Cruel optimism (and lazy pessimism)


Do you remember the avocado toast guy? I read Johann Hari’s Stolen Focus recently (you should read it, it’s great), and I learned that someone1 has come up with a name for this sort of modern reinterpretation of “let them eat cake”: cruel optimism.

Cruel optimism, the way Hari interprets it2, boils down to the folly of suggesting personal solutions to systemic problems. It’s about advice given from a position of privilege to people who will never be able to apply it to their own lives–because the cards are stacked so unfairly against them–but who will nonetheless interpret their failure as a personal one. The avocado guy is an egregious example, but in the end harmless because of its obvious ridiculousness. The real harm comes from the stuff that sounds reasonable and actionable, like most self-help books. You know the pattern:

So that’s where the cruelness lies. There’s Average Joe in the blue corner, and a big-ass dragon in the red corner across from him, but when Joe inevitably gets his ass kicked, we tell him it’s his own fault for not being disciplined enough. We tell him it’s not the dragon he’s fighting, but only himself.

And the dragons of the world absolutely love this situation, because it shifts responsibility away from them and unto the individual. Remember when BP came up with the whole carbon footprint bullshit? Yeah, think of that the next time a soggy paper straw makes your soda taste like shit.

Sadly, I used to be guilty of this too. “Everybody gets the same 24 hours” I would say, when asked how I found the time to read, write, play video games, and repair bikes. But that’s not true, is it? If you have to commute for two hours each day, then I obviously have two hours extra compared to you, because I work from home5. If you have kids–which I don’t–how many hours even is that? Probably a lot. It’s so obvious now, that I feel shame for believing it, but hey, shame and self-cringe are just side effects of growth, so I take the good with the bad.

On the other hand…

Everything I wrote above has the ring of truth to me–that’s why I wrote it–but I have to be honest, I don’t think it’s the whole truth. Because while the dragons have a major part of the blame, assigning all of the blame for our woes to them doesn’t really sit well with my idea of myself as a self-actualized individual–or at least as an individual on the way to self-actualization. If all I am is a victim with no control over my own destiny, then why do I even get up in the morning?

The truth is, I have to shoulder part of the blame for my failings. But that’s good, because it means I have the power to improve my own life!

It seems to me that a new way of looking at the world is rapidly gaining ground, and I don’t know if there’s a term for it–English is not my first language–so I’ll just call it lazy pessimism for now. It’s the polar opposite of cruel optimism, and a close cousin of defeatism: we’ve uncovered the dragons, pointed our fingers at them, and done nothing else since. As we often tend to do, we’ve overcorrected.

Stephen King wrote Carrie while living in a trailer, holding a job, and raising two kids. J. K. Rowling finished the first Harry Potter book as a single mother and survivor of domestic abuse. Whatever else you may think about these two people, their stories are inspirational, because they prove that you don’t need perfect conditions to grow and to create.

Self love and acceptance is tremendously important, don’t get me wrong. Give yourself a sincere pat on the back for how much you’ve already accomplished. But also understand that it’s okay to be a little hard on yourself from time to time. We don’t all have the same options, that is sadly true, but we’re not all without options either.

I’d like to plug Hari’s book one more time before I close this. The irony of taking issue with self-help in a self-help book is not lost on me, and it’s not lost on Hari either. He makes a great argument not for dismissing self-help out of hand, but for pairing it with systemic, regulatory changes, potent weapons that might allow us to beard the dragons in their golden lairs.

  1. Lauren Berlant in their book with the same name↩︎

  2. I’m not quite sure his interpretation matches Berlant’s original idea, but I haven’t read Berlant’s book to confirm. ↩︎

  3. Or, if you live in the United States, one medical emergency away. ↩︎

  4. Yes, I’m talking about Tinder. ↩︎

  5. And that doesn’t even take into account the mental drain the commute itself causes, only the lost time. ↩︎

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