive intake, and there’s even a ratio of values here. If out of your 100% of information intake, 75% of it is ultra-negative, are you likely to be optimistic or pessimistic?
Pessimism, however, is also a survival mechanism. It’s a type of personal caution. In a tricky world, exactly how starry-eyed can you afford to be? It’s hard to believe that someone living in poverty would be radiant with joy about the future. Experience says otherwise.
On the more political levels, environmentalists, knowing the issues, can hardly be expected to be optimistic about all the obvious problems. Health workers can’t be ecstatic about future trends in health care, after decades of neglect and chronic mismanagement. These are also cases of pessimism based on experience on a non-personal level.
Toxic pessimism
Pessimism becomes truly toxic when it inhibits positive responses to important situations or causes more negativity regarding them. American politics, the millstone of global negativity, is a case in point. The American public has been polarized to the point where negative views are now virtually compulsory. The negativity translates into practical dysfunction.
If you can’t trust, you can’t function optimistically. Distrust is a chronic form of pessimism, based on either media imagery and/or experience. Doubt is another built-in form of negativity which works at any level of interaction.
The problem with Pinker’s view is that distrust and doubt can be based on hard facts. The sheer toxicity of propaganda media and politics is enough to raise levels of distrust and doubt to 100% in most people. It’s impossible to believe the more extreme media craziness, and the entire world view is thus instantly contaminated. It’s tainted to the point where distrust and doubt are almost an obligation.
Social media – “Optimism”, the bastardized version
If you check out some of the more obliging social media purveyors of propaganda, you see an interesting thing – Many of these people actually believe it and are optimistic about it. (A lot are just paid to do it, but I’ve seen enough people who faithfully pass on this drivel as though it’s real.) Their ‘optimism’ is based on believing they’ve finally found a source of real information. They trust this crap, and it makes them feel better.
That’s a pretty well-known phenomenon. Reading people who agree with your propaganda-soaked mindset makes you part of a community, giving a sort of security. How many people can read or view anything which totally contradicts their own views? Very few, I’d think. Optimism has to be based on something, however nebulous and badly defined.
How do you establish cultural optimism?
How I wish that was a rhetorical question. Pinker’s view of pessimism as a cultural situation is all too true, in too many ways. In the past, general optimism, particularly after the Second World War, was pretty high and it was a good motivator. Things were going to be great, better than ever.
The world had just come out of a hideous environment which decimated populations and destroyed huge areas of the planet. Optimism was ultra-necessary, in the least ambiguous sense of the word. “Progress” was the drumbeat. Destroy the diseases, rebuild, create better lives for everyone. Better still, the post-war years added more optimism as the world rebuilt. A great future was a credible thing.
This era, in fact, was a period of unprecedented optimism, with a few notable features:
• The big dream was being seen to be real, for the first time in human history.
• All the fundamentals, the existential needs of humanity, were being met. Food, health, housing education, quality of life, it was all coming true. Science was truly dazzling, adding more optimism about the future.
• “Progress” was phenomenal, compared to the past. From rather folksy beginnings, off a much lower base, in some senses, a better world was actually happening.
• Negative social environments did exist, but weren’t the defining features of the time and were a much lower percentile of real life. No gangs, no mass shootings, no institutionalized hate. Pessimism was about distant things, not in your face in the immediate social environment.
Optimism was justified. It translated into “deliverables”. It’s hard to distrust and doubt such major improvements and opportunities when they’re happening before your eyes and are easily accessible The future was something to which you could look forward, not dread.
To re-establish optimism, some basics which meet those criteria have to be recreated. This is not an ideological issue. People don’t get up in the morning to enjoy a vista of despair and hate. If you want people to do anything at all, they need a good reason to do it, not endless negatives.
A few suggestions:
• End the “drivel-down” propaganda in media. It’s functionally useless anyway and simply gets in the way of managing things. A diet of crap calling itself information is worthless.
• Realize that the world is full of people who can make legitimate criticisms, as distinct from the polarized variety. Optimism about getting a clear view of things with proper criticism getting a word in won’t hurt. What you can see clearly, you can be optimistic about.
• Kick the fake news, hate speech, and deranged fanaticism into the garbage where they belong. How optimistic can anyone be about irrational issues, particularly when those fake issues are totally fictional? This type of insanity has no place in any sort of functional society.
• Do what needs doing about human quality of life, and your optimism has something to work with. We could have a Star Trek society in a few years with a bit of good systemic management. The tech is there, the people are there, the ideas are there, just get on with it.
You can have as much optimism as you like, but only if you back it up with solid evidence. The future needs to be recreated as something to believe in.

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Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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