Our addiction to fear renders us irrationally pessimistic
You probably suffer from apocaholism and don’t even realize it. Do you believe the next 20 years will be wasted years for human development? Is your fear of the next energy, nuclear, environmental, financial, or health crisis consuming your intellectual life? Do you turn to communities with similar fears and seek to stigmatize the less concerned as idiots or dupes of big business or big government? If you answered yes to any one of these questions, it is a definite warning that you may be an apocaholic.
Apocaholics, a word coined by the writer Gary Alexander, i.e. those obsessed with perceived-coming apocalypses, are at least as old as Thomas R. Malthus and David Ricardo, and certainly much older. Throughout the last two centuries, as global living standards have skyrocketed to remarkable levels, and technology, medicine, commerce, transportation, communication, and civil society have enriched our lives in unforeseen ways, academics and intellectuals have obsessed over the supposedly imminent turning point in the history of human progress. The 19th-century British politician Thomas B. Macaulay put his finger on this jarring paradox when he asked, “On what principle is it, that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”
Human nature’s innate pessimism typically overwhelms any natural optimism, and this universal characteristic, when happily exploited by the constant bombardment of our media, magnifies a natural suspicion for the not understood into hopeless cynicism and fear. The media is only taking advantage of a human sociological phenomenon discovered by John Stuart Mill when he wondered why, “That not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.”
Perhaps there is no greater evidence for the unfortunate effectiveness of our myopic mass media than polling data on whether Americans believe the country is heading in the right direction. According to a Sept. 5 Rasmussen poll, 66 percent of voters say the country is getting worse. The naïve may assume this negativity is a symptom of unpopular health-care reform, the Gulf oil crisis, or the hysteria surrounding the planned construction of a mosque/community center near Ground Zero. Wrong, wrong, and wrong. Even at the peak of Obama infatuation, last May, only 40 percent of voters thought the country would get better.
No, our negativity has reached the point where it’s no longer simply a symptom of our society’s ills. It’s become an ill—an addiction—and the media thrive on feeding it. There seems to be a depressingly positive correlation between the tenor of information available and the negativity we feel.
Yet I don’t knock the media for doing what makes them money; after all, “life span, income, and living standards rose again” is never going to sell as well as “we’re screwed.” The way to fight this negativity is not to separate oneself from information, but to keep the perspective of one who lives in a world that has been getting better at a consistently accelerating rate. Have your poison with a grain of salt.
I’m not trying to justify apathy or inaction. Our generation faces challenging problems in climate change, healthcare, debt, global poverty, etc. that must be faced. Fight the injustices you perceive and rally people behind your causes; individuals do change history. But have the wisdom to recognize that today’s crises will certainly pass and the good news that actually affects our lives in communication, technology, transportation, health, and entertainment will be happily ignored by those it benefits. I’m not saying put down the bottle permanently, but sobering up every once in a while is valuable.
Eric T. Justin ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.