Posted by Vanessa Fisher on Friday, January 6, 2012 Under: South Korea
This past week, I came across an interesting article citing the results of a recent poll taken on American’s perception of what was in store for 2012. The Associated Press GfK poll results showed that two-thirds of Americans were optimistic that their nation's fortunes would improve in 2012, and 78 percent said they were optimistic that their own family would have a better year. Most wrote off 2011 as a dud year.
I found this article and study intriguing for a few reasons, and the skeptical part of me couldn’t help but wonder why so many American’s felt optimistic about 2012.
My intrigue about this question increased as I roamed over facebook posts and tweets in the first few days following New Years Day. Again, I noticed that many North Americans where posting very positive forecasts for the coming year. Bursts of cheering hope and optimistic excitement seemed to be coming from every corner of the Internet.
At some level, it was encouraging. With the fall of numerous dictators this past year, and the spread of the Occupy movement like wildfire across the globe, it seemed somewhat understandable that there would be seeds of hope emerging, and a sense that change could be just around the corner.
Yet, still, I couldn’t help but question where all this optimism might be coming from, and more importantly, if all of the hope and hype about 2012 was really well founded. So I decided to conduct an uncontrolled, self-made experiment.
Before I share my experiment, I want to qualify this by saying that I am purposely putting on the hat of my provocateur for this post, and honing in on a viewpoint that is contrarian to the popular forecast of optimism for 2012. I do this not so as to enforce pessimism, nor to proclaim absolute truth from the particular perspective I’m taking (as of course there are always many sides to these issues), but rather to offer a different and perhaps controversial viewpoint that aims to provoke some important questions.
My attempt is to offer a counterpoint to what I see as an imbalanced system of over-optimism in North American culture about the coming year. I’m choosing to take on the much needed role of what author, Susan Webber, in her book The Dark Side of Optimism: Why Looking at the Bright-side keeps us from Thinking Critically, calls the role of the House Skeptic.
Webber believes that the role of the House Skeptic is essential in every business, and by extension every culture, in order to keep realism and critical thinking skills alive, and so as to balance out the excessive optimism and dogma of positive thinking that dominates many contemporary business environments, and in my view, the wider self-help and spiritual cultures at large in North America.
Webber believes that without the checkpoint of the House Skeptic who is committed to realism and willing to ask the hard critical questions, unbridled optimism and idealism can breed potentially catastrophic consequences for organizations and cultures as a whole. See more of Webber’s views on the negative effects of over-optimism here.
So in the spirit of injecting a shot of realism into the conversation, I put on the hat of the House Skeptic and brought a simple question to my Korean students this past week. Now, my Korean students are a mixture of college-age students and adult professionals working in a variety of occupations: from doctors, to neuroscientists, to business CEOs, to forensic scientists and pharmacists. My students represent some of the most privileged and wealthy citizens of Korea, living in the capital city of Seoul.
I asked my students a simple question: whether they felt optimistic about the prospects for the world and themselves in 2012. Interestingly, 95% of the students I asked said that they were not optimistic about the coming year. In fact, they almost all said that they believed the world was going to face much harder and difficult times in the year 2012 than what we saw in 2011.
Many of them also said that any real sustainable change towards creating a better global situation was, if at all, going to be slow. Almost none believed that our global problems would be fixed in the coming year. In other words, it was going to get much worse before it got better.
Although I realize the Associated Press poll doesn’t represent the views of all Americans, and although my class of fifty Korean students hardly represents a full demographic representation of South Korean opinion on these issues, I still found the seemingly stark contrast in views from this simple experiment somewhat fascinating.
I couldn’t help but wonder if this difference in view might in part be because the South Korean mindset hadn’t yet been fully infiltrated by the positive thinking psychology movements that are so pervasive in the North American cultural milieu?
Maybe South Koreans were less susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich, in her controversial book, Bright-Sided: How The Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, termed the “dogma of American optimism.” South Koreans haven’t yet embraced the New Age philosophies, the Law of Attraction, or the Positive Psychology discourses to nearly the same degree as in North America, and I wondered if this might be playing a part in their difference of perspective?
I also wondered if the different view of my Korean students might in part be due to their unique position on the planet and their particular cultural history? As a small country that has grown up situated between major global superpowers, Korea’s history has been one marked by continual invasions, violence, and colonization of their land and culture at the hands of other countries. They have suffered years of oppression, poverty and devastation, as well as a slew of dictators in the aftermath of the Korean War before the eventual establishment of democratic systems in the 1990s. Not to mention the fact that South Korea is still in a state of undeclared war with the North. Taking all this into account, I couldn’t help but wonder if Korea’s history, and their place in the world, might temper their perspective on the coming year in a more realistic way to that of Americans?
It is not my attempt here to idealize or generalize any one culture, but rather I find these differing cultural factors to raise some interesting questions about the development of different worldviews. When you are not a country that has existed as a superpower, does this shape your worldview in a different way than those who have been the “winners” of history? How do these different life conditions shape different beliefs about life, the world, and different assumptions about the nature of change? It seemed to me that these differences did make a potentially significant impact on differing worldviews in North America and South Korea about the future.
In his provocative and brilliant book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, political philosopher and historian, Chris Hedges, argues that America is currently in the last stages of a process of decline that will ultimately dethrone the country as the world superpower. For Hedges, all signs point starkly in the direction of America’s coming demise. Hedges argues that the optimism currently pervading America is due to America’s inability to grasp the real severity of its situation, both its economic decline and the reality of its overstretched empire.
This inability to accept the cold hard truth, Hedges believes, has led to the construction of an increasingly complex empire of illusion in which America now precariously exits, and which blinds America from seeing things in a critical and realistic way. For Hedges, the empire of illusion is a state of disconnection from reality that all great empires throughout history go through when they are in a final state of decline. His research shows that empires facing demise have a hard time accepting their fate, so they go into a period of hyper-illusion about their own power and capacities in order to cope and ward off facing the reality of their situation.
In America, Hedges argues the empire of illusion has become a deeply problematic epidemic characterized by magical thinking, increasing infatuation with celebrity culture, and an outdated attachment to the promise of the American dream. If you would like to learn more about Hedges views on the Empire of Illusion, this is a fantastic interview worth watching.
Hedges argues with blunt and confronting honesty that America, just like every empire that has fallen before it, is currently undergoing a heightened state of disconnect from reality, so as to guard against what he believes to be America’s inevitable downfall. Similar to Ehrenreich, Hedges sees the great majority of the positive thinking movements (whether in the business world, the celebrity world, or the self-help and spiritual worlds) as having been largely assimilated by the empire of illusion, only to become incorporated into the very creed of capitalist and consumerist motivation that disconnects us more from reality.
Whether you ascribe to all of Hedges, Ehrenreich or Webbers views or not, when put together, they do make a very interesting and compelling argument that is contrary to mainstream popular view. Their arguments also may explain some of the differences in optimism vs realism of outlook for 2012 that I noticed between Americans and my Korean students.
It is not my intention to leave people in a state of depression or pessimism about the future, but rather, by taking on the role of skeptic, and engaging the other side of the argument, my intention is to provoke questions that support us all in becoming more critically aware of the cultural discourses of optimism in the West that may be leaving us unprepared for the future awaiting us.
I don’t wish to do away with optimism entirely, and I do think there are things to be excited about in looking forward to the future, but I intend to support sobriety about facts and realism before over-inflated optimism and unfounded hope, because I believe that being in touch with reality is necessary for making informed decisions and creating sustainable long-term change.
In the end, I do tend to side more with my Korean students in thinking that sustainable change in the structures of global society will likely be a slow and potentially quite grueling process that may take many years to fortify. I also tend to sense intuitively, like Hedges, that things will likely get worse before they get better, so my bias as the skeptic is to want to help prepare us all for that sobering reality, rather than injecting more optimism or hope into an already over-optimistic system that may be blinding us from skillful, mature and grounded ways of approaching our future.
In : South Korea
Tags: "chris hedges" "barbara ehrenreich" "susan webber" "realism" "socrates" "skepticism"