Life-threatening cancer in Canada's leader of the opposition; shootings in Norway; starvation of thousands in Somalia. Not exactly the type of week which instills optimism in those who read the news. But newspapers—good newspapers—aren't really meant to be read by optimistic people. Anyone who follows the news knows that the scale of the terrors we see this week in the news appear larger than the terrors in last week's news only because the newspapers from May—and those from, say, 1944—have been placed in the recycling bins of history.
Optimistic people are always shocked by the news.
Optimism is something most people admire, and I suppose that's fair. It's always a bit of a downer to hang around someone who appreciates the worldview of Eeyore. Perhaps that's why I never get invited to parties.
But, as refreshing as optimism can be, it has its limits. It also has its dangers, both personal and social. Roger Scruton argues in The Uses of Pessismism and the Danger of False Hope (Oxford UP, 2010) that optimists and idealists have "wrought havoc for centuries."
There are some who suggest that the key to ending violence in, say, Norway, is more openness, citing the Norwegian prime minister's statements which called upon the people of Norway to resolve to remain an open society in the face of this tragedy. But, as admirable as that call is, it would be a mistake for Norwegian police, for instance, to replace their firearms (which they do not normally carry) with pamphlets outlining the importance of an open society. Hundreds of terrorist attacks have been thwarted because of the hard work—and pessism—of police and intelligence agencies of open countries around the world.
Likewise, it would be a mistake for those suffering with cancer—including Jack Layton—to not come to terms with the very real possibility of death as a result of the disease. Anyone who's been through an ordeal with the disease, or witnessed someone who has, knows that a cheery optimistic outlook can be damaging when dealing with setbacks or deterioriation of health.
It's also unwise for those of us in the West to think that the millions of dollars of donations will solve the deeply-rooted problems in the horn of Africa. The problems there are part of a complex amalgam of historical, tribal, religious, economic, and political issues which must be looked at with a clear eye in order to be resolved.
There are uses of pessimism, as Scruton argues. My Cardus colleagues like to speak of "managing expectations," which in many of the situations described above is a valuable first step.