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Why I'm a Cynical Optimist

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In response to some of the comments posted on my blog about optimism for an increasingly less violent world, I would like to clarify my views on optimism, realism, cynicism and pessimism, so as not to be mistaken for a foolishly naïve optimist, but also to criticize the destructive qualities of those who are convinced that they have risen above everyone else in determining the problems of the world. These individuals also argue that there is nothing that can be done about any of them, so they ask, "Why do anything at all?"

This question is all too often posed in today's society, and it stems from a growing awareness of the world's problems. This awareness has several causes, one of which is the increasing level of globalization and another which is the increasing level of communication via high-speed technology. Together, these two heavily intermingled factors allow us in developed countries to see more problems of the world than we ever have before. And needless to say, we see not only the problems that directly affect our own nations, but problems that are completely unrelated to our own self-interest as well. Additionally, because there is a mutual base level of tolerance in developed societies in which the government and people agree that no one group of people in the human race is so inferior as to be considered nothing more than an animal and therefore to be allowed to live in savagery, we feel a new need to solve all of the world's problems that wasn't present in previous eras of globalization. (In the previous colonial eras of globalization, those who colonized did not feel any obligation towards improving the living conditions of those colonized who did not assimilate, and therefore these "subhuman" colonized people were left to live in horrible conditions).

The combination of this change in worldview and the globalization and technological revolutions have, as I stated, created a greater level of awareness of problems around the world. This is clearly beneficial to the human race as a whole, because now more than even those who have the resources and benefits of a developed country can help others within or without their country who lack those resources. However, as with every movement, this awareness of problems is quite a double-edged sword, because at the same time that we are discovering these new problems, there is a growing sense of pessimism caused by the problems themselves.

The more problems we are bombarded with each day, the more pessimistic we seem to be, and this is perfectly understandable. When trying to look at the world's top 10 problems today, the list in and of itself can be quite overwhelming -- and that's not even taking into account the multi-faceted nature of each of these issues. Indeed, the highly multi-faceted nature of just one of the world's problems can be challenging for one person to look at, as there is never an easy solution to any of these issues. It is, once again, perfectly understandable to become completely discouraged when examining these issues because they do seem so gigantic and so unsolvable. However, that is not the message that needs to be spread today. It would be a shame if world hunger, human trafficking or AIDS persisted even after the problem had been brought to light, and the developed world had overcome millennia of xenophobia merely because of a rising movement that instills in the younger generations the belief that it is impossible to solve, or even help these problems, so we shouldn't bother.

In an interview with World Learning on his latest book, Creativity and Conflict Resolution: Alternative Pathways to Peace, Professor Tatsushi Arai states the need to explore "how creative, group-based, social processes emerge, how they come to be accepted or rejected, and eventually come to be sustained in a social context for transforming seemingly intractable conflicts." I couldn't agree more. It is not pessimism that needs to be the forefront of our approach to the world's problems, but rather, a creative approach to solving these problems. Pessimism can only worsen the issue at hand, either by neglecting it or by performing an action that actively helps to worsen the situation (i.e. littering, which worsens the world's environmental problems solely because one believes that the global environmental health problem is unsolvable).

However, by acknowledging that the problem is multi-faceted, one can begin to have a dialogue so that, as Arai puts it, we can come up with a conflict resolution process that is "a sustained, interactive and group-based process where a small number of stakeholders involved in a given social conflict come up with a seemingly unconventional insight to respond to the root causes of that conflict. Importantly, the insight has to be subsequently accepted as workable by a growing number of other stakeholders." Obviously, this sort of conflict resolution will take time and energy, as it involves "overcoming seemingly incompatible goals requires shifting the parameters of the conflict, redefining the goals and coming up with different principles by which to see the challenge." But if approached in the right way, I strongly believe that it will be a solution that could successfully eliminate world problems by reducing their interwoven and multidimensional nature facet by facet.

I would like to conclude this entry by briefly elaborating on what I stated at the beginning. I am not a naïve optimist, as I fully acknowledge the problems of the world and their multi-dimensional nature. Some might even call me a cynic, since I believe that the problems of the world are caused by people acting in their own self-interest at the expense of others. However, I do not completely comply with cynicism as a whole, as I do not believe that nothing can be done about these problems and I most certainly do not agree with this view that is shared by the pessimists. Therefore, I have chosen and would encourage others to adopt a brand of cynical optimism because it serves as a catalyst for the creativity that is needed to solve the world's most pressing problems.