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Free Thinking : The nation

From the UK, philosopher Jonathan Rée

No news is good news

  • Jonathan Rée
  • 19 Oct 06, 06:18 PM

Many thanks for some very pertinent comments about my last post. You're right: I was indeed overlooking the fact that optimism and pessimism involve our practical involvement with the world as well as our theoretical appraisal of it. (From the point of view of practice, you might say, the optimist tends to be reckless, while the pessimist is generally risk-averse.)

But for the time being let’s stick to pessimism as a theoretical attitude. It is, I think you would agree, pretty prevalent in our times. In politics in particular, people tend to be more receptive to bad news than good. In fact if you took what people say seriously, you would have to conclude that they think everything in society has been going from bad to worse for at least a century, if not since history began.

But we know it’s not true. In Britain in the last century, for instance, there has been a vast expansion of literacy, and of intellectual attainment in general, and mutual tolerance, and stunning improvements in health and longevity; but who wants to talk about that when they could spin a story about a failing school, sectarian violence, or deaths from hospital-acquired infections?

But why are we so unreceptive to good news?

One reason for the bias in favour of bad news lies, no doubt, in the logic of the media-business, where news is simply a commodity on the market subject to laws of supply and demand. And the demand for a story depends not so much on the amount of truth it contains or the amount of research that went into it, as on the amount of embarrassment it would cause certain people, especially if they are pompous and powerful. (This kind of market does not work so well on a small scale: local newspapers contain much less bad news than national ones, and parish newsletters virtually none.)

But isn’t there another reason for our love of bad news? Something to do with us, the readers, rather than them, the journalists and media moguls? Something to do with vanity, or with what we’ve been calling the prejudices of self-display? (Many thanks, by the way, for some very interesting comments on Michael Tippett’s valiant pro-Nazi remark.) If we are peculiarly receptive to bad news, and uninterested in good news, is it really because we think that hopes are always more likely to be disappointed than fulfilled? Or is it merely because of how we want to appear, to ourselves and to others: that we don’t want to seem naïve, or easily satisfied, or indeed optimistic?

Call me an optimist if you like, but I suspect that much of our pessimism is mere posturing.


  1. At 12:45 AM on 20 Oct 2006, Roberto Carlos Alvarez-Galloso,CPUR wrote:

    We are more interested in bad news because we have entered an age of cynicism. I hope one day this age of cynicism could be replaced by a world of love, trust, an understanding.

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  2. At 12:41 PM on 21 Oct 2006, Matt Astill wrote:

    Interesting take on Good News/Bad News Jonathan, but allow me to be a little harsh with you, and show you that you don't have any real basis to play pessimism and optimism off each other in this way.

    Your gestures to progress through the last century miss the point completely, as does your positing of attitudes towards risk as the practical relationship. It comes as no surprise that you cite the media as fostering a spirit of pessimism, and this just isn't being charitable to pessimism - make a strong argument for it, not a weak one.

    What your comments have in common is a particularly conservative world-view, in that you fail to recognise the uneven playing field on which the concepts operate:

    Only considered in complete abstraction can pessimism and optimism be understood as personality types preferring a 'reckless' or 'risk-averse' attitude to the world. It is rather the case that the isms obtain to actual social reality, where the exploits of capitalism inform their use. The culture industry puts out and regulates what is positive, energetic and go-getting in this society of ours, and optimism is the default stance of those who adopt the requisite subject positions - in short, the optimists are those who are victimised thorugh the system and give legitimisation and power over to it. The pessimists are those who refuse this. Indeed, we could speak about the existence of general western culture and the way in which the world is enslaved, impoverished and diminished to sustain it - Doesn't reflection on this state of affairs invite pessimism towards our social reality?

    Optimism is a shorthand for the general form of conceptual domination in western society. Your comments concerning the historical-factual circumstances of Britain's progress, and about the media making us all cynical utterly ignore the real state of play.

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  3. At 07:56 AM on 22 Oct 2006, Jon Jermey wrote:

    Pessimism gets more coverage than optimism because optimism is the normal state of affairs. We expect the alarm clock to go off and the toaster to work and the bus to take us to the office because that's what usually happens and it's what we expect. It's only the departures from what we expect which are in any way notable. Someone who goes on and on about how everything happened the way it ought to isn't a stimulating companion - they're just a bore.


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  4. At 11:34 AM on 23 Oct 2006, PHICHACO wrote:

    Having just stumbled onto this blog and having posted a comment, I was sufficiently interested to start back at the beginning. What an excursion- a demonstration of the power of language to defy communication! My comment about a certain word being a term of art for philosophers should have been a health warning writ large at the head of the page. 'Logic', 'relevance', 'definition', 'subjective', even 'think' :I should have made a list of the words which have sent Jonathan's commenters spinning off on a tangent of personal associations. Which only serves to remind us that words/meanings are more like junctions in a living maze than diamonds set in platinum. These propensities are usually kept in check in conversation by constant feedback, alas not possible in this medium. Nor is it just philosophers who use words in a special way- a psychiatrist friend gets very strange looks when she complains she is too aroused to sleep!
    I have come to believe that most people do not actually think very much at all; that they are much more likely to feel, react, emote, wish, enjoy. And that they don't have the tools to make much progress either, which may be connected. (Rather like I don't have the maths to understand physics and cosmology, or the facility to play or discuss music.) Philosophy is about getting those tools.
    As for prejudice, it originates I guess in the evolutionary shortcut which allows individuals to perform all manner of tasks efficiently, such as seeing, hearing, reading, reacting. Sometimes it causes problems when signs are misread, and responses need reigning in, but there are surely as many kinds of prejudgement as there are sensory and cognitive functions. Understanding this is a matter for scientists; doing something about it is for individuals to challenge their own and others' behaviour. Thought at too high a level of abstraction on the subject is just intellectual masturbation.

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  5. At 03:46 PM on 24 Oct 2006, Eman wrote:

    It can seem futile to react to an internet already full of reactions and emotions rather than thinking. Nonetheless it seems right to make the attempt, the attempt to make some sense of it.

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  6. At 08:09 AM on 25 Oct 2006, fitz wrote:

    Pessimists I think have 'lost the way' and 'lost their way' too. That's why they are what they are.

    Optimists also sometimes lose their way, but in the doing they continue to explore, help others along the way and eventually always get back on track.

    I'd rather be lost with an optimist than a pessimist anyday! Here are some of my best quoters:

    "When it is dark enough, you can see the stars."
    --Charled A. Beard

    "Optimist: a proponent of the doctrine that black is white."
    --Ambrose Bierce

    "The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true."
    --James Branch Cabell

    "For myself I am an optimist--it does not seem to be much use being anything else."
    --Winston Churchill

    "Do not expect the world to look bright, if you habitually wear gray-brown glasses."
    --Charles Eliot

    "So of cheerfulness, or a good temper, the more it is spent, the more of it remains."
    --Ralph Waldo Emerson

    "An optimist is a fellow who believes what's going to be will be postponed."
    --Kin Hubbard

    "The habit of looking on the bright side of every event is worth more than a thousand pounds a year."
    --Samuel Johnson

    "Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow."
    --Helen Keller

    "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today."
    --Franklin Delano Roosevelt

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  7. At 02:14 AM on 04 Nov 2006, Thomas Eisl wrote:

    Why are we so unreceptive to good news?

    Because they don't matter.

    The positive (that which you want to attain or prolong - the good news) is only a bonus. It can forever remain in the realm of your wishes. The carrot has an effect even if you never ever get to taste it.

    Not so with the bad news (the negative - what you want to avoid or curtail).
    Perhaps bad news don't matter either if they remain confined to the media. Once they make direct contact with you the avoidance of the negative becomes essential.
    If you don't avoid getting hit by the stick it will eventually damage your back.

    This might seem a bit far fetched at a time when nature seems to have only leisure significance. If you consider a different evolutionary epoch when human existence and nature were linked in more easily perceived ways it becomes clear that the avoidance of what is bad is essential for survival. To avoid the poisonous berry matters much more than knowing which is the particularly tasty one amongst all the edible ones.

    I would also say that attainment and avoidance are not mirror image events.

    You can never step into the same river twice (as Heraclitus had it).
    What you can do though, is NOT step into the same river twice.
    That is a crucial difference between the positive and the negative:
    Whatever the intentions, to repeat an action does not guarantee a repeat result.
    But not repeating a particular action will mean that particular action and its particular result is not repeated.

    What I am trying to say is this:
    Not only does it matter more to avoid what is bad for you than attain what is good for you but also the former is more predictable than the latter.

    To get back to the news and their significance: You can learn from other peoples mistakes - a per-proxy bad experience has some value. In that sense bad news (concerning someone else) can be useful.
    I have my doubts about the value of per-proxy good experiences. Perhaps we don't get much of it in actual news programs but the rest of the media is awash with on screen pleasure being acted out for the supposed benefit of the audience. (Come to think of it, does it make sense to consider the news in isolation?)

    As to your conclusion that much of our pessimism is mere posturing I'm inclined to agree with that. But pessimistically I'd say that is because there isn't anything left beyond posturing.

    Actually, I'm not so sure 'we' are so unreceptive to good news. Thinking back to the recent football world-cup - if that wasn't a collective and desperate longing for good news, what is?

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