Half A Glass Is Still A Full Serving Of Possibility
How optimism and pessimism kill our aspirations by conflating probability with possibility
The poet Florence McLandburgh, writing under the pen name McLandburgh Wilson, described the two competing perspectives we have convinced ourselves people see the world from using a pastry metaphor:
Twist the optimist and pessimist
The difference is droll:
The optimist sees the doughnut
But the pessimist sees the hole.
But who sees both the doughnut and the hole? Who sees the baker filling tray after tray with colorful pastries to say nothing of the sugar cane workers toiling under a tropical sun to provide him with the sugar to sweeten them? The world is far more interesting and complex than those who would have us see only the optimist’s doughnut or the pessimist's hole would have us believe.
What optimism and pessimism really function as are ready-made prediction generators. Because they are outlooks, not the product of careful analysis, they apply their built-in doughnut vs. hole perspective to everything they encounter before bothering to learn much if anything about it. Optimism and pessimism, like most ism’s, presume to know the world without having to make any real effort to understand it.
Rarely, if ever, does a realist find life presenting her with situations that obviously justify either cheerful prognostications or dire statements regarding pending doom and gloom. Because the universe is a probabilistic place, the chance that things will turn out favorably eventually is constantly being weighed against the possibility of failure. Optimism and pessimism place extra weight on their respective side of the scale before we even have a handle on the full extent of the problem.
So far in the human experience neither the enthusiastic ‘Everything will turn out okay in the end’ nor the defeatist ‘We’re screwed’ have proven themselves accurate summations of our experience. The jury is still out, and it is going to remain out until extinction finally catches up with us. To extend our race against time constructive assessments are what’s called for.
To clearly understand the possibilities inherent within a situation it’s necessary to take a somewhat longer view than either those prone to wearing rose tinted glasses or their counterparts dressed in rain-gear expecting the sun to give way to a downpour at any moment tend to take. Optimism and pessimism, to the extent they are useful attitudes at all, are best suited to assess proximate personal circumstances that lend themselves to quick calculations and linear thinking. Will you do well on your final exam? Will you get the job you just interviewed for? Will someone you're attracted to agree to go out on a date?
A realist, on the other hand, is curious rather than either Pollyanish or circumspect. She is a possibilist with a willingness to risk a certain amount of failure in order to test the limits of what can be done. She knows that in the long run mistakes are as crucial to success as positive results are.
Neither optimism nor pessimism sees failure as a silver lining, though the optimist will often say they do after the fact. Their focus is on likely outcomes rather than possible ones, which leads each to ultimately see success or the lack thereof only as a confirmation of their earlier predictions about how things would go.
It’s easy to forget that the very act of predicting the likelihood of a particular outcome has the potential to make the outcome we predict more likely than it would be otherwise. As part of the equation, not objective calculators of it, the act of viewing the world optimistically, pessimistically or realistically each come with considerable ethical baggage. We owe it to ourselves and our posterity to cast the problems we encounter in a light that maximizes the chances things will turn out as they should.
Because the attitudes we bring to the issues we face come with an inherent self-fulfilling prophecy quality, neither optimism nor pessimism is ethically scalable much beyond our own personal day-to-day affairs. For example, it isn’t a long cognitive walk from taking the position that we don’t think people will deal with climate change to losing faith that people can deal with it. Once we’ve concluded that’s the case there’s no point in trying and presto, our prediction that anthropocentric climate change cannot be resolved comes that much closer to becoming a reality.
Likewise, the “optimistic” view that the market, technology or some combination of the two will come to the rescue without us really having to do much of anything at all justifies inaction. In this case, instead of taking a fatalistic dose of pessimistic cyanide to kill our political will we’ve gotten drunk on wishful thinking. But either way, climate change becomes less likely to ever be proactively dealt with.
Will and won’t are conclusions about a future we don’t believe can be changed. They do not call us to action but rather summon us to take our seats. Likely and unlikely are better. They, at least, accurately describe our world in probabilistic terms. But if our goal is to inspire people to make the world a better place, likely and unlikely are hardly words that stir the soul.
However, if we find things that we can do that we also should do, with the right arguments it’s possible to get people to move mountains to get them done no matter how difficult they may seem at first. Optimism and pessimism only deal directly with how likely we are to do the right thing. By themselves, neither offers an inspiring vision of their own for why the right thing is both possible and worthwhile.
American politics provides us with a case study in just how toxic pessimism, in particular, can be. Until Bernie Sanders nearly toppled Hillary Clinton’s dream of winning the Democratic nomination in 2016, Democrats in the United States were extremely fond of arguing that Americans won’t accept a truly universal healthcare system. It was primarily for this reason that a public option never even received a floor debate during the struggle to pass Obamacare in 2009 and 2010.
Until 2016, with each consecutive election cycle that passed without anyone making the principled argument for Medicare for all the likelihood of the American people ever really embracing the concept appeared to drop even further, thereby confirming the conviction that Americans won’t accept it. We see a similar dynamic at work in the gun control debate, which likewise is full of rhetoric about what the American people will and will not politically accept and almost completely devoid of any discussion of what a truly rational gun policy should be.
What Senator Sanders did in 2016 showed the left the merits of framing their arguments around what both can and should be done instead of what they’ve convinced themselves will or won’t happen. He proved that just by forcefully arguing for what he believed was right the needle of public opinion could be moved to make the unlikely more likely.
Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. What’s possible has to do with what can occur, improbability aside. What’s likely to occur in the near to medium-term can serve as a worthwhile calculation when it comes to determining the degree of difficulty and formulating strategy, but should never get in the way of fighting for the right thing when it is possible to do it.
Probable and possible are not the same thing, in spite of our tendency to conflate them. As leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., JFK, and RFK all understood, what is possible but improbable today can become probable tomorrow if we consistently and unwaveringly pursue it.
Florence McLandburgh was right to associate optimism and pessimism with a sugary pastry. Cognitively speaking both are full of empty calories. They draw attention away from our aspirations with unfounded speculation about the relative ease or difficulty associated with making them a reality. Life is full of possibilities. That’s really all anyone needs to believe in order to keep moving forward.