The problem with pessimism

I might not be the best advocate for optimism and activism; I tend to loll in what I consider enlightened cynicism about most conditions of the world. Poverty, inequality and environmental degradation are all too pervasive; we’re in too deep; there’s no way out. I’m definitely not the only Williams student who thinks this way. And it’s a problem.

At Williams, we hear and read about systems of power and inequality in our classes. We learn the details and the complexities so we understand how things work. Ironically, this knowledge can be so depressing and complicated that it becomes tempting to throw our hands up in disgust, simply try to forget, and get on with our lives. We resolve to ignore facts of injustice, or we wallow in self-pity without lifting a finger to fight against forces that seem impossible to impact.

We concentrate on the failures of history instead of the victories. This isn’t all bad – we should take care not to forget the moral failings of the past and ensure we don’t repeat the same mistakes. But if we only remember the failures, we forget precedent for change and make future alternatives seem impossible. We should find inspiration from successful advocacy of the past, and glean hope even where advocates of change lost or only won partial victories. Remaining oppression should not be discounted, but neither should the significant improvements that have been made for minorities, for women, for workers and for other groups. We should strive for a more complete picture of history – things have been and still are bad, but people have also successfully changed our culture. It is still changing, and it can still be changed for the better.

Beyond defeatism and a limited awareness of historical inspirations, there seems to be a certain attitude of “political correctness” working against activism in society at large but especially on the Williams campus. Andrew Lyness addressed a particular “PC” culture at Williams in his November 20, 2013 opinion piece, “Take a Stance”. Williams students don’t like to offend people – it doesn’t bode well for social connections that could prove profitable in the future; it’s all about networking, after all. But we should be bolder in voicing our unique opinions and questioning accepted norms. Like Lyness stresses, neither am I advocating that “demeaning opinions [be] voiced just for the sake of voicing them,” but students should be less afraid to deviate from what they perceive is standard opinion at Williams.

As we become braver to voice our various opinions, we should try to be okay with being wrong and changing our minds and actions accordingly. This is probably particularly hard for many Williams students, precocious as we are and likely bred with healthy doses of praise. But to let pride hinder our intellectual growth and allow us to continue our damaging behaviors is a mistake. We seem to think people who change their minds based on new information are hypocritical – we disparagingly call politicians who do this “flip-floppers” – but punishing those who change their minds undermines progress.

Furthermore, neutrality really isn’t an option anymore, if it ever was one. Historian Howard Zinn explains: “It is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.” Claiming neutrality is actually just reinforcing the status quo, thus supporting the powerful and undermining the persecuted.

Finally, there is the issue of scheduling. Everyone in the world is busy; being a student at Williams is certainly a huge time commitment. It seems only those with the most extreme views prioritize time to promote their cause. Unfortunately, the most radical (and wealthy) minorities often shout the loudest, so the silent majority needs to speak up a little more often. If we all prioritize activism just a little higher on our to do lists – it doesn’t even have to be at the top, maybe just not the bottom anymore – we can undermine the power of the most extreme and richest factions and hold society more accountable to the majority.

So, specifically, what should we do as Williams students? I think conversations are where any change always starts. We should talk to each other more about what we think is right and wrong, and what we can do to fix things. We should stop putting things off until we’re less busy, because that will never happen, or until we’re older when we’re more secure in our careers and have more authority. We should stop rationalizing and just do something. We don’t have to be full time activists to effect change. And we should work together, in coalitions with people who don’t have the same backgrounds as us or think the same way as us. Williams is a great environment for that, at least.

Pessimism will always be appealing to me, and probably a lot of other people. But even I believe things can change (most of the time). We should fight our cynicism and apathy and not get discouraged when our efforts fail, or when we only make tiny changes that seem insignificant compared to the depth of entrenched problems. Changing the world is undeniably daunting, but we can do it together, if we just start.

Katherine Preston ’16 is from Omaha, Neb. She lives in Prospect.


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