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Free Thinking : The nation

From the UK, philosopher Jonathan Rée

Good news / bad news

  • Jonathan Rée
  • 25 Oct 06, 07:58 PM

What I said about people who are more receptive to bad news than good was far too simple, as several of you have pointed out. And the suggestion that people who think of themselves as progressive in their politics are more likely to be optimistic than people who think of themselves as conservative was too crude as well.

Matt has a good point (if I follow him) when he suggests that it might be the other way round. Conservatives think that we should be content with the way things are (‘don’t knock it: it’s all we’ve got and it could be an awful lot worse’), whereas progressives think the current state of affairs is intolerable (‘things can only get better’). So who is the pessimist at this table?

What was missing from my earlier discussion was any reference to the element of comparison. Those with a taste for cliché may remind us that politics is the art of the possible, but we need to remember that it is also an art of comparison. Politics, you might say, is always comparative politics: to think politically is to put two different situations (two real, two imagined, or one of each) onto the scales of political justice: Athens or Sparta, Paris or Geneva, Canterbury or Rome, Socialism or Barbarism, Washington or Moscow.

And in the politics of the last two centuries (that is to say, since the invention of the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’) political comparisons have always involved a reference to time: they have been comparisons, essentially, of the present with the past and of the present with the future.

The classic right-wing conservative can then be defined as someone who will always welcome good news about the past because it heightens foreboding at any changes that may lie in the future. And the classic leftist progressive will welcome bad news about the ‘old immoral world’ (as Robert Owen called it), because it dramatises the contrast with the good news to come.

Let us stay with a classical leftist for a while.

In 1843, the twenty five year old Karl Marx moved to Paris with his beautiful new wife. They loved each other to distraction, they had a tiny baby, and they lived in an atmosphere of frenetic excitement, though in a state of poverty and domestic chaos that was not entirely to Mrs Marx’s taste.

Karl looked around him and he saw the past:

Bestial barbarisation … man returns to living in a cave, except that it is now contaminated with the breath of civilization … Filth, this stagnation and putrefaction of man, literally the ‘sewage of civilisation’, comes to be the element of life for him … the worker has become a neglected child….

Then he looked again – looked specifically at the groups of workers who were forming clubs where they discussed a new-fangled French concept called ‘socialisme’ – and he saw the future:

Association, society and conversation … are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-worn bodies.

It is a perfect piece of classical leftist rhetoric (though it appears in notesbooks that were not published till fifty years after Marx's death): piling on the bad news about the past that still haunts the present, and talking up the good news about the new life that is beginning to stir within it.

Was Marx allowing his observations to be distorted by his predilections? Was he prejudiced? No doubt he was. And indeed, though he could not have known it, one person had already rumbled this rhetoric twenty years before Karl Marx went to Paris.

Referring to the religiously inspired radicals of the eighteenth century, sick with their hatred of ancient tyranny and drunk with their love for the coming epoch of freedom, William Hazlitt had written that they

have a pleasure in believing that every thing is wrong – in order that they may have to set it right

An elementary form of self-display I'd have thought. Or is it a kind of political Munchausen’s syndrome by proxy: conjuring up symptoms that show that the world is in danger, so that you can cast yourself in the role of saviour?


  1. At 01:45 AM on 26 Oct 2006, fitz wrote:

    I'll go with genetics and social training! - We are still delving into the many machinations of genetics and still in our infancy about it all.Recent research for example has demonstrated that our propensity for certain illnesses were generated generations before in our family trees. We can modify the effects of course but up till now cannot change the gene structures. But were working with God on that one!

    They may very well then be an optimistic and pessimistic gene that we haven't found yet, that goes back to the optimistic nature of our great great grandfather or mother?

    Then there is social engineering - or to put it more simply (let's try to keep it simple for the readers) child rearing practices.

    What did the Jesuit priests used to say and perhaps still do "give my the boy for the first seven years and I'll give you the man" - they neve did say what state of array or disarray the man would be in though!

    but seriously folks, having worked with many users of the health systems, or rather ill health systems around the world and studied the mind (or is that the brain or soul?) somewhat, there is no doubt in my head that parents have a lot to answer for in terms of the personalities of their God given gifts!

    So in conclusion, we may indeed by born an optimist or pessimist through our genes and then be further influenced in this process through the optimistic or pessimistic views and child rearing practices of our parents. So no matter how the world is before our very eyes we will invariable see it with optimistic/pessimistic coloured specs.

    However there is always the chance of a 'road to Damascus' experience - they still happen, so I do believe gene generated pessimist can become a spirit generated optimist - there would hardly be any reason for doing it the other way around though.

    And Karl Marx - ah - now a detailed family history would be informative, anyone got one?

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  2. At 10:48 AM on 26 Oct 2006, William Cope wrote:


    Browsing through the Good News Bad news I was struck by the comment that we all WANT bad news -desptie evidence for the contrary.

    Actually, why we have negative stories in the press is surely because we have to have some balance to the vested interests telling us how good things are. Listen to Gordon Brown this morning on Today and you'd be forgiven for thinking that our economy is in a wonderful state and that Global warming is a minor irritant to the New Labour project.

    Not only that, speak to the chief execs of Tesco, Marks and Sparks, Walmart, Manchester United etc etc and they'll tell you just how brilliant everything is, and why we should leave the current state of society much as it is. Well, they would wouldn't they... it does rather help the share price, which in turn helps their bonuses.

    I know that this is a theorecical blog, but surely we need to talk about ideas in the context of the real world if we're going to get anywhere. I say thank god for those who bring us the bad news stories, because we'd never hear them otherwise. Its not that we prefer, or need, bad or good news, but that we need a balance. In this society, it's hard to do because the power of marketing is very strong (sorry to sound like Yoda), and we need to resist it properly!

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  3. At 03:00 PM on 26 Oct 2006, Richard O'shea wrote:

    If pessimism and optimism are translated into the framework of behaviour/strategy, then it remains a fact that both strategies and behaviours; and no doubt combinations therein, exist now. So they serve a purpose, though not necessarily sharing the same methodology for achieving it. Then, it is likely that successful proponents of both strategies and behaviours would be found. So, unfortunately, that means they pop up everywhere, although only for a period of time. What you can't do is remove any strategy from the environment it operates in, environments are resources: so strategies have resources.

    If Marx was biased by poverty and the world view of an impoverished class then this would have been a reaction to a strategy that was denying him -and the resource he saw in those around him 'workers'- access to the environment. Any system of strategies that is out of equilibrium, with their environment is loosing the game.

    Do politicians come here to play saviour? Probably:some. Do we like to do the same? Probably:some. Do any last the course? Probably:none. Does anyone win the game?

    Considering the importance of the environment, is it likely that a universal goal exists; or comes into existence, for all strategists to be in equilibrium with the environment? I Hope so.

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  4. At 09:28 AM on 02 Nov 2006, Fitz wrote:

    sometimes we just have to get on with life and philosphy and it's creators have to go into hibernation.

    Where would we be without them - same place - same time - same dimension - their own brand of entertainment have been taken over by the new 'philosophers' of our age - Spielberg - Lucas etc - these are the ones who excite us now with 'brave tales of ulysess' and beyond.

    There is a time and season for every man - make way for the new filozofers!

    We need our visions excited not just our minds - our auditory canals assaulted and our spinal cords electrofide

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  5. At 02:41 AM on 03 Nov 2006, Michael Shurtleff wrote:

    I think the reason that bad news gets more attention than good news is the fact that it calls for action, while good news normally does not. It is part of human nature, especially since the renaissance, to try to improve society. How can we improve it if we ignore or are ignorant of what is wrong with it?

    I think most scientists would agree that the world *is* in danger. Should we ignore what they say about global warming, for example?

    The media may overplay some negative aspects of our situation, but I think the greater danger is to underplay it.

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  6. At 05:49 AM on 03 Nov 2006, fitz wrote:

    The media not only overplays to some extent but in a mammoth way. 80% of all news must be negative.

    Now this either means there is basically much more bad news around the world than good - and that may very well be the case OR - the media only hone in on the bad and ignore the good.

    For my money it's the latter and the media do us all a grave misjustice by conducting themselves in this way. Would did they used to say "bad news always sells better than good"

    I don't think many newspaper people have a great commitment to social justice, world peace of harmony and love - they work long hours, smoke too much, drink too much and are often unhealthy and that colours their own responses to life and newspapers in general

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