The modern person is a bit confused. We look at a world on the brink of oblivion, suffering from political crises and environmental doom, and yet we attend charming dinner parties and munch on lovely marinated olives while chatting with wonderful, witty friends. We suffer from a “perception gap,” as Matthew Taylor terms it in the New Statesman: We tend to think that things in our own lives are going well, while society at large is “going to the dogs.”
Here’s just one example: Ninety-three percent of people surveyed in a recent BBC poll said that they were “optimistic about their own family life,” according to Taylor. But 70 percent believe that families are getting less successful overall, compared to nostalgic perceptions of days of old. Maybe we can blame this on a quirk of cognition that makes us zone in on bad news and filter out the good. (It’s the bad news that will kill us after all.) But Taylor sees the problem as something particular to our time.
With the rise of consumer culture, people have become more individualistic. Piled onto that is the decline of community endeavors of all kinds, from bowling leagues to churches, which has led people to see themselves as cut off from the rest of society. Finally, we now face threats of monumental proportion—terrorism, global warming, the caprice of international finance—all of which seem so big that we doubt anybody or anything can surmount them. So the lonesome modern person looks out the window of her bungalow, sees the gathering storm, and doubts anybody’s ability to halt our ineluctable slide into barbarism.
But there is cause for optimism. Taylor rattles off some of the joys of the modern era—less racism, a growing equality of the sexes, better education—and wants these developments to put our social ills in perspective. We’re actually doing pretty well, we moderns.
Taylor’s Panglossian optimism might seem unrealistic, but given the choice between self-satisfied optimism and dour pessimism, I think that the former will be a more effective outlook, if not a more realistic one. When we’re too bleak about things, problems we’re confronted with seem impossible to solve. So I choose optimism: Even if we’re wrong and the world really is going to end in the next decade, we have a better chance of changing society if we believe such a thing is possible.