Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Cynical Optimism

With my recent forays into the Tool debate, I have been able to define my outlook on life a little more precisely. Years ago I used to say that I was a ‘cynical optimist’, which I defined as someone who had little faith in people, but who thought that things were so bad that it could only get better. That’s a fairly naive view, and I pretty much stopped classifying myself as such. However, after thinking about my intellectual and emotional response to the Tool debate, I’ve had to conclude that I am indeed a ‘cynical optimist’, but I mean something else by it now.

I know, matter of fact, that the majority of the population of the planet are morons with their heads inserted up their own flabby posteriors. Little else can explain religious fundamentalism, George Bush and the European Common Agricultural Policy, to name a few of my pet peeves. Anyone who reads what I write on this site will know that I have a very low opinion of the ‘general public’ and tend to make proclamations about ‘the end of the Enlightenment’ and its basic ideal of using reason to further humanity. I’m about as cynical as they come in that respect.

But that’s the head talking. It isn’t what I believe, but what I know. And the whole Tool debate has made me think more clearly about what I actually believe about people. And in that respect I have come to the unfortunate realisation that I’m an optimist.

When I meet someone, be it in person or on a forum, I immediately assume that they are as reasonable as I consider myself to be. I assume that we will be able to have a decent rational discussion, that we will find common ground, that if we disagree and I state my position clearly they will be able to come round to it, or identify the flaw in my argumentation that makes me reconsider. Sure, I have high standards, but I begin by giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. Of course, I’m imposing those standards on to other people, but I guess it’s impossible not to do so. But I don’t start out from a position of superiority. I don’t look down on others, who have to prove themselves worthy of my respect. Rather, I start out from the perspective that we’re all basically the same, and then the given individual either lives up to my expectations or doesn’t.

There's obviously a contradiction between these two perspectives. Practically what it means is that I am always surprised when I meet a complete idiot, especially if they are not merely dumb but offensive to boot. The cynical part of me ‘knows’ that most people are morons, but the optimistic part of me is shocked whenever I encounter an embodiment of that stupidity. And as such, instead of responding to an idiot by simply thinking, ‘Ah ha, another person I won’t bother to grace with my time’, I get angry that someone could be so stupid and start ranting. Meeting an idiot doesn’t so much confirm my cynicism as contradict my optimism.

I’m inclined to think that the tension between these two sides of my personality explains a lot about my behaviour in general. It definitely explains why I felt the need to respond to the many dolts in the Tool debate who took the view that “You suck if you think the new Tool album is anything but crap, because I know best.” The cynical side knows that this kind of comment is not worth the time it takes to read, but the optimistic side just had to fight back.

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