How Optimists Make Us Unwilling To Face Truth

Optimism (2)

Peddlers of “good news” are riding the crest of SA’s crisis of governance. Brace yourself. You will encounter a lot of them, as they tend to thrive in a chaotic political order. They will be convincing you that things are not as bad as they appear.

Anyone who dares point to the reality of creaking public services or worsening leadership is likely to be reminded that there are many good stories happening elsewhere in the country.

They will quickly point to the latest Happy Planet Index to convince you that even countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Iraq, which are in dire political circumstances, are ahead of us on the score of happiness. All we need is some flimsy optimism and a good dose of happiness to cure our social ills.

It does not matter that these feel-good countries have dysfunctional governance institutions and poor standards of living. As long as we are frozen in ephemeral optimism, all is well, according to our optimists. Interestingly, they would be the last to trade places and live in such countries in exchange for more happiness.

There is nothing as dangerous as unguarded optimism. It is a convenient refuge for those who find reality too discomfiting and want to be left alone to wallow in their apathy. They think that to be discontented is a bad thing, when in fact it is absence of meaning and too much comfort in the face of crisis that gives succour to bad leadership. What our optimists don’t realise is that they are fostering idle indifference. Action is a progeny of discontent. It is when we are deeply dissatisfied with a political framework that lowers the benchmark for success and excellence, that we are most likely to take action and insist on meaningful change. Those who strive to bring about change in society, whether through politics or rolling out innovative products and solutions, are usually driven by a strong sense of discontent that urges them to action.

Unguarded optimists look at an evaporating glass and call it half full, doing nothing to fill it up. When it is pointed out that things are taking a turn for the worse, optimists remind us the sky is not about to fall.

Much of the fluffy good news spun in the name of optimism has created a whole industry of scenario planners, whose role is to cure the fears of those in the corporate world. If you were to draw the attention of our optimists to real examples of chaotic governance, such as the failing education system in the Eastern Cape or late delivery of textbooks in Limpopo, they will respond with an assuring reminder that every bad story is far outweighed by many good stories elsewhere in the country.

They punt false averages all the time. But if you were to challenge them to put one hand in boiling water while the other is dipped in cold water, telling them that by so doing they will achieve an average outcome, they would be rightly incredulous.

Yet they want us to believe that their version of good news neutralises the mounting evidence of political morass.

Even if things were to get noticeably dire, they would calmly tell you that before the country gets better it must first hit rock bottom, and only then will it bounce back.

They have no higher standard to strive towards. Their bar is too flexible to offer solid hope. Their existence is all about eluding disappointment and avoiding taking action.

In his influential book, Good to Great, Jim Collins discusses the follies of this kind of optimism through the account of a US admiral, Jim Stockdale, who survived torture during his eight-year imprisonment in the Vietnam’s “Hanoi Hilton” prisoner of war camp during the Vietnam War.

Stockdale emerged from his experience stronger and fully prepared for the headwinds of life.

The paradox of the experience of the prisoners in the camp, as narrated by Stockdale, is that those who wanted to escape from reality by invoking optimism and creating good stories out of nothing suffered all manner of depression.

Worse, they died prematurely and were outlived by those who were conscious of the brutal facts and better prepared to face them head-on.

This kind of optimism has the potential to engender idle indifference and cripples human agency by leaving everything to fate. Stockdale’s counsel drawn from his excruciating experience in captivity is that: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

We should reject metaphors such as “the glass is half full” when we could have it full to the brim. We must watch vigilantly that its contents do not diminish. When they diminish even by a drop, we should take that as a strong signal to ready ourselves for action.

by Mzukisi Qobo: Leadership consultant, political risk analyst and a writer.



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