Optimism, Pessimism, and Meliorism

Bad news bumming you out?
Turn off the TV, go out and make some good news

Fresno Bee, November 10 2017

Every day there is cruelty somewhere in the world. Some days – as after the Texas church shooting – our hearts simply break. But the world also is full of kindness and care.

Our estimation of life is a matter of perspective. Optimism and pessimism depend on where we look. But what matters most is what you do. If you are sick of the bad news, turn off the television and go out and make some good news.

An old truism holds that the pessimist see the glass as half-empty while the optimist sees it as half-full. But active and engaged people don’t bother to measure the contents of their cups. They savor what they’ve got, drink it down, then go looking for a refill.

One name for this approach is meliorism. Meliorists want to make things better – to ameliorate them. Meliorists are pragmatists. They don’t ignore the evils of life. But they see setbacks as challenges to be overcome, rather than disasters that doom us to defeat.

There always are obstacles and work to be done. Pragmatists discover joy in that work. There is meaning and purpose in the process of planning, building and improving things.

BE NOT AFRAID OF LIFE. BELIEVE THAT LIFE IS WORTH LIVING,
AND YOUR BELIEF WILL HELP CREATE THE FACT.
Willam James

This pragmatic philosophy is typically American. It is the guiding idea of American philosophers such as William James and John Dewey.

Dewey said, “Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered.” James explained, “Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.”

This idea can also be found in the philosophical musings of Eleanor Roosevelt. She explained, “The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for new and richer experience. You can do that only if you have curiosity, and an unquenchable spirit of adventure.”

This adventurous ethos makes sense in the context of our immigrant and pioneer heritage. People come to America to build and create, explore and grow. Pioneers and immigrants don’t rest at home, criticizing and complaining. They work and build. And if they don’t like things here, they move on to greener pastures.

Related to this is something we might call zest, gusto, or joie de vivre. The basic love of life fills active people with energy and enthusiasm. They awake in the morning eager to learn, explore and create.

Lack of energy breeds cynicism. The cynic fails to enjoy life. And so he judges and mocks those who do. But vivacious people don’t have time for cynicism. They are too busy living. And they improve life by embracing it with dynamism and imagination.

Pessimists will complain that energetic engagement with the world demands too much effort. Some pessimists see the need for work as a sign of an imperfect world. But this is lazy and short-sighted. Life requires labor. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. There is no way around this basic fact.

THE PURPOSE OF LIFE IS TO LIVE IT, TO TASTE EXPERIENCE TO THE UTMOST, TO REACH OUT EAGERLY AND WITHOUT FEAR FOR NEW AND RICHER EXPERIENCE. YOU CAN DO THAT ONLY IF YOU HAVE CURIOSITY, AND AN UNQUENCHABLE SPIRIT OF ADVENTURE.
Eleanor Roosevelt

Pessimists are disappointed the world is not perfect. But a perfect world would be boring. It is the challenges in life that get the juices flowing. It is work that gives life meaning.

Optimism also involve intellectual laziness. The optimist’s rose-colored glasses screen out tragedy and loss. They look the other way, deliberately ignoring suffering and pain. But this is a recipe for disaster. If we ignore the evils of life, we will fail to take precautions to prevent them.

Loss and pain cannot be ignored. This world includes genuine evils. But sweat and tears provide the salt that helps us savor the sweet times. And kindness and care can make the world a better place.

A good life is never simply given to us. It is built on prudent planning, creative problem solving and hard work.

Optimists ignore the need for prudence, hoping things will turn out fine. Pessimists roll their eyes, disappointed that life requires effort. The rest of us – the majority of hard-working, pragmatic people – roll up our sleeves, wipe away the sweat and tears, and get back to work.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article183938506.html

The National Anthem, The Pledge of Allegiance, and Democracy

How about a civil dialogue on civic pride?

Fresno Bee, September 17, 2016

Flag protests have broken out all over. Following Colin Kaepernick’s lead, NFL players have taken a knee or raised a fist during the playing of the national anthem. High school athletes have joined in. A Missouri state senator, Jamilah Nasheed, recently sat out the Pledge of Allegiance, as did a New York City councilman, Jumaane D. Williams.

screen-shot-2015-07-10-at-2-58-28-pm_vice_970x435Responses to these protests have been interesting. The band Kiss led their audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. Singer Paul Stanley said, “Patriotism is always cool.” Singer Kid Rock was less subtle. He referred to Kaepernick with an expletive while singing in front of a massive American flag. Less subtle still was an Alabama high school football announcer who suggested that anthem protesters should be shot.

As this unfolded, I’ve been helping to organize a Constitution Day event at Fresno State. One of my colleagues, civic education expert John Minkler, proposed starting the event with the pledge. Minkler sees the pledge as an affirmation of the social contract that helps stimulate reflection on patriotism and the constitutional system.

PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,
and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Student organizers were less enthusiastic about including the pledge. Some wondered whether the pledge was constitutional. They worried that the phrase “under God” seems to violate the First Amendment. They were concerned that the pledge seems to exclude non-Christians.

But the courts have allowed expressions of “ceremonial deism” such as the pledge – as well as “In God we trust” and other phrases. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against a Sacramento atheist, Michael Newdow, who claimed that the pledge was unconstitutional.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in her opinion in that case that ceremonial references to God serve only to “solemnize an occasion” without endorsing any particular religion. She hinted that students who object to religious words can simply not say them, while participating in the rest of the pledge.

Students also are allowed to opt out of the pledge entirely. Recently in Chicago, a teacher tried to force a student to stand for the pledge. The teacher was reprimanded and the student was vindicated.

The pledge was invented in 1892. In the early days, people saluted with an open palm raised toward the flag. This looked like the Nazi salute. So in the 1940s people began covering their hearts instead of raising their hands. The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954 during the anti-Communist era.

Since the beginning there have been protests. Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused to say the pledge, saying that flag salutes are a form of idolatry. In a 1940 case concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Supreme Court defended compulsory pledging of allegiance saying, “National unity is the basis of national security.” But in 1943 the court reversed itself saying, “Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws.”

At around this time, the American philosopher John Dewey suggested that the pledge had become a pale substitute for the reality of justice and liberty for all. He identified mistreatment of “Negroes,” anti-Semitism, and opposition to “alien immigrants” as significant problems.

WHETHER WE RECITE THE PLEDGE OR STAY SILENT, WHETHER WE KNEEL OR COVER OUR HEARTS, WE SHOULD ALWAYS THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT OUR WORDS, OUR DEEDS AND OUR COMMON HUMANITY.

Seventy years later, we are confronting similar issues. Those who protest the pledge and the national anthem likely believe that we need liberty and justice for all. But they believe we are failing to live up to that ideal.

If there is hope and common ground here, it lies in those underlying values. Justice, equality, liberty and respect for persons are essential values of a common human morality. Those values transcend any flag or religion.

Some criticize the pledge as a kind of nationalistic indoctrination. But the ethical ideals expressed in the pledge point beyond jingoistic patriotism and religious exclusivism toward cosmopolitan concern for liberty and justice for all.

Liberty and justice are fragile and complicated. They cannot be defended by shouted expletives or silent gestures. Rather, they require civil dialogue that seeks common ground and mutual understanding.

Liberty and justice are destroyed by violence and incivility. This is true whether you protest the flag or protest the protesters. Whether we recite the pledge or stay silent, whether we kneel or cover our hearts, we should always think carefully about our words, our deeds and our common humanity.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article102243777.html#storylink=cpy

Democracy and Faith in Humanity

Without faith in humanity, cynicism grows and democracy becomes mob-rule

Fresno Bee, June 4, 2016

  • Faith in democracy is faith in morality and human freedom
  • American philosophers worry about cynicism
  • Irrationality, rudeness, vulgarity undermine democracy

We seem to have lost faith in our democracy. A recent Associated Press Poll indicates that 70 percent of Americans are “frustrated with the 2016 presidential election.” Only “10 percent say they have a great deal of confidence in the political system overall.”

Most Americans say that the country’s morality is getting worse. According to a recent Gallup Poll, nearly 75 percent of us think we are heading in the wrong moral direction. Almost half of Americans rate our morality as “poor.”

The San Jose Mercury News printed a tongue-in-cheek article about moving to Canada, for those who are not happy with this year’s election. If we are not careful, our cynicism will undermine our democracy. A healthy democracy depends upon trust. It requires faith in human decency and a commitment to the common good.

In 1939, as Europe was exploding, American philosopher John Dewey said that democracy rests upon “faith in the possibilities of human nature” and “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action.”

Democratic faith is a central idea for John Dewey, one of America’s most important political philosophers. In 1939, as Europe was exploding, Dewey explained that democracy rests upon “faith in the possibilities of human nature” and “faith in the capacity of human beings for intelligent judgment and action.”

Without faith in humanity, cynicism grows and democracy becomes mob rule. Another great American philosopher, John Rawls, explained, “Distrust and resentment corrode the ties of civility, and suspicion and hostility tempt men to act in ways they would otherwise avoid.”

When we don’t trust each other, cooperation becomes impossible. Instead of working for the common good, we work to maximize our own self-interest. Instead of pursuing our hopes, we are motivated by our fears.

Faith in rationality is a key tenet of the democratic faith. Democratic citizens respect each other as rational beings. We give reasons and support them with rational arguments. We expect others to respond in kind. We express our disagreements with civility and restraint, believing that our civility will be reciprocated.

In a healthy democracy, we seek to understand each other. We aim to reach consensus. We listen as much as we talk. We avoid insulting and disrespecting each other. And we believe that each of us is committed to the common good in our own way.

Democratic societies fail when they are plagued by irrationality, rudeness, vulgarity, cruelty and violence. These social maladies cause further distrust and dysfunction, creating a vicious circle of cynicism.

Irrationality breeds mistrust. Instead of deliberating, we connive and cajole. Soon rudeness appears as a strategy and defense mechanism in a world of irrational manipulation. We yell rather than talk. We exchange insults instead of ideas.

The slippery slope of social dysfunction soon leads to vulgarity. In a manipulative power struggle, quick points are scored by playing dirty. Outrageous and obscene remarks soon become normal.

Once vulgarity is on the table, we are one step away from outright cruelty. Vulgar rudeness quickly morphs into nastiness and spite. Soon enough racist, sexist and bigoted comments appear on the scene.

WE HAVE TO BELIEVE THAT HUMAN BEINGS ARE GOOD ENOUGH TO SOLVE OUR OWN PROBLEMS.

The step from verbal cruelty to outright violence is lubricated by the irrationality and obscenity that came before. Violent words quickly lead to violent deeds, when we have given up on reason and civility. And soon enough democracy becomes mob rule.

All of this was understood and predicted by Dewey in 1939 as a betrayal of the democratic faith. He explained, “Intolerance, abuse, calling of names because of differences of opinion about religion or politics or business, as well as because of differences of race, color, wealth or degree of culture are treason to the democratic way of life.”

Dewey’s solution is more and better education, aimed at creating civility and rationality. Education for and about democracy is needed to renew our faith in democracy.

Democratic education relies upon moral education. The basics of moral education have been understood since the time of Plato. Plato said we need four main virtues: moderation, courage, justice and wisdom. We certainly need more of each.

But beyond those basic moral virtues, democracy relies upon faith – in human freedom and in our capacity for self-governance. We have to believe that human beings are good enough to solve our own problems. The democratic faith is a commitment to make a world in which intelligent cooperation produces humane outcomes. Without that faith, we might as well move to Canada – or build a bunker and ride out the storm.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article81572897.html#storylink=cpy