The Cynical Optimist
Yesterday Robin Hanson, Tyler Cowen, Alex Tabarrok, and I had lunch at Morton’s to celebrate Robin’s tenure. As the guest of honor, Robin picked the main topic of discussion. His choice: Cynicism – what it is, who’s got it, and when it’s true.
In large part, I think of cynicism as the view that the average quality of human beings and the world is a lot lower than it could and ought to be. Professors should be passionate about answering the Big Questions of their fields, but most of them are boring careerists. Movies and tv ought to be creative and thoughtful, but most of it is derivative claptrap. And so on.
So how can I think this and remain an optimist? Because optimism, as I practice it anyway, is an attitude and a strategy, not a description of the world. As an optimist, I try not to dwell on boring careerists and derivative claptrap. Instead, I seek out the exceptions to the rule and appreciate what I find. Just because the average is low doesn’t mean that you can’t personally consume high quality. And even when the quality I consume is far from ideal, I try to mentally change the subject to another dimension where I have blessings to count.
Thus, I’m not a big fan of modern culture, but I still see cultural pessimism as folly. Even if you think there hasn’t been a good piece of music composed since 1900 (a gross exaggeration), you should count yourself very lucky to live in a world of recorded music, where you’ll never run out of new-to-you performances of Bach and Wagner.
At risk of showing my age, it’s worth mentioning that my teen-age years would have been vastly better if the Internet had been around. As a 14-year-old in 1985, the best things I could access just weren’t very good. If I were growing up today, I could be a friendless weirdo in the real world, but still meet and learn from an endless stream of interesting people in cyberspace.
In short, not only is it possible to be a cynical optimist; in the modern world, it’s hard to be anything else.