No news is good news
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.