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Trolling with optimism

I recently shared a Facebook post in which SF writer David Brin excerpted some happy talk from Steven Pinker about how the world is growing less violent with far fewer people dying in wars than was the norm just 50 years ago. Not only are fewer people dying in wars, but violent crime statistics in the USA are on a decades-long downward trend.

Brin and Pinker attribute the increase in peaceful (or at least non-lethal) coexistence to the Enlightenment, by which they mean the 18th-century European philosophical movement which elevated individualism and rationality over tradition. It is the source of the freedom of expression and the separation of church and state that most Americans take for granted. Folks like Brin and Pinker tell us it's why we are less likely to go to war now than we were in the past. It's also why our courts no longer hand down death sentences for petty theft or sentence people to public humiliation or corporal punishment for violating the sabbath.

I could certainly quibble with their optimism and their line of reasoning and point to other statistical trends which paint a less rosy picture of the state of the human condition in the latter half of the second decade of the 21st Century, but I didn't. I shared the post without comment, knowing full well that any show of optimism like this would antagonize and provoke many of the people I expected to reach with that simple post.

Now, I could claim laziness and say that it was just easier to click "share" and have done with it than to compose my own statement of qualified optimism, but it would have been trivially easy to tack on a simple statement saying that I didn't buy into their Pollyanna assessment but that the indications of our moving in the direction of a less violent existence were worth at least some consideration and conversation.

But I didn't qualify my support. I just pushed that optimistic statement and endorsement of Euro-centric cheeriness out to my feed in the knowledge that some people would take offense and set me in the position of arguing for the position that things aren't as bad as a lot of people want to believe.

You could say that I was trolling. Google defines trolling as, "making a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them."

It seems odd, at some level, to say that re-posting an optimist's belief that Enlightenment values are making us less violent and more likely to respect individual rights counts as being deliberately offensive or provocative with the expectation of upsetting people and provoking angry responses, but when you've been a purveyor of Doomer porn for as long as I have, you attract a certain following who expect you to filter all data through a pessimistic lens. To do less is to court an indignant response.

And that's just what I got. Readers responded with two flavors of indignation. I won't quote or even summarize them in much detail. One respondent objected to the idea that modern European civilization compares favorably to his romanticized version of pre-historic natural "communism" in which people took care of one another without violence or coercion.

The other flavor of indignant response focused on the damage that industrial civilization is doing to the biosphere. I think of this as misanthropic environmentalism, but since I'm not trolling now, I will freely admit that industrial civilization under the spell of the profit motive looks like a planet killer to me as well and that business as usual projected into the future seems to lead to a world of hurt for both human and non-human life.

It's not my intent to criticize the people who respond with indignation to optimistic statements. It's just worth noting that my current position in the matrix of belief and social connection is such that it's easier for me to provoke offense by endorsing Enlightenment values than by denigrating the technological and cultural system that puts the toolkit of social media in my hands.

685 words


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 2nd, 2017 08:58 am (UTC)
"You Want it Darker"Leonard Cohen
Thanks for your insights. Isn't the situation you describe just a microcosm of the current US political conversation? Nothing can be stated, negative or affirmative, without stern rebuke.

I have my convictions, but there seem to be no moorings by which to anchor a "reasonable" argument.
Trying to keep my head up. You may not ever turn the doomer tide, but I enjoy your optimistic episodes.

Jan. 2nd, 2017 02:39 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Mark.

How did you know that I posted something to LiveJournal? Was it the Twitter link?
Jan. 2nd, 2017 11:58 pm (UTC)
LJ Post indicator
Yes, the Twitter link.
Jan. 3rd, 2017 02:32 am (UTC)
I would object to the claim that much of the improvement has been due to mere rationality. The physical conditions that encourage rationality need to be optimal before we can credit good thinking that avoided disastrous irrationality.

I'm thinking here of the research into tetraethyl lead in gasoline, and how concentrations of this in soils could serve as a pretty good predictor of success and failure for those who grew up on the dirt.

One who cannot control short-term impulses to do bad things, after all, generally fair worse than those who can exhibit such control.

And with this, I would cast myself in the camp of people who do agree that things seem to be getting better, but realize that only one unseen and unexpected environmental fuck up by some future or present fuck is enough to undo the goodness right quick.

Ultimately, though, I do agree that some are drawn to the flame of a promised conflagration like little flapping doom moths in need of a bit of warmth amidst the cold and vacuous rationality optimists spew.

Who can blame them? One gets tired of smiley faces, especially the forced ones so desperate to smile at anything.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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