Sunday, July 1, 2012

the triumph of the negative

Some time ago (perhaps a year), someone attained my password and planted a virus onto my website. (I had to spend money to have my tech guy fix it--and set things up so it wouldn't happen again.) Why would someone do that? Why would someone spend energy and intelligence hacking onto the site of an old knitter?!?!?!?

So I thought about the people who do these things--who spend their time on negative and destructive stuff--and it reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago. I was talking to a writer about a very bleak book--a very good book but a very dark book--and he said "You know, it's easy to write a bleak book. It's a lot harder to write a book that's positive!"

And he's right! Try walking around the world being terminally optimistic! People think you're (at best) uninformed and insensitive . . . and (at worst) stupid! While each of us is generally personally optimistic (about our own lives), we are--on the other hand--socially pessimistic (about the way the world is going). We give a lot of credence to the intelligence of those who are negative, judgmental, critical.

Consider this quote.
Five years have seldom passed away in which some book or pamphlet has not been published pretending to demonstrate that the wealth of the nation was fast declining, that the country was depopulated, agriculture neglected, manufacture decaying, trade undone.

Since this was written, nothing much has changed: the media tells us to worry about our country's wealth, the world's population, the food supply, and globalization. The only thing this writer didn't know to add to the list was something about the environment.

And why did he miss that issue? Because the car had not yet been invented. That quote was written by Adam Smith at the start of the industrial revolution!

I've just finished a book on this topic: The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. He argues every issue of our time and explains why we can be optimistic. And he bemoans the fact that pessimism sells, wins awards, gets grants, creates movements, precipitates hysteria. (Remember Y2K?)

There is no single answer to why we believe in the negative: Ridley gives his own reasons, and here are mine.

I think it's because language, logic, judgment, cynicism all reside in the left brain. We launch an articulate army when we judge, criticize, doom-speak. In addition, the left brain is where experience resides: and, yes, logic and experience tell us that is we keep doing what we know--and keep going the way we are going--we will come to disaster. In addition, because it holds experience, the left brain does not like change. So it sees the solution to present problems as returning to an idealized (but generally untrue) version of the past.

The right brain, on the other hand, is the positive, "Let's all get along together" side of the brain: innovative, imaginative, optimistic. BUT it doesn't have the same forces (language, logic) to marshall. It can't mount the same convincing offense, and so it loses most arguments against the nay-sayers. And it can't describe a future that has not yet happened.

But the point Ridley makes is that we don't have to live under gray clouds. Humans (and their right brains) have always found ways to make things better. It is, just simply, the course of human history . . . the way things have been and should continue.

So as intelligent as they seem, people who are crtitical and mean and judgmental and destructive and pessimistic and negative are not smarter nor righter! (Yes, I said "righter!") They're just stuck in their articulate left brains which makes us and them think they are clever. And this can be confirmed when they sell lots of books and get the whole world on their side.

What's to be done to save us from them?
  • Get informed, reading with an optimistic mind-set.
  • Challenge basic assumptions (which is what the right brain does well).
  • Work on improving education.
  • Teach the world to knit! 
Yes indeed, getting everyone knitting would be a great thing. Because knitting, and activities like it,  take us out of the left brain and put us into our more positive and imaginative and optimistic right. The world would not only be a better place if everyone knit, but we'd believe it to be so!

And isn't that where we'd rather live anyway?


  1. Well said, Sally! I might add - turn off the news. The media sell stories and the badder ;-) the news the better the ratings. I have gotten very cynical about the news and all the doomsday speak. A trend I've seen lately on the news is the reporting of all the awful things that "MAY" happen, not actual news of actual events but predictions of terrible things that could possibly occur in the future!
    Knit on!

  2. WOW, how could I forget that?!?! TURN OFF THE NEWS!

    I likely forgot because I NEVER watch the news. And I don't read newspapers. And I try not to discuss whatever news IS told to me, because studies have shown that when we discuss it we EXACERBATE the badness and increase the SKY IS FALLING mentality!

    Thanks so much for writing!

  3. I too have wondered what possible satisfaction the morons out there gain by mucking up people's websites and e-mails.

    Interesting observations, Sally. I suppose we need to hear what some of the problems are, but if each of us works in a positive way on the small things we can make better, the cumulative effect of all those small things has to build up into something big. Let's surprise the pessimists.

  4. Yes, teach the world to knit! I was on a plane not too long after 9/11 and as the pilot walked thru the cabin (and one was still allowed to knit at that time), he saw me knitting, stopped, smiled, and said "I wish everyone on this flight was knitting." Wise man...

  5. What an amazing thing. Thanks for letting us know.

    BTW, I flew the weekend after 9/11 and had size 2 bamboo sock needles taken away.

    I still meet women who are surprised that I can get my knitting onto a plane. And I hear there are still security systems in the world who won't let our knitting on. Clearly the people making these decisions who are not as wise as your pilot.