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What Optimism and Pessimism Are in the 21st Century, a Reflection on “Are We Doomed?,” And Two Narratives of the Human Journey

What Optimism and Pessimism Are in the 21st Century, a Reflection on “Are We Doomed?,” And Two Narratives of the Human Journey

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the issues that matter most.

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Hi! How’s everyone? Thank you for joining me, and welcome new readers. 

Today we’re going to discuss… “are we doomed?!” That’s the kind of dismal, reductive framing that’s emerged around an issue that deserves better—decline, degeneration, the rise of a number of troubling trends, all at once. 

Let’s reflect on this sort of question together, beginning with…

Exhibit One In: “Are We Doomed?”

Did that make you shudder a little bit? If you don’t quite get the point, let me spell it out.

Right about now, climate scientists are a little horrified, bewildered, and perplexed. We’re in “uncharted territory,” and warming’s outpacing models, sometimes by a very long way. It was recently 40 degrees Centigrade in…Antarctica.

Meanwhile, the average person is less and less likely to believe that this is real, aka, there’s such a thing as human-made climate change. In the last few years alone, the number’s grown significantly, and over a quarter now believe that climate change is due to “natural causes, up from just 14%. That’s not an absolutely high number in itself, but the trend is striking, disturbing, and sort of mega-troubling: increasing numbers of people are climate deniers.

Because of course, when we talk about “are we doomed,” as the reductionists would put it, part of the problem is just the fact of living in this kind of atmosphere of self-deceit. Why, after all, do increasing numbers of people deny the facts about the climate? Precisely because demagogues have made it a point to spread Big Lies of denial. And those have seeped in, over time, especially as the bill for this mess starts to come due, in the forms of inflation, destabilization, slowing growth, downward mobility, and shrunken opportunities.

All of that’s sort of a warm-up in thinking, a way to begin analyzing the problem. And that problem is much deeper, I think, than it appears. Those of us who are critical and factual are made out to be the problem. Our position is reduced to “those nutcases think we’re doomed, ha-ha!”—and meanwhile, the world really does keep on falling apart.

How did we get there? The truth is that two competing narratives of the human journey are at odds in this age—they always have been—and the wrong one is winning.

Two Narratives of the Human Journey

Let’s begin with what you might call “The Thick Narrative of the Human Journey.” That’s a grand-sounding title for something pretty simple, and let me explain the thing before I come back to the title. It goes like this.

  • Human beings are essentially good, or at least have the capacity for good
  • In this respect, we are all the same, and no inherent differences exist between us.
  • So through cooperation, we can forge a better future 
  • Through collective action, we increase the surplus—opportunities, potential, possibilities—available to all
  • In this way, progress is possible, desirable, and necessary, and our task is to actualize it
  • The task of our institutions is to liberate us, and set us free to enact our better selves.

Simple enough, right? This narrative is the basis for many, many of our modern political forms, from liberalism to social democracy. 

But all of those are taking a big old beating these days. And that brings us to Narrative Number Two: what you might call “The Thin Narrative of the Human Journey.” This one goes like this.

  • Human beings are inherently different, hierarchically so.
  • Some are corrupt and malign, and some are pure and true. 
  • These differences reside in blood, in genetic fundamentals, and are expressed through culture.
  • Therefore, cooperation is a waste of time, and can only lead nowhere,
  • The task of human beings is to divide themselves up,
  • The role of institutions is to purify societies of the weak and the corrupt, and thus free the strong to attain their rightful place, which is above the rest,
  • Life is just eternal conflict, between these groups, and this process of chaos never ends, only transmuting from one generation to the next,
  • Progress isn’t possible, and only conflict is, in an “eternal recurrence,” as Nietzsche put it.

Now. This is an ugly narrative.

But what do you really notice about it? This is the one that really says “we’re doomed.”

This narrative says that we’ve always been doomed. We’re evil and foolish things, at least enough of us are, to make the only point of life cleansing those impurities away, so the rest can rise supreme. And in this sense, this narrative assumes that human life can never go anywhere.

In it, democracy’s a waste of time. To it, the ideas of peace and justice are laughable. For it, people, in the modern sense, don’t really exist—just subhumans and superhumans.

This narrative is incredibly bleak. It says we’re doomed, and there’s no escape, and so we might as well just settle for a kind of pre-modern way of life…forever, in which superstition, spite, hate, and brutality are all there should and can be

And weirdly, this is the narrative that’s sort of taken over the world again in the last decade or two. Go ahead and express some of the ideas in the Thick Narrative, and instantly, you’ll be attacked by fanatics—but also derided by self-said “centrists.” And therein lies a Very Big Problem.

The Great Inversion of Doom

That Very Big Problem is what you might call “the inversion of doom.” What do I mean by that?

I’m often called a pessimist, often a particularly bleak one. But I’m an ardent proponent of the Thick Narrative. And in that sense, wait a second, what am I? I’m an optimist. The pessimists are those—like Trump, his ilk, demagogues, the far right—who believe that human beings are inherently different, some above the rest, and so conflict is all there can be, and progress is thus impossible. 

That’s what true pessimism is.

Have you ever had this sort of infuriating feeling? Wait, I’m the pessimist here? People don’t kind of get what you’re trying to express, and you can’t quite put into words why? Now you might have a little better grasp on all that.

Somehow, to establishment figure, to media, to centrists, and so on, we optimists—sometimes, radical optimists—who believe deeply in the goodness of humankind, the possibility of progress, the power of cooperation, the might of democracy, justice, and truth…we’ve become the pessimists

When we say “we’ve got this amazing, astounding potential, to cooperate, to realize breakthroughs, to live in peace, to achieve progress…and we’re not living up to it, right now”—all that’s derided, almost instantly, as “those guys are saying we’re doomed—ha-ha!! Look at those idiotic pessimists!” But that’s not what we’re saying at all, and we’re not the pessimists here.

We’re the optimists. And pointing out that humankind’s horizons are surely better than this—demagoguery, violence, brutality, ignorance, hate, all the old evils of history rising again, as they are now—is not pessimism. Pessimism is believing that that is all that ever can or should be.

That’s the Inversion of Doom. And by the way? It’s sort of killing us right now, this inversion of optimism and pessimism. It’s not fair for media and whatnot to have such a painfully shallow analysis of this entire moment in history that somehow the optimists became the pessimists, and vice versa—precisely because it creates room for demagoguery’s Big Lies to spread.

How so?

What Optimism and Pessimism Mean in the 21st Century

All of that raises the question: which of these narratives is true?

Let’s think about the Thin Narrative for a moment. What happens as it’s beliefs are instantiated? What happens when its beliefs—the strong survive, the weak perish, people are inherently different, cooperation is laughable, progress is a delusion—become political realities? We only have to look at history. Everyone ends up at each others’ throats, people divided into warring groups, and everything descends into chaos, violence, and ruin.

This is sort of the textbook stuff of what we call, in the modern age, fascism. Who else believed precisely the fundamental elements of the Thin Narrative? The Nazis, and every sort of supremacist faction and movement. And there isn’t a single example in history—any of it—to suggest that any of this ended up anywhere positive, good, or beneficial. Mostly, it ended in war, and last time this Narrative surged, it ended in World War.

That’s why I called it the “thin” narrative. It’s thin in many senses. It gets us nowhere. It’s flimsy. It reduces the richness of human beings and human lives to this two dimensional picture of “true and strong versus weak and impure,” and it’s telos, or endpoint, is therefore a forever war between them. And that ends in nothing.

Now let’s think about the Thick Narrative. Is that true? Again, all we have to do is look at history. Since we began the process of liberation, and it’s been a long, slow, and deeply imperfect process, the world did in fact make great strides.

Think of how liberating women blew the doors off of what was possible for societies. To this day, the single biggest thing any society can do to improve its fortunes is to…liberate women, and give them equality with men. A close second is to liberate minorities from being unpersons or nonpersons.

What happened after the last time the Thin Narrative surged, and this time, caused a World War? The world learned to cooperate in great ways. We created bodies for international cooperation, and for the first, universally declared human beings were all people. We created international laws, to outlaw slavery, torture, genocide. Of course, Gaza shows us that all those are still with us, but it also shows us why the cause of cooperation matters, and what horrors ensure when it’s given up on, and that in this day and age, we should expect better.

The Thick Narrative created decades of relative peace and prosperity. Now, of course, they weren’t enjoyed universally, or spread equally. My erstwhile cousins in India and Pakistan still faced horrible conditions, and human life, sadly, was still determined by where you were born, not your possibilities. Still, for the first time, we seemed to have achieved a very great deal as a world, through cooperation, and as a result, life really did improve—that was the point, of course, of things like the Global Goals, forms of cooperation which helped do everything from vaccinate the world against terrible diseases, to begin to eradicate poverty, to reduce violence and conflict by startling degrees, to allowing democracy to flourish.

The Thick Narrative, in other words, is true. It’s not true that we can’t make progress, or shouldn’t, because cooperation is laughable, since conflict is all there is, because, in turn, domination and subjugation are the point of human existence, and societies and institutions only exist so the strong should survive, and the weak perish. None of that’s true because a) the moment the world ceased to believe in it, progress really did happen, bit by bit, and then leap by leap, and living standards improved often radically, and b) because the other form of thinking had only produced conflict to the point of World War, which benefited nobody.

Our optimism in this day and age should be radical. Unshakable. As high as the stars and as firm as the earth. But it’ll also be misunderstood, as it is right now. Sadly, by those whose very job it is to purportedly understand things, but don’t try hard enough. Those of us who believe that we’re capable of better than this, and that we deserve better than this—we’re not the pessimists. The pessimists are the ones who think that humanity is doomed—to conflict, hate, violence, spite, because that’s all there is in life.

That’s what “doom” or “doomerism” or whatnot really is.

All of that’s hard for a lot of us these days. It’s hard to express any of that, really. And so a lot of people are left hurt and baffled. Hey, I believe in us. How come I’m the bad guy here? I’m not saying we’re doomed! Those guys don’t believe in anything but division and regress. How come they get a free pass?

Now you know why. Because in this age, pessimism and optimism have themselves been inverted, perverted, turned upon themselves. That is how confused we are. A measure of how profound our ignorance is growing. 

Our job is as wearying as it is necessary, these days—those of us who don’t just “believe in,” but understand the possibilities of history, one another, ourselves, and humankind. To show the way out of the bitter darkness, the lies, and back into the light. And we’re going to have to begin, I think by challenging the way that optimism and pessimism have been turned on themselves, to the point that, in a Trumpian way, dark is portrayed as light, and light as dark. When that’s the case—where can a person, society, or even a civilization go, except to stumble and fall, roaring in rage, blindly?

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