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The Pessimist’s Guide to Optimism

January 13, 2018

• Dan Schoenbrun

Recently, Emily and the team at Seed&Spark invited me to write a piece to kick off their new 100 Days of Optimism rally. I thought it would be a fun challenge, especially since my own relationship with the topic is a complicated one.

Pessimism and cynicism are traits that have always come quite naturally to me. Whatever the opposite of rose-colored glasses are is how I tend to see the world. I roll my eyes at movie trailers. Sponsored content churns anger in my chest. With every hip subway ad for mattresses, or strategic use of the phrase “now more than ever,” the anger compounds.  

I distrust institutions and bureaucracies. I’m naturally prone to skepticism. When something bad happens (say, the President threatens nuclear war on Twitter, or another powerful man in my industry is accused of sexual assault), my first reaction is anger, followed immediately by fatalism. “Well… there’s more proof: the world is indeed a terrible place.”

Until fairly recently I’ve worn this pessimism as a badge of honor. I’ve considered it a character trait that helps me to be a strong critical thinker—that keeps me honest, well-informed, and, dare I say, decent.

It also serves as a reaction to a particular brand of American optimism that I find quite repulsive. You know the cocktail: unyielding and uncritical hope absent of logic or self-reflection. An assumption that the world is a fundamentally just place. That everything will work out. Optimism as opiate. I find this phenomenon to be rampant in the world around me, and it always appears to me as little more than a coping mechanism. A reaction borne out of laziness, privilege, and, above all, fear. A concerted effort to hide from the darker aspects of the world, of human nature, and of one’s self.

But I’m starting to realize that pessimism and cynicism can often be the opposite side of the same coin. A similar form of self-quarterization. A means of shutting one’s self off from the truth of the pain of the world. Depression is a warm bath, and it can be so easy to sink into.

Let’s examine an example: the “SJW” (or “Social Justice Warrior”), a derogatory term coined by the “alt right” to refer to activists and liberals. The philosophy behind this insult is a belief that all activism is born, not out of a genuine desire for change, but rather out of a desire for social capital. That my writing a political Facebook rant, or making a film about racial inequality, or marching in the streets at an immigration rights protest is at its heart a selfish act—that I’m doing it for “likes,” or approval, or some other form of social capital. That I’m more interested in having myself be seen as a good person than in actually being a good person.

Like the best insults, this one has resonated online because it comes tinged with an element of relatable truth. Sometimes it can be hard to separate the political from the social, especially in our late-capitalist society where social interaction has become so commodified and gamified, where we’re trained to beg for “likes” like a mouse begging for a food pellet.

David Foster Wallace referred to this as “the fraudulence paradox.” The more conscious effort we put into not feeling like a fraud, he argued, into acting like real, authentic, good, moral human beings, the more we begin to feel like the opposite. The more we actually do become  frauds.

But what matters more? Our personal feelings of fraudulence, or the results of our possibly fraudulent actions? This is where the “Social Justice Warrior” argument begins to break down, and where the insult is revealed for what it is: cynicism as a means of justifying inaction. Because the disdain inherent in the term SJW (at least on paper) isn’t with liberal causes themselves, or morality in the abstract; it’s with the hypocritical motives of those who champion moral causes.

But let’s assume the worst. Let’s assume that I’m a complete fraud. Let’s assume that all of us marching in the streets for social justice aren’t doing so out of an altruistic or moral prerogative, but rather out of an effort to impress the cute guy or girl protesting to our left. Who gives a shit? If it results in a moral outcome, in positive change, in a lessening of inequality, or a small healing of the world’s pain, who gives a shit?

There’s a difference between constructive cynicism and anger. There’s anger that serves as a rallying cry, and anger that leads to moral action.  But there’s also impotent, reactive anger without purpose— anger that feels good in the moment, but that in actuality just begets more anger.

It seems to me that in our current world this latter strain of anger easily metastasizes. It’s just so easy to isolate oneself from the problem, to set oneself above, and thereby apart from the rest of the world. To cynically bemoan the overuse of words like “solidarity” and “late capitalism” and “now more than ever.” To roll one’s eyes at another article by another white dude quoting David Foster Wallace. To fire off an angry tweet, and then to fire off another one in response to an angry tweet that’s responding to your first angry tweet.

“This is the kind of paradox, I think, of what it is to be a halfway intelligent American right now.” Again: David Foster Wallace. “That there are things we know are right, and good, and would be better for us to do, but constantly it's like, ‘yeah, but, you know, it's so much funnier and nicer to go do something else.’ And, ‘who cares?’ And, ‘it's all bullshit anyway.’”

This cynicism clogs our news feeds. It clogs our subway rides spent scrolling on our phones.

What I’ve been searching for is a sort of hard-won optimism—a self-critical, realist’s version of optimism. An optimism that’s motivating, that’s connected to action and purpose and personal responsibility, but that doesn’t hide away from the darkness of the world or the darkness of the human condition. One that, unlike pessimism, doesn’t draw a straight line to depression and inaction, towards cynical self-sidelining and detached fatalism (options that, I’ll remind myself, are available only to the privileged).

For me, this is a daily struggle.

“I believe we can make art about trauma without turning suffering into spectacle,” the filmmaker Anna Rose Holmer recently tweeted. “Too many works revel in brutality but ignore the interior perspective of those directly affected by violence. Wrestling with this everyday as consumer + creator.” This stopped me in my tracks.

Seed&Spark is a filmmaking platform. I’m writing this piece, like most of my online writing, primarily to address my peers in the film community. My first instinct is to pretend that this isn’t a piece about the personal responsibility of the artist. I don’t like the idea of lecturing, of being prescriptive about what art “should” be, or of pretending that I understand the world and these times and my own internal contradictions better than anyone else.

This is the topic that I’ve been struggling with everyday as a consumer and a creator and a human being who exists in a world made up of other human beings: How do I make art that heals instead of compounding anger, art that emerges from that fragile and elusive place of hard-won, realistic optimism?

This matters to me as a creator (and yes, as a consumer) because for better or worse we live in a society shaped by the narratives we create and consume. Sure, all art is personal in that it comes from inside us. But all art is also political—in that the moment it’s loose in the world, it’s no longer just personal. It’s part of the atmosphere. The air we breathe.

“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes,” Wim Wenders once said. “What you show people, day in and day out, is political… And the most politically indoctrinating thing you can do to a human being is to show him, every day, that there can be no change.”

Feeling inspired? Create and share your Case for Optimism now! And join us in 100 Days of Optimism by building an audience, raising funds and being eligible for career-changing prizes. Get the deets.

Read more by

Dan Schoenbrun

Dan Schoenbrun is the co-founder and co-creator of The Eyeslicer, a new production company and variety TV series with a mission of connecting provocative filmmakers with new audiences. He recently produced and curated collective:unconscious, the first ever omnibus film to premiere in Competition at SXSW.

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